Categories
Notes from Japan

Rabbit Island

Narration and photographs by Suzanne Kamata

I first learned of Okunoshima from a Canadian friend’s Facebook post. She’d shared photos of herself surrounded by rabbits. The island just off the coast of Shikoku and only accessible by ferry, was overrun with these adorable animals. How unusual, I thought. How cute! Surprisingly, few Japanese people that I talked to seem to know about this place. However, when it was featured a few months ago on a TV travel show, my daughter Lilia told me that she wanted to visit.

“It’s really far,” I told her. “At least three hours by car.”

“We can take the bus,” she signed to me. (My daughter is deaf.)

I knew that there were no buses that went from our town in Tokushima, on the eastern part of Shikoku, to Tadanoumi in Ehime Prefecture where we could board the ferry to Okunoshima. My daughter, who has cerebral palsy, uses a wheelchair, and it seemed like too much of a hassle to take the bus to Matsuyama and change buses once or twice to get to that tiny coastal town, but I wanted to visit as much as she did. I was charmed by the idea of an island full of bunnies. When I came across a flyer advertising a one-day bus tour to Okunoshima, I immediately signed us up.

We got up extra early that sunny Sunday and met our tour guide in a gravel parking lot near the town gym. I’d told the tour guide that my daughter was disabled, but it wasn’t a big deal. We climbed into the front seat and the guide handed out tea and packaged rice balls. We gazed out at the lush green terraced fields, yellow roadside wildflowers, and flooded rice paddies as we made our way to Ehime Prefecture. The landscape outside our window might have been lifted from the animated film Tottoro.

Inaka,” Lilia signed.

“Yes.” I agreed that we were deep “in the countryside.”

I was a little worried that once we got to the island my daughter would find the real-life rabbits annoying. I remembered how she had been bothered by the notoriously aggressive deer in Nara on her school trip. One deer had tried to eat her notebook. What if the rabbits tried to nibble on her fingers or cellphone? But as we rolled along the highway, she reminisced about the rabbit she and her classmates had taken care of in kindergarten. When it had died, they had held a little ceremony and buried it on the school grounds.

As we approached the port, finally catching a glimpse of the sea, the tour guide gave us some final instructions. “Don’t give the rabbits snacks,” she said. We could buy rabbit food at the port.

The bus took a turn down a narrow road flanked by brown-tiled houses, many of them with solar panels. Finally, we arrived at a parking lot next to a small cluster of buildings. To my surprise, here we were, seemingly in the back of beyond, but a long line of people already snaked around the corner from the ferry dock. The tour guide seemed a bit nervous. “It’s a small boat,” she said, “and they don’t accept reservations.” She hurried off to buy our tickets. Note to self, regarding future visits: arrive plenty early.

The tour guide returned to the bus and informed us that the passengers were lined up for an earlier ferry and that we would be able to board. Phew! Since we had about half-an-hour before our own departure, we all got off the bus. Lilia and I went to a small building with a big clock to buy packets of rabbit pellets.

When it was time to get on the ferry, we were directed to the lower level, along with several young families with strollers. Most of the other passengers went above deck. We stayed to the side as three rows of cars were directed onto the ferry. It was shaded and cool.

Lilia, who has always been far more social than me, tried to get me to start a conversation with a blonde foreign woman standing nearby with her three kids and husband. From the familiar scent of her sunscreen, I assumed that she was American, but I didn’t really feel like talking. I resisted my daughter’s entreaties, suggesting that we just relax and enjoy the wind on our faces, the sight of the waves. I thought it was remarkable, however, that although most Japanese people I’d mentioned the island to had never heard anything about Okunoshima, there seemed to be several groups of foreigners on this ferry alone bound for the island.

We arrived in about twenty minutes. The tour guide had arranged for a mini bus to transport my daughter and me to a restaurant on the island. Lunch was included in our package tour. The rest of the group would be going on foot. The restaurant was only about a fifteen-minute walk from the port.

I had half-expected hordes of rabbits to greet us upon disembarking, but it was hot. The first rabbits I spotted were lolling beneath bushes, their energy apparently sapped by the high temperatures and humidity.

My daughter and I boarded the waiting van. I pointed out rabbits to Lilia: there, in a burrow, there, under the picnic table. It occurred to me that this was the first Japanese island that I had been on that wasn’t home to stray cats.

“Are there any predators on this island?” I asked our driver.

He thought for a moment. “Maybe crows.”

The rest of our group was dining in a tatami room. Because of my daughter’s wheelchair, we ate in another room at a table with chairs. Our pre-ordered lunch consisted of slices of sashimi, miso soup, and rice mixed with vegetables, but at the Usagi Lunch Café, you could order pancakes branded with bunnies, white rice molded into rabbit shapes surrounded by curry, and long-eared rice-filled omelettes.

After lunch, we were free to do as we liked until the ferry departed. We set out to explore. Bicycles can be rented, but it’s possible to walk the four kilometres around the entire island in an hour or less. The bunnies are not hard to find.

Lilia and I ventured on to a grassy lawn, which was full of holes dug by rabbits, making it a bumpy ride with the wheelchair. We settled briefly at a shady spot under some trees where some bunnies had gathered, and lured them with pellets. I was worried that they might bite our fingers, but they were docile and friendly, nibbling only on the food that was offered. “Kawaii!” Lilia said. “Cute!”

Although the rabbits are, for all intents and purposes, wild, they are supposedly descendants of pet rabbits kept at a long-ago school. The story goes that in 1971 schoolchildren released eight of these creatures on the island, and then they began to proliferate, as rabbits do, Now the island is designated as a national park and is home to around 700 bunnies.

There is another more sinister theory as to how the rabbits came to be on the island. Unbeknownst to many Japanese, from 1929-1945, the Secondary Tokyo Military Arsenal manufactured chemical weapons for the Japanese Army on Okunoshima. This project was so secret that during that time, the island was excluded from most maps of Japan. The poisonous gases produced here, including mustard gas, tear gas, and phosgene, were used more than 2,000 times exclusively against the Chinese, killing 80,000 people. The effectiveness of the gases was allegedly tested on rabbits. Some say that the ones now living on the island are descendants from test rabbits released after the facility was destroyed in 1945 by U.S. Forces. However, Hatsuichi Murakami, who worked at the poison gas factory as a teenager and later became director of the Poison Gas Museum, told a New York Times reporter that the present-day rabbits are not related to those used for testing.

My daughter wanted to visit the Poison Gas Museum, which she had also learned about from TV. Having visited the Hiroshima Peace Museum and the Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C. on family trips, she was familiar with the horrors of war, and keen to know more about history. We saved a few pellets for later, and made our way to the small building with a red-brick facade. A ramp made it easily accessible, as did the nominal one-hundred-yen entry fee. The exhibits of gas-making materials, clothing owned by factory workers, and photos take up only two rooms, but their impact is strong. They are labeled in both Japanese and English. According to the museum’s English brochure, “Having seen materials made by concerned people, we hereby declare that war is meaningless and the production of poison gas is tragic. We make an appeal for everlasting peace.”

Once again under the hot afternoon sun, we wandered slowly back toward the port, dispensing pellets as we went. Maybe, I thought, these cute little bunny rabbits were released here to live freely as atonement for the ones who had suffered and died. They are now protected from hunters, dogs, and cats (which are prohibited on the island). Signs warn visitors not to feed them on the road, in order to keep them safely out of the way of oncoming cars. From their appearance, they seem mostly healthy and well cared for. The island itself is now a family-friendly place with a campground and a spa, where people from all over the world gather peacefully.

As we lined up for the ferry to return home, my only regret was that we couldn’t stay longer. Then again, now that we knew how to get there, we could always go back.

Suzanne Kamata was born and raised in Grand Haven, Michigan. She now lives in Japan with her husband and two children. Her short stories, essays, articles and book reviews have appeared in over 100 publications. Her work has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize five times, and received a Special Mention in 2006. She is also a two-time winner of the All Nippon Airways/Wingspan Fiction Contest, winner of the Paris Book Festival, and winner of a SCBWI Magazine Merit Award.

PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL

Categories
Poetry

Menuki by Jared Carter

A found poem, consisting of various captions copied verbatim from descriptions of small figurines displayed in the Asian Wing of the Dayton Art Institute, in the state of Ohio, in the United States.

Menuki, sometimes called sword fittings, are matching or complementary pairs of tiny metal sculptures, traditionally secured to the hilt of a samurai sword and thought to improve the grip.

They were hammered from sheets of copper or alloys of silver and gold and were held in position on either side of a sword’s hilt by braids of silk.

— Jared Carter

MENUKI

Each in the form of a cluster of branches and a flowering plum
Each in the form of celestial dragons
Each in the form of a cluster of flowers wrapped around a rolled mat
Each in the form of a crane with spread wings
            nestled amidst the upper branches
                        of an ornamental spreading pine

One in the form of a prancing stag
            the other in the form of a stag nuzzling a recumbent doe
One in the form of a cluster of grasses with a crescent moon
            the other of grasses with the new moon
Each in the form of Mount Fuji

One in the form of a court noble in military dress
           the other in the form of a sage holding a book
Each in the form of a woven basket filled with sprays of flowers
Each in the form of a cluster of eggplants
One in the form of a crane taking flight
           the other in the form of a heron

Each in the form of a cluster of peacocks
Each in the form of a crawfish and waterweeds
Each in the form of crickets and wildflowers
Each in the form of two galloping horses
One in the form of a nightingale in flight
           the other in the form of the moon
Each in the form of a horse cleaning itself
           beside a shallow stream

One in the form of a stalking tiger
           the other in the form of a seated tiger
Each in the form of a fisherman walking
           with a large wicker basket

Each in the form of a samurai astride a galloping horse
Each in the form of three Chinese sages playing go
Each in the form of a gold pheasant
            backed by a cluster of kiku, millet,
                        wildflowers, and grasses

Each in the form of a fisherman poling a boat

First published in Nexus.

Jared Carter’s most recent collection, The Land Itself, is from Monongahela Books in West Virginia. His Darkened Rooms of Summer: New and Selected Poems, with an introduction by Ted Kooser, was published by the University of Nebraska Press in 2014. A recipient of several literary awards and fellowships, Carter is from the state of Indiana in the U.S.

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PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL

Categories
Interview

At Home Across Continents

In Conversation with Neeman Sobhan

Neeman Sobhan is an expat who shuttles between Italy and Bangladesh and writes. She has a knack of making herself at home in all cultures and all spheres. Having grown up partly in Pakistan (prior to the Liberation War in 1971), Bangladesh and completed her studies in United States, she has good words about time spent in all places. Her background has been and continues to be one of privilege as are that of many Anglophone writers across Asia. Her stories have been part of collections brought out to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of Bangladesh.

One of her most memorable stories from her short story collection Piazza Bangladesh, located around the 1971 war takes on an unusual angle, where the personal seems to sweep the reader away from the historic amplitude of the event into the heart-rending cries of women at having lost their loved ones in a way that it transcends all borders of politics, anger and hate. The emotional trajectory finds home in a real-world event in the current war. The fate of innocent youngsters dying while not being entrenched in the hatred and violence wrings hearts as reports of such events do even now. I find parallels in the situation with the young Russian soldier whose mother did not know he was in Ukraine and who was killed while WhatsApping his mother his own distress at being there. And yet her stories stay within certain echelons which, as she tells us in the interview, are the spheres that move her muse.

When and how did you pick up a pen to write?

I have always written. The written word has always held a powerful fascination for me, which has not dimmed at all. From my childhood through my teens, I was a voracious and precociously advanced reader, as well as a passionate writer of poetry, and a keeper of a daily journal. My poetry was regularly published in The Pakistan Observer’s Junior page.  I don’t dare look at them now to even assess whether they were embarrassingly bad or surprisingly good enough to be salvaged and resurrected now! I preserved them as the earliest evidence of my continuing evolution as a writer and a poet today.

During those early days, I also won the first prize in a national essay writing competition sponsored by the newspaper. The Pear’s Encyclopedia I won still holds a precious place on my bookshelf.

English was my favourite subject in school and college, and I knew I would study English literature at university. I started out at Dhaka University in 1972 but by some perverse logic, I actually enrolled in the newly opened International Relations department and not the English Department (in which I had applied and been accepted). The reason, I now recall is because the English department was over-flowing with students, while the International Relations department was something exclusive and admitted a handful of students. However, after a few months I realised I had made a disastrous choice.

Meantime, my marriage was arranged, and I was whisked away to Marlyland, U.S. My husband, Iqbal, an ex-CSP officer (the Civil Service of Pakistan) was a Ph.d student of Economics at the University of Maryland, and in no time I enrolled as an undergraduate student and blissfully went on to study English and Comparative Literature, graduating eventually with a Masters in English Literature.

That I was going to be a writer was for me, even as a teenager, like a pre-ordained and much desired fate. I never wanted to pursue any other vocation.

What gets your muse going? 

Anything, and everything.  A view, a scent, an overheard conversation, a line of poetry, a memory……If I’m angry and seething, I write; if I’m sad or grieving, I write; if I’m joyous or ecstatic, I write; if I feel aa surge of spiritual bliss, I write; if I’m confused, I write. What form that writing takes is unpredictable. It could become a poem, or a paragraph in my notebook, which later could be part of my fiction, or a column. I wrote a regular column for the Daily Star of Bangladesh.

Writing is my food and nourishment, my therapy, my best friend, my passion. The writer-Me is the twin that lives inside me. It’s my muse and guide that defines my essential self. I am a contented wife of almost 50 years of marriage, a mother of two sons, and a grandmother of four grandsons (aged 5-4-3 & 2). These gratifying roles nourish my spirit, give me joy and inspiration, teach me lessons that help me grow as a human being. But my writer-self exists in its own orbit, proceeding on its solitary journey of self-actualisation, following its inner muse.

You have written of Italy, US and Bangladesh. How many countries have you lived in? 

Yes, I have lived in Italy, US and Bangladesh, which makes 3 countries. But, in fact, I have lived in 4 countries.

Remember that I was born not just in the undivided Pakistan of pre-71, when present day Bangladesh was East Pakistan, but I was actually born in West Pakistan, present day Pakistan, in the cantonment town of Bannu, near the borders of the Khyber Pass and Afghanistan, (formerly, the NWFP or NorthWest Frontier Province, presently KPK or Khyber Pakhtun-Khwa). Although my parents were Bengalis from Dhaka, my father’s government job (not in the army but under the Defence department, ‘Military Lands and Cantonments Services’) meant being posted in both wings of the then Pakistan. So, during my childhood and girlhood, I grew up in Karachi (Sindh), Multan and Kharian (Punjab) and Quetta (Balochistan). As a family of five siblings and our adventurous mother, we always accompanied our father on his official tours, by car or train, over the length and breadth of that country.

In the English medium school I was enrolled in, I had to choose Urdu as the vernacular subject, since Bengali was not taught in West Pakistani schools, though the opposite was not true! Anyway, I have no regrets. I am proficient in both Urdu and my mother tongue Bangla/Bengali, which I learnt at home from my mother, who in Quetta actually set up a small Bengali learning school for Bengali Army officers’ children. I am proud of the fact that I carried my mother’s tradition when I taught Bengali to Italians at the University of Rome, many decades later!   

What is it like being an immigrant writer? Which part of the world makes you feel most at home? Why? 

To start with, and to be honest, I do not really consider myself a true immigrant — someone who bravely and definitively leaves his familiar world and migrates  to another land because he has no other options nor the chance or means to return; rather, I feel lucky to be an ex-patriate — someone who chooses to make a foreign country her home, with the luxury of being able to revisit her original land, and, perhaps, move back one day. In fact, I have dual nationality, and am both an Italian citizen, and continue to hold a Bangladeshi passport. I might be considered to be an Italian-Bangladeshi writer. I consider myself a writer without borders.

I feel equally at home in Italy and in Bangladesh. Before the pandemic, my husband and I would make an annual trip to Dhaka for two months from December to February end, since my classes started in early March. Presently, I am back in Dhaka, after two almost apocalyptic years.

Despite the continuing hurdles of mastering the Italian language and trying to improve it constantly, we love our Roman home as much as our Dhaka home. Still, living away from ones’ original land, whether as an expatriate or an immigrant, is never easy, beset by nostalgia for what was left behind and the struggle to create a new identity of cultural fusion within the dominant and pervasive culture of a foreign land. But in this global age, it’s quite usual to live in a mix of cultures and live in a borderless world where ones national or cultural identity is not so clear cut. (I have a daughter-in-law who is Chinese, and another who is half-English, half-Thai! And my grandchildren are the heirs to a cornucopia of cultures and are true global citizens). Nevertheless, in the four and a half decades of my living away from Bangladesh, the eternal quest for that illusory place called home has shaped the sensibility that nourishes my creativity and compels me to write. Often, it’s the pervasive and underlying theme in my columns, stories and poetry. There is a poem of mine, “False Homecoming” which underlines the poignant sense of displacement a person can feel, not in a foreign land but in ones’ own motherland, or the version from the past. After all, many people who live away, exist in a time-warp.So, no matter which part of the world you feel at home in, it’s temporary. For me, as a writer between countries and homes, it is an external and internal odyssey.

It is the endless journey of a writer in constant evolution.

Tell us a bit about your journey. 

I realised early on that our real world being increasingly borderless, it’s not a tract of land that makes me feel at home. It’s my writing. The Mexican poet Octavio Paz once said, “Words became my dwelling place.” This has always resonated deeply with me, because for me, too, language and literature have been my sanctuary and true homeland. I have lived in that comfort zone at the heart of my creativity, imagination and writing: my dwelling place of words.

Of course, there are as many shapes to the sheltering place of language as there are literary forms. My nest of words was also feathered by my particular exigencies, followed a particular route and journey.

Though I speak various languages, my mother tongue is Poetry. For as far back as I can remember I have always written poetry, like writing in a journal, considering it to be the shorthand of my heart, a secret language. I am a reticent person, and there are writers like me who are content to use writing, whether poetry or prose, as a tool for self-exploration, self-knowledge, self-definition, with no thought of being published. At least, not my personal poems.

Yet with poetic irony, despite being a private person, my career as a writer started when I was jettisoned into that most public form of literary expression: the world of weekly column writing. At the urging of a friend, the editor of the Bangladeshi national daily The Daily Star, I turned into a public chronicler of the minutiae of my world, my life and times. Now I discovered my professional language, my father tongue if you will, the language of prose and my journey as a writer started.

When one reads your writing, it is steeped in a number of cultures. Which culture is most comfortable for you while writing and which one for living? 

There’s no place as beautiful and pleasurable to live in as Italy. Except for two or three months of winter, the climate during the rest of the year is perfect; the natural beauty and historical and artistic richness are unsurpassable, the food is delectable whether it’s based on nature’s bounty or the simple elegance of its distinctive cuisine. But for a writer who is also a housewife, the most comfortable country to write in, for me, is Bangladesh. With the culture of household helps abounding, I often get more writing done in two months of living in my Dhaka apartment than a whole year in Rome. My domestic staff are like family to us, and valued parts of our life. They sustain us and we sustain them, helping them educate their children to stand on their own feet. I miss this support network in Italy.

What are your favourite themes and your favourite genre? Expand on that a bit. 

My favourite genre to both read and write is the short story, poetry, humorous essays, travel writing and insightful book reviews. I read fewer novels now, and I have been writing and struggling to finish my first novel for years. I suspect, this is because I am temperamentally more attuned to the short sprint dash of producing a discrete work of imagination than the long-distance run of a lengthy work. But I am determined to conclude this opus before it becomes an unfinished relic.

I never approach fiction-writing through themes. But in non-fiction prose writings, like essays and articles for columns, I love to write about certain topics, or about books, places, and people, from all walks of life. I also love to write about nature, food, history and traditions, about how to improve our world, our lives and our relationships; and the happy, hopeful moments of life. As far as reading goes, I love reading about travel, love and friendship, human compassion, and anything with a happy ending.

You seem to have centred much of your work on people who are affluent. What about the rest — especially the huge population who serve the affluent? Have you written on them? Tell us why or why not.

That is an incomplete picture, and a wrong perception of my writing. To start with, as a writer I am more interested in the richness of the inner lives of human beings, and less so in the outward, economic and class differences. To me, no one is merely affluent or poor, but human and worthy of a compassionate gaze. The diversity and motivations of characters, whichever strata of society they belong to moves my imagination. I do not write to either preach or disseminate ideas of social justice or to right wrongs, but to explore and present the world we live in, in all its complexities and subtleties, the joys and ugliness, the small dreams and grand passions, the disappointments and triumphs of individuals and generations. I like to delve into the psychological or political motivations of human behaviour, especially within the domestic sphere, the family, an ethnic community.

I have many stories about those who serve or are not from privileged classes. My story ‘A Sprig of Jasmine’ is about a sweeper woman at a school in Bangladesh. Then there is the story ‘The Farewell Party’ about a temporary domestic help in a Bangladeshi home in Rome, suspected of stealing. I also have a sequel to that which explores the life of the same Bengali help now working as a nurse-companion to an old Italian woman.  These and many more are awaiting to be published soon in another collection.

But I never consciously choose a subject or set out specifically to tell the story of an under-privileged, oppressed, or marginalised person. It can happen that the story turns out to be about them, but for me a story reveals itself randomly, through an image or scent or a view or an overheard conversation, once I witnessed a slap being delivered, etc, and I follow its trail till it leads me to an interesting bend where it starts to shape into a story. I never know how a story will start or end. It grows in organic but unpredictable way. That is the challenge, and adventure of writing a story.

For example, one of my most newest stories, titled ‘The Untold Story’, (published in a recent anthology for Bangladesh’s 50th anniversary, When the Mango Tree Blossomed, edited by Niaz Zaman), is two parallel tales of two Birangonas (‘war heroines’ or raped victims during the Bangladesh liberation war ), but it came to me more as a way to explore the craft of storytelling, which is something that always engages me: how a story is narrated, as much as what the narrative is about.

By and large, I like to write stories about the world I know, and the people in my own milieu because no one writes about the expat society of Europe. I like to write about my world in all its details and extrapolate from its larger truths about humanity in general.

Jane Austen wrote about the landed gentry and her corner of England, but the stories ultimately reach our hearts not merely as stories of the affluent but of human foibles. John Updike wrote about his American suburban world. Annie Proulx writes about Wyoming. Alice Munro about the middle-class world of her neck of the Canadian world. Henry James focused on American aristocrats. But what is human and vulnerable, or worthy or unworthy, transcends class barriers. People are interesting, subtle, unpredictable, noble or wicked, no matter whether they are affluent or of straitened means. Tagore’s tales of women trapped in their roles in rich households are just as moving as those among the poor and underprivileged.

There are plenty of writers with a sociologist’s background who can chronicle the lives of the downtrodden whom they meet. I applaud them. My younger son works with the Rohingyas; my brother-in-law, a doctor worked for years with children of addicts. They have their stories to tell. I have mine. I’m interested in humanity, wherever I find them.

In the little I have read of your stories, Bangladesh is depicted in a darker light in your narratives — that it is backward in values, in lifestyles etc. Why? 

I don’t know which particular story or stories you have in mind where you felt that this impression was consciously created. Unless the story was indeed about a backward area, like the dingy alleys and neighbourhoods of old Dhaka in the 60’s and 70’s. Or, the murky values resulting from the explosion of wealth and the rise of corruption, undermining civic and ethical values in the rampantly urbanised zones.

In which case, it’s an unavoidable fact and not a depiction.

However, since I write more in a nostalgic light about Dhaka past rather than the reality of the present, I actually have not really written about the darker sides of the country; and which country or society does not have its seamy side. A good question would have been why I have not depicted Bangladesh in a darker light as contemporary writers of Bengali fiction do, dealing courageously with sinister aspects of politics and corrupt moral values at every level of society.

There is much in the Bangladeshi culture that we are proud of, beautiful traditions, and so much beauty in our natural world. I like to weave these into my narrative. So, I’m surprised that you found my stories to be dark.

 What are your future plans?

One of my most urgent projects is to get my novel-in-progress published.

I’m also planning to come out with another collection of stories, and a collection of my columns on travel, and an Italian and Bengali translation of my fiction.

So far, my three published books, and all the stories that have appeared in various anthologies are just a few milestones but do not define my journey as a writer. Daily I grapple with the insecurities of a writer, and daily I learn new things that help me grow towards being the writer I aspire to be. It’s still a long way to a full flowering, but each passing day I dabble in words, I feel the creative petals unfolding, slowly but surely.

Thank you for your time.

(This is an online interview conducted by Mitali Chakravarty.)

PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL

Categories
Review

A Taste of Time

Book Review by Bhaskar Parichha

 Title: A Taste of Time: A Food History of Calcutta
Author: Mohona Kanjilal
Publisher: Speaking Tiger, 2021

To say that this is a rattling book on the food culture of Kolkata will be an understatement. Indeed, there couldn’t have been a better book than this on the food history of the City of Joy. In the thriving universe of Indian food books, this clearly stands out.

A Taste of Time–A Food History of Calcutta by Mohona Kanjilal goes the whole hog in digging out the culinary history of Kolkata with every minute detail. The book is massive and gorgeous.

An alumnus of Loreto College, Kanjilal spent most of her childhood in Bengaluru. From a freelance journalist to a full-time writer, newspapers have been her invariable guidance. She dabbles in short stories, too.

Says the blurb: “Calcutta, once the nucleus of the Raj, was at the heart of a thriving economy and unparalleled administration. Over the centuries, this teeming, cosmopolitan metropolis has become home to people from various communities who have lent its food and culture their distinctive tastes and culinary rituals. The heady romance of palates and flavours in the ‘Royal Capital’ has fostered diversity in food and culture all the while adhering to the city’s Bengali roots.”

Divided into four sections and about a dozen chapters, Kanjilal brings to the platter a full account of the food culture of Kolkata and it, surely, is an intellectual nourishment.

The book is a perceptive journey through the ever-changing landscape of Calcutta’s food and cultural environment, from its decades-old cutlet, jhal muri,and puchka stalls to its iconic continental restaurants like Firpo’s and Flurys. Whether it is the oldest tea shop, Favourite Cabin, set up in 1924, to the 21st-century fine-dining restaurant “threesixtythree”, Mohona dexterously captures the stories behind the city’s adorable culture of ‘bikel chaar-ter cha’ (tea at 4 p.m.).

What makes the volume fascinating is her authentic research. From Calcutta’s renowned bakeries like Nahoum’s to the invention of rasgullas and samosas (or shingara), Kanjilal does a 360-degree exploration. Diving into Calcutta’s blazing history, she shows how the food habits of early European settlers, Jewish, Armenian, Chinese, Parsi and other communities, and the city’s next-door neighbours like Odisha, have made the culinary fabric of Calcutta immensely flush and stratified.

Food, Kanjilal says, “has always been an integral part of the lifestyle of the residents of Calcutta… whether it is… the phuchka wallah… the jhal muri wallah, selling the spicy puffed rice preparation… or the ghugni wallah, serving… the semi-dry and spicy preparation of whole yellow peas…”

In close to 500 pages, she weaves scholarly accounts of historians and food writers with the everyday fables one hears from a famous paanwallah or an old-timer of a club. In the introductory part; she deals with the founding of Calcutta — from the Mughal empire to the coming of the British and latter part of the twentieth century when Calcutta became a bursting metropolis.

Writes Kanjilal: “As the capital of British India (1858-1911), Calcutta became a culinary melting pot of Armenians and Parsis from Iran, Jews from Syria and Baghdad, the Chinese fleeing their revolution, and local migrants such as Gujaratis, Punjabis, Marwaris, Sindhis, Oriyas, Biharis and South Indians. Her book explores this culinary evolution across a variety of cuisines and time periods. She structures the book according to when these migrants figured into the city’s consciousness. It is divided into four sections, with each section taking up the culinary influence of a particular set of migrants and the dishes they influenced in a Bengali household’s repertoire.

“The British were responsible for introducing certain food habits that have, over the years, become pillars of Calcutta’s culinary culture. One of their major contributions was the introduction of beverages to the Bengali table. Tea, coffee and fresh fruit juices are a fixed part of the average Bengali’s breakfast spread today because of the British influence. This nation strongly influenced the foods Bengalis ate for breakfast as well, introducing typical preparations of egg, sausage, bacon and bread to the local palate. Chops and cutlets, which are today as essential to a Bengali as rice and fish curry, also owe their popularity to the role played by the British in Bengali culinary history. Today, kiosks in every nook and corner of the city make and sell these fried foods, usually as accompaniments to what many perceive as a quintessentially British meal: afternoon tea. Finally, egg-based puddings, now a fixture on Calcutta’s dessert menus, were introduced to the city by the British.”

Her investigation is truly fascinating. From the British influence to the Portuguese influence; from the Anglo-Indian to the Armenian; from the Jews to the Nawabi influence; from Chinese to Parsi cuisine, she digs out hundreds of recipes. Then, there is a whole chapter on Bengali cuisine itself. She also deals with Pan-Indian cuisine and the influence of nearby Darjeeling district.

If one ever wants to read a book about Calcutta that takes to the vignettes and the history surrounding the favourite dishes and eateries, this is the book. If you want to hear stories about which famous personality (e.g. Subhas Chandra Bose) ate what and where, and if you want to repeat those experiences for yourself, then this is the suitable guide.

This delicious and all-embracing history of food in Calcutta, peppered with mouth-watering nuggets, recipes and incendiary accounts is a boon for the bon vivant.

Glossary:

* Puchka, jhaal muri and ghughni are savoury snacks.

Paanwallah is the seller of paan or betel leaf.

Bhaskar Parichha is a journalist and author of No Strings Attached: Writings on Odisha and Biju Patnaik – A Political Biography. He lives in Bhubaneswar and writes bilingually. Besides writing for newspapers, he also reviews books on various media platforms.

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