This is an article that I wrote for Herbivore Magazine that appeared in the summer issue last year.
There I was, sitting by myself at the Kailash Parbat restaurant and sweets store in the Colaba district of Mumbai, floating in a blissful state, anticipating the moment I had been dreaming of since I had touched down on the subcontinent a month before– my perfect Thali dinner experience. The open air restaurant, still steamy from the enveloping heat of the day, was perched on a street aglow with the festive oil lanterns of Diwali, the Hindu New Years celebration. Across the crowded street, the sweets store was bustling with families buying sweets for the holidays. Through the tinny restaurant stereo came a steady stream of Bollywood hits, ragas, and popular favorites. The soaring soprano of Asha Bhosle floated out of the speakers like the voice of god.
I’m taking a sip off a Kingfisher, tapping my foot to the beat and waiting for the main live sex show event: one of their well-known and inexpensive Thali dinners. It arrives on a large stainless steel tray filled with several small carafts called katoris; in each katori, the essential ingredients of my meal– the raita, dahl, and papad are super fresh, the rice and subji not too overcooked. Even the galub jamun ball is in piping hot rosewater syrup. I bobble my head to and fro to let my dapper waiter know that it all looks great. He smiles and bobbles back and disappears into the kitchen, probably to comb his hair again. Ah, alone at last with my meal…
You have to understand that for me, a good Thali is a religious experience, an epiphany, if you will. The moment I start eating, something comes over me that could only be described as a trance: separated from my body, I float above the meal, my hands working their way around the tray without verbal thought. I watch my hands as they are dipping and folding and grabbing and combining this with that, much like a painter mixing hues on a palette. I hear gutteral noises emanating from my head that might be mistaken for the old hot handball, if you know what I mean. Suddenly, a singeing wave of pain registers in my mouth. Oh shit, that little bead of chutney was like habanero hot, man. I reach for the hanky in my pocket, and wipe my numbed lips just in case there is food on them I can’t feel. “Oh yeah, this is what it’s all about” I mutter to myself crazily.
Mr Perfect Hair emerges from the kitchen with several stainless steel pails to refill the carafts I have decimated. Bobble, Bobble. More water, please. No, just bring the pitcher. And more rice. Yeah, more subji too. In fact, more everything, please. He smiles while he ladles in more of everything. I adjust the way I’m sitting to accommodate another round of food and smile. If Death by Consumption could be like this, put me at the front of the line.
In my revelry, I take nary a notice that my private moment had attracted an sex chat audience. Two young boys, probably brothers, sit a few tables away with their father. The boy facing me is leaning over the table saying something to his younger brother with lowered eyes that let me know that he has copped on to my scene. His brother gives me the playin’ it off glance and quickly turns back around. They laughed quietly in unison. Then it occurs to me: in my heightened reality, that chutney had done more than dealt my tongue twenty-four hit points worth of damage—it has caused me to start sweating; and when I say sweat, I’m not talking about raised beads on the upper lip. I’m talking about a ring of sweat soaking a quarter inch into my T-shirt. Four Alarm sweat. Heroic sweat. Sweat that a man might just confuse for gastronomic distress or a ruined meal.
If only I could explain it to them. They just don’t understand, you see.
I like it that way.
Thalis (say tal-ees) are the life of Indian cuisine. When one invites the Thali to their table, they also invite a sense of adventure, discovery, and trust in the karmic forces of the universe. For when you order the Thali, which comes from a Hindi word that means indentions in a bowl, you are asking for whatever is fresh for the day. Anything made in the kitchen, warm at the moment, available now, can be thrown into the mix for perhaps what is the world’s most sumptuous all-you-can-eat dinner. It can be said, at least in my limited experience, that the thali, like Mahatma Gandhi, is the Great Unifier of Indian Society: In my travels around the western side of India, I had Thalis everywhere—roadside stops and palacial restaurants, standing up around small circular tables with workers and sitting at banquets with road-weary pilgrims; using sterling and a silk napkin, and bare handing it on the floor of an ashram. In tucked away alley restaurants, in makeshift tents, on a boat, with the banana leaf as a plate, in engraved sterling tray with matching carafts. Everywhere you go, there it is. So you better start eating it.
But where to start? Below, I’ve got the baby-basics of knowing your thali dinner. This should only be taken as a starter guide, because the thali is as rich and vast as India itself. We’ll start with basic ingredients, and move on to good advice for the thali practitioner
Rice: Call it the quicker picker upper at the end of your meal, and. You can have it plain (didn’t see any brown rice in India), biryani with vegetables
Dal: This lentil based soup is at the heart of any Thali. You will invariably find some kind of dal in the mix. In some regions, such as Rajasthan, the dal takes on a sweet taste.
Curried Vegetables, or subji: In typical Hindu dishes, these will be prepared with a spicy masala which is usually a mixture of peppers, cardamom, garlic, onions, turmeric, and whatever secret weapon or regional variation the cook is using.. It is mostly a discretionary and artistic process of finding the magic balance of elements to make a perfect masala. It is simply a matter of pride.
Raita: The all-important yogurt (or buttermilk) mixed cucumbers and onions is an essential digestive aid for making that burning firestorm of a meal go down without the pesky threat of gastrointestinal revolt. Mixing a little basic raita with the rest of the meal makes for a happier digestive tract, all things told.
Bread: the staples of the Thali bread universe are the chappati, which can be roasted, fried, with or without butter, garlic, and many other things. There is also naan, which is leavened, “puffy” bread, that many times can be taken with garlic and butter. Papad is a crispy bread is usually eaten at the very end of the meal, which I’ve been told serves a double purpose: to absorb the ghee (clarified butter) you may have just eaten, and to signal the waiter that you are ready for your bill.
Sweets- wouldn’t be India without the serious sweets, now would it? A perennial favorite and a common chaturbat choice for a sweet at the end is Galub Jamun, a deep-fried ball of curd dipped in a hot syrup, the hotter the better I’ve found.
Rule number one- for krishna’s sake, wash your hands! India, despite it’s profound beauty, is filthy filthy place, and faster than you can say Shiva, you’ll have a grimy patina coating your hands with a bevy of unmentionable microbes. There’s usually a little wash basin or maybe a bathroom to scrape the shit off your mitts and get yourself right off to the side of the main dining area. Do it. Oh, and bring a hanky too.
Rule number two—Go in hungry, leave Buddha-fied. These gut-busting delights will kill unless you have at least skipped the last meal or gone light. And take it easy on the liquids during the meal. Go slow and don’t let the server bully you into taking more than you can eat. Taking more than you eat is considered offensive by Indian standards.
Rule number three—make like a Jhon wit’ those fingers, yo. You might consider me a little off, and you certainly wouldn’t be alone in this assumption, but I think using utensils is highly overrated practice anyway. Gimme a little chapatti, a mound of rice, and I can eat my body weight in mixed veggie subji using only the good ol’ pincer grasp. Bare hand it if you like—you’ll notice that most people are doing it that way too, although utensil appropriateness rises in the big cities.
Rule number four– Knowing where to start on your plate and what to do and sequencing and all that stuff is difficult and makes for a very self-conscious eating experience, but like my friend said in Mumbai, “Look around you—does anybody seem to care? In India, NOBODY CARES!” Take those words to the bank, my friend.
That being said, at the beginning of the meal, it might not be a bad idea if you get a little dahl and rice in your gullet to form a neutral base in your stomach before the firestorm begins. We’re dealing with world-class hellified chow here—best to coat soothe and relax before drinking from the lake of fire.
Rule number five: Get to know your digestive aids. India has many things that, and I suggest you book ‘em. Rice, dahl (lentils) betel seeds, paan (without nicotine), and a watered-down buttermilk called raita all help the me
Rule number six— make like a newspaper report and scoop the meal, and not just with the trusty pincer maneuver, either. Ask many questions of your server – they’ll be be pleased as Pushan to answer your questions and even provide a little regional background if you’re lucky. That’s how my little illustration of the Parsi Thali came to be, actually. Treat the meal like you might be tested on it later, and take notes on what they are saying. Eventually, like a foreign language, it will start to seep in and in no time you’ll be ordering people around like a Raj. Strike that—nobody likes an Ugly American.
On my journey, I pretended to be a journalist, writing an article on Thali cuisine for a magazine (Ok, well maybe I wasn’t pretending too much on that account), and from this simple interest came many wonderful conversations, some of which had nothing to do with the meal. Meals are a time of togetherness for Indians—if you travel alone, you might end up part of a feast.
When Tim Brown worked at an Austin-based hot line for cancer patients around the country, he listened to callers’ deeply personal stories and worries about pain and healing. He gave them information about their type of cancer and connected them with support groups.
And then, because of the nature of the job, he never talked to them again.
In an attempt to create some continuity — and to break the monotony of the phone calls — he started sketching what he imagined the faraway callers might look like. Those sketches inspired a series of paintings he created in his East Austin studio.
“You’re only going on faith that it was making a difference,” said Brown, 39, who said his background in social work left him with a desire to follow up with people.
More than three years after leaving his job at the American Cancer Society’s National Cancer Information Center, Brown has used the images to produce 10 paintings, each with a grid of 20 faces. Near each face is the place the person called from: “Bristol, VA,” “Canyon City, CO,” “Grand Prairie, TX.” Or “Unknown.”
The cartoon-style portraits range from wrinkled to youthful, plump to rail-thin. There are brown faces, white faces and sickly green faces: “A veritable quilt of life and death in these United States,” Brown wrote in his blog.
The series, “Strong Senders,” takes its name from the idea that people can psychically send their energy; in this case, Brown said, so strongly that he picked it up on the other end of the phone line.
“I talked to all these people, and more importantly, listened to them,” Brown wrote. “They all made an impression on me. I, in turn, made an impression of them.”
Brown started working at the call center shortly after moving to Austin in 1999. His mother had just died of brain cancer.
His job title: cancer information specialist.
His task: using an American Cancer Society database of up-to-date information, answer callers’ questions about different kinds of cancer and treatments. Help people find wigs or medical equipment. Send brochures.
“A lot of times, people just wanted to talk,” Brown said. “I wasn’t just seeing the public faces of Live Jasmin people. They were putting niceties to the side, expressing pain, joy.”
He heard a lot about people’s difficulties with health insurance.
“You had to absorb a lot of anger,” he said. “I’m amazed people can do it as long as they do.”
Kevin Babb, strategic director of the National Cancer Information Center, said it doesn’t surprise him that Brown turned to art.
“I think people have to de-stress,” said Babb, who arrived at the call center after Brown left. “Everyone has their own way of dealing with it.”
The call center has moved into spacious new quarters with a relaxation room, where representatives can watch a virtual crackling fire on a flat-screen TV or thumb through a National Geographic magazine after a stressful call.
In his four years at the call center, Brown estimates, he spoke with 30,000 people.
There was no time limit for the calls.
During long calls, he doodled. In 2003, Brown — who has a bachelor’s degree in painting — brought a sketchbook to work.
Some callers were easy to visualize. One portrait, “Unknown,” has spiky reddish hair and a black tank top. The man had called from his job at a convenience store wanting help quitting smoking. While talking to Brown, he was selling cigarettes.
“He was crazy,” Brown said. “He said: ‘I’m celebrating, man. I just woke up a year ago from a coma.’ It was his waking-up-from-a-coma birthday.”
Brown drew some symbolic portraits. A caller who threw a temper tantrum got an erupting volcano for a face.
By the time Brown left the job six months later, he had sketched 250 portraits.
Later, he traced 20 at a time onto a single sheet of paper, then painted the background and faces with gouache, an opaque watercolor. Finally, like a cartoonist, he inked in the faces.
Brown, who helps run the Okay Mountain gallery, also works part-time for a nonprofit organization that backs access to public transportation for people with disabilities.
In the afternoons, he works in his studio, where he’s planning to spend much of 2008 on a final “Strong Senders” piece: a giant painting with 200 faces. He’s also working on a book he expects to publish next year about the faces and the stories behind them.
He took a call from a Mickey Mantle once, as well as an Elizabeth Taylor and two Lois Lanes.
There was also a caller named Tim Brown.
Pharaohe Monch has a new record. Critics love Pharaohe, maybe because he isn't terrible, and not being terrible counts for alot in rap these days. Moistwork's own hard rimer Brian Howe liked the new record - check out his write-up at fearofawhiteplanet.com.
I won't bother re-covering Brian's tracks. Brian drops crit in ways I am not able or willing. Like Brian, I admire Monch's "durable, booming vernacular" and "showy clusters of tongue-twisting homophones." And like Brian, I'm into the ambitious song Trilogy, which sounds a little like if Outkast travelled back through time to make a neo-soul concept musical about Marvin Gaye. But I gotta disagree big time when it comes to Monch's cover of PE's Welcome To The Terrordome. Brian calls it a "dud" but I can't stop listening to the damn thing. I'll agree that covering Public Enemy is pretty much a pointless exercise. (The only act to take a swing at a PE song and make contact was Tricky, who hit it right out of the park on Black Steel.) And vocally, Monch invokes Jay-Z much more than he does Chuck D - whom he stalks more effectively on the song What It Is. The new Terrordome even employs the kind of sampling that makes Jay-Z so consistently disappointing: horn crescendos looped with a barefaced repeat that wears out any and all original bombast. But for whatever reason, next time I'm driving through the Valley of the Jeep Beats, I'll be bumping this update over the PE original, which was always one of my least favorite tracks on my most favorite albums.
I have a friend who recently slept with a guy she just met. That's not extraordinary. But he had three arms! No. He didn't. I guess I'm trying to make the situation more remarkable than it was. It was an ordinary what-for: she broke up with her boyfriend about five months ago, went on a few dates, didn't meet anyone she liked, and then she met (and liked) this guy at a party, and he asked her out, and they went to a restaurant, and he ordered them a bottle of wine, and later they held hands under the table, and still later he walked her home through a light rain, and she invited him up, and they sat on the couch for twenty minutes watching TV, and then they went into the bedroom, got strip-jack naked, and made the beast with five arms.
Anyway, a few days later on the phone, she told me that she had hooked up with this guy and I felt a twinge of annoyance that wasn't exactly annoyance. What it exactly was, sadness, requires some explanation.
I have a negative reaction to these hookups, not a moral objection but an emotional one. In one respect, the reason is obvious. Deep down, there's some element of competitiveness. It’s not that I have designs on these women - I am married - though I can imagine some version of me, in ramified time, having designs. But there's also something else. When I hear these accounts, I feel eighty years old, tired and rueful. There's something in a hookup story that seems to bring the participants one step closer to death. It's hard to explain, or maybe pitifully simple. So long as you are hopeful for sex - or romance, because that's usually the shape that casts the shadow - the world is a place of potential joy. When the target has been acquired, well, then what?
Let me come at it from another angle. If a friend were to tell me that she just had a promisingly flirtatious conversation with a guy she met at a party, I would feel a surge of excitement for her. Even my initial sense of competition would subside. But conversation is sustainable over long periods of time, partly because it sublimates other energies, and partly because it has content other than itself (the weather, or baseball, or literature, or whatever). But sex is often about itself, especially early in a relationship or before there's any relationship at all. So the needle spikes. People get off. And then, sadly, slightly, the life goes out of life, at least for a little while. (It's just a theory, but so is evolution. A few days after my friend told me about the hookup, she called back to tell me that she was in a pit of despair. The walls weren't so high that she couldn't see to the tops, but they were slippery.)
I have a feeling that maybe I've gone too far in the wrong direction, and I don't want to ignore the other side of the coin. Sadness or no, drab emotional realism never got anyone laid. It's like that episode of "You Bet Your Life" where Groucho talks to a woman about her future plans.
GROUCHO: "Now suppose you became a famous actress, and then you met somebody you liked and got married. Would you be willing to quit acting and be a housewife and a mother?"
WOMAN: "Well, I think if you keep your feet on the ground you can combine both. That's what I'd like to do."
GROUCHO: "Well, if you keep your feet on the ground, you'll never be a mother."
So here's a set of songs about the joys of not keeping your feet on the ground. One is by the great American R&B singer Wynonie Harris. One is by the Indian jazz/soul/disco siren Asha Puthli. One is by the French provocateur Serge Gainsbourg. And one is by the German heavy metal demons and inadvertent comedians Rammstein.