Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Fruit of Labor

Sitaphal, Ramphal, bull’s heart, poor man’s apple or custard apple whatever you call it, the once-humble Shreefa (as we called it in Bhopal) is not everybody’s bowl of dessert. Everyone in the family stays three feet away from it and constantly scowls and expresses incredulity, How can you like that, its so full of seeds? What’s there to eat in this? Try once, I thrust it before them. Nooo.. they turn their faces like I was introducing dope. Is it addictive, I wonder? I never stopped to consider it too full of seeds, too little for the effort and suchlike they fault it with.

It started when I was little. Hundreds of bushes laden with shareefa grew wild on the hill beyond the campus. The raw, hard fruit was not good enough to be eaten straightaway nor worth taking home to be carefully wrapped in newspapers and buried within the wheat in the drums to ripen.

When the teacher asked to draw 3 fruits, I hurried through the apple-shaped apple, the mango-shaped mango and then leisurely, passionately drew out each hump, each bulge of the custard apple tarnishing meticulously its green skin with black, its sweet-sour taste bursting in my mouth.

Before you know it life takes over from teacher. It draws a curtain over our simple pleasures. We hanker after career, love, achievement, house, children. When the time comes for us to look back much of what we left behind is gone or altered beyond recognition.

Looking back, I see Papa rushing to New Market on my arrival from Delhi, and returning with a bag of custard apples. Only parents remember.

Now when I can find time on weekends, I visit the HAL vegetable market to buy my north-Indian vegetables - tinda, parwal, bathua, sarson, raw jackfruit and red carrots not heard of in Bangalore five years ago. Subzi done, I walk into the narrow lane leading to the exit of the mandi. Fruit sellers smelling of the ripeness of fruit call out to me, I hopscotch over the squashed fruit on the ground, I have to go to the end, exactly three stalls from the exit, to the smiling lady. She weights papaya, banana, apple and pear. Then she waits. I wait. The two baskets in front of me are precariously laden with sitaphal. I ask her to pick. I don’t want to run the risk. She picks three. Just three. My longing stretched out like a rubber band neither too much nor too little.

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

बदलते वक़्त का इक सिलसिला सा लगता है कि जब भी देखो उसे दूसरा सा लगता है ~ मंज़र भोपाली

During this trip to Bhopal, a Bhopal Carnival was on. Cultural programs, food festivals, and heritage shows were held at several venues across the lake city. Bhopal Haat on the lines of the delightful Dilli Haat is an ambitious and well-intentioned initiative but it was thanda-thanda.

The handloom and handicrafts exhibition at Gauhar Mahal was enticing as always. But I guess it’s more for its historical, architectural and romantic ambiance than for the shopping that I’m drawn there. When the evening lights come on and the lake in front shines like an endless sheet of glass, reflecting the lights of the city, the green-glassed windows from the turrets of Gauhar Mahal lend the evening a mystical aura.

The other delightful experience was the late-night mushaira held at the Iqbal Maidan surrounded by as much history as any place can hold  – remains of three palaces – Shaukat Mahal, Zeenat Mahal and Sheesh Mahal and two beautiful masjids - Moti Masjid and Heera Masjid. The poetry echoing from the lighted facades created a surreal experience.

This is where the mushairas are held.  Photo courtesy: Gulrez Raza Khan

Now for the heartaches.

The Kamla Park so seeped in my personal memories had grass and weeds growing out of the statue's head. It was unforgivable.

The beautiful new road along the Bada Talaab is incorrigibly called VIP Road! I hoped and prayed all these years that a namkaran would happen but the name has stuck. It is like a slap on the face of the Bhopali ethos. Imagine getting out of the magnificent Gauhar Mahal with the grandiose Bada Taalab in front and then on to the VIP road !! ?? The options are lovely - Gauhar Mahal Road, even Begum’s Necklace or Begum's paajeb, kangan, bajuband... anything.

Then, Hamidia (College) became MLB (College) and MLB became Hamidia much like the Karva Chauth kahaniRani bani dasi aur dasi bani rani. As if it was that simple! To rip-off an entire living, breathing milieu – identity, aura, history and thrust it on to another bleeding trunk with no concern of whether it will live – take root?

The loss is more MLB’s than Hamidia’s, I feel. Generations of girls would remember the dipped in, tree-covered haven right in the heart of Ginnori; a world of their own next to the Chota Talaab. Imagine the girls’ hostel across the lake and the girls coming to college by boats. It was a way of life. Now I hear many girls from conservative families will not go to college. End.

I asked many passionate Bhopalis how they could let this happen? Why was there no public movement, protest, representation? It seems it happened overnight. The reason given was Hindu girls run off with Muslim boys, it being predominantly a Muslim area. God!

दे और दिल उनको जो न दे मुझको ज़बाँ और


Sunday, May 04, 2008

Aam - Behad Khaas!

Wonder why people HAVE to eat mangoes on trains! How long can a train journey be? 30-35 hours? We wait 9 months for the mango to arrive and take over - first the serendipitous sighting of the lemon-colored, melon-sized Safeda or Badam – great for the breakfast mango shake; very slowly the thicker-skinned, darker but better-loved cousins Langda and Dashehri that are saved for after dinner and which soon appear after lunch too…. Then the days become mango-filled. ‘Aam kha lo' – the offer/directive at every hungry un-snacktime. The crispy, crunchy raw kairi presents itself in the form of tangy aam ka panna, pungent pudine ki chutney, syrupy gudamba and the glorious aam ka achar to last the whole year.

But still? What’s with people who cannot forego the pleasure of eating mangoes during train journeys!!

Admit that unless neatly peeled and diced – eating a mango is MESSY. Dinesh never forgets to remind us that angrez used to eat mangoes in the bathroom. And here they are making the whole train compartment a bathroom!

The kid sucking the last dregs of an almost transparent skin has the sticky orange liquid running down his elbows. Inevitable. He looks around and finding everyone’s focus on the fruit in their own hands alone, runs his tongue – from the elbow to the palm – one neat job (one less for the mother if and when she cares). I’m glad its over and no sudden movement of the train can throw him onto me – mush and all. But immediately mummy dearest notices his khaali-haath, clean and empty and supplies him another sun-colored slice filled with holy nectar.

He looks at me through his mango-brightened eyes and I quickly decide to go buy mangoes on the way home from the station.

Remember Mirza Ghalib? Only donkeys do not eat mangoes! :) A lesser known kissa is when asked to comment on the mangoes he was eating, Ghalib pronounced, 'Aam meethey hon aur bahot hon'.


PS: My jaw dropped when Valcal served us aam-ras in Bombay. She did that to the Alphansos!

Monday, January 21, 2008

Monkeying around?

The Bada Bandar (big monkey) controversy makes me smile. Don’t jump to conclusions. Oops! is that racial? I mean, if you suspect I’m hinting at the one that jumps, no, no, I never meant that – I really meant that please don’t walk like a human being to any conclusions. A thousand apologies. I’m against all racial slurs.

But 'Big monkey’? Think about cultural connotations and of the hundreds of times we have been referred to as bandars by our parents alone. In fact, I always thought bandar was a term of endearment. I wonder what Bhajji called out. Bada aaya Bandar kahin ka!? Imagine the Aussies scampering to translate it as – Big monkey? Aha! That’s Racist! Racist!

But what makes me smile is remembering Papa recount this incident from when he was a student in Amreeka. He was being driven around by a fellow American who was swearing profusely. He turned to Papa and asked for an Indian swear word. Mild as he was, Papa told him that he’d call a person ‘Salla’ which literally means brother-in-law. The next time someone cut him in, the American swore loud and clear, ‘That was my brother-in-law!’ Such a harmless word, Salla, but try calling someone that in the bazaar and literally ‘hands will be raised’. When I used it in one of my stories set in Delhi, a friend wondered if the term was foul enough to portray a Delhiite’s tongue! Salla is probably just a prefix up north.

God, is there joy in swearing! Papa would stealthily come up and whisper into our ears. We would call out ‘Mummyeee…' And Papa would say, ‘What did I say?’ ‘He called me lisa!’ Spoken backwards this was Salli –sister-in-law. We waited for Mummy’s decree that whoever said a ‘bad’ word had to clean their tongue with cow dung as was the practice in her Wardha ashram. But technically, Papa could not be punished. Though there was Yatiku too (I’ll let that pass without the translation), spoken backward these were just nonsense words. Many elders in the family were known for their sharp tongues and some of those ‘bad’ words that I can’t spell here are almost legendary.

As children we had to device ways. I hear of cousin Chuniya’s Harpil– a blend of harami and pillay! (literally translated – puppy of a bastard(?) – not quite the same thing :( ) nephew Chotu had ‘Green mango more’ for haraamzada (bastard). I hope the next generation upholds family tradition and creates more such colorful language…. hang on…they’re here to get me…something I said! Color! Noo….