The universe beyond us humans

Updated: 16 October, 2020 07:33 IST | Rosalyn D'mello | Mumbai

Bacteria come alive when they react with other ingredients during fermentation - witnessing and connecting with this very much sentient life gives me a sense of hope and surety.

The SCOBY fed on the sugar in the tea, generating itself over 15 days to result in kombucha. Pic /Rosalyn D'mello
The SCOBY fed on the sugar in the tea, generating itself over 15 days to result in kombucha. Pic /Rosalyn D'mello

picIt's been longer than a month since I adopted a friend's extra SCOBY. I love this word. It reminds me of Scooby Doo. It's an acronym for a 'symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast'.

My partner and I were visiting Johanna and Anton in Innsbruck, in Austria, a two-hour train ride from Bozen. We returned with sourdough starter and SCOBY in glass bottles.

I was drawn to the idea of forging a connection between Johanna's kitchen and mine, of having something grow in our apartment that had begun its journey in hers. I was also tickled by the notion of forging a cultivated unity of north and south Tyrol. Almost 100 years ago, South Tyrol was annexed by Italy and has remained removed from but connected to Austria. Almost every station in Austria, for instance, has a Südtiroler Platz as a way of referencing this lost territory.

By bringing the sourdough yeast and SCOBY to Tramin by train, I was taking these creatures that had been summoned by Johanna's will on a journey. By caring for them after having settled them in our apartment, I was tending to something she had begun to nurture. There was a kitchen-ly intimacy to the whole affair.

Years ago, I had arrived at the word 'continuity' while buying dahi from a Mother Dairy in CR Park, Market number 1. It occurred to me that the commercial manufacture of yoghurt and our consumerist dependency on it, for its convenience, had effectively nipped a long-standing tradition of cultivating it at home.

We are all united in our shared memories of milk being boiled, cooled, and left to set after having been mixed with a portion of existing dahi. The ubiquitous availability of industrially produced dahi made us feel less inclined to put in the effort, causing a rift in a certain legacy of continuity. Mostly, I feel we severed our contact with the first-hand effervescence of bacterial ingenuity. I'm unable to not perceive this as a historic, civilisational loss.

Personally, I rely on fermentation as a strategy for hoping. There's a certain sureness in maintaining a feeding schedule with a certain ratio of flour mixed with water over three to five days. Soon enough you will gleam how these two ingredients which seemed static in their superficial molecularity have suddenly been activated by the presence of microbial beings. It is now alive. It is growing.

If you observe closely, you'll be able to track that time of day when the sourdough starter arrives at its peak. It is frothy, and moist, and pervasively sour-smelling; a thing of immense beauty with the ability to feed. When you spend time with it, tend to it, you get better acquainted with the structure of the bubbles, you question your received intelligence about blood being the sole marker of sentience.

You sense that there is a way in which bread can be as alive as a cow or a tomato. You understand the historical precedence of bacteria. You gleam that this invisible microbial thing has inhabited our universe longer than the human species. It is a humbling experience.

The day after we returned from Innsbruck, I brewed a batch of black tea and flavoured it with organic Earl Grey teabags. I began with just a litre since I had exactly 100 ml of 'Mother' — the fluid from Johanna's kitchen in which the SCOBY sat. I added 80 gms of sugar.

For ten days I let this be while watching over it. In the beginning, the SCOBY sat at the bottom. By day two it had travelled to the top of the bottle, close to the brim that I'd loosely sealed with a piece of cloth. By day eight it had become tentacular, parts of its being reaching towards the bottle's centre. When I tasted it, 10 days later, it had been transformed. It had a delicious sourness, but was unexpectedly aerated, as if it had been carbonated.

That was the miracle. I could have prepared it for a second fermentation, but it was so flavourful, we drank it instead while keeping about 200 ml of the Mother which
I then fermented with freshly brewed black tea in a two-litre bottle.

We've finally arrived at two large bottles — three and five litres respectively. When I started them out I had split the first SCOBY into two small parts. Over 15 days I watched each of them grow and swell, and generate themselves. It felt foetus-like, how the SCOBY floated in the black tea, quietly feasting on sugar and producing air.

I recently learned about the biological connotations of the verb, 'to conjugate', which is so elemental to learning a language. It relates to the transfer of genetic material between bacterial cells. As I learn to hope better through my investment in fermentation, I'm practising different strategies by which to intuit the universe beyond the human species.

Deliberating on the life and times of Everywoman, Rosalyn D'Mello is a reputable art critic and the author of A Handbook For My Lover. She tweets @RosaParx

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First Published: 16 October, 2020 06:35 IST

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