Saturday, June 30, 2007

The raw and the cooked

Landlocked, 45°C-boiling, chicken-crazy Delhi has lately taken to sushi and sashimi like a politician to a crooked deal. Raw fish is everywhere, in restaurants like Sakura, at the Nikko Metropolitan hotel, and 19, Oriental Avenue at the Shangri-La hotel, and at Tamura in Vasant Vihar’s D Block market. And if you can’t be bothered to get off your backside in this miserable heat, a sushi catering company called Sushiya will bring it right to your doorstep.

Wouldn’t you know it: just when the newspapers are reporting that even the tuna-crazy Japanese are experimenting with horse and deer meat because the world’s bluefin tuna fisheries are almost gone thanks to the growing popularity of sushi around the world, a country of a billion souls suddenly starts to look fondly at the stuff.

I encountered sushi as a student in America, which embraced the Japanese tradition of raw fish and rice and seaweed decades ago. I remember being blown away by the subtlety of the taste, by the aesthetics of the dish, by the genius of wasabi that goes straight through your sinuses and does an exquisite little tapdance on whatever the saké has left of your brain. If I had to pick two cuisines to live on for the rest of my life, they would be Japanese and South Indian.

Raw fish may not seem like the most obvious thing to voluntarily put in your mouth. But then, if you like food, and have a bit of pervert in you, you can end up putting quite a lot of odd things in your mouth, raw or cooked. The other night I had a Japanese meal with a radio jockey, an actor, and a television anchor. I asked each of them what their weirdest morsel ever had been. The anchor had eaten (cooked) puppy in Nagaland; the actor had eaten (cooked) horse, and I’d eaten (cooked) fish eye, the grossest part of which was finding some stuck in my teeth several hours later.

We went through the raw stuff with not too much difficulty. Raw sea urchin looks and feels very much as if the sea urchin in question couldn’t take it any more and threw itself off a thirty-storey building, or like any food put through the digestive system and expelled in a manner indicative of gastric illness, but it tastes pretty good. The sashimi—raw tuna, salmon, scallops, octopus, squid and prawn—was familiar and delicious, and the sushi roll was uramaki, with rice on the outside and toppings of salmon roe. All that was well and fine.

Then the chef put before us a phalanx of the cutest little freshwater crabs, fried to a crisp while still in an attitude of joyful play. We’d met these crabs, gambolling sweetly in a glass bowl, half an hour earlier, and now here they were, complete with legs, eyes and heart, dead as doorknobs but doing a wonderful job of looking as if I had just laid them all off and their wives and little crab children were now going to starve and I wasn’t even going to pause to take their shells off, but never mind, I must be a good person deep down…

So it took something of an effort to pick one up, ignore the feeling that the tender shell was reverberating with the palpitations of a panicked little heart, and put it in my mouth. But it was so worth it; even though it tasted almost completely like fried chicken, it goes on my resume to make up for the plate of breaded crayfish I once ordered in New Orleans and was unable to eat.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Old Yeller

Not everyone can carry off a yellow car. But someone did, just this past weekend, when my mother sold my beloved old 1997 Zen. She was called Peeli, she was sunflower yellow, and I drove her for eight years before my mother said she was having sleepless nights thinking about breakdowns on lonely Delhi roads, and insisted on getting a new car.

I learned to drive with Peeli, returning from the Automobile Association of Upper India with my licence and setting off on my first solo mission to the perils of Connaught Place with my heart in my mouth. We had many adventures together, in the company of a battered Eicher map with which I navigated the unfamiliar streets of Delhi. I drove her all over town at all hours of day and night, outraced nasty men drivers, gave lifts to the deserving, bashed her up when a cow stepped out on the road and caused a three-car pileup in which she and I were third. I drove her to my first job.

She was far from perfect. Her ceiling peeled off from inside in front of the steering wheel, so for a few months I had to drive around holding it up with one hand, because that was easier than getting it fixed; the speaker wires were loose and made a horrible crackle; the antenna rusted; and the carburettor always needed cleaning so the engine kept dying. The back seat was littered with music cassettes, old bills and papers, the odd bit of forgotten clothing, and books that I read at traffic lights.
She was perfect.

We got a new car in 2005, a silver Zen, but, being a well-adjusted adult, I stipulated that I’d use it only on the condition that Peeli stay with us. My mother sighed in that way she does when she’s reminding herself that I am her child and she loves me, and agreed.

The new Zen had power steering, and power windows, and a back windscreen wiper, and fog lights; when I first took the wheel, I felt like a country yokel come to the big city for the first time. I quickly grew used to my flashy new lifestyle, but sometimes, late in the night, I lay in bed and missed the simple old country ways, when making a U-turn involved a good upper-body workout. After Peeli retired, I liked just knowing that she was around, a well-preserved old lady resting her tyres in the dim coolness of the basement garage, coming out of retirement occasionally when we had guests or when my siblings came to stay.

Then, the other week, I went to Spain, where, in addition to eating vast quantities of fantastic food, I had the profound thought that ‘hola’, pronounced ‘ola’, which is Spanish for ‘hello’, happens to be Hindi for ‘hail’, which in English is also a fortuitous, if archaic, form of hello. Anyway, I called my mother from Spain to ask if she wanted anything from the duty free shops. She said, just like that, “I must tell you that I sold Peeli.” After a slight pause marked by the small sound of my heart breaking, I told her I wasn’t getting her anything from the duty free shops after all. She sighed in her special way, and said, “Don’t make this harder. We have to let go. She’s gone to a very sweet family, and I told them how sad you would be, and they will take very good care of her.”

I have the gentleman’s name, address and telephone number. I asked my mother to let him know that I’m going to replace the front licence plate and keep the original. She sighed in her special way, and agreed.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Emotional baggage

With all my heart, I hate packing a suitcase. Maybe it dates back to when I was eight years old, at summer camp, wondering why my clothes all smelled increasingly disgusting despite regular laundering. When I returned home and unpacked three weeks later, I discovered the sorry remains of an uneaten banana deep in the bottom of my suitcase. Some things leave a scar.

No matter how much I travel, no matter how old and experienced I get, I still hate packing. My mantra has always been: travel light, or suffer. I was the minimalist packer who, like Mr Bean, snapped her toothbrush in half to cut down on weight. I’ve travelled for five weeks off one small knapsack, and only smelled a little bit. But the downside is that I invariably overlook some essential item. When I step out overnight I forget my nightie. At the beach I forget my hat. In the mountains I forget my socks. When I go rafting, I forget my towel. Even if I’m at home and going out for dinner, I forget my house keys. It’s like a rule.

Electronics compound the problem. If the phone made it into the suitcase, the charger didn’t. If the charger did, the adapter plug didn’t. I once lugged my laptop all the way to Seychelles only to discover that it was out of battery and the charger was on my desk at home.

And now I overcompensate by packing too much. Apparently surveys, conducted by crazy people who bother to conduct such surveys, show that women tend to over-pack in order to be prepared for any eventuality from floods to ice age, from slob-fest to a ball at the palace hosted by the Queen herself. And indeed, of late, whenever I travel for work, I notice that my packing is fraught with anxiety of an elderly, feminine kind, prickling with uncertainty about weather and protocol.

It will be hot, so I’d better take some sleeveless shirts, but I’m going onward to a cooler place so I should take a jacket, but that won’t work together, so how about some in between stuff, and I’m a Teva kind of girl but maybe closed shoes will be needed. I only have one pair of jeans, but suppose they get wet? Better take something else, except I don’t have anything else. [Interlude: if time permits, shoot out and buy the first thing that doesn’t really fit; though, usually, time doesn’t permit.] Will I have time to use the laptop? How much of my novel do I expect to get through? Is there a gym? Should I bother taking my sneakers? Will there be a businessy kind of meal?

You know how they pack in the movies—fling open cupboard; snatch suitcase which is mysteriously not dusty and full of old nails; grab handful of unidentifiable cloth and chuck it in while shouting coherently at spouse/lover/family member; slam lid of suitcase, no locks, no tags, no clipping on of the little clips; and stomp out, swinging suitcase to shoulder height? Well, they make that stuff up.

I know a woman who travels almost every month, and who still, every time, is reduced to paralysis at the thought of having to pack; she stands rigidly in one spot while her husband, who is very patient, gently repeats to her: “Remember, the suitcase is not your enemy.” She’s thinking, in her own words: “Should I take my favourite undies because I like them, or the bad ones because I won’t mind if they get lost?”

I hear you, sister.

Saturday, June 09, 2007


Some time ago I went to a wedding which, though quite average in that it was held in December and everyone knew everyone else, stood out for the number of lapsed Naxalite revolutionaries in attendance. That caused me to wonder: Where, in my generation, have all the missionary-educated, upper-middle-class, well-travelled, bleeding-heart, guilty Commies gone? Only a battered few remain, like obstinate stains on the shiny happy upholstery of globalised Delhi.

My infant memories include the soft patter of fugitive feet hiding from government bullies during the Emergency; voices singing l’Internationale with elegant vibrato acquired in convent school chapels; long conversations about uplifting the masses, oiled with fine scotch (the conversation, not the masses) bought on an MNC salary; and lice, lots of lice, courtesy the slum kids with whom we were made to play in order to erase class differences.

My parents were young then. When the Revolution turned out to be every bit as corrupt and dishonest as the pursuit of life, liberty and creature comforts, they made their choice. As the old saying goes: if you’re not Communist at twenty you have no heart, and if you’re still Communist at forty, you have no head.

One generation ago, the cool kids joined the Civil Services and, by way of idealistic service in remote postings during their twenties, ended up with power, prestige and very useful connections in their forties. Today, the closest you get to ICS cool is the box office figures for English, August. One doesn’t see that many 20-year-olds leaping out of class, so to speak, and running off to the hinterland to become revolutionaries. They’re all too busy driving their Skodas to the next internship.

These are the people, many of them with perplexing beige hair, whose careers peak at 25-30 years. They are CEO, movie star, model, software engineer, advertising whizkid, fashion designer, financial consultant—and don’t get in their way, because it’s no contest between the time it would take them to ask you nicely to please move, and the time it would take them to shoot you through the heart. One can’t really see them hanging out with oppressed villagers under a peepal tree in Andhra Pradesh, or taking the time to sign that email petition from, demanding that world leaders at the G8 summit in Germany this weekend get proactive about global warming.

I miss the snaggle-toothed idealists of yore who gave sincerely of themselves before taking their place as pillars of bourgeois existence. Not only do they tend to be the ones who, when you tell them what you’re doing say, ‘Oh, how nice!’ instead of, ‘Doesn’t pay much, does it?’, but they’d also kick up an enthusiastic shindig about climate change.

Global warming is hot and happening, you might say. Just the other day someone sent me a grim Powerpoint presentation, allegedly created by President APJ Abdul Kalam, showing a world parched of water, in which people have to clean their bodies with towels soaked in mineral oil and shave their heads to avoid hairwashing (though I suppose we could also follow the President’s example, and keep our hair on but not wash it). It seems we’ll shortly have very little drinking water, even as meltwaters creep up on coastal cities and drown them. As I understand it, the only way to stop this hideous fate is to downscale consumer patterns, and I don’t see that happening in a hurry.

I hope to be dead much before the earth goes to pot, but there’s no telling, so I’m just going to put my arm-bands and some bottles of Bisleri in a cardboard box for emergency use.

Saturday, June 02, 2007

Death and the maiden

The Theorem of Pointless Heads-ups states that: “Homo sapiens’ acute capacity to reflect on our own mortality is inversely proportional to the angle of our inclination to do so, and exactly equal to our obtuse ability to find whatever tangent best blocks it out.” In other words, as youth is wasted on the young, so too, wisdom is wasted on the wise.

That’s why, gifted with the precious foreknowledge of certain death, most people spend their time studiously ignoring it, so that when they do eventually find themselves nose-to-scythe with the bony guy in the hood, it comes as a great big surprise. And they dislike being reminded of it. If you have any doubts, just scan the reader mail on, a tongue-in-cheek calculator for how many seconds you have left to live, which tags itself “the Internet’s friendly reminder that life is slipping away”.

It might seem unpleasant to dwell on the inevitability of loss. But it’s even more unpleasant to be surprised. The difference between the enlightened and the merely morbid, both of whom spend most of life thinking about death, is that at the end of life, the merely morbid are still surprised.

I once made a single (and failed) attempt to graduate from morbidity to enlightenment by enrolling in a ten-day Vipassana meditation camp at a monastery in Rangoon, Burma where I was travelling. It wasn’t waking at 3.30 am and sleeping at 11 pm that got me down, or the fact that we didn’t eat after midday, or that we weren’t allowed intoxicants or sensory stimulants, or the fact that we had to remain entirely silent for all ten days.

No, the real difficulty was concentrating on one’s breathing, and not having any distraction from the fact that we are only ever one inhalation away from cessation. My mind showed itself for the desperate little circus clown it is, trying to entertain itself into comfort with idle speculation and reminiscence and limericks (I’m hungry and sleepy and damp/My arms and my legs have a cramp/I’m trapped in my head/ I’d rather be dead/Than stuck in this concentration camp). On day three I almost lost my mind. On day five, a wonderfully restful, fearless feeling briefly came over me, which I ruined days six through ten trying to replicate.

At the end of ten days I ran out of the monastery, wolfed a hamburger, smoked a pack of cigarettes, and spent the evening in a nightclub. As I said, a failed attempt.

But I should have paid more attention. It may have helped when I suddenly lost my father. That was five years ago yesterday, a few weeks before his 58th birthday. He was a vital, larger-than-life man whom we associated with the reliability and permanence of mountains rather than the immobility and finality of death, and his unscheduled departure was, for all of us, simply not on. Unexpectedly losing a beloved parent is difficult to describe, but for the curious, it’s very much like being spun around quickly a thousand times with your eyes closed, then being required to walk a straight line to a place where you have your heart cut out with a blunt axe so that it can be regularly whipped for the rest of your life.

I’m working on acceptance. If the last five years have taught me anything it is that you can get through anything by nurturing a healthy respect for transience, and by retaining your sense of humour, even if it’s the kind of humour that gets off on the fact that there’s a place called Poo and that the Gangetic river dolphin is called susu. Anyway, I’m pretty sure my father would have cracked a smile too.