Chapatis – Tasting the time!


Author – Tasneem Sariya

Shifting away an errant strand of hair with one messy hand and continuing kneading the dough with the other, a slightly perspiring look on her face is the common image of a home maker or someone still learning its myriad ropes that is not new for most of us. We have seen it in movies, advertisements and songs. In fact, we have seen it in villages and even our homes, with our less glamourized mothers and aunts.

Image – KittyKaht via Flickr

Making rotis (chapattis) is one of the most essential yet mundane activity that is carried out in many homes in India. Though the entire process and method may seem tedious, it is accomplished with a frenzied rush and marked determination. And in spite of the advent of many fast foods, breads and easy to make options, the chapatti remains the staple and constant member of our dining tables for generations and years now. The art of making rotis, and I call it art because it is no less than that, is woven very deeply into the culture of our homes, meal time conversations and also to a large extent into the kitchen politics.

The Chapatti Movement

Who would have thought that a simple flatbread can have multiple variations and relished in varied forms. From being generously buttered with ghee, bit with sugar or jaggery, dipped in savory gravy or blown up to become phulkas, all forms of the chapatti have been tried, tested and approved.

However, what stands out about chapattis apart from its obvious glutton value is its silent presence and involvement in the history of our nation as well as our homes. The little known Chapati Movement took place in 1857 around the time when there was wide spread discontentment against the British and the beginnings of a rebellion were not far off. It was the Chapatti Movement that stirred the British government and shook it quite conceivably to the core.

Image Source

Every night chapattis were being exchanged and travelled almost 300 km. across the entire the nation. Runners distributed the chapattis to homes and police stations and the people who accepted the chapatis silently made more and continued the exchange and passing on of the offering. The extremely rapid form of distribution of unmarked and unsigned chapattis had the British scratching their heads in wonder, since there was no reason to stop the distribution at the same time the continuous cycle of transportation and dispensation left them highly bewildered and on the edge.

It is still debatable, whether there were in fact any messages or meaning in the passing of the chapattis then. When quizzed about it, the runners and those distributing it also seemed clueless regarding the purpose of the exercise. However, in May close on the heels of the movement, began the historic 1857 Revolt – the First war of Indian Independence, leaving many to believe that the Chapati Movement had something to do with it. In fact, it was estimated that 90000 police men or chowkidars were participating in the movement that by March of 1857 had spread as far from Avadh to Delhi, from the Narmada River in the south to the border with Nepal in north.

Whatever the purpose of the movement, it successfully was able to shake the British who understood that they were subjugating a population of more than 200 million with a handful of officers. It was a perfect psychological tactic, putting the opposition camp in wonder and worry.

It all began when?

Besides, this obvious historic reference, chapattis have been extremely interwoven in the social fabric of the Indian society. Traders have known to carry these thin, light and easy to travel nourishment, accounts of it holding a special place in Akbar’s food platter has been recorded in the accounts of Ain-i-Akbari a document written by Abu’l – Fazl ibn Mubarak and Kannada literature of the 10th to 18th centuries have mention of it. Chapattis have found reference in Tulsidas’s Ramcharitamanas and old texts also suggest that the roti existed during the Harappan civilization. Hence the origins of this humble meal are yet to be confirmed, but it can be safely said that the roti has been around for long.

Unfinished sketch of an artist showing women making chapati, ca. 1775, Rajasthan, India. Image Source

The circle of …

Narrowing the spectrum from the global or national to our homes, the chapati for generations has been the binder in our families. Not to over exaggerate, but it is a known fact, that meals keep families together. Chapati making in many ways, keeps the women of the family together. It is one activity that is carried out in more or less the same fashion by the women of the house, who follow the methods in quick and expert succession, yet just as the atta or grounded wheat is mixed with water, salt and oil to form the lump, conversations are combined with humor, anecdotes and experiences to form the crux of relations. And as the experienced fingers work on the wooden stick or ‘belan’ to give a definite round shape to the dough, in many ways the effort and affection of those hands help mold and shape the direction, character and strength of the family.

Chapatis are as essential as rice, and this holds truer for the northern areas of the country. In fact, many of those who migrate from the sub-continent to other international destinations continue the cooking of this basic meal and cherish it even more.

Image Source

What may seem a daily routine or rather just an obvious inclusion in our diet, may also be a luxury or specialty for others. Chapatis may look humble fodder on our splendid platters or a taken for granted item in our kitchens, its quiet resilience to survive through time, space and forms speaks about its indispensability at some level. At the same time, it reflects in more than one way, the cultural intonation of a nation, the essentiality of taking time out for the nourishment of the family and the softness and warmth that it brings into everything.

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