I have agoraphobia - fear of wide open spaces. Strangely, I also have claustrophobia. Not a good combo, as I learned during a camping trip with my kids. While the kids slept in tents, I shared a room in a cabin with another parent and her daughter. It was the worst night of my life. I was sleeping in the lower bunk, and woke up in the middle of the night to find the upper bunk looming solidly over me and couple of ladders blocking the space in front of me. It didn't feel like they were closing in on me, it felt like the universe was closing in on me! Time, space, existence, gravity, everything was crushing me. I knew I had to get out; if I didn’t, I would pass out, and that wouldn't be the worst! I ran outside, and around me, was the glade. A seemingly endless clearing in the woods. Nothing but miles of darkness and cold grass, surrounded by the dense Canadian boreal forest. It didn't end - neither the open space, nor the trees around it. It was overpoweringly large, overwhelming. I could not even think about escaping it. I fast-walked, I ran. Nothing worked, the vast sameness around me made it seem like I hadn't moved at all. Like I had been frozen, bound by invisible shackles.
I tried sitting in the rental that I had driven that day, doors locked, headlights off. Not the brightest idea. Things came out of the forest with glowing eyes. Nothing major like a bear, just coyotes and badgers, but scary nonetheless. I considered driving to the nearest hotel for the night. But I didn't have GPS and no internet this far out. Besides, the rickety wooden bridge I had driven over earlier to the campsite was literally submerged. Like it or not, I was here for 3 days. Also waking up a stranger in the cabin in panic was not an option, I was not going to say “I am feeling scawed” like a child trailing a stuffed animal and a blankie into his parents’ room. Leoline pride, accepted norms, whatever.
I went back to the cabin. I spent the night sitting and staring at the floor and praying the Ayat al Kursi. It helped. I had a plan. This is how I was going to spend my nights out here. The following night, a really heavyset venturer joined us. She was going to be sharing the bunk bed with me. I did not fancy being crushed by a venturer falling through the slats in a onesie and splintering me in half. So I took the upper bunk, but that meant I didn't have my floor to stare at. So I did the next best thing I could. I kept my eyes shut and thought. Claustrophobia made sense, people panicked in closed spaces for fear of running out of oxygen, etc, but fear of open spaces? That didn't make sense. And technically if you were claustrophobic, you could not be the opposite of that too, no? Unless both those fears were based on different conceptual grounds. That night, I had a series of mini epiphanies.
I was claustrophobic because I feared being trapped. I was agoraphobic, not because I feared not being trapped, but because wide spaces were very uniform. I fear sameness. A fear of sameness brought on by wide open spaces. I should have considered a career in psychology; this was not a bad diagnostic. You know people get scared by Redrum in The Shining, or the alien in Alien? I get scared by the thousands of robots that are only differentiable by a serial number in the factory in I Robot. They look the same, every single one of them. How are you supposed to know the One, the one that matters?
inability to identify the One that matters, things that actually matter, was a formant of psyche driven actions. The results could be disastrous. Overeating, OCD, marrying the crazy one, not marrying the crazy one, howling at the moon, pot, stilettos were all meant to help us attain the unattainable or nirvana that we could not even identify in the sea of human greed, gluttony and banality.
bhorta was not a dish. It was a style of cooking, like barbecuing ,sushi rolling and tandooriying. I know, it seems disjointed, but hear me out. You took something, anything, mashed it, seasoned it, upped its pungency factor by n, and made it hellishly hot. The same thing, over and over, unchanged for hundreds of years. I felt panicky. Same thing over and over, like assembly line work, like sand dunes, like the middle of the ocean, like whiteout snowed in fields. I felt my throat tightening. Neurons in my brain SOSed, I felt epinephrine, norepinephrine and dopamine spike in my blood. I could not open my eyes. The ceiling was less than 2 feet above me. And if I kept my eyes closed, the sameness of bhorta would get me.
My heart raced. I needed a change of perspective. I needed a Brexit from the unofficial referendum on bhorta. Bhortas need not be all the same, they could be different. It could star eggplants, or potatoes, or calamari, whatever. It was clean, it was fashionably grassroots, it could be done in a mortar and pestle for an even more back-to-basics feel. Why hadn't it caught on? Why are there no bhorta boxes instead of bento boxes? Spicy, garlicky, mash. Mash, mash, mash...nondescript, same. I needed to divert, and quick. But bhorta was stuck in my head like a bad song. There had to be something to it.
Maybe I was thinking about it because the Bengali New ear was approaching. The bhorta and panta bhat time of year. But I didn't even own a red and white sari, and the last time I had bhorta was 3.5 years ago in the Desh, when my cousin had decided to send me a bhorta platter. I am not a big fan. Dhaka for me is good milk tea and bakarkhani, and germinated coconut fruit. Good, old fashioned flaky Dhakaiya bakerkhani dunked in creamy tea, and delectable coconut thingamajig. But panta bhat was interesting. Fermented, probiotic rice. Panta bhat was to bhorta what mayo was to burgers. The main to the condiment.
I was grateful at the little distraction from the sameness of bhorta. I deliberately thought more about panta bhat. Why wasn't panta bhat being touted as a breakthrough in low glycemic rice, not an alternative for rice, but actually rice, with all the good and none of the bad?! Why was Gordon Ramsey not talking about the delicate technicality and textures of bhortas, and flinging shil patas in Hell’s Kitchen? Why was it considered poor man’s food? There, this was it!
Bhorta was gnawing at me, not because I necessarily eat it, but because it carries with it a certain stigmatization of classes. I had been talking to a friend. A friend that spoke beautiful Bangla (the one with many syllable words that sound like bells like priyoprangon, jhamela, hothat, uposthapona, and even the monosyllabic eeesh) and ate panta bhat with bhortas for breakfast. I found it cool, but not her in-laws. She mentioned that her choice of food was considered a bit of a shame. It spoke of her modest background. It spoke of our obsession and passive support of systemic classism. Bhortas were meant to stretch the budget, panta bhat meant a home without a refrigerator. Eesssh! The propensity and snobbery of our people! Food choice, like skin tone and visas in a passport were tools by which people judged and reacted to us. But, there was a major flaw to this madness.
Bhortas need not be all the same, they could be different. Why are there no bhorta boxes instead of bento boxes?
Creams and pates are not meant for our part of the world; they make more sense in colder climes; and fridges, they had created friggin’ holes in the atmosphere! If nature wanted Bengalis to have creams and pates, It would not have given them rice paddies and kathal. When was this freaking world going to wake up and realize that ingenious ideas behind cultures and food habits were something of pride and wisdom? People in our little deltaic plain that eat local have beautiful skins, lean bodies, and miniscule carbon footprints.
The Swiss have obese cows, we have lean cows; they make Toblerone, we make mishti doi. Deserts have wind pollinated flowers, we have animal pollinated kamenis and jasmine. The Spanish have paella, we have lean goat kachchi. Nature had not dealt out with discrimination, it had dealt out on smart design. If it were indeed a manufactured class issue, then what if panta bhat was served with a swirl of cold pressed mustard oil, in Waterford bowls and antique silverware? Eeww, even thinking about that was wrong, like in illegal hybridization and intellectual stupidity. If someone was not going to appreciate panta bhat in its original form and goodness, their loss. I was, for one, going to invest in a good blender and make myself some bhortas when I got back to civilization.
And it was going to be a bhorta true to its identity. No silly garnishes, no blatant rechristenings, (like ground green beans, smashed pumpkins etc). And definitely no plagiarism. Any culture that had its own close version of the bhorta, got to keep it as theirs. I was not going to call guacamole avocado bhorta, the same way no Irish was going to call mash aloo bhorta. Mustard oil, central to bhortas was an untapped market unto itself, extra virgin mustard oil, first pressed, mustard-pomace oil, refined mustard oil etc. Sold by the mL, in dark glass bottles. Sorry, that packaging itself was adultery to our roots. Graded and branded mustard oil in non glazed artisanal terracotta bottles could be our thing, and with equal panache too.
The night passed, the three days passed. Three whole days of bone numbing cold, smoky bonfires, scary looking mushrooms, and legends of a local monster called moo (pfffft, a monster called moo; petnees were scary, the ones that had their feet on backwards, and carried a hurricane lamp and left their long hairs in people’s bhortas). I drove back, still high on my bhorta determination. It was still causing me some panic, and I wanted to fight it. I made aloo bhorta. Didn’t taste right. Lacked heat (solved with cayenne), tasted genetically modified (like it was); lacked pungency. I did not have mustard oil, so I tried wasabi. Tasted good, maybe horseradish next time. I know, I know! But at least it was attempt in the right direction. Fighting perceived and practiced classism (sub cause: a fear of sameness, sub-sub cause: agoraphobia).
Recipe for agoraphobia fighting aloo bhorta:
2 medium sized russet potatoes
Chopped green chillies
1. Check out PLU sticker codes (produce look up). Potato sticker read 5 digits, the first one 8, definitely genetically modified.
2. Look up hacks for boiling potatoes quickly. Disregard hack
3. Debate boiling with skin, or without. I boiled them in skin.
4. Once soft, leave to cool. Meanwhile, have a potato chip. A single one, then 20 more and regret.
5. Chop cilantro, chillis and onion, mentally debating the difference between dicing, cubing, slicing and julianning. Mentally noting to check the Cordon Bleu website for definition. Remove a single endodermal layer from the onion (the transparent skin between the layers). Stain with iodine and observe under a microscope. Call the kids to see the cells, now visible.
6. Try not to get disappointed at their lack of enthusiasm.
7. Submit / post anything you might have been procrastinating on. I quickly post a note to my class regarding exam review “No question is 'stupid", but as a courtesy to your fellow classmate and general civility, please study ahead of time and have a list of problems on you. I am pressed for time, as are you, so I am asking for cooperation. If you feel, some universal algorithm is completely dependent upon your lack of an indoor voice or patience, I suggest you find a way to deal with it before 3rd period tomorrow”
8. Peel and mash potatoes, add stuff that you chopped.
9. Get some oil and salt in there.
10. Taste and find a suitable alternative for the pungency of mustard oil
11. Fight classism, general discontent, underlying human fears and ennui with the bhorta