The other evening our friend Chitra cooked us some spectacular Bangla ranna (Bengali cuisine). The menu included all the classic dishes: malaichingri, kaushamangsho, shorshobhaapamaach; and for the vegetarians there was chorchori, channardaal and vegetable chaaps. Everyone loved the food. Bunny and I being hon Bongs—or honorary Bengalis, by virtue of the fact that we spent most of our adult years in Calcutta—have what you might call an innate affinity with Bangla ranna. But what I was pleased to discover was that so did the non-Bengali guests, who included Punjabis, Haryanvis, UP-ites and a couple of people who were descended from migrants from Sindh, which hasn’t been a part of India since Partition.
The evening once again brought home to me how lucky all of us Indians are to live in a country so diverse and yet so intermingled, in terms of food, and language, and customs. Indians from different parts of India are often far more different in linguistic, culinary and cultural terms than Europeans from different parts of Europe are and yet the diverse Indian has much more of a sense of common identity than any member of the European community does.
It’s often said that what holds India together is parliamentary democracy, Bollywood and cricket, not necessarily in that order. But I think there is a bonding factor which predates all others. And that uniting bond is food, literally a taste for India. There is no other country, indeed no continent which has the amazing variety of food that India does. It is the subversive seduction of this many-flavoured India that in the end will thwart the blinkered parochialism of the Uday and Raj Thackerays, and others of their ilk, who’d like to fragment and divide the country along the imaginary barrier lines of regional identity.
India is many countries, many cuisines in one. And the supposed borders between these different countries, these different tastes, are not just porous but wide open. For instance, is puranpoli—a signature item of Maharashtrian cuisine—a proprietary dish for the exclusive enjoyment of Marathi manoos alone? The Gujarati manoos, not to mention a Kutchi manoos like me, would question that assertion in that both Gujaratis and Kutchis also lay claim to the invention of the puranpoli.
Moreover, manooses from all over the rest of India could justifiably claim that in the unique recipe that is our Republic, puranpoli is also their birthright and they shall have it. So much for the Thackerays and their politics of divisiveness.The thing with food of course is that nobody has a copyright or a trademark on it. Like water, or the free market, it finds its own place in the great Indian bazaar. And wherever it goes, it gets itself assimilated in its new environment while also retaining the particular savour of its origins.
Bhelpuri and paubhaji—wherever they are eaten, in India or abroad—evoke the chat-patti tang of Chowpatti. Hyderabadi biryani conjures the backdrop of the Char Minar, as jhaalmoori does of Calcutta’s Maidan, where this snack made of puffed rice flavoured with mustard oil and lemon juice and garnished with grated coconut probably made its first commercial appearance.
Proust is said to have rediscovered the lost country of his childhood through the taste of a cake dipped in tea. I often recapture times and places past through a similar memory trick of flavour. When I eat the Kutchi treat of sambaria—OK, OK, it’s also Gujarati—half-forgotten words of the dialect spoken in Kutch come back to me in Delhi like the sound of a distant sea. And thanks to Chitra’s Bangla ranna, the lush landscape of Bengal returned to envelop me in its warm embrace again. Ki chomotkar, I heard the hon Bong in me saying: How wonderful is that. It is wonderful indeed, the taste we all have for India.