Flea and tea

My first unfiltered experience of China came one morning, ten years ago, when I walked through a flea market to reach a tea market. The flea market was the usual hotch potch of things, perfect for a quick look inside Chinese homes. Jade bracelets were laid out with bottles, jars, vases, and a very personable pig carved out of wood. If I had the weight allowance, I might have bought the pig right there.

In another aisle a middle-aged man sat with his collection of Mao memorabilia. The modern era of instant translation had not yet struck, and I hadn’t picked up even the smattering of Mandarin that I did later, so our communication was the age-old language of gestures and acting. You lose nuances in this language, but one meaning that came through was that some of the things he was selling was his own. There were a few medals with Mao’s face on it. A forty-odd years old man would have been in his early teens when Mao died, so I didn’t see how he could have won the medal. Maybe it was a family heirloom. Clearly there was a market for it even in the new China.

But most of the things put out for sale seemed to be more traditional. The small towns of India are full of little museums in forgotten mansions built by 19th century traders who found their riches in the trade with Shanghai and Guangzhou. Their display cases contained richer and more decorative versions of the things I saw. These “singing bowls” were quite a draw. Filled with water, you could set them vibrating with a clean high pitch when you drew your palms rapidly across their lip. I was shown how to do it.

I’d spent half an hour wandering around the market, and on the way out I stopped to take a photo of this celadon plate with a dragon winding around it. Later I would have the references to compare them with. Now I look at it and think it wasn’t a bad piece at all.

On to the tea market. I have no memory of what I’d imagined it to be, but it certainly wasn’t the sprawling maze of an indoor market that it actually was. There were more salespeople than customers at that time on a weekday morning. I suspect that in a market as big as that, it might be true at all times of every day. I peeked in through the open doors of every shop. Rows of crates, full of loose leaf tea, and shelves filled with packed teas and tea paraphernalia. That was the layout of each shop. And people sitting and picking through trays of tea leaves.

My favourite photo from that day is of this long narrow stall. Near the open door was a white cockatoo. The man sitting there paid us no attention as we walked by. Later, gawking done, I came back to this shop to buy tea. It was deserted, but as soon as I walked in through the door, the cockatoo squawked, and an young man poked his head out of the inner door. He had no English, but called someone on a phone. A trapdoor in the ceiling opened, and an English-speaking helper dropped into the shop. That was an eventful way to buy enough tea to last me a year.

My world in mid-July

2006: Kashmiri chili

A response to a challenge by a Lens Artist needed some thought. A response needed me to show you my world. I decided to select a picture from each year, as close to mid-July as I can get. Usually the monsoon is at its heaviest in mid-July, which lets me show a season I love. I stayed home some years. In others I traveled. I see that this is a fair picture of what I spend my time on. The series spans the period from 2006, which is represented by the featured photo, to the hard lockdown of 2020.

As always, click on any photo to get to the gallery.

Crowds

Do you remember 2019? People used to hang around in crowds, and look happy.

Mumbai
Goreme
Nairobi
Istanbul
Bharatpur

In retrospect the featured photo is specially poignant. It was taken in Wuhan, at a time when the virus had already begun to circulate, but no one recognized it for what it would go on to do.

On that note I take a blogging break of around two weeks.

Kolkata style Hakka noodles

“Didn’t you want to take a photo?” The Family asked after we’d nearly finished eating our plates of the Kolkata style Hakka noodles which I’d whipped together. Indeed I did. So I dug up the smallest plate I could find, and scraped the last remaining bits off the dish into it for the featured photo. After all, a blog about food is no good without a photo of the food. But then, does a photo with three strands of broken noodles make a good introduction to a blog about noodles? Or is it a little like introducing Hakka people and their culture with a dish that many Indians now associate with Kolkata?

The recipe is simple and quick, as any street food should be. Boil and cool the egg noodles. In a kadhai fry some onions and garlic, and drop the prawns into it. When the prawns are nearly done, add the finely chopped green and red capsicum into it, tomatoes if you like, green beans if you are fond of them, and, finally, a green chili slit lengthwise. All this is done quickly and at high heat, as a stir fry. Now, into the sizzling hot kadhai drop a generous splash of dark soya sauce and, immediately, the noodles. Toss them around, making sure that they smoke and burn just that little bit to add the authentic taste of Kolkata’s eclectic street food tradition. Top it off with a garnish of chopped spring onion. Street food is best if it is served immediately.

The addition of green chili, generous amounts of fried onions and garlic, are Indianization of the cuisine. The Hakka settlers, possibly from the Fujian and Guangdong provinces of China, arrived in the late 18th century CE as traders and labourers to the then-thriving entrepot of Kolkata. They were followed by waves of other Chinese immigrants, whose traces you can find in the Cantonese and Szechuan additions to Indian-Chinese food. I haven’t had Hakka food in China, so I have no idea how closely the Indian Hakka noodles hew to the original. In my student days, weekend trips to Kolkata wouldn’t be complete without visits to the Chinatown in Tangra. Those gave me the impression that the food could be reasonably authentic. I did not realize then that the bustling Chinatown was already a shadow of what it was in the days before the Indo-China war of 1962, and would be largely a memory by the 21st century.

I see the last of the Kolkata and Mumbai Chinese when I visit my favourite Chinese restaurants. Young members of the family have no connection with China; they speak English and Bengali. Now and then you see a visiting Chinese businessman or tourist who would like authentic home style food. An old matriarch will then appear and try to communicate with the customer in her broken Hakka or Cantonese. If you continue to pay attention to such a table, you will notice the eventual appearance of whole steamed fish, stir fried greens, and bowls of rice, not at all what we Indians love to eat in a Chinese restaurant.

History is a door

It will be a while before I board an international flight again, but it doesn’t look impossible any longer. I’d got into what I call ambush photography in extremely crowded tourist spots where everyone is busy converting history into a backdrop to their glamourised online lives. This lovely moon door in Nanjing’s Ming era Zhan Garden was impossible to photograph without including other tourists. Ambush photography is when you deliberately use others being photographed in your photo. Using a zoom lens from far to take photos of people photographing each other can be ambush photography, but it borders on voyeurism. Instead, I set a rule for myself: the best ambush photos are when the subject(s) of the other photographer’s photo clearly realize that a stranger is also taking their photo at the same time, or the subject of your photo is the photographer, not the people s/he is photographing. That said, the real subject of my ambush photos is usually the setting, when I cannot subtract the people from it. So that’s what I have done with this beautiful door in a pavilion overlooking a pool with weeping willows drooping over it. It is my memory of how this aristocratic garden, once closed to common people, has been repurposed in a republic.

Hobby horses

For a few days now I’ve not been able to stop thinking of horses. Their origins mysterious, like the origin of everything we see around us. Their role in human history and culture, large and long. When humans arrived in most continents, the number of equine species had probably already dwindled to more or less what it is now: two or three. Historically, only two were domesticated, horses and donkeys. Although zebras have been trained (Lord Rothschild once drove to Buckingham Palace on a zebra-drawn carriage) they have not been successfully raised in domesticity.

Two sculptures of horses really stick in my mind. One is the pair of life-sized blue horses, polyester resin images made by the French artist Assan Smati, the other is the group of four harnessed to a chariot, made of fired clay in China probably 2200 years ago for the tomb of the Qin emperor Shi Huang.

A decade of Diwali

2011 Tokyo: This was a quick visit to a small private university known mainly for its departments of music. I remember this meeting now as a time when I caught up with old friends, and made some new ones.

2012 Hong Kong: We planned this long lay over so that we could make a short trip into the city, look at the main sights, eat in one of the small but brilliant places in TST, and scope it out for a longer visit. We still haven’t made the return trip.

2013 Mumbai: I don’t remember why we didn’t travel that year. Perhaps we put off the planning for too long.

2014 Germany: A last minute trip to celebrate the 65th birthday of a colleague. I remember meeting up with so many friend; it was such a pleasant trip. Diwali should be a time like this.

2015 Germany

The featured photo is from that year’s trip. Another trip for a friend’s birthday. Again a lovely meeting with many people, but it rained all the time.

2016 Bangkok: We’d thought it would be a relaxed weekend, but it turned out to be hectic. We did enjoy this ice cream which looked like a plate of katsu.

2017 Mumbai: I remember this year quite definitely. We stayed home because we had traveled in October and we had a family trip planned for December. It is good to stay home for Diwali now and then.

2018 Guangzhou: One of the most charming cities that I have been to. The Family and I sat by the Pearl river on the evening of Diwali and had a long dinner.

2019 Wuhan: I wasn’t to know it for another three months, but the flu that I caught was to lay the world low the next year. Apart from that, I enjoyed this trip. Wuhan normally is a lively town.

2020 Mumbai: Like everyone else, we spent the year at home. We met family in fits and starts. A few people came home over the month, and the day after we had our first large family gathering, risky, of the year.

There’s a bit of contrast between previous years and now, but we are not doing things we’ve never done before. Its just that we’ve never done so much of the same thing before.

Litchi time

This week The Family found litchis at our bhajiwala. When I was a child, litchis (Litchi chinensis) would herald the beginning of a wonderful period of the year. Two weeks of litchis, a couple of months of mangoes, and then the monsoon: that is the rhythm of summer in the sub-Himalayan plains of India. I didn’t realize then that this seemingly unchanging marker of time was historically recent.

The litchis that we eat originally come from southern China, the region of Hainan, Guangxi, Guangdong, and Yunnan, and north Vietnam. They still grow wild in virgin forests in this region. They were taken to northern China as early as the first century BCE. Litchis were first cultivated in Myanmar only as late as the 18th century CE, and were brought to India a few decades later, at the very beginning of the 19th century. Even now, most of the acreage given over to litchi in India is in UP, Bihar, Assam, and Tripura.

There were two varieties that I specially remember from long ago: the rose scented Shahi of the first week, and the Purbi from the second week. I suppose the Shahi variety was named after the nawabs of Awadh, since litchis arrived in India after the decline of the Mighals. The few that finally arrived on our table this week were the sweet but thick-skinned Purbi.

Ross finds a dinosaur

If you saw Friends! in its first season, you might remember that in a rather momentous episode Ross goes away to China for a week. He explained to Monica that a bone had been discovered, and that he had to get it. It was a very current episode for 1994, when new dinosaur fossils were beginning to be unearthed across China. When I passed through Shanghai a few months ago I decided to visit the Shanghai Museum of Natural History. It is easy to find, since there is a metro station named for the Museum, right next to it. The discoveries in China have completely changed our view of dinosaurs. The sheer number of fossils has allowed studies of entire life histories, including growth rates and reproductive behaviour, and even their colour. The fossil whose photo is featured is one of a 100 million years old genus called the Psittacosaurus, because of its parrot-like bill.

Next to the case with the fossil skeleton is a big draw: an animatronic model of one of the species of Psittacosaurus. The explanatory note says that the model is programmed to show it defending its nest full of eggs. There is physical evidence of the colour and proto-feathers. So much so that, if I were an expert, I would be able to tell the species by the colour, like in some bird genera today. I’m sure that much research has gone into the behaviour being exhibited. Predictably, the display was very popular with children, as you can figure out from the soundtrack, if you play the video. For a while now, movies such as Jurassic Park needed a reboot to display dinosaur feathers and their colours more accurately. This model is a nice way to get rid of the outdated iconography of dinosaurs.

Admiring kites in Wuhan

I had emails from colleagues in Wuhan. The city was isolated around the time of the Chinese new year, when some families had left on their annual holiday, and others were preparing to leave. Those who had not left have now been confined to their flats for weeks. I remembered several months ago when I was in Wuhan, perhaps not long before the novel virus crossed over to humans. I’d gone for an afternoon’s walk along the Yangtze. This is a place where mothers and grandparents bring their toddlers, and retirees come to chat or fish.

The path was hazarded by children running and stumbling. Several of them had bubble makers with them and were busy spinning out long bubbles. I wondered if it is possible to make a toy which blows bubbled shaped like doughnuts. I don’t think the little girl in the photo had anything on her mind apart from blowing longer and longer bubbles.

It was a pleasant and sunny winter afternoon. Novembers can be rather cold in this part of the world, but this was an unusually mild November, with the winter sun warming my jacket very pleasantly. Boats glided past on the river, its banks loaded with tall grass at points. I love the sight of this kind of grass: it reminds me of a scene in a movie by Satyajit Ray where a boy and his elder sister run through such a field to see a train.

But what really attracts me here is the variety of kites on display. Often they are the standard rectangles and triangles, some with long tail streamers. But they are wonderfully decorated. A lot of them have pop culture theme: dragons from one of the most popular movies of 2010, angry birds, Tweety, as well as anime characters which I don’t recognize. They are clearly aimed at the younger end of the crowd.

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I watched several in flight. Some of them were being flown by a single person, but several involved a whole family. A child, grandparents, mother. It struck me that like in India, kite flying is more a boy’s and men’s sport in China. Women are involved, but the boy or grandfather take on leading roles. Why is that?

Among all this was a delightfully more complex kite: the box kite that you see in the photos above. I’d never seen a box kite when I was young, and what I read of them never led me to successfully build one. So now if I see one I’m entranced. I stood and watched as the kite seller and the customer handled the kite on the ground. As it soared up I stood to watch. I suppose afternoons are not so pleasant in Wuhan in these months.