The late April afternoon glowered with heat. Most of the slatted window shutters of our house in Calcutta were closed to keep the interior as cool as possible. But with the kitchen windows left open for ventilation, we were not totally immune to the sounds and aromas of life from street, backyard, and surrounding houses. And there it was again—the characteristic rumbling sound of something heavy being dragged across a concrete floor. Moments later came the resonance of stone grating on stone.
My father and I looked at each other and grinned. We knew what it meant. Our next-door neighbor was entertaining yet another guest from his home village in Rarh, the westernmost corner of West Bengal. And no matter what hour of day or time of year it was, lunch or dinner in that house was unthinkable without a fresh-ground serving of posto, the tiny white seeds of the Indian opium poppy.
Ground posto was also prepared in our house. The shil, a flat block of roughly pitted stone, and the nora, a heavy, pestle-shaped bar of stone—standard equipment in all Bengali kitchens—were used every day to grind, paste, and powder any number of ingredients. As a child, I loved to squat beside our maid on summer mornings and watch her crush the pale poppy seeds with several sprinklings of water until she had produced a smooth, round, beige-colored mass. If I brought my face down close to it, I could smell its delicate, almost herbal fragrance, like wet grass on a hot summer day after the first rainfall; I inhaled again and again to absorb its freshness.
The relationship between food and the seasons was a matter of deep conviction in my family. During the summer we tended to eat “cold” foods, which, according to Bengali food lore, were easy on the stomach and kept the body cool. “Hot” items like onion, garlic, eggs, and meat supposedly inflamed the body, so we avoided them until autumn and winter. Posto, itself a cool ingredient, was frequently added to cool vegetables. One summer favorite was jhingey, a zucchini-like vegetable, seasoned with nigella seeds, green chiles, and ground posto. Eggplant or potatoes were often substituted for jhingey. My widowed grandmother, a vegetarian, was particularly fond of posto fritters, hot and crisp, eaten as a starter with rice and dal. Sometimes, on a cool, damp monsoon afternoon, my mother made the fritters as a savory snack that we ate at teatime.
It was not until years later, when I was in college, that I first heard about the other product of the poppy plant and its role in our family. It came out almost casually that my mother’s grandmother regularly took opium in the last years of her life. What I found more shocking than the fact itself was how calmly the adults accepted it. Apparently, the habit was common among elderly people of my great-grandmother’s generation, like taking snuff or chewing tobacco, and carried no stigma. A daily opium pill simply guaranteed relief from the aches, pains, and infirmities of old age.
My mother—with her small, delicate, child’s fingers—was entrusted with the task of rolling the dark, gummy raw opium into tiny balls, which were then stored in a little silver box. Afterward, she would hold her hand to her nose to inhale the perfume. In the evenings, she often sat by her grandmother and watched her pop an opium pill and then consume a bowl of warm milk. As the drug slowly took effect, my great-grandmother (who was also a devotee of posto dishes) launched into stories and reminiscences until she fell asleep.
The opium poppy has been part of human history for centuries. The latex from the unripe seedpods yields opium and its derivatives, but the tiny kidney-shaped seeds have no narcotic effect because they form after the seedpods have ripened. Native to western Asia and southeastern Europe, the plant has been cultivated on the Indian subcontinent as a source of opium since the 11th and 12th centuries, when Arab traders, who learned about opium from the Greeks, brought the knowledge to India.
In 1757 the last nawab of Bengal was dethroned by the British East India Company, who concentrated on maximizing the cultivation of opium in Bengal. The drug promised to generate huge profits, not only in the local market, but also in a far bigger one—China. The company’s greed was so great that at one point they forced farmers in much of Bengal to devote all their arable land to its cultivation. So it’s not surprising that the posto seeds produced in this enormous poppy-growing zone became such an important element in the local diet.
The Indian trade in opium flourished unimpeded until the 1820s, when Chinese emperor Tao-kuang tried to restrict imports. The British, unwilling to surrender their lucrative trade, fought back. When the Chinese lost the Second Opium War, in 1858, they responded by legalizing opium cultivation and knocking the bottom out of the Bengali market.
But while the Indian opium trade may have diminished, the local taste for posto did not. I discovered that just last year, when I visited my father’s boyhood hometown in the Rarh area, a journey I had been meaning to make since his death in 1993.
The moment I got off the train, a shield of fire seemed to rise out of the earth and hit me. No wonder, I thought, that the people of this region were so addicted to posto, the magical seasoning they believed would dispel the debilitating effect of such heat.
As the heat abated with the setting sun, I walked down a road bordered by tall palash trees, their vivid orange flowers, shaped like the beaks of parrots, blazing on dark branches. I was going to Subarnarekha, a bookstore in the university town of Shantiniketan that is the daily gathering place for an eclectic and intellectual crowd. The mention of posto created a visible stir. Like our neighbor in Calcutta so many years ago, people here consider posto integral to a meal, spending up to a quarter of their food budget to buy it. The poor use it sparingly, as a condiment. The better-off use it in a variety of sophisticated preparations, including one I had never heard of—a tart and zesty chutney with tamarind. An elderly woman buying a book of patterns for batik-printing silk told me that when her husband developed heart trouble, the local doctor advised him to eat more posto; supposedly, it lowered one’s cholesterol. Myth and modern medicine—the local passion for posto seemed to have combined the two.