Lean times

Sarfaraz Memon visits a rural Sindhi family. Their menu changes with their fortunes, but their sense of hospitality endures

Lean times
“Gone are the days, when we used to have a luxurious Neran (breakfast) and other meals”, says elderly Mai Bhagul Jatoi, heaving a sigh. Mai Bhagul is a widow and lives with her three sons and seventeen grandsons and granddaughters in village Muhabat Jatoi situated some 25 kilometers from Sukkur. Sitting on the floor of her katcha house with her grandsons, Mai Bhagul is, even at this elderly age, feeling shy of the camera. She looks towards the skies, her toothless mouth open, as if trying to recall the memories from far away in the past.

“Those were the days when we used to serve a big paratha with a ball of fresh butter placed upon it and a big glass of lassi at breakfast!” She recalls that it was served to each member of the family, irrespective of age or gender. According to her, that rich breakfast helped them to work on the agricultural fields till the afternoon, at which point she and others would go home and cook lunch.

“Our lunch mostly comprised of chicken curry or mutton curry. Or we had fish or vegetables, served with flatbreads made from dough, to regain the energy we lost after a hard day of work on the agricultural land”, she recalls. “Then we would return to the fields and work there until dusk. At night we often used to eat boiled rice with a bowl of milk.”
"Sometimes when a chicken gets sick, we cook it before it dies and that day is special for us," Sohni says

The 68-year-old woman clearly remembers the day some ten years ago, when their opponents set ablaze their houses, due to which all their belongings and heads of cattle were burnt to ashes – and they were left with nothing except for their own selves. “Since that day, we are struggling to gain back what we had lost. But it seems we were destined to live as we are living now,” she says, while wiping tears from her eyes with her “Bochhan” dupatta. She says that due to the hard toil of her sons and daughters-in-law, they have bought three buffaloes, four cows and a dozen goats. From these they obtain milk, which they sell to make ends meet.

One of her daughters-in-law Somal, sits at the fireplace and tries to light a fire to prepare a cup of tea for me, but the supply of firewood, it seems, got soaked in the previous night’s rainfall. The process proves time-consuming. Finally she succeeds in making a fire after blowing air through a piece of pipe, but the process involves proximity to bitter smoke – which brings tears to her eyes and reddens her face. In the meantime, one of Bhagul’s sons, Barkat, wearing a kameez with all the buttons unfastened and a dhoti, enters the house. He greets me with a warm smile: his teeth have turned yellowish, most probably due to the “Naswar” that he used to deposit inside his lower lip for long durations every day.

The tea is ready and the elderly woman serves it in a bowl, saying, “We have nothing except this bowl of tea to serve.”

“Amma, don’t you have some pharris (rusk) at home?” her son asks.

“Na Putt, [No, son] its finished”, she says, smiling sheepishly.

After finishing tea, Barkat takes me round the village, where most of the men and women are busy working on the agricultural land. As we proceed through the fields, Barkat introduces me to his wife Sohni. She looks quite young as compared to Barkat.

The family relies on the sale of milk - consuming any of it themselves is a luxury no longer possible

Saeen, she is my third wife,” he says with a big, victorious smile. Sohni is quite willing to talk to us. She sits down and explains, “We all work together, but still don’t earn enough to lead a good life. Normally we start our day with a bowl of tea and one or two pharris (rusk). And sometimes we leave house after having just a bowl of tea alone. In the afternoon, we cook potatoes in curry or any other easily available vegetables with flatbread,” she says, quite eager to tell me what is on the menu. “At night we often eat boiled rice – with a little sugar sprinkled on the rice to make its taste good. You know, lentils are very costly these days and cooking lentils for such a big family is a big deal,” she says. However, we cook masoor ki daal once or twice a month, but it is very difficult to feed a big family on that! Sometimes when a chicken gets sick, we cook it before it dies and that day is special for us,” Sohni says, licking her dry lips.

“In winters we mostly cook spinach with potatoes and eat it with flatbreads or rice cake,” she says. We also have it with boiled rice. A curry of crushed tomatoes also tastes very good with the boiled rice. We have chickens at home, but we seldom eat their eggs in summer. In fact, we eat the eggs in winter only. In general, the eggs are sold to the village shopkeeper. Though we have buffaloes and cows, we don’t make butter, because we need to sell all the milk and make a bit more money,” she pauses, before adding, “I think it’s almost a year and I have not eaten butter…”

Her parents live at Kandhkot, where they have enough milk to extract butter, which they used to eat with bread in the morning. No such luxury now.

After we complete our round of the village, Barkat brings me back to his house, where his youngest sister is cooking a meal. He brings a jug full of water, adds some sugar in it and gives it to me to drink, saying, “Saeen we are poor people. We can’t serve you with Lal sharbat, but this is good, too.”

I drink one glass of the sweetened water and stand up to leave, but the man stops me, saying, “You cannot go without eating Mani (food).” His elderly mother also insists on the same. So I have Mani with them, which consists of potatoes cooked in curry – with flatbread. Though the lunch is very simple, it is full of taste, most probably because of the dough for the bread, which was prepared from pure desi wheat. I am brought an onion, too, of which the skin is peeled off. It is then crushed and I am told it will add to the taste.

Saeen if you want to visit some other time, just give me a call. I will slaughter a chella (goat) for you!” Barkat insists. “Saeen, we have become poor, but our hospitality is still alive. My late father always used to slaughter a chella or at least a kukar (rooster) for the guests.”

According to Barkat, people living in the katcha (riverine areas) are mostly well off, because their lands are more fertile and they harvest bumper crops. In addition to this, they are able to support more heads of cattle and the villagers sell their milk in the nearby cities for good money.

Their “autaqs” (drawing rooms) are always full of guests, I am told, and they take very good care of their guests.

“If you are ready, I will take you to the katcha in Shikarpur, to my cousins – where you will experience the real spirit of Sindh’s hospitality,” Barkat offers. And I promise to take out the time to join him.

Sarfaraz Memon is a freelance journalist. He may be reached at memonfraz@gmail.com