Monday, December 27, 2010

Yule like this

A check-out line on Christmas Eve is a good introduction to the Theory of Relativity. You know what I mean? One acquires an entirely different perspective of time. 17,492 people ahead of me in line searched in their handbags for discount cards, argued with the counter clerk about free gifts, held up the billing to add a dozen disgustingly twee key-chains from the Point-of-Purchase display. I waited. In a parallel timeline, seasons changed, empires rose and fell, glaciers melted, mountains grew. Still I waited. And thought with wistful admiration of Oliver Cromwell’s Parliament that, in1647, banned the celebration of Christmas in England.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not the Grinch who stole Christmas. I don’t even say “Bah! Humbug!” in the manner of Old Man Scrooge in “A Christmas Carol”. But standing in that check-out line and later, stuck in never-ending traffic, I contemplated emigrating to China. Or to Saudi Arabia, Iran, North Korea or Algeria. Because they don’t have any Christmas holidays. (On second thoughts, emigrating there may not be a good idea. Reports indicate that ignoring Christmas is just part of their policy statement about “peace on earth and goodwill towards all men”.) The celebration of Christmas – like Diwali, Durga Pujo, Holi, Eid, Moharram, Yom Kippur and the Chinese New Year – may be less about religious belief and more about the celebration of community, identity. The defining symbol is no longer the cross or the holly. It is the credit card.

Let’s face it, Christmas in its present form never really was about the actual birth of the Saviour. For one thing, the Bible mentions that the Wise Men sought directions from shepherds in the fields when they sought the Child. Shepherds. In the fields. Does that sound like deep and dark December? The Bible itself mentions no date nor season of the year. Besides, it’s no coincidence that Christmastide coincides with the much older celebration of the winter solstice. This was when the Romans celebrated – wait for it – Saturnalia! Which, of course, was a festival noted for its sobriety, piety and atmosphere of restraint. Not! The Church did not approve of the excesses of the Saturnalia. Very interesting excesses they were, too. Those Romans knew a thing or two about debauchery and decadence. Well anyway, the consensus is that the Church, believed that if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em. Around the 4th century of the Christian Era, they quietly took over the winter festival, stripped it of the … errr, youthful high spirits, and converted it into the Feast of the Nativity. So perhaps the Grinch was not the first to “steal Christmas”!

Christmas, of course, has its own set of traditions. It’s quite interesting to trace their origins. The mistletoe connection resonates with Norse fertility rites and the legend that Loki used it to slay Baldur. Wassailers and carol-singers were pre-dated by the Roman Mummers, who travelled from house to house singing and bearing gifts. The Mummers, alas, often quite regrettably neglected to clothe themselves, and were usually the worse for drink, but let’s just say it’s the thought that counts. And be grateful that in the present day we are not assailed by the spectacle of fat Uncle Percy in the altogether! The tradition of deforestation is comparatively new to most of the world. It was common in Germany to put up Christmas trees; it must have been a natural outcome of having to clear acres of primeval forest to keep the wolves away from the castle drawbridges. It was only when German nobility were imported into the bloodline of English royals, and perhaps as late as the 19th century, that the custom of ruining perfectly good forests became common. With the result that more than 20 million trees die every Christmas in the USA alone.

It’s a little strange to note that Americans were originally a little chary of Christmas. They saw it as an English custom, and quite understandably Americans in the 1780s were not too fond of the English. Times changed. In 1822 Clement Clarke Moore wrote the poem that we now know as ‘Twas the night before Christmas. Apparently this popularized the custom of Yuletide gift-giving. In 1843 Sir Henry Cole commissioned the first set of Christmas cards. The flood-gates opened. Christmas moved from the church to the mall. Retail barons offer more deeply sincere thanks for Christmas than do many devout believers. And no matter how much they may try to enforce the First Amendment, America leads the world in Christmas commerce. Sometimes the emphasis on “the season for giving” seems a little contrived to me, even calculated.

And yet … The Wife and the Small Person were leaving Newmarket when a snot-nosed urchin tapped on the window to sell them safety-pins. Whereupon the Small Person piped up, “It’s Christmas, Ma. HE should get a gift too!” The Wife asked the waif what he really wanted. The child’s eyes lit up. He led them to the nearest toy store. And pointed to a little train. Now I, as far as possible eschew emotion. Impedes rationality and all that. The Wife was regrettably damp-eyed when she recounted this incident. And the urchin’s sheer delight when she actually handed over the train set. But when she told me of Small Person’s reaction – “Ma, this is all the Christmas present I need. Now I shan’t ask Santa for anything!” – I must confess that my self-imposed bar on sappiness creaked at the seams. Oh, bother! I’ll admit it, I felt good. And a little moist around the peepers. The spirit of giving? It’s still alive. Compliments of the season, readers, no matter whether you’re fellow cynics or dewy-eyed romantics.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Learning process

It’s wonderful to have a proper education. Unfortunately, school and college seem to get in the way. Most of us are so busy getting a degree, we never get around to getting an education. To quote the great sage Chuck Berry (better known for his views on women, drink and blues guitar), “When I think back on all the ***p I learnt in high school, it’s a wonder I can think at all.” When I first heard that, I thought it was the wisdom of the ages. Somebody famous had just validated my decision not to study maths or science and my jettisoning of a Master’s degree as soon as I got a paying job. It sounded good. It made me feel great. But that was before I met calculus. Oh, AND statistics. Together. The academic equivalent of being tag-teamed by Hulk Hogan and the Undertaker.

This academic mauling occurred many years ago, when I made a misguided attempt at getting what I thought would be an advanced education. What that really means, of course, is that I tried to get another degree. Not in this country; I winged it to the land which claims to be the true defender of democracy, the most reliable bulwark of freedom and free speech. To be fair, in the first few weeks the classroom atmosphere did seem refreshingly open and liberal. One faculty member, a long languid Californian who specialised in “kaampyutyshenul maahd’ling uv elactral trands”, gave me an A+ for an assignment wherein I savaged everything he had taught us in three classes. I was awed; I’d expected a poor grade, on the lines of a teacher in my earlier alma mater who gave me a 0 on a test because (she said) I had answered the question with reference to the wrong chapter! (This, mind you, was in the third year of college.) I became friends with the faculty member, a great guy except for his terrible taste in beer. (I quickly learnt that even boutique microbreweries can produce quite awful beer. In hindsight, that was one of the most educative aspects of my sojourn.) The groves of academe seemed rather pleasant, at least for a while.

Around the fourth week on campus, I asked myself whether I was learning anything. Statistics, a little bit. Calculus, maybe. But was I working towards a goal that held relevance for my job back home? A PhD doesn’t seem all that hot after you meet a girl who’s been working on one for seven years. With a thesis on – believe this! – “Sex Scandals and the American Presidency”. (She did have the grace to admit she’d left out JFK and WJC because either of them would have been enough for a thesis by themselves.) And how exactly would her thesis be of use? She shrugged. Not her business, she said. Her job was research; practical applications were not her look-out. This, I thought, was ethically one step away from Tom Lehrer’s satire – “Once the rockets are up, who cares where they come down? That’s not my department, says Wernher von Braun.” So what purpose did the research serve? With all this emphasis on statistical analysis, could we frame some rules? Make some predictions? Say, that a man who has been involved with more than three women and a washing-machine on one prom night is 67% more likely to get involved in a scandal if he is elected President? Nope. No way. Apparently every thesis had to mandatorily include (a) at least 120 pages of abstruse statistical analysis, followed by (b) a disclaimer that “No causal correlations are attempted”. Say what? We’re expected to get permanent migraines learning calculus and we can’t even use it to make a point?

In sum, I found the post-graduate scenario strange because (1) the topics of research tended to be phenomenally arcane (2) there was no attempt to find practical applications of research findings and (3) there seemed to be far too much emphasis on quantitative methods, without any results to show for it. But was I the only man on campus who thought this way? Autumn rolled around and with it, our discipline’s annual national conference. (Held, of course, in balmy San Francisco while we shivered on the East Coast.) We followed it on the Internet (although live video feeds were jerky) and lo and behold, I was vindicated! Because the Annual Convention was picketed by masked demonstrators who were protesting against … yes, arcane research topics, lack of practical relevance and over-dependence on quantitative methods! I was not alone! But why were they masked? This is the creepy bit – the protesters were mostly junior faculty who feared that they would never get tenure if they were recognized on camera. Obviously, the land of the free didn’t quite live up to its name on campus.

And obviously any system of education has its own rules, written and unwritten, that students are expected to follow. Systemic education may actually be an oxymoron. Perhaps the only real education comes from that rhyme that goes “I have six honest serving men / They taught me all I know / Their names are why and what and when / and who and where and how”. So is a formal education just a formality? I think we need to come back to this next week. Stay tuned.

Monday, December 06, 2010

An old love

The two events were a thousand kilometres apart. Not to mention a couple of centuries
In the autumn of 1983, I took a girl out to lunch.

Two hundred years earlier, 1783 saw the start of a famine in Avadh that is said to have lasted a decade. (This much is certain. The rest of the story is not substantiated.) Asaf-ud-Daulah, Nawab of Avadh, started construction projects to provide employment to the hungry farmers. The first, the biggest and arguably the most beautiful was the Bara Imambara in Lucknow. Every morning an army of workmen and their families would assemble before dawn, to work till sunset. These were mouths to feed. Wherefore each evening huge pots were filled with layers of rice and meat, the lids sealed with dough, then lowered into pits where charcoal fires had been lit. They would remain upon the embers all night, thus providing, next morning, a slow-cooked breakfast for the army of workers. An awesome breakfast. Because this, of course, was the origin of dum pukht biryani.

What a wonderful story. But alas, unsubstantiated. By common consensus, biryani actually came to India many years before Asaf-ud-Daulah. The recipe probably came over the passes of Kandahar and Baluchistan in the 14th century, with the hordes led by one of the most fearsome names in history – Tamerlane. Timur the Terrible, Timur the Lame, Timur the Scourge of the Infidels. His sack of Delhi in 1398 was a thing of blood and horror, but some of my friends might say it was a small price to pay for the next six hundred years of biryani delectation. (Not, I hasten to add, my own point of view; my friends tend to have extreme opinions.) There may be more than a grain of truth in the Timur story, though; it is at least likely that the idea, the concept of biryani came to us from Persia. Birian is the Farsi word for “fried when raw” or “fried without cooking”, which is a good description of the way the meat is sautéed for traditional biryani. But what IS traditional biryani?

Depends on the tradition, of course. Hyderabadis will assert that their version of biryani is the older one, brought into the Deccan when Aurangzeb’s governor started the Asaf Jahi dynasty. This version is based in Paradise, or at least the earthly version that has now opened branches across the twin cities. One of the nicest things about buying from there is the sealed pack. Voila! Biryani and haleem that one can stash carry on as cabin baggage!

Another version that also claims its origin in Aurangzeb’s reign, by a similar process of osmosis-through-Nawab, is Arcot biryani. This is even spicier than Hyderabadi and perhaps less well known for that very reason. After all, the taste of biryani should be very different from a spicy pulao. Otherwise grand old Boman Kohinoor, lord and master of the legendary Café Britannia in Bombay’s Ballard Estate, could claim that his signature dish of Berry Pulao is actually biryani in Iranian disguise! There is even a Calicut biryani which is supposed to have come across the seas with the Arab traders.A footnote to the southern saga is the development of Tahiri Biryani, supposedly for the Brahmins who supervised the Nawabs’ estates.

The Hyderabadi tradition of biryani is pretty elaborate. Apparently there were 26 distinct variations in the Nizam’s kitchens. The most major point of differentiation was and is the kachchi / pakki divide. In kachchi biryani, the meat is only marinated before being placed between layers of rice in the deg or handi for the slow cooking process. For pakki biryani, the marinated meat is sautéed with spices before placing it between layers of cooked rice redolent with ghee and spices. The specific spices, the precise meat – whether goat mutton, venison, pigeon or beef (chicken is actually a late 19th century entrant at the very earliest) – are secondary issues of improvisation. But I must confess I can’t accept a dish as biryani if it’s seasoned with kari pata!

The Calcutta variant of Avadhi biryani is a comparatively recent development, since Wajid Ali Shah’s retinue of bawarchis and masalchis only settled in Metia Bruz in the 1850s. For Calcuttans, however, there IS no other. Biryani is limited to the products of Shiraz or Aminia or Sabir’s or, for the hardier souls who can stomach cupfuls of ghee, from Royal on Chitpur Road. Or, more recently, Zeeshan and Arsalan. Straight up Avadhi biryani fragrant with ghee and spices, with the addition of a sautéed potato and – when it’s a plate of “special” – a boiled egg. Having been initiated into this most glorious tradition by the age of ten, I am definitely biased in favour of Calcutta biryani. I’ve tried the others, I don’t deny that some of them are very good, but the real stuff? For that, give me a winter evening with a nip in the air and the woodsmoke from the little lanes back of Park Street. And a table shared with like-minded friends, to scoff down platesful of asli biryani with firni and thick sweet “spesul chai” to follow.

And oh – that lunch date in 1983? It was my first biryani at Shiraz. Also my first date with that girl. Who, despite the fact that she’s now married to me, still shares my enthusiasm for the real thing. After some 27 years of dining at Shiraz, we took our daughter there last month. She loved it. And the waiters smiled benignly as one more generation was introduced to tradition.