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When the West discovers our natural treasures

The humble Isabgol has made it to ‘NYT’. From turmeric to yoga, there is no shortage of our natural treasures being discovered and then commoditised by the West

In ‘Piku’, Amitabh Bachchan plays an ornery Bengali man whose life revolves around his bowel movements.
In ‘Piku’, Amitabh Bachchan plays an ornery Bengali man whose life revolves around his bowel movements.

Years ago, I embarked on a project to report on ageing in India. I met a leading demographer in Kerala, visited a high-end retirement community outside Mumbai and interviewed a well-known gerontologist in Bengaluru. But the insight that really stayed with me came from a friend’s mother in Delhi.

Kanta Advani sat me down and said, “My main problem of getting old is constipation.” She said that was a major topic of discussion when she met other elderly people and they all swapped recipes and home remedies. Then she chortled: “Remember that. You will also get it when you are old.”

Kanta Advani is no more. But I thought of her the other day when Isabgol, the constipation cure for generations of Indians, made its debut in the hallowed portals of The New York Times (NYT). It did not show up in some new-age slick wellness avatar. Priya Krishna’s article was accompanied by an image I recognised only too well—a rectangular box of B G Telephone brand Sat-Isabgol or psyllium husk.

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A similar green and white box sits in our kitchen in Kolkata as well. My mother might forget to restock her blood pressure pills but she cannot stomach the thought of being Isabgol-deprived. During the first covid-19 lockdown, when stores were shuttered and transport ground to halt, we had a case of Isabgol panic. Since then, we have made sure that come what may, there is always a back-up box of Telephone Sat-Isabgol in the house. I have never seen the Plantago ovata, or horse flower, but the husk of its seeds, “highly purified by sieving and winnowing”, has been part of my entire life. We would make fun of my mother’s psyllium husk obsession but now, thanks to NYT, she is having the last laugh.

My mother discovered Isabgol as a young woman. She had tremendous stomach pains while in college. No one could diagnose the cause. It seemed unlikely that she would be able to sit for her maths exams. A renowned doctor was called, he pressed her stomach and prescribed heaping spoonfuls of Isabgol. It worked like magic. Unfortunately, it also meant her father refused to sign a note that would have excused her from the exam. Nonetheless, it resulted in a lifelong relationship with psyllium husk. Though companies like Dabur also sell Isabgol now, my mother has remained faithful to her Telephone brand.

Of course, this digestive preoccupation comes naturally to us Bengalis. The British classified us as a non-martial race but while we might have been insulted as gutless, we have long been obsessed with the state of our own guts. Bengalis have as many words associated with indigestion as Eskimos have for snow, from ambol (or acidity) to Zinetac (a digestive pill if the biryani proves a bit “too rich”). My grandmother blamed everything from joint pain to fever to swollen feet on the dreaded “pet porishkar hoy ni (the stomach is not clear)”.

Our guilty secret was broadcast to the world by the Hindi film Piku (2015), where Amitabh Bachchan played an ornery Bengali man whose life revolved around his bowel movements, a walking-talking embodiment of irritable bowel syndrome. It was a kind of potty humour Bengalis around the world sheepishly recognised only too well.

We are quick to pretend it’s something ridiculous our parents and grandparents do—a post-mortem of the morning’s stool quality while pouring out a cup of second-flush Darjeeling tea. But most of us are secretly equally anxious. If nothing else, NYT has made our constipation angst respectable.

Thanks to NYT, I also learnt that psyllium husk is good for more than, as the trendy wellness website describes it, a way to “fluff up the stool”. It’s also excellent as a gluten-free binding agent to make chewy cinnamon rolls and hold meatballs together, a tool for appetite control, and a great way to thicken soups. This is not just my mother’s Isabgol any more. It’s a wellness superfood and kitchen hack and beauty secret rolled into one.

At one level, it is wonderful that the humble, no-frills Isabgol is getting its moment in the sun even if, as NYT says, the husks look “like the bedding found in a hamster cage” and “taste like sawdust” until they are mixed with water and turn disgustingly gelatinous. It’s a timely reminder that too often we roll our eyes at our grandmother’s low-cost homespun remedies just because they aren’t accompanied by scientific jargon.

The old-school design of the Isabgol packet does not look like it has been updated in decades. Nothing screams gut health, whether it’s the drawing of factories spewing smoke or the candlestick telephone logo which seems like an alien contraption in the age of smartphones, unless it’s there to say Dial I for Isabgol. It does not even have retro cachet. And yet it has quietly soldiered on in our guts for generations, a true triumph of content over packaging. Only an unobtrusive sign in the corner quietly keeps track of the passage of time as it declares, “Our 85th year.”

But there is also a nervousness when something that has been part of your upbringing suddenly gets “discovered” in the West. When pantabhaat, the fermented leftover rice dish, a staple in much of eastern India, made its MasterChef Australia debut in 2021, rechristened as Smoked Rice Water, it evoked both pride and nervousness. Some desis were tearful that their humble pantabhaat had been elevated to MasterChef finale heights. Others were afraid the pantabhaat would become uppity and develop “smoked rice water” airs. Yet others had to admit that they had never had it. A friend shared expert tips on how long the rice had to be soaked and how, if made just right, the fermentation could make it a bit intoxicating as well. Then he admitted, “I have never tried it but our maids used to have it daily at home.”

It all created a great panta-divide. But chef and food blogger Debjani Chatterjee Alam wrote in her blog at the time, “According to some it’s too plain for a platform such as MasterChef! Memes are being made about (the chef’s) choice. I am asking why? Why not celebrate our own culture? Why not promote our own food?”

She is right. But a part of me also wants to protect the homeliest of the humblest dishes from becoming international sensations because I fear it will no longer be our homely dish any more. It could become Ottolenghi-ised as DIY Panta-kits pop up at grocery stores.

I have the same fear for Isabgol. There is no shortage of our natural treasures being discovered and then commoditised by the West, which then can even attempt to copyright them. From neem to ashwagandha to turmeric to yoga, the list is long.

That’s why the Prime Minister moved fast to claim World Yoga Day in India’s name. It was a way to stake a right to yoga before someone in a Santa Barbara studio did. The time might be ripe to do the same for Isabgol. India is the largest producer of psyllium husk in the world, something the government does not boast about despite all its Made in India fanfare. Obsessed with national symbols, it has just announced a One Nation, One Fertiliser scheme; it would do well to launch a One Nation, One Fibre scheme to honour something that binds India together as a country and keeps its bowels moving every day.

Cult Friction is a fortnightly column on issues we keep rubbing up against. Sandip Roy is a writer, journalist and radio host. He tweets @sandipr.

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