Biryani Tales and Life Lessons From Kerala

First published in The Wire

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.

Dignified egalitarianism

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.

Biryani Tales and Life Lessons From Kerala
A screen grab from the trailer of the Malayalam film Oru Visheshapetta Biriyani Kissa.

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.

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A People Ravaged: Peeling off the Many Layers of Partition Trauma

First published in The Wire

Literature, Gender, and the Trauma of Partition: The Paradox of Independence
Debali Mookerjea-Leonard
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.

Read the rest in The Wire.

Book Review: Love and the Turning Seasons – India’s Poetry of Spiritual & Erotic Longing

I recently had the opportunity tot read “Love and the Turning Seasons,” an exquisite collection of bhakti poetry in translation from Aleph. I wrote about it in Kitaab.

Love and the Turning Seasons

Title: Love and the Turning Seasons – India’s Poetry of Spiritual & Erotic Longing
Edited by Andrew Schelling
Publisher: Aleph
Pages: 294
Price: ₹399

I left shame behind,

took as an ornament
the mockery of local folk.
Unswerving, I lost my cleverness
in the bewilderment of ecstasy.

— Manikkavacakar (9thcentury), Tr. A.K. Ramanujan

In a lover’s enraptured world, love is the breeze that strips one, quite simply, of the garment of shame. In reading Love and the Turning Seasons, the newest offering from Aleph Classics, a series that aims to bring new translations of India’s literary heritage, the reader is swept in that denuding breeze. Edited by Andrew Schelling, the collection of poems bears the slightly beguiling subtitle, India’s Poetry of Spiritual & Erotic Longing. I say beguiling because it would seem like the poems could fall in either category – spiritual or erotic. In reality, as Manikkavacakar, the ninth-century Shiva devotee tells us, the line between the two states is as diaphanous as air itself. For, in the “bewilderment of ecstasy”, who is left to distinguish between the flesh and the spirit? This seamless merging of the body and the soul is at the heart of this anthology of bhakti poetry, translated by various poets and literary translators.

Love and the Turning Seasons alights upon the reader as a songbird to take her across time and space – from the sixth century (barring the Isa Upanishad) right up to the twentieth, on an anticlockwise path beginning in the south of India and ending in the east. Despite the multiplicity of expressions of the bhaktas or poet-minstrels, informed as they were by specific cultural and regional parlance, what unifies them is their rejection of societal norms in their unwavering quest for the divine. These were among the first true radicals in the Indian context, repudiating, with delightful contempt, tradition and convention. Gender-bending, caste-subverting, these individuals lived and (even) died on their own terms and sang of the divine with ariose abandonment. As Lal Ded, another Shiva devotee from Kashmir said,

Who instructed you, O Brahmin,
to cut this sheep’s throat—
to placate a lifeless stone?

— Lal Ded (early 1300s), Tr. Andrew Schelling

 

The Sanskrit word bhakti means devotion and has come to connote intense, even blind idolatry, and in these troublingly skewed times, bhakta (devotee) has become a bad word, an uncomplimentary term for blind followers of certain ideologies, political or otherwise. As the anthology affirms through its diverse voices, the bhakti poets were anything but blind in their devotion.

Read the rest in Kitaab.

 

 

The fabled crop of winter

First published in DNA

For the past two years, from the time of my intercontinental drift to North America, winter hadn’t coiled me in its viper-like grasp. I had thus brushed off warnings of “bitter, brutal Canadian winters” as hoax spun by hyperbolic weaklings. Then, the winter of 2013-14 happened. Like a nightly creature that keeps its movements hushed, it pounced on me — surreptitiously and with a bloodthirsty vengeance.

Curiously enough, while I found myself abjectly underprepared to deal with the onslaught of the season’s icy blows, my imagination experienced an odd and even mystifying boost. A spruce tree coated with the first dust of snow became a young-at-heart old man for me. A pine tree, resolute in its evergreen dignity, seen from the window next to my seat at work, became a trusted companion when all the other trees surrounding it bared their branches. Snow-covered cupped hedges appeared as giant ice-cream cones ready to be licked clean by overgrown kids like me. As my mostly unimaginative mind ran wild with wintry metaphors, I began digging into winter in fiction.

To my delight, I discovered that this bone-numbing, grinding stone of a season has moved many a storyteller’s creative muscles. In The Snow Man, O Henry sets the winter scene up in the countryside amidst a menacing snowstorm. Arguably not in league with his finest short narratives, the story nevertheless resonated with me — because the narrator’s disdain for snow equalled mine.

Of all the curious knickknacks, mysteries, puzzles, Indian gifts, rat-traps, and well-disguised blessings that the gods chuck down to us from the Olympian peaks, the most disquieting and evil-bringing is the snow… [The Snow Man, O Henry]

Interestingly, the story opens with this sentence, “Housed and windowpaned from it, the greatest wonder to little children is the snow.” Going by the number of times schools in our area shut down this winter owing to snow-related danger on the roads, I suspect I know why children love the white stuff as much as they do.

At the same time, the prospect of snow days can prove to be a jolting annoyance in the routine lives of stay-at-home parents. Winters were frustratingly mild in North Carolina, but the year I was in the fifth grade we got lucky. Snow fell, and, for the first time in years, it accumulated. School was cancelled, and two days later we got lucky again. There were eight inches on the ground, and, rather than melting, it froze. [Let it Snow, David Sedaris]

By late November, snow had enveloped every house, building, tree and park in the laidback Ontario town where I live. My city was a white-hooded mischief maker; even street signs hid behind pillows of snow, conning rush-hour traffic. Amnesiac fields of snow quizzed me, “What is the colour of green?” In the eyes of Dominican-American author, Julia Álvarez’s young protagonist, snow resembles something much more sinister. At the Catholic school she goes to after immigrating to the United States, her teacher draws a picture of mushroom cloud on the blackboard to explain the consequences of a nuclear war in the prevailing Cold War environment.

Then comes the girl’s first snowfall. The months grew cold, November, December. It was dark when I got up in the morning, frosty when I followed my breath to school. One morning as I sat at my desk daydreaming out the window, I saw dots in the air like the ones Sister Zoe had drawn random at first, then lots and lots. I shrieked, “Bomb! Bomb!” Sister Zoe jerked around, her full black skirt ballooning as she hurried to my side. But then Sister Zoe’s shocked look faded. “Why, Yolanda dear, that’s snow!” She laughed. “Snow”. [How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents, Julia Álvarez]

Between December and February, the winter of 2013-14 unleashed its redoubtable fierceness. A massive ice storm hit parts of Ontario, knocking out electricity and bringing entire cities to a standstill.

Arctic gales blew mercilessly as did blizzards and snow squalls. It was no longer just a matter of battling nature’s forces. Despite being wrapped under layers of clothing, the promise of central heating and the luxury of a fireplace, I recoiled as the cold pulled me into its vortex.

This was a chakravyuh no limping flame, no pale sun could touch. In a visually arresting winter story by Tobias Wolff, three hunting friends brace not just frigid shrapnel but also the frosty chill of mind games and human bitterness.

The wind was blowing into their faces. The snow was a moving white wall in front of their lights; it swirled into the cab through the hole in the windshield and settled on them. Tub clapped his hands and shifted around to stay warm, but it didn’t work. [Hunters in the Snow, Tobias Wolff]

Wolff’s story is a rough territory where the dense vegetation of a forest and the cutting arrows of winter contend against the complex equation between the three hunters. It’s hard to tell what stings the skin more — the slap of blowing snow or the barbed comment of a comrade.

20171110_094037.jpg

This feeling of being left cold at a deeper, psychological level is portrayed superbly by James Baldwin in Sonny’s Blues, the gut-wrenching story of a young musician struggling with addiction, and the “icy dread” his older brother, the narrator, feels at various points during their interactions.

“It’s terrible sometimes, inside,” he said, “that’s what’s the trouble. You walk these streets, black and funky and cold, and there’s not really a living ass to talk to, and there’s nothing shaking, and there’s no way of getting it out — that storm inside…” [Sonny’s Blues, James Baldwin]

As winter continues to exert its inexorable grip where I live, usurping spring, threatening to blot out even summer, I wonder what is it that ticks a writer’s fancy in the wintertime.

Is it the result of forced solitude — months spent cooped-up inside? Or is imagination the only escape, the only coping mechanism, when the daily reality is that of zero-visibility on the roads, a mountain of snow to shovel before work, and watching one’s step all the time to avoid slipping into ice?When hope, optimism and anticipation all fade before the determination of this year’s winter, I take refuge in Oscar Wilde’s words in The Selfish Giant, a story he wrote for children.

One winter morning he looked out of his window as he was dressing. He did not hate the Winter now, for he knew that it was merely the Spring asleep, and that the flowers were resting. [The Selfish Giant, Oscar Wilde]

In search of home and homeland: Seeking Palestine

Seeking Palestine: New Palestinian Writing on Exile and Home
Penny Johnson, Raja Shehadeh, editors
Olive Branch Press

Your mother’s face once sustained you. Now you have to strain your memory to trace its outline. The place you were born in you can’t return to, even if it were so you could die there. Y130225-seeking-palestineou can only be a nomad, an exile, or a refugee–never at home. Seeking Palestine, an anthology of nonfiction narratives gathers all these voices as it tries to make sense of the largely map-less Palestinian identity.

Susan Abulhawa chases this elusive piece in “Memories in an Un-Palestinian Story, in a Can of Tuna”. In her personal essay, the author best known for her novel, ‘Mornings in Jenin’ captures the breadth of a Palestinian’s nomadic condemnation. Her words–funny and shocking and tragic–tell how she was ping-ponged across geographies as a young girl. Thus, despite growing up in the US for most of her life, she says, “…I have come to understand that it (my life) represents the most basic truth about what it means to be Palestinian–dispossessed, disinherited and exiled.”

“Exile” is the permanent address many have been left with since the Israel-Palestine conflict began with the creation of the state of Israel in 1948. And so as poet and translator Sharif L. Elmusa etches in an essay combining his poetry and prose with river-like flow, not only their presence but even the absences of Palestinians are portable. To lug this presence/absence around, a Palestinian pays steep baggage fees. “I can only go inside myself / into the maze of the hippocampus / which is like going inside a pyramid / and finding the robbers had carted away / the belongings.// What will I shed this round / to complete my portable absence?”

Read the rest of the review at Armed with Amor.