Thursday, December 1, 2011

Resignation - A poem

by Ganesh Venkatraman
(Translated from Tamil)

The thought occurred
to quit.
When I arose from my seat
the hands were tied.
A pair of golden handcuffs?
Or a slender, sacred thread?
As I shook off my hand,
a wail arose.

"Don't go!
Don't leave me!"
Took a while to learn
it was my manager.
"Oh! Don't leave us!"
-- said the Manager's Manager

Well done!
Everybody can hear me get up
Before my voice becomes
Immune to their ears
And their ears shut close
It is best to depart.
--Ganesh Venkatraman

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Rediscovery of Captain Haddock

When does a schoolboy comic figure become a literary character?
Perhaps when the pre-teen reader turns to his magical years in nostalgia as an older man. The events are now a plot and the dramatic personae are now characters. More still, you begin to see the authors behind the words, the curiosity of the creator behind the sketchy visage of the protagonist he has created.
Tintin came back to me this week in three dimensions.
Make that four, as the special glasses borrowed from the multiplex staff was supplemented by an Einstenian fourth. Time.

Memories come tumbling, and suddenly, two facets emerge. One is of how a book reader, more so a schoolboy, essentially paints the works he consumes with his own vivid imaginings -- and then does his own editing. Every comic box in a graphic-novel mind is as dwellable or as skippable as one chooses to do.
I remember Snowy and his dogly antics. The little corners of the frame were always special for Tintin lovers for the cute white thing in very wordly wags of the tails, discoveries of the nose and the little politics pets play with other non-human animals. They were largely intact in Spielberg's audacious remake.
So was the curiosity of Tintin. It turns out Tintin is us. Or, if you please, Mr. Herge. I remember that my first visit overseas was to Belgium, where, a complete desi lost in a European autumn, I groped for comfort. And then I learnt Tintin was Belgian. I stayed in a hotel run by South Asians and it overlooked a chocolate factory on top of which lay the icon of the intrepid reporter with the tuft. Suddenly, I felt I was staying at a cousin's place.
And then, there is Captain Haddock, making his debut, in the comic book and in the world of cinema, as the secret of the Unicorn unravels.
Now, there is a twist in the tale that never really changed.
I now see Tintin as a Western character with a cultural location in Francophone Belgium, poking fun at the British Scotland Yard in a humour that now has shades of European rivalry.
I now see the bumbling Thomson and Thompson twins as a caricature. We have, you see, a French author who takes a Sherlock Holmes agency and turns it into an Enid Blytonian Mr. Goon in the form of fumbling Scotland Yarders!
Exotic locales in Morocco now tell me the tale of colonialism. And suddenly I imagine George Clooney playing the main role in a remake of Casablanca, colourfully remade to capture the spirit of Humphrey Bogart in a different age. My ideas fly in different directions -- though the story is the same.
Bianca Castafiore now reminds me of Tansen's lighting of the lamp with his song, and, as she breaks a glass case with her operating highs, I think of the masterly way in which the author combines the classical excellence of her art with the popular imagination that hears comical sounds in her falsetto sounds.
And then I see Captain Haddock.
The crazy man with a fantastic vocabulary for creative abuses is in my mind now a loser with a strong work ethic and a sense of family pride. I see him in a different world, the stuff of serious literature, not comic books. The seafarer and his lonely quests overpower the billions of blistering, blue barnacles in my mind.
Did Herge read Joseph Conrad, I wonder.
Beyond the 3D magic, the action-packed climax, the sights and the sounds in the etching out of the action sequences that I used to kind of skip in my schoolboy visitations of Tintin -- and the sheer razmatazz of a Spielberg movie -- I rediscover Captain Haddock, lonely and proud, lying in the bottom of the sea like the lost treasure that goes with the secret of the Unicorn.
I am Tintin, still,looking for new clues.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Designer puns in Hindi, anyone?

Here is an exchange (edited) between me and Shunali after we heard about Hermes making a saree for Indians at Rs 200,000

Madhavan: And at the wedding, with Hermes di saari, they'll take Saath Ferragamo? ;-)

Shunali: Will also say: Kuch aur bhi Dior na ladkey waalon ko.

Madhavan: Aunty will say: Dulhan ke liye kuch aur Cardin?

: Ladki khush rahey hamaare to yehi Armani hai. Khoob Giorgio or aur khush raho.

: Aur nazar utar te hain. Kisi Moet ka nazar na lag jaaye hamari beti par ;-)

: Shaadi khoob Dom (Perignon) dhaam sey honi chahiya.Have I made myself Cristal clear?

: At ladies sangeet, many old women will dance with their Hilfigers ;-)

Shunali: And will say: Shaadi sey kabhi mat Gabbana.

Madhavan: Honeymoon Goa ke monsoon mein. Zindagi bhar nahin bhoolegi woh Versace ki raat

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Splendid isolation

They won’t let you in the club.
You’ll have to start your own
and let others look at you the way you did once.

So you can turn them down
With some company that you gathered
In the select twilight of your own left-outness
That sparked your journey.

Loyalties will mingle, bonds
will grow stronger
until the ship you shaped
freezes from its float
to a hard ground,
congealed like an ancient blood
With memories of those who were there when it all happened
swarming like flies on a wound.

They won’t let you in the club
You’ll form your own enclave of splendid isolation
with meandering roads that weave a labyrinth over time
spruced with hedges that will stay becoming
until time turns them into thorny barriers
or wicked walls that beckon and boo.

The wannabes, aspirants and mystery wanderers
Seeking the ways of the Other Side
shall queue up

Your glass-paned walls shall see
faces peering in
monkey-pressed in urchin yearnings
And your pity and your glory
shall keep you exalted
until time walks its walk
like it has on great nations.

© N. Madhavan, 2011

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

When Gulzar meets Eliot: Poets in the shadow of urban angst

I take a line from Thomas Stearns Eliot, and remark, casually in Tweet that his lines are Gulzaresque. Friend wants me to explain. I have no real clue. Just the imagery, I suppose. At least initially. Here is that line.

Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets,
The muttering retreats
Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels.

Those lines are clearly Gulzaresque to me, but I had no easy answer. And hours later, something stirred within, as this song started playing in the head.

It kind of fell into place.

"Ek Akela Is Shahr mein" -- on a lonely man in the city, an angst-ridden song. Bhupendra's gravitas-laden, somewhat muffled voice, giving a sombre shape to Gulzar's lyrics.

So I look at the first lines of the same poem by Eliot ( The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock). I have read and admired snatches of this poem before, but never really asked myself why, apart from being taken in by the sheer dexterity of the expression and the feelings embedded.

And so it begins.

Let us go then, you and I
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherised upon a table
Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets.

I now look at the lyrics of Gulzar's song for the film "Gharonda" -- an arthouse film about a couple's anxious search for a home of their own in Big Bad Bombay.

Din khaali khaali bartan hai, aur raat hai jaise andha kuan
in soonee andheree aakhon mein, aansu ki jagah aataa hain dhuan

(The day seems like an empty vessel/And the night like a bottomless well
In these vacant, dark eyes/In the place of tears out comes smoke)

So I look at Eliot's lines again.

The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window-panes,
The yellow smoke that rubs its muzzle on the window-panes
Licked its tongue into the corners of the evening,
Lingered upon the pools that stand in drains,
Let fall upon its back the soot that falls from chimneys,
Slipped by the terrace, made a sudden leap,
And seeing that it was a soft October night,
Curled once about the house, and fell asleep.

The imagery is stark. You can feel the city. And Eliot, suddenly, with his American accent, is kind of telling you, "Ek Akela Is Shahr Mein."

In umr se lambi sadkon ko, manzil pe pahunchte dekha nahi
bas daudte firte rahati hain, hum ne to thhaharte dekhaa nahi
is ajnabi se shahar mein, jana pahchana dhoondhta hai

(In these streets long as life/one's never seen destinations reached
they meander and run for ever/one's never seen them pause
In this stranger of a city/one looks for the comfort of the familiar)

So here is Eliot, in the same poem again.

Streets that follow like a tedious argument
Of insidious intent
To lead you to an overwhelming question . . .
Oh, do not ask, "What is it?"
Let us go and make our visit.

Streets that flow like an argument -- Eliot

Street long as life - Gulzar.

Sounds familiar?

And then Eliot goes..
Shall I say, I have gone at dusk through narrow streets
And watched the smoke that rises from the pipes
Of lonely men in shirt-sleeves, leaning out of windows? . . .

By now, I am certain that Mr. Prufrock is the Akela in the Shahr. And I look at the "mukhda" --the starting refrain -- of Gulzar's lyrics.

Ek akela is shahar mein, raat mein aaur dopahar mein
Abodaanaa dhoondhta hai, ashiyana dhoondhta hai

(A loner walks in this city/At night, and in the afternoon
Searching for morsels to munch/And a sanctuary to rest)

I now see the imagery of a day, snatches of urban angst, and loneliness gripping the London-influenced Eliot and Bombay-honed Gulzar intertwining with full force as I read these lines.

For I have known them all already, known them all:--
Have known the evenings, mornings, afternoons,
I have measured out my life with coffee spoons;

Then Gulzar goes:

Jeene kee wajah toh koi nahee, marne kaa bahana dhoondhta hai

(There is no reason to live/And one looks for an excuse to die)

If there is any doubt left in me, it is cleared by the following passage in an introductory remark on the Eliot poem, published here.
"The poem displays several levels of irony, the most important of which grows out of the vain, weak man's insights into his sterile life and his lack of will to change that life. The poem is replete with images of enervation and paralysis, such as the evening described as "etherized," immobile"

And I realise the immense commonality of two poets in urban angst -- continents and languages apart and separated by three quarters of a century.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

When Bollywood bodies mess with Sufi souls: A day out at Coke Studio, India

It is all in the point of view.
Sitting on the 18th floor of the Westin hotel on the Western Express Highway – or is it the 17th? – the view is stunning as we look at the distant condominiums with a golf course in the Goregaon area – green, serene and resortish. The perspective from the coffee shop’s charmed glass window is not quite the Bombay we are used to – noisy, bustling, congested.
We are on our way to Malad, the Coke guys and us, and there is a sense of thrill. Finally, Coke Studio is happening in India, and over some eclectic banter on the flight with Coke’s senior brand manager Abhijit Datta, I get some interesting tidbits on the phenomenon that has become quite the rage in a new-new South Asia.
Apparently, Coke Studio was not born in Pakistan, as it is often believed, but in Brazil, as Coke Estudio. And the man who made it happen there – Ricardo Fort - - was, believe it or nuts, until recently posted in India as vice-president, marketing, though it beats me how this novel experiment of putting rock stars, folk singers and sundry musicians in a novel, milkshake concoction did not happen during his Indian reign.

* * *

Beyond the fish-smelling suburbs of a sultry Mumbai afternoon suburbs, beyond the Shiv Sainik posters promising moustachioed regionalism, beyond scurrying, emaciated Mumbaikers, we reach a place that is now Coke Studio for us. This could be a haunted house in a nice Bollywood flick, where they have the final fight scene. It is some old Goanese-style mansion. Inside, I see a counter-intuitive sight. My bad. I expected some cosy, concert-like atmosphere with a decent crowd being enthralled in sequence by a procession of talented musicians. But, no. This happens to be just a studio, where the focus is on the recording. Just a few moveable chairs strewn in the darkness for us.
And like a Bollywood movie, there are takes and re-takes and re-re-takes and re-re-re-takes.
Sabri Brothers (the local brew, not the original Pakistani singers), are busy doing what could be a rock qawwali of a song that we used to sing more in jest than in profound musical experience as children: “Hamein toh loot liya milkey husn walon ne, kaley kaley balon ne gorey gorey gallon ne.” The folks apologetically tell me as I see 18 re-takes that it is not always this bad. Songs move faster in the series of recordings that preceded this. Guided by Aditya Swamy, MTV India’s channel head, I am taken to a waiting van outside (the kind in which Bollywood stars dab make-up and give interviews to Page 3 journos). In a laptop, they make me taste the sounds that happened before. Good stuff, actually. There is Harshdeep, there is Shaan, and there is a Bengali folk singer called Sourav Mandal and a Tamil folksie, “Chinna Ponnu” (literally, Little Girl). It is clear to me by now that the magic of Coke Studio, is, well, in the studio. Much mixing and bartending will make this drink hit you. And a big question hangs. Why is this all so Bollywoodesque? The Pak version was more Sufi rock, wasn’t it? Inside, Leslie Lewis, the talented composer, producer and guitarist who ought to be the alter-icon to any Rahman-respecting aficionado, explains in a simple analogy the daunting challenge he has faced in the 40 days of a Lent-like penance that audaciously straddles the superficiality of the pop culture and the richness of a heritage it is trying to court. “I am giving them some bitter chocolate. And then I given them the chocolate they are used to, in the hope that later, they discover the bitter taste.” To good effect, he adds his own intuition as he experiments away. Ramya Iyer, the dusky “English pop” singer I hang out with as the Sabri Brothers drone on in re-takes, has a rich voice and so Lezz decides to do away with all musical instruments for her -- but for a sound pad. With her is Roop Jolly, a poetess. The surprise is that Ramya sings a Urdu ghazal (Aaj jaane ki zid na karo) and Roop intersperses it with recited poetry.
This is all so experimental.
Lezz has not slept much for 40 days, and his supportive wife is hanging in there, helping him every step as he walks the crevices of an uneven, glacial musical landscape. And Lezz is no mere composer, but a medicine man. His plaited hair waving, he gestures to the musicians from a console as he brews what he hopes will be a trick that works. In another console a few yards beyond, Samar Khan, with a crutch to guide him after an accident, watches as a key member his team is guiding the cameras like a soccer coach shouting to half-backs.
The mission of this man, who directed the 2008 movie “Shaurya” is to add to the event some of the Red Chillies (the SRK company) he works for now. The red-and-black colours of the studio glow amid the cameras and I get one more hang of what will eventually become a TV experience: angles and lights and sounds in a Coca-Cola concentrate formula. The logic of the focused factory over the magic of the spontaneous craft.

As I get ready to take the flight back, the music seems more evolved. There is seasoned Kay Kay and there is the talented Mathangi, trying to do a pleasant, quicker version of the S.D. Burman classic, “Khilte hain gul yahan.” The humming is nice, the reverb just fine and the song somehow sounds alluringly new.

The challenge for anyone who has tasted the Pakistan stuff is to shed the baggage and look at the Indian Coke Studio with a new pair of eyes. The burden for the Mumbai gigsters is to be odiously compared with the geniuses of Lahore. The challenge for Leslie Lewis is to make it all somehow popular with the kids who watch MTV (er, aren’t they drooling on foul-mouthed Roadies, otherwise?), while he tries to transplant a Sufi-folk soul into the humdrum of the Bollywood culture.
Bitter chocolates are so hard to sell to sugar-high kids.
Somehow, one hopes that India’s own Coke Studio will provide the respectable view of the kind I got on Mumbai from the top floor of the Westin. In the end, it is all in the point of view

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

The name is Bond. Tamil Bond (poem for New Year)

ஆண்டு ஆண்டு பழுத்து கிழத்த கலைஞருக்கும் புத்தாண்டு
மாண்டு மாண்டு தோய்ந்து போன தொண்டருக்கும் புத்தாண்டு
சாடிசாடி அரசை நாண்ட அம்மாவுக்கும் புத்தாண்டு
அவள் காலைத்தொட்டு வணங்கி நின்ற அமைச்சருக்கும் புத்தாண்டு
ஓடியாடி உலகைவென்ற டோனியருக்கும் புத்தாண்டு
அழகிப்பட்டம் ஆசைப்பட்ட சோனியருக்கும் புத்தாண்டு
வயலில் வாடி பயிரை வளர்த்த உழவருக்கும் புத்தாண்டு
அயல் நாடு சென்று கணினி வென்ற இளைஞருக்கும் புத்தாண்டு
மாதர் தம்மை ஒங்க வைத்த "பெமினி"யார்க்கும் புத்தாண்டு
அச்சம் நாணம் மடம் பயின்ற அம்மணிக்கும புத்தாண்டு
மாணவரை ஞானவராக்கும் முனைவருக்கும் புத்தாண்டு
இந்தப்பட்டியலில் விட்டுப்போனஅனைவருக்கும் புத்தாண்டு

வாழ்க வாழ்க என்று கூறி இறைவனை நாம் வேண்டுகிறோம்
புது ஆண்டு உம்மை நன்று வைக்க தமிழை வைத்து "பாண்டு"கிறோம்

(c) N. Madhavan, 2011

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Yeh Saali Zindagi: Rock n Roll Raagini with Rajma Risotto

Look at Priti. Look at her hard. She could be Jessica Lall. Singing in a band, in a tentative “brother-like” relationship with a dubious Punjabi restaurant owner, insecurely struggling with club life as the daughter of a father who “spent his life reading the papers.”
Look at Arun. Chartered accountant and gangster extraordinaire, in a gangland of affections and bullets, blackmails and deals, being held leech-like by a boss steeped in murky business even as he wants to run away.
“Yeh Saali Zindagi,” Sudhir Mishra’s latest, takes us through characters that seem grey yet colourful, laced with humour and spunk in a world of ironies, where destiny shapes them in a carpet in which each character runs into each other to create intricate wefts and warps.
The roles in delightful inter-mix: a money-laundering frontman industrialist who speaks Haryanvi, kidnap racketeers charmed by urban chic, a home minister in sophisticated veneer seeking an elusive social respect, a tycoon on the verge of bankruptcy with a wayward Casanova son, a possessive lover in jail locked in a peculiar relationship with a policeman brother.
More: a UP gangster with a cross-dressing half-brother in Georgia, an old Delhi girl who seeks dignity in a world of shady fortunes.
As it tackles possessive and protective love in their various shades of material conflicts, YSZ shows you shades of directors who are leaving their mark on a cinema that I classify as post-modern realism.
Mishra’s oeuvre has elements of his own previous films, notably “Is Raat Ki Subah Nahin” – an overnight tale of romance, lust and underworld rhythms; and “Hazaron Khwaishen Aisi” – an Emergency era saga of idealism and mystical, mysterious love.
In bringing these together, the director borrows stylistically from his peers in the emerging school of “chic realism” – so we see a Tarantino-like precision of nature quirks, 30-second commercial style aestheticism of Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra (particularly in Old Delhi scenes), gangland processes that remind you of Ram Gopal Varma and stark, rustic imagery and dialogues that remind you of Vishal Bhardwaj. It must be added, however, that Mishra, even in earlier films like Dharavi, has always had a leaning towards earthy realism.
Mishra celebrates Delhi in all its current shades: Gurgaon offices, rustic hideouts in rural Haryana, the magical Purana Qila, the Lutyens homes of ministers, and half-baked characters who pander to the rich and the powerful.
For those weaned on the call centre and mobile phone driven mall culture of Karan Johar movies, YSZ could be an antidote, revealing the underbelly of the scam surrounding the 2G spectrum that made those calls possible.
But this is no hero-villian tale. Nearly all characters,irrespective of their stature or orientation, are victims of their circumstances or nature, like in a Greek or Shakespearean tragedy. All of them, nearly, faced with choices, grapple with love, respect and an elusive emotional security.
Mishra’s success lies in the way he has probably managed to connect with a multiplex audience through a quick-footed plotline while keeping a soul that could well belong in an old classic. In Arun (Irrfan Khan in a blemishless performance), you can see the Pyaasa of Guru Dutt blended like a bartender’s special with Deewar’s Vijay.
In the last scene, where he leans into the lap of Priti (an effective Chitrangada Singh in a muse’s delight role), you almost see the Amitabh Bachchan of Deewar.
But no. Seconds later he sounds like Pyaasa and all of a sudden, you realise that the sad man and the angry young man have blended into a humourous character who celebrates the random ironies of life.
If there was a movie to tell you about John Lennon’s famous line, “Life is what happens when we are busy making other plans” – this could be it.
Arun the protagonist looks for “Rajma Chawal”-like motherly love in a rock-n-roll saga of guitars, gore and glory, interspersed with the rustic raagini-belt of Haryana. The tapestry works because plots, characters and the sheer style prop up each other in a diary-style thriller narrative.

Monday, January 17, 2011

The Mediterranean Rice - A Short Story Set in Tunis

Dear Madhavan

I must share with you today the story that I have long held back from you. It is no big secret, as secrets of the world go, but then, there are some that must shared at some point for them retain their value. So, today, after a gap of 15 years, I share that secret with you.


The breeze hits your face hard at Tunis.

Hard, real hard.

And it can send quite a mysterious chill down a simple Indian spine. The airport, not far from the Mediterranean, is actually called Carthage. It is, I assure you, an exotic feeling. To dream of ancient history from near the point where lay an ancient City named from the Phonenician Kart-hadasht, meaning “new town”. It was a big power in the 2nd and 3rd century Before Christ, the same time as the Roman Republic, though we rarely hear of it.

Shut your eyes, let the wind wafting across the rainy sea from Europe drench you a wee bit with the drops, and you can imagine Hannibal crossing the Alps. You can think of Swiss cheese, Italian Mafiosi and Greek gods. Tunis does that to you.

On that day, I had some wonderful company as well. These were some fine airhostesses, who had just flown in from Casablanca.

“Oh,” I can here you say, “He is making that up.” But stand on the tarmac like I did that day, and move into the large spacious hall, and you will see the blinking signs of flights that take you to places like Casablanca and Tripoli, and you can catch a bit of that salty desert on your tongue as you still feel the cold breeze, which, perhaps touched some blue-eyed Arabesque former princess at Algiers before making its way to my sunburnt cheeks.

On this day, I stood there, having struck a casual friendship after seeing off the Joint Secretary (West Asia), who had flown in.

I had seen three young, exotic women smile at me. Wearing blue skirt-suits, with flashing teeth and affectionate but efficient eyes, they made my heart aflutter. My looks, and my strange language (I spoke Tamil to the fellow tribal from the MEA) must have triggered in them something of the curious and I decided to make the most out of that.

Moroccan stewardesses can be a nice lot. They speak English, but preferred my broken French. Before long, we were speaking of illegal immigrants who make it to Sicily across the waters, and of the land that I came from, of which they indeed knew very little.

A few Gandys, Taj Mahal and Hindoo kind of expressions gone, we felt hungry, when a blue-eyed Almitra, a Moroccan of exotic Georgian mix, declared: “J’ai faim!”

And then they asked me to make an Indian dish for them. Being the little lost boy that I was, I fussed little knowledge, but they insisted.

Outside, it drizzled a little as we got into a BMW, arranged for me by the personal aide to Yasser Arafat. I had borrowed it, thinking JS might be impressed with that. He was.

Of course, you remember! Arafat was there at that time. Remember when the Israelis bombed Tunisia and the Palestinian camps? I was, as a humble diplomat of the Indian Foreign Service, assigned to Tunis. A punishment posting, they called it, but it turned out to be a glorious one. My friendship with the PLO was in the best interests of the South Block in Delhi and I wanted to make the most of it.

I will now let you in on a bonus secret. I made quite a few of the sophisticated guerrilla leaders take a fascination for M.S. Subbulakshmi. Some said her voice went well with Turkish coffee. I would not dispute that.

Ben Ali had seized power after overthrowing the old dictator, and photos of him smiled across in rugged style in the spick-and-span capital as I drove with Almitra, Nawal and Zubina. Black , chauffeured BMWs speak the same language everywhere, and heads turned to see a brown Indian with three Moroccan girls of enviable disposition. I was taken to an apartment two of them shared and there lay the rub: I was supposed to cook a meal for them. By now, they were in a mood that women are prone to when suddenly convinced for reasons only they know.

There was only one dish I knew and it was not difficult to prepare it. But, here on this breezy March morning, I was supposed to do a lot more. I asked for yoghurt, and turned the rice cooker on. I asked them to watch TV and told them to keep off the little kitchen. Martial Arab music, followed by some Russian opera and then, a sombre speech by Ben Ali wafted across the hall into the kitchen.

Arabic spoken by dictators can be soothing, especially to a man who hardly knows the language and is in deep culinary stress.

At Ben Ali’s incantation of the name of Allah, the all-compassionate and all-merciful one, I mixed the sour branded supermarket yoghurt with the rice, which mercifully, had cooked well. It was wild rice, the thick bulbous variety that grows rare in Thailand which Almitra had shopped for in a Parisian store. The yoghurt was more sour than it should be, but something in that seaside weather gave it the right effect. I took some fennel seeds randomly from the kitchenette and let it crackle and also some aniseeds. I can hear you say to yourself something about these not going with rice in southern India. I shall simply smile at that one. Mustard seeds were not available, you see, and neither were green chillies. As the crackling seeds in butter (yes, no gingelly oil, alas), I let them rest on the wild rice mixed with yoghurt.

By now my imagination was at work. I could hear the girls giggling at some grandiose claim made by the Tunisian leader, as I reached for a tin of canned olives, which I placed at strategic points on the large bed of curd rice. The olives glittered like the eyes of my guests that day, while the yoghurt glowed like their skin. The seeds were spread in the centre loosely like the scarves my guests wore. At some point, I had stir-fried some large jalapeno peppers that Nawal brought in from the flight that brings vain East Coast investment bankers to Casablanca.

As I saw Nawal, who is six feet tall, stretch her stockinged leg on the maroon rug, I went for the tomato ketchup and poured it in an oval shaped ring around the fried seeds.
Ben Ali was now saying Allah for the 17th time in as many minutes and Zubina hollered in: “Ca va?”

Everything looked a lot better than I feared. I cut some brown bread quickly and deep-fried it in long strips and covered the wild rice on four sides with this. Ben Ali was greeting the people of Tunisia yet again on their glory, as I walked in to the living room and placed my dish on the corner of the elegant, glass-topped, round-shaped dining table. The girls, hungry and eager, dashed for the dish.
Tongues slurped, eyes widened.
Questions were asked but were met with smiles that were a combination of the sheepish and the victorious.

Later, over some hard, black coffee that is so very Mediterranean in inspiration, I shared with them the secret of making an impromptu version of the curd rice, the simplest of my south Indian staples. They seemed to enjoy my ingenuous effort at least as much as my very bad French. After the repast, Nawal left for her own home and Zubina remembered suddenly that she had to meet her distant aunt who was visiting from Rabat.

Almitra and I were alone. She tossed her lustrous, long hair that spoke of her part-Georgian lineage and smiled a special smile.

“So, mon cheri, what do you name this dish?,” she asked as she stretched her long legs on the magenta leather couch.

The breeze blew in from the French windows as I came close to her and whispered.

“Arafat Annam!,” I replied.

You now now why I call it that.

I think it was a nice, very nice, evening to recall and savour.

Love, Subra