Sunday, May 25, 2008

Civilisation and Culture

I read E.M. Forster's A Passage to India (published 1924) again, after a gap of over 25 years. It is a remarkable novel of British India. A recent article in The Guardian*, from which my brother Raja sent me an excerpt, helped me to understand some issues in the book.
The excerpt goes, 'We face a conflict between civilisation and culture, which used to be on the same side. Civilisation means rational reflection, material wellbeing, individual autonomy and ironic self-doubt; culture means a form of life that is customary, collective, passionate, spontaneous, unreflective and arational. It is no surprise, then, to find that we have civilisation whereas they have culture. The contrast between west and east is being mapped on a new axis.'

Forster says in the novel that in the 1920s, especially among the products of England's public schools, 'the arts were bad form'. Any mention of an artistic accomplishment like playing the viola is an affectation, or an embarrassment, especially to the Englishmen in India -- a breed Forster seems to have despised. Among Indians, however, he says, '...literature had not been divorced from civilization' and whether an Indian is educated in it or not, he responds, from his soul, to music, art and poetry.
This must have been because the Indians of the time, unlike the English, had no 'nation state' to inspire fine sentiments: they only had its culture.

Among the major characters in the novel, Fielding is the only Englishman who has Forster's complete approval. Fielding lives outside the tight little circle of the civil station and its rigid norms, makes friends with Indians, and cares very little for what his countrymen think of him. ' The remark that did him most harm at the Club was a silly aside to the effect that the so called white races are really pinko-grey.'
In a world where ' "white" has no more to do with colour than "god save the King" with a god' such a remark does Fielding no good. No wonder, 'the pinko-gray male whom he addressed was subtly scandalised; his sense of insecurity was awoken, and he communicated it to the rest of the herd.'
Fielding says to Dr.Aziz, ' Any man can travel light until he has a wife or children,' and adds that it isn’t only Englishmen like him who travel light, but the 'sadhus and such' of India. Then he says, 'I'm a holy man minus the holiness.'
'He had no racial feeling' the book tells us, 'because he had matured in a different atmosphere', having travelled all over the world.
The reader -- the Indian reader, in particular -- settles down comfortably to the idea that Fielding, indeed Forster, is Indian at heart.

Which is why Chapter XXXII comes as a shock, where the authorial voice actually shrugs off the East completely like a man shaking off a hypnotic spell, or a hallucination that was pleasant enough while it lasted, but is not wholesome at all. When Fielding, on his return voyage, sees the buildings of Venice, we're told, 'He had forgotten the beauty of form among idol temples and lumpy hills; indeed, without form, how can there be beauty? Form stammered here and there in a mosque, became rigid through nervousness....'.
There is worse yet. 'The Mediterranean is the human norm. When men leave that exquisite lake, whether through the Bosporus or the Pillars of Hercules, they approach the monstrous and the extraordinary; and the southern exit leads to the strangest experience of all.'
'Monstrous' and 'extraordinary' - So after all, we must hear the clich├ęd expressions of imperialism, which are used to dismiss that which cannot be understood, let alone appreciated. Further, '...tender romantic fancies that he thought were dead forever flowered when he saw the buttercups and daisies of June.' Your Englishman is normal again. Pinko-gray is white once more, when restored to the milder sun of England.

And yet we can’t discard all this completely. Once you recover from the sense of betrayal, you see another aspect that goes beyond a mere rejection of the East.
Forster goes on '...but something more precious than mosaics and marbles was offered to him now; the harmony between the works of man and the earth that upholds them, the civilization that has escaped muddle, the spirit in a reasonable form, with flesh and blood subsisting.'
Perhaps, like the ancient Romans, Forster wanted to believe that the Mediterranean is the centre of the earth. Perhaps, in Forster's world, the countries around the Mediterranean had arrived at that balance between civilization and culture which neither Forster's England nor his India could achieve.

Once again, the Guardian piece helps us to understand it all better.
' The problem is that civilisation needs culture even if it feels superior to it. Its own political authority will not operate unless it can bed itself down in a specific way of life. Men and women do not easily submit to a power that does not weave itself into the texture of their daily existence - one reason why culture remains so politically vital. Civilisation cannot get on with culture, and it cannot get on without it. '

*By Terry Eagleton who is John Edward Taylor professor of English literature at Manchester University

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Meme : Time for Tables

After reading Nandita Iyer's blog, I really felt like cooking, and never mind that the kitchen is a furnace at this time of year! Nandita wrote to tag me, and here are the questions she sent - and my answers.

What’s your favourite table?

This is my friend Lesley's Christmas feast at Gandrapara Tea Garden. A great hostess. Her table's a big favourite with us all! And the little tea table up on top is a favourite too!

What would you have for your last supper?
I could never eat if I knew....

What’s your poison?
I can live without coffee, soft drinks or liquor but not without tea.

Name your three desert island ingredients.
Ingredients : Lemon, Coriander, Ginger
Essentials : A comfortable bed, drinking water, a beach umbrella.

What would you put in Room 101?
No one. Never.

Which book gets you cooking?
Any Enid Blyton - because everyone's always starving.

What’s your dream dinner party line-up?
I'll skip this.

What was your childhood teatime treat?
Adai on winter evenings in Delhi.

What was your most memorable meal?
I once had Rava Kesari followed by Thayyir Vadai for dinner at Saravana Bhavan in Chennai. Brilliant.

What was your biggest food disaster?
Pulao - see 'Scenes From My Early Married Life'

What’s the worst meal you’ve ever had?
Forgotten it!

Who’s your food hero/food villain?
Food villain - the man who puts sugar in Vegetable au gratin (there really is one!)
Food heroes - The 'Thakurs' who cook at picnics and wedding feasts.

Nigella or Delia?
I know neither.

Vegetarians: genius or madness?
Neither. Comfort, or force of habit.

Fast food or fresh food?
Depends. All Indian fast food is health food. So I might go for that every time - momo, idli, chaat, jhal muri.

Who would you most like to cook for?
Any kids - they're the most appreciative people.

What would you cook to impress a date?
I wouldnt even try (to impress, I mean)

Make a wish.
Thanks. I did.

I’d like to tag Raji, Viji, Kamini and Ambika!

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Riders On The Storm

Kolkata Knight Riders were wiped out in their match against Chennai Super Kings on Sunday at the Eden - by a Kaal Baisakhi. We're located around 600kms to the North of the city, and we were hit by a big one, too, just as the match was starting off. The sky turned black, winds blew as if they would flatten everything in sight, and the door to the garage flew off. Thanks to the match, we got to see this excellent photograph in yesterday's Kolkata newspaper, The Telegraph. A dementor ? What awaits the folks at Eden today?

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Darjeeling : Some Views

The sun rises over the Darjeeling hills at Runglee Rungliot Tea Garden.

Tea on the Slopes at Runglee Rungliot

The Road to Runglee, with a view of the Teesta River

These lovely pictures were taken by our friend Partha Dey, on a Nokia phone! Here is Partha talking into his, phone.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

May Queens

While we wilt in the scorching heat, these beautiful orchids thrive in their little corners in the garden! The lilac ones seem to have come up on their own, and have grown in this compound for years. The cluster of hanging orchids was planted by the gardener - from a sample his friend pinched for him from the forest!

Saturday, May 10, 2008

IPL Twenty 20 Cricket - A Non-Viewer's View

Twenty20 has turned home and family life upside down. The husband, who never had time for cricket or for television, now sits and watches every match and screams instructions to the players in different languages. Our younger daughter, always cricket crazy, supports almost half the teams, and my head reels at her lists. Try to make some sense of this. 'I support Uthappa at all times. So I'll always cheer for his team. Except’ she pauses significantly, ‘except when his team plays against Chennai Super Kings - because Chennai is my birth place! When Chennai and Uthappa's team are not playing against Royal Challengers, I'll always support the Royal Challengers, because I am loyal to Rahul Dravid! When the Deccan Chargers play any team other than these three, they have my support.' Of course, it's all as clear as cricket to me!

The husband doesn’t seem too clear on the issue of loyalties either. Kolkata is the top team, because, as he says, we live in West Bengal, and 'Our dal-roti comes from here.' That is totally acceptable. However, he will support Delhi because that is 'home'. Even, he adds, even when they play Chennai Super Kings, to which team we must of course be loyal, because of our Tamil identity. Of course, he will root for Chennai when they are not playing Delhi or Kolkata. So why was he screaming for Rajasthan Royals the other day? 'Cant you understand anything? This team has come up only because Shane Warne has so much team spirit! I like a good leader!' Between them, father and daughter seem to have a special place in their hearts for every team except the Punjab Kings XI - but I think I did hear 'I love the costumes!' the other day.

Very often, the father and daughter come to loggerheads over a match, and each one tries to enlist the support of the non-sporting, non-tele-goggling mother/wife. The husband was sure I was supporting Delhi against Mumbai (‘Uthappa!’). By sheer chance, I served uthappams for dinner, and our daughter punched the air in delight at the implicit support, while the husband ate each mouthful as if it were choking him. My sister from Mumbai, a dignified grandmother, called, and when I answered the phone (which I have to do because no one else gets up from their prime seats) she shouted, 'I don’t want to talk to you! Give the phone to your Mumbai-supporting daughter!' Their conversation was almost entirely made up of wordless, ear-splitting shrieks.

I thank God we still have some sane people left in the family. There’s our elder daughter, who wouldn’t watch cricket if you paid her, and my sister in Chennai, who is positively allergic to cricket. I might run away to either of them for the summer. I need to go and bury myself somewhere until the finals of this Terrible 20 Tournament are played out.

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Flowers for Mrs.M

These African violets are such shy beauties. For years, they didn’t do well at all in Moraghat. Shortly after we moved here, I managed to kill a whole collection of them. That we grow any at all now, is thanks to some timely advice from a friend.
An unexpected friendship sprang up between Mrs. M and me. She was a very Burra Memsaab – tea garden manager’s wife - of the district, and the senior catering member at the club. I was the youngest of the Burra Memsaabs here at the time, and was new to the district.
Mrs. M. asked me to make a cauliflower and aloo curry, as my share of Diwali dinner for around 200 people at the club. Our poor old cook did a great job, we all thought, giving the curry a special flavour and a thick gravy. At the end of the meal, Mrs. M. summoned me to the buffet table with a little gesture. She was tall, and she looked rather imperiously at me, and said, ‘Gorry’--this is how most people from North India pronounce my name–‘Gorry, why did you make this dish with gravy?’
'Mrs. M.,’I said, ‘You didn’t specify that you wanted it made without gravy.'
‘Well, you should have checked how it was made here.’
‘Mrs. M., since I’m new here, you should have specified.’
The younger of the catering members feared a flare-up, and came hurrying to soothe me. I could tell she lived in great dread of Mrs. M!
It turned out that Mrs. M liked me for speaking frankly to her.
I found this out when her car drew up quite suddenly at our place one morning. My Ma and I were sitting in the verandah. It was a lovely November morning. The girls were at school, and Ma was busy with her knitting. Mrs. M. got out of the car, and after the briefest of greetings, she said, pointing a finger at some pots, 'Those African violets are looking really unhappy over here!' She thrust her little bundle of crochet into my hands while she picked up two of the pots and wandered around looking for what might be a suitable new place for them.
After she’d put the pots in a place which seemed to satisfy her, she climbed up the steps to the verandah and greeted Ma, while I floated around behind her with all her crochet work. That was the beginning of a warm friendship, and it was the beginning of a new life for our African violets! Mrs. M. taught me that African violets need plenty of shade, and that they are shy –shrinking violets – that love to grow hidden among other plants. They have to be watered very carefully, indirectly, in fact, in a little plate placed at the base of the pot. The roots take in as much water as the plant needs through capillary action.

Mrs. M and I enjoyed a short-lived friendship – her husband retired from tea a few months after we came to know each other. Before they left, she asked the girls around to her place, ‘To play with my daughters’ dolls house’ she said. Her own daughters were away at college then, and instead of moping about how she missed them, she asked other people’s children over now and then. Swati and Parvati, who were around eight and ten years old then, went over, and had a great time playing with the dolls house, and running about all over the lovely garden there!

I called Mrs. M. on the phone to thank her, and I found she’d taken a real shine to Swati! ‘Would you believe it, Gorry! Your little one complimented me on my heliconia plant! There are very few adults I know who know the name of the plant, and this little one not only knows what it is, but was kind enough to admire it!’
We had a good laugh. This is a picture of a heliconia that grows here in our garden!

About Extremes

Hydrange-as Sizzle in the Morning Sun!

The days are either scorching hot, or wet and chilly after a thunderstorm -- a bit like my life at present. I'm either inundated with work or coasting along vacantly. It tends to be like that when you work freelance, and from home, I guess. The tea garden word for the temporary worker who's employed now and then, is ‘Bigha'. So here I am, tasting life as a Bigha for the first time, and teetering between an existence as a jobless blogger and a blog-less jobber.

The Welcome Rain in the Afternoon