Friday, July 26, 2013

How to Pound Spices and Make a Salad for Dinner

You need to have had soaked some sort of lentils or pulses the night before. You need to have taken them out of the packet, poured into a bowl and added water. The next morning they will have become fat, drinking in all the water. So add good water, not tap. Keep the bowl covered till dinner time. The pulses may or not may sprout a tiny bit.

Say half an hour before you think you want to eat dinner, add some water into the bowl and put it in the pressure cooker. Put in some asafetida powder. While that is being cooked, while the water is running for your bath in the bathroom, while you are finishing a phone call, you also ought to be chopping salad onions. Something about women being good multi-taskers. Or some theory like that. Salad onions are smaller than regular onions. Mother gave you a bunch last time. They don’t make you cry as much as the other onions. So you like them. You don’t also mind chopping a whole lot of them. Also, bunched up and hung from a nail, they look good and very…oh well something…on your kitchen wall.

You have another excuse to use your small new white marble mortar and tiny pestle. It is not entirely white. There are lines that look like cinnamon and cloves bits bled into its veins and spread their tentacles all over. It is not perfect. That was what you were looking for, character. Perfection never ought to be something to aspire for. So you get to use this again to make tonight’s dinner.

Peel some big fat pods of garlic. Cut a few rings of fresh ginger. Take a small handful of whole black pepper, then decide that is too much, put some back in the pretty little glass bottle of which you have a set of six. Add the pepper in. Decide against adding cardamom, despite how much you crave for the heady smell of cardamom to permeate through the layers of skin on your fingers when after you have peeled them. Cinnamon sticks, the real cinnamon sticks you brought back from a trip to the North East, you don’t add those either. For no special reason. You have decided not to use store bought garlic and ginger paste and powdered pepper any longer, as far as possible. Your fingers might be a little sticky from peeling the garlic. Before you wash your hand in the trickle of cold water under the old plastic tap, bring them up to your nose and breathe in the warm scent of Indian kitchens you have eaten in and of pasta sauce made in Italian villages you have read about. Wash.

The garlic, pepper and rings of ginger with the peel on them, because you like them on, are in the small mortar. Take the pestle and start pounding. Careful with the pepper. Those fellows are tricky and one or two will attempt to fly under places you can’t reach to bring them back. You will have to stop after a bit, the garlic pods will be flattened by now, but conniving with the ginger rings they will have slipped to the edges of the mortar. A few pepper pieces will have escaped the pounding. You have to bring them together at the centre.  Start pounding again.

Slowly the garlic gives up the fight first and wrings out from itself a warm breathe of scent that smells like a wintery Saturday afternoon when you would be back from half a day at school and mother would surprise you with steaming hot biryani. Next the ginger bleeds out a wisp of juice. You do not give up on the pepper till each bursts into differently sized smithereens. They smell harsh, sharp, angry, echoing the thuds you made when you pounded them. The three allow themselves to become a mash of smells and textures. By themselves, they are each heady. Together, they intoxicate.

By now the pulses are cooked and you will have taken the bowl out from the cooker. You now have got to scoop the pounded spices out from the mortar and add them to the pulses. Just that brief moment is enough for those smells to leave their trace firmly upon your fingertips. The smell of those fingertips will colour someone’s new memory perhaps. Then you add the chopped salad onions, the ones that didn’t make you cry. Then you take the bottle of turmeric powder and shake some out. You like a lot of turmeric in your food, not just for its colour. Then some salt. Then you mix with a shiny big steel spoon. That’s done.

Now you take down a ceramic bowl in cream and blue and serve some pulses into it, along with the stock it boiled in. That is because the water has all the nutrients now. Squeeze in the juice of one tiny bit of lemon. Then you add three to four dollops of good curd, because you like curd, you love curd. Then you step out of your front door and pick out a few leaves of mint, fresh from the pot. That is your favourite part, picking out fresh ingredients. You wash and add the mint leaves and stir it all one more time.

Dinner’s ready.

You can now sit down to eat with the new author you have discovered earlier in the evening.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

My Favourite Book: A Little Note in Talk

I don't quite agree that it is possible to have just one favourite book or film or song. But if I had to, at gunpoint, name a book I have always loved, Jean Webster's Daddy-Long-Legs would immediately come to mind. I wrote a little note about the book that was published over a century ago, in last week's issue of Talk magazine.

Read it here or see below.

Here was one book from my early teen years that was just as good and better as its cover was inspiring. A girl in a long, rather chaste nightgown perches up on a windowsill above a chest of drawers, slightly open for her to climb, like a flight of stairs and bends over a book. That cover of Jean Webster’s Daddy-Long-Legs introduced me to a lifelong love of perching up on windowsills to read my books. In no house that I have lived in have I had windows so high that I needed a chest of drawers to reach up, yet, when I think of how I want to spend a beautiful afternoon by myself, it always involves an old house with wide windowsills and the rest of what that edition of the novel had on its cover.

I don’t have a favourite book. Or a favourite song, for that matter. These things change, they are meant to. Yet there is something about this 100-year old novel where everything fits into a near perfect whole. Like the movie Casablanca. Perhaps it is the 
innocence of the story of Jerusha ‘Judy’ Abbott, an orphan who has an anonymous benefactor funding her college education. In exchange she has to write letters to him, which she fills up with childish scrawls, girlie gossip, her dreams, fears and even boy 

Daddy-Long-Legs is a fairy tale, a love story. Like hot milk and cookies on a cold winter afternoon, like vanilla ice-cream in sweltering May, like a flitting butterfly over a bush of wild roses, this novel is about all things nice, simple, sweet and happy. Even 
a century after it was written, the story remains just as fresh and Judy just as relatable. That is what makes it a beloved, timeless classic story.

Monday, July 08, 2013

Is Food the New Porn?: A (Rather Shrill) Comment in Talk

This piece was written several months ago when I was in a particularly exasperated mood. Plus I was recovering from a badly injured hand and a lot of new things were happening in life. Not an excuse. I re-read it today and realized that sadly, it wasn't written with much soul. The piece comes across as shrill and contrarian for the sake of it, not at all in the tone I usually write in. Talk magazine published it this week. Let this story also be here, for though I cringe, I own this piece too.

I have a folder named Food under my pictures section on my laptop. This is full disclosure, before I write of the food fanatics that irk me. The Food folder has some memories, of which I shall not be apologetic about. Memories like the first chocolate cake I baked (disaster, it reeked of baking soda), a drink with a naughty name by a Goan beach, meals special for the people they were shared with and such like. My Food folder doesn’t though have any Instagrammed shots, I like my food fresh looking and not like something Marie Antoinette threw away and it was being auctioned, many centuries later. Why would people pay thousands for a fungied piece of bread or cake? Anyway, don’t let me digress.

I have a problem with food these days. Oh, no, nothing currently fashionable, I like food well enough to love cooking it as well. But food is food, shouldn’t it be? A basic necessity, something you need to get by from one day to the next, that is what food was, when I was growing up. Sure, with summer holidays and festivals and school teachers with imaginative ideas for essay writing assignments, food graduated to being fun and full of nostalgia for mango trees and grandma’s cooking. As we then grew into writers and youths with friends, moving to cities and having our first burns and disasters in our hole in the wall kitchens, food became that thing we bonded over; it made for some of the best anecdotes. Tying in with fond memories of good company and cheap wine, plates of food found place in pieces of noir when we wrote of the cities we found ourselves living in.

I loved each of these phases. I wrote in a regular food column too once, something I thoroughly enjoyed. 

Then, Masterchef happened. And oh ouch ugh exclamations apart, I now have a long lasting bitter aftertaste in my mouth, where the cheesecake and penne arrabiatta earlier was. So much that food makes me feel tiresome. For food isn’t any longer just eaten, it is dressed like a posy of fake feathers on an anorexic model, painted on, put on a glass plate, photographed, the photographs treated and shared on every social media platform, and then eaten, if not already cold or melted. Tiresome.

I wonder if I can blame just Masterchef for this explosion in the focus of food being more on everything else but eating it. Maybe not. TLC has been gasping and baby talking about food and its fashionable tendencies much longer. Plus for a season I religiously watched Masterchef Australia, every night. And some reruns. Yes, I am a recovered MA junkie. Though now it almost feels like whipping a dead horse to walk that extra mile before the 
franchise loses its charm, MA is still one of the nicer, better put together food shows among the hundreds that throng every channel in every language. 

No, this obsession with food did not start with pressure tests and invention tests and pink clothes that we know the judges and chefs on MA for. Somewhere along the way, and I will hope to get to the bottom of it, food became the next top model. Only when you were done with admiring it could you pick at it gingerly. 

My friend, lets call her M, lives abroad, in one of those Mid Eastern countries, I forget which. Good girl, good cook, known her for years. Even a papad that she makes goes up on Facebook, stylishly heaped on a plate, the background cleverly blurred; you can do these things these days even with mobile phone cameras. The recipes go up as status messages. There are a bunch of other equally bored girls who ooh and aah at each picture and scream and whine about how they! Tiresome, no?

Every time I am in a restaurant and my company or the people at the next table hold up a meal because they are not done taking pictures yet, I want to shake them up. Or better still, take a spoon and upset the arrangement on the plate, so that we, they can get to putting it in our mouths, which is the whole intention really. But no, you haven’t eaten a meal if the proof isn’t on social media, is it now?

I can’t wait for the fad to buckle under its own weariness. Soon. Very hopefully. 

Too many cooks, too many broths 

I miss those days of Doordarshan when all you had was Chitrahaar, Rangoli and the Sunday 4 pm movie to keep track of. After the waves of cable TV began to hit, everyone, every thing looks the same to me, like species off some assembly line from a factory of capitalist propaganda, “consume, consume, buy, spend, waste.” If you are not watching TV, the newspapers are writing about it or you hear a colleague talk or an analysis is online. There is no escaping the overdose of whatever is in flavour that year. 

And this year, for the past few years, it has been all about food. If man isn’t fighting to eat the meanest, weirdest food from around the planet, it is some out of modelling work model prancing about with a put-on accent teaching you how to make salad and salmon in a manner that guarantees you get her waistline in two weeks. Or it is a cook-off between good looking men and women, preened and made up with cues as to when to gasp and when to shed a tear. Those things make for great TRPs I hear. Something about people enjoying watching other people embarrass themselves and insult each other, making for great entertainment. 

Reality television apart, there you have hundreds of cookery shows, destination food shows, competitions, baking shows, food challenges, healthy cooking, dessert cooking, salad making, food appreciation, wine and cheese things, in every language on every channel at all times of the day and midnight. Some are good, I grant them that. But you need some 
fortitude to sift through the faff and get to the good stuff. All I want to show is exasperation. It doesn’t matter if you are the sorts that burns Maggi, watching Masterchef and its variants is supposedly “inspiring”, emulating plating ideas is akin to showing refined tastes and accumulate sophistication at your next Sunday brunch do with the rest of the swish set. 

Food is the new porn, Cosmo tells me

Have you ever watched Nigella Lawson go through the motions in what is marketed as a cookery show? Cooking isn’t her USP, fool be whoever expects that. When I asked a friend why he watched her show, he gave me that indulgent look you give simpletons and very slowly explained how no one really watched her show to copy down recipes. She has famously, and often, been criticised for peddling food porn. The manner in which she kneads 
store-bought dough before pouring in thick dark chocolate that oozes from between her fingers flirts with camera angles and clever editing to look rather suggestive. That is the whole point. Food stylists at these things must make a killing on every pay check.

When did food start getting as much talked about as sex? Or it is just safer in family circles to exalt the beauty of food and discuss every olive, every strand of saffron? The Indian tradition in hospitality has been to bond over food, to make every meal special by sharing it with family, friends, to carry cultural ties ahead by tying another round of the thread with traditional dishes, at least during festivities. Given how mothers in this country are happiest when 
feeding their children, the cultural obsession with food isn’t surprising. But that doesn’t explain to me this fad for fashionable food that has grabbed the ladies that lunch by the taste buds. 

Haute couture for the ladies that lunch

A lady with a Hermes bag and seven-inch heels, while at Sunday brunch with the designer kids and the rich husband with similar ladies and kids and husbands will no longer be caught dead eating anything as prosaic as the most elaborate biriyani. It has to be bland pasta in white dressing perhaps, coated first with glistening olive oil. Or some such. 

Weary and tiresome, don’t you think? I don’t know who told them that the whole world is interested in what their breakfast looked like or how they licked the plate of sushi off. Amidst the endless inspirational quote photos and the inane status messages on social media, you are subjected to photos of every meal from every holiday, from different angles! Maybe this is a page from a book How to Lose Friends and Piss Off People that we have all landed on. 
These things that popular culture historians call fads are meant to rise and fall quickly, aren’t they? When is food’s turn coming? None too soon, if I had my say. The pretensions, the herd following of the idiot box gods of culinary deliverance, please go away. There are times when you really just want to eat rasam and curd rice, thank you very much, even if risotto and penne is more in fashion. There are times when you want to eat food hot and not wait till it 
has fulfilled its model duties. 

It is just food people, food. That thing that our cavemen ancestors scourged for, that thing that mothers and grandmothers fed us all night all day if they had their way. Food. A basic necessity. Sure, bright food paint and fancy china wear adds to the charm. But nevertheless, it is food. Put it in your mouth where it is meant to go and get over the highhandedness already!

An edited version of this story was published here.

Tuesday, July 02, 2013

About an Anniversary, a New Column and an Interview with Dr U R Ananthamurthy

There is something about anniversaries that I have begun to find distasteful. No, not really distasteful, that is harsher a word than the sentiment I want it to convey. Perhaps tiresome is a better one. Yes, that sounds better. 

There is something about anniversaries and the conventional obligation to observe them in some way, either by celebrating or by trying to get by the day by vehemently being in denial about what they stand for, that I find rather tiresome. I mean here the ones beyond the regular birthdays and anniversaries of loves and heartbreaks, though they in no lesser terms present a pressure to, in some manner, acknowledge their passing every year. These anniversaries I speak of are more of the professional sorts, for me, days that have to do with my writing, my work. Like how old this blog is. Like when my first story got published. Like how long I have been a journalist.

That last one is seven years. Yesterday, I completed seven years of being a journalist. A friend asked if he ought to wish me many more years of it. I told him I wasn’t too sure. I still am not.

I very reluctantly love journalism. It is all the bad things I have complained about privately. Yet, it is that first love that you never really get over. It is an addiction of sorts, like all addictions you know it is bad for you, yet…. It is what makes you still groan for not being in a place of tragedy reporting. Like in Uttarakhand right now. However horrible a person that makes me to say this, I wish I was there. Tragedy does make excellent copy. Ask any journalist.

There. There I went feeling obliged to acknowledge another year of something. Maybe I will not do it from next year. I find it oddly beautiful though that the day I complete these many years in journalism is the day I get my first column in a national magazine published.

Without much further ado, here is announcing the beginning of a new column in Kindle magazine, published in Kolkata and available country-wide. The features they carry are alternative (a word open to much interpretation), their politics are of the kind I find myself leaning towards. They interview people like Arundhati Roy and Noam Chomsky, poetry and films and fantastic features the sorts I like reading and want to be writing.

My column is going to be called Filter Coffee, and will carry features, interviews, commentary, travelogues and much else, all of them written with a South Indian perspective. You cannot get more Southie now than a cup of Filter Coffee, huh? I get my own logo too!

The first one is an interview I did with the Kannada writer Dr U R Ananthamurthy. Read the column here and write/text/call me and tell me what you think. Your comments and suggestions for the subsequent columns will be much appreciated.

If you prefer reading it on this page, see below.

The Lightness of Being URA

For arguments sake, you could say that writers, artists, creators of all things are rebels; they react to something differently than others and build a work that pushes many boundaries, their own, their practice’s, the society’s. By that definition, Jnanapitha awardee Dr U R Ananthamurthy is definitely one, a rebel, for how, in his writing and in his politics he probes the idiosyncrasies and cultural conflicts that afflicted and continues to afflict his caste, his language and the times he lives in. He spearheaded the Navya (new) movement in Kannada literature, a marked rejection of the romantic, lyrical style of writing in favour of more realistic, concise expressions of experiences. Literary history would peg the timeline for this movement down from 1950 to about 1970.

In those twenty years and thereafter, Dr Udupi Rajagopalacharya Ananthamurthy wrote some much-recognized classics like Samskara, Ghatashraddha, Bharatipura and others which raised new waves in literature, even in cinema when they were later adapted to screen. His Samskara is prescribed text in many universities in the US and elsewhere. To the common man on Karnataka’s streets, Ananthamurthy is just as much well known for his politics, his open criticizing of right-wing parties and rightist writers.

The former English professor unapologetically flaunts his Kannada identity and talks at every forum his desire to take Kannada to the world. He did so again when he became the first Kannada writer to be nominated for the Man Booker International Prize this year. Ananthamurthy made the trip to London for the ceremony, despite severe ill health. Back home in Bangalore, he remains too poorly to receive visitors. But in an email conversation, he talked about the nomination, his writing and his identity.

To him, the nomination was unexpected, given that he can’t tell how friendly in translation his works feel in English. But an elated Ananthamurthy talked of how a great literary philosopher of the tenth century in his language wrote a workbook in Kannada where he defined the language as bound by two rivers of the land. “Creations in this language may mirror the world. We never thought we were ethnic writers. I felt proud that for a few critical readers in a foreign land I was not an ethnic writer but was one like their own writers raising universally valid questions of what it is to be human,” he said.

In a land where every language other than English is called the vernacular, he believes that there is still a national identity in vernacular language writing; he is not an Indian writer or a Kannada writer alone. “The vernacular writer is like Shakespeare who writes for his immediate audience but the writing has power that the writer may not be conscious of going beyond. The text is not a menu card for the tourist,” he insisted. As for why writers like Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Mario Vargas Llosa are more “mainstream” compared to writers in Indian languages, he said that they and their stories were culturally closer to English than any Indian writing in an Indian language could ever be.

Ananthamurthy’s novels have primarily been about conflict. The orthodox ways clash with the changing times, the rational and the logical clash with the mysticism of caste politics and age-old religious norms and practices, a character from the village is left to deal with the speed and modernity of cities and bigger towns. In some ways, his probing, “never with the intention of resolving these”, follows the trajectory that Ananthamurthy’s own life, politics and believes have taken. Born into a family of small means in a village in Karnataka’s Shimoga district, he went on to study in Mysore, then England before taking up several prestigious positions in academia and elsewhere. He says his craft has evolved over the years, sometimes drastically, every time he was rethinking his ideologies but insists that he has never abandoned any of his confusions and conflicts. Writers like D H Lawrence, William Blake and Albert Camus who have been involved in the kind of questions that he has have been his literary influences. Then there was Lev Tolstoy and Fyodor Dostoyevsky, twelfth century Kannada poets like Akka Mahadevi and Basavanna. His list also includes his own elder contemporaries Shivarama Karanth, Kuvempu, Gopalakrishna Adiga.

Observers of his writing wonder if there has been a softening of his stand in recent times; he was perhaps becoming less vocal in his criticisms of his community, his caste. Ananthamurthy maintains that he is still ambivalent when it comes to cultural questions. What isn’t ambivalent is his emphasis on the Kannada identity. He mooted the idea to Kannada-ize the names of towns in the state, from Bangalore to Bengaluru, from Shimoga to Shivamogga, from Gulbarga to Kalaburgi, among others. He holds on to his view that unless this is done to reestablish and strengthen the local, regional and linguistic identity, we, the people whose language and identity is Kannada, would disappear. What continues to bother him though is that Kannada-ness is not as strong as the Tamil ethos, that we don’t carry Kannada as an identity and as a language with us as much as say a Malayalee does with his language, his identity. But the octogenarian tells himself that Kannada has always been more inclusive than the others.

You could not write of the ethos of the region, the linguistics, the politics and the literature of Karnataka without acknowledging Ananthamurthy’s often controversial influence upon them. In an essay from three decades ago, he talked about everyone being reluctant modernisers, where the West was as much with us as the East. The schizophrenia in this conflict of identity remains, if not more so now in a globalized world. His probing into this conflict is ambivalent, as are his beliefs, when he says, “We may get fatigued by this. The sensitive in Europe get fatigued. The earth may get fatigued and get reduced to a global desert of markets.”