Saturday, May 13, 2006

Requiem for a thali

Requiem for a thali
photograph from

A gleaming steel plate in which sit several equally radiant katoris, all empty, beaming with anticipation. You give a katori an impatient little twirl and wait, salivating gently. Suddenly, the kitchen door swings open and heralded by a drum roll of clattering spoons and pans, the show begins. First the band members walk in – the pickles, the pappadums, the chutneys, the kachchumbers, sometimes even a tiny, sparkling mound of salt. As they settle down and tune your taste buds, the supporting cast takes its place. A giggling rasam covered with little sequins of oil next to a serene, buttery moong dal. A palely elegant cauliflower poriyal dressed in frothy frills of coriander-‘n-coconut sneers at a fat, untidy, chortling aloo bhaji. A smooth-limbed kadhi undulates in lemony-golden swirls, tantalizingly veiled in transparent chiffons of steam, watched by a cool, still, white lake of curd. A charming kheer with a flawless pista-and-cream complexion smiles sweetly at a clownish bonda rolling across the steel floor to where several hot, perky pakodas chatter and vie for a dip in the refreshing green of the mint chutney. And finally, when everything’s in its place and the aromas apsaras have taunted and tickled your nose till you can’t bear it anymore, the star cast enters. Three pompously puffed-up pooris drop from the sky. Plop! They sizzle their opening lines, you gingerly poke their bellies and as a gust of hot air whooshes out, a delicious vaudeville begins……
To me, the thali epitomizes the Indian spirit. Every possible taste and flavour is welcome and there’s room for everyone in that happy circle. The sweet and the spicy, the juicily plump and the wafer thin, the lightly steamed and deeply fried, the fluffy and the crisp, things that make your taste buds squirm and tingle with delight, things that wash over them like a gentle lullaby. A dollop of this, a splash of that, things to dip into and to scoop out, things to slurp and crunch, things to fill the belly and uplift the soul. The thali is the world’s purest democracy where the first helping is the election campaigning where you give all a fair tasting and the second helping is when you cast your vote. Where you eat not in a boring straight line like the West does, going from soup to main course to dessert, but like the world, you go round and round, revisiting, reliving, reveling till every sense is sated and you’re in bliss. Which is when you lie back and let a gentle, happy little burp escape your lips, just loud enough for the gods to hear your paean of gratitude.
Sadly the thali is a dying breed in Mumbai, as endangered a species as the Bengal tiger. Oh there are places where you’ll find its pure-ghee, Roman orgy “deluxe” cousin that costs upwards of Rs.150 a pop and needs you to starve for at least 2 days to get past the farsan stage. But the plain simple South Indian fare, once available in almost every Udipi restaurant in the city is now almost extinct. And if you do find it, it’ll often be hideously bastardized, most of the items in it having crawled out of the horrible, greasy red slops, euphemistically called “Punjabi Items”, that feature on the a la carte menu. A few brave survivors still persist, like the Udipi Shri Krishna Boarding in Matunga that has served thalis of unwavering excellence since 1946, but for the rest……
Once upon a time, the Udipi restaurant was the affordable, wholesome option for genuine South Indian food. Not any more. Today, most of them offer a ghastly gallimaufry (yes, there’s such a word and it means hodgepodge!)of cuisine, as gaudy an assault on the taste buds as the d├ęcor is on the eyes. So there’s a Jain in the pizza, cheese in the uttapam, mushrooms in the dosa and the tomato omelet is not made with egg. The sambar is sweet, the sandwich is Russian, the paneer Schzewan and vegetables are anything from Peshawari to milijuli. There’s kadai, tawa, handi and matka, but nowhere in this noisy “gad bud” (yes, there’s actually a dessert by that name!) will you find amma’s thali. The thali is dead. Long live the thali!

Sunday, May 07, 2006

Where have all the Sadhana cuts gone?

“In the future, everyone will be famous for 15 minutes.” Andy Warhol
It was a chocolate-coloured saree with a yellow border and it had little yellow flowers (ambis, perhaps?) the colour of haldi scattered all over. The girl was all of 12 years old, but she had to have the saree, because at the time, it was all the rage. That was 53 years ago, but my mother still remembers her “Chandralekha” saree, so christened after S. S. Vassan’s historic Tamil hit film starring T. R. Rajakumari (T. R. standing for the grand sobriquet of Thanjavur Ranganayiki) who, I guess, must have worn such a saree in the film.
Thirteen years later, in 1961, in the Hindi movie Hum Dono, Sadhana’s hairstyle, (characterized by a sweetly wispy fringe over her forehead,) caught the imagination of the nation like wildfire and was immortalized as the 'Sadhana Cut'. And so it was, not so long ago, when movies were the magic that not just coloured our dreams but shaped the way we looked. It was in the cinema theatre where we found our earthly gods and goddesses, mesmerized not just by power of their performances, but by the way they made that hipster sari perch so saucily on those hips (Mumtaz in Brahmachari) or that curl kiss that magnolia forehead so tenderly (Meena Kumari in Sahib Biwi aur Ghulam). Whether your pallu regally swept the floor or sat like a perky little napkin on your shoulder, whether your choli sleeve crept demurely came all the way to your elbow (Waheeda Rehman in Guide) or boldly went where no choli sleeve had ever dared to go all depended on the heroines’ whims. Silsila may not have done well at the box office, but Rekha’s cholis with their now famous “magyar” sleeves (a kind of a compromise struck, I suspect, between modesty and titillation) became a huge hit.
And I remember the start of a lengthy battle of wills with my mother when I first tweezed my eyebrows to the fashionably pencil-thin line that Zeenie baby was sporting that year. They look like lines of black ants crawling across your forehead, my mother sneered despairingly, the pressures of disciplining a teenage daughter with delusions of passing off as Zeenat Aman’s twin (only about 8” shorter and twenty pounds heavier!) having temporarily deleted the Chandralekha saree from her head. But I had only just begun. Fortunately for Mummy the tight, sleeveless churidar-kurtas (with the coquettish little slit at the back so that you could at least totter around without keeling over) pioneered by Vyjanthimala, Asha Parekh and Sadhana in films like 'Jewel Thief' and 'Love in Tokyo', the “frosted” lipsticks that made those of us not blessed with the peaches-‘n-cream look like grey ghosts who had just taken their lips out of the freezer, the stretch pants made for limbs far less khaatey-peetey that our Bharatiya Nari ones, the towering, back-combed, stiffly sprayed edifices called the bouffants had long since passed – with honours, I must add – into cinematic history.
But no matter, the deities had new avatars for me. My kurtas climbed thigh-high, my pants flared to elephant. I secretly used poster paint to draw “eyeliner” on my eyelids (when my mum discovered this, she lived in the constant terror that I’d go blind!), my “tops” shrunk to something that looked like the tailor had tried to squeeze out of a handkerchief (Neetu Singh ala Kabhie Kabhie, Khel Khel Mein), I maxi-ed and midi-ed (having missed the mini era, thank God!), and when Jaya Bhaduri cut two front locks of her beautiful knee- length hair to hang loose on either side of her face, I followed faithfully. I still remember the early morning ritual before school – my mother would try to tame the offending locks with oil and I would then promptly rush to the bathroom and lovingly shampoo just the two of them, my two flags of defiance, fashionably un-oiled, ready to be whipped out and tossed around as the emotion of the moment demanded!
And it was not just the women. Dilip Kumar’s Devdas made unrequited love a national pastime where droves of besotted young men rushed to pine away with the help of a consumptive cough and a bottle of that in which sorrows drowned. Naturally, it was mandatory to wear correct the Devdas hairstyle – your front locks scattered despairingly all over your forehead. Then came Dev Anand’s dangly limbs and dashing puff, (which he started to sport, so the story goes, because his then lady love Suriya was a fan of Gregory Peck who had a similar hairstyle). Nothing, not even the windiest wind-machine would flatten it till Devsaab himself did, in Johnny Mera Naam. And then there was the “Bachchan” cut with which millions of nais across the country shaped the hair of their smitten clientele, who then ripped open their shirts to display pelts of surly chest hair, knotted the rest of the shirt around their waist ( Deewar), and bowed at the altar of the Angry Young Man. In between of course there was Rajesh Khanna, whose one Noddy nod, one slow-motion squeeze of the eyelids, one smile that spread like melted chocolate across his lips, (who can forget the soft, slurrily drawled, “Pushpa, I hate tears!” in Amar Prem?!) sent all of Indian womanhood into an ecstatic swoon only to recover enough to propose to him in blood. (When he married Dimple Kapadia, it was almost a national mourning.) Nobody seemed to notice that this dream devta had pimples, an oddly shaped shaped body and an even odder taste in clothes like his guru kurtas in 'Anand' (1972) and his habit of wearing a belt with a kurta (Andaz' - 1971).
So what happened? Where did they all go? Why is it that we don’t have an “Aishwarya cut” or Karishma kurta? How come no one rushed out to copy Shahrukh Khan’s jeans in “Kuch Kuch Hota Hai” or Hrithik Roshan’s black net reveal-all t-shirt in Kaho Na Pyar Hai? Is it because so much of what our stars wear today and the way they look ape a kind of desi version of the designer West, too alien for the average Indian person? (And how else would they lure, the fillum producers ask, the huge NRI market?) Maybe but that sounds like too pat, too superficial an explanation. Maybe it is a sign of our times – where everything is instant, disposable – like paper cups, where superstars are made every Friday night… and die the next Friday. Maybe it’s because our cine gods came down from heaven – through the media and publicity blitzes that blew away the stardust and revealed that they were just people like you and me, only better made up.
Or maybe it’s because increasingly we are a generation bereft of heroes and untutored in the habit of hero worship. Look around you and the place is littered with debris of the fallen angels of public life. Some of us may shrug our shoulders and say, aw, what the heck, we can do with some empty space on our altars already crowded with too many gods. But the thing is, hero worship is like dreaming. It’s good for the soul - a bit like airing your cupboard. It keeps at bay the cobwebs that congeal us into the ho-hum and the ordinary. Dreams and heroes keeps us yearning for to hitch our wagons to that star, no matter how dimly distant it may seem. I for one miss being starry-eyed. It used to make the world so much more palatable. After a long, hard day’s of humdrum, it would’ve been so good to shut one’s eyes and dream of being a doe-eyed beauty, tenderly romanced by a Dev Anand look alike, his puff lit by the smoky glow of lighter which tinkled “Abhi na jaao chhod kar, key dil abhi bhara nahi”. Except that there are no Sadhana cuts anymore to arrange on my forehead anymore……
“But look, look now, look at my hairstyle, this neat cut, people call it the Sadhana cut…..I have given them (the poor) a sense of self-respect. Nobody can stop them. They can now comb their hair the way the want, like me.” Laloo Prasad Yadav in “The making of Bihar” by Sankarshan Thakur