While watching Nigel Ng’s hilarious takedown of Jamie Oliver’s fried rice, The Family said “We haven’t had fried rice for ages.” Fried rice was a rare delicacy when I was young. I had to cajole my mother into making it. I didn’t think I could recreate her recipe, but I could try to recreate my memory of that taste. My mother would make that in her kadhai, but I’m a little afraid of that utensil (it bites!).
I heated a tiny bit of oil in a nice rounded non-stick pan, the closest I could come to a tame (non bitey) kadhai, and cooked some prawns until they were almost done. If they cook a little in the rice, they’ll give it a flavour of the sea, so you don’t need to finish them now. I added a little more oil for the chopped onions and garlic and cooked them through. Then it was time to put the old rice from the fridge into the pan to fry. When it had started releasing its smell, I rummaged for eggs and found that we’d almost run out of them. I took the last three and broke them over the rice, and began to work it around. Something didn’t look right, so I drizzled enough soya sauce into the pan to colour the rice a nice red. At this time of the year there are no spring onions in the market, so I just put in the prawns, and waited for everything to cook just that little more. When I tasted it, I found that it could have done with more egg, some chili, and it needs some crunchy veggie bits, even if spring onions are not in season.
“This was not the best”, The Family told me. I had to agree. I realized that she’d been watching me closely, in the guise of helping me find eggs and chopping the onions. So it’s clear my fried rice has been appropriated!
My mother was fond of experimenting with food. I realize now that the things that I grew up eating were the history of a new and more open India in the making. Dosas and idli crossed over into north Indian kitchens about then, and my mother’s experiments with sambar lasted through my middle school. Dahi vada, chhole bature, and ragda patties insinuated themselves into the regional kitchens that mothers of her generation inherited from their parents. Fried rice and spring rolls from the Chinese subculture in India was part of this cultural appropriation. The result was a wonderfully cosmopolitan Indian culture that came to full flower in the last decade of the twentieth century, a generation after midnight’s children.
It was interesting to dive into photo archive for this and past Septembers, to see how monsoons end.
The featured photo of water buffaloes was taken in September 2007.
I woke before dawn today, even before the first bird had started singing. As the sky turned from black to a faint colour, I saw twinkling lights on the horizon, out at sea. The mad twinkling told me that the morning was going to be more hazy than I’d hoped. Shipping had come to a halt in April, and the absence of man-made noise must have been almost pre-industrial. For the first time in the recorded history of Mumbai dolphins were seen in Backbay. That is well past now. From July I’ve been seeing cargo ships pass through the far channel, weaving back together a world wide web of commerce. One of the set of lights, the rightmost, looked like a mobile drilling rig. The leftmost was certainly neither that, nor a container ship. It looked more like a cruise ship waiting to berth. I didn’t know that passenger cruises had started. Could this be one of those stranded cruises finally coming to dock? These are strange times; both would surprise me, but I’m ready for surprises.
I love Satyajit Ray’s movie Charulata for its pacing, slow and deliberate, changing with the seasons. It was a translation of a story called Broken Nest by Tagore. I see the hornbill couple in the trees around my apartment now and realize that this metaphor can have a real and devastating meaning. Indian grey hornbills mate for life, and the pair that I see now have been coming back to the same tree after every monsoon to nest and raise two or three chicks. This year, the fierce monsoon storm five weeks ago blew down their nesting tree. They spent days scouting and seem to have found a nesting spot.
Hornbills nest in hollows of trees. The female seals herself into the hollow with pellets of mud and her own droppings, leaving a slit through which the male feeds her. She moults as she incubates her eggs, and the two processes end at around the same time. In the last few years I had a good view of the fledgelings learning to fly. I’ll miss that view in the morning now. I guess I’ll have to spend some time this year figuring out where the nest was, but it doesn’t seem to be someplace which I can see so easily.
I saw an unusually large bird perching on the edge of terrace of the furthest visible building. I zoomed in, and there it was: a black kite (Milvus migrans govinda), the T Rex of our times. It is a hunter which is not above scavenging. It is a bird out of my childhood nightmares, one which snatched the lunch out of my hands on my very first day at school. Its lifestyle brings it into occasional conflict with crows; I see bands of crows harrying it when they are all after the same piece of food. Despite its large size, the kite seldom wins.
Looking at the history of the naming of the bird, I was overcome by memories of Paris, walks from a friend’s apartment on Rue Lacepede near the botanical gardens up Rue Monge, past the metro station of Censier-Daubenton to Place d’Italie. The bird was first named in Buffon’s book of 1770 CE, The Natural History of Birds, with illustrations produced under the supervision of the French naturalist Daubenton. It was assigned to its current genus, Milvus, in 1799 by one of Buffon’s collaborators on the book, Lacepede. A morning of nostalgia!
Who invented the office building? Frank Lloyd Wright was the first answer that Google mama gave me. I know better than to take the word of this mamu too seriously. A little probing, and then it seemed to be a toss up between East India House and The Admiralty, both built in London in 1726 CE. I wasn’t going to settle for that either, because I know that the Uffizi Gallery in Florence was built to be Uffizi, offices, in the 1560s, and became a museum only in the 18th century.
By the 16th century the Mughals were busy laying down an administrative structure for all of India. Their record keeping is remarkable, and the book of their administrative rules, the Akbar Nama, is the best source of ancient recipes that I know of. We only see their tombs and palaces now, but the innumerable rooms in their palaces would have housed offices. That tweaked something in my memory, and I went back to remind myself of the administrative structure of the Mauryan empire. My memory was right; in the years immediately following Alexander’s retreat from India, the Mauryas developed a complex administrative structure with extensive record keeping. Unfortunately the only structures which survive the couple of thousand years since their times are memorials. But these are unlikely to be isolated examples. Surely, every successful empire must have developed a bureaucracy, and offices, and office buildings.
So what’s the fuss about the demise of offices? Ah ha. That’s another matter. That has to do with large businesses modeling themselves after imperial bureaucracies. That fancy could be European, and, at first thought, may even be laid at the less-than-clean hands of the British East India Company. Although I believe that if you look a little more carefully, you will find that Venice did it a century or two earlier. So, if you follow that thought, then the office building started with the rise of capitalism, is its most visible symbol, and, if it disappears, would probably signal the end of this form of social organization. So I would bet that it is not going away soon. All this about co-working spaces, and working out of a Starbucks, is just a niche, like money changers working out of temples. Any takers?
I nursed my morning’s cup of chai and looked out across Backbay at the high-rises on Malabar hills, just when the rising sun caught them. A kite soared across the bay, and nearer at hand there was a fog of high-flying dragonflies. The monsoon winds have stilled, and the light breeze created a tiny bit of surf at the governor’s beach. Right now mosquitoes are breeding across that posh area. I hope they learn to breed more dragonflies there, to eat the larvae of mosquitos and control them. The ones around our buildings are the mostly the yellow and blue variety known as the ground skimmer (Diplacodes trivialis). Another morning in Mumbai in late monsoon, pleasant, but with the promise of heat and humidity later in the day. Again at this time you welcome a heavy shower.
I had two nice pomfrets to cook last Sunday morning. What a lovely prospect for lunch. When the fish is as fresh as this, it is very easy to cook. I coated them with a paste of ginger, garlic, red chili powder, and salt. They need to sit in it for a bit; I gave it about fifteen minutes. Then, one by one they went into a non-stick pan where I’d heated a tiny bit of mustard oil. Three minutes for one side, two for the other, and it was done. Quick, and wonderful to eat after a fresh garden salad. A couple of months back I’d pickled some cherries in vinegar. That hint of sweetness in the vinegar makes a nice base for the salad dressing. We rounded off the meal with a sitafal (Annona squamosa).
I can never make fish without remembering this panel by Bill Watterson.
When I went to sleep last night the oppressive humidity of the afternoon had given way to a cooler breeze which brought rain. I woke to a clear morning. The sun had not yet cleared the horizon, but the orchestra of birds was in full swing. A coppersmith barbet supplied the metronimic rhythm as the competing trills of green bee-eaters and purple sunbirds rose over it. The parrakeets joined in, and I thought I could hear an Alexandrine call amongst the rose-ringed.
I made my tea and looked out. The break in the clouds was the promise of the approach of sharad ritu, that interval before autumn that the English named an Indian summer. The sky was a blue that was almost impossible to see in Mumbai since the 1990s. The anthropause has made a big difference to the quality of the air. The crows had just begun to get into the swing of things. I was always a night person, more familiar with the late rising constellations than sunrise. But I’ve begun to enjoy this interval between sunrise and the start of human activity.
It is a good week that ends in a happy decision. After lots of discussion, through many calls-to-attention and dissents, and much going back to basics and consulting lawyers, we could take a decision that a dozen of us could each be happy with. We will have to go back to full functioning, because we can’t wait for five years to reopen. But we can’t force people to act against their fears, or to utilize city services which are working at less than capacity. So, for the moment, we decided to open fully, but with minimal staff, so no one has to share an office. People who do not come in to work on a given day will be working a normal day and week out of home. Almost every person will still be coming in to work at least once in two weeks, but older people and people who have morbidities which make them more susceptible to COVID-19 will be able to work entirely out of home.
I think this was a foregone conclusion. There is no alternative to leading our lives, but we will have to feel our way through new dangers, and adapt to take that into account. We have learnt a huge amount about this disease in the last months, and we can bring that new understanding into play, as best as now-strained finances can. As we start to work, perhaps we can bootstrap ourselves into a better situation in all respects. I am happy that we can curb the madness of meetings and video calls at all hours of the day and night and every day of the week. I love my work, and can do it constantly, but when I am doing a lot more chores and repairs around the house (because help that would be available at other times isn’t), I need to take predictable times off. I hope our co-workers agree with the decisions we took for them, but I think we have enough flexibility delegated through the organization to take care of most reasonable caveats.
Now I have time to enjoy my tea in the morning as I look at what is nesting or hiding in the banyan tree outside; a rose-ringed parakeet (Psittacula krameri) this morning. Or to wonder when the municipality will be back to work trucking away the neatly stacked remnants of the trees that fell down in the storm a month ago.