Friday, June 29, 2007

No "Life in Pink" for Indian Divas

Many countries have a pre-eminent diva whose music powerfully resonates with most of the citizens and becomes sort of emblematic of that nation's cultural zeitgeist. Lebanon has Fairouz, Iran has Googoosh, Pakistan has Madame Noorjehan, India's Hindi speaking parts have Lata Mangeshkar and Germany has Herbert Gronemeyer (just kidding Alex, Gronemeyer's just one of the few German singers I know of). And then, France has Edith Piaf.

I had been vaguely familiar with Piaf's name growing up, but given that my French vocabulary is limited to "allez, allez!" and "excusez-moi", I hadn't had much access to her music. Actually my limited linguistic abilities have never stopped me from enjoying a stellar voice and music, so this was more about the relative non-availability of Piaf's recordings in India.

Last year, knowing the reverence and adoration of the French for Piaf, I decided to look up some of her songs on Youtube. I found a few of her later recordings with her last husband Theo Sarapo, and apart from marvelling at this apparently very happy marriage of the chronologically and vertically mismatched (Piaf was reportedly 4'8", a little bird next to the strapping Theo), the songs themselves didn't seem very extraordinary. Eh, perhaps the French get something that I do not.

Then, two days ago I went with a bunch of girls to see what I was told would be "a French movie". I was dying to get out of the house, so any movie would do (and I trusted 5 girls to pick something other than the latest action blockbluster). When the opening credits started rolling and when I heard that unmistakablely robust, powerful voice, I instantly recalled that this might be the Edith Piaf biopic that I had read about somewhere.

Two hours and twenty minutes later, when I staggered out of the dark theatre, I was emotionally overwhelmed. I would have bawled my eyes out were it not for the fact that I was with a few girls I had barely met. It was an extraordinary feeling, extraordinary because I rarely get so churned in watching a movie. Even with books - at age 11 I would sob through a Tolstoy novel - but I can't remember a book I've read lately that's been compelling enough to elicit an emotional rather than an intellectual response.

Part of it of course was the director's relentless focus on melodrama, on the tragedy of it all, of drawing the more vulnerable among us into deep empathy with a character who wasn't always so sympathetic, in fact quite detestable at times. But the greater part of it was simply the facts of Piaf's tortured, painful, episodes of joy nestled in expanse of sadness, larger than life, life. It was incredible to think that this elfin, almost fragile looking woman had experienced all of that, and somehow managed to distill all of the agony into the purest musical expression.

It was the closing song that really did it though. When Piaf stood ravaged by illness, the misery of losing people she loved, and yet defiant, strong, and singing "No, je ne regrette rien" (No, I regret nothing), nothing short of a standing ovation would do. Both for the spirit of Piaf, and for the great talent of Marion Cotillard, the actress who played her with such eerie, uncanny perfection. I had to come back and look up the original recording of Piaf singing "Non, je ne regrette rien" and it is just as I thought - very, very powerful (A translation of the lyrics here).

Can a similar film be made in India with one of our own icons? La Vie en Rose (or La Mome) is brutally honest - about the sordid circumstances of Edith's early life, her affairs, her addiction to morphine - everything is held up, warts and all. Of course the director also softens the edges considerably, and is clearly fond of Piaf and her legacy. However, this is as far from a hagiography as you can get - Edith is remarkable, but she is also obnoxious, a royal pain, a diva.

To someone who grew up in India, there is much novelty in this. Apparently, the French seem very un-distraught by such a public airing of an icon's troubled life. I cannot imagine the reaction to a similar no-holds barred biopic on the life of someone like Lata Mangeshkar. Or Nargis (I once saw a fawning documentary on her which very gently sidestepped the fact that her mother was a tawaif in Lucknow, aka "woman of ill repute"). Given the fact that taking offence to everything and anything and ranting about the disruption of our moral fabric has become something of a national pasttime in India. Aided and abetted by 24-hour news television.

You know what? I seriously believe that we have very deep-set issues in confronting truth. We'd rather work our way around truth, or pretend that the fantasies that we are fed in our public life are a simulcra of truth and not an elaborate charade. So our politicians are "humble farmers",
our filmstars are "humble sons of the soil" (who none the less attended expensive private schools and were childhood buddies with the son of the then prime minister), our singers are "pure and innocent souls who've devoted their lives to God and music" (and apparently large swigs of alcohol before every concert), and our female celebrities are all "pure, virginal women" who led crashingly boring lives, never swaying from the straight and the narrow.

In short, we are not the French. In the sense that we are not allowed to play out the most interesting, edgy, marginal aspects of our lives in the public eye for fear of giving offence. Especially the stories that our celebrated women tell must necessarily be stripped of all complexity, a morality play of pious living, overcoming hardship, and humble devotion to the arts. No insolent, proud assertions of being an "artiste" and hence excused from the constraints of a "normal" existence. No tempestuous affairs, no diva behaviour, no not giving a fuck for what the establishment expects. It is like post-Revolutionary Iran, where we symbolically paint our windows black to keep the prying public censure away from our much more interesting daring private selves. Do not expect a Hindi version of "Non, je ne regrette rien" anytime soon.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

I So So Want One

I am in total and absolute lust and lemming this gorgeous piece of technology:

(Image Source:

Last week I attended a conference on mobile technologies (my own research is very, very incidentally related to this) and ever since my brain has been crammed with a zillion strange terms like 3G, W-CDMA, EDGE, Wi-Max, UMTS, etc. that I'm trying to familiarize myself with. It's exciting to even be a peripheral participant in a fast evolving field of technology because there is such a palpable excitement about new developments and innovations.

And besides I can definitely see myself showering gizmo-love on mobile phones and computers. Plasma TVs and Playstations - eh, not so much. In fact, taking up employment in the business and/or logistics side of a mobile technology company sounds like a really good idea at this point.

Initially, I was made aware of a world beyond the generic American mobile phone market (I know people who think Razr is cutting edge.....sigh) when I spied the beauty that is the Panasonic 702iD in a participant's hand. Alas, the phone is built to specs for NTT DoCoMo in Japan and I couldn't find a version for sale to the US anywhere (even a locked version is fine because I'd unlock it anyway). No point envying the Japanese, their mobile phone market is just leaps and bounds ahead of the rest of the world.

But then as I was reading up on 3G technology and phones I came across the one pictured above, the one that makes the iPhone pale in comparison. The Nokia N95 is sheer genius, but at nearly $800 at present, it's merely something to aspire to at this point. Perhaps if I wait this out a year or so, a drastic price cut may not be unlikely. But given the way technology moves, i might be lemming something else at that point. Well at least it's not something totally ridiculous like the Prada phone by LG, which is also priced at a bank-breaking $800.

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Thursday, June 07, 2007

Noodle Love

You know what - I'll just go ahead and commit blasphemy right now - Indian Maggi noodles are godawful. No amount of childhood nostalgia, longing for Indian products and copious amounts of chilli sauce is going to change that. These are really bottom of the barrel as far as instant noodles go. What prompted this noodle rant was the fact that yet again I got swayed by a combination of nostalgia and novelty and purchase a pack of Maggi noodles from the neighbourhood Indian grocery store (a new Maggi flavour - surely an improvement - not!)

And yet when I was a kid, I was probably singlehandedly responsible for keeping an entire Maggi noodle factory going given the amount of Maggi I ate. I also used to wear a pastel pink and blue sweater with white pants and white pumps. There really is no accounting for childhood taste.

My noodle consumption reduced drastically as I grew older and by my late teens I probably ate instant noodles once in two months. Still even that sporadic consumption was limited to Maggi noodles. By this time Maggi had a formidable competitor - Nissin - the brand started by the man who invented instant noodles - Momofuku Ando. However, Nissin, instead of releasing products from their Japanese line , decided to "Indianize" their product and came up with the almost inedible Curry Smoodles, which were curly noodles flavoured with indeterminate glop.

So Maggi remained the best instant noodles choice I had. Yet. But then something happened to change all that. By this time I had started working, and one of my colleagues was a Nepali girl from Darjeeling. Many of her friends were Nepalis from Nepal and they had introduced her to an instant noodle brand that was sold in Nepal - Wai Wai noodles ( I later found out that Wai Wai is originally a Thai brand, but more of that to come).

Wai Wai had become a cult favourite with hostel/dorm residents in Delhi University and JNU, introduced by Nepali students who brought back suitcases stuffed with Wai Wai packets from trips back home (apparently Wai Wai is now produced in India as well). My colleague gave me a pack to take home - and once I cooked and tasted it, I was hooked. These were unlike any instant noodles I'd ever had before. For one, the noodles instead of being bland and white like Maggi, were toasty and brown and could be eaten raw if you so wished (I never tried). Unlike Maggi's one seasoning packet, these came with three - a seasoning pack, a chilli powder pack and a sache of onion flavoured oil.

But getting hooked on Wai Wai brought its own challenges, because the noodles were hardly sold in Delhi. Till I discovered that my neighbourhood bakery had a secret stash of Wai Wai behind mounds of Maggi and Nissin Top Ramen, a fact only known to the large Nepali immigrant population in the neighbourhood. Score! Wai Wai completely replaced Maggi as my instant noodle of choice, so much so that when I came to the US for graduate studies, I carried a few packs of Wai Wai in my suitcase.

The American generic grocery store opened a whole other world of instant noodles to me. College students live on ramen, and so do many single working men and women. In my nearest grocery store half of an entire aisle was dedicated to instant noodles. Though my consumption rarely went beyond one or two packets a month, I could sample the different flavours in rotation. Soon however I concluded that the ramen or instant noodles in generic American stores were just as bad as Maggi. There were primarily two brands that filled the stores - Nissin and Maruchan - both Japanese instant noodle giants. The flavours and noodle packets were all watered down for the generic American consumer.

I slowly gave up on instant noodles, and would rather drive myself to a restaurant if I got noodle hankerings. But once in a while I'd get the cravings for hot noodles at home on a cold wet winter day (it doesn't get very cold in LA, but it does get wet in winters). And then I discovered speciality Asian grocery stores. Stores that exclusively carry Japanese merchandise, or Korean merchandise, or Chinese merchandise, etc. This was a second revelation - a whole other world of instant noodles. My impressions for each:

Japanese noodles - Oh, happy, happy day! No one loves their instant noodles quite like the Japanese. And then there is the curious phenomenon of instant noodle packets that cost more than a bowl of fresh noodle soup in a restaurant would cost. Well, the Japanese have an entire museum dedicated to ramen so this shouldn't surprise anyone.

What's even better is that the Japanese have several kinds of instant noodles - including yakisoba which is essentially chowmein to us in India, miso ramen, shoyu ramen (with just a soya sauce broth), udon, soba noodles, etc. Some of the more elaborate instant noodles come with packs of dehydrated vegetables, dehydrated soup, seasoning, special noodles, the works.

My personal favourites - the yakisoba and the miso ramen noodles.

Korean noodles - The instant Japanese-style ramen market is dominated by the Nongshim brand which makes a basic soupy noodles with different flavourings - beef, seafood, kimchi (of course!), etc. the noodles are thicker udon style noodles, but completely overwhelmed by the soup flavoured with chilli paste (gochujang) and bean paste (dwaejang) flavours. Also, they can also only be consumed in soup form.

Frankly, not a personal favourite.

Also Koreans have traditional Korean noodles like nyaengmyun (arrowroot noodles), bibimnyaengmyun (spicy thin noodles), guksoo (knife cut thicker noodles), and jajangmyun (noodles with bean sauce) in freezer sections. The few I've tried I'm not impressed. They just taste so much worse than the fabulous versions of these dishes in Korean restaurants.

Thai noodles - here it is, the original progenitor of the Nepalese Wai Wai, the most popular brand of instant noodles in Thailand. Wai Wai comes in a lot of generic flavours, like chicken, beef, pork and tom yum. Frankly eating the Thai Wai Wai is a bit of a let down after consuming Wai Wai from Nepal. The Nepalese version is just so much better, especially the noodles, because the Thai Wai Wai noodles are exactly like Maggi noodles.

Chinese noodles - I'm going to take a wild guess and say that the Chinese are not very enamoured of instant noodles (the ones with flavourings included). They don't take up a lot of space in Chinese grocery stores, as opposed to Japanese stores, for instance. Don't blame them - most Chinese communities will have several noodle shops that sell an excellent bowl of noodles for cheap - the instant versions don't seem like much of an alternative. The ones that I've tried though have been pretty bad - perhaps they go overboard with the MSG.

Indonesian noodles - Who would have thought - the best instant noodles I've ever had comes from Indonesia's very own instant noodle giant - Indofood. The company's Indomie brand is a bit of a cult favourite in the Southeast Asia region and Australia - spreading as Wai Wai did through hungry nostalgic Indonesian students bringing in bagfuls of the stuff from back home.

Though the regular Indomie packs are pretty good, it is the special Indomie Mie Keriting (curly noodles) that simply blows off the competition by miles. Let's see, you have curly noodles that seem to have some flavour on their own. To complement them you have - get this - five flavour packets! There's dehydrated vegetables, seasoning, sweet soya sauce, chilli sauce, and oil with seasoning and spices. They are meant to be eaten without soup, but what the heck, spoon in some extra salt and eat them soupy - they taste fine either way.

A lot of people take their instant noodles very, very seriously and write pages and pages of reviews on different brands and flavours. For me, it's an occasional guilty pleasure -nowhere close to the delight of fresh handpulled noodles immersed in a clear pork broth that I accidentally found in of all places, Singapore airport. However, when Singapore is a distant dream, and even the San Gabriel Valley is a drag to drive to, my packets of Indomie and yakisoba would do just fine.

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