The Firefly Food Fest

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Minnaaminni ithiriponni minnunnathellaam ponnalla

kannaanthumpi kaanjanathumbi kaathil keattath paattalla

Two days ago, my hometown in Kerala hosted the 2nd biggest Literary Festival in Asia and in parallel to it, the OFIR Food Fest. Calicut, known for its numerous restaurants and a vibrant food culture, has seen many food fests in the past. Yet, what made this event stand apart was the coming together of regional tastes – 12 communities, to be exact – and the artistic culture that surrounded the variety of food. Sufiyana music and Sitar tunes decorated the nights, while stories blossomed on dining-tables when artists and writers from the Literary Fest peeked in for a taste. From Jain food to roadside “ice” items, OFIR covered a range of tastes unmatched by any multicuisine restaurant menu Calicut-ians are familiar with.

I say restaurant menus because the people of Calicut are impulsive restaurant-goers. Spoiled by so many good choices, a middle class family in Calicut does not find it odd to not cook once in a while, whether it be breakfast, lunch or dinner. Why should they? One of the better restaurants in not just the town, but in the state, will after all be just a few minutes away. Today when we are constantly turning towards Western tastes and globalized cuisines, such fests remind us that everything famous and advertised well, are perhaps not the only tasty food you can find. Perhaps, the tastiest dish lies unexplored in your neighbour’s kitchen. OFIR is a revival of cultures and a reminder that as much as restaurants will have standardized tastes and home food will not always be available, there are options to avail good food, no matter what culture you belong to.

As soon as you enter Aspin Courtyard, the venue for this Fest, you will be surprised by the sheer diversity of food stalls. The yellow firefly lights will guide your way and show you smiling faces serving homemade food in shining ladles. If you’re from around Calicut, you might even see some familiar faces. Faces lost years ago to tornadoes of time and degrees. In my case, I found three teachers and a ex-classmate in the Anglo Indian food stall. Miss Milly, my very first teacher in Calicut was serving rice and meatball curry. As an ex-Josephite (Calicut-speak for an ex-student of the coastal school St. Joseph’s Anglo Indian Girls’ Higher Secondary School), it gave me great joy to receive a plate of food served by women who breathed the same salty air and taught/learned from the same books as me. Food connects and builds bridges, for sure. But it also serves as time travel. Devil’s Chutney served by Karyn, my schoolmate, was apple-red and tasted like memories.

To the very end of the venue, was arranged a stage. I sat on one of the chairs in the back, to listen to what was going on. In a few minutes, I gathered that the speeches were mostly about the history of Calicut as a trading center– how the affluent Muslim families used to receive Arab guests and raw materials, via trade. I learned that the Muslim wives used to cook the most sumptuous meals they could, in order to lure their husbands back home sooner from the Gulf. They learned recipes in order to ensure that their husbands wouldn’t head out to the sea too soon. Food was not just something that filled the stomach; it was prepared with hope, with love. Something that Calicut still recognizes, considering the graffiti on the pillar next to the famous Paragon Hotel. A smiling Dulquer Salman and Tilakan adorn that pillar, with the iconic sulaimani as well. Anjali Menon’s Ustad Hotel is set in Calicut for a reason and OFIR highlighted that reason.

Food ought to be prepared with love, with empathy. Interestingly, Calicut has always been an compassionate shore. Too compassionate, perhaps, considering our infamous tryst with the Portuguese. But the truth is that Calicut did not have a dominant food culture in olden times. Malabar Manual lists a number of cuisines that existed side by side. The celebration of the Mappila food culture we see today is interesting for this reason. Over the years, Calicut came to be known as the center for Maappila food; the other cuisines, be it Iyer food or Syrian Christian food, were relegated to the sidelines. The very reason for OFIR was the revival of these forgotten regional food cultures, to remind the people of Calicut that our culture is one of empathy where we received and inculcated a variety of cuisines. In this process, we have preserved stories of the origin of dishes, shared anecdotes of preparation and enjoyed the company of amazing experts who cook for nothing other than pure, unadulterated happiness. Various communities across religions, castes and regions have come together to share their finest dishes in an atmosphere filled with music and history.

The only sad part is that OFIR was a firefly fest. A faint light in the night. Gone too soon.

A Short Note on God

 

A-God-of-Miracles

Think of the idea of God as something that humans made so that we can aspire to be Him. Consider the reason you pray, for example. We pray for good fortune, for deliverance from sickness and tribulations, for wealth and status, for success and for the good of others. Are we really foregoing ourselves when we pray, or are we recognizing our own importance by believing that our prayer to the Almighty can actually matter? Is it really an acknowledgment of our insignificance before the Almighty, or is it also grounded on the belief that one can indeed sway God’s will? If we cannot sway God’s will, then why do we pray? If we can sway God’s will, then why is God more powerful than man? We humans then seem to actually have the power to sway God’s will; so then who really has the most power? Also, aren’t we then, indirectly so, trying to be all-powerful by praying?

History is abound with examples of Kings who claimed that they were godlike and literature is abound with examples of those who craved immortality and eternal life. It is not hard to imagine the origin of religion as something not to make up for the imperfections of humans, but as a selfish, proud enterprise of acknowledging power and then attempting to subvert that power using prayers and rituals. Religion has remained as a great force in society, not because of the idea of an all-powerful God, but because of the idea that humans have a connection with this entity. That we, even in our qualms and misfortunes, can somehow influence this entity, because if not, then wouldn’t the idea of God itself, be simply a belief that a tyrant controls everything?

Hence, it is not our helplessness that has given birth to religion, but our self-importance, our sense of belief that we can indeed make a difference in how things fare. God therefore becomes a sort of reflecting surface that our prayers bounce off of, an imaginary mirror that humans can see their best selves in. If so, it is high time that the idea of God, which is utilitarian at best, in order to facilitate this process of moral and spiritual development of humans, be removed. Why have a broker when you have a sense of what you want and the property you need to buy is your own best self?

On the Need to Have Opinions and Be Politically Correct

What keeps social media going? Sure, you want to know what your friends are up to. But it is also a space to build an identity and express one’s opinions. If we’re addicted to all kinds of information, we’re also addicted to responding to that information. In fact, the whole of Internet is based on this social contract of uploading, finding and responding to all kinds of information. But the appeal of social media is that your responses are in one place. Your opinions are out there for everyone you have added on your social media (or the world, depending on your privacy settings); think about that— that’s probably 100 times more than those people you would actually talk to in person, about these same opinions. There are people, who might never EVER know what you think of the latest Leonardo Caprio movie or of that weird comment by a hairy guru, if you did not post it on Facebook. Our need to respond thus, creates an Internet persona, and this leads to three consequences:

1. Jumping on the bandwagon – Posting the same opinion that most of your friends are posting. Because they’re cool and you want to be cool too, even though it’s not an original opinion and you probably did not even try to do your own research. This is especially annoying when there’s a crisis/occasion of grief and all some people want to talk about is how SAD all of it is on the Internet, without really caring about it, deep in your heart. Because, what would people think if you did not post about that earthquake/terrorist attack? You have to post SOMETHING! This sort of sharing might actually increase one’s self-perception, because “hey I did express my sadness on social media, there’s nothing else I can/need to do about it,” increasing a sense of having “done” something, without having done anything substantial.

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2. Creating an anti-popular stance – Sometimes when something suddenly goes viral on the Internet, there’s a group of people who are ever-ready to diss it and want it to all stop, because they’re so hep and have found a lesser known counter view point that will let you stand apart on other people’s viral-infected newsfeed. Maybe it makes them feel slightly better than their friends. Your friends are all roped in by the popular opinion, but you.. Oh you are unswayed by such noise. You, have to be different from people, express a different opinion, mark yourself a lion among the sheep! Or a purple cow among normal cows…Purple-Cow

3. Need to be politically correct- This for me, is the most interesting one. It is the ever-existing tension between being nice and not be too uptight about stuff. Is the latest version of Jungle Book problematic due to the disproportional female voices? Wouldn’t it be more politically correct in the 21st century, to develop a version with equal gender representation? I mean, how dare Alphonse Puthren make a movie with a student-teacher romance, a taboo subject, such disrespect towards our guru-worshipping culture! politically correct

Now, while such opinions surely would have existed before social media came along, sharing such opinions online definitely made people aware of the diversity of opinions. Most humans are conformists and want to be perceived as normal. So when an instance of being politically correct (in popular terms being butthurt by stuff) or of letting things go arises, there are people who simply let it go. Others complain and whine about people not being nice and people not embodying the qualities of equality, fraternity and brotherhood in every single thing they do. Sadly, many academics, under the guise of looking for underlying meanings fall into this trend of critiquing stuff, especially art.
Take Game of Thrones for instance. People will be tempted to think of it in feminist, Marxist, sociological lens and critique it — but can we differentiate our opinion from our appreciation for creativity itself? This debate, of whether a piece of writing can be separated from its context/author is a long-standing one in the sphere of literary criticism. I don’t think it’s wrong to think of a work through any of the critical frameworks developed over the years, but what is unfair is to not recognize one’s own intention while doing so. Why is it that we feel the need to make the art we create politically correct? Why is it hard for us to digest a work, written from the perspective of, say, a rapist? Or a pedophile? It is our tendency to be “correct” and not look beyond our little box that makes us hesitant. We see anything that does not represent our empty, idealistic perspective, as trash or “wrong.” I cannot help linking this tendency to the popular use of social media, to share the “right” opinions, to seem “nice,” probably without even understanding what the consequences of such sharing are.

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This rant is of course not just directed as others, but to myself too. It was not intended to judge or stifle any online habit anyone has. It is just an observation, posted among the zillions of observations posted online. Social media and opinions/organizing using social media has led to many protests and social movements, creating social change. But most of the time, social change for good is far from the real consequences. Next time you voice an opinion on Facebook or Twitter, ask yourself, why do you want to do it? Do you really mean what you’re going to post or did you do it as a part of a trend/to oppose a trend or to be politically correct? Intentions matter. Just something to be aware of and think about. Maybe you’ll realize something you never knew about yourself.

Facebook, Thoreau and Our Obsession with News

We live in a very interesting world where our individual attention span is continuously reducing. I’ve heard many of my friends complain about not being able to read a novel or watch a documentary for a stretch of time, without being forced to check their phones. We are so thirsty for information, both personal/communicative and general news updates on our phones, that we have forgotten how to concentrate for more than the 2-minutes required to browse through a List Post! Social media marketing is an altogether different sport these days. It has developed its own techniques, rooting entrepreneurs and even self-employed artisans to social media, in a cruel twisted way, changing the concept of advertisements forever. (The irony of posting this blog article on FB is not lost on me.) I’m even failing to focus on a T20 cricket match, forced to check FB for instant memes on what I just saw on TV. This is a shameful, cruel joke by evolution. Or maybe its just shameful.

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MUST CREDIT: @esmith_images/Instagram This Instagram photo shows a man missing a humpback whale surface two feet away from him because he was glued to his phone. The moment was caught during a whale watch in Redondo Beach, California, professional photographer Eric Smith told ABC News today. Smith said he had about five photos of whales with the private sailboat in the background, but the guy never got off his phone in any of the pictures.

Today, I was reading Walden by Henry David Thoreau, the man who allegedly inspired Gandhi on notions of civil disobedience. Thoreau lived by a lake in a cottage he made himself, secluded from the outside world for two years. It was basically a self-imposed Big Brother reality show, minus the cameras and contestants. Walden is about his experience living the lonely life and he meticulously outlines his philosophy and daily requirements. It reads like a life manifesto sometimes and like a personal account diary at other times. One by one, he tears apart the reasons humans have to need everything we have, including food, shelter, clothes, money etc. Sure, his ideas do not seem widely applicable to everyone everywhere, but the gist is to live a minimally material life. Very transcendental, indeed. The part that interested me most was his perception about news or information being a central part of human life. He wonders why humans are so obsessed with happenings around the world, when nothing new ever takes place (think Benjamin of Animal Farm). Wars, accidents, death, discovery — all of this has happened and will keep happening, he says, and casually denounces the idea of staying informed.

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The cover says it all

Of course, it’s easy to disagree and point out how impractical Thoreau is. But think of this for a minute. Isn’t he right? This constant need for new information (NEWs) is a defining feature of human life. With all these gadgets today this need is even more obsessive and inevitable. We are bombarded with new information every time we log onto the Internet. Or when we skip through channels on TV. Or when we pick up the newspaper. Today we also have the highest rate of anxiety related problems in the world and the term “informed opinion” has attained new meanings. How informed? How many articles on a topic should you read before forming an informed opinion? Because God knows there are plenty out there, with new events and interpretations coming in by the minute!

Yet, I know people who are happily unaware/ vaguely aware of events in the world, living their own life, seemingly apathetic, as if Trump does not even exist, as if there isn’t a bombing happening every day, as if there aren’t nuclear reactors suddenly leaking and mysteriously being ignored in spite of that…. And they are happy. Ignorance is bliss.

 

Even being aware of this problem does not help. I will still need to “stay informed,” thanks to my university education which made me more politically and socially aware than I would have asked for. As for social media, I’m still on Facebook because it is my primary news source and rant outlet. Once, during college I deactivated Facebook, taking all the necessary precautions. I tried using other Apps that would show me news on relevant topics (Weebly) and even an App that would let me store multitude of articles until I get to actually reading them (Instapaper, Pocket). Needless to say, it just wasn’t the same. Neither of these apps matched up to FB’s knowledge of what I wanted to read nor would they let me respond to what I was reading in a meaningful way. Not to mention, the lack of memes. Phew.

 

So then, I realized that it is my need to get the right information and the urge to respond to that information, essentially broadcast it, which is keeping me from leaving. Which brings me to my next post, on the need to have opinions and being politically correct. Until then.

What Elizabeth Gilbert Said

Sometimes you read a book that informs not the technicalities of your writing, but the very reason to write. It kindles in you a fire to try and follow the path prescribed in it, not in a biblical enlightening way, but more as a reminder of what you already knew deep inside. Truth is, it tells you what you have never articulated to yourself, in those thoughtful silences or stolen moments of reflection, in a language that only your mind hacks through. If so, capturing those truths in words is a task indeed. I’m glad this was one of those books.

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Having never read Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love I was not familiar with her writing style. Not a huge fan of stories that are about coming to India for spiritual self-actualization, honestly. But I had watched a TED video of her talking about imagination, muses  and creativity. It was impressive. And so, I started reading Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear by Gilbert, expecting something on similar lines. The first few pages were in fact right out of that TED video. But as I read on and on, I realized that Gilbert was redefining the truths and busting myths around creativity. Here are my major takeaways.

  • It takes courage to create anything. To create, not even to put it out there, but just to live in a creative way. When courage dies, creativity dies. Fear is not original, its boring and mundane.
  • Ideas are driven by a single impulse: to be made manifest, and it could be by anybody available, in the right mindset. You don’t choose the idea, the idea chooses you. This is inspiration. And there’s enough to go around for everyone.
  • Whatever is bad for you, is bad for your work. Being a tormented artist and seeking out harrowing or self-destructive experiences in order to write about them is silly. Maybe the experiences make you a stronger person, a wiser person, but believing your writing is any worse, because you have not had a tough life, is an immature thought. Love over suffering, always.
  • Don’t wait for anybody’s permission or admiration to be creative. Decorate yourself. Embrace the entitlement of being creative. There’s a reason why man created art, even before he learned to farm.
  • You are not required to save the world or make a difference with your works. Nothing is frivolous. Every idea deserves to be manifest. Nothing is original, but you can make something authentic. Maybe an idea has been made manifest before, but it has not been made manifest by you.
  • Your attempt to create should be divorced from your need for validation.
  • Don’t quit your job to write. Do not burden the results of your creativity with your financial debts. Do not tell it to pay the bills. It is okay to have a day job. Creativity was never meant to provide, it was only ever meant to inspire. To create is a wild and unexpected bonus from the universe.
  • Rejections will come. Keep them coming. You promised yourself you will be a writer and rejection letters don’t make you any less of a writer. Put it out for the sake of the idea. For the sake of your muse. Nobody has to like, love or even read what you write. Its a tryst between you and the content. And its nobody else’s business. Do it just because. Do it because its fun.
  • Enjoy the phases of your creativity. Even the hard times. The act is worth it.
  • It matters/it doesn’t matter. Build space in your head for this paradox.
  • Trickster Trust: it’s a freaky wonderful game. Take it lightly. Redefine what success means to you. Divorce the business from the real deal. Your truth is probably the other person’s truth too. Your written words are probably what have been stuck in their throats. Accidental grace occurs when you’re playful and don’t keep store of the results. Go with the flow.
  • It ain’t your baby. If it has to be edited, it has to be edited.
  • Devote yourself to inquisitiveness. Curiosity is the death of writer’s block. The moment you say “that’s interesting!” is the moment a story idea shows up.
  • Your sense of dissatisfaction is your ego being a howling ghost. Remember that, every time you think being a perfectionist is a good thing. Done is better than good. Laziness and perfectionism are the worst habits for creative vocations.

All these are things that I had heard from people or read somewhere or realized at some point. How could she neatly capture all of this in one single book? I guess I shall come back to this every now and then… Almost makes me want to read Eat,Pray,Love.  Almost.