Madhubanti Bhuin: ‘Is home made by mere bricks and stones and concrete? Is a home not made a home by the warmth, by the food, the taste and aroma of the whole culinary experience? Cooking with love and eating together are what make a home‘
When you are a Bangali, and not just a regular Bangali bhodromohila hailing from North Kolkata, but also a solo traveller, the biggest obstacle that you’re bound to face at every step of your backpacking days is Food. Only Bangali folks can think so deeply and emotionally of food – bhaat, daal, aloo-bhate, aloo poshto, maachh, and so on. You may hero-worship Bear Grylls for filling up his stomach with literally Anything, but deep down your Bangali heart (which has a secret route running through the stomach), you perpetually crave for daal-bhaat, which is very, very different from curry-chawal, or raajma-chawal, you know!
While in Spiti, you, therefore, are lost.
Spiti is a cold desert, a spectacularly majestic barren land lapped in the snow-capped mountains of the mighty Himalaya. It’s a place of no return. Well, see, physically you are back in your plastic-windowed city… you are going to work… taking care of your existential ennui… eating your regular meal… meeting friends… but you are not Here because a part of you hasn’t returned and chances are, it will not. Spiti is so enchantingly beautiful that you feel you belong There. I think this happens because Spiti is naked, bare, eternal, just like one’s soul, that which doesn’t perish.
I had spent a fortnight in the Lahaul and Spiti district of Himachal Pradesh last October. Like any sincere backpacker, I had tried to cover all the touristy places, and in the process, I had to avoid staying overnight in those very places! To sound less ambiguous, well, I am talking about Kaza, the administrative capital of the district. Kaza is a town in its own way. There’s a market. There are hotels. There are bus depots and a well-managed transport/tourism department that helps wanderers move in and around.
Kaza will offer you a magnificent view of the valley framed by the turquoise water lines of the Spiti river. But again, it’s another town. People from all across the globe flock here in search of that exotic Spitian delight. Kaza has a cosmopolitan charm to it which is why, I didn’t spend any night there. Cities are dreadful and nights are personal. I always prefer travelling to the interiors, spending nights at a home away from home.
Spiti has such a hypnotic landscape that I was kind of drawn to the remotest parts of the valley. So I stopped at a village called Kibber, famous for its wildlife. I will talk about the snow leopards and blue sheep later. Right now, I want you to be content with what food you have on your plate precisely because, the people at Kibber, some two hundred of them, all devout Buddhists of Tibetan origin, have only a stock of flour and rice. No fruits, no veggies, nothing. Maggie, yes! Tea, yes! Butter, yes. And pickle and jam and nothing else. So I stayed at someone’s house, a white-painted mud-and-stone cottage, traditionally furnished. These homestays will provide you with breakfast and dinner. No lunch. The women spend the entire afternoon in the local monasteries, singing hymns, praying, counting holy beads, listening to the lamas. Most of their men work outside of the village. The children go to school and college in different parts of the state. They come home in the long winters when the village becomes white with snow. The mothers make warm clothes for the children when they are away. I bought a couple of pairs of socks from my hostess. We had rotis with jam for the breakfast, and there was a jar full of yak-milk tea. We had rice for the dinner at 7 PM. My hostess offered me some pickle and a preparation of some leafy vegetables. A few days went by.
One morning, the Bangali in me expressed to her a craving for some torkaari. I remember saying to her, “any sabzi will do.” The next day, I don’t know how, she had managed to put some fried bhindis on my plate. That night, while eating, I could sense with my entire being the universality of a mother’s instinct and the truth in the word called home. Is home made by mere bricks and stones and concrete? Is a home not made a home by the warmth, by the food, the taste and aroma of the whole culinary experience? Cooking with love and eating together are what make a home.
The meagreness of the meal, thus, was epiphanic. The lady’s fingers transformed the ladies fingers into something divinely delicious, as if the mere bhindi-bhaji were some exotic delicacy. It was a cold night at Kibber. I went out for a smoke. As I looked up at the sky, the galaxy smiling at me, I knew all those lights will lead me home.
Words and photos: Madhubanti Bhuin
About of author: Madhubanti Bhuin teaches English literature at a college in Kharagpur, West Bengal. A lover of arts and crafts, and a trekker by passion, she enjoys taking pictures and talking to people. When not travelling, she reads and writes poetry. She is a pantheist and she believes that the spirit of the Supreme Creator is to be found in the Himalayas.