“Hold on, I have just the thing for you.”
Mrs. Dutta got up and went to another room. While I waited, Mr. Dutta told me more about football culture and ‘lebu cha’ (lemon tea) from his days as a football referee in Kolkata in the 1960s. Their house was right across a large pond, perfect for conversation. Despite the regular crossing of local trains close by, this place was peaceful and quiet, save that mosquito whizzing in my ear once in a while. This was during a recce for my documentary Steeped and Stirred on tea drinking cultures in India in late 2014.
Mrs. Dutta returned with something. It looked like a pale gold pipe, about 12 cm in length and had an orange stopper at the back. The print was almost faded and the gold body was patchy and spotted with time. “It’s an old cigar case I saved long ago. I don’t really know why. Your uncle used to buy such things during his travels. You can have it since you said like old things,” she smiled.
A thin piece of metal peeled off as I ran my fingers over the cigar case. In that very moment, Mr. Dutta’s descriptions of 1960s Kolkata came to life in an intense but fleeting moment. In an instant, I stood amidst boisterous, angry crowds in a football stadium, marinating in my sweat from sweltering heat and humidity. In the next, I was at a jazz club, taken over by a deep, silky voice melting into delicious cigar smoke and single-malt whiskey. This tiny object, embedded in its time, space and context, had triggered my imagination of Mr. and Mrs. Dutta’s earlier days in Kolkata, a city I knew rather little about.
But of course, this was my ‘inauthentic’ version of their reality, a mishmash of the Kolkata I’d seen in movies. But could it be ‘real’ anyway? The process of invoking and recreating memories for my research and films happened by chance. It started when I was working on my M.A. dissertation in 2011 on the representation of regional cuisine of Konkan (Vengurla, Ratnagiri and Goa, in particular) on national food television in India. I conducted semi-structured interviews with several women from the region about the representation of Konkani cuisine on food and travel channels. In a particularly striking conversation with my own grandaunt (Kaku Ajji/Kalindi Morje) and her neighbourhood friends, we started talking about our memories of food and cooking. They told me about their experiments with ingredients like coriander and capsicum, which were ‘foreign’ in the 1960s and about the numerous traditional dishes that no one liked or had the time to make anymore.
EXCERPT ABOUT AJJIS AND RECIPES, ETC. (37:39 – 41:05)
It was no surprise that the women’s food memories stood in juxtaposition to my maternal grandfather (Ajoba) and granduncle’s (Appa Ajoba). Most women spoke of the inside – local ingredients, elaborate recipes and techniques, and advancements in cooking equipment that had made their lives easier. My grandfather and granduncle, on the other hand, spoke nostalgically of the outside – of how things were no more the same, of how they missed certain tastes and textures and their experiences of plucking berries and fruits while loitering on their way to school. My only link to Konkani identity had been the fish fry and solkadi on my plate and my imagination of Ajoba’s descriptions. But this difference in the spatial location of memories left me wondering what my own life and identity would have been as a woman in Vengurla, if the family had never migrated. These thoughts never really left until I had the opportunity to explore them through a documentary called Chatkorichya Athvani/A Slice of Memory (2014).
EXCERPT ABOUT APPA’S RECREATED MEMORIES (13:10 – 20:04)
Just like that old cigar case, many material objects made their way into my films – either in the product or process. During my recce for Chatkorichya Athvani, my granduncle (Appa Ajoba/Bhalchandra Morje) handed me a file of crumbling, typewritten sheets rather unexpectedly. It was a collection of anecdotes and experiences from his childhood in Vengurla, the ancestral history of the Morje family and his life after migration to Mumbai. Many of these became the conceptual points of the film, which I have discussed in an article on memory and migration. However, it was another object and place that invoked memories so strong that I was driven to restructure the film.
The first and main round of shooting for Chatkorichya Athvani happened in February 2014. Our crew was small but had two very experienced professionals for camera and sound. They were also wonderful people who took the time to discuss ideas and understand my motivations to make this film. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that I actually began thinking deeper about my personal journey to make the film during this shoot. We had decided to record the voice-over of some excerpts from Appa Ajoba’s writings and it was suggested we try doing this at old, quiet locations in Vengurla. We tried it first at an abandoned Dutch warehouse. When that didn’t work to our liking, we arrived at the Morje ancestral house by evening. The sun had started setting and the low buzz of chirping crickets had begun to take over. As we settled down on the steps, I noticed a short dry stump at the entrance gate. The last of the four legendary drumstick trees that had supported the family in famine and flood was no more.
SEQUENCE ON DRUMSTICK TREE (Ajji & Appa) (26:00 – 29:23)
I read an excerpt quietly, trying not to feel overpowered by the space. That drumstick tree had been a strange link to the ancestral house. I had grown up listening to the same two stories over and over again from my mother and Ajoba, each story changing a little with each retelling. A few minutes later, I broke down. I hadn’t known most people who had lived and died there. But the death of that tree reminded me of the two crucial links to Vengurla – my beloved Ajoba, who passed on in 2005 and my mother, who was slowly getting fatigued from a battle against cancer. My worst fears stood raw and naked right in front of me; images of losing her, of scattering her ashes in the rough grey sea. I found out soon after submitting the final cut that my fears would come true.
My crewmembers asked if they could continue recording as I spoke of all this. They suggested that I revisit this recording at a later stage, if not for the film then for personal reasons. My cameraperson, who knew by then that I liked collecting material markers of important moments, handed me a fishing net sinker he had found abandoned somewhere in the house vicinity. I hid this and the recording away deep into a cupboard back home in Delhi. I couldn’t pluck up the courage to revisit them for a long time.
I submitted a patchy rough cut. The film was unsure of what it wanted to say and had low affective value. The recorded voice-overs, written especially to reflect on my experiences of making this film didn’t seem to add up. A month into ‘looking for inspiration’, I discovered the fishing net sinker lying in my drawer and ‘aha-moment’ or not, it made me want to give the audio recording a chance. As I listened to my recorded voice, I realized that the crux of the story lay in there. I had been trying hard to articulate the sensory and spatial experience of food on screen but had, in turn, been flattening it all out on this two-dimensional, with a plastic voice-over. It wasn’t just that spicy aroma of fish fry, its bright colour or crunch that I wanted to convey a la TLC. It was how the food made me feel; the place and time transported me to, all in a single bite. All this while, I’d been obsessing over how it just didn’t look as appetising as I wanted it to. But would that have helped anyway? This ‘audio diary’ gave the food and the film the context it needed. It was deeply personal, but it was my best chance to weave together the ideas of food, memory and identity coherently. It put into perspective the fact that this was my experience, re-imagination and reconstruction of my family’s lived realities.
Chatkorichya Athvani has received drastically opposing reactions in film screenings. People have either been moved to tears or not connected with it at all. While this most definitely has a lot to do with bettering my audio-visual storytelling skills, it may also be demonstrative of the affective nature of the film. Anyone who has had a brush with the loss of a loved one, a mixed regional identity or felt a need to find home amidst placelessness has found triggers to an emotional moment through this film. Needless to say, material objects have played an immense role in making the recreation of intangible memories possible. And I hope to continue exploring and experimenting with matter and audio-visual, tactile and emotional memory through my filmmaking and writing. After all, in all the reliving, recounting, reimagining and reconstructing memories go through, we never really live the same ones again. They are the same memories, but with each fragment that disappears, a new one comes along to add meaning and deepen the experience. Memories may change from one moment to another, from one person to another. But the experience of reliving one always remains true and whole.
 Travel and Living Channel
Trailer Link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZH0RaZTSbNY&t=15s
Full Film Link: https://youtu.be/psjPqAaTu-0
Produced by: School of Media and Cultural Studies, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai (made with the support of the SMCS Early Career Film Fellowship 2014).