29 July 2020 – I must confess that, when it comes to food, there’s nothing more visually appealing to me than a plate of steaming white rice – preferably on a white plate. Also, to please me, it must be what in Bangla we say ‘jhorjhore bhaat’ – which means, the rice should be steamy but not sticky, with every grain separate from the other, moist and yet dry.
Boiling the rice to the right extent and draining it out at the right time are key factors here. Refined rice is another requirement – the color won’t be white otherwise; and instead of long, slender white grains, one will have brownish-yellow, fat round ones. Cooking this perfect rice, like cooking any other food, can be achieved only with practice. I’d achieved that, when, for 10 years in Amsterdam, I cooked it almost every day – the rice extra white and fragrant, because it was Basmati.
I would mostly cook rice in the evening, when the sun set in a riot of colors. Late afternoon was usually a blaze of yellow; but in the early evening, pink, violet and fuchsia took over. I could never describe that color, that particular combination; could never articulate to anyone what that did to me. I also never tired of the sight. Of its sheer beauty – elusive, ephemeral, indescribable. In that magic hour, the light would fall in huge wide swathes over the entire apartment; its spacious, neatly rectangular rooms, each a different color – tender green, bright pink, clear blue, light brown. But the kitchen was white: white walls and doors matched by white cupboards on both sides and white tiles near the oven. Only the double-door fridge was grey. Its shiny surface caught the light and dispersed it at an oblique angle in the kitchen. In time, that play of light became an integral part of the cooking of rice for me.
Rice is our staple food. The history of the region I come from is rife with the history of hunger, its colonial history especially defined by successive famines, the most heinous of which was the Famine of 1943. Growing up, the images of cultural memory that made the strongest impression on my mind were artwork, film stills and fiction passages that document/ represent/ memorialize/ historicize that hunger. Result: when I think of rice as part of our cultural history, I invariably think of the lack of it.
I have never known that lack. My mother had… and would tell my sister and me stories of how her family’s meals would often be not rice, but rice gruel, with nothing to go with it but salt. That was all her young widowed mother could give her seven hungry children, ranging between toddler and teen, when suddenly one night her husband died at the hands of dacoits, leaving them destitute. Later in life, as a working woman, and then a wife and stay-at-home mother of two, Ma would cook refined rice every day of her life – just the right texture. With all the maddening variety of tasty Bengali food that could go with it. She loved cooking and feeding others – took a natural delight in it that I have not inherited (though didi has). I remember Ma slogging in the kitchen, pouring her creativity into the daily act of feeding and sustaining her family, just as she made an art of every other domestic chore. But I don’t have any specific memory of her cooking rice – just how it looked on our plates when it was served.
My memory of my own cooking, however, somehow congeals around the cooking of rice. There are countless images saved in my external drive related to our kitchen/ food/ meals/ hospitality, but this is what I remember the most: evening, pink rays filling up the kitchen, creating undulating geometric patterns on the fridge door facing the light. And I am cooking white fragrant rice.
An Iranian couple with two children bought our apartment, I was told. I never met them, but I have often thought of them in the last three years. Does the wife stand at the same spot that I did, cooking rice for her family at the same time in the evening? Does she, too, get distracted by the beauty of the hour? Probably… I don’t know. What I do know, however, is that ‘property’ can be bought and sold, but the memory of ‘home’ stays forever. And though the ‘ownership’ (or rather ‘proprietorship’) of home has to do with money, the sense of ‘belonging’ to it can only come with love for a particular space and one’s lived experience in it.