Thursday, October 27, 2011

Expiration dates

A few days ago, I got up at about 2 A.M. I was hungry. Often, on such occasions, I make myself a late-night snack. So, I decided to make myself a cheese sandwich, which is pretty straightforward to make, if you have bread, and sliced cheese. And due to a habit, that I have developed after many years outside of "Desi-land", I checked the expiration date on the bread. At 2 A.M., a few hours from dawn, it dawned on me, that the bread was going to expire. Later that day. And then, I checked the cheese. I couldn't find an expiration date on the pack, and so, I said to myself what I always say on such occasions, "What the hell! No one has ever died from eating cheese."

The sandwich was delicious. And, I did wake up the next day. Alive.

I never knew that food could expire. In fact, growing up in small town India, I was lucky to have never been exposed to the very idea. That food, could expire. I usually saw the milk we drank, coming out from the cow's udders. And once, when our milkman had let me become his apprentice for a few minutes, I did try milking a cow. It goes without saying that it is not that easy, and once you get something for the effort, you don't let it expire. That easily, that is. Our eggs would be fresh too, the guy who used to raise chickens in our small town, used to bring them right over. In a strange contraption that used to look like a soccer ball, made out of wire mesh. I am one of those fortunate Desis, who has held a warm egg straight from the hen's behind. One does feel a slight pang of remorse, when the hen complains with a loud cluck, but then, fresh eggs will always help wipe the guilt off somewhat. If cooked the right way, that is. 

And bread? I held my first loaf in hand, when I was about thirteen. That is when, a bakery had started in our remote town, and the pao-roti, which we initially thought was roti made by kneading the dough with legs,  was simply not worth bothering with. The guy did not really know his way around with yeast, and very soon,  if I remember correctly, he started making Jalebis for a living. We all thought that it was a wise decision.

I first got exposed to the concept of expiring food, when, as a new graduate student in the land of the free, I decided to stock up on graduate student staples -- bread, eggs, cheese, frozen pizza, and the greatest of all Japanese inventions ever -- instant noodles.  A fellow student kindly explained to me, that I should check the expiration dates. And that is when I came to know that bread can expire. And like all good things have to come to an end, the milk and the eggs too, have to go.

I had always wondered what people would have done before refrigeration came along. Perhaps, modern civilization was built on the back of Freon, and a compressor, that keeps compressing -- day in, and day out. But then, I got introduced to French food. The bread, the wine and the cheese. And as I found out, those things only expire when you decide to let them go. I once heard about a type of cheese, that is aged with maggots around it, which add their own unique "flavor" to it.

So, I figured -- if you don't believe in the concept of food expiration, you either live in Desi-land, or, you become French. During my midnight snack, I did think of the infamous "maggot cheese". It provided somewhat of a solace, that the cheese I was wolfing down, had perhaps survived, and would let me survive too.

The next day, when I got back home from work, I found my wife looking at the pack of bread and shaking her head disapprovingly. She asked, "The bread is expiring today, and the eggs are expiring tomorrow. What do you think I should ask the cook to do with them?"

I thought for a minute. And then, I said with a smile on my face, " Ask her to make French toast. It never expires."

Friday, October 21, 2011

No Comprendo!

Many years ago, someone told me the story of a visitor to a small town in Spain. The visitor didn't speak much Spanish, but it hadn't really affected his ability to explore the wonderful country. As he was taking a walk though a well-to-do neighborhood of the town, he saw a beautiful mansion, with a garden full of colorful flowers in front. As he stood admiring the mansion, someone walked by. In his extremely poor Spanish, he asked the passerby, who the mansion belonged to. The man shrugged, and said in Spanish, "No Comprendo", which means, I do not understand. The visitor assumed that Mr. Nocomprendo must be a very wealthy man. As he walked though the streets of the town, he came across several large factories and other places of business, and each time he inquired about the ownership of  those establishments, his regard for the material wealth of Mr. Nocomprendo increased. Eventually, he walked by a beautifully decorated hearse, being pulled by a magnificent pair of black horses, and bedecked with flowers of all kinds. And of course, he had to ask one of the mourners following the hearse, who had passed.

The answer, gave the visitor, a very important life lesson -- you can own the world, but one day, you too, have to go. And, you don't get to take anything with you, when you go.

Recently, I had an interesting thought. If God did allow us to take just one thing with us to the other world, with the condition, that it could not be a living being, what material object would we carry with us. This object, could be anything from the life that was lived, from the cradle to the grave. And then, I thought about a variety of things from my own life, that were once very dear to me, but with time, had lost their sheen. Perhaps, it could be the toy that I got by following my father in the market, pleading with him, that it would be the last thing that I would ever pester him about. Perhaps, it could be the hard-bound 1921 edition of Tolstoy's 'War and Peace', that I discovered in an old book shop. Or perhaps, it would be my laptop computer, with all my tax records for the last decade in its hard drive. But then, who pays taxes in hell anyway? It was rather strange, that I could not identify one material object, that is so dear to me, that taking it with me to the other world, would give me happiness there.

A couple of days ago, I saw yet another dictator, half dead, and being dragged through the streets of yet another repressed state, going though its own revolutionary "spring".  I remember seeing the executed remains of the Romanian dictator, Ceausescu, on television during the lifting of the iron curtain. More recently, we all saw the not-so-private execution of Saddam Hussein, captured on a mobile phone. And then, seeing the videos of yet another dictator getting a taste of his own medicine, made me wonder. What if? What if God had given him a chance to take one thing with him? What would he have chosen?

Since I seem to acquire most of my "wisdom" from sadhus, I remember one particular statement, once made by a mendicant, that is probably very relevant to all this. He had said, "When we have everything -- all the riches, and all the power over the people around us -- we think, that we have become God.  And, there is no need for God any more. Little do we realize, that when we deliberately give everything up, that is when we come closest to God. Then, we are one with God, and that is how, we become God."

All this, brought back thoughts of my first emperor, Chandragupta Maurya, about whom, I have written in the past. At the peak of his powers, when he was the emperor of an India that was much bigger in size than it is today, he abdicated, and even shed the clothes on his body. To become a monk, and deliberately give everything up. To be one with God.

I wonder, if we had the chance to ask the first emperor, if he understood why the powerful people in our world have such a strong desire to cling on to power till their final moments, what he would say.  If the emperor spoke modern-day Spanish, I am pretty sure that he would say, "No Comprendo!"

Monday, October 10, 2011

Hook, Line and Sinker

A friend, who used to fish at dawn, had once given me a vivid description of what happens at daybreak for anglers. Sitting at the edge of the water, the first thing you see, is the early morning fog. Clearing away from your feet, that you can barely see. And then, you might just be able to make out the line. The hook stays buried in the mist. And just like you cannot spot the fish near the hook, the fish cannot spot the line, and you. It is an amazing game of patience, that makes poker look like child's play. And, as the dawn breaks, you sit there hoping, that the fish bites. Because if it does, the rest of your day --  is made.

I was recently in Kerala. In the paradise of coconut palms, next to the emerald backwaters. And strangely, as I was falling for the charms of the beautiful state, I fell for something that I never thought I would. The hotel we were staying at, offered "complimentary" fishing, and I took the bait. In the past, whenever I have "fished", I have gone fishing with someone, who knew way more about it than I did. And usually, all of these people were armed with equipment, that was probably taken from captain Ahab's storeroom, except that we would merely fish for trout.  But this time, it was different. The hotel guy handed me a long bamboo pole, that had a nylon cord attached at the sagging end, with a measly looking hook tied to it. And then, he handed me a coffee cup, full of little pieces of cut up chicken, to be used as bait. Finally, he walked me to the edge of the boat jetty, told me that the water was deep enough to drown me, wished me luck -- and, walked away.

And, there I was. With my limited knowledge of fishing, and the most primitive equipment one can rig up, trying to fish.  The failure to fish -- could be blamed on many many things. But we all need to take refuge in  the higher moral ground, above petty excuses, don't we? So, it did help that I remembered a couple of things that I believe in. I strongly believe that if you go hunting or fishing, you should not do it for sport. And, that you must eat what you hunt or catch, since you would be gravely insulting mother nature, if you didn't. I also remembered, that I really don't enjoy eating fish that much, but the doctor has told me time and again, that if I am not a vegetarian, I should eat fish more than any other kind of meat. So, as I saw the chicken pieces stuck to the hook, slowly sinking to the muddy bottom, I hoped for the best. That -- I wouldn't catch, what I couldn't  eat.  

Fishing, without the intent to catch a fish, is the best way to while away your time. Newspapers, or television, don't even come a distant nine hundred and ninety ninth. It does help that you get to breathe the clean air and listen to the sounds of nature. And, when you wake up from your daydream,  you find that tens of pesky little fish, small enough to escape the hook, have nibbled away at your bait from the side. And then, it is time to reload the hook -- and wait.

While my hook was in the water, I kept looking at the tall coconut palms, with gigantic bunches of young green coconut on them. And, I kept hoping that someone would crack one open for me. And then, get some sweet rum, and pour it inside the coconut. Well, I needed just one more thing -- hand me a nice long straw, and then, disappear quietly. Please. Since you wouldn't want to scare the fish away, and I was there for the fishing, wasn't I?

Ernest Hemingway, one of my favorite writers of all times, was a big fan of fishing. And once, he had famously remarked, "Somebody just back of you while you are fishing is as bad as someone looking over your shoulder while you write a letter to your girl." While I was fishing, a whole bunch of people waved and smiled at me -- hotel visitors, helpful staff and wannabe anglers. And when I tried to pick a distant spot and hide from all the unwanted attention, a security guard stopped by. To make sure that I was secure enough, and a large fish hadn't yet pulled me into the water. Since the water, as someone had told me before, was quite deep. Deep enough, to drown me. 

I spent a few hours fishing. For fish, that I didn't catch. But, I had a really good time. It would have been better with some coconut and rum, but even without it, I had fun. And then, like an expert angler, I wound the nylon cord around the bamboo pole, making diagonal stripes from the top to the bottom. With an extra twist for the hook at the base. It was time to go. 

As I was walking back to my room, I was wondering which one of the old fishing maxims I could use on my wife. Not that she was going to make fun of me for returning empty-handed. But, it always helps if you can take out some pearls of wisdom from the oysters you didn't net. And shower them, to make up for the lack of fish.

I walked by a hotel employee, who asked me with a lot of enthusiasm, if I had any luck. I had no fish in my hand, and a dejected bamboo pole with its head hung in shame. It wasn't really necessary to tell him that I hadn't. He smiled, and in his passable English, gave me the fishing quote that I was looking for -- No fish today, no problem! Catch fish tomorrow, no problem!

That afternoon, I didn't hook a perch, a catfish or a red snapper, when I could have. But, I did manage to hook some great fishing wisdom. That fishing, is all about hope, optimism and the desire to come back, the very next day.

For tomorrow, a fish might bite -- and if you get lucky -- it might bite real big. As in hook, line and sinker.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Bapu's Birthday

Many years ago, an old Sikh gentleman had taken me under his wings. To educate me about Sikhism, which I consider as one of the most mature spiritual philosophies in the world. Because of its religious beliefs, this gentleman's family had to flee from Pakistan, and seek refuge in India, after the partition of the country. They lost everything in the process of moving from Pakistan. But their faith, gave them the strength, to rebuild their lives from scratch. He would rarely speak of the partition, but, when he did, he would say one thing. Again and Again.

"It was all Gandhi's fault, you know. If he wanted to stop the country from being partitioned, he could have!"

The independent India that I grew up in, was orphaned in its first year. The father of the nation, fell to an assassin's bullet, and his philosophy -- to many things. Way too many to write about, in a few lines here. My generation was smitten with socialism. And violent revolutions, if the end justified the means. Gandhi was outdated, and irrelevant. Our textbooks would talk about Gandhi, and our teachers would punctuate the sentences with the names of Bose, Stalin and Castro.  It was fashionable to beat up on Bapu, since Bapu would not care. And, in case he did, he was already dead.

In the last few decades, there have been countless occasions, on which, me and my friends, over a drink or a smoke, have blamed the Mahatma. For everything under the sun. From the partition of the country, to a "weak" national backbone -- that made us into a bunch of  "wussies".

A couple of days ago, I got together with a bunch of my old friends, for a nice and quiet lunch. We were looking forward to catching up on the things that had happened in our lives, since we last met. Over a couple of beers, and some smoke. And then, when we were ordering our stuff, the server told us, rather timidly, that we couldn't order any beer. And then, it occurred to us, like a flash in the dark, that it was Bapu's birthday. On the birthday of the father of the nation, no alcohol is sold, anywhere in India. The Mahatma, was a strict advocate of prohibition.

It goes without saying, that we all jumped at the opportunity. One of my friends, was particularly vocal, though respectful. He said, "Sixty-four years after independence, on one nice Sunday that we could find, we can't have an ice cold beer in this free country of ours!  Don't you think it is Bapu's fault?"

The lunch was great. We spent a lot of time chatting and blowing rings of smoke. At about three in the afternoon, my vocal friend offered to drop me home, since he was headed the same way. As we drove through the swanky towers of glass and steel, through the central business district of our city, and took a peek at the golf course, my friend said, "It's amazing how India is changing, isn't it? In a few years, we have a pretty good shot at being a superpower in our own right. I couldn't ever imagine us being this way, if we were not a free country."

I muttered, "Yes, I know. It's all Bapu's fault, isn't it?"

First, he glared at me. And then, he gave me the biggest smile that he ever has. I am pretty sure, that Bapu would have smiled too. After all, it was his birthday.