Making meaning in Kolkata

I think it’s a good thing that the internet access in Kolkata (formerly known as Calcutta for those who missed the name change in 2001) was rather poor, because I wouldn’t have said anything sensible on the first day or two. It seems rather difficult to speak sense when you’re having trouble making sense of your environment. What is so very fitting about this dilemma is that I went to Kolkata to give a paper on cosmopolitanism, in which I argue for the Raymond Williams theory that one must make meaning of things to feel a sense of belonging to them. How true this is when contextualised so graphically…

I landed at about 1am and was fortunate to have a grad student from Jadavpur University pick me up (the lovely Deep). Of course, I wasn’t aware this was arranged, and so organised a pre-paid taxi before stalking determinedly, sans eye contact, out the door towards the cabs (I’d been to India before, you see). A tap on my shoulder and “Are you Tammi?” changed my entire arrival into a stress-free event. (Except for the two pedestrians we saw lying by the side of the road on the way to the uni, who had just been run down by a large truck in the smoggy haze of early morning, which set me on edge in cabs, but more especially, when crossing roads, for the rest of the visit.) Thank goodness Deep picked me up, because the uni gate was locked, the grounds looked haunted at night, and the directions were not as straightforward as they might have seemed on a sterile screen in Melbourne. To bed.

I won’t detail everything here from breakfast to bed, but I will share some highlights. The first day was a ‘free’ day, as the conference began the next morning. So Murray (the only other Australian presenter) and I headed off after breakfast without a map, guidebook or a clue except I remembered from eight years ago that Park Street was in the centre, New Market was meant to be a good one, and College Street was lined with piles of books. Near College Street, which was indeed lined with the same books of my memory, but with the amusing signs to let you know what each stall was selling (eg. English Lit – and then piles of Engineering texts), I stopped to buy some peyanji, a sort of onion and garlic fritter with lots of spice, from an old woman frying them on the street. By the time she actually served me, we had attracted a crowd of about 30 people circled around us. Murray and I were picturing headlines “Giant red-headed foreigner eats peyanji near College Street!” – because apparently it’s news. We later wandered through the New Market, where I insisted we pop into the meat market, being the food-obsessed, self-conscious adventurer that I am. What I recall is a blur of chicken feet, blood, feathers, semi-naked men crouched on concrete platforms amongst animal parts and rivers of blood, and a stench of bile, shit and fear. It makes me nauseous again sitting here in a comfortably middle class home in Singapore just to think of it. We exited stage left. I felt like a failure, but suspect I would have felt worse if I’d vomited in there.

I didn’t mention the cab ride to the centre, which was the really difficult bit. I cannot describe Kolkata traffic except to say the drivers know the dimensions of their cars, the location of their horns and the strength of their brakes better than any cabbies in the world. And pedestrians manage to flow between cars that are no more than a body’s width apart at any time, and if anybody were to thwart the system and hesitate, it would be fatal. I’ll add a short video of this later. The mad driving, coupled with the chaos of people, rubble and rubbish outside, was my initial taste of how little meaning I could make of any of this. And I found it extremely off-putting and alienating that day. But then comes the night…

Four of the uni’s grad students, Deep, Momo, Priyanka and Simon, took me out to feast on the streets that night. It started with phuchka, which is a deep fried orb-shaped cup made from atta flour and semolina into which is placed a ball of potato and veg filling, then the cup is half filled with a spiced tamarind water. Omigoditwassogoodwehadtohavethree. Next, into a cab to a Muslim area for beef kebab rolls that taught me not all chapati are created equal – these were the fluffiest, chewy chapatis I’ve ever had. Onto mishti doi, a delicious sweet curd, and roshogolla, spongy little balls in syrup. Not finished yet, we ventured across Park Circus for haleem, a chunky beef stew that is a Ramadan specialty for breaking the fast, and finished off across the road with kulfi, a sort of iced cream with sultanas and nuts in it. Sated, we went back to Momo’s for a chat and then to bed back at uni by 9:30, an amazing feat given it felt like we’d been all over Kolkata.

The next three days were the conference, Food: Representation, Ideology and Politics. My paper was in the first parallel session on the first day after the plenaries. It went very well and sparked a great conversation about cosmopolitanism, as well as the crucial question, why does food carry this burden of meaning? Also, why do ‘elites’ feel a need to insist upon their cosmopolitanism or multiculturalism – what’s at stake here, how does it contribute to the construction of a hopeful national imaginary, and what symbolic violence might it also do? I’ll be working on those questions, thinking about the ‘essential’ nature of food and the senses, memory and imagination, as well as considering the role of affect in relation to the sensory experiences with food. I also need to work on ideas about ‘authenticity’, which may be so problematic I can’t even use it; ‘ethnic’, which is a word applied to ‘the other’; and of course, cosmopolitan as a philosophical construct and multiculturalism as quotidian.

The final night in Kolkata, I found out (thank you Anindya!!) about a restaurant called “Kewpies”, who call themselves “purveyors of authentic Bengali cuisine”. So I dragged Ira (who did her PhD at LaTrobe and teaches at Delhi University) and Vidya (a divine classical singer, academic and bossy Indian woman) down a dark, smelly alley to where the place is secreted. And there we had the most divine thalis (sort of set meals, with dal, roti, chutney, fritters, papadum, rice and the dishes we added, including chingri malai, prawns in coconut sauce, bhekti paturi, fish in a mustard paste steamed in a banana leaf, mangsho kosha, mutton curry, and doi begun, eggplant in a sauce/curry). It was all finished with mushti doi and a cream-based soft biscuit, as well as paan, which I tried for the first time. It’s a bit hard to chew such a large folded leaf in your mouth, but tasty and apparently a good digestif. On the way to this beautiful Bengali feast, our cab was actually rear-ended by a small car, which promptly drove on. I don’t think the cab was even dinted (they’re tough), and everyone just sort of carried on as though these things happen all the time, which I suspect they do. I sort of felt like maybe it was a bit of luck to have the minor bingle, like it needed to happen before I left (statistically speaking), it happened at slow speed, and the gods were appeased.

Let me return briefly to meaning. In the space of four short days, I went from a sort of brain cloud reaction to the chaos of Kolkata, to someone able to begin to make partial meaning. Some of that meaning is troubling for obvious reasons – how can a place have such a privileged middle class in the face of stark poverty and crumbling infrastructure? But many of those same people, the intelligentsia of Bengal, are passionate, revolutionary, feminist, often Marxist and always leftist, and are doing their ‘everyday’ bit to find meaning and work within the contraints of a very challenging environment. Their students adore them, and they, in turn, shower attention and respect on their students, who are arguably even more self-assured than Americans. The intellectual passion and comradery I encountered in my four days was breathtaking and refreshing. I’m going to keep arguing for knowledge as a way to engender belonging.

Superdelicious Singapore

Having an awesome time eating with Hannah! Bought some Birkenstocks a moment ago, very comfy choice! But now for a little overview…

Flight uneventful, sat next to two nice Welsh film producers returning after a month in Argentina and Australia shooting a film about a Welsh guy who moved to those places then died in the war in France. Food terrible. Flight slightly late, so made it onto train at about 11pm, watched ‘be alert’ video at all the stations. Checked over shoulder for John Howard.

Met Hannah at Paya Lebar, caught a cab to Serangoon Gardens, just around the corner from her house. Went directly to Hawker Centre (Chomp Chomp), totally buzzing with people still at 12am, where Hannah went off foraging – brought back sugar cane juice (supersized!), Chinese satay (you know it’s Chinese b/c both chicken and pork – Malays don’t do pork due to Islam) and sambal stingray – yum! Finally to Hannah’s to bed at about 1am (4am by my body clock).

Lovely humid sleep with fan blowing hair lightly all night. Slept in, restlessly, ’til 8:30am, showered and downstairs for a glass of water kindly provided by Minh, Hannah’s housekeeper, and five minutes’ wait ’til Dawn, Hannah’s friend, arrived to collect me. Lovely girl, Dawn, very friendly, fun and interesting (English and drama teacher). Walked directly to different hawker centre for best brekky ever – chee kueh (pickled veg & fried garlic on rice cakes) omigodthatwasdelicious, chee cheong fun (fat rice noodles layered with salt/sweet sauce & chili sambal on side), and ‘carrot cake’ (no carrot in sight, something to do with tapioca and dark sweet/salty sauce – super yum!), the ubiquitous sugar cane juice (so refreshing!) and finished with soya bean tau hway (sweetish silken tofu goodness). And then it was 10:30am. 😀

Off for a wander – bus to outer suburb to check out the non-touristic Singapore – got 3 t-shirts for $30! 😀 Back in to mall central in the centre, wandering forever underground, escaping the humidity and heat… got Stuart a book, me a book of Singaporean poetry, and the kids a ‘Cooking Asian food for kids). Grabbed a pork floss bun with chili for a snack – omigod that’s good too! Then time for lunch. Sakae Sushi – where the sushi cruises around you on conveyor belts! You just grab what you want and they count plates at the end. Excellent!

Now must stop blogging and get back to eating – kaya toast awaits!

Cosmopolitanism and original sin

I’ve been working recently on cosmopolitanism – particularly investigating its relationship to foodscapes and foodways. It’s led me down a nice genealogical path right back to Kant, who I’ve yet to properly read (thank you Wikipedia!), not to mention the Greeks, whose word it is originally. I’ve just finished typing up my notes on Bruce Robbins’ “Comparative Cosmopolitanism” (1992), which does some very similar work to what I did in the first draft of the paper I’m delivering in India next week, but with far greater sophistication and depth. It will tie in very nicely to said paper.

The thing I’m really interested in this second (don’t blink or you’ll miss it), is the criticism of the knowledge of the cosmopolitans – Hage comes to mind in particular with his discussion of Heidegger’s argument about the ‘discourse of value’ – that is, those doing the valuing are in the position of power that allows them to value those who ‘exist’ to be valued. In Bell and Valentine’s (1997) chapter on food consumption in communities, the authors define cosmopolitanism as involving “the cultivating of ‘globalised cultural capital’ as a form of lifestyle shopping which, crucially, involves possessing considerable knowledge about the ‘exotic’ [or] ‘the authentic’” which they point out is often referred to as a “colonisation or an intellectualisation of popular culture” (135-136). Robbins offers a clear defense for the knowledge of cosmopolitans ‘to educate future citizens of the world’ rather than ‘future policemen of the world’ (he’s writing about America just after the ’91 Gulf War). But what about the ‘naysayers’, those who object to cosmopolitanism on the grounds that it is elite, based perhaps on assumptions around Bourdieu’s study of distinction and class boundaries maintained by the cultivation of particular knowledges?

What struck me was an issue I’ve had with the Adam and Eve story for a very long time. As the story goes, Eve led Adam astray, overstepped her human boundaries set by God and was tossed out of Eden for it to a life of toil and mortality. What did she do? Was it that she disobeyed God? Perhaps. Was it that she sought knowledge from the apple? Was it that she was curious? Were these her sins? Arguably, it was all of the above – and the fact that she valued knowledge over obedience is one for the philosophers to nut out. (And we shall here entirely ignore the spineless Adam’s ‘she did it’, which appears to have done him or his kind little good anyway, and makes me suddenly wonder whether he even took a bite, but I’m just being cheeky now.)

In the past, a primary concern I’ve had with this story is the other major ‘punishment’ for her ‘sin’, which was to endure pain in childbirth, which, interestingly, is because of those damned big heads of human young, chock full of readiness for knowledge. I will maintain my position that it was this Judeo-Christian story that led to millenia of Western women to think the pain of childbirth was a punishment, and that as soon as medical advances made it possible to avoid this punishment and growing secularism made women increasingly comfortable with saying such things as “we don’t ‘deserve’ this pain”, we had an epidemic of high intervention childbirths with a slurry of unfortunate side effects.

But I digress, because today I’m annoyed at this story as it seems to recur in the arguments against distinguishing oneself with knowledge, as though knowledge is somehow ‘bad’ or even ‘sinful’. If I may be provocative, it sounds like the Christian Right trying to shut down dissent again – which sounds suspiciously like what God was doing back there in Eden. Hm. Perhaps I’d best stop there, before somebody notices I’m not a Christian. Also, before I’m accused of defending ‘elitism’ uncritically, which is not my project. Of course, I don’t have to defend anything, since I’m just talking to myself here anyway…

Hey, another funny thing just occurred to me (I’m a bit slow sometimes) – to get the knowledge, Eve had to taste the apple. Is taste the original sense? Or is it just foundational or essential to identity making practices? Not that the Bible is the definitive authority on such things, of course…

In the beginning

I can’t believe I’m doing this, but welcome to my blog. I suspect I’m just talking to myself, which is kind of what I want from this experience. Finally, I’ll have a reflexive space to type that goes everywhere I do – who cares that I work on four different computers? With this blog, my, my netvibes page and, I have all the information I need as long as there’s internet. And where there’s power…

Mostly I just want to muse about food, identity and place here. Sometimes I may end up off topic, need to rant or report to myself on things I shouldn’t forget. This could be fun…