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Poor fare

By Rajashri Dasgupta

This article details how the urban poor stave off hunger, cooking just one meal a day, scrounging for chicken waste, and making do with the empty calories offered by street food. Even the nutritious sattu that Kolkata’s poor traditionally survived on now costs Rs 9 a portion and is beyond the reach of many

“I survive by drinking tea throughout the day,” says Shakila Bibi, covering up her embarrassment with a giggle and a shrug when she sees my shocked face. “It suppresses my hunger.” She was responding to my query about what she had eaten till lunchtime. Shakila, who claims to be “perhaps 30 years old”, has the crumpled look of a 70-year-old while sporting the spirit of a 15-year-old. Her husband abandoned her five years ago when her youngest daughter was born, leaving her to take care of six children, the eldest a boy of 15 years crippled in an accident.

Food in Shakila’s home is cooked once a day, in the evening; the family eats leftovers for lunch the next day. “When do I have the time during the day?” Every morning she leaves home at the crack of dawn to travel by bus to the city to build roads. On a good day, she makes Rs 100. The money is handed over with scowls, because flirting with the sardar “does not come easily” to her, she says. Two of the children attend a school run by the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan in the slum where they eat a midday meal which usually consists of rice and soya nuggets. “My children love it and if there is extra food the teachers give it to us.”

There is seldom a variation in the family’s daily diet of 1 kg of rice and 750 gm of potatoes for two meals. So when Shakila struck lucky recently and bought a small fish at Rs 10 for half-a-kilo, the family rejoiced. “That day my children gorged on the food,” she laughs.

While Shakila drinks tea to stave off hunger, her neighbours -- migrant workers and homeless people -- tend to smoke bidis, drink country liquor and chew tobacco and tiranga to kill the hunger pangs. Like Shakila, most poor households cook only once a day, stretching the food and eating leftovers the next day to save time and fuel. In the sprawling slum of migrant labourers where Shakila lives, along the rail tracks of Brace Bridge in Kolkata, close to the docks, I am warned, “Do nambari kaarbar hota hai (illegal activities take place here)” . The men, both Hindus and Muslims, are either head-loaders at the docks or daily wage earners in the nearby vegetable market; the women work mainly as domestic help in nearby homes.

In the 41 urban local municipalities of Kolkata Metropolitan Area (KMA), around 35% of the total population live in slums and informal settlements largely comprising scheduled castes and Muslims. The settlements lack basic services like sanitation and electricity, with families crowded into tiny, dark shacks bereft of ventilation. Shakila’s children sleep below the raised bed in her tiny room, a plastic sheet for a roof; her neighbour Laila Bibi’s 15-member family lives in a space divided by a bamboo mat to make two rooms for her married sons. The long queues for water for drinking, cooking and bathing, and the feverish search for work every day leaves little time to do other chores. Convenience and the absence of infrastructure make eating out the easier option. 

Dotting the settlements are stalls offering food to working people. The 12 food stalls along Southern Avenue in posh south Kolkata serve lunch to mobile populations like rickshaw-pullers, taxi and bus drivers. The stalls, illegal structures, survive by paying the local thana Rs 400 a month so that taxis and buses can park without fear of being fined, drivers can eat without being harassed, and the stalls can do brisk business. “I cannot fight the crocodile, being deep in water myself,” says the proprietor of a popular eatery, Rani Manna (name changed), philosophically. “We have to survive. I do what the others do.” By 4 pm, the area is cleaned and the utensils and dishes washed and stored away. The space is transformed to serve the needs of youngsters and office-goers stopping for tea, cold drinks or snacks like spicy fried puffed rice, chaat masala and golgappas on their way home.   

The roadside stalls offer a varied menu for lunch. A mutton lunch for Rs 32 at Rani’s stall, for instance, consists of two very small meat pieces. “What can we do,” asks Rani. “Meat is expensive but customers love it.” A fish dish, says Rani, is the all-time favourite. For Rs 22, a small bit of fish curry is sold with rice and a vegetable curry. “The curry has to be very spicy,” says Rani, “otherwise no one will eat it. But I myself avoid this food because it gives me a stomach ache.” Minakhi Sen, professor of physiology, Agartala, explains that a lot of spices in the food stimulate the digestive juices whilst at the same time masking the offensive smell of inferior quality fish or meat.

For most Bengalis, a meal without maach, or fish, is unimaginable and most unsatisfying. Households spend a considerable amount of their food budget on at least a small piece of fish every day. If roadside stalls offer a cheaper variety of rahu, poorer sections of society like the homeless buy small fish like lotte, which the middle class dislikes, or cheaper varieties of sea fish, as the Bengali bhadralok prefer fresh river fish.

But Swati Halder, a 35-year-old squatter living in an unregistered slum close to Rani’s stall, says she and her two school-going children have forgotten the taste of fish. A domestic worker and only earning member in her family, Swati buys 30 kg of rice, her monthly requirement, the very day she gets her salary, so that her husband cannot spend the money on liquor. Her children eat rice three times a day, the first meal with boiled potatoes before they leave for school. Swati sometimes brings home chapattis and vegetables from the houses where she works. “If my husband also worked and contributed towards the food expenses, there would be no shortage at home. I don’t pay rent or money for my electricity, and have only two children.” The threat of eviction has hung over Swati’s head and those of her neighbours for over five years since they are considered illegal occupants of government land.

If the roadside stalls provide food to millions of working people in the city, the neighbourhood grocer steps in to provide credit to households like Swati’s. Bored of the daily fare of potato curry, her two children buy snacks like spicy peanuts in the evenings from the grocer whom Swati pays off at the end of the month. Even migrants like Ramu from Jharkhand, who prefer to cook meals at home because it is “healthier and cheaper”, are dependent on pavement stalls offering credit for their early morning meal. This has led to a change in dietary patterns as they now eat whatever is available, cheap and on credit. Earlier, Ramu and his brothers and hundreds of corporation workers, migrants from Bihar and Jharkhand who keep the city’s roads and homes clean, would eat the high-protein sattu or powdered mixture of many grains with chopped raw onions and green chillies that are a good source of Vitamin C. They now have to be satisfied with samosas. Sattu prices have shot up to Rs 90 a kilo, and the local samosa stall offers Ramu credit. A hundred grams of the nutritious sattuwould cost Ramu Rs 9 a day; two potato-stuffed samosas cost Rs 6. In the process of saving a few bucks, he misses out on valuable nutrition and suffers indigestion thanks to the oily samosas. 

The most frequent visitors to small food stalls dotting the pavements are the ragpicker street children. They earn between Rs 80-100 on a good day, but blow up their earnings, says Shamim, project worker at Calcutta Samaritans that works with marginalised people like the homeless. “Mothers do not know how much their children earn and are happy to get Rs 30 a day from them towards expenses,” she says. Though the children live with their families in makeshift shacks on the pavements, they tend to eat only at night with their parents.

Every day, street children spend at least Rs 30 on addictives, whether it is the deadly tiranga, bought at Rs 2 a packet, or ‘glue’ or tobacco. Moving around the city, the ragpickers spend the rest of their earnings on street food rather than trudge miles back home to eat what they consider “drab fare”. “My favourite is chow mien,” says 10-year-old Aslam who looks like a bony six-year-old. “It’s delicious with egg.” A stall where Aslam eats regularly, near a blocked drain teeming with mosquitoes and insects, gives him a discount of a rupee or two since he helps clear away the garbage. His friend Ratul prefers the greasy biryani he buys for Rs 12 from the corner shop. “Every day I can eat it, one full pot,” he laughs. “Try me out,” he dares cheekily. The plate of suspiciously-coloured orange biryani contains a red egg and a yellow potato, with a sprinkling of fried red chillies.

Although the staple food may be rice and potatoes, the diet of the poor in West Bengal is certainly not vegetarian. In this deltaic state, filled with waterbodies, streams and ponds, fish is the traditional food, with rice, egg and meat the next best choice especially for ‘non-Bengali’ inhabitants. A survey of 1,675 households conducted by Right Track, a non-government organisation working with deprived communities in a municipality of west Kolkata, found that vegetables and fruits make up less than 1% of people’s diet, while 24% of the diet is animal protein from various sources. For Ramu and his brothers, late lunch is a hurriedly cooked vegetarian meal, and for dinner, grins Ramu, “kuch special hota hai”. “We have to eat either fish or mutton at night otherwise we feel hungry,” he says, “but mutton is too costly.” The treat for the brothers is when Ramu splurges Rs 100 on the head of a goat and cooks it with potatoes and onions. 

Unlike Shakila’s children, Laila Bibi’s grandchildren not only refuse to eat the “dirty rice” served in the slum school, they grumble if there is no meat served at home. Beef is their favourite and Laila’s family of 15 relishes it at least thrice a week. They are willing to travel several kilometres by bus to buy it since it is not available in every market; the dominant Hindu population refuse to allow it to be sold. Laila says: “Meals of meat or fish satisfy the family and that is why it’s easiest to cook. Everyone grumbles if there are only vegetables; they make my life miserable.” The meals could have been better. Laila complains that the men in her home (her husband and her married sons) are not hardworking. “They are lazy, earn one day, and sleep at home for 10 days.” If they worked regularly, she complains, they could have made a decent living at the docks. “We could have eaten meat every day.”

The homeless people living on the pavements in central Kolkata, largely dominated by Muslims and scheduled caste families, scrounge the markets for discarded parts of chicken such as feathers and feet, sold at Rs 40 a kg, and vegetables that have started rotting by late evening and are sold cheap. The feathers are nimbly plucked off the tender cartilage which, with the remaining flesh, discarded chicken fat, stomach and other organs, is boiled for a long time with chillies and lots of turmeric and vegetables in an aluminium pot raised on four bricks on a fire. Though initially the food smells offensive, it finally tastes good. According to Pachhu Roy, retired senior microbiologist who writes extensively on the diet of the poor in Kolkata, the extended boiling kills germs and the broth is nutritious, consisting of protein and fat from the chicken, minerals and phosphate from the bones and legs, and vitamins from the vegetables. “The poor use a lot of turmeric because it is affordable and changes the colour of food and makes it appetising,” says Roy. In fact, fish head and the blob of oil extracted from large fish like rahu is another delicacy cooked either with greens and onions and garlic, or potatoes and vegetables.

For the large number of urban poor living a tenuous existence, survival is a daily struggle. Despite the cheap eateries, the credit shops and the food preferences of the elite making it possible for the poor to stretch their last pennies, the poor in Kolkata have had to juggle their traditional knowledge, cultural food habits and common sense to eat to live.   

(Rajashri Dasgupta is an independent journalist based in Kolkata specialising in issues related to gender, health, human rights and social movements)

Infochange News & Features, July 2012