Saturday, May 03, 2008

Ramesh's turnaround

Fiction, after a long time. Hope you enjoy this. All comments welcome.


Ramesh worked and lived in a small Midwestern town. Life was generally dull, but not when it came to buying groceries. For spices, Ramesh went to the only Indian store in town, but for vegetables, fruits, nuts, cereals and lentils – yes even lentils, that indispensable Indian staple – he went to an “alternative” store called Good Organics. Ramesh felt pleased and excited about his choice. He made sure all his co-workers and friends knew he shopped there. At parties he brought expensive potato chips and made it a point to mention, much to everyone’s surprise and sometimes irritation, that they were organic and kettle cooked.

Ramesh’s enthusiasm for all things organic came from his uncle who owned a farm near Coimbatore in south India, and who had shifted from conventional to organic farming a few years ago. With an ardor that is to be found among converts, his uncle now campaigned fiercely for organic farming; he traveled to talk and evangelize in seminars and workshops in India. Ramesh had been impressed and had resolved to do his bit, halfway across the world, in the wind-swept American prairie town he lived in.

That was all very well, but Ramesh hadn’t accounted for the quirks in his own personality. Though good-natured, he was notoriously short tempered; he flew into a rage for the most trivial reasons, and stuck stubbornly to his own point of view. But even his closest friends – who well knew Ramesh’s eccentricities – could not have predicted his temper would turn against his beloved grocery store.

How did it begin? Probably with the organic and supposedly locally produced tomatoes that Ramesh, a few months after shopping at Good Organics, found to be almost tasteless. Maybe the mold-infested packets of organic blueberries, expensively priced, ticked him off too. As did the heavy emphasis on “fair trade” dark chocolate, which Ramesh, a lover of sweet milk chocolate, abhorred, but which all employees in the store waxed eloquently about. So the euphoria and prestige of buying organic and healthy was slowly beginning to wear, but there was one incident that pushed him decisively over the edge.

That incident, of all things, had to do with a small clarification that Ramesh sought regarding cooking oil.

Ramesh had recently begun using organic olive oil for his cooking – extra virgin olive oil, actually. He had been using canola before, but olive oil was extolled by just about everyone. Ramesh, who primarily cooked curries, had never used it for his high heat cooking and stir-frying before. Olive oil, he had felt, was only for salads and pasta. But on the Food Network channel, he once saw a ham and cheese sandwich being fried in a vat bubbling with extra virgin olive oil at a restaurant in Venice. Ramesh was indignant: If Italians could deep fry in extra virgin olive oil, then why couldn’t he stir-fry his vegetables, lentils and spices with the same?

He began using organic extra virgin olive oil profusely, anxious to compensate for the health benefits he had missed. A bottle would disappear within a week into his dals and sabzis. And as with everything else, he loudly announced this alteration in his cooking habits to his colleagues at work. He mentioned it so much that his friends had to remind politely that they already knew about it.

One day, while at Good Organics, Ramesh realized that all the bottles of organic olive oil were extra virgin. He asked Melanie, one of the store employees, “Just wondering – do you carry olive oil that is not extra virgin? You see - I do high heat cooking with the extra virgin variety, and was wondering if just olive oil may have better properties.”

It was an innocuous question; Ramesh was only idly curious and wasn't expecting to get an answer. It led instead to an unraveling he could never have anticipated.

Melanie was a short, young woman with an expressive face. She left her blond hair stylishly tousled and bunched at the top and used a long pin to keep it together. She always beamed at him when he entered the store, and was effusive in her mannerisms.

“Wow, you’re from India!” She had exclaimed when she met him the first time. “Do you cook vegetarian? You should share some recipes with our vegan deli – maybe we’ll introduce a curry sandwich into the menu!”

Ramesh had found her booming voice and pronounced friendliness endearing in the beginning, but lately they had begun to grate.

“Olive oil for high heat cooking!” She now cried in response to his query, her face showing alarm. “You use that for high heat cooking? Oh, no, no, no, you shouldn’t do that…Olive oil should not be heated at all!”

“Really? I mean, a little bit of heat…”

“No, oh no, you shouldn’t!”

“But you know, I saw a sandwich being fried in extra virgin olive oil in Venice…”

“Yes, chefs do it all the time, but they shouldn’t be really. Researchers have recently found that that isn’t good – it’s actually toxic for you!”

Toxic!” Ramesh said, taken aback, getting genuinely concerned. “Toxic, really? But I’ve never deep fried, I just stir fry …I heard…”

“No, no you shouldn’t be heating it at all…Coconut oil is better for high heating.”

“Coconut oil?” said Ramesh, now confused. He had thought coconut oil was used only for hair - and how he hated it! He’d been forced as a kid to use it liberally to set his unruly hair before leaving for school, and over the course of the day it seemed to diffuse slowly onto his face, giving him a greasy look.

“Yes, coconut oil, research has shown is good for high heat and frying!”

Ramesh stood there uncertainly.

“I know it’s a bummer!” Melanie said, sighing. “But that’s what research says!” She pursed her lips and shrugged.

Ramesh walked around the aisles in a daze. He lingered in front of the bottles of organic extra virgin olive oil, recalling the amazing rapidity and gusto with which he had consumed them in past months. He felt slightly dizzy, half expecting to fall ill that very moment from toxicity. He clicked his tongue, admonishing himself and finally picked up a bottle of organic canola oil. There was no way he would have used bought coconut oil, even if it had been available.

He returned home, a frown on his face, determined to get to the bottom of the matter. He searched the Internet about the ill effects of heating olive oil. And he found that virtually all the websites stated that olive oil could be heated, no problems – it might lose its flavor but its nutrition, not much. As he dug deeper and deeper, it became even clearer that there was nothing wrong with heating at all. It certainly wasn’t toxic, as Melanie had so convincingly claimed.

For nearly ten minutes he paced around his place, Melanie’s statements playing repeatedly in his mind; the more he thought about about what she had said, the more incensed he became. Her voice and her demeanor annoyed him to no end. When he returned to the store, Ramesh was bursting with anger. The bells at the door tinkled urgently as he stormed in. One of the cashiers, a man with a Mohawk hairstyle, looked at him in surprise.

“Where’s Melanie?” Ramesh asked him.

“Melanie? Um… well, I think she’s in the bulk room. But why?”

Ramesh didn’t respond, and headed there, his face flaming with rage. He saw Melanie checking on the open containers of flours and cereals in the bulk room.

“Back for another round?” she asked laughing when she saw him, but quickly realized something was wrong. “Are you okay?”

Who told you heating olive oil was toxic?” He was breathless with aggression now, and wasn’t very coherent.

“Hey now…cool down,” Melanie said. “I read it somewhere. Some researchers…”

“Which researchers? Name them now!”

“I don’t know… I read it in some magazine…”

“Which magazine? Name it now!”

“I don’t have to name anything to you, okay?” she retorted, her eyes flashing and voice rising. “I am not here to answer your questions…”

“Well, then are you here to give false information, huh?” Ramesh asked almost hysterically. “To scare people to death?”

He took out his wallet; his trembling fingers searched for his membership card, which gave him a ten percent discount. He finally squeezed it out with difficulty, muttering incoherently all the time. With an exaggerated gesture, he threw it to the ground, and ground it with his foot.

“You see that’s what it deserves! With liars like you…” He picked the card up again, and again threw it violently to the ground.

Ramesh was so engrossed in this that he hardly noticed anything else. He had lost his temper, but he hadn’t expected Melanie to lose hers. But she too was just as prone to unleashing her temper in unexpected ways. In one swift motion she hurled a fistful of wheat flour at him from the container behind her. And then another, and another! With her other hand, she grabbed raisins – a large jar of raisins was close at hand – and barraged them at him.

In just a few seconds, Ramesh, who’d had to time to gauge what had hit him, was covered in white. The raisins were of the sticky kind and some had stuck to his flour-laden cheeks. They slowly fell off but a couple remained.

Get out!” She screamed

Ramesh came to his senses. He was startled but still angry. If he had waited a few seconds, Melanie might have sloshed him with honey next – in fact, she was reaching for a jar. But he stomped his foot, kicked the card – now half hidden in a small mound of flour pocked with raisins – one final time and left. The cashier with the Mohawk hairstyle stared at him, seriously for a while, and then burst out laughing.

“Holy freaking Christ - it’s like Halloween here!”

But Ramesh didn’t hear him; he had already left.


And that was the end of that. Ramesh never set foot in Good Organics again, but store employees often found him on weekends picketing outside, with a placard that said: “Moldy blueberries and scabbed potatoes – Good Organics sells and deserves only rotten tomatoes!” He cut a lonely figure, but claimed to customers he was following the Gandhian form of “non-violent, grassroots protest”. A couple of times he exchanged frosty glances with Melanie and store employees. Melanie had actually apologized to him once and even asked him out to coffee, but he would have none of it.

When winter set in and snowstorms put an end to his protest, Ramesh resorted to a different strategy. He shot off formal letters to various supermarket chains, including Walmart, encouraging them to “takeover Good Organics”, and thus help in ending “the tyranny of local stores”. He claimed that these stores were perceived in the community to be “exemplars of local democracy, but were shams really, purveyors of all sorts of falsehoods.”

And yes, to make his point, he had begun to shop at a supermarket chain, where he now bought all his groceries, including his olive oil.


Pallavi said...

so i am assuming now that heating olive oil doesnt harm since i do it too at times..:)..
btw, are you ramesh from the story?

Hari said...

Can olive be heated? Actually, Pallavi, that’s a big question and the jury is still out on it. I’ve heard contrasting opinions. But I think we can go safely by what the people of the Mediterranean have been doing for a few thousand years; if they use olive oil for high heat cooking then we can too!

Am I Ramesh? Well no – I guess people don’t generally know me as a short-tempered person, though that’s probably my own subjective assessment. Some of the things do match up, though: I live in a small Midwestern town too. I go to a store called Good Foods; I cook with extra virgin olive oil. And some part of the conversation regarding high heat cooking did happen. But most crucially – believe me – I did not lose my temper; I did not get covered in flour!

Anonymous said...

Nice little short; not your best in my humble opinion, but quite entertaining.

Unfortunately, we are surrounded by such "liars". I have lost count as to how many times some idiot has made things difficult in a meeting by mentioning some obscure fact that probably came out of thin air. The onus to disprove lies upon you, especially if this idiot outranks you. So is life.

Hari said...


Yes, it does seem that we make statements with a lot of confidence, and don’t seem to give much allowance for skepticism. Like you, I notice it too, all the time.

Thanks for your comments. Do keep visiting. I’ve never really been comfortable with fiction, and this is one after a long time. Fiction seems so much harder –
– for me at least – and it’s precisely because there’s so much more one can do with the form!

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