When her youngest, Khurshida drops the candy that her mother had just bought her from Amina Khatun’s general store, Hazra Khatun looks over in exasperation. Khurshida, who is a little over a year old, almost immediately understands that another candy is out of question.
Her petite, 26-year-old, single mother rests, Khurshida in her arms, in the warmth of the sunset light at a wooden bench in front of Amina Khatun’s store, located at the entrance to the settlement of Rohingya refugees in Madanpur Khadar in southeast Delhi. Her other three daughters play nearby.
As neighbours untie the fish left to dry out on the clothesline along an opposite wall, Khatun says, “If we had nothing else to cook, the family’s men would bring fish from the river in our village.” Amina, who overhears, wordlessly draws out a bunch of dried fish tied together that she sells at the shop for seventy rupees a piece. Fish was the most abundant ingredient back in Khatun’s home in Rani Para area of Rakhine (or Arakan) state in Burma.
Fish and rice: this is the food of Rohingya people, she says, matter-of-fact. “Singri, jaffni, boal maas, baila maas, kural,” Khatun recalls in a single breath. “We also had hens for eggs,” Khatun adds with a slight smile. “But if the men of the family missed even a day of work, the Burmese authorities would extort a fine, or take away the healthiest of our hens.”
It was to escape such persecution that Khatun and her husband came to seek asylum in India six years ago. Last year, with Khurshida just three months old, the husband divorced Hazra Khatun. “He left this settlement,” she says.
As the evening grows darker, she and her daughters make their way through the dim alleys, their gloom punctuated by the glow of little hearths, to their one-room tin house inside the settlement. At home, Khatun’s 20-year-old sister made aloo-gobhi for dinner while Khatun was away at her cleaner’s job at a madrassa in Shaheen Bagh.
“We do not get fresh fish here, and what we get is quite expensive too,” she explains. “So we alternate between dal, saag, curries, eggs, fish and meat.” Khatun leads the way to the back exit to reveal a little patch of green, growing things: her farm of survival. She parts some leaves to look at a radish growing out of the soil. She’s also planted papaya and banana trees in on this square patch, just large enough to park two cars. Khatun earns five thousand rupees a month, of which Rs 1,500 just about cover her travel to work and diapers for Khurshida. Feeding four children with the balance is a constant challenge.
Inside the house, the elder children are lined up for their regular ritual of reciting and memorising Quranic primers, along with two of the neighbours’ kids. Breastfeeding Khurshida, Khatun remembers another something else they used to eat in their home state: a rice-based snack called “pira.” Her toddlers suddenly start reciting names of pira variants instead of their verses: “Dohpira!” “Fakkon pira!” “Zala pira!” before Khatun hushes them.
Just then, her friend, Minara drops in to share a handful of crunchy, yellow-coloured fruits, the size of eyeballs. (We can’t identify their name in English or Hindi, but my grandmother used to speak of a similar-looking fruit that grew on a tree in her house in Pakistan.) Minara’s seven-year-old, Shahida, has tailed her to Khatun’s house. She’s buzzing at the thought of their dinner – fish cooked with brinjal and tamarind, left to simmer slowly, and eggs.
Minara shares Khatun’s ambivalence about their food memories from back home. “When we think of food, our thoughts go to the hunger that our relatives are enduring after fleeing their villages.” She starts to sob, remembering an elder sister who is now untraceable along with her husband and three children after their home village was burnt down mid-2017, allegedly by the Burmese military. “It took me a long time to accept the obvious truth about my sister. Now, it worries me that we will be sent to face the same fate ourselves after January’s hearing.”
Khatun’s cell-phone rings loudly. It is a call from her brother, who resides with his family in a nearby settlement. He asks her to come and help with cooking food for some guests. Khatun immediately springs up, dons a burqa, picks her backpack, and rushes out.
Rohingya asylum seekers face the threat of deportation from India, and the country’s Supreme Court is currently hearing a case on the matter. The next hearing is due on January 31.
Akshita Nagpal is a multimedia journalist based in New Delhi, India. She has reported and shot for Scroll.in, The Caravan, The Wire, and The Hindu.
Read the previous instalment of #TheFoodWeMiss here.
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