Behind the Bengali dish charchari lies a fraught history

Manoshi Bhattacharya
Manoshi BhattacharyaAug 02, 2016 | 08:23

Behind the Bengali dish charchari lies a fraught history

Every Indian mother has a fridge cleaning day - a day looked forward to with relish by the women and envy by the men. The formal meal having been served to the men, the women settle down to their Bengali charchari, Oriya bessoro, Tamil kootuh or Telegu sambar. Men and children may sometimes be rewarded with tid-bits but more often than not these divine creations belong in the andarmahal alone.


Mine perhaps is a bigoted view and I make no apologies for this charchari rhapsody. It is no mean sleight of hand that brings to life what would otherwise be castoff vegetable peels, wild greens trampled by man and beast, and not-quite-right odds-and-ends. It is an issue of complex balancing, unique spicing, helped along with a touch of nostril-tingling pungency lent by the "pure" goldenness of the regional mustard oil or a fistful of crushed seeds. The "sacred daughter" on her annual visit to her earthly family will not be denied the treat, and charchari, also called labra, is served up along with khichudi in the bhog.

The history of charchari traces a story that ranges from extravagance to thrift and resourcefulness. It mirrors the fortunes of Bengal. Lush and bountiful, Bengal had been described by the Arabs, Portuguese, the Dutch and the French as the wealthiest region in India. If fish and meat occupy the top rung of the cuisine, Bengali vegetarian fare jostles alongside for the top spot.

Crafted by wealthy Vaishnavites of the 15th century and even earlier by widows forced into early vegetarianism, the array of plant produce was prodded and cajoled into releasing their intimate secrets. The mastery of their art gave them the knowledge of pairing vegetables, individual cooking times required within the same dish and the intricate layering of spices used three-ways i.e. raw, dry roasted or fried. A handful of greens, a slice of red pumpkin freshly carved from a whole, and a few chunks of shiny purple eggplant - it was a precise mix that was prescribed for every charchari recipe. Bengal was a land of abundance and prodigality defined its cuisine.


That was then, when famines were few and far between, as it was in the rest of India.

Vegetable charchari

Famine periods would see a mix of ingredients not as desirable. But that did not begin until the coming of the British. Seldom will historians voice the grim truth: 200 years of British rule gave us more than just the largest English speaking population of the world or an introduction to railways and technology. It gave us 200 years of endemic or continuous famine spiked with frequent exacerbations.  

Two hundred years is enough to rob a population of its memories. Rob in such a manner that it loses even the memory of being robbed.

Indians of the 20th century came to believe that they always had been a poverty-stricken starving nation accursed because of shameful practices.

William Digby, a British Indian government famine inspector, explains the reasons behind the famines in his book Prosperous British India: A Revelation. The famines, he says, were caused by taxation and not because there was a dearth of food.

"An insurance fund against famine at one-and-a-half million a year is added to the taxation of the country. First, it is pounced upon to pay a portion of the expenses of a needless war in Afghanistan. Then, it is determined to expend the sum year by year upon railways and other means of communication: as though ironclads were, in a poverty-stricken and steadily drained country, panaceas of famine, and as though the most disastrous famine of the century had not, within our immediate recollection, occurred in provinces fairly well supplied with railways."


Digby was sidelined and ignored by a government drunk on profits. So was Surgeon Major Francis Day, Inspector General of Fisheries in India, who in his report to the government in 1873 confirmed that fishermen, burdened by taxation, preferred to starve than fish.

Henry Charles Carey, chief economic adviser to US President Abraham Lincoln, in The Brits in India: Slavery and Famine, writes that land tax (designated as rent under the British) under the earlier Mohammedan sovereigns had been limited to a thirteenth and raised to one-third under Emperor Akbar who at the same time abolished numerous other taxes.

With the decline and fragmentation of the Mughal Empire, the new Persian nawabs and rajas raised the land tax, revived the ones that had been discontinued and brought in more oppressive taxes.

The East India Company continued each of these, maintaining land tax at its highest ever. The icing on the cake now was that the Company had also a monopoly of trade, and it could dictate the prices of all it had to sell, as well as of all that it needed to buy.

As people became less able to pay the taxes, and as the government could not be carried on without revenue, Lord Cornwallis instituted the permanent settlement of land: all rights of village proprietors, cultivators who were owners - also called ryots (Indian root word for the English riot) - over a large portion of Bengal, were sacrificed in favour of Indian officers of the Government of British India - zamindars. They became at once the owners of lands and absolute masters of a host of poor tenants, with power to punish at discretion those who were so unfortunate as not to be able to pay a rent the amount of which had no limit but that of the power to extort it.

It was the system the British had instituted in Ireland. It did not yield profits for the zamindars, for the flogging inflicted upon the poor cultivators could barely prise the amounts due to the government. The first set of zamindars soon sold out but those that replaced them failed too.

The government then decided to arrest the extension of the permanent settlement and to settle with each little ryot, or cultivator directly. The village authorities who earlier, under the native governments, had a say in ensuring that taxes were equitably and satisfactorily distributed, were cut out. The Ryotwar system was thus established.

The impoverishment of Bengal had begun.

Any improvement in cultivation resulted in immediate increase of taxation. One-half of the gross produce may be assumed to have been the average annual rent, although in many cases it greatly exceeded that proportion. The Madras Revenue Board, on May 17, 1817, stated that the "conversion of the government share of the produce (of lands) is in some districts as high as 60 or 70 per cent of the whole...."

The village atmosphere was vitiated.

Carey quotes Mr Fullerton, a member of the council at Madras: "Imagine the revenue leviable through the agency of one hundred thousand revenue officers, collected or remitted at their discretion, according to the occupant's means of paying, whether from the produce of his land or his separate property; and in order to encourage every man to act as a spy on his neighbour, and report his means of paying, that he may eventually save himself from extra demand, imagine all the cultivators of a village liable at all times to a separate demand, in order to make up for the failure of one or more individuals of the parish. Imagine collectors  to every county, acting under the orders of a board, on the avowed principle of destroying all competition for labour by a general equalisation of assessment, seizing and sending back runaways to each other.

"And, lastly, imagine the collector the sole magistrate or justice of the peace of the county, through the medium and instrumentality of whom alone any criminal complaint of personal grievance suffered by the subject can reach the superior courts.

"Imagine, at the same time, every subordinate officer employed in the collection of land revenue to be a police officer, vested with the power to fine, confine, put in the stocks, and flog any inhabitant within his range, on any charge, without oath of the accuser or sworn recorded evidence of the case."

The centuries old pile of history dust has been stowed carefully under the carpet and it is a refreshing treat to see BBC's South Asia correspondent Justin Rowlatt slip in, amidst an innocuous story on egg rolls, the story of how it all began.  

Robert Clive of the East India Company wrested the right to raise taxes in Bengal from the Mughal emperor Shah Alam in 1765. Taxes were trebled within five years and in the famine, one of the worst witnessed in the world, that followed, a third of the population of Bengal - 10 million people - died. The company, ever mindful of its shareholder's dividends, actually increased tax collection.

India, which is reckoned to have accounted for a quarter of global manufacturing before the British traders arrived, was reduced to just 3 per cent of world GDP by the dawn of the 20th century.

Bengal silver funded Britain's Industrial Revolution which began to flood the markets of India with British products.

Having never faced such an unending famine and spiralling rates of mortality, Bengal coped by surviving on wild greens and uncultivated produce.

Charchari came to the rescue.

Mothers honed their skills and ensured their families relished the little that was available. From the piles of what was once garbage, they reused vegetable peels and scrapings, fish bones and scales, the useless seeds of the opium poppy that had overtaken their fields and the crushed remains of mustard seeds lying waste about the oil mills.

Unknown to most, these two last ingredients were as rich in protein as animal produce and nearly as high on the flavour index.

Sitting with a platter, she would mix the little boiled rice available with the charchari of the day, mould them into balls and pop them into the waiting mouths of her brood seated expectantly around her.

The story goes that Warren Hastings fleeing from the agents of the Raja of Benaras found refuge in a peasant's cottage. A few days later he announced a reward for his benefactor. Many turned up. But the one able to correctly list the ingredients of the charchari, offered to Hastings that fateful night, was identified as the saviour.

The principal ingredient of that historical charchari was the pui vine - Basella alba or the Malabar spinach.

Last updated: August 02, 2016 | 08:23
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