The religion of food

There is nothing in the world that brings out the fighting spirit like food. Food matters. It sustains us, gives us a warm glow in our hearts, fire in our bellies (literally, if the cook had a free hand with the chillies) and nourishment for our cells. Food is what families and friends bond over and gossip over. It is a religion, with billions of faithful followers bowing before the plate. But like all religions there are schisms and everyone claims that their food is better, be it the taste, texture or aroma. But interestingly enough, no one seems to be bothered to make claims about their food being healthier or more nutritious.

People, being possessive are willing to fight for the food that belongs to them and feel a proprietorial right to food originating from their country, region, perhaps even village. The same dish being produced in another place is not considered to be the real thing. The water, soil, air and hands of the local cooks are supposed to add to the flavour of authenticity.  Hence the Geographical Indication (GI) tag, which tells the consumer that the product possesses the qualities and characteristics for which it is reputed, coming from its original place of production. Champagne after all comes from Champagne. Anywhere else, it is merely sparkling wine. Darjeeling tea cannot be grown in Ceylon. And one may make Dharwad peda in Bangalore but it is no good as just peda or Bangalore peda. The geographical indication of Dharwad is its tag of genuiness.

In the last few months that innocuous little spongy ball made from split milk and dunked in sugar syrup has raised quite a storm in the dessert bowl.  The two Indian states of West Bengal and Odisha have, much to the amusement of the rest of us, been slogging it out, vehemently and vociferously, over the Geographical Indication (GI) tag for the rosogolla, rasgulla, rasagula or roshogola. Whatever. We are sure that it would taste just as sweet by any name or spelling variant. Besides, in our opinion gulab jamuns take the cake any day and let’s not even go into the chenna murgis and the motichur laddoos. So, the victory, as finally announced last week by the Geographical Indications registry, lies with West Bengal. The sweet has been registered as the Banglar Rasogolla.  Of course, the Chief Minister of the state lost no time in congratulating the people of West Bengal on something so momentous.

The state of Odisha had apparently filed reams of evidence that the rasagolla (another spelling variant) has been an offering at the famous and ancient Jagannath Puri temple for centuries. As such, it was claimed, it has been around in Odisha much longer than the Bengali version first made by a sweet shop in Calcutta for the sweet discerning  palate of the Bengali populace. But it would seem that not even God can keep the rasogolla from being identified with the Bengalis. As it happens, the lord is probably left quite confused about the GI of his offerings. The priests would be well advised, for maximum blessing, to insert the GI in their offering prayer. After all it could well be counter productive if the deity in the temple starts to protest the authenticity of what is offered.

It just goes to show that the religion of food obviously trumps that of temples. This battle seems to have been resolved with minimal damage but we are not looking forward to the day someone decides to start a Biryani war. Each street corner of different towns, in each state of the country is likely to lay a claim to it. Things could get complicated. We better just be thankful the rasogolla GI is within the country, unlike the chicken tikka masala which is being claimed by the Brits!

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In the coils of a myth

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The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry is not only a Victorian story but in many ways feels like it was written in that time. That is how authentic it is. Set mainly in an Essex village, the story itself is like the slow flowing waters of the Thames estuary and is based on an old rumour terrifying the local populace of a monstrous serpent with wings that preyed on the surrounding villages.

Cora Seaborne, recently widowed and finding herself free of an oppressive husband, has moved from London to indulge in her larger interest in fossils and in particular the recent finds in the Blackwater marshes of Essex. Intrigued by stories of the serpent in newspapers, she dreams of the glory of finding a living fossil and is convinced the serpent is not a monster but a creature that has survived from another time. She moves to the village of Aldwinter where the recent sightings have taken place, hoping to spot the serpent.

In the village, Cora, now delightfully independent, having thrown away her corsets, comes up against the superstition that is swamping it. The local parson, William Ransome, who is surprisingly a rationalist believes that science and faith can coexist and refuses to accept the possibility of there being a serpent in any form. He is left dealing with not just his panicking parishioners but also his own feelings for Cora despite the divergence in their thinking and beliefs. There are a whole host of characters, all revolving around Cora and William and their families. Perry describes each one so completely and from various points of view that the reader is able to understand their perspective of the Essex Serpent sightings without being judgmental of their responses.

Ultimately this is novel about the clash between rationality and the kind of superstition that is capable of engulfing and rampaging through societies. The serpent symbolises different things for different people and each character sees in it what they want to; a scientific curiosity, a demon sent for the retribution of the villagers, a  story inciting doubt. derision and contempt, or a symbol of the fall from Eden or even that of the serpent of healing entwining the sceptre of Aeschylus. Whether or not the serpent was real is left to the reader to believe whatever it is that they want to believe.

Set over a period of one year, the novel describes the seasons in lush detail. Through Cora, a compulsive rambler and walker, Perry gives the reader a sensory experience of the sights, sounds and smells of the area. Somehow just the visuals of  Cora striding across the marshes on her own feels emancipating. This is a book to be savoured, mulled over and enjoyed slowly. We were planning to review it earlier but took a long time to read it because of the need to go back and re read some of the paragraphs just for their expression and language. Through the backdrop of an almost gothic story, the reader is lulled into a quiet sort of beauty. Though it won a whole bunch of awards, we are puzzled as to why the book was not longlisted for the Booker prize.

The art of shopping at Khadi bhandar

Khadi –  Indian hand spun, hand woven natural fibre cloth.

Bhandar – a shop, store, stockroom, warehouse, depository.

Khadi Bhandar – a government run shop, supposedly for stocking and selling khadi products. But we are not quite sure about the selling bit.

Shopping is supposed to be fun and relaxing but we have learnt that this is not always the case. Normal shops by definition exist to ‘sell’ and to this end will do their best to keep their customers happy. One walks in intending to buy A and the shop will do its best to also sell you B and C. Not so at the Khandi Bhandar where even getting into the door is a challenge. Recent experiences have left us gritting our teeth in exasperation. Which is why we decided to compile a list of for and against to warn the unwary.

Against:

  1. A customer has to negotiate the two hour siesta which extends half an hour in each direction, government holidays, weekly off days, biannual stock taking week (sometimes fortnight).
  2. The only clear month that the customer has are the days in October following Gandhi Jayanti, when the shop is open through the day without a break for lunch. To make up for this, the shop employees are doubly unaccommodating and recalcitrant. The customer is likely to be left standing, hoping to catch someone’s attention while the shop ladies discuss the latest scandal in their lives as they shell peas on the counter for their dinner. Numerous “excuse me”s and discreet coughs are ignored, forcing the customer to curb their instincts to scream and storm out.
  3. Upon your obstinate refusal to budge, someone will finally deign to notice you and ask what you want in a tone of voice implying that there are no freebies, you have been categorised as a time waster and possibly a stealer of shelled peas. The reluctance to take anything out of the shelves is almost pathological since customers are well known to unravel bales of cloth with their grubby hands. Not to mention taking up time and space in the shop holding up said bales against themselves in front of the mirror.
  4. Persuasive powers and ingratiatingly smiley faces have no effect on the hardened Khadi Bhandar employee, nor does a display of clean hands and fingernails. If one does manage somehow to cajole them to cut meterage of cloth that catches the eye, it will be hacked viciously and unevenly by the bluntest possible scissors. The lady behind the counter must, till the very end, display her unhappiness at being made to work so hard. It matters not that the shop is empty otherwise.
  5. To top it all, we now have to pay 12% Tax on the fabric. It almost makes one wonder whether it is worth the effort.

For:

  • Therein lies the catch. It is worth it. The Khadi stuff, once one manages to view some, is really great. It is also a very happening fabric right now, popular with high fashion designers and much more reasonably priced at the government outlets as compared to boutique stores. Which means we end up going back time and again, suckers for the total disinterest and disdain meted out to us. Also they probably don’t have an online presence because how do you bring these attitudes to an online store.

So the next time you are brave enough to venture into one of these places, make sure you are not in a rush, keep your temper in check and perhaps wear a tooth guard to prevent from grinding away the enamel on your teeth. Also, it is possibly a great place to work, taking into account the lack of work happening there.

 

 

Legions of Angels

EAA22AD9-21E5-4F57-8DED-2F4B1792DF12The House of Shattered Wings (Dominion of the Fallen) by Aliette de Bodard is a dark and intriguing speculative fiction book which won the BSFA (British Science Fiction Association)award for best novel in 2015.

Paris is in ruins because of a war that happened between the Houses of the Fallen but a tenuous peace is now maintained. Because rivalry cannot be entirely forgotten, the Houses continue to work against each other in more subtle ways. Other than the Houses, the city is overrun by gangs scavenging amongst the destruction and debris and occupied by magicians, witches and alchemists. In this backdrop comes Isabelle, a newly fallen angel who forms an inadvertent bond with Philippe, a former immortal from an eastern colony.
The angels all lose their wings as a consequence of the fall from, presumably Heaven, but is referred to as the City. None of them remember why they fell, only that they no longer exist in a state of grace. Isabelle and Phillipe are taken in by Silver Spires, the oldest house, set up by the original fallen, Morningstar, who had disappeared 20 years back.

Bodard interestingly juxtaposes aspects of eastern belief systems against western beliefs and background. On the one hand there are the Fallen, the City, references to God but there is also the Court of the Jade Emperor, the Dragon Kingdoms, including the one below the polluted Seine, which all hint at the existence of numerous spiritual heavens. The reader is required to be open to multiple philosophies to truly appreciate the book.

The magic works differently for the adherents of each system; Philippe draws his from nature while the Fallen come with magical powers that dwindle as they age.
Not surprisingly, despite a number of characters, the reader comes away with the impression that the story revolves around the one character who is missing, and that is Morningstar whose aura and personality loom over everyone and each event in the book.

The unknowns are what make the book a compelling read. Most of the questions are not answered but it is a series so there is more to come. The Fallen of Silver Spires live around the ruins of Notre Dame Cathedral but it is not deconsecrated, some even attend mass. So there is no clear animosity as far as God is concerned. Hell is a devastated Paris and perhaps evil is not the causing of pain but the indifference to it and the lack of empathy. Despite the existence of magic and magical beings, the one truly powerful force in the book is a human’s desire for revenge.

De Bodard’s book is not like your typical dystopian, post apocalyptic fiction which revolves around one person or a group’s struggle to stay alive or create some order out of the chaos. Instead it is a re-imagining of faith, belief and politics, leaving the readers conflicted between their own conditioning and concepts of what define right and wrong and good and evil.

(The second book in the Dominion of the Fallen series is The House of Binding Thorns) 

 

 

Traffication

   Every year we think the city has reached rock bottom as far as the roads and traffic go and the following year always proves us overly optimistic. But this year has managed to completely boggle everyone’s minds.

  After the last three years of near drought conditions the rain gods have now freaked out. We have had the highest recorded annual rainfall in 115 years in the last one week. Not surprisingly the city has sprouted numerous waterfalls, unexpected lakes which have submerged houses, raging rivers sweeping away everything in their path and roads have disintegrated and disappeared. Only Google maps seem to know where the roads are; they are certainly not visible to the naked eye.

  Bangalore has always been one of those places where no one ever discusses the weather because we don’t really have to deal with extreme weather conditions. In fact every time one of us goes out of the city we realise how spoilt we are as Bangalorians and how unequipped we are to deal with the climate elsewhere. During lunch in a crowded restaurant today, we noticed that all the tables around us were only discussing the rains, the resultant chaos and the traffic jams. So weather is dominating conversations now. Unfortunately the local authorities and local government live in the same bubble as us and really don’t know how to deal with climate change beyond blaming it on the influx of outsiders, who somehow bring the change with them.

   The city has been gridlocked the last few days and each jam has its own legends developing of how people survived it. People who did not move fifty feet in three hours had to check into nearby hotels just to wait out the jam, leading to a friend coining the term ‘traffication’. There are vacations and staycations but in  Bangalore the populace most needs traffications as respite from the horrendous jams. The city is on all the national news channels for its particular brand of chaos. What is most amazing is that a city which has the highest concentration of engineers is incapable of applying tech know-how for either managing traffic or laying decent roads.

  They say that it never rains where the sinners are, so Bangalore must be full of the most blessed people on earth. Except no one is feeling blessed right now.

Magical

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We had been hearing about the The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern for sometime but somehow never managed to get around to reading it till now. For this we have to blame the blurb by Knopf Doubleday which showed up on the library site and which makes the book sound something like a racy thriller. The reviews which were mostly positive also somehow never managed to convey the brilliant atmospheric quality and lyrical nature of the book.

Two powerful magician/sorcerers have had a long and on going battle for centuries in which they pit their current protégés against each other in a contest to prove their capabilities and the superiority of the training imparted to them. Each contest has a different setting as agreed by the masters and this time around the venue is a mystical, nocturnal circus known as Le Cirque des Reves, which magically appears for an unannounced number of days at an unannounced venue. The contestants Marco and Celia are the essence of the circus and power the entire setup. Their expertise and talent displayed in the wondrous and magical exhibitions that are from time to time added to the circus. Erin Morgenstern describes these exhibits in poetic detail as she does the development of the relationship between the two contestants.

This is a book about a competition yet there is no rapid succession of bangs and bursts but a enchanting progression through the creativity of the protagonists. The detailed descriptions suck the reader into the magical black and white world of the circus with its maze of tents housing various exhibits and performances but the most spectacular are those created by the two contestants pitted against each other in a display of magical skill : an ice garden, a wishing tree, a labyrinth, a carousel of magical creatures and a pool of tears. Erin Morgenstern’s writing transports one to the extent that the reader can almost smell the smoke and caramel and palpably feel the excitement of the Reveurs, the group of people in black and white with a hint of red, passionately following the circus around the world.

Like the black and white of the circus, the book veers between the light of the main characters whose discovery of each other and the beauty of their creations are juxtaposed against the darkness of the respective masters with their obsessive self absorption hinting at an unsavoury outcome. The story moves gradually along with the contestants as they move from place to place and move on from competing with each other to creating for each other and finally to collaborating. Almost like two competing gardeners who fall in love with each other’s gardens and cannot help themselves from adding to the other’s creations. And the story unfolds like a slow wait for flowers to bloom as the sun rises as opposed to a time lapse bloom which passes by in a moment.

Some books defy description and no matter what one says, the feeling of reading the book, like the circus, can only be experienced.

Booker Takeover

We are back to the time of the year when the Man Booker Prize shortlist comes out. Shock, horror and surprise, of the six shortlisted novels, three of the authors are American. Now who really thought, when they opened up the prize in 2014 to include American writers, that the Americans would not come to dominate the long and short lists? In fact the three other books are by British writers, although one of them is of Pakistani origin. There goes the Commonwealth nature of the prize, straight out of the window or straight into the trash can as the Americans would say (no dustbins over there). 

Does this mean that the Americans write better than anyone else writing in English? Are their concepts more daring or are they more imaginative or do they push the boundaries of literature and language more than anyone else?   Are the rest of us in the English speaking world still floundering in our colonial rut, merely replicating Rudyard Kipling over and over again? Or is it just a simple case of publishers who make money on the sale of American books are keen to get the publicity and advertising that a place on the shortlist brings about? 

The best part of it is that the Americans are incapable of understanding regular English. This is why the American editions of most novels have to have spellings, words and phrases changed to enable better understanding.  Spellings like ‘colour’ and ‘centre’ tend to leave the Americans floundering in the dark and the rest of the world has to pronounce route as ‘rout’ which until recently had meant a disorderly retreat after defeat, not a way of getting somewhere. JK Rowling has now famously regretted changing the title of the first Harry Potter book from ‘The Philosophers Stone’ to ‘The Sorcerers Stone’ for the American edition. A change that was most perplexing to most of us, it’s not as if the word ‘philosopher’ is somehow more esoteric than the word ‘sorcerer’. Words like car park, roundabout and cinema have to regularly be changed to parking lot, carousel and movie theatre for US editions of books. It doesn’t matter that most people read on a kindle, it would be too difficult to put one’s finger on the word and have the dictionary meaning pop up.

Countries of the Commonwealth have developed different terminologies and manner of speaking English and yet their people not only read but enjoy books written in English from around the world. Ultimately it is about getting the local flavour and colour from the writing. Alexander McCall Smith has a lot of colloquialisms in his books set in Botswana but then it is meant to be Botswana. What would be the point of Mma Ramotswe and Co. sounding like they were living in an American suburb?  So it does seem a little ironic that the Americans, with their blinkered view of the English language are now dominating most of the prestigious literature prizes. We enjoy books by American writers and read them all the time but that is no reason to change the language for their sake or make them eligible for the prizes where they have no business being. 

The best bit of grumble we heard recently was from a twelve year old who had by mistake downloaded an American edition of her favourite book on to her kindle and then complained endlessly that the biscuits which the characters ate had become cookies. For her that was unpalatable.