Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Silly notions about Indian food

Below, I'm excerpting a book review by Veena Parrikar, which recently appeared on my favorite food blog. Her discussion of Indian food in the US struck a chord. I have no idea why so many Indian restaurants in that country feature pink decor, hideous black sequinned tapestries that no restaurant would dare display in India, and most especially, food in which the chef has evidently lost all interest. If they just served the same roti-sabzi-dal-chaawal that the owners and chefs probably eat at home, their fare would probably be far superior to the indistinguishable slop they generally serve up under the banner of Punjabi. Anyhow, I'll let Veena Parrikar do the rest of the talking, since she does it so much better than I:

There are perhaps as many misconceptions about Indian cuisine as there are restaurants named “Bombay Garden”.

• Indian food is tandoori chicken, aloo-matar, saag-paneer, and naan.
• It is hot and spicy.
• Vegetables are cooked to death.
• It starts with frying onions and tomatoes to pulp and ends with a garnish of coriander leaves

One can hardly blame the Western and even some of the Eastern world for harboring these notions. Most Indian restaurants outside India serve the same tired old fare under various guises. The exceptions to these are the upscale “fusion-Indian” restaurants; after all, Indian food cannot be admitted into the Michelin club without a French or “contemporary” accent (pun intended). Over the past few years, South Indian restaurants have slowly gained ground and it is not uncommon to see a Chinese eating masala dosa with her bare hands or a middle-aged white guy slurping rasam at the neighborhood Madras Café or Udupi Palace in the USA. The silly notions about Indian food, however, are far from being a thing of the past. For example, the threat of homogenization, albeit of a different kind, hangs heavy like the odor of yesterday’s takeout. The complexity and variation among and within the cuisines of the four states of Southern India (Karnataka, Kerala, Tamilnadu, and Andhra Pradesh) could never be guessed if one were to go by the menus of these “South Indian” restaurants. Most of them do not stray far from the familiar idli, vada, masala dosa, uttappam, sambar and rasam, with an indifferent nod to some “rice varieties” such as curd rice, lemon rice and tamarind rice. Desserts are still “balls in sugar syrup” (gulab jamun), “ricotta cheese in evaporated milk” (rasmalai), or the occasional rava kesari, leaving in the cold a rich repertoire of jaggery-based sweets that is one of the hallmarks of the cuisines of Southern (and some other states of) India.

To be sure, even within India, availability of the authentic, traditional fare is limited to small niche restaurants, special “festivals” at star hotels, or if you are lucky, at the homes of neighbors and friends from other communities. Your best bet then, is to recreate many of these dishes in your kitchen...

Friday, March 23, 2007

The American sense of inferiority

BBC Online quotes Stephen Fry as saying: "I shouldn't be saying this, high treason really, but I sometimes wonder if Americans aren't fooled by our accent into detecting a brilliance that may not really be there." Also, "My vocal cords are made of tweed - I give off an air of Oxford donnishness and old BBC wirelesses."
They forgot the sour creature from "The Weakest Link", another Brit who is famous in America primarily for insulting Americans publicly. America is an odd combination of arrogance and inadequacy. In individuals, I associate that combination with a need to control others; as for countries, er, hmm...

Iraq's obbligato of sanity

I have no idea about the ideological leanings of this Iraqi guy, but I read his story as a moving, simple, and very personal affirmation of non-violent resistance. I imagine his attitude is similar to that of many New Yorkers after 9/11.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Spring is here

Not that Mumbai has any discernible spring, but there's Now Ruz, Ugadi, the Equinox, Gudi Paadwa, and all that good stuff. Here are some cherry blossoms in anticipation, for where spring does, in fact, exist.
Image by Declan McCullagh

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Step by painful step

Following up on my post of March 10, here's yet another hard-won victory in the almost relentless struggle of Bhopal's gas tragedy survivors. Excerpt from message sent out by Sathyu yesterday:
Today, at 2 p.m., the six of us broke our 14-day hunger strike in response to a written assurance by the Madhya Pradesh Government conceding our key demands... In the last four years, we have sat on five hunger strikes. We have succeeded in enforcing our will in every one of them. The confidence with which we undertake hunger strikes has all to do with our conviction in our demands, and even more importantly, our knowledge that we Bhopalis are not alone. The overwhelming support by friends young and old in the US, UK, India and elsewhere; the round-the-clock phone-in and fax campaigns set up by our young friends in the US have shown the Madhya Pradesh Government what our muscle power is. More than 2000 faxes and 500 phone calls. That did shake the Government up. We are all for this kind of grassroots globalisation. Although, thanking anyone for their support would be inappropriate, we do wish to acknowledge our friends around the world -- the website updaters, the callers, the faxers, the sms senders, the bloggers, and just about anybody who had their thoughts tuned to Bhopal.

And excerpts from another wonderful update from Pragya, sent out on March 20:
The final note revised after a two hour meeting with the Collector yesterday was accepted by the fasters. They would end their indefinite fast this afternoon.

Good news has a way of plastering permanent smiles on people's faces.

By noon, a bus packed with the survivors arrived at the Tinshed as words of inspiration rang from their lips. They were so enthused that they began their chorus of slogans even before getting off the bus.... A mosambi juice stall was brought near the tent. The owner was duly reminded of the importance of his role. Your fresh juice is going to be the first thing our six people will ingest after fifteen days of starvation. When the time came to provide six glasses of fresh juice, the owner did not ask for money. As the stall rolled near the Tinshed, one thought ran though everyone's minds: When will they come?

Soon, the packed tent became one big unit of grins.

Sathyu was the first to arrive. As he got off of his motorcycle, we noticed part of the disguise he had used these past few days. His unruly beard was now a sharp goatee, his face aglow with playful mischief; despite the Intelligence's efforts to track him down, he had escaped the public eye and remained "underground" for forty-eight hours. Immediately, the people surrounding Sathyu smothered him in love, offering hugs, garlands, tears, words, everything they had to offer. The media had arrived and we waited patiently for the rest of the six to come. Fifteen minutes later, they did.

A white Sumo parked behind the tent, and the doors opened to reveal five of the hunger strikers accompanied by a few police officials. Applause. Drums. Dancing. Hugs and kisses. More hugs and kisses. The Tinshed had become dense with rejoicing.... Children and adults alike...danced with an excitement that no amount of fatigue, heat, or perspiration could dwindle...

Soon enough, the Collector joined the revelations, but only long enough for the press to see him and do a few interviews, after which he left promptly. After drinking juice and breaking the fast, the six were in the midst of a crowd so thick, it was difficult to breathe. At one point while Sathyu was dancing, he stumbled. Immediately, people backed out to give him space, and began fanning him with newspapers, hands, the fabric of their saris, anything. He soon recovered. Rachna's situation, however, was a bit more serious.

[She] was advised to go to the hospital. There were abnormally high levels of ketones in her system, and she needed help. She left with Champa Didi and was released in a few hours. Meanwhile, the tent was still packed. The fasters' shoulders were weighed down by the weight of [garlands]. People did not want to leave. But like they say, all good things must come to an end.

Groups of people slowly left; the tent was now simply an empty structure with flowers littered over the rumpled carpet that had been our living room, kitchen, bedroom, and study for twenty-eight days. The electricity was disassembled, the canvases detached, the poles of the tent taken down. Slowly, the memories we had gathered were removed one by one. One flap of the tent had a gaping hole in it because of the Motrin mosquito coil that had singed its fabric. The cartons were bursting with the newspapers we had collected to make paper bags. As the tent became a row of poles and folded cloth, a sense of bittersweet longing filled our thoughts. We had won. Yes, the State had heard our rage-filled voices. We had lived in a tent for a month, forming bonds, laughing together, singing together, living in a unity that only the Tinshed could have made possible. But now it was over. Everyone went their separate ways. Promises of meetings were made, fond memories laughed over, and hands squeezed tightly in gratitude. Sometimes you do not need to say anything to show how you feel. The mist in your eyes and the lump in your throat communicates more than all the words in a dictionary ever could.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Everybody loses

After I wrote the following, I noticed that tomorrow the US-led war in Iraq enters its fifth year. I didn't intend the timing; I think these thoughts frequently, and was spurred to write them now only because I read the sobering BBC article excerpted below.

What does it say about the US, the supposed superpower, that it has lost two wars to third world countries in 30 years (Vietnam, Iraq). What even makes it the "richest country in the world" when
** its own people cannot afford basic health services,
** its most revered citizens -- war heroes -- fend off cockroaches in a premier army hospital,
** it has reversed its fortunes from surplus to massive deficit in six years,
** its troops go into war with inadequate armor,
** its old people have no choice but to drive cars daily although they risk their own lives and those of others?

What qualifies it to spread democracy when
** its own election process is abused and the vast majority of its own citizens don't understand how their democracy works,
** the president who most closely embodies the American Dream is impeached, but an obviously dishonest president remains in power,
** its Christians spread hate and ignorance and endorse violence,
** its leaders reek of scandal and corruption, and yet brazenly refuse to resign?

How right Césaire and Fanon were when they said colonization dehumanizes both colonizer and colonized! Just look at America today: religious fanaticism and ignorance daily trump common sense and learning, although that country has more than three thousand universities and attracts the best brains from around the world.

The only way in which the US can be described as winning the war is that Iraq (which is not really the enemy) has lost a lot more. Some excerpts from an article by John Simpson, BBC's World Affairs editor:

In Baghdad, the most common sound you hear in the streets today is the insistent racket of small private generators. The most common sight, apart from police and army roadblocks, are the black banners on walls and fences announcing people's deaths. And the most common feeling you come across is a kind of slow-burning, gloomy anger. These things represent a major failure of the hopes and expectations which many Iraqis entertained four years ago.

It is easy to forget how high the expectations once were. "I don't like the feeling that my country has been invaded," a shopkeeper in Haifa Street told me, a day or so after the fall of Baghdad. "But thanks to God that it is the Americans who have done this. They are the richest country on earth. They will help us."

But they did not... We filmed as people shouted "Do something!" at an American soldier, while thieves were running out with valuable medical equipment from the hospital behind us. He just shrugged his shoulders and turned away.

...A couple of days ago I went back to Haifa Street..... It is difficult for an unarmed Westerner to go there now, and I had to travel in an unmarked van with dark curtains at the windows and two British security men to protect me. The shopkeeper I had met four years before had long gone. There was no-one to ask: all the other shops in the row had closed down as well.

Early next day, I went to film at a big city hospital. During the hour I was there, six bodies, found in the streets that morning, were brought in. All had obviously been tortured, and one had had his feet sawn off. It was just a normal morning.

After Baghdad fell, I would satellite reports back to London about attacks in which one or two people were killed. It was big news in those days. Last Thursday, a bomb exploded near the end of the street in central Baghdad where the BBC has its office. Eight people were killed and 25 injured, and we had rather good pictures of it. But I did not ring London to offer a report about it. To get on the news, or the front page of the newspapers nowadays, a lot of people have to die. I would say the current figure is 60 or 70; and it certainly wouldn't be the lead.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Lives in the balance

This song was written by Jackson Browne 21 years ago. There's a video and an mp3 on his website, but there's also this video on YouTube:

Friday, March 16, 2007

More than mullahs

An American friend sent out these images out of concern that her country might go and change Iran's landscape, the way it has Iraq's. Here's what her e-mail made me think, and what I wrote to her:
The first I heard about the horrific brutality of the Iranian Revolution was from an American magazine, the one that Mad magazine (in the 1970s, when it was funny) called Reader's Disgust. I must have been nine or ten. Fortunately, around the same time, I also happened to see an exhibition at a Theosophical Society school in Mumbai, which had pictures of everyday scenes much like the ones you sent (I recall being especially amused by a picture of a young woman putting on a burqa over a mini skirt).

In India, Iran has been a strong influence on popular culture for centuries. In that perspective, the Islamic Revolution seems like a hiccup, or possibly a bad cold. For me, and for many of my compatriots, I'm sure, Iran is far more than fanatic mullahs (although there are unfortunately many of those at the helm there). Iranian classical and folk traditions have heavily influenced Indian ones, especially in painting, poetry, music, and architecture. Iran in the popular Indian imagination is not an Islamic pilgrimage site (unlike Najaf / Karbala in Iraq, or Mecca / Madina in Saudi Arabia), but rather a country of orchards and high culture. Together with Afghanistan, Iran was famous in the India of my grandmother's generation for figs, raisins, nuts, apples, berries, etc. Itinerant vendors sold the dried fruit and nuts from door to door. As a child, I imagined Iran to be a bit like Kashmir before terrorism (beautiful and rich land that yielded exotic things like saffron, walnuts and chestnuts; beautiful people; snow in the mountains; and exquisite art). Looking back now, I don't think I was far off the mark, although Kashmiri cities today are far less developed than Iranian ones (Kashmir being a less peaceful place than Iran). A substantial portion of most modern Indian languages consists of Farsi words (and it's not because of writing alone -- I include my own language, which has no script). These are words for ordinary things like salt and sugar, not just arcane literary or architectural forms.

I think this strong and rich cultural relationship between Iran and the Indian subcontinent may be in part what has kept Indians from becoming ideologically opposed to Iran in these days of popular anti-Islamic sentiment. Remarkable, because India is home to two persecuted Iranian religious minorities -- Zoroastrians and Baha'is. (Of course, there are other strategic reasons why India and Iran have been on relatively good terms... like the Cold War, and especially our nukes! But let me not start on that one.... I suppose the scenario would be different if India and Iran shared a border, given India's record with countries that share a border...)

Thanks to my Iranian roommate of two years in State College, at one point I knew just about every Iranian in State College -- Shi'a, Sunni, and Baha'i. Most of them were very attached to Iranian culture, loved science, had a terrific sense of fun. My roommate herself was quite batty about volleyball. She and the other women all loved beautiful clothes (western style).

Do you really think the US will attack Iran? I doubt it. There are just not enough Americans to send there! Even the great Cheney must be much weakened by recent events and scandals. I hope there is greater political fallout from the Libby verdict, and that people can see how much the US has been weakened by the war in Iraq, but unfortunately it seems such things don't catch the popular imagination very easily. Still, I think there would be popular resistance in the US if it really went to war in Iran -- how many are willing to fight now?

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

The people in the park

There's a tiny park where I go to walk my daily 1-2 miles. It's not bad as municipal parks go. Given the ratio of open space to residents in Mumbai, it's predictably crowded enough that running (as opposed to walking) would be dangerous. I like people-watching there. Usually I go in the evenings. First of all, there are plenty of ladies, ranging from thin North Indians in gaudy polyester saris to heavy Gujarati matrons in cotton saris. A few young ladies in salwaar kameez, and many in burqas and headscarves as well. Some are leading kids by the hand. One led a kid, as well as supported an elderly man, apparently partially paralyzed, on her shoulder. A few women wear western or semi-western dress -- linen blouse, kurti, etc. Some wear gym shoes, some wear light canvas shoes (sort of like pumps), some wear chappals, and some are even barefoot. You can hear some of the women come up behind you, as their anklets jingle.

With the men, there's a similar sort of range in terms of age, class, and foot gear. This morning I saw five old paunchy men in khaki shorts, doing what looked like an RSS drill, but minus any caps and lathis. They looked rather comical. There were also people seated on the grass in a loose circle, doing pranayam. A slightly crazy-looking sadhu type was rapidly and jerkily doing uttanasana -- with his knees bent! It looked like a ridiculous waste of time.

The kids are mostly cute. In the eveings, when they are playing, they sometimes don't look where they're running. They often get in the way of the "joggers" (read walkers), but it's hard to get mad at them. Once I told a kid to stay off the running track so nobody would get hurt, but you can't do that all the time. They have so few places in which to be kids -- I recall that as a child I had this park, the beach every weekend, and all the summer hangouts with the mamas -- S. K. Patil Udyan, Azad Maidan, Cross Maidan. I sometimes see hawker-kids on relatively empty commuter trains, hanging from the straps as though they were Roman rings, and I really wish they had safe places to play in.

There are residents in the park, too. A black dog with a white-tipped tail, and four shy, scrawny cats who hang out on the steps of the pump house. Since yesterday, I've seen a skinny puppy too -- yesterday he was on the kerb outside, and today he was inside, asleep on a pile of dry leaves.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Buon 8 marzo

From a dear friend, the traditional Italian gift of mimosas, for International Women's Day

Jeené ka haq (right to live)

Here's the latest letter from Pragya Bhagat in Bhopal, where survivors of the 1984 gas tragedy are still asking the state government for clean water and medical care, after twenty-two years!

March 9, 2007
Day 18 of Sit In
Day 5 of Indefinite Fast

The police are regular visitors now, "ensuring our safety" as they like to call it. The doctors visit fairly often too, examining and testing the six fasters whose bodies grow weaker by the day. Walking has become an arduous chore, so they lie in blankets, waiting. They wait for the meeting with the Chief Minister the collector said he would try for when he dropped by again today. They wait for that puke factor to leave their gut so they can focus on other things, like their families. They wait for something, anything that indicates that Shivraj Singh Chauhan is ready to redeem himself by agreeing to the demands set forth a year ago. They wait for a sign that today might be the last day, that they will get to go home and sleep on real beds and take real baths in real bathrooms instead of a makeshift structure curtained by blue plastic. They wait, as they have been waiting for twenty-two excruciating years.

Five o'clock arrives soon enough, but there is no news of the alleged meeting with Chauhan. Disappointment is not a new phenomenon, especially where our interaction with the Madhya Pradesh government is concerned. There is no sign of the Chief Minister, but a large ambulance truck does pull in close to our tent. All eyes are on the policemen and other personnel coming out of the vehicle. They come to our tent, and ask questions about the fasters' health. Have you experienced dizziness? How are you feeling? The answers are short and meant to ward away the people that might want to take the fasters away forcibly. Fine. Great. There are no problems. The ambulance leaves soon enough, but a cluster of policemen remain. These messengers of the government seem to have made our tent their second home.

The tent has become a home for many people, the newest additions being two middle-aged men from Chattisgarh. They are associated with the Dalit movement there, focusing on eliminating the sexual exploitation of women. Mahendra is the more gregarious of the two; he explains how they plan to stay in Bhopal until the survivors get what they are demanding. He used to be a typist for All India Radio until 1990, when he left his job to dedicate himself to the struggle for Dalit's rights. This story echoes the stories of Sathyu and Rachna, who also left their respective jobs to dedicate themselves to the movement of the gas-affected Bhopalis. And here they are today, on their fifth day of fasting, busy with phone calls, finding legal documents, emailing people that eagerly await every morsel of news from Bhopal. They fuel the campaign with their tremendous work ethic and dedication.

Dusk quickly sets in, and a lone light bulb dimly lights the tent. Today the police might come to clear us out of the Tinshed. Everyone scurries around, formulating their own plans of action for the night. A list of media contacts is made, people to call if a raid were to occur. Gulab Bai and Hajara Bi make a pepper powder mixture to protect themselves with. The children strategize over who will hold the policeman's arm and who will grab his/her leg. Pull their cheeks really hard, someone says. We laugh. The six fasters put their beds together, and chain themselves to the tent. Chain link metal with locks, the whole nine yards. And then we do what we have been doing all day-we wait. More men arrive from the bastis and two people from Yuva Samwad come to spend the night. We learn new songs and sing the old ones with a warm familiarity. We dance. We drink tea to stay awake and at one thirty in the morning, most of us decide to call it a night. The police watch from a distance, but no one dares to come near us. We smile to ourselves as our eyes shut out the darkness.

An update from the future ;)

Monday, March 5, 2007

Fun song

Qué voy hacer je ne sais pas...