March 27, 2020
Baba’s stories of Dhaka, Bangladesh were love stories. Stories of food — lullabies and poems to the mighty mango, the elegant okra, or the shiny begun (eggplant). They were stories of a refugee who waited his whole life to return home while he made New Delhi his, and ours.
Baba grew up when India hadn’t been partitioned by the British into two countries — India and Pakistan. The two later became three: India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. Desh for him was home. Every fruit was fruitier in “desh,” squash meatier, potatoes creamier. I didn’t realize that for him, it was homesickness, a yearning for a long-lost childhood home.
I didn’t know the “taan,” the pull of the homeland then. I didn’t appreciate what triggers memory in a refugee or immigrant’s brain until I became an immigrant myself. The trigger, invariably, is food. Whether it’s the food you pick, the fruit you grow, or the fish you cook. Each dish — the smell, flavor, and taste — reminds us of a time when life was simpler, sweeter. Food is comforting, a need that connects us across borders, and makes us believe we’re still connected to the land we left. For me, the food that reminds me of home has always been the guava.
In 1976, when I was six, Baba’s bank transferred him to New Delhi from a small town in Orissa. In that small town, we lived in a large bungalow. Even though it was a promotion, Baba moved our sleepy selves to the fast-paced city life into a modest house. Rude, noisy, loud Delhi had no space to breathe. For us literary, music-loving Bengalis who loved food, talking, and singing, this place was hell. The Punjabis spoke roughly, the Haryanvis were crude, and the South Indians were too private. We Bengalis eventually found our neighborhood. Named after a revered and long-dead freedom fighter, Chittaranjan Park had small green patches masquerading as “parks.” It was a slice of Kolkata, a respite for Bengalis.