Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Curry and the Freedom Fighter: Rash Behari Bose in Japan


Tram tracks glint in the afternoon sun as they bend with the curve of a famous road in South Calcutta that on one end leads to a crematorium and on the other, to a bridge built in honor of an honest engineer slain by gangsters.  In far away Shinjuku, a suburb of Tokyo, a venerable restaurant in operation since 1901, serves a famous dish—a Japanese version of curry, that it calls Indo-Karii, since 1927.  What do the two have in common?  The street was named after Rash Behari Bose*, the famous Indian revolutionary during the British colonial times.  The dish Karii is a derivative of the Indian curry dishes that Mr. Rash Behari introduced to his father-in-law, Mr. Soma Aizo, the affluent owner of the Nakamura-Ya restaurant, while he was in exile in Japan.

It also explains the mystery of why this is called Karii, when the rest of the world calls it curry—because it was a Bengali, who pronounced it as such, that introduced it.  And it would be fair to say that Indian curry, which enjoys household familiarity in Japan, owes part of its legacy to Mr. Bose, who—appalled by the British introduced milquetoast curries of the early 1900s in Japan—set matters straight and laid down the law in this land of the rising sun, insofar at least in matters concerning curry.  In the 1920s he convinced his father-in-law to offer a line of Indian dishes, became an executive in the restaurant, and set up a supply chain for receiving the ingredients. 

Bose was a multitalented guy with vision.  What we would call today in corporate parlance an out-of-the-box thinker, a big picture guy, an ideation maverick, an evangelist for a free India, a bit of a wild duck (don’t shoot yours), a man to whom you could ascribe a powerpoint full of consultant strength epithets.  Before his escape to Japan at the age of around 30, Bose was already one of the founders of the Ghadar Party, and a mastermind behind the assassination attempt on the Viceroy, Lord Hardinge in 1912.  Hardinge was riding an elephant in Chandni Chowk with his wife, attending a ceremony and the attempt failed as a homemade bomb missed its mark, killing Hardinge’s attendant instead.  As a result of all of this, Bose ended up being hotly pursued by the British, and in 1915, he escaped to Japan and switched to curry.  Chicken he was not.  Influential pan-Asian political forces in Japan reached out and helped carve out a home in Japan for Bose.  There is an old photograph of Rash Behari Bose at a dinner with his Japanese benefactor on one side and the future prime minister of Japan on the the other.  He became a Japanese citizen in 1923. He repaid this largesse with curry.

Nakamura-Ya still exists and is famous throughout Japan for its curry dishes.  Bose married the owner’s daughter and had two children in the early 1920s.  The restaurant’s website carries old photographs of the Indian son-in-law (scroll thru http://www.nakamuraya.co.jp/photo/index.html) and his wife in an Indian saree, draped Bengali style. 

Lord Hardinge survived the assassination attempt and writes about the episode in his autobiography, “My Indian Memoirs”.  The memoir smells of the professionalism of the colonial British, his work ethic and unshakable conviction , yet also shows an absolute form of insensitivity towards Indians, viewed always in wholesale form, rarely as individuals, unless of course they were royalty. Hardinge makes an oblique mention of Rash Behari Bose, who took the evening train back to his residence in Dehra Dun after the failed assassination attempt, and upon reaching Dehra Dun, immediately presided at a meeting condemning the attack on Hardinge and passing a motion against it.

Rash Behari’s son was a Japanese soldier who died in WWII fighting the battle at Okinawa and his daughter, who lived into the 21st century took reigns of the restaurant.  Rash Behari himself died in 1945 and two days after his death in Tokyo, his house was destroyed by Allied bombing.  In the 1940s he (along with Nair-San, another fascinating expat also responsible for the first Indian restaurant in Japan in 1949) was instrumental in the setting up of the mercenary Indian National Army, which was then handed over in turnkey fashion to Subhas Bose.  The Milwaukee Journal of Feb 19, 1942 heads a news item with “Indian Traitor Active Again”, giving an account of Rash Behari aligning with the Axis forces, as this “stock 56 year old Bengalese”.

The next time I am in Japan, which will be in January, I hope to visit Nakamura-Ya.  I hope that it would have reopened, for it was shut down for renovations.  As for Bose, the Ghadar Party is gone and so is the army he founded.  But his Indo-Karii remains.  I bet you that its recipe calls for the addition of a spoon of sugar.  Because, I believe, the Chandannagore born Bose was a Ghoti.

* postscript: possibly Rash Behari Avenue was named after Rash Behari Ghosh (another famous politician from the early 1900s and not Bose).

Thursday, September 19, 2013

London in September

How do you write about a place whose literature you are intimately familiar with, yet have had little physical presence in, mostly just transiting thru its airport?  How do you write about a place whose history you cannot but be in awe of, realizing it had systems of governance in place 300 years ago that are relevant even today, that it created a phalanx of officers who believed it was their preordained right to rule the world, and armed with just this sense of entitlement, had the confidence to walk into distant lands, into tribal villages, with wife and baby in tow, and expect to, and then rule, simply armed with the cloak of their confidence?  How do your write about a place that bears the street names of Landsdowne Court, and Little Russell Street and Greater Russell Street: names that have rolled off your tongue and passed under your slippers in the Calcutta of the 70s and 80s?  How do you write about London, a place you should have visited much more than you have, a London that is far from the Bilayat of your parents and grandparents, far from the London of glossy photographs of guards at Buckingham, of empty biscuit tins with alluring images of a tidy society, but a London more multicultural than New York, a London of abayas, of lungis, of flaming hennaed beards, of East European hotel accents, of  tweed jackets and herringbone fabrics, and merry evening men wearing blazing orange sports coats and lime green pants?  No Indian of a certain generation can write about England without a chip on his shoulder, without either over-reaching admiration, or slight ridicule, or an enforced sense of familiarity.

The afternoon we reached London, I took a walk to Hyde Park, a 10 minutes walk away from our hotel on Edgeware, a street full of middle eastern shops.  Once there, I looked for Speakers’ corner, the iconic symbol for free speech, where thru history, cranks, minorities, the oppressed and the antagonized could stand up on a public podium and rail away with no repercussions.  My father had spent time in London in the 1950s, he used to visit the British Museum every day, walk thru Hyde Park often.  I had first heard about Speakers Corner from him.  I asked a vendor at the corner, she vaguely pointed me to the place. There was no speaker. Just folks with smart-phones. 

Along the road by the Northern bank of the Thames, a taxi driver almost ran over and killed a bicyclist.  Only through a maneuver resembling the Japanese judo trick employed by Holmes to escape the clutches of Moriarty and re-emerge to public demand, did the cyclist escape.  Following this incident each party uttered a single foul word at each other, beginning with the letter f.  They then wheeled along and went their way.  It was the most civic display of the usage of the word f---- that I have ever seen.  The British have a way with softening curse words.  “Barnshoot” is an example.

At night we went to Southall for dinner.  The is the bastion of Punjabi life in Britain, the biggest Punjab outside of Punjab.  I had first heard of this place in  Khushwant Singh’s writings. He had met a sweeper at Heathrow in the 70s from Southall who wept and beseeched Mr. Singh to take her back home.  You can skip the English language entirely, and for a lifetime, if you are in Southall.  The place looks like a slightly prosperous North Indian city.  

The day we return we travelled to the Tate Modern gallery.  It is a beautiful, civilized thing to have museums with free entrance.  Tate Modern can sometimes be confusing, since the art can overflow into the visitor’s space.  “A” hesitated to sit at a beautiful oak bench with dark tight grain, and lines with a slight, deliberate curve in the fashion that Japanese furniture can sometimes have.  He thought it was perhaps also a museum piece.  There was a sparse Italian room with works of wood and stone slabs.  I suspected that the visitors walking into the rooms themselves were part of the artist’s design, a dynamic brush that the artist had trusted us with.  There was a room full of photographs of public executions sites in Syria, simple straightforward places where Honda Accords were parked on the curb. 

We walked back to Edgeware Street one night from the river, walking through Trafalgar Square, Piccaddilly and Oxford Street.  Somewhere south of Trafalgar we came to a road called Whitehall, by the side of which were statues of British generals with moustaches, looking sinister in the harsh floodlit night.  Field Marshall Viscount William Slim, the WWII General who retreated from Burma to India pursued by the Japanese, only to turn around and beat them back in the plains of Imphal, stood on a stone pedestal in his army boots, with perspicacity in his eyes and binoculars on the ready, should the London fog lift some day.  Inscribed on the pedestal below him were the names of the Indian and Burmese towns where he had seen action: Kohima, Imphal, and Arakan. A South European couple came over to look at the statue and the lady puckered her eyes as her lips tried to mouth the unfamiliar names of the towns.  And yet how delicious those names sounded to me—my grandfather had settled as a headmaster in Imphal, my father and my uncles had grown up there.  V.S. Naipaul, on visiting Pathankot in India found it strange to see the very technical British engineering word “railhead” amidst, what was in his mind, a very chaotic India: “How strange again and again to hear this solitary English word, to me so technical, industrial and dramatic, in a whole sentence of Hindustani—the railhead for Kashmir.” My feelings are similar, though in inversion to the course of this sentiment: these remote places whose names roll off so easily off my tongue sit etched in stone like strangers: geo-ported anomalies from a time long back, in this smooth, thoroughly occidental suburb.

On our last evening we spent some time at a pub.  Many years back, when some of us were working very hard to develop a new material for silicon processor chips, we would head off to an Irish bar in Mohegan Lake in NY late at night to blow off steam after our the kids had gone to bed (most of our kids at that time were of that age when putting the kids to bed was an important part of the family fabric).  The Irish bartender, who had become a good friend, had told me that Guinness, even in draught form, tasted better the closer you got to Ireland—London would be better than New York, and Dublin would be the best.  Now, Guinness is brewed in many different countries so I was always skeptical about his claims.  My friend is now long retired to Florida, but I decided to test his theory.  And indeed the Guinness tasted better, fresher in the heart of London than in New York.  Or perhaps it was just that beer is served a little warmer in Europe than in New York, allowing a better feel for its taste.  Barnshoot!

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Three restaurants in Northern California: Cafe Tibet, Paradise Biryani Pointe, Rangoon Ruby

--> Café Tibet,  Berkeley, www.cafetibetberkeley.com
Paradise Biryani Pointe, Santa Clara, www.cabiryani.com
Rangoon Ruby, Palo Alto, www.rangoonruby.com

The tolerance level of a place can be directly measured by counting the number of local eccentrics.  The United States does not do very well in this regard.  But Berkeley, CA, is an isolated island of exception.  While I waited in the region around Sproul Hall for my younger son to finish his college tour, a parade of eccentrics passed by in unconventional dresses and in discussions with themselves, each his or her own unique center of reference.  It is therefore no surprise that the Berkeley area is also home to a few eclectic restaurants.

We had dinner at the Tibet Café near the University in Berkeley.  The inside is decorated with pictures of Tibet and a small prayer wheel near the entrance.  The owner tells me that  there is a sizable Tibetan community in Berkeley, most of whom have grown up near Dharamsala, India, and schooled in the hill stations in North India.  They speak fluent Hindi and many still consider India their home.  Tibetan food has influences from India and China.  We had curry, noodle soup and an appetizer of battered eggplant chips where, what we in Bengali called Telebhaja, except that the eggplant was not diced crosscut across its length, but along its length.  The curry tasted like an Indian curry.  We hear much about Japanese Ramen and Vietnamese Pho, but Tibetan noodle soups deserve their own place.  If the broth in Ramen is known for its texture and complexity, and the Pho for its direct simplicity, the Tibetan Thenthuk speaks of nourishment and wholesomeness.  Both of our soups were noteworthy—a beef noodle soup and a soup with oats and barley.  All of the dishes were prepared from scratch, but the wait was well worth it.  Tibetan food is homely, rounded at the edges, the poorer cousin in a Camry, but if you arrive tired and lacking in nourishment, it will put you on the train headed for home.

Leaving Berkeley with its residuals of activism, and Indian influence, we travelled to the clearer skies of San Jose and for dinner arrived at a Hyderabadi restaurant in Santa Clara by the name of Paradise.  A one word review—if Milton had the opportunity to dine here he would have regained whatever he might have lost.  Paradise is an autistic restaurant.  Its Hyderabadi biryanis, with a little yogurt, some goat or chicken curry, and shorba(broth) has a magnetism that is hard to resist.  But the rest of the restaurant experience is off the mark.  Routine expectations: that empty dishes be carted away to clear the table for incoming dishes, that there will be a symmetry between the number of plates and the number of spoons delivered, remained unfulfilled.  But what are a few logistical shortcomings in the front of divine food that “Recover'd Paradise to all mankind”?  It is reputed that the mathematician Ramanujan  would write down solutions to well known and unsolved mathematical problems without bothering with the intervening steps, and when asked on his methods would claim that the Goddess gave him the solutions.  It is thus with Paradise, that in this hole of a restaurant where nothing else seems to work right, the biryani comes, pure and perfect, straight from Maradona’s legs and the hands of God.

The third restaurant sounded an exotic one, in Palo Alto, a city far from Berkeley culturally.  We walk into the Burmese Rangoon Ruby, smack in the middle of Palo Alto, into a dining room that has tried to recreate an ambiance of colonial South-East Asia—wood that is made to look like teak but is not teak, a feeling of bamboo without bamboo, glassware laid out on white table cloths in a high ceilinged room, with a large glass window beyond.  A bit of Maugham, a bit of Orwell, and the staff joking with one another, yelling “Whose your Daddy?”, to add a California touch.  Thus began my introduction to the Palo Alto version of Burmese food, closer in spirit, fashion, and body to California than to the shores of Yangon.  Not to say that the restaurant was bad.  It was run efficiently by a manager from Hawaii with a Bronx accent.  There was a phenomenal noodle soup, with refined flavors. I was just not sure whether it was Burmese.  And there was a pork curry dish with mango pickle and potatoes, and a noodle dish that could pass off as Chinese.   The food was fine, just did’nt seem particularly authentic to me.

Cafe Tibet on Urbanspoon

Paradise Biryani Pointe — Santa Clara, CA on Urbanspoon

Rangoon Ruby on Urbanspoon

Thursday, August 22, 2013

The Pacific Coast Highway and Road to Fresno

Rich folk stream out of the woodwork along the California coast and gather at watering hole towns like Carmel-On-the-Sea and oceanside inns with names like Tickle Pink Inn that line the Pacific Coast Highway.  The rich in California have a different look --skins leathered by the sun, less intellectually inclined than their East Coast counterparts, and a smooth sense of entitlement in their distant eyes that reminded me of our lives as penurious graduate students at another such waterhole decades ago—the University of Southern California.  These are the towns where the men purr by in fantastic automobiles, women browse in sugar laced shops called “Linens and Such”, and where couples dine at faux bucolic restaurants  named “Forge in the Forest”. Heading south from Monterey on the Pacific Coast Highway, the ocean lies on our right.  On the left are the mountains and the thick redwood forests where other kinds of men live: shaven headed big men heading down from the hills with firewood on their pickup trucks; wispy bearded men in their fifties with golden locks and dreamy looks; and men who believe in the powers of nature and healing crystals. 

The Pacific Coast highway stretches like a fog encrusted diamond as it enters Big Sur from the north: its heath, heather, bracken and hardy wildflower coated impromptu meadows sloping sharply up to form mountains, its salty air that curls one’s hair in minutes and puckers the skin into leathery wrinkles.  Up around here the road whipsaws as if suspended by springs, between the fog in the mountains to the waters below, through picturesque bridges built in the 1930s to overlooks and bluffs that gaze out over azure waters and picture perfect landscapes.

At Carmel, a few miles south of Monterey, the shopping mart at the crossing of Rio is the last bastion of civilization where you can gas up your cars, buy groceries and pick up a cell phone signal.  Crossing Rio we drove 11 miles south, taking a left at Palo Colorado: a narrow, foreboding road that winds up the hills through dark redwood growths.  We had rented a cabin a few miles into these woods, with a toilet and shower out on the deck where one bathes in the privacy of the forest, watched only by the birds that walk the deck railings head cocked to one side.  Darkness comes like a clear glass of water here; the sky is free of scattered light, and, after gazing continuously at the sky so as to get the eye adjusted, one can see the rich distribution of stars that is hard to see in other places.

In the morning the cabin owner came by to say hello.  A transplanted southerner, he moved out of the big city to Big Sur for the life style and was able to continue to work remotely in the financial business.  He had the look of someone content with where he lived.  After a long chat, he left us with the advice to invest in gold.

That first morning we drove out further East on Palo Colorado into the forests, the road climbing the hills through a series of switchbacks and ending five miles later at a campground and trailhead.  Over there we met a man who worked for the forest office and gave us directions to the trails, sharply instructing us to refrain from smoking.  The landscape is arid and a lit fire will run ragged through the dry grass.  He asked me about India and told me he spent 6 weeks there on his way back from Kathmandu in the mid-seventies, winding his way from Calcutta to Madhya Pradesh, to Maharashtra.  I assumed that he was someone from the hippie generation: westerners who roughed it out in India as young men and, to the day, retain a fondness and inquisitiveness about that country.  

From the trailhead we took a 3-mile hike down a redwood forest to a shallow mountain brook with clear cold water making its way through a bed full of rounded boulders and stones.  Lightning strikes are common in these forests—on many occasions we came across trees charred black by lightning, the outer half-inch circumference of the tree transformed into charcoal.  Over time the soft organic insides of the dead tree decays and all that is left is the hard carbonaceous burnt shell of the trunk.  On the sides of the mountains the air is still and flies swarm the body.  At times the trail emerges at vistas that overlook steep mountainsides covered with pine forests. A gentle breeze blows here that is scented with the smell of pine resin and it cools us down.

The famous car show at Pebble Beach was on and, headed for dinner back into civilization and driving north on the highway, we found ourselves stuck between Jaguar F roadsters, Ferraris, Lamborghinis, old Porsches, and Bentleys in an expensive traffic jam.  On a two way jammed street where traffic had slowed to a crawl, I observed the rituals of this tribe.  When one driver crosses another with a vehicle that is commensurate with his own in status, they exchange a wave and nod.  At times an idling super engine will let out a rumble of impatience as its driver stabs the gas briefly on neutral, this then evolving into a call and response as other drivers gun their engines in sequence.  There is something about the deep, throaty sound of certain engines, and some of it is pure nostalgia and a bridge to one’s youth.  I longed, at that moment, to hear the rumble of a Royal Enfield Bullet.  In the 19th. Century,  men gathered around outside the Church on Sunday afternoons discussing their horses.  This American ritual has continued but the car has replaced the horse.

On the third day, we pack up our stuff and say goodbye to the small cabin in the Redwoods and head south on the Pacific Coast Highway.  After about 20 miles of ups and downs, crossing the little hamlet of Big Sur, we drop closer to the ocean and the road settles down running relatively flat. Barbed wire fences and No Trespassing signs mark off enormous tracts of private lands on either side of the highway.  A lot of these are ranches with grazing cattle.  One of the largest is the close to 9000 acre El Sur ranch, decreed to the Mexican governor of California in the 1840s and now privately owned by a family.  Sharing the coastline along with these private lands are public parks with rocky beaches, breathtaking vistas and meandering oceanside trails.  Big swathes of drifting fog stretch from the cliffs and extend into the ocean, like a slowly drifting puff of smoke.  There is little traffic along this stretch and we occasionally cross a lone bicyclist.  Twenty more miles of this, and we arrive at the southern reaches of the Big Sur near Hearst Castle, where California sprawl picks up—seaside Inns, motels with 1960s designs, sandy beaches, gas stations, the precursors of little malls.  It is here, beyond the town of Cambria that we take a sharp left and head into the mountains using Route 46.   The landscape is now brown, with dried grass and at higher altitudes, coniferous forests.  Gone are the ochre, red and orange heather and bracken that set the oceanside landscape apart.  

Across the mountains, the temperature rises sharply from 65F oceanside, to 102F within 40 miles.  Vineyards, invitations to wine tasting, and an occasional olive grove dot Route 46.  The wineries are usually small—a hill or two of rows of greenery and a large billboard with the name of the winery.  The scenery progressively gets sparsely populated as we drive inland.  The sense of utter desolation distills to its purest form in these dry, wide open expanses of Central California where a single two lane highway flips up and down over small hills on a gray-brown landscape.  Hot air reflects mirages off the blacktop, playing games with the eye.  Songs are written in America that describes human life as it unfolds along the road.  But this is a road that chronicles loneliness.  There are low hills out in the distance. Barbed wire fencing separates enormous parcels of property.  A lone mansion stands on a hill in splendid isolation, a winding dirt road leading up the hill a quarter mile to the house.  You wonder how many people have walked through that gate, straddled between two incongruent pillars that rise out of the ground. The picture is stark and bleak.  You can go for miles this way, till another lone road meets at right angles and there is a picture perfect traffic light in the middle of nowhere like an empty chessboard, replete with left turn lanes, red, green and yellow lights, an icon of civilization in want of civilization, a story of a light that gazes and blinks waiting for a passing car.

We spend the night and evening at K and K’s home in Fresno and while away the evening in their backyard on a green lawn , a swimming pool with gurgling water and fountains and the reflections of the night lights shimmering over the moving water. Palm trees and flowering trees ring us.  The air is dry and the temperature has started to drop after a hot afternoon.  There is music in the air through loudspeakers.  The moment grabs you.  And it is not too different than how I imagined the Mughal nobility would spend their evenings in a hot Delhi evening 300 years ago—there would be music, the same dry air, the fountains, the sounds of water, roses, and the smell of attar.  The feeling of the moment, I am convinced, was the same, though the level of exclusivity of the revelers quite different.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Ramen Setagaya Haneda Airport

I was in Japan for a brief visit, stayed in a hotel away from the crowds, and hadn’t had time to do my usual noodle run. When I arrived at Haneda airport for my flight back to NY early one morning, I was facing the predicament of leaving Japan without having had a bowl of Ramen.  But, wandering about in the food court upstairs I found a Ramen shop by the name of Setagaya, with a notice that it would open at 5 a.m.  Inside, as the shop prepared for their morning opening, steam swirled up from boiling cauldrons.  There is an elemental, immediate thrill to a Ramen shop, as the customers, the cooks, and the kitchen equipment are squeezed together in this space constrained country –giving the noodles a dash of supernatural magic.  At 5 am sharp the restaurant opened and I was the first customer.  I paid thru the customary coin slot machine and settled in at the bar counter waiting for my meal.  Setugaya is a well known chain with 5 branches and their specialty is a seafood based broth.  The texture and flavor of the broth in Japan is a class apart from what is available generally in the US.  This is not hyperbole.  There is a certain depth to Ramen in Japan, like a mathematical formula with a few extra harmonic components thrown in.    At 5:05 a.m. in walked the next Ramen customer—a Japanese lady with knee high leather boots who sat next to me waiting on her order.   She was a chocolate consultant and had just flown in from Columbia.  Every time she flies back into Japan, she told me, the first thing she needed to do was get some Ramen. This is unusual because Ramen is considered more of a man’s meal in Japan.  She spoke English and helped translate the cook’s response when I queried him on the contents of the broth.  The secret to a Ramen noodle shop’s success is in the formula behind their soup, a complex process behind a deceptively simple look.  Setagaya uses seaweed, the nibushi variety of dried small fish (of higher quality than another variant, sodabushi), fermented dried tuna, chicken and pig bones. The Ramen at Setagaya in Haneda airport, was one of the best that I have had in a while.  Perhaps it was the early morning and the yearning for a bowl of Ramen after 36 hours in Japan.  The Ramen at San Francisco airport (near the gates where AA flights leave) has been one of the worst that I have had.  

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Guwahati and Kolkata

Guwahati remains a man-child of a city, unsure of its direction.  There are flyovers and malls, the usual symbols of urban development; but there is also a gentle “Malgudi days” feel to the airport.  Roadside stalls sit on bamboo stilts by the airport road, and billboards advertising 3G wireless are installed in the middle of green cultivated fields.  I wake up in the morning at home with a rooster crowing, a hen running around in the backyard, and my laptop registering a number of wifi spots within a scanner’s throw. 

 One day I am given a little plastic bag with some mail and papers in it.  Someone wishes to find a long lost brother who had disappeared in the United States in 1980. Could I try to track him down?  The bag contained correspondence they had received from the brother, or letters that were addressed to him at his parent’s address. There was one, written in the conservative style of the times, to his father and his sister in 1968.  The well-preserved aerogramme showed the sender’s address: H. Roy, 1869 Monroe Street, Madison, Wisc 53711.  There was a more recent letter and booklet from Strathclyde University in Glasgow to his parents’ home, soliciting alumni donations.  The booklet’ creamy pages had campus photographs that painted a place for serious study and fun.  These letters, speaking of Monroe Street and Glasgow, appearing deliciously temperate on a hot and humid summer afternoon, seemed incongruous in this Guwahati house where the business of living goes about with the bright sounds of an Indian city and a road out of the house leads to a nearby busy flyover.  Hemendra K. Mitra Roy finished his bachelors in engineering from Bengal Engineering College in 1965, and went on for higher studies to Strathclyde and the University of Wisconsin at Madison. At some point in the 70s he moved to San Jose and started calling himself H. Mitra.  And then, in 1980, he ceased contact with his family abruptly and the trail ran cold.  His sister has been looking for him since, caring enough even after 32 years to carefully retain these mementos.

It starts raining the morning that I will leave.  The intense humidity, the heat, the forces of nature here are so distilled that everything is alive and green and wet and slimy.  Tree barks and walls are coated with algae: blackish, brackish, moist, slippery undulated films with varying textures from rough to rubbery to gel.  In this drizzling rain I speak with a neighbor, he standing across the low boundary wall of our backyard, protected from the rain by the leaves of a tambul tree; I sitting on the steps of a wet concrete porch glazed by the streaming water.  We speak across a small patch of greenery and wet earth,  with a bush bearing bright orange rongon (Ixora Cocchinea) flowers in the middle.

Guwahati University is a sprawling linear campus lining the road leading to the
airport.  Dignified single storey Assam style wood framed homes serve as faculty housing.  A rickety gate and dirt path leads to the front porch, where there may be a man sitting on a wicker chair.  The front of the porch will have a few flowering plants tended to by the lady of the house.  At the back there may be a few gamosas (towels) hanging.  It reminds of a gentler time from the past.  Department buildings  line both sides of the road. There is the general air of dignified dilapidation that buildings in hot tropical climates have.

Kolkata airport has a new, enormous domestic terminal.  With giant sheets of glass, glistening mosaic floors that scream for a statesman’s footsteps, and a curved metal framed front, it looks like the way emerging airports are supposed to look in Asia.  It makes Kolkata appear to be just one more modern Indian city.  An artistic rendering of Bengali letterwork on the ceiling attempts at a feeble differentiation, but the airport does not capture the soul of this city.  Some of the construction appears questionable: when the rains fell some of the glass panes shattered.  There are many baggage carousels to chose from and a number of doors through which one can exit the airport.  This poses a probabilistic problem for passenger pickup.  The size of the airport can be intimidating.  I am not the only befuddled guy standing there in this vast space. I see other passengers speaking in deferential whispers not quite sure of their bearings.  They see a door and wonder whether this will get them out, or lead them into another unmarked cavernous space.  A famous scientist once said that our knowledge represents but a grain of sand on a vast beach.  Satyen Bose might have compared our humble wisdom to the size of a passenger in Kolkata’s new domestic terminal.

In the one day that I have in Kolkata, I criss-cross the city in a hired car.  Traffic flows better compared to my last visit and rules are enforced rigorously. Traffic light mounted cameras detect those who jump lights and the violation notice is sent by mail. “Bujhlen, man’ey ektukhani Paan thekey chun ghoslei ticket pathiye debey”—they give you a ticket as soon as the lime slips off the betel leaf by a hair. 

India has evolved a new metropolitan species among its population, and the airport is their watering hole.  It is the sports coat and jeans clad Indian man.  Some of them have watches with enormous dials on their wrists.  If they are not bald, they mostly have jet-black hair, regardless of age. They can speak with eloquence and can be imperious and dismissive if the mores of their hierarchy require such behavior.  They have perfected both the art of the firm handshake and the distancing, limp variant that they grant to a solicitor while they pretend to look away.  They are well read. Many of them appear to look heavily pregnant.  When they alight from the aircraft they immediately hold their smart phones up, scroll for email, and then bark into it.  They are as if ina game of “Red Light Blue Light”, unleashing their mobiles and setting a world, frozen while they were airborne, into a flurry of sudden instant motion.  This species originated in the more commercially successful metros of India, but they are a common sight in Kolkata today.  Occasionally some of them may even wander as far East as Guwahati and I understand that Guwahati is building its first five star hotel to house them in their natural habitat.  It is expected to be a less of a struggle compared to protecting the rhinos.

In Ultadanga we drive by a new flyover where an entire section of the flyover has collapsed and is lying in the brook flowing underneath.  A 16 wheeler loaded with marble was on the flyover and the section collapsed under its weight.  A lot of finger pointing is currently at play.  One defensive argument has been that the trailer hit the railing by mistake, which it shouldn't have.  God forbid other cars that might touch the railings on other sections of the freeway.  The car drives down the Eastern Bypass, an artery encircling the eastern side of the city.  Memories fly by.  Twenty five years ago this road separated the margins of the city from the jackals that roamed the fields beyond.  It was lightly travelled and my friend would gun his Ambassador up to 80 kmph, top speed for the car.  Late at night you could be held up at gunpoint.  Police jeeps stamped with “Tiger Patrol” on the panels patrolled the road.  It was a romantic time, if you were downstream of the winds of age. Today the road is packed till late night and there are five star hotels built or being built beside it.  The romance of the Ambassador is long gone.  Descendants of the bandits have had to choose alternate careers.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Mumbai, an Indian dinner at Soma, the Alphonso, and the flight to Guwahati


After arriving in the US , it does not take too many trips to the court to realize that the quality of the average pickup game in basketball is orders of magnitude better than what it is in India (MIT beat the Indian national team in 1984 for instance). There is a related analogy with Indian food.  Much as one might extol the virtues of various Indian restaurants in Manhattan, it is hard to beat the quality of a decent Indian restaurant in any decent city in India.  You can walk into most and the food will be that good.

After a long flight on the first day of June, I find myself in Mumbai at a restaurant called Soma, in the Grand Hyatt Hotel near the domestic airport.  Unlike the US, there are good restaurants at the large hotels here, and locals will visit the hotel just to eat at the restaurant.  

Pomfret is what I am after tonight. This fish is widely available on India’s western coast and I ordered it grilled, with tandoori spices.  It does not much matter what spices one uses: as long as it is fresh, and it is grilled just right, there is little comparison to anything else.  The closest to the pomfret in the US is the pompano, caught off the Florida coast.  These fish share the same flattened disc-shaped body but the taste and texture are different.

What was originally intended to be a quick fish meal morphed into a princely dinner—a whole grilled pomfret, lamb chops with Indian spices, a couple of pints of Kingfisher beer, two kinds of kulfi, and the magnificent Alphonso mango.  Guilt and restraint in front of good food are but vagaries of our vanities and hubris, and I had none that evening after a 14 hour flight sitting in front of the toilets where an over eager little girl kept inspecting the toilets and asking her weary daddy for permission to flush one just for fun because someone earlier hadn’t.

If you are in Mumbai in May, it is a sin not to taste this king of mangoes.  Bombay (now Mumbai) may have been gifted to the English King Charles when he married Catherine of Braganza in 1662, but the real king of these parts in early summer is the Alphonso.  It is the time just before the monsoons when the moisture-laden wind from the seas meets the windward side of the Western Ghats and the rains come pouring down unto the city.  It has been years since I have tasted an Alphonso, and I understood instantly why our friend from Mumbai, who visited us in New York recently, was driven nearly to tears after tasting the Florida grown abomination that I had offered her in the name of a mango (a good American mango is as rare as a good Indian basketball player).

I asked for the mango to be presented sliced in truncated hemispheres with the skin on and served with a spoon to scoop out the flesh which comes out in neat rounded dollops while your palm cradles the bowl of mango skin.  You do the eating.  The mango does the rest.

I chat with my waiter.  Most of the employees in the hotel are young graduates of hotel management institutions that have sprouted to cater to the growing hospitality business.  My waiter, barely out of his teens, is from Goa.  While neither he nor his parents speak Portuguese, his grandparents knew the language well.  Even today, he tells me, there are parts of Goa where this language is spoken.

The Hyatt is a fine hotel except for a couple of stylistic anomalies.  Taking its cues from a rather bizarre Nordic-Euro hotel tradition that I will never understand, the conventional door between the room and the bathroom has been left to minimalistic interpretations.  I realize this may not be a major problem for a single occupant, yet it remains strangely bothersome to me. It is also becoming rather difficult, in a lot of sleek upscale hotels, to find the light switch and execute the simple matter of turning on the bedside lamp. 

I am woken up early in the morning with a cup of coffee delivered by room service.  The waiter who brings my coffee is from Assam.  Many of the workers in the hospitality industry in the major cities are from the North-east—they are like the East Europeans workers in London or Switzerland, and the migration is fed by the income gap opening up between the poorer North-east and the more prosperous parts of Western and Northern India.  I too come from the North-east and they look genuinely happy to hear that I am from Assam.  My morning visitor has been in Mumbai for a couple of years.  He manages to go back home a couple of times a year, but is intent on moving onwards and outwards to put wings on his career.

We all make our pilgrimages.  In the old days, the religious minded would make theirs to the holy cities of India.  Today, the emigrants make theirs, to visit old parents, old ties, old friends and their aging wives and grown up children, roads and buildings and houses that they left behind decades ago, and in them they see their own reflections in a time compressed sort of way, an instantaneous change that is upon you without the predictability of a smooth function. Some of us fly into Mumbai and are energetic enough to head straight to the domestic airport and take the first flight out East--the Jet flight at 2:35 am that heads to Guwahati via Kolkata.  I was tired and and opted instead for dinner at the Hyatt and a comfortable nap, after which an air-conditioned taxi (called a Cool Cab) took me to catch the 6:50 a.m. Jet Airways flight with the same itinerary.

Waiting at the boarding gate, there are people speaking all around me, but very few to one another within earshot, the conversations mostly aimed wirelessly across geographical lines.  Little do they know of the revolutionary changes in the chip within their late model phones that allows all of this information to be processed.  And with this spiraling web of text, data and speech available at an ever decreasing expenditure of energy, there must be some law based upon a humanistic coordinate that seeks the limits to this information's potency which we as a society can absorb when the energies to process them become infinitesimally small.

A party of friends--husbands, wives, and children--is travelling with the carefree demeanor of holidaymakers.  On the bus that takes us to the aircraft across the tarmac, they engage in light banter and the women exchange photographs on their smart phones.  They remind me of the large groups of relatives that would take a train across the country to attend a marriage.  There is a thrill on their faces, a sense of being part of a big river of occasion and gaiety that is hard to replicate in business travel. 

I speak to the young lady sitting next to me on the aircraft—she is a software engineer from Mumbai and one of the breed of new professionals who move around the world with their jobs, at ease in any place.  I mention the old corporate lifestyle of the India of the 70s and 80s that I knew, and she refers to that socialistic time with a sense of history much in the manner that we used to talk about Gandhi.  Duly apprised of my vintage, I arrive at Guwahati airport.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Vietnamese restaurant in Hartsdale,
158 South Central Park Ave
Hartsdale, NY 10530

Upper Westchester has lacked a Vietnamese restaurant so far.  And that hole recently got filled with Saigonese, a small, stylish restaurant on Central Avenue in White Plains.  At the entrance, below the billboard, a firehose connector labeled “Siamese Twin”  suggests a minor in Thai food, but that soon gets resolved upon stepping inside.

We had beef in grape leaves, grilled spare ribs, a pho noodle soup with brisket, and grilled chicken.  The small place was packed, and customers crowded around the entrance.  Yet the food was not in keeping with the expectations set by this waiting clientele.  The meats were ho hum, the pho was decent.  Not the best that I have had, but would work.

This now makes four places where I could get a Pho in Westchester, four more than I could four years ago.  There is Neo in Mt. Kisco, Umami Café in Croton,  Noodle Plus in White Plains, and now Saigonese.  I have not had the one at Umami yet, but the others taste much like a suburban city piano recital at a decent music school.  Pho lacks the dynamic range that good Japanese Ramen can achieve, but it is a lot less fattening than Ramen and light on the palate.   I have found decent pho place usually located close to university campuses—Cornell, Harvard and U Penn are examples for instance on the East coast (none near Columbia as far as I can tell); and the best Pho that I have had has been at Cornell, and a small family run place in downtown Baltimore (Mekong Delta Café).

But getting back to Saigonese, I hope that the quality of the food improves, for Westchester really needs a dedicated Vietnamese restaurant.

Saigonese on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Quick trip to Chicago and the Sardarji’s Murgi Posto

1985, the year that I arrived in the US, was a banner year for Chicago.  The Bears had won the Superbowl, Chicago Shuffle was soaring up the charts, and Mike Ditka—the blue collar man’s blue collar coach was the toast of the town when he wasn't fighting his defensive coordinator Buddy Ryan.  Enoute to the US, I had met a man at Bangkok airport, a Chicago metallurgist, and we spoke about Debye-Scherrer cameras and his city.  He had told me it was called the Windy City and I formed images in my mind of a large jetliner landing in Chicago with its wings buffeted by rousing gusts of wind. 

As I stayed on in this country, I came to learn that Chicago was one of four cities in the US with a distinct personality.  That it was one of two cities in the US where you did not need to own a car.  That this was the place that became the commercial hub for the Blues in the early part of the 20th. Century.  Over the years I learned about Al Capone, about Leonard Chess, I learned about the city’s history of corrupt politicians; I spent 3 years in the Midwest--within a day’s drive to Chicago--but it took me 27 more years to actually visit the city.

Entering a new city, particularly an American one where the obsession with streamlining makes every city look and feel like the next one, one often starts the trip not really noticing anything new, till a sudden defining characteristic unloads a hammer strike of cognition.  For me it was the exit sign for Racine Boulevard on the the freeway, that brought to mind the address scrawled on the inside flap of a matchbook—1634 Racine—viewed by an assassin under a dim 1920s Chicago streetlamp, as he plotted the demise of one of the “Untouchables” in the movie by the same name.

We stroll around around Michigan Avenue as the wind flirts with us.  It is late March and the weather still manages to land a few harsh, incisive licks like a boxer slipping in jabs at the end of a round. Heavy stone holds the soul of this city’s downtown. Enormous stone and concrete buildings dominate, spaced by wide pavements and streets.  Not quite Tokyo in sheer size, it is however more massive than New York. The wide boulevards lined with upscale stores are periodically short circuited by narrow alleyways with dim lights and raw brickwork reminiscent of an earlier time.  The next day we would see similar heavy set stone work in the gothic architecture of the University of Chicago. Those buildings, which probably looked like ponderous caricatures of European universities when they were built in the 1890s, look distinguished today with vines crisscrossing the exterior walls of buildings.

Chicago is more down to earth than Manhattan, and folks seem better dressed, in an intellectual way, compared to Manhattan.  There is also a slightly older sense of style—I saw several men in suit, cravat, and a hat, of the kind you would see in American photographs from the earlier twentieth century.  It is a more homogeneous and less cosmopolitan population compared to New York or Los Angeles.

We took a long ride north along Lake Shore Drive, a road that curves along Lake Michigan, with green spaces and bike paths inbetween the road and the lake.  Chicago has the midwest’s defining characteristic—a mind boggling flatness, and this flatness just runs straight into the Lake.  A tinted haziness prevented us from looking far out, but the scenery looked dismal and forlorn going out to the water. Large, 70s style buildings in dull concrete and glass line the sea sized Lake Michigan, and everywhere in March there is a post winter tentativeness in the air as joggers experiment with varied apparel in response to the changing weather.  Driving out about 20 minutes, the downtown lapses into suburbia full of high rise apartment buildings that looked about 3-4 decades old, with orderly bus stops and convenience stores, not unlike the residential suburbs of Seoul or Tokyo. 

I visit my college friend P, who moved to Chicago from Delhi in 2000 and, improbably, plays as a blues guitarist in Chicago’s bars.  He takes me to his basement and we handle some of his “investments”--expensive guitars arrayed on the floor in pricey felt lined cases amidst a maze of cables and amplifiers. The intervening years and the city have been kind to his musical skills--he sounds much improved from yesteryear.  Like the mythical Delhi restaurateur who opened a pizza shop in Rome, my friend has the cojones, as well as the talent to play as a serious amateur blues guitarist in Chicago. But then this is the age of the transplanted specialist—M this evening is cooking a Bengali specialty, Murgi Posto (chicken with poppy seeds), after getting culinary advise from a Bengali speaking Sardarji chef on Youtube.   Check it out, it is a nice dish (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fgJZhMtZb7I). 

Monday, March 4, 2013

The Great Debate: Columbia vs. Howard, March 02, 2013

The Great Debate is a series that began in 2007, pitting historically black colleges against Ivy League schools in public debates on socially relevant topics.  It was inspired by the movie, The Great Debaters, which recounts the story of a debate during the Jim Crow 1930s between the historically black Wiley College and Harvard (in reality it was against USC who, as the reigning champions of the day, were beaten by Wiley in that encounter).  Yesterday, one of these debates was held in Harlem between Columbia University and Howard University.

 The First Corinthian Baptist Church, an ornate and grand building which began its life as Regents Theater, a 1913 movie palace, stands in Harlem, at the intersection of Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Blvd. and 115th. Street. Wide pavements and elegant buildings blend together celebrating this city’s magnificence and offering a pointer to what this city must have looked like a hundred years ago.  It was here that the debate was held, in front of a packed house, and for the first time outside of a college campus.

Half an hour prior to the start, the theater was mostly filled.  Local political bosses and community representatives milled around the auditorium front, trying to stay out of the way of the sound and lights guys putting their final touches on the arrangements. Mr. John Liu, the New York City Comptroller arrived with perfect hair and a radiant smile, shaking hands, patting arms, exchanging small talk in the way seasoned bureaucrats do.

The afternoon began on time, at 3:30, with rousing speeches by the president of the NAACP and the church pastor.  They were strong, fluid, emotional messages that could get the hair on one’s skin to stand up.  They extolled the importance of debate, of intellectual argument, of education. The crowd responded with passion.  It was a very different New York City, one that I was much less familiar with, and a sharp departure from the dressed in black “what’s-in-it-for-me” Manhattan, and the “where is my favorite barista” Manhattan (barristers seeking baristas). Voter registration booths and college information desks had been set up in the foyer outside.  It was a Saturday afternoon, and over a thousand people were here to listen to a debate between college students.

One of the privileges of being an immigrant is that even after nearly thirty years in the country, you can still take an outsider’s far field view.  Today, this view brought to focus the media’s indifference towards this community on subjects that fall outside of stereotypes.  I scanned Google news the next morning and found not a single item in a major city newspaper that described the event.  In this city’s distorted social circus, a large and relevant gathering of debate enthusiasts organized by the NAACP and attended by so many from near and far, with some members of the audience bused in from as far as Connecticut, takes a backseat to noting in print, inconsequential marriages between the children of the city’s bankers and corporate captains.

Mr Liu got things rolling and gave an upbeat address: the teams he said would debate important issues.  His reliance on generic terms and autopilot speech led me to wonder whether he actually knew what the topic of the debate was.

After his speech, Mr. Liu shook a few more hands and left the building.  The debate started. There were two motions for the afternoon’s oratory—the appropriateness of the stop and frisk practice; and whether hand gun control was necessary. The stop and frisk law is in effect in New York City, where a police officer can frisk someone based simply upon suspicion.  Over 90% of those searched are Blacks and Hispanics and a majority of them wind up being unnecessary.  It is a tinderbox of a topic.  The Columbia University team spoke against the practice.  Howard University supported it. The situation here was a bit difficult. Columbia was the “home school” with its Harlem location, yet it was part of a bevy of elite ivy colleges where over 40% of admissions are from private schools.  Them lecturing Howard on the perils of stop and frisk could be interpreted as surrealistic, but the Howard speaker reminded the audience in his opening speech that this was an intellectual debate, the crowd was fair and focused, and the playing field for the opponents remained level.  The exchanges were eloquent, the moderator was funny, and there were sharp parries and rebuttals with, at times, interesting inversions.  Following a rhetoric filled Columbia salvo, an exasperated Howard University debater noted that he did not need a lecture on racism.

Upon conclusion of the debate the stage turned into a melee of photograph taking, and there was a warmth in the proceedings that is hard to find. The large circle of photographers clicked away as middle school debaters and members of the audience posed with the participants and the moderator. A lone Bangladeshi reporter wandered around looking lost.  He was an independent journalist and was going to file a report. 

A reception for the speakers was held before the debate began. The president of the NAACP, the charismatic Mr. Benjamin Jealous was there.  He beckoned a Columbia debater towards him.  “I can’t let you represent my alma mater wearing your tie like that”.  And then proceeded to re-knot the young man’s tie.  It was a moment that the young man will remember for many years to come.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Anjappar, Chettinad Indian Restaurant, Milpitas, CA


On a quick trip to Santa Clara I was able to have dinner at Anjappar, with my friend KC.  The Indian expat community in silicon valley is so large that the Indian restaurants here have transmogrified into the real thing, rather than appearing to be transplanted sets on a stage. Groups of Indian customers sat around at different tables; this could be a café in Jamshedpur, or a restaurant in Mumbai, where young men and women gather to sit back after a day’s work.  Similar to what you might see in the Bangladeshi restaurants in Jackson Heights on an evening, except that these guys here are talking about chip tapeouts and software releases.

Anjappar is a chain that originated in Chennai and aims to bring you the cuisine of the Chettiars from Chettinad, in Tamil Nadu.  Well, times have changed and so must have the cuisine of the Chettiars, for the menu is extensive and includes Chinese-Indian noodle dishes.   It was one of the longest menus that I have seen and leaves no stone unturned.  I had a vegetarian thali—a combination of various curries, dal, sambar, rasam, rice,  roti, and a few limpid papads. The food was too spicy for my tastes, but this is the norm with this type of cuisine so one has to accept this going in. South Indian 2 meter coffee was authentic.  The ambience was authentic, I could almost imagine a guy riding in his 2 seater Bajaj Vespa scooter with his wife on the pillion, helmet in hand.  But those were the old days--I doubt anyone does that even in India anymore.

Anjappar Chettinad on Urbanspoon