Bengali Buffet

It is said that the easiest way to a man's heart is through his stomach. Nowhere is this more true than in the state of Bengal, where the proverbial thirteen festivals in twelve months fall short of the excuses needed to eat, drink and be merry (for tomorrow we diet!).

Bengali hospitality centres around the culinary satisfaction of the guest, and no stone is left unturned (or dish left unstirred) towards this objective. Long hours of labour, patience and ingenuity are of the essence in the preparation of Bengali cuisine, and the slightest error is likely to tarnish the subtle interplay of nuanced flavours that characterise a delicacy. The final product can neither be stored for long periods nor be repeatedly heated without destroying the taste, and is not easy to reproduce on a large scale, which explained the dearth of authentic Bengali restaurants while growing up in Calcutta (a notable exception was Suruchi on Eliot Road, a small diner run by a women's group that rehabilitated destitute women).

Today the number of expensive restaurants in Calcutta purporting to serve Bengali food is proliferating, with film and sports celebrities venturing into the catering business, either as entrepreneurs or endorsers. While one cannot but feel proud that Bengali food is carving a niche for itself in the limited commercial space available for fine cuisine, the fact that these eateries are frequented by Bengalis or their guests indicates that the timeless art of cooking traditional food is dying out in Bengali households. Fast lives and nuclear families have long taken a toll on dinner rituals, simplifying the process and occasionally modernising social mores (such as allowing ladies to eat along with men, instead of having them sit and serve). However, the rigid rules associated with the sequence in which courses are laid out (typically in small silver or brass bowls surrounding the main plate) or the manner in which the food is partaken (one's social background can be interpreted from the way the fingers are employed in eating) are so sophisticated that they would not seem out of place at a royal table, and that is why the very thought of a Bengali buffet in a crowded restaurant seems almost like an oxymoron.

My hunt for a Bengali restaurant in the United States came to a delightful halt last weekend when my sister took me to a humble hole-in-the-wall in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Catering mainly to the expatriate student population in and around Harvard and MIT, the little restaurant, run by a middle-aged couple hailing from Calcutta's suburbs, also draws Indian and foreign connoisseurs from different parts of the country. Small enough to provide an intimate setting without appearing claustrophobic, the restaurant embodies function over form (songs of Tagore in the background being the only indulgence), and we devoured the delectable taste of authentic Bengali dishes like the parched earth soaks up rain. While the restaurateur brought the choicest pieces of ilish maachh (hilsa fish) to our table and regaled us with stories of her immigrant experience, the mood created by the language, the music and the aroma transported us in time and place to a nostalgic past and left us begging for more.

The most sophisticated transmutation of milk in Bengal has been in the form of infinitely varied sweets, some made at home and some professionally. Certainly, no other region in India has shown such passionate absorption in sweets and appreciation of subtlety or variety in their preparation. The plump Bengali with his sweet tooth takes seriously the ancient Sanskrit recommendation, madhurena samapayet-- a meal should be finished with something sweet-- to the heights of finicky epicureanism.
Chitrita Banerji, Bengali Cooking

Falling From Love

A friend finalised her divorce last week. Barely three years after proclaiming eternal love until death did them apart, the couple were explaining irreconcilable differences to an indifferent judge. Having wisened up to the machinations of love, and the lack thereof, I learnt that the proceedings were quite civil by today's standards, since many modern marriages end not with a whimper but a bang (usually accompanied by a verbal airing of dirty linen in public).

Cynics over the centuries, who have defined love as a state of temporary insanity, did not know how close they were to the truth until February 2006 when National Geographic featured a Rutgers anthropologist's study of brain chemistry suggesting infatuation was akin to a mental illness. However, a momentary lapse of reason does not explain why some marriages succeed and many do not. In this age of instant gratification, a courtship is often as violent in its intensity as it is swift towards its consummation, with the result that partners remain perfect strangers when the passion subsides. This has not only had an enormous emotional impact on the adult psyche, but has also resulted in a situation where the government's Centre for Disease Control finds one in four American teenage girls infected with a sexually transmitted disease.

Several societies believe that marriages are not made, but arranged, in heaven. In India, where the practice of arranged marriages is still widely prevalent, the rate of divorces is much lower (although creeping up in tune with the winds of globalisation). Occidentals are quick to criticise the system claiming that it robs the individual of an opportunity to evaluate their partner. On the contrary, a modern "arranged marriage" encourages communication between the prospective partners whose meeting is merely facilitated by family or friends, and is not much different from relying on a prop like the club, the Church or online classified listings to make the initial contact. The other criticism about family or financial pressure coercing young women into unwanted unions is also less relevant today-- as a friend recently explained, the instinct for survival is far too strong in the human heart to agree to a match one is intuitively against, and one does not need to possess the strength of character of an Elizabeth Bennet in such a situation to stand up against Lady Catherine de Bourgh.

Ultimately, one wonders if the romanticised image of love is at odds with the English idioms that describe it. "Falling in love" is suggestive of an activity as undesirable as falling in debt (or even an open manhole!), while "falling out" mirrors the notion of a disagreement without as far-reaching a consequence. Perhaps the importance of love can be better conveyed by expressions like "rising in love" and "falling from love"-- literally, one can visualise rising like Icarus until the heat of passion becomes overpowering, or falling from the heavens like a chastised Lucifer.

You want her, you need her,
And yet you don't believe her
When she says her love is dead,
You think she needs you.
And in her eyes you see nothing,
No sign of love behind the tears
Cried for no one,
A love that should have lasted years.

The Beatles, For No One

Peace de RĂ©sistance

The peace symbol has turned fifty! And while we are not any closer to world peace than we were at its birth, the fact that it is now a universally recognised sign (with its own Unicode keystroke, hexadecimal 262E) is a just cause for celebration.

Ironically, the symbol was not created as a peace sign. It was designed by an English anti-nuclear activist named Gerald Holtom for the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND), whose first president was Sir Bertrand Russell. The symbol is a combination of the semaphore flags for "N" and "D", representing "nuclear disarmament". The sign made its debut during the Easter weekend in 1958 when nuclear protesters marched from London to Aldermaston to oppose the perceived British eagerness to join the nuclear arms race (Britain carried out a series of nuclear tests, code-named Operation Grapple, in 1957-58). The "peace" buttons adorning the sign during the march were made of fired porcelain, symbolising the fact that clay would be among the few human artifacts to survive a nuclear inferno.

The metamorphosis of the symbol from nuclear disarmament to peace protests, is due in part to Martin Luther King, Jr, who borrowed it for the American civil rights movement. It became closely associated with peace when a freshman at the University of Chicago brought back one of the porcelain buttons from London, and convinced the Student Peace Union to embrace it as their symbol. As America got itself embroiled in Vietnam, the popularity of the peace symbol shot up overnight, with even conscientious objectors in the military chalking the sign on their helmets.

In the history of human symbolism, one cannot overstate the importance of simplicity, and the role it plays in public acceptance. Cases in point include Churchill's "V" sign for victory (also adapted as a peace sign by the hippie movement), and the clenched fist sign popularised by the Black Panther Party as a symbol of defiance. The peace symbol falls in the same category (with proportions more flexible than the similar Mercedes-Benz crest, it can be drawn accurately even by a child), and this explains why its popularity has eclipsed the Judeo-Christian peace symbol of a white dove carrying an olive branch.

Unfortunately, because the peace symbol is closely identified with its political pedigree, it has not crossed the line of establishmentarian acceptance the way that doves are released in a symbolic gesture at the Olympics, or "extending an olive branch" has become a mainstream diplomatic expression. On the one hand, it has drawn the ire and mockery of the war-baiting fundamentalist right-wing, who (using a creative stretch of the imagination) describe it as the "footprint of the American chicken", suggesting that protesters are cowards. On the other, it has made in-roads into the world of advertising and commerce, and is increasingly visible as a fashion appendage, in part because the symbol was never subject to copyright (the CND continues to believe that a symbol for freedom should be free for all). However, as long as the sign is continued to be used (and worn) in the spirit in which it was designed-- to make an individual statement against mutually assured destruction-- publicity for peace will do less harm than good.

Everybody's talking about ministers,
Sinisters, banisters and canisters,
Bishops and fishops, and Rabbis and Popeyes,
And bye-byes, bye-byes.
All we are saying is give peace a chance
All we are saying is give peace a chance.

John Lennon, Give Peace a Chance

Yesterday Once More

One of the highlights of this past weekend was embarking on a magical memory tour thanks to The Darjeeling Limited, a lyrical comedy that is also a light-hearted allegory of letting go of one's earthly possessions (portrayed as baggage in the movie) in the quest for absolute freedom. The soundtrack benefits heavily from various films of Satyajit Ray, to whom director Wes Anderson dedicates the movie. The incongruity of these timeless tunes blaring from a modern Hollywood movie is made somewhat palatable by the director's sensitive handling of the rich visual innuendos of Indian society. But what really caught me by surprise was the central role played by a half-forgotten ditty, "Where Do You Go To (My Lovely)", both in the movie, and in its short prequel Hotel Chevalier.

"Where Do You Go To (My Lovely)" was a 1969 single by one-hit wonder Peter Sarstedt, an Anglo-Indian pop singer/writer who spent his childhood in Calcutta and Kurseong (which is near Darjeeling!). His ballad about an attractive society girl of humble origins (often wrongly identified as Sophia Lauren), set to a wistful faux-French waltz tune, seemed to embody the ultimate European jet-setter's life to my juvenile ears, and I would wait with boyish anticipation for its rare broadcast on All India Radio's "Musical Bandbox" on Sunday afternoons. As I look back now, the thrill of those days is heightened by the fact that the state-run radio station would play the unedited version of the song (very daring for a corporation that was otherwise trapped in Victorian morality), including the verse that prudish American labels consider too incendiary for mainstream playback to this day (it was also excised from The Darjeeling Limited):

"You're in between twenty and thirty,
A very desirable age,
Your body is firm and inviting,
But you live on a glittering stage."

Being able to add the extremely rare 45 rpm single "Where Do You Go To (My Lovely)/Morning Mountain" to my record collection was an adventure in itself. In the leisurely student days of my youth, when time was at a surplus and disposable money at a premium, I used to scour the advertisements for estate sales in the Sunday classifieds in the hope of coming across uncommon records at an affordable price. One such listing led me to a nineteenth-century colonial mansion in central Calcutta, whose wealthy occupants were moving to a modern flat in a fashionable locality, and were auctioning off items that would seem archaic or superfluous amidst their new lifestyle. The sale catalogue listed a huge record collection, that included the single my heart was set on. Despite my best efforts, I could not persuade the auctioneer, Russell Exchange, to allow the single to be sold individually, and I stood helpless as the complete set of records was sold at a price that I could never hope to challenge on my meagre budget. At the end of the auction, I gathered all my courage (and my savings) and approached the winning bidder with the intention of buying the single from his recently acquired stack of vinyl albums. To the proverb that fortune favours the bold, I would add that it also favours the young, for the old gentleman (who, I suspect, was more of a classical music enthusiast) rewarded my tenacity by gifting me the record with a nod and a wink!

I often wonder why this song continues to discover new audiences, in spite of its somewhat trite lyrics and pretentious name-dropping, and can only conclude the reason is that it allows a jilted lover to come to terms with the loss of the unattainable ("desire of the moth for the star", as Shelley would say). After all, unlike the over-simplification of a silver-screen love-triangle that is inevitably resolved in favour of the hero (the good guy!), in real-life one courts one's beloved in competition with rivals who are often just as good, noble and qualified. Thus, a rejection, although not indicative of one's deficiencies, may have the unfortunate consequence of sending the loser into a spiral of depression and low self-esteem. By contrast, in daring the object of one's affection to "remember just who you are / Then go and forget me forever", this song allows the vanquished to adopt a moral high ground by pretending that one's life could be better off because, not despite, of the unbearable loss. It may be a cynical, scornful and unhealthy attitude, but it is effective under certain circumstances.

I'd sit alone and watch your light,
My only friend through teenage nights,
And everything I had to know
I heard it on my radio.
Queen, Radio Ga Ga