The Dynamics of Food in Rongmilir Hahi
Whichever way we perceive, ‘food’ and discourses of food occur at the centre of the prism of culture. Food habits and customs bear the stamp of identity of a community or a society. At the same time ‘food’ is also related to, if not synonymous with ‘survival’. Of course, with time, and with interaction with other cultures, changes creep into every society, however cloistered or isolated from the rest of the world. This change is economic-material-social-and aesthetic-as well. Such change bears evidence in all facets of social(individual and community) life—of which changes in the realm of food—i.e. customs, traditions and choices related to food, what we may even term ‘food culture’ is probably the most significant.
In societies and communities where livelihood is entirely dependent on agriculture and/or on forest resources, the import of food multiplies manifold. Every step in the cycle of production or of collection of food becomes an event. But when resources wither, men have to the struggle for food—and this struggle for food becomes the struggle for survival. Reflecting such a community on the throes of change is Rong Bong Terang’s Assamese novel Rongmilir Hahi, (or Rongmili’s Joy). First published in 1981, this novel which is set in the 1940s, in pre-independence India, far distanced from major political happenings in the world, and yet impacted by Christianity and migrants offers a beautiful portrayal of Karbi culture and ethos manifested through diverse facets of ‘food culture’—items of consumption are used and they become the metaphor for life.
The Karbi community, one of the major hill tribes in North East India, is ethnically Mongoloid and linguistically Tibeto-Burman. Traditionally practitioners of jhum or shifting cultivation, today they are concentrated in the regions, rather districts known as Karbi Anglong and Dima Hasao (formerly North Cachar Hills) in Assam. As with other tribes of the state, Karbi food too is broad spanned—with a variety of fish, meat, and vegetables considered for consumption. Food is either cooked in bamboo tubes (Kemung), wrapped in leaves and allowed to cook in hot charcoal (kangthu), roasted (kephi),smoked (ke-ur) or steamed. There are many alkaline preparations in Karbi cuisine, with phelo/pholo an alkali, as the chief ingredient. Phelo is prepared from dried and burnt ashes of various sources like un-matured bamboo, mustard seeds, local herbs, sesame stalks etc. Rice is the staple diet, and is eaten either steamed in bamboo tubes, pounded and powdered to make rice-cakes, as roasted and flattened rice (Sangpher), as fried powdered rice (sang-aduk), as rice powdered without cooking (him). The Karbi cuisine comprises many bitter and sour dishes too. Despite the use of many herbs, roots besides local varieties of vegetables, Karbi food is considerably meat and fish-oriented. A wide variety of meat—including pork (phak-ok), mutton (bi-ok), chicken (vo-ok), duck (vokak a-ok), pigeon (vothung), rodents (phak-pule), porcupine (jok-hi bonghom), squirrel (karle), piji-okso, monitor lizard (chehang), tortoise (chetung), crab (chehe), wild buffalo (chai), wild goat (karju)--are traditionally eaten. Meat especially pork and chicken are offered to the elders and important officials of Karbi community as a mark of respect. Even the fowl sacrificed during a traditional puja is cooked and eaten afterwards(this too is a part of the rituals). Of course when hills are cleared for jhum cultivation as well as due to rocky conditions in the hills the supply of herbs, roots and vegetables steadily decrease. In Rongmilir Hahi, there is an instance where the young men and women of the village Rongmili have to go a long distance in search of such herbs. Or when the basapi or the village headman’s wife laments the fact that there are not many fishes in the river anymore.
A vital part of Karbi food culture is the traditional beverage known as hor. Hor is an integral part of socio-cultural life of the Karbi community. There are two kinds of hor—Hor Alank and Hor Arak. Hor Alank is rice beer prepared from the fermentation of rice cooked and treated with thap, (yeast culture locally prepared from powdered rice and marthu i.e. Croton joufra). Hor Arak is the alcohol distilled from Hor Alank. While Hor Alank is used for marriages and religious rituals, Hor Arak is used in all social occasions as well as offered to guests. In fact, hor is not merely a beverage. It is a mark of respect shown towards gods, towards men of higher rank and age, it is a sign of hospitality, it is even a symbol of unity. At the same time there are certain rituals to be observed before taking hor. Most importantly the hor is first to be offered to the gods. In Rongmilir Hahi, there are numerous occasions in which this beverage is served. Of course the novelist has used the generic term mod (which means wine or liquor) to imply this beverage.
In the novel’s opening chapter we see the headman sarbasa of the village Rongmili, Saroik Terang and his guest sit down to have a drink.—
“they then offered the mod to the gods. Dipping the tip of their right hand forefinger into the bowls, they touched the finger on the knuckle of the left thumb, and muttered a prayer. They then flicked their fingers such that the remaining mod was sprinkled on the saang*. After that, they started drinking the mod.”(p.9)
In a gathering, the mod is served first to the headman or the habes(traditional provincial governors) or the senior most individual(man) present; the womenfolk sit apart. After which the ritual offering to God takes place. In fact, a prayer always precedes eating or drinking activities—whether in private or in a gathering. We learn all these from the different accounts of eating depicted in the novel—in fact, a feast accosts not merely important meetings and religious ceremonies, but also at the end of a harvest-- where the people sit down at the headman’s courtyard and the rice cooked is the first batch of rice grains harvested(no-khua); and in these, the entire community takes part. The youths especially are expected to work hardest. As in Chapter 5 , a day after the Sojun-Swarag puja is over, the young men and women assemble to have a meal with the leftover meat. Such community feasts are not only a symbol of the unity of a village, being accompanied by songs and dances they also become an avenue for celebration for the hardworking people. Knowing this, the novelist uses two such occasions to show the rift and then bridging of the rift between the two powerful officials of the dekasang*-- klengsarpe and klengdun—a rift that if happens may break up the village. Apparently the klengsarpe has fallen for the charms of the headman’s beautiful daughter, Amphu and is jealous at the thought that his subordinate the klengdun too has similar feelings, which he suspects may even be reciprocated. In the feast of the youths after the Sojun-Swarag puja in Chapter 6, when someone teases the klengdun with Amphu he(the klengsarpe) glares at him, and soon afterwards, the klengsarpe’s envy leads him to behave unfairly towards his subordinates which almost breaks up the dekasang. Eighty-nine pages later, in Chapter 25, when the entire village sits down to have a no-khua meal at the headman’s courtyard, Amphu sees klengsarpe and klengdun make up, and bond over a bowl of mod and a meal. As the novelist says, the two young men-- klengsarpe and klengdun—on whom lie the heavy responsibility of the jirsong[or dekasang] wipes away the dust over their relationship, as they welcome lokhimi [i.e. the goddess of wealth]. Food or eating thus comes to play a positive part in the social life of the Karbis.
However, in Rongmili Hahi the novelist also shows the other side of ‘food’: in the scarcity of it as well as the usage of mod. In the novel, mod is shown as a means of bribe as well. In Chapter 22 and 23, the autocratic habesiko*, Sarthe Teron , who is also shown as the antagonist of sarbasa Saroik Terang both bribes and is bribed —in the meeting of the habes which he calls to discuss the ‘wrongs’ committed by Saroik Terang (which of none but a ploy to destroy the honest and popular sarbasa), constantly serves mod to the other habes, such that there comes a point when all of the habes (provincial governor) are in a daze, intoxicated, agreeing to whatever the habesiko says, and that is how he can easily have the resolution to remove Saroik from the post of sarbasa easily passed. Again, in chapter 23 there is this account where Dil Bahadur a Nepali migrant already settled by the habesiko approaches him for land for his brothers in his area. They offer the Sarthe Teron a bottle of mod, a bundle of mutton and a pack of cigarettes—though the offering is ostensibly a mark of respect, the interaction between Sarthe and the migrant makes the self-interest apparent. The offerings and all the praises feed into the habesiko’s ego. After the three men leave the habesiko drawing in puffs of the Cavender cigarette offered by Dil Bahadur glows in self-praise—telling himself that not even the King(the Karbi king) has people gift him such novelties. (No other character in the novel is shown as smoking cigarettes.) Thus bribed the habesiko Sarthe Teron allows them whatever they want. Here we hear the novelist’s anguished voice—
“blinded by power and mod, he[habesiko] often proclaims,--“all these hills that you see, its our longri. Our land…” whereas he is hardly aware of the tall grasses that have ensheathed his own village and jumtoli[i.e.areas where jhum cultivation takes place]…instead of bunches of golden grains the jumtolis now spawn white tongabon* flowers” (p. 121). The Karbis are increasingly being pushed into the pit of poverty. This poverty is portrayed in Rongmilir Hahi. At several places different characters including the headman of Rongmili village, and his wife—lament the increasing poverty of the Karbis. And yet, poverty here is not so much the absence of money as the absence of food. There is this instance in the opening chapter where the headman’s wife mentions a woman, the wife of an opium addict who comes to her seeking food(not money), for they have nothing to eat.
In the novel the sarbasa or village headman’s house is the symbol of prosperity—but this prosperity is presented in terms of abundance of food grains. All the traditional feasts described in the novel take place in the sarbasa’s courtyard.
Besides the struggle for space, poverty amongst the Karbis is said to derive from another item of consumption—kani or opium. Addicts exchange mustard/rice grains/sesame for opium, and the trader, known as mahajan (who is a non-Karbi, as in the novel, a Marwari trader) exploits the local people. The character of Lindok Teron is an instance of this. Lindok earlier a hardworking man had fallen for the lure of opium, and through the novel we see his steady deterioration before his untimely death, in Chapter 30. Just prior to Lindok’s death, Saroik Terang meets the mahajan at Baithalangsu haat*. The novelist narrates how Saroik could see glints of greed and worry over the loss of mustard in the mahajan’s eyes when he was informed of Lindok’s deteriorating health.
Apart from poverty and decreasing space for the Karbis, a third aspect highlighted in the novel , and that too having a manifestation in food is ‘Christianity’. The Tika hill on which stands the Christian mission was discovered by the American Baptist Missionary P.E.Moore and his assistant Carwell in the year 1896. Together they built a Church in the dense hill, which was revered as the abode of gods of the Karbi community and this brought in a significant alteration in the Karbi society—many Karbi families were converted into Christianity, and were settled in villages around Tika hill, schools were set up and their children got opportunities to study. However building a Church on the Tika hill was considered a sacrilege by others—who were not converted to Christianity , which in turn spurred the popular belief amongst the Karbis(i.e. non-Christians) that the gods were infuriated, and therefore punished the people with poverty, hunger, deaths et al. Even the higher officials of Karbi society fanned such beliefs. Of course Saroik Terang took these as superstitions. The converted Karbis were excommunicated by the traditional society. Eating with them amounted to blasphemy. In the novel Saroik Terang has tea at the house of Lawrence Hanse, a senior member of the Karbi Christian community and a childhood friend. This almost amounts to a scandal. And yet, there is this instance in Chapter 29 where two men from the habesiko Sarthe Teron’s village attend Christmas celebrations at the Church. As the two trace their steps homewards they discuss—
“…it seems the sikur* religion is much better... Haven’t you seen, how everyone was equally served with such big meat pieces. My stomach is full with this feast. Only there’s no mod. Had there been mod it would have been even more wonderful to chew the meat.”
“Indeed, the meat is succulent. I don’t understand why the sojun meat is not as fatty. Not only are the swines skinny, there are also so many divisions and categories of the meat. Forget meat, in dividing the swine’s lips, legs, tail and other parts, us people barely manage to have some bones to chew. It’s much better to be a sikur, isn’t it?” (p.157)
Immediately after this at the end of the chapter, and the novel, we find one of them returning home, take down the traditional religious symbols from his doorway and hang in its place a photograph of Lord Jesus.
Of course, a detailed analysis of the novel will brew even further instances and facets of changing culturescape—reflected along the trajectory of food. And yet, we believe through the discussion above the changing contours of society as reflected through ‘food’. Food—in whichever manifestation it is presented--has also emerged as the site of power: the one who provides food wielding power and influence over the one who consumes.
saang—a raised bamboo platform
habesiko—the chief of habes or heads of a longri or block in one of the three administrative regions of Karbi Anglong, appointed by the traditional council, under the supervision of the Karbi King. Each longri has a number of villages within its jurisdiction.
dekasang--. a traditional set up where the youth of a village assemble; the symbol of the vitality of a Karbi village, where young men are groomed in their first lessons of responsibility
tongabon—a kind of high coarse grass
sikur—Christianity was known by that term amongst non-Christians
Rong Bong Terang. Rongmilir Hahi, Assam Prakashan Parishad, Guwahati, 1981
Dharamsing Teron. ‘Inside a Karbi Kitchen—from Tradition to Modernity’ karbi.wordpress.com
Robindra Teron. ‘Bottle Gourd—Part and Parcel of Karbi Culture’, Indian Journal of Traditional Knowledge, Vol. 4(1), January 2005.
Robindra Teron. ‘Hor—the traditional alcoholic beverage of Karbi tribe in Assam’, Natural Product Radiance, Vol. 5(5), 2006