One of my earliest memories of food preparation is of watching my grandfather sitting on a teal accent stool grinding masala on the gaatno1. Walking on the red terrazzo tiles of my grandparents’ kitchen, the hypnotic circular rhythm of the grey grinding stone only paused when he would gently direct the masala with his fingers. Pieces of coconut, dried red chilies, tamarind, and powdered spices were constantly moved, till a fine paste was obtained. In 2019, as I pondered on the reasons for my grandparents’ migration from South Kanara to Bombay, my wife and I reached the final phase of our migration to the Indigenous lands now known as Canada.
In 1870, cotton mills were constructed across vast areas of paddy fields and coconut groves in Central Bombay. The construction of railway lines and coastal steamers enabled mill owners to recruit labor from a wide variety of districts. The arbitrary nature of work, long hours, and low wages compelled workers to live near the mills, while city elites who amassed fortunes through trade of opium and raw textile could afford to build opulent beachfront properties in South Bombay. My grandparents’ migration and subsequent settlement in Bombay had reverberations on their food culture brought on by the space they inhabited. This new environment led to unique cultural encounters.
In early 2019, ten months before my departure for Canada, I frantically wrote and recorded family recipes that sparked an on-going dialogue between my mother and me on family history. When we arrived in Toronto (Tkaronto, the Mohawk work from which it derived from), my wife and I rented a tiny basement space in the downtown area. We lived where the heritage architecture of Cabbage town met modern tall high-rise buildings surrounded by several street health clinics
In 1910, my grandmother, Elizabeth, and her family left everything behind in rural South Kanara to arrive in the city by coastal steamers. My grandfather, John, worked as a weaver at Khatau Mills. Their migration happened through networks of caste, kinship, and village associations and was largely enforced due to poverty and rural distress.
While living in Bombay, my wife and I felt that our job prospects were limited and the idea of moving to Canada with its relatively stable social and political conditions was alluring. Our migration happened through the permanent residency program, a process in which our educational and job experiences were measured as points in a system.
All is Light
By the early 20th century, the earliest Bombay Improvement Trust (BIT) blocks were located in ‘Girangaon’ or the mill village of Bombay. The blocks were modeled on designs that were early examples of social housing that developed in Scotland. My mother's family lived in a room that measured twelve feet by ten feet. A vacant wall by the only window provided space for cooking.
The Chairman of the BIT, JP Orr intended to impose a standard pattern of light all over Bombay. For that to happen light had to strike the floor at an angle of sixty-three and a half degrees. This was an aesthetic benchmark influenced by English town planning. The finished structures did not exhibit such conditions of light. Instead, the blocks were laid in such a manner that brick and limestone created deep spaces of darkness which only streaks of hot white light could pierce through. In India, the natural light has high intensity with microtonal shifts occurring throughout the day. This is why the natural light in India has an undulating texture to it.
In Toronto (Tkaronto), the studio basement provided limited space for my wife and I, having a single source of natural light. I remember the early months in the basement; we waited for sunlight to pour through our egress window. But light was found only above ground, for most part of the day and night we were dependent on lighting from LED sources. Despite the perils of basement-dwelling in Toronto, it is considered an unwritten rite of passage for most newcomers to inhabit these tiny and light-less spaces.
We can understand a dialectical relationship emerging between social processes and spatial forms. The built structures that we inhabit provide shelter, but the lived experience of individuals is where people negotiate spatial constraints, socio-economic limitations, and access to resources. Throughout the late 19th and 20th centuries, Bombay displayed solidarity that spread across religions and working-class lines yet could not foster inter-caste solidarities. In Toronto (Tkaronto), there are several grocery stores that are labeled 'Indian' but in reality, they stock ingredients and products that cater to the community the owners belong to. By extension, it contributes to a siloed existence among the Indian communities providing fewer interactions, let alone forging bonds across caste, class, and religion.
Abrahamic acts of sharing
By the 1940s in some of the blocks, Abrahamic religions loosely lived as a heterogeneous minority. They continued to arrange themselves along caste lines and looked down on Dalit communities. Right up to her marriage, my grandmother worked at the mills. She cooked for a family of eight, stitched godhdhis and performed an assortment of tasks in the blocks to earn extra money for meals. She collected kitchen utensils, for on difficult days they could be sold for money. They had a few earthen pots lining up the wall; a chulha was set up to cook.
At pre-wedding rituals such as roce elongated passageways were repurposed as community kitchens to accommodate larger vessels, additional stone grinders and extra cooks. An elder with knowledge of the recipes measured quantities and provided instructions. At these moments women conversed, sang songs for the bride, ground masalas and prepared food.
The women sang:
"Rosyanche radnik lilin serputan,
Voir podlin hadkutan Vokle avocchhin"
(In the cooking shed fuel is put in the oven,
The bones of the mother of the bride are seen)
The proximity of living ensured that unique interactions transpired in the day to day lives of the residents of the blocks. The Christians, Bene Israel Jews and Muslim sects, exchanged food with each other on a regular and ritual basis. Bakri Eid (Abraham’s sacrifice) was marked by sharing meat and sheer khurma. At Passover the Jews shared halva. Christmas was celebrated by sharing kusuwar. On each occasion, Abrahamic festivals provided for inter-communal exchanges between Jews, Muslims and Christians, these interactions show how individuals and communities came closer together. This is how communities adapted to locally available materials, fostered community growth and navigated limitations of space and resources.
In March 2020 the first lockdown was declared and I lost my work contract. It was at this moment that I decided to re-investigate our family recipes. We had come prepared with whole spices, ground powders, kokum, and tamarind. As I began to assemble the ingredients for a chicken curry, I fumbled at the complexities involved in assembling a balanced spice blend. Familiar scents of raw coconut roasted with cumin and coriander seeds circulated in our basement. When that aroma registered in my mind, it created a bridge between the re-imagined past of my grandmother and my present reality. It made me realize the social, religious, political, and cultural differences and similarities between our migrations and realities.
We have moved out from the basement, but just as it were then, it is now - we are yet to exchange food with our neighbor.