Kolkata Eats is currently on vacation. I’ll be back to write more in two weeks.
Monthly Archives: April 2011
Tucked away in the back of your kitchen cupboard, or perhaps in your mother’s kitchen cupboard, you might find a dusty little jar stamped with a familiar picture of a dragon on it. It’s the Chinese five-spice powder that you first saw when your mother tried to introduce exotic into her daily cuisine. And perhaps you’ve since become a huge fan of Chinese, like so many other Americans. Perhaps that jar of Chinese five-spice is spanking new, ordered online from a chi-chi spice boutique like Penzey’s.
Chinese food in America hasn’t got much to do with Kolkata or Bengali food, and I mention it only for sake of comparison. Chinese food is ubiquitous in America. You can find three Chinese restaurants on one city block in New York City, but you can also find a Chinese restaurant in a place like Kansas, off the highway on the way between one small town and a village.
Chinese food was introduced to American eaters as early as the 19th century, when the gold rush brought Chinese labor immigrants to the California coast. Since then, Americans have been sampling Chinese in chow chows and restaurants as well as in their own homes. The incorporation of Chinese into American home cooking really took off in the 1970s, and I remember evenings when I would help my mother in the kitchen as she prepared wontons and beef stir fry from her electric wok. Cooking Chinese then was an event. Usually my mother reserved the wok for company. And long before it was common to have chopsticks in the utensil drawer, I pulled out the forks, the knives and, from the pantry, the box of La Choy fortune cookies.
Indian night was never event at our house. Although Indian immigration also took off in the 1970’s, America did not see its largest wave until just this past decade. In these initial years of the twenty-first century, Indian is increasingly popular choice for people wanting a night away from the kitchen. But cooking Indian meals at home is still a novelty, performed only by serious connoisseurs or, in my sister-in-law’s case, travelers who spent time in India and want to re-create the experience at home.
Regional recipes and spice blends have yet to make it into American kitchens or into the product lines of spice companies here. Panch phoran (pronounced ‘panch foron’), is a five-spice mixture used in Northeast Indian cooking and almost synonymous with Bengali cuisine. But I bet you’ve never heard of it. It is, to be wholly biased, the bomb of Indian cooking. Let me shout that from the rooftops. It’s THE BOMB of Indian cooking! I am frequently dismayed that, unlike Chinese five spice, panch phoran has not entered the lexicon of American cooks. That’s not surprising given that it’s barely made a dent in Indian restaurants (which although frequently Bengali-run, seem to offer dishes only from North India). Panch phoran has not even made it into the catalogues of boutique spice dealers. I checked out several spice houses yesterday; they each carry a good-looking Chinese five-spice (not to mention Japanese, Persian and Arab spice blends) but no Bengali version. I can’t even find it at my usual go-to for Indian ingredients, Kalustyan’s.
Translated, panch phoran literally means “five spices.” Unlike the Chinese five-spice which adds an undeniably warm and sweet flavor to your food, panch phoran is more tempered. It combines the sweetness of fennel and fenugreek with more bitter and spicier flavors of mustard seed, nigella, and cumin. Although you might be able to find panch phoran at your local South Asian grocery market, it’s easy enough to make at home. You simply combine equal parts of the spices I mentioned. I’ll give you the Bengali names for them in case you rely on a Bengali cookbook:
Fenugreek seed (methi)
Nigella seed (kalonji) – also known as wild onion seed or black mustard seed.
Black Mustard seed (rai or shorshe) – sometimes the mustard seed is replaced by another spice called rhaduni, or wild celery seed.
Fennel seed (saunf or mouri)
Cumin seed (jira)
In most Bengali cooking, the blend is usually used whole, so it’s better to keep the mix of spices whole, not ground. Generally, panch phoran is added at the very beginning of cooking. When the oil for cooking is hot, cooks will throw in the spices to temper the oil. The flavor is then imparted throughout the dish. Sometimes cooks will dry roast and grind the blend into a powder and add it as a finishing touch to chutneys. Traditionally, panch phoran is added to only vegetable dishes.
If I could, I would add panch phoran to every Indian dish I made, but it would then cease to be special. However, with its balance of sweet and spice, this Bengali five-spice has the potential to become a favorite in American cupboards. Like Chinese five-spice powder, it’s suited to being assimilated into traditionally Western recipes. Indeed, Indian-American cooks regularly experiment with it. Try it. You are going to love it. And I dare you to share your own creations here.
CHARCHARI (Mixed vegetable dish)
4-5 medium potatoes, diced
2 tomatoes, roughly diced
1 ½ cups diced squash
2 cups chopped green beans (chopped roughly into 1-inch pieces)
2 Tbs. vegetable oil
4 tsp panch phoran
1-2 dried chilies, crumbled
1 teaspoon turmeric powder
1 cup water
1-2 tsp. sugar
Salt to taste
Heat the oil on medium-low heat in a large frying pan or pot. When the oil is hot, add the panch phoran and the chilies and cook until the spices begin to pop and emit a fragrance. Add the diced potatoes and the turmeric and sauté for about 5 minutes. Then add the squash and sauté for another 5 minutes. Next, add the water, green beans, tomatoes, salt and sugar to taste and cook until the mixture is nearly dry. Serve the vegetables with rice, roti, or parathas.
Around the end of 2010 a curious thing began to happen in restaurants across Kolkata and the rest of India. Onions, which along with slices of tomatoes and cucumbers, usually are served as gratis crudités at restaurants, disappeared from the hors d’oevres plate.
In fact, they began to disappear from markets and home kitchens, too. In November, India faced an onion shortage that brought the cost of onions from 5 rupees a kilo to nearly 100 rupees.
By January inflation had risen to 18.32%. Kolkata was hit particularly hit hard because West Bengal does virtually no farming of onions. It imports most of its onion from the nearby state of Maharashtra, whose farmers were hit hard by heavy rains that destroyed crops. Normally, Kolkata requires a daily shipment of 30 trucks of onions, but by the middle of January only 15 trucks were entering the city. As the shipments dwindled buyers flocked early to the markets to purchase onions. Almost inevitably the stock sold out within two hours.
Onions in India were costing more than they did in Britain. Riots broke out; politicians used the onion for political sway, and newspapers across the globe penned such headlines as, “Stink over Onion Crisis is enough to make you cry.” The headlines might elicit a smirk, but for Indians the onion is serious business. Governments have been known to topple as a result of rising onion costs.
The real worry was (and still is) that inflation for food in general had been rising. Prices for tomatoes and garlic, two other essential ingredients were rising as well. But why were onions, in particular, the catalyst for riots?
Traditionally, onions have always served as the “canary in the coal mine” for the Indian economy. Since onions are in ingredient in most dishes, they are an almost universal purchase for shoppers. That makes following its cost a good gauge of how healthy the economy is. In an article published in Business Week, economist Basanta Pradhan observed, “Onions are consumed by everybody so you cannot afford [for] onion prices to go up.”
But what caused the price of onions to rise is another matter still being debated in government, among shoppers and sellers alike and in every news outlet across India. Onion inflation is at once simple and complex, depending on whom you ask. Though food prices are always to some degree tied to the vagaries of weather, a host of factors from government to infrastructure accelerated the runaway inflation.
India experienced unseasonable rainstorms during the crop season, which led to flooding and a disease called colletotrichum that leads to rotting. The problem can lead to losses as high as 80%. It was this poor growing season that triggered the problem.
Traders and Retailers
The uncertainty of weather is a given anywhere in the world, and India has experienced onion crop losses at various times in the last half century. In other words, crop failures were nothing new. Many people thus put more blame on financial speculators who drove up the cost of onions before the crisis in supply existed. Others blame traders and retailers who hoarded the product, thus driving up the costs. Some retailers have even secretly acknowledged that they altered prices throughout the day, depending solely on whether a particular customer was able to afford handing out a few more rupees for a sack of onions.
Indian governments have confronted crises in onions before. In fact, the state governments of Rajasthan and Delhi fell in 1998 as a result of a similar onion crisis. And in 1980 India’s Congress party won national elections after making the price of onions a key election issue.
Yet, this past year, even though the current government of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was forewarned of the expected crop failure, and even though it had witnessed previous governments topple over the problem, it made few preparations for the looming crisis.
Scientists also say the crisis could have been averted with better agricultural practices. Researchers at the Directorate of Onion and Garlic Research in Rajgurunagar, Maharashtra, contend that if farmers relied on raised field beds instead of flat beds, or if drip irrigation replaced traditional flow irrigation, some of the inconsistencies of weather could be contained.
Scientists also argue that because onions are a perishable commodity, their price will always fluctuate unless the industry can rely on better infrastructure. Agriculture, Boris Johnson contemplated in Britain’s Telegraph, is the last unreformed part of the Indian economy, creating a stable stream of food crises each year. While his charge isn’t completely true, India certainly needs greater modernization. Storage is one problem. Traditionally, onions are stored in bags or loose in structures that are not well ventilated. They are then transported on unventilated lorries over poorly kept roads that make the transport of perishables a longer process than necessary. Onion losses from field to market can be anywhere from 50 to 90%. They are the greatest losses of any crop. Many scientists are calling for refrigeration techniques for both storage and transport or, at the very least, improvements in ventilation.
On his world affairs blog at the Foreign Policy Association, David J. Karl, president of Asia Strategy Initiative, posed perhaps the most important question concerning the crisis: “Why does one of the world’s top agricultural producers – not to mention a country that is becoming a key link in globalized supply chains – have such difficulty in effectively distributing output?”
Karl maintains that India’s farm production, not to mention its available arable land is second only to the United States. India produces the most milk and milk products in the world and is the second largest grower of wheat, rice, sugar, corn, onions and cotton. He quotes Somini Sengupta in the New York Times who dismally observed, “with the right technology and policies, India could help feed the world. Instead, it can barely feed itself.”
This is the real crisis for India. The shouts and riots the erupted during the onion crisis instigated reports across the world and a response from government, but the clamor obscured another piece of news that broke in December. The British medical journal The Lancet reported on the disturbing results of the growing divide between rich and poor in India. A study from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine found that one in five Indians faced chronic cardiovascular and metabolic disorders related to obesity, while each year 1.8 million Indian children under five died from malnutrition.
The fact is that not everyone in India buys onions. According to 2005 statistics, 267 million Indians still live on less than one dollar a day. In India during any given year the poorest of the poor can’t afford onions. They subsist on rice.
April 15th is the Bengali New Year; in the Bengali calendar the year is 1418. Like New Years around the world it is a day for fresh starts and auspicious beginnings. Traditionally, the New Year is a time to settle one’s accounts. The new fiscal year begins today, and shopkeepers who had a good year often hand out sweets to their regular customers
Although Western New Years and the Chinese New Years are celebrated with perhaps more enthusiasm in Kolkata these days, Pohela Boishakh (the first day of the month of Boishakh) is a day for celebrating Bengali heritage. In the morning people go out to greet the first sunrise of the New Year over the Ganges. Traditionally women, as they do for all major holidays, dress in white saris with a red border.
There are plenty of celebrations of Pohela Boishakh around the world, from concerts of classical Bengali music to festivals of Bengali dance. Sydney and London have the two largest festivals outside India and Bangladesh. If you are there, check them out!
Mustard smells like horseradish. Did you know? I didn’t. But perhaps I should have. I come from a solidly German family, after all. My mom hailed from probably the most German town in America, and I grew up eating lots of Sunday night dinners like kielbasa, bratwurst, sweet and sour potato salad, and German chocolate cake. But it wasn’t until I landed in Surya’s home that the similarity hit me.
I didn’t even know you could make such a thing as mustard oil, but there it was, sitting on a shelf in the bathroom. A thin film of dust donned the cap. A couple of cobwebs clung to one side of the glass bottle, and the words on the label bled from the small amount of oil that had seeped through. In the corner behind it, a dead cockroach lay forgotten.
It had been a while since Surya was forced to put mustard on his body. He lived in North America now, and, well, it’s just not done over here. People look at you with a weird face if you do. Surya’s mother used to rub him with the oil when he was small; it’s supposed to be good for your skin, she’d say, a habit akin to forcing a teaspoon of castor oil down tiny, kid throats.
If you’ve cooked any Indian dishes, you probably know that mustard seed is a common ingredient all over India, but the use of mustard oil as a cooking agent is particular to the Northeast. Both mustard seeds and mustard oil are frequently used in West Bengal. They have a
particular affinity with the hilsa fish that Bengalis relish. In fact, Bengalis most celebrated dish, Bhapa Ilish is flavored almost exclusively with mustard.
Mustard oil is one of the better choices for cooking healthful food because it contains the desired proportions of Omega 3 and Omega 6 fatty acids. Fans consider it a healthier choice than olive oil because it contains no trans-fats and a high percentage of unsaturated fats. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition reported that mustard oil, because it contains a high amount of a-linoleic acid (ALA), can significantly reduce the risk of heart attacks.
You have to be a little careful in buying mustard oil, especially in the West, because it comes in both benign and toxic varieties (I sense a trend in the Bengali inclination for pernicious foodstuffs). For years it was banned for any kind of human consumption, available only for external purposes (like a head massage). That’s because there is some confusion between mustard cooking oil and mustard essential oil. The cooking oil is made in a fashion similar to olive oil. Cold compression extracts oil from the seeds, making it safe to eat. However, to make essential oil, the seeds are macerated in warm water by steam or water distillation. And when mustard seeds are subjected simultaneously to pressure, heat, and water two of its components — myrosinase and sinigrin — react to form a toxic compound.
As a vegetable oil, however, mustard makes up for the unfortunate properties of its cousin. It’s versatile. You can keep a bottle in the kitchen and in the bathroom. It’s healthy for the inside and out. It’s actually one of a variety of oils used in Ayurvedic massage.
Of course, I had no idea of mustard oil’s diverse applications when a few years back on a vacation trip to the Malabar Coast I goaded Surya into getting an Ayurvedic massage. I’d never tried an Ayurvedic massage, and Surya had never tried any, so I thought it would be a great way to satisfy our curiosity.
Except, he wasn’t curious. Ayurveda is one of several Hindu traditions that Surya tucks into cobwebby areas of his brain and catalogues as “hocus pocus.” But – good man – he knew that Westerners were a curious sort, and he was with a Westerner now. And, lucky for me, it was raining that day across the tea estates of Munnar, so there was really nothing else to do.
While we sat in the hallway which served as the “spa’s” makeshift waiting room, I assured Surya that he wouldn’t have to strip completely naked, that he’d probably get to stare out a large picture window and watch the rain patter down onto the river that meandered past our hotel. He’d be lulled nearly to sleep by the aroma of lavender or sandalwood and by the sounds of sitar music playing in the background.
“It’s relaxing,” I said. “You’ll feel rejuvenated.”
Not long afterwards, we were taken our separate ways. The young woman steered me to a small chamber to the left. The man took Surya around the corner. I’ll never know what happened to Surya after that. He doesn’t like to talk about it. But I imagine the experience was somewhat similar to mine: the request to strip naked and lay on a cold, metal countertop. Then silence. And a dousing in oil. There was a window, but it looked out onto a patch of concrete where a few men were busy watering the hotel’s planters. At least the shade was drawn. I closed my eyes, shivered, and listened to the rain outside. I felt not so much that I was with a massage therapist than that I had entered the hotel kitchen to be prepared as a roast. Her hands never actually seemed to touch my skin because they were hydroplaning on a good ¼ inch of oil. All that was needed were a few sprigs of rosemary or thyme tucked under my armpits and stuffed up my nose. The entire time I thought about death. Once Surya escaped from his room, he was going to kill me. I would never suggest a massage again. Ever. And then, every so often, I would be jolted back to the present when the pair oily hands slipped and punched me in the face.
I was sent to a closet after that and into gas chamber-like steam bath with only a small opening for my head. The therapist checked that the chamber lock was secure, nodded, then left and shut the door behind her. I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to do, but since none of my limbs were available to me I just sat still, hoping I wouldn’t be forgotten. That’s when the closet slowly filled with a distinct mustard smell. I sat for a good fifteen minutes in what must have been the equivalent of an Inglehoffer production plant.
I was happily rescued, given a skimpy towel and sent to a miniature shower. Appropriately, the therapist handed me a miniature bar of soap, too. I watched it dwindle to a thin strip under the water. You don’t consider all the downsides of long hair until you meet with moments like these. Did I mention that the water was cold as well?
I stepped out to find Surya waiting for his turn. He was laughing at least. Until he asked for the soap. He looked at me, desperate.
“She said you had the soap.”
I waved a greasy lock of hair in his face. “I needed it.”
The rain was still coming down when we got back to our room. And it poured all the next day. It was surprising relief, and we used the time to hide out, showering every couple of hours, and ordering plates of pakoras while we watched Animal Planet.
The next time I had mustard oil it was back in Calcutta, in the dining room, with a plate and a side of rice. I wholeheartedly recommend mustard oil in edible form. And this recipe is like no other Indian you’ve tried. I mean that in a good way.
4 fillets hilsa (salmon is a reasonable substitute)
1 teaspoon turmeric powder
2 teaspoons black mustard seeds
2 teaspoons yellow (brown) mustard seeds
1 teaspoon white poppy seeds
2-3 Thai green chilies
2-3 inch piece of fresh ginger, peeled and roughly chopped
4 Tablespoons yogurt (or to taste)
Salt to taste
4-6 Tablespoons mustard oil
Wash and clean the fish, and pat them dry with a paper towel. Place in a baking dish and rub all sides with salt and half the turmeric. Next, squeeze the lime juice all over the fish. Set aside.
In a spice grinder, grind the mustards seeds and the poppy seeds until they become a powder. In another small blender or food processor, combine the mustard seed mixture, the ginger, chilies, the remaining turmeric and grind. Add the yogurt, a couple tablespoons of the mustard oil and mix to form a thick paste. You can add more oil or yogurt to reach your desired consistency. Add salt to taste.
Rub the paste all over each fillet of fish. Pour a little more oil over each fillet. You can keep the fish in the dish, covering it with foil, or you can wrap each in individual foil pouches.
Bake the fish at 375F for 25-30 minutes
After 10-15 minutes remove the foil cover and bake uncovered for the remaining 15 minutes.
Serve with rice.
The Lathyrus sativus is the Voldemort of the lentil community. In India, the plant is better known as khesari dal. You might be familiar with her cousin, the equally toxic (but visually charming) sweet pea plant. Like most villains, the khesari is a tough little creature, and it manages to be one of the last to stick it out in times of famine. And that’s what it waits for: humanity’s weakest moment. When famine comes and individuals find themselves surviving on a diet of these pulses, they will likely develop a degenerative disease called Lathyrism. The toxin in the lentil hits the spinal cord and the lower limbs first, making it difficult for a person to walk. It eventually spreads and to cause convulsions, paralysis and even death.
Men are disproportionately affected.
If not for its toxic blemish, khesari has the makings of both a super food and a wonder crop. Khesari contains the highest protein and iron content of any pulse. More importantly, it is drought and disease resistant and requires little care, making it an “insurance” crop in years when drought and disease decimate more delicate crops.
For India, which each year faces a growing demand and supply crisis, khesari’s virtues are significant. India is the largest producer and consumer of pulses (crops harvested solely for their dried seed), and virtually all Indians include them in at least one meal each day, the poor relying on them more because they are a cheap source of protein. But of the million tons of lentils needed to meet demand, India produces only about half that much. Several successive years of poor lentil harvests compounded the problem, and India has lately taken to importing lentils from Ethiopia, Australia, and Canada. But importing isn’t cheap, and India’s least well off confront daunting prices at the market.
In this climate, khesari seems only just out of reach for those trying to solve India’s food insecurity. Khesari has so much potential that Australian scientists have been working for years to develop a form of the plant that is safe for human consumption. It’s cheap. It’s abundant. It virtually grows itself. The only problem is. . . What’s a little toxin in the diet anyways, right? It’s the perfect money-maker. In small doses, the khesari is harmless.
That’s exactly what landowners in the northern state of Madhya Pradesh considered. And they continued to cultivate the plant (flouting the ban), mixing the seed with more expensive pulses in order to cut their costs.
The conspiracy becomes more insidious the deeper into Madhya Pradesh you go. In nearly every state in India, bonded labor is alive and thriving. Men, women, even children become virtually slaves after being hoodwinked into taking on an astronomical loan from a person who promised to find them work. In the typical story of a bonded laborer, the individual becomes indebted to an employer, working off the loan for years, even decades. The practice often occurs deep in the countryside where fewer watchdogs are around to notice the illegal activity. In Madhya Pradesh, powerful landowners rely on the system for cheap labor, and khesari has become the “fixed” form payment. For the landlord, khesari costs next to nothing to use as a way to “pay” his laborers. And for the laborers khesari does little more than provide a cheap meal. Because it is plentiful and virtually worthless, it can’t be used for trade or to pay off their debts. And so it becomes a significant portion of their diet.
Now these vested interests want to expand the khesari market to a larger group of underprivileged Indians. They charge that there has never been any credible link between Lathyrism and the khesari plant. And they are inadvertently helped by a small group of scientists. The group has brought at least one Indian state government to court to force a lift of the ban. Because khesari can sell at less than half the cost of typical pulses, they claim, its availability is crucial for the rural poor. The argument is compelling until you find out that the group’s spokesperson, Dr. Shantilal Kothari, also believes that iodized salt is a Western conspiracy to keep India indebted to the World Bank and that no credible link exists between HIV and AIDS. The court case has so far been at a standstill because, conveniently, the government has been unable to locate the original file which motivated the 50-year old ban.
Although the scuffle over khesari is playing out in Madhya Pradesh, two other states in India have never banned the khesari plant. I bet you can guess what one of them is. The decision to not ban khesari in West Bengal is likely a result of the presence of a large number of East Bengalis (former residents of what is now Bangladesh) in the state. East Bengalis count for at least a quarter of the West Bengal population. Their eating traditions include serving khesari dal, and so the disease is still prevalent among this group.
For today, I’ll leave you with Surya’s signature dal, a version of a West Bengali favorite.
BENGALI MASOOR DAL
1 cup red lentils (masoor dal)
5-6 cups of water
1 onion, chopped
1 tsp cumin seed
1 inch fresh ginger, chopped
2 medium size tomatoes
1 /2 tsp turmeric
3/4 tsp coriander powder (optional)
¼ tsp garam masala
Boil the lentils with water, turmeric, and salt (Be careful, as the stuff tends to boil over the pan) until the lentils are soft and liquid-y. Meanwhile, on a frying pan, heat a little oil. Put the cumin seeds in until they begin to pop. Add the ginger, onions and fry until the onions are translucent. Add tomatoes, (coriander powder, optional) and fry on medium flame till tomatoes are soft. Add the mixture to the boiled lentils, stir and boil for a few more minutes. Before serving, add chopped coriander to taste, a little ghee and the garam masala.
Last week, I bought Surya a rain jacket. A rain jacket would have come in handy last year when, at the beginning of the monsoon, we traveled north to the mountains in Sikkim and watched as a boulder slipped and rocketed down onto the road we were climbing up. A couple of days later we narrowly missed our Romancing the Stone moment when, on another rainy commute, the cliff above our road gave way. We watched it plunge, the dust of limestone rising while boulders and chunks of what was our road slid down the mudslide that continued below. I hoped no one was down there.
It was a surreal moment. When, in Sikkim, you read such pithy signposts as, “Do not gossip; let him drive,” “You sleep, your family will weep,” or “Driving is risky after whisky,” you point and laugh, and then pull out your camera. That day we sat in our car at the edge of what had been the road, peering down into the gaping hole. We waited a good two hours before the military arrived to rebuild it. I had to hand it to the villagers who simply picked up their rucksacks and bicycles and walked across the foot-wide fraction of asphalt that hadn’t disappeared.
Events like these sometimes happen in India; people don’t let it get them down.
What gets them down, rather, is the heat.
The first time I traveled to Kolkata heat — real heat – blasted into my life. I do not mean to compare the experience to the intolerably high temperatures that hit the Atlantic seaboard last summer. Seriously. Millions of Facebook complaints? Network news headers? Consider for a moment Dubai, Jeddah, the cities that dot the edges of the Sahara.
Kolkata airport is a tad underdeveloped for its population size. Most noticeably, there is no air conditioning in the arrivals area. As I walked out of the plane and into the transfer arm that led me to the airport, India’s heat finally realized itself. One hundred and five degrees Fahrenheit. Eighty percent humidity.
The difficulty of Kolkata’s summer is that for months there is no relief. No desert sky opens wide at night to absorb the heat wafting off the planet. No rain cools the afternoon or the evening. When I was young I watched films about colonial India, where men, women, and children in crisp, white jodhpurs and Gibson gowns languished behind the gently rustling mosquito netting on their beds. From the light of the television set, it all seemed very Romantic. It’s not.
By six in the morning the day is hot and bright. I open the bedroom’s wooden shutters to a mélange of waxy green leaves reaching through the iron window grill. The heat has intensified the fragrance of the frangipani blooms. In fact, every smell is intensified. The frangipani mixes with cumin and pepper in the kitchen, and the spices mix with the aroma of tea that Kakima prepares. A morning stench rises from the bathroom pipes, too. I scramble quietly out of bed for a quick, cold bath, but within the hour I am sweating again. And I smell something else. It’s me.
When the afternoon comes the house is hotter. We close the shutters and turn off any lights that are not essential. It is an unpleasant measure to make the house bearable. Below, the streets are abandoned. On the worst days, there is no going anywhere. Our movements are slow not only because nothing seems to be open and no one appears to be around, but because the sun has pilfered any last ounce of human energy. While Kakima and Alta lay on the tiled floors for a nap, I settle down behind protective shutters and try to finish my work. Or read a book. Or, better yet, take a nap. The wait for evening begins.
There’s certainly truth in the theory that ethnicities adapted specific traits in harmony with their original environment. When I’m in India my thin, long Caucasian nose makes me feel as though I have a permanent sinus infection. My blood vessels swell; my nose clogs; my head feels thick. In this state I sometimes wonder how many inappropriate As or Fs I have given to my students. To be honest, the thought passes quickly. In this situation I realize what I should expend my energy for: coffee. A good, caffeinated cup of coffee would do wonders to stir my senses. And then I lay down again because the dizziness has returned and there is no morning cup of coffee, no afternoon cup of coffee. There is only tea.
Surya eventually paid for and installed two air conditioning units in the house. But we are careful both to share them and to avoid skyrocketing electricity bills. We turn the machines on for twenty minutes at a time, enough to feel the chill through our bodies. Then we turn it off again until, a few hours later, a certain malarial delirium creeps in, and we can no longer converse, let alone sit up. It is surprising how well you acclimate to this sort of situation.
During these days of summer chattering and gossip are reduced to complaints. When you are not sleeping off the heat, you are complaining about it. Everyone wonders where the rain is; “the rain seems to be late this year,” they say, though it never really is. The newspapers, as though they had the power to invoke it, present lush articles in the travel pages about the best vacation spots for this year’s monsoon. Unlike most of us in the world, Bengalis see the rain as impetus for travel. A vacation is to sit out on a veranda and watch the steel-gray sky envelop the coast, or to stand inside the fog that blankets the mountains. Bengalis will wait forever in that rain just to watch the clouds break and to take a glimpse of Mount Kanchanjangha. But the travel pages are only a hope.
And then, with no embellishment, one day everyone chatters about the rain. “There is rain today,” they say. “The rain is here.” I look out the window, over the frangipani tree. The sky is cloudless and blue. I shrug it off, settle in for another day mixed with work and naps, until midday arrives and I find myself a little chilled. Gray has replaced the blue, and it’s getting darker. The wind picks up, the birds dart about, chirping more than usual, and Kakima opens all the shutters in the house to take advantage of the currents and cool air. The sky turns the color of a nasty Midwestern thunderstorm.
In the beginning I can’t even hear myself think. Conversation stops because I’m hard pressed to decipher what anyone else is saying. Kakima sets up a few chairs on the veranda that’s just outside her bedroom. As she stands and leans her head against the door frame, Surya, Alta and I sit and watch. We don’t talk. Though the rain is thick, we can see the banana leaves fly up like albatross wings. Overripe fruit fall, like hail, from the branches. But what I can’t take my eyes off of are the coconut trees. They can grow nearly 100 feet tall, and in the grip of a strong wind, they behave like bamboo, their top halves giving way left and right but their bottom halves somehow standing firm and unruffled. It’s easier then to understand why our driver Sanjit is so comfortable with shinnying up those trunks to pluck the fruit. But the rain gives Sanjit a break. He’ll collect a few from the puddles when the sun peeks through. In the meantime he stays with us, and we sit and listen and eat the sweets that Kakima brought from the kitchen.
The first of these storms begins this month, with a pre-monsoon nor’wester that runs across northern India bringing to Kolkata early respite from the hot summer. They call it Kal Baisakhi.