Saturday, November 29, 2008

Mumbai Meri Jaan

I have tried hard to stay away from writing about this incident but I don't think I can do so any longer. If there has been any city I have loved, it has been Bombay and it was near the Taj that I had my first felicitation party. It was also the first time I had entered a ladies powder room in a rush of boyish emergency (I was 9 then). Bombay only brings a smile to my face and the recent incidents have tried hard to wipe that away. 
Bombay has faced terrorist attacks at the Taj, Oberoi (Trident and Hilton) and at other places. It was not the first time that this has happened but the first question was "Why the Taj?" A place which has become synonymous with Bombay's coastline couldn't have done harm to anyone. We were disgusted to watch the events unfold and hurriedly called all whom we knew in Bombay. A friend of mine works at the Hilton and escaped unhurt. Thank god.
My mother and I were discussing how this could come to an end. I said that either we reach a state of paranoia where every single individual in any city is thoroughly frisked and everyone is treated as a potential terrorist (why is that so scary? They do it at airports, don't they!?) or we realise that till the human race exhausts itself of people to kill nothing much can be done. Naive? Yes and helpless too. That was Bombay suffering out there.
I am glad that the armed forces (NSG, police, commandoes, et al) did a decent job of bringing things to an end. I am glad that the media covered a lot of what was happening providing relief to many anxious souls across India. I salute all those who laid their lives down in the line of duty. 
What follows is not something to taint whatever right was done or sully the appropriate contributions of those who participated in the operations. What follows is an examination (to the best of my abilities) of how wrong certain things still are.

I think Rajdeep Sardesai should be hanged till death. He is the most lecherous and stupid reporter I have ever seen. All that he is interested in is sensationalism and is desperate to sound very clever and sharp. He is neither. I watched him gather input from two reporters and couldn't believe the irresponsibility with which he extrapolated it to conclusions with the least concern for what the effect would be on public. I was happy to hear that news channels were taken off the air in south Bombay. I can only imagine the panic his words would have unleashed. Here is a paraphrasing of what I saw and heard:

RS: We have reports coming in from our correspondent in CST station which as many know was called Victoria Terminus and was renamed by the Shiv Sena government (like that matters now). Rohit, what can you tell us about the situation there.
Rohit: There has been some indiscriminate shooting happening in the CST station and some exchange of fire. The police
RS: Terrorists are taking over the station, Rohit? Please confirm this for me. Can you see the terrorists? How many do you think there are? Are these the same people who were in Taj? How many people have been killed?
Rohit: I am not sure whether they are still there. I think they boarded a car and ran away. (What? As in, you just said... never mind)
RS: They have fled is it? Since that exit is on that side it is quite likely these are the same people who are holed up in the GH and we have Prachi reporting from there. Prachi, can you tell me what is happening at the GH? Have the terrorists been opening fire at the people. We know it is a sensitive area and a soft target (of course, we have to throw in jargon now).
Prachi: There have been rumours of shooting here, Rajdeep and I just saw 3 persons being brought out of the hospital with their arms raised up in the air.
Rajdeep: 3 persons have been apprehended. This is the latest news that we are getting from our correspondent at the GH which is about 2 Km from CST (then how on earth did you assume that those who had fled were already at GH firing away!?). There seems to have been indiscriminate firing and 3 persons have been apprehended by the Mumbai police. Can you confirm that there was firing (but you just confirmed it to the world. Why check again?)
Prachi: I don't know, Rajdeep but shopkeepers around here have downed their shutters and say that they heard shooting.

I could go on about how he simply rushed to conclusions and kept feeding the country/world with rumours. Rohit (or that is what I recall his name to be) soon (within a span of 5 minutes) came back saying that shooting was only happening on platforms 14 and 15 and then went on to say that there was no shooting because the railway police confirmed that there was no shooting. 
Why don't the news channels simply wait and get concrete information before broadcasting it? I still remember days when news was broadcast only at 19:30 and then again at 21:30. There used to be a running ticker for "flash" news. Granted we can't have enough of news happening all around the world, but shouldn't there be some accountability here? Stupid ass Rajdeep goes on building his stories and acts as if he is prophet of all news. He has absolutely no consideration for the effect it will have on all the people who listen to him.
Other channels are no better. They kept roping in unrelated people and asked for their comments before cutting them off halfway for a commercial break or to show some recorded clipping or to ask someone else some other question. Some intelligent people like Mr. Benegal offered sensible suggestions but most others were busy trying to say something profound and floundered. Can we just have the news minus the drama? Why all this jargon like "War on Mumbai" and marketing phrases? It is a terrorist attack. Period.
Media nowadays treats news with savage deliberation unearthing hypothesis, monstrosities and being quite unflinching in displaying the vulgar details like a clinical coroner. Recently, I read this and realised that Indian media is doing nothing more than aping the West in their baseness. So wrapped up are they in the ways of the West that the only way they can describe this incident is in terms of 9/11. They call it "India's 9/11"!! Very original.
Business channels were worse. While people were concerned about lives, they were asking industry and business heads about the impact that this incident will have on the pharmaceuticals and IT sectors. Like it matters now! They kept calling people asking them whether it will mean lesser foreign investments and whether there was any hope of a gloomy future.

Military Inefficiency:
My one thought throughout was if Rambo could do it, why are these people blubbering around like kindergarten cops? I know that is being rather naive, but watching how SWAT teams function (and not just in movies but also on Discovery) and how the Navy Seals go about their mission, I found the NSG and commandoes very very amateurish. I am not an authority on military demarche but I sure can spot fumbling when I see it. Here are points that I gathered:

  • Israeli experts say that commandos acted prematurely
  • Commando spokesperson said that they did not know the layout of the Taj and hence, were quite helpless.
  • Commandos were shown on TV shooting blindly into open windows (what if there were hostages in there?)
  • Commandos blame delay in transport
  • It was funny seeing soldiers wear camouflage and leaves in their helmets. As in, you are going to the Taj not the Sunderbhans!
  • One soldier opened fire into an open window and then turned around calmly and walked over to talk to a commando. He was so open to the terrorists (if any) that he was a sitting duck! Very unprofessional.
So here is how I would have proceeded. We hear of the terrorist attack. I call up the team to assemble within 30 minutes. I call up the Taj group and demand the hotel plan documents and all interior design documents that they have. I want to know the layout of chutes, laundry passages, air ducts, the material used for construction and about all the electronics used. I want this information in the next 30 minutes. After assembling the troops and with the necessary documents in place (let's assume that 30 minutes was too aggressive and it actually takes 60 minutes) we work out how we can enter the Taj in batches or individuals so that we escape notice. Can we use the underground drains? What about supply entry points? Media will have to be cleared from the place so that we don't alert the terrorists. Then I use infrared to get a fair idea of the movement in the building and toss in noise sensors (if there is such a technology else, simple mobile phones with the connection made to receivers. Frankly, if the intelligence doesn't have such devices I really think they should be out of business) to get whatever information I can about movement within the building. Tossing in sensors is not difficult and can be achieved quite easily (I can send in an illustration of this procedure). Having put in electronic "bugs" at strategic locations I start gathering intelligence (I was rather happy to see the Israelis suggest something similar). I will give this operation about 3-4 hours to achieve. I will also call for translators to help us with any conversation that is picked up. With information roughly in place about where the terrorists might be we start taking positions, slowly moving out people who can escape as well as people who might become potential hostages if not evacuated immediately. Elevator ducts will be manned at each level to take the terrorists by surprise in case they move to that level and are not on guard (like when running down the corridor or down a flight of stairs). A simple formation will be achieved whereby the terrorists are made to feel that the armed forces are approaching from a particular direction while the forces will actually be occupying every single available hiding place in the building and are, effectively, all around the terrorists. I wish I could show you this as the 3D model that one can construct of this arrangement. In the worst case, 10 hours and we should be all over and around the terrorists. 72 hours? What on earth am I missing?
When the commando major said that he didn't have the layout of the hotel and the staff too were not familiar with a particular floor, I was shocked. He went on to say that the terrorists seemed to know the floor layout very well and hence they (the commandos) simply were left with no choice but to follow them and their firing. But of course, the terrorists would know the layout. They are serious about the job they want to do unlike the armed forces. Foolish bravery is not what we need. It is like the story I had read back in school about a real soldier's opinion of a general's "bravery" in rushing headlong into the enemy formation. 
The latest news is that the NSG are blaming the state govt. for delaying the transport and other operational glitches. We are pretty good at that!

Honestly, when will they grow up? One bunch of people wear bangles and keep throwing twigs at Pakistan without having the guts to gather sufficient information and if found guilty, whip their arse. Another set of politicians blame Pakistan for every single problem that might not have even occurred yet. Parties blame each other and make election slogans out of the mishap. There is no shame left in these mongrels. Advani is the lowest scum that there can be. Instead of focusing on contributing his entire force to the resolution of this problem he acts like a spoilt brat. Manmohan Singh is too soft to be a leader of a country facing terrorist attacks. He could do well leading a monastery or something like that. The Maharashtra govt. is pathetic with one minister saying that "incidents like these keep happening so there is nothing much one can do". If I were to agree with him, then the first thing we should see happen is the dissolution of all security service personnel employed to protect ministers and politicians. Death of politicians will also become incidents that will keep happening and not an Indian will complain about it. I would love to see Raj Thakeray come out and say that he will only allow the sons of the soil to rescue the hostages and capture the terrorists.

I think it is best for us to realise that we can never do away with terrorism. The more we find ways to suppress it, the more creative they are going to get (9/11 was creative). In a country as populated as India with Indians providing enough reasons for any silly person to flare up, it is impossible to keep everyone under check. With a rather shabby border and coastline security, I will not be amazed if they send in one terrorist a day for ever 10 miles of coastline and soon have an army inside India: all going undetected. We are plain reactionary. We tend to forget pretty soon. We don't care enough (because it didn't harm us directly). With so much to bother an average Indian I am not surprised if he is not sensitive to such problems. I'd rather have a few intelligent people solve a problem then the entire band of Indians (that's over a billion voices) wanting to solve it. I think we should gird up our loins and kick some buttocks if we truly care or just sit back and add one more way in which an Indian can die (and in black-cynicism hope that the population reduces). Make a joke of it and tease a boy in school for not having any relative killed in a bomb blast. Make him feel bad! 
Frankly, I think we should shut up for a while, figure out what we need, have a single (set of) mind govern India (some speaker suggested an emergency), get our infrastructure in place (and not be shabby by suddenly protecting all hotels and then when a bomb goes off in a supermarket, protect all supermarkets!), send out a clear message that if any country is found to encourage terrorism in India we will eradicate them from the face of this earth and be on alert till we are sure we have eliminated them all or forever, whichever happens earlier. It is not just against terrorism. It is about conscious living.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

A handful of rightness

I am truly blessed. I am surrounded by people who ask me the most remarkable questions. So much so that I consider myself the quicksand of human substance. 

Recently, my mother asked me, "Tell me E, why on earth do you want to hold on to your traditional practices at the cost of a common life?"
A well-read friend of mine asked me, "Tell me E, what on earth is the point of talking about great books and not about the ones that are recently published?"
Someone near asked me, "Tell me E, what are you going to do with all the honesty in the world? What use is honesty?"
Another friend of mine asked me, "Tell me E, what use is it to fight for truth at the cost of relationships and security?"

Each one of them stumped me and left me smiling. There are a million reasons and justifications for doing the wrong, only one reason for doing the right, and that is rightness itself. Let me start with books (I hold them dearest save food).

Reading is a favour done only to oneself. I owe no author anything. I do not owe any publisher anything. Can you then explain to me why there are tonnes of reviews about horrible books? Why should I write about books that I will not read and do not advise anyone to read? Because the editor asks me to? It is like eating all the crap doled out at various street corners (though some street food can beat all those nose-in-the-clouds chefs). So, if I had to talk to someone about reading and what book to take along for the trip, why on earth would I spend an hour on Swati Kaushal? Just because she had the time and energy and tenacity to write a couple of books (oh! please don't read them)? Undoubtedly, readers would like to know whether a recent book is good or not. I understand that need too, but wouldn't it suffice to have a column listing all the books one should avoid (then comes the question - how does one decide that?)? I believe that it is enough to discuss and talk about the great books as that will lead to a more cultured society, but then what about perspective? Gaining perspective cannot be a redeeming factor of any tome. Hence, the call for rightness. 

A book is worth reading if it is right. To read a book because it is popular and gets you into inner/upper circles is rather sad. To accommodate books because they are "bold" or "hard-hitting" or "angry" is ridiculous as long as they are not right (e.g. White Tiger). If a book is not beautiful, if it doesn't invoke in you feelings and passions, if it doesn't amaze you with the language employed, if it doesn't tell a tale that you enjoy reading, if it doesn't make you return to it (after any number of years), if it doesn't make you feel satisfied in gifting it to someone you care about, then that is not a book one needs to discuss. 

I recently had a wonderful conversation with the proprietor of an amazing bookstore in Chennai. I was talking to her about good books and we went on into the evening tossing titles and authors at each other. She told me that every year she would read Pride and Prejudice only to find something new in it. She was surprised that someone of my age (but I thought I was ancient!) read the kind of books that I do. But she was also sad that I had a stand against books published recently (though I don't have such a stand). She was trying to convince me that the White Tiger is not a bad book. She used the same words to describe it. She admonished me for being so hard on that book. I asked her one simple question: "Ma'am, would you read this book again?" She realised what I was heading for and smiled; "No". I find it rude to say "Touche' " to a fine lady. One does not have the time to read all the good books that have been written. Why waste time on the ones that need to be shunned? Why give up rightness for popular correctness?

The question of my traditional practices and/or my religious beliefs have annoyed/amazed many people around me. I am in the midst of a heated (at least from one side) debate about religiosity and Hindutva. I do not even wish to recognise the Hindutva that some people in India claim today. That was never Hindutva originally. The Hindutva that was true and right existed before journalism and the media re-defined it to what it is now. To give up one's beliefs is quite a simple and easy job to do. It is like giving up faith in human decency. One can easily do so, but why? Every individual is entitled to observe whatever brings him peace and calm. Buddha went off into the woods and that brought him peace and calm (not to mention fame). Should one reprimand him for that? Chaitanya was completely absorbed in Krishna. Would it make sense to call him a fanatic and chide him for that? Would it make sense to employ rational arguments to prove him wrong? Does it make any sense telling him that the world existed even before Krishna was born and hence He is not the Supreme Godhead!? More importantly, why should he care about what you believe in? The privilege to have a path to peace is not restricted to Buddha and Chaitanya. Every human being has a right to it and in observing that there is rightness. Those who find it convenient to drop this path are basically disrespecting the soul's urge. If a path is not a soul's urge but has only been imposed on one, then it might be fair to drop it, but if in not dropping my soul's urge I am losing out on a "common" life, then so be it. It is a choice between rightness and convenience.

Honesty is something similar. I care about honesty and dislike times when I have to employ lies in order to establish rightness. Unlike Krishna, I do not justify those instances. They are wrong. Period. I have lied in my younger days in order to escape punishment too but I am not ashamed of those days. Then ignorance largely ruled my being. There is only one reason to be honest, because that is the Truth, that is rightness. There are myriad reasons to lie and all of them convincingly more convenient. There is no use of honesty beyond the establishment of an environment where people can live with genuine respect and faith in each other. If that is not important, then people can continue living as they do now. I care about that. To me an environment is right when there is honesty in every action and gesture, when the need to protect the petty self is not more vital than the protection of rightness, when people regard each other with trust and faith, when people can eat a morsel of food without the feeling of being cheated, when a person's words mean what he actually wants to say (how horrid it is when having to deal with people who say one thing to your face but mean something entirely different and go on to do something totally different from either of them), when the cycle of life feels right and calming. Honesty is vital for this to come into existence. 

I find this sort of an environment in rural areas. Over the recent trip I had enjoyed (more of it later) I got to meet some extremely honest people. It felt so movingly right and simple to bare oneself to them and speak one's mind. More than the photos I shot, more than the purchases I made, more than the sights I saw, more than anything I was filled with my interaction with such people. A simple gesture from a guide who after having taken us around accepts only the amount he had requested for (without mumbling about the increase in prices and how another tenner would be appreciated), the honesty of people along the river, the honesty of some people I met while crossing a bridge over the Ganga, the honesty of the waiter at a restaurant in Sarnath and many more touched me. I met others with whom I could speak effortlessly. When I was asked to buy a Thanka painting, I was at ease to give him the real reason as to why I would not buy. I did meet some knaves too, but that is simply inevitable!

Fighting for truth is nothing more than the organic reaction to a violation of rightness. Some people find it convenient not to raise one's voice if the violation doesn't affect them. Some people (including myself) avoid fighting for everything (honestly, I am not interested in gay rights and the like. I respect them, but have no interest in fighting for them as a class). That is not because there is a greater or better right but because it is simply impossible to commit oneself to every single issue on earth. So I pick some. Relationships that are in trouble due to my defending truth are relationships best not had. It is like befriending a snake; you never know when it will feel threatened and strike you. Of course, I mean a poisonous snake! So be it with sources of security. The more one shuns facing wrongness the more one is going to be pushed into a corner till one reaches a point where one has nowhere to run. 

There is no banausic purpose for any of these choices. There is nothing to gain from these. There is no accolade that will await the follower. There is no greatness that one can aspire for. There is no profitable reason why one should do all of the above. The questions asked are not invalid or inappropriate. They only reveal that rightness will always be questioned. Rightness will always be dropped for ease of living and better gains. Rightness will always be denied a place in the midst of human beings because rightness doesn't protect one from the bitter winters nor bring food to the plate, doesn't make one popular nor loved. Rightness is a demand for living life separated from society. Rightness is a call to live life in oneself. 
All the questions above have only one answer. Silence.

Why grow so tall if all you shall get is bitter frost?

Monday, November 24, 2008

Touring Around

Some of the pictures that I shot over a recent tour. Honestly, I am exhausted sifting through the 1250+ images from the trip. I hope to (soon) write more about this adventure. For now, I hope you like these pictures...

Sunday, November 23, 2008

I was away

That's me there...
I have a lot more pictures to share. Watch this blog for more...

Thursday, November 06, 2008

RIP: Michael Crichton

His books I had enjoyed both for the sci-fi bend that he lent to them as well as for taking on perspectives that were not that common. Last night, he succumbed to cancer.

Secular, aren't we!

Please read this

I am not sure the article says anything about a communal clash or inter-tribe clash or the "typical" ones between forward caste and backward castes of India. Then what I don't understand is the title "Dalit youth killed in police firing near Uthapuram". Would the killing have been ok if he wasn't Dalit? Had he been an Iyer boy, would the title be "Iyer youth killed in police firing near Uthapuram"? I doubt it. I don't understand why the media presents news in such a lopsided manner. Such pieces will go unnoticed and stupid Indians would even sympathise with the whole Dalit community and some go one step further to condemn the forward castes. I don't think the caste matters in this news piece, so why did The Hindu have to state it thus!? I think being secular is basically bashing all those castes and communities (often with innuendoes) who are not represented in majority and who will have to pay for what someone else did (or not). Now I am convinced that I should return to my state of not reading the newspaper!! :-D

Monday, November 03, 2008

Saturday, November 01, 2008

Figuring out India in a teacup

Cha-do: The way of tea
Alliance Francaise de Madras made my evening today. There was a tea tasting, appreciation and awareness enhancing session directed by the management and experts associated with AvonGrove Tea. It was highly coincidental to find such an event scheduled the day after I was seriously pondering over the state of fine tea drinking in Madras. Lest you assume that I am a connoisseur of fine tea, let me rest all such eyebrow-raising notions. I enjoy drinking tea (without milk. Somehow the combination of tea and milk jars on my tongue) and own a special stoneware tea set which I employ for the ceremony of brewing and drinking my favourite teas, although it has been a while since I did that. Before I get to the interesting part of the evening, let me describe what lead to this rendezvous and tea tasting event itself.

It was just yesterday when I seriously thought of purchasing fine tea leaves (CTC is simply not to my taste) and blending them to various flavours. I had some ideas of various blends and even checked with my mother for the local Tamil names of some of the flowers that I would need to buy. All I needed was a tea leaf supplier. I needed the Chinese variety and preferably the green ones as I felt that that would help serve as a good base for my recipes. Oolong was also acceptable. Something about black tea made me feel that it was best left alone without blending other things in it. I shall share the recipes once I have them winning the approval of some of my friends.

Today I woke up to read an advt. about an event at the AF for tasting tea. They also announced the formation of a club which would engage in tasting various families of foods and beverages (I am told that cheese, wines and chocolates are on the cards). There is something about such promises that tickles me into believing them! I have often believed that the best work is done at the expense of individual energy. Many a time I have found groups withering to a pair or two of persons with a genuine interest in wanting to keep the leitmotiv of the group going true and strong, but suffering death by natural causes. Undoubtedly, once I went there, my hopes were raised (Mr. C seems to be quite a capable person). I was attracted more to the opportunity to taste tea as well as connect with some folks in the tea-world to better understand the prospect of starting and running a tea club and (inshallah) a tea bar in Madras (please don't insist on my calling it Chennai). I needed to understand the dynamics of the entire process as well as get a feel of how Madras responds to fine tea drinking.

I reached there when only a handful of ladies (can they ever be just a handful!?) had assembled to discuss someone and some things which I ignored with a clueless smile. They knew me not and such smiles work well in the midst of such an audience which is more than eager to ignore the newcomer. One thing that pleased my heart was the pleasant tone and the ladies carried themselves rather finely.
After some amateurish attempt at arranging the tea leaves (CTC was also up for presentation) and crockery, we were assured that things would commence in a manner which all of us looked forward to. I received, by a delightful stroke of luck, a suggestion to sit next to a fine lady whom I shall call GD. She turned out to be someone everyone seemed to know but that was irrelevant when juxtaposed with the effortlessness with which she spoke on a few topics with me. I have always been weak-kneed (or, as the Americans brashly say, sucker) for good conversation and she provided me a good amount, thank you.

Anand Kanoria brought a good measure of his enthusiasm to the presentation and occasionally took assistance from Amber Subba (garden manager) and Mr. Kidwai (of Carritt Moran & Co., I think). I would have preferred that he had prepared the presentation better rather than flip every slide with a "I won't be going into the details of this, but feel free to ask me questions". I felt that it was slightly rushed perhaps due to the delay that was already introduced or due to an undercurrent of low expectation from the audience to find anything of interest in those slides. For those who are interested in the process of tea manufacturing and Darjeeling Tea per se, I have the following references to offer:

I was definitely interested in the tea manufacturing process though I was aware of most of the steps that are involved. I was introduced to tea manufacturing when I was about 8 years old and shooting arrows in the misty slopes of Darjeeling. I remember buying and reading Hulk then. Most kids back then thought that green skinned superheroes were silly and nothing could beat Chacha Chaudhary and Sabu, or Phantom or Bahadur. I can safely laugh at all of them now!

I would have enjoyed it more had Anand and Mr. Kidwai provided more details. I was interested in knowing how the garden manager knew that the time was right or soon will be right for plucking (it seems, that the Autumnal could be figured out by the slightly xanthous tint of the fish-leaves (I think that is what they call the typical representation of tea leaves that one sees - 2 tender leaves with a bud in between)) and in other technical details of the manufacturing process. Polyphenols and enzymatic reactions could wait, though there was surely a lot to understand in the manufacturing process itself (and ponder over what could be done at various stages to produce something neo-tea-like. As in, consider the option of introducing Jasmine in the firing stage. How would the quality of tea change?). That didn't happen and we proceeded to tasting tea. Mr. Kidwai (and he has quite a sweet smile) let us enjoy the tea while he explained the various adjectives one could use when describing tea. "Malty" would be when your tea tasted like Bournvita! and "moldy" when you really are tasting something you shouldn't!

Mr. Kidwai gave us some statistics about the tea manufacturing process, the proportion of Darjeeling tea to CTC to orthodox tea and some more. It all went on well till a few of us gathered to discuss the state of fine dining (eating and/or drinking) in Madras. M of Maison des Gourmets felt that Madras was the last place one should even consider experimenting with (in the context of food). I wasn't surprised to find myself agree with him. Nevertheless, I soon saw where we were making a mistake.

People from Madras consider eating a chore and it would be next to impossible to convince them that something like fine dining is legitimate. For some reason I understand their confusion around why one should pay 650 for a dinner of kebabs (as was recently organised at the Pergola) when one could get good kebabs and grills at BBQ-Nation for less, and more kebabs at another joint for still less and eventually for nearly nothing when one can prepare them at home (these are times I regret being able to cook my own dinners. Folks use that as an excuse to dissuade me from going out)! I agree with the kebab case as the spread was nothing worth dying for, but there are places which provide food that is rare and very creative. And that is what brings me to my theory of food and fine dining in India. All from the leaves in the cup!

In India, we now eat to get on with our day. We eat to be able to honestly tick it off our list of activities for the day. I have seen zealous friends prepare a to-do list for a day and elaborately plan every task on that sheet but summarise all of eating in one of two words: "Lunch" or "Dinner". Coffee and tea are considered less confusing than "break". I am sure that this is the case with a lot of places in the world (perhaps not Europe!). As long as eating is a chore, fine dining is an extravagance. 

But that was not how it was in India. Lucknow, for example, was known for being very learned in the biryani and kebabs that it produced. The people on the street who prepared food over large pans knew how to make mutton melt in your mouth (mutton never enters my mouth and hence, it has to be your mouth where all the melting will happen). Another gent I met in the evening recalls a person in Lucknow who could tell from the taste of curd as to how long it had been since it was set and where the milk came from (as in, cow or buffalo and not Ahmad's cows or Makhrand's buffaloes). People in Madras were very particular about the coffee that they drank (my mom's coffee was quite in demand) until Bru came along and made coffee drinking a chore, or as another seller puts it "Sip, lick, ummm". Even today many of my relatives will only have filter coffee and that too P-berry (or is it Peaberry?). We would have avial made in coconut oil and folks in Kerala cannot imagine chips made in any other oil. My mother never made vadai in Canola oil or the other "tchah!" varieties. I never allowed one-meal old morkozhambu anywhere near my plate. The quality of jaggery mattered a lot for the "paagu" (something like a treacle) that was made at home. Some folks even insisted on using water drawn from a well for their cooking. All these are examples of discerning gourmands in recent years. Several decades ago, we had tonnes of examples where every facet of a meal was carefully prepared.

What is it that went wrong, then? My bet is on the nuclearisation of families and accepting anything to sustain the driving ambitions of India Rising. We were raised to believe that being particular about anything other than our studies was wasteful and unacceptable. Food was meant to be eaten and quick! so that we could get on with our studies or extra-curricular activities. There was this one story which is etched deep in my mind. In a gurukula, a very earnest student was fed food without salt (I like my pongal that way). He never complained as he was always studying and never noticed this. One day, after several years, he suddenly stopped eating and exclaimed, "This dish has no salt." His master informed him that it was time for him to leave as his education was over and he no longer considered it the most important thing. That story always rang loud in my mind if I ever had to complain about the quality of food (I still did). There was of course the daily story that had a similar effect - with most of India not having enough to even eat for one meal, the very thought of fine dining was flayed with the guilt-whip cracking near us. Thus, the need to understand, appreciate and be creative about food was considered something that a housewife with lots of time at her disposal should do. It would be better if she could do that and help the kids with their homework. Or better still, just make something for dinner and help the kids with their homework. In middle class families with only one earning member, eating out (for a family of four) was something that could be done subject to budgetary constraints.

What India and Madras need is a gradual and carefully planned education about the goodness of eating well and fine dining. Why eat the same Dal Makhani on every outing when you could try some nice red bean couscous with bell peppers maybe at one third the periodicity? I think people need to be convinced to slow down, savour good food and be lured into consuming foods which bring out the best in whatever has gone into making them. Not that Dal Makhani is bad, but do you know how it really should be? Do you know what really makes it snappy? Is that topping of cream, merely design? What kind of beans, introduced in which order make the dish better (e.g. Urad too early can ruin the taste by bringing in the slime factor)? Do you think that once a person is made aware of this, and is then fed the perfect Dal Makhani, s/he would want to return to Pappu Dhaba's Dal Makhani? We are raising standards here, but that is the only way to go forward.

South India has been very exacting about dance and music. The tradition and schools of dance helped ensure that the strictest standards were adhered to. We have schools of sculpture and architecture but no institution of fine food. Ayurveda treats food as a medicine and Vatsyayana treats it as a decorative element in foreplay or part of the duties as a member of the family. Food doesn't seem to be treated as a wonderful uncut gem which one can polish and split into a beautiful ornament of satisfying beauty. Good food is at once orgasmic and Zen-like. Preparing it is verily meditation. Blessed are those who have experienced all of this.

Fine dining is an end to a very long and patient wait for people to realise the truth often achieved by exposing themselves, repeatedly, to whatever represents that truth. It cannot be wished into a society nor can it be forced. The worst thing to do is to introduce it at a very heavy price and then wonder why people lack taste and class. Why would I care for a Bose speaker if all I want to do is to listen to a T-Series tape while I sing along? Make me care, and I will walk your path.

I think it is wrong to assume that India does not have the taste or class to accommodate Darjeeling tea or chaji (Japanese tea ceremonies). I have personally, one person at a time, converted alu-jeera lovers to appreciate delicacies made of corn and mushroom (while making them realise why that alu-jeera was not good - hint: too much turmeric) with a dash of rosemary. It is a matter of evolving taste, and rushing it up can be detrimental to the very core of fine dining. The slightest financial setback will convince people that the first thing to cut out is this pointless eating that people call "fine dining". It needs to seep into the fibres of human hunger and not be merely an alternative. I think it is possible, but requires an extremely creative soul with tremendous amounts of patience. And in India, pricing it right helps.

It was, in summary, a very splendid way to spend an evening. I met a couple of nice people from the US consulate. It was entertaining and fit well into my oft-conceived but hardly-ever-realised notion of how an evening should be spent. Wonderfully delightful conversations (thank you Ms. GD), discussions about food, markets and tastes (thank you M and PS), fine tea, talk about fine tea and work life (I envy BD for having a job which takes him to different places like Romania and now India for short spaces of 2-3 years) and learning more about the world of tea and tea manufacturing (thank you Anand, Mr. Kidwai and Subba). Frankly, one of the best evening I have had in a very long time. Thank you Mr. C of AF for organising this.