Saturday, 8 May 2021

Dalit Veda Vyasa was India’s first nation builder. He was the child of an inter-caste union

 In ‘Makers of Modern Dalit History’, Sudarshan Ramabadran and Guru Prakash Paswan write Veda Vyasa’s achievements show how Dalit communities have helped Hinduism revolutionise and reform.

A revolutionary reformer, a path-breaking poet, a writer par excellence, a brilliant editor, an inspirational sage who institutionalized teaching with passion and an institution unto himself, Veda Vyasa is one of the central names in Indian spiritual tradition. He can be referred to as ‘the first nation builder’ for his creation of the teertha-yatra pilgrimages, for ‘chitta-shuddhi’ (cleansing of the mind), that prepared the ground for national unity and as someone who changed the face of a nation that is known for its spiritual philosophies and practices even in contemporary times.

Veda Vyasa’s extraordinary achievements are evidence that those who came from the Dalit and lower-caste communities have helped Hinduism revolutionize, reorganize and reform. Krishna Dvaipayana Veda Vyasa was a product of one of ancient India’s first inter-caste unions, born to a sage, Maharishi Parashara, and a fisherwoman, Satyavati. No one would have thought that this son of unequal parents would go on to represent Hinduism and its tenets. Every year, Vyasa’s birth anniversary is observed as Vyasa Purnima (full-moon day), also known as Guru Purnima in the month of Ashada (July–August) of the Hindu calendar. The day is dedicated to gurus or teachers. 

Representational image | The battle of Kurukshetra in Mahabharata | Commons

The apple does not fall far from the tree, and Veda Vyasa’s father, too, was a sage recognized for his immense knowledge and self-realisation. He worked tirelessly to bring order and cooperation between the different sections of society by travelling extensively and setting up ashrams to impart positive values at a time when there was a lot of discord in society and little respect between communities and castes. 

Right from the time he was a child, Vyasa had a strong urge to transcend the limited and the meaningless, and venture into the unknown realms of infinitude armed with a universal outlook. He set out to present the ancient wisdom of the past in a way that it could be appreciated and absorbed by all. During his young years, there was no one equal to Vyasa. He was intelligent, with a high grasping power, learning and absorbing what his father, his guru, taught him.

Vyasa was deeply committed to the service of mankind and wanted to disseminate knowledge among people. Due to his relentless contribution to Hinduism in which he outlined that knowledge was vital for self unfoldment, the positive impact of which is felt even today, Vyasa can be considered one of the most daring religious revolutionaries to have appeared in Hindu cultural history. His work has had a tremendous impact on scholars, thinkers and seekers from across the globe. In the words of German Indologist Paul Deussen: 

‘Love your neighbour like you love yourself’: Why should I do that? The answer is not found in the Bible, but in the Vedas, namely in the great formula ‘Tat Twam Asi’, which in three words, communicates the underlying metaphysics: You should love your neighbour like yourself, because you yourself are your neighbour, whereas to see him as different is mere illusion. 

It was Vyasa, equipped with an incomparably astute intellect, who decided to give humanity the categorized and documented version of the Vedas, India’s immense book of knowledge that had, until then, had only been shared orally. To compile and document that was an onerous task. His mission was not an ordinary one. He had perhaps realized that there was a definite need to pen down the treatise amid forgotten traditions and calamities, such as famines, as it would prove beneficial for the generations to come. The visionary sage not only compiled the Vedas but segregated it into the four parts that it is known to have today, namely the Rig Veda, the Yajur Veda, the Sama Veda and the Atharva Veda. 

However, the systematic thinker in Vyasa was apparently not satisfied with merely classifying the entire wealth of Vedic knowledge into four volumes; in each volume he also brought about a harmonious rhythm, both in the arrangement and the classification of the contents. He divided each of the four volumes roughly into four sections: Mantras (chants or hymns), Brahmanas (rituals and rules of conduct), Aranyakas (methods of subjective worship) and Upanishads (philosophical revelations). 

Arthur Schopenhauer, a German scholar who was widely read before the Second World War and discussed in public newspapers and magazines, saw in the Upanishads the ‘fruit of the highest human knowledge and wisdom’ and in their introduction into the Western world ‘the greatest gift of the century’. In his writings, Schopenhauer confessed that reading the Upanishads had been the joy of his life and later the consolation at the hour of his death. According to him, this was such a great legacy to mankind because its study purified the mind like nothing else could.

Vyasa was an original thinker with astounding faculties of insight and foresight. In the words of Swami Chinmayananda, one of the first spiritual teachers to expound the knowledge of the Upanishads in English, ‘Vyasa was one of the sages who had a vast vision of the past and the great imagination to see the future, both of which he brought forth in order to tackle the problems of decadence in his immediate present.’

Was Vyasa reaching out to the people in a way they could understand? To explain how the subject should be understood, he brought to the fore the Brahmasutras, an analysis based on the essential thoughts contained in the Upanishads. While the Upanishads tell us who we are, the Brahmasutras analyse and clarify, shining a light on this most vital knowledge. The Brahmasutras are the substratum for the ancient Indian philosophy; Advaita Vedanta, which states that the divinity in one is the divinity in all. To Vyasa’s credit, the Brahmasutras form the umbrella of Vedantic knowledge and studies. 

Vyasa’s quest to present knowledge in simplified and easily comprehensible forms was both refreshing and relentless. He seemed to be of the belief that there could always be more creative ways to reach out to people. And to accomplish that, he perhaps decided to travel extensively, engage with and speak to various sages, cutting across the length and breadth of the nation, to write the Puranas (mystic stories based on ancient India). Vyasa compiled and wrote all of the eighteen puranas. In Vyasa’s work, one can find a unique harmony of technique, plot development, character portrayal, description of nature and cultural connections. In other words, he was the greatest producer of potboilers of the time! 

David Frawley, author, teacher and founder of the American Institute of Vedic Studies, has said, ‘As such, Veda Vyasa developed the foundation for Hindu dharma as it endures to the present day, with its main deity forms, philosophies and yogic paths. Yet Veda Vyasa stayed in the background and never made himself into an object of worship.’ 

One of Vyasa’s most applauded works is the Mahabharata. Along with the Ramayana, this epic poem is one of Hinduism’s most eminent works. The duo lies at the core of Indian national identity and culture, spanning millennia. 

Set against the backdrop of the Mahabharata, Vyasa also produced one of India’s ‘FAQ’ handbooks—the Bhagavad Gita—which teaches human beings how to practically live the subtle philosophies of everyday life. The Bhagavad Gita occurs in the Bhishma Parva of the Mahabharata, comprising eighteen chapters. It is Veda Vyasa’s sheer brilliance that he translated subtle Vedic maxims in his unique way, against the intricacies of politics and the edginess of a family feud. 

Vyasa’s accomplishments show that birth and background do not dictate a person’s accomplishments. 

This excerpt from ‘Makers of Modern Dalit History’ by Sudarshan Ramabadran and Guru Prakash Paswan has been published with permission from Penguin Random House India.

(Source: The Print)

Friday, 7 May 2021

Memories of my father Faiz Ahmed Faiz and our simple dal-chawal meals

 Broadcaster Moneeza Hashmi remembers the quiet, unpretentious meals of her childhood.

I do not have clear memories of all of us, the whole Faiz family, sitting down at the dining table to eat together every day. Neither do I recall any particular occasion when we would all get together for a family meal. This was probably because my father, the poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz, was rarely home at mealtimes. Moreover, my mother, Alys Faiz, being a working mom, had to keep to the schedules of her office, as well as making sure we young girls, my elder sister Salima and myself, were never late for school.

What I can remember from my school days, back in the 1950s, is that each day during the winter term we would receive from home a tiffin, as we called it, or lunch box. All of us school friends would sit together in the grounds and share our lunch while we laughed and talked non-stop during the long lunch break. The food in that lunch carrier was always simple. One roti and one curry, sometimes a dal and sometimes veggies.

Courtesy: Moneeza Hashmi

Our dinner at home would mostly be a snack food. Perhaps omelettes and toast or Hunter’s beef sandwiches. Maybe dal and plain rice. When we had a treat, it would be a sort of pancake made with mashed potatoes and cabbage with a fried egg on top. I used to look forward to that as it was a hot meal.

Our dining table seated four. My father always sat at the head, and my mother next to him on his left-hand side, with me on his right and my sister Salima opposite him. The table itself was not too big, made of rather cheap wood and rickety, with a plywood top, and the chairs were straight-backed and simple. The tablecloth was cotton. The pattern, I remember, was a hand block print from the famous Jhandoo Khan who had a shop in the Mozang area of Lahore. The colours were turquoise and bright blue with matching napkins. We always had placemats too, but I don’t recall their pattern. The plates were white and made from simple china. Our cutlery was the most basic forks and spoons. The glasses were again straight and plain.

The dining room was next to the pantry, so our bearer would be in and out carrying the food. The kitchen was a few steps down, but the food was never cold when it reached us. These were not the times of microwaves or ovens, but we did have a toaster in the pantry, as well as a kettle to warm the water for my parents’ tea.

Kitchen Cabinet

There was never much talk at mealtimes. I cannot remember us eating together often, as lunch was always between my sister and myself or in school during winter. Dinner was usually a threesome as my father was almost always in the office at that time. Now and again, we had breakfast together on Sundays, but, on reflection, that too was not as frequent as I would have liked.

We had two servants in my childhood whom I can remember clearly, even to this day. Mohammad Ali, our cook, was a Punjabi and spoke only that language. I am surprised even today thinking how well my British mother Alys Faiz conversed with him. He stayed only in the kitchen and was never found in the main house.

The second servant was a sort of Jeeves figure who was known as “Bearer” throughout his life. I remember him as an oldish man who spoke only fluent Urdu. Again, how he and the cook got on is beyond me, but I never heard of any arguments or disagreements happening in the pantry or the kitchen. Our bearer used to double up as a sort of nanny for us two sisters as well. Since my mother worked for a newspaper, her hours were long and we would be left in the care of this male nanny. He looked after our food and our laundry, making sure we did our homework and at times even putting us to bed. He would cycle home late every evening after the dishes had been washed and dried. He was there too in the early morning to give my parents their “bed tea” and see us off to school after serving breakfast. He was with us for so long that I cannot recall how many years it was exactly. I do know my father depended on him for everything and my mother would admonish him at times for spoiling my dad.

Modest Resources

What I can remember of my father’s eating habits was that he was always completely dressed before he sat down for breakfast, which consisted of a fried egg, toast and tea. He would always eat his egg on his toast with a fork and knife and sip at his tea. His lunch, if at home, was again simple: a roti and possibly dal and some vegetables. We were not a meat-eating family, probably because we could not afford it. Both my sister and I were brought up with simple tastes in clothes and food. Now, I reflect this must have been the case because of the strains on our parents’ finances.

My father was fond of eating spinach in all forms, so I am told. He liked the desi palak and also sarson ka saag with missi roti. My paternal grandmother would sometimes send us exotic sweetmeats, which she must have learnt from the other Afghan wives of my paternal grandfather who lived in the same house. I loved to eat them and can smell their aroma even today. Unfortunately, nobody from our family learnt the recipe from Bebe ji, as we called our grandmother.

I recall my father as quite a modest eater. Perhaps his smoking killed his desire to eat. By the time he sat down to food, he was either too tired or too stimulated for getting on with the next engagement. However, when he did sit down at the table, he ate slowly and carefully, chewing his food quietly and cleaning his plate completely.

I am told he liked meatballs, which we call koftas, with gravy. He preferred roti to rice, and I can still see him breaking his roti into small pieces and picking up the meatballs one by one. He liked chutney made of coriander and green chillies, but was not a fan of hot spices. Pickles were something he was partial to, and his favourite was mango pickle. He also sometimes liked to have a paratha, a roti which preferably had butter mixed into it and was then fried. This bread is rich but so filling and satisfying. Parathas are still usually enjoyed in the winter as they keep you full and warm.


Simple Tastes

His morning and afternoon tea habit continued throughout his life, almost like a ritual. In the morning, his newspaper accompanied his cuppa. The afternoon tea was just a simple cup without any snacks. He would sip the tea slowly and gently with a cigarette in one hand, usually remaining silent.

When we shifted to London in 1962 for two years and lived in Cornwall Avenue in Finchley, I remember he started liking steak and kidney pies, as did I. During those days in Britain, our evening meals were again simple. Usually, we had fried eggs on toast and baked beans, sometimes chicken sausages. My mom probably did not want too many dishes piled up to be washed, and so she kept it straightforward. Also, in Britain, there were no servants, so it was only my mother doing all the housework. I was still going to school and my elder sister Salima was at university.

Yes. We were a simple family with simple tastes and simple needs. I think we still are.

Moneeza Hashmi is a broadcaster, television producer, media consultant, and former general manager of Pakistan Television. She is also the youngest daughter of the prominent Pakistani poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz.

This article is part of the project “Forgotten Food: Culinary Memory, Local Heritage and Lost Agricultural Varieties in India”, curated by Tarana Husain Khan and edited by Siobhan Lambert Hurley and Claire Chambers. It has been funded by Global Challenges Research Fund through the Arts & Humanities Research Council in the United Kingdom. Read the other parts here.

(Source: Scroll)

Thursday, 6 May 2021

‘Bras are a curse!’ How lockdown changed readers’ views of their breasts

 A year since the pandemic started, women’s bodies and habits have changed. Here they discuss underwiring, sleep underwear, and how going bra-free helps with polymastia

‘Lockdown has released me from the bra’

I was a teen in the 70s and morphed into a feminist. I find bras hideously uncomfortable; I only started wearing one in 2018 when I went back to work and the lack of confidence that often besieges women over 60 made me too self-conscious to face the public bra-free. Lockdown has released me from the bra, and the job, and I doubt I’ll wear one again. Jackie, writer, Midlands

‘Underwired bras now seem an unkind way to treat my body’

Underwired bras were my staple. That all changed in lockdown. I lost my job and within a few weeks had decided to retrain as a personal trainer. I’ve spent the past year in a sports bra. The rigidity and harshness of a wire now seems like an unkind way to treat my body. And lockdown has taught me a lot about being kinder. Recently I found a lump in my breast. Fortunately, it was nothing serious, but as I sat in the hospital waiting for the results of the tests, I knew some of the other women sitting with me would not be so lucky. That rather frightening experience further reinforced my appreciation for my little breasts as they are, and I’ll carry on being kind to them. Gabrielle O’Hare, personal trainer, Manchester

‘Covid made it possible for me to go braless for an entire year’ (posed by model). Photograph: Anetlanda/Getty Images/iStockphoto

‘Gravity hasn’t had the drastic effect I feared’

I don’t wear a bra when I am at home or working in my studio. A year ago I said: ‘If this lockdown carries on for any length of time, my boobs will be down at my waist!’ But gravity hasn’t had as drastic effect as I feared (yet). Anonymous, Scotland

‘Given the culture of my island, nipples would cause havoc’

I used to always need underwiring, since I’m top-heavy. Post-pandemic, I have given up wearing bras at home and only wear them when out. I wish bras weren’t necessary, but given the culture of my little island, nipples would cause pure havoc, car crashes and maybe even something tabled in parliament. It’s interesting, given that photographs of native women before colonial rule include bare-chested women. How these notions of covering up integrated into our society is something I ponder often. Bras are a curse! Minal Wickrematunge, designer and artist, Sri Lanka

‘Perhaps I’ll never wear one again’

Bra-wearing was always an uncomfortable thing for me. Since I fed my three children, my breasts have grown to a size that made not wearing a bra an impossibility. However, I suffer from polymastia and the third breast that developed into a complete breast after breastfeeding is directly under the right breast, exactly where the lower band of a bra normally rests. Covid made it possible for me to go braless for an entire year and I don’t regret it. Perhaps I’ll never wear one again. Elaine, teacher, Germany

‘I have bought a lot of new bras this year’

I seem to have bought more bras this year than any year previously – all sports bras, bralettes and sleep bras. Isn’t it funny how you think you are the master of your own actions, only to realise you’re part of a much bigger wave? Helen Berry, Cambridgeshire

‘I have ventured back into underwired bras’

Before lockdown I had a partner and I had a selection of underwired bras. The relationship became more strained through the early weeks of lockdown, and we eventually withdrew from each other. Then I found a breast lump in June, and was swiftly referred and diagnosed with cancer. I had surgery in August, and spent three months recovering. My only possible bras were post-surgical ones. These are functional, old-lady-style garments.

Since the new year, I have re-measured my assets (still intact) and gradually ventured into some smooth textured, but now underwired, rather more attractive bras. I find I feel more secure in a sleep bra at night, and sometimes I keep it on a couple of hours in the mornings. After all, there’s now no one else to please, which is a shame … Janet, retired lecturer, Leeds

‘A good bra is a fundamental part of feeling good’

Before my son was born, it was always my intention to breastfeed, so in the run-up to the birth, I bought an assortment of nursing bras in varying sizes with a view to being ready for anything. All the baby advice tells you that your breasts will change, but what it doesn’t say is that they will change week-on-week and nothing will ever fit consistently. I think it’s safe to say I hated the nursing bras! Chronically uncomfortable, with lumps and rolls in the fabric. I finished breastfeeding just a few weeks ago and I cannot tell you the utter bliss and luxury of finally being able to wear a wired bra again.

I’ve come to realise that a good bra is a fundamental part of feeling good. In many ways, the pandemic has helped me avoid the stress of going out in an uncomfortable bra, knowing that I didn’t look right, in other ways it has helped me realise the bizarre way in which it brings structure to life. Good bra on, ready for the day. Bad bra on, things just aren’t right. Vanessa Scanlan, information analyst for the NHS, Essex

‘Going braless was an act of rebellion’

My underwired bras must think I’m dead. When quarantine began I immediately stopped wearing them. I wore sports bras at first, then went full braless for six or seven months (I’m a 36E so this was an act of utter rebellion). Being totally braless wasn’t great for working from home; Zoom calls aside, I never felt like I transitioned from lounge time to work time. So, I finally splurged on two bralettes made for bigger chests. I guess the physical constraint helps remind me that I’m “in the office”, so to speak. Alicia, New York

Photograph: Galina Zhigalova/Getty Images/EyeEm

‘Lockdown made me realise that boobs aren’t everything’

I have no boobs, hence I wear a bra – so I gain some. But lockdown has made me realise that boobs aren’t everything and I’ve spent all my life persecuted by hammocks that just give me pain. One benefit of having no boobs – everyone always looks me in the eyes. Jan Atkins, graphic designer, Hammersmith

‘I dread going back to the daily bra’

I have proudly ditched my bra while working from home and I am sure my 32FF boobs have started to become firmer as they have had to hold themselves up. I dread going back to daily bra-wearing and recoil as I remember the pain it caused me. Societal norms be damned. Anonymous, London

‘I stopped wearing bras altogether’

I live in a fairly conservative city on the Muslim-majority island of Java. I was specifically told before moving here that it’s considered socially unacceptable for women’s nipples to show through clothes. This worked fine for the first year I lived there, but once the pandemic started and I wasn’t leaving my apartment, I stopped wearing bras altogether. On a humid, 35C day, the last thing you want is a heavy cotton bra collecting your boob sweat. Now that the city is reopening, I am daunted by the prospect of going back to daily bras. I’m actually looking into moving to a less conservative island, just to get away from this pressure to cover up. Sydney Michelle, teacher and writer, Yogyakarta, Indonesia

‘Bra-wearers put up with daily nuisance’

The way I think about bras has changed. Why don’t more of them fasten at the front?! It’s really awkward to strap yourself into and fasten them at the back, especially if you’ve got physical issues. It’s not until you stop and think about it that you realise its just another daily nuisance that bra-wearers put up with. Maybe it’s a structural thing, but human beings have built impossible structures before – bridges, tunnels, extraordinary hats – so surely all it needs is someone to take on the challenge. Maybe bridges are just considered of greater importance than the everyday comfort of more than half the adult population. Anonymous

‘I dread going back to daily bra-wearing.’ Photograph: dannikonov/Getty Images/iStockphoto

‘I became obsessed with finding the right bra’

Lockdown was an absolute godsend for me in the underwear department, as I was recovering from a single mastectomy in September 2019, followed by radiotherapy, which effectively toasted my chest wall and has left me with constant soreness and pain. There was such pressure to undergo reconstructive surgery following the removal of a breast, but I was always adamant that I didn’t want a Frankenboob, so I elected to go flat on my left side.

Enter the world of “foobs” – hospital discharge triangular cushions, realistic NHS silicon breasts, lovingly hand-knitted knockers – a myriad of false breasts, none of which I quite got on with. I spent hundreds of pounds on specialist bras with rigid upholstery that gripped my chest wall like an iron band. Following Facebook groups’ recommendations, I tried cheapo supermarket cropped tops.

My life had become an obsession with finding the right bra. Then lockdown came, and with it the opportunity to dress for comfort rather than to satisfy the constant pressure to disguise my missing breast. Gradually, I became more and more confident about spending time without a foob. I started going foobless around the house with my family, then gradually started introducing short shopping trips and family walks, and within months I had given up on post-surgical bras and foobs altogether.

I came to realise how much pain and inconvenience I had been putting myself through to make myself look “normal” so “nobody would ever know” and “you can’t tell”. I’ve had breast cancer. I can tell. I do still know. I am in daily pain. I don’t conform to a “body normal” standard any more. I am an amputee. I shouldn’t have to hide it. Lockdown gave me the chance to come to terms with this, and to mentally adjust at my own pace, for which I shall be forever grateful. Anonymous, Scotland

(Source: The Guardian)

Wednesday, 5 May 2021

How Satyajit Ray described the world through food

 The master storyteller used food as a device to interpret gender, politics and human civilisation. In his birth centenary year, his cinema and its idioms are as relevant as ever

In a scene from his final film Agantuk (The Stranger), Satyajit Ray captures the theatrics of a Bengali sit-down meal. Anila has never met her uncle Manmohan Mitra, who left home to see the world 35 years ago. His sudden visit has now sparked a controversy as his identity is questionable. Albeit, like a good host, she puts out a lavish spread.

It is a traditional Bengali menu. Palong shaak-er ghonto or a mishmash cooked with spinach, sweet pumpkin and lentil dumplings, daal and bhaaja or lentils with a side of something fried, maach-er jhol or fish curry followed by maangsho or goat meat curry. There’s also goyna bori, the artistic dried lentil crisps from Midnapore. “First daal and then fish,” says Manmohan, reassuring her that he has not forgotten the Bengali way of eating, i.e. course-wise. Eventually he goes for the meat instead of fish, saying: “We cannot talk freely if we have to pick bones.” 

Ray’s protagonist, played by the legendary Utpal Dutt, is a world traveller who has spent three decades sampling a buffet of cultures. Yet, Manmohan’s affinity for his roots is unmistakable. For someone who has been away from home, he does not falter eating with his hands. It says a lot about the character who retains his bond with a culture he could have chosen to forget. 

Filmmaker Satyajit Ray. Photo: NN Sareen/Alamy

In a classic scene, Manmohan is interrogated on his many life experiences. His eyes light up when he starts talking about his time spent with the tribal communities around the world. When asked if as an omnivore, he has consumed human flesh, Manmohan surprises his hosts: “Shunechi noro mangsho khete shushadu, kintu amar shei shoubhagya hoyni.” (I have heard human meat is delicious, but I have not had the good fortune of tasting it.) Where does he place cannibalism in the context of civilisation then, he is asked. “Barbaric,” he screams. “A civilised society is one where a man can destroy an entire city with a press of a button,” he says, his voice now dripping with sarcasm.

References to food are common in Agantuk, a film that challenges our notions of human civilisation. Through his swansong, Ray wanted to express his liberal, often iconoclastic worldview through Manmohan. Apparently, on the last day of the shoot, he stood up and announced: “That’s it! That’s all there is. I don’t have anything more to say.” He had already said it all. 

In Pather Panchali (The Song of the Road), Ray shows how hunger shapes the lives and relationships in a poor Brahmin family in 1950s Bengal. In the fictional village of Nishchindipur lives Harihar with his wife Sarbajaya, children Apu and Durga, and his widowed sister Indir Thakuran. The income is meager, the rations are limited. 

The film begins with little Durga stealing a lone guava from the orchard of a wealthy neighbour. When her mother Sarbajaya learns of it, she blames it on her sister-in-law Indir, who has been sneaking salt and spices from the kitchen for the odd indulgent meal. (Bengali Hindu widows of the time were forbidden from enjoying food with ‘too much’ flavour.) Sarbajaya is upset that Indir’s habits are rubbing off on her daughter. But this is only one of the flashpoints—the friction between Sarbajaya and her aged sister-in-law comes largely from the fact that the family has an extra mouth to feed. 

The conflict between hunger and morality comes up later again. When rain clouds gather, and the monsoons bring respite from the sweltering heat, Ray paints the picture of a joyous landscape. While the children play in the rain, Sarbajaya hurriedly makes her way home carrying kochu shaak or colocasia leaves foraged from the marshes. This time, it is she who picks up a fallen fruit, and hides it between the folds of her sari lest she gets caught. 

Food and gender collide in Mahanagar (The Big City), a 1963 film that revolves around the lives of a lower middle-class Bengali family. Arati is the ‘ideal’ wife, mother and daughter-in-law who carries out her household duties. But when the family is plunged into a financial crisis, she decides to apply for a job. While the in-laws eventually come around, it is Arati’s husband Subrata who has an issue. The man who is initially supportive turns insecure when he loses his bank job. Arati shines at work, and is now the sole breadwinner for the family.

On the morning of her first day of work, for the first time, the couple sits together to eat—a practice rare for the time in India. And later in the film, in one poignant scene, Ray shows how economic realities have reversed both the social hierarchy and gender roles. It is now the mother-in-law who is serving her son’s wife. And although it’s a blink-and-you’ll-miss moment, we see Maa plating up the maach-er muro or the head of the fish for Arati, an honour reserved for the man of the house. 

Cut to 1990. Shakha Proshakha (Branches of the Tree) is a film that tells the story of an upper middle class family that has reunited after years. Ray brings us a six-minute scene, where actors are shown eating a full-course meal—rare for an Indian film. Times have changed by now, gender equations have evolved. We see men and women dining together. 

Satyajit Ray came from an illustrious family of children’s writers. Food humour often made a large part of his father Sukumar Ray’s Abol Tabol—a collection of ‘nonsense verse’. No wonder the family-run popular children’s magazine Sandesh was also named after Bengal’s favourite sweet. It was in the same magazine that Goopy Gyne, Bagha Byne was first published, a story that Ray adapted for the screen in 1969. The fantasy adventure is about two tone-deaf musicians Goopy and Bagha, who are blessed with three boons—unlimited food, ability to travel wherever, and musical prowess. This time Ray uses food as a political device, albeit farcical. A war is brewing in the fictional land of ‘Shundi’. Just when the king prepares to launch an attack, good samaritans Goopy and Bagha step in. The mood on the battlefield suddenly shifts when pots filled with roshogolla waft down from the sky. The starving soldiers quickly reassess their priorities and run to fill their empty stomachs. If only peace was this easy.

Satyajit Ray was a widely travelled man, and his experiences shaped his life and his craft. In 1950, on a trip to London, Ray watched around 100 films over six months, including Vittorio De Sica’s neorealist drama Bicycle Thieves, which left a profound impact on him. Like Manmohan, he allowed his experiences to shape the understanding of his own culture and returned home to capture what he knew best—the lives and stories of his own people. He found beauty in the ordinary, and meaning in simplicity. And like a true Bengali, he saw food as a way to appreciate humanity.

(Source: CN Traveller)

Tuesday, 4 May 2021

Glacial lakes threaten millions with flooding as planet heats up

 More than 12,000 deaths have already been attributed to glacial lake outburst floods worldwide

An increasing number of people are being threatened by flooding caused by glacial lakes bursting, scientists have warned.

As the planet warms and glaciers recede, meltwater accumulates and forms lakes, often as a result of ice or moraine acting as a dam. Since 1990, the volume, area and number of these glacial lakes has increased by 50% globally. When these lakes become too full there is a risk that they may breach or overflow, releasing huge volumes of water and causing catastrophic flooding.

Some lakes are more dangerous than others, and more likely to result in what are known as glacial lake outburst floods (GLOFs). Stephan Harrison, a professor of climate and environmental change at Exeter University, said: “The ones we’re concerned about are the very steep mountain valleys in the Andes and in the Himalayas, where you have glaciers retreating up into their steep valleys with lots of opportunity for bits of mountainside to fall off into lakes.”

Lake Palcacocha in Peru. The many factors at play in an outburst flood make it impossible to estimate how many people might be at risk globally. Photograph: Dan Collyns/The Guardian

The correlation between rising temperatures and glacial lake outburst floods is complicated. While glacial lake formation and growth can be attributed to anthropogenic climate change, the triggers that can cause disastrous flooding are often down to non-climatic factors such as moraine dam geometry, earthquakes, ice or rock avalanches into the lake or extreme rainfall.

Adam Emmer, a geographer at the University of Graz in Austria, said: “You need two conditions to generate a disaster – high magnitude GLOF, and exposed population as well as assets in its path. Population expansion along the potential GLOF paths and lack of building development regulations may be even more important driver of GLOF risk, especially in developing countries.”

One of the parameters that makes a glacial lake potentially dangerous is the size of downstream population that could be exposed to flooding, and that number can range from few hundreds to hundreds of thousands, as in the case of Huaraz city located downstream of Lake Palcacocha in Peru. However, the many factors at play in an outburst flood make it impossible to estimate how many people might be at risk globally.

A 2016 study found there have been at least 1,348 recorded glacial lake outburst floods so far worldwide, of which 24% had some societal impact.

More than 12,000 deaths have been attributed to such floods. Central Asia was the most affected region, followed by South America, then the European Alps, Iceland, Scandinavia, north-west America and Greenland. The authors identify South America and central Asia as the regions most likely to experience large numbers of deaths, extreme damage to infrastructure, flooding of farmlands and the destruction of homes and roads.

Of the world’s tropical glaciers, 70% are situated in Peruvian Andes, and they are melting rapidly, which has led to several glacial disasters over recent decades. The worst so far was the 1941 glacial lake outburst flood from Lake Palcacocha, which claimed at least 1,800 lives.

The Pastoruri glacier in Peru. The melting of the glacier has put the city of Huaraz, located about 35 miles downslope, at risk from GLOF. Photograph: Martin Mejia/AP

Subsequently, Peru started working on lake monitoring and implementation of hazard mitigation measures such as draining lakes, strengthening unstable moraine dams with concrete structures and artificial spillways, and installing early warning systems as early as the 1950s.

“Peruvian Cordillera Blanca [part of the Andes mountain range] is, in fact, the world’s pioneer region of GLOF mitigation works,” said Emmer. Despite this, “the biggest challenge is yet to come – communicating the risk and risk reduction measures to local communities and making them trust and accept it”, he added.

Nepal, which is also highly vulnerable to glacial floods, started taking interest in GLOFs after two serious floods in the 1980s. In 1999, Nepal drained a rapidly expanding lake called Tsho Rolpa near Mount Everest to lower the lake levels, a first in the region.

“GLOF has been recognised as a big challenge for Nepal. In the past, there also have been efforts made to reduce the risk from individual lakes and two lakes have already been intervened in [around] the Everest region,” said Arun Shrestha, a climate change specialist at the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development.

A glacial lake in the Himalayas. Photograph: Goncalo Diniz/Alamy

According to Shrestha, Nepal has documented records of up to 35 GLOF events, but the true number is probably higher. International communication and cooperation is also critical to preventing deadly floods; a study published last year identified 47 potentially dangerous glacial lakes that could affect Nepal if breached, but only 21 were in Nepal itself. Twenty-five were also identified in China and one in India.

“It’s very important that Nepal talks with China and tries to address those issues,” said Shrestha. “Those lakes cannot be ignored, but for that, a bilateral diplomatic effort is required. With climate change, and infrastructure and settlements changing quite rapidly, I think the risk is growing every day.”

Despite the rapid recession of glaciers worldwide, the frequency of GLOFs has actually declined globally. Scientists attribute this trend to a lag between climate change and the occurrence of GLOFs.

Scientists predict an increase in GLOFs starting in the coming decades and extending well into the early 22nd century. Vulnerable countries with populations and infrastructure at risk of floods are now in a race against time to invest in disaster preparedness to avoid catastrophic outcomes in the event of an outburst flood.

(Source: The Guardian)

Monday, 3 May 2021

The British loved their meat, but some were fascinated by Hindu-Brahminical vegetarianism

 In ‘Meat, Mercy, and Morality’, Samiparna Samanta writes that the British in India thrived on an elaborate diet of meat, but some preferred vegetarianism in the tropical climate.

The nation’s national wealth was indicated through meat consumption: Britain was the heaviest consumer of meat in Europe. Several private memoirs, diaries, and letters of British officers and memsahibs attest that the British in India thrived on an elaborate diet of meat during the period. 

The starling array of meat consumed at Anglo-Indian breakfasts alone included crumbed chops, brain cutlets, beef rissoles, devilled kidneys, whole spatchcocks, duck stews, Irish stews, mutton hashes, brawns of sheep’s heads, and trotters in addition to Indian meat dishes like jhal frazie, chicken malai, and beef hussainee.

The massive consumption of red meat at breakfast was merely an English custom transferred to a tropical climate, irrespective of its suitability. During the early decades of Company rule in India, as Elizabeth Collingham’s work has shown, such ostentatious and unhealthy dining habits ‘served well to underline the status of the Company grandee in India’. 

Representational image | The Afternoon Meal (La Merienda) | Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art | Wikimedia Commons

However, with the increasing racialization of the Raj after 1857, the body of the British official in India became an even more powerful signifier of ‘Britishness,’ and diet and dress became, accordingly, cultural sites on which a sense of bodily difference between the British and their Indian subjects was maintained. According to Collingham, the lavish consumption of food and drink by the British in India was reminiscent of the nabob and continued to construct the official’s body as an aristocratic body in the Indian context. Over time there might have been a refinement of the eating etiquette compared with the meat-eating excesses of the earlier period, elaborate meals continued to be the norm.

Some Europeans in India, however, advocated vegetarianism. Tristram Stuart discusses the European fascination with Hindu-Brahminical vegetarianism in the early years of the Company rule. According to Stuart, the most surprising to western travellers in India were the masses of ordinary people who lived on what Europe considered an exceptionally abstemious diet. 

Stuart closely examines a few European travellers in India—Thomas Tryon and John Evelyn, among others—to demonstrate how they drew from Hindu theology and enshrined Indian vegetarianism in the mainstream of intellectual debate. The revered Jesuit missionary Abbe Jean Antione Dubois composed a tract, Hindu Manners, Customs and Ceremonies, where he depicted ahimsa as a cowardly and effeminate doctrine, but sought to explain the real historical origin for vegetarianism through climatic compulsions.

According to Dubois, meat was indigestible and putrid in a tropical climate His suggestion was endorsed by a widespread tradition of European tropical medicine like the work of British naval surgeon, James Johnson, who, in his The Influence of Tropical Climates, More Especially the Climate of India, on European Constitutions (1813), applied the principle of temperance very strictly. H

aving identified over-stimulation and a tendency to plethora as the greatest risk to the Europeans newly arrived in a tropical climate, he recommended a cooling vegetable diet. Johnson’s recommendations were based on the eighteenth-century view of a vegetable diet as an antiseptic regimen which cleansed the bodily fluids of impurities while meat, as a stimulant, induced plethora, especially if taken in large quantities. 

Collingham argues that the Brahminical prohibition of wine and meat, as well as the simple diet of rice and vegetables of the Hindu poor, appealed to the temperance-minded British physicians as a laudable Indian custom, which contributed greatly to the health of the Indian population. Thus, British physicians like Johnson held up the Brahmins as models of ascetic, suitable behaviour. Having said that however, Collingham notes that most Anglo-Indians took little heed of arguments in favour of the vegetable diet and many resisted medical attempts to Indianize their constitutions.

Thanks to the lavish consumption of meat by the British in India, stomach disorders were inevitably common, but everyone blamed the climate rather than the unsuitability of their diet. The Governor, Philip Francis, thus wrote in 1775, which attests to the over-indulgence in meat: ‘I am tormented with the bile and obliged to live on mutton chop and water. The Devil is in the climate I think.’ These ostentatious eating habits were, as Burton argues, deployed as the cultural markers of a masculine, physically superior British Raj. In a similar vein, John Beames wrote about their daily eating habits:

Our chota haziri, or little breakfast, was at five-thirty to six, and consisted of tea, eggs boiled or poached, toast and fruit. 

Breakfast at eleven consisted of fried or broiled fish, a dish or two of meat—generally fowl cutlets, hashes and stews, or cold meat and salad followed by curry and rice and dessert. We drank either bottled beer—the universal Bass— or claret. Between four and five there was tea and cakes. Dinner at half past seven or eight consisted of soup, and entree, roast fowls or ducks, occasionally mutton, and in cold weather once or twice beef, an entremet of game or a savoury, and sweets.

If the gastronomic delights of the British were considered to be a metaphor for a physically superior Raj, the native kitchen was however very bleakly portrayed as symbolic of all that was filthy, dirty, and uncouth about Oriental cultures. The author of a cookbook described a typical kitchen in an Anglo-Indian compound as ‘a wretchedly mean, carelessly constructed, godown [outbuilding] … inconveniently far from the house, and consequently open to every passer-by.’

This excerpt ‘Meat, Mercy, and Morality: Animals and Humanitarianism in Colonial Bengal, 1850–1920’ by Samiparna Samanta has been published with permission from Oxford University Press.

(Source: The Print)

Sunday, 2 May 2021

Ijaazat is a strangely poetic take on divorce that was rare in 1980s Hindi films

 Naseeruddin Shah and Rekha's portrayal of a divorced couple in this Gulzar film is more loving and honest than many marriages that do last.

One of the most striking scenes of Gulzar’s Ijaazat (1987) is when Mahendra (Naseeruddin Shah) and Sudha (Rekha), a newly married couple, talk about his former lover, Maya (Anuradha Patel). Sudha has constantly come across Maya’s things in the house — a coat, a shawl, a pair of sunglasses and other things that Mahendra has been either too lazy or unwilling to return. It has chafed and gnawed at her, although she has done her best to be graceful about the fact that her house is full of remnants of the woman her husband is still in love with.

Illustration: Ramandeep Kaur | ThePrint

When Mahendra finally does return Maya’s things, she writes him a letter about all the other things he ought to return. The memories of 116 moonlit nights, for example. The rain-soaked days they spent together, the freckle on his shoulder, the smell of wet mehendi, the false promises, and a thousand other memories of their love.

An emotional Mahendra reads this letter out to his wife, who now regrets sending Maya’s things back. As it is, she is in this house day and night, what difference does it make if her things are here as well, she says.

And the letter becomes a song, Mera Kuch Saamaan — one of the most beautiful breakup songs ever to be made. Gulzar, who also wrote the film’s screenplay (adapted from a story by Subodh Ghosh) and dialogues, wrote some of the most achingly beautiful lyrics of his career for this free-verse song, put to tune by R.D. Burman and sung to perfection by Asha Bhosle, who, along with Gulzar, won a National Award for it.

The tenderness with which she sings of lost love, of bittersweet memories tinged with regret and of the sensual passion that consumes young lovers makes this the standout track from the movie, but every song, actually, is a gem. And each one is sung solely by Asha Bhosle.

In the week that the singer celebrated her 87th birthday, here is a look back at Ijaazat.

The waiting room of life

The movie actually opens five years ahead in time, at a railway station, where Mahendra and Sudha, both travelling to different destinations and caught in a heavy downpour, spend the night in the first-class waiting room, where they meet for the first time since they separated.

What happened to this marriage, to Maya, is told through flashbacks, but truthfully, it is what is happening in the present, in the dinky waiting room, that is far more interesting. After the initial awkwardness, the two settle into each other’s company, which feels so familiar and comfortable that Mahendra even says it feels like home.

They squabble over his keenness for a peg of whisky, they crack in jokes about each other’s quirks and habits, she picks up after him when he leaves his wet clothes and towel on the table and even, instinctively, picks up a towel and dries his hair after he returns from trying to find them some food.

The station master, who comes in once or twice before retiring for the night, philosophically tells Mahendra that life is a waiting room. He says it jokingly, but somewhere, there is truth to it. Five years earlier, Sudha left Mahendra abruptly and informed him via a letter, so neither of them really got closure, even though they moved on. It was as if they were in a waiting room all this time, waiting to meet, to revisit old wounds, to finally dress them with the tenderness they deserved five years earlier but never received.

All marriages are different, and so are all divorces

Divorce are not seen through the lenses of good and bad. It is treated with warmth, compassion and a certain understanding that this is a relationship no one else truly knows and has access to except the two people who were in it. And, in Ijaazat, it is shown as not any one person’s fault.

Five years earlier, for example, soon after receiving Maya’s letter, Mahendra decides to take Sudha on their delayed honeymoon. Sudha asks him if he has made this sudden plan because he wants to run away. From whom, he asks. You know the answer, she says. Maya’s presence in their marriage, made all the more apparent by her phone calls, hangs like an oppressively heavy perfume.

Mahendra explains that while he had been in love with Maya, he is trying to forget her, but he won’t be able to do that without Sudha’s help. Because, he says, Sudha thinks about Maya far more than he does.

The entire scene is a telling one for many reasons. It shows, in a few words, Mahendra’s weak selfishness, given that has never bothered to return Maya’s things and make a clean slate for his new wife, and given that he expects his wife to help him get over his lover. It shows Sudha’s unwillingness to let go of the subject, even when they’re going on their honeymoon, her almost pathological desire to talk about Maya. It shows Maya’s childlike lack of respect for the fact that her former lover is now married to someone else and her inability to let him go.

And it shows a marriage that may not be built on love in the conventional sense and didn’t last, but has friendship, brutal honesty and a quiet understanding, even through misunderstandings, that even many lasting marriages don’t have.

(Source: The Print)