Coffee

I never understood people’s contentions about which kinds of alcohol do what to you, until coffee, as nasty and nationally appealing as my country’s home-brewed religions, gave me a revelation.

Trained to be a skeptic of the vulgar, scientific variety--the kind who criticize movies for their apparent misunderstandings of basic physics and feel very clever for it--I didn't get it. While I was too self-conscious to say so, I always thought "alcohol is alcohol." It seemed ridiculous to think that minor differences in flavor compounds (oh lord) make wine, whiskey, vodka, gin, and rum put you in profoundly different moods and give you variously painful or mild hangovers. It was all, I assumed, superstition.

Then I had a cup of coffee that had a faint but unmistakeable odor of feces, and not only zealously emptied my lower intestine of that substance, but gave me the light-headed sensation that I might fall over walking around the supermarket. In other words, it had all the usual effects of coffee, but worse. It was the most destructively vile coffee I've ever had. What is particularly troubling about it is that the coffee shop that served it to me arrived at this new blend after a rigorous series of taste tests. There were six varieties, and a two-page taste-testing form. What they have carefully blended is something wonderful: a substance so offensive you can blame your mood on it.

With coffee, what is awful (or even, faddishly, offal) can be best. Or quite possibly it’s just me. Whenever I make coffee my father’s eyes bulge out of their sockets and he says, in a vast understatement, “do you think you made it a little strong?" His horror is completely justified. This morning, after tasting the stuff I had brewed, I warned him without exaggerating much that “it’s motor oil.” It was black and searingly bitter, as if the soap hadn’t been rinsed out of the pot. After a few gulps, such things become secretly sweet in the mouth. The bitterness, meanwhile, moves into the blood stream. The body shakes. The mind tears the bearable dullness of the world into a sharp-edged collage. The soul burns. No wonder America loves Jesus and coffee equally: one reportedly saves from the other.

26 February 2012

Guest Post by Sneha Rajaram

I was one of those raving converts to non-vegetarian food that one hears about but never wants to meet, because, well, eating meat is great but it really doesn’t need to be a religion. It has enough going for it already.

I was born in a Brahmin, vegetarian family and was skinny as a child with no great appreciation of food. After meandering with the “veg vs. non-veg” ethical debate for years, I realized that whether I ate veg or non-veg, I was putting cruelty into my mouth, wearing it, talking to it, working for it, living under its roof anyway. The prominent sight of chickens in cages, raised under the inhuman conditions of battery farming, seems to have created tunnel vision for us. We don’t care as much about the extinction of other species of wild rice in favour of the one we’re eating, about the suicidal farmers growing the cotton we wear, or the quality of life of crops grown in pesticide and sterility. Plants don’t flap around cutely on wings, squawk when killed or peer pitifully out of transport boxes. And the thing we don’t see most of all is the human-to-human cruelty intrinsic to an economy that will bring commodities right to your doorstep for a few pieces of paper or zeroes on a computer screen.

So I decided I would try meat some day. But, having a sadly dramatic temperament, I couldn’t just prosaically walk into a restaurant and order chicken, oh no. At 20, I spent a week in an NGO which worked with lower-castes. I was welcomed warmly by the employees and vegetarian food was cooked especially for me. So here’s where I must sheepishly admit I overrode their consideration and ate my very first chicken out of what I thought was caste-based political correctness.

The response to my first meal of chicken seemed to come more from my body than from my tongue. To my tongue it simply tasted vaguely better than eggs. The texture, however, was brand new. The fibrous, soft and satisfyingly chewy meat told me my days of feeling skinny and invisible were over. This was solider food, closer to my body, than any plant- or fungus-derived food I’d ever eaten. This kind of texture felt like cavalry reinforcements after a long battle using infantry.

At my next few meals, the long-suffering NGO workers guided me through several dishes of chicken and mutton: “That’s right, eat the heart,” they’d say, “It’s good for you.” My brain would balk at the word (I have a heart, but no leaves or roots) but my body didn’t feel any revulsion, and I soon got over the anatomy, even welcomed the knowledge.

When I returned from the NGO like Moses from Mount Sinai, it was with the euphoria of the newly converted. I fancied I was raging with a hunger born of generations of vegetarianism, and blamed my caste and ancestors. My parents received the news equanimously, but outside the family I was teased: One friend said “Snakes on a Plane” should really be “Brahmins eating meat”. Another meat-eating lady told me deadpan that my villi – finger-like things lining the intestines to absorb nutrients – had been spoilt by 20 years of roughage so I could never be a true meat-eater. And I spent weeks picturing and worrying about my poor abraded villi.

A whole new community brought itself to my attention. Family friends took me out to a Konkan seafood restaurant for the first time and showed me how to eat fish (for years I was a single-minded and ponderous bone-picker, taking hours to eat fish). The fish we ordered was really closer to vegetarian food than chicken, being soft and not in the least chewy, but here the taste really showed itself. I instinctively knew it didn’t need the masala it had been served in. What could be more naturally tangy, spicy and tasty than fish? The answer came in the next course: prawns. When I fell instantly in love with prawns, I started wondering why our predecessors ever wanted to migrate from the ocean to land. Maybe that’s why seafood has a special place in every meat-eater’s heart. I was invited to stay in a friend’s house, where her mother cooked pork and beef, which I also loved. The fatty bits in pork are my favourite kind of non-veg to this day, six years later. Beef, of course, was the culmination of my sense of a reinforced physical confidence. (Here I may be giving the impression that this was the main reason I liked meat. It was one of the reasons. But more than that, for me, meat was lust for life embodied, and it gave me something non-intellectual to be passionate about, at a time when I desperately needed both.)

I did relax in a couple of years, though. I used my mouth to eat meat rather than talk about it. And when I went abroad, it seemed the most natural thing in the world to eat it every day, which I hadn’t done before. The Turkish Döner kebabs being cheap and delicious, I ate lamb every day. In four weeks the protein had made my hair grow a few inches longer and a bit thicker, and my nails were shining. When I made social rounds and was asked if there was anything I didn’t eat, I replied proudly, “Humans”. A friend’s husband cooked my first venison, and even my inexperienced palette could tell the solid yet melty cutlets were very special. Having had a hunting license since the time when he had no choice but to hunt for food during the collapse of East Germany, he showed me a hunting book, pointing out the exact kind of deer I was eating. Their East German neighbour dropped in to tell us how he recently saw roadkill while driving, thought to himself, “Mm, tasty!” and took it home for dinner, much to his daughter’s mortification, since she’d grown up in unified Germany and hadn’t known that kind of food scarcity.

The morning after that dinner I was given bread, jam and butter to eat for breakfast. My hostess also produced a bowl of some brown, salty, chunky spread. I put some on my bread to be polite and tried it, and it was simply fantastic. The little bits just melted in my mouth; I wanted to finish off the whole box without bread. When asked about it, my hostess said airily, “Oh that’s octopus! But don’t tell anyone I eat it, they’ll think I’m pregnant.” Naturally not worried about immaculate conception, I ate that octopus the entire weekend, and loved every morsel.

A few days later I arrived at an NRI friend’s house and stuffed my face gratefully with home-cooked sambar rice, curd rice and dosa. Imagine my surprise (or maybe not) when I woke up the next morning to an upset stomach! If I hadn’t been groaning on a toilet I think I could’ve safely said that my conversion was complete. But the journey wasn’t over. I was going to taste camel and squid two years later, and now my list still has snake, rabbit, pigeon, duck, monkey, dog…

20 February 2012

Melancholia

I watched “Melancholia” on one of those streaming video websites. This one allowed comments. I have to admit that the predictably resulting sea of inanity determined my viewing to an alarming degree. I kept finding myself helplessly arguing with the comments.

Someone had commented “might as well jst watch part two of the film thats wen it starts to getin intresting.” So I eagerly awaited the second half of the movie, in part because as in all movies with a potential catastrophe, I wanted it to happen. As the planet Melancholia approached, I was filled with a mixture of dread and anticipation--a split melodramatically explored through the movie’s characters. When Part Two rolled around, it didn’t live up to the commenter’s contention.

Part One is a massive failure of a wedding reception; Part Two follows the bride's deep depression and her sister taking care of her. Watching Kristen Dunst’s transformation in the first part from ostensible happiness to agitated depression is more interesting than her journey to destruction in the second part. Perhaps this is because the former feels like consciousness brewing. This is something one prays for after the first non-slow-motion scene in which bride and groom try to maneauver the limo up the country road’s tight curve. For all of their post-marital giddiness and good humor, it is deliciously awkward.

Someone else commented that “this movie will haunt you for days or weeks.” Despite how exasperatingly heavy-handed it is at times, this seems true. It’s only been a day, but it’s hard to purge the image of the giant watery world crashing into our own. What are more memorable, though, are the violently honest outbursts. This is why I enjoyed Part One so thoroughly: The way the wedding reception falls apart is as delightful as it is uncomfortable. The best nasty shards of speech come from the bride Justine’s mother, Gaby (Charlotte Rampling, who has unfortunately limited screen time). At the beginning of the reception there’s a round of obligatory speeches. Gaby stands when she becomes too fed up with Justine's father (John Hurt) and can't keep quiet.

“I don’t believe in weddings,” she announces. “I just have one thing to say: enjoy it while it lasts.”

It's the most unnecessary speech ever, and pointlessly mean. I was charmed to the bone. Her other daughter, Claire, asks her "why did you even bother coming?" When it comes time to cut the cake and Gaby and Justine are missing, Claire's husband John gallantly (not really, he’s just pissed--they’re wasting his precious money he spent on the wedding, which he has so little of) goes up to fetch them.

“Gaby,” he says politely at the door to her bathroom, “I’m sorry to disturb you, but it’s time to cut the cake.” Which is a sitting duck of a sentence.

“I wasn’t there when Justine took her first crap on the potty. I wasn't there when she had her first sexual intercourse. So give me a break please from your fucking rituals.”

This was an even more enjoyably spectacular lack of caring than Justine suddenly pushing a stranger to the ground and fucking him on the eighteen-hole golf course (eighteen, John keeps reminding everyone) that surrounds the mansion, merely because he happened to be there, or her subsequent monologue to her boss: “I hate you and your firm so deeply I couldn’t find the words to describe it. You are a despicable, power-hungry little man, Jack.”

The stranger was hired by Justine's boss to extract a tag line from her (she works in advertising). He proposes to her at the end of the night, and calls the sex they had "good" ("mechanical" would be accurate).

Another comment read: "Brilliant ending. Left me breathless." I thought this meant there was a twist. So I kept expecting that despite all indications to the contrary, including the beginning in which we see Melancholia crash into Earth, that the planet would pass them by anyway. But maybe they'd all kill themselves before that happened, and we could all laugh drily at the cruel irony. The trouble is that from Part One to Part Two, harsh bemusement gives way to fantastical brutality. This is true, too, of the utterances of the melancholic. Justine's black outlook expands from the personal (for example asking her husband "what did you expect?" when he tells her the wedding and their relationship could have gone differently) to the cosmic: "Life on earth is evil. Nobody will miss us." In the same scene she pronounces that she knows we're alone in the universe because "I know things." Deadly seriousness sounds silly, and the consciousness that melancholy has brought sounds like delusion.

Though the commenters on this website have a tendency to laud the movie's profundity if they're not telling us how boring it is, the blatantly metaphoric register that might pass for profundity gets tiresome quickly. By the third time someone repeated that Melancholia (the planet) was “hidden behind the sun,” I wanted it to crash into them, already. Yes, we get it. The planet is called Melancholia, for fuck’s sake.

While the grand metaphors often induced snickers ("it [Melancholia] looks friendly," Claire says wistfully, or how about the "Melancholia and the Dance of Death" diagram that Claire finds on the internet, showing how the planet will pass Earth and then turn around again and crash into it after all), the latter half the movie did terrify me. This is no doubt in part because I was watching it after midnight, and because the previous night I had been kept awake by a mysterious buzzing. It returned at irregular intervals, rattling the window like a subwoofer. Just when I thought it would go away, it came back. In the late hours with no one else to hear it, the unidentified noise gave me similarly apocalyptic feelings as the roaring of Melancholia as it grazes Earth's atmophere. As annoying as Claire is (of course, who isn't in this movie), I sympathized with her complete panic at the prospect of not just dying, but of the whole planet dying. It's the most radical aloneness possible. But Justine knows, I imagine, that we're just as alone already from the day we're born. Because she uh, knows things. The fact that I doubt her knowledge means, I suppose, that I'm attached to life. Or maybe that I'm not as much of an exhibitionist as Lars von Trier.

9 February 2012

Chocolate Cake

He unwrapped the squatting piece of black cake with an antiquated kind of possessive finesse. The cake was his; this was his right.

“No wonder this cake is always fresh; it’s entombed in chocolate,” he remarked to his companion, who also happened to be the proprietor of the establishment, who nodded reservedly at everything he said, and who did not say, dubiously: “ ‘entombed?’ ”

There might be something other than assent between them, but this wasn’t strictly a conversation. He did not need conversation and never had. Reciprocity never having been available to him, he simply imbued others with what he needed. For example, he had provided the investment to start this coffee shop. Thus the cake was doubly his, and he offered another slice of it to his necessarily diplomatic companion, who declined, and who was in fact disgusted by the cake. The pleasure it gave was too openly displayed. So openly that it had a ring of self-deceiving theater.

“This is the best chocolate cake I have ever had,” he said, “are you sure you don’t want a slice?”

“No, thanks. I’ll be sure to pass that along to the chef,” the proprietor smiled.

A long string of unrelated musings began from the cake-eater. He enjoyed the sound and rhythm of his thoughts out loud. While he mused he ate lasciviously yet neatly, never allowing the cake to taste. Rather, he tasted the cake.

7 February 2012