Sunday, December 28, 2008

This Ain't No Disco

So there I am, floating like a sunburned cork in the amniotic Arabian sea, when suddenly I find myself surrounded by slim and youthful bodies, their relentless brownness only interrupted by brilliant white flashes of teeth. Nearly a dozen college students corner me like a bunch of Somalian pirates in a daring daylight ocean raid. Fortunately for me, their purposes were more benign. "Coming from?", asked the ringleader, in that rapid and clipped Malayalam accent with the Spanish-style rrrrrrrrrolled r's. By now, I was used to fielding this question from strangers, and I knew it to mean "Where are you from?". "Canada", I replied. This was relayed by the ringleader to his troops to a general murmur of surprise and approval. "Your good name?", came the next question. "Robert", I answered. "And what is your occupation, sir?", asked my twiggy interrogator. Here, I hesitated. How do I explain what I do? Let's see. "I own a recording studio, but it's kind of dormant right now. I also do some software consulting for video game companies, but I'm kind of taking a break right now because I'm here in India with my wife and two kids trying to make TV series about food..." . Nope, that wasn't going to work. I opted for the safe answer that would be easily comprehended by a group of relatively new English practitioners. "I am a software engineer", I replied, knowing the engineering was a respected profession. Without skipping a beat, my new friend asked "And what is your salary?". Here, I was flummoxed. I very briefly considered averaging my last 3 years income and spitting out a number, and although that may have been satisfying from an ego perspective, it might have been crushing news to these young men who were studying hard to get their fledgeling careers started. Especially when a little quick mental math revealed that I bill more in a day than they would earn in two months, even after getting a degree. So I fudged around. "Uuhhhh.... it varies, you know...". He didn't seem to mind my obfuscatory answer. "You are liking Kerala?", he asked. "Oh yes, it is very beautiful" . At this point, he grinned wide, and turned to face his dozen or so floating compatriots. He thrust his fist in the air and shouted "KERALA!". His bobbing socialist armada quickly followed suit, and a collective cry of "KERALA!!!" went up. They were very pleased with themselves, and obviously really enjoying this encounter with a soggy and salty bearded white guy. A look of concern flashed over the face of the young man who had been asking me questions. He looked at me gravely, and asked "You are not disapproving of how we are disposing of your time?" After the few seconds needed to process the syntactical structure and tense of the question posed, I replied. "No no no. But thank you for being sensitive". Another round of "KERALA!!!", and we drifted off in different directions, literally and metaphorically.

We've been really enjoying spending some time with our cousins John and Mary Ann. It's a lot of fun seeing people experience this place for the first time. By now, Laurel and I are old pros at being here, and in fact, haggling for a cheaper autorickshaw ride has become my favourite sport. We decided to cook a big family meal together yesterday, so naturally, that meant going to the market up the street. Emma looked after the boys, and us four adults took our cloth bags and headed out. Now although the market is open every day, Sunday is THE market day of the week. Many more vendors than usual congregate and clog the already crowded sidewalks with carefully constructed displays of their wares, which are usually a variety of fruits, vegetables, and herbs.

It was fresh seafood we were after, and that meant penetrating the inner sanctum of the market, which one does by entering off the street via a narrow corridor about 30 feet long. This opens up into a rectangular open air space, the perimeter of which is rimmed with flesh vendors of various descriptions. Chickens in cages, waiting to be dispatched. Recently butchered carcasses of sheep and goat hanging in dark and aromatic stalls. There are bloody skulls and hooves distributed randomly on the stone floor, which while not necessarily advertising what kind of creature is hanging from the stall's ancients metal hooks, certainly give a strong indication of freshness.

The center of the market is where the fish and seafood vendors ply their trade. Freshly caught fish, prawns, squid, cuttlefish and crabs are displayed by a variety of vendors. If you get there early enough, some are still twitching and flopping about. The choice is staggering, and it varies from day to day, depending on the catch. I always check the gills for redness and the eyes for clarity when I buy fish. I selected a nice carp-like specimen this time and negotiated a price. "Cuttee?", the gent asked, enquiring as to whether I wanted the fish whole or scaled, cleaned, and sliced. As always, I chose this option, and my fish was handed off to a machete wielding piscean sculptor who deftly carved off the fins and scales, then cut it up into the little steaks that are so frequently seen in the restaurants as "fish fry". We also bought a kilo of really good prawns, and a kilo of cuttlefish, which had already been cleaned. Amazing stuff.

John, not looking conspicuous at all in his khaki shorts, polo shirt, and green plastic sun visor, busied himself with his video camera, recording every aspect of this slow motion journey up the food chain. For him, it was the first time he had seen anything like this. At one point, he stepped off the raised center area where the fish are sold and onto the the perimeter butcher's area. Or so he thought. Unfortunately, he failed to notice the trough that surrounded the raised area. Now the market gets a pretty regular watering down, and all the dirt, bits of fish guts, blood, and random animal parts drain off into this trough, where they proceed to marinate for an undetermined period of time. John's sandal clad foot stepped right into this trough, and he sank up to his calf. The vendors erupted in gales of laughter at this poor hapless foreigner getting his karmic comeuppance. A couple of men at the fish cutting block helped John wash the thick, black ooze from his leg, and John, being the good sport that he is, took it all in stride, so to speak. I got the sense that this may have been the funniest that that had happened there in a long time. Our bags bulging with fresh goodies, we walked the half kilometer home. John showered.

We had a great dinner last night. It's been a great experience for me to see that such good quality food can be had in circumstances that would horrify most Western people. Now, despite the smell, and the in-your-face nature of the meat vendors, I really look forward to going to the market to buy food. There are no nicely labelled plastic-wrapped styrofoam trays to insulate you from your position in the food chain. If you're going to eat something, you're going to see it whole first, and in some cases, see it breathe its last before it's tossed in a bag for your consumption later. This is a good awareness, and I much prefer it to mindlessly waltzing a cart down a supermarket aisle filled with prepackaged goods that have been trucked from 5000 miles away while Muzak softly emanates from the store speakers, distracting me just enough to stop me thinking about the evils of agricultural monoculture, industrial meat production, and multinational corporate food conglomerates.

This ain't no party. This ain't no disco. This ain't no foolin' around.

1 comment:

Brenda Jefferson said...

Your house looks great and so does the food. Happy New Year. Brenda