by Diti Bhattacharya
One of the many things that migrants continually navigate through and within their lived experiences is quite similar to the process of knitting. I use the word knitting because it reminds me of summer afternoons with my grandmother, on the porch of my ancestral home in Calcutta. Dida (a Bengali term often used to indicate paternal grandmothers) often spoke about her childhood while knitting – the violent communal riots, the Bengali famine, the numerable emergency periods, the independence of the country from the British Raj, all of these political events had shaped her childhood in the colonial city of Calcutta. During the summer school break every year, I shadowed her all afternoon, while she shared reminiscences of her childhood memories to me – her process of storytelling was much like the process of knitting. Tying and braiding what she remembered and somehow making sense of the present through those past experiences. It was years later, upon making the decision to migrate to Australia, and then arriving on the sunny coastal city of Gold Coast in Queensland as a student, that I realised that migrants often make sense of their experiences of mobilities through a process of knitting.
For me, food became a yarn that helped with this process of knitting. There is no denying that the pristine white beaches, the glittering skyscrapers and the laid-back lifestyle of the Gold Coast and the Sunshine State, in general, had seduced me enough to make a decision to come and study in Queensland. However a few months after I had settled into the city, I developed a new leisure activity for myself – I wanted to find out about every Indian, specifically Bengali, grocery store around the city of Gold Coast and the city of Brisbane which is about an hour’s train ride north of the coast of the Gold Coast. Luckily enough, I found a companion in my roommate from Bangladesh, Ruksana.
As ethnic Bengalis who grew up in epar bangla and opar bangla, in other words, Chattogram in Bangladesh and Calcutta in West Bengal, our understanding of our individual historical and cultural past, our food habits and our life choices, converged and diverged in the most fascinating ways. The early weeks of our arrival into Australia were the hardest. There are countless literary works in languages all over the world that note the bewildering emotional as well as physical experience that entails moving to a different country and adopting it, to call it home. One never quite knows the exact moment when the transition occurs – from not being able to quite figure out, to be able to call the new country, in our case Australia, our home. In many ways, the modest kitchen counter at our two-bedroom student accommodation apartment, the storage counters allocated to us and the treasured pots and pans that we had brought along with us became our refuge, our friend and our comfort during these days.
During the early days of our moving to Australia, we were many things at the same time. With baited-breath and absolute wonderment we explored the long stretches of the coastal walks and beach walks overlooking the seductive blue Pacific waves – we were new to the city, and so we were tourists in those moments. Yet, after a long day of adventure and exploration, we wanted home food in our humble apartments. We were locals now suddenly, yearning to move away from the temporariness of being tourists and wanting to create a sense of home on the Gold Coast. Home is not always what it looks like, for us, it needed to smell and feel like the kitchens we had left back in our ancestral homes. We started off by paying visits to Indian and Bangladeshi grocery stores in the two cities. For us, it is important to buy raw ingredients, the illish and the pabda, the loita and the chinghri, but there was something perhaps more emotionally complex occurring through our repeated grocery store adventures. First, we both believed that the very act of grocery shopping in South Asian stores is quite different to shopping in regular grocery stores here. Second, there is a unique beauty of the coming together of multiple cultures in trying to replicate our bangali recipes here with sourced raw ingredients. In addition, the kitchen needed to smell like barir rannaghor! Ruksana and I were both Bengalis but Bengalis of a different kind. While she prided herself in being a bangal, I was from a ghoti family. Our culinary expeditions were a testament to the history of the partition of Bengal. In our quest for making our kitchens, Bengali created a bridge between our diverging historical legacies. One of our favourite grocery shops in Brisbane was a quaint little Bangladeshi shop in the suburbs of Woolloongabba. Perched among trendy cafes and hipster coffee shops, the HutBazaar Grocery was a standout, both visually and affectively.
The thing about shopping in food markets in Bengal is that one never just goes, matches items with a shopping list, picks up the food and leaves. The process is much more elaborate, and it is this elaboration that we witnessed in the Bangladeshi and Indian grocery shops in Australia. I couldn’t put the finger on a date in terms of when we became a regular of this shop, but over time we did. In fact, this became our beloved getaway from the Gold Coast where we carefully curated the ethnic recipes we would try out and list all the ingredients and set out on the adventure to look for these items. We would go to the shop, walk around a couple of times choose the items, then bargain with Dolly aunty, the owner of the shop. In many ways a part of our home-making process was by way of indulging in these small pockets of experiences – the small informal chitchats about the weather in Dhaka where Dolly aunty is from, how she misses her family, how one of her distant cousins had been a victim of Cyclone Roanu a devastating cyclone that had destroyed acres of villages in coastal Bangladesh. Stories like these often connected the dots – dots that were related to our kitchen experiments in the most unpredictable ways. I remember on one occasion, Ruksana wanted to cook chingri maacher bhorta, a famous Bengali prawn dish cooked in hot mustard oil and then stir tossed through garlic, onion and tomato. I remember Ma cooking this dish either on certain Sundays or on special occasions. I was particularly excited to see how she was going to cook it, especially with Queensland prawns, given how famous they are for their freshness and unique taste on this part of the world. However, to my surprise, Ruksana insisted almost obsessively to sourcing her prawns from either and Indian or a Bangladeshi store. To be honest, at that time, none of it made sense to me, but it was much later that I realised the emotional value of her insistence. On countless other occasions, we had tossed up mango salads using fresh Moolooloolaa prawns that are oh so quintessentially Queensland. We mused of unique flavours of mangoes from Malda, Mushirdabad and playfully argued over whether the mangoes of Rajshahi in present-day Bangladesh, tasted better over its counterparts in West Bengal. However, when it came to particular times of the year like poila boishakh (Bengali New Year) or Mahalaya (the start of Debipokho that leads to the much-awaited Bengali festival of Durga Puja), we made it a point to cook the food we know with the ingredients that we are familiar with. It is this sentiment that led me to understand why Ruksana was so particular about buying the prawns from the Bangladeshi shop – perhaps slightly smaller in size and not as fresh as the local prawns but had travelled all the way from home. In many ways, the process of home-making in a foreign land is perhaps more about the process than the results. The beauty of our home-making process did not just lie in the act of cooking, it included organising the spice cupboard with the paanch phoron (Bengali five spice) and ghee, it included taking time to make our own garam masala from sourcing individual spices; it included our many travels to both Indian and Bangladeshi grocery stores; it included enjoying eggs benedict on a beachside café while thinking of luchi and kumror chokka (puffed poori and a decadent pumpkin and sprout curry). I am not even sure if we were able to bring out the perfect taste of these dishes every time we cooked or not – I guess after a point bringing in the authenticity stopped mattering. What mattered was being able to remember what is was like back home and recreating bits and pieces of that memory here.
I began this memoir of my early days in Australia as a migrant student through the metaphor of knitting. I suppose in many ways knitting describes the process of the ways in which we create our identity as Australians and as a Bengali through a continuous process of braiding, knitting, tying and untying what we know and what we experience. It does not really get that cold in here in the coastal areas of Queensland but every year between mid-May and September, I made it a point to savour khichuri (a savoury one-pot dish made out of lentils, rice and vegetables). On one such winter evening, I found my new roommate from Coff’s Harbour, a year after Ruksana and I had moved on to live elsewhere, Liz combating the flu with not much success. My freshly cooked, piping hot khichuri had come to her rescue then. “I cannot believe you did not cook this for me earlier, Diti! You are a saviour”. She had fallen in love with the dish. A few weeks later I got a call from her during one of her weekend camping trips to Lennox Head, a small beachside camping site on the northern part of New South Wales. “Diti! Just wanted to recheck with you the steps of Khichdudeee!!” I was amused with her unusual stress on the wrong syllables while kept gushing about the dish. Liz had decided Khichudi is perfect camping food – one-pot wonder requires minimal ingredients and is warm and filling. Aside from the usual excitement, there was something else, happening emotionally within me. A part of my intimate culinary memory had become a part of Australia. I was for the first time that I realised, it was not just me looking to find a new sense of home, a sense of identity here in Australia, a part of this lucky country had adopted me too. We had exchanged, shared and knitted something special with each other, through food. There would be countless incidents in the future where a part of this country would welcome a part of me – the ways in which these connections happened would be the most surprising ones. However, it was these early trajectories of culinary exchange that aided me in being able to make Australia home.
I have often wondered why stories of movement, of affective entanglements of experiences of loss and joy, of belonging and alienation, of hope and despair, those migrant communities often experience in complex bursts of emotions, matter. Why do our stories matter? Why did it matter that I registered the tropical Queensland storms and immediately mused about the Kalboishakhi jhor (a tropical storm that often develops in and around the Bay of Bengal typical of the city of Calcutta)? As migrants, our existence and sense of belonging in a foreign country are often measured by the social and structural contributions we make in the country we migrate to. However, between where we come from, what we experience and what we become we create, experience and live through countless stories – and as a woman of colour who identifies herself as both a Bengali and an Australian, it is these stories that matter the most.
Dr Diti Bhattacharya is a Resident Adjunct with the Griffith Centre for Social and Cultural Research at Griffith University. Her area of research expertise includes human and cultural geography, migration and mobilities, tourism geographies and critical heritage and museum geographies. Her doctoral thesis examined spatial movements and material attachments in the second-hand book market of College Street, Calcutta. She combines her research practice working as a research assistant, sessional lecturer and tutor, and as a freelance writer and photographer for various publications. She also enjoys expressing her experiences migrant woman of colour in the form of short stories, blogs and other creative practices.