Eunice de Souza

Learn from the almond leaf
Which flames as it falls.
The ground is burning.
The earth is burning.
Flamboyance
is all.
–Eunice de Souza, 2016.

Eunice de Souza died this rainy weekend. She was 77, and a member of a generation from Mumbai who remade Indian poetry in English. She was never as well-known as Arun Kolatkar, the older Nissim Ezekiel, Adil Jussawalla (who was, for a while, her colleague in the Department of English in St. Xavier’s College, Mumbai) or Gieve Patel. However, the enormous outpouring of emotion from her erstwhile students this weekend testifies to the deep impact she had. One thing that emerges from this is her personal flamboyance.

This arose from her not taking much account of what others thought of her. One tiny example of this can be seen in the photo alongside. It shows her in her kitchen with her pet parrot Koko. He appeared in her poetry. He was also brought up as an excuse when she didn’t want to leave home: "I don’t think Mr. de Souza will want me to go." Her friends knew this for a joke. She alludes to this in-joke in a poem called Guide to a Well-behaved Parrot: I shout at him/He shouts back/Really, I may as well have been/married.

In recent years I remember her from her weekly column about literature. They were clear, free of academic jargon (but not of humour), and spoke to her readers as equals. It was hard to connect this to her bleak last collection of poems, Learn from the Almond Leaf, many of which have been quoted in this Sunday’s newspapers. I will end this post with another poem from this collection:

My mother’s bones in a niche.
My aunt’s ashes likewise.

A lifetime.
A lifetime.

–Eunice de Souza (1940-2017)

Chewing it over

How can you remake pastry into an Indian sweet? Every time we talk to a chef at one of our favourite innovative restaurants in Mumbai our questions turn upside-down. Should we have asked "How do you take a traditional Indian taste and turn it into a sweet?" A few months ago we ended a meal with a tarte tatin reimagined with guavas. Yesterday we ended with a pastry filled with unripe mango, salted and with a dusting of chili flakes on the plate. See the red powder in the featured photo? Pastry chef Namrata Pai is on a roll.

Apart from the food, the main thing which keeps us coming back to this mid-town restaurant is the constant change in the menu. As the seasons change, different produce comes fresh into the market. Chef Thomas Zacharias prides himself on bending with the seasonal winds. The pastry in the featured photo is a late hold-over from the summer menu. The rest of the menu has moved on to the monsoon. This places the restaurant smack in the middle of the global farm-to-table food movement. A wonderfully flavourful tiny fish, mandeli, is back on the menu.

One lovely thing that is not easy to spot in the photo above is the fact that the hot kitchen has a significant number of women chef. This is a healthy trend. I worry about the elitism inherent in organic food and the fresh food movement, even the word sustainability, but gender balance cannot have downsides.

A Green Mantis

Sometimes when I pass by a hedge I look down at the leaves, hoping to see an interesting insect. This small green mantis counts as one. As you can guess from the photo, it is a tiny insect.

You can identify it as a mantis by its triangular head and the bulging compound eyes on the sides of the head. If you look closely, you can see three grey dots on the head between these large eyes; they are the three simple eyes which these animals also have. The spiny grasping forelegs cannot be seen, presumably they are hidden below its body.

A mantis has to be a gardener’s friend. It eats other insects almost constantly, and is effective in controlling pests in a garden. If they were not so common in India, gardeners would probably buy them by box-loads and release them. It could be less dangerous than pumping a garden full of poisonous chemicals in order to kill insects. Unfortunately they also eat up all the probiotic insects: the ones that help to pollinate plants, for example. Still, it is better than pesticides.

Farm-to-table

The registrar of marriages and deaths decided many years ago that The Family and I would forever celebrate Einstein’s birthday. So this Albert’s day we went off to have a nice dinner at one of our new favourite restaurant: The Bombay Canteen. When it opened a few years ago it was an instant sensation, with its completely re-imagined Indian food.

The first time we went there we had something they called the Arbi Tuk. As you can see in the featured photo, it looks totally undistinguished: like a simple dish of chopped onions and tomatoes. A mixture like this on top of crisp puris is a staple of street food all over Mumbai. Not only does this clever dish look like the traditional bhel puri, it even fools your palate for a moment after you bite into it. Then you realize that the puri is not puri, it is fried arbi (taro). Its a lovely fresh taste. We talked to chef Thomas Zacharias, and he gave us a plateful of one of the ingredients to taste. The beans which are chopped into it are fresh, and hard to find in the markets. I asked him where he sources his flavourful tomatoes, and he shrugged. The Bombay Canteen is famous for taking extreme care to source local vegetables from local farmers.

Halim with khamin roti

Every time we go to this restaurant there is something new on the menu. This time around the list of new dishes included the Haleem. We consider ourselves to be Haleem experts. The deep umami flavour of mutton was satisfactory, but over this rode a wonderful new flavour of roasted jowar. We would go back to a restaurant only for a Haleem like this. We consider ourselves lucky to have found this place before we knew what a lovely Haleem they make.

We ordered Thomas’ version of a tarte tatin, called the Guava Tan-ta-tan. It is was the ultimate in street flavour. The Family and I love to eat guavas from street-side vendors, cut open with a little red chili and salt sprinkled on it. This tarte tatin was made with guavas instead of apples, and came with a scoop of red chili ice cream on it, placed in a plate smeared with runny and spicy guava jelly.

Alice Waters may have started the farm-to-table movement in California, but The Bombay Canteen has perfectly adapted it to Mumbai.

Deccan traps

We drove to Pune in the weekend, over a road blasted through the heart of the geological bomb which killed off the dinosaurs. The Mumbai-Pune expressway is probably the busiest road in India. Still, there are times when you can take your eyes off the road to stare at the incredible mountains around you.

During the monsoon the mountains are covered in a carpet of electric green. Yes, there is such a colour; you have to travel here to find out what it is. In this season, with the brief winter on its way out, the grasses have dried out, turning into layers of gold against the red rock of the Deccan traps. These mountains are the Sahyadris, and the red rock is the dinosaur killer.

Go off the road. Stop when you can. Look again at the mountains. Mahabaleshwar ghats The most noticeable feature of the Sahyadris are the horizontal layers in the rock. Many years ago, sitting at a roadside dhaba, I asked a geologist friend about this. Between sips of tea he mentioned the phrase Deccan traps. These are successive waves of lava which flowed out of our planet’s largest volcanic event and killed off the dinosaurs.

A shiver goes through my spine even today when I sit and look at these six and a half crore (65 million) years old rocks. The continuous volcanism lasted for a few lakhs (hundreds of thousands) of years. The lava covered an area larger than that of Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh put together. Ash, carbon dioxide and sulphur dioxide pumped out by the volcanos changed the climate, making it first cooler, then hotter, and turning the rain acid. The dinosaurs died out, along with most of the life on earth. The earth was barren for about half a million (5 lakhs) years.

When the volcanism ended and the skies began to clear, the mammalian takeover of the earth could begin. The next time you drive between Mumbai and Pune, look at the layer cake mountains around you: they are the reason you are here.

(Featured photo by S. R. Kiran, Mahabaleshwar ghats photo by Mark Richards, map from Princeton univ)

Censership

After Ganesha clears the way, other gods and goddesses arrive. Perhaps the biggest festival across the country are the ten days of Durga. This female aspect of power is also associated with the legendary king Rama and his war against Rakshasas. The only exception to this countrywide celebration used to be Maharashtra. Not any more, since the churn of populations which is now more than a century old brought the north Indian Ramlila, the southern Dusshera, and the Durga puja of the east to Mumbai. The weekend was a good time to join the huge crowds at these pujas.

Durga idol in the Bengali style

The largest Durga icons in Mumbai are in the Bengali style. Durga in the center, on her lion, killing a demon who has emerged from its form as a water buffalo, flanked by the quartet of Ganesha, Lakshmi, Saraswati and Kartikeya (from left to right). One of the interesting customs that the Bengali puja has is that of the banana tree as a deity: visible in the photo above to the left of Ganesha. The tree is covered in a sari, and most Bengalis interpret this as Ganesha’s wife. There is an older, and now almost forgotten, interpretation of this as symbolizing the power of Durga in the growth of plants. A trace of this is left in the ritual that the banana tree has to be decorated with other plants.

A spectacular tradition in the puja is the dance with censers.Playiing with fire: dhunoochi naach As you can see clearly in the featured photo, the censers used are vessels with open mouths. So there is an element of danger here, requiring skill. The dance used to be performed by the traditional male drummers. The featured photo shows one of them. Now it is not uncommon for others to perform this dance: see the photo alongside.

But the one thing that makes the Bengali puja accessible to everyone is that there is always more going on. The puja is part of a fair in which food stalls are prominent.Egg rolls being made in a Durga puja You can stand in the crowd around them (the stalls have inefficient service, so you do stand around a lot) and overhear comparisons with the food at other pujas. There is costume jewellery, clothes, sometimes even books on sale. I saw a placements agency doing walk-in interviews at one of these fairs. There is amateur music and theatre at most fairs. We listened to a rock quartet doing a very good medley of classic rock as well as Bollywood (the lead guitarist broke my niece’s heart). At other places the music is very professional, with very well-known names performing. If you don’t mind crowds then you can have a good time at these fairs.

The one who removes obstacles

The end of the monsoon brings the season of festivals across India. Everything always begins with the god who removes obstacles: Ganesha or Ganapati. This is probably Mumbai’s biggest festival. Many homes have their little idol, and then there are the huge idols which bring together whole neighbourhoods. Hindu rituals involve an invocation which imbues an idol with the spirit of a god. After the spirit departs, the idol is immersed in water. For the Ganapati, this may happen after a day, three days, five days, or ten days, according to the ritual used. If you stand by the designated spots where idol immersion is allowed, you get a sense of how many Mumbai holds.

A large idol of Ganapati waiting to be immersed

I walked up to the immersion point in Colaba on Saturday. Colaba is a small place, with a population roughly the same as of Paris, and the number of idols brought for immersion on an odd day is not large. Even so, these used to cause traffic jams in the neighbourhood a decade back. Over the last few years police arrangements have become much better. Traffic flows smoothly, if a little slowly, and the crowd which gather to watch the immersion is kept under control (see the featured photo). I slipped past a waiting ambulance, and walked through an outer cordon of police. With my camera in hand, I was inspected, and found to be harmless. I could walk past the police and take up position just inside the police cordon, before the line of lifeguards. I was told not to obstruct anyone.

A family's ganapati idol is taken for immersion

This was a good point to watch the proceedings from. On a day like this no one spares attention to the fact that this is the ramp where terrorists came ashore eight years ago and launched a concerted series of attacks across the city. Now the area is full of Ganapati idols, big (photo on top) and small. The big idols take up much space in the public imagination. Even here they are surrounded by crowds. Children especially, seem to be mesmerized by these large idols. I prefer the small ones, the ones which belong to a single family.

A family returns after immersing their idol in the sea

The police let in two or three men from the family with each idol. The women, children, and other men, if there are any, stay at the police cordon. Often the men forget some ritual item or the other, and the group left behind pleads with the police to hand it to them. The idol is not thrown into the sea. People walk with it into the water and, when it is deep enough, just let it go. The idol sinks into the sea. I took a few shots of people coming back from the sea after the immersion (see photo above). There is a little emptiness about them. The excitement of the previous few days has been washed away.

Later there will be a muted attempt to clean up the sea. The baked mud of the idols will sink into the bottom of the waters and eventually be pulverized. Some of the plastic and wood used in the frame and decoration will be thrown back by the waves. This will be collected into huge heaps which will be removed to landfills. Next year the idols will come again, but hopefully with less plastic around it.

One cutting parcel

A typical roadside tea stall in Mumbai serves a cutting as a default. You may ask for a chai, but the cashier will transmit your order as a cutting. You typically get this in a tiny glass. I guess at some point of time there must have been a full glass of chai, and a cutting would have been a half of that. The cheaper option must have been in more demand. So, farcically, now a “full chai” is no longer understood; I’ll often have two cuttings when I order a tea at such a stall.

I was at a busy roadside establishment last week. The small shop had an aluminium counter where people stood for a quick evening snack. I looked over their heads and called for a cutting. As I sipped it, someone else came in and called for “two cutting parcel, two glasses”. This was new to me. The cutting parcel was tea poured into a plastic bag for easy take-away. I learnt a new bit of Mumbai’s ever-evolving language. I wonder how warm it would remain when it got to its destination.

The notion of cutting extends to restaurant menus. A busy restaurant I’d walked into for lunch had a note at the bottom of the menu which said “Each plate half plate”. I guess the half portions of food were so popular that this became their new unit!

Look on his works

Outpatient building of the J. J. Hospital in MumbaiIn my decades in Mumbai I’ve passed the J. J. Hospital often enough to look up the fact that it is named after the 19th century philanthropist, Sir Jamsetjee Jeejeebhoy, who donated the funds required for setting up this hospital. I’d never had to visit the hospital. So this week when I had to look for the outpatient department I realized how large it was. The doctors who I know claim that interning here is the best training possible, because of the volume and variety of cases that you need to attend. As I arrived at the neo-classical facade of the out-patients building, it was clear to me how large this volume is. The next morning I read in the papers that I had underestimated the numbers of cases the hospital deals with; apparently this week medical interns are on strike, and the number of visitors has dropped dramatically. As I thought about this, I was reminded of an observation by Atul Gawande about the innovations in medical practice created in Mumbai just to keep up with the demands on services.

Statue of Jamsetjee Jeejeebhoy in the hospital named after himI wandered into the administrative building for the case papers I was there for. The crowded corridors smelt of strong bleach. As I stood in the queue outside the clerk’s office one of the people ahead of me tried to take off his slippers before entering. The clerk was furious “This is not a temple”, he told the man, “You are not here to pray”. After my work was done, I walked through the busy crowds to an alcove which held a statue of the person the hospital is named after. One person came by, took off his slippers and placed a flower at the feet of the statue. There was a small pile of flowers there. I thought that it was good that the staff kept the distinction between a hospital and a temple in mind. But for the poor who come here for treatment, the availability of government health care is a prayer come true.

There is a little donations box near the base of the statue. Even if it were full every day, it would not suffice to keep the hospital running. I wish that a larger fraction of my taxes would go into maintaining and expanding such health services.

Where will I be this weekend?

lonavala

You will definitely not find me in Lonavala. Once upon a time, perhaps a century ago, this was a little town nestled in the Western Ghats. The train station and a market tell how the pleasant getaway began. It is still different from Mumbai: sunbirds can still be seen in trees. But now the best parts of it look like the crowded urban landscapes of India’s small towns. A highway runs through the heart of the town. You smell burnt diesel here, not flowers.

Mahabaleshwar is a little like Lonavala. Too much "development" has spoilt what people used to come here for. The charming little village is now a crowded bazaar where weekenders frantically shop for honey and jam. The farms which produced them in small quantities earlier are now large concerns; their products can be found in shops in Mumbai. It does not make sense to go all the way to this no-longer-beautiful hill town to buy the same bottles. The sole reason why I still go there now and then is that behind the crowded temples of old Mahabaleshwar one can gets a spectacular view of the Krishna river.

On the plateau called Matheran is the one little town near Mumbai which still retains some charm, perhaps because motorized traffic is forbidden. There are long walks across the wooded plateau. From the edges of the plateau you have views of the spectacular rock formations in the area. This weekend will be really crowded, but it is the one place in the neighbourhood of Mumbai where I might go.

Mumbai has mountains and the sea. One weekend many decades back we took a ferry from the harbour, and a bus on the other side to get to a pleasant little beach called Alibag. This has now grown to a massive destination, with a festival this weekend. Going there would be like dropping into your favourite bar: live music and friends. It is no longer a place where you can step out of Mumbai.

The double barrelled Murud-Janjira is similar. Murud was once a deserted beach where you could camp out. If you felt like it, you could take a fishing boat out to the spectacular Janjira fort. I haven’t been there for years, and as I write, I suddenly feel like looking at it again. But it is too late for this weekend.

If I leave Mumbai this weekend, at best I will be drifting off the coast in a fisherman’s boat, helping to haul the net back.