My Flirtation with India

Mumbai Street Scene

For years, I have been fascinated with India in a way I have not been with any other Asian locale. Is it possible that I would ever go there on a vacation? There are a number of factors pro and con:

PRO

  • I have a good friend—Mohan—in Chennai (formerly known as Madras).
  • I love reading about India. One of my favorite authors is the Tamil R. K. Narayan who wrotre a series of novels about a mythical town called Malgudi. Also, I have just finished Paul Theroux’s The Elephanta Suite, which I enjoyed.
  • English would probably take me further in India than in any other Asian destination.
  • Indian curries, especially vegetarian curries, are one of my favorite cuisines.

CON

  • What frightens me about India is the same thing I hate in Los Angeles: Unrelenting heat. I would have to time my visit carefully so I’m not stuck there just before the monsoons arrive.
  • I would probably not enjoy spending much time in India’s large, crowded cities, such as Mumbai, Kolkata, or Chennai.
  • One of my friends from Dartmouth College, also, like me, from Cleveland, died in India a few years after graduation of some gastric disturbance. Because of the state of my health, I would be afraid of contracting food poisoning.

There you have it: A few random observations of what goes through my mind when I consider going to India.

Kale and Turnips—Not!

The Bombay Frankie Company’s Aloo Gobi Matar Wrap

Last week, I ran into a rabid vegetarian at the Ralph’s Supermarket in Santa Monica. She had her groceries in two piles, momentarily confusing the checker, who asked me if her second pile was mine.

I answered him: “Hmm, kale and turnips. Nope, that doesn’t look like what I’d eat.”

This angered the customer, who turned to me and started critiquing the groceries I was purchasing, much of which was for Martine, who has been ill with a bad cold. I stayed silent until she slunk away with a sour look on her face—a look that could only be the result of eating a diet of kale and turnips.

Actually, I consider myself a part-time vegetarian. The one difference between me and the other customer is that I refuse to eat bland, tasteless food, regarding it as an insult. I was raised on Hungarian food, some of which was vegetarian, especially when times were bad and we couldn’t afford meat. But it was good food and tasted great!

I cannot for the life of me stomach American vegetarian cuisine, which I find objectionable in the extreme. Hungarians have good vegetarian dishes, as do Italians and Persians. The best vegetarian chow, in my opinion, is from the Indian subcontinent. Indian curries are the epitome of a great vegetarian cuisine, such that I prefer to cook vegetarian when I make curry.

In preparation, I visit an Indian specialty food store, such as India Sweets & Spices in Culver City, where I can buy curry leaves, black mustard seeds, good turmeric, cumin, and coriander—and where the owner usually gives me a cup of chai masala for free. In fact, if Martine were not still hitting the soup trail for her cold, I would cook a potato and spinach curry this week.

One of the oldest books I own is Monica Dutt’s The Art of Indian Cooking, which has been my guide to learning how to cook curries. Today I had an Aloo Gobi Matar wrap (as illustrated above) at the Bombay Frankie Company in West L.A., which is located at one end of a Chevron Station at the Santa Monica Boulevard exit on the I-405.

Untouchables

Sweeper Cleaning Sewer in New Delhi

This posting is not about Eliot Ness and his war leading an FBI contingent against Al Capone and his ilk. Rather, it is about millions of lower caste Indians who are labeled by the Hindu religion as unclean by the nature of the work they are assigned—generation after generation—keeping the streets, byways, and sewers clean of the excreta of their fellow Indians.

I am currently reading a novel written by Mulk Raj Anand called Untouchable (1935), which details a day in the life of one such Dalit family. The older son, Bakha, accidentally touches a Brahmin who almost causes a riot because he accidentally touched him as he passed by in the street. Any physical contact of a Dalit with a Brahmin requires that the latter take a purifying bath. Sweepers are required to announce their presence as they walk among men so that higher caste Hindus can avoid unwanted contact.

Dalit Sweeper

Anand’s novel launched his career as an Anglo-Indian writer. English novelist E. M. Forster, author of A Passage to India, has penned this tribute to him:

Some readers [of Untouchable], especially those who consider themselves all-white, will go purple in the face with rage before they have finished a dozen pages, and will exclaim that they cannot trust themselves to speak. I cannot trust myself either, though for a different reason: the book seems to me indescribably clean and I hesitate for words in which this can be conveyed. Avoiding rhetoric and circumlocution, it has gone straight to the heart of its subject and purified it. None of us are pure—we shouldn’t be alive if we were. But to the straightforward all things can become pure, and it is to the directness of his attack that Mr Anand’s success is probably due.

The plight of the Dalits will always astonish those who believe the words of our own Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

 

Words in the News: Thugs

Originally the Word Meant Something More Specific

Originally the Word Meant Something More Specific

In our current mode of excessively violent policing, the word “thug” has come to mean a reprehensible person, usually black. Rather than adding my own two cents to the problems of Ferguson and Baltimore, I thought I’d shed some light as to how the word came into the English language from its remote origins in India.

Thuggee was the practice of waylaying travelers by usually family-related gangs, taking them to remote places known to them, and strangle them as in the above illustration. As early as 1356, Ẓiyā-ud-Dīn Baranī mentioned them in his History of Fīrūz Shāh. Under the rule of the East India Company, these gangs were targeted by the British forces for eradication.

As described in Wikipedia:

The Thugs would join travelers and gain their confidence. This would allow them to then surprise and strangle their victims by pulling a handkerchief or noose tight around their necks. They would then rob their victims of valuables and bury their bodies. This led them to also be called Phansigar (English: using a noose), a term more commonly used in southern India. The term Thuggee is derived from the Hindi word ठग, or ṭhag, which means “deceiver”. Related words are the verb thugna, “to deceive”, from Sanskrit  स्थग sthaga, “cunning, sly, fraudulent“, from स्थगति sthagati “he conceals”.This term for a particular kind of murder and robbery of travellers is popular in South Asia and particularly in India.

Now that  you know about all about Thuggee, you might want to refrain from using the word “thug” to describe a lower class person of race who is acting in an uppity way against your white values.

A related term is dacoity, which is yet another term for describing the same sort of thing. The East India Company ultimately enacted the Thuggee and Dacoity Suppression Acts between 1836 and 1848 which made a dent in this kind of organized criminal activity.

You might also want to read this article which appeared in Newsweek for additional background.