By Isti Bhattacharya
When the Indian government announced the initial phase of lockdown, everyone rushed to their nearest grocery stores to unleash a panic-induced shopping spree. Baba lugged home a 10 kg packet of wheat, another 10 kgs of flour, a handful of vegetables and some meat. Our future weeks in quarantine seemed to be filled with an exhaustive amount of chapatis. But Baba did not harbour plans of making chapatis. For the past three years, with some trial and error, he intermittently made bread at home. The first few times, the bread tasted more like a cake gone horribly wrong. However, with patience and practice, he had become skilful, and once he even made the perfect meat-stuffed croissant. Like a lot of preoccupations that ebb and flow, Baba stopped making bread after he perfected it.
In the slow days of quarantine, between proofreading his manuscript and sending notes to his students, Baba has taken to baking again. Every morning, he takes a breather to make the dough for the bread. For the next few hours, the dough sits unattended in a quiet corner of the kitchen and rises by a few inches, courtesy of the yeast. An hour before lunch, Baba bakes bread. Before quarantine, lunch with the family was a weekend affair. Now, like a ritual, Baba slices the bread at the table, and we eat our lunch together. Sometimes we eat our bread with jam, and on the days our stocks allow it, we make a paste out of tomatoes and cheese, sprinkle it generously with pepper, and lather it on our slices.
Apart from flour, yeast is another key ingredient in bread making. A few days into lockdown, Baba realized that our stock of yeast is alarmingly low and none of the shops in the vicinity have a supply of it in these troubled times. So, Baba bravely ventured to culture his own yeast at home. A pinch of yeast was placed in a bowl with some water. Baba religiously provided it nourishment with well-measured quantities of water and flour, and a lot of attention. The yeast eagerly guzzled its food and let us know it was growing and doing well by bubbling over from time to time. There was one slight problem though – the bread made with the homegrown yeast was sour. So sour was it, that after the first few bites, my mother and I thought it had gone bad. But the resident baker reassured us and said that this was a different kind of bread called sourdough bread and that it was popular in some parts of the world. We could not relinquish the thought that like a lot of salesmen who cook up wild stories to sell defective products, Baba had given a name to his unpalatable creation. A quick check on the internet proved us wrong. However, no amount of aesthetically produced baking videos on YouTube could make me like the taste of sourdough bread. It had an inherent acerbic flavour that wearied my taste buds and left a strong aftertaste in the mouth, rendering my lunch most unsatisfying. Baba, on the other hand, was fascinated with this wonder bread that he baked with homegrown yeast.
A few weeks before India went into quarantine, Baba finished reading The Little Book of Ikigai, by Ken Mogi, which is based on the Japanese concept of austere living. Conversations at home were sprinkled with references to the book. Baba’s belief in Ikigai stemmed from his early years spent in a sleepy town on the outskirts of Kolkata. His father, my grandfather, was a teacher at a local school. With a meagre salary, he brought up seven children. Their lives were filled with sacrifices and a lot of modest cravings that went unfulfilled. Yet simplicity reigned supreme. Either because of nostalgia or exhaustion from the consumerist culture of our times, this book left an imprint on Baba’s mind. He now talked of growing his own vegetables on the terrace and reducing packaged food items around the kitchen. Like the yeast that he grew at home, Baba wanted to harvest most of his food.
Meanwhile, my social media accounts are overflowing with posts where people are cooking up storms at home. Most of us have never faced a food crisis in our lives. From our privileged vantage, most of us have never known what it is like to crave for a certain food and not have it fulfilled. That packet of chips, that favourite brand of cookies, that pack of instant noodles was always within reach. Now they are neither on our shelves nor at the local retail shops. However, the yearning to return to our refined lives remain ingrained in us. This is affirmed by the countless tutorials that pop up as recommendations on YouTube. Some of them are dishes that, in normal times, one would use multiple ingredients to make. But now, someone has baked a cake with only three ingredients and was teaching us the secret. The bait for most of these videos are alluring visuals of dishes that probably will look starkly different when attempted by a novice.
Let’s consider, for instance, the skyrocketing popularity of the Dalgona coffee. Some parts of India have been acquainted with a version of this coffee for years. It is colloquially called phenti hui coffee, which is exactly what it is – a novel version of coffee where the instant coffee powder has been furiously whipped with warm water and sugar before being poured on chilled milk. Across generations, in most homes, coffee has been made using the exact same ingredients as the Dalgona coffee. Yet, the pictures of Dalgona coffee that circulate on social media could easily have been lifted out of a fancy menu book of a café. It is the kind of coffee that one would order during happier times at a quaint café where soft music played in the background.
Amidst quarantine, we are clinging on to fragments of our pre-quarantine era life. The mundane activities we once took for granted, have grown immensely alluring. Waking up early, commuting to work, waiting in line for groceries look less tiring. The joy of hugging a friend, of spending evenings surrounded by good company, the magic in locking lips with a significant other is magnified. Every evening when I wake up from a rather long slumber and whip up the Dalgona coffee, I am reminded of all this. I might be longing for good food, for company, for a walk outside, for my workspace back at university, but at least an aesthetically pleasing up of coffee is not among the needs I cannot meet. So, when Baba asked why the Dalgona coffee has become such a trend, I told him that the coffee might be a bridge that connects life before and after the lockdown. He looked puzzled. It was then that I realized how ready he is to slip out of the familiar rhythms of his life before the pandemic. Instead of tying the past to the present, Baba is looking ahead to the unknown with hope.
A few days earlier, Arundhati Roy wrote an article where she saw this frightening ordeal as a portal into another world, an opportunity to make better civilizational choices. It is estimated that in India itself, 40 crore people would be pushed into poverty, that the economy will take years to recover from the effect of this pandemic. We as individuals, as a society, would have to begin again with a clean slate. While it is daunting, it also carries myriad possibilities. The new world we walk into could be anything we want it to be like. We could conveniently choose to forget these harrowing times when someone discovers a vaccine and continue to live like we used to. Or we could perceive it as a lesson and stop trying to synonymize ‘normal’ with the past. In the new world we could encourage smaller businesses that pollute the world less, we could break up with our fast-paced consumerist lifestyles, we could vote for governments who care more about their migrant labourers – if only we could get over the fear that ‘what was’, was better than ‘what will be’.
In the days that followed, I have grown to like sourdough bread more than I thought I would.
Isti Bhattacharya completed her Master’s in History from Jadavpur University, Kolkata, in 2019. Currently she is working as a research assistant at the History Department of Jadavpur University.
Cafe Dissensus Everyday is the blog of Cafe Dissensus magazine, based in New York City and India. All materials on the site are protected under Creative Commons License.
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