Opinion: Bhaat, and every Assamese's Heartbeat
Assam has been looked at through the biased concavity of the non-Assamese lens for a long time, and in different cases with different results.
But here in my hostel, I have befriended a group of towering North Indians and it has only been fun to look at this place through them. While I have found answers for most things that vex them, right from the hullabaloo of Saraswati Puja (why not study if she is the goddess of..?) to the over-friendliness of the shopkeepers ( Isn’t it creepy he wants to know why I went home?) but in when it came to the intricacies of cuisine, I was at a loss. How do you explain the delicacy of small chillies floating in mustard oil or the meticulous art and science that is the making of khaar?
And most of all, it was hard to explain the love for the omnipresent bhaat.
They find it in all three meals from our hostel mess; and on special occasions, packed into sandwiches.
They might have been wrong about our obsession with pre-wedding photo-shoot cringefests, that is a relatively newer fad. But our love for rice is older than Bihu. In fact; Bihu is about planting rice, harvesting rice and lastly about not having rice for a few months.
We love rice so much, we put it into anything we possibly can. We put it into our pithas, we put it into our wedding rituals, we put it into our glue, and we even put it into our buildings. I agree, we have a problem. We could have snorted rice if we could.
Imagine your regular Assamese thali, if you will. Imagine one from your favourite food Instagrammer’s feed. Imagine one from the table your mother sets. Or imagine you cook for yourself in spite of how lazy you feel or how many assignments you have left. You cannot imagine one without the white fluffy heap of rice, smoking like a little bonfire in winters, resting under wet coolness in summers. Now, imagine more.
Some creamy mashed potatoes on the side, maybe? Some fried Okhomiya aalu, tender in the skin, juicy in flesh. And to top it all off, a runny duck’s egg, half boiled to perfection.
Now, imagine your regular Assamese man. Like me, begin stomach first. He does have a lot of ideas and national politics and the falling economy, ripped off from the editorial he read with the morning tea (two spoons of sugar, please). But in reality, he is a man of lazy thoughts and meditative naps. He likes his Bharaghor at night, he likes his occasional peg. Early to bed, and rise when the missus starts abusing your side of the family.
In no way do I blame the regular Assamese thali for the regular Assamese man; but we cannot picture the regular Assamese man with a bowl of oats and sliced fruits now, can we?
If the regular Assamese thali could be packeted like biscuits (oh if wishes were horses), the nutrition chart would shock you. It will be all carbs, with a large dollop of fat (thank the duck egg). Joha, Bora, Manikimadhuri, Aaijung: irrespective of taste, smell or emotional attachment translate only to carbohydrates. The harsh world of medical science knows only the currency of calories (or some mysterious coin in the solemn black bags of the MRs). And the Assamese are, as a community, suffering from an inflation (pun intended).
To put it simply, complex carbohydrates in your staple rice and potatoes are not very good for you. There are carbohydrates you cannot digest are fibres, things that help you indigestion. The carbohydrate that you do digest is not all used up, and obviously adds up to the ever-increasing load of invisible fats. Apart from them, theories claim that it increases your chance of Hypertension and Type 2 diabetes. Apart from the obvious health defects that a quick Google search will justify, it also makes your sleepy. As digestion of carbs like starch is very slow, it directs the blood supply from your brain and leaves your cognition clouded. So, it does make you fat and lazy. Irrespective of what the chic t-shirts say, it is not cool to be fat and lazy.
Every malady has a solution. All diseases have preventions (four darned levels of it, my textbooks say) and getting a hold of our nutrition is primordial prevention for many lifestyle associated diseases. It is the primary prevention for obesity. Perhaps taking smaller portions and longer walk helps. But nothing helps like awareness. Information floods us in these times. It is up to latch on to the right kind of logs. Be your personal policeman (CB reference anyone?). Be your father’s or your mother’s.
It would be unfair to ask anyone to ignore this primal need we have in our veins. Craving for carbohydrates might even be the only piece of Assamese culture that might survive in the long run (but Assamese people may not, without a long run). But there are other aspects of your craving that you might want to pay attention to. Our mild boiled stock and our vivid greens, the subtle tang of ou tenga to the splashing fish from the ponds, the protein shake in a cocoon, the healthier options are many. Yet, nothing beats the warm fuzzy feeling a gulp of rice leaves in your hand, mouth and heart. Cheers to our un-carb-able instinct.