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Celebrating Rice


As the rain batters on endlessly this monsoon, my heart has been feeling a little heavy. The uncertainty of yet another day makes me barely get out of bed every morning.  Lunch makes things better though. In fact, these days, I only look forward to another hearty plate of daal bhaat tarkari. The warmth cushions me, and for a while, I feel satiated and grounded. Rice, white and plain, is barely the talk at the dinner table. Even as the piquant sidra achaar or kaalo daal wins all the accolades, rice just sits there with every meal. Yet, the Himalayan cuisine would be incomplete without it. 


Like a dependable family member or the foundation of a house, rice holds everything together. In this region, there are subsistence crops of all kinds. People also consume makai and kodo, or phapar, and simali. Yet, none can take the place of Chamal. 


I don’t exactly know when the cultivation of rice began. 


According to Wikipedia, “The current scientific consensus, based on archaeological and linguistic evidence, is that Oryza sativa rice was first domesticated in the Yangtze River basin in 13,500 to 8,200 years ago. Cultivation, migration, and trade spread rice around the world—first to much of East Asia, then further abroad, and eventually to the Americas as part of the Columbian exchange. The now less common Oryza glaberrima rice was independently domesticated in Africa around 3,000 years ago.” 


Maybe when our earliest ancestors gradually transitioned from the uncertainty of hunting and gathering food, they discovered stability and certainty in the form of rice. The evolution of the paddy harvest must have been a journey toward prolonging dependable sustenance which paved the way for gradual urbanization.  


Recently, the world has been grappling with the accelerated perils of urbanization and climate change. History has its own share of perils, a major one being the colonization and exploitation of resources of the Indian subcontinent.  


Post WWII, in a famine-ridden inflationary economy, the British introduced the modern-day Public Distribution System to distribute food grains and edible essentials to citizens in India which continues even today.  In June 1992, this PDS scheme was launched to cover 1750 blocks in hilly, remote, and inaccessible areas. 


Currently, fortified rice is supplied through Targeted Public Distribution System (TPDS) under the National Food Security Act (NFSA), Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS), Pradhan Mantri Poshan Shakti Nirman-PM POSHAN [erstwhile Mid-Day Meal Scheme (MDM)] and Other Welfare Schemes (OWS) of Government of India in all States and Union Territories (UTs). 


Yet 2023 was declared the International Year of the Millets to encourage a more robust integration of native millets into farms, markets, and our diets owing to their higher nutritional content and climate resistance. 


Did the lines of nutritional benefits of rice get blurry with the introduction of big pharma in food technology? I wondered as I read a case study about the revival of millet harvesting by a women farmers’ collective in Tamil Nadu. 


The case study states that India’s association with millets dates back over 6,000 years and even in the late 1950s and 60s, it was widely grown in the country. Especially for economically marginalized communities in drought-prone areas like the Deccan, central and western India, the western ghats, and mountainous regions in the north and the northeast, millets were a crucial source of sustenance. 


Yet, even today, farming communities in the Himalayan region celebrate the arduous act of sowing paddy saplings during Asaar, at the beginning of monsoon with festive fervor. Perhaps, it’s the relief that cheerfulness brings to acts of labor or maybe even the instinctive gnaw of that ancient time when our ancestors discovered the dependable paddy and the anticipation of a year full of abundance and rest.  


The variety grown in Parengtar known as jirasari is fragrant, stout, and slightly brown. This isn’t the rice we can find at the convenience store or ration shop. It is prized by the community and cooked sparingly on special occasions.  


With measures of food fortification and public distribution of the same variety of rice grains throughout the country, are we on the verge of losing out on the niche varieties of rice grown historically? 


I leave it to the experts while I give into the lethargy of my dal bhaat tarkaari and await Asaar 15 to celebrate rice, the plain, stable foundation, that enriches an infant, comforts a heavy heart, and cushions ancient aches so that we may journey on in the cycle of life.


 


Simran Sharma is a freelance civil engineer and writer from Darjeeling. Her writings have been featured in The Pomelo, The Darjeeling Chronicle, Project Sikkim, and Brown History. She runs कथाkokatha an independent blog trying to explore and document written narratives of the Eastern Himalayan region, particularly Darjeeling and Kalimpong. She is also the co-founder of Gauthali, an initiative that celebrates Darjeeling’s edible biodiversity through homemade recipes packaged with love. 



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