Early last year, I was watching everything that made its way from inside my kitchen cabinets, to my stovetop, to my plate, and to my mouth. At the age of 54, I’d forced myself to winnow the carbohydrate from the protein. Shunning rice on this new diet, I adopted quinoa as my staple, sifting what was germane to my heart from what was ideal for my waistline.
I knew how, like me, there were any number of people in the world who found it hard to spit rice out of their daily intake. What intrigued me, beyond the popularity of rice as a staple around the world, was the similarity of the nomenclature across many of the world’s languages: Rice is orez in Hebrew, rysai in Lithuanian, riso in Italian, reis in Welsh, vriže in Pashto, brizi in Old Persian, vrihi in Sanskrit, hrísgrjón in Icelandic and oruza in Greek. Some believed that the word “rice” may have had Dravidian origins—having originated from the Old Tamil arici—showing me how the first solid of my soul linked me to others around the world.
Last March, I was driving past Chennai into the hinterlands of India’s Tamil Nadu. Truckloads of produce flew past me. Men lay sleeping on open trucks facing the sky, their bodies plastered on sacks taut with onions and potatoes while wings of curry leaves swayed on either side of trucks. Areca palms and the occasional eucalyptus rushed past. We cruised under canopies of rain trees with their powder puff pink flowers. In sections of the national highway, blossoms of the yellow flame tree were a foil for the ugly concrete half-buildings and billboards dotting the landscape. As far as my eyes could see, the arable land was lush with rice, mango, coconut, banana and tomato.
As we neared Krishnagiri, we passed undulating miles of jasmine farms where women picked fragrant white blossoms. All of a sudden, I yelled out for my chauffeur, Vinayagam, to stop. I’d just spotted a thresher spewing rice right by the edge of the main highway. Men fed rice stalks into the thresher and rice gushed out from its noisy back end, husks intact. As Vinayagam and I walked around the machine, he told me how before such machines reached the villages, threshing was done by hand with flails. A little farther away on another section of the highway, male and female laborers trampled over husks, separating each grain in an attempt to dry them on the road.
I’d seen rice fields in the hinterlands of many parts of the country—Bengal, Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Punjab, Andhra Pradesh—but that afternoon the sight of rice mounds on the road highlighted the dramatic irony of India’s parallel existence: the country’s vision was fixated on the highway leading to globalization but its soul still lingered in its rural back streets, just as my heart craved rice despite all the newfangled dietary possibilities.
On my most recent trip, I was invited to a celebration at a local temple following which I was served a home-style meal on a banana leaf. As I sat facing the leaf, dishes piled on. Waiters slathered every square-inch of my banana leaf—from sweet payasam to green beans usili, potato roast, lime-drenched carrot salad, banana chips, mango pickle, coriander thogayal, papad. A vadai arrived at last; I waited, dreaming of its crunch between my teeth as lentil, spice and curry leaf exploded over the taste buds on my tongue. Next, steam from fresh white rice rushed into my nose. The aroma that followed—of a long golden thread of aromatic ghee from ladle to leaf—had me salivating. At the end of this ritual dress-up of the banana leaf—even though this was the diametric opposite of a Chippendale striptease—I lay pathetically, shamelessly seduced. I was a slave to my staple once again.
I’ve been thinking about every decision we’d ever made in our family to invalidate the staples of our lives. My father-in-law would be the last in the family to pursue life as an agriculturist. His only son sought a different career leaving behind his life in the village, just as my maternal cousins walked away from the agrarian acreage that once sustained their families.
Now I considered the implications of my attempt to change my diet by walking away from rice. Altered diets and lifestyles affected our agricultural landscape even though it seemed as if one person’s choice would hardly make a dent on the globe. Still, a few weeks ago, almost a whole year after my resolution to wean myself from the grain of my veins, I decided to walk yet another mile daily to justify my endless longing for a daily bowlful of steamed rice.
Kalpana Mohan writes from California’s Silicon Valley. To read more about her, go to http://kalpanamohan.com.