Thursday, April 18, 2013

Vintage soup

My fridge is a wondrous place. It nurtures all sorts of plant - and occasionally animal - life. Lemons turn bitter, tomatoes get squishy and garlic becomes brown and pungent. Once in a while a vegetable emerges that I'm quite sure I purchased in a previous calendar year. Or maybe in my last life. But yesterday I discovered a solution to all this and it's worked like a miracle. If you try it out be aware that I sometimes exaggerate, and that your health is your own responsibility. Equally, you should know that I didn't fall sick after eating it.

Vintage soup

Ingredients: Old things lying around in your kitchen. Specifically:

1. Part of a cauliflower (gobi), yellowing with age.
2. Some green peas, coated with frost, from the bag in your freezer.
3. A cucumber that was once green, now pale cream and slightly bitter. Preferably still firm.
4. An onion.
5. A potato. The first one I picked up was rotten and I threw it away (there are things too rotten even for me!). I used the second potato, antique but fairly respectable.
6. Two small green chillies from that little tin with holes in it that's supposed to keep chillies fresh but in fact lets them dry out and wrinkle in just over a month.
7. A little water. I used water that's been sitting in a bottle for at least two weeks. If that's not available then you can try it with new water, but your mileage may vary.
8. Salt. In Bombay you get delightfully stale, soggy salt but in Pune the weather is so good that you only find fresh salt. Tough luck.
9. A few cubic centimetres of cheese. I bought it in Dorabjee's supermarket at the other end of Pune. It smelt strong even on the day of purchase, many moons ago.
10. Milk. Boiled three days ago and unlikely to last much longer.
11. Butter. For me this is a sacred item. It really should not be  rancid.
12. Freshly ground black pepper. The peppercorns can be old but the grinding process should be new, if you get what I mean.

You might be wondering about quantities. The answer, in all cases, is "a little, not too much". Now please be quiet while I tell you how it's prepared.

Mix ingredients 1-8 (chop into large chunks first if necessary) and place in a pressure cooker. Cook for 15 minutes. Allow to cool slowly. Put contents in a blender and puree into a thick slush. If you get a thin slush, give up and go out for dinner. It happened because you used too much water to start with. Coming back to the thick slush: place it in a large strainer and stir vigorously with the back of a spoon till most of it goes through. Add some milk to thin it down to the consistency of soup, a pat of butter when no one is looking, some black pepper and the grated smelly cheese. Warm slowly, or else the milk may curdle. Or the cheese could explode. Eat with crisp toast made from those end-slices of bread that you haven't thrown away for ages.

This is the most delicious soup in the world. If you don't believe me, just collect all the ingredients, leave them in your fridge for a month or two (or a year or two) and then try it yourself.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Legacy of bitterness

Former British PM Margaret Thatcher died a couple of days ago. The response to her death has been fascinating and instructive. Anticipating there would be widespread joy in some sections of society and the press over her demise, the Tories and even some Labour leaders publicly asked people to "show respect" for the deceased and permit the family to grieve in privacy and dignity. This is the kind of request that sounds reasonable when you first hear it, but in a few seconds you realise its flaws, and left-liberal media in the UK were quick to take it apart. Columnist after columnist argued that while the family of a private figure has a right to grieve in private, the death of a major politician who has had a powerful impact on her country and the world does not qualify for the imposition of reticence. One article pointed out that no such courtesy was extended to the family of Hugo Chavez when he died, with conservative newspapers all over the US and UK criticising his career and political impact in the most scathing terms. British writer David Wearing put the boot on the other foot by saying "People praising Thatcher's legacy should show some respect for her victims."

The Guardian featured an editorial about Thatcher last Monday. The first part is a survey of her influence on politics, but the second half is blunt and forthright in its criticism. Some sample quotes from the article:

"the harmony she sought in the long term was one whose terms were set overwhelmingly in the interests of the British business class as she perceived them."

A "good society", for her, was "a low-tax, home-owning, privatised, high-carbon, possessive, individualist, winner-takes-all financial model whose failure haunts the choices still facing this country today".

And here is the concluding sentence of the editorial:

"Her legacy is of public division, private selfishness and a cult of greed, which together shackle far more of the human spirit than they ever set free."

That was two days ago. Today's Guardian has a dozen or so articles about her, with titles like: "Clearing up the mess that Thatcher left", "Thatcher's dark legacy has still not disappeared", and "A legacy of bitterness and division".

Of course these opinions are hardly uncontested. Today's London Times is full of stuff like "Royal respect as Queen leads mourners", "great Prime Minister but awful mother", and an attack on The Guardian via an opinion piece titled: "the selfish Left, not Thatcher, divided us". The Telegraph describes her as "kindly and careful". All this is no great surprise to me. Once a respected publication, the London Times is today a Rupert Murdoch-owned right-wing rag, at least that's how I perceive it. About The Telegraph, the less said the better.

The Times of India too has an admiring piece about Ms Thatcher by US journalist David Ignatius (who writes for another right-wing publication, the Washington Post). The basic thrust of this piece is that Ms Thatcher was great because she destroyed the ultra-rich and ultra-poor and gave everything to the middle class. Nice, if you're a middle class person with no ethical sensibilities.

On the other hand the poor did not appreciate being destroyed, and protested vigorously. One of their slogans was "Thatcher, Thatcher, milk snatcher". This came about because, according to Wikipedia, she "imposed public expenditure cuts on the state education system, resulting in the abolition of free milk for schoolchildren aged seven to eleven". (The right-wing newspapers dispute her role in abolishing free milk, so you see that almost any issue concerning this lady ends up being divisive.)

It's natural that this whole discussion makes me think about India. Here, when important figures die we aren't even allowed to question whether they should have a state funeral (note that Ms Thatcher is getting a "ceremonial funeral" which is one step below a "state funeral" even though she was a former Prime Minister!). And in India there are no polite appeals to withhold negative opinions - if any such opinions were expressed, however mildly, there would be violent people and a vindictive, politicised police force ready to attack.

But it gets easier to say what you think and survive it when the politician in question has been dead a long time. Ms Indira Gandhi has been gone nearly thirty years, and like Ms Thatcher (and scores of other politicians around the world) she was a powerful figure who caused lasting damage to society in her country. Positioning herself on the Left rather than the Right (which shows that damaging leaders can be of any political persuasion) she was a divisive figure and her legacy, like that of Ms Thatcher, is that of "public division". She systematically undermined India's democratic institutions and personalised politics by implanting in it her personal prejudices, her sycophants and her children - notably the uneducated, spoilt and brutal Sanjay Gandhi. She bullied and threatened the highest courts in India. Fortunately she was not successful in destroying their integrity, though some High Court and Supreme Court judges were not above being her sycophants as my late father complained on many occasions. While it was sad for India to have a prime minister assassinated in 1984, and I have no sympathy for the politics of her assassins nor for the concept of assassination itself, I certainly wasn't sorry when she was no more.

Sanjay Gandhi's demise was quite simply a joyful occasion. He unauthorisedly piloted an airplane belonging to the Delhi Flying Club, and literally drove it nose-first into the ground. Poetic justice had never been more poetic. A man who had bulldozed people's homes causing several deaths, and presided over a forcible sterilisation campaign, was destroyed by his own arrogance (and by his mother, who allowed him to pilot a plane without the requisite qualifications). It's hard to imagine the level of damage he could have caused this country, but at the least his death saved countless lives. On the fateful day I was in a train from Delhi to Bombay. Somewhere around Surat we got the news and passengers erupted in joy, myself included.

Meanwhile back in England, yesterday there were parties to celebrate Ms Thatcher's death. I know it sounds tasteless. But the late Ms Thatcher is no one to complain about bad taste. In 1987 she famously referred to Nelson Mandela's African National Congress in the following terms: "ANC is a typical terrorist organisation ... Anyone who thinks it is going to run the government in South Africa is living in cloud-cuckoo land". Today the cuckoo seems to be on the other foot. Pallo Jordan, a former ANC minister, said of her death: “I say good riddance. She was a staunch supporter of the apartheid regime. She was part of the right-wing alliance with Ronald Reagan that led to a lot of avoidable deaths.”

There's so much more to say about this awful person and her instinct to ally with other awful people, for example General Pinochet. But I'm done here and will refer you to this very moving article in The Nation: "Why would anyone celebrate the death of Margaret Thatcher? Ask a Chilean".

Footnote added on April 11: I've now come across the following speech about Pinochet on Margaret Thatcher's own website. Reading it has somewhat modified the opinion I had of her at the time I wrote the piece above. I should apologise for using words like "awful" and "evil" -  she was much, much worse than that! If there is no hell, let's hope someone is busy constructing one for her.

Friday, April 5, 2013

The unbearable rightness of being

It looks likely that either Narendra Modi or Rahul Gandhi is going to be the next Prime Minister of India. Both are getting a lot of press coverage. Of late the English-language press is working hard to rehabilitate the first and trash the second (along with his mother, family, party, government etc) so it's quite clear who they think is going to win.

The key point is that there are going to be two distinct models on offer next year. Both have their positive and negative features. Most people I know would like to stay within their comfort zone and keep repeating one of the following statements: (i) I detest Mr Modi because he is a fascist, (ii) I can't stand the Sonia Gandhi family, and the UPA government has been a failure. A few people say both, but most will agree that one of these two sentences resonates more with them than the other.

I've long been in the category for whom (i) resonates more than (ii). In fact I don't have any negative feelings about this particular Ms Gandhi: it's clear to me that she had a popular mandate to be Prime Minister of India in 2004 and was hounded out of the post by middle-class bigots crying "Foreigner! White person! Woman! Christian!". For me that remains one of the more ugly events in the history of Indian democracy. She handled it very gracefully, and grace has continued to be her hallmark. And look at the rest of her family. They don't preen and posture in public. When they do say something it may not be brilliant or insightful but it is usually quite accurate. And they maintain their grace in the face of venomous abuse from a right-wing that despises both their liberal agenda and their good manners which make other Indian political families look even cruder than they already are.

Of course you can't run a country on grace and good manners alone. The Gandhi family and the Congress government don't come across as dynamic, a label that sticks better to Mr Modi. He is seen as pro-industry, pro-infrastructure and, as a bonus, non-corrupt. Responding to the fascist label, his supporters point out that he has not actually been found guilty of masterminding the 2002 anti-Muslim riots, and they add in the same breath that the 1984 anti-Sikh riots, conducted by Congress supporters, killed more people and the guilty were never punished. On both these points I don't disagree with them.

And yet, by his own admission Mr Modi is no liberal. His vision is a muscular and majoritarian one in which concern for the underprivileged is a convenient showpiece rather than a deeply felt principle. One doesn't have to read too far between the lines to see that in his world the poor, weak and marginalised are expected to understand their place in society and stay within its confines. He and his party would like religion to play a more powerful role in our lives and will pressurise us to cede our individual preferences to a common, majority-determined agenda. It is this composite package, rather than a single period of bloody riots, that really typifies the right-wing universe. And the pressure to surrender individuality is indeed the seed of fascism.

Is this what one wants India to become? That depends on who one is. I suspect that under right-wing governments the rich tend to benefit, while the poor tend to do worse (the poor can nevertheless be induced to vote for such governments, as both US Republicans and UK Conservatives are well aware). So it's quite likely that under Mr Modi the rich will get richer. In itself, this is no bad thing. I don't share the popular Indian middle-class view that people richer than us are evil just because they are richer than us. But how the poor will fare is important too, and far less clear. What are their relative prospects under the "dynamic" rightwingers as against the more sluggish dispensation presently in power? Among industrialists -- and the journalists who are so often their proxies -- it's taken for granted that if the government unconditionally supports the generators of wealth then everyone will be better off, and therefore Modi is the right choice. But history tells us this claim is sometimes true and sometimes false, so I would say it remains an open question. It's quite possible that in today's India the sluggish dispensation will, like the proverbial tortoise, actually get there faster for the people who need it most.

Still, I'm betting on Mr Modi to win the top position next year.