Saturday, January 09, 2010

Two Minutes Older: Eating for Shiva*

The year began, not with festivities, but with a festival. Every year my mother announces Thiruvathirai, and every year I stop myself from asking, ‘What’s that?” This time, to remind myself what the festival was about, I said to my mother, “Why don’t you tell the kid the story?”

So she told my son the story of Nandanar: how the 8th century outcaste farmer wanted to see Shiva at the Chidambaram temple in the month of Margazhi (Dec-Jan); how he was told he couldn’t go until all the work in the field was done; how he managed to go despite all the work and as he stood outside the temple – being a dalit – he could see nothing because of the Nandi blocking his view of the lord.

The story goes that Nandanar was in tears at being unable to see Shiva. In Gopalakrishna Bharati’s Nandanar Charitra Kirtthanai, translated by Lakshmi Holmström, Nandanar says,

Are you not the ever compassionate Lord?

Untouchable as I am, may I not serve you?

To be there to witness your dance of supreme bliss

may I not come to you?

Shiva, touched by the man’s bhakti, asks Nandi to move so that he is visible to his devotee.

The high-born folk are abashed and awed in equal measure, and Nandanar’s fame precedes him everywhere. (I don’t know if this meant that he thereafter had help tilling the field or if those things remained status quo – because stories like these end with the arrival of the god, who invariably remains strong and silent on such matters)**.

To celebrate this, we eat kali and kootu.

I have to say that this story annoys me. Setting aside the politics of turning a story of injustice into one of spirituality, I resent having to eat a dish that is half sweet, half savoury and wholly an ordeal on the palate. For one thing, there’s the taste of gud and coconut in the kali. It isn’t as sweet as sakkaraipongal but it isn’t like regular pongal either. In the kootu, the taste of sweet potatoes battles with the beans and the peas with the pumpkins. Brought together, they make the tongue shiver and produce in me as many conflicting emotions as the story of Nandanar and the Arudra Darsanam at Chidambaram.

Everyone knows that festivals are an excuse to eat things that are seasonal, hard to make and digest and that keep women in the kitchen for most of the day. Usually the things we eat on these occasions are passed off as the favourite food of this or that god: butter, sheedai, kozhakattai and such. Someone please tell me whose favourite food this is: Shiva’s? Nandanar’s? Or Nandi’s?

I have a theory that Thiruvathirai kali and kootu are meant to reflect the complexity of the story. After all, it is not a simple story of faith and reward. Mixed up in it is the question of boundaries, of who is kept out and who does the keeping out; and of who ‘deserves’ the favour of god. Show me a dalit who celebrates Thiruvathirai as a triumph against established order. Depending on where you’re coming from, Nandanar has either circumvented an unjust convention to directly commune with his god or he has been tricked into thinking that the barriers have been removed, when really he’s still standing where he’s been ordered to.

The dish is equally complex and disturbing to the taste. What it produces is not comfort or pleasure. There are too many different tastes and textures, too many conflicting sensations, too many ingredients that don’t get along with each other. It requires a sophistication that I don’t yet have to transform this discomfort into something that I see as not just palatable but enjoyable. It is an uneasy dish that celebrates a disturbing story.

Every year, I try my best to like it and every year I fail better at it. For now, I have decided to live with the taste. In fact, I think I might even experiment with it: I wonder what would happen if, next year, we added karela to the kootu? I think it might add the one taste that was missing.

(An edited version of this in Zeitgeist, the Saturday edition of The New Indian Express.)


* I will retain my own titles to these pieces; I'm not too sure about the ones they think up for the paper.

** In Sekizhar's version, the Nandi doesn't move at all. What happens is, Nandanar comes into Chidambaram hesitantly, doubting his own worthiness to see Shiva. Shiva arranges for Nandanar to be 'purified' by a fire and becomes resplendently Brahmin before he gets to be one with his god. See.


Rahul Siddharthan said...

Excellent debut (and kudos to Express for inviting such articles). Just the other day someone was telling me a story that featured the Nandanar legend: some years ago, his driver was refused entry to a Carnatic music concert (it seems my friend, on finding that the driver was fond of Carnatic music, had invited him in, but went in ahead since the driver needed to park the car). The driver texted the guy, who went to the door and asked the people there to admit him. The irony was that the singer was singing Gopalakrishna Bharati's Nandanar charitram at that very moment.

Veena said...

Well, kali (acc. to my parents) in its original form doesn't have coconut / jaggery. Both ingredients were luxury items and its only couple of times a year that one could afford to get the sweetened version, so it was apparently a big deal. (maybe as a run up to pongal!)

Also, story reminds me of the controversy a couple of years ago where this Saivite chap was refused entry into same temple by the priests (upheld by the Court as well if I remember correctly)because he wanted to sing Thiruvasagam. Reason being Tamil is not exactly Shiva's favorite language and it would be offensive to Him if someone sang His praises in Tamil. Wonder what happened to that.

ps: thiruvathira kali and the first thing that comes into mind is not onam? really?

dipali said...

When there are many instances glorifying a particular god showering his blessings upon a low caste devotee, I wonder why the religious establishment of the time didn't change its rules in their favour anyway, or do away with caste altogether.
I'm trying to imagine the combination of flavours you describe. Boggling, sort of.

km said...

Kootu. Mmmmm.

Fine column, once again. (And sufficiently edgy, may I add? :))

Adding to Dipali's comment:

Indian mythology has a handful ("many instances"?) of such "low-caste-devotee-meets-God" stories and their sole purpose, it seems to me, is to make us all feel warm and fuzzy about ourselves. "Look how compassionate we are! We even have a legend about some of our most marginal players!"

Sharanya said...

"I will retain my own titles to these pieces; I'm not too sure about the ones they think up for the paper."

Yup, it's what I do too. Once, the punchline of an extended joke was given way in the paper's title. Another time, an article about penis envy became an article about smoking. Don't know what to make of it, either.

Space Bar said...

rahul: thanks! and the margaxhi mahotsavam on jaya tv this year also had a whole session on nandanar kirtthanai. hyposcrisies abound!

veen: that is very likely true. We only have it that one time in the year and it's enough! i suppoose it rally is a version of pongal and can be had sweet or with salt.

and no, of course not. onam has never been big in headspace...what can i say?

dipali: it's best avoided, believe me! and doing away with caste...not that easy, as we see even today.

km: thanks! and the first other instance that comes to mind (as someone writing in this morning in reponse to the column pointed out) is the adi sankara/chandala story.

sharanya: i know, right?! they gave away the last line today as well. (loved your column today, btw!)

Rahul Siddharthan said...

The punchline is so good, they had to headline it :)

km said...

SB: IMO, the "chandala" legend is not in the same vein as the story you alluded to in your column. But yeah....

//Sankara's response to the encounter with the chandala can hardly be called patronizing or condescending.

Rahul Siddharthan said...

km - I didn't know (or had forgotten) the Sankara-Chandala story. Is this the one related here?

As far as it goes, it only tells me that Sankara decided a chandala is worthy of his respect if he asks intelligent questions. Worse, if a chandala asks intelligent questions, it can't really be a chandala: it must be Lord Siva in disguise. But perhaps there are other versions of the story?

km said...

Rahul: I may have remembered it differently (or just carried a different interpretation in my head).

I always assumed the chandala's "brazen" questioning forced the sage to re-think his own attitude (and led to that verse quoted in the story you linked to).

Anonymous said...

There is another story about a hunter who was so devoted that he thought nothing of giving both his eyes to Lord Shiva (who had been testing the bhakta's devotion, in a manner of speaking). In the nick of time, with the hunter's toe in the Lord's left eye socket as a placeholder, when the hunter was about to pluck his own second eye as well, the Lord appeared before him and sainted him as Kannappa Nayanar, one of the sixty-three Shaivite saints of the bhakti period.

You could say this is another example of the Lord's kindness to "those born in the lower castes".

BTW, I have never before come across the thiruvaathirai kootu-kali being put down in this fashion. Must be a sign of the times :-)

km said...

Interesting legend, the one posted by the Anonymous commenter.

with the hunter's toe in the Lord's left eye socket as a placeholder

Ugh. Indians invented torture-porn?

Falstaff said...

What's really amusing about these festivals is that practically every community has a festival of some sort within a one / two week time frame, and yet they all manage to pretend that their festival is "about" something unique.

I vote we start our own festival, to be celebrated at the beginning of the month of Punchdrunkum (Dec-Jan) which involves eating coffee beans soaked in vodka to commemorate the story of an unfortunate consultant who tried to watch Annie Hall even though he had a Power Point to put together, only to have his flatmates insist on watching a cricket match instead; how the consultant was almost in tears, singing Are you not the ever compassionate Lord? Is there life after Brooklyn? ; how Woody Allen took pity on the poor consultant and appeared to him in a Vision, (which also happened to star Scarlett Johansson and wasn't remotely funny); and how the consultant spent the next thirty years convinced that goofy spectacles, neurotic whining and an unhealthy obsession with all things Kierkegaard were the secret to success with women, with the result that he died alone and a virgin, thus proving that Kierkegaard was right after all.

Now there's a myth that makes sense to me.

kbpm said...

Loved this! Do add the karela, why not? For a person who lives with so much formulae, I find it very difficult to deal with in food, and tradition, and festivals...
Its always about food, but what really is the connection. Bah.

Yeah falstaff, that sounds like a plan. Let me be your groupie? Invite me? Even though I care as much about consultants as I do about, say, a painted cow at harvest time.

Falstaff said...


"a wormy little cipher, myopic behind black-framed glasses and groomed loutishly in his idea of rural chic: all tweedy and woodsy, with cap and muffler, ready for the leprechauns...I might add that the character’s incessant carping was done in a kazoolike nasal whine, as were his incessant jokes: a spate of fatal snappers designed to ingratiate but eliciting from all within earshot a columbarium-like silence."

I turns out that no one is better at describing Woody Allen than the man himself

km said...

I vote we start our own festival

Falstaff: So now you are rebelling against Festivus????

Oh, you whippersnapper!

Space Bar said...

anon: yes, i know that story also. the thing is, if you accept that the lord works in mysterious ways, all these events are acts of bhakti. if you do not concede such power to a mysterious entity, then even asking some man (surely outcaste) to pluck his eyes out to demonstrate his faith is just absurd.

falsie: yes, let's. i love woody allen but i refuse to dunk coffee beans in vodka even for him. how about we make the ritualistic consumption of single malt central to the festival?

kbpm: i will. next year, i will!

km: this festival will go on a for a whole month, ya.

Falstaff said...

SB: I don't know. The whole point of 'festival food' is that you only consume it once in the year. Single malt doesn't qualify.

blackmamba said...

Adding karela to the kootu

Love the way it sounds. I think I am going to use that line somewhere.

was I the only one tickled by mix of hindi and tamil words in the article? stuff like, gud and karela, instead of just jaggery and bitter gourd.

Falsie: That sounds vaguely like a modern interpretation of an ancient Irish myth and festival.

Space Bar said...

falsie: hmm. ok. so long as it doesn't involve bourbon i'm ok.

in fact, we should consider absinthe. it's heart-fonding properties might make the whole festival one to look forward to every year.

bm: you're back! and well spotted. :-) one person writing in after reading the column did wonder why i used both hindi and tamil words.

Falstaff said...

Absinthe it is. What could be better than a festival inspired by Toulouse Lautrec?

km said...

"Bitter gourd" sounds like a cantankerous, disgruntled old man. "Karela" is nicer.

dipali said...

@Falstaff: You're truly inspired!
(And inspiring- loved km's take on bitter gourd vis-a-vis karela.

blackmamba said...

"Bitter gourd" sounds like a cantankerous, disgruntled old man. "Karela" is nicer.

You are right. Karela and Pavakai on the other hand sound like east european film makers.

Falstaff said...

BM: More Finnish than East European, surely.

Bitter Gourd always makes me think, via Ramanujan, of Dostoyevksy.

Aditi said...

Oh, so this is the festival you're talking about. I was looking for it all over the place.

These are the benefits of finally catching up on feedreading.

So I'm totally in for the absinthe drinking thing, but can I please make my chocolate almond torte? I desperately need people to bake for.

Space Bar said...

aditi: you don't have to beg to bake for greedy chocoholics as we all are. i suggest we sprinkle your tortes with falsie's vodka soaked coffee beans.