July 7, 2006

The Order of the Purple Tomato

Posted in Humour, Personal at 11:53 am by falstaff

On the morning of 7th July, 2006, while engaged in vicious hand to hand combat with a particularly recalcitrant cabbage, Field Housewife D.W. Falstaff suffered grevious injury to the cuticle of his left middle finger. Despite being severely disabled and suffering heavy loss of blood, Field Housewife Falstaff continued to engage with the enemy, who eventually succumbed. Field Housewife Falstaff then went on to set a glorious example to his other fingers by further attacking, peeling and eventually destroying two potatoes, a bunch of beans and one particularly devastating onion that had eluded capture for weeks. For his gallantry, his courage around the kitchen fire, and for service above and beyond the call of subzi, Field Housewife Falstaff is post-prandially awarded the Order of the Purple Tomato.

*Applause*

Translation: I cut my finger chopping vegetables this morning and am trying to go easy on the typing. So more later.

P.S. : And then people say that women shouldn’t be given hazardous front-line roles.

July 6, 2006

Gene who?

Posted in Poetry at 12:12 pm by falstaff

I’m fascinated by old poetry anthologies. It’s both interesting and deeply humbling to read something that purports to be a collection of classics from its time and discover how much literary ‘taste’ has changed over the years, and how differently we (or at least I) view things today from the way we did, say, 50 years ago.

Take this collection called the Pocket Book of Modern Verse edited by Oscar Williams and first published in 1954, that I bought a while ago and am in the process of leafing through again. It claims to be an anthology of the best ‘modern’ poems published in the 100 years from 1855 – 1954, starting from Whitman and going all the way up to Ted Hughes. The reason I bought it, the reason I’m re-reading it, is because it offers a view of the development of poetry from the 1850s to the 1950s that is in many ways strikingly different from the one I typically carry around in my head. If I were to put together an anthology of poetry from that period, it would look very, very different.

Not that there wouldn’t be some overlap. Some things simply cannot be argued with – Whitman’s Song of Myself, Hopkins’ sonnets, Crane’s Brooklyn Bridge, cummings’s somewhere I have never travelled – all these would find a place in practically any anthology of the period, as they do here. And to give Williams’ credit, he does a fine job, in my opinion, of picking poems by Dylan Thomas, Emily Dickinson and W.H. Auden. Most of the usual favourites are there, plus a few poems that are less well known, but equally deserving.

It’s when you get beyond the obvious, that Williams selections grow startling. The anthology includes exactly one William Carlos Williams poem – this thing called The Yachts – but we have long sections devoted to Vachel Lindsay, W.S. Gilbert (of Gilbert and Sullivan fame) and James Joyce. Even Herman Melville gets more space than W.C.Williams. More, in a book supposedly dedicated to ‘modern’ poetry, we have long selections from Thomas Hardy, Algernon Charles Swinburne, Walter de la Mare and A.E. Housman.

As we get closer to the editor’s contemporaries matters only get more baffling. First, one is now treated to a bunch of names that I, at any rate, have never heard of. I mean seriously, has anyone ever read any of the following: Gene Derwood, Julian Symons, F.T. Prince, Joseph Bennett, Dustan Thompson or Frederick Mortimer Clapp? Okay, so some of them have only one or two poems included, but even so the book puts them on equal footing with Philip Larkin, Robert Lowell, Frank O’Hara and William Empson. Allen Tate doesn’t just get Ode to the Confederate Dead, he gets a section as long as Ezra Pound’s all too himself. Edith Sitwell doesn’t just get Still falls the Rain, she gets half a dozen poems. And you finally discover that Richard Eberhardt did, in fact, write something other than the Groundhog and the Fury of the Aerial Bombardment. Oh, and there’s the 10 page long section of Oscar Williams’ own poems, about which the less said the better.

Understand, I’m not saying that these poets don’t deserve to be there (though, actually, in the case of both Oscar Williams and Edith Sitwell, I am saying that – their poems are, frankly, unreadable). I certainly don’t claim to be an expert on early 20th century poetry, and am in no real position to judge (even assuming objective judgement were possible) the relative merits of different poets from that era. I just think it’s interesting that so many of the poets that Oscar Williams clearly saw as being seminal to his time have faded into relative obscurity in a mere 50 years, while others, whom he ignores completely (Langston Hughes isn’t included, for instance), continue to delight us. So much for verse being immortal.

And it isn’t just the selection of poets that seems strange. It’s also the poems that Williams chooses to include. Take Yeats. We get some of the usual anthology pieces – The Second Coming, When you are Old and Grey, Sailing to Byzantium, Lake Isles of Innisfree. But no Leda and the Swan, no Byzantium, no Among School Children, no Easter, 1916. Instead we get A Bronze Head, John Kinsella’s Lament for Mrs. Mary Moore, The Three Bushes and Politics. The Wallace Stevens selection includes The Idea of Order at Key West and Sunday Morning, but it also includes The Woman That Had More Babies Than That, The President Ordains the Bee to Be and On an Old Horn. Again, I’m not saying these are bad poems (I’m not sure Wallace Stevens wrote a bad poem in his life) but it’s surprising to me that they are the poems anyone would pick as being the ‘best’ / most representative of their respective poet’s work.

Of course, one could argue that this is just Williams’ bias and he has a right to his opinion, etc. etc. I’m not disputing that. But I think it’s more generally true that anthologies, especially old anthologies, always surprise me with what they decide to include and what they choose to leave out. And that, for me, is a big part of what makes them worth reading.

Now if I can only find a selection of Gene Derwood’s verse in my library.

July 5, 2006

The Fantasy

Posted in Fiction at 11:25 am by falstaff

Rajesh had a fantasy. It wasn’t lewd or vulgar or anything. In fact, you could say it was almost genteel. Rajesh’s dream was that one day he would wake up to the sound of a woman crying in the next room. He would go over to investigate and find a beautiful stranger, lying in bed, crying her eyes out. Seeing her distraught, he would take her in his arms, console her, lull her gently to sleep. They would lie together through the night, she breathing calmly by his side, he watching over her while she slept. Then, when the night was over, he would slip away.

And that was it. There would be no words spoken, no communication of any kind. They would never see each other again. And there certainly would be no sex – no, not even a harmless little kiss. It would be a night of absolute intimacy with a total stranger.

Rajesh was very fond of this fantasy. He thought it demonstrated maturity and refinement. Not for him the lurid porn-inspired threesomes of his classmates. Never mind that they laughed at him when he told them about his dream. They were just hormonal, over-sexed teenagers, that was all. What would they know about sensitivity, about the meeting of souls? A woman would understand. A woman would appreciate the spiritual fragility of Rajesh’s dream. After all, weren’t all the magazines always saying how much women wanted to be held?

The trouble, it turned out, was that very few women want to be held by total strangers. As time passed, Rajesh began to see the flaw in his fantasy. How do you get a strange woman to let you sleep in the room next to her, ready to come to her rescue should she suddenly start crying in the night? The easiest thing to do, of course, would be to get into a relationship. Sooner or later the opportunity to hold her through the night would doubtless come up. And after all, wasn’t that how all his other male friends were getting their fantasies fulfilled? Getting into a relationship with a girl and then cajoling her to cooperate in whatever obscene scenario they had in mind?

Except that the whole point of Rajesh’s fantasy was that it had to be with a stranger. In his head he could already hear the things his fantasy woman would tell her girlfriends the next morning. About how kind he’d been, how generous, how protective. Like a true knight-errant. No, she would tell her amazed listeners, he never tried to make a pass at me, not once. Her friends wouldn’t believe it. Were there still guys like that? He would be a legend.

It wouldn’t work if the girl wasn’t a stranger though. What was the big deal about comforting your steady girlfriend through the night? She’d probably just take it for granted.

At first he tried hanging out in singles bars, trying to spot women who looked particularly miserable. Like they’d just got some bad news and were trying to drown their sorrows in drink. This didn’t go well. Either the women were convinced he was just trying to take advantage of their unhappiness (which he was, though not in the way they thought), and turned away from him in scorn. Or they actually took to him, in which case they cheered up and soon became animated and flirtatious without any signs of the depression that had drawn him to them in the first place.

Rajesh was a good looking guy, he was intelligent, he was a good talker. He sensed instinctively that he could have taken a number of these women to bed. But what was the point? That wasn’t what he was looking for. A couple of times he tried explaining to the women he hooked up with that he emphatically did NOT want to have sex with them. One woman told him to get lost, wanted to know what he was doing in a straight bar anyway. The other slapped him.

Who would have thought it would be so difficult not to have sex with a woman? In desperation, Rajesh decided to compromise and tried going the relationship route. After all, it wasn’t every boyfriend who was that tender, that supportive. His first girlfriend couldn’t sleep if someone was watching her. His second girlfriend, whom he first met at a party sitting by the pool and crying, turned out to be a surprisingly positive and optimistic person (her grandmother had died the night he met her) and after six months of waiting for her to have another breakdown of some sort he dumped her. His third girlfriend he tried taking into his confidence – explaining to her, at the end of their third date, what he wanted. She immediately wanted to know why he didn’t want to sleep with her. Was she that unattractive? He finally had to have sex with her just to convince her that he didn’t think she was ugly.

By this point, Rajesh was starting to lose hope. Gradually, as the years passed, and an endless lifetime of unconsoling nights stretched out in front of him, he decided that his fantasy was just that – an idle dream. It was never going to come true. At 30, defeated, he got married. The first few times his wife cried in bed he held very tenderly, kissed away her tears. It felt good. After a while, though, her tears were mostly about things he had done (or hadn’t done) and he started to get irritated. What the hell was her problem anyway? Everyone had troubles. Didn’t he go through hell at work? Why was she always carrying on like this? Weeping away over the smallest thing?

He decided that his trying to console her was only encouraging her. Maybe if he ignored her when she cried she would stop doing it. So now when he felt her sobbing in the bed next to him he simply turned his back to her, pulled a pillow over his head, and dreamt again of that perfect stranger, the one he’d never managed to meet, the one who’d have a real reason to cry and would deserve to be comforted.

Decades passed. Rajesh got divorced and his wife got the kids so he went back to living alone. He never remarried. Sometimes in the night he would wake up thinking he heard someone cry. But there was no one. He told himself it was all those years when the children were young that had done this to him. But in his heart of hearts he knew it was her, his fantasy woman, whom he was listening for.

Then, one day, at a conference in London, it happened. It was late – a little past one in the morning. He was walking down the corridor to his hotel room, a little drunk, when he heard the sound of someone crying. It was coming from Room no 462. He listened for a while to see if he could make out any other voices. There were none. There was just the heartbreaking sound of a woman weeping alone. It was exactly what he’d always dreamed of. Gathering his courage, he knocked. A minute later the door opened a crack and a tear-stained face peeped out. God, she was gorgeous. Or would have been, except for the tears. Couldn’t be a day over 25. He felt strangely elated, and also terribly frightened. “Oh, I’m sorry. I was just passing by and I heard…that is to say…I just thought…look, are you all right?”.

Five minutes later, he was inside the room, listening patiently as she told him the old, familiar story – a boyfriend, high school sweetheart, getting married in three months, just called to say goodnight, a woman answered, been going on for months, she didn’t know, never going to forgive him – and he saying, “there, there” and helping her get her shoes off and tucking her into bed and putting his arm around her and leaning her head against his shoulder and plying her with tissues. And then, when she was finally asleep, easing her gently onto the pillow, turning off the lights, and sitting in a chair by her side watching her, the soft fall and swell of her breathing.

He waited till it was 6:30 by his watch, and then slipped away to his room. Too excited to even think about sleep, he shaved, showered, packed. He was catching the noon flight back home. He felt elated. He felt like singing. Finally! After all those years of waiting, his fantasy had come true. He wondered who he could tell about it, who would understand. There must be someone.

He ran into her in the lobby. She looked much better now – more composed, and infinitely more beautiful. But the meeting was all wrong. It wasn’t supposed to happen that way. He shrugged aside her embarassed thanks. It was nothing, he said. Any gentleman would have done it. Only too glad to help. Hurriedly brushing her off he turned back to the reception counter to finish checking out.

Behind him, he could hear her talking to a friend. They had come down to breakfast together. They were talking about him! His ears pricked up. “And he never tried to come on to you? You’re sure? Didn’t try to feel you up or ANYTHING? Maybe when you were asleep? These lecherous old men are the worst, you know”. Good. Good. “No, no, nothing like that”. Here it comes. “Just look at him – he’s clearly past all that. I doubt even Viagra would help him now.”

At the counter, Rajesh cried out in shock and dropped his pen to the floor.

July 4, 2006

Further evidence that my life is a joke

Posted in Humour, Personal at 3:11 pm by falstaff

One of my closest friends is getting married. I decide to write her a poem for the occasion. Casting about for a suitable metaphor, I come up with the idea of comparing the months leading up to the wedding to a river. I pack in a whole bunch of water images – talk about springs, and streams, and rivers and waves, etc. etc.

So what happens? Bombay, where my friend lives and is getting married, gets flooded. What’s the bet that she’s going to appreciate a poem that compares her wedding to large, flowing body of water now?

Gah!

Wedding

Posted in Poetry at 2:52 pm by falstaff

for S., who gets married today. Wishing her every happiness.

 

The Wedding“Permit me voyage, love, into your hands…”

– Hart Crane, ‘Voyages’

Every wedding is an afterthought.

The real choice begins elsewhere:
In some inaccessible cavern of the heart
Where love melts like a slow glacier
And two springs of Yes flow
Into the mutual valley,
Join in a silver kiss.

The decision
A singing stream,
Pure as water.

All else is descent:
Waterfalls of joy
Tempt the precipice into approval,
Cascades of feeling
Overleap the most obdurate stones;
And the light dances like butterflies
Over the acknowledged river
Making tributaries of friends,
Turning gravity to resolution.

Then onward, to where the world
Is measured in horizons,
And distance, breathless with its own daring,
Opens its arms in welcome.

Who would have thought
The journey to togetherness
Would take them so far?

Past forests of doubt
That finger them as they pass,
Past fields ripening slowly
To autumn promises,
And cities of tradition and detail
Whose traffic of questions
Leaves them muddied,
Unclear.

Silted with days,
They outgrow the speed of their beginnings,
Meander patiently
Through this unyielding landscape,
Clinging only to their intent
And to the slow drift of their daydreams,
Lazy as boats.

And then, at last,
The private fanning into public,
The delta of this final ceremony,
Where the soft lapping of their hearts
Is lost amid a larger roar,
And the seagulls wheel over them
Like blessings,
And they empty themselves
Into a more endless adventure,
To the loud acclaim of the waves.

Every wedding is an afterthought.
We celebrate
The end of anticipation,
The beginning of promise.

– 4th July 2006

July 2, 2006

How do you like them apples?

Posted in Uncategorized at 12:03 pm by falstaff

The thing that makes apples worth eating is not the taste but the crunch in your head when you bite into one. The electricity of it tingling your teeth.

A mouth-sized patch of white is revealed. Surrounded on all sides by scarlet, its shocked flesh speaks of innocence, of the sort of sharp numbness that gives way, eventually, to pain. For a moment you feel strangely guilty. Then, resolved on your villiany, you take another bite, then another. There is a sense of violation in tearing into this juicy, vulnerable flesh, such as you get with no other fruit. You exult in your rebellion, content to lose a hundred Edens for this crime you are now committed to.

Nor is it possible, even if you so wished it, to make amends for that first defilement. Abandoned, the apple grows melancholy, rusts to a soggy reddish-brown. Only apples that are eaten young, when they are still crisp and hopeful, are spared this decrepitude.

And then there is the core, of course. Other fruit have pits – small, self-enclosed worlds that reject you completely. But the core of the apple is approximate at best, and is a hideous thing, gnawed and savaged, a white skeleton from whose sockets black pips peer like sightless eyes.

And yet for all that, the apple remains one of our favourite fruits, a mainstay of our cultural mythology. We name our computers and our record companies after it. We replace our face with it in paintings. We place it in our eyes, in our throats. Schoolchildren in Cliche, Ohio carry one to school everyday and place it on their teacher’s desk.

Is it perhaps that we see in the apple’s polished thick-skinness, in the zest with which it responds to the idea of death, in the desolation of its swift and certain decay, an echo of our own selves? In biting down to the very core of the apple, are we not perhaps seeking our own inner being, or at least trying to salvage the most that we can out of our increasingly eaten away lives? And shall we then not have compassion for the bruised, the damaged apples, the apples with the worm in the centre, the apples growing slowly rotten at the bottom of the barrel? Shall we not pick them first and save what we can from them? Shall we not express our solidarity for these damaged brothers of ours, if only by making them into jam?

July 1, 2006

Of Temples and Heritage

Posted in Uncategorized at 1:07 am by falstaff

Okay, I promise this will be my last holier-than-thou, let’s-talk-about-feminism-and-patriarchy post for a while. But I can’t resist the temptation to comment on this whole Sabarimala thing which has been doing the rounds of the blogosphere (posts on it here, here and here, and the DP link to the first two here).

The Sabarimala temple does not allow women between the ages 10 and 50 to enter. Supposedly, this has to do with the fact that this is the age when women are menstruating and may therefore make the temple unclean. Ya, right.

A number of people have written posts on the issue, expressing indignation at such blatant discrimination and demanding that women be let in.

Let me start by going over the points that have been made already that I agree with:

a) The practise is discriminatory
b) There is no case for providing support from government funds to such an institution. The government should not support such discriminatory practices.
c) To the extent that the temple is a private body, however, it should have the right to admit whomsoever it pleases. Government regulation to force a private institution to admit people it doesn’t want is unwarranted. That’s how you end up with a police state
d) That said, people obviously retain the right to boycott the temple, and to encourage others to boycott it as well

So far, so good. The bit I have trouble with is the contention that we should be working towards helping women gain access to the temple. I see this as somewhat wrong-headed. I think the trouble is that most people are assuming that entry to the temple is a privilege in itself, and should therefore be made available to all, irrespective of gender. Implicit in that is the assumption that there is a ‘heritage of the temple’ and there is ‘patriarchal discrimination’ and the two are distinct entities and that we should work towards getting the former without the latter.

Personally, I see no reason to assume that patriarchy is seperable from organised religion. Established institutions are inherently embedded in existing power structures, and tend to perpetuate them. Differences in status and consequent exclusion is what these institutions exist on and for. It would be convenient, of course, if we could pick those parts of our heritage that we happen to like, and leave out those parts that we don’t – but given the interdependencies between them it’s not clear that that is feasible. Also, taking that approach begs the question – what parts of the heritage are ‘desirable’ and what parts are not and who’s to decide which ones we retain and discard. The trouble with accepting that ‘heritage’ is valuable in itself, is that it leaves the door open for people to argue that all sorts of discriminatory practices are part of their ‘heritage’. [1]

A number of people have compared the Sabarimala temple to an elite club. I think that’s accurate. Let’s ask ourselves why elite clubs are valued. They are valued because not everyone can get into them, so that being a member of one makes you feel special. They are a privilege precisely because they keep some people out. How much of Sabarimala temple’s importance, its holiness, comes from the fact that it keeps women out? Why is it a ‘privilege’ to be able to pray to your chosen diety in Sabarimala rather than anywhere else? Precisely because not everyone can. Exclusion is fundamental to the purpose of Sabarimala – which is why no right-thinking man or woman, no human being who believes in equality and dignity for all, should want to go there.

Let’s not fall into the trap of believing in some golden heritage that we are only now being deprived of – feudal social institutions were always about discrimination and inequality. Let’s not blindly assume that the only way to build a new social order is to force the old institutions to adapt – the creation of new institutions is both possible and desirable. Let’s not fall prey to the slave mentality of craving acceptance from those who despise us and would like to see us humbled. Much has been said about the ‘logic’ of why women between 10 and 50 are not allowed in. Are we really naive enough to believe that this is about menstruation, and not about power? What do you want to bet that every time a woman demands to get in and is turned away the priests at the temple exult in their own self-importance? And why would you want to be part of a congregation and a social system that was so demeaning to women?

As long as we continue to ratify traditional inequalities by paying lip-service to the institutions that are an inherent part of them, our ability to wage a war against discrimination is severely compromised. The way to destroy an elitist institution is to create an alternative egalitarian institution and encourage people to shun the old one. The way to defeat discrimination at Sabrimala is not to insist that women be let in on sufferance, it is to reject outright the importance of Sabrimala as a temple, and to actively encourage both women and men to pray elsewhere. Only when praying at a temple as discriminatory as Sabrimala becomes not a privilege but a matter of shame, will we truly have won the battle against discrimination.

[1] The point is more general, of course. It’s ridiculous how much discrimination continues to be justified in the name of tradition. The amazing thing about this is that people arguing against the discrimination are actually willing to engage in the debate on what is or is not traditional or part of our culture, without asking the more basic question – how is the fact that it’s traditional any justification for its continuation in the future?

June 30, 2006

Too Late

Posted in Uncategorized at 11:58 am by falstaff

You’ve been coming home late for weeks. First it was the board presentation. Then there was the week when the Japanese delegation was in town and you had to take them to dinner every night. Now there’s this new account, the one you flew to Paris for, the one that keeps you in office, working as late as midnight sometimes. I’ve tried to tell you how much I miss you, and how I wish you’d try to come home early, but you just shrug your shoulders and say you don’t have a choice, it has to be done. I’ve accepted that. I haven’t tried to insist, because I know it wouldn’t help and you’d only get angry.

Then, this afternoon, the news on the television. The asteroid they’d just discovered. The computer simulation showing how it would strike Earth around 6 am tomorrow. The devastation it would cause. All the dreary statistics adding up to just one thing – there was no hope that any of us would survive. The End of the World. The same official government announcement on every channel, playing over and over again. I guess they figured all other programming had become redundant. I guess the camera crews and the announcers have all gone home.

For a while I was afraid that there would be panic on the streets – rioting, looting, that sort of thing. But it didn’t happen. If anything, it was unusually quite, as if the whole city had gone into mourning. Which in a way, it has. A city in mourning for itself.

At first I was relieved. I thought, at least the house is safe. Then I thought about the asteroid again, that most furious of all vandals, streaking towards us through the sky. And suddenly I wasn’t so concerned about someone throwing stones through our window anymore. Instead, the eerie silence on the streets began to frighten me. I began to feel as though the asteroid had already struck. We were already dead. I wished you were at home.

Where were you anyway? I tried calling you to tell you the news, though I knew you must have already heard it, no one could not have. But the phones were busy. I guess they had to be, what with everyone trying to reach their loved ones – it must be ten times worse than Christmas. Then I figured I should just wait and you’d be home in a couple of hours. But you weren’t. Then I thought, maybe there’s traffic on the roads. I waited another half hour than I called Marcie to see if James had got home. She said he’d been back for an hour. She said the roads were clear because unlike what you see in disaster movies no one was trying to run. There was nowhere to run to. Everyone just wanted to get home and be with their family. I asked her if James knew where you were, and she went really quiet all of a sudden, then said she had to go.

After I put the phone down, I began to think. All those late nights, all those meals out, your distraction, your coldness, that Paris trip, the shirt you brought back with the buttons ripped off and claimed the laundry had done it. Had I overlooked the obvious? Could it be you were having an affair?

It’s almost ten o’clock now, and I decided long ago that you aren’t coming home. All around us, the neighbours are facing up to the truth in their different ways. The Kauffmans have turned off their lights and (presumably) gone to sleep. I guess they feel they’d rather meet apocalypse in their beds. The Robinson’s are having a party – I can hear the music even from here. I don’t know what the Adams are up to, but if I know them at all they’ll be praying. I myself have opened a bottle of our best champagne – I figured there was no point saving it now – and am in the process of getting very drunk. I’d thought I’d make a special dinner tonight, a gala last meal. But when I realised you weren’t coming I gave up on that and decided to stick with champagne and icecream. It’s not much fun drinking champagne alone, though. And I’m waiting for the icecream to thaw a little.

I know I should be frightened by the prospect of imminent death. I know I should be sitting here in shock, horrified by the notion the mankind will become extinct tomorrow. But all I can think is – where are you right now? What are you doing? Who are you spending tonight with, this last night before the end of the world?

June 29, 2006

The Truth about Beauty

Posted in Uncategorized at 9:22 am by falstaff

Khuda se husn ne ik roz yeh sawaal kiya,
Jahaan mein kyon na mujhe tu ne lazawaal kiya.

Mila jawab ka tasweer khaana hai duniya,
Shab-e-daraaz-e-adm ka fasaana hai duniya.

Hui hai rang-e-taghayyur se jab namood iski,
Wohi haseen hai haqeeqat zawaal hai jiski.

Kahin qareeb tha, yeh guftgoo qamar ne suni,
Falak pe aam hui, akhtar-e-sahar ne suni.

Sahar ne taare se sunkar sunaai shabnam ko,
Falak ki baat bata di zameen ke mahram ko.

Bhar aaey phool ke aansoo, payaam-e-shabnam se,
Kali ka nanha sa dil khoon ho gaya ghum se.

Chaman se rota hua mausim-e-bahaar gaya,
Shabaab sair ko aaya tha sogawaar gaya.

– Iqbal.

My pathetic attempt at a translation:

One day, Beauty asked God:
“Why did you not make me immortal in your world?”

God replied: “The world is a gallery of pictures,
A fabulous dream for man’s endless night,

Its very surface is made from a thousand changing colours,
How then can be its beauty be anything but mutable?”

The moon, who was nearby, overheard this.
Soon it spread through the sky, reached the ears of the morning star.

The dawn heard it from him, and passed it on to the dew,
And the dew spread the word to all the earth.

When the flower heard it, she began to cry,
And the bud burst its tiny heart for sorrow.

Soon Spring itself began to weep, and left,
And Youth, who had come to admire the garden, grew mournful.

A delightful poem. The first few couplets are fairly average, but I love the way the news of God’s word spreads – from the moon to the sky, from the sky to the morning star, from the star to the dawn, from the dawn to the dew, from the dew to the flower, from the flower to Spring and from Spring to youth – describing, in its perfect arc the very mutability, the very transience that God’s initial message implied. Those last four couplets are both deeply dramatic (you can almost hear the secret being whispered from one ear to the next) and, when you stop to picture them, stunningly visual.

June 28, 2006

Roti-ing in Hell

Posted in Uncategorized at 12:02 pm by falstaff

And speaking of topical feminist issues, will someone please explain to me why we, as a society, continue to indulge in the intensely masochistic activity of making chappatis? I mean seriously, if you took all the time that is spent in the average North Indian household making these damn things and put it all together back to back, you’d get a workforce the size of Taiwan. Why can’t we mass produce the stuff? Or switch to eating bread? Or cake? [1]

Thus far, my own experience with ‘making’ chappatis has usually consisted of cutting open a packet from the local Patel store and popping it into the microwave – so I can’t say I’d ever spent time thinking about the mystical process by which chappatis actually get made. Then yesterday, driven by some atavistic homemaking impulse, I decided it was time I learnt how to make chappatis from first principles. How hard could it be? Surely making something as ubiquitous as chappatis would be a roti-walk compared to, say, doing complicated long-division sums.

Little did I know. It turns out that making chappatis is an intricate, multi-stage process that resembles nothing so much as one of those video games where, just as you think you’ve kicked some serious alien butt, you find yourself bumped up to the next level where the action is quicker, the leaps more difficult and the opposition more deadly. And at the end of all this will you at least get to rescue a princess or be declared champion star-fighter? No. All you’ll get, if everything goes to plan, is a fairly boring, flat mildly charred piece of cooked wheat. And then you’ll have to start the whole thing all over again to get another one.

The process starts, it seems [2], with making the dough. This involves taking exactly one andaaz se measure [3] of flour (aka atta) and one andaaz se measure of water and then kneading the mixture till it acquires the consistency of playdough (not to be confused with the consistency of dog puke which is what you get if, like me, you mix one andaaz se measure of flour with one and a half andaaz se measure of water). This sounds easy (well, kind of) but it isn’t. It turns out that the actual kneading, far from being a fun activity for children under 5 is actual a feat of arms of Birbal-esque proportions, requiring levels of strength and stamina that the hands of sensitive poet-types like me simply do not possess. I was on my third rest break and had just about managed to get the flour-water mixture to resemble some sort of lumpy custard, when my mother took over and finished the job for me.

Right then, on to the actual chappati making. No strength required here – just skill and dexterity. The kind of stuff I’m good at. The first step is to take a lump of dough and, dabbing it with powdered flour, roll it into a thin, flat circle. Piece of cake, or well, dough. But wait, you want me to do this with what is, at best, a glorified rod? I try to explain to my mother why, based on simple Euclidean logic, a lump of putty like substance rolled in one direction cannot acquire a circular shape. She doesn’t agree. I then proceed to prove her wrong empirically.

If the desired shape for this chappati had been a square I could have made it in a heartbeat. If it had been an oval I would have managed. If chappatis were supposed to be shaped like Spain, or Poland, or Italy or the erstwhile GDR I would have been an expert roti-maker. But this circle business was beyond me. How the hell do you get an even diameter on these things? No matter which direction I rolled in, some other radius would be left too short and I would have to roll along that line, and then that would get too long and I would have to roll in a third direction, and so on.

Plus it turns out that after a while the powdered flour you’ve applied to the lump wears off and you have to apply more flour to keep the dough from sticking. My mother’s advice was – “when you feel the dough starting to stick, stop and put more flour”. The trouble is, if you’re a novice, the first time you realise that the dough is sticking is when a) you try to pry it off the surface you were rolling on and find it can’t be done without a chisel and / or a blowtorch or b) a large strip of dough comes clean off on your roller. By the time I managed to get one flat, ready to cook piece of dough (not quite round, but at least respectably elliptical) I’d managed to get flour on my fingers, arms, clothes, hair, every handle in the kitchen, the phone, the newspaper, the car keys and even a little spot on the ceiling. And that doesn’t include the 20% of dough that had to be thrown away because I’d rolled it beyond redemption.

The next stage consists of putting this thin circle of dough on a tavaa and then cooking it. This is actually fairly simple, except that a) flipping the damn chappati with your fingers (to make sure it cooks on both sides) is advisable only if you’re an experienced chappati maker (or a Jedi knight) and can do this without actually touching the tavaa. Typing a long post with badly singed finger-tips is NOT fun. b) If the chappati doesn’t seem to be cooking properly and remains damp it’s because you didn’t roll it thin enough in stage 1 above. Isn’t it a good thing you found this out now instead of when you were actually rolling the damn thing because if you’d known this earlier you would have got disheartened? Isn’t it a good thing that your mother is a considerate, encouraging person and didn’t tell you this before? Don’t worry about it. Just make sure that the next chappati you roll is exactly 3.25 microns thick and you’ll be fine. c) trying to do a cryptic crossword while you’ve got the chappati on the tavaa is a bad idea – before you know it you’ve got a house full of smoke and you’re making very wide, very flat atta doughnuts.

Finally, you’re ready to add the finishing touch to your chappati. This consists of roasting it by tossing it onto an open flame. Again, sounds simple enough. The trouble is, if you leave it on the flame too long it catches fire and continues to burn even after you lift it off the flame. So you’re left holding this burning piece of flatbread, wondering whether you should try to save its life yourself by throwing a blanket over it and snuffing out the flames, or you should just wait for the fire engines to arrive (NOTE: Waving it up and down wildly the way you would with a marshmallow DOES NOT work. Not unless your original intention was to set fire to the wall calendar).

So, to summarise. I set out to make six chappatis. The first one got stuck to the roller and had to be washed off with detergent. The second one disintegrated mid-air while I was trying to transfer it to the tavaa. The third one made it to the tavaa but was too thick. The fourth one got burnt on the tavaa itself. The fifth one caught fire and turned to cinders.

The sixth one, however, turned out perfectly. It was round. It cooked. It swelled on the flame like a good chappati should. Now I was (literally) cooking. My heart singing with confidence, I gave it one last flourish on the flame. The chappati landed on the floor.

I actually think subzi tastes so much better with toast, don’t you?

[1] Yes, yes, or rice.

[2] I don’t actually know how to make chappatis yet, so I’m probably getting this all wrong.

[3] The andaaz se system, known to all Indian housewives, is, of course, the true measurement system used in India. Efforts by the Indian Government to replace it with the metric system have failed miserably, the chief reason for which is the intricate complexities of the metric system, compared to the simplicity of the single unit that the andaaz se system uses for everything.

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