Balancing yin and yang in Coyoacan

First published in Cafe Dissensus Everyday

It’s the third day of our visit to Mexico City – also the first working day since we landed here. I’ve yet to recover from a severe case of food poisoning, but don’t want to spoil our plans to visit Frida Kahlo’s and Leon Trotsky’s houses in Coyoacan – situated practically at the other end of the city. We decide to take a cab, our first on this trip. The cab driver exudes the friendliness characteristic of his ilk and offers us candy and bottled water. And he brings us to La Casa Azul, Frida Kahlo’s Blue House – now a museum.

Only when we reach the gate do we realize our cabbie friend probably chose not to mention that the museum remains closed on Mondays. I’m too exhausted from the stomach bug but lurch on to follow my husband to Trotsky House, some six minutes away. Same luck there – a closed gate greets us. Having skipped breakfast, I’m as dizzy and disoriented as I’m disappointed at the wasted taxi ride. By now I’m so famished, I fear I might faint. We walk a few paces and notice a cafe and step inside. It’s a small place with no more than four tables. At one table, three ladies – all in their sixties — appear to be the only other customers.

One of them gets up and says to us, “Welcome, come on in. Please have a seat.”

As we make ourselves comfortable, she asks us what we would like to eat. “Tea, coffee?”

My husband glances at me and says, “Tea for you?”

I’m still a bit dizzy to respond, but the word, ‘tea’, stimulates me — this is the first time I’ve heard it uttered in a restaurant in Mexico City. I nod yes and manage to mutter, “And toast.”

“Tea and toast for you,” the lady says. “And for you?” she asks my husband.

“Cafe Americano,” he says.

His choice lights up her face. “Aha! Americano – that’s how we drink our coffee here!”

Even as black coffee forges that initial bond, the other two ladies convince my husband to have scrambled eggs with tomatoes and onions with black beans on the side – the Mexican way.

The lady who took our order moves to the kitchen to guide a young man managing the cooking. One of her two friends asks us where we are from.

“India,” my husband says and goes on to tell them how similar he finds India and Mexico to be, despite the two countries being situated on the opposite sides of the globe. The houses, markets, the trees and the people all remind us of home, we tell them.

The lady nods and says smilingly, “Yes, countries with beautiful people. Beautiful like women.” She winks at my husband and adds, “And like men, too.”

I notice some of my disappointment stemming from missing the museums is wearing off. The young man emerges from the kitchen with my tea. The bag of tea steeping in a cup of hot water is one I’m not familiar with but find refreshing, especially as I sip it with bites of the biscuit the ladies have shared with us – tasting exactly like Marie biscuits sold in India.

The motherly lady arrives with a plate containing my order. The two pieces of crisp, well-done toast, along with the black tea, are just what the doctor ordered for me.

She settles down with her friends as they ask us where all we’ve been so far.

“The Centro Historio (historical district), Zocalo, the National Palace to see Diego Rivera’s murals, La de Ciudadela – the artisan market…,” my husband rolls off.

The women suggest other places like the museums of popular art and anthropology.

We mention our plan to visit the Teotihuacan pyramids the next day.

“Oh yes, you must go there,” one of them says, adding, “be sure to keep your wallets safe, though.”

“Oh, we know that,” my husband says. “It’s the same way in India.”

“It is,” the lady who took our order confirms with a smile. She should know, for she visited India three years ago – Delhi and Rajasthan.

As we eat our breakfast, one of the ladies informs us the three of them are part of a tai-chi group. The maternal lady, who, by now we’ve figured out to be the cafe owner, happens to be their teacher.

“You have yin and yang,” says her chatty friend, pointing to my earrings.

“I do,” I say, pondering on the strange balances of the morning – the sickness and the comfort of the taxi ride, the closed museums and the restorative breakfast, missing Frida and getting acquainted with such an interesting sisterhood of Mexican women.

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“And I have this, too,” I lift my shawl to reveal Che Guevara’s face on my t-shirt.

“I saw that,” our chatty friend responds, her face suddenly grim. “I don’t like him,” she mutters.

I pull my shawl back up immediately and say, “That’s why I’m hiding him.”

Her grin returns.

This is the first conversation, a real conversation we’ve had since coming to this city of lovely Hispanic people. And been fed breakfast in true home style, complete with the right balance of humour, hospitality and Mexican warmth.

As we get ready to take our leave, the tai-chi teacher says, “You have to return to Coyoacan. You can’t leave without meeting Frida.”

“We will,” we promise.

The third friend, the quietest of them all, stops us as we move towards the exit. She insists on giving us a ride in her car to the central spot in Coyoacan.

Photo-credit: Bhaswati Ghosh
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Patch of sky for hopes to fly

First published in DNA.

While in middle school, my brother and I would often press our grandmother to tell us a story. Not any story, but a particular one from One Thousand and One Nights. I don’t remember the details, except it was about a clever royal minister. But it wasn’t really the content that pulled us back to this tale; it was the way our grandma narrated it — modulating her voice, colouring the details with her facial expressions. This is the essence of oral storytelling — the capturing and relaying of characters, places, scenes through the unique lens and voice of each individual storyteller. Given how difficult it is to transfer the drama and verve of the spoken tradition to print, the authors of Speak Bird, Speak Again— a collection of Palestinian folktales — have done a worthy job of conveying that flavour.

In the late 1970s, two Palestinian scholars, Ibrahim Muhawi and Sharif Kanaana, set out to collect Arab folktales from Galilee, Gaza and the West Bank. Their search resulted in the book comprising 45 such tales. The storytellers were mostly women. “The most common setting for taletelling was the small family gathering, consisting of two or three mothers from a single extended family and their children…” The stories were usually told after supper during long winter evenings when field work was at its minimum and folks liked to huddle indoors. To make the story — usually fantastical — more accessible, the teller would often compare characters from a story to someone in the neigbhourhood.

The community, then, is the natural pivot around which these entertaining stories turn, and sometimes twist. Of course, imaginary flourish abounds in the tales, but never without the context of one’s immediate bearings. And cultural parallels with our own South Asian community life are striking. There are wedding processions in which the couple’s relatives and friends dress in finery and sing and dance in the street. There is even the practice of a girl choosing her mate by throwing an apple or handkerchief over his head that is derived from the Indian tradition of swayamvara.

Neighbours know each other for generations and come together to celebrate and grieve as well as to borrow and lend items of utility for hosting guests. “Because they were inviting the vizier, they borrowed a mattress from one neighbour, a cushion from another, and plates and cutlery from others.” Sounds similar to our neighbour lady knocking on our door when she ran out of sugar or me knocking on hers to borrow some ice, for we had no fridge.

Food, of course, is at the centre of this hospitality. Cabbage rolls stuffed with minced lamb, ghee, rice and spices; the simple fare of leavened bread, yogurt, olives and fresh vegetables; Palestine’s national dish, za’tar — a condiment made by grinding together herbs, roasted wheat and garbanzo beans; or the poor farmer’s lentil soup add as much zest to the region’s folktales as they did to its primarily agrarian society. In the story, Sahin — a vizier’s clever daughter — steals food — roasted rabbits, partridges, gazelles — prepared by a young man from right under his nose to share with her girlfriends day after day, leaving his hardworking brothers to manage their supper cooked with leftover ingredients.

That the creators of these tales weren’t shy of introducing atypical female characters have made the stories lively and real. Despite the region’s deeply-entrenched patriarchal system, we meet the clever daughter of the vizier in Sahin and in Soqak Boqak, a king’s wife who mounts a horse as she goes in search of a bride who fits her son’s choice and description. There are angelic women — indulgent mothers and motherly sisters, loving wives and affectionate daughters — and there are regular, everyday women — possessive mothers and jealous sisters, selfish wives and cunning daughters.

“Now, the daughter of the minister was something of a devil. She asked her father, if anyone should come asking for her hand, not to give his consent before letting her know.” [Sahin]

In these stories from Palestine, the clever and the beautiful, the devilish and the pitiable merrily join the supernatural — jinns, ghouls, and residents of the netherworld. The resulting whirl sweeps the listener/reader to a realm suspended between what is and what-you-wish-could or would-not, be. Seemingly magical, which by implication is unreal, this dimension subtly shines a light on the underdog and even breaks stereotypes. Half-a-halfling, the crippled son of a king, despite being ridiculed and humiliated all his life, comes out a winner in the end because of his intelligence and compassion. And ghouls and ghoules, who appear (and disappear) constantly, aren’t always ghoulish in their deportment — depending on how one treats them, they can be benevolent or beastly.

In The Green Bird, my favourite story of the collection and the one from which the book derives its title, the love of a sister for her brother is amplified by the poignancy of the brother’s death at the hands of their stepmother and the sister burying his bones, which help him turn into a bird who reveals to the world the stepmother’s atrocities and delivers justice in the end.

Everyday occurrences in the world we inhabit are sometimes more bizarre than what a fabulist can ever spin into a story, and the implicit allegory of these Palestinian folktales can’t be overlooked. In a recent episode of container politics, the leader of a political party in Pakistan and his followers protested against the current regime from a “container” — a luxury bomb and bullet-proof truck furnished with beds, washrooms and air-conditioners.

When I read a report about the container being fired upon, I recalled a scene from Half-a-Halfling. In the scene, the crippled young hero is on a mission to defeat a ghoule. Given how greedy the latter is, he approaches her with a huge box filled with halvah. She asks him the price of the dessert and keeps buying and eating it, unable to satiate her appetite. That’s when Half-a-Halfling suggests she get inside the box so she could have the whole container to herself. The ghoule’s greed precludes her from understanding the risk associated with this, and she jumps inside the box. As she busies herself with devouring the rest of the halvah, Half-a-Halfling brings her to his village and tells the villagers to alight the box. Greed, thus, costs the ghoule her life.

Screens and gizmos of varied shapes and colours have now replaced the playground in many developed and developing countries. Folktales and their telling might appear obsolete. Or maybe not. A friend told me how, on a recent trip to Latin America, her five-year-old daughter was shocked to discover that a girl younger than her had no playroom with toys stacked up to the ceiling. “That’s all they have,” my friend told her when they visited the other girl’s jammed-but-toy-less two-room house, packing eight family members.

For many Palestinian children, a proper house — even a crammed two-room one — could be a luxury. Listening to stories — with fantastical twists and happy culminations — might be the only sky on which their hopes can fly.

Image source: Wiki

Satirical Films Have a Lot to Say About India’s ‘Baba’ Culture

First published in The Wire

Stills from <em>Mahapurush</em> and <em>Ab Ayega Mazaa</em>.

Miracles, magic, superhuman powers, grand events – the works. Divine grace hides in samosas, the answer to fatal diseases in pranayama routines and relief from brutal office stress in pricey retreats and workshops. Science is debunked, its “helpless” limits made to capitulate before extraordinary and divine-blessed powers. The stories of many a spiritual guru in India would make for cracking comedy if it weren’t for the tragedy of real masses of converts being swindled in broad daylight, mostly of their own volition. As the court case involving Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh unravelled recently, I returned to Mahapurush (Satyajit Ray) and Ab Ayega Mazaa – two films that satirise ‘babadom’ at its hilarious best.

Based on Birinchi Baba, a story by Rajshekhar Basu, one of the greatest Bengali satirists, Ray’s Mahapurush shows how babas appear in many stripes to take care of every kind of gripe. In a discussion among three men – two chess players and their friend who is in search of a baba who would rescue him from his broke status – there’s mention of Mirchi Baba, a godman who gives his followers hot chilli peppers for curing all their distress and Radio Baba, who taps into electricity from the sky and turns it into sparks to combust any problems his disciples face. Not too long ago a real baba, who used to prescribe remedies involving the distribution of hot samosas and muffins among folks, went bust. The darbars of Nirmaljeet Singh Narula, Nirmal Baba to his followers, were a lesson in the incredible human capacity for suspending disbelief in front of a guru who sits on a gaudy throne and dishes out barkat (Urdu for abundance or blessings) via samosas, gol gappe and wearing ties, as if the sky were dispensing showers in the monsoon. Babas in India disseminate their abundance in different ways. Ramdev does it via kapalbhati and Patanjali, the efficacy of both of which have been questioned; Singh in the form of drugs and liquor rehabilitation, and Sri Sri Ravi Shankar and Jaggi Vasudev by elevating the appeal of that elusive elixir called a “heightened state of consciousness” into something of a corporatised business model.

Read the rest in The Wire