“How’re you liking your new home?” I asked my cousin. He had recently moved to a new city, his first time out of our home state of Maharashtra.
“It’s all right, I guess,” he said, in a somewhat non-committal fashion. He looked away. The noisy bustle of the cafe rose between us.
He looked back at me. “Yeah, it’s just all right,” he repeated, softly.
I stirred my coffee. What had that reflective pause been about? Is he feeling disoriented? It would be natural, I thought, sympathetically. In India, moving from one’s own state to another was akin to moving countries, involving a new language, new customs, new spaces and mores to navigate. Culture shifted every 200 kms, so he had moved a distance the equivalent of a continent.
Was he missing his family? Was he questioning himself? I waited. Maybe the silence would encourage him to open up and share his innermost feelings.
“They don’t know how to make good poli here,” he said, in Marathi. They don’t know how to make bread.
I burst out laughing. He looked surprised, and then broke into a shy grin. I shook my head at myself. What a knack I had for over-complicating things. There was no existential angst at work here, no identity crisis, no emotional turmoil. It was a straight and simple complaint about a basic daily need. Basic, yet with the potential to make the whole day feel unsatisfying.
The poli, or chapati, sits in the center of a Maharashtrian’s food plate, anchoring the rest of the meal like a queen holding court. Curries, lentils and chutneys arrange themselves around the matriarch, awaiting their turns to be scooped up and not minding if they have to intermingle if only they are chosen. If the bread isn’t the right softness, thickness, or saltiness, if it hasn’t been made in the folded manner, or it hasn’t been puffed on an open flame, the meal flops. No matter how hard the complementing dishes try to boost up their tastiness oomph, the experience is doomed. Without a center, it all falls apart.
Every Maharashtrian has their individual expectation of how a poli should taste. It stems from what one grew up eating, based on how one’s mother chose to make them. Within my own extended family, the variations of how each aunt makes poli, in her own style, can cause some of us to grit our teeth and endure in silence until one’s own mum is the appointed one to make poli for the next meal.
As I’ve grown up and become an adult, I’ve had to adjust my palate often and a lot. When I lived in the US, there were times when I became so nostalgic for this cultural bread that I pretended to eat it in the form of tortillas. Now that I’m back in India, I have a cook that makes them for me. I sometimes make it myself. None of these make-do arrangements compares to the real deal, when my mum visits and cooks for me. There is nothing comparable to the first whiff of toasty, fluffy poli emanating from the kitchen, and then it comes out, slathered with home-made ghee, and tossed on my plate, steaming hot. It is impossibly soft, tasty enough to eat on its own. It is as close to bliss as I can imagine. And my mum’s poli is so unique, I can recognize it among thousands and even if you blindfolded me.
I clucked my tongue in sympathy for my cousin. I understood his complaint. While it wasn’t an existential dilemma, it did make a difference to one’s happiness.
“Good luck finding it,” I said, sincerely. He nodded.