Growing up on the outskirts of Bombay, there were four types of rice that we ate at home: two for daily meals—from the Public Distribution System (PDS) ration shops and later, the local kirana (grocery) shop; Basmati Rice for special occasions or for pulav; and the red boiled rice from Goa. Most often, I did not know their name. We ate what we could afford… Sometimes, we stretched a little too much for the long-grained Basmati on birthdays and feast days. There were ten such days in a year.
Often, it was the PDS rice that we ate at home. We sat by the window cleaning each batch every month, first winnowing the wayward chaff, and then picking the stones out. I never got the winnowing right. My attempts led to too many good grains falling off the window. I liked cleaning the rice though. Picking out the grains that were still in its husk. Flipping them over to the parapet for birds. Those days, there were many sparrows in our locality who easily came chirping. I helped my mother with the cleaning only to flick the unhusked grains to the birdies.
Inadvertently, my mother often popped some grains into her mouth. She once told me that it was her childhood habit, and she was reprimanded several times for it. “They are bad for your milk teeth,” she said. However, she could never stop herself. It felt like an addiction… or perhaps it was just the thrill of doing something that was prohibited. She continued to maintain her habit way into adulthood.
The PDS rice was not the glowing white kind; way before unpolished rice became fancy and reportedly, the healthier option. It was dirty. My mother washed the PDS rice several times before she put it in the pressure cooker. If it was easily overcooked, she declared it to be from a newly harvested batch. This tempered the cooking time for the subsequent times. Unlike our Hindu neighbours, she added salt to the rice while cooking. They berated her for it. It was however, balanced with the salt in the curries. The configuration of salt in our food was markedly different, and so was our eating habits. We ate everything. The salt in our rice also meant that we could eat our food with relatively lesser curry, more rice and without wasting any salt served on the plate.
When the farmers fight for a Minimum Support Price (MSP) for their produce, it is not just a battle for their livelihood. It is an extended war zone for millions of marginalised and poor families that benefit from the PDS. When our ration card changed its colour from the ubiquitous red cloth cover to plastic orange, it caused added distress to my mother wondering if we would get rice and wheat from the ration shop or not. We had an apartment of our own just outside the Bombay city limits, but not a sustained household income. We were unknown to any data or information that the government might have used to calculate the decision to update household classifications. Yet, we saw ration cards renewed into white, orange and red. More colours followed through the years.
The word on the PDS’ monthly arrivals would spread across our tiny town like wildfire: rice, wheat, sugar, and kerosene. Gradually, women assembled in groups and headed to the shop. The allotments often came on different days of the month. Wait for too long and you ran the risk of not getting anything at all. Eyes had to be kept open to notice queues at the ration shop while passing through the market. Ears to be vigilant to pick up news of stock arrivals. Mouth to relay the message forward.
Assured government procurement of agricultural produce therefore is not merely about competitive pricing. It is also about keeping a country like ours fed. It ensures that the government is obliged to feed into the PDS. The flaws of the system may be many. We grew up with several Hindi movies depicting the methods in which the ration shop owner cheated people of their entitled quota. The angry young man fighting the system was a popular theme even before I was born. The children of the neighbourhood discussed ways in which we could keep an eye on the weighing scale without making it conspicuous when we tagged along our mothers. Aided by our small body frame, we went around the scale a few times pretending to play while scanning it from every angle. We even swiftly ran deep inside the shop to look out for a hidden stash of rice with just a few seconds at hand before being busted. The urge to fight a corrupt system did not egg us on. It was the anxieties that we saw our mothers in whenever the rice failed to arrive on time. As children, we were upset that someone outside our homes had such power over them. Nevertheless, if not for the PDS, I would have had more days on the brink of starvation. Perhaps, a shortened life with multiple complications towards its end due to childhood malnourishment. Thankfully, I grew up on the PDS rice!
PDS rice was just that—ration shop rice. I did not know their names, or where they came from. I did not know the name of the rice at the kirana shop either. The practice at our home was rather simple and determined by economics. The rice from the kirana store was merely the stopgap arrangement or emergency quota intended only to supplement the shortfall from the PDS. My mother sent us to buy rice specific to the price. We were not allowed to buy rice even a rupee more expensive. When it was out of stock in the shop, we had to return home back without the rice for my mother to send us once again with the reconsidered price variety that could be bought instead, with a change in the dictated quantity.
When we had a little more money, we bought additional rice from the local kirana store. They arranged open sacks of rice and wheat in the order of their price. The cheapest ones placed at the outside edge with rate written on a small plywood with chalk and pressed into the grains. I always wanted to sway towards the expensive zone, the rate-less, plywood missing section. Insert my palm deep into the sack, lift the grains and look out for any stones at first glance. Then, cup the grains in my hand and smell them to determine its quality, aroma and perhaps, age. Bite into a grain or two. That’s how my mother chose her rice. Our eyes, however, were trained not to let wander into these insides. If I stepped there, when I went alone at the shop, the shopkeeper would retort, “That’s too expensive. Your mother would never buy it,” without even asking as if my meandering steps were already posing a question to him.
These stores in the bygone era shared a relationship with the customers, and by extension the family. They knew people’s preferences, tastes and most importantly, budgetary constraints. Often, they knew people’s surnames, which meant they knew the caste too. My surname was confusing to many caste Hindus, as they found it difficult to place us within their hierarchy. Some questions were more blatant as people would ask, “What do you write as title?” As a child, I often thought that the word ‘title’ was a misinformed substitute for surname. However, it was not the surname that they sought. At times when I informed, “Rodrigues,” some felt the need to go further and ask, “What’s your caste?” To this, I had a more confusing answer, “Roman Catholic!” My father had taught us that we did not have a caste or rather, it was “Roman Catholic.” That’s what he filled in our school’s annual declaration form.
Much later, I realised that the need to erase caste identity stemmed only from the fact that it existed and was pervasive. It felt like an epiphany when I understood the significance of the neighbour Syed Muslim family giving us the innards from the sacrificial goat of their Eid celebrations. As their city-bred family cut the meat, they offered the offals (sans liver and kidney) to my mother, uncleaned. My mother spent a few hours cleaning it in our small kitchen basin while its smell permeated every corner of our apartment. Even though my father enjoyed eating it, he restricted her from getting it from them ever again. She felt angry. My father’s words insulted and embarrassed her actions and knowledge.
Until I reached high school, we did not have the privilege of buying groceries in bulk that would last the entire month. We bought whenever my mother had cash to make purchases. We started buying monthly ration in one go when a kirana shop offered to provide us with a khata (credit account); perhaps, after evaluating our household’s affluence through hearsay. It also ensured him loyalty. Going to the shop for this became an exciting ritual in the household. My mother would dictate items, either to my brothers or me, and we would write them down on paper. During the process, we would slip in some suggestions and negotiate. Sometimes, we would risk the negotiations in the shop itself and hatch an embarrassment. However, as children we knew our limits. Our monthly expenditure could not go beyond INR 1000 in any chance as it only meant uncertainty over how the payment would be made the following month to stock supplies. It was a cycle that needed prudence lest risk delay. It was a cycle my mother avoided to enter for years, until I later realised that it was a cycle that we did not qualify for in the first place.
Every May, we brought red rice and Goa jaggery (maddache goud, jaggery made from coconut, black in colour, and shaped as pyramids) along with us from Goa among other things. They were an inevitable pair because they were often used together in our home and had to survive until December. My mother insisted on using produce from Goa to make Christmas’ pinag and dodol as much as she could. For dodol, she roasted the rice on an iron plate, grounded them on her roggdo (stone mill) which also, as legend has it, she carried over her head across Margao market before bringing it to Bombay. Then, combined the rice flour with coconut milk, jaggery and cashews. Medium heat. Constantly stirring until it starts coagulating. As a precursor, we also made patolleos to celebrate the feast of Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary every year. The previous day, she bought turmeric leaves from the market. On 15th August, all her children sat together and prepared the sweet. Paste of grounded red rice flour smeared on a leaf. A sticky mix of crushed jaggery and grated coconut placed over it. Folded and sealed. Then, steamed. It was a ritualistic sweet snack we had for tea on the day… once a year… the only day it was made in our household.
Apart from making sweets, the red rice served another purpose. It provided nourishment for the body and soul. When anyone was sick, my mother made Kanji (gruel) with it, including for herself. Just the red rice and water. When the appetite was dead, we were pushed to drink at least the Kanji water. My mother loved her Kanji. Not often, but she made it only for herself when the body was strong, but her soul was tired. She sat by the window with her plate of kanji and a piece of water pickle (mango preserved in brine) or mackerel para (marinated dry fish pickle). She gazed into the infinity of the neighbourhood saltpans and sky visible then from the window. It felt as if she was drawing strength from some place only she knew. I was not used to watching my mother be pensive. So, I would ask her for a plate of kanji… just to sit by her side. She would always laugh and remind me that I did not like it. During my childhood, this scene repeated several times… and it always ended this way. She never gave me her kanji unless I was sick and needed it. It was a treasured bowl.
In my late teens, the kirana store we frequented started writing the name of the rice along with its price on the plywood board. My experiences of buying rice in Northeast India is different from Bombay. When I moved to the region in 2014, everyone around me was aware of the variety of rice they were buying. At times, people were also aware of the state that the rice was coming from. The only exception was the rice we ate in the university mess and hostel; no one knew its name, and many had no hesitation to waste it either. Nevertheless, I find the knowledge and appreciation of rice we eat in Northeast India refreshing and enriching. In my childhood home, Basmati invariably meant a day of celebration. In Guwahati, my present home, I accord that status to Joha and it is more than just ten times a year. A day of celebration could also mean mixing the purple Chakhao with Aijong from Barpeta, which I have on a more regular basis. When I feel nostalgic, warm, and grateful, I prepare the sticky rice from Nagaland… or add pork lard to my rice. Learning from a friend, I sometimes ask the shop owner where the rice is from.
The childhood hesitancy to ask the price of rice has remained with me. I do not ask without knowing in advance the range in which it may be. I dip my hand in the sack of rice nonchalantly hoping that I am told its rate. I take time to photo memorise the varieties and associate prices with them in the market. In the local supermarkets, I feel much relieved as the prices are already barcoded and printed on stickers.
I still add salt to my rice while cooking. Previously, I was hesitant as my friends chided me over it just like my mother’s friends. So, if there is someone else hovering in the kitchen, I would do it in hiding. At other times, I would add the salt and immediately remark, “I just added a little. It doesn’t make a difference.” To me it did. Like in my childhood, I still prefer to have lesser curry or dal on my plate. I also now know that the practice of adding salt to the rice while cooking is connected to Christianity and the Portuguese rule in Goa that my mother grew up in. Centuries earlier, a decree in 1736, banned Christians from cooking rice without salt through the Inquisition diktats. I never held my mother’s practice as wrong anyway. It just felt a matter of preference, and a different cooking style. So, even if it might attract chagrin, I add salt… in Guwahati.
I might have not liked the Kanji, but I like Galho. One of my most treasured food memories is having two plates of Galho in Viswema. My friend’s grandmother cooked a potful for us over firewood, full of leaves she foraged herself, and only hints of meat. He pointed that meat is still a luxury and only a few pieces are added for flavour unlike the ones available at hotels and cafes in the towns.
A priest once narrated to me how his Jesuit community received rice from Nagaland at every harvest season. The family from Jakhama had adopted another priest from his community into their family and hence, their clan. They sent him a share of the harvest every year. Last year, before the pandemic struck Northeast India, after I finished packing my luggage to return from Kohima to Guwahati, I sat briefly near the kitchen fireplace with Aze sipping black tea. As we were chatting with my broken Nagamese, Aze asked me, “Will you take some rice? It is the harvest from our fields.”
Thankyou Joel – i really enjoyed your essay. The combination of nostalgia, reflection and advocacy is really well balanced. I love your characterisation of the different rice types – makes me want to reseach further about rice diversity…. something we must all fight for as well as for food justice. @thomson_matthew