Friday, April 06, 2007


1. Gastronomic divide

One day I walked into a South Indian restaurant in the central business district. It was crowded with people, all Indians, both from north and south. Not surprising as it was lunch time on a working day, and CBD is full of Indian professionals. Almost everyone was having a thali meal which included a mound of rice on a banana leaf (cut round to fit the shape of the steel plate), surrounded by eight small round steel bowls, containing spicy veggies, rasam, sambhar, curd and a sweet dish. A crisp papad lay at the top of the rice. Spoonfuls of pickles and two deep fried red chillies further bejewelled the plate. This was meal no 8. There was a long queue in front of the counter where one paid for one's order. I also joined the line.

And I began to think. Why do Indians eat such large quantities of food? If a Chinese or a Causasian here saw the amount of food on a plate here, they would say, Serious! (I know that many of them like Indian food too but that is once in a while, right?)Whereas, they eat, in contrast, very small portions of food, mostly salads, fruits, and less starchy food--which many Indians consider to be ghaas phoos.

Why is this difference in food habits? Do Indians eat such large quantities of food because they have been underfed for generations (their elite always stomached most of the food throughout history)? And the first world people eat so less because they always had plenty to eat, as they have not been at the wrong side of the colonial plunder? Although it happens in the name of healthy eating, perhaps there is some element of divine justice working here in this gastronomic divide.

When my turn came to order food, I ordered a meal no 8.

2. 'Oh, you are so sick'

I went to the Picture House to see the latest Academy Award Winning Best Foreign Language Film, The Lives of Others (German).

I paid for my ticket at the box office but just after handing me my ticket the girl issued me a warning: 'Just a reminder, sir. Food and drinks are not allowed in the Picture House.' Thanks, I said and left for the elevator. I liked the idea of no food and drinks rule in the arthouse theatre. Most of the films running in this theatre are foreign language films. Imagine a frugal viewer's plight when he is torn between the beauty of the projected mis en scene, the fast changing subtitles, and the real-life love scene involving the couple just a few seats away from his. Why would anyone want to mix the excitement of unfolding snack packets and filling the small theatre with the smell of junk food to the already available sensory feast?

I had a corner seat. The film started well, and within minutes I had the feeling that I was living in East Germany, and was part of the friend circle of the playwright hero. The film was turning out to be extremely exciting--the writer was staging a play, his live-in actress girlfriend was being seduced by the culture minister, who wanted her all for himself and to remove his rival out of the way, he put the Stasi to watch him, the writer, day and night. One anti-state act and the writer would be put off in jail. Enter the mysterious Ulrich Mühe (he looks like Kevin Spacey, only so German) as a Stasi agent who spies on the playwright and his girlfriend. From here the film takes a different turn.

Anthony Lane of the New Yorker has written a brilliant review of the film, and since I can't better that (nor do I have the time to do that), I leave you with his review: "It is a tribute to the richness of the film that one cannot say for sure who the hero is. The most prominent figure is Gerd Wiesler (Ulrich Mühe), yet if you passed him on the street you wouldn’t give him a second glance, or even a first. He would spot you, however, and file you away in a drawer at the back of his mind. Wies--ler, based in East Berlin, is a captain in the Ministerium für Staatssicherheit, better known as the Stasi—the state security service, which, by the mid- nineteen-eighties, employed more than ninety thousand personnel. In addition, a modest hundred and seventy thousand East Germans became unofficial employees, called upon to snoop and snitch for the honor—or, in practical terms, the survival—of the state. “Love thy neighbor as thyself,” Jesus said. The German Democratic Republic offered its own version: watch thy neighbor, then pick up thy phone."

Did you notice that sentence: "It is a tribute to the richness of the film that one cannot say for sure who the hero is." Exactly my feeling! Like a keen observer, Lane has noticed even the minutest details in the film and has extracted meaning out of them. If you read the review, you would notice, like when he says, "the meagreness of Wies-ler’s lonely dinner (a tube of something red, squeezed onto a bowl of something white)" that's really being very keen.

You must see this film if you haven't already. If for nothing, see this film for Muhe. Or for the bewitching Christa-Maria Sieland (Martina Gedeck). She has such a beautiful smile, so restrained, so innocent.

As the film progressed, so did the romanticism of the couple sitting a few seats away from me. Not only was the young girl doing a deep mouth to mouth to her man, after some time, she even began to straddle him. Soft giggles came from their side.

When the film finished, with Muhe clutching the novel dedicated to him by the playwright, I felt a sense of relief and accomplishment. Any film that has a writer in it as a character is so hugely satisfying to me.

As I walked towards the exit, I saw a young lady chiding a not-so-healthy looking man who was sitting after one seat next to hers in the same row, with an office bag in his lap. "You know food and drinks are not allowed in this theatre...and your bag is full of drinks...Oh, you are so sick!"

And her frail frame huffed out of the theatre. The man remained glued to his seat. I also came out of the theatre, looking for the angry young woman. I missed her in the crowd.


Toe Knee said...

That still doesn't explain why Americans are obese even though we Indians are getting there.

Zafar Anjum said...

Ah, junk food! That is the side effect of globalisation, and anyone who earns more than $2 a day is in danger of falling prey to it.

monideepa said...

Plenty of obese Indians, result of too much pigging. So the owners of slimmint and fitness centres and plastic surgeons laugh all the way to the bank. nice business cycle, fast food-obesety-dieting-slimming-.