Ahula Das lives just across a posh neighbourhood in Kolkata, in a slum that is a dense collection of fragile homes cobbled together with tin and plastic sheets. “It’s a shanty town of worthless people, with no fresh air,” complains Ahula in Bengali, as she guides me through a narrow lane stinking of rotten fruit, soap, and urine.
“But I have been accepted here,” she says, pulling her white cotton sari up to her knees as we try to cross a puddle. “Back in my village, widowed women aren’t allowed anywhere near the pujos but here, I do the ulu at the pandal and help make the bhog .’’
Her one-room house, in stark contrast with the neighbourhood, is surprisingly clean—with impossibly shiny bell metal pots and pans and spotless tiled flooring—except for the raw cement wall above the charcoal stove, which is stained with oil and turmeric. She sits before her stove, and begins peeling boiled potatoes.
On the boti’s sharp, curved iron blade, she chops onions, thick slices of green chillies, and coriander leaves. She adds the chopped mixture to the potato and mashes it together. After a generous drizzle of mustard oil, she piles up the mash on to three plates for her grandchildren who will soon return from school. “The trick is to ensure the potatoes are cold before you mash them, so they retain some body. It’s a dish that was invented to use up leftovers,” she tells me.
Meat is taboo
Widowed in her early 20s, Ahula was forced into a radically vegetarian diet back in her village in the north Hooghly region. But a few decades later, when she moved to the city with her son and three grandchildren, she started bringing fish home.
Meat though was still taboo. “It was tougher for my mother. My father died a few days after I was born. We were forced to move into a hut on the fringes of the village so that my mother could cook separately. My aunts said they did it to ensure she was not tempted to eat the fish they cooked at home.”
Meat, onion, and garlic were all taboo. “They claim these foods induce lust,” says Ahula matter-of-factly, “but mostly, they just wanted you to die of malnutrition.” Forced into a bland diet, the women soon devised their own ways to spice it up.
“My uncles and aunts who would drop in to check on us never left without eating my mother’s delicious meals,” she says. Ahula’s mother would have converted the humble lentils and vegetables into textured, flavourful dishes. “The dhokar dalna, spiced lentil cakes in a watery gravy, and begoon pora drove them mad.”
Over the years, she mastered the art of converting leftovers, peels, and wild fruits and herbs into spectacular affairs. Ahula, her mother, and many other widowed women like them are the unacknowledged champions of Bengali vegetarian cuisine, and their experiments in the kitchen have made delectable additions to the otherwise fish-and-meat oriented spread.
With masoor dal, cardamom and cinnamon, and greens like pui saag (Malabar spinach) out of bounds (because they were anathema to celibacy), these women developed dishes with an immense variety of ingredients, textures and aromas. Lentil boris worked like meat dumplings. The skin of potal (parwal) and lau (bottle gourd) were turned into chutneys. Raw jackfruit was fried to create a texture similar to meat. Kachurlati (yam stem) was stirred in hot mustard oil as accompaniment. Ginger juice and herbs like radhuni and mustard sauce enhanced flavour.
Today, Ahula is preparing a feast not only for the children, but also for the Shaligram Shila, the stone form of Vishnu, perched on an arch in a corner of the room.
For this hot, wet afternoon, she scoops some bael (Bengal quince) that her grandson plucked from a nearby tree and sprinkles it with sugar. Bael cools the stomach, she recalls her mother saying. She then throws some chopped spinach stem into a pot and teases it over a low flame until it turns the right shade of green. Raw bananas come next. She rubs the pieces in salt and turmeric and turns them into fritters in a hot wok of oil. Just when I think she is going to throw away the peels, she grinds them with kalonji (nigella seeds), raw turmeric and ginger, and fries the paste to a golden brown colour for a chutney.
Dragging the grinding stone towards her, she then crushes mustard seeds, soaked rice, chillies and ginger, and slathers the paste on slivers of sem (broad beans). These are then wrapped in banana leaves and shallow-fried with mustard oil.
I’m reminded of en papillote , the famous French method of cooking in parchment paper. I later read that the technique has its origins in India.
Next, thin slices of barely-ripe mango are sprinkled with salt, roasted dried chilli, gandhoraj lemon leaves and kasundi. “We used to pick the fruits on our way to the fields; they were always stolen from neighbourhood trees, never bought,” Ahula laughs, flashing her last remaining teeth.
She lingers over the rice, until each grain is al dente. “At home, my mother would stir in spoonfuls of ghee and then quickly cover the rice pot with a lid. The aroma would make my friends and I rush back home.”
Then, her mother would crush the sem over the rice and pour some dal over it, adding thin, sweet slivers of coconut.
Ahula and her friends would run out to the river front with their plates, eating fistfuls of rice while watching the boats on the horizon. They would watch as the fisherwomen returned with their stale, unsold fish, and cover their noses and giggle.
Author of The Lost Generation: Chronicling India’s Dying Professions , the writer digs coffee shop talks and pens them into stories for a living.