Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Helmand, an Afghan restaurant in Cambridge, MA.


Helmand
www.helmandrestaurant.com/‎

Afghan restaurants have always been around in the United States, though they have never received the widespread attention that Indian restaurants have, instead enjoying an exotic popularity amongst a small crowd.  Helmand sits in a quiet block off of the Galleria mall near Kendall square in Cambridge.  On Friday night, I flew in from DC and M drove up from Westchester.  We then left our tiredness behind and stepped into this attractive restaurant after a bracing and brief walk in weather that had been long overdue after a brutal winter.  The restaurant was packed.  Our table for two was squeezed between two others, and we were an array of three pairs of couples on three parallel tables that symbolically represented the passage of life.  The couple to our left appeared to be students in their mid twenties, likely on a first date, speaking @ 60 words per minute, extensively making use of the word “like”, often simply as a momentum booster to the conversation like a little conversational whip to keep the dialogue going.  We, middle-aged, spoke at around 10-15 words per minute.  And the septuagenarian couple to our right kept largely silent, pulling along @ ~ 1 word per minute.

Regardless of age or vocal temperament, the Afghan food indoctrinated us all, and there appeared to be contentment across all three tables.  We shared two soups—The Shorwa, with chunks of softened lamb, a light nourishing stock, black eyed peas and pieces of carrots, turnips and beans; and the Mashawa, a slightly more viscous lamb stock soup thickened by yogurt, slightly tangy, and with chickpeas in it.  For an appetizer, we had Kaddo, pulverized sweetish baked pumpkin paste with minced beef on top.  You had it with Afghan flatbread (similar to Naan), cooked on the hot surfaces of a clay, or mud oven.  The sweet-saltish taste of the Kaddo is unexpectedly interesting and very different from Indian food.  As main entrée we shared a Chowpan, or the rack of lamb on a bed of pallow rice and sautéed eggplants.  Pallow is the Afghan variant from the Indian pulao, though the Afghan version is closer to the Persian, with the use of saffron and the slightly drier texture of the rice.  Compared to Indian dishes, this is a parallel universe of equivalents: similar sounding names with some variation in preparation—the dwopiaza/dopiaza, banjan/baigan (eggplant), bendi/bhendi (okra), and so on and so forth. Compared to Indian cooking, Afghan food is less spiced, more grilled, and with more liberal use of fruit and nuts.  I feel the food allows the taste of the meats and the vegetable to come through better.  The rack of lamb was as rack of lamb is in all cultures.  Regardless of its accoutrements, it is at the end the quality of the meat and when it is taken off of the heat that matters, and in that regard Helmand came through with flying colors.
We ended our meals with sheerekh, homemade Afghan ice cream with a flavor of saffron and pistachio and decorated with figs and nuts. 

Helmand was impressive and there is good reason that late into the night it remained filled with diners.  Our hotel concierge, when asked for directions to Helmand, informed us that she had never heard anything bad about the place.  I will not provide an exception to that.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Trip to India Feb 2014

-->
Sitting in the aircraft at JFK in New York, the tension monkey begins descending from your back. For me it builds over days prior to a trip to India—the packing and sorting, the turning off of the hot water line to the water heater before you leave kind of thing. I have taken similar trips to other countries often, but a trip to India always feels different. It is mental. It goes back thirty years to my first trip here. I arrived in Portland with my passport in a hidden pocket that my mother had sewn into my vest, and two suitcases secured firmly with rope because my mother mistrusted Indian suitcase lock technology. A few days later my elegant friend Ravi Vemuri, a fellow student arrived with nothing except three bespoke suits and two lungis. You start connecting the dots through these years of travelling to India. Gone, mostly, is the innocence of travelers exposed for the first time to western ways. Today, the passengers are more urbane and worldly wise. I recall the ghosts of fellow travellers from trips past. The Indian man, deported by return post from New York, looking lost in Schiphol, with no ability to speak English and a look of terror on his face. His voice cracked and eyes watered in gratitude when I helped him make a phone call. Or the unruly gang of “carriers” on the Singapore-Calcutta route plying video-recorders that they would sell in Calcutta at a profit.

There is something good to be said about Air India. The seats in economy seem roomier. The food is good and the staff is polite. As long as plan A is working your travel will be enjoyable. Unfortunately, if things go wrong, they are not great with plan B. Flying Air India as often as I have, I have learned a few tricks. You may find that a bathroom in the rear displays an “out-of-order” sign. Go right in. This is the one the staff keeps for themselves.

I spend a brief night in Delhi in transit staying in Gurgaon and visit Sahara Mall. In the mid-2000s, Sahara Mall was a brand new chammak-challo mall all a-glitter. When I had visited a few times then, young couples, probably migrants from the rural areas here for jobs, would scour the mall and test out its escalators, and the women would extend tentative, painted toenail feet onto the moving step, one hand on their husband’s arms. The Haldiram confectionary on the ground floor buzzed with energy. Today the mall is past its peak. There is a thin coat of grime on surfaces and the cheap, synthetic interior construction materials and veneers have sagged. Stepping outside the mall we wait for our car. Enormous buildings rise out of the dusty Delhi scrubland, and there is construction rubble everywhere. It is a bit cold, but I am grateful to have escaped the frigid New York air.

Joe Biden called New York’s La Guardia airport a third world airport.  It must have been a manner of speech, or else he has not been observant of third world airports recently.  While New York takes away from its investment in civic facilities, the cities of India (and China) have been heading in the opposite direction, and it shows.  Delhi airport is a sleek reincarnation of its sloppy marble interior of the past with little of the randomness that is the stereotypical hallmark of Indian public facilities. You pay for this—three coffees and two bags of chips cost us about the equivalent of eight dollars. 

Here, when things don't work, I am always directed to people who are fountains of optimism.  This is not by chance, because it has happened every time.  When the SIM card doesn’t work, I am told that the server is down, not to worry, that at the most it will be back online within 2 hours.  When it still doesn’t work, I am told on the phone with 100% confidence that it was just a matter of popping out the SIM and reinserting it –so confident was the support “executive” on the line that, in fact, he saw no reason to hold while I tried this out. 

As we waited to be picked up at Delhi airport, a troika of late model luxury sedans swooped in, picked up a mixture of Indians and foreigners and then departed. The lead car, a Rolls Royce decked with ceremonial flowers, was followed by a Porsche Panamera and a big Jaguar.  Likely Pappu was wedding Mannu, and it would be, like many things here, an announcement of glitter and money.  The celebration of wealth and status here is robustly public—the airports have large hoardings publicizing the titles of the top officers of the nation who are exempt from security considerations or of paying toll.  Some people are often mysteriously ushered in while others wait patiently in line.  There is a placid acceptance of hierarchy among the public and an overbearing assumption of it on the part of the entitled. It is easy to understand the rising support for Kejriwal after a few days here.

The road into Guwahati from Borjhar airport cuts through the University of Guwahati.  Buildings and departments lie set back from the road.  We pass the Departments of Chemistry, of Statistics and of Biotechnology. The Centre for Eastern Studies is a sturdy building of unpainted concrete and nondescript glass and steel windows, set on a patch of land with an untended driveway leading through it.  A solitary small car is parked in front and a few scattered students walk by. A three wheeler carts a mound of hay ahead of us on the road.  Set in a background of green fields, It is an idyllic setting for leisurely academia. Perhaps the professor just returned from his afternoon lunch and is slowly sipping a cup of Assam tea. The wheels of learning crank slowly but surely, like molasses through this lazy Assam afternoon.  By all realistic measures, the Indian education system has been a success.  Here in Guwahati, in one of the remote parts of the country, all the facilities are available, at least at the undergraduate level, that this will never be a rate limiting step for someone with talent and motivation.

Arriving home, I head straight to my 90-year-old father who was sleeping.  When he awakens, he cannot recognize me. This is the first time this has happened.  I gently nudge his memory and mention my name.  It takes a few seconds for his face to turn into a broad smile, and then into an expression of extreme happiness.  He then starts speaking. He enquires about the New York winter and proceeds to tell me did I know that New York City had had its coldest temperatures in 118 years?  His memories come flooding back, precise in their content, all this from a sleep awakened start where he could not recognize his own son.  It is fascinating how the mind works and what it is that old age does.  Is it a loss of memory, or is it simply a slowing of the memory retrieval process (latency), which I am inclined to believe was the case here.

Guwahati is a city inside which villages flow like tributaries.  Within the din of traffic noise and congestion, there are little patches where tambul (betel nut) and coconut trees grow and tradesmen clear land with primitive hand tools.  Big multinational showrooms and shops line the main thoroughfare, but next to it there may be an old Assam style one-storey house with plastered thatch roofs and a tin roof. 

I am here to visit family and visiting intermittently as I do, it feels at times like taking stock of the passage of life.  Six brothers, one of them my father, shared a plot of land here more than 65 years ago, and the six brothers came back at different points in life to build their houses on this land and live here.  Forty years back I would visit as a boy and these visits were a high point.  The brothers had either just retired or were in the prime of their lives.  The neighborhood was jubilant, the inhabitants were close to one another, and as is normal when extended families live in proximity, spiced with the occasional social drama.  Twenty years ago, when we started visiting regularly with our children, some of the brothers had sold their houses and left. But there were still many relatives left, there were other renters who were also part of the community, and the place overran with children.  Doors remained open in the evenings and people visited one another as if playing musical chairs between houses.  Then, over the past decade relatives aged, they couldn’t walk about, and the younger generation left for jobs outside of Assam.  Visits became like tuning in to a cricket broadcast intermittently to hear about the wickets that had been lost.  Old age, one aunt said, is not something she would wish on anybody.  Some of the houses were taken down and newer multistoried buildings arose, less dependent upon constant repairs. A charm had been lost of  an L shaped dirt road and a coterie of relatives around it.  Commercial offices moved into these buildings occupying floors.  A giant Kirloskar generator was placed out by the side of the road.  This is the price of time. 

One late morning I watch three tradesmen take down a large coconut tree.  One of them sat on a brick meticulously sharpening the teeth of a large two-man hand saw with a file.  The other positioned himself about two thirds of the way up the tree and hacked away at a 18 inch diameter trunk with a “Dao”(a large curved knife), chipping away the wood till the trunk had necked down to a diameter of about 6 inches. At that point a third colleague tugged at a rope that had been secured to the top third of the trunk, till it dropped to the ground.  The Dao-man held tight to the rest of the tree while the big section fell, and then I saw him expertly dismount: a dangerous task without safety precautions, carried out by a man well past fifty with minimal equipment.

Guwahati is old fashioned enough that the breed of the old timer, nocturnal “chichkey chor” or common thief still exists.  The marks of their opportunistic visits exist in our building. One night some years ago a thief tried to remove the bathroom window rods to get in—he was only partially successful.  A few months ago, another tried to climb the roof of the house late at night to get at some construction supplies that were stored there.  On the way down he broke a ledge, fell with a huge commotion and then leapt away to cries of chor chor.  The classic thief of the old days was a wiry and fast guy who would step into action after applying mustard oil all over his body.  This way he could slither out of any hold that a pursuer might attempt on him.  Legend is that, in a double whammy and in a nod to perhaps the ancient animal kingdom ritual of marking territory, the classic thief relieved himself at the scene of the crime before leaving the victim’s house.

Winter in Assam is a time for red kantha stitched (quilted) Lleps, cheap Chinese nylon mosquito nets and the winter sun to bask in.  At mid morning there is a hint of fog in the air and, sitting outside on the porch with a cup of tea and a book, shafts of the winter sunlight warms the skin like a shot of whiskey.  Single vendors come by hawking their wares with baskets on their shoulders, walking along the lane that ends at our gate.  At the end of the cul-de-sac they announce themselves, tilt their heads up to glance upwards at the balconies for potential customers, and then turn around to leave. A few crows and birds chirp nearby.  The neighborhood residents are busy: a lady hangs clothes to dry, a young man parks his motorcycle and heads into a building.  A father loudly teaches history to his young son and a maidservant washes dishes in another house. The day goes on this way, plied with cup after cup of Assam tea—a tea drinker here may consume over ten cups of tea a day, staying all the while constantly in defense against the swarms of mosquitoes breeding on open drains.   When evening comes, the lights go on in the multinational stores, on mannequins and posters of Indian models who are carefully chosen to look white, or “international” as the aphorism goes.  A few hundred yards away, in a little rustic tributary of the city, a muezzin’s prayer begins, a deep soulful voice over loudspeakers that harkens the evening and bids the day farewell.

A flyover elevates itself from the chaos around the no. 4 bridge area in the north of Calcutta, whisks the rider past shoulder level views of Victoria Memorial, the La Martiniere schools, the Belle View Nursing Home, and then descends from its regal perch releasing the rider into the area around Rabindra Sadan and the race track. Where does one find romance in a city? Is it in perfect landscapes, or is it in the repeated inconsistencies of a place, its hubris and false pretensions, its worship of past glories, its scientists, artists, playwrights, its filth, its humanity and sense of humor, a city whose irregularities collectively present themselves like some delightful fuzzball of disorderliness? So when you come back to see new flyovers, metros, and Armageddon like visions of giant half built constructions looming in a translucent landscape of smoke and dust along the Eastern Bypass in a metropolis that has repeatedly (since the mid 1700s) been reviled as a city in shambles and near death, you say that this, is romance. A romance made easier, because you will be here for just a week. There are many little things that I have forgotten about Calcutta. Like going for an early dinner at 6 pm to 6 Ballygunge Place and learning that nobody dines that early here. But it is still the place where I feel most comfortable, where I feel that were things to go wrong, I would know what to do.

I was driving with a European colleague, through North Calcutta and headed to Rajabazaar, also in the North, to the Calcutta University Institute of Radio Physics where we were to give lectures. We were in a traditionally muslim area and without knowing this my colleague likened the place to his experiences in Cairo, except, as he said, he saw signs of new life and growth here, younger people, “more hope” as he specifically put it. The Institute of Radio Physics is a little known gem of a place. Before the 1990s the Institute had possibly the best undergraduate physics or engineering physics program in the country. It admitted only about 20 students each year. Almost all of those entering would have turned down other prestigious engineering college admissions. A handful of those twenty would have been schoolboy legends able to walk into any department at any IIT. Today this program, while still good, does not attract similar talent, and of those graduating over 80% join the IT sector. A small collection of buildings in this area, all part of Calcutta University probably constitutes the most fertile piece of real estate for Indian physics and chemistry—J.C. Bose, Satyen Bose, Raman, S. Chandrashekhar, P.C. Ray, M.N. Saha, all spent time in the laboratories here at some point in their careers. They were a varied cast of characters: Bose’s major contribution came from his fearlessly intuitive leap in the dark, Chandrashekar was elegant, meticulous and precise (he spent time in Raman’s lab in 1928), Raman’s arrogance made him insufferable, and the polymath M.N. Saha rose from a poor shopkeeper family where some of his siblings did not matriculate high school.

“I have not received my copy of the State Bank of India calendar in the post, and would like to go home today with a copy please”. It was a simple but firm request made by my 86 year old father-in-law to the State Bank official at the Salt Lake branch in Calcutta and the stymied official did not know what to do with this anachronistic request. My father-in-law had been receiving the calendar by regular post for decades and this was one of the privileges of the bank account holder, or so it felt to him. Cashing money from an account or depositing a check was always made in person at the local branch office. It was a ritual, part business and part habit, where you met the branch manager, exchanged pleasantries, filled out forms in long hand, updated your passbook and took care of your money. But these were no longer your father’s State Bank officials, they were people who zipped into work, did their work on desktops and laptops, and maintained their calendars on smart phones. Banking has changed for good, but it has disrupted the serene life of the older gentleman, for whom a trip to the bank one late morning is part of the prism through which his life refracts, and following which he might return home detouring through Sen-Mahasay for a box of palm jaggery sandesh, or via the local pharmacy which was always a fun place for a medicine aficionado like him. One by one, he posed his question to 3 different officials at the bank. They had little inkling of the role that the State Bank may have had in measuring the arrow of time in so many middle class households over decades. In this busy word of constant communication they were sympathetic, a trifle indulgent, but they had no time. It took one more visit a day later, and a meeting with the branch manager to get a spare copy that was fortunately lying around. There is no place for an old log in a fast, flowing river.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Nakamuraya—the oldest Indian restaurant that is not run by Indians

-->
Shinjuku, Tokyo, http://www.nakamuraya.co.jp/



The first gift that India gave Japan is Buddhism.  The second one came two thousand years later in the form of curry (kari).  A few days back I was able to have dinner at Nakamuraya, the legendary Shinjuku area restaurant in Tokyo that is famous for its curry, and where—in the 1920s-- the Indian revolutionary-in-exile and founder of the INA, Rash Behari Bose, introduced it as an employee of the restaurant and the son-in-law of the restaurant’s owner.  (I have written about this earlier).

Nakamuraya is over a hundred years old, and the current location is a temporary one near the Shinjuku station that is being used while the regular location is being refurbished.  The entrance lobby has a display with framed photographs of Rash Behari, his Japanese wife, and photos of Rabindranath Tagore, when he visited in the 1930s.  Rash Behari acted as an interpreter for Tagore.

Japanese curry tastes different from Indian curry.  It is more blended in texture, more mellifluous.  Pieces of meat, potatoes or vegetables swim in a warm, unctuous, rich colored curry. There is less chilli powder, but lots of caradamom and other spices, including garam masala.  It is had with the ubiquitous Japanese sticky rice.  Curry is wildly popular in Japan, almost as popular as Ramen, though it is shorn of the fastidiousness and snobbery that Ramen elicits. There were parathas that we had along with the curry—with layers that were not too crispy so as to flake off, yet not lumpy that you could not distinguish the layers.  Alfonso mango sorbet served as dessert.

I had a long chat with the manager via my host who acted as interpreter.  The manager detailed Rash Behari’s story and enquired whether I was Bengali.  Rash Behari’s daughter was involved with the place for a while, but today management has changed hands.  Bose’s descendents still come by once in a while to eat.  Impressed by the food, I asked whether there were any Indian cooks in the kitchen.  There were none.  Nakamuraya’s name is synonymous with curry and an older Japanese colleague who had grown up around this neighborhood in the 1950s would come here with his parents when the family wanted a curry outing.   Nakamuraya has expanded as a brand and today you can buy packaged curries to take home that just need a 8-10 minute boil in hot water. 

Japanese curry is good comfort food.  It is not fine dining, but it commands wide appeal.  You should try it at least once.


Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Curry and the Freedom Fighter: Rash Behari Bose in Japan

-->

Tram tracks glint in the afternoon sun as they bend with the curve of a famous road in South Calcutta that on one end leads to a crematorium and on the other, to a bridge built in honor of an honest engineer slain by gangsters.  In far away Shinjuku, a suburb of Tokyo, a venerable restaurant in operation since 1901, serves a famous dish—a Japanese version of curry, that it calls Indo-Karii, since 1927.  What do the two have in common?  The street was named after Rash Behari Bose*, the famous Indian revolutionary during the British colonial times.  The dish Karii is a derivative of the Indian curry dishes that Mr. Rash Behari introduced to his father-in-law, Mr. Soma Aizo, the affluent owner of the Nakamura-Ya restaurant, while he was in exile in Japan.

It also explains the mystery of why this is called Karii, when the rest of the world calls it curry—because it was a Bengali, who pronounced it as such, that introduced it.  And it would be fair to say that Indian curry, which enjoys household familiarity in Japan, owes part of its legacy to Mr. Bose, who—appalled by the British introduced milquetoast curries of the early 1900s in Japan—set matters straight and laid down the law in this land of the rising sun, insofar at least in matters concerning curry.  In the 1920s he convinced his father-in-law to offer a line of Indian dishes, became an executive in the restaurant, and set up a supply chain for receiving the ingredients. 

Bose was a multitalented guy with vision.  What we would call today in corporate parlance an out-of-the-box thinker, a big picture guy, an ideation maverick, an evangelist for a free India, a bit of a wild duck (don’t shoot yours), a man to whom you could ascribe a powerpoint full of consultant strength epithets.  Before his escape to Japan at the age of around 30, Bose was already one of the founders of the Ghadar Party, and a mastermind behind the assassination attempt on the Viceroy, Lord Hardinge in 1912.  Hardinge was riding an elephant in Chandni Chowk with his wife, attending a ceremony and the attempt failed as a homemade bomb missed its mark, killing Hardinge’s attendant instead.  As a result of all of this, Bose ended up being hotly pursued by the British, and in 1915, he escaped to Japan and switched to curry.  Chicken he was not.  Influential pan-Asian political forces in Japan reached out and helped carve out a home in Japan for Bose.  There is an old photograph of Rash Behari Bose at a dinner with his Japanese benefactor on one side and the future prime minister of Japan on the the other.  He became a Japanese citizen in 1923. He repaid this largesse with curry.

Nakamura-Ya still exists and is famous throughout Japan for its curry dishes.  Bose married the owner’s daughter and had two children in the early 1920s.  The restaurant’s website carries old photographs of the Indian son-in-law (scroll thru http://www.nakamuraya.co.jp/photo/index.html) and his wife in an Indian saree, draped Bengali style. 

Lord Hardinge survived the assassination attempt and writes about the episode in his autobiography, “My Indian Memoirs”.  The memoir smells of the professionalism of the colonial British, his work ethic and unshakable conviction , yet also shows an absolute form of insensitivity towards Indians, viewed always in wholesale form, rarely as individuals, unless of course they were royalty. Hardinge makes an oblique mention of Rash Behari Bose, who took the evening train back to his residence in Dehra Dun after the failed assassination attempt, and upon reaching Dehra Dun, immediately presided at a meeting condemning the attack on Hardinge and passing a motion against it.

Rash Behari’s son was a Japanese soldier who died in WWII fighting the battle at Okinawa and his daughter, who lived into the 21st century took reigns of the restaurant.  Rash Behari himself died in 1945 and two days after his death in Tokyo, his house was destroyed by Allied bombing.  In the 1940s he (along with Nair-San, another fascinating expat also responsible for the first Indian restaurant in Japan in 1949) was instrumental in the setting up of the mercenary Indian National Army, which was then handed over in turnkey fashion to Subhas Bose.  The Milwaukee Journal of Feb 19, 1942 heads a news item with “Indian Traitor Active Again”, giving an account of Rash Behari aligning with the Axis forces, as this “stock 56 year old Bengalese”.

The next time I am in Japan, which will be in January, I hope to visit Nakamura-Ya.  I hope that it would have reopened, for it was shut down for renovations.  As for Bose, the Ghadar Party is gone and so is the army he founded.  But his Indo-Karii remains.  I bet you that its recipe calls for the addition of a spoon of sugar.  Because, I believe, the Chandannagore born Bose was a Ghoti.

* postscript: possibly Rash Behari Avenue was named after Rash Behari Ghosh (another famous politician from the early 1900s and not Bose).

Thursday, September 19, 2013

London in September


How do you write about a place whose literature you are intimately familiar with, yet have had little physical presence in, mostly just transiting thru its airport?  How do you write about a place whose history you cannot but be in awe of, realizing it had systems of governance in place 300 years ago that are relevant even today, that it created a phalanx of officers who believed it was their preordained right to rule the world, and armed with just this sense of entitlement, had the confidence to walk into distant lands, into tribal villages, with wife and baby in tow, and expect to, and then rule, simply armed with the cloak of their confidence?  How do your write about a place that bears the street names of Landsdowne Court, and Little Russell Street and Greater Russell Street: names that have rolled off your tongue and passed under your slippers in the Calcutta of the 70s and 80s?  How do you write about London, a place you should have visited much more than you have, a London that is far from the Bilayat of your parents and grandparents, far from the London of glossy photographs of guards at Buckingham, of empty biscuit tins with alluring images of a tidy society, but a London more multicultural than New York, a London of abayas, of lungis, of flaming hennaed beards, of East European hotel accents, of  tweed jackets and herringbone fabrics, and merry evening men wearing blazing orange sports coats and lime green pants?  No Indian of a certain generation can write about England without a chip on his shoulder, without either over-reaching admiration, or slight ridicule, or an enforced sense of familiarity.

The afternoon we reached London, I took a walk to Hyde Park, a 10 minutes walk away from our hotel on Edgeware, a street full of middle eastern shops.  Once there, I looked for Speakers’ corner, the iconic symbol for free speech, where thru history, cranks, minorities, the oppressed and the antagonized could stand up on a public podium and rail away with no repercussions.  My father had spent time in London in the 1950s, he used to visit the British Museum every day, walk thru Hyde Park often.  I had first heard about Speakers Corner from him.  I asked a vendor at the corner, she vaguely pointed me to the place. There was no speaker. Just folks with smart-phones. 

Along the road by the Northern bank of the Thames, a taxi driver almost ran over and killed a bicyclist.  Only through a maneuver resembling the Japanese judo trick employed by Holmes to escape the clutches of Moriarty and re-emerge to public demand, did the cyclist escape.  Following this incident each party uttered a single foul word at each other, beginning with the letter f.  They then wheeled along and went their way.  It was the most civic display of the usage of the word f---- that I have ever seen.  The British have a way with softening curse words.  “Barnshoot” is an example.

At night we went to Southall for dinner.  The is the bastion of Punjabi life in Britain, the biggest Punjab outside of Punjab.  I had first heard of this place in  Khushwant Singh’s writings. He had met a sweeper at Heathrow in the 70s from Southall who wept and beseeched Mr. Singh to take her back home.  You can skip the English language entirely, and for a lifetime, if you are in Southall.  The place looks like a slightly prosperous North Indian city.  

The day we return we travelled to the Tate Modern gallery.  It is a beautiful, civilized thing to have museums with free entrance.  Tate Modern can sometimes be confusing, since the art can overflow into the visitor’s space.  “A” hesitated to sit at a beautiful oak bench with dark tight grain, and lines with a slight, deliberate curve in the fashion that Japanese furniture can sometimes have.  He thought it was perhaps also a museum piece.  There was a sparse Italian room with works of wood and stone slabs.  I suspected that the visitors walking into the rooms themselves were part of the artist’s design, a dynamic brush that the artist had trusted us with.  There was a room full of photographs of public executions sites in Syria, simple straightforward places where Honda Accords were parked on the curb. 

We walked back to Edgeware Street one night from the river, walking through Trafalgar Square, Piccaddilly and Oxford Street.  Somewhere south of Trafalgar we came to a road called Whitehall, by the side of which were statues of British generals with moustaches, looking sinister in the harsh floodlit night.  Field Marshall Viscount William Slim, the WWII General who retreated from Burma to India pursued by the Japanese, only to turn around and beat them back in the plains of Imphal, stood on a stone pedestal in his army boots, with perspicacity in his eyes and binoculars on the ready, should the London fog lift some day.  Inscribed on the pedestal below him were the names of the Indian and Burmese towns where he had seen action: Kohima, Imphal, and Arakan. A South European couple came over to look at the statue and the lady puckered her eyes as her lips tried to mouth the unfamiliar names of the towns.  And yet how delicious those names sounded to me—my grandfather had settled as a headmaster in Imphal, my father and my uncles had grown up there.  V.S. Naipaul, on visiting Pathankot in India found it strange to see the very technical British engineering word “railhead” amidst, what was in his mind, a very chaotic India: “How strange again and again to hear this solitary English word, to me so technical, industrial and dramatic, in a whole sentence of Hindustani—the railhead for Kashmir.” My feelings are similar, though in inversion to the course of this sentiment: these remote places whose names roll off so easily off my tongue sit etched in stone like strangers: geo-ported anomalies from a time long back, in this smooth, thoroughly occidental suburb.

On our last evening we spent some time at a pub.  Many years back, when some of us were working very hard to develop a new material for silicon processor chips, we would head off to an Irish bar in Mohegan Lake in NY late at night to blow off steam after our the kids had gone to bed (most of our kids at that time were of that age when putting the kids to bed was an important part of the family fabric).  The Irish bartender, who had become a good friend, had told me that Guinness, even in draught form, tasted better the closer you got to Ireland—London would be better than New York, and Dublin would be the best.  Now, Guinness is brewed in many different countries so I was always skeptical about his claims.  My friend is now long retired to Florida, but I decided to test his theory.  And indeed the Guinness tasted better, fresher in the heart of London than in New York.  Or perhaps it was just that beer is served a little warmer in Europe than in New York, allowing a better feel for its taste.  Barnshoot!