taking a walk in india and beyond

June 23, 2012

highway 39: journeys through a fractured land

I first met Luingamla, a chubby-faced teenager, one afternoon in June 2009 at the National Centre for the Performing Arts in Mumbai, where the cleft of the city’s southern business district of Nariman Point meets the sea. She formed the introduction to the programme I had come to attend, ‘Woven Tales from the North East’.
At the time of our meeting, Luingamla had been dead nearly twenty-five years.
In a small, darkened auditorium, Zasha Colah, curator of the city’s Nicholson Gallery of Modern and Contemporary Art, described the story behind the image of a richly woven piece of fabric projected onto a screen, a fabric into which Luingamla had now been transformed. Luingamla was fourteen, Colah explained, when she was shot dead by Mandhir Singh, a captain of the Madras Regiment.
She was alone at home in her village in north-eastern Ukhrul district of Manipur, which the Manipur government spells as Naimu, but those of her tribe, the Tangkhul Naga, retain the traditional name: Ngainga. Her family was away at church, it being a Sunday. Luingamla among her six siblings did not possess adequate footwear to appear before God—the family was very poor—so she had remained at home.
In her calm way, Colah told the four dozen or so of us in the audience—a smattering of society ladies, designers, students, and the odd ones out like me—who had gathered for a series of talks and presentations on fabric and tradition of weaving in northeastern India, that Captain Singh and a lieutenant entered the girl’s home. Finding her alone, they raped her. When she resisted, Captain Singh shot her dead.
The year was 1986. The hill regions of Manipur were gripped by counterinsurgency operations against Naga rebels by the Indian Army and paramilitary. The brutal behaviour that had characterized such operations in the 1950s and 1960s had lessened in volume, but not practice.

photo by journey basket: sekmai river on the outskirts of imphal

June 17, 2012

sarojini nagar market

both the classy and the so-called ls leave their differences at the gate and enter sarojini nagar market, delhi. every person who went to college in delhi has been here at least once to buy a reebok lookalike or a slogan t-shirt or an unbelievably thick woollen sweater for the price of a north indian thali. those who have been here say it is perhaps one of the most under-loved shopping places in delhi. the branded cohort as well as the "so ka teen" group often find themselves jostling for space to do something that the market is known for -- bargain.

some shoppers come in a hurry and zip fast in the crowd lest they stumble into a branded friend, creating an uneasy situation for both. yet some others just sway their hands, "na ji na", clearly making the point that they are regulars and cannot be taken for a ride. but nobody escapes sarojini nagar market. everybody buys something from here at least once in their lifetime.

sarojini nagar market, delhi. monday closed.

June 5, 2012

aam aadmi

not aam aadmi this.

Mumbai — Inside his tiny office near the entrance of Crawford Market, Arvind Morde is a bit harried. It is mango season, after all. His telephone rings. A client wants to ship a box of mangoes to Germany, a gift for the Indian-born conductor Zubin Mehta. Another caller wants to send a box to Switzerland; still another, to Singapore.

Mr. Morde, 66, takes down each order on a small pad, scribbling the names and addresses. For 92 years, his family has sold fruit from the same prime location beneath the stone arches of Crawford Market, and Mr. Morde has learned that Indians, wherever they may be, enjoy a good mango, widely known here as the King of Fruits.

“It is the only fruit appreciated by everyone,” Mr. Morde says with understated simplicity.

India arguably has only two seasons: monsoon season and mango season. Monsoon season replenishes India’s soil. Mango season, more than a few literary types have suggested, helps replenish India’s soul.

Mangoes are objects of envy, love and rivalry as well as a new status symbol for India’s new rich. Mangoes have even been tools of diplomacy. The allure is foremost about the taste but also about anticipation and uncertainty: Mango season in the region lasts only about 100 days, traditionally from late March through June; is vulnerable to weather; and usually brings some sort of mango crisis, real or imagined.

In Mumbai, India’s financial capital, this season’s trouble involves the Alphonso, the variety of mango grown along the western Konkan coast. Prices have spiked. Cold weather interfered with the growing season, producing fewer (and smaller) Alphonsos, the sort of shortfall that might ordinarily be eased by importing different mango varieties produced in different mango-producing regions of India.

Except that India’s mango economy adheres to forces other than simply supply and demand. In Mumbai, many people insist on eating Alphonsos and might even be offended by the suggestion that any alternative could suffice. In New Delhi, on the other hand, many residents belittle the Alphonso and favor the varieties grown in northern India. Almost every state has its own mango jingoism; if love of mangoes is nearly universal in India, so is disagreement over which variety is best.

“People are fiercely parochial about mangoes,” said Vikram Doctor, a food writer and mango connoisseur who lives in Mumbai.

Devyani Ghosh, who moved a year ago to Mumbai from New Delhi, is still adjusting, mango-wise. Last month, Ms. Ghosh, 37, knelt over mangoes stacked on the cement floor of Crawford Market, picking them off the stack, squeezing them gently, testing their ripeness, pressing them to the tip of her nose, sniffing, never quite satisfied. Finally, the seller carved a succulent, yellow slice. She took a nibble.

“They are good,” she admitted, “but not as good as in Delhi.”

Beyond parochialism, mangoes also have become yet another totem for the new Indian rich to keep score. Once, the Alphonso and other varieties did not begin appearing in markets until late March or early April. Now some growers are producing mangoes in February at prices that can approach $30 a dozen, compared with $9 a dozen or less at the height of the season.

“There are different types of eaters,” Mr. Morde said. “The early eaters are the nouveaux riche. It is about prestige.”

Mr. Morde’s father founded the family fruit business in 1920, when Mumbai was known as Bombay and the British controlled India. Today Mr. Morde handles sales while his brother, Ram, oversees procurement. Mr. Morde said the family would sell about 10 million rupees’ worth (roughly $200,000) of mangoes this year, many bought by corporate clients, so selecting the right mangoes is paramount.

“It is like buying diamonds,” Mr. Morde said. “You segregate them, sort them out, as per the quality.”

Mr. Morde’s international business has steadily expanded over the years, partly tracing the arc of the Indian diaspora around the world. India annually produces about 15 million tons of mangoes, roughly 40 percent of global production. Between 40 and 60 varieties are sold commercially, according to the Central Institute of Subtropical Horticulture, which serves as a sort of mango think tank. Some government research institutes keep samples of different mango varieties to protect against extinction.

Mango exporters now do a thriving trade with several Persian Gulf countries, where more than six million Indians are working, and some domestic mango eaters suspect the best mangoes are now shipped out of India for higher prices abroad.

“My suspicion is that the bigger Alphonsos are being exported,” said Mr. Doctor, the food writer, noting that the most serious Alphonso eaters will cultivate their own sources in the growing region. And sure enough, several passengers on a recent ferry from the coast to Mumbai were carrying boxes of mangoes.

The media watch for this year’s mango crop actually began last year. In late December, newspapers carried worried accounts about the impact of Cyclone Thane on mango season in southern India. Mango-related weather articles are fairly common, and often alarmist — hailstorms kill mango trees! Cold weather kills mangoes!

Mangoes appear in movies, including a 2010 Marathi-language drama titled “Haapus,” or “Mango.” Mangoes are such a common literary device that the author Rana Dasgupta declared that Indian fiction needed to move away from the “sari-and-mango novels.”

Yet the allure and nostalgia of mango season is undeniable. Some Indians living abroad fly home for a visit during mango season. Generations of Indians can still recall their mothers warning that eating too many mangoes can bring outbreaks of pimples. Last month, a Mumbai radio host invited a guru, or spiritual adviser, to field questions. The first: How can a person safely gorge on mangoes without breaking out in pimples?

Eat the mangoes, the guru advised, but make certain to take deep breaths, eat “cooling” foods and drink plenty of water.

Perhaps the only force capable of resisting the Indian mango has been the American government. For decades, Indian mangoes were banned, for one reason or another (Indians suspect trade protectionism). Mr. Doctor noted that the United States Department of Agriculture allowed Alphonsos to be imported and served when India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, attended a state dinner in Washington with President John F. Kennedy. But the Americans insisted that seeds were later burned.

When India and the United States consummated a landmark civilian nuclear agreement in 2008, one sweetener was an agreement to allow Indian mangoes to be imported, the “nukes for mangoes” provision. Yet imports remain limited, largely because of American requirements on irradiation and other issues.

Which means that Mr. Morde cannot brighten the mango season of at least one person: his son.

He lives in Massachusetts.

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