Saturday, January 17, 2009

Night Of The Living Wed





I'll never forget the look on her face.

If I'm not mistaken, it was a cross between surprise and abject fear. The bride, who only the day before looked so happy and and excited, now wore an ashen mask that was markedly different from her previous countenance. But I'm getting ahead of myself...

We left for the wedding early on Tuesday morning. Real early. We had the use of our new lawyer friend's car and driver, and the driver was almost unnaturally cheerful when he picked us up at 5:45 for the 10 minute drive to the railway station. It was dark, and the air was filled with insects and softly mumbled Muslim prayers. We said goodbye and thanks, and then moved through the main hall of the station. Past the patchwork quilt of entire families sleeping on the dusty stone floor, and past the large and disorderly queues of people trying to get a "reservation cum journey" ticket. We already had our tickets, so we headed directly for the platform, where a large LCD screen was playing a Bollywood movie very loudly to the semi-interested semi-circle gathered around it. An altar for the new age.

It was still dark when we climbed on the train. We were in a "Second Class A/C Chair Car". and we all had assigned seats, except for Isaac, who was too young to get his own chair for the whole trip. Through some miracle we were not only in the right seats, but also in the right coach, and conductor checked our tickets without incident. We had a nice 6 hour trip to Kannur, where we met up with our friend Venu shortly after getting off the train. Kannur is well off the beaten track, and does not figure prominently on a tourist's agenda. Venu took us on a short walk down the main drag to the Omaar's Hotel, which boasted both A/C and Non A/C rooms. We had the non-A/C rooms, which were spartan, sheetless, and towelless, but otherwise quite fine. Fairly clean, with a tolerable level of insect life. Thank goodness for the fans....

After a dinner at the restaurant downstairs, we went to the local beach with Venu, and then retired early. We got up around 7:30 and all headed out blindly to find a place for breakfast. Most all the shops were shuttered up tight, but after a few blocks we stumbled on the local vegetable market getting set up for the day. Trucks full of pineapples, watermelons, and bananas were offloading in the relative cool of the morning. All these workers have to eat, and sure enough, right in the heart of the activity, we found a little hole in the wall that was serving up a working man's breakfast. We had the choice of "puttu" or appam to go with the round of egg masala, which is basically a hardboiled egg in a zippy tomato curry. We chose the puttu, which is a steamed log of rice flour and shredded coconut. Quite bland by themselves, they come alive when dipped in the egg masala. A couple of cups of chai to dust off the last of the cobwebs, and we were good to go. Under 100 rupees for five of us!

Venu came to collect us just after 10 AM, and we all piled into one of those old Rambler Ambassadors that are ubiquitous in India for the sightseeing trip to a local temple and a snake park. The boys really dug the snake park, and I have to admit, a king cobra is a very formidable serpent! After a break, we piled in again for the trip to Venu's village, the site of his family home. This little village was even more off the beaten track than than Kannur, and we were informed once again that we were indeed the first foreigners ever to visit! Here, the family was busy preparing a wedding feast for nearly 600 guests. And what preparations! I now have a rough idea how to make chicken biryani for a serious crowd. There were at least 4 huge pots that would have been right at home in a cheap Hollywood cannibal movie (actually, I was never able to reconcile that primitive cannibal tribe/advanced metallurgy pot making thing...), each perched atop a metal frame so that it could be heated with a dense fire of coconut husk. They cooked the chicken first, and put it aside for later. And its worth noting that these birds, actually had flavour! The complete antithesis of factory battery chicken raising techniques, where the birds are bred to grow huge and tasteless breasts, going from hatching chick to market size in a little over 36 hours. These Kannur birds are a little leaner, and a little chewier than the factory birds, but I'll be darned if they didn't lend new meaning to the time honoured phrase, "tastes like chicken!" When I get home, I'm going to source an ethical free range chicken farmer in the Valley and buy birds like this 20 at a time for the freezer. Boycott Safeway!!

Several sacks of basmati rice were washed in a huge blue plastic drum, drained through cheesecloth, and then added to the boiling cauldrons. The flames leapt, smoke spewed, and the rice boiled. Then they add the onions, ghee, rosewater, raisins, cashews, saffron, and mint, and voila! Massive vats of biryani. Several dozen cucumbers were peeled, seeded, and chopped, along with the venerable shallot and green chili. These were combined with some salt in another vat of yogurt to make a nice cooling raita. Several tables and a few dozen plastic chairs were set up under plastic tarps, and wave after wave of people were seated and fed until they could eat no more. And the people kept coming. And coming.... By 10 PM, pretty much the whole village had popped by for a snack. The PA system barked out Indian pop tunes that everyone but us seemed to know the words to. This is where it got a little weird. Nice weird. But weird.

It turns out that we were not just invited guests, but indeed the guests of honour. We got the distinct impression that we were the first white people a lot of these nice people had seen up close. A bunch of the women and children gathered in a clutch about fifteen feet away and just kind of stared at us. If we waved, or made any kind of gesture of friendliness, they kind of did an embarrassed giggle and retreated like frightened deer, only to regroup again moments later. A few bold boys came up and extended their hands in greeting. They would fire off the 7 English words that they knew at high volume, and then retreat. This went on all evening, and culminated in us being hauled up to the place where the PA system was set up, where we were introduced as "Mr Robert, Mrs Laura, and Hemma". We were then treated to a stunning a cappella rendition of "My Love Will Go On", from the movie "Titanic", courtesy of a local singer. The PA was distorted, pushed way past its practical limits. The echo effect was on loud ("Mr. Robert obert... obert... obert...."), and the crowd loved it. I was asked to give my rendition of "Hotel California", a song that apparently every foreigner is supposed to know by heart, but in the interest of everyone keeping their biryani down, I graciously declined, citing health reasons and complex union regulations.

A terrifying ride home in a friends SUV, and we were back at the hotel by 11 PM. A family of cows with a fresh calf ambled down the street. A family of beggars with a fresh baby lay down on the sidewalk in front of the hotel for their night's sleep. Once again, the contrasts of India hit me square in the jaw. If you dwell on it, you'll go mad. Laying on the bed later, naked under a whirling fan, I couldn't help but think about what was going through the minds of the bride and groom, for this was an arranged marriage, as opposed to the increasingly fashionable "love match". Excitement? Terror? Remorse? At any rate, it was a heck of a party.

And that was just the first day...

3 comments:

jcree said...

I had a similar chicken experience in France just a few weeks ago. I thought I might be eating a pheasant or some local bird that had just been shot out in the fields. i had to ask what I was eating, and lo and behold- it was chicken. It was yellowish, meaty, rich & delicious, if not a little wild tasting. Imagine the frenchies mumbling to each other 'has she never had chicken before?' Hmmmm, maybe I haven't!

Rob Bailey said...

So let's make some joint trips to the valley to fill up the freezer when we get back! Real chicken is worth paying for. And travelling for!

svenj said...

Hunkered down in the unremitting fog we too seek a fresher flavor...Rob and Laurel - we savor each and every post. Fresh off our post holiday Wild Rose detox diet, both Tammy and I will now surrender to our animal desires to consume perverse amounts of butter chicken and saag paneer...thanks for the inspiration.