Tuesday, February 26, 2013

To See the World in a Grain of Rice

In more than a decade of travel in India and outside I have observed the dynamics of food behaviour of people keenly. As a military wife and diplomatic spouse I have had my fair share of “entertaining” and being wined and dined. Thus, I have seen the “five-star” culture practised by individuals, institutions and industries such as hospitality and tourism, from close quarters. I have seen unconsumed food on the table being dumped into trash cans in top-end resorts in the middle of nowhere. On the flip side, I have seen gut-wrenching deprivation where getting one meal a day is a God-send for many. I have come to realize that the traditional Indian precept of eating and cooking is, by far, the best model there is for savouring and saving food.

Conspicuous consumption is obscene in itself, but wasting food is downright criminal.

A legendary anecdote in the Indian epic Mahabharat is of “Draupadi’s Kitchen”. When Draupadi (wife of Pandavas) and her husbands were in exile, Lord Krishna (their ally and well-wisher) came visiting. He was hungry and asked for some food. Living in dire straits, having been banished to the forests, Draupadi had nothing to offer. Torn between poverty and hospitality, shame-facedly, she showed him an empty plate. Lord Krishna saw a leftover grain of rice and said that would suffice for him. 

The moral of the story is that: “every grain counts.”  As children we were fed on a diet of such lofty stories which have endured. Lessons such as, “every morsel is precious” or “every grain is someone’s rightful share”, are ingrained into our psyche. There are shlokas (sayings) in our scriptures which equate Food with God.

When we made faces while eating vegetables or food we disliked our Mum would say, “If you spurn food, food will spurn you­­.” There was no question of leaving food on the plate; we had to take only that we were sure to consume. So, even today, whether we are at a restaurant or a party, we instinctively serve ourselves modestly. Not for us the misplaced notion that it is fashionable to leave food on the plate, that it is a sign of prosperity. “Waste not, want not” was the order of the day. 

Meals cooked at home were in measured quantities. But there was never any dearth of food with enough and more to go around and to entertain friends and family. Surplus food, if any, was passed on to the domestic helper and her children. Titbits of residual roti (Indian bread) or rice went into the bird feeder, happily lapped up by sparrows and mynas.

A lot of thinking went into the way food was cooked without compromising on taste.  In my Mum’s kitchen, stems of spinach and cauliflower and leaves of beetroot and radish were equally cherished as the “real” thing. The stems added to the crunchiness quotient and texture of the curries and stir-fries while enhancing nutrition. Often, creative and innovative recipes were concocted from unconsumed food. For instance, leftover lentils were mixed with multi-grain flour to make delicious savoury pancakes to be relished with pickles and chutneys. It could pass of as a gourmet accompaniment for high tea!

What we learn early in life stays with us forever. Like me, many Indian mothers (even fathers) pass on these traditions to their children as natural legacy. Tragically, in recent times, even in India, people have turned away from these cultural influences, but the time has come to reclaim the tender doctrines that have been etched in our DNA.

-        By Padmaja Parulkar

NOTE: This is my entry for the UNEP World Environment Day 2013 Green Blogging Competition. The theme is Think. Eat. Save. Reduce your Foodprint.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Not a Waste of Life

A Short Story 

She always wanted to retreat to the mountains, but did not know it would be this way. She had left behind a family, a set of people that had a strong bearing on her life, that were her debt-bonds. But she had finally had the courage to shirk them, shrug it all off and make a life for herself.

Standing by the large window of her small one-room tenement, Arannyaani peered outside to greet yet another day - new-born and fresh, so unlike the city’s cacophonic, crusty existence. Silence sheathed the scene, cloaked the cedars and oak like mist. Birds free as spirits flitted in and out of the canopy chasing mirages strumming the lyre of her heartstrings. The sapphire sky granted its benediction on the bountiful earth below with its hills and conifers. The tranquility seeped through the window frame, stilled her mind and suffused her soma. She knew it was the right choice, rather, her rightful destiny. She had clambered to her swarg that did not reek of human vitiation – no crowds, no noise, no pollution or dirt.

Arannyaani – the one of the forests and hills and dales - had left the urban jungle and come home to rest.

She had brewed a regular cup of chai – some things, some habits had to stay as a link to the past… a past which was of her own making though it hadn’t turned out exactly the way she wanted or would have liked it to. She was not ready to convert into a satvic, an absolute saint - no, not yet. She had always loved the idea of tea, an immortal brew that in her country had outlived sundry other human preoccupations. Sipping the faithful concoction memories flooded her mind and she was overwhelmed.

A picture perfect garden, the tinkle of tea cups and laughter, the people – young and old, the patter and rush of feet as everyone – on two legs and four legs – went about their routine. Youth and love and romance...

Charting out a life alone, at this late stage, was not going to be easy, but when was it ever so? She had always sought to face challenges on her own terms. After a lifetime of yoga she wanted to master meditation to experience “nirvana”. Yoga had been a part and parcel of her existence since childhood. The rigour of controlling the breath, centering the mind and prising the sanctum of self, had a cosmic hold on her. Watching yoga gurus on television was her initiation into the discipline. Since then gleaning books and taking short-term courses in small-time schools had kept the flame burning. But it was her hidden desire to go to the Himalayas like the rishis of yore to learn the art of living in its original abode.

And here she was now, at last, in the lap of Himalayas to keep her promise to herself of seeking “realization”, the truth that Marriage and Family had failed to lead to.

Arannyaani slips out of her fantasy and family world and onto the streets below. The streets of the hill-town curve suggestively and hidden by trees and other topographic features seem to suggest a lithe woman in a sensuous gyration. In her mind, Arannyaani is young again - beautiful with lustrous hair that fall like a silken shawl on her nape and shoulders, framing a stunning face.  The harsh years in between had taken its toll but Arannyaani had retained the freshness of being deep inside which showed outwardly as an intense yearning. Slim, with shaven head, as she walked out now, she personified exotica that could not be ignored.

Hair she had pared to shed vanity; shed, to cut off the shackles of her identity, the knots of her past.  

Arannyaani walked slowly, deliberately, in light steps for she had nowhere to go. She strolled seemingly endlessly, from wilderness to civilization, until she encountered tiny, hole-in-the-wall shops selling handicrafts, woolens, organic vegetables and fruits, ‘home-made’ chocolates and cheese, tea and herbs, and even yellowed, musty, dog-eared, second-hand and rare books. Though not grossly commercialized yet, the hill-town had the semblance of urban trappings that would keep her going for some time without her chickening out, turning tail to head for the next metropolis. 

But what she saw next, she was not prepared to see or accept. Piles of garbage, plastic bags and paper, food and other traces of tourism’s tentacles - residue of human excesses - posed a conduit to her past life. In her naiveté, more likely “denial”, she had imagined the remote recess of Earth to be pristine and untouched even today. It mocked her escape to asceticism and that was simply too much to take.

Her cleanliness fetish had seen her house spic and span at any given time in those heady, happy days when she was a house-proud homemaker, apart from being a woman of many parts.  And in its extreme, her obsession had seen her declutter and junk the paraphernalia of luxurious living that she thought she or her family could do without and had turned spartan. Asceticism emerges out of Excess. Easy prosperity, at times, can be liberating and so it was that she cleansed her system of the materialism bug. She recycled and donated knick-knacks, clothes, some books even, and junked memories, hurts, slights, and regrets. She now felt formatted and spare of space that had too many unnecessary files and clogged registries and unused icons! The trash she now encountered came crashing down upon her like a ton of unwanted debris.

She could not just turn away and escape anymore; she had to do something.

Next day, early morning before the shops had opened and the streets belonged to themselves Arannyaani set out missing her daily ritual of tea by the window. A gunny sack and a broom in hand, a handkerchief covering her nose, she struck an incongruous stance on the deserted roads. She rummaged through the garbage and started collecting riff-raff – polythene bags, milk tetrapacks, packaging, plastic bottles… filling her sack, which got chockfull in no time. She swept the streets and piled the trash next to the already over-spilling bins that were waiting for the municipality garbage dumpsters to relieve them. In the city, she had relentlessly ticked off pedestrians for chucking garbage - bus tickets, chocolate wrappers, banana skins - onto streets, spitting public, or shopkeepers dumping waste by the roadside. She was, of course, always told to mind her business. Educating or admonishing people do not work, she had realized; maybe, shaming them just might.

On the first day, people gawked at her; some sniggered at her appearance, at her bald pate. Many others were too blasé even to give her a second look. Each new day began with “meditating” over sunrise, “meditating” at the Ashram and ending up for a rendezvous with Waste that she had sought to purge from her Past. For Arannyaani, her tryst with the elements of Nature pure, of the first few days – with its fragrance and sounds, rhythms and enchantments - had been rudely replaced by filth and stench and eyesore. She traded the perfume of the pines for the stench of rotting food, the pleasure of gardening - turning and feeling the scented soil - for sinking hands in human filth. To experience the pristine beauty of Mother Earth she had to first wade over the Mountain of Waste; this was to be her Fate.

What is that about Yin and Yang, Joys and Sorrows, Past and Present being the two sides…?

The collected waste needed a dump where it could be sorted out, a warehouse, a home. So, Arannyaani brought trash bags home and as the garbage piled up the backyard become a dump-yard. Arannyaani’s world revolved around flip-flops, broken fragments of plastic jars, glass pieces, pearl-pet bottles, rusted iron bolts, nut, wires, meshes, screens, until all those shards swam and danced in her mind’s eye like alphabets and numbers in a dyslexic child’s brain. At night, this cosmos haunted her, taunted her, until kaleidoscopic patterns started emerging like constellation of stars or clouds creating and disintegrating in daylight sky.

Having stepped knee-deep into collecting dirt, she now set about cleaning pieces that could be reused. Thus plastic lids – chrome, vermilion, cobalt blue and green – and cut-outs of jars got strung into a screen for a doorway. Flip-flops - in primary colours - that once graced individual pair of feet got scrubbed off its grime and cut into diamonds to be wedged into a rug for people to tread on collectively. Discarded metal parts became the innards and skeletons of birds and beasts. Polythene bags got ripped to strips to be woven into bags and coasters. Paper was beaten to pulp, to death, to be reborn as respectable papier maché receptacles and holders. Wet garbage got composted to produce the finest of silken soils that she could run her fingers through and whose heavenly scent she could breathe deeply in.

The cycle of destruction and regeneration was turning again… waste was being wheeled into recycled art.

Now Arannyaani was not only collecting garbage every day, but was simultaneously selling her wares at dirt prices, too! Curious onlookers who by now had got used to her presence made beeline for her arty utility items. Soon children from the neighbourhood joined her. Shopkeepers became more circumspect about littering and women from nearby houses lend their whole-hearted support. She got local hands to do the segregating, cleaning and scrubbing.  Arannyaani’s backyard became a dumpyard-cum-compost-pit-cum-studio-art gallery-cum-meeting place for simple hill-folks.