Sunday, April 25, 2010
When my plane lands at Sahar Airport, I cannot help but know I am in Bombay. First the humidity hits me like a slap from a flabby hand. Immediately my jeans start to pull downward at the hips and thighs, simultaneously sticking to me like recalcitrant cling-wrap. I always feel crumpled here. Stench follows humidity, hanging boldly in the air after the dry, air-conditioned, sterile atmosphere of the aircraft.
“Yeh hai India (this is India)!” as Indians here are fond of saying proudly, as if flipping you off and saying, “Take it or leave it!”
Walking toward immigrations, I wonder why I don’t feel as elated as I usually do when I have reached home (as I still think of it) and almost immediately I have the answer. A week before I left home, I was delighted to bump into my friend Petra (whom I had not seen in years) at Gorbals in downtown LA. She mentioned that she had just finished reading a book of 14 stories titled Breathless in Bombay by Murzban F. Shroff. “I couldn’t put it down. It was just wonderful Do you want to take it on your trip?” she asked, fishing it out of her bag.
Being apropos to my destination, I added it to the inevitably increasing stack of books I meant to carry along (the others included The Stone Diaries, Kabul Beauty Club and Jill Richardson’s Recipe for America). But I was not inclined to dip into Breathless till I was finally on the last leg of my journey, the flight from Singapore to Bombay. I had gotten up at 4:30 am to get to Changi airport for a 7:30 flight but having had two rare, full nights of sleep, I wasn’t drowsy. So I started reading.
I appreciate Shroff’s motivation to tell the stories of the marginalized, the down trodden, of the seamier side of Bombay’s vast, underprivileged majority. Breathless in Bombay includes a story about a washerman (dhobhi) who finds his livelihood threatened by the advent of the washing machine; a tale of a cab driver who is taken for a ride by his passenger; and the story of a middle class spinster, pregnant and on the verge of suicide, whose chance meeting with a coconut water seller makes her change her mind, stay alive and have her child. Shroff’s writing did not impress me much as much as his compassion did. Nevertheless I found he dragged me into the depths of the city I have known so well. I arrived in Bombay nauseous and hopeless for the future of my country.
Emerging into the heat of the day, staring at the slums outside the airport as I am driven to the southern part of the island city, experiencing the maelstrom of traffic around me, I wonder for the hundredth time if I am more critical of India than tourists are just because I am Indian? I am just as fascinated as foreigners are by India’s age, beauty, complexity and spirituality. But having lived here and seen how, even in my lifetime, a grand, exquisite land full of natural and man-made wonders has become an over crowded, greedy, corrupt, decrepit, dare I say lawless, place, I can never return without a sense of regret and bitter-sweet nostalgia. Perhaps those who continue to live in India do not share these feelings. For them India progresses.
Bombay’s skyline is constantly changing, construction work goes on everywhere: new fly overs are making commuting easier even as their construction destroys the quality of life of those whose homes are now deprived of views, air, light and access to make way for them; new high-rise gated communities are going up faster than the speed of light with blatant disregard to the need to simultaneously upgrade services like roads, water and electric supply to serve those same communities; roads are dug up all over the city, repair work being done haphazardly and often repeatedly because someone in the municipal corporation has been bribed and a contractor or builder somewhere is making his millions at the expense of the rest of Bombay’s citizens.
Since I was here four months ago, there are at least a dozen flashy new high rises just in the neighborhood where my mother-in-law lives. People are spending millions for these homes. I often joke that if my mother-in-law sold her apartment, she could buy a penthouse overlooking Manhattan’s Central Park.
In her home we will sleep tonight in air conditioned comfort. This is the hottest summer on record in India. At the foot of the building, within the property walls, servants and chauffeurs sleep on pallets out in the open, in the muggy, noisy night, alongside stray dogs, parked cars, cockroaches and rats.
These same servants and chauffeurs have cell phones. Everyone has a cell phone because the mobile phone revolution has made it possible for anyone, rich or poor, to easily and cheaply acquire this mode of communication and because land lines are notoriously difficult to get. The fishmonger has a cell phone, the vegetable vendor has a cell phone, Asha, the woman who singlehandedly runs my mother-in-law’s home, overseeing cooking, cleaning, laundry, entertaining, has a cell phone!
And yes, bullock carts still inhabit the street alongside trucks and scooters, and cars of all breeds, including the odd Rolls Royce that moves sluggishly through the perpetually jammed streets like an elephant wondering how it got here.
“Yeh hai India indeed.”
Tuesday, April 20, 2010
Monday, April 5, 2010
In case you were wondering, I got no Kaya Toast on this visit to Singapore. But I had such a great two days there that I only gave it one wistful thought and was rather triumphant instead that I got my dim sum and fish head curry (as well as lots of other delicious local dishes). But my favorite find of the trip was a tea I drank at a restaurant called Lao Bejing on Orchard Road. Made with water cress and sugar cane, it was similar in appearance to the hot barley water I like to drink at Korean restaurants in LA. The same transparent golden hue but with the distinctive sweet aroma of cane and the unique flavor of its juice. The watercress was incidental for me.
The only lions in Singapore or the Lion City were probably Malay tigers, at one time long ago! But the city-state is one of the wealthiest in the world, an economic lion of sorts. As I drive to its colonial district I can’t help but compare it to Bombay on India’s western coast, a city I studied, lived and worked in for nearly a decade. The two share a British colonial past and Singapore, to a lesser degree than Bombay, boasts some colonial architecture.
With an area of 710 square kms, the country of Singapore is only about 100 square kms larger than that other tropical island city. Despite these slight similarities and the fact that both cities are flush with money, they could not be more different in character or infrastructure. Singapore, though very urban, exults in its lush green tropical-ness while in Bombay virtually every vestige of the tropics has been wiped away by increasing urban growth. Singapore is well planned and governed. The last time any real effects of good planning were seen in Bombay was pre-Independence in 1947. Singapore has been rated the least corrupt country in Asia, Bombay may be one of its most corrupt.
Both cities boast diverse ethnic populations but while in recent years political parties in Bombay have been anything but welcoming to people of different ethnicities, Singapore has built its reputation on its inclusion of various ethnicities like the Malays, Indians, and Eurasians, apart from the majority Chinese. The extraordinary variety of ethnic cuisines available in Singapore and enjoyed as much by the local people as by tourists is testament to that fact.
And so back to Lao Beijing which bills itself as “Reminiscent of An Old Beijing Teahouse” serving northern and southern Chinese food. I had my first meal there, with Leena. The portions being large, we were conservative in our order, trying three of the house specialties. Beijing-style Fried Shredded Pork & Leeks with the Chef’s Special Sauce -- tasted like Hoisin -- was slightly sweet and familiarly Chinese. The square bean curd skins were new to me and since playing with food is such fun, I had a great time making my own little wraps. The condiments on the table included shredded, pickled ginger and a sweet chili sauce so we layered pork, leeks, and ginger into the tofu skins and ate them with dabs of the sweet paste.
Then I popped a Steamed Juicy Meat (pork) Bun into my mouth soon after it arrived at the table and Leena chose exactly that moment to ask me a question. Shifting the hot bun around in my mouth -- I had put it into my mouth whole because feeling the liquid in the dumpling, I did not want to risk biting into it and having juice squirt everywhere -- I contemplated my answer while she watched me squirm. Finally I chewed on the bun and the delicious hot liquid exploded in my mouth, mixing with the delicately spiced pork.
The Shrimp, Pork & Chive Guotie (potsticker to us!) was delicious too, with the earthy taste of an unidentifiable herb (other than the chives!), and I really enjoyed the Tsai Tsa or salted vegetables that were placed on our table along with our tea. Milder than kim chi but like it in nature, the crunchy sweet vegetable slices were lightly salted and pickled, tasting a little like bread and butter pickles made with chayote!
3:00 am and I am sitting under a swiftly spinning fan in the guest bedroom at Leena’s home. After landing at Changi Airport, I’ve traversed almost the entire width of the country-state of Singapore, going from the east to my friend Leena’s home in the western suburb of Bukit Timah. The moist air, the lush green of the tropical trees on either side of the highway, close in around me as I am driven along sedately in the cool cab. It finally hits me that family and home and familiar things are left far behind and the adventure has begun.
Really it had started the minute the plane took off from LAX. From sheer force of habit, I held my tummy, the way I told Keya to do when she was little. “Hold your tummy, we’re taking off” I would tell her and we’d both look out of the window, our excitement mounting as we tried to pinpoint the exact moment when the plane’s wheels lifted off the ground and we were up in the air.
I’ve always felt that the only place from where to truly see the earth and get some perspective, literal and figurative, is from the sky. To see our world from a distance is to begin to comprehend its enormity and scale and the connections that each part of its landscape and builtscape have to each other. I have always loved flying and this is one of the reasons why.
Every time I take off on a flight, I am presented with that part of the earth I am flying over, in perspective and in scale. Rivers in relation to channels, mountains to sky scrapers, warehouses to houses, pools to lakes. And then viewing it all together, the big picture, everything as it stands in relation to everything else, for me is cathartic. It brings back a sense of reality, reduces the magnitude of one’s problems in the face of sheer magnificence, be it the mighty python of the Mississippi, the deep red etched tiers of the Grand Canyon the deep green expanses of palm trees in the Phillippines that seen from above resemble endless fields of green flowers. On every flight the breath catches in my throat at the sheer visual delight of this immense terrestrial patchwork quilt of colors, textures and patterns.
As we fly west over Santa Monica, I look down and see silvery ripples of water born from waves, colliding with each other as they moved in subtly different directions on the Pacific Ocean. Beyond the sprawl of Los Angeles, majestic Mount Baldy is still covered in the winter’s extremely snowy frosting. I peer out of the window until we are north of the city, seeing first the green Santa Monica mountains and the houses in Malibu and Topanga, then the flat lands, wide expanse, of the San Fernando valley. When I recognize the Grape Vine snaking its way toward San Francisco, I turn back in.
Then, too tired to read or sleep, I decide to watch a movie. Long airplane journeys -- and mine average 10 hours or more since India is half way around the world from California -- are great for catching up with my movie viewing. This time around I watch Up in The Air. I smile to myself as the opening credits are a montage of just such views of the earth from the sky as I delight in devouring.
Sunday, April 4, 2010
Life is short. My father’s life was nearly summarily ended earlier this year by a ceiling fan. It fell on to his desk and smashed his laptop. He had stepped away from the desk seconds before. I was not ready for him to be gone. Not that I would ever be nor do we ever get enough time with our loved ones, but you know what I mean. I had a lot to still ask him, to hear from him. Family stories, stories about my home town, Poona, about my grandparents, about his childhood and the food he ate growing up. There is no one else I know who understands Maharashtra, the people, the language, the culture, as my father does.
This also perhaps explains my impatience to make this trip now, even if it means a month away from home and family, and being in India during the hideously hot summertime when you have to structure your day to be indoors during the hottest hours.
The upside is that it is mango season. I am looking forward to those soft skinned, sunset colored and perfumed Alphonso mangoes, which both Madhur Jaffrey and I (among 1/2 billion other Indians) agree are the most delicious mangoes in the world. I know too that I will meet some wonderful people on this adventure, hear some great family stories (my family’s and those of others) and cook in interesting places, like a 200 year old courtyard home. A book shop owner in my home town is also arranging a book signing for me, which will be exciting!
First a pause in Singapore, that confluence of Asian foods and culture. My friend Leena lives there. We have known each other since we were 20 and went to journalism school together in Bombay. I am looking forward to spending time with her and the family -- her 7 year old daughter and her 2 year old son whom I have not yet met. I am hoping too for a taste of the Singaporean specialty, chili crab and Kaya Toast (thin slices of toast topped with a spread made from eggs, sugar, coconut, flavored with the distinctive essence of pandanus or screwpine) which I ate the last time we visited Leena 5 years ago.
Last time we missed trying Singapore's dim sum so I am determined not to make that mistake again. And I also have a recommendation from another local friend to try fish head curry. I am not big on heads and eye balls but I’m game to try them at least once, not least because I am interested in how Indian culinary influences have impacted other local cuisines.
To that end, Leena has set up a meeting for me with a Eurasian chef who combines European, East Asian and Indian flavors in his cooking. I am fascinated with how food impacts history and how history and migration have evolved the way we eat around the globe. Let’s see what Chef Quentin has to share.