Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Hummus not Hamas.

After being persuaded to experience the much extolled delights of Hummus by a friend in London last week, I must admit that I was rather slowly won over. My initial apprehension was stoked by it's rather elemental presentation - a plastic container which carried nothing more than a label that said "Aphrodite's Houmous" in bright blue greek-style alphabet , "Contents: chick peas, sesame tahini, red chillies" and a seal that just about kept the stuff from spilling out. Reflexively, I remember wondering as I gingerly touched the tip of my finger with a little smudge of the paste to my mouth, "Where's the rest of it? Where are the lists - of ingredients, preservatives, 'health facts' , expiry dates and other assorted warnings?" Rather a double standard I'm afraid, considering the number of times I have happily gorged on street-side pani-puri, blissfully unmindful of the far higher probability of contracting a multitude of diseases from water that was undoubtedly infected with a delicious variety of viruses.

Living in the 'first world' now, it's amazing how easy it is to veer to the other extreme, become hyper-conscious or even paranoid of everything remotely threatening to one's state of well being. Initially amusing, over time you find yourself starting to look for the assortment of seals by the various issuing bodies for approval of what once were very simple choices. It's quite insidious really how one is lulled into a need for this sense of security. We begin to almost push ourselves into a sequestered bubble of living that is defined by all things branded - organic labels, stamps and health hazard warnings, leaving us zealously over-protective and thus far more vulnerable than when we were a lot less discerning.

It occurs to me now that perhaps I was looking at it in entirely the wrong way. With the mercurial rise in the number of chemicals in food stuffs, rather than feel anxious by the lack of information, maybe I ought to have been reassured because the humble can of hummus was indeed,just that simple, as I subsequently discovered. Still, no expiry date? Quite disconcerting!

How good it tasted on a slice of bread was enough to divert my attention and break that rather tedious chain of thought. Delectable! The sheer potential boggled my mind . I love experimenting these days and chickpeas are enough of a staple with us for me to imagine integrating this into the kind of food I like to cook, besides consuming it in it's more traditional preparations ofcourse. Living in an immigrant neighbourhood myself, I was confident I'd find some really good hummus and falafel.

Excited at the prospect, my first evening home, I made my way to the nearest grocery store owned by a foreigner, a rather comical looking chappie with a positively greek looking mustache, walrus-y , it seemed to take up most of the space on his face. I wasn't really sure where he was from. My neighbourhood is inhabited by an assortment of people who are obviously not dutch but not very obviously anything else either. Most of them seem to speak the same language and a large percentage of them are muslim as apparent by the meticulously covered heads of their women-folk but it's not something you can really ask, they seem a bit clannish and most relevant of all, none of them speak english. It's either a highly accented dutch, which is tough enough for me to follow in it's normal avatar, or their native tongue - so that sort of puts a spoke in the wheels of any conversation one might hope to have had with them.

I am greeted by a cheery "Goeden Avond" as I enter and the old fashioned bell rings for the grocer's attention. I finish picking out some fresh fruit and a miscellany of spices that is impossible to find at the supermarket. I take my time because I must pick my words in dutch to ask him for what I want. I make my way to the counter and begin with asking him if by some miracle he speaks english.. I'm sure I've asked him this before, nevertheless he patiently answers me with an apologetic shake of his head and a parting of his mustache that I take to be his smile. I sigh and let the words out stumble out, that I'm looking for some hummus, preferably fresh.

From his rather vacant expression I realise that he is not catching my drift. So I decide to keep it simple and just repeat " Hummus" a couple of times.. he showed no signs of recognition and I'm ready to give up. I shake my head and say 'forget it, it's fine' but he insists that he will find what I'm looking for. So I tried again, with a different emphasis, ''who-mus' I say to him.. you know, 'houmous' ?? Hamus? Hummus ?

Suddenly his eyes flicker and then open wide open, round like little pale marbles, deeply agitated , they were straining out of his deep sockets. With his voice equally perturbed he says something I cannot understand in rather voluble dutch. I ask him to slow down and repeat himself, telling him my dutch is poor.. and that's when it happens, he stares straight at me and asks point blank if I am Arab.

I am completely flummoxed. I don't think I look remotely Arab. And even if I do, so what? It occurs to me that maybe I don't understand what he's asking. I repeat his question and he indicates that that is precisely what he means... And I tell him that I'm not and he doesn't seem convinced. He asks me where I'm from and I am rather puzzled and a little concerned by his sudden interest in my antecedents. I warily tell him I'm Indian and it is when he responds that the penny finally drops. He says to me , ' Ah, India, Indians are ok, I'm from turkey' he declares matter of factly granting me his seal of approval. Turkish! Well that explains a lot.

He smiles easily again, offers me a bag of chana and insists that it is 'hummus' - the Arab word for the chickpeas themselves but that it's not the same in turkish - I am happy to be able to pass it off for a mistake. He seems to be under the illusion that I have made an effort to try his language and is faintly amused, however dismally I have obviously failed. It turns out that he doesn't seem to know the preparation (which surprises me since I am given to understand that it's quite popular in the region ) but it's quite clear he doesn't think much of the Arabs. He launches off into a bit of monologue, to himself almost because I can't for the life of me follow what he's saying - it's in dutch, so I presume some part of it is for my benefit. I decipher that it has something to do with how Arabs are this and that... Apparently there is no love lost. Since I am not entirely abreast of the political situation and unsure of what kind of issues they have with each other I try not to react too much, I just smile and thank him profusely and leave as quickly as I can.

When I come home, I look it up and find that the dish is actually called hummus bi tahina ( "chickpeas with tahini" ) . I should have got it right the first time. It's specially ironic because while I was in london, a young comic that we went to watch was joking about how he once got himself in quite a bit of a hot-spot because he unwittingly mispronounced hummus for Hamas.

I wonder, in retrospect, if at some point he thought I was saying something about the Hamas. God knows, with my bad dutch and pronunciation! As it turned out, it wasn't too sticky a situation but the absolute awkwardness, transient hostility and ensuing confusion could have been well avoided. Would it have made a difference to the venerable grocer if I had taken the trouble to get it right? Or would 'hummus' be all he needed to hear to jump the gun? I wonder...

It's rather sad that milllions of miles away from our homes, in a land where we are all strangers, all equally alien and atleast physically disconnected from our past, we can't let go - Unforgotten prejudices are carried around in our pockets ready to leap out at unsuspecting strangers on an idle tuesday evening...

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

What A Wonderful World

Life has a lovely way of pulling you out of the swamp. Just as you feel you are beginning to sink, your twisting, turning and struggling proving entirely futile, something utterly simple and unexpected happens along your way to help you out of it. Sometimes it is as un-poetic as a good friend that makes you laugh and sometimes it really seems like God's sense of sublime puts on a show just for you.

Yesterday was just another day that I filled up with busy doings of not too much consequence, hoping for some meaning out of the total or atleast no time to think about the lack of it. When it came time to leave, I zipped my dark winter jacket on and pulled on the parka-esque hood. The wind these past days has almost knocked me off my feet. I set off in a brisk stride to exit the maze that I must go through to get out of my lab, hoping to have as minimal exposure to the nasty chill as possible. Wrapped tightly around my neck, my red woollen scarf was nearly choking me but there is hardly a choice there. It's near-suffocation or pneumonia. Choosing to risk the former for it's relative transience, my chin tucked in and my eyes fixed to the ground and my mind in some far-away place and ears plugged in with some music if only to isolate yet another sense from the rest of the world , I neared the tinted sliding doors that finally lead outside. I remember thinking how pointless they were in the land of clouds and rain.

I stepped out and instinctively waited a second for my eyes to adjust from the fluorescent, energy-saving whitewash brightness to the dark only to realise that the sun was still up. The sun was still up! I felt this lovely, warmth suddenly wash over me. It wasn't from the sun, I'll tell you that. "Where has all the IR gone? - Long time passing" is my favourite refrain. But I felt ecstatic.
So much so that rather excitedly punched my friend in sheer delight, yanked out the headphones and I hopped and skipped and jumped and flipped and laughed out loud. He was almost embarrassed by me I think.

That's when I saw it. A giant bubble of flaming orange about 30 degrees off the horizon at the end of a long canal. I jumped for joy. It really was so beautiful. I can't describe to you how rich that flame was and how there was red and yellow and orange and all sorts of colours all mixed up and yet so distinctly observable. I knew it was meant for me. I just knew it. It felt so private because there was hardly a soul around and it was just me and my friend and two people scurrying by on a bicycle with hardly a clue as to what they were missing.

And we just sat there in silence. For twenty minutes, in the cold, sepia evening, I felt free and happy and reconnected. With God. I watched as the sun slid further down until it seemed to sit on the water at the end of the canal. God, it was the so entirely beautiful that I can't stop from saying it over and over again. One of those memories, I know I always want to keep. All I could think of then was how grateful I felt for 'the sign'. To not be overwhelmed by the transitory, to have faith and remind myself of all there is to see, to do and to look forward to. Such goodness and beauty would be wasted if I let what now seemed to be such trifling troubles interfere with my enjoyment of all these magical moments however fleeting.

As dusk crept over and I emerged from my reverie, I found myself grinning ever so widely. Unable to resist resorting to that happy cliche , I rode back home, with a smile on my face, singing softly... "I see skies of blue and clouds of white, the bright blessed day, the dark sacred night and I think to myself....."