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In India, in the Kingdom of Clay PotsYears ago I was given sweet milky tea in a terra cotta cup at an NGO I was visiting on the outskirts of Kolkata. As we walked the rough, stone-strewn grounds, my host told me to discard the empty cup right there in the fields – it would break and merge into the eco-system. The tea had a special earthy flavor in this cup and the fact that the clay container would once again become one with nature seemed a beautiful idea. After all, aren’t ancient civilizations traced out by the clay remains of their days?
Our civilization of course will probably be remembered by the piles of plastic containers and garbage stuffed landfills we will leave behind! So the idea of the reborn clay utensils really appealed to me.
As we moved around Delhi on this recent visit, I was always charmed by the clay pots lining random nooks and crannies in the city. Who used them now and for what? I found another street in Saket totally lined with small stores selling clay-wares and decorations. I had these romantic notions of trying out dumpukht cuisine in our New York kitchen, of creating biryanis and muttons with the flavors of old, coaxed out of these down-to-earth clay utensils. And I wanted a simple clay ‘matka’ to taste the sweetness of the water, to pretend life was simple in crazy, frenetic Manhattan. I’d also heard home-made yogurt in clay pots tastes absolutely unique. So off we went, matka-shopping.
I went to small neighborhoods and discovered several different families still practice this ancient craft. I’m happy to report that while I was at one small makeshift store, the potter’s wife stood outside on the road to collect her uniformed grand-daughter from the school bus and take her in, unloading her heavy school bag. In another location, the potter’s daughter came running to show me the wares while the women of the family rested on a string bed right out in the open as cars whizzed by on the busy Delhi street. There was a sea of clay vessels as far as the eye could see.
The family had an air-cooler for their ramshackle brick home and a scooter stood tethered close by, the new electric horse in urban India. Around them was a field of clay utensils. Did she go to school I asked the young pots saleswoman anxiously. Yes, today was a holiday she smiled as she showed me different pots or handis to make a biryani in. I was also amused to see the women of the family, their heads covered, browsing a mobile phone on the charpoy. People just like us, and probably on Facebook! One wonders if their children, with so many opportunities in urban India, will continue to make utilitarian pots out of clay – or is it a dying art?
The little girl found me the perfect clay handi to make daal in. I also bought a matka to hold water. I would try an experiment – would New York water taste sweeter in a matka made from Delhi clay by local village artisans? My little experiment in globalization!
I gathered up my big and small pots, even a clay tawa for making rotis and packed them all for the plane journey back home. Pots worth hardly a couple of dollars, carried home like priceless heirlooms. Now they sit in my backyard in New York – and bring New Delhi closer by touch, texture – and smell.