Reviewed by Suneetha Balakrishnan

Karno's Daughter

Title: Karno’s Daughter
Author: Rimli Sengupta
Pages: (Hardcover) 172
Publisher: Context (2018)
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Remember Baby Haldar’s gritty dark memoir of a domestic servant in Delhi, A Life Less Ordinary? If Baby narrated her dark journey from Kashmir to Murshidabad to Durgapur to Delhi, here is ‘Buttermilk’ in Kolkata making a daily commute on the 5.40 a.m. local from Subhashgram to ‘the city’. She goes round on foot then to Tollygunge and to Ballygunge to do kitchen, laundry and cleaning services at half a dozen homes. Why is she called Buttermilk? You get to know when it’s just six more pages to wrap up the book.

Buttermilk hails from a village in Sunderbans, from a farming family. She has a non-maid life back home where Karno Haldar, (yes, another Haldar by pure coincidence) her father, Bashona, her mother, and Buttermilk’s six siblings and her paternal grandparents lived. The village of her marital home, a joint family where agrarian duties are divided, comes later. Karno migrated to the city to pay off a loss of 150 kilos of rice; that’s how the family came to live at Ponchanontola, a Kolkata slum – all because of a crab, a huge crab, that Buttermilk had caught and brought home. This is the story that opens Rimli Sengupta’s debut book, Karno’s Daughter.

The opening chapter, suitably titled “Crab”, gives an impression of an opening in fiction. However, Karno’s Daughter is anything but fiction. It’s one of the best in narrative non-fiction that has been published in recent days in India. The story deals with the rough life of a people who have always lived in correlation to the earth, cultivating their own food.  In a world where hardly one percent of the urban population has an idea of what constitutes our agrarian crisis, Rimli Sengupta chooses an interesting vehicle to impart information on how small-holding rice farmers in rural Bengal subsist.

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If you ever asked Ruchita and Sharath what they had in common, you would find none of the usual suspects in terms of common backgrounds, shared hobbies, or synergistic traits. Ruchita is a Marwari, Sharath a Malayali. Ruchita is a vegetarian, frowning upon even the consumption of egg; when Sharath heard of the beef ban, he began to consider emigrating from India. Ruchita has no head for business or taste for numbers; she’s a painter. Sharath, the son of chefs, is a financial analyst.

So what brought them together, you might ask, and rightly so.

Ask them, and they will give you a surprising answer. Onam Sadhya!

The first time Ruchita and Sharath met was at an Onam Sadhya, or feast, at Sharath’s place. Ruchita was 15 years old, Sharath 16. His family had just moved to Chembur from Kerala, and since this was their first Onam away from their extended family and friends, Sharath’s mother had invited their entire building to the Onam Sadhya at their place. It was Swastik Society’s first introduction to the delectable delights of Kerala food, and it led to two long-term consequences for our protagonists: It inculcated a life-long love for Kerala food in Ruchita, who could not imagine what her life had been before she had sampled those heavenly dishes.

It heralded the start of two sets of beautiful friendships – between Ruchita’s Maa and Sharath’s Mom, and, of course, between Ruchita and Sharath!

 

When Sharath saw Ruchita licking her fingers after the feast, he immediately fell in love with the North Indian who could show so much love for what he believed was the best food in the world. He approached her boldly and started explaining the name of each dish, the history and significance of everything, and even the recipes involved in preparing them. Ruchita found herself getting impressed by the breadth and depth of his knowledge about food, as well as his apparent passion when he spoke about it.

The rest, as they say, is history… till the time their relationship almost became history.

They began to meet outside school, made trips to different Kerala restaurants each week, then graduated to bunking school in order to meet, and finally found themselves in the same college for their graduation. Even after he went away to Hyderabad for his CFA and she left for UK to study painting at the Royal College of Art, they made it a point to return to Swastik Society in Chembur for Onam, for the legendary Sadhya at Sharath’s home, feasting their hearts along with the entire building.

After their studies got over, they began to work in Mumbai, and their weekly meetings over Kerala food continued seamlessly, as if it had never been interrupted by life.