Karma Debbarma and the hotel
Agartala, Feb. 7: Karma Debbarma, 73, does not really look his age.
A vivacious man enthusiastically catering to the food requirements of his few customers, Karma earns his livelihood by selling indigenous food from his non-descript Fani and Tani Hotel at the Tripura Tribal Autonomous District Council headquarters at Khumlung.
“I have my wife and three sons – the eldest one, Bijay, is an MA (history), the middle one, Ajay, is a graduate and the youngest one, Sujay, is Madhyamik plucked. What I earn from this 25-year-old hotel help us have three square meals a day,” said Karma.
But beneath his quiet yet vibrant nature lies a nostalgic anguish as the indigenous food he serves in his hotel, which is slowly but steadily being discarded by his tribal brethren for more modern, spicy and oily food consumed by non-tribal people.
Tripura’s tribal or indigenous society, believed by political scientists and sociologists to have already graduated to a nationality, is on the crossroads. High-level Westernisation, heralded by the Church, Evangelisation and growing influence of modernity have been alienating the indigenous people fast from their roots. This is reflected in changing food habits.
Karma prepares only indigenous dishes sought after by locals, often even by non-tribal customers or occasional tourists. He perceives a creeping change in the preferences of his customers. Much like anything else communitarian tribal life and culture, including food habits, centred on what was available from the pristine nature. “Dry fish is our staple. The most common and popular dish godhak, which is prepared with a variety of vegetables boiled together with dry fish and then crushed with onion pieces and dried green chilly. It tastes delicious,” said Karma.
Godhak still retains its popularity even among non-indigenous people but what is unpopular now is a delicacy called bangoi which is a lump of sticky binny rice packed in a special bangoi leaf boiled on vapour and then consumed with pork and dried green chillies. Since it lasts a few days, it was a favourite lunch item for jhum (shifting cultivation) farmers. Similarly, chakhoi is a preparation of boiled vegetables with soda and eaten with pork in thick gravy. Another popular item is berma prepared with a melange of boiled rice, dry fish and vegetables together. Almost similar is awandru , a boiled preparation of rice, dry fish and wheat flour in thick gravy made hot by green chillies.
Variety is added by laitang, prepared with the inner part of a banana tree, dry fish and garlic, pasted together after boiling. A similar preparation is mufir which is a very hot preparation because of burnt green chillies added to it. For flavour and taste, batima and wakereng are famous as these are boiled preparations of rich pork, green chilly and special forest leaves. Muchhi is a spicy flavoured forest tree-leaf, which is mashed after boiling in water. Dry fish is added to this with green chillies. But another indigenous dish, popular with the non-indigenous people also, is sutumi merisedeng, which has raw tamarind paste, dry fish cooked with diced garlic and onion.
“All these things are pristinely pure and drawn from nature, with no spicesor oil and are good for health also. But the present generation take interest in other non-indigenous foods,” said Karma. His “Fani and Tani’ and two other non-descript hotels proudly keep the flag of indigenous food aflutter. A nostalgic Karma also recalls the days of yore when he used to accompany his parents to do jhum cultivation for rice, vegetables and all other culinary necessaries.