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Maryam Ala Amjadi - "The Taste of Reminiscence…"

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The Taste of Reminiscence and the Reminiscence of Taste

The perennial pot of the story simmers on the reclusive fire of the narrative. Yes, reclusive, for the tale is delivered from the pangs of fermented solitude into the kind abruptness of the presence of those who are keen to taste. The narrator stirs the letters that are later cohered into words that smell of time and experience and then blend into the completeness of sentences before looks that are on tenterhooks and as the cup of punctuation is filled in proportion and handed around, Meaning is seasoned with the senses and the tongue is a word-fanged snake that silently lingers and savors, savors and devours, devours and yet lingers so that it may recount again and again what it has once witnessed: The Memory.

Is it the shape of the narrative that brings about the taste or is it the flavor of details that shape the inner geometry of our taste buds? Yes, when tended and ushered in meaningful directions, taste too can sharpen and grow and when abandoned, it can go blunt and become mortal, for the consumerist fingers of our century seem to point at ‘purposefulness’ as the only path sloping towards immortality. But what really counts in recounting the story of being is the memory of the taste, the toned flavor of the mouth that voices the tale. 

Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake (2003) opens with this appetizer:

“On a sticky August evening two weeks before her due date, Ashima Ganguli stands in the kitchen of a Central Square apartment, combining Rice Krispies and Planters peanuts and chopped red onion in a bowl. She adds salt, lemon juice, thin slices of green chili pepper, wishing there were mustard oil to pour into the mix. Ashima has been consuming this concoction throughout her pregnancy, a humble approximation of the snack sold for pennies on Calcutta sidewalks and on railway platforms throughout India, spilling from newspaper cones. Even now that there is barely space inside her, it is the one thing she craves. Tasting from a cupped palm, she frowns; as usual, there’s something missing.”

Memory is always the ‘thing’ that is missing and more than often, recognition of the ‘missing’, plays as the intensifier of pleasure. The absence is pronounced with the ache that is kneaded into craving and outside the realm of the poetic which enchants almost any ‘impossible’ into the domain of the ‘nonexistent’, we rarely crave for things that we have not touched, felt, tasted, savored nor even wasted once upon a time. Perhaps it can mildly be claimed that eating and drinking are always garnished with allusive undertones, that eating is heightened in the conspiracy of the past and the present that summon their inevitable upshot: the ever-present-past, the constancy of this consciousness that the ‘original’ lingers somewhere else and not here and it is to be sought later and not now. But to do what has already been done, to spoon the overtly sipped cup is to walk up and down the road of reference and is there a freshwater fish to catch in this referential web, even if it is to merely and momentarily catch and hold, hold and then simply let go?

The Upanishads cite food as the ‘oldest of things’, an entity that presumably existed long before we did and therefore it is deemed as a ‘panacea’, perhaps because the therapeutic portions of the perennial recollection are capable of defrosting any trauma. The apple is older than the human and the metaphor of the forbidden reminiscence is as old as the roots of the tree that once longed to grow a name, so it could be remembered. And salt - the memory of the sea - that came down sprinkling the pillar at the price of looking back at the past, for shedding tears of regret on the Lot that was revealed to us was passed across the cosmic table of the universe around which hands bonded as teeth grinded, laughter ripened in the roasted aroma of familiarity, secrets were traded under, bread was broken and so were long baked promises and the Last Supper was the first rate tale of betrayal to feed the commemoration of the wheat.

Perhaps it is such poetic account of edibles that make room for the assumption that regardless of whatever form or matter, food is always intense in its very essence and again, perhaps this is one of the many reasons why all creeds harp on ‘moderation’ in the decorum of eating and drinking.

‘There is no possibility of one's becoming a yogî, O Arjuna, if one eats too much or eats too little, sleeps too much or does not sleep enough.’ 

Chapter 6, Verse 16-The Bhagavad Gita 

Building walls of restraint and then restraining the authorized self from shifting the bricks and breaking them down demands a certain slice of courage perhaps as large as the kind of which the American playwright, Channing Pollock once tastefully spoke of, ‘no man in the world has more courage than the man who can stop after eating one peanut.’ The body yearns, the heart resists. The corpse persists, the soul lingers. The body is the temple, the soul is the deity and the food, the oldest of all things is the offering, the Puja. 

But can we afford a body that divorces the soul in this manner? Where is the ‘wholesome goodness’ in this disintegration? And can one not be passionate even in moderation? To disentangle the hand that moves the knife from the spur that leads it is to cut through the integrity of our entity as human beings. The heart feels and the mind understands and digests the feeling. The malady to classify, dissect and divide the world is the self-proclaimed judge that has sanctioned the separation of the soul and the body in a fully living entity. It seems to me that what we need the most is a resurrection of the body right now and not after death. 

But we are an instant (fatafat) generation and are somehow surreptitiously programmed to not only to straighten the folds of passion from our experience and have submissive food but also learn to delight in the perfunctory acceptance of it. Instant noodles, instant coffee, instant soup and worst of all, instant tea which come in those emotionally repressed and conservative bags, tea bags that more than often make un-liberated tea, like people who live without life running in them. It is as though, the instant generation demands to be reimbursed second for second, minute per minute for life, in return for its inevitable patience of nine months during gestation. The ‘fast’ element alienates us from the process of being leisurely present and eventually whips us into mere obese consumers of life. We bite off reality, we chew into the day-to-day, we masticate our dreams and swallow the past and the future in one go, but do we also stand still in the present to witness the absorption of all the nourishment, the information we download and create the time to digest the crowded loneliness of our modern world?

When you strain the tea leaves you somehow take away the memory of the tea, and to take away the memory of things out of them is to voluntarily embrace the void, for after all is said and done, the dregs are the only tangible redeemers of abandonment as we reminisced. Can you hear the singing of the Assamese women in the whistle of the kettle and do you wonder how this once upon a time medicine, first captured in the epic memory of the Ramayana, converted into a drink? When was it, that unconscious breathing was peeled into consciousness and sung as a ‘practice’ in the Gita and then breathed out of the lungs of lazy oblivion? 

Unawareness is a short pencil sharpened at both ends that simultaneously stores the primal sin, ‘ignorance’ as well as the punishment for it. It may function though haphazardly and write out the day in short spasms but will eventually fail to embolden the core of the mind in the length of the night and is therefore always distant from the memory of the word, the only key to unbolt the dark, to affiliation with the light and lightness of being .The son of Bharata was told that ‘ignorance, covering one's knowledge, binds one to madness.’ 

But there is indeed a morsel of madness, perhaps of a different texture, in everything that we do. Is it not that a fraction of the senses remain pending occasionally to pronounce the presence of others, as in the painful pleasure of love making, the sated hunger of eating, unquenched question of drinking and the dreamy pause of sleeping? Today science confesses that we cannot breathe while consuming food. Similarly, when we take a glass of water to our lips, we unconsciously close our eyes and when we sleep almost all our external senses suspend their performance and the button that starts the function of inner senses is switched. This too is another face of moderation; it is like an aesthetic balance in a series of neon lights that signal a profound message by the power of their on-off play: The weight of instinctive pleasure is regulated by the harmonizing hand of Nature. The two trays of the scales are never equally balanced and perhaps this is the true meaning of weight. 

And so, by the celestial scales of the Yogi, the modes of being are also measured by selectivity of what the hand chooses to take to the mouth. Its arrows point inward: You are what you eat. In all universality, the mode of ‘ignorance’, ‘violence’ and ‘goodness’ are the fluctuating expressions of the personal moderation of all that one consumes. One eventually becomes the memory, that thing that lingers long after the taste is gone; you vengefully become what you have eaten and are shaped by it, perhaps even by the mere thought of it. 

It is amusingly probable that in the grand scheme of this fantastic argument, an apple a day slims down one to a model, a clove of garlic is the magic wand that turns one into a Casanova, croissants give you a French accent, herbs and Masala make you Indian and noodles turn you into Chinese. Those could be gourmet instances of how eating widens the horizons of being, by connecting us with the ‘other’ on the bridge of experience that runs across time and space. But even more significantly, you are also what you choose to abstain from, what you do not eat. Just as the best lines in a poem are at times the ones that are not written, life is more poignantly defined by the things we do not do rather than the things we do. 

At the crossroads of the ‘do’ and the ‘do not’, down the secluded lanes of ‘intention’ and crowded streets of ‘action’, we seem to be the only witness to the flavors of our shared memories. But we are not. We are all the readers of life’s verbal ingredients and tasters of its equivocal words that run to trace the origin of voices and whether they go further to the depth and ever come back to the surface, whether they lead us anywhere at all, we move in the direction of a purpose, of an awareness, a tasteful familiarity that climaxes in wonder and vaguely attempts to remind us of how we know and relate to what once we had known and related:

The pluralism of grains and pulses, the sadistic vengefulness of onions in their compulsion to hear us sniff, the scholarly presence of cauliflowers-those graduate cabbages, the attention seeking pineapples that make the tongue throb in the comfort of its own abode, the kumquat’s innocent wit, that immature orange who suffers from identity crisis and yet appeals to us in its entirety, the miracle of old age in fruits who wrinkle needless of expensive under eye creams and cry themselves into wine, that lovers who eat the same food, are further joined as they perspire with the same rhythm in love making and that the art of cooking meat is similar to that of plastic surgery, that a successful chicken dish would not look and taste like itself, like chicken and is ritually purified of the lingering memory, the death cries of the mortal creature that is purposefully immortalized in us.

We who live half heartedly on the anxious borders of our undying fate, we are the constant connoisseurs of perennial memories.


Feature–Food in Indian Literature

    Shweta Rao – 'Thought for Food'

    Esther David with Shweta Rao

Book Review
    Ambika Ananth - Mita Kapur's The F-Word

Creative Writing
    Anjali Gera Roy - 'Moongi di Dhuli Dal and Roti'
    Jeyakirthana - Poems
    Rumjhum Biswas - 'Banquet for Son-in-law'
    Sumana Roy's - Poems

    Amrit Sen - Acharya PC Ray's Writings on Food
    Anshu Kujur - Esther David's Book of Rachel
    Anwesha Chakraborty - The Changing Culture of Eating
    Barnali Dutta - Jhumpa Lahiri's The Namesake
    Debarati Bandyopadhyay – Roy's The God of Small Things
    Debasree Basu - Gastro-Cultural Conflicts
    Kameshwari Ayyagari - Cuisine in Indian Literature
    Maneeta Kahlon - Food & Dining in IE Literature
    Stuti Goswami – Terang's Rongmilir Hahi
    Vetri Selvi P – Parsi food in fiction of Rohinton Mistry

    Maryam Ala Amjadi - "The Taste of Reminiscence…"

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