Wednesday, 13 April 2016

Eat, Pray, Love - Tale of a Forgotten Delicacy

14th of April. During my childhood, I used to be filled with mixed emotions on this day. Extreme happiness - because, every year, my grandmother would give me 50 rupees on Puthandu or the Tamil New Year's Day. And extreme sadness - because, I, along with the other hapless beings of my family had to wake up at 4.00 am!

Tamilians have a peculiar obsession with dawn. And this obsession becomes a non-negotiable condition on festive days. So, back then on the 14th of April, my morning sleep was worth 50 rupees. Every Year. Ha!

Food is an important component of festivals across the globe and Puthandu is no exception. To mark the distinction between the everyday and the festive day, communities insist upon the preparation of certain food items. That's why they are called "delicacies". Food plays an important role in strengthening communities and shaping cultures. But, these are the words of a budding scholar.

On Puthandu, my grandmother used prepare a particular dish using raw mangoes and jaggery. "Maangai Pachadi"! I am trying to connect taste and memory and distaste and sorrow because as a teenager, I never understood the concept of eating a partly sweet and partly sour dish. That too on New Year's day! Aloo paranta was my comfort food. Not "Maangai Pachadi"!

My grandmother had her own logic. She would say, "Each food has a story to tell. If you would start your year with a dish that has multiple flavours, you would appreciate the multiplicity of life. Maangai Pachadi is neither purely sweet, nor purely sour. Similarly, the upcoming year will offer you both happy and sad days. That's the only way to taste life!"

Stories can be found everywhere. Stories have the power to establish communities beyond politics, economics and technology. Stories can bridge the gap between the past and the present.

And what better way to indulge in stories and connect with people than to celebrate meaningfully!

Happy New Year... :)

Saturday, 26 March 2016

Between the Cover - Alberto Manguel on the Art of Reading

There is something marvellous about the act of reading. Reading can be equated with travelling as both acts involve exploration and introspection. Books often become platial entities in which we meet dead people and imaginary creatures. Books have the power to nurture and nourish minds by providing privacy, peace and solitude.

Many writers have written about the importance of reading. Gustave Flaubert succinctly expressed, "Read in order to live". In the twenty first century, writers like Italo Calvino, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Jorge Luis Borges represented how reading as a vocation underwent a change in the age of modernity. Books carry histories and predict futures. Books facilitate spatial and temporal journeys and also throw light onto the history of humanity.

Alberto Manguel in his book, A History of Reading, explores the various shades of reading - private reading, loud reading, forbidden reading etc. He writes:

"Experience came to me first through books. When later in life I came across an event or circumstance or character similar to one I had read about, it usually had the slightly startling but disappointing feeling of déjà vu, because I imagined that what was now taking place had already happened to me in words, had already been named."

"Jelly was a mysterious substance which I had never seen but which I knew about from Enid Blyton's books, and which never matched, when I finally tasted it, the quality of that literary ambrosia... I believed in sorcery, and was certain that one day I'd be granted three wishes which countless stories had taught me how not to waste. I prepared myself for encounters with ghosts, with death, with talking animals, with battles; I made complicated plans for travel to adventures islands on which Sinbad would become my bosom friend..."

According to Manguel, any text can provide knowledge. Be it weathered newspapers or a billboard by the side of a road. For him, a reader is an empowered being who can choose sensations and experiences:

"... In every case, it is the reader who reads the sense; it is the reader who grants or recognises in an object, place or event a certain possible readability; it is the reader who must attribute meaning to a system of signs and then decipher it. We all read ourselves and the world around us in order to glimpse what and where we are... Reading, almost as much as breathing, is our essential function..."

A History of Reading is a book about books, writers and readers. About forgotten libraries and book stores. About reading practices that shape cultures and societies. 

Books are timeless treasures of knowledge and happiness. And reading, as Manguel states, is an eternal rite of passage. 

Sunday, 28 February 2016

Telling and Retelling Stories - A Forgotten Art

"The children were startled by his fantastic stories. Aureliano, who could not have been more than five at the time, would remember him for the rest of his life as he saw him that afternoon, sitting against the metallic and quivering light from the window, lighting up with his deep organ voice the darkest reaches of the imagination, while down over his temples there flowed the grease that was being melted by the heat".

"Several months later saw the return of Francisco the Man, as ancient vagabond who was almost two hundred years old and who frequently passed through Macondo distributing songs that he composed himself. In them Francisco the Man told in great detail the things that had happened in the towns along his route, from Manaure to the edge of the swamp, so that if anyone had a message to send or an event to make public, he would pay him two cents to include it in his repertory. That was how Úrsula learned of the death of her mother, as a simple consequence of listening to the songs in the hope that they would say something about her son José Arcadio". 

"They would gather together to converse endlessly, to tell over and over for hours on end the same jokes, to complicate to the limits of exasperation the story about the capon, which was an endless game in which the narrator asked if they wanted him to tell them the story about the capon, and when they answered yes, the narrator would say that he had not asked them to say yes, but whether they wanted him to tell them the story about the capon, and when they answered no, the narrator told them that he had not asked them to say no, but whether they wanted him to tell them the story about the capon, and when they remained silent the narrator told them that he had not asked them to remain silent but whether they wanted him to tell them the story about the capon, and no one could leave because the narrator would say that he had not asked them to leave but whether they wanted him to tell them the story about the capon, and so on and on in a vicious circle that lasted entire nights".

Storytelling is a fascinating form of human communication. Age-old stories reflect the historical progression of a human community as they link the bygone with the contemporary. Though we yearn for newness and change, we feel rooted when we listen to a story from our childhood. A story that we vaguely remember. But when it is retold, many faded and broken episodes get linked and connected and we get an access to view our present from the firm ground of the past.

For the Kenyan writer, Ngugi wa Thiong's, repetition is an art that enriches the practice of storytelling. He wrote:

"A good storyteller could tell the same story over and over again, and it would always be fresh to us, the listeners. He or she could tell a story told by someone else and make it more alive and dramatic.The differences really were in the use of words and images and the inflexion of voices to effect different tones". 

Ours is the age of amnesia and forgetfulness. And ironically, we are obsessed with nostalgia without understanding the reason behind it. There is a rapture between yesterday and today because many events take place within the gap of one day.

Time to slow down. 

Time to repeat.
Time to reconnect through stories.

Thursday, 18 February 2016

"Non-violence is the greatest force at the disposal of mankind. It is mightier than the mightiest weapon of destruction devised by the ingenuity of man".
                                                                             - Mahatma Gandhi

When I was in fourth standard, I was in love with history.
History, the subject. Not history, the field of study.
I liked to read about old and forgotten people,
about times that existed before clocks,
about sites that were born before maps.

1789, 1857, 1942 .... 1947 .... 1950
I believed that nothing happened after 1950.
Nothing great and exuberant.
Nothing worth remembering.
Nothing that books would have wanted me to know about.

Then, I grew older. My history books grew fatter.
An old man and his legends followed me everywhere.
How he had embraced non-violence and peace.
How he had tolerated opinions and ideologies.
He was a great man. An ideal man.

But, his slowness and calmness annoyed me.
His large-heartedness made me impatient.
I thought how dull and boring can a person be!
I thought he made my country weak and powerless.
I thought tolerance was an illness.

It is 2016.
Multiple histories. Numerous ideologies.
Many events have been forgotten.
Many stories have been erased.
Many voices have been silenced.

Today, the past makes sense.
1940s make sense.
Violence is a disease.
Tolerance is a virtue.

May be, he was a great man. An ideal Man.
May be.

Wednesday, 20 January 2016

A Conversation between Streets and Grandmothers

There is something extremely fascinating about the intimate ways in which people are connected to places. Be it the familiar ones or the unfamiliar ones. After the death of my grandfather, my grandmother lived alone in Madurai, for many years. She didn’t want to move in with her children or grandchildren because Madurai was an “intimate” space for her. She knew her neighbors well and felt very happy when children greeted her every morning before going to school. A sense of familiarity. Identity. Reassurance may be. It was very fascinating for me to see her count and remember each and every pothole on the road that connected her house and the nearby temple. It seemed as if she communicated with the road using a language that was exclusively available to her!
This reminds me of Ursula Buendia of One Hundred Years of Solitude. For many years, none of her family members get to know about her blindness because she knows her “spaces” so “intimately”! Marquez’s Ursula uses sunlight as her tool to journey through her labyrinthine house and my sweet grandmother had her silly potholes! Grandmothers are simply adorable, fictional or real... :)
How wonderful it would be to have such intimate interactions with spaces we use every day! Oh please don’t label me an idealist! I am well aware that my “intimate” companions (my earphones and cellphone) would be offended with me today.