Village Food

I faced the days of May without the luxury of a fan that year, living in a tin house transformed into a mini-furnace by the season.  I would wake drenched in sweat and as soon as possible pull up a chair under a tree, the coolest location available, for inside was hotter than out.  There wasn’t the joy of the pond in that stifling pre-monsoon month when water levels are low and the water of a dubious freshness.  Most days there wasn’t even in the air the slightest stirring.  Now too, post-solar, barring the handheld pencil-battery-powered variety, you won’t find an electric fan in Hatiyan village households, and May punches still, with all its brawn.

There were not infrequent, not common bouts of diarrhoea as my stomach became Bengali-tough, and usually some measure of skin irritation going on, fungus of some description.  Worst of all were the problems with food, for Hatiyans eat rough red rice and all manner of fish; and while I realise it’s close to criminal non-activity in Bangladesh, especially along the shores of the Bay, I must confess that things which breathe water don’t usually sit well with me. 

I don’t eat fish is what I’m trying to say, except in Norway for reasons of my teenage life’s course, an anomaly and another history.  And in Hatiya I tried.  Ask anyone: red rice three times a day, fish small and bony, larger and fleshy, it was like that at first.  The fish kept coming and I started getting thinner.  Bangladeshis always think it’s the chilli that’s the issue, but not for me.

This is not a list of complaints, not a whinge.  I’m trying to explain how, in those days I still consider the best of my life, my endurance was being tested.  For a Sydneysider to live in a Hatiyan village independent of the external assistance one might expect from any project or programme was physically trying.

How many villagers wasted muscle-power twirling those thatched hand fans to add a little breeze to the room, I couldn’t account them.  I remember my brothers Choton and Komol doing it a lot. When it came to ailments, there was always my Bengali mother or one of the many bhabis or sisters-in-law to nurse me well, and just about anybody to head off to the pharmacy; and just about any pharmacy to open at any hour.

As for food, it underwent a kind of evolution: a succession of new dishes prepared and tested until I became acquainted with the full range.  It was unfortunate that chicken korma came late, I would say.

Situ used to leave early, many days, many dawns, for the main town to find out if they were planning to slaughter a cow, such that I could eat beef.  Sometimes he’d return with a bag full of beef, sometimes empty handed, and often before I’d woken.  There were no mobile phones then to make things easier. As for chickens, of the small-boned extra-tasty deshi or native variety, Situ used to joke that I’d single-handedly accounted for half the island’s flock. 

My mother tried what she called Bihari dal, more solid than the usual Bengali preparation.  And of course, I can never forget how many families around the village became involved.  In the tea shops there used to be lengthy discussions about my diet:  Bangladeshis still routinely ask if they don’t know me, because of the central place in Bengali culture reserved for food. 

‘Don’t worry about breakfast tomorrow,’ some friend would say, translated by Situ, and I’m recalling Alauddin when I write that, ‘my wife said she’d make it.’  That’s how the pitha or local cakes were discovered as a breakfast staple, along with a glass of milk from one of the various bovine-owning neighbours. I think maybe Emran most often used to deliver the chicken’s eggs; duck eggs I wasn’t allowed to eat much as they made the skin itchy. 

In the bazaar Nashir used to grab my arm and pull me in the direction of the tea shop that specialised in piazu, or onion rings; he will still do that.  I remember too the soft type of pitha wrapped in banana leaves that Leku’s wife made; and after six months, when I was leaving, Leku complained to Situ, ‘if it wasn’t for the food he could stay here forever.’ There was no politeness in it: and the day I left we cried, both Leku and I, and several others for that matter.  I would mention that Leku seems to have spent the past fifteen years without aging, though from the beginning he was old.  He’s always seemed like a sixty-plus, even when climbing trees to harvest some fruit or branch, even when his personality is more thirty-minus.

Since then we’ve all of us become mature: now we face departures valiantly, more like westerners do, though personally it’s still something difficult, to depart Hatiya; even now, when home is only fourteen hours away in Dhaka.

It’s rather shameful to have had such a pretentious stomach and it’s different now:  Hatiya offers feasts of pulao and biryani rice on special occasions, noodles, delicious doi yoghurt, fresh fruit and vegetables, eggs, duck, pithas and Bihari dal à la mother’s recipe.  But in those days I got progressively thinner, my appetite dissolved; by the time I returned to Sydney I was so thin my friends were a bit worried, though in Hatiya I was yet to feel underweight.

Yes, but what happens when the villagers come to the city?  And what about City Food?

Another version of this article is published in Star Magazine, here: Village Food
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