It was long ago in a city, beyond the beyond, called Legerdemain, that a certain incident brought chaos in the lives of the bored gentry there. It was a gray city surrounded with gray walls and even grayer people. Early mornings wrapped in fog would hear the whistle of the tea kettle that would awaken the sultry people to go and look for what they had to - jobs, lives, food, company, (monotonous regularity?). Scraps of newspaper filled the cobbled streets that saw many a heavy boot stub and kick cigarette butts to the sidewalk. And so would begin the day.....
In that town lived a certain man named Henrick. All of thirty five he was burdened with 5 children, a heavy set woman for a wife and an old mother who was getting sicker every day. His occupation of a street newspaper vendor was just a mere band-aid for a wound that was oozing blood and puss.
As was the ritual, Henrick woke up unenthusiastically that morning, gobbled down the dry crust of bread with tea and headed to where his cart was parked. While dragging himself there he suddenly remembered a dream he had dreamt the night before. Or was it a dream? He recalled the roar of a car engine in the middle of the night and thought it was rather odd. The nights in Legerdemain were dead - not even an owl’s hoot dared to interrupt the silence. But being only half awake he had not given it much of a thought then. Now, however, he couldn't get it out of his mind. He played with the thought obsessively as if trying to solve a murder case!
Around afternoon when he had sold about 15 papers and ensured a small meal for the family, he thought of wrapping up and heading to the nearest barber shop. No this was not a customary visit to indulge, but the last stop where he had to drop a few papers for the customers. Of course the coveted cup of coffee that the owner sometimes handed him was impetus enough.
Rupert, the owner of the barber shop was carefully fond of Henrick. He did not want to buy Henrick's miseries but always looked forward to his company. The shop was particularly empty today with just a couple of people striving to look better. Somewhere a dusty gramophone made a grumpy sound akin to music. Henrick and Rupert sat together on high customer salon chairs and acknowledged each other with a nod. "Did you hear the car last night?" asked Rupert in almost a whisper. Henrick looked on while being internally relieved of his dilemma. "They say it belonged to a business tycoon who wants to set up a brothel in town." Henrick's eyes widened. "There is a congregation tomorrow at the church to vote the evil goons out. 11.00 a.m. sharp they say."
The next day the church was cluttered. Every inch of space was occupied with people who were almost alleviated with the confusion! They chatted so happily that momentarily the matter at hand was almost forgotten. It took about an hour to get everyone's attention and start the dialogue. Men, women and children all spoke at the same time and when the end of the day arrived - there was no consensus. The conglomeration decided to get together a second time. When the same end was met the second day, the town heads and seniors only came to one conclusion - they should return to their fateful shells and watch. Nothing could be done - there was too much excitement in a gathering. People just couldn't get enough of each other.
Months passed by and Legerdemain witnessed the birth and growth of a whole enterprise right in front of their eyes. The roaring of loud car engines continued all night along and brick by brick there grew a Red Mansion in the gray town. People looked on as more and more women made the forbidden mansion their habitat. It was on one of those days that a lady approached Henrick and asked for newspapers to be delivered there. "Certainly, and his cart will go over my dead body" hollered Henrick's wife from her kitchen window, while the old mother let out a groan from inside.
The woman, with some air of solace around her, quietly handed Henrick a crumpled piece of paper and left. '20 - Legerdemain Posts to be delivered to Celia' it said. Henrick set out an hour early the next day, went straight toward the red mansion, his legs trembling with excitement, his face pale with anxiety. A quick comparison of the brothel in his head, with the one now standing in front of him, made him feel stupid. The place was nothing like he had imagined. The building that seemed to be an eye sore for months together, ruining people's peace and adding forbidden thoughts of color in their minds, seemed to be beckoning him with the kind of warmth that he was not familiar with. The shame he felt at that moment only forced his curious legs to move on and when half way towards the door, he noticed a lady inside. Upon seeing him, she hurriedly ran inside and brought out a quilt - a deliciously warm and intricately handmade quilt. She then rushed towards Henrick and nudged him inside.
"It’s not what you think Miss" Henrick managed to splutter. "It's not what you think Sir" retorted the lady after succeeding to bring him inside and forcing him on to a polished dark wood chair. She asked him to wait, disappeared and came back with Celia. "You must help us stop this", the latter immediately ordered, addressing Henrick. "We have come a long way to work here not to be punished by your people." Henrick looked on as if watching a thriller, his heart in his mouth now!"Will you give me your word that you will come back with your wife tomorrow sir? Please?"
"What does she have to do with any of this? The other day she was just being a wife you know? She didn't mean no harm. This is between you and me and I just wanted to give you the newspapers you wanted. Now if you will be kind enough to pay me, I will take your leave," Henrick demanded.
"You don't understand Sir, we are here to help you and your wife, the people of this town. You don't get it. Look at this quilt - this is what we are here for. We are mostly widows and spinsters that have invented and developed this technique of handiwork and we are here to teach this to your women. So they can learn and make a better living out of it. Show this to your wife and explain that. Only you and your wife can do this for us. Please I beseech you! The children of Legerdemain throw stones at us. You must help us get out of this shell and live a respectable life," the lady explained all in one breath. Henrick started with a whimper and then ended up laughing long enough to make up for a lifetime of sordid existence.
The next day a group of 12 women went to the mansion and did not return till dusk. When they did return nothing was the same again. There were smiles on their faces, there were colors at home, and there was life. The men were both relieved and disappointed! The women had stumbled upon a treasure that would make posterity proud. Soon they produced hundreds of quilts everyday that were sent out of town to be sold, exported, copied and envied upon. As happens with the oncoming of wealth things like hygiene, education, nutrition and health care quickly became the buzz everywhere. Hospitals, schools, malls, and other businesses wanted to associate with the developing "quilt town". The cobbled streets of Legerdemain were painted red. And lo and behold, along with this came a real brothel followed by many more. Like I said nothing was the same again.
That was a long long time ago. Now all that remains is a secret. Somehow the legend of the Red Mansion in the gray town slowly got entangled in a wiry confusion. It ended up being re-christened the "lowly Red Mansion that ALSO made quilts". Even though the town prospered solely because of the revolution started by the women there, it became important for political reasons, to disguise the quilts labeled "Made in Legerdemain" with other decorative tags. While the new brothels prospered the Red Mansion remained the “gray area” in town.
Tuesday, December 28, 2010
"But why do I have to eat in stages?" I asked. Everybody looked at me with the kind of disbelief that is created at the slip of a profanity, in the presence of elders. No one spoke for the rest of the meal. Later each member of my family took turns in trying to put sense into me.
What my grand mom said amounted to aping the apes, literally. She maintained, "In the pre-historic ages our primate-ancestors, with their innate but intimate feeling of the vegetation around them, always ate in stages. First the bitter berries, then the leaves and fruits and finally the sweet berries. How can you question their wisdom?"
My mother asked me how else is one supposed to taste the different preparations? "I mean", she said, "I might as well then just put everything together while making it, if you don't want the taste of each individual dish. " Someone else said it helped the digestion process.
But the reasoning centering the tradition appealed to me the most. It not only just came down the ages and established itself as an unquestioned rule but has also survived the vagaries of evolution.
There is not wonder then that a traditional Bengali menu starts with 'Sukto' (bitter) followed by 'Shagvaja' (fried leaves) and culminates in sweets. The space between bitter and sweets has been filled by Bengal's own evolution, and the contribution left by invading Turk, Afghan, Moghal and British rulers.
Like this unwritten rule, there are hundreds more. It could have been the history, tradition, habit, influence or anything really that gives you the feeling of the on flow of time. Food is the primary factor around which every Bengali's life revolves.
Ma likes to discuss the menu of the next course while she is serving the present meal! My father in law wants to know what he should get from the market the next day even while he is putting his bags down from his present trip to the market! Food is in fact one of the most engrossing topics of serious discussions in which, politics, literature, oil prices, current affairs is also dealt with. One can never let that go. Calcutta a land of lawyers, doctors, poets, artists, engineers and scholars is also the haven of the food lover. The demands of the palate have given birth to a myriad of dishes at every nook and corner of every street.
We find an excuse, of the use of food even over and above just consuming it. I have found myself at a loss more than once, when I have had to explain the fish adorned with 'sindoor' and nose ring at Bengali marriages. Because it's pure, is all I could say, more to plunge into an escape route before the next inevitable question popped up.
My father put my agony to rest one day, while casually discussing the history of different recipes. All along the stages of evolution, Bengalis had an abundance of land and water along with matching weather conditions perfectly conducive to growing rice in plentiful. So rice and fish naturally became a source of sustenance. This eventually proved so profitable that growing wheat for many became an agrarian responsibility much below their dignity! Hence even at present and for many years to come fish will remain the symbol of prosperity, sustainability and health. The presence of fish will mean a full life and Bengalis will believe this forever.
There are other confusing habits of course, which one can ponder about at length! My brother in law, a Bengali to the bone, will cancel his appointment for the day if he hears the mention of a banana on his way out. My mother will never fail to make "payesh" on my birthday. My Bengali friend will end all his meal with "mishti doi'. And all of them will mark fish as the most important part of their meal.
The entire world knows that Bengalis and fish go together. But it is amazing how Bengali fish and spices can go together. Bengalis cook fish with poppy seeds or mustard seeds or just mustard oil and 'kala jeera', with ginger, onions and tomatoes or spices one may never imagine. My favorite is the fish steamed with mustard seeds ('Bhapa Maach'). That with rice gives me the satisfaction that I never feel with any other combination.
It takes just about 15 minutes of swirling in the microwave. The ingredients that go in this dish of relish for zillions of Bengalis is below:
1. ½ pound Hilsa /Prawn/Cat Fish
2. 2 ½ table spoons of Mustard seeds
3. 8 (take in as much as you can take)Green Chillies
4. 2 table spoons of Yogurt
5. 2 table spoons of Mustard Oil
6. Salt to taste
7. 1 tea spoon of Turmeric powder
1. Marinate the fish with ½ teaspoon turmeric and salt for 5-10 minutes
2. Grind mustard seeds and green chillies together to a fine paste
3. Mix thoroughly yogurt, salt, mustard oil and turmeric powder to the paste
4. Gently add the mix the to the fish
5. Slit green chillies length wise and sprinkle it on top
6. Microwave the concoction for 10-12 minutes.
7. Serve hot with rice
As a kid I was convinced that little fairies fluttered around me. They were always there - colorful and shapeless little things. Everywhere I saw. Some even stayed on when I closed my eyes. I knew I was special then as none of my other friends seemed to see them. This was the sole reason I lost many friends and gained a few believers. They wanted me to ask the fairies questions - "Will I pass my math test?", "Will my Dad give me the picnic money?", "Will my Grand Dad live another day?". For the most part I would take this seriously and will my mind to make the fairies reply. This was the other reason I lost some of my friends and gained some more.
One day my Dad got the whiff of this and decided to interrogate me. He still believes in my dreams and encourages them generously, no matter how ridiculous it seems. However, this, he thought, needed to be investigated. "So darling - tell me more about your fairies", he started. "Well", I said, they are everywhere and are sent by God to protect me in this universe." "Are they here now?" "Of course they are." "Where exactly?" "Here is a red and purple one, there is a blue and green one, a black spot around there..." I continued, rolling my eyes in different directions to indicate my fairy's habitat. The next day I was taken to the opthamologist and was prescribed a pair of glasses with a really high power. A week later the glasses arrived and gifted me a perfect view of the world. Everything that was normal to me even a second before shone in a new light. The tension in my cheeks, from squinting too often, seemed to relax almost immediately.
I looked at my Dad with complete awe and surprise and just when I was ready to word my feeling, I realized the fairies had disappeared!! None of them were there - I suddenly felt alone and insecure. I quickly opened my glasses and they promptly came back. The result - I tried to avoid my glasses as often as possible. As life rolled on though, it seemed more important to be seeing the world more clearly than my little fairies. Soon they lost any relevance to my existence and became a favorite family joke.
Fast forward to the time when I was in Delhi working and living by myself. I was a pro at contact lenses by then. Soon enough fate presented my husband to me and after quickly falling in love we (along with a couple of my girlfriends) decided to rent an apartment together. Wasn't he the lucky one?
Fast forward to the time when me and my then boyfriend (husband now) sat in his bedroom sorting out bills and discussing the budget for the next month. It was a cool Delhi night. We sat on his bed and let the breeze come in through the veranda. It was late and I let my guards down by taking off my lenses and letting my eyes breathe. Since I was blind as a bat then, he did the calculations while I uselessly ranted about things. My mind was in another place where I was walking hand in hand with my love and weaving our entire life together (over and over again). Floyd's voice in the background ensured uninterrupted flow of the romantic preview to my future. Somehow somewhere my memory of the fairies came back and so did they - crystal clear and real. Just in seconds, I suddenly saw a white sheet appear blocking my view from the veranda. It moved downwards from the ceiling of the veranda as if in slow motion. My pulse started racing and I finally managed a scream.
I believe now that this time the fairies had come back to save and protect someone else through me. It turned out that the sheet was a man trying to commit suicide from the terrace upstairs!! My husband had reacted to my scream quick enough and like a superman with 20:20 vision had flown to the site and to his rescue. A slip disk that my husband had suffered just a day earlier loomed as a huge detrimental factor to the rescue of the man. However, he managed a tight grip of the rail to lean forward and pull the man right from mid-air on to the veranda - all with a screech of gritted teeth to the floor. A hero indeed! I watched everything with an open mouth and a foggy gaze! I would have let the sheet flow into the breeze and reach its destination but something had prompted me to scream.
The man we saved, lives now and is a happy employee of the Indian Navy.