Friday, August 31, 2007

My adventures with ajvar

Last year, when I first went to the international foods store here in Rochester, I spotted, at the end of the main aisle, an array of glass jars containing a type of relish called ajvar. The jars were stylish: they had wonderful curved contours, and some even had a cloth draped over the lid, held in place by a golden string. I was quite taken by the appearance of these jars, and the bright red color of ajvar had me salivating.

Ajvar is made from red bell peppers, eggplant, garlic, chili pepper, and vegetable oil, and is popular among the people of the Balkans. When I tried my first jar (which I had some difficulty opening) I found it as delicious as I’d hoped it would be. My way of having ajvar wasn’t by any means Balkan. I had it as a side dish to flavor the last course of my evening meal - I had it, in other words, with the Tamilian staple of rice and yogurt.

Around the same time, I found, to my delight, that a Serbian couple lived on the top floor of my apartment. Who better to ask about ajvar and its nuances! We got acquainted and they invited me to their place a few times last winter. We talked of many things – I remember how much they liked the system of arranged marriages in India, and said they wished Serbia had it too – but I steered the topic towards food, asking about the ingredients in the pancakes they’d offered me, and inevitably, about ajvar.

“What’s a good brand of ajvar to buy?” I asked, “The one I’ve bought says it’s home made.” I described the shape of the jar, hoping that would suggest something. It didn’t. I went down to my apartment and brought the jar to them. They inspected it, and nodding vigorously said, to my great pleasure, that it was the right brand.

“You see”, they told me, “this brand is made in Macedonia. The climate there is ideal for the ingredients that go into ajvar. In general, when it comes to these sorts of products, buy ones that are made in Macedonia.”

I gladly followed their advice. But soon I faced a new obstacle. The second time I bought Macedonian ajvar, I couldn’t open the tightly sealed lid. Try as I might, no matter how much I twisted my wrists and fingers or tried such tricks as using a towel to cover the lid, it wouldn’t open. I was left only with aches and a terrible disappointment. The ajvar sat on my kitchen table for a week; I would look at the jar every day and then suddenly, in a burst of newfound confidence and anticipation, I would unleash myself upon it and attempt to open it, but to no avail. I went back to my Serbian friends. They taught me the technique of knocking on the lid with a fork in a friendly manner, as if soothing an unruly steed, then slowly prising the lid with the fork to let the pressure out, before opening it with ease.

Thus empowered, I bought and consumed jar after jar or ajvar. I stopped only once, to ask my friends upstairs if something so delicious could possibly be healthy. They told me what I wanted to hear: it was used as a winter salad and spread, and was quite harmless.

The spree went on during the winter months. I was laden with empty jars of ajvar, and since I was so enamored of them, I couldn’t dispose them. They proliferated in my kitchen; I knocked over them while chopping onions on the cutting board; they jostled for space with the plates and cups in my shelves. It took me a while to realize I could put them to good use: I could use them to store my spices.

So the jars now hold all kinds of Indian spices: mustard and cumin and assorted tadka seeds; manthakkali vathal (used to make the incomparable south Indian vathal kozumbu); vangibhaat powder – to name just a few. My craze for ajvar has now passed – replaced this summer by my obsession with expensive cherries – but the jars are constant reminders of just how much I craved for this relish not too long ago. Who knows, I might turn back to it again some time soon – but then what will I do with the new jars?

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Terracottas of the Nok culture

I am fascinated by the beautiful terracotta sculptures of the Nigerian Nok culture, which date back to 500 B.C. These sculptures were unearthed in the first half of the 19th century, in Jos Plateau region of Nigeria. They make one wonder about the society and the people that produced such art. Unfortunately, though, not much is known. But here's a good website that discusses the style and the composition of the sculptures .

Information about the picture to the right is on this Wikipedia page. I got the picture below a while ago from some forum but am unable to trace the source now.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

An awkward moment for Mr. Nixon

I am currently reading Martin Meredith’s The fate of Africa, and the first chapter, The Gold Coast Experiment, is about how Ghana became the first Sub-Saharan country to gain its independence in 1957. There's an interesting note in the chapter about the overly enthusiastic Richard Nixon, then the Vice President of the United States, who faced an embarrassing situation during the independence celebrations:
Messages of congratulations came [to Ghana] from an array of world leaders, from Eisenhower, Bulganin, Nehru and Zhou En-lai. Delegations from fifty-six countries arrived, exuding warmth and goodwill…But the most enthusiastic visitor was Richard Nixon, then the United States vice-president. From the moment he touched down in Accra, he rushed about shaking hands, hugging paramount chiefs, fondling black babies and posing for photographs. It was not always to good effect. Surrounded by a crowd of Ghanaians in an official ceremony, he slapped one man on the shoulder and asked him how it felt to be free. ‘I wouldn’t know sir,’ replied the man. ‘I am from Alabama.’
That’s quite a telling repartee, isn’t it? I wonder how Nixon reacted.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

A short note on Dostoevsky's characters

This is my second post on Fyodor Dostoevsky; the first one is here.

One of the striking features of Dostoevsky’s work is how passionate and sometimes wild his characters are. His pages teem with greedy, ambitious, vile, and bacchanalian types; they are also incredibly vain, and paranoid about maintaining their dignity. Indeed what torments them all the more is this need for dignity despite the negating pull of their actions, actions that they are somehow unable to control. As Harold Rosenberg says in his introduction to The Idiot: “The Dostoevskian character cannot trust his feelings or his decisions; some aberrant impulse may cause him to act contrary to them.” The bulk of Dostoevsky’s voluminous works consist of large, garrulous parties and gatherings of just such characters, and these lead to impassioned outbursts and dramatic confrontations.

Why does he use such exaggerations? Because his supercharged characters, despite seeming unreal, are able convey the gamut of human emotions and thinking. Dostoevsky himself provides an answer in Part Four of The Idiot, when, for a few pages, he stops being the storyteller and instead muses on the novelist's biggest challenge: How is one to describe “ordinary” people in novels?
“In their novels and stories writers most often choose and present vividly and artistically social types which are extremely seldom encountered in real life, which are nevertheless more real than real life itself…”

“…what is the novelist to do with absolutely ordinary people, and how can he present them to readers so that they are at all interesting? To leave them out of a story completely is not possible, since ordinary people are at every moment, by and large, the necessary links in the chain of human affairs; leaving them out therefore means to destroy credibility. To fill a novel entirely with types or, simply for the sake of interest, strange or unheard-of people, would be improbable and most likely not even interesting. In our opinion, the writer must try to find interesting and informative touches even among commonplace people.”
And for an even better answer, here’s Dostoevsky concisely expressing in a letter (written to somebody called Strachov), the central idea behind all of his art:
“I have my own idea about art, and it is this: What most people regard as fantastic and lacking in universality, I hold to be the most innate essence of truth.”

Saturday, August 18, 2007

A short note on Lyon's history, and some pictures

From the top of Fourviere hill of the French city of Lyon - the second largest metropolitan area in the country - it is possible see the sprawl beneath: clusters of buildings, hundreds of them, large and small, with sloping, red roofs; the path of the Saone river, and more faintly, the path of the Rhone, the other major river that runs through the city (the two rivers converge south of the city center and enclose a peninsular strip called Perrache).

The view is fantastic (I wish I had a picture that could do justice) but it is all the more special because it reveals – just in that one view – the layers of the city’s history. The hill itself was, and continues to be be, a place of importance and interest. A majestic late 19th- century Basilica church stands there today. But one can go well back: back to first century BC when Romans controlled Fourviere hill and constructed a theater with a capacity of 10,000; and back, even further, to when the Gauls held the place.

With the decline of the Roman empire in the middle to late part of the first millennium, and with the arrival of the Germanic peoples, the population moved towards the foot of the hill, close to the Saone river. The old, darker rooftops visible immediately below Fourviere and close to the river are in a quarter called Vieux Lyon (Old Lyon), which had a large settlement during the middle ages and the Renaissance times. Further away, to the north, is Croix-Rousse where wealthy silk and garment merchants resided in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. And now all around, stretching as far as the eye can see, are modern buildings, including a 142-meter high pencil shaped building (not to be confused, by any means, with the picture below), near the bustling Part Dieu railway station.

So much, then, is encapsulated in the panoramic view from the vantage point on Fourviere that it can seem as if people have been spilling their buildings and their monuments over the hill over the last two thousand years, dispersing them far and wide. This presence of history everywhere – very old history blending seamlessly with more recent – is what makes travelers, Americans especially, coo in admiration.

A steep winding pathway that cuts through the wooded slope of Fourviere, leads to Vieux Lyon. Houses here crowd over each other; some streets are cobblestone; and there are narrow passageways unique to the city, called traboules. Close to the foot of the river is the St. John’s Cathedral, another magnificent church, even older than the Basilica atop the Fourviere. The cathedral was built from the over a period of 3 centuries, from the 12th to the 15th, its style Romanesque in the beginning and but later, towards the end of its construction, heavily Gothic.

Note on pictures: The first picture is that of the Basilica on Fourviere. The second is a tower I came across while walking through Vieux Lyon. Interestingly, the Wikipedia page on traboules, the narrow passageways of the old town, also has a picture of the same tower, and calls it the courtyard of a traboule. And below are some more pictures I took in Vieux Lyon: the first an alley; the second a heavy door to a building used for religious purposes; and the third the lower part of St.John Cathedral's facade.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Review: Ramachandra Guha's India after Gandhi

Throughout his massive, extensively researched historical work, India after Gandhi, Ramachandra Guha quotes Western doomsayers, who, before as well as after India’s independence, felt strongly that democracy in India could not survive, and that the country would collapse under the sheer weight of its diversity and social problems. In the epigraph of the very first chapter of his book, Guha quotes the former bishop of Calcutta who said in 1915 that “as soon as the last British soldier sailed from Bombay and Karachi, India would become the battlefield of antagonistic racial and religious forces”.

The bishop’s prediction did come true in the months following independence when the subcontinent was partitioned. And in the decades that followed class, caste, religious and secessionist conflicts have constantly rocked India. But despite all this, the country has managed to hold together; its democratic institutions have survived – though BR Ambedkar’s caveat that “democracy is only a top-dressing on an Indian soil which is essentially undemocratic” continues to be true in many parts of the country. Still, the success and relative stability of the Indian Union is remarkable given the upheavals and authoritarian regimes that have plagued other countries in Asia and Africa similarly emerging from colonialism.

This contrast – the contrast between the bleakness of all predictions about India and the country’s unlikely dodging of the pitfalls strewn along its path – is something Ramachandra Guha repeatedly heightens throughout the book; it is this contrast that gives his narrative its strength and tension.

Unlike Amartya Sen, who, in The Argumentative Indian, attributes the success of Indian democracy to historical precedents such as those set by the emperors Asoka and Akbar, Guha looks for answers in the political story of the country after independence (“...the real success story of modern India lies ... in [the domain] of politics”). He reserves his greatest praise for India’s founding fathers: Jawaharlal Nehru, to whom this book is a paean, and who succeeded during his 17-year long tenure in imparting his secular and liberal values to the country’s institutions; Vallabhbhai Patel, whose pivotal role in the integration of princely states ensured that territorially India would be what it is today; and BR Ambedkar, who, in his drafting of the Constitution made sure that the social iniquities of the past would – officially at least – begin to be reversed. Indeed, one of Guha’s main points is that though political leadership in India has steadily deteriorated, the decline cannot derail what was begun in the years after independence:
“In India, the sapling was planted by the nation’s founders, who lived long enough (and worked hard enough) to nurture it to adulthood. Those who came afterwards could disturb and degrade the tree of democracy but, try as they might, could not uproot and destroy it.”

Guha states early in the book that his approach to writing the history of modern India –an unimaginably vast and unwieldy subject matter – is that of an explorer “making a rapid survey of the horizon before plunging into thickets from which the wider view is no longer possible.” And so, while the political story of India after independence forms the main narrative thread, we also learn of a number of important and often ignored people and stories. To list just a few, we learn how Sardar Tarlok Singh, an Indian Civil Service officer, guided the effort to settle and allot cultivable land to tens of thousands of refugees from West Punjab in Pakistan; the sheer scale of the logistical and administrative effort that Sukumar Sen, India’s first election commissioner, faced in holding elections; how the reorganization of states along linguistic lines came to be, and the role the activist Potti Sriramulu, who fasted for 58 days and died, played in it; how movements for greater autonomy and separatism unfolded, guided by Sheik Abdullah and Phizo, in Kashmir and Nagaland. As Aditya Adhikari writes in his review at Mecocosm, “encountering the host of characters in the [book’s] pages is one of the volume’s principal pleasures”.

The other success of the book is the perspective it is able to provide on some of the important developments in the Indian political scene in the last two decades. The rise of Hindu nationalist parties; the tendency towards decentralization evidenced in the growing strength of regional parties; the increasing importance of caste: all these trends, because of the scope and timeline considered, do not come across as isolated but as part of a larger story of ebbs and surges. By describing, for instance, the RSS and the views of its leader Golwalkar in the 1950s and the political role of the Jana Sangh in the 1960s and 70s, Guha is able to provide us a better understanding of the roots and aspirations of the Bhartiya Janata Party and the parties of the Sangh Parivar.

In telling his stories Guha liberally quotes and excerpts from reports, newspapers, essays of traveling journalists, and recently released archives and letters: his narrative is a deftly crafted collage. But there are also portions, particularly towards the end, where his prose turns into a monotonous recitation of events – Amit Chaudhuri, in his review of the book, calls the chapter devoted to entertainment the weakest one in the book, a “Wikipedia-like accounts of cultural achievements”. Also, Guha often only peripherally touches on many of the issues facing contemporary India, leaving the reader desperately wanting a deeper engagement. But these are minor quibbles; they should not detract from grand scale of Guha’s undertaking and the lucidity with which he has rendered it.

Finally, some links: for some informal analyses of Guha’s background, his writing interests, and influences check this and this and this. An archive of Guha’s articles on Outlook India can be found here; the most recent of them, an analysis of why southern India currently fares much better that the north, is here (login needed). An excellent recent article by Guha on the conflict in the tribal Bastar region of central India – hardly discussed in the mainstream media – can be found here.

Also, on The Middle Stage, Chandrahas has an informal 4-part series that marks the 60th anniversary of India's independence: 1, 2, 3 and 4.