Archive for April, 2010

where india becomes hindustan

April 29, 2010

Out at the Wagah border, the only road crossing between India and Pakistan, you will find one of the more peculiar attractions of India. Everyday thousands gather on either side, in purpose built grandstands, to witness the flag lowering ceremony held at dusk. I’d always wanted to come here after watching a Foreign Correspondent report on the sheer oddness of the spectacle. I was a little disappointed to realise on arrival in Amritsar that trucking out to the border ranks with the Golden Temple as the “must do” of Punjab. You are never the trail blazer in India!

Arriving at the border felt like arriving at a footy final – a buzz in the air and thousands of local spectators pouring into the stands. Bollywood tunes and cricket anthems were blaring out of Maiden-sized stacks while women and children danced on the road, perhaps wiggling their hips provocatively at their supposedly more puritanical neighbors.

Plenty has been written on how the spectacle unfolds. A warm-up guy in civilian dress whips up the crowd with rhythmic clapping and cries of “Hindustan – zindabad (long live)!”. Gandhi-ji’s non-sectarian India is on hold out here. Young, very tall soldiers of the Indian Border Protection Force preen themselves with exaggerated movements before they speed-march off in a fury of high kicks and flared nostrils to stare down their Pakistani equivalents while slowly lowering the flag and bringing it to its nightly resting place.

On one hand, the ceremony has a sense of carnival, a theatre where even the locals chuckle at the silliness of it all. However in my view, beneath the pop music and impossibly long calls to “present arms” lurks the hysterical and bellicose nationalism that has dogged these two nations since the end of British India. I can’t but help think that this ceremony gives oxygen to an immensely damaging separation. The contrast with the ecumenical serenity of the Golden Temple could not be more stark.

We walked away not with the often quoted reference to Monty Python’s Ministry of Silly Walks skit on our minds, but this simple thought: weren’t you once the same people?

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more great chats on the train

April 25, 2010

Travelling on the rails from Amritsar to New Delhi we got talking two delightful teenagers, Manjot and his older sister Simerjit Kaur. As we’ve noted elsewhere on the blog, and as always happens on Indian trains, after the initial exchange of “Where are you from?” & “Ricky Ponting is very good cricketer!”, we ended up chatting away for quite a while, which mercifully distracted us from the heat and alarming amount of dust flowing in through the windows. Topics included the reformation, the Sikh faith, Indian life in Melbourne and the frequent texts from Manjot’s friend, possibly of the girl type. It turns out Simerjit is a Punjabi folk singer and thanks to an email from young Manjot, I can share some recordings of hers with you. I think you will agree she’s pretty darn good!

Teri Yaad Channa

Meeno Sochan Deaan Dev – Choorian

how the mighty have fallen

April 24, 2010

It’s 4:45pm, 41 degrees and just starting to rain. Welcome to Delhi, which is undergoing its hottest summer in 50 years.

The only word to describe the scene as we step outside the hotel is “hellish.” Delhi looks under siege; with the final push on to get the place in a state fit for the Commonwealth Games, no patch of the inner city seems like it will escape the blitz(krieg). You can scarcely walk more than a few metres without being confronted with a pile of rubble to traverse while you weave through precarious scaffolding and dodge chunks of falling concrete. And the dust. Oh, the dust. The dust that crunches between your eyelids when you blink.

There’s only one place to retreat when this and a near punch-up with a rickshaw-wallah threatens your sanity: Cafe Coffee Day. Haven of tourists and the Indian middle classes alike, I’m sure you can imagine it without even trying – cheap, blonde wood decor; baseball cap, name badge-sporting staff; gimmicky crossover advertising; endless permutations of caffeinated beverages. Linds’ favourite is the verging-on-racist “Iced Eskimo”; I think my vote lies with the “Mochachillo.” I hate it and myself every time we end up here – on an almost daily basis at the moment – but I blame India.

Deliver me, Lord, from evil.

Post-script (28/4): Relationship with Cafe Coffee Day is being seriously reconsidered. Was curiously itchy while visiting today and upon departure found a lone bed bug nestled on the waistband of my trousers. Is nothing sacred??

Post-script (1/5): Informed by urbane cabin-mate on the train that the cool kids call it “CCD.” Get with the lingo.

tropical beer notes #29 & 30

April 23, 2010

Kingfisher Premium – about 5% – depends on state
Kingfisher Strong – between 6 to 8%  – again, depending on the state

Bum badad baaa. The award for Worst Beers of the Trip goes to Kingfisher and its “how-is-it-possible-to-make-this-stuff-taste-even-worse?” partner in monopolistic crime, Kingfisher Strong.

They utterly dominate the beer “selection” in bottle shops, but perhaps this is a good thing; usually located in pee-stained alleys and involving a fight through a mosh of whisky-slurping drunks, the Indian bottle-o is not really the place for a “browsing experience.” Kingfisher’s domination of the market is even more pronounced in restaurants that have a permit to serve booze. One billion people and one beer. I suspect that, as with India in the more general sense, the locals don’t realise just how bad things really are.*

I’ve searched long and hard for a leftover imperial stout or Indian pale ale but more than any other country so far, there’s only fizzy lager. Heck, even China has Stout Lodge. It’s a pity really, because the brilliant cuisine(s) could do with something not so relentlessly insipid.

Before I became bitter, I started taking pics of the various labels that all proclaim “For sale in X state only” – you can see them here.

Nice label though…

* Please note that I’m writing this in Delhi, a.k.a “Satan’s own country”, and am a little bit grumpy. You should see the road our hotel is on – it’s like Baghdad circa “The Hurt Locker.”

playing catch up

April 20, 2010

I don’t think we’ve managed to be on top of the blog for the whole time we’ve been in India, so watch this space as we try to push it out in the next few days.

Madurai is not much chop as a town, although it is home to two wonderful things: the spaceship-themed Apollo 96 basement bar and the Sri Meenakshi Temple. Despite having recently read the Hindu epic, Ramayana, we’re still fairly baffled by the twisted familial webs of the gods, although I’m pretty sure Meenakshi is Shiva’s three-breasted, fish-eyed consort.

Sprawling and cavernous, the temple towers rise out of the dusty, chaotic streets like a massive sort of Hindu-themed Christmas tree dripping with deities. I could look at these towers forever – the riotous colour and activity, dotted with obligatory cows, is like India itself. We hit it up early to avoid the heat and crowds and enjoyed a few hours of padding around barefoot on the cool stone floors, exploring quiet corners and taking in all the bells and smells.

Kanyakumari lies at the very tip of India, where the Bay of Bengal meets the Indian Ocean meets the Arabian Sea – reaching here holds a definite sense of satisfaction. Part pilgrimage point, part seaside fun fair, the place was thronging with domestic tourists, of whom we surmised that many were experiencing the ocean for the first time. Watching Indians do the beach is rather delightful – women happily bobbing about the shallows in gorgeous saris; groups of young men splashing each other and squealing like school girls; parents approaching the water’s edge with their tiny kin who are either delighted or terrified by the very modest waves lapping at the shore. Add in some pony rides and innumerable vendors hawking chai, fried snacks and balloons and it’s very Enid Blyton.

Two small islands about 200m off the coast commemorate the Tamil saint-poet, Thiruvalluvar, and the wandering monk, Swami Vivekananda. We queued for an hour to board the ferry in what can only be described as a very Indian experience – all the time being poked and prodded from behind by some shrunken grannies, then joining a Boxing Day sales-style race to seize some decrepit life vests from the pile and being herded onto the vessel like cattle, envisioning tomorrow’s headline of “Hundreds Die in Indian Ferry Disaster.” Clearly I wasn’t the only one with such visions, as aforementioned shrunken grannies clutched each other and mumbled prayers for the two-minute duration of the journey before casting aside their fears and joining the scrum to get off.

A night of brazen bed bug attack – these bold little buggers didn’t even wait until we turned out the light to launch their offensive – ensured that we were well and truly ready for some easy living in Varkala, where the big question to ponder was how I managed to get so much sand in the lining of my bathers without there being any apparent entry point. Goa for grown-ups, we revelled in a couple of weeks of all that real India can’t provide – eggs on toast, body surfing and unadulterated quiet. And we received a visit from the Tall Man, whose birthday (and Easter) we celebrated by watching a giant storm roll in from the horizon over bulk Kingfishers and a BBQ seafood feast.

We were jolted from our reverie by a 30-hour train journey back to Bombay, sharing our cabin with some giggly art school students, a banana farmer, a Catholic priest and a gaggle of inquisitive kids. There’s something very comforting about arriving in a familiar city, being able to confidently stride past taxi touts to the local train and navigating our way around town sans map. We visited some old haunts and some new ones and had a somewhat tortuous and ultimately ill-fated flirtation with the purchase of some antique furniture. Suffice to say that when we found out what a customs broker is and how much their services cost in Australia, our killer deal suddenly became a lot less viable. Goodness knows how, but somehow we must have endeared ourselves enough to the dealer to prompt him to offer us our deposit back, which means another trip to Bombay once we get our onward visas sorted in Delhi. For those details, you’ll have to wait a little longer…

have you seen this man?

April 15, 2010

southern grub

April 11, 2010

I’m not too proud to admit that at first, we were a little cavalier about Indian eating.* It didn’t take long before we were forced to learn a few hard gastrointestinal lessons and the famous “Lindsay & Catie Tripartite Test for Restaurant Selection” was quickly revised for the Indian market.** Thankfully, it didn’t take long for us to overcome The Fear and we have since made it our business to sample as much of the local fare as possible.  My big brother wasn’t far off the mark when he recently remarked that all we seem to do in India is eat and helpfully pointed out that it’s good we’ve engaged in a bit of physical activity because we might otherwise have grown to be the size of small mountain cottages.

What has delighted us most is the diversity of food on offer, which is sadly overlooked by most Indian restaurants at home. We were barely aware of the differences between north and south Indian food before we came here, which is hardly surprising given that our only frames of reference were boozy nights at d’Tandoor and the occasional lunch with my Indian relatives. You can now consider yourselves reliably informed that the food on your local Indian menu at home is almost entirely northern – the usual suspects of butter chicken, palak paneer, rogan josh – influenced by the omnivorous Muslim and Sikh communities and laced with fairly shocking amounts of butter and cream.

By comparison, the food of the south goes easy on the dairy and is almost entirely veg or “pure veg” (eggless). Not completely without vice – most meals contain at least one fried component – we have found it a lot more enjoyable to eat on a daily basis than northern food. I know some of you will find this hard to believe***, but it is possibly to tire of butter chicken after a while.

And now, for your appetitive pleasure, I bring you the Food of the South:

I’m not sure who this restaurant thought they were fooling when they named this set the “mini breakfast.” This is like a “who’s who” of southern cuisine – idli, vada, sambar, poori, utthappam, pongal and, of course, coconut chutney – two kinds here (red and white). Linds has meticulously labelled all the elements on Flickr, so I’ll save you the repetition here.

The ubiquitous dosa – this big guy is a paper dosa, which I think roughly translates to “really, really big.” Masala dosa comes accompanied with spicy potato. Sometimes rolled into a cylinder, sometimes folded into a parcel. Always with sambar and coconut chutney. You can get these in Perth at Maya Masala.

Poori set, with coconut chutney and sabji (miscellaneous veg dish). Fresh pooris will come out too hot to touch and puffed up like a pillow of deep-fried goodness, deflating as they cool. Hangover food from the Gods.

Bhel puri is a native snack of Bombay, although we were way too chicken to eat it on the street there. Puffed rice, potato, onion, chutney, papri (small discs of fried dough), sev (fried chickpea flour noodles), coriander and lemon. It’s like there’s a party in your mouth and everyone’s invited.

Idli: the steamed snack that powers millions. Usually a breakfast food, but some places serve it all day. Idli is good friends with vada (savoury doughnut) and they are often served together. Again, always with sambar and coconut chutney. This one is rava idli, which is made with semolina instead of the usual rice and lentil mix. The normal ones don’t usually have tomato and bits baked into them either.

Appam, or a study in white. Bowl-shaped and soft. This one was sweet-ish and served with coconut cream for dipping.

The poori that ate Paris. Channa batura, or chole puri – poori with chickpeas. My research has just informed me that this is actually a Punjabi breakfast dish, so not from the south. But tasty all the same.

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*  Just to clarify – eating Indian food, not Indians themselves.

** For the uninitiated:

  1. Restaurant must be busy. Queuing and having to wait a while for your food are good things.
  2. The fewer whiteys, the better.
  3. Must be at least one other female customer. Extra points for women dining with kids and female staff.

These are essentially listed in order of priority: Rule #1 is, and has always been, the most important consideration, while Rules #2 & 3 can be reversed as required. The basic tenet of the Indian revision is that customers must also be firmly rooted in the middle classes. Call us weak, but we’ve found that the extra 15 rupees you pay for your meal generally buys a higher standard of hygiene. Key indicators are men in business attire and groups of college-educated youths giggling loudly and shouting “Nooo! Get out of town!”

*** Marsha and Drew, this means you.