Lessons in rice

I love rice. No for real. She’s a versatile queen. In Bangla, batt means rice and it encompasses everything. Whenever you’re asked in Bangla if you have eaten lunch or dinner, you’d be asked batt khaisos ni? Have you eaten rice? It’s a question that accommodates even if you didn’t literally eat rice. But let’s get straight to the point, I’m not lying about the role rice has played in bringing me up.

It’s my comfort food. I love the every day soft plain rice that accompanies the curries, to the fancy frangrant foolab, to the healing powers of kissori for Ramadan/whenever I’m ill. I still look back with nostalgia at my golden days of digesting dairy, when I could demolish Coco Pops for breakfast, or rice with milk and jackfruit for desert. And I love love LOVE that rice – like mango season – unites the diaspora. In primary school, we learnt about the battle of the jollofs, rice and peas, sushi, and the kaleidoscope of fried rice globally. It’s how we made friends after school and had their parents pat our shoulders and rain praise upon us for respectfully leaving empty plates. As we grew up, we took with us a palette that knew of different types of meals with rice that suited any mood. So when my past and present roommates ask me what I’d be cooking for dinner or eating for lunch, they’d say “rice, AGAIN?” I will always gleefully reply with, “guys, rice is life.” 

Historically, rice has played a key part in South Asian culture. The Bengal famine is one reason of many for why we will never rate Winston Churchill. To historically have been denied rice, colonialism still has a a physical impact on South Asians today. It’s what I see in my own family especially with the impact of the Liberation War. “South Asians are “starvation-adapted”, due to having to survive at least 31 famines, especially during the 18th and 19th century. Surviving just one famine doubles the risk of diabetes and obesity in the next generation, even without a famine, according to a study by Brown university. The risk of cardiovascular disease increases 2.7 times for their grandchildren.” That’s all physical, and famine does have an impact on you psychologically. 

In my bittersweet musings, I have wondered about the link between societies who have experienced famine and it’s impact on cultural norms around hosting. I remember the dance with the chaotic dawats and Eid feasts. For the person hosting, you never want to be seen as stingy so you would be doing the most. For the guest, you must sample all the curries because it would be rude to not recognise their efforts. You’d first have something vegetarian, followed by fish, then chicken, then the red meat dish. If you can’t have it all, you do eat in the order of veggie, fish, then meat so your palette isn’t ruined. We didn’t really have chapatti, roti, naan, or paratha. (And again I wonder if that’s because due to famine you chose between flatbread or rice with your curries). But you had options with rice – either plain basmati, sticky, or biryani. Lord forgive you if had the balls to say “no more!” because if you left your plate unattended, you’d risk nursing a very big food baby for hours afterwards because an impish elder put more rice on it. 

I speak of famine, because the adults in the family would always tell you to eat more because when it came to rice and health, nothing is as nourishing as batt. Parents and grandparents worried about how many mouthfuls of rice you’d eat. Your plate would be judged by the kumti 🤌🏾- the handfuls/bites/pinches of rice you had. Whenever you didn’t eat eat enough, the whole world would know you’d only had ek kumti batt (just one bite of rice). Mothers will especially refuse to acknowledge what’s the ‘proper’ amount of rice you should be eating according to our health conscious gym bros. 

But rice goes beyond being attached to dinner etiquette. I don’t know if it’s because I’ve moved out now, and especially given the social nature of my career now, I can’t help but relate to the impact of two rice related sayings in my family. Bear with my meandering…

On my mum’s side, I am third generation British Bangladeshi. Whenever the grandkids have come up against a moral quandary over a situation, especially at work, my mum and her age mates would ask us torreh batt dibbor-ni? Literally translated to: “will they give you rice?” And by extension, “will they feed you, pay your rent and your bills?” It probably is up there with such an immigrant parent thing to say, an acknowledgement that the later generations didn’t go through physical violence or war. But it is a sobering phrase especially when you talk about battling office politics. This question easily reduces them to first world problems. Basically telling us that unless someone’s opinion affects your bare necessity to live (like how much rice you need to survive), just don’t  give a shit. And if they do, then…tbh, I haven’t found another rice saying to be honest. We’re out here in the wild still figuring it out.

And then on my dad’s side, I’m second gen. I don’t have a lot of memories of my paternal grandparents. I only met them once in person when I was seven, but it’s my Dadi who I remember more. She’s the one responsible for the other rice related saying that knocks around my head.

In our village, we weren’t unfamiliar with knocks on our door from those who were homeless. They would only ever ask for a cup of rice or for a meal. It astounded me as London city kid that no one said no. It was always given with no question. It was a culture shock compared to how the homeless are treated in the UK.

“Is there no stranger danger here?” is what I first thought when I first saw Dadi do it all. After all, her son had told me stories of being wary of racists on the road, to not take sweets from strangers, and made me and my siblings remember our landline at the age of 4. 

For Dadi, if time was no issue, she’d set out a placemat, a plate, bowls of different curries, and a jug of water with a cup. The person would be fed and conversations were had with warmth and laughter. But if time was liquid, she’d go to another room and come back with rice, and they’d be sent on their way. Her Londoni grandkids (at the time 7, 6, and 3) were expected to help out too. And we did with her oversight.

But it was one lazy afternoon when it was me who opened the front door after hearing a knock. A man had quietly asked for rice. And to be honest, I just wanted to go play with my siblings. Dadi was from around the back and could see me hesitate. But before I sinned and said no, I heard a screech, “AKSANA, TOR ATT FORBORNI?” 

In this context, Dadi meant “Aksana, would your hand fall off if you gave rice?”

She apologised on my behalf, almost clapped my head, and sorted our guy out.

Looking back, I’m glad that I was told off. You know when you think about moments that define your moral compass? This was one of them for me. Would your hand fall off if you gave someone rice? Tbh, I may have blown this moment up to be more than what it was. But it is a mantra that’s been validated because it’s embodied by the actions of my family members and the lives Dadi touched. Being lazy about doing good proves that we shouldn’t be conditioned into accepting the politics of scarcity because until there truly isn’t, there’s something you can always do to help. Dadi would say, that when you do good, you should throw it out into the sea. Doing good shouldn’t be seen as neat transactions.

The rice saying on my mum’s side is different to what exists on my father’s. It’s perhaps a reflection of how living in the UK as immigrants means having to pick and choose your battles so that your bare necessities to live aren’t affected. It’s not that this wouldn’t apply elsewhere, but the generosity borne out of the Islam we were taught in Bangladesh, grates against the injustices of austerity and seeing the consequences of severe inequalities we see in the UK. 

Either way, as an adult more than 20 years later, my friends and colleagues can attest to me giving them second hand powns from the matriarchs in my family. Sometimes I’ve asked them and myself “Would they give your rice?” or “Would your hand fall off if you gave them rice?” Sometimes the answers to those questions would be nourishing enough. But if they didn’t satiate your soul, what would always make you feel better is a bowl of rice. It will always give you comfort because, well, rice is life 🤷🏽‍♀️

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