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A Parable of Food and Hunger

Nasima Selim Aulic

Heading south-west, the train was moving at a regular pace. The wide windows had to be shuttered down -- it was raining outside. We were coming back from our last trip to a starvation zone. Sleep was out of the question and we had forgotten to buy dinner from the station. The train would not stop any place where we could find something decent to eat. So we ate the left-over chowmein and garlic chicken we had for lunch. We were still hungry and confused.

Back then, I was living with my friend's family in Kolkata. Her mother, a very affectionate lady, was a benevolent tyrant when it came to food and regularising our eating habits. We had to eat religiously all day if she was home. She made her presence felt even when she was not around, leaving instructions about what food was lying where and when she expected us to finish all that it all. Coming from a family where I revolted against eating hours -- irrespective of whether it was a healthy practice or not, I found it increasingly difficult to comply. First of all, I hated stuffing myself with food when I was not hungry and secondly, I hated even more to refuse her affectionate pleas. It was therefore a welcome relief when I left my friend's house. I paid my respects to her mother to whom I felt emotionally attached, and who I would have really loved -- if only she would leave my stomach alone.

My friend had already informed me of her assignment and I was warming up for the journey to the poorest and most backward district of West Bengal. She knew someone who had been there and who was now going back there with money to buy rice for distribution. Miss R accompanied us. To reach Purulia, a few hundred kilometres south-west of Kolkata, we decided to take a train from the famous Howrah Station. My friend, though equally harassed by the regular eating habits back home, decided to play the part of a perfect host. She asked if we wanted fruit juice-tea-coffee-kurkure etc. We had already had a heavy lunch before leaving the house. I did not know about others but I admitted with little shame that I was beginning to feel hungry. Something to do with trains, trips and stations. I had this irresistible urge to eat, eat and eat till my stomach could take no more. How I wished my friend's mother had been present then. So much for my earlier resistance to food and her culinary tyranny!

Wherever I looked, people were either munching or drinking or spitting or gobbling up anything and everything they could lay their hands on. We spotted a little boy who came down running towards two young girls -- all of them had matted hair and naked feet. They were obviously the street children of the station. The boy had a half-eaten egg roll in his hand which he laid down on the ground and began to tear up and divide into three unequal shares. One bigger and two smaller pieces. The girls objected to the unfair division but he shrugged it off, pleased at his position as the provider. They ate with gleaming eyes and as soon as they were finished, they ran in three directions -- no doubt to collect the leftovers from all corners of the station. The progressive geometry of their movement caught our attention. We were glad that the Howrah Station had a tin roof cover and it helped those human-like creatures in their race against the birds and other food hunters. They looked hungry but happy to have people like us around. People who could eat and produce leftovers. So that they could eat as well.

The train arrived on time and there was no time to watch the food triangle of those three children. Leaving them to their perpetual hunting and gathering, we went aboard. Again, there was the never ending ordeal of tea-coffee-kurkure--jhalmuri-potato chops. Once again, I ate diligently till my thinking slowed and my emotions dulled. Sitting on the other side, I felt it was easier to read than talk. I took out all three books that we brought to carry on our research on starvation, famine, poverty and hunger. I read and I ate. I ate and I read and took notes at the same time. My friend and our companion made enquiries about what I found striking -- from time to time. In his book, Amartya Sen was talking about famine. He mentioned the 1943 Bengal famine and the 1974 Bangladesh famine. I was trying to make sense of what he wrote about why and how famine occurred; what the difference was between chronic starvation and famine…

Purulia town was almost asleep when we reached the Mayur Hotel. Our hosts -- the members of a non-government organisation who were working for the right to food and work with the inhabitants of Purulia -- were apologetic about the vegetarian dinner they had organised so late at night. I found the chapatis-daal-mixed vegetable delicious and ate to my heart's content. Absorbed in eating, I could hear our companion discussing where and how they could distribute the rice. My friend was quiet and waiting for her turn to discuss the places where starvation was most common and people had died recently of hunger. Too much food could make you dull of course but I still wondered about all those people who were starving in the hills. Too little food! I could never imagine that.

We stayed two days and three nights in Purulia. The district was divided into 20 blocks and we managed to visit a couple of villages from the three least developed blocks. On the third day, my friend interviewed the district magistrate and the local government officers. What happened between our arrival and departure was the unfolding of this unusual story of chronic starvation. We found that there was no famine as such in Purulia and people were not dying in hundreds or thousands. Only three died within a year before and that too could be disputed. Whether they died of hunger, or hunger-related illness was debatable. While the ruling party and the local government tried to deny the starvation deaths, the human rights-based organisation was equally zealous to prove that they were. Personally, I think two of them died of old age and little social support --malnutrition was evidently the root cause. The other one died of illness that could be traced back to chronic hunger. Maybe it was easier to put the blame on age or illness, and everything else -- people die all the time. I was wondering what was so special about these deaths.

It was incredible how so many of them were still alive. For ages, they had been having only one, perhaps two meals a day. The staple food was not rice, but the rice water and all kinds of roots, leaves and even the tiny ants -- kurkut -- that grew on the Shaal trees. The hills and the areas near the jungles were the worst hit regions. There were villages and not one or two but many, where they did not know that it was the great India which was their country. They knew Purulia was where they lived and they could name their police stations and their respective villages...their world began and ended in Purulia.

Watching them describing their lives and livelihoods which were based on the minimal, my throat dried up and my stomach shrunk to at least half its original size. Not out of compassion -- I do not think city-dwellers and food-devourers like me are capable of such near-extinct emotions. Out of curiosity, mostly, I was trying to imagine what it could possibly be like not to know what a full stomach was. Having been born with a full stomach and living with that ever since, I knew it was next to impossible to try recreate an image of an empty stomach for my self.

The people I met in Purulia did not seem rebellious or defiant. Hunger had made them all a little lethargic, I suppose, and maybe they never had enough to afford anger. Like all emotions, anger too required some calorific intake. They accepted their fate -- at least most of them, or so it seemed. Perhaps they never knew that something called a 'full stomach' existed on this earth and there were others who had them. Finally, I failed to perceive what they felt, and, try as I might, I could not put myself in their shoes.

Photo Credit: Debalina
The author is a doctor trained in psychiatry and a freelance writer.


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