My essay Discomfort Food in Dhaka Tribune looks at food from caste and class angles through the lens of literature.
The first time the appearance of food in a book shook me was when I read Om Prakash Valmiki’s Joothan more than a decade ago. I read the book in English translation, which retained Valmiki’s original Hindi title. This wasn’t, in all probability, merely a stylistic decision; it seems to have been a necessary one. For, the word joothan, like its Bengali equivalent eNthho, does not have a satisfactory English translation. The closest word that describes it — leftovers — is way too short of what joothan actually means — scraps of food left on one’s plate after a meal meant to be thrown in trash. In the autobiographical book, Valmiki describes how members of the Chuhra community — the caste he belonged to — would be served joothan by their upper caste masters as wages for manual labour. Valmiki describes, in excruciating detail, how the Chuhras would collect the remains of the meals left behind from an upper caste wedding, dry the bits of pooris they collected in the sun, and how he had to guard those pieces from crows, hens, and dogs. These dried bits, half-eaten by other people, would be saved for the rainy season, when they would be soaked in water and boiled, to be had with chili powder and salt or jaggery.
As she hurried for her train, a blast of snow slapped her cheeks, reminding Aruna of when she had landed at Toronto’s Pearson International Airport for the first time. The extreme weather had made her question her decision to come to Canada. It was too late, she had reminded herself.
When she landed in this haven for immigrants nine years ago, Aruna had been nervous. At their parting, her husband Raghu assured her, “It’s only a matter of a few months, maximum a year, Aru. I will be there after that.”
But those few months had multiplied into as many as it took to make nine years. Years that taught Aruna that time was as slippery as her husband’s promise to join her in Canada. Between trying to make a living and raising twelve-year-old Vishnu, she had aged by two decades instead of one. Looking at the mirror one day, Aruna tried to make sense of how it turned out to be like this—three lives that were supposed to make a family now fragmented like left-over noodle strands on a diner’s plate. Those early years they had spent together contained no suggestion of the later distancing. Her husband had seemed caring and involved, if excessively guided by his quest for a “good life.”
Now, snow and coffee — once alien to her– had become second nature to Aruna. And her good life had little to do with what her husband had imagined. She reflected on how time changes a person’s inner landscape in accordance with the outer one.
The train sped past white houses, streets, trees. Aruna planted her cheek, covered with the woollen scarf she’d wrapped around her neck, to the window. The thickly snow-decked walls that vanished and re-appeared on the horizon were home. She rubbed her glove-clad hands and sipped coffee from the paper cup that danced slightly to the train’s motion on a tray table in front of her.
Arriving in the province, she had felt confident of getting a job. Her many years as a lifestyle journalist in India couldn’t have been for nothing. So she consumed herself with the other variables—managing her son’s education, getting a health card made, securing a driver’s licence, and all the other minutia of moving to a new place.
But she rented a damp basement apartment and managed the other details with ease. Only the job eluded her.
In three weeks, the city had turned from an indifferent host into an unforgiving master. The city demanded labour from Aruna in order to grant her an extended stay. A conversation with her widowed landlady made the prospects look bleaker than the foggy winter mornings.
“Beta, I would suggest you try to find something at a grocery store. Or Tim Horton’s or McDonalds.”
“But Aunty, I worked in…”
“I know,” the landlady had interrupted, “you were a journalist. But this country doesn’t hand out jobs in your chosen field so easily. Maybe if you had a degree. But you don’t. You’ll have to be more humble, my dear.”
Aruna felt a dampness envelop her entire body. The very idea of working in a grocery store behind the cash counter made her bones stiff. The dullness of the job, the ominous possibility of turning into an automaton numbed her. Yet, college at her age was nonsense. There was no money. There was no time. She had a child. She tried to adjust to the idea she would have to get started somewhere, even behind a counter, even wearing a funny uniform.
One afternoon, as specks of sunlight sneaked in through the shoe-box windows of her drawing-cum-bedroom, Aruna got out of the house, armed with her trusted jute handbag and the resumes inside it. The snow outside had melted only a little, and black ice lined the streets. The knife-sharp chill had turned the sun into a frosty pale-yellow orb. It bit into Aruna’s skin right through her thrift store jacket.
She walked into the shopping plaza in front of her. With lunch hour drawing near, several cars entered the parking lot. The passengers were headed for a pizza joint. A few stores away, Aruna saw some activity—a new store seemed to be opening. The men offloading furniture from a truck looked to be from her part of the world. She approached one of them, a hefty, mustached and sun-glassed man, wearing a long black jacket and smelling of cologne.
“Er, excuse me, is a new shop coming up here?”
The man turned to her and adjusted his glasses before replying,
“Yeah. We are opening a restaurant.”
Aruna allowed a sheepish smile and reached for the resume inside her purse. A crumpled piece of folded paper came out. By the time she straightened it, the mustached man had already moved on and was almost inside the new restaurant.
Aruna nearly ran to catch up with him. He turned around and stopped at the door.
“Here,” said Aruna, huffing, “my resume.”
The man took the paper from her hands and invited her inside.
And so she found her job–at the South Indian vegetarian eatery, right in the heart of the suburb that had been swelling with South Asian population. Being a Tamil Brahmin helped–in the end, it wasn’t her qualifications or experience, but ethnicity that mattered.
Nausea and nauseating people were what Aruna could recall when she thought of the initial days of her job. Serving the same combinations of gravies and lentils infused with tamarind, curry leaves and coconut, throughout her long shifts turned her stomach. She thanked her luck that daily breakfast was part of her job perks. By the time the shift ended, she hardly had appetite for anything.
But she would take that over the gut-churning invitations some diners extended to her.
“Join me for a late-night movie with drinks.”
“Hey, my wife is vacationing in India. Care to spend the weekend with me?”
“What day is your weekly off? I can come over to your place to keep you company.”
Aruna knew Raghu’s absence made it easier for these passes to be hurled at her. With time and some help from her co-workers, she learned to cite an activity with Vishnu as a credible excuse. Conjugal armour wasn’t necessary. Her son was both her shield and compass.
She couldn’t learn to deal with the apparition of longing, though. The one that showed up frequently, especially on weekends, when she served families huddled at table after table. She would imagine sitting at one of them, being teased by Raghu and Vishnu and giggling in the self-absorbed, vain way she saw some younger women do. After nearly two years, it dawned on her that Raghu probably didn’t want to come to Canada at all. His response to her entreaties in this regard had a tone of measured yet affectionate indifference.
A year later that suspicion was confirmed. The then-teenaged Vishnu had been caught in a drunken brawl close to their home. Aruna had received a call from the police at her workplace. Her boss reluctantly allowed her half a day’s leave. She rushed to the hospital where her son and two other kids had been brought for treatment. An inquiry had begun. Though her mind was spinning with the possibilities: trial, imprisonment, expulsion, worse; in front of Vishnu, she remained normal and even sporting, “Beta, you wanted to have a drink? You should have asked me. This isn’t how you take it–on an empty stomach. Wait until you are legally ready. We’ll have it together. Deal?”
He seemed to understand, his own fear making him receptive. She called Raghu the next day, still suffused with worry. He said:
“Hey, all this happens, Aru. It’s his age. Cheer up!”
“But you do realize that I am all by myself here. I have to face his teachers, the police, maybe even…”
“You will manage it all, my feisty lady,” Raghu had interrupted. “I am confident you will tackle it fine.”
Aruna had broken down over the phone, unable to accept her husband’s phony reassurance, his unconcern. Raghu had yelled that he was forced to be far away only because of Aruna and Vishnu. So he could give them a “good life.” Silently, she had thought of her lean bank account and wondered who, in fact, was getting that “good life.” But she had said nothing. If this crisis wouldn’t bring him to her side, she sensed then, nothing would.
Now assistant manager at the restaurant, Aruna was able to take the time she needed to attend the court hearings for Vishnu’s violence. They went on for a year. Those hearings, weekly meetings with his school counselor, and her increased responsibilities at work–tracking the accounts, preparing budgets, taking stock of inventory–all silvered her once kohl-black hair with a vengeance.
While she longed for the cocoon of a loving family, her middle age offered a different reality. Finding too little time face-to-face, cell phone texts and emails became her allies in raising Vishnu. Through them, she was privy to the heartaches, acrimonious debates, and insults edging on slurs that were at the core Vishnu’s growing up. But somewhere along the way, the rough edges of adolescence smoothed out, and Vishnu turned from an errant child into a friend. Aruna thanked her gadget gods.
“Stop working like a donkey, Amma,” he counseled.
“Oh and what’s going to fund your fancy professional keyboard?” she would quip, thinking of his musical aspirations.
“Maybe that will have to wait. I can practice at Karan’s. You cut your hours at any rate. You are going to collapse if you carry on like this.”
Slowly, Aruna stopped feeling Raghu’s absence. In fact, she began to wonder if she would ever be able to live with him again. Acquaintances and even regulars at the restaurant would ask questions about her husband. She knew that her silence suggested that he was perhaps living a good life himself, not working toward giving one to his wife and son.
Over liberal sips of wine and unrestrained laughter, her closest friends heard more than silence: “Know what? I couldn’t care less. Who is stopping me from bringing a man into my bedroom?”
But in truth, she had found in loneliness a better, more trusted partner. She had, to her surprise, become at ease with being alone in the bed. And as years piled on years, it didn’t seem to really matter.
The restaurant staff–the suspicious and glassy-eyed accountant Sethuraman, the helper boys, Gopal and Dinesh, and all the chefs–from the bulbous-bellied, middle-aged Bala to the bony, soft-smiling young Manoj–had become her extended family. Sethuraman confided his fears and reservations to her, whether at his son’s craze for violent video games or the “lack of etiquette” among nouveau riche diners. The chefs considered her a big sister and sought her advice on important matters like which insurance policy to buy and what made a good gift for a wife’s birthday.
But for all that, Aruna felt glad that the restaurant hadn’t turned into her home. Despite the chaotic dust-storm blowing through her life, she was determined to find a nest: A haven not just for her own trapped soul, but also for Vishnu and his mates to flap their hormone-charged teenage wings with slaphappy abandon.
After the fallout had settled from Vishnu’s brawl, once all the court hearings and counseling had ended, she had found them a town home. Her restaurant family had worked as moving crew, packing and transferring items from her chilly basement with care. Vishnu had saved some money out of his weekly allowances and bought knick-knacks as surprises for Aruna–a small Ganesha figurine, a wind chime for the entrance, a couple of guitar-shaped key hangers.
Evenings, which began at 10 pm when her workday ended, were a combination of m’s: music and masala. Vishnu had recently joined a local South Asian band and was composing music on his keyboard, which he would then test on Amma’s “unreasonably tolerant” ears. He would rebuke her at times,
“Amma, how can you find this nice? It sounds so amateurish.”
“Yes, but you would agree this is much better than what you played last time, wouldn’t you?” Aruna would say.
“Hmpff! You’re not paying attention. Never mind, go back to your cooking.”
And so she would. The kitchen of their new home had become her creative laboratory, spa, and refuge, all at once. The earthy whiff of cumin seeds as they spluttered in the hot oil in a skillet assured Aruna all was well. The pungency released by garlic crushed in a mortar- pestle or asafoetida in searing oil alluded to the spunk and excitement lurking within every seemingly insipid day.
While chopping onions for a Kerala-style fish curry, she smiled at the thought of how her palate had been transformed by Canada and its long winters as well as her son’s rapidly-evolving gastronomic index. Growing up, she would twitch her nose at the mere mention of fish; now she not only cooked it, gently simmering it in a creamy coconut milk stew, but also enjoyed biting into its flesh, spooning in some steamed rice and curry as well.
Food–not the grub people stuff themselves with to satiate hunger, nor even the gratifying ingestion of chosen foods to fill one’s ego and belly on special occasions–but the unsung yet care-sodden home meals, the mothers’, grandmothers’ and distant aunts’ creations—had become Aruna’s lodestar in a territory that offered her unparalleled freedom–to be messy, to fail in experiments, to not stop experimenting. And it gave her the ability to make her son happy.
“When I move out, I am taking you with me. I don’t want to miss this awesome food,” he said one morning as he sipped from a glass of mango shake. Every summer, Aruna would buy boxes of mangoes, expensive as they were, having been imported from India or Pakistan, to make sure that Vishnu could have his mango shakes and lassis for breakfast.
“Why would you need to move out at all?” Aruna asked. “This house is all yours, Beta. But you will give me the third floor, won’t you?”
“The entire third floor? Nah, Amma, you can’t have my music room, no way.”
Laughing, they argued over the proposed division of the house for half an hour, before agreeing on letting it be the way it was–with Vishnu deciding what part of the house belonged to him. That sometimes included his mother’s bedroom. Contrary to feeling betrayed or wronged, Aruna found her son’s near-feudal sense of ownership to be a snug blessing. Anything to make him stay in the house–even if that meant sleeping on the living room couch for nights on end.
Things had started falling into a pattern, like the predictable rhythm of seasons in Canada. Aruna particularly cherished the fall, when leaves changed colours faster than a painter’s brush strokes–as sensuous reds flirted with boisterous yellows and fiery oranges, the thermometer’s dipping mercury made bodies seek the embrace of jackets and light cardigans, sunset morphed into huge pumpkins and descended on grocery stores and maple syrup flowed indulgently over pancakes at breakfast tables. And schools re-opened after the summer break. For a mother of a teenage son, what was there to not love about fall?
Autumn also awakened the writer in Aruna. At first, she fed long nights that refused to bring sleep with DVDs of the latest Bollywood flicks. But she tired of them. On those restless nights, she wrote, remembering the career she had left behind years before. If food acted as her release, writing was her plunge–the deep-sea dive that took her on secret, often uncomfortable journeys. In writing she was compelled to confront and listen to the many women within her–those whose roles she played in real life and those whom she could never be. The single mother, the survivor, the lonely spinster, the comforting cook. The charming partner, the dependant wife, the fighting feminist.
When a freelance opportunity to write for a lifestyle magazine came along, Aruna grabbed it with her raddled hands. An occasional article on parenthood, a sometimes report of a cultural event, an infrequent restaurant review–the writing wasn’t exactly soul-lifting, but it was better than washing dishes at the restaurant, which she had continued to do even after becoming a senior manager.
Then, Bharat, the restaurant owner started complaining to Aruna about finances. He had incurred a substantial debt and would be cutting down on staff. The words dropped on Aruna’s ears as a whipping hailstorm. She knew what it meant. She told Bharat she wouldn’t survive without the restaurant; that it had become a part of her. The continuance of her job had become a reality as simple as the nonexistence of her husband. Losing this “normal,” which had taken years to make, scared her.
Bharat had tried to calm her, “I don’t want to let go of you either. I can’t. We’ll find a way.”
As a start, he suggested part-time work for her. Aruna understood that would also mean part-time salary and didn’t know what to say. She hated the idea of asking Raghu to send additional money: for nine years, he had paid their electricity and phone bills, but no more. And Vishnu was at least two years away from making his own money.
Her hours were cut. The numbers told her that adding the expense of college education didn’t make sense. And yet, a sense of vindication surged within her as she ran: not away from her Canadian life, but deeper into it.
The restaurant went on, and so did she. Through the bleached, bleak Ontario winterscape she rode a train into the city. Thrice a week she attended classes at the college alongside students half her age: broadcast journalism. On two other days, she volunteered at a local TV station. Restaurant work now meant just a few hours in the evening. The digits on her salary cheque had dropped.
For the first time in nine years, nonsense made total sense to Aruna. She was in possession of her power and her possibility, and for the first time she allowed herself a solo flight over an uncertain territory.
The frosty surroundings reminded her that the white always changed to green, no matter how old or young the trees were. As she glided above the ennui of routine and the relevance of marriage, Aruna breathed free. So did all the strands of hair on her cigarette-ash head.
First published in Stealing Time literary magazine (print) in 2013.
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.
It always starts with the kitchen. Adventure is about burning your finger on an alien stove. Pulling out the cabinet doors, prying open the drawers of catalogued cutlery — cookmarks of successive lodgers.
Your excitement at the corelle set, the one identical to yours at home quickly dissipates. Home away from home is never home. Pieces of ginger float in your cottage tea. The view of the lake Must compensate for the missing strainer.
You carry sacks of rice, vegetables in brown bags, a half-eaten burrito from lunch. Tandoori sauce for barbecuing meat. Salt. Sugar. Oil for cooking.
The lake makes a pilgrim out of you. Its tranquility A placid mask for exacting love.
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.
Title: The Historian’s Daughter Author: Rashida Murphy Publisher: UWA Publishing, 2016
The Historian’s Daughter could well have been titled The House of Secrets. Isn’t that what a “house with too many windows and women” is likely to be? The historian in question is the father of Hannah, the novel’s secret-digging young protagonist. Throughout the first-person narrative, she refers to her father as the Historian because of his real-life profession and her mother as the Magician due to her spell-inducing sweetness. Why then isn’t the book called The Magician’s Daughter? That’s a secret Hannah must accidentally come upon, and one that her creator Rashida Murphy guards with skilled control as she takes the reader on a voyage spanning familial and political upheavals and migrations across continents and personal mind maps.
Hannah’s fetish for secret busting is a natural function of her environment. History is the kernel wrapped in its homonym cousin – mystery. Both mystery and history flow freely in Hannah’s house in the hills, which she shares with her parents, older sister Gloria, brothers, Warren and Clive and her numerous aunts who come visiting and stay put for extended periods of time. Her historian father’s library – one he has inherited from his “despicable” British father – is the first depository that would trigger, and in time train, her sleuthing skills. A series of books on the English “conquistadors” of India sets her off on her quest to understating and even confronting the past, however unsettling.
The dramas and dark corners of family life dominate the early part of Hannah’s – and the book’s – world. While she’s happy to be under Gloria’s elder-sisterly wings and bask in the Magician’s affection, what makes her recoil at the sight of her father is a muddied phantasm the reader must, like Hannah, uncover in layers. This is also the part of the novel that brims with Persian fragrances – black tea with mint and carrot halwa; and with fables – of heroes Rustom and Sohrab, which the Magician reads to her daughters and of Rani, a less-than-heroic aunt dubbed crazy and living practically under house arrest.
The dynamics of this universe of chaotic delight changes forever when Sohrab, an Iranian young man – enters the scene. An acquaintance of Farah, the Magician, Sohrab bears about him an uneasy wind – that of the turmoil sweeping through Iran during the period of the country’s revolution in the late 1970s.
As with seeds that winds disperse all over the place, the lives of Hannah and her family get scattered, and Hannah finds herself in Australia as an immigrant. Transplanted without the nourishing support of her mother or sister, it is in Perth that Hannah has to find her own bearings. This is also where she finds love as well as a reason to return to the continent she came from – first in Iran in search of her sister, then in India to look for the Magician. Through it all, she must not only witness but also endure – hardship and the excesses of revolutions; cruel family secrets and the maturing of love, loveless hearts and an infant’s unbridled affection. The story in this part oscillates between physical and mental spaces as Hannah negotiates the distance between her present and her memories. The narrative feels somewhat jerky at times, perhaps not too different from the rugged emotional terrain Hannah herself treads through.
Through it all, Hannah also finds her own voice as a woman – one that’s not shaped or seasoned by the stronger women of her childhood. She’s funny and sharp, confident, and vulnerable – a mass of real flesh and blood. She is bold but her courage isn’t about an absence of fear. It is about running with – not away from – fear. She’s impulsive and a passionate lover, but most of all, she’s a baton-bearer of the two women who she first learned to love from – her mother and sister. This is what makes The Historian’s Daughter a remarkably feminist novel in the garb of a family saga. Rashida Murphy is clear about fashioning it so, whether it is by making Gloria prevent Hannah’s genital mutilation by their aunt; the girls’ mother staging her own silent rebellion; or Hannah’s firmness in chasing her convictions, regardless of self-doubt and social pressure. These are strong women who aren’t afraid to acknowledge their weaknesses.
The Historian’s Daughter engages as much with its plot twists as with its honesty and narrative sweep. The language is crisp, the imagery vibrant, and the plotlines like stable trellises for the vines they support. This is Murphy’s first book and, for me, a wellspring of promise and anticipation. The malleability with which her love of history, research, politics, and storytelling meld into a whole makes her a writer to look forward to.
‘The Historian’s Daughter’ is available on: Amazon.com
“…She would always remember Paris as the most beautiful city in the world, not because of what it was or was not in reality, but because it was linked to the memory of her happiest years.”
—Gabriel García Márquez, Love in the Time of Cholera.
Cities are where history and contemporaneity, spaciousness and congestion, overwhelming wealth and astonishing poverty collide with each other more recklessly than anywhere else. One can live in City A for a long time and despise it and yet get entranced by City B in just a few months. That probably explains why I always remained a passive resident of Delhi, the city of my birth and my home for more than three decades, yet fell in love with Hyderabad, where I lived for less than four months. And the charm was almost instantaneous.
This was also the city where I found love.
Carved out of a single stone, he is even more imposing than what he appers from a distance
Ambedkar holds his head high, right next to a Hindu temple, representative of higher castes
Hyderabad welcomed me as a nervous, just-married bride, whose groom happened to work there. The extent of my idea of this southern city until then was summed up in tourist book images—Golconda Fort and Charminar, a rich Muslim ethos and possibly an equally rich cuisine. I knew too that the city was the latest hot-spot on India’s map. But as I would soon realize, this was but a fraction of the fortune that Hyderabad encompassed within its precincts.
The more-than-four-hundred-year-old city didn’t waste any time in bewitching me, in making sure that our bond, even if short-lived, wouldn’t, at least in my memory, be short-term. The charm began with an expanse of calm, placid water that soothed my psyche, left near-parched by Delhi’s unforgivingly dry landscape. The first sight-seeing trip I took with my husband, even as I was still opening up to him, was a launch cruise on Hussain Sagar Lake. The 16th-century blue-green lake’s historic trajectory took it from once being a source of irrigation for the city to the venue that now held the largest monolithic statue in India—Buddha, sculpted out of a single piece of white granite stone. Even though his back was to us, I suspect the Wise One smiled as we stepped onto the launch boat and proceeded toward him. Could he “see” how the mists of scepticism in my heart dissolved—with each unruffled wave we crossed—and were then replaced with the clarity that love brings?
Another stop on this trip was Birla Mandir, a Hindu temple in the vicinity. As we crossed the road, the temple announced to us its presence from atop Naubath Pahad, a hillock. Boasting an architectural blend of Rajasthani, South Indian and Orissa styles, the temple’s large premises are divided into territories dedicated to different gods of the Hindu pantheon. As we peregrinated from one deity’s court to another, I saw quotations from several holy texts, including those of Hindus, Buddhists, Christians and Sikhs—though Islamic verses and symbols were conspicuously absent. More captivating views were in store. As we landed on the marble-laid main courtyard of the temple, the twin cities of Hyderabad and Secunderabad smiled back at us.
For B, my husband, the best part of this trip was yet to come. No sooner had we stepped out of Birla Mandir than a small bust, situated by the side of the temple, drew him. It was the sculpted bust of Dr. B. R. Ambedkar, India’s champion for the rights of Dalits—people whom the caste-dominated Hindu society has shunned, humiliated and oppressed for centuries. Ambedkar also played a pivotal role in drafting India’s constitution and instituting in it equal rights for all citizens—irrespective of their caste or religion. B has been greatly influenced by Dr. Ambedkar’s scholarship and upholds his rejection of the Hindu caste system.
The temple, with all its stunning architecture and deities born of human imagination, soon receded from our consciousness. It was ironical yet appropriate for Ambedkar’s image to be placed close to a canon of the Hindu religion—a temple housing many of its popular figures. While Dr. Ambedkar’s egalitarian vision is yet to become a reality for the Dalits of India, it was heartening to know that Hyderabad’s Birla Temple is open to people of all religious faiths and social strata, including Dalits. Just as B found meaning in this visit, I was taken by the numerous street-side stalls selling vermilion, coconut, bangles, sacred red threads and an assortment of curios promising to please the temple gods. I am not too religious, but a profusion of colours and smells never fails to draw me in.
Birla Mandir was the last of our divine excursions. After this trip, I focused on setting myself up in a new house and exploring my new surroundings.
* * * * *
When I first stepped into my husband’s “flat” at “At Home Apartments” in the Kondapur neighbourhood of Hyderabad, it appeared to me to be a spruced-up version of a bachelor pad. There were just two rooms: a large bedroom and a smaller room that doubled as the sitting room and kitchen. Two single-seater sofas and a table completed the furniture in this room. For cooking, we had been provided with a microwave oven and a few utensils.
The spacious bedroom more than made up for any inadequacy of the sitting room-kitchen. The best part of this room was a large window right behind our bed. The view beyond this window—tracts of cultivated fields stretching into a limitless horizon, a few buffaloes grazing the land, the tent of a farmer who worked on his field, a small Hindu temple—magnetically allured me. Our flat was on the fifth floor, the top-most in the building, and because of its strategic proximity to the green expanse, it offered a rare panoramic view of open space—increasingly a rarity in Indian cities. Living on the top floor came with another reward—we were closest to the terrace above, where we would spend hours—lured, awed by and photographing winged wonders.
I would soon learn that one didn’t have to run to the terrace to enjoy bird-watching in Hyderabad. They were everywhere and in amazing diversity. Every morning, upon waking, we just had to look out of our window, and there they were—bee-eaters, parakeets, sparrows, doves, kingfishers, the ubiquitous crows and other unknown tribes. Seeing them hopping from one tree branch to another, collecting meals, chirping or just flying around for the sake of it, ensured that we never had anything other than good mornings.
During my years growing up in Delhi, the visibility of smaller birds like sparrows had gradually dwindled. In Delhi’s frightfully shrinking avian habitat, the survival of small members became increasingly threatened. So when I saw birds of different breeds and sizes happily grazing the Hyderabad skies together, my heart was aflutter.
What added to the joy was the existence of a small swamp a few meters away from our apartment. I strongly suspect this marshy patch brought me closer to B, as it revealed the wide-eyed-wondering bird-lover in him. We would routinely stop at this spot to watch egrets and herons, red-wattled lapwings and little cormorants making good use of the prized cool patch in the midst of newly-constructed skyscrapers that surrounded the marsh. Excited by our daily finds of new birds, we soon headed to a place that would make our wonder graduate to speechless amazement—the Hyderabad Zoo, definitely among the best in India and rivalling the likes of Australia’s Taronga Zoo.
The thrill of these discoveries notwithstanding, at home we still didn’t have a proper kitchen. And food still remained a primary necessity. Since the microwave wasn’t useful for much beyond making instant noodles, we had to scout for food sources outside. For our very first dinner as newlyweds, B took me to Hot Rottis, a small eatery perched on top of a shop in the nearby marketplace. The place offered a mix of south Indian and north Indian (mostly the latter) homemade food and no bells and whistles. For 45 rupees (less than a US dollar), you could have rice, lentils, two types of vegetables, yogurt, pickles, salad, a dessert, and, of course, the name of the shop—hot rottis—freshly made Indian whole-wheat flat breads. This joint catered well to serve the dietary needs of young people from North India, mostly IT professionals who were a long way away from home—geographically as well as in terms of food culture.
Hyderabad turned out to be a food heaven, not unlike the eastern Indian city of Kolkata. Like the latter, what makes Hyderabad a food lover’s delight is not just the mind-boggling heterogeneity of foods available, but the high affordability quotient—one could enjoy well-cooked, hearty meals with no substantial loss to one’s pocket. So while Hot Rottis and its rival Drumsticks sustained our daily dinner needs, a veritable culinary carousel would see the two of us hopping from one restaurant to another throughout the city.
For us, the best flavours were the ones that were exclusive to Hyderabad, no less associative than imposing structures such as Golconda Fort or Charminar. Two of these were desserts: the first double ka meethha—a pudding of bread, milk nuts and saffron. We found it on the menu of most restaurants, some that weren’t even serving food from any part of India. The other very Hyderabadi dessert, khubaani ka meethha, made B its life-patron with the very first tasting. Dried apricots concentrated into thick, syrupy sweetness, give the dessert the ambrosia of halwa and the lightness of fruit. A perfect dessert to share after all those meal mountains we had internalized, rather literally.
However, the greatest edible reward from Hyderabad was haleem—the signature dish that sweeps over the city’s collective tongue during the fasting month of the Muslim festival of Ramadan. Haleem is one of the many items served during iftaar—the breaking of the daily fast during Ramadan. The dish, however, tastes every bit as good even if one doesn’t fast before digging into it.
We discovered haleem on our way back from Golconda—the fort of many forts that makes one marvel at its grandeur: the stories of devotion, literally carved on its walls. Ram Das, a certain Hindu official at the court of the Muslim king Tana Shah, was imprisoned in Golconda Fort for misusing funds to build a Rama temple. Even in his despair, Ram Das’ devotion didn’t diminish. His carvings of Hindu deities Rama, Lakshman and Hanuman still remain on the walls of his prison.
Having traversed the fort’s enormous breadth and after climbing up and down its steep terrain on an appreciably warm day, it was relaxing to sit inside a taxi for the ride back home. Mid-way through our journey, B asked the driver if he knew where good haleem was served. “Sure, saab, I will take you there,” said the driver. Soon, we were in front of Pista House, arguably, the best haleem makers in the city. The two boxes of pounded wheat and mutton, stewed into a smooth paste, smothered with ghee and topped with fine ginger juliennes easily rank among the best things I’ve ever eaten. Haleem was also just what the doctor would have ordered after a long day of trekking through a fascinating yet inexorable fort.
In spite of the breathtaking sights, natural bounty and the scrumptious food, Hyderabad had its own contradictions. It seemed a place where the new nudged in to make its way beside the old.
The city appeared safe enough for young, single women to move around. At the same time, most women dressed conservatively. And while there was a steady inflow of IT-employed youth from other, more cosmopolitan cities, Hyderabad’s own youth remained reticent to profess love in the open. What else could explain the recurring clandestine rendezvous across the city? Cupid seemed to be on overdrive here, what with young couples snuggling up to each other the moment they found a moment. Or a suitable crevice.
We first spotted them in the lush, verdant botanical gardens, rich in flora of a flourishing variety, inviting birds of various stripes and songs. As well as hearts floating on air, above bodies swaying on the grass. The ingenuity and dedication of these wild young hearts was commendable. Inside bushes, behind a big tree, tucked away in alcoves, they bloomed as resplendently as the dahlias and daisies in the garden.
We also saw them at Durgam Cheruvu or the Secret Lake, a lake-forest spread over sixty-three acres. The lake remains deceptively true to its name. None of it is visible from the outside, and one has to walk a fair distance to enter the lake area. Inside, it’s a magical world, complete with pristine waters, hills and rocky formations, and recently installed art in the form of sculptures and rock art.
Just a few minutes before, B and I had been on a very urban road, and then, suddenly, we shared this space with the most enchanting butterflies; humming birds donning stunning yellow, electric blue hues, bulbuls; red-breasted lemon hibiscus; a blushing purple-pink gulmohar variety and other spell-inducing flowers; and even fruits like the pomegranate and the custard apple. As we wound our way through the rocks, we spotted many a dark, damp spots, sheltering insects, moss, the odd creeper. And the snuggled duos.
Climbing up, all the way to the top, we discovered the most stunning view of the green-gray lake. We also found hiking trails that scared me and thrilled B. Just when he had finally convinced me to climb down one, we saw a couple sitting right next to its base, behind the curtain of tree branches. We quietly retreated.
In Hyderabad, love abounded. As the Buddha’s compassion, as the co-existence of a structure of Brahminical Hinduism and its greatest critic, as the pigeons coo-cooing inside the magnificent ramparts of Charminar and the burqa-clad women buying flowers and bangles outside it, as the haleem slathered with ghee, as the apricots transformed into sugary sin, and as love birds, peeking, sometimes glaring, from crevices, hills, open markets. How could I have remained love-less here? In less than four months, I had been smitten. By B. And by Hyderabad.