A SENSE-MAKING TOOL
It is 7:00 am in Bombay, India. I wake up to a kitchen flooded with sunlight. The tavdi, a clay plate has been left on the stove by Mummy as an indication of today’s breakfast menu, the Rotla.
It has been two weeks since Mummy has been teaching me to make the Rotla, a traditional flatbread that enjoys a special status at our house in Bombay, the New York of India, my birthplace and the city that my grandparents moved to in 1967 from Kutch, our ancestral homeland, in the hopes of a better future.
Growing up in the city, my sister and I grew up speaking Kutchi, the language of Kutch. It was a way to pass down culture and identity to a generation living far away from their ancestral land. However, owing to Kutch’s migrant culture, Kutchi was never laid down, and with no script to hold it together, it got diluted and modified with time. The Kutchi that we speak at home is mocked by the locals. It is said that it does not fall under any of the 7 Kutchi’s local to the land. It is alien to Kutch and its people, a mere product of the city.
Mummy is back from her yoga and into the kitchen. I place the tavdi on the stove and light a flame. I stand beside her as she throws three fistfuls of bajra flour and three pinches of salt into the wide thali. One fistful of flour and one pinch of salt is equivalent to one Rotla.
She takes a glass of water and pours in little by little, folding the flour in to make a dough.
A reminder that the consistency of this dough should be a bit looser than that of the roti is made. She uses her palm to stretch and pull the dough in a repetitive manner against the thali for a few minutes. She says that this is the most crucial stage. “The lack of stretching is the reason behind your imperfect Rotla,” she reasons. I agree to disagree. She then divides the dough into three equal parts, rolling one into a ball. She presses it flat between her hands, dips it into the dry flour and onto the thali. She uses her palm to press the dough, rotating it clockwise in an even manner until it takes the shape of a thin circle. I stand with the rolling pin, Mummy looks at me in dismissal. She allows me in in the second phase. I turn the pressed Rotla and place it in both my palms, gently leaving it on to the tavdi. An edge of it is outside the tavdi, I see my mother from the corner of my eye. I continue. I throw some water on the Rotla and remove the excess dry flour. Mother instructs to turn it. I tell her that I think we should leave it for a few more seconds as I turn it anyway. The Rotla goes through three such turns. After much guidance, it is ready. As I poke the Rotla, pouring a generous amount of ghee into its cracks, the kitchen is filled with the smell of burnt clay. I’m not too proud of myself, owing to the excessive instructions. I can’t wait to master it, but do mothers stop instructing ever?
Most days this year, my breakfasts have mainly included Rotla and Makhan with Chai.
Last year, we learned that Dadaji had third-stage lung cancer. His treatment had begun and he was gradually growing a dislike for food and losing appetite. Baa and Mummy had taken upon themselves to sprinkle his mundane with some delight. They would spice the Bajra flour with finely chopped onions, coriander, and chillies. We would watch him finish it with some Chai on the side. He would extend a piece over to me, I disliked Rotla in general, but I would oblige.
Dadaji passed away this year. In these unsettling times, his scarf and the Rotla gave me comfort. Though it did not encompass within itself the entire meaning of the relationship I shared with him, it did have the quality of nurturing my soul, like the warmth of the sun that floods the house every morning and the smell of freshly churned butter, as we pack the dining table, ready to indulge in the Rotla yet again.
It has been 9 years since I started eating the Rotla and 3 years since I started making it. This year, I moved to New York to pursue an MFA in Design for Social Innovation from the School of Visual Arts. With a change in location, came a change in breakfast. Avocado toast on Dave’s 21 whole grains & seeds bread with Trader Joe's Everything But Bagel Spice has been my go to ever since.
However, on an uncanny gloomy day in November, I felt awfully homesick. With not much to fill the void, I decided to treat myself to the Rotla. I went to the Indian street at Journal Square and bought 250 gms of Bajra flour. That night, I made Rotla, the same way Mummy and Baa made for Dadaji, with chillies and coriander. I used a non-stick pan and instead of home-made butter, I had some Trader Joe's cream cheese on the side.
As I sat alone and ate it, I felt even more despair. Though it did not taste too distant from the original recipe, it did not transport me back home, the way food does, it instead reminded me of the very absence of it.
I never fully understood the ritualization and rigidity with which my sister and I were taught to make the Rotla but it suddenly all started to make sense.
With only a dialect in hand and an absence of a script, owing to Kutch’s nomadic culture, the Rotla, even its most basic form, was the most accessible recreation of home. It was a visible and edible manner in which memories and the culture of Kutch could be stored and passed down to us. It was not just the taste and the smell of the Rotla, but the very process of making it from scratch, that takes us back in time to the village life, to memories and to those with whom we share a worldview with. The flour, the cracked clay plate, making Makhan each morning were all an early morning reminder of life back in Kutch, of living close to the earth and respecting the cycles of nature that we are so dependent on.
Even though we grew up in Bombay, my sister and I have never identified strongly with the city life. The values inside the four walls of our house were starkly different from those that this urban jungle provided. They were an amalgamation of life in Kutch and this new life in Bombay.
Through these years, the Rotla has taken on several meanings in my life, shaping me in ways big and small. This isn’t just breakfast that tastes good; for in it lies the comfort and familiarity of home, of Kutch in this familiar yet unfamiliar city.
Today I understand why our grandmothers and mothers so meticulously fill their books with recipes, and guard them in their safes along with their jewelry, as a means to pass them onto their sons and daughters, why they find so much discomfort in recipes that have been modified to meet new tastes and why the Rotla has a right way of making. When people move from their places of origin, they find ways to replicate a sense of belonging they had for their homelands in their new homes and rituals enable one to recreate these memories momentarily through a sense of order and repetition.
For me today, the idea of rituals has moved beyond a sense of absolute control to a softer shade of belonging. I yet don't know if there is a place that I call home perhaps, Kutch seems too distant in km and Bombay seems too distant in kind, but it is these rituals that I find a sense of familiarity within and those with which I would like to make sense of my home.
And for the Rotla, I intend to pass it down to the next generation, in the same way it was passed down to me.