The ubiquitous boti

Perhaps the most familiar kitchenware in the Bengali home is the ever-so-scary boti, and reading about it in Jhumpa Lahiri’s short story “Mrs. Sen’s” brought back many memories. This website calls it one of the two “star attractions of the Bengali kitchen” and describes it as follows and also gives the link to an image:

Although knives and peelers have made their debut into the modern Bengali kitchen, the boti, that unique cutting tool, has not yet been ousted. Boti, the Bengali woman’s pride and joy and her proverbial weapon, is fitted on a wooden stand and held in place by the feet on the floor so that both hands are free. The blade of the versatile boti varies and is sharp enough to cut off the head of the toughest carp and yet safe enough to peel vegetables (with some skill that is!).

Bengalis still don’t think a knife can ever be as efficient as a boti, even though it is so scary because the blade faces the user’s face and not away from it (accidents aren’t unheard of). In Lahiri’s story, Mrs. Sen’s boti becomes an object of fascination for the young boy Eliot (the description here couldn’t be more perfect!):

He especially enjoyed watching Mrs. Sen as she chopped things, seated on a newspaper on the living room floor. Instead of a knife she used a blade that curved like the prow of a Viking ship, sailing to battle in distant seas. The blade was hinged at one end to a narrow wooden base. The steel, more black than silver, lacked a uniform polish, and had a serrated crest, she told Eliot, for grating. Each afternoon Mrs. Sen lifted the blade and locked it into place, so that it met the base at an angle. Facing the sharp edge without ever touching it , she took whole vegetables between her hands and hacked them apart: cauliflowers, cabbage, butternut squash. She split things in half, then quarters, speedily producing florets, cubes, slices, and shreds. She could peel a potato in seconds. At times she sat cross-legged, at times with legs splayed, surrounded by an array of colanders and shallow bowls of water in which she immersed her chopped ingredients.

While she worked she kept an eye on the television and an eye on Eliot, but she never seemed to keep an eye on the blade. Nevertheless, she refused to let Eliot walk around when she was chopping. “Just sit, sit please, it will take just two more minutes,” she said, pointing to the sofa… …

She had brought the blade from India, where apparently there was at least one in every household. “Whenever there is a wedding in the family,” she told Eliot one day, “or a large celebration of any kind, my mother sends out word in the evening for all the neighborhood women to bring blades just like this one, and then they sit in an enormous circle on the roof of our building, laughing and gossipping and slicing fifty kilos of vegetables through the night.” Her profile hovered protectively over her work, a confetti of cucumber, eggplant, and onion skins heaped around her. “It is impossible to fall asleep those nights, listening to their chatter.” She paused to look at a pine tree framed by the living room window. “Here, in this place where Mr. Sen has brought me, I cannot sometimes sleep in so much silence.”

Jhumpa Lahiri, Interpreter of Maladies (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1999), pp. 114-15.

5 thoughts on “The ubiquitous boti

  1. That’s a good book. :-) Have you read her other? I’d probably chop my fingers off with one of those cutters.

  2. Oh yes, the infamous boti. I’ve seen my mom injure her self with one on more than one occasion. Wow, you just keep these interesting topics coming!
    So I see you’re a fan of Jhumpa Lahiri. Have you read The Namesake? Great book, I’d highly recommend it.

  3. i just recently read Interpreter of Maladies! i absolutely loved it and, coincidentally enough, thought of you when reading this story :) very interesting post, too. -a

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