By Ramya Ravi
My introduction to Banni’s cuisine was a thali that included large helpings of hare moong ki khichdi with even larger helpings of ghee, then some bajre ki roti with the most delectable garlic chutney, along with other vegetable curries that were familiar. While the locals are prepared to offer strictly vegetarian food in their resorts, lest they lose the Gujarati tourist base, their own cuisine is actually a lot more diverse, and much more meat based. Each of the twenty-one communities possess a distinct cuisine, particularly differing in the treatment of meat and the blend of spices they use. In the beginning, however, all I ever noticed was the indiscriminate use of spices and oil, and my urban sensibilities rebelled.
Banni’s mehmaan-nawazi, or hospitality, is unique and very genuine. Irrespective of who one is, or where one comes from, or time of the day, kettles filled with steaming hot buffalo milk tea is served in saucers, followed by an invitation to lunch- “Maani khake jaao” (do eat food with us). Early on, my urban upbringing would compel me to refuse such invitations, I would then receive wounded looks that would leave me baffled. I was after all sparing them the trouble! Eventually, however I accepted the genuine nature, and the cultural importance, of these invitations. I have now parked these good manners aside and regularly share lunches.
Banni’s cuisine is distinct from other cuisines of the region and makes for a unique experience- it will burn one’s fingers, rage a war against one’s digestive system, and leave one desperate for anything that can quench the fires. Until suddenly, a comfortable feeling sets in. “Loha hi lohe ko kattha hai, suna hai ne ben?” (Iron cuts irons, you know that right, ben?), said one of my interviewees. The elderly person explained that the use of spice and oil helps in many ways. The combination prevents food from an untimely spoilage, it stimulates the appetite, and helps induce facial sweating that cools the body for a longer time than say bland food or ice cream! Scientists have found all of this to be true, and have even accorded a name to the sweating phenomenon, “gustatory facial sweating”.
Conversations during these lunches are littered with curious questions- What’s your jaat (caste), where are you from, what do you do, how much do you earn, are you married, what does your husband do, do you have children. Women are far more uninhibited- why don’t you have children, how many years has it been since you got married, does he not “visit” you often, wear more gold he might find you more attractive, and so on. I am sure those of us who have worked in rural India would have been asked many, if not all, of these questions, and experienced the haughty discomfort that accompanies these questions. Strangely though, it is through these conversations that I discovered a sense of belonging, because this is how they would treat each other.
Chai pe charcha
Now that I have acquired a taste for the food here, and readily accept most invitations, I have discovered a whole new side to Banni when the interviews end. The field assistants and I have begun to call these “chai pe charcha” or “conversations over tea”. A phrase heavily borrowed from their favorite politician and local hero. The stories that accompany the second round of chai are, without doubt, most insightful or entertaining, depending on the story.
It was during one of these chai conversations when I was told about the multiple uses of P. juliflora, and how dependent the people of Banni were on this “invasive” for their daily wages. This plant has a significant role in their lives. So, the formidable idea I first came with (the invasive must be removed), was among the many to bite the dust! Charcoal, carbonized P. juliflora, is an important part of the energy market, carbon industry (ink, carbon papers, etc.) and brick and tile industries across the country. Memory of it being an invasive seems to have faded as most generations refer to this plant as “kudrati” or natural.
Chai pe charcha also revealed surprising nuances about the identities of many of my interviewees. From mere migrating communities dependent on P. juliflora they became people with distinct cultural histories. One such community was the Lal Waadhis, or more commonly known as the saperas or snake-charmers of the country. As charcoal laborers, their stories were blended into the stories of many others in the region. But as former snake charmers, they had a different stories to tell. The patriarch of the group was a 72-year-old man. He was part of the famous rally held in 2003 outside a temple in Haryana that hoped to bring attention to the plight of the snake charmers around the country. The government had promised them land, promised to help them become farmers, but this is yet to come to fruition. This conversation changed my view of the ban on snake charmers, and humanized their plight to a great extent.
During another such chai session, I was introduced to the concept of “jinn”. Jinns are ancient ghosts of the land, neither dead nor alive. If “jannat”, or heaven, is where the good souls live, “jinnat” is where people who meet with untimely deaths live, neither here nor there. Their tendency to “possess” the living, unsuspecting souls is still prevalent, according to some people. The local “maulana”, or priest, has wonderful stories to tell, about the significance of these anchor-less souls in a larger cultural paradigm. These stories, however, assume life of their own among the masses. When I asked who could be possessed? They replied, “dirty people”. Excuse me?! “Yes, people that haven’t bathed for ages, become most vulnerable to possessions. Women are just as vulnerable. When they go to cut wood for fuelwood, if they relieve themselves on a land considered sacred by the ancient ghosts, that’s when they’re possessed, for insulting the land of the jinns. But, you know, nowadays people are rarely possessed. Because of electricity, everything is visible. And people tell more lies now. Their souls are not so pure, so the jinns don’t roam the lands as much, nor possess other people. Mobiles have exacerbated the problem!”. I laughed it all off. But later that day, a long way off from field station, when I had to locate a spot in the jungle somewhere for my nature’s call, I was not certain! Was it a sacred land, I wondered?! Who knows, and who would I ask! I slept with all the lights on that night, and the mobile stashed under my pillow, just to make sure!
But chai sessions are not always fun, sometimes they can take on grave tones. “Why do you want to know about coalsa work? Are you here to stop it? Are you the Police?”, asked one of my interviewees menacingly, brandishing an axe. It took emptying my bag, and multiple ID cards to assure the man that I wasn’t there to arrest them. As soon as the axe-man is satisfied, he offered me chai in a conciliatory tone. I gratefully accepted the sudden change in the situation, wiping the swear off my brow. Axe-man slowly opened up. “Everybody calls this work do numbari (illegal). Why? Ben, in this work, there is no glamour. It is hard work. Even in the summer, we make this. Why? Not because we enjoy it, but there are so many financial compulsions. People will tell you, we don’t want this damned tree, remove it. But try removing it. The same people will come baying for your blood. There’s both profit and loss from this tree. Nuksan bhi hai, nafa bhi hai.”
Chai sessions have also led to my stumbling upon interesting practices of different communities. One of the most interesting practices that I was introduced to is the “Kunni”. Kunni is “performed” when the rains in the area are delayed, beseeching the Allah to be kind to the grassland. Kunni, offered only on Fridays, essentially involves preparing rice-based kheer and serving the whole village. All the villagers contribute milk, sugar, rice and condiments to prepare this delicacy. Once prepared and distributed to everyone in the village, the young and old together offer an hour long namaz to fortify this “mannat”. I partook in one such Kunni, sampled the excellent kheer and wished them speedy rains. But this seemingly innocuous practice also reveals how newer economic realities are altering culture. With milk becoming more precious, the practice itself is on the wane, with mostly remote villages practicing Kunni.
Fieldwork is dynamic. The manner, and form, in which one receives insights is unpredictable. But unpredictable circumstances also offer the best insights. Needless to say, the mehmaan-nawazi, tea, and the stories, continue to, shape and reshape my understanding of the landscape I work in.
Since resuming fieldwork, I am happy to report that my gut has not just come to tolerate the spicy and oil-laden food, but also greatly appreciates the sweating that follows! “It will keep me cool”, I say to myself. And no more do I squirm when someone asks how long am I going to hang around in Banni, and expresses concern for the husband who must be waiting to start a family. Our field station does not stand over sacred land, and is not even the corridor to one, so long power outages in the nights, when alone, no longer worry me.
What would worry me is if the mehmaan-nawazi and post-interview chai sessions stopped!
 A local term for charcoal making.
 The ritual prayers prescribed by Islam to be observed five times a day.
 A vow, a wish to a deity.
About the author:
Ramya Ravi is a PhD student at ATREE. She is currently based out of Banni grassland, Kutch, Gujarat. In Banni, she is studying the socioeconomic impacts of the invasive species, Prosopis juliflora, while also expanding on the ecological narrative of the species from the region. Apart from usual interests in reading, sports and music, she is a tea aficionado and Banni, she says, meets this with zest. For these stories, she is grateful to the many people of Banni who have opened their hearts and home, making possible a rich field experience. And for humour in everyday tough situations, she credits the incredible field assistants at RAMBLE (Habu bhai, Rasool bhai, Kabul bhai, Imran bhai and Khairaj), and her supportive field station mates (Nirav, Ritesh, Chetan and Gargi).