Once the air used to be a
sneaky wayfarer around here,
smuggling scandals, yellowed
and dank with weight. It walked into
Open-door baradaris before slipping
out to bazaars to fuse with
sizzling meat smoke. Passersby
greedily gulped and spat it out.
Once, during August afternoons,
when monsoon licked the
city’s streets silver, the air
danced wearing jamun
ittr. School boys envied
its pneumatic caprice. Girls
fell in love. Purkaif, the poet
called it in his ghazal.
Freedom fluttered atop the
air once. A thousand pigeons
rode on its wave. From the
ramparts of a fort, a blue sun
hoisted itself. The air’s laughter
archived regime changes, turbaned
pageantry, the vaccuity of
promises. Its daze measured
the distance between when
freedom came to when
it became a fossil.
The air is held hostage now.
Hemmed in by a spiralling
fortress. Grey, black. It
wrestles and gasps. Dead
birds circle its grave. Little
children wear masks to school.
Kerala has scarcely had a more challenging festival season than the recent Eid and Onam that went by. Festivals, for all their loaded moral and religious bearings, are also occasions for feasting together. Watching the 2017 Malayalam film Oru Visheshapetta Biriyani Kissa (dir. Kiran Narayanan) in the backdrop of the devastating floods in Kerala, I learned, with sobering appreciation, not only how food integrates people but also how it binds Keralites across communities with a peculiar endurance, one that only the tongue’s archived discretion can inspire.
The film begins with the redoubtable Ummi Abdulla, the diva of Malabar cuisine, presenting a radio show. Abdulla shares how biryani arrived in India with the Persians and was refined in the royal kitchens of the Mughals before travelling to Kerala, where it changed its form based on the “land, weather conditions and nature” of the locals. In that summation is a compendium of the history of Malabar cuisine – a confluence of cooking styles including European to Arabian and Persian besides, of course, Indian.
The film’s fantasy trope of angels-helping-humans shifts the scene from the imagined, dreamy heaven to the lush heaven-on-earth, where the main story unfolds. The camera moves with the nonchalance of being in a place – a fictional village about 50 kilometers from Kozhikode – where every shot is bound to hold the eyes captive.
The central attraction of the village is a 200-year-old mosque, famous not so much for its religious services or even the multi-gemstone studded walking stick of its founder preserved as an exhibit in the mosque as for its Sunday biryani program. Cutting across caste, class and religion, biryani lovers throng the mosque every Sunday. When a TV reporter comes to the village to do a story on the weekly feast, the first person he interviews is the elderly Krishnan, who prides his position as the president of the “2,000-year-old” Bhadrakali temple as much as he gloats over the fact that he sat on the front row of the first edition of the biryani program, hosted by Hajiyar, the mosque priest and his (now dead) wife, in 1998.
As depicted in the film, the queues formed diligently for the free biryani – one each for men and women – held for me a mirror to the dignity and grace of the people of Kerala. Everyone waits for their turn patiently, and social position accords no special status to anyone. This is the same grace the Malayalees have displayed in the wake of the unimaginable calamity of the recent deluge. From cabinet ministers to district collectors, and police officers to ordinary millennials and seniors alike, Keralites displayed a spirit of cooperation that stood out when the force of water swallowed everything else around them. Images of a young girl carrying her pet dog on her head as she wades through waist-deep water, of poor villagers at the district collector’s office to return their eagerly-awaited meagre pension and of ministers carrying sacks of relief material on their shoulders won’t escape our memory soon. More so because, while stories of human endurance in crises involve ordinary folks are common, it is rare in the Indian context to see officials and legislators stepping in to respond to life-threatening situations.
Even besides the workplace and the biryani queue, the neighbours – Muslims, Christians and Hindus – freely intermingle on a social level, visiting each other’s houses, having tea and food together. God is a common point of reference in their conversations. Communal harmony is not a clichéd, feel-good cinematic flower vase here because it is precisely not that in the social milieu it draws from. This bond is real and sincere, as has been demonstrated by the temples and churches that opened their doors for namaaz in the wake of the recent floods.
The Malabar biryani then becomes a metaphor for this smooth amalgamation, combining as it does, according to the mosque priest, 35 different ingredients. When mixed in the right proportion, these create an aroma that rises “straight to the heaven.” Similar to the harmonizing of the spices in the biryani is the social mixing of the neighbours. Hassan, an aspirational tailor, works in Mariyama Memorial Tailoring Shop owned by a Christian and writes screenplays at work; his current work in progress is a modern-day story of Mahabharata’s king Pandu.
But despite the egalitarianism and secularity, the biryani queue is also where strains of tension first become visible. The camera focuses on Miss Tara, a middle-aged widow who quickly becomes the object of ogling and slander from the men’s line. Her crime? Not displaying grief on her husband’s death in the Gulf two years earlier.
The perils of disinformation
The biryani program comes to an abrupt halt with due to certain circumstances. To cope with the drab Sundays, no-good youngsters like Paul, the tailoring shop owner’s adopted son, look forward to such activities as visiting Tara’s house on the pretext of delivering her blouse. At a village meeting chaired by Hajiyar and Krishnan, Tara volunteers to cook the Sunday biryani. But on her first scheduled Sunday, she ends up delivering a premature baby girl instead, sparking a wildfire of scandalous gossip through the village. Speculations on the baby’s father bring everyone into its ambit – from the impotent tailor master to Hajiyar.
The viral acceptance of rumour as truth that follows brings to the mind the vicious disinformation campaign launched with the aim of forestalling aid contributions for the recent flood victims.
Tara is defamed as a fallen woman, publicly called a whore and barred from participating in the biryani program. But Tara, like Kerala, stands her ground in the face of all the aspersions. Like Kerala, too, she does not let herself slide into victimhood, treating herself to a sumptuous home cooked meal instead.
Oru Visheshapetta Biriyani Kissa is a feminist film in several ways. The guest appearance of Ummi Abdulla featuring on an FM channel run entirely by women, the heavenly angel deciding to help Tara, the exposing of patriarchal hypocrisy—all point to that. Contrasting with that clear slant from director Kiran Narayanan is the easy geniality with which the villagers from different religions and social classes intermingle.
The film’s finale emerges from Tara revealing the name of her child’s father to the villagers and stepping forward to cook the Sunday biryani with the help of fellow villagers. After overcoming his initial shame-induced denial, the father of Tara’s illegitimate child finally owns up his responsibility. The village is able to bring the biryani program back without outside help, much like Keralites have done to rebuild their state in the aftermath of the floods.
It would be imprudent to simply draw the parallels without also considering the man-made causes that contributed in large measure to the recent flooding. That said, the soul of Oru Visheshapetta Biriyani Kissa is the wisdom it offers – living in harmony, assuming responsibility in full and a staunch refusal to negotiate with harmful agents – both as a fable and a doctrine to live by.
For, indeed, biryani can be a way of life if not a religion in itself.
We stand on a
Rather, we’re trying
Our best to remain on our feet.
We still don’t know
What lies in the womb of this earth
Although, if you listened closely,
You’d hear the warnings of an imminent doom
Even more sinister than the hiss of a million snakes.
But we don’t move an inch; as if
Standing still is our only safety,
And a possible one. Looking agape at
Church spires and the giant
Pillars of the stock exchange, we
Marvel at the magnificence of god
And feel relieved that ours is a
Free country whose borders
Are patrolled by gun-wielding guards.
Even though the earth beneath our feet is a simmering volcano;
Even though there’s no sky above us.
এক অদ্ভুত মাটির উপর
আমরা দাঁড়িয়ে আছি ;
অর্থাৎ দাঁড়িয়ে থাকার জন্য
প্রাণপণ চেষ্টা করছি
এ মাটির গর্ভে কী আছে
আজও আমাদের জানা নেই
যদিও কান পাতলে শুনতে পাওয়া যায়
এক লক্ষ সাপের গর্জনের চেয়েও
কোন ভয়ঙ্কর পরিণাম, যা ক্রমেই আসন্ন হচ্ছে |
কিন্তু আমরা এক পা-ও এদিক ওদিক
নড়ছি না ; যেন স্থির দাঁড়িয়ে থাকাই
আমাদের নিরাপত্তা, এবং তা সম্ভব | আমরা গির্জার গম্বুজগুলির
এবং স্টক এক্সচেঞ্জের চার দিকের বিরাট স্তম্ভগুলির দিকে
বিস্ফারিত চোখে তাকিয়ে থেকে
এক সময় ঈশ্বরের মহিমাকে জানতে পারছি
আর এই কথা ভেবে নিশ্চিন্ত হচ্ছি—
আমাদের স্বদেশ স্বাধীন এবং তার সীমান্তে
বন্দুকধারী প্রহরীরা প্রত্যহ টহল দিচ্ছে |
যদিও পায়ের নিচে মাটি এখন অগ্নিগর্ভ ;
যদিও আমাদের মাথার উপর আকাশ বলতে কিছুই নেই |
The cubicle slumbers with a whirr of weekday monotony.
Defying screen slavedom, we three meet for lunch. She
from China, I from India and she from Canada. School
harks back to the lunch table as I cajole her to share
my chicken pot-pie. We discuss roots. “South-western China,”
she says, hastening to add the immigrant’s near excusatory,
“but education in Beijing and Shanghai.” She nods
when I speak of women and their place in Asia. My
surprises her. We branch out into languages thus.
Mandarin is hers. She makes sure her child mutters
it too, even though he claims to be a Canadian. I
talk about my mother tongue and how it created a new
country. Their eyes brighten, ears perk up. And she, the lanky,
blue-eyed one is taking a shot at Italian, her husband’s
root tongue. “Oh Italian!” our Asian friend squeals,
“Do they all carry guns there?”
And so we begin making
maps with fleeting-floating stock images, hackneyed
threads–losing sight and redeeming it with a native’s
estimation. I tell them about India, its many topographies–
“each state a country unto itself,” the need for
its women to develop lateral vision and thick
skins. What’s her origin, I ask the blue-eyed one.
“Danish-Swede hybrid,” she says lamenting the inhuming of
both languages beneath the inter-generational sedimentation
over the arctic snow.
We part with sweet somethings, convoluted
cartography and a promise to “do this again.”
Literature, Gender, and the Trauma of Partition: The Paradox of Independence
Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, 2017
In writing my first novel, whose protagonist is a young refugee woman from East Pakistan, I employed the device of coincidence to achieve a happy ending. Doing so wasn’t a sudden rush on my part to end what had become a protracted writing project but a well thought-out conclusion. It was not to be. When they read it, two of my trusted beta readers quashed it summarily, citing it as lazy and escapist. Even though incredible incidents can happen in real life, one of them advised, in a work of fiction, coincidences are hard to pull off convincingly.
An incident Debali Mookerjea-Leonard mentions in the preface to Literature, Gender and the Trauma of Partition: The Paradox of Independence starkly bears out this paradox.
Shortly after the All India Muslim League’s call for Direct Action in Calcutta in 1946, the author’s grandfather was stranded in Howrah station as public transport had been suspended in the wake of the sectarian clashes. He eventually got a ride from a kind Muslim family who had a private car, but had to climb on the footboard as the vehicle was full. To ensure his safety, he was given a flag of the Muslim League and advised to shout “Pakistan Zindabad” when passing through Muslim neighbourhoods. He did, and reached his home safely.
The insanity that gripped the subcontinent a year later when India was partitioned has been arduously chronicled in historical archives. In the privileging of journalistic reportage and record-keeping, personal histories surrounding the traumatic event haven’t received much attention until recently. The initiatives of Urvashi Butalia, Ritu Menon, Kamla Bhasin, and Jashodhara Bagchi, among others come to mind.
Mookerjea-Leonard’s book is an important intervention in this regard, not only because of its meticulous research and compelling arguments but because it sits in that nebulous middle – a no man’s land if you will – of fact and fiction. The author examines with incisive rigour fictional works on Partition and juxtaposes them against factual information and recent recordings of oral histories. As someone not directly affected by the event, hers is a lens that is both objective and earnest.
The works discussed in Literature, Gender and the Trauma of Partition are mostly from Bengal, which the author calls the “neglected shelves” of Bengali literature, written by writers from both sides of the Radcliffe divide. As she mentions in the Preface, this book is her tribute to her city, Calcutta. It is also a conscious effort to shine a light on the sufferings of those at the eastern end of the divide, as the tragedy of Partition in Bengal has been either underrepresented or misrepresented when compared to Partition in Punjab. This could well be attributed to, as Mookerjea-Leonard is cognisant of, the predominant and recurrent theme ofdisplacement in the east as opposed to that of horrific violence in the west.
The lips of the bald man, as he speaks of the “Indians and Pakistanis” he sees at the tennis court, curves into a sly smile. My racism detector picks up the snigger that sneaks through his lament on the status of those work-visa immigrants whose kids get Canadian citizenship by virtue of their birth. After the party, I recall how he tried to herd folks from the subcontinent into “all those IT workers.”
As he keeps probing my husband on his career track, the soft September evening makes me gravitate towards the late-arriving “immigrant.” The Muslim lady from Delhi. We relay hometown bonhomie with hugs and she tells me about her Bengali family — the one from Noakhali she married into. Her geologist husband had shifted base to teach at Aligarh Muslim University. She followed his trail from Delhi to Dubai, where he worked. Later she would migrate to Ontario as a widow with her two children. After the party, I think how, like her husband, she, too learned to measure the worth of soil as she brought up her son and the daughter–now an engineer and a doctor–by cleaning and decorating the finger and toe nails of customers at a salon.
The evening lulls us with its whispers, broken only by the whistle of the kettle the hostess is boiling tea in. Most of the guests have left after ingesting the aromatic lamb curry and saffron rice. We are left, along with the mildly immigrant-allergic man and his wife–beekeepers outside their corporate lives. The over-milked, boiled-to-death tea arrives. The host talks about how the British left behind a legacy of high-tea in the Indian subcontinent. The beekeeper woman shares her knowledge of the same, gleaned off a British historical novel. Her husband asks me and my husband about the type of English we were taught in schools in India. I talk about how it was much different from the American English the internet would later expose me to. After the party, the incredulous, near horrified look on the woman’s face as I told her about a generation of Pakistani writers using the English language with a subcontinental flourish, flashes before me.