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Saturday, December 09, 2006

Idle Thoughts #1: When different is not necessarily foreign

I am jotting this (shakily) in the back of an auto on my morning commute, Jack Johnson’s “Holes to Heaven” playing on my ipod. It keeps me occupied for the 45 minutes of bumping and weaving. I look up from my notebook to a truck 2 inches in front of the auto’s front wheel. As this driving tactic is more or less normal, I go back to what I was doing. I skip back and play the song again. I really like the song and not just because it is about driving around looking for surf. It is about being in a far away place, a place where “bulls are running wild, because they’re big and mean and sacred and the kids are playing cricket with no shoes.” I am in a far away place like that and those distinctive elements constantly make me smile.

That is quintessential India, its irrepressible spirit. I might see a young boy of 8 or 9 clearing tables at the restaurants where I am having lunch and struggle with the pervasiveness of child labour (which is supposed to be illegal now) but then see a gaggle of kids cheering as they play a game of cricket on the street – without shoes obviously (that is like clarifying that they are indeed also wearing pants). Perhaps I should teach them Ultimate Frisbee, assuming I can find some Frisbees. They might get a kick out of it and I would save a fortune on cleats.

They are mad about cricket here. When there is a game on, people will stack up 10 deep in front of any shop with a TV in the window to watch. And if you sell electronics, by social contract (and perhaps safety) you put the games on. For big games, the city grinds to a halt. It is like Commercial Drive when the World Cup was on this summer, but all the time. And perhaps that is another noticeable difference from home – it doesn’t take a major international sporting event or play-offs to get people out on the street en-mass. I’ve always admired people and places where they were not afraid to rub shoulders.

But back to the bulls, to answer a question I have been asked, yes, that is one of the mythologies of India that is true. Chennai may be a big city, but it is still normal to see cows wandering unattended along the street or lounging at the side of the road (or sometimes in the middle). In fact there is a bull pulling a cart of coconuts waiting at traffic light beside me. I nod at him and hope his commute is going well.

This morning’s breakfast was chapatti and a potato-onion masala (quite like a warm curried potato salad actually and equally tasty). The normal Indian way of eating this is to break off pieces of the flatbread (using one’s right hand) and scoop the sauce bite-by-bite. While I am fully integrated into eating with my hands by now (the subject of an upcoming entry, I promise), I temporarily forgo this method and dollop the potato into the centre, roll it and eat it like a tortilla. The maid looks at me a bit funny, but I just grin at her over my inventiveness and carry on. I’ll all into the “when in Rome...” concept, absorbing my host country’s customs, fitting in and all that, but I also feel that in today’s global world, it is not just products and labour that should cross borders. There are great and wonderful (and useful) ways to eat food the world over and so I share this one with the maid, despite the custom not even being my home country’s (originally at least, the profusion of burrito joints notwithstanding). I think the Mexicans (and their neighbours to the South) nailed the whole wrap thing, the Chinese really understand how to eat noodles (sorry to all the Italians) and the fork is an altogether useful invention. Everything has its place. And much of the time, I am satisfied to eat with my hands. :-)

On the whole cultural exchange idea, we introduced some new friends to crepes the other night. The girls had a few of us over for an early Christmas dinner...

Whoops, I need to back up – being behind with this blog, my stories are out of order. OK, a quick backtrack: there is a group of other Canadian Interns here in Chennai, 4 girls, living together, that I have met up with in the last week or so. One of them saw the posting for my position and thoughtfully got in touch. They are all on different projects although they have been sent from the same Canadian organisation through CIDA grants. They’ve been here ranging from 3 months to just longer than me. I’ll write more on that all later though. For now back to my story...

...Anyway, one of the girls is leaving for the North and will be gone until the New Year so this was the last evening they were all together before Christmas, hence the dinner. We made crepes for dissert (they did actually, I only managed to assist briefly, risking nail and knuckle, grating the coconut) with nutella, banana and coconut filling. The two boys (who are from Bangalore) bravely tried this Western concoction and deemed them like sweet Tamil Nadu dosas with Kerela-style filling (the neighbouring state of Kerela is a lush growing region and apparently heavily features banana and coconut in its cooking). So worlds are not so different after all. Perhaps we should set up a crepe shop here. It could be a big hit.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Cafe Crepe!

I'm all in favour of international exchange. There's no need to mock chop suey for being "inauthentic", it's just fusion food before "fusion" became cool. Why not a crepe made using chapatis?

Indian restaurants (curry houses) are everywhere here. There's a much broader selection, too: not just masala and tandoori and biryanis, but also the variants bhuna and madras and ceylon.