Spring of 1974, Chittagong Hill Tracts, Bangladesh. A newly independent nation had just emerged with Sheikh Mujibur Rahman as the head of state, a man also known as the Father of the Nation to his beloved people. The buoyancy of euphoria and optimism that was so rampant at the onset of independence movement in late 1971, was now a distant memory in the minds of people as they had a rude awakening with shortage of basic necessities. Nepotism & corruption took over in the day to day governance of the nation. And the last nail in the coffin was the famine.
A newly minted teenager at that time, all I could see and read in the minds of people was fear, despair and disappointment, a kind of buyer’s remorse. Out of the myriads of pains due to shortage of all basic goods, the most painful was the shortage of food. It was so obvious to all that even I and my friends and classmates were dreading everyday that someday my friends, my siblings and I wouldn’t have food on the table. As the number of homeless and emaciated people escaping the countryside in drones swelled up in cities including in our town, shanty towns grew up in every nooks and corners of the city spaces. The number of beggars and peddlers increased drastically in the whole nation. Throughout the day a constant stream of beggars, sometimes the whole family of beggars, parents and children included were knocking every door in our neighborhood for food, money, clothes or anything a human could use. My parents were teachers, still had their jobs, but with 7 children by now struggling to meet the basic needs of their own large family.
I could perceive the angst in them, in the neighborhood, and in the whole nation as a whole. Famine, a phenomenon, Bengal is very familiar with, and its memory is etched in the psyche of every Bengali and Bangladesh citizens. Bengal history is intertwined with the history of famine visiting and revisiting this part of the world from ancient times. Talking about famine is not an abstract idea a Bengali had to imagine, in every generation they have seen it and suffered from it. They live with the scar of psychological and physical devastation it has caused, they are familiar with the historical change it catalyzes. The last Bengal famine was in 1943, during the British rule, as the WW 2 raging, and over 3 million people died of this famine, millions more lived with the malnutrition and after affect of this.
Interestingly in the Bengali language, the word for famine is “Dur-vicko” literally translated as “difficult begging”, speaking of times that even alms are hard to come by. Every day, I saw a gathering of species near the trash dump, hungry sapiens competing with canines and corvidae for the little morsel of food. Even the dogs and urban crows were growing thinner everyday with humans. Soon, I started seeing the emaciated, sometimes bloated human dead bodies near the drains or by the side of the road or by the alleyways. One day while coming back from school, I saw the dead body of a young man under the shade of a roadside tree, one arm of him still extended and the other arm and hand with pencil thin wasted fingers still in firm grip of the begging bowl. He was the one whom my parents fed a meal just few weeks ago! That was probably his last meal, I thought. During this most difficult times, although my parents were struggling themselves, yet they decided to feed a hungry person every night during this time.
Young men like him were particularly vulnerable in the famine. People had soft heart for the elderly, disabled, women and children, but they despised when a young man was begging. Common wisdom was: young men do not need to beg, unless they are lazy. They need to find a job, support themselves and their families. But jobs were nowhere to be found. Unable to get even a morsel of charity, unable to find jobs, unable to eat or get any sympathy, they were often the first ones to be doomed in the cruelty of the time of famine.
I saw people eating leaves, roots and bark of trees in addition to routinely foraging for food in the trash bins. During this time to keep her growing children fed, my mother had to be very creative and ingenious. Unlike many people, we were lucky, my parents had arable landed properties to produce enough rice, staple of Bangladesh. And overnight rice became the most expensive commodity in the then Bangladesh famine time, just as happened in the Bengal famine of 1940s. So we started bartering with rice, we bought fuel woods, vegetable, meat, eggs and even shoes in exchange of rice. I remember we would go to the market place with a bag of rice and bargain down the commodities we needed and determined how much rice would be given from the bag in exchange.
Another strategy we took was foraging. To a modern American obsessed with reducing weight or staying healthy in natural way, foraging seems a fun way, but not to us at that time. We were foraging not because it was fun or a healthy way, we were foraging just to be able to fill our stomachs. We started looking first in our backyard and then in neighborhood and then in the adjoining hills and fields. We looked for taro roots, Kochu Pata or elephant ear leaves and other various species of wild plants and roots that could be eaten. In doing so as we diversified our food sources, unfortunately, we found ourselves in competition with other extreme poor and destitute people at the same time who had nothing else to eat, whereas, we at least had the rice to eat. But life was cruel, it is literally Darwinian “survival of the fittest”, a real life drama of life and death.
Yet, the most important change that took place in our household was in the kitchen, engineered by my mother and it was what I now call “Famine Food” processing. And yes, it is literally what it sounds like. Through a series of changes of her cooking style, my mother made things look more than it really was and thus made it more satisfying and pleasing in our eyes and mind. My mother found that when making egg omelette or example, if she covered the beaten egg materials in the pan completely with a cover slightly smaller than the pan’s surface, and poured small amount of water around the cover on the pan, and thus trapping the air and the vapor inside the watertight compartment which is thus created, the omelet swelled up making it temporarily bigger than what it really was. And just from a single egg omelette she could slice up 8 slices like a pizza for her children, each of them thinking he/she got a good sized piece.
The other famine food was tomato with eggs, a sort of hybrid curry and omelet. She would cut up several tomatoes and spice them up with traditional spices. After simmering on the woven with touch of water when the parts disintegrate, she would crack one or perhaps two eggs and mix it up with the disintegrated tomatoes. Mixed with rice, it could easily feed her household with a satisfying meal. Another modification she made was to dilute the curry, and especially adding more water and therefore making more soup while cooking fish and meat. When distributed in the plate of rice, we used to get a lot of curry or soup with small pieces of fish or meat. We gobbled up the first portion of rice with the curry only and then the last portion with the fish or meat with great satisfaction. Food is not only a physical experience, but is also a psychological and social experience. Food intake is literally controlled by a brain center called the “Satiety center” in the back portion of our brain. This cooking and feeding technique of my mother is the perfect example of how to take advantage of this ancient human evolutionary phenomenon that still resides in our brain.
Now in America, I am in the midst of plenty. Surplus is the problem, not shortage. Here we never have to worry about what food to put on the table. But the memory of famine and famine food have never faded away from my memory or taste buds. Paradoxical and contradictory enough, the famine food is one of the most favorite foods I enjoy, it also brings back the memories of my mother, a sort of memory food you could say. It has become my comfort food. So when I feel down, or when I am off of work, I cook up few tomatoes with spices and mix them with eggs. Yummy! It tastes so good and I remember my mother and my childhood. I thank my mother, father and I thank America for giving me plenty. I tell these stories to my children, who don’t seem to be too interested in listening to this……. Thus is the world. So for all of you, happy eating, bon appetite !