Tuesday, February 28, 2006

LA Summers Will Never be the Same Again

Guess what can prompt the laziest of all bloggers to post twice in 24 hours? The most unfuckinbelievable news I've heard all month. After all the pining, the nostalgia bouts, and anguish, finally the Indian mango is headed to US shores. Apparently we now have the technology to get around US paranoia about alien species like pesky weevils making their way into US soil riding on Indian mangoes. Those hard, tasteless, available year-round Mexican mangoes in US supermarkets used to make me weep. Now, they can make as much salsa as they want out of those mangoes (mango salsa tastes great, but that's all Mexican mangoes are good for). But when it comes to enjoying the fruit for its own sake, nothing beats an Indian mango. Sorry Thailand, with all my unbiased scientific rigour, I pronounce that your fruit is no match for even one of the several stellar varieties India comes up with.

(Rimi, I'm sure you guessed this was going to be about food as soon as you read the first line :) )

Oh, and continuing on the theme, I have seen the light and been converted. For years I was a sceptic, a cynic an agnostic, doubting the affectionate rapture with which the believers spoke of their encounter with divine revelation. Till last night, when I finally met perfection, which enveloped me in its throes. Yes darlings, I have discovered single malt whisky. Now I see why people have such reverence in their eyes at the mention of Laphroaig, Macallan, Glenmorangie, et al. Of course I still reserve the right to call anyone who yaks endlessly about whisky a pompous bore, but I can see what he's getting at.

For the record, what dazzled me and Em last night was Glenlivet, which we followed up by sharing a Cohiba cigar. This does sound a bit comical, but in fact neither Em nor I are smokers. One of Em's professors had gifted him an assortment of fine cigars for Christmas. The professor's very eccentric, grows his own coffee, is built like a pro wrestler, and is a famous published author and known as a rennaissance man among certain scientific circles. I had a bit of a crush on him for about a week when I saw him at someone's dissertation defence. But I've heard enough nutty stories about him from Em for the crush to wear off soon. He's gorgeous though, one of the handsomest men I've ever seen. Anyway, so none of us have ever smoked a cigar, so were curious to try. The verdict: I pick my poison, and it's alcohol. I never, ever enjoy smoking, even one of the finest cigars in existence.

Oh forgot to mention what a flurry the last weekend was. Met up with Fred on Saturday who told me all about the new love in his life. I don't know if it is too early to say boyfriend, but seems like they have a good thing going there. Although distance seems to be an issue, because Fred is moving back to Boston, and the boy is going to be based in Chicago. We had such a lazy lunch, chatting and eating and drinking wine, and then drinking coffee. While I was waiting for him, I took a leisurely walk around the neighbourhood, which is so gorgeous, and a dog lovers' paradise. Seriously, it seems to me that you need to have a dog to even buy or rent a house here. And guess what, I saw dog poop on the grassy part of pavements with fairly regular frequency. So Ani, you shouldn't be too harsh on the Calcutta dog owners, the Los Feliz moneybags and hipsters do it too. But apart from minor inconveniences such as this, the neighbourhood is beautiful. Gorgeous homes within walking distance of all the artsy cutey cafes, bookstores, and quirky designer shops your heart can desire.

At night I went to a party thrown by the four men mentioned in an earlier post, when I was at another of their parties. One of them is leaving for Singapore, the straight man was celebrating his birthday and the others are shifting to a new apartment. It was loads of fun, it's always great to chat up with Josh, one of the housemates who's very smart and gregarious. I became an inadvertent paparazzi when I was goaded by Josh to take a picture with my camera phone of flamboyant man streaking through their living room without a stitch on his body. Apparently, it's a bit of a house ritual, something he does to celebrate the birthday of straight man every year. I have promised not to post the picture online, thus showing heroic self-control in this day and age.

The next day S and I went sailing with family friends of his who live in the area. Very relaxed and a beautiful day to be out in the ocean. Without even realizing it, I've actually managed to learn some sailing tasks. At least, I know that I should be lunging for the nearest rope when I hear "tack"! And then we headed off for our first Greek dance class, where I learnt this, and this.

Monday, February 27, 2006

A Spring in My Step

I stepped into my third decade last year. You'd think that the consolation and compensation for slower metabolism and wrinkle paranoia would be freedom from acne. But dammit, here I am, who used to be the most acne-free teenager in my school, having to deal with these random little devils. Believe it or not, the weather is to blame. My face has become a barometer, for the past few years it announces a turn of season by breaking out in acne. Once the turn of season is completed, the acne disappears. Yes, I am that in tune with nature. I wonder how I can fool my face into believing that it's the same season all year.

But quite apart from the little pestilence, I'm completely enamoured of the celebration of spring. For me, no time of the year deserves more joyful festivities and brings such an immediate sense of wellbeing. Unfortunately my Bengali Hindu ancestors chose to reserve their most lavish festivities for a period in the middle of autumn which does not seem to mark any significant transition of season. Of course there are people who are fond of saying (including many in my family) that Durga Puja harkens the arrival of winter, and coincides with the blooming of the ubiquitous kash flower in the Bengali countryside. However there is nothing like the grand riot of flowers and foliage, the slowly invigorating warmth of the sun, and the anticipation of the early bounty of summer harvest.

We do celebrate spring, but tend to do it in the middle of winter, a lunar calendar date that usually coincides with a date in January. I still have traumatic memories of being woken up at a ridiculous hour on Basant Panchami, subjected to a cold shower, and then dragged off to a temple freezing and sneezing all the way. It almost seems as if we are trying to coax spring out of what is still a dismal winter day. By the time the Bengali New Year rolls in, spring is on its way out, and the first rumblings of kaalboishakhi winds have sounded. Bengalis are very fond of saying that they celebrate 13 festivals in 12 months (Baaro mashey tero parbon), but there is overabundance of celebration in some months and not much to look forward to in February and March. I have a feeling I'm inviting outraged comments admonishing the probashi Bangali (diasporic Bengali) for her ignorance, but I'm willing to stand by what I say :).

Of course I'd be directed towards Holi or Dol Jatra, which usually falls in the middle of March, and in its original form was all about the celebration of spring colours and a happy camaraderie born out of the advent of good weather. However, in the last two decades or so, the festival has degenerated into aggressive water battles, use of toxic chemical colours and physical injuries due to use of water balloons. The last Holi I ever fully participated in had ended in tragedy for my hair, after it got coated with something that looked like car paint and had to be completely chopped off.

Which is why I am considering switching to the Japanese and Persian calendars for the months of February and March, given the great significance accorded to spring celebrations in the calendars. In Japan March 3 is the Hinamatsuri or Doll Festival day, also celebrated as Girls' Day. It is marked by a display of dolls, also including peach blossoms. One of my favourite Japanese restaurants in LA has a special, seasonal menu of food traditionally consumed for Hinamatsuri. When I went there last week, I was told I was one day too early for the start of the special menu. The place is pricy, so I don't know if I can afford another meal there anytime soon. For that kind of money, I can buy a set of gorgeous Japanese tableware and create my own Hinamatsuri lunch. They had put up the doll display though, which was beautiful, especially since it was set off against their serene Zen garden.

Spring is also the season for a celebration that is almost instantly recognized worldwide as a Japanese tradition. This centres around cherry blossom or sakura, a flower deeply beloved of the Japanese. So beloved is the sakura, that the Japanese have found innovative ways to incorporate the sakura into their foodways. There is the sakura cha, a beautiful clear infusion with a tangy taste, with the blossom languidly suspended in it. I'm determined to hunt down sakura cha in Little Tokyo, even if I have to bug and pester every Japanese store attendant in sight. Then there is sakura mochi, salted sakura blossoms, desserts, etc.

Of course, the very fleeting blooming season is eagerly anticipated, and the Japanese even have a name for watching cherry blossoms bloom: hanami. This year I've decided to attend the local cherry blossom festival, which given LA's very peculiar blooming calendar is held all the way in the first week of April. Apparently even in Japan they are expecting a late blooming. Now why we Indians couldn't come up with a festival to celebrate the blooming of amaltas and gulmohar? Apparently the blooming of the ashoka tree was cause for much celebration in ancient India, but in contemporary times I suspect many urban Indians would be hard pressed to identify the flower.

The Persian Norooz on the other hand, does not centre on a specific flower or a feting the girl child, but revelling in spring itself. It is almost ironic for Muslim Iranians to pick a celebration based on the Zorastrian calendar as their biggest festival of the year. However, Norooz has remained an integral part of Persian identity from its very inception, and reflects the importance of spring in Persian life. Some of the metaphorical use of "bahar" or spring in Urdu poetry can be traced to Persian poetic influences (the word "bahar" is of Persian origin). As in Indian classical music, many melodies in Iranian traditional music are intrinsically associated with spring.

And since the festival focuses on the rejuvenation that is spring, the colour that dominates Norooz is green. Green sprouts (sabzeh) take pride of place in the haftseen display that is de rigeur for Norooz. The traditional food for the day consists of a pilaf made with rice and greens (sabzi polo). The subtle symbolic meaning associated with the handful of rituals for the day are accessible to all, and everyone enthusiastically shares in setting up displays.

I also have a sneaking suspicion that what appeals to me about these festivals is the fact that they are disengaged from religious rituals, and even an agnostic like me can participate with wholehearted enthusiasm. I almost invariably feel guilty about taking my place with the devout when Hindu festival rituals are performed. I love the grandeur of the ceremony, the precisely choreographed sequence of events, the emotional surge. But my interest is purely aesthetic and social, and hence feels a bit insincere next to the faithful who invest their spiritual energies in the ceremonies. These are the times I fervently wish that the Bengali New Year, on the whole a non-religious celebration was a much bigger deal than it is right now, and encompassed more than merely wearing new clothes and eating sweets.

Monday, February 13, 2006

Perfect Partner

I'm responding to a tag that's long overdue, and in defence of my procrastination, I have to hide behind K's assertion that the quality of my posts improve when I take a blog vacation. I don't know if that would necessarily be true in this case. Here are the rules of the tag:

1. The tagged victim has to come up with 8 different points of their perfect lover.
2. Need to mention the sex of the target.
3. Tag 8 victims to join this game & leave a comment on their comments saying they’ve been tagged.
4. If tagged the 2nd time, there’s no need to post again.

Now before I even tackle the task at hand, I think I'll start with a small caveat. The list below owes its existence to a great extent to the nearly four years that my boyfriend and I have been together. I think everyone has a nebulous idea of what they are looking for in a partner, and before I met S I used to have my own checklist. It's useful, in that it helps narrow the playing field, focus our affections and eliminate dodgy prospects. The problem is, it also makes our desires ensconced within rigid boundaries, often leading us to overlook that which could make us eventually happy, but is not immediately apparent.

If there is a single insight to emerge out of my relationship, it is the fact that we know our happiness but very little, and there is always the possibility of learning to be happy in new ways. S and I have found new interests, new friends and discovered near-hidden aspects of our personalities in being with each other, things that we wouldn't have considered important or indeed looked for in a partner before. What makes someone a perfect partner for another person is an ever-evolving set, and indeed hard to enumerate. But, for me, these are some qualities that I cherish, many of which S does possess (and I'm not just saying this because I figured out you read my blog agapi mou):

1. Curiosity and Openness to My Interests: I don't necessarily want someone to mirror every single interest that I have. In fact a doppelganger who matches me in every respect, down to my favourite poets, would perhaps be insufferable to be with. But my partner should be willing to know and evince an interest in my preoccupations, knowing I'd do the same for his. Even if he doesn't like some of my interests, he should respect my fascination with them.

2. Sociable and Loves Company: I spent a greater part of my adolescence thinking of myself as an introverted person, only to discover later in life what a social butterfly I was! This is crucial, my partner has to love being surrounded by people. He has to love parties, spending time with our friends, a bonhomie that encompasses a wider social circle beyond just the two of us. Which of course, does not mean that we wouldn't love each other's company, simply that our happiness would only be enhanced in the company of others.

3. Has a Life of His Own: I quite like the idea of my partner having a fairly vibrant social life of his own apart from the one that we share, something that I'd possess as well. He should always have things to do apart from me, with his friends, and I'd want to spend time apart with my friends, or simply on my own. Neither should consider the other their only social ticket, or sacrifice their independent existence prior to the relationship to become joined at the hip.

4. Not Prone to Mood Swings: The brooding, intense man is sexy from a distance, but a pain to live with on a regular basis. I think the older one gets, the harder it is to deal with a temperamental man. Have you ever noticed in India, how in couples from an older generation married for ages, the wife manages to effectively tune out the grumpy old husband. The trade off is loneliness for the woman, no one to talk to. A cheerful and even disposition is a must, and so is oodles of patience.

5. Eternal Optimist: I have a friend who is into all sorts of new agey stuff. For her, people emit negative and positive energy, and those who radiate positive energy bring joy to those around them. I don't know what rays are being transmitted between people, but it is indeed refreshing to be around a positive person. Just as it is very difficult to stand a perennially pessimistic person. Optimism is infectious, and so is pessimism, and I'd only want to catch the right sort of infection.

6. Physically Attractive: This is so subjective, but this is all about me and my desires, so of course my partner has to be someone I consider physically attractive. Years ago, a cousin of mine wanted to divorce her husband after a brief arranged marriage because she found him physically very unappealling (with sufficient reason, I might add). The matter caused a mini row in the family, with people of my generation siding with my cousin, and my aunts and uncles vehemently opposing the divorce. One of aunts said then, "Purushmanusher aabaar roop ki?" (A man doesn't need to be good looking). The implication was that if a man could provide a woman financial security, every other aspect of the relationship was redundant.

I don't think so. Physical appeal is a big part of a relationship, and somehow in constructing the dichotomy of looks and merit, we at times fail to acknowledge this. And I repeat, this appeal is not some objective assessment that's carved in stone. It is very subjective, and varies significantly from person to person.

7. No Addictions: Even the most loving partner can turn into an ogre under the influence of substance abuse. Which explains why the wise women looking for love on Craigslist categorically state that the partner they are looking for should not have any addictions. I actually knew a woman back in India who was violently physically abused by an alcoholic husband. I love social drinking, and nothing ever comes between me and free wine at receptions, but consistent drug abuse and alcoholism is just not my scene.

8. Respect and Affection: And finally, the two most elusive, hard to define qualities that I want in a partner. It is easier to say what I don't mean by them. I don't mean deference, fear or loyalty when I say respect. Perhaps the best way to describe it is to say that my partner should consider me a competent person, capable of holding independent opinions, with the ability to accomplish professionally. And by affection, I don't mean obsession, a smothering, asphyxiating kind of love. Actually I have no idea what I mean. I do know that I see this affection every day, for which I'm eternally grateful.

I'd like to pass on the tag to the following, who'd all hate me royally for doing it:

Urmi, Rimi, Adagio for Strings, Jai (even though he hates tags), Bonatellis, K, Caramel Custard, and Eesh (who's been MIA for a while). I didn't pass it on to Anthony and Pidus, because they've already bared all and the posts were fun to read.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Short Takes

Am reading Cavafy's Waiting for the Barbarians right now. In English and Greek. Of course I understand very little of the Greek, and yet it is almost reassuring to read the words aloud, almost as if the cadence of the Greek words would supply the meaning that is eluded in translation. I can be very silly at times. Cavafy's poetry is achingly beautiful, and yet a rigorous statement of his times, political but not in naked rhetoric.

The entire last week was spent in one massive schmoozefest at a conference in town. I didn't believe it was possible, but I think I'm a bit tired of this ceaseless networking. At least for the moment, which is why I tried to attend paper presentations and listen in on discussions as unobstrusively as possible. And only try and get to know those that appeared to have the potential to hold interest. I was really not in the mood to suffer bores, which is professional harakiri if you will be looking for employment to pay the bills a few months down the line. I did end up meeting some very bright, engaging persons, with drive and ambition that I immensely admire, but can never seem to be able to match. And there were some excellent presentations, that made the exercise very worthwhile.

Saturday night was spent going from one party to another. I had a fun conversation at the first one with an English boy studying the classics, and we talked about odds and ends, mostly about technique vs. narrative in contemporary cinema and Polish directors. I need to dig up some Kieslowski stuff he recommended. And also a Polanski film, which I'm sure S would love to watch because it's all about pirates. But then Soto was bored as hell at this party and wanted to go to the second one. So off we went across town, and arrive at the house at almost 1:00 a.m., after all the guests had departed, and part of the hosts had gone off to a gay bar.

Now the last time I had visited this house, there had been a lot of speculation between me and Em about the sexual orientation of the hosts. There are four housemates in the apartment. One smart, witty, incredibly entertaining and very, very gay. The second, reticent, brooding, and sexually ambiguous, though E-M swears up and down that he's straight. The third, flamboyant, eccentric, and suspected to be bisexual by me, which E-M has more or less confirmed. The fourth is a straight man with a wickedly possessive girlfriend.

So suffice to say, it is always fun to visit them and this time was no exception. We sat and chatted till 3:00 a.m. later joined by flamboyant man and another friend who returned from the bar. We talked of smart boy's interviews with homeless men in LA, the joys of Italian coffee (flamboyant man is part Italian, and the other friend Manny is Italian), religion in Italian politics (apparently plays a big role, to my surprise) and differing assessment of Kieslowski (me likey and Manny dislikes).

And then the boys gossipped about straight man's possessive girlfriend, a fantastic cook, who nonetheless had made herself unpopular with the other housemates by making the boyfriend be with her all the time. However, when I told E-M about this, she said "Good for her, she's afraid the gay and bisexual boys would seduce her man"! Tch, tch E-M, if seduction was on their mind, it could have been accomplished a long time ago when the straight guy was single. And this does play to the worst sort of stereotypes about gay men being predators who always have sex on their minds. E-M's just pissed at flamboyant man for something, and this is her way of taking it out.

Finally had dinner at Guelaguetza tonight, where the food is uncompromisingly Oaxacan, and showcases the finest of Mexican moles. The moles were very well done, but I think it'll be a while before I start having mole cravings. They are very complex, very fine dishes, but would probably take some more exploring before I settle on one that I can drool about at leisure. The menu has many, many items that are almost impossible to find in any other restaurant in LA, or at least any other restaurant outside of the neighbourhood of Highland Park. Which is strange, considering the very large Mexican immigrant population in the city. You would imagine that there would be more restaurants specializing in cuisines such as Oaxacan and Yucatecan/Yucatan, but I've only been to one of each. Both are excellent and regularly feature in lists of best places to eat in LA. Well if you're like me and don't particularly care for Cal-Mex or Tex-Mex, then Mexican regional cuisines are certainly worth exploring.