My column this week with Dhaka Courier.
Achar, moshla, mishti
Thursday, October 8th, 2015
Imagine the Bangladeshi parents coming to their children in the USA. The house waits, when are the suitcases going to be opened?
Out comes the “had-to-have” things from back home by the daughters or the sons. Packets of turmeric, coriander, chili, and other spices. Then come jars of homAchar, moshla, mishtiemade pickles with mangoes olives and plums from the village home. Mother reminds them that these are from this year’s yields, so freshness is to the core. It’s hard to think that Bengalis could cross the Atlantic without some deshi sweets. Out come Bikrampur’s kacha golla and shonpapri, Tangail Sweet’s chomchom and Bogra’s curd too. It does not matter then of how many flavors of yoghurt we have in Big’Y or Walmart, the deshi -doi cannot be beaten by any. If wine reunites sprits, for Bengalis, it’s the sweets.
My trips to USA began in 2003 when we got the US permanent resident card. Thus began packing suitcases with deshi food and clothes. Not only my children, but relatives and friends had to benefit from our annual trips. There would be lists of things the people on the other end wanted and things I wanted to take. 6 – 10 rolls of scotch tape and plastic bags would come to roll up foods so that they don’t spill. And I would have another list of foodstuff to declare to the immigration officer when we entered USA airport. Once an Indian officer took hold of my jar of mango pickle and in Hindi said, “Sister, I wish you had some fresh mangoes, I miss them.”
I wondered whether it was genuine or he wanted to know if I carried the banned fresh fruits. But and then, another friend’s mother brought mangoes, fojli aam, direct from Rajshahi. When the security personnel said she couldn’t carry them inside, she sat down and ate as many as she can murmuring, “Hmm brought them all way here and now they can’t go?”
Tales of how shutki comes smuggled go round the gatherings of the Bengalis. There would follow a perfect korhai, or a pan to make bhapa pitha that can’t be found here. You could read the notes of surprises on the officer’s faces as they checked the suitcases. They wondered how food kitchen utensils were short in the land of immigrants. My son liked different kinds of bhortas,(mashed delicacies) and so I got a stone hand-grinder ( pata-puta) and leaving my clothes behind dragged it here. Alas, now it sits like museum piece in his garage, son’s taste buds have changed.
A cousin going to Moscow got a pot of dried milk to take for the son. The father explained, “My son left when the Sindhi cow was pregnant and couldn’t drink its milk, I can’t drink without sending him some.”
So touching this parental love. The milk from a remote village in Rangpur made it to Moscow.
But it’s not only the Bengalis who remain homesick. A Chinese person would most likely bring a little bit of his own shrimp paste or other spices to cook home-style. The Latino population, also known for their own cuisine will have his ow habanero sauce. There are roots from every nation that we want to bring to the new land and that make us all what we can call ‘a meeting of common grounds’. Not only food but our culture and beliefs come with us in more than hundred ways.
In previous days we did not have the vast source of packing materials that we have now. Sylhettis are known have started migration around the 50’s and that was especially to England, in London. When they took food, the containers or packet were wrapped with old, often tattered clothes. Old cotton cloths were the choice for their softness. When one villager opened her suitcase in Heathrow airport and took out the tattered cloth wrapped pickle bottle, the officer in charge held out each lair as he opened to check the contents and remarked,
“Couldn’t you find anything better to wrap your stuff with?”
Luggage belts in Dhaka airport is colored with travelers returning from the Middle East. Bedsheet- wrapped suitcases, television boxes and blankets roll in with name tags on at least 4-6 places. They are usually double protected by plastic ropes. And there will be packets in the hands of our fellow migrant workers that hold cigarettes, chocolates from the duty free shops. And in their hand you will see a sported new mobile set. And lo, to take home their Saudi-ferot man you will see a whole bus full of relatives from the village. The joy of airport visits comes complete when one sees the old mother hugging her son, to her it’s like a trip to the moon and back. Rich or needy, women would most like be bringing in some cosmetics and clothes. Despite calls for gender gaps, in many ways, the two sexes remain habit-bound.
While travelling to and from our land, bringing in or taking out the things of usage, we define ourselves to our roots. So, no surprises when you see the Sylheti with his bodna ( a pot used to hold water for washing purpose) land in JFK airport. The garden watering pots are similar here, but it’s that familiar ground we seek, a bodna is what is missed. Like a flower, we carry our own essence in life and spread our beings.
May our life be peaceful and joyous with or without the touch of home with time and tide.
Tulip Chowdhury writes from Massachusetts, USA.