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Our Delhi bread

As a child, Saskya Jain wanted to travel the world and eat it too. But at home she had to use her imagination – and a roti

Saskya Jain | September/October 2014

I don’t remember thinking of running away when I asked Ram Singh, our house help, to get my small grey suitcase from the storeroom. We were living in a government flat surrounded by a big garden in the centre of New Delhi. I was five or six years old, and it was the first of many long summer holidays. My classmates had all fled from the heat—abroad, mostly. The school fees sapped my parents’ income and, with both of them working full-time, the only prospect of travel was accompanying my father to meetings in nearby Jaipur. So began what turned into a ritual of sorts. Every day I would arrange a varying selection of belongings in the empty stomach of my suitcase—only to unpack them all a little while later.

To fill our own empty stomachs, my family relied on Ram Singh’s limited repertoire of roti, sabzi, dal and chawal—unleavened flatbread, fried or curried vegetables, lentils and rice. My brother and I often ate by ourselves, and we knew that, of the four, only the roti lent itself to mid-meal entertainment. It could be torn in half if a ship’s hold needed to be loaded up with potato bricks, okra beams or chickpea crates. It could be attached to each ear, to make a pair of giant earrings such as we had seen dangling from certain aunties’ rubbery lobes. With just one bite, a solo roti could become Krishna’s lethal chakra, which he’d spin around his finger on Sunday-morning episodes of “The Mahabharata” before using it to slice off his enemy’s heads. But despite our best efforts, lunch rarely brought us more than 15 minutes closer to the end of the holidays.

I was often in our garden, watching aeroplane trails wrinkle the clear blue sky. The promise of discovery wrapped in the idea of travel appealed to me. I started telling my parents that I had lived in America in my previous life, before I was born into our family. They encouraged me to tell them stories of my prenatal adventures; it took me some time to figure out that their queries were motivated by something other than a keen interest in geography.

So perhaps it was with a vague plan to go to America that, one day that summer, I shut the small suitcase—filled with a clean pair of underwear, my stuffed blue elephant, the book about the dancing cat, and, for a sense of endorsement, a couple of my father’s old government files—and walked out of our front door.

I remember the thrill of setting foot on the forbidden main road. Clutching my bag, I walked along our leafy hedge, so familiar from the other side. At the corner I stopped. The suitcase was heavy, my courage exhausted. I longed for home. Expecting a search party and a scolding, I ran back. My journey had probably lasted no more than two minutes, and nobody had noticed my absence. So disappointing.

Reviving my invisible rebellion, that evening I asked for the impossible: pizza. To my surprise, a few minutes later my mother brought back my plate from the kitchen and placed it before me with a flourish. She had crushed a tomato, smeared its salted and peppered paste on a roti, and topped it with glistening chunks of melted cheese. It was delicious. For the next course she served me a French crêpe: roti with a coating of caramelised sugar. Then she rolled up chunks of fried potatoes in a roti, smothering it with ketchup and mustard, and presented me with a hot dog.

We must have kept my small suitcase for a few more years after that summer, but I don’t remember using it.

Some 15 years later, I was a student in New York City. Missing home, I would go to Patel Bros in Jackson Heights to buy Indian groceries—and, tired of eating rice, decided one day to pick up a bag of atta, the Indian flour. Making rotis is not complex, but neither is it easy. Whether they will be stiff, raw on the inside, will refuse to puff up, or take on the complicated shapes of countries and continents—as was the case with mine when I returned to my kitchen in Harlem—depends on skills that are mostly instinctive. These can be honed only with much patience and practice.

My trial-and-error approach to roti-making at the time coincided with another experiment: I had begun to write fiction. It, too, often felt stiff, raw, patchy or unfocused. But that feeling only led me to write more. I finished my studies and returned to Delhi, carrying with me a heavy suitcase, an idea for a novel—and leaving behind a stale bag of atta.

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