~ Friday, February 22, 2002
You can tell a lot about a culture from its food. To understand the dour, masochistic nature of Reformist Christianity you can either read 'The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism' or, if lacking the time, simply sit down to an English meal. With it's paltry appetizers, dry meat/soggy veg and tasty desserts, English cuisine expounds the Christian view of life: we don't believe in anything beforehand, the main course is a vale of tears but afters are quite nice if you make it that far. Hinduism has slightly different approach to food. Whilst staying with one Indian host in Lucknow, he invited me to witness his sharadda - a ceremony to commemorate the death of his father. Under the direction of a Brahmin priest he prepared a full meal for everyone present and anointed a statue. It was like Ready Steady Cook but with more emotional depth and less evidence of inbreeding. Afterwards, I told him how privileged I felt to have witnessed this event. Pausing over a puri, he looked me in the eye and said: "You are indeed fortunate. I don't normally do lunch but this one's on Dad."
After leaving Lucknow, I went to visit a development project further east in Uttar Pradesh. Here I was placed under the watchful gaze of Babuji. With 35 years experience in social work and rural activism, he wasn't a man to take any shit. "We had an Englishman here a few years ago", he mentioned, adding, "he was just like you". It soon became apparent Babuji saw in me in the same light as the seven puppies that lived next to the project building: our needs would be met but when out of order we would gently but firmly be brought back into line.
The project as huge, covering a quarter of a million villagers. After a couple of days, it was decided that a few of us were to make a journey to a remote district and meet with some other NGO leaders there. The day began at 6am. I was brought rice halva (a dish like semolina), then garja halva (made with carrots), and finally another halva like flapjacks. Then we headed off in the jeep. Three hours later, we arrived at our destination., where we had a breakfast of samosa, sweets and chai. Chai loosely translates as tea. The recipe is:
1. Place water, tea leaves, a lot of milk and as much sugar as you can find in a saucepan.
2. Boil vigorously.
3. Strain, serve and consume.
4. Wait for your teeth to dissolve.
Soon I found myself sitting cross-legged in the middle of an energetic discussion conducted solely in Hindi. Occasionally a phrase such as "internet resource" or "training facilitation" loomed out of the linguistic murk and everybody would look at me. I would nod slowly, which is the internationally understood gesture for "I have no idea what you are talking about but it sounds really cool".
After three, muscle cramping, chai- and sweet-fueled hours, agreement was reached. We broke for lunch. A standard Indian meal consists of chapati, chaval (rice), sabje (curried vegetables) and daal (a pulse-based foodstuff with a consistency that can vary from the impenetrable to the watery). The roti is used to scoop up the sabje in a trowel-like movement, while the daal is mixed with the rice to form a glutinous concoction that can be eaten with the fingers. Food is served on metal plates or trays and knives and forks are a rare (though you may get a spoon if you ask nicely). Food is eaten with the right hand as the left is reserved for toilet functions. However food is served to others or taken from a common plate with the left hand, to prevent adulteration with saliva. So essentially, you don't eat your own shit but you generously offer it to others. I often get the feeling this system was designed for beings with more arms. Which may be why Hindu gods have four.
With lunch over, he headed home. It was a lovely sunny day but about an hour from our destination I began to feel rather peculiar. I really, really, really had to go to the toilet. Intuition told me that this would involve a certain amount of 'collateral damage' and so I was reluctant to go by the side of the road. Instead I elected to grit my teeth, tighten my spincter and wait. This went well until we reached the penultimate town. It was election time and the electioneers were out in force, jamming the streets with tempos and jeeps. Our outward progress slowed to a crawl while my internal situation was definitely hotting up. I wished with all my heart that the Greeks had confined themselves to mathematics and buggery and kept out of the democratic arena entirely. Finally, just as I thought all was lost and I would have to pay for some serious reupholstery work, we cleared the town and arrived home. I ran to the toilet as fast as I could.
An Indian squat toilet is essentially a porcelain hole in the ground with two footpads on either side. A tap (or bucket of water), along with a jug, should also be present. Having dropped your linen and done the deed, you then clean yourself up with the water and your left hand. There are some key points of etiquette:
1. Wash away the evidence.
2. Don't lave the bucket empty.
3. Do not use toilet paper as this causes blockages.
4. Wash your hands afterwards.
Above all, using a squat toilet is like climbing a mountain: lose your footing and you are in serious trouble [I can honestly say that since using the squat toilet I am now much more in touch with my own arse].
Anyway, back to my predicament. Just as I got into position there was a sound like thunder. Dubya had extended Operation Infinite Justice to my bowels. I looked down (as in mountain climbing this is not advised) and didn't like what I saw. I hobbled away and informed Babuji all was not well. Babuji nodded as he did everything, very slowly and deliberately. He didn't have to rush for anyone or anything. It must be quite cool to be old - apart from the arthritis and prospect of imminent death, that is. However, there must have been some breakdown in communication because shortly afterwards a plate piled with food arrived in my room. As I picked at listlessly, one of the project workers, Mr Sisil, entered and began to comfort me.
"And that green lizard-"
"The one above the light bulb?"
"Yes. Very poisonous."
"Not as poisonous as a snake. Are there snakes in England?"
"Er, a few."
"Many snakes in India. Many people around here get bitten."
"Yes. If they come to the dispensary, we say: 'Do not worry, it is not poisonous-'"
"That's OK then."
"No, you do not understand. Most snakes are poisonous but if the patient panics, it increases the spread of the poison through their blood."
"Ummm, I see."
"Yes, India is full of dangers. During the monsoon, insects get everywhere: in the food, in the bedding, in your clothes. They spread many serious diseases. Now, you must sleep. Total rest."
"Er, yes, thank you. Good night."
The next morning, I was awoken not by the sun, or even by a snake. No, it was a dawn chorus from down below. It little later I was greeted by Barabu, a lively lad from Orissa. Unfortunately he displayed an obsession with food that I my condition I found wholly offensive:
"Have you taken breakfast? Curd and coconut? That is not breakfast! Have chaval and sabje. India has many delicious foods. See the mustard plants in that field? Very tasty! You like the mustard plant? Then eat the mustard plant! Khana means 'food'. Khana means 'eat'. Khana khana! Go and have a proper breakfast.
Fortunately I knew there would be only one visit today. For today was the festival of Sarawati, goddess of Knowledge. I have racked my brains to think of an English equivalent but Carol Vorderman does not fit the bill. Barabu, Babuji and myself climbed aboard the jeep and headed to a nearby community centre. We were greeted by Munna, a project worker with the clan cut looks of Bollywood movie star. We listened to the children singing songs, offered tokens to a shrine of the goddess, and were pressed with sweets. Munna then led us away and said, "We will visit several villages. In each you will see cultural programmes put on by the children."
The Barabu piped up with some words that froze my blood, "And in each we will get food. Much food!"
"Excellent", I said. "Er, can I use your toilet?"
So off we went. At the third village, there was a makeshift marquee and tent. We were given water and a sweet extracted from sugar cane juice. It was a hot day and these were gratefully received. After a moment, Munna came up to me with a serious look on his face.
"Have you drunk the water?"
"Yes, a little."
"Be careful. The drainage is poor here and the wells are not deep enough. It is contaminated." Oh dear. Then his face brightened.
"Nevermind. Would you like to take part in the festivities?"
"A pleasure!" I said. "Can you direct me to your nearest..."
After a brief pause, Babuji, Barabu and myself ascended the stage and were garlanded with red and orange flowers. Idly I wondered if I should have some cards printed up:
When reseated, Munna explained the remainder of the programme: "The children will perform short plays to illustrate the importance of preventative health, land rights and education."
I don't know about you but I've always had a block when it comes to community theatre. However, the colourful scenery, cute kinds, enchanting music, plus the fact I couldn't understand a word, made the whole experience quite enjoyable. During a playlet decrying corruption in the education system, I asked Munna about the black stains around the children's eyes, blithely assuming it was some kind of make-up.
"It is cotton burnt with oil", he explained. "It prevents infections that cause blindness."
The playlets, a feast of sweets were given to the children, and we just getting up to leave when two men approached Munna. After a quick conversation, he came to us and said, "The villagers insist that we share a meal with them. It would be most rude to refuse."
"Fine!" I said. "But first I have a quick request..."
After the meal of curd and sabje, Munna took me on a tour of the area by motorcycle. He explained that 40% of the villagers' income went on treatments for diarrhea and other preventable diseases. That put my difficulties in perspective. A priority of the project was to improve hygiene and sanitation - making common water sources safe to drink from. On the way to Munna's house, we stopped at the home of a retied college principal. We discussed travel and yoga over peas and potatoes.
"Many thanks!" I said. "Now if I might ask one last question..."
We proceeded to Munna's house where I as reunited with Babuji and Barabu. Munna's wife brought us biscuits and snacks.
"Lovely!" I said. "Excuse me..."
On my return, Munna enquired if i was feeling unwell. When I confessed I was experiencing a few problems, Barabu leant forward with serious expression.
"My advice is: do not take dinner." I nodded at this sage wisdom and Barabu's face erupted into a broad grin.
"I am joking. Do take dinner! You must take dinner!"
Back at the project centre, further concern was expressed about my health. Some homeopathic medicine was recommended and a bottle brought. Homeopathic therapies are popular in India - and not just because of their cost. It may have something to do the Indian approach to knowledge. There is no one single path to the truth, instead there are a range of options to choose from - so you just go for the most appropriate one. Now, From what I knew, homeopathy was a gentler approach than conventional medicine and its remedies are highly diluted. Which did explain why the few drops of the medicine I was given kicked like a mule with its ears in a vice. Gasping for breath, I asked to see the label.
This was not a good start. Anything with a name that close to 'vomit' cannot be healthy. The reason for the forest fire on my tongue became clear when I read the next line:
You could make a fortune selling this to bars in Soho.
Come morning time, I was awoken with another oversized breakfast. I went to Babuji and explained it was impossible. He took the food, placed it on the floor and gently tapped the wall with his stick. Twenty-eight little legs came scampering though the gate. Seven little tongues slobbered over the rice and daal until the concrete was clean. That's the other thing about food in India. If you won't have it, there are plenty of mouths that will.