Potatoes and Life in the Mountains

We had trekked to the Everest Base Camp and the Kalapathar in the autumn of 1997. We, meaning my inseparable companions of many a Himalayan trek, Swapan Chakrabarty, a schoolteacher from Budge Budge, another schoolmaster Subrata Chowdhury, Asit Bose, who celebrated his 76th birthday at the Base Camp and Mastermoshai, Rabindranath babu the Mathematics teacher in the Achipur High school. Of them Asitda is no more, he spent his last few years confined to his house in Tollygunge with Alzheimer’s disease.
The most important thing when you are going for a long trek is to have a good comfort level among the participants, because you are thrown together at very close quarters and have to share your personal space in a way that even Indians, who do not set much store by privacy, may find irksome. However this group was one that had together walked many of the trails of the Himalayas and also most recently, the along the Damodar river in Bihar. (There was no Jharkhand then) At the end of a hard eight day walk we stood on Kalpatthar, swirling clouds all around us as we feasted our eyes on Sagarmatha. Below us the Khumbu glacier flowed, a few centimeters every year, and to all of us it was literally the experience of a lifetime.
But I do not want to talk about the trek today. We were a low budget group. Thus the local innkeepers looked down upon us. They were not really interested in Indians who did not want to spend money on snacks and soft drinks. Not that we cared because we had our own tents and rations and did not need anything from them except some provisions occasionally. However we usually had lunch at wayside restaurants. Here you could at a price, get everything from Coca Cola to Mars Bars, museli to Kellog’s cornflakes. However for third worlders like us, we had to stick to the food of the poor in the mountains: potatoes.
Anybody who knows Bengali cooking always wonders how we got along before potatoes travelled to Bengal via the European colonization of the Americas. But even we would be hard pressed to rival the dependency of the hill folk to this marvelous tuber. They had it for breakfast, they had it for lunch, they had it for dinner and snacked off it just to fill up gaps. It was usually served boiled accompanied by chutney made of chilies and in the trail to the Everest, with the Ama Dablam staring down at you, it tasted like food from the gods.
In fact, I read somewhere, (unfortunately I cannot subsequently trace the reference), sustained habitation in the higher reaches of the Himalayas only became possible after potatoes reached there, a matter of a mere 150-200 years ago. Previous to that staying in the higher fastness was impossible during the winter as grain could not be grown in amounts that would allow sustenance during the long winter. In fact the riches of the monasteries and the culture that grew up in the remote highlands, were all dependent on the humble potato, as only after it was available did people grow enough to eat and were able to sustain the monasteries which were essentially unproductive insofar as providing physical nourishment was concerned. I do not know whether this theory will stand scientific scrutiny, but this is what I had read somewhere and it struck a chord when I realized the total dependence of the hill folk on this tuber from the Solanum family.
The potato originates from the mountains; they were first discovered in the mountain fastness of Chile. Farmers there cultivated it as long as 7000 years ago. However this crop remained in South America until the Spanish reached Peru in the first half of the sixteenth century. They transported the plants to Europe and this was the beginning of its triumphal march that conquered the world. Initially, however, it remained the food of the poor and it really came to its own during the Irish famine in 1780. The Irish embraced the crop and it became so much a staple food that the failure of the potato crop in Ireland would spark of another famine in the nineteenth century which changed the face of Ireland and North America for ever.
India got the potato in the early part of the seventeenth century when Sir Thomas Roe, the ambassador to Emperor Jahangir’s court first referred to them. The British Governor General, Warren Hastings, is said to have promoted the planting of potatoes in India on a large scale. Thus the earliest that potatoes could have reached the Himalayas is the seventeenth or more likely the eighteenth century. Thus if it really had the effect on the Himalayan economy as claimed, the effects were definitely very recent!
However these asides notwithstanding we had the opportunity of investigating firsthand how important the potato was in the mountains. It was (relatively) cheap, tasty and easily cooked. It saved us from chronic malnutrition during our trek and I can well believe that it had the momentous effects on the mountain economy that has been claimed by some writers.
So the next time you admire the Himalayan Monasteries, and admire their collections of thankas and the gorgeous idols, remember that it is all because of the humble potato!

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