Friday, August 14, 2015

Experience the Wagah

Manto’s Toba Tek Singh is probably one of the most extraordinary pieces of satire ever written. Ripping into the utter mindlessness that was Partition, the story questions the very concept of sanity in a land where, it could be said, with very little exaggeration, everyone had gone mad. If you haven’t already, you can read the short story here in the original Urdu or a Devanagri transliteration or (only if you have to) an English translation. You can also listen to a reading of the story on YouTube [part I, part II]

After reading the story though, should you want to live the satire, and get a first-hand glimpse of the madness that powered Manto’s genius, all you have to do is get on a train and make your way to Amritsar. At a short distance from the city is the only land border crossing between two nations representing a fifth of the world’s population: Wagah. Of course, being a border crossing between two nuclear states is hard work and it’s unfair to expect it to work for long hours. In deference to this sentiment, every evening at five-thirty, the crossing is closed.

And what a closing it is.

The gates themselves are fairly unimpressive: made of iron and about as big as what you’d get outside any school. What’s to watch though us how they are shut. Watched over by avuncular portraits of Gandhi and Jinnah on either side, soldiers theatrically goose-step up and down the tarmac multiple times, stopping every five steps or so to stomp the ground after swinging their legs through an impossibly wide angle. If this reminds you of roosters in heat I suspect that was exactly what was intended. To leave no doubts as to the whole foul theme, both sides have massive rooster-style combs crowning their hats which quiver impressively as and when a soldier brings down his boot from shoulder height to stomp the ground.

Watched on by a crowd on either side of the border, all of this is preceded by an impromptu dance/bhangra performance (only on the Indian side though; the Pakistanis take their border crossings seriously) and the marching was interspersed with patriotic slogan shouting and cheering led by a man on a mic wearing, for some reason, a white sweatsuit. The day I’d gone, the Indian side was impossibly crowded and we so comprehensively outshouted the Pakistanis that I couldn’t even hear their slogans. In contrast to the overflowing Indian stands, the Pakistanis barely filled up theirs; a reflection of the ratios in population between the twins or a general indicator of the lack of enthusiasm of the Pakistanis in Pakistan maybe.

Leading up to the Indian side of the gate was an amateurishly built monument to the Punjabis killed during Partition which everyone roundly ignores or at, best uses, as a temporary bench to sit on after all that bhangra. With so many people visiting the place, a soft drinks stall there does brisk business (and suffers from an infuriating lack of change). There’s also a BSF souvenir shop which sells stuffed toys and Monte Carlo woollens at a whopping 40% discount (I liked a sweater but they didn’t have my size)—exactly the sort of stuff you’d like to buy at bristling border crossings.

Monday, August 10, 2015

A short history of the rasgulla

First published on Scroll.

There are many important, even vital things that Bengal claims to have contributed to India. Number-1-all-time-best Nobel Prize winner Rabindranath Tagore, Indian nationalism and the bottom line of the WellSpring Pharmaceutical Corporation (makers of Gelusil antacid) all owe their existence to Bengal. But more than anything else, however, Bengal has touched India via a soft, pearly white globe of cheese, dipped in thick sugar syrup.

The rasgulla, ladies and gents, is as Bengali as Communism. However, just like some reactionaries claim foreign origin for Marx babu, an extra-Bengali source is being claimed for the rasgulla. Odisha (earlier Orissa and even earlier Kalinga) has staked a Geographical Indication claim on the confectionery.

Odiya claim

This bold assertion rests on the fact that the Jagannath Temple in Puri uses rasgullas as prasad during the Rath Yatra. Laxmidhar Pujapanda, public relations officer of the temple, is quoted by the Times of India arguing: "Rasgulla has been part of Rath Yatra rituals ever since the Jagannath temple came into existence in the 12th century."

Unfortunately, this claim doesn’t have much by way of backing. The Chhapan Bhog (ritual offering to Lord Krishna) of the temple does not mention the rasgulla and there is nothing to say that the tradition of offering the sweetmeat didn’t originate sometime in the recent past.

There is also the fact that, as noted food historian KT Achaya points out, cheese was taboo in Hinduism since the act of splitting milk was seen as profane. A logical extension from the sacred status that milk held in the religion. Offering up a sweet made of cheese (in this case cottage cheese or chhana) as a Brahmanical offering in the 12th century seems highly unlikely.

The real cheese

In fact, before the 17th century, there are no references to cheese in India at all. As food writer and historian Chitra Banerji says, “It is notable that in all the myths about the young Krishna [a later incarnation of Vishnu], who was bought up by foster parents among the dairy farmers of Brindaban [in the state of Uttar Pradesh] there are thousands of references to milk, butter, ghee and yoghurt, but none to chhana.”

Not only in mythology, chhana (cottage cheese, the base used in the rasgulla), is conspicuously absent even in medieval Indian history. Banerji has studied the medieval Hindu reformer Chaitanya’s food habits and while he seemed to have a great fondness for sweets, including dairy-based ones, there is no mention of sweets with chhana as a base. In medieval Bengal, in fact, the sandesh was made out of khoa, or condensed milk solids. Only later did it come to use cheese.

How then did Bengalis come by cheese?

In medieval India, if you lived by the coast, very often the most impactful power wasn’t the Mughal emperor far out in Delhi or even your local king. Instead, the very distant Portugal might have been more important to you.

Portuguese India

Sealed off from the land route to Asia by the powerful Arabs, the Portuguese turned this adversity into profit and poured all their energies into the sea with the aim of becoming a major naval power.

In 1498, Vasco Da Gama “discovered” India via a route the Arabs had been using for at least two millennia before him. The Portuguese, though, meant business and their superior naval firepower soon displaced the Arabs from India’s west coast. Not long after, the Iberians had the entire Indian coast at their disposal, from Chittagong in Bengal to Bombay (as they named it) in the Konkan.

These Portuguese newcomers had a massive influence on India’s coastal cultures. Though mostly forgotten now, this age is quiescently preserved in the languages that came into contact with Portuguese. Since this was the first European power India experienced on a large scale, a large number of Western concepts use Portuguese loans. Both Bengali and Marathi, for example, use the Portuguese word pao for western-style bread. Marathi borrowed the Portuguese name for a new, brown tuber imported from South America: batata. Almari (almirah), chaabi (key), girja (church), istri (iron) and Ingrej (English) are all words that the Bengalis took from the Portuguese. Even “harmad” a Bengali slang word meaning “ruffian”, comes from the word “armada”, referring to the poor reputation of the Portuguese sailors who mostly came up the riverine Bengal delta as pirates and raiders.

Another significant addition was made in cuisine. The Portuguese loved their fresh cottage cheese, which they made by adding citric acid to boiled milk. KT Acharya writes: “This routine technique may have lifted the Aryan taboo on deliberate milk curdling and given the traditional Bengali moira [confectioner] a new material to work with.”

The three cheeses of Bengal

This link to the Portuguese has another strong source: Francois Bernier. Bernier, a Frenchman, was the personal physician to the Mughal price Dara Shikoh and he left behind a highly influential record of his travels in India. He mentions that “Bengal likewise is celebrated for its sweetmeats, especially in places inhabited by the Portuguese, who are skillful in the art of preparing them and with whom they are an article of considerable trade”.

The Portuguese, in all, ended up introducing three types of acid-curdled cheeses to Bengal. One is obviously the basic chhana, milk split with citric acid, consumed fresh. The second is the incredibly tasty smoked Bandel Cheese, an Anglo-Indian favourite which is still available in a few shops in the British-era New Market of Kolkata. The third is today called the Dhakai Paneer. Food writer Kalyan Karmakar explains that Dhakai Paneer has “nothing to do with ‘paneer’” and is “more like a tight feta”. It is now only found in Dhaka.

Chhana, of course, also spread to North India, where it was compressed into blocks and given the Persian name for cheese – “paneer” (a name that Turkish also borrowed).

Now how this chhana was fashioned into the rasgulla is the bone of contention. While we can be pretty sure the Jagannath temple story is not true (given that there was no cheese in India before the Portuguese), who first thought of forging this stuff into those small heavenly little globes is not known.

The Steve Jobs of rasgulla

Maybe it was invented in Bengal and taken to Odisha. Maybe Odiya cooks, very common in rich Bengali households, bought it to Bengal. Given the lack of records, it is impossible to tell.

However, one thing is more certain: the modern method of rasgulla preparation owes its genesis to a Bengali gentlemen from Kolkata called Nobin Chandra Das. He basically boiled the chhana balls in the syrup, making it spongier and, more importantly, from the point of view of commerce, gave it a longer shelf life.

It is this Nobin Chandra Das rasgulla that spread throughout India. While Das is often credited as the inventor of the rasgulla, a title that many Odiyas take great umbrage to, at the very least he is to the confectionary what Steve Jobs was to the smartphone. Even if Das didn’t invent the original rasgulla, it was he who tweaked it and took it to market, making it the popular sweet that we all love.

Given this history, and also the fact that it is now almost a pan-India food, any Geographical Indication claims that Odisha might make on the rasgulla would be just a little unfair.

Ramzan food: Exploring iftar in one of Kolkata’s oldest neighbourhoods

First publsihed on Scroll.

Ramzan in India consists of three main ingredients: piety, politics and food.

The piety bit is obvious, and the politics you can see on your television screens, as netas go to great lengths to attract the attention of their vote banks, either by going to an iftar party or making it a point not to go to one. It is the food, however, that perhaps touches the largest number. Hidden from the rest of the country, some of the best iftar, the meal used to break the fast at sundown, is served in Kolkata.

For the best haleem in the city, the place to visit is Aminia in north Kolkata’s Chitpur neighbourhood. The owner, Navaid Amin, 56, is a mild-mannered man who wears rimless glasses and carries a gold-coloured iPhone 6. He told me his grandfather came here from Awadh in 1929 and started this restaurant. As proof he pointed me to an enormous deg in the kitchen (it could fit in a pony) and claimed that this is the pot his grandfather had started cooking in when he started his business.

Chitpur heritage

The deg isn’t the only historical artefact here. Chitpur is one of Kolkata’s oldest neighbourhoods. In fact, it is the oldest non-European part of the city. It came to be a part of Kolkata in 1717, when the Mughal Emperor Farrukhsiyar’s persistent ailments were treated by a British surgeon, Dr Hamilton. His gratitude, further encouraged by a British bribe of £30,000 and a threat to shut down Mughal shipping from Surat, led the Emperor to gift 38 villages around Kolkata to the British, one of which was Chitpur.

As the European part of Kolkata developed to the south, just north of that grew the Indian or “Black Town”, at whose heart lay Chitpur. Rabindranath Tagore stayed here (Chitpur Road is now named after him), as also Raja Rammohan Roy. Nobin Chandra Das, the person who claimed to have invented the rasgulla, first set up shop in Chitpur.

Gauhar Jan also lived here. Unknown today, she was the first artist in India to be recorded, compressing her Hindustani classical compositions into a gramophone-friendly three minutes. Her house, Salim Manzil, still exists on Chitpur Road, a dilapidated pink building, now occupied by squabbling families and shops selling automobile spare parts.

Next to it is the younger, and much better maintained, Nakhoda Masjid, the city’s largest mosque (Indians usually don’t bother about their historical monuments but places of worship are an exception to this rule). Built in 1926 by a Kutchi Memon shipping magnate, its main draw is the gateway, built as a rather poor copy of the Buland Darwaza in Fatehpur Sikri. As a nod to its financier, "nakhoda" literally means “lord of the ship” or captain.

Arbi Haleem

Facing the mosque is Aminia, where – to get back to the food – I was putting away some of its tasty haleem. Egged on by my reaction, Navaid Amin explained how he put in five dals, darra (cracked wheat) and the best cuts of meat to simmer for hours till everything dissolves into a mash. This recipe was invented by his grandfather and, in a bit of marketing spin, called “Arbi Haleem” (Arabic Haleem).

This is not completely made up. Haleem does have Arab origins. Its ancestor, hareesah, is a simple dish, containing meat, wheat, cinnamon and ghee, popular in Yemen till today as an Iftar staple. It is, in fact, a dish with a long history: the 10th-century Baghdad scribe Abu Muhammad al-Muzaffar ibn Sayyar penned down a recipe for hareesah in the Kitab al-Tabikh (The Book of Recipes). Hareesah is still available in the Arab quarters of Hyderabad, Barkas.

At some indeterminate time, though, Indians decided to upgrade this dish. We added our dals and our masalas, making it far superior, in my opinion, than the bland haressah I ate in Hyderabad.

Zakaria Street

While the haleem is the king of the iftar spread, the lesser dishes also stand out. A short distance from the Nakhoda mosque area is Zakarai street, the Urdu-ised version of the original “Jacquaria” street. This area, the Muslim pocket of Chitpur, has such a long history of migration from Awadh that these Urdu Hobson-Jobsons have become as good as official (a small bit of revenge for the mangling of Indian names by the British).

The Zakaria Street area was the second hub of the Awadhis who came to Kolkata when it was the second city of the Empire, the first being Metiabruj, the exiled home of Wajid Ali Shah, the last Nawab of Awadh. Ironically, Kolkata has always been home to far more Urdu-speaking Muslims than Bengali-speaking ones. The latter is a rural community and as Salman Rushdie explained, “The distance between cities is always small; a villager, travelling a hundred miles to town, traverses emptier, darker, more terrifying space.”

With these migrants came their food. The Zakaria Street area is the original hub of Mughlai cuisine in Kolkata. It has the city’s best biryani joint, the 110-year old Royal Indian Hotel, which was snotty – and brave – enough to leave out the potato from its biryani, almost the only place in Kolkata to do so. Kolkata biryani, while an almost perfect copy of the Lucknow one, has one big difference (and, dare I say, improvement): it contains the aloo.

Apocryphally, this was introduced by Wajid Ali Shah’s cooks, as a partial replacement for the more expensive goat meat, as the nawab struggled to make ends meet after being deposed. More probably, it was a simple matter of fusion, since Bengal loves its potato; it is difficult to imagine a Bengali meal without it. Adding it to the biryani, where it would perfectly absorb the spices from the rice and the meat, was a no-brainer.

Pakodas, fruit and ghoogni

At Aminia as well as in the next-door joint, Sufia, since the haleem had run out, quite a few people were making do with the biryani for iftar, although it is an unusual choice to break your fast. More conventionally, people eat pakodas, fruit and ghoogni (black gram).

At the Haji Alauddin sweet shop in Chuna Gali (Phears Lane), mutton and chicken somasas did brisk business half an hour before iftar. Founded in 1915, again by a migrant from Awadh, it is now manned by the great grandson of Mr Alauddin, Ijaz Ahmed. It also has a variety of mawa-based North Indian sweets, rare in a city whose strong tradition of Bengali confectionary uses chhena as a base. Also sold there is the Khajla, a fried, hollow bread which is crumbled and eaten like cereal with hot milk usually for the pre-fast sehri meal.

Outside Alauddin, sold by a vendor, are the more humble but far tastier beef samosas and also, since Eid is close by, a seviyan stall. A bit further off, on a road named after the Khilafat leader, Maulana Shaukat Ali, are bread stalls, stocking baqarkhanis and sheermals.


I’ve grown up seeing baqarkhanis being eaten but never as “Mughlai” food. My grandmother’s Anglo-Indian neighbours would eat “backer-can-eez” for breakfast, often pairing it with a delicious smoked cheese introduced to Bengal by the Portuguese, called Bandel cheese (Bandel was a Portuguese settlement and is around two hours from Kolkata). Baqarkhanis came in from north India to Bengal and then entered Anglo-Indian cuisine.

The last stop was probably the best of the lot. Kolkata makes some amazing Mughlai curries and biryani but it really doesn’t pull off a good kabab. The one exception to that is Adam’s Kabab, a little way from Haji Alauddin’s. Here Mohammed Salahuddin (Sallu to his friends) makes the sutli kabab, so called because the beef is ground so fine, it has to be held up by a soota (thread) while being grilled. The secret to this is unripe papaya, an excellent meat tenderiser, mixed in with the mince along with spices and left to marinate.

The only other place I’ve had sootli kababs is in Old Delhi. There, in the Matia Mahal area, past the overrated Karim’s, is the oddly named Kale Baba ke Kebabs. As in most Mughlai food though, the colonial melting deg of Kolkata steals a march over once-upon-a-time-Mughal Delhi.

Babur, Timur and Shastri: as Modi visits Tashkent, a short history of Indo-Uzbek ties

First published on Scroll.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi kicks off his tour of Central Asia on Monday with a visit to Uzbekistan. Uzbekistan is a speck in modern India’s view of the world but the subcontinent's history has greatly been influenced by a man who was born here in 1483: the founder of the Mughal Empire, Zahiruddin Muhammad Babur.

Given the saffron turn in events, many Indians actively revile Babar. But Uzbekistan celebrates the founder of the Mughal Empire as a national hero. Babur’s home is now a museum. Parks and monuments are dedicated to him. The Uzbekis even have an organisation – the Babur International Foundation – expressly devoted to the study of Babur’s history.

Despite this retrospective adulation, Babur didn't have an easy time in his homeland. Although Babur is descended from the fearsome Timur, he was himself born to a rather modest father, the ruler of the small principality of Fargana. Babur struggled to gain a toehold in his home and was eventually forced into neighbouring Afghanistan. It was here that his military genius flowered and he ruled Kabul for more than a decade. He loved his time in Kabul and after he died, his body was buried in the city. His tomb is still there in the city and in fact, the Kabulis see him as a hero too.

Babur could never go back to his land of birth. Instead, he came to India, where the empire he founded is often seen with hostility in modern times, in spite of being a seminal influence in the formation of modern India.  The influence of the Mughal empire can be seen from the fact that in 1857, when the Indian soldiers of the British army revolted, the first place they headed for was the Mughal palace in Delhi. The emperor, although powerless and poor – he received a pension from the British – was still seen a symbol of national unity and thus provided the sepoys the legitimacy they needed.

The Mughals

When Babur first came to India, though, he didn't like it very much. He pined for the mountains and melons of Central Asia, even though he noted how much Indians liked the mango but churlishly added, “It is not so good as to warrant such praise”.

His descendants, however, quickly took to the subcontinent and, of course, the mango. Babur’s grandson, Akbar, planted the “Lakh Bagh”, a mango orchard containing one lakh trees in Darbhanga, Bihar.

While they might have taken to Indian fruit, the Mughals always had a desire to take back the birthplace of their founder. At the height of Mughal power, Shah Jahan sent his sons, Murad and Aurangzeb into Central Asia, with the ultimate aim of conquering the legendary city of Samarkand, now in Uzbekistan. The Mughal army never did reach the city, being furiously tormented by the Uzbek tribes in a land that was, after more than a hundred years, now completely foreign to them.

Historian Abraham Eraly writes that in spite of spending Rs 20 million on this campaign, the Mughals gained nothing from it.

Timur’s sack of Delhi

While the Delhi Mughals had great trouble in trying to reach Samarkand, their ancestor, Timur, the ruler of Samarkand reached Delhi with relative ease in 1398. And like in Baghdad and Damascus, Timur sacked Delhi with brutal ferocity. While he did not much like Delhi’s citizens, he did warm to the city’s architecture, making sure to take back a great many builders and architects back to Samarkand.  It also seems that Timur so impressed with the Jami Masjid in Feroz Shah Kotla that he copied a large part of its design to build Samarkand’s greatest mosque, the Bibi Khanum.

Timur is also a national hero in Uzbekistan and Modi might even catch a glimpse of his statue as he is being driven around Tashkent.

While that might be terrible enough, Tashkent has even more recent bad memories for India. In 1966, the Soviets moderated peace talks between India and Pakistan in the aftermath of the 1965 War. The Indian delegation was led by Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri, who died a sudden death immediately after the peace agreement was signed. His official cause of death was a heart attack but his family suspected foul play. Nothing, however, could be ascertained since no postmortem was conducted.

On his Facebook wall, Modi said that he would pay his tributes to Shastri during this Tashkent visit.