Category Archives: Column

Mirrors: Reflection and Realism

The realm of fantasy has a lot of mirrors that contain wonderful worlds on the other side. These worlds are wonderful because in the blank of mirrors, beyond those reflections, only imagination exists; they remain wonderful because the ‘other side’ of mirrors can’t be accessed. Perhaps it because of our familiarity with our own side, which abates our amusement with it, that we always fantasise about these mirror worlds that look the same and yet are ‘the other’.

Reality confirms that such mirrors, containing wonderful worlds, only exist in the realm of fantasy. For a mirror is essentially blank…the blank can’t contain… the blank doesn’t have anything of its own because it is, well, blank. It just reflects everything in its plain exactness. And outside the realm of fantasy, the virtue of mirrors lies not in containing fantastical worlds, but reflecting our own in its exactness and precision.

Of all the well-known painted mirrors, one of the most important in fine arts is a round convex mirror in the Arnolfini Wedding Portrait, which owes its immense fame to its precision of detail in reflection.

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The Arnolfini Wedding Portrait by Jan Van Eyck is a full size portrait of a newlywed couple, holding hands, standing in a room that has a huge round convex mirror on the rear wall. The mirror lies at the heart of this painting despite being in the background; the quality of a convex mirror to converge the size of reflected image while maintaining clear details is what Jan Van Eyck utilises to portray the opposite side of the room. The scene on the opposite side shows two figures just entering the room. The cold expression on the couple’s faces, otherwise unfit for a wedding portrait, can now be explained by the reflected scene as dismay over interruption by visitors. Knowledge of the scene on the opposite side changes our perception of scene on this side.

Turns out, a mirror need not contain an alternate world on the other side to inspire imagination. This mirror and the way Van Eyck used it has inspired a multitude of artists from all times, and had a major influence on artists of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood four centuries later. This was a group of artists who advocated realism in its extreme detail and precision, and were greatly intrigued by the mirror in the Arnolfini portrait. Mirrors are commonly featured in Pre-Raphaelite paintings, a lot of them painted in the likeness of that of the Arnolfini Portrait. Though mirrors have always been a valued tool in realist art, for the Pre-Raphaelites, mirrors were important not just for their form, but also the subject, meaning and symbolism of what they painted.

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In Il Dolce Far Niente by William Holman Hunt, the eyes of the lady fixedly gaze at the spectator, or the artists for whom she might be modelling. As used in the Arnolfini portrait to show the opposite side, such mirrors have been used by many artists to create double portraits in their paintings—portraying themselves in the very act of painting that painting. A closer look of the mirror on the rear wall in ‘Il Dolce Far Niente’, however, shows no one on the opposite side. Instead of gazing at a spectator, or modelling for the artist painting her, she is found to be just staring into the fireplace. The reflection in the mirror is what, in fact, gives meaning to the painting and makes good its title “the sweet pleasure of doing nothing”.

In another painting by the same artist, ‘The Awakening Conscience’, a couple are captured in the middle of what seems like a light romantic moment. Various objects in their surroundings, along with the lack of a ring on girl’s left hand, make it clear that she lives in an unhappy state of a mistress. Yet the girl looks hopeful and dreamy. A reflection in the mirror behind her, of a green and sunny world on the outside, reveals what she actually fancies—freedom away from this luxurious entrapment, not idle romance that provides for her vain pleasures.

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Hunt was one of the founding artists of Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. These paintings are prime examples of how the Pre-Raphaelite concept of realism was much more extensive than its visual aspect. Here, realism does not mean photo-realistic rendering of what fits in the frame. Their paintings certainly have much more than what can fit in a frame and this realism is rather concerned with presenting the picture in its entirety and exactness—what mirrors are used for.

These mirrors, more than reflecting what we can’t view otherwise, deflect our vision from what is right in front of us, and change our perspective about what we might see so plainly and take for granted. They remind us that there need not be worlds on the other side of mirrors, the world on this side is fascinating enough if looked at from new perspectives; and while fantasising about the inaccessible ‘other side’, we often miss out on reality of our own side.

Written by Eshna Gupta

Painting by Jan Van Eyck

Image Edited by Chetanya Godara

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A Delhi-cious Affair

I have always been a worrier, of sorts. I pride myself on being someone who organizes all of her time and work in a manner such that I don’t succumb to the, all too, familiar endless pit of worrying. Except that it didn’t work too efficiently during and after tenth grade. When you’re just a little tenth-grader, eleventh-grade seems like a prolonged bus ride during the span of which, you just happen to be motion-sick. Twelfth-grade is this laborious and knee-wrecking trek you have to take; once you step off the bus –  tired and nauseous. And College? College is scaling a mountain after you have trekked all the way and only to realize that the bus has left – without you.

I arrived in Delhi in July 2017 – fresh out of school, with a giant suitcase (the handle of which fell off the very next day) and a nervous yet excited smile – the feeling of apprehension lurked not-so-subtly about my every step. I had always talked about (i.e. shamelessly preached about, in my writing) stepping out of one’s comfort zone and here I was, literally fifteen hundred kilometers away from my safe haven. I was on a three-year adventure, with little mini-adventures and encounters around every corner of the way.

With little over four months into college and a new city, I had checked off a lot of new firsts on my list: my first bank account and first ATM withdrawal, first time on the metro alone, first time washing my own clothes, amongst other things. Not all of these firsts were restricted to daily activities though; first time watching a live play at the National School of Drama, first time witnessing the grandeur of Durga Puja out on the streets, first time bargaining fiercely at Sarojini market, first time feeling independent sans any terms and conditions. I become a little more confident every day and the feeling felt like no other. For the first time,  I felt like a newbie adult.

All of what I have described is just the paraphernalia that tags along with the whole “College Experience.” In truth, it is actually the full-fledged honours classes, internal assessments and end-semester exams that really seem to crowd my small plate made of Poor Time Management. When you’re a student of the CBSE board, every task in college just becomes twice as hard: getting used to having a 250 word limit for a ten marker question doesn’t fare well academically after twelfth-grade. Moreover, exam time implies greater vulnerability to stress. In the past few years, my parents’ physical presence has manifested itself in the form of moral support. Now, it has been reduced to good vibrations over the phone.

For me, independence was never about escaping my family – nor was it about having more freedom or being able to do things I couldn’t do otherwise – the concept of independence was, and will always be more along the lines of learning how to do things on my own; making my own decisions, discerning between what’s right and wrong without having someone tell me. It’s about setting things right after having made a mistake.

One major upside of me embracing my independence (read: not having my family around) is that I learned how to parent myself – I took care of myself and tried not to let anything harm me, be it physical or psychological; and if it did, I read manuals on how to get past it without a crutch. I constantly reminded myself to drink enough water because, all I saw when I looked at my empty Tupperware bottle was my mother asking , “Beta, how much water did you drink today?” Or when I had already eaten my two-roti meal and I was still craving  rice, I saw my father’s bobble-head in the air exclaiming , “Beta your plate is empty! Have some rice.” I learned how to balance my expenses, how to grocery shop, how to use the GPS better, how to fight peer pressure by myself as opposed to hoping that my mother’s “no” would serve as an excuse to dodge forceful invitations.

I’m halfway through my first year of college, and aside from the few bruises and scrapes I’ve earned on the climb up this mountain, it’s been quite alright. But then again, I’m only in my first year. Is it too much to ask, that you check up on me in a couple of months?

Written by Sukriti Lakhtakia

Feature Image by Joy Malsawhmlui

The Momo Life

Just a couple of weeks ago, I had been a part of an informal, yet essential initiation ceremony. Standing outside the back gate of LSR, I joined the gaggle of first years standing awkwardly in front of the thele-wala bhaiyya. We had been spoilt for choice – pasta in two different sauces, chilli chicken, kathi rolls, chilli potatoes, noodles, manchurian. But, the initiation demanded that we make one choice, a choice as old as time itself. ‘Bhaiyya, one plate momos,’ said the girl standing in front of me. And like sheep, we all followed her lead. ‘I don’t want to have it,’ I told my friend mutinously. Being my usual fastidious self, all I could think of was, whether momos could cause typhoid (one attack of the disease had made me averse to all food being sold on streets). My friend (she is my Pallas Athena, I swear) answered me with a simple question – ‘Are you not human?’

After that I made my peace with the fact that I was eating momos, come rain or hail. Finally, our turn came and we were handed that small cardboard and foil plate. And then we saw them- beautifully wrapped, pristine white and stuffed with goodness, sitting atop fiery red sauce. Not one word more was said, the hypnotic pull of the momos caused our hands to simply reach out for them and stuff them in our faces. There was silence. The kind of silence that follows the magic that food has the power to create. I broke it, my fingers still reaching out for the sauce, ‘Does he stuff these with cocaine or something?’ My wise friend looked at me, annoyed – ‘This is art, genius, not drugs.’

And that, my dear readers, made me think (I am the philosophical, ponderous type) – what really are these momos? A symbol, perhaps, of the Tibetan refugees, who have made Delhi their home, or of India’s North East. But what did the eternal momo mean to Delhi? It hit me, when I was having yet another plate of delicious momos – this time from Brown Sugar, no less. The momo symbolises the quintessential Delhiite – like the beautifully pleated, smooth cover, the Delhiite is immaculate when observed from a distance. But when you get a little closer, you are treated with a remarkably tangy and larger than life character, just like the momo filling. One bite into that soft dough cover and your taste buds are assaulted with a plethora of flavours, difficult to comprehend fully, at times. The momo did not emerge in Delhi, just like most Delhi peeps. But like the people of Delhi, it too now calls Delhi home. And of course, the red chutney – or as I like to call it ‘the Wrath of Achilles’ – is present within every single Delhiite. I am pretty sure dear reader, that this hasn’t escaped your notice. That killer glare and very loud ‘Excuse me?!’ you are treated with when you try to snatch away the last pair of Rs. 100 ripped denims in Sarojini, or the fierce bargaining done by your Delhi friend with the autowallah, are all manifestations of that red chutney. All these features of the momo are actually those aspects of Delhi that make it interesting. The glitzy facade, the wholesome interior and bits of plain old wrath combine to produce a frighteningly beguiling vortex that lures in women and men, quite like the ring of Sauron.

My momo mania has transferred onto my whole family now, and come weekends, plates of these beauties adorn our dining table. Steamed options, boiled ones, wonton soup, rice paper dumplings, wontons with egg wrappers and so on are now all tried and tested in my household. But, it is the momo, the true, thela-wala momo that keeps me going. As college proceeds and all of us go from being confused freshers to being simply confused, we can find time only for one thing – running to the outside thela, or any such shady establishment, for a plate of momos, the source of a teensy bit of joy in our swamped lives. Quite like Delhi, it would seem. Her traffic choked lanes make us want to choke the city itself, but a day away from her and we start missing the glib salespeople of Sarojini and Janpath.

So, if you want to do some deep soul searching, then I suggest go grab a plate of momos.

Written by Visakha Chowdhury

Feature Image by Devika 

UP AND ABOUT AND AROUND DHARAMSHALA-MCLEODGANJ

PEOPLE AND MOTION

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#1
The commencement of a journey is something that each person has their own interpretation of; for some it’s the moment they start feeling the gentle goodbyes of their home, while for others it starts the moment they reach the destination, and for others the distance between two places and how it’s traversed is what counts.

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#2
After 10 hours of being in the train, the excitement of the trip gets replaced by the need to be on a surface which doesn’t give a lurch every now and then. Also, the need for a hygienic and functional washroom tips the scales of your mood on the duller side. But on the brighter side, the mornings spent in the trains make for the best sunrises as you see the motions of the world come alive in tandem with the motion of the train itself.

PEOPLE IN PLACES

 

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Going to a hill station and not visiting its cafes seems almost blasphemous. ‘The Divine Hima’, located in the interior of one of the winding streets of Dharamshala is worth all efforts. It gives you an aesthetic overdose with its warm and inviting interiors decorated with the photos of nature in all its beauty enclosed by wooden walls, ceilings and floorings. The café, along with cookies, cakes and shakes also offers you a heavy dose of melancholy as you go deeper inside to discover a mantelpiece with a fireplace, polaroid shots taken of wilderness and a modest reading space upstairs. All in all, it’s a beautiful place for a soulful retreat.

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#4
One of the much-hyped places to visit in Mcleodganj is the “Illiterati Café”. It has its own locational advantages, situated within the long winding chain of hills with clouds tumbling down like waves from the foggy sky. Acclaimed for its theme of a book café, it serves delicious bakery goods while displaying a modest collection of books. The place has a homely aura which accentuates the effect hills have on a person; calmness, serenity and scattered voices of a million inhabitants come together in an overpowering silence that takes over your senses.

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Continuing with the importance of places which exist in their quiet solitude, one can’t help but contemplate the idea of escape. It revolves around one’s need to find respite when the present circumstances become too overwhelming to find a way out of. One thinks of escape when the edge of the abyss of sleep seems out of reach, when one’s sense of balance fails to adapt to the situation and when one simply becomes sick of monotony. This need makes such places of retreat even more attractive, places that look far removed from the ones which make up your day to day life and bring out the hidden talent of an artist, writer or poet from within. The idea of escape pushes you towards wanderlust and that makes the prospect of existence all the more interesting.

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It’s almost as if the silence pushes you closer to your own self and allows you the luxury of studying your own reactions and movements, and take on several things to evolve as a person, as your own person. And that is perhaps why the notion of travelling solo is so popular. Sometimes, we forget to grow up while consistently surrendering to the world’s demands of behaving like an adult and trying to wrap it all in layers of lies till the cracks start showing. One often needs to move out from their usual habitats to repair those cracks into a demeanor that is more real.

PEOPLE AND NATURE

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This picture shows a particular point to the hike where Maggi costed slightly higher than it usually does. Nevertheless, the view of the setting sun and the hills coming alive with the lights of the inhabitants’ houses illuminating the hill like fireflies was worth the toil. On another level this picture highlights the concept of perspectives as well; while some choose to pleasure their naked eyes upon the sprawling beauty, others prefer to capture it through lenses, trying to make it everlasting in their archives, and the others choose to make memories of companionship.

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#8 (sketch by- Misha Panduval)
Within people exist so many ways of living and seeing, and all of them end up finding their own place to thrive beneath the same sky and on the same earth. This picture further adds to this description of perspective because there also exist some people who look at beauty with the intention of inspiration. Capturing the wild, uncontained and unending beauty of nature in words and pencil strokes comes with the perils of putting words and labels to your emotions, both of which are simultaneously a creative mind’s challenge as well as motivation.

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#9
This picture draws a parallel between the downward descent of people as well as the sun with its blaze of fading light behind them. Everyone fears the night and only few are brave enough to venture into its unbeknownst dwellings. But these long meandering paths lined with rocks and the wilderness of greenery witness the night, its secrets and all that it refuses to part to the light of the day.

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Goodbyes are a tricky concept while returning from a vacation or a trip; you aren’t extremely familiar to the place, yet you have had one of the best times of your life there and you are still not ready to get over it. It is the idea of relaxing and removing oneself from the pressing worries that causes makes farewells look so unappealing. So you take back all that you can, from stray flowers to press between fancy diaries, postcards to be kept beneath books, memories from the road trip where the sky changed from purple to pink to orange to the fulfilling friendship formed over the mutual awe expressed over Jasmines growing out of shady groves.

One tries to take back as much of the place as possible, trying to map the distances of heart, mind and roads through pictures, postcards and strokes of a pen, only for the meaning of it all to fade away with time, for such is the tragedy of memories.

Written and Photographed by Ananya Vasishtha

Feature Image by Ananya Vasishtha 

 

 

 

 

STARE OF THE MUSE

Art does not exist for the mere purpose of decorating shelf-tops and wall-fronts of palaces, neither does it exist for sitting ideally behind glass cases, hunting for the highest bidders. Coloured canvases have stories to tell that escape the yellow pages of historian’s journals—social histories, personal anecdotes, political upheavals—that could have been lost otherwise.

A painting might sit there, right above your head, without ever being looked at, unless it has something about it that has the power to trouble you and throw you out of your chair into a trail of questions leading up to those stories that escape the yellow pages of a historian’s journal. Even if you can’t dig up any social histories and personal anecdotes, it might just become your muse!

In that respect, Johannes Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring must have thrown a lot of people out of their chairs. For there is no end to the questions she raises, and there are no answers are to be found.

The Girl is recognizably European. She has a loose garment over her bust. As per today’s fashion, it might qualify as a camel-jacket thrown over a white pull-over, but people have trouble guessing what it might signify for a 17th-century Dutch costume. The turban she wears is often identified as oriental, and is certainly odd for a European face. The earring itself is abnormally large and too finely polished for a pearl. Who is she? What is she wearing? Is that really a pearl earring? Is she wearing only one? Is it even her own?

Vermeer probably wasn’t convinced that these questions were troubling enough to throw you out of your chair, so he didn’t stop there. The girl looks back with her head turned as if having suddenly remembered something she had to do but did not do. Her lips are parted as if she was going to say something, but decided otherwise. The strong, expectant, unexplained gaze is hard to resist. What is it that had slipped her mind? What is it she wanted to say? Why does she gaze so?

Another question that must come to your mind is whether Vermeer intended to throw you out of your chair with this painting…for there isn’t just one reason why an artist might create something. Wondering about the artist’s intention is inevitable once you become aware of the effect it actually has on you. And it was one such trail of thought that left me wondering what effect the Girl had on me.

What she is wearing is far from familiar—more so for the times that I live in than any other. Her attire is very unrecognizable, and so is she. I say this for the only tag of recognition I can give her is that of a stranger; the attire that she has been portrayed with would make me believe that it was so for the artist, as it is for me.

Yet, there is something about her face that does not let her be a stranger—it haunts! The soft strokes of her face make it hazy, as if it were slowly fading away. At the same time, it is highlighted by the colour and shadow scheme which focuses the visitor’s gaze on it, making it all the more captivating. It all leads me to believe that she must have been either a stranger, someone refusing to be effaced from memory even when there remains no reason to remember them. Or a loved one, long gone and kept alive in memory, whom the passing days do efface much against our will. For she exists in this rather extraordinary amalgam of the strange and the familiar, the forgotten and the oft- evoked. I believe she personifies memory. Retained and renewed as memories are—through souvenirs — it is important that she is The Girl with the Pearl Earring, something which becomes indispensible to her very being.

Witness, memorise, record, send posterity on a quest and make it witness too—things both historians and artists do. Yet the whys behind the creation of art and whats of the artists’ intentions are always fascinating because all is never revealed, and what is revealed is never conclusive. This fascination is what throws people out of their chairs into a trail of questions that lead to discovery and creative expeditions. And as you might observe in this column throughout, this is what has thrown me out of my chair too, into a space where there are no constraints to my imagination.

It must have been such whys and whats of this painting as well, for they are innumerable and interminable, that would have led to the origin of the varied literature that surrounds it. The artist’s life history is lost to us. The painting itself remained undiscovered for more than two centuries after his death. This girl’s story is one of those which escaped the yellow pages of a historian’s journal, but the literature it went on to inspire ranges from Tracy Chevalier’s fiction, its movie adaptation, and play performances to scholarship that includes clinical studies as well as Edward Snow’s rather emotional account of his encounter with the stare. The painting, despite a lost history, did not get lost and managed to trouble us enough to bring forward a story—a story about the lack of a story.

Some stories will always get lost beneath unwritten pages of histories, simply because we don’t know them yet. But if you look around, there’s always one odd girl, one odd earring and one odd stare, looking back and asking, “Do you wonder why I exist?”

Written by Eshna Gupta

Painting by Johannes Vermeer

Image Edited by Chetanya Godara

A Paperback Memory

Last year, in December, my grandfather was kind enough to take my sister and I to an annual book fair. It is safe to say that the three of us returned with empty wallets but hands full of books, and shiny grins on our faces. It pains me to confess that of all the new paperbacks, since then, I have managed to read only two. An exaggerated traitor, I have resorted to the realm of online reading. Sure, it is quite convenient to not lug around the weight of a physical book, but the experience cannot possibly be the same.

Reading a paperback book allows me to appreciate the delightful punctuation used by the author – the carefully placed semicolons, the graceful commas; which is a rarity on the Internet. When you have the soft, white pages before you to savour, a smudged screen peppered with fingerprints can’t even begin to compare. When you read a book which is particularly heart-rending, your salty tears are invitingly soaked by the paper, almost as if to say, “there, there darling; let it all out.”; what makes you cry also dries your tears.

The art of reading books brings the idea of “six degrees of separation” to a whole new level: you and a complete stranger are merely six books away from getting to know each other. To me, the idea of a second-hand book sale is wondrous. Novels that are carefully preserved over the years and have traces of another book-lover’s presence. Dog-eared pages tell me that line sixty-three on page five hundred and seven is close to the previous reader’s heart. A note on the first page that reads, “Happy birthday, love. I wish you the best in life and hope you reach for the stars!”

A few weeks ago, I watched a play which introduced me to my favourite line: “Kaash hum ek lambi saas le kar keh sakte ki zindagi mein koi mushkile nahi hai.” (I wish we could take a deep breath and say to ourselves that in life, there are no troubles). Why else do we read books? We read to forget, to imagine, to create, to believe in a world apart from the troubled one that we live in and to have an adventure without leaving the warmth of our cozy comforters. My parents have always encouraged me to read; a major chunk of my childhood was spent reading Ladybird books rather than hosting makeshift tea-parties. While I don’t always remember the plot of each book I have read so far, it is almost impossible to forget what I felt once I finished it.

When I finished reading Thumbelina, I felt happy that the little thumb-sized girl had finally found a home for herself (and a tad bit envious that she had had so many adventures within just fifteen pages!). When I read The Kite Runner, my heart was heavy and my eyes refused to dry. Once I finished Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, I was in awe of the author because never before had I witnessed such creativity. It was this three hundred and sixty-eight page novel, one of my all-time favourite books, that made me think ‘I want to write a book of my own.’

My first outing since I moved to Delhi was the visit to Pragati Maidan to see the annual book fair. I bought three books and the next time you hear from me, the conversation would begin with a happy, satisfied sigh because I would have read my first paperback book in a very, very, long time.

Written by Sukriti Lakhtakia

Image by Sheena Kasana

Of Frothy Chocolate Drunk From Crumbling China In A Chocolate House

Melt the cheapest variety of chocolates available over a hot pan of water. Stir till silky and frothy. Add a cup of milk and one spoon of full cream. Two spoons of sugar, if you feel indulgent and if the guests coming, are important and not new money. The nouveau bastards won’t know the difference either way. Serve in the ancestral tea set you preserved after selling off your diamonds. Garnish with the most expensive chunk of chocolate available. Don’t forget to keep a cup aside for him, as a last attempt to stop him from going to the blasted debauched chocolate houses.

In this column, dear reader, as we draw close to an ending, I’d like to go back to the beginning. This beginning is the one of chocolate. Chocolate and the roots of its building into the commodified and much-loved condiment that it is today. What I also look at is an analysis of the significance of chocolate and chocolate houses as reflections of the social processes and change during the Eighteenth Century. Chocolate represents the crumbling of the old aristocracy while indicating the arrival of the industrial age and the revolution for egalitarianism.

On September 14, 1715, Dudley Ryder wrote in his diary:

“Rose between 6 and 7. Got myself ready for my journey to the Hay with Cousin Billio and his wife. At 7 o’clock cousin and his wife came. They would not stay to drink chocolate and so left me to follow them after having drank some chocolate.”

Ryder, Attorney General in 1745 and later Lord Chief Justice, was an uptight man, extremely particular about rules, and the fact that he delayed his trip to drink his chocolate indicates to the careful reader, the obsession of the English citizens of the early Eighteenth Century with this drink, which was very carefully manufactured.

After the first beans of cocoa had hit the European continent in the sixteenth century, the first chocolate drink was sold in a shop called The Coffee Mill & Tobacco Roll. The drink had been earlier sold in Coffee houses, but due to its bitter taste and expensive rates, it was ignored for a cup of coffee that had more caffeine and hence, packed a better punch in a cup.

As Matthew Green notes for Chocolate Houses in London, “For a city with little tradition of hot drinks (coffee had only arrived five years earlier), chocolate was an alien, suspect substance drunk associated with Popery and idleness (i.e. France and Spain)” and, it came from alien lands of the new world for the herb was said to be grown in Central America, giving it a mysterious and sketchy aura for the English elite.

Hence, to generate a demand the market was flooded with a “slew of pamphlets”(Green), posters put up in every nook, diaries and the newspapers carried accounts of chocolate as this wondrous miracle drink that cured hangovers, was preferred by royalty and more popularly, acted as an aphrodisiac.

As William Hughes writes: “[Chocolate] revives drooping spirits and cheers those ready to faint, expelling sorrow, trouble, care & all perturbations of the mind, is an ambrosia … it cannot be too much praised.”

“The public was sold on it” (Green), and soon, multiple Chocolate Houses sprang up across London giving rivalry to the coffee houses and tavern culture. White’s Chocolate House established in St. James’s Street (1699) was one of the most popular. Incidentally, it is also the model for the chocolate house setting for Congreve’s The Way of the World. Its popularity gave the English Government another lucrative opportunity to earn money and so a heavy tax was imposed on it.

The tax ensured that only the wealthy could afford the drink, thereby rendering the Chocolate Houses, spaces for the privileged. The Chocolate Houses also capitalised on the fact that it was aristocracy and the nouveaux rich who were their target audience and hence, introduced an entrance fee of a penny besides the additional cost of chocolate. To cater to every whim of those with the money, the Chocolate Houses transformed into hubs of gambling, political discussion, gossip and all kinds of debauchery the rich and those who aspired to be rich indulged in.

And hence, in “the most fashionable hell” that London was, the Chocolate Houses became the most fashionable and hellish institution around. To be able to afford a drink of chocolate declared one’s status and to frequent the place made one fashionable.

In light of what stood as modish, let’s take a detour to visit the idea of the emergence of London City which ran parallel to the emergence of chocolate Houses in London. What Arthur J. Weitzman notes about the changes in London as it emerges as a city, that “The increase of trade brought wealth to the city and sparked a building boom”, is evident in the fact that multiple stores and institutions started selling chocolate and Chocolate houses opened to cope with the demands.

Also, “there was a steady improvement of civic life as affluence and luxury seeped down through the classes in the city” (Green), and nothing spelt luxury like chocolate did. The drinking of chocolate became a performance that the aristocrats and the new moneyed class (that had earned their wealth through trade; in some cases trade of cocoa itself) indulged in, to establish their status in the society. This ‘performance’ was reflective of a larger anxiety that was prevalent in the society.

The waves of economic change introduced through the opening up of trade marked the cultural transformation from “vestigial feudalism to a new economic order,” one governed by money and not birth or blood. The aristocracy desperately clutching to the power they derived from their status emphasised the performance, and the gentility (the new moneyed classes) indulged in this performance, in turn, to prove their status.

This is also reflected in the first act of The Way of The World (1700) set in a chocolate house. The act has Petulant, the fool and the fop desperate for social ascendance in class, who pays people to call on him in the chocolate house to accord himself importance. If one would look at it in light of Foucault’s discourse on power, this is a clear example of a body made docile by the discourses and institutions of power and then, made to submit to the codes of behavior expected from his aspired-to class.

The relevance of the Chocolate Houses lies in the manner in which Congreve uses it to show the trajectory and irrelevance of the Rake figure in the contemporary times and the New Century. As many critics have noticed, the Restoration rake did become the reformed rake, as morality triumphed and sentimental comedy took over.

Richard Braverman argues that the failure of Fainall – the rake figure in the play, and hence positioned as the villain, lies in the fact that he hadn’t adapted to the changing times unlike Mirabell. Fainall hence represents the old crumbling aristocracy in the face of the new society governed by money.

In an analogy related to the chocolate house, Braverman writes that Fainall’s power has been proven symbolically impotent. His Rakish status is outdated and dead when he asks, “Bring me some Chocolate.”

Braverman writes,“Fainall is himself powerless by the location of his ‘court’. He holds forth in a chocolate house, a venue of new men and social equality, rather than the tavern, where rakes traditionally assemble to restore themselves after a debauch.”

Fainall’s court, representative of royalty and aristocracy, has been replaced by a chocolate house. An institution governed by power and privilege secured through birth and blood has been replaced by an institution governed by money.

In a paradox, the social set up of Chocolate Houses, governed by money, ends up democratising power and debauchery. Debauchery and Rakishness earlier reserved for the elite, are now due to the power of the money, available to all. Hence, to spin the words of a common anecdote to suit the purpose of the argument — when everyone is a debauched rake, no one is a debauched rake.

In another paradox, the chocolate house becomes a symbol is of, in this context, one associated with the spirit of Revolution in the eighteenth century. The spirit of the chocolate in the Chocolate Houses reflects a democratisation of society based on money but also, the debauchery and cruel decadence of the rich and the royal, in sharp contrast with the dying poor, which became a premier cause of the French Revolution itself. One has to but look at the instance of the royal family’s Flight to Varennes in 1791 where Marie Antoinette refused to part with her silver chocolatière, to realise the significance of the chocolate symbolism.

Chocolate Houses, were as Braverman calls them: “A venue of male sociability reserved for news and gossip, wit and especially cards.” The decadence associated with gambling ran so deep as to destroy whole inheritances, fortunes and even kill people. The addiction to gambling and the destructive power of it is evident in the legendary White’s betting book, which archives wagers from 1743 to 1878. It consists of bizarre predictions like:

“Mr Howard bets Colonel Cooke six guineas that six members of White’s Club die between this day of July 1818 and this day of 1819’, reads one typical entry (Colonel Cooke won). Elsewhere there are bets on which celebrities will outlive others; the length of pregnancies; the outcomes of battles; the Madness of George III; the future price of the stock; and whether a politician will turn up to the Commons in a red gown or not.”(Green, 2017)

To return to the cruel underbelly of the cruelty of Chocolate Houses – what chocolate itself was representative of was slavery. Labelled by Carl Linnaeus, the 18th-century scientist as Theobroma cacao — food of the gods – it was a product of the exploitation of the slaves, from the plantation culture in the colonies of Africa to the very trading of cocoa beans as a commodity along with the slaves.

Another insight that further reflection upon the connection of Slavery and Chocolate offers is into the relationship between the Old World and the New World. A chocolate according to James F. Gay was more “American than American Pie.” It was one of the few things, a subset of trade practices that was linking the two worlds together amidst their fraying strands of connection as the New World declared its independence.

Chocolate allowed other products of slavery to flourish, like Sugar. If one were to compare the recipe of Chocolate drink between the two centuries the comparison yields the following result.

In 1692 the following recipe was published by M. St. Disdier of France:

“2 pounds prepared cacao

1 pound fine sugar

1/3 ounce cinnamon

1/24 ounce powdered cloves

1/24 ounce Indian pepper (chile)

1 1/4 ounce vanilla

A paste was made of these dried ingredients on a heated stone, and then it was boiled to make hot chocolate.”

By 1700, Sidney Mintz notes, “Chiles” disappeared completely from the recipes and was replaced with an extra ounce of sugar. He attributes this to the significance of sugar as a luxury product that “embodied the social position of the wealthy and powerful.” He further elaborates “sugar’s usefulness as a mark of rank—to validate one’s social position. To elevate others, or to define them as inferior.”

The aristocracy’s clinging to chocolate to define their status and the increase in the portion of sugar and cocoa which represents the new money culture emphasises how Chocolate became a symbol of the Old and New period. The fact that the bitter cocoa extract of the 1650s which was discarded by all became the envious frothy “food of the gods” liquid of the eighteenth century symbolises the nature of the change that the turn of the eighteenth century brought. It was a change that said loud and clear that the aim was to not destroy the old culture, but in the true essence of its utilitarian economical reasonable ideology, the purpose was to preserve the best parts of the old, while recreating a convenient New.

The seeds of the Industrial Revolution themselves can be seen in the production of cocoa as people discovered newer implements to mass produce chocolate as demand for it increased. In France, 1776 Dorset invents a hydraulic processor to grind cocoa beans into a paste, facilitating the first large-scale production of chocolate. The constant inventions and experimentation with the recipe of the drink and its associated implements hinted at an age obsessed with science and innovation.

To conclude, chocolate and chocolate houses themselves became an emblem of social relations and more importantly a social change in the eighteenth century. The consumption and production peaked and declined with the beginning and ending of the century, connoting the whimsical time of the Eighteenth Century.

The production declined in line with the revolutionary ideas of liberty, equality and fraternity but when chocolate returned in the Nineteenth century as a product of an Industrial mass production rather than, the colonial upper-class decadence, it was here to stay.

As I end my last column of the year, it is but obvious for me to enquire of the reader if you have stayed with us from the basting through the roasting and finally plating?

If yes, I hope that the next time you look at that chunk of chocolate in your hand or read about the picnic of Blyton’s Famous Five, you will think of food as more than just bread and butter that Anne made and Julian ate.


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Morsel
Yours Truly is an ambitious young adult who writes about the only thing they are accomplished in: eating.

Written by Devika
Updates monthly


Column icon by Kanishka
Featured image by Sanna Jain

 

Creating Stories: Because Snapchat is Never Enough

The world had a lot of plans for 2017, but WhatsApp deciding that it needed its own version of Snapchat stories was not one of them.

The merits and demerits of this feature aside (I think we can all agree that while the update was made with good intentions, the removal of the original typed WhatsApp status was a poor decision, one that WhatsApp had to rectify due to the backlash.) – the temporary story making form is a growing trend. Instagram decided it needed it, WhatsApp brought it in, and even Facebook has its own version now.

Everyone is telling a story.

The era of peak TV has brought with it something else – the understanding that someone is always watching. We pose for the invisible camera that is our movie, and with the right filter it starts to look more and more like the epiphanic moment of romantic revelation coming closer. Of course, if one chooses to be part of another movie, the right filter can give you the tortured detective ideal that you need – with the fairy lights making your existence just a little bit more Peter Pan than whatever it had been before.

Democracy in literature has allowed us this right – we design ourselves, we make ourselves, we fashion who we are – and with the right filter, we can make our own movies. The constant storytelling is almost voyeuristic, since the designing of your self is in constant view. Everything, from the caption to the image, to the time limit and the words said – everything goes through a mental screening. And this process entails just one decision: who do you want to be today?

The tools which allow this constant self-fashioning can be examined further. What is the difference between the article you share on Facebook, the picture of your room on Instagram, or the written status you choose for WhatsApp? What does it say when you share a meme about what kind of humour you like, and on which platform it is allowed? How is it that on Snapchat – which is more exclusive, allowing you to decide who sees the story – captions can have swear words? Facebook, on the other hand, works as a more general platform where we avoid putting up anything our parents would disapprove of.

The differences between these platforms bring us to the issue of the performative part of our identity. We make ourselves for other people to see almost constantly, and the way we make ourselves changes with the group we interact with. There’s nothing inherently new about this. Every person changes depending on whom they speak to – but currently, this performance has become more defined, and caters to a larger audience. The way we fashion ourselves has increased with the sheer number of tools we have to do just this – because with every meme we post, we add to what people think of us.

The focus of literature and movies also shows the way this fashioning has changed. The democratisation of media has allowed almost anyone to imagine that they are part of this grand narrative – this movie, one with the right playlist, the right words, the right poetry, is theirs for the taking. We design our lives to look like these movies – the validity of unsaid experiences fades because, as in movies, the most hidden moments of a character’s progression are always part of the scene. Therefore, even moments of peaceful solitude are captured and shared, so that the experience becomes an interesting blend of your own performance and the constant feedback of your audience.

Everything becomes a story to be told. And in that we become stories – constantly read, and constantly needing an audience.

Cheers,

T in a Cup


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A Cup of T
‘T’ as in me, ‘Cup’ as in tea, ‘Of’ as in preposition and ‘A’ as in article. Bringing you thoughtful rants on TV, books, society and various other things induced by too many cups of ice tea.

Written by Tanvi
Updates every fortnight


Column icon by Sanna Jain
Featured Image by Stuti Pachisia

“CALCUTTA”

Jodhpur Park, 5: 35 p.m.

The burner was rain-splattered. There was a tear in the blue tarpaulin overhead, which went uncared for unless rainwater plopped into the tea that was slowly simmering. Simmering now; it would boil over soon enough. But Bablu da turned down the knob at precisely the right moment, before it did. 8 rupees for a bhaand.

The burner took a break. Calcutta is a city that often seems to be, to the outsider, on an endless break. You’d be envious of its languid vacation. Men women children yellow cabs mini-buses hand-drawn rickshaws sprawled across the asphalt bed, inhaling the tar and the light blue sky all at once. That’s Calcutta for you. The City of Joy, of culture and heritage and music. To her lovers, Calcutta’s cacophony is music. Hot debates over steaming cha-shingara is an orchestra. The dull hum that sets in every night, as the brown oil-soaked paper covering the egg-chicken rolls sticks to the plates, is a lullaby. Calcutta’s lovers are probably among the most possessive. After all, it’s the city with a soul. Argue with that, and you may subtly or not-so-subtly be labelled vapid.

It was all very laughable for a while. A city with her people and their eccentricities. It was cute, almost. But for how long does one laugh at isolation? For how long do you find yourself amused when you’ve walked the entire stretch from Park Street to New Market and felt nothing but empty and alone?

I was always asked why I don’t say ‘Kolkata’. ‘Kolkata’, ‘shohor’- names given to a city by her lovers. Excuse my gendering of it, but Calcutta to me has always been feminine: the bashful beloved, the cruel mistress, or the cool and aloof singer at the downtown bar. Or it could be conditioning. I don’t know. I haven’t bothered to find out. That is how it has been, you see. My romance with Calcutta, however fleeting, has always felt like a hand-me-down raincoat. Friends who had inhabited this metropolis for years had often resembled condescending, elder siblings. The things they own are simply…better. And now that I have them too, I better value them, love them. The lack of romance, however, was more my own. Never felt second-hand. And that bothered me. I struggled to experience Calcutta. I went to College Street, strolled among the lawns of Victoria, sat sipping cha at Princep Ghat as dusk resisted the night. Calcutta did not become shohor.

Coming back to nomenclature. ‘Calcutta’ is endearing, yet foreign. My relationship with the city has been an exhausting and persistent process of inching closer and shrinking away. I was always heavily aware of being on the outside. Calcutta doesn’t belong to anyone, but her people do belong to her. I yearned for the sense of belonging that I never felt, be it in Maidan, in Coffee House, while flicking the ash off a dying cigarette, or in the by-lanes of Shobhabazaar. Park Street remained a blur of neon lights and Chinese food and debates over the steak at Oly Pub. Despite living in the southern part of the city, it never grew into my go-to place for a night-out. Yellow cabs flitted in and out of sight, from my 27th floor balcony. The world down below with a million people, dreams in their veins and coals in their hands, did not have to make sense to me. If only I could get a little closer.

Romance is Bablu da’s steaming bhaand of perfectly coloured tea in rain. But Calcutta and I were locked in a long-term relationship, and there was no love lost between us. We gave each other space, and too much of it. We were respectful to each other, and did not stop its turning into cold civility. I had typed ‘but’ instead of ‘and’ in the previous two sentences, but hit backspace each time. Because I don’t know if there is any regret anymore. I knew regret. I had seen it on the face of the old manager of Paramount, as a twenty-something abused Lenin, and ordered sweet lime juice instead of daab-er shorbot. Regret was Au Bon Pain in place of Music World. Regret could be spelled out.

How do you spell nothing?

I can be apathetic. I can be distasteful. But I can’t refute Calcutta. Every time the air-hostess welcomes me to Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose International Airport, the city and I greet each other like old lovers who neither accept nor reject one another. We are going to spend some time together now. Struggle, to tolerate, if not love.

Image by Deyasini Chatterjee


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Vagabonding ft. Chai
Ramblings from the life of an insomniac Lit major living by Stevenson’s aphorism: “The great affair is to move”, and trying to make sense of life and its squiggles.

Written by Deyasini Chatterjee

Updates monthly

Of English, American Cheeses clubbed with Paneer in the Melting Pot

On a low flame, place the non-stick frying pan of the latest quality. With a little butter, add the hunk of rare English Stilton cheese that Chachaji brought for the family from his last Europe tour. As soon as it starts melting, add about five slices of American processed cheese available in your nearest supermarket. The two melted masses should mix into each other, but don’t be alarmed if bits of the American cheese stick out of the goop. It is an inherent quality of the American cheese, especially when cooked with an English one. To give it an exotic and exciting taste, add turmeric, cumin and red chilli powder.

Serve with a dash of saffron brought straight from the hills in an airtight plastic bag, available at your nearest supermarket.

Spread on English wheat bread or roti, whatever suits your taste.

As identities around the world get further convoluted with the circulation diverse ideas, some embrace the oncoming change, while for others, it becomes important to assert their authenticity through their “Indian-ness” or “American-ness” in the face of the massive ideological onslaught.

Amidst this tumult of the citizens of the world coming to terms with their hybrid-cosmopolitan identities informed by the chaos of politics, circulating ideas, cultural and religious influences, economic conditions, our movements, restriction of these movements and multiple other factors, the space where these play out becomes very important.

Our food obviously embodies this tumultuous state of our identities while reflecting the metaphorical heat these identities are cooked under. Whether it’s the slight bashing of religion or the tadka of politics, our food reflects the space our identities are created and exist in.

The 2006 Man-booker novel of Kiran DesaiThe Inheritance of Loss puts food and its associated imagery to brilliant use by using it as a literary device which paints a raw, heart wrenching and yet, a satirical picture that encompasses multiple ideas. Though Desai’s work does not reek of the excessive “Indian spice” that Indian-English writers often, in their bid to appear exotic, generously sprinkle —pardon, pour— all over their product, her novel does create a coagulated mass which — though an extremely intelligent and well thought-out one—might be hard to digest for a mundane reader.

Publisher’s Weekly writes about it as ‘…alternately comical and contemplative…[Desai] deftly shuttles between first and third worlds, illuminating…the blinding desire for a “better life”.’

Jemubhai Popatlal Patel, usually known as the Judge throughout the novel, inhabits the identity of a colonial servant—the babu, rendered a foreigner in his own country as he disregards his Indian origins to eat even his rotis and puris with a fork and knife. The novel circles around him and his household consisting of his granddaughter Sai, his cook, and the latter’s son Biju.

The cook, his identity consumed by his profession, has no name or identity beyond his kitchen and the house of his employer. But in an attempt to give his son the dignity and independence that he lacks, he sends Biju to the USA. The novel literally jumps between the First and Third world as it captures the experiences of Biju in America. The Judge’s present day household is caught between the Gorkhaland insurgency and the Judge’s own colonial memories.

One of the most important images that make the relationships between most of the characters in the novel painfully clear is that of the Dining table in the house. A dining table, even in an Indian household much like this one, indicates several things. First, it represents a desire to be Western-ised, for eating at a certain time together on a table, bound by rules and etiquettes, is a western experience passed on to the Indian population during the colonial mission. The Judge’s adherence to the rules dictated by the dining table and his insistence on following all the essential rules related to the etiquette of eating in the correct order of the courses indicate a colonial hangover (which we still haven’t found a cure to).

His treatment of people who do or do not adhere to these rules also indicates his relationship with that person. The dining table becomes a site of his relationship with people, beginning with his wife, Nimi who he detests because of her “uncivilised – Indian” mannerism. His treatment of her is forever documented by the table cloth which still carries the stain of the port wine from the time he spilled it while trying to fling the glass at her for “chewing in a way that disgusted him”.

Meanwhile, his beloved dog, Mutt, despite her status as a “kutti” in the eyes of the world, is the closest to him. This is indicated by her seat not only at the dining table, denied to various human beings like the cook, but also in a position of privilege which is right next to him, which is denied to even his family members. In fact, troublesome times emphasise the animal’s position of extreme privilege, when the dog of this upper class family eats better than the human beings of the household. The Judge bars himself and his granddaughter from eating meat (a privilege never accorded to the cook in the first place) so his dog could eat meat in a time of curfew when supplies are limited.

The last person who has the good fortune of finding a place at the dining table is Gyan, Sai’s lover and tutor. Gyan, by virtue of his education and despite him being from a lower class earns a place there, reminding the Judge of his own humble origins (a reminder that the Judge does not enjoy). Gyan’s unfamiliarity with the cutlery and the food – for which he is scorned by the Judge who is “slicing the meat expertly off the bone” – serves as a reminder of the Judge’s own experience in England during his ICS education, which alienated and humiliated him because of the lack of his English manners. His Indian lunch of puri-sabzi packed by his mother, much like his appearance and lineage, became a marker of shame for him abroad. By the time he returns, he has completely overturned this, alienating himself from his culture to such an extent that from his powdered face to his stew, everything is – or at least ardently strives to be – English, making him the butt of jokes for the English and the Indian community, as he fits into neither.

In a parody of the rules of the English dining culture and those looking to emulate it, Desai inserts an incident recalling the hunting tradition wherein the babus emulated their western contemporaries. The Judge returns to the camp empty handed after every six o’clock hunt and in a bid to preserve his respect, the cook roasts a chicken and calls it a ‘Roast Bastard’ “just as in the Englishman’s favourite book of natives using incorrect English. But sometimes, eating that roast bastard, the Judge felt the joke might also be on him. . . Kept eating as if he were eating himself, since he, too, was (was he?) part of the fun…” (Desai 63) The “roast bastard” hence becomes representative of a class of Indians which can be called the bastards of India themselves, an irony not lost upon the Judge.

Sai, his granddaughter herself inherits this sense of alienation. This is indicated in the incident at the beginning of the book where she is unable to serve the intruders Indian tea. Only English tea is made, because her convent education from Dehra Dun taught her “cake is better than laddoos”. This alienation, along with her familial connection to the Judge, is what binds them together and makes her the only family member that he does not hate for she too, is an outsider in her own country.

Finally, we have the cook who, as mentioned above, is not even thought of as being deserving of a place at the table. And it is here that we shift spaces from the dining table to the kitchen, for the kitchen encompasses every aspect of the cook’s life.

This is the place where he began working as a child under his father. The kitchen becomes a space representing the community in the book, as the cook and Sai bond over cooking, while abroad, Biju [his son] shifts from one restaurant kitchen to another like a fugitive who is, still, connected to his father in India, through the experience of serving those above them and through the same medium.

The kitchen for Biju and the cook represents the source of income, but for Biju it also represents alienation. In chapter five, while cataloguing the restaurants that Biju switches from, Desai highlights the nature of the lives of the immigrants residing abroad illegally, torn as they are from their culture and thrown in a “melting bowl” where their identity disappears under that of the majority culture:

“ …Biju at Le Colonial for the authentic colonial experience.

On top, rich colonial, and below, poor native, Colombian, Tunisian, Ecuadorian. . .

On to the Stars and Stripes Diner. All American flag on top, all Guatemalan flag below.

Plus one Indian flag when Biju arrived”

Not only is the immigrant alienated from his culture, but in a bid to keep some of his principles intact he has to choose between jobs and precepts of his culture like Biju does in the form of cooking for a steak house where he comes to terms with his work by making a “holy cow and unholy cow” distinction. Feuds like the India-Pakistan one have also been kept alive in a dingy American kitchen thousands of miles away from the countries.

The kitchen also becomes a space that differentiates between people of different classes and gender. It is acceptable for the cook to be there because of his class, but insulting for the Judge.

This kitchen also becomes a site of violence where not only the chicken “weak with anxiety” is massacred and roasted, but also unwanted housewives over “accidental” choola fires. Nimi Patel, the Judge’s wife suffers the same fate and the Judge “chooses to believe it an accident.”

Food represents nostalgia on one hand when the cook weeps for his village’s roti, and Biju complains of angrezi khaana, but on the other hand, it also is a site for the articulation of favouritism and belief in the superiority of one’s own group.

We have Lolita aka Lola arguing over the superiority of “Her Majesty’s Jam” over the American alternative with Mrs. Singh, both connected to the nations indirectly through their NRI daughters. We also have Father Booty propounding his home-made cheese in the face of a global movement of packaged cheese where he is rivaled by Amul itself. A major part of the Gorkha movement is to deny Western products like whisky. Gyan, influenced by the movement, and as a way of asserting his superiority over Sai, calls her foolish for mimicking the West by eating cheese toast, chocolate cigars and brandy-doused cake for Christmas, a festival of the West. Sai retorts by saying that he didn’t mind it when he was consuming them, i.e., when he was a part of the privileged class.

Desai in her bid to address multiple debates like Westernisation, the immigrant crisis and the refugee crisis, makes this novel timeless by virtue of its ambiguity regarding these issues. The food in the novel also addresses these issues and several more, including class, privilege, love, poverty, hybridity, colonisation, cosmopolitan identities, and so on, thereby emulating Desai’s message [as the author understands] of ambiguity which allows the reader to choose the path they prefer, indicating that there isn’t any right or wrong. They are just ideas, and one can choose whichever one they want, whether it is to eat your roti with a fork and a knife or sprinkle extra red chilli on your Cheese toast.


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Morsel
Yours Truly is an ambitious young adult who writes about the only thing they are accomplished in: eating.

Written by Devika
Updates monthly


Column icon and featured image by Kanishka