November 27, 2012

Unidentified Flying Rice


Apalaa Bhattacharya

In the December of 1994 my grandmother decided that we should eat together at a make-shift dining table made by placing a plank of wood – I think it was the remnants of a door  – on two wooden trunks. The house had an abundance of wooden trunks, since it was my grandmother’s preferred way of storing disintegrating, old sarees and banged up cooking vessels. Trunks could replace any conceivable furniture and perform its function with the greatest ease - in fact, we hardly had any chairs. 

I could just sit on one such wooden crate and fancy myself a pirate sitting atop his treasure chest, sailing the high seas looking for land to bury his loot.

It’s not that we didn’t have a dining table, but the dining table was always occupied by my eldest sister’s Economics and Mathematics books, and my sister, picking at her cuticles and desperately trying to make it to “phust place” [first rank] in school.

The make-shift dining table was laid out in front of a window overlooking our neighbour Neogi’s house. We had a shortish wall between the two houses; grandfather used to say they never paid us their half for it.  

One December afternoon, we were seated at this makeshift table for lunch. I was facing the window that opened up to the wall between Neogi and us. Ma had just returned from Sanskrit University, where she was a professor, and was scurrying to serve the food while it was still hot. She plunged the serving spoon into the enormous vat of rice (bhaat in Bengali), and proceeded to pile it onto my plate, thick and heavy.

“Ma, I don’t want any more”, I said.

More rice landed on my plate. Being thin was considered a sign of ill-health, and fatness a sign of prosperity. For young women, the latter was also an indication of their eventual stellar child-bearing capacities.

“Ma, no more rice.”

Still more rice. If it was on my plate I would have to finish it, I knew – “All the starving children” and what not. Panic set in.

“Ma, no more rice,” I yelled, hastily covering the plate with my hands.

Ma was constantly overwhelmed – raising three young children on her own certainly wasn’t easy, neither was the long commute everyday between South and North Calcutta in the notorious minibuses packed with pick-pockets and other delinquents. My rejection of a fourth helping of the mass-favourite Bengali staple was too much for her to bear.

“Thik achhe” [“Fine”], she grunted, grabbed a handful of rice from my plate and flung it out of the window. She must have had quite a throwing arm growing up, because the grains of rice catapulted over the wall between Neogi and us, and a second later, we heard a horrified scream from across this wall.

We all went quiet for a bit, and then Ma said, “Chup chap taratari khabar shesh karo” [Finish your food quickly and quietly].

A couple of minutes later, the doorbell rang. Padmajhi – our maid at the time – was sent off to answer it. In those days, grandmother could add the jhi suffix (meaning maid) without it being considered politically incorrect. Padmajhi was an enormous cock-eyed lady who giggled incessantly. She taught me about menses. We later learned that she used to be a prostitute at the local brothel, which is how our maharaj (cook) knew her.

A skinny young man in his early twenties was at the door. He was wearing a white kurta-pyjama; the kurta had some grains of rice stuck on it. This was Neogi’s unemployed son – ‘Neogir bekar chelle’ (Neogi’s Jobless Son) - as we all knew him. He was a Political Science graduate; in those days you needed to be a doctor, an engineer or a lawyer to be considered human.

"Accha"[Okay], he said slowly with a deadpan face, “I live on the ground floor next door. I was asleep, when suddenly I was hit by some rice. Look” – he gestured towards the very visible grains of rice stuck to his kurta. “Did anyone of you throw some rice from your window?”

Padmajhi started giggling uncontrollably. Ma rushed over and ordered Padmajhi back into the house. “What? No”, she said, “it must have come from some other house.”

We were watching the proceedings through the slightly ajar door of the dining hall. My eldest sister had temporarily abandoned her study table and was there as well – her economics books and cuticles needed a rest.

He was adamant. “No, I’m definite it came through your window.”

Ma was non-committal. “Then perhaps our maid threw it. Ok, I am sending our maid to wash your clothes.”

“No, that is not necessary”, he said, “We have a maid as well; I just came to inform you.”

“Ok, fine” said Ma, and that was that.

The next day the table had mysteriously moved to another location in the house – one without a window.

“Eta bhalo” [This is better] commented grandmother.

We continued to use food as projectile missiles on occasion, for emphasis. Fortunately we kept our targets within the confines of our house. Neogi’s son started working as a private tutor and went from being referred to as ‘Neogir bekar chelle’ to just ‘Neogir chelle’

Padmajhi eventually left our job and returned to her evening shifts. 

About the author
 Apalaa Bhattacharya spent her childhood and school-going years in Kolkota. Then she moved to Mumbai for college, where she met a guy and never went back to Kolkota. She then joined advertising as a  Copywriter.