Friday, August 16, 2013

The Sound of the Spice Box: This Month's Filter Coffee Column in Kindle

This article is among the Editor's Choice this month at Kindle! The magazine celebrates five years this month with a double issue that talks about the five senses. I have seen the soft copy and it looks fantastic. Pick up a copy people and read the rest. You can read my story here and see below.

Some stereotypes can be endearing, wouldn’t you say? In the manner of filter coffee
immediately bringing to mind mustachioed dhoti clad men sipping copious amounts of this milky, sugary concoction out of stainless steel glasses – tumblers, the old worlders prefer it be called – stereotypes best let us be contextualized, identified in the national milieu. Never mind if that leads to a caricature, a cliché. When you grow up with the clichés, you grow up stocking nostalgia as well to look back upon. The rain will always remind of the cold and of winds that wail like the banshee in the hills. Literature will always remind of grandfather’s collection of Tolstoys and Pushkins in old teakwood bookcases. Lunch will always remind of the sound of Amma’s gold bangles when they clanked against the spices box she opened, like my own magician, to conjure up different this and thats every day.

The Spice Box is always round in shape, sometimes aluminum, often, in stereotypical 
middle class style, stainless steel. There is always another lid inside, to keep the unopened plastic packets of lesser used spices – bay leaves, nutmeg, maybe cinnamon sticks. Beneath that are seven small bowls arranged to fit in neatly. Sitting beneath this and then shut in tight by the outer lid, these bowls brew in their own smells. Mustard seeds have a bowl for themselves, so do coriander seeds, cloves, fenugreek, white lentils, black pepper and cumin. Pale green pods of cardamom might get some space too. If they do, soon they will pucker up, open an inch and take over the box with an intoxicating fragrance. Maybe that was why Amma put them away separately. Not that the rest of the spices behaved any better. Maybe they had a pattern, because every time the box was opened, the smell of one spice would strike first, for a bit second, before it all became mixed and confusing again.

The moment Amma started making lunch or dinner, the Spice Box would come out, 
rather ceremoniously, I would think, as if they knew of their important place in the 
scheme of things. I couldn’t be bothered by the process of cooking back then, but 
watching the process was a theatre. Food to me, still, sounds of the Spice Box – Amma’s bangles, catching the glint of the light as she brought the ensemble out; the 
spluttering mustard, cantankerous and impatient almost; the angry hiss of the oil when the chillies dropped in, the cackle they all made together in the large dollop of coconut oil, not much unlike Abracadabra in another language. When I think of memories, I think of how the chillies in the angry oil, indignant at the intrusion upon their selves, nevertheless allowed a fragrance that I can only describe as the smell of childhood. 

Like my own mistress of spices, the aftertaste of a blend of these, of shreds of coconut seeping into succulent pieces of tubers or roots or other vegetables, remind me of the performance Amma unwittingly staged every time I sat myself down in her kitchen. 

*  * * 

My aunts have had Spice Boxes as well. With blessings and good luck, these were not passed on to the daughters when they built their own kitchens. You bought a new one and infused it with your own mix of spices; some secrets were not meant to be passed on. So it remains with cooks, all-male teams, hired to cater at weddings, death anniversaries, house-warming ceremonies, pujas. Many in small towns have a cult following even, though the fans were not encouraged to watch over their shoulders; the secret of a signature rasam ought not to be replicated by the housewives. Children, chasing each other around their large cauldrons were a little better tolerated; their culinary secrets were safe with the noisy lot. The cooks had to work their way through a flow chart of processes to feed 10-20 things on the menu to 200, 250 or a 1000 people.

The accident of birth into a religion that then looks at your lineage and thrusts upon you a caste, then a sub-caste, also determines what you eat, how you eat. More so this at community functions, like at weddings, there are strict rules to be followed. The caste that I happened to be born into followed these rules to the letter; it is still considered an affront to the sanctity of Brahminism not to do so. And so at weddings and functions I had to sit on the floor, in neat rows with others of my community, waiting patiently till all the vegetables, chutneys, the payasa and such like filled up the edges of a green plantain leaf (the best sections of the leaf reserved for this group). The dishes had to be served in a particular order, that curry came out behind the sweet dish in the middle of the meal; a mix up there would be a great failure by the host. The texture and feel of each curry, whether the sambhar left a fragrance on your fingertips, whether the papad was crisp enough – these merits divided the traditional/authentic/success from the modern/fusion/failure of the meal.

The helpers, nannies, drivers, estate workers, cleaning up ladies, they were relegated to a distant end of the room. Like an afterthought. After everyone else ate, they would be served by other nannies or helpers or by the catering team themselves. The catering team were still lower on the social status ladder than the guests, but above this othercaste lot by virtue of being born Brahmins as well. The rules of dining did not apply to the help. The dishes followed each other in quick succession, in no particular order. Supposedly this was because they did not eat like we do, I have heard that one often.They mix everything together anyway. They didn’t need to be given all the sweets. “They aren’t very clean now, are they?” The sacred rules, the ‘this-is-how-it-is’ section of the social pecking order passes me by, with a whooshing sound. It isn’t enough just to be born into a caste, I realize.

*  * *

S comes to my parents’ house to help with the housework. For the longest time she didn’t have a BPL card, though there were assurances from the local councilor who wanted our votes. Now she has a card. Her expenses at the weekly vegetable market run up to a couple of hundred rupees; there are three daughters and a drunken husband she has to feed. Expenses rise every fifth week at the market. Beside her hut is a small vegetable patch, organic stuff, every now and then she gifts me a capsicum or a few strings of beans when I visit. Her catalogue of recipes includes traditional Malabar coconut curries, unusual green vegetables, strange concoctions for cold, headache and such like. She grinds her spices in a stone mortar; the spices turn coarse, playing with all the taste, smell, touch senses, once the moaning rumble of the stone against the stone is brought to a halt. Those sounds, those smells are not something a Meenu Mixie can ever hope to replicate.

A few days ago, the Government of Karnataka announced the Anna Bhagya scheme for S’s family and nearly a crore other BPL families. She will now get 30 kilograms of rice per month at Re 1 per kilogram. Of course, the prices of oil, salt, flour, chillies, spices, everything else that make a meal are steadily increasing. In cities, conversation begins with complaining of the price of tomatoes or peas. A union leader I know, who contests every election, be it for an MP or an MLA position, is part of the one crore category of families. His one question is whether he and his wife are to eat ganji- gruel alone every day; with food inflation this high, there isn’t much the old working class couple can afford to spice up their meals. In a way, S, the help, is happy. Relieved rather at the small mercies of the government. But the larger picture gets a shade grimmer every passing day.

Luckily for her, S and her family came from a region that eats rice as a staple. The kilograms of rice at Re 1 allow her to retain some food habits at least. Unlike the family of, let’s call them the Desais, in a district in north Karnataka. I heard about them through a writer friend. For them, rice was an affair for a few festivities in a year, not a daily craving. Corn, sometimes wheat is what goes best with the hot curries they make. Rice is unpalatable. But the Karnataka government doesn’t give them that choice any longer. Corn and wheat are pricier than ever. Food prices have apparently gone up by 70 per cent in the last five years alone, so says a UN report. The Desais and their neighbours cannot afford their staples anymore, rice is in their every meal now. A Kannada proverb talks of how the habits of your birth don’t leave even when your body is burnt. It took a mere ambitious scheme for the government to erase the old habits of the Desais. The crisis of a food identity might not have been something the Desais would have anticipated when their crops failed and they became poor.

*  * * 

In this country of our birth, there is no escaping the community, the caste you are born into. In spite of my discomfort with mine, without having been given a choice, a large part of my identity is defined around the food I eat, Amma’s meals that I long for, the juicy white shreds of coconut that decorate nearly every single thing we make. That part is a caste marker as well, however much you might want to deny its origins.

You grow up, you leave the hearth, you enter the melting cauldron that explains the idea of a metropolis, you get your own Spice Box, for a while you even take Instagrammed photos at fancy places you eat at, of foods that made the childhood memories of friends. But when you lose a love, leave a job, catch a cold, you turn to your coconut, the smell of cardamom wafts that in through the back of your memory room and you find your eyes moist, for no reason, for many reasons. You seek out that place in the distant neighbourhood that purports to make authentic your kind of food. They lie. They can never match what the mistress of spices of your history makes; even you are better than their purported authenticity. You start your own theatre, you invent secrets, you smell new smells when you reach up to the last shelf in your tiny kitchen to bring out the array of spices. There is fancier glassware now, they look better than middle class steel. Yet you cannot give away the Spice Box. Some secrets are not to be passed on.

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