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Sumana Roy
Free Verse

Hot potato: Why the tuber needs to be reimagined

began singing — and dancing to — "One Potato, Two Potato" — with my nearly three year old nephew at around the same time that Bengal was going through a potato crisis. The Bengal government had apparently tried its best to control this artificial inflation resulting from hoarding by middlemen, but the bureaucracy clearly lacked a Pied Piper who could draw all the potatoes out from hiding. And so, for the last couple of months, Bengalis have been faced with the closest they would get to a war-like situation. In a region where alu sheddho-bhaat, rice with mashed potatoes, is often the staple brunch for school children, office goers, farmers and daily wage labourers, potatoes at Rs 30 a kg will undoubtedly bring in narratives of annoyance and agony.

It was my mother who pointed out the irony of the child rhyme to me — it was impossible to say "one potato, two potatoes, three potatoes, four,/five potatoes, six potatoes, seven potatoes more... ," she said. Her anger was directed at the easy "more" in the rhyme. An ardent potato lover, the love of which she had failed to pass on to her two children, she was visibly troubled. A collector of trivial information, she repeated to me what she had got from the morning newspaper: "We might have to drop the aloo and replace it with an egg," Nadim Amin, the director of the legendary Aminia restaurant in Kolkata, had been quoted in a daily. This was, of course, about the biryani, the Bengali biryani to be specific, for only here does the dish come with a large slice of potato. 

The Irish had failed to interpret the potato, or change it into something finer than fuel. Their dependence on the tuber resulted in the collapse of their economy when Phytophthora infestans arrived in Europe in the summer of 1845 and killed potatoes and potato eaters alike.

By one of those coincidences that seem to guide the life of readers, I had been reading Michael Pollan's brilliant chapter on the history of the potato in his book The Botany of Desire. "Tell me what you eat and I will tell you what you are," Pollan mentions the famous quote from Anthelme Brillat-Savarin before proceeding to take his reader on two parallel narratives, the history of the potato and his uneasy experiments with growing New Leaf, a variety of genetically modified potato in his garden:

Ireland, 1588. Like an alien species introduced into an established ecosystem, the potato had trouble finding a foothold when it first arrived in Europe toward the end of the sixteenth century, probably as an afterthought in the hold of a Spanish ship. The problem was not with the European soil or climate, which would prove very much to the potato's liking (in the north anyway), but with the European mind. ... Why? Europeans hadn't eaten tubers before ... potatoes were thought to cause immorality; potatoes were mentioned nowhere in the Bible; potatoes came from America, where they were the staple of an uncivilised and conquered race. ... Ireland was the exception that proved the rule ... Ireland embraced the potato very soon after its introduction, a fateful event sometimes credited to Sir Walter Raleigh, sometimes to the shipwreck of a Spanish galleon off the Irish coast in 1588.

atherine Gallagher, in her outstanding essay, The Potato in the Materialist Imagination, writes about how "the English usually depicted the potato as mere food, primitive, unreconstructed, and lacking in any cultural resonance: the potato came to signify the end of food being anything more than food — animal fuel. Bread, on the other hand, was as leavened with meaning as it was with air". The writer Amit Chaudhuri has often remarked upon the similarities between Irish and Bengali cultures while explaining his affinity for certain writers from Ireland. Chaudhuri's remarks have to do with the literary, of course, but the potato is a most delicious evidence of that commonality.

The Irish had failed to interpret the potato, or change it into something finer than fuel. Their dependence on the tuber resulted in the collapse of their economy when Phytophthora infestans arrived in Europe in the summer of 1845 and killed potatoes and potato eaters alike. Bengalis, on the other hand, had constructed a subset of their cuisine around potatoes: alu posto, potatoes with poppy seeds; potatoes with nigella seeds and green chillies; alu chop; various kinds of fried potatoes, from the thick French fries to the pin like fried potatoes, jhiri jhiri alu bhaja; not to mention the more pan-Indian alur dom.

And yet Bengal's poets have not really paid the potato appropriate homage. Amitav Ghosh named the central protagonist in his first novel, The Circle of Reason, after the potato: a weaver, he has a simple name — Alu. There are two things from that novel that make me laugh when I posit it in our contemporary fable of potato deprivation: Alu is a weaver who is wrongly suspected of being a terrorist; and Alu is an orphan. The potato as orphan and terrorist fits into our tale quite perfectly. The politician Lalu Prasad Yadav's slogan writers perhaps wrote the best pop ode to the potato when his supporters shouted "Jab tak samosa mein rahega alu/Bihar mein rahega Lalu". This was, of course, only a parody of a love song from the Hindi film Mr. & Mrs. Khiladi. Marie Antoinette is said to have worn potato flowers in her hair, one of the many means adopted to popularise the potato in France. Given where potato prices are going, could the days of potato spud costume jewellery in Bengal be the new signal of the upper class?

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