Thursday, September 27, 2007

Originally ours?

Sometime last year, I and my husband accompanied a Japanese Couple for their shopping. The duo was working at Orissa in a NGO project with another friend of ours. Obiviously they were facing lots of trouble in getting the common ingredients of their usual Japanese food at that remote and poverty stricken district. So coming to Calcutta was their big chance to buy spices , vegetables and fish of their choice .
We took them to a Chinese Restaurant at Tangra for lunch . Tangra, the mini china town of Calcutta is reputed to serve authentic Chinese food painstakingly preserved by the 200 odd Chinese families living in the locality for past few generations. Our Japanese couple was ecstatic at the proposal. Once in the restaurant, the lady asked for the menu in Chinese script as she had studied it in China and thought she will be more familiar with the dishes with their original names. But then, there was no menu card in Chinese. After all , the eatery was serving mostly to Indians and felt no need to have a Chinese menu…even the waiters of Chinese origin(there were very few of them) could speak fluent bangla but very little Chinese. We suggested probably she can try a chopsuey. She said she has never heard of a dish with such a name in China . Her husband, educated in USA also confirmed that this so called “American Chopsuey” is unknown to Chinese in USA . So we concluded that perhaps it is a local invention and called by that name for some strange reason. Later I did some Googling and found that they were right!
Chopsuey( it means “mixed pieces” in Chinese) is part of American Chinese cuisine, Canadian Chinese cuisine, and, more recently, Indian Chinese cuisine. Filipinos also have their own version of chopsuey. Though it is popular dish in Chinese restaurants in USA to suit American taste, it is never eaten by local Chinese. It is alleged to have been invented by Chinese immigrant cooks working on the United States Transcontinental railway in the 19th century and has also been cited in New York City's Chinatown restaurants since the 1880s. Other sources say that the dish (and its name) was invented during Qing Dynasty premier Li Hongzhang's visit to the United States: when reporters asked what food the premier was eating, his cook found it difficult to explain the dishes, and replied "mixed pieces” and as per another version of this 'culinary mythology', traces it to a dish of Taishan, the homeland of many Chinese immigrants. Whatever may be the case, our Japanese friends liked the taste of the unknown 'Chinese' dishes served in India .
Yesterday I read an interesting article by Chef Shaun Kenworthy in The Telegraph, about the origin of various vegetables and recipes. If one go in search of origin of popular food items , many astonishing facts emerge. E.g. the roti, Kali daal, Rogan josh even the kebab – the so called Indian classic food preparations are not Indian at all. On the other hand Manchurian and chilli chikan – generally taken as Chinese , are very much Indian by birth and by naturalization. Its difficult to imagine that some of the most popular vegetables like potato , tomato, cauliflower and bell pepper arrived in India only around 300-400 years ago. So the Kashmiri Aloo dum or our favorite Aloo tikki are not that traditional as we would have thought.

The article made me think about the ever evolving world of recipes and food traditions. In many cases it will be just impossible to pinpoint the origin of a particular dish .The current recipe may be far from the original one in its form , method of preparation and even taste .There are just too many regional and religious influences on the food in India . I am sure Chinese would have been amazed to find a pure vegetarian Chinese restaurant at Gujarat (they even have a MacDonald outlet serving only veg- world’s only of its type) . Then these days in North India you find a lot of experimentation with south India food specially the Dosa and idly . So paneer dosa and fried idlies are as popular as the original ones in most north Indian cities. And mind you, these are not just some local variations of the recipes but an entirely new recipe clubbing itself with the original name and still going by the tag of south Indian food . These days you can find a paneer sandwitch dhokala and Machurian pizza also. But then in this age of remix music, fusion language and inspired fashion, even this choupsuey cooking is most welcome as long as it suits our taste buds. So should I try some sprouted mung dal and paneer on my pizza tonight? I know I know ...Italians will be shocked to hear that .

Monday, September 24, 2007

On Punctuality: the virtue of the bored.

Better three hours too soon than a minute too late- Shakespeare said it and I practiced. Well, apart from some exceptional occasions ,I am never late for classes, appointments, movie shows, functions and parties. But these days, I am having doubts at this habit of being punctual. I know, it is difficult to get out of this carefully practiced routine but then I think I am destined to get friends, colleagues, subordinates and even spouse who do not care for keeping time.
The world is divided in two groups of human beings – those who will watch preparations for any function, mike being set for a meeting and carpet being brushed ..will beat the cleaning staff in reaching office…. will conveniently double check all seats in a lecture hall before settling for one and those who will catch the last bogey of local train every day without fail….apologize to colleagues for keeping them waiting, will enter office every morning just when the attendance register is entering boss’s chamber , will reach home late and say almost genuine sounding “sorry” to their wife/husband and will repeat the cycle again the next day. Incidentally it is for the first group that they put so many poster ads at Railway stations and bus stops …these people, invariably early to catch a train/bus , find all the time to read the posters and even point out spelling mistakes in them. The other group is the responsible for the inventions of lace free shoes, escalators and munch-on-the -way snacks. Being fair to the two groups, I don’t think it matters much in which group you are. Both have a fair share of successes and failures. If a punctual person like me starts a day with boredom of waiting for others to appear on the scene, habitual latecomers suffer from last minute anxieties. While in schools, colleges normally it pays to be on time , in social and even in official gatherings , it is fashionable to arrive late no one important is ever present to appreciate punctuality.

So without any value judgments, without any decision of right and wrong why do I choose to arrive on time every morning knowing well that other car pool colleagues will be still pouring milk over their corn flakes? I guess it has to do with the habit. I can’t bear being late and on exceptional circumstances when I am late, I feel bad. My college friends once asked me jokingly if I was even born premature .Somewhere inside me, I still feel that lack of punctuality is a theft of someone else's time. If I have made an appointment with you, I owe you punctuality, I have no right to throw away your time, if I do my own. Lack of punctuality is a lack of respect for others and also is a violation of the Golden Rule that we are to treat others as we would want to be treated. How I wish they too shared my philosophy in this regard! Talking of habitual late comers, I have a bagful of them in my office. They perhaps curse their luck that I am that obstinate boss who insists on punctuality when for years together they were happily practicing KST-Kolkata Standard Time ( i.e. start from home at the time when you are expected to reach.) Amazing part is that these gentlemen and ladies will expect (a hope beyond hope) that trains and trams will be dot on time, buses will be ready for them the moment they step out and there will be no other problem and hence conveniently give themselves few more moments. Not even evidence of the contrary for decades can alter their trust in others’ punctuality or make them practice their own. Mind you, these habitual late comers are the first one to point out that people in bank/post offices are never on time. That the other officer is not on seat and hence the work suffers. The same principle goes for submitting replies and returns. In putting up files and meeting with deadlines. In fact, in most cases deadlines are long dead when the work is finally finished. But then late coming has its own virtues too. It encourages lateral thinking and creative writing. I wish I could compile the creative excuses I get from my staff for being late. In my previous office, once I unexpectedly asked for attendance register of an IT savvy section and found about 6 people missing. They were asked to show cause and voila! I found another use of IT….promptly came 6 identical applications for condoning late coming all for the same reason – child at home met with some accident. I called the group again and asked if they share the sunsign as well… Or if aliens have attacked the children of Kolkata on the fateful day. Another very interesting encounter was with a Bengali gentleman who was irritated with me for expecting him to be on time. He with all generosity once explained me in great details, how he gets up very early ,reads newspaper , goes to fish market to buy fresh fish, which will be then cooked by his wife and will be served in due course and only after a hearty meal (like a worthy bhadralok) he can start for the office . He then asked me in an agitated tone that how can I expect him to be earlier than his usual time when he has so many morning rituals to fulfill? Well, I gave up.
Still bound by my own habits, I religiously put crosses in attendance registers, shout at my husband for always being late and make faces at my car pool colleagues.
I know all arguments, all fussing- is a waste…they can’t change their habit as I can’t change mine. So I am destined to arrive at the time of mike-testing and dusting of chairs and they will run over the stairs with shoelaces loose. They tell me "Better late than never……………” And I reply back “……… but even better- NEVER BE LATE”

Friday, September 14, 2007

My Family and Other Animals

O yes…even beyond those fancy looking musicals of Karan Johar ….its all about loving your family. I started reading Orhan Pamuk’s Istanbul where he is recalling his childhood amidst a pair of fighting parents and an affluent joint family -full of uncles and aunts, nannies and maids, grandmother’s discipline and weird cousins, pianos which were never played and family heirlooms in the showcases . I was surprised by the detached way he has been able to tell about his parents and their relation.
Though as a writer if you choose to write about yourself …I guess, it is fair to expect an honest account of things from you and I do believe Pamuk is giving just that…yet somehow , I find it strange that one can write about one’s own family in this way. No, it’s not being malicious or washing the dirty linen in public, its just that he is not trying to hide things which may not be so comfortable to write about. A writer, I read somewhere ,should act like a mirror which reflects how things are or were – even if the details are unpleasant or uncomfortable. I have no problem agreeing with all this in theory…but in actual life it is difficult to write so dispassionately about people you are close to. People with whom your best memories are associated with. People who are your FAMILY.
So what is a family? Long back I read a very apt definition of Family in Readers’ Digest . It says- Family is a group of people who eat different breakfasts every morning on the same dining table . Jokes apart, families are a very important part of each one of us. Even those parts of extended families who are physically apart play a role in shaping our character and perhaps our destiny too. I was just wondering what I would like to remember about my family? What is my family? Why would like to remember or tell anyone about my family …and here is what I gathered after much thought on the very own Three theories about families.
My first theory says that every family history as known by a member of the family has two distinct sources. Things and incidents which were “told” to him or her and things and incidents he/she witnessed. Both parts together complete the story . Now the first part necessarily has the narrator’s bias inbuilt in it and the second has the bias which we all have if we are part of the happenings. So the family history …as told or as remembered , is neither factually perfect nor emotionally stable. However, the things which make a deep impression on us – true or not so true- are what we choose to remember and relate to. Talking about the content of the family history , each family has its own share of sorrows, achievements, mistakes,clashes, heroes, scandals and embarrassments , things to boast about and things to edit for subsequent generations. So a normal family, has all the ingredients of life - pleasant and unpleasant.

Now the second theory says that every (extended) family has by the same law of normal distribution , has some characters of specific types. These include-
Ø People who are an embarrassment to talk about before friends/in-laws/spouses
Ø People who were mean and opportunistic, selfish and cunning. ( they are accused of taking advantage of other relations but are always made part of family gatherings for courtesy sake
Ø People who are kind and good hearted but plain and simply- unlucky
Ø People who crib about everybody and everything
Ø People who are rich, successful and/or stylish and look down upon other relatives( In their parties/gatherings everybody tries to be upto their standard and later disowns them as artificial and shallow. They are also the people we like to mention about before friends and colleagues.)
Ø People who are considered worldly wise
Ø People who are fun to be with – they also double as best family historians, always ready with censored part of stories about family elders
Ø People (including servants, nannies, drivers) who were “almost like family”
Ø People who like to keep in touch with everybody and everything in the family but are absent on the times of crises.
Ø Uncles who have funny habits
Ø Aunts who are critical of the family (they always marry the most favorite uncles )
Ø Cousins who ignore all communications
Ø Sisters who marry the most hopeless blokes
Ø Brothers who are henpecked
Ø Nephews who are oddballs
Ø Nieces who are unruly and stupid
……and so on. Its irritating and overwhelming at the same time to be associated with such a group. And that is why …we all tend to be Family people .

So back to my original question what would I like to remember about my family?

My answer is I would like to remember everything – all bitter and sweet incidents, all discomfiture and disappointments too…but to be honest I don’t think I would like to tell others/write about all of it. In the end perhaps the feel good moments will dominate my memory. I would like to be thankful for all those people whose presence ( even though physically they were not always near) made me feel secure and gave me a sense of belonging. I may not be keeping touch with many of them, may not even have met with some even once in my life but consciously or unconsciously they and their lives were part of mine too.
But , I will be failing if I don’t give my third theory of family (like Newton’s third law) which says that it is interesting to observe how our definition of family changes as we move along the life. Perhaps in our childhood our family was the group among which we were born …in adolescent some friends and neighbours joined in and as adults spouse, in laws, colleagues , activity partners become part of it too. Today I feel much more close to many friends than most of my cousins .Some other seniors /friends I met in the world outside the family bond are as respected as some of my blood relations. Well, I read somewhere that the bond that links your true family is not one of blood, but of respect and joy in each other's life. Rarely do members of one family grow up under the same roof…..

So here is to all those who gave me strength and pride in my family name…and also to those who felt equally elated on my smallest achievements and as concerned on my tiniest sorrow as my so called "real" family. Yes, I agree with Karan Johar…its indeed -all about loving your family.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Harry Potter and the Fables of Modern Age

I had an eventful weekend. I started my journey on Friday night and found the world was a gloomy place… and good people were getting killed. There was a coup and secret societies were functioning to fight the rule of dark forces. There were killings and misadventures all through Saturday and Sunday. But by the Sunday evening there was again some hope and happiness…..and finally at 6 PM the Dark Lord was defeated by the gutsy teenagers and “ All was well!!” Yes with these three magical words I finished my journey with Harry Potter and his friends.

And even I, never an obsessed fan of the series, am strangely contented. Can’t say I am elated .Neither am I sad that the series has come to an end and that perhaps there will be nothing more. I’m just content. Content that I’ve finished a rollicking good read. Something that I was not expecting to say as I plodded my way through the first few chapters of the 7th book of the series , through ordinary prose and middling dialog. But from that point on the book picked up like a beast unleashed. And I found myself getting caught up with the events hurtling towards their singular conclusion. Who had time to pay attention to the language then? Who had time to stop and raise eyebrows at the derivative ideas that drove the story forward, when the horcruxes were to be found and destroyed, dark forces were to be defeated and Hogwarts was to be saved? I must say that the success of the series is very well deserved. Rowling deserved every penny she earned on it (and probably deposited in a vault at Gringotts!). She excelled herself with each new book and finally managed to gave a fitting and cinematic end to the series Even if the end is to be expected and perhaps mocked at she brought it to a close with confidence and without resorting to mawkishness.

I deliberately waited for the euphoria to end after the release of the 7th book. This cooling period was needed so that I can make my own opinion about the book , without getting reviewers’ prejudices. And my verdict is 10/10 for the books and the writer. The books deserve a place in the list of modern classics and they are fables in the true sense of the word.
Yes..I said fables….It hardly matters that they talk about the world of witches and Wizards..of magic and charms..spells and flying on a broom. And no, there are no high sounding morals given at the end of the story “ So the moral of the story is ….” . The morals and the teachings are there nevertheless. They are so well intertwined with the story that any careful reader will sense them even without finding them in words. And the teachings….they are in tune with the times…very much for the reader living in the age of Osama Bin Laden and Pepsi Cola. The books talk about things we need to realize in the modern world- that things may not be as they appear in the first instance. Even the heroes are fallible. The biggest fights are fought with guts and not sophisticated weapons. Even friends have differences. Relationships break…and love at first sight may not be everlasting.And most importantly, itI talks about trust and friendship, about love and courage. Though most of these you may not find in the text…you’ll be able to feel them alright. Very unlike any fairy tale, the hero of the series was far from being the perfect good boy . He made mistakes…a lot of them…misjudged people, broke rules and was even defeated. He was hardly any match in skills to his friend Hermione and yet he was the “chosen one”. In the very first book the reason came from the mouth of headmaster Dumbledore : “It’s our choices Harry, who make us who we are far more than our abilities”. On another occasion the same Professor says: “It takes a great deal of bravery to stand up to your enemies, but a great deal more to stand up to your friends."
And how true is this lesson for each one of us who are finding survival strategies in the world governed by peer pressures and books dictating what is “in” and what is “ not so cool” . That is perhaps the reason why so many people, young and not so young were glued to the books. And how wrong were the critics who thought its just about magic and some fantasy world of imagination. Of course there is magic and fantasy coupled with brilliant imagination …but it is much more than what you can find in the text. They are delightful books by any standards and I rate them at par with the all time favorites like 'Alice in Wonderland' or 'The Little Prince'—though these are of a different genre .
Yes, read the book…even if you are not a fan (I resist calling you a 'muggle' ) and even if you are one of those who look down their long noses and wrinkling brows at a world gone crazy in the grip of Potter mania, get off your high horse and immerse yourself for a few hours for a broomstick ride of the world which while inevitably simple is very very exciting. I can bet you will forget your reservations once you have read few pages. After all there will be hardly any time for the doubts so 'muggle-worldly' once you are hooked to the world of Harry Potter.