Geographical Imaginations and Reminiscing Roti

Image taken by Iram Sammar

More to a roti than you think, it is symbolic to all who see the struggle behind it; the cultural and spiritual connections; and the senses that are used to devour it.

Written by Iram Sammar

Date: Shawaal 26, 1443 AH (27 May 2022)

Roti, a perfect circle if you cook it daily, is eaten by many people around the world and is traditionally cooked daily in many South Asian, or Pakistani British households​. It has been the main bread cooked in my home since childhood and reminds me of my mother and heritage – she taught me how to cook it​, now I cook it for my children. Chapatti is another name for it, the classic flat bread, which makes me love being, well me. I have now mastered the perfect circle (see main picture). For me, roti symbolises more than food for the stomach. In Ealing, London there is a Caribbean shop named in honour of this delightful food, the Roti Kitchen – one reviewer writes: “Fantastic Caribbean food for fair prices and friendly staff members.” As you can see, the roti is not just a South Asian geographical imagination, the roti has geographical connections fit for a full geography lesson.

It takes me back to a childhood where a young woman, my mother, and her four children struggled to make ends meet in the 1980s and 1990s, in a country I call home – the United Kingdom. A home away from a home in Pakistan. A memory that is like a rose embedded in a thorny bush, where my search for belonging began. You may be wondering what has roti got to do with geography? How have I talked about the roti to engage my geography students and their geographical imaginations in the classroom? Well, sometimes the simplest concepts, memories and stories become the best learning your students will ever experience.

I was six when I first peered over the kitchen counter to have a go at rolling the dough ball into what then looked like the map of Pakistan.​ “Beta (child), like this”, my mother would say with a soft loving smile and warm glow on her face. “You take your time. Don’t force it into shape let it slowly take form…ahistah, ahistah (slowly, slowy in Urdu).” My mother made the roti with such diligence and care, almost like an elegant ballerina moving rhythmically with the flow of the moment. I could watch her all day. The feeling is with me today, so much so that whenever I come to make the roti, it becomes a performance that takes me into a different world, where concentration and love takes over. Now, my children watch me, especially my son. He has the same relationship I had with my mother. Now he watches me, as I make the roti and breaks the flow by demanding a position at the kitchen counter asking for a rolling pin. Soon he is accompanied by his two sisters who like to get their hands on the dough too. Yes, it becomes more of a play dough session, as you would get in any primary school classroom.

“Mummy, look, I made a map of Pakistan” said my son once. “Can I ask you something? Do English people eat roti Mummy…er… White people?” He whispered the word ‘White’ and looked around, as if there were people around us listening in.

“Er…some probably do” I responded with a puzzled look on my face. What a strange question, I thought! I actually didn’t know the answer.

“What I mean is…do they eat roti like we do, with saalun (curry)?” He clarified, looking at me wanting to really know the answer. ” Do they eat Chicken Tikka? Do they eat…er pilau? Do they eat Naan? Do they eat Pakora or Samosas…I mean in the house…not in the restaurants?” There was no food he missed out on your everyday Indian, Pakistani, or Bangladeshi restaurant menu.

“Woah, woah…of course they probably do. I know a teacher I worked with, he made daal (lentils) and used to get pitta bread from the local groceries.” My amazement at this child’s inquisitive nature got me thinking about the roti and how our conversation began to unfold into a geography lesson.

He didn’t stop. “Mummy was the teacher an English man…he wasn’t Pakistani like us? Was the shop Pakistani? You know, where he got his pitta bread from. Pitta bread is not roti.” This was the first time my son referred to himself as a Pakistani. “Tell me mummy, who taught him how to make daal?” By now he was well into the conversation with a soft frown on his face wanting answers to all his tiny, yet large geographical questions. “I bet he has Pakistani friends.” He was right, well kind of, the teacher I knew enjoyed expressing his appreciation for the flavours of what he called ‘Indian food’, impressed by the diversity that it comes with. For example he talked about how he spent a lot of time with Northern Indian families, where they ate roti, yoghurt and spices such as cumin seeds, whereas his Southern Indian families enjoyed curry leaves, coconut milk and mustard seeds with many fish dishes. However, the daal, is the one dish that he loved eating with roti the most – or pitta bread, because making roti was tricky according to him.

“Why do you think that his friends were Pakistani?” I asked, interested to discover where our conversation will take us.

“Because, daal is from Pakistan.” He said in a smug, matter of fact way. “It doesn’t grow here, like chocolate and and other stuff like tea. Mummy remember that story with that man on the bus? You told him! Remember you taught him geography on your way home…I still think that was mean. I want to learn geography too – so I can tell mean people not to be horrible to people with different skins. So, what’s the geography of daal? The orange daal that turns yellow when you cook it. Is it only grown in Pakistan?”

“Well, it could be India and Bangladesh too – we should do some research when we finish cooking and eating. Remember India and Pakistan were once one country. It is grown in countries where it is the staple food – eaten for nutritional reasons. You are learning about proteins in science – well it is a rich source of protein. Some people eat it in substitute of meat. In fact British famers have now started to grow different types of lentils over here too. It’s really easy to grow.”

“Really?” He looked at me and jumped off the stool and sat down to listen to me. “You mean vegetarians? My friend says he is vegetarian, he is Indian. Are Indians all Hindu…are there any Muslims there…or other religions…er like here in West Ealing? You know, my mate…you know from India, he says he doesn’t eat roti or Pakistani food. We talk a lot and we sing a song in school called roti in the pan…it makes us laugh. Teachers think we eat roti and saalun … and that’s all we do. It’s like a nursery rhyme.” I thought to myself: at least he gets to explore a different culture, I remember being forced to sing hymns in school. My teacher’s strong coffee breath still haunts me today. She used to come up really close and shout at children, mainly Muslims, who didn’t sing “we are climbing Jesus ladder ladder”. I even remember a fellow Pakistani student say “Allah” (Arabic for God) instead of “Jesus” – the teacher didn’t notice that, especially as this student was a great vocalist. It was strange how I wanted to say so much to my son, but I held back, knowing that he is young. Perhaps he is not ready for these conversations? Well, not yet anyway. Or perhaps he was mature enough to hear me out? He was seven.

My own story began in Lancashire, in a small town called Oldham where I attended a primary school with multi-ethnic children. Born and raised in Britain, you would think I fitted in, right? Bangladeshi children to my left and Pakistani children to my right.  I recall sitting cross-legged on my best behaviour, raising my hand to answer a question.  A little White English girl sitting behind me once noticed something different about me. She tapped my shoulder frantically.

“You’re so brown, look at your hand”, she said, “I get like that when I go on holiday. Miss why are people in this class brown and so…er dirty? The girls are so funny, they wear trousers underneath their dresses. You all eat chappatis…not proper food like us…you should try toast. Miss is that why they don’t look clean like us? Do you eat food like us or do you just eat curry and chappatis?”

“Come on class, give each other a chance to speak. Yes Iram” said Ms Hud (pseudonym) completely ignoring the young girl’s question. I just froze and did not know what to say. It was the first time I experienced being singled out for the colour of my skin. I don’t know why but I felt awful and teary. As a four year old, you don’t really know how to channel your emotions that are so deeply rooted in race and racism. When you think of a four year old, you think comical chatter, questioning, cheeky behaviour and generally happiness. Well isn’t that what a four year old should experience? The rebel in me turned around to look at the girl in the eye. She was smiling back at me, with no malice in her heart.  This confused me so much that I felt awful for thinking bad of her. I was the other. In response to Gayatri C. Spivak’s question, Can the Subaltern Speak?, I would say not on this occasion. Here the White teacher and student had full control of the narrative – the only thing I could do is stare into their eyes questioning them ‘othering’ me. They really did not consider me an equal. Although, I did feel equal to them. Actually, they both seemed ridiculous and uneducated to me, and I was only four. I never once felt their behaviour towards me or the other students was justified. Imagine how my Indian/Pakistani/Bangladeshi ancestors felt during the British Raj? The poor farmers fighting the imperialist colonisers for their indigenous land. A clip from Lagaan comes to mind. I often use this to show geography students what the British Raj might have looked like – even though it is in Hindi, it impacts the class every time. So, what was my response to the teacher and the girl? I deeply stared at the racial perpetrators. Then I thought of the word ‘chappati’, she meant ‘roti’, my roti – she made fun of me and my heritage, just like that! 

As time went on, I enjoyed nursery and learnt how to deal with a racist comment here and there. Until one day.  It was Eid, the Muslim festival for which many Muslim children took the day off from school. I don’t remember the school being too fussed about absences in those days, however on our return teachers would comment on how empty the school gets.  My class teacher organised a parent and childrens’ Eid party, for which my mother cooked South Asian snacks such as samosas, pakoras (onion bhajis) and other dishes. My mother was a trained teacher in Pakistan, but enjoyed living as a home executive and an unofficial community advocate and tutor to help women and children from many South Asian ethnic backgrounds. She was always invited to help with school functions and events – all voluntary unpaid work. As she was setting the plates, another little White girl commented on my mother’s ‘otherness’, but this time it was a little on the brutal side.

“What’s this Paki food? Let’s have a taste”. She grabbed the pakora and took a nibble and spat it out. She tapped my beautiful mother’s arm and pulled on her kameez (Asian shirt).  “Ewe, that’s horrid.  It’s got curry in it.  It’s disgusting.  You’re disgusting.  My dad says you lot should go back to where you came from.  Go on, pack your bags and go back to Pakiland.”

“That’s not a very nice thing to say”, said the girl’s mother looking cross with her child. “I’m so sorry. Kids are silly, they say all kinds of things.”  Whilst the mother was very nice and apologetic, the little girl started on me. Other parents watched on and looked at this mother like she is delusional, an apology on behalf of an indigenous British White child to a Pakistani family? Absurd and unheard of. However, one particular parent of a different child stared at me as if I was in the wrong, but then again she showed hostility to others too, regardless of race or ethnicity. As Beryl Gilroy wrote: “occasionally one came across a mother who didn’t show animosity only to foreigners but to everyone who didn’t conform to her own idea of British standards of normality and ‘niceness’”(Black Teacher: ‘A Hugely Important Memoir’ p. 173).

“My mum doesn’t get it.  She likes brown people, but I don’t.” She picked up another pakora and bit into it and spat that out again.  In fact, she nibbled on each one and kept spitting it out.  I just watched her not knowing what to do. When she was bored, she glared at me and childishly stuck her tongue out and stuck up two fingers up to swear at me, before she ran off – with a couple of pakoras in her pocket. I remember going home holding my mother’s hand tight, thinking about what the little girl meant about ‘going back home’.

“Ammi, why did she say go back home?”  I said as we walked through the mill town roads of Oldham, Lancashire, North of England.

“Don’t worry beta (child), some people believe this country doesn’t belong to us, or we don’t belong here, so sometimes people get angry that there are too many Pakistanis and Bangladeshis here.  We are from Pakistan that’s why she said go back to Pakistan. Your Ammi and Daddy were born in Pakistan.” My mother tried to wipe the tears from her eyes, but they fell on my face as I looked up at her. She gave me a kiss on the cheek and looked at me with a serious face. “You are going to be brave and …just ignore when people make fun of Pakistan. The little girl only said go back home – we will one day…In Sha Allah (God Willing).”

‘No ammi, she said Pakiland. Anyway, where is Pakistan? Where are we? Why are we brown? Why do people think we are dirty?’

“Look Iram.” My mother stopped and leaned to level with my eyes. She sighed heavily and began to shed another tear. After taking a deep breath she spoke. “We are living here and people are going to say things that you don’t like, but be strong and ask Allah (God) for help and In Sha Allah (God willing) you will not bother about them. Our home is here at the moment, we live here, but you are special because you have another home too. Pakistan is your home too and there is nothing to be ashamed of. Be proud of your beautiful skin colour – the world would be so boring if we all looked the same. Iram look at the flowers, do they look the same? The white rose is just as beautiful as the red one, or the pink, yellow and multi-coloured one. Not everybody hates us.  Aunty Stacey (pseudonym) is my friend, she loves you children like her own.” Aunty stacey lived a couple of doors away from us.  She had a daughter one year younger than me and a newly born baby.  I remember visiting them with my elder sister and eating crisps and playing with Barbie dolls with her daughter in their house. Even their dad was kind.  They were a White English family, but very close to us without an ounce of racism, it seemed that way.  Their daughter used to come over to ours and play.  My mum loved cooking roti and curry for her and would give her some to take home.  So much so that her mum used to come over to learn how to cook roti from my mum.

You see, the Muslim woman is more than what she is represented in the West or through Eurocentric eyes of the White secular gaze. My mother was a testament to this. Malcom X once wrote about his sister:

“A strong woman. She had broken the spirits of three husbands, more driving and dynamic than all of them combined. She had played a very significant role in my life. No other woman ever was strong enough to point me in directions; I pointed women in directions. I had brought Ella into Islam, and now she was financing me to Mecca (Alex Haley’s the Autobiography of el-Hajj Malik el-Shabazz, or Malcom X to the world).

Roti is symbolic to my identity, it has been a talking point throughout my life – especially in the classroom. I use it to teach geography as it connects me to a place beyond England, beyond the racism, beyond the discomfort of everyday abuse. Roti feels like home. It makes me feel like I belong somewhere, with some people, over here and over there. The word ‘diaspora’ could be applied, however that would suggest I have a ‘homeland’. I have not been ‘exiled’ from my ‘homeland’, neither have I lived anywhere before England. Yet economic migration brought my father to the shores of the United Kingdom, no fault of his or mine. As Sivanadan once said “We are over here, because you were over there”. Who are we and who are you?

Thank you for reading this piece, I hope it helped you discover your own geographical imaginations in the same way.

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