Tuesday, May 03, 2016

The Whiff of a City: Filter Coffee Column This Month

Dislike them as I may, cities continue to fascinate me. I expanded on something I had written some time ago and made it a piece on the smells of this city.

Read the piece in Kindle here or see below. 


In which I write out a recipe for a nice, traditional dessert we make for festivals in Karnataka.

Nandini milk is the milk I grew up on after we sold our cattle and couldn't get fresh milk anymore. From the state-owned milk corporation, packed in white and blue for the regular kinds, orange and white and green and white for the thicker, fatty varieties we didn’t often like to buy. I sometimes went to the neighbour’s house early in the morning when the lady would have just milked her cows. I would ask her for the fresh, unboiled milk. Frothy, raw, hot. When I think about it now, I can’t remember the taste too well, but it sounds a little disgusting. The things we do in young, unwise years!

We used to have cattle, many cows that I could point out and many buffaloes that I couldn't tell one from the other. A cow named Jyothi, caramel brown and mild mannered, was my favourite. The other memory I have of her is that of her carcass lying by the small stream in the neighbour's unfarmed farmland. And eagles circling it and Amma leading me away. I wish she would still do that, shield me from the unpleasant parts of the day. There are times you wish you weren't let out into the wide world, to draw your own path, away from the nest, the warm, safe, white coffee flowers and cozy blankets nest. Do you feel that? For innocent, safer times?

The milk smells of the city, as does everything you touch here. The grim and the sweat of those that seek to be chewed up and spit out by this unforgiving city. That is what the milk smells of. Just like the rest of me.

The strands of vermicelli smell like lifelessness, pale and broken down. You could arrange them into a boulevard of broken dreams that the millions on these streets can trample on. They would do unto it what the city would have done to them, to their illusions. Hope dies every day. Just like it is born every day. The crackle of these strands of vermicelli sound like the sound of the marching band announcing the deaths, the births in this city and elsewhere.

There are small, thin strands of saffron. They are the colour red in the cheaply made transparent plastic box. When added in milk just warm enough for your thumb nail to feel – the way lukewarm is described in these parts - they bleed yellow and smell of what I imagine the Valley must have tasted like before the guns and bombs and tears and cries began reverberating out to the rest of the world. It smells of happy memories with the dear friend who brought that saffron box back. We no longer speak, this friend and I. Women can be strange that way. Actually everyone can be strange like that, sacrificing perfectly good relationships at the altar of misunderstandings, ill-communications and ego trips and power trips. Human beings haven’t evolved much in that department, huh?

A whiff emanates also of the guns and arguments inside the heads of us that try to call this home, these people family, this life ours. Dirty secrets that we coat with red and yellow saffron strands, hoping the fragrance it collected from the Valley will mask the stench of unfairnesses. Red and yellow, dirty fellow. We used to say that as children. We said a lot of things as children. Maybe the children today say these things and similar things too. Maybe they make up silly ditties and sing them along loudly on bored afternoons, alone or with siblings or teaching them on to neighbor kids. Maybe they just stay home and watch television these days.

I add sugar, white sugar from a small tin box that once held white tea. The sugar is white because I cannot afford brown this month. I don’t eat sugar, not with my coffee, not with fruits and a kilo lies in a bottle for visitors, for their coffees and teas. I don’t use sugar, usually. And that is what I tell myself when I choose the white and not the brown from the supermarket shelf. It is only on rare days that I crave the white stuff, to take a handful of and swallow and choke down with water or just with spit, when all the clean living becomes a murder and a chore and it is all too much, too much. The city, the roads that lay about odd shaped and broken, they must emanate a dirty smell on such days. They must. If they did not, what other explanation would I have, for dropping the act and breaking my rule and swallowing sugar, that dirty, fattening stuff?

And then I add cardamom, the one thing that smells of the sweet mythologies of home. Just the right shade of green, a green I don’t see anywhere outside my window, sometimes not even in my mind, not even if I close my eyes shut and think and think of back home and valleys and trees. The smell of concrete cakes into my nose and refuses to leave on some days. And that gets into my tired eyes and tired ears and tired tired tired everything and all I see is grey, everywhere.

Then, in the last step to make this recipe, I bring all these complications to boil. A hot bowl of this payasa, on the day of this festival that decides spring has begun, slowly boils and spills over the steel vessel, whirled together atop the fire to smell finally of melancholia.

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