Sunday, June 26, 2011

Of Butter Chicken and Co

I have noticed a rather worrying trend in the South and especially in Tamil Nadu. Dravidian Movement, Tamil pride apart, everyone on the street in Chennai seemed to be ready to demonstrate their knowledge of Hindi. The best indication of the North Indianization of the South- (apart from the extra glittered Kanjeevaram sarees) is food. To me, food is a metaphor for many things. When we went to Pondicherry (this was more than seven months ago), we stayed in a mid range business hotel. I am a fan of hotels like this - the clean bathrooms and the anonymous decor that brings us - the guests into central focus. 
However, their menu had only one South Indian dish on the menu - Chicken Chettinad, which in any case is a mainstream Lajpat Nagar dish. But since, I had to make use of being in the south, I was always keeping a look out for authentic food.The dosa in the Chennai bus stop can for instance put Sagar Ratna out of business in one day. Anyhow, so I wanted to try real Chettinad food. When I was growing up, I had a cook from Chettinad. My brother would (in his endless cruelty) point out to her birds from books like Birding in North Carolina  and she, who has never left South India, claim to have eaten all of them. She was in general, an interesting character. For example, when she was a child she said she had been scared that crows would steal her breasts away....but I digress. 

Chettinad food, like most well intention-ed cuisines of the world offers little to the vegetarian and yet I, the lover of Korean Bimbimbap and the braverer of Naga restarants persevere. The typical dishes include Roast Rabbit, the spicy Egg Curry, Kothu Paratha- mashed up Paratha seasoned with onion, tomatoes and spices with the option of meat, etc. 

So, we went to Anjappar, a chain of Chettinad restaurants that I have been familiar with since college in Chennai. 
Deeply excited, I settled into the musty smelling room. I went through the menu and with great difficulty settled on a few dishes I could try, prepared to over order because it would be months before I was back in the south. 
"What is available?," I asked the waiter. " Naan, Fried Rice, Paneer," he said. 

Now, you don't spend FIVE hours (despite my penchant for exaggeration, I don't plead guilty) convincing a European to try spicy South Indian "water dal" and then go to Anjappar and order Paneer Butter Masala. That would be loss of self respect.I walked out. 

Only to be faced with another buffet for which I paid the whole price to ignore the naan and the biryani to eat Rasam Sadam and Chilly Egg. And so, in any case this North Indianization of the South is something I fear. Homogenization of cultures to adhere to the idea of India which is artificial. Just like in most Bollywood movies, the characters are Punjabi or they have no specific culture but in some odd generic way, are mildly relatable to everyone. In any case, perhaps it's just easier to pack a kathi roll than rasam sadam and convenient packaging makes life simpler.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

A woman in Louisiana can pee in peace.

I was reading this and remembered in retrospect how a conversation 
I had in 2008 was so surreal. It was with a woman who had sold her kidneys for 
Rs.40,000 to a middle man who would then make sure it was implanted in an American woman.
Yes, true. The details evade me now but it was in a slum on the outskirts of Chennai. It was hot and dusty and we were under pressure to put out a piece for the college Television bulletin that no one watched. The women fussed over my North eastern companion because she is light skinned. We were pointed to the house of the woman who sold her kidneys. There was a DVD Player, a TV and my horrified journalism student mind was thinking, "Damn, the kidneys paid for this." The family was not exceptionally poor by the standards of their community. The woman, lets call her Revati sold the fish that her husband, lets call him Gopal caught. The tsunami had changed their fortunes because they were shifted to apartment buildings far away from the sea. They still got by but the offer of money for kidneys just seemed too lucrative to ignore. And now a woman somewhere in (say) Louisiana can pee in peace. 

Sunday, June 12, 2011

The fanatic who eats like a rabbit.

Being a vegetarian is like having to live in a cauldron full of defences - that you need to squirt frequently in order to eat your spinach cannelloni in peace or hold on to your love for Thayir Sadam.  You need to constantly reassure people that the reason you hate shrimp undertones in your Vegetables in Hot and Sweet Sauce is not because your are a Brahminical - ( and also, muslim hating, purity obsessed, superior thinking-simultaneously uncool, non-macho) piece of shit. Or *admit* that you are hypocritical because even as you type this the bacteria on your keyboard are being butchered to be mass produced on my fingers. Or explain that it's possible to *dislike* meat. 
For the record, I am not even bramhin to be brahminical. See, I am not even sure how it's spelt.  
Anyhow, this was merely context for my visit to Nagaland Kitchen recently in Green Park, Delhi. A, B and C had thier plates full with pig and fermented rajma, fish and smoked fish chutney. I had to order the only vegetarian thing on the Naga food menu (I don't want to go to a Naga restaurant and order American Chopseuy no). Mustard leaves and beans in boiled water without salt. I had it with Akhuni chutney- spicy and fermented-y. I am usually a fan of light dishes like this where you can actually taste the vegetables but this meal is best had if you are running a temperature. 

Tuesday, June 07, 2011

The deadline to kill a river.

My hair still has knots from the sea breeze. And my shoes have sand in them. How can the pile of rubble that claims to be my life in Delhi compare.
Drama aside, I have just returned from Goa. I love Delhi, don't get me wrong. But everytime, you leave Delhi and Bombay, and especially when you go to a place like Goa, there is a palpable softness - to life and to people. This time I experienced a vastly different Goa than before. My previous trips, to contextualise this consisted of general alcoholic debauchery and consequently I have very hazy memories of them. To digress and indulge a realisation I just had, the older I grow the more sensible and staid my trips become. From absolute debauched to quiet and romantic and finally more reflective. 

This time, we were away from the beaches in Fontanhas, a quiet and colourful ex Portugese colony in Goa. It was filled with lovely yellow and blue houses, white chapels, converted art galleries, the works. The thing is none of these were overly commoditized unlike in Pondicherry were the one small (mostly) street is over Frenched. The Alliance Francaise has a menu only in French. This made me a bit nauseous especially when teamed with all the emotionally exhausting memories, spaces of life I'd rather not go back to. 

In the case of Goa, the blessed green land where laissez faire is legitimate however, my memories (or the gaps in memories)  are always sparkling. I love the intense red (yummy red earth) of the laterite, the grey splash of the sea, and the green that spreads like a disease in the monsoon. Like my friend Ablong says, you can't leave anything out of the fridge in Goa for more than five minutes- it would catch moss/fungus. 

And then there are the mountains sold to DLF. Virgin mountains become the choicest brides to strip for open cast mines. And fields have been bookmarked to build malls. Yes, glass walled malls in Goa can only be conceived of by people with aesthetic cancer. Miners have stationed their private yachts on the Mandovi river. SESA Goa and DLF can have a big party but I truly had a heart sinky feeling. 

This was made worse by my brother's Goan friend A who while driving through Goa would casually point out to a whole range of hills and say 'Oh, these are sold to DLF' etc. But knowledgeable as he was, each green range became a vision of 
a Select City Walk future. That is my biggest fear about new India. It is spreading like a monster, buying off Environmental Impact Assessment Reports on the way and can take you by surprise. In places where no one  has heard off EIAs, the picture is even worse. On a recent trip to Anoopshahr, UP where I lived over a year ago, I used to take boat rides on the Ganges. The river there is a far cry from Varanasi's fecal possibilities. Was actually. In just over a year, construction projects have started on the bank. Ancient temples have new brick additions. (Aesthetic cancer reappears). 

And it takes only a year to destroy a river.