Saturday, April 30, 2005


And these were the sites we were exploring before we wandered away to the banks of the Tiber. The picture doesn't do any justice to the magnificient ruins, better preserved than the Roman agora next to Plaka in Athens, at the foot of the Acropolis.

I don't think I've scanned my Napoli pics yet, but here's my favourite one of Rome. This is from the banks of the Tiber river, where we had stopped for a little reprieve from the blazing sun after exploring all the ancient ruins of what looked like an agora (don't know the Latin name).

Friday, April 29, 2005

Lost In Translation? Sure as hell I was

So no one bit the bait regarding my Campania essay. Maybe when I manage to scan my Napoli pics, the peeps would have a better idea of what I'm talking about. Anyway, here's a quick post.

Finally watched "Lost In Translation" last night. And again had the smug self-satisfaction of not throwing my money away by watching it at the theatres. I guess folks have figured out by now that I didn't really care for the film, but instead of doing the hatchet job myself, I turn to higher wisdom. I've never been to Tokyo myself, but Peter Green, one of the most interesting persons I've ever met online has, and his take on the film would be infinitely more interesting than anything I can produce. So here are excerpts from Peter's acerbic demolition of "Lost In Translation":

"anyone who hasn't *already* figured out that the central premise of said movie is the blah blah oh-so-effing-predictable bringing-us-ny-review-of-books-reading-whiteys together alienation that occurs when stuck among the oh-so-very alien japanese for a few days would have to be a bit dim, no?"

...............

"what i find very droll is the idea that one could feel alienated inside the tokyo park hyatt. it is the most un-japanese hotel i've ever been inside in tokyo. at Y50,000+/night, you can be pretty damn sure that all the staff are not just bi-lingual, but also very au fait with western ways. in fact, i recall reading interview with manager where he stated that he purposefully hired more *western* staff than would be normal who don't speak *japanese* - precisely to give *japanese* guests/clients a delicious sense of alienation and that they were getting their exclusive money's worth."

.................

"interesting concept that a white man would spend his time in tokyo in the company of a white female too...."

.................

" i recently ran this movie past the japanese harem for comments. the general response was as follows: 'lost in translation' is a self-indulgent western ****. they would rather prefer to watch 'last samurai' again."

.....................
(I think the word asterisked out there is probably wankfest, which is a very apt description of the movie)

For Peter's full post, see here.

Thursday, April 28, 2005

My fabulous Italian writing career - not!

I have a friend, Giuseppe, whose family runs an adorable inn and restaurant in a small town about 60 kilometres from Napoli. I had visited them for about a week last summer (after a trip to il mio amore Rome) and Giuseppe wants me to write a small article about my visit that would be translated and published in an Italian magazine. Now since I'm suffering a bit of a writer's block in penning anything substantial (as opposed to trite gossip about my soirees), I thought I'd take first stab with a post about it. So if you see an Italian version of the post below (you're all fabulously bilingual, right?), fear not, there is no plagiarism involved. It's just dumpy old me, rendered oh so molto bella (hopefully). And in a supremely self-serving act, I would beseech you to comment, and help me improve the piece.

Thinking terroir in Campania

A few days ago, I met a man who enthusiastically told me about his near decade-long study on mozzarella, and his quest to reproduce it exactly in production facilities in Romania. His passion for the mozzarella was endearing, but for me it raised some interesting questions about terroir, about knowledge handed down over generations, and how traditional specializations and strengths can be translated in an increasingly globalizing world. Such questions perhaps do not trouble the buffaloes of Castelvolturno, as they happily graze in fields next to highways that connect nodes of a region that is becoming a huge urban agglomeration. Mozzarella di bufala and pizza are iconic of Napoli and the entire Campania region and draw in the tourists, as do the ruins of Pompeii and sunny Capri.

And yet, on the other side of the harbour that takes ferryloads of tourists to the gorgeous islands off the Neapolitan coast, is one of the biggest container ports in Italy, gateway to East and Southeast Asian imports and Italy's exports. Napoli's downtown business district is impressive, with skyscrapers reflecting cutting edge design that curiously do not seem out of place in a city where a large proportion of the settlements are built on hills. It is this fact that makes Napoli one of the most visually stunning cities I've ever seen, where the city seems to either tumble down to meet the Tyrrhenian sea, or, alternatively, rise up from the sea, white from the sea salt clinging to it. Napoli is growing rapidly, and taking Campania with it, as new homes and hotels and industries stamp the contemporary urban imprint all the way to Castelvolturno. The road that was built all the way to Rome when the Romans ruled one and all is now dotted with hotels, many jarring in their awkward architecture, built in a hurry to meet a growing tourist apetite.

Still some things are remarkably well preserved. I remember the surprise of a professor of coastal management in Los Angeles, who looked through a map of Castelvolturno and was amazed to see a large swathe of green marked all the way along the coast. "But we do not have anything like this here!". True, it has been harder to guard the California coastline against the greed for beachfront property, despite the best legal and preservationist efforts. The conservationist battle is perhaps just as hard in Italy, but the wide green belt along the Castelvolturno coast was reassuring, it provided a tangible physical barrier against excessive violation of the sea. However, as the number of tourists keep increasing, not just international but domestic as well, Castelvolturno and Campania as a whole will perhaps have harder preservation challenges, not just the green belt, but the agricultural lands yielding the finest in Italian produce, and the grazing fields for the oblivious buffaloes.

As my opening story suggested though, tourism and international trade are not the only agents of change. There are global movements of ideas and production technologies, and compared to the past these have become more rapid and widespread. In such circumstances perhaps the best response is to able to engage with the global forces with the confidence that your local knowledge and traditions contribute valuably to this global discourse. When I first met Giuseppe Ciambrone, architect and worthy resident of Castelvolturno, I was a bit surprised when he told me that he was doing comparative studies of the coastal management and development in California and Campania. What American lessons could you possibly be looking for, when most American scholars of planning I know seek ways to replicate European urban forms and transit facilities in the US. But then, I realised that perhaps it is not replication that is desirable, but the quest to find innovative solutions to common problems: the logistics and cargo transport issues related to a big port, growing influx of tourists, encouraging economic development, pressures on coastline, urban sprawl, etc.

Will the changing character and growing urban agglomeration in Napoli and Campania change the specific character of the place and render it part of an anonymous global urban network? Perhaps not. Away from the skyscrapers and the massive containeryards are sections of Napoli that have a quaint old-worldly charm to them. Houses built along steps that lead you up the hills, tiny lanes and by-lanes with pastry shops tucked away in unlikely corners, a barber shop run by Sri Lankan refugees who only spoke Italian. Besides shops that carry the best of Italy's fine designer wear are little stalls that almost beseech you to haggle. Not that different from Los Angeles, I think, with the gleaming downtown business offices flanked by the utterly chaotic bazaar-like garment district. Places change, but they also accomodate.

In this fine global world of ours, what will I make of a Romanian mozzarella? I find the concept interesting and may enjoy it on its own terms (a well-made cheese is a well-made cheese after all). However, there is a special pleasure in being seated in a restaurant covered in the warm, lazy sunshine of the Mediterrranean summer, savouring an insalata Caprese built around mozzarella that has perhaps made the journey from production to your plate in a few hours. It is the unique character of this experience, that is tied to the terroir of Castelvolturno and Campania, that will draw me to the place, even when my local speciality Italian groceries proudly proclaim that they can give me mozzarella di bufala identical to the one in Italy. I can only smile and shake my head, and think that the buffaloes of Campania have nothing to fear.

Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Fly on the wall reporting from film festival party

Now for the Sunday bit. Urmi's already talked about her experiences of volunteering for the Indian Film Festival of LA on Saturday. So she was a volunteer veteran and I was a bumbling novice on Sunday morning when we showed up for duties. We spent most of the morning setting up the tables for the evening reception at SIR, a recording studio/performance venue that seems to have been around since zoot suits were the "thing" in the city. That's probably not true, since the parent company in NY is only 25 years old. But the place definitely had a very retro feel, with old art nouveau style framed champagne ads, and a little baby piano in the corner.

So morning was spent lifting a lot of heavy stuff, and it felt just like a college fest in India with the same casual bonhomie. That illusion was a bit shaken in the evening when I volunteered at the actual closing event, where my responsibility was at the buffet table. Now normally, I'm pretty cool with being a food serving volunteer, but I wasn't supposed to be one and was randomly assigned to it. I was dressed in my dressy best, a lovely white kurta with beautiful chikankari (bought in Lucknow with Fazal) which I proceeded to ruin with chicken curry stains. Aaargh!!

And then, the lines at the buffet tables were crazy, and I had to keep serving food non-stop for almost two hours. Which was actually fun, because I got to see almost half the guests at the do. Some of them were adorable, they asked me if I was enjoying myself, if I was too tired, if they could get me a drink, etc. And then there were some middle aged South Asian women with a greater than average sense of entitlement. These women were unsmiling, brusque, and more than one complained about the amount of curry I served out (I was giving out very generous portions!). One of them actually looked at her serving of curry, then looked up at me and said "Where are the chicken pieces?" Huh????

I enjoyed my post, but the entertainment for the evening made me miserable. Initially there was an interpretive dance performance, which I could barely see as I was at the back of the room. Whatever I could take a peek at looked interesting though. But then, we had the privilege of suffering through the music of a group comprising entirely of white American musicians that apparently does "chant music", singing in Sanskrit. I am usually pretty lax with pronounciation and would have enjoyed the music if they hadn't been so goddamn tone-deaf! When I left my post and joined a bunch of Greeks talking to Soto and S, one of them, trying to be polite meekly said - "Mmm..is this Indian music? They seem to be a bit out of tune". I reassured him that a)they would be booed off the stage if this was India, and b)they are completely out of tune.

Celebrity sightings were pretty minor. There was Purva Bedi, who looks prettier in person than in the movie American Desi. And Anurag Kashyap, who either was born with those droopy eyes, or was really tipsy. I also saw Madhur Bhandarkar. I met a strange woman, wife of a director she resolutely refused to name, and her Bangladeshi friend who was equally cagey. Also spoke to a music video director, who seemed to have resolved to speak to every reasonably good looking woman in the room that evening.

The crowd was an interesting mix of India-curious anglo types and Indians of all ages and immigration status. The woman who wore her sari more elegantly than anyone else was a white redhead, accompanied by a man looking equally adorable in a kurta. There was a lot more colourful attire than I'm used to seeing in LA. All in all, it was an interesting evening, but I do think my Saturday was much more fun, with a far more interesting cast of characters randomly assembled.

Monday, April 25, 2005

Sometimes, it's Nature, not Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds!

The wine post will have to wait, as I faithfully record the boring-to-everyone-else-but-me details of my weekend. On Saturday evening, S and Soto wanted to go and see Kung Fu Hustle, a film we had successfully dodged on Friday evening by seeing The Interpreter instead (not sure if it was the lesser of the two evils). I have already expressed my true feelings for martial artists dabbling in levitation, so of course I refused to go. Now we were also supposed to attend a party later that night in Pasadena, so S suggested that I tag along with E-M to go to a Greek restaurant where a common friend was performing, and attend the party with her later.

Great idea, except E-M turns up almost an hour late to pick me and Suze up. And arrives in a gigantic, monstrous Hummer! Well, they're all gigantic and monstrous, but E-M doesn't drive one, and I was introduced to our buddy for the night Costa, apparently a singer who was also performing at the restaurant that night. Turned out Costa is a huge enthusiast of spa and skin treatments, and all four of us excitedly exchanged notes through our trip to the restaurant (kinda funny talking about mud masks in a Hummer, besides Costa is a guy in his early 50s).

The restaurant is a place of true heartbreak, a beautiful space with a lovely patio, adorable eye-candy waiters, but such mediocre, bleh food! But there was wine, and wonderful music and dancing by the gorgeous E-M and the nutcase reincarnate of Zorba the Greek who shall be known as Angel man. He is a friend of E-M and a social acquaintance of S and I, and nothing in our previous encounters prepared me for his utter zaniness. The man danced and danced like he had rubber feet, burst into occasional fits of rapidfire speech, and to top it all, had a furious interest in karma, afterlife and the magical qualities of water blessed by good thought. This latter wisdom he proceeded to unload on Suze, who looked beseiged through the evening.

As the evening progressed our table curiously got more and more full, even as the last remaining guests left the restaurant and closing time came and went. We were joined by the musicians performing that night and 5 friends of one of the musicians. Emil dropped by as well, and was greeted by Angel man with a volley of Greek, and with a very loud "Gia sas" (Cheers), by a very drunk Englishman (raised in the US) who had come with the party of five. At some point E-M got several calls by S, Soto and the party host, wondering what in heaven we were upto. So then we moved on to the party, with Angel man in tow, and hapless Suze assigned as his co-driver. In the party Angel man was in more frenzied form, circling around the room rapidly, springing surpise conversations on very dazed looking guests and hugging everyone in his way. Soto was convinced there was chemical abuse involved, but I have a suspicion that even as a little boy, Angel man was the cause of much dread in his village. You have to be born with such talent to astound.

The rest of the party was spent in Em and me speculating about the sexual orientation of the two hosts and playing the guessing game who are couples and who are not. One of the hosts talked to me in a very flirtatous way, but it seemed so practiced and asexual that it didn't feel like flirtation. But then E-M swore up and down that the guy is a slut who spends a lot of time chasing women. Either he tries to hide his awkwardness with rehearsed seduction or maybe he's not really that into women. Hard to tell. Which makes for a far more exciting world sexually than the stifling straightjackets of straight and gay.

Monday, April 18, 2005

A Voice From Heaven - Not really Nusrat's swan song

Urmi's already posted about this, and said essentially everything that I wanted to say about the sorry piece of work. But I reproduce the greater part of a post I wrote last night for Another Subcontinent, describing my impressions of the documentary. Here it is:

So last Saturday I finally got to see a documentary I had waited forever to see. To my knowledge there have been only two documentaries that deal with the life and work of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. One called "Nusrat Has Left the Building...But When? by the Pakistani documentary filmmaker Farjad Nabi takes a critical look at the Nusrat's nod to commercial considerations. It charts the critical downslide of the more overtly commercial of Nusrat's repertoire and sees him detached from the tradition of qawwali. I was lucky to see the film online, and thought that it was a competent short film, although I don't necessarily agree with Farjad's argument.

The other one, "A Voice from Heaven", by Italian filmmaker Giuseppe Asaro, apparently had interview footage with Nusrat himself, was shot on location in Pakistan and was longer. So when the Skirball Center in LA had a free showing, I jumped at the opportunity. Well, it was a fantastic sunny afternoon and the Santa Monica mountains Urmi and I drove by looked great, but gawd, this is one of the worst documentaries I've ever seen. For the Indians old enough to remember, this makes many Films Division documentaries look like high art.

It seems Asaro is ignorant of filmmaking basics and driven to this project by the sheer force of his great admiration for Nusrat. So far so good. But then he proceeds to fill the movie with the most inexplicable shot selection known to the craft. The entire film is full of random shots of the most dilapidated sections of Lahore and Faisalabad (formerly Lyallpur), interspersed with equally random shots of Haji Ali and BEST buses in Bombay. No place is ever identified by name, so it is just all a miscellaneous lump of oriental exotica, full of young Muslim men in trance, chandookhor (opium addict) types grinding bhang (cannabis), Muslim women, mostly with their faces completely obscured with a veil, etc., etc.

Even this I would have forgiven, if only they had spoken at length about Nusrat's early life and shown coverage of early shows (which apparently PTV has plenty). Apart from one measly shot there was no early coverage. There was a brief reference to his father, but no attempt to really situate him in the qawwali tradition and styles in the sub-continent. And a section attempting to explain the origins of qawwali made the most absurd generalizations about the musical form. The height of ignorance was the complete absence of the mention of Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya and Amir Khusro! Of course there was hardly any mention of how the form has evolved in India, which might lead a viewer to think that the art is exclusive to Pakistan.

And then finally, and most infuriatingly, there is a long closing section that goes on and on about how Rahat Fateh Ali Khan is the true bearer of Nusrat's legacy. It almost looked like a propoganda film where some despot's son is being introduced to the masses after his death! I have my own opinion about Rahat's singing abilities, but wouldn't go into it here.

Urmi and I concluded that the documentary does immense disservice to the great talent that Nusrat was. Before I saw it, I thought it was impossible to make a bad documentary about Nusrat. All they have to do is have lots of footage of his concerts and that's it. I was so so wrong.

Thursday, April 14, 2005

Scroll down for a Sideways mini-review, past the Thai chilli obsession

I had a great late-night plate of pad kee maw (a very pleasant fallout of going with Em for his Zankou chicken fix) but now I'm so stuffed. I've officially decided that the Thais are the chilli champions of the world, better than Koreans, better than Mexicans, better than Sumatrans, certainly better than wimpy Bengalis and heck, even better than residents of coastal Andhra. Now that's some feat, considering the coastal Andhra sambhar (lentil soup) comes with a layer of very innocuous looking red flakes floating on top.....till you eat a bit..and..ignore the soup for the rest of your meal. No, the Thais are a league apart, and I'm befuddled, and the only way I can explain this is that portions in Thailand must be considerably smaller and many of the dishes eaten as moderate amounts of condiments with copious amounts of rice. Don't know if that's true.

So finally last night, after much deferrment, we got to see "Sideways". I really liked the movie, perhaps I'm biased, because I didn't think the soft near-sepia tones for the California wine country were over-flattering at all. Actually they seemed quit true to life, and reminded me of the time we missed a freeway entrance and drove a few miles through very misty and eeriely beautiful Castroville, Artichoke Capital of the World, rows and rows of artichokes interspersed with white-flower meadows, a short distance away from Monterey Bay. The little detours through Santa Barbara agricultural land with the vineyards visible in a distance, past a long-forgotten town with supposedly the best split-pea soup in the world.

I loved the scale of the film, it made everything seem so accessible, taking the scenic route everywhere, rather than the faster, straighter, dismal freeway. It was easy to take an interest in the characters, and yet they did not offer themselves bluntly, but revealed themselves over the course of the film. I fully empathise with the anguish felt by admirers of the movie about the Oscar snub for Paul Giamatti. I don't know how much of his own personality he brings to the character, but his passion for wine, his depression, his inability to make himself emotionally available are so convincingly potrayed by Giamatti, that the only reason for the Oscar lookover might be that he was a bit too "real", too much of a natural.

Of course the initial interest in the movie for us was sparked by it being the work of Mr. Director, and certainly, he is a fine practitioner of his craft. I respect Emil's opinion on films and filmmaking immensely, and he said it was one of the best films he has seen in recent times. He said there were shades of Francesco Rosi here, and I too felt that it evoked Rosi's very evocative "Three Brothers" (Tre Fratelli). Em felt that the film worked because it made the mundane, quotidian very interesting and I agree. The only thing that Em and I were slightly unhappy with (only slightly, otherwise the movie was great) was the ending. I guess Payne was working for some sort of closure, which for us was provided in the scene where Miles drinks the finest wine in his collection. It was a perfect scene, and could have been a very satisfying end to a very happy film. Ah well, even with a slight flaw, it is probably the best movie I have seen all year and I look forward to following Payne's career in the years to come.

Monday, April 11, 2005

Nostalgia for school and Bollywood - brought together in the 80s

And later for nostalgia's sake I listened to songs from Hindi movies of the 1980s, songs that I grew up with, and many of the songs reminded me of the girls and boys I went to school with. There was the song "Bin tere sanam" (Yaara Dildaara), a sappy romantic song, extremely popular in its time, and recently remixed into a hit. It reminds me of Surbhi, who used to listen to this song all the time on her Walkman, a gift from her boyfriend. Surbhi was dating someone her parents didn't approve of (she was dating someone else on the side as well, but that's another story), and the message of the song about love against all odds used to resonate well with her.

And then there was "Keh do ke tum ho meri" (Tezaab), that made Pooja and Shalini go weak in the knees because they thought Anil Kapoor was so sexy! Mm....yeah, but one look at their boyfriends and you knew these girls just had no taste in men. Shalini made the big mistake of comparing her boyfriend's looks to Shahrukh Khan once (back when he started getting recognized on TV shows). She was ridiculed by all the girls and her boyfriend's appearance was ripped apart (teenage girls are so cruel, and we were only 13!).

"Aap ke aa jaane se" (Khudgarz) was a song I remembered because back in 8th standard, I had hardly any access to the latest Bollywood movie. I could hear the songs on the radio, but going to a movie theatre or renting the movie was ruled out by my parents ("you watch too much TV anyway young lady!!"). One day my dear friend Sachin who also sat next to me decided to give me some Bollywood education, and proceeded to narrate the story of the last movie he had seen, which happened to be Khudgarz. His narration was a laugh riot, and he made it seem like comic genius. Many years later, when I actually saw the movie, I realised that it supposed to be a emotionally churning, dramatic film. I wished they had used Sachin's narrative instead! By the way, the price for the hour of entertainment was doing all the sketches on his lab file. Sachchu couldn't draw a line, and I had discovered a fascination for drawing endless pages of nudes around the time. Not a bad tradeoff, 'cause Sachchu was seriously funny back then.

There were many songs that we would dance to at the annual school picnics, where the couples among us would soon disappear out of sight, not to be found till the teacher in charge had called out their names for the umpteenth time when it was time to leave. A favourite song to tease a girl and a boy who sort of liked each other was the old Bollywood standby "Chup chup khade ho". This was also the time when Punjabi pop was emerging, and the London-based Malkit Singh had scored his first hit single "Tutak tutak tutiya". The song was a solid presence on the school picnic scene for years, and was employed deviously to lure Anoop Bhan to step on the dance floor (or the dance lawn, since we usually went to parks). Anoop was a Kashmiri hottie, but looked utterly ridiculous when he danced. The poor boy had no clue about the sniggers he inspired when he danced in utter joy. I had a teeny-weeny crush on Anoop, but when I would see him dancing, I knew it was a good thing he didn't reciprocate.

During the 1980s Bollywood was at its kitschy best and we embraced it wholeheartedly. The music coloured our emotional life, provided us with the words to express our happiness and angst, and provided us with a common passion. The films didn't make for profound cinema, and the songs may not have any hipster appeal, but there was an honesty to them that I admire even now. Current Bollywood is over-stylized, painfully trendy, borrowing camera styles from MTV, populated with actors and actresses who cannot speak Hindi to save their lives. Somehow it seems to me to be akin to the difference between the current crop of Hong Kong action films contrasted with the Bruce Lee oeuvre of the past. Another movie with flying daggers or pumpkins, and I'll despair of contemporary Hong Kong film forever. Even though there was much that was embarassing, loud, overly theatrical in the old Bollywood, it seemed to be more about us and our stories, rather than cookie cutter flicks pandering to the Indian diaspora.

The Ides of March.......a couple of weeks late

Today I almost lost it. A series of unfortunate events came together in cumulative damnation, sending my plans of celebrating Songkran in the company of Urmi, Ileana and Daniel awry. For a few painful moments I was miserable, and wanted to be anywhere but here, but I managed to nap through my troubles, and when I woke up, they didn't seem to be so overwhelming (and really, these were a bunch of petty incidents that just looked daunting in toto). And then Ileana stopped by with a box of delicious sticky rice from the Wat Thai, and we talked and I felt so much better. I saw her after almost two months, and it felt good to connect again.

And now I feel like a lame-o for having been such a weakling and missing a wonderful outing with some great people. Really, I should not allow trivial things to affect me so much. Anyway, the pleasant fallout from the morning's fiasco was that I spent some time reading up Romilla Thapar's Early India, which promises to be really interesting. I love her writing, because of the clear and lucid style she adopts in explaining some rather complex debates in ancient historiography. And I've always been fascinated by ancient Indian history.

Thursday, April 07, 2005

Starts with a sample sale, and then I meditate on my nose

What a waste of clothes-browsing time! The clothes at the Billion Dollar Babes sale were nothing like I had thought they would be. No fine examples of LA designer inventiveness, no Dries van Noten wannabes, heck not even the bare minimum of a well crafted garment. Many of the clothes looked like hastily stitched together samples that only the most deranged fashion groupie would buy for the outrageous prices that they were going for. A poorly crafted Prada sample is still a poorly crafted sample, label notwithstanding. No there was no Prada there, otherwise there would have been a riot.

What was very worthwhile and fruitful (thanks Urmi!) was a meeting to volunteer for the very exciting Indian Film Festival of Los Angeles. The Festival is the brainchild of a Greek woman who apparently has a great passion for non-mainstream Indian cinema. This is the third year that the Festival is being organized, and it seems like they are pulling in an ever increasing number of people to it. In fact I saw flyers for it at the cafe we went later that day and also at an Indian restaurant yesterday. I've had no experience volunteering for a film festival, though I did volunteer for SPICMACAY eons ago. That was a lot of fun, and this promises to be as well.

So this week S' best friend from childhood has come visiting Los Angeles with his wife. S' friend AV has a Greek father and an Indonesian mother, studied in London and was working in Singapore till he decided to chuck his job and move back to Greece. Talk about leading global lives! His wife's Indonesian, and they married recently. Now Andreas is a tall guy, certainly over six feet tall. When we reached the airport to pick them up, I saw a tiny girl next to him. The rocket mouth that I am, I blurted out "Wow, his wife's really short!". S was not happy.

And then, later at night when we were alone, he asked me what I thought of her. I tried to be honest, and a bit gossipy, and said that I liked her, found her friendly and cute, but she was less good-looking than I had expected her to be. Now, I thought I was just making a casual personal assessment, but S interpreted it as questioning the judgment of his dearest friend. Which was not at all what I had meant, since I don't think there is a problem with AV dating and marrying a girl who was less good looking than I had thought she would be. But S thought I was mean, and even racist, because I said that the reason I found her plain is perhaps I'm conditioned to recognise certain characteristics as beautiful and others less so. And all I was trying to say was that beauty is culturally constructed, what is beautiful to me may not be beautiful to others and vice versa.

I mean, I've been at the receiving end of this all my life. From early childhood, I was constantly made to feel that I was not attractive, that my face did not correspond to the ideals of beauty in India, that somehow I'll have to compensate for being ugly by shining otherwise. I barely acknowledged it to myself then, but I did suffer for it with a demise of confidence, and got into a painful, emotionally draining relationship, simply because I needed some romantic and sexual validation that didn't seem to be forthcoming elsewhere. When I dated other men, it seemed to me that they valued me for intellectual companionship, never for physical attributes. That may have been only partially true, but I was so convinced of my physical unattractiveness, that the possibility of that not being the case did not seem to exist.

And then I left the country to study in LA. And discovers that strange things happen to people's perspectives when they grow up in other nations. They value things differently. All my life, I had hated my nose, and as a child I would stick a clothespin on it in the vain hope of making it bigger and narrower. I was fascinated with drawing profiles, with big, narrow, handsome noses. Noses that leap out of Alexander bust or Botticelli's angels. Noses with character. Mine looked like a doormat. And then Em told me that Iranian women pay enormous sums of money to get rid of their big forceful noses and acquire a nose like mine. A little button nose. I was told that my large round face made me especially attractive to African-American men, and I frequently found proof for it walking down the street, in grocery stores, in clubs ("you are so pretty, are you from India?"). Suddenly my physical appearance was not to be lamented as a freak of nature, but celebrated.

So no I'm not racist, or insensitive, and am usually extremely careful not to make any uncharitable comments about someone's appearance in front of the person. Even in private, I usually indicate if I like how someone looks or not, specifying that it is a personal preference, not an absolute judgment. Maybe I was a bit indiscreet and catty, commenting about a very dear friend's wife in the presence of S. But heck, I'm allowed my indiscretions and bitchy moments, though I wouldn't dream of being intentionally hurtful to someone.

Friday, April 01, 2005

Love fine food, ergo cannot become fashionista

What happiness! I finally managed to snag a copy of "Dastarkhwan-e-Awadh", if only for a month. A sharp punter tipped me about the possibility of using my university's vast resources and wide electronic reach to good use. Interlibrary loan Zito and Zindabad! The book's fantastic, I wish it had a lot more background information, but that's just my usual nitpicking. The emphasis of the book is definitely on elite kitchens, though many of the recipes are prepared in tiny streetside stalls in Lucknow and can legitimately be called people's cuisine. The recipes are gorgeous, a trifle elaborate (oh heck! very elaborate) by modern Indian kitchen standards, but certainly no more than the fuss of French haute cuisine.

Funny that my last post should have been about Saad, because it was he who first enlightened me regarding the differences between a "sheermal" and a "baqarkhani", both different kinds of breads prepared in Northern India, but often confused as the same by many in India. They feature in the breads section of the book, along with "taftun", one among many Persian culinary imports. There is also a nice recipe for "sewaiiyon ka muzaffar" a luscious dessert prepared with vermicelli and reduced milk solids, garnished with dates, almonds and raisins. My former colleague Sabiha used to make it every Eid for us in the office. This is food that even in it's extravagance is so familiar, so intimate and integrally embedded in the cultural ethos of growing up in Northern India. Oh, and thank you Mr. Saxena, for stating what I had always suspected. That "biryani" was never considered elite food, in fact for the aristocracy the rice recipes of choice were the pulaos. Not dissimilar to the Persian pollo, but with the South Asian contribution of subtle and complex spicing.

And tomorrow, I pay tribute at the altar of consumerism, joining several fashionistas in a mad scramble that is the curious outcome of the state of contemporary global garment trade. Problem is, people just cannot consume fast enough to keep up with changing trends and styles, hence enormous backlogs that make even items chic three months ago look dated now. And then, there is the other byproduct of the diffused, decentralized garment industry, the sample sale, of stuff that may have been made and is worn by everyone's grandma, or unique items of clothing made by a future Dries van Noten. I hardly follow trends, and am actually feeling a wee bit embarassed showing up my slovenly self at such a vanity fest (the last time I went to the California Mart, even the doorman was better dressed than me). But I find the clothing industry fascinating, and love following the work of designers I consider especially creative. In fact, I just might save up enough to buy a Sophia Kokosalaki dress one day. Not tomorrow, though where I'd mostly people watch and rummage through the occasional discount bin.