Monday, October 24, 2011

Neerob, on Starling Avenue in the Bronx

Neerob is a Bangladeshi restaurant that is part of a block’s worth of Bengali shops in the Bronx, known as “Banglabazaar”.  In the evening the small restaurant is crowded with young Bangladeshi men sitting around tables, in the middle of an “adda”(a rump session), with cups of tea.  Neerob does a brisk take out business with an established clientele, and the occasional newcomer attracted by the recent review of Neerob that appeared in the New York Times.

Most Bengali restaurants in the tri-state area are Bangladeshi, and as far as I know the now shuttered “Babu” in Greenwich Village was the only restaurant from the Indian side of Bengal, i.e. the state of W. Bengal.  This is not a bad thing as the East Bengalis (i.e. folks from Bangladesh) have a fabulous cooking legacy and they will sneer at the prissy cooking habits of the West Bengalis, their lack of spontaneity, and their annoying habit of adding a spoon of sugar into anything that they cook.  Mass migration of hindus from eastern to western Bengal took place during India’s independence in 1947.  The nation partitioned along religious lines into India and Pakistan, and the food and culture of West Bengal changed forever. 

The Bengali food from Bangladesh differs in two respects from Indian Bengali food.  The first is the heavy muslim influence: the use of beef and aromatic spices more common to North Indian cooking.  Try the Beef Tehari, for instance, something that you will not find in an Indian restaurant.  The second difference, characteristic to many Bangladeshi restaurants, is the heavy handed use of chilli powder and spices, making the food discomfortingly “hot”.  Unless you are at the “macho man” stage of South Asian food appreciation, this will not be too exciting.

The biryanis at Neerob are fragrant and have chunks of tender meat in generous amounts--I would go back again, for the biryani alone.  The hilsa fish curry comes packed in oil, like chunks of sodium that explode in your mouth with heat.  Hilsa is a delicate fish that sings to you when lightly cooked , with a streak of mustard across its tender meat that is held together by a gossamer scaffold of a thousand bones.  It is a travesty to cook it with so much oil and chili.   The goat curry was surprisingly mild and, like the biryani, had soft, quality cuts of meat.  In the confections department, the rosogullas were a delight, with restrained use of sugar.  But the gulab jamuns, which taste fine, show hints of artificial coloring: their whitish cores were tinged with crimson.  There is no need to add coloring—this is a thing of the past and if Neerab is to get the attention of an increasing variety of clientele, they need to pay attention to things such as these.

But go there for the biryanis, for the tea that they will pour out in paper cups at a dollar a cup, and for the ambiance of the adda that grabs the place every evening—for that alone, it is worth a trip to Neerob.
Neerob on Urbanspoon

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Obergurgl, Zurich, and the Dark Prince of Burkliplatz

Rail transportation has a distant civility about it in Western Europe, a quietness with which a train arrives precisely on time, the methodical motions of the embarking and disembarking passengers like two insoluble streams of fluid, and a hushed whisper with which the train plunges through wonderfully engineered pathways.  Heading out of Zurich I had changed trains at a small station in Austria, Landeck-Zams, en-route to Obergurgl, a small town high in the Austrian alps.  The lady at the Zurich airport train station had, with unwavering politeness,  outlined for me departures, arrivals and changeovers precise to the minute under whitish fluorescent illumination that seemed to bathe the place in a cloak of efficiency.  So I was now in Landeck-Zams, waiting for it to leave, at exactly  the time that she had said I would—in a few days I would be disembarking at stations looking at my watch rather than the station’s name on the platform.

My train compartment is largely empty except for a gaggle of ten year olds on their way back from school.  They travel by themselves on the train, running around, pummeling each other playfully.  When the train stops at a small village with a cute brightly colored micro car parked by the station road (these autos seem to be the mascots for small railway stations, just like the rickshaw stands by the railways in the outer towns of Kolkata), a couple of kids hop off (there is no platform), jump over the tracks and head on home.  My train creaks as it climbs up the Alps, past angry mountain brooks fed by waterfalls and man made networks of gutters, coniferous forests, sheer walls of rock, past little villages with tidy houses, farms, pickup trucks and bales of hay sealed in plastic sheaths.  I get off at a little station called Otztal and then am driven up a winding mountain road with snow on the ground, through hairpin turns and dollhouse villages, taverns with signs for “Table Dancing” (a sign of the large tourist trade during skiing season), the roads wet with constant rain.  49 kilometers later I am dropped off with my bags at a tiny village, Obergurgl, one of the highest towns in Austria at 2000 m with moutains all around me, and a conference center run by the University of Innsbruck where I will stay for a few days. 

I am here for a conference and taking advantage of a break one afternoon I head for a hike following a small road that heads towards the mountains.  A while later it changes to a dirt road, and then to a hiking trail.  I feel awkard in dress slacks that I have tucked into my socks  to avoid the snow, as I am passed by a purposeful hiker with walking sticks, his long, leathery, alpine-sun tanned frame gliding past me like a vigorous dancer.  This is a ski paradise--the white mountains are criss-crossed by ski lifts and the dormant hotels come alive starting November as the tourists arrive in droves, but for now I have the place more or less to myself.  The resident population is in the few hundreds, but it winter swells to close to a hundred thousand.
Most of the locals are long time residents.  The older gentleman who drove me out to Obergurgl has been in the Otztal valley since birth and runs the local car service outside the train station with his wife.  He had been to New York once, as part of a firefighters delegation a decade ago, and described his memory of the city as one with a narrow view of the sky above, with his peripheral vision blocked by walls of concrete. New York City always brings about a wistful look in the eyes of those who have visited it only once and they will recount the city often with a single defining experience. As he spoke of NYC, this gentleman had the same look, the same symbolic wave of the hand, that I had seen in the Minneapolis cabbie years ago who, upon learning I was headed to NYC, declared that his one visit there with his girlfriend years ago gave him “the best sex that he ever had”. The city stands as a singularity in their imaginations, these two cabbies, one passing slower trucks with deft maneuvers in his Mercedes on an alpine mountain road, the other in a boatlike town car surging through the St. Paul suburbs in a cabin full of crimson upholstery.

A few days later I return back to Zurich and one evening I meet up with my old high school buddy S, a long time resident of Switzerland.  She takes me for ice cream to Movenpick, a chain store about 5 mins from the Burkliplatz neighborhood.  Listening to us speak in Bengali, the counter attendant responds in in the same language.  Originally from Bangladesh, he has married locally and settled down in Switzerland.  Overhearing us, a customer seated in the restaurant folds his hands and addresses us with a  Nomoshkar kemon  aachen (hello how are you).  It is nine o’clock at night, downtown  Zurich--as is normally the case--has started thinning, and here are 4 Bengalis in a Movenpick by the lake.  The customer is a dapper young man in a black suit and a goatee and we end up sitting at the table next to his.  Debonair and engaging, he has worked in Zurich for the past 4 years after graduating as an engineer from Jadavpur.  Koto din Aachen ekhaaney (how long have you been here) asks S in polite conversation.  Ami apnar cheye onek choto, amakey tumi bolben (I am much younger than you, please address me with “tumi”— which is a form of address directed for people younger than you).  I can see that S, who looks younger than her years, is not amused. The man’s Swiss girlfriend arrives soon after and following introductions, they drop off into deep and at times anguished conversation.  We pick up snatches-- there is a misunderstanding, he had not expected her to get as emotionally involved as she had.  This does not help his stock in S’s eyes--the young lady is probably around our children's age.  After a while, preparing to leave, he bids us farewell.  “Dekha hobey kokhono” (see you later) says S in parting formality, her lips pursed.  With a gaze that Rajesh Khanna reserved for his heroines he looks her in the eye “Nishchoi hobey.  Sundar mookh ami kokhono bhuli na” (we will certainly meet—I never forget a beautiful face).  And with that, the dark prince of Burkliplatz glides off into the darkness with his flame. S remains unimpressed, though deep inside, I suspect that the flattery has made some amends.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

The Pan IIT 2011 Global Conference in New York City

Registering for the Pan IIT 2011 Global Conference in New York City gets you a jute bag with the conference schedule and a bunch of goodies.  One of these goodies is a sticker backed “radiation protector” for use on laptops that will “improve the Pulse rate and other health parameters of users”.  After examining this, I spend a few hours listening to a first rate discussion on education from a well balanced trio of speakers: a business school dean from Harvard, the president of NYU, and Narayana Murthy--the charismatic founder of Infosys.  The first two speak eloquently-- on US education and its global outreach in the changing world, sticking to the high road, often taking philosophical turns, but sidestepping discussion of the commercial forces that can also influence such outreach.  Narayana Murthy, a no-nonsense man, discusses the importance of higher education and research in the IITs, and offers a recipe for bootstrapping the IITs into world class research institutes.  The night closes with dinner and a thumping Bollywood style dance performance, with a moderator who at times describes the dancers as “girls” to a largely middle aged, male crowd.  These three events highlight the discordant bandwidth of this conference, an odd mix of diamonds in a swirl of mud. 

The speaker list was impressive, commandeered by an alumni corps with hefty amounts of influence and wealth.  In the end it was a sober list, including Chuck Schumer and Sam Pitroda, though it appeared at one time to include filmstars and social circuit talking heads, names culled when wiser heads prevailed. The core of the meeting was about business and the art of making money.  The coverage on science and technology was underwhelming, notwithstanding a session on energy that turned out to be soft and inadequate.  This was a pity given the enormous changes that are today imminent in computers, energy, communications, and sensors; and a missed opportunity to resonate with these exciting times.  This was a time to not just make a business case, but to extend the purview to a broader vision that could have been fundamentally and intellectually satisfying. Given the business minded focus of the conference, it was understandable that many IITians—particularly the ones not associated with the business end of things, stayed away.  In the end, the purported theme, “Solutions for a better world”, remained as ill defined and murky as the phrase itself.

It has been pointed out that at times IITians can be preoccupied with their self-importance, this narcissism even progressing to part time mania since CBS’ 60 Minutes featured the IITs in 2003, describing them as “Harvard, MIT and Princeton put together”.  That hubris was certainly on display, on the aisles, and by the captains of industry on the dais, who spoke in absolutes.  Yet, at dinner, there was almost an hour set aside for a humbling set of presentations by alumni from non-governmental organizations who spoke of nurturing the gifted within India’s vast underbelly of poverty, or of bringing solar lanterns to remote villages in India that lacked electrification.   This latter example, described by a charismatic individual, Mr. Yatendra Agrawal of Ecosolutions in Mumbai, opened my eyes to the speed at which technology can propagate today. 

Mr. Agrawal delivers solar lanterns, built in China to a US design, that use gallium nitride white light emitting diodes, a crystalline silicon solar cell and a lithium battery.  The devices deliver state-of-the-art performance and price points.  The lithium iron phosphate batteries were based on a 1996 discovery at the University of Texas—they are a relatively new product even for the western world, yet deployed in parts of the globe that has escaped technology so far. The longer lives of the batteries mean fewer trips to deliver replacements.  It is a textbook example of how quickly technology becomes available across the world today, stimulated by a vast network of criss-crossed, interbred, internationally savvy expertise.

I spoke with Mr. Agrawal in hushed whispers later that evening, while the Bollywood dancers swayed to Sheila ki Jawani.  Even in this dim, pulsating hall where colored spotlights skimmed over the dancers, his enthusiasm was infectious.  I asked whether he feared for his safety when he travelled the remote corners of North-East India, across Assam, often into Arunachal, where insurgency can be an issue, and where I come from.  He waved them off—he had never felt intimidated, and he loved the North-East.  

It was a humbling, context setting experience for someone used to examining these electronic devices in the impersonal settings of a conference room or laboratory--to be made aware of their lifestyle altering influence in tribal villages that were beyond remote, where the smoke and hazards of a hut illuminated by burning pine wood or kerosene could now be eliminated with solar powered lighting.

Humbling further, were the descriptions of bright children born to families below the poverty line, of magnet schools chartered nationwide to identify these kids and offer them a free education, of children of day laborers and farmers who through a network of altruistic support systems successfully competed and enrolled at the IITs. It was unclear how accessible this outreach is today, but it is a step that did not exist when I went to Kharagpur in the early eighties.  Had the playing field been more level at that time, I surely would not have made it through the entrance exams. 

The night wore on, and the dancers expertly brought in the audience that by evening’s end formed an amorphous, swaying mass on the floor.  The halls had thinned, the bars were full at the Hilton, and the drippy rain of Manhattan showed no intention of abatement.  One of the attractions of such alumni meetings is the coterie of old friends that assemble as a result.  It was time to move on with them, get a drink, and catch up.