Mushroom Soup for the Vegetarian Soul

So this appeared in Mint Lounge on May 31st, 2014. It was so much fun writing this. And I think I’ve received my first few zealot commentary, mails, and criticism for it. But more on that some other time.

It was my third day in class I at a new school. My first friend, Farah Naaz, opened her rectangular stainless-steel tiffin box, and then its smaller rectangular compartment. She clapped her hands in glee, poked at the immiscible mass in there, licked her finger, and squealed, “Goat brain!”

I was disappointed: The brain did not look anything like the brains I had seen in cartoons. It even managed to look harmless, somewhat like my mother’s tomato pachadi. It seemed incredible that something like this innocuous mass could faze, even terrify, my cockroach-bashing, mali-thrashing grandmother.

Vegetarianism was handed down to me like knock knees and unmanageable hair. It is so ingrained in our family that my ajji, like several other sweet, middle-class Kannadiga grandmothers, cannot get herself to say “non-vegetarian”, and refers to the whole class of meat as “NV”. She does not have patience with fish, poultry, red or white meat: It is all a tut-tut brand of “NV”, pronounced envy.

I grew up in a milieu that encouraged this NVing. Meat-eaters were talked about in hushed voices. Houses were leased on the basis of whether tenant families cooked meat or not. The nearest butcher shop was about 2km away, far from the main road. The neighbour’s roosters clucked about, gratefully untouched. “Non-veg jokes” exchanged between slightly older children were literally so.

Maybe it was the zeitgeist, unconscious censorship, or just coincidence, but looking back, even the imagery of food in the domestic comics I read seemed sterile. Unless the story demanded it, food illustrations in Tinkle comics (and by extension, Amar Chitra Katha) were mostly vegetarian. Suppandi visited the market and returned with legumes and gourds peeking from his basket. His employer ate from thalis where rice was a tiny white mountain and rotis were ellipses accompanied by circles of non-committal sabzis (vegetables). Raja Hooja preferred fruits. Raghu hated his spinach. And Uncle Anu’s club got by with chocolate, pav buns, and browning cut apples.

In a New York Times article, author Lara Vapnyar writes of dreaming about exotic things to eat in Cold War Russia. And like her, in a pre-Internet age, my trysts with meat were those of vicarious adventure and fantasy. Meat was a “foreign” idea that I discovered in glossy interior decoration magazines left behind by NRI (non-resident Indian) aunts. Here, I saw Thanksgiving turkeys with socks and skin like honey-glazed tote bags. I devoured Enid Blyton stories where “bacon” and “ham” mingled with my own breakfast of toast. I was fascinated with how Archies’ Jughead with his half-mast eyes polished off hot dogs topped with zigzagging mustard. I wondered: Was a hot dog really a dog? A Dachshund in a bun?

I would carefully examine what the characters in Asterix ate on each adventure: shiny double-humped camel meat in Persia, delicate quail on a galley to Egypt, cold cuts looted from pirates and loaded up on a magic carpet to India, chains of sausages in Belgium. My mind boggled at Obelix’s staple boar glistening on a spit. I was tickled by Tom, Disney’s AristoCats, Top Cat, and other cat-toons that dug up fish bones as the universal sign of destitution.

This curiosity with meat was not unique to me. My mother, aunt and I were keen followers of Khana Khazana, a TV cookery show that demonstrated an impressive range of NV recipes. I remember my mother would evade moral conundrum by watching the ingredient section on mute.

I’m certain, also, that we weren’t the only NV-curious family. A look at the menu in the glamorous A/C deluxe side of a darshini (stand-up eateries in Bangalore) reveals much about the middle-class vegetarian’s complex feelings for meat, and the preoccupation with wanting to recreate meat in the vegetarian world: Gobi 65, Paneer Tikka, Veg Biryani. In Mumbai, I found the Jain Omelette that substitutes eggs with besan (gram flour) and proves that besan is best in laddoos and face packs.

The classic vegetarian’s first brush with meat is usually “by accident”; by way of a “chicken something” construed as gobi manchurian. Some see this as serendipity. Some reach for mouthwash. I tasted my first bit of meat as a consenting adult, without much ado, and found chicken to be wildly overrated, but mutton wonderfully distinct. I decided I don’t quite like the texture of meat. I’m happily a staple vegetarian, but I’m curious about all the things people eat. And so, today, my bucket list includes unambitious items like pepperoni (why did I bother), eggs benedict, escargot, caviar (never again), bratwurst, Goan sausages, pho, soap, and chalk.

I like quoting a friend who says that once you’re an adult, congenital vegetarianism is a choice. When I eat out, I find that vegetarianism is harder. At most popular upscale restaurants in Bangalore, only about 30-35% of the items on the menu are vegetarian. And that includes the French fries offered as starters. This is not a case for vegetarianism, or against the secondary treatment of veggies by evil restaurateurs (I usually forgive them when I get to dessert). But it’s surprise: that living in a world which loves its non-vegetarians, I was so insulated from meat.

Maybe my vegetarianism runs deeper than my genes. I recall how in class VII, at the library, I came to question Chicken Soup For the Soul: I mean, what’s wrong with cream of mushroom?

Book List – February 2014

It has only been the first quarter of the year, and I haven’t followed a simple resolution through. Naturally, I am ashamed of myself. Not because I failed the resolution, but I sort of failed the purpose of it. I will come to this later.

Here I offer my excuses post-haste. February and March have been eventful months – with A LOT of travel involved. I’d say a good 20 days have been properly invested in the fine art of gallivanting. Despite a good deal of solo-traveling, I managed very distracted reading. And at other times, especially during train journeys, I was usually hogging the seat at the door, or wolfing strange train and off-train fare, or appreciating very mature Goan grapes, or I was in giggle fits. As you can tell, my soul has been replenished by a genre of spirituality I am inclined to call Hello Kitty.

Back to self-flagellating – I have obviously forgotten a lot of what I read (aforementioned purpose defeat), and now I will go on to simply document the ghosts of these books that remain within me.

FEBRUARY 2014

Too Much Happiness – Alice Munro

If I were to find likeness in Photography, I feel Alice Munro’s writing is like Landscape Photography. More accurately, a composite landscape. Munro just fits a lot of things together to plot a landscape – sometimes within a person, sometimes geography, sometimes a system of rules and logic – but it’s always a collective, it’s always a study in interior design where stuff is thrown around to make a picture with excellent balance, and the reader can choose what it is he/she wants to dwell on. I suppose another reason why I find it landscape-y, is also how exotic the locations of all these stories feel. The spaces these stories play out in – physical place (usually America, Canada), time, ethical and cultural systems.

The story that haunts me most is actually the first in the book, called Dimensions. Featuring an extremely fucked up woman getting over something terrible her husband – the only man she has ever loved – has done. The plot points of this are entirely inside this woman’s existence, and the story is told with almost no sentimentality, a numbness that is actually signature Munro, and here, serves the excellent purpose of mood.

I have a feeling I’ll be rereading this book soon. In the meantime, here are 18 of her short stories available for free online. Don’t miss the list of other freebies, and fold your hands and thank the wonder that is the Internet.

Bird by Bird – Anne Lamott

Is funny as hell. This woman was once a stand-up, a playwright, a tomboy, a waitress, a ridiculously poor person, and a whole plethora of awesome avatars before she wrote this lovely, heartwarming book about the journey and the loneliness of writing. She makes such light and gaeity out of the whole thing, it’s almost morbid, but in a very Erma Bombeck way. You feel a passionate kinship – and you can’t wait to get started on what is essentially glorified doom.

I also understand the mild meta here, me noting what is good about a book on writing well. Lamott is such a classic storyteller in that she teaches you 40,000 things about writing and living, and you never really feel the lessons, because the most valuable lessons are in the asides she takes. Of course, there are also the technique things that are clever and sticky and stay in your head in a very *My Very Earthly Mother Just Said Unbelievable Nachos Potty* fashion.

For example, the story of how the title came about is pretty sweet. Apparently, when they were children, Lamott’s younger brother came rushing in, weeping the day before school reopened after summer holidays, with a project report on birds to finish. Their father had assuaged his fears, saying they would tackle the beast of the task by going at it, “Bird by bird”. And that is how Lamott teaches you a lesson – put the story in there. Put it in, word by word.

Lamott introduced me to the most reassuring thing I have heard about writing, which keeps coming to mind whenever I feel the distinct frustration of being lost in a muck of words. E. L. Doctorow said to nobody in particular, then to her, and now to me: “Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”

Brainpicker has obviously done a far better job at compiling Anne Lamott’s Timeless Advice, a read for anyone remotely interested in creating anything from an Origami fish, to a functioning jet.

I’m trying very hard to remember more, because at this juncture, I have procrastinated this post by way more than three more weeks.

Difficult Pleasures – Anjum Hasan

In the tortuous, land-mine-ridden landscape of Indian Literary Fiction (which I will bitch about in detail, in March), Difficult Pleasures, dear reader, is an oasis.

I’d read a couple of Hasan’s stories on the internet, both of which make an appearance in this anthology of short stories. The first story I had read, The Big Picture, hadn’t really hit it off with me when I read it at the time. But the reason why, was later articulated by Hasan herself, in the title of her collection of 13 brilliant, brilliant stories. Difficult Pleasures is a title that is just so significant in, and so accurate a description for, each story’s universe. When I think of the second story I’d read then, Wild Things, I am again reminded of how tender and careful the wording of Difficult Pleasures really is.

I want to gloat so much about this book. It meant so much to me that Hasan was brave enough to make her characters as flawed, as broken, as cruel, as required. Maybe this is the editrix in her. Maybe she has grown up well. But she doles reality to you in the most appropriate manner – and leaves you to grieve, or rejoice privately. Many of her stories had the inevitability of the kind dentist turning out to be the evil man to pull your tooth, like in Birds, or Saturday Night, or For Love or Water, which had my feet cold in dread, or the wincing slap in Immanuel Kant in Shillong. She straddles discomfort, sexual tension, whimsy, the spontaneity of wickedness with great ease. But that is not to say Hasan is not capable of levity – her humour is subtle, her irony is flawless. Her sense of poetry shines in the last story of the collection, my favourite, Fairytale on Twelfth Main, which explores an *idea* in itself, a short story that is borderline speculative fiction – what if a lover’s wish of freezing time with his loved one, comes true?

The lesson for me in all of this? Get off my ass and write more short stories. And then trash them, and write some more. Difficult Pleasures is a labour of love, and it is something that will shame every aspiring writer to do better, and to do it well. With this heaping of platitude dung here, I do next to no justice to the feat she has accomplished in each of her stories. Please consider this as an ad placement, and get your copy of Difficult Pleasures IMMEDIATELY.

I Hated, Hated, Hated This Movie – Roger Ebert

So, I mostly learnt how to insult somebody without referring to their female-relatives from this delightful book. We will all agree that Ebert was a great critic, and he really, really earned these privileges of freely, but gracefully spitting at terrible cinema, simply by virtue of having sat through these abominations. Some of the titles the man has actually reviewed include, Candyman: Farewell to the Flesh, Teaching Mrs. Tingle, and $1,000,000 Duck.

This was the first book I read in a non-linear format*. Meaning, I jumped to the Index, and worked my way through titles that interested me first, then titles that baited me, and finally, the titles that were left. A title that especially piqued my interest in category a) was In Praise of Older Women – a movie based on the book I had recently fallen in love with. In his review, Ebert makes no mention at all of the book, but precisely points at exactly where a film adaptation would have bombed: it becomes just a chronicle of a man’s sexual conquests, hardly ever stopping to note that these were not encounters, but actual relationships that fashion a person. Thank you Mr. Ebert, I will NEVER watch the movie.

Otherwise, the biggest takeout from this book for me was how important it is to participate in life fully – in more than just what you would call a passion. Ebert was interested in more than movies, and it is evident he consumed every form of culture with the same curiosity as he did film. To more clearly illustrate what I mean, read this artful decimation of everybody’s favourite growing pains drama, Dead Poets’ Society. A tl;dr of his biggest grouse with it, “None of the writers are studied in a spirit that would lend respect to their language; they’re simply plundered for slogans… At the end of a great teachers’ course in poetry, the students would love poetry; at the end of this teacher’s semester, all they love is the teacher.”

Ebert takes the badness of bad cinema really personally, and this disappointment yields some profound insights about Cinema and Where It’s Going. Here’s one that still stays with me. About Prom Night and its success lying entirely in its Marketing, he says, “It’s easy to make a great-looking thirty-second TV spot, so why bother making a good film?” Of the other insults that stick in my memory: he calls North the movie that inspired the title of this book, he calls precocious Patch Adams a pain in his wazoo, and he thinks adults ought to be really, really terrified of watching anything from the Home Alone franchise.

The quality of Ebert’s writing that I hold a candle to, even before I’d ventured to read this book, is its inclusiveness. It is single-mindedly about film, it holds intelligent discussions about film, but it is so without being aloof. It isn’t merely critique, it is good writing. This is a pattern I have found replicated in *any* Art that deals with niche subjects that come from a place of expertise. I hate to use bullshit Marketing jingoism here, but I think it’s called “Democratization” and/or “Accessibility”. The nearest example I can think of is XKCD – if you don’t know the science in question, well, now you do; if you do follow, good, more starry eyes for you.

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? – Philip K. Dick

I read this book on an AC train, and I had a seat facing the opposite direction of the train, and this meant only one thing: PUKEY FEELINGS. So, this was very distracted reading, because I had to keep putting it away. And I also had a severely entertaining newly married couple whose conversations were engaging to everyone except the party involved.

As the title and the author should tell you, this was Sci-Fi. These many weeks later, I don’t remember much about this book, except being awed by this one contraption that featured in it, and being blown away by how the people in this world had evolved to use it in emotional situations. There is a Mood Organ – a contraption that allows characters to manipulate their moods and states of being. In the future, Dick probably believed, feelings will be attributed to chemistry, and a science of Brain Acupuncture will evolve, where we will know what to hit where, and when.

The plot, and resolution, of the book are literally in its title. A human battle is on to weed out hyper-smart Androids whose intelligence has overriden the algorithm designing them. And the protagonist feels the only way to detect these hyper-intelligent Androids, is by testing their empathy. There is also the subplot of an extreme form of extinction, where normal barn animals are so few in number, that humans who own the last few goats, cows, horses, sheep all have a place of status in society. Did you put two and two together? Thought so.

So, yeah, this book is loaded with brain-tingles. Do Androids… deals largely with how, in the future, our identity crises will spill over into the domain of realness – of whether or not our artificial intelligence will interfere with the organic-ness of our experiences, and whether a machine of artificial intelligence can have an organic experience of its own. A theme, I feel, that’s been more deftly explored in Ghost in the Shell. Speaking of which, just for jollies, here’s my FAVORITE bit in the whole film.

* This is so far the only way a paperback defeats a Kindle – and it’s not even a compelling argument: you cannot flip pages and skip chunks together, or open a page randomly. You could key in page numbers, or skip chapters, but button pressing doesn’t match a satisfying FRRRRRRRPPP sound. Anyway, contrary to popular belief, you CAN play book cricket with a Kindle, especially on one that lags. And you can even make highlights and notes – something you will feel terrible about doing to your paperback (and really deserves punishment). Stop whining. Get a Kindle.

Girls at a Party

In the dining room, the waiter brings champagne to the girl sitting down — she has had enough of her heels.

There is the girl who looks cordially bored.

There is the girl who is laughing at everything with even a hint of warmth in it, relieved that there is no room for small talk in this company. There is the girl full of one-liners. There is the girl who learnt to masturbate before she learnt to apply lipstick and is today conscious of drinking from her wineglass from the same place where the lipstick has left a stain. There is the girl who has spent her whole life in her textbooks, that irony passes her by, but the world is on her side of guilelessness. There is the girl whose fringe hides an eye, which tempts another girl to push her fringe back and say, “There, the world must look clearer now.” There is the girl who excuses herself to take a work call. There is the girl who protests, “This late!?” There is the girl who has discovered that her round face can be cheated to look aquiline (a word that she learnt from Cosmopolitan when she was 12 and she loved the sound air made when it passed through her lips when she mouthed it to herself), and all it takes is a little rouge applied artfully under her non-existent cheekbones. There is the girl in a heated argument with another girl about the exact meaning of the word “aquiline”. There is the girl who thinks interns these days are ungrateful. There is the girl looking for a tissue. There is the girl looking for a lawyer. There is the girl looking for the other girl looking to step out for a smoke.

There is the girl whose cab is already here.

There is the girl who uses the word “bitch” as a term of endearment. There is the girl who keeps saying, “You haven’t changed one bit.” There is the girl who shows her left ring finger and says, “No man’s land.” There is the girl who does not know how to fish the wine-soaked fruits from the bottom of her sangria, who feels the eyes of a boy on her, and the eyes of the girl who likes the boy, so she fetches a fork and yet gets her fingers stained, so she licks them with relish, but gets away with it because she is thin, so thin, her waist looking so comfortable in its place. There is the girl wearing a mismatched blouse. There is the girl whose sentence keeps getting cut off at, “This one time…” There is the girl who can’t get enough of The Game of Thrones. There is the girl who makes bold jokes about religion. There is the girl terrified of the next Prime Minister. There is the girl whose shoulders look rounder in everybody’s memory, a detail everybody forgets, but replaces with the roses she had pinned in her hair. There is the girl who is teaching another girl to whistle with two fingers in her mouth. There is the girl who covers her mouth while laughing. There is the girl who knows someone who knows someone who knows someone the other girl knows.

There is the girl who wants to take a photograph. There is the girl who is explaining the algorithm on Jesse Eisenberg’s window in The Social Network. There is the girl who wears her saree pallu like it doesn’t matter, who opens her eyes and her mouth wide, furiously hugging the girl who has used three pins to keep her pallu in place. There is the girl that points out to the others that another girl has a navel piercing that shows through her gossamer saree. There is the girl that asks, “Did that hurt?”

There are men too. The men stand at the fringes of intimidation, watching this bouquet of women, each with a distinct maddening smell at the nooks of their necks, right under the question marks of their ears, smells that their thumbs are hungry for, but know of the fire they must first cross.

And so they stand, and they watch the fireworks.