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