Saturday, July 30, 2011

Sakoon, Mountain View, CA

On a recently visit to Silicon Valley, my friend KC took me to Sakoon, a newish restaurant in Mountain View.  It has a labyrinthine layout, with passages leading into inner rooms, and then more passages and rooms further beyond. 

Indian restaurants have started paying far more attention to the presentation of the meal.  This is not important to me, but for some can be an added appeal.  Sakoon offers an intriguing appetizer—the avocado jhalmuri (avocado seems to go well with Indian food—Tanzore in LA had a similar pairing).  Jhalmuri is of course the traditional Bengali street food often served in makeshift cones of recycled newsprint.  This jhalmuri came in looking like a bride, a colorful cylinder of packed muri glued together by the condiments, sitting on a bed of mashed potatoes and avocado. 

KC gets a headache if he consumes a vegetarian meal, so the jhalmuri was paired with seekh kebab—not as moist as I would have liked, but restrained on the spices (I know this sounds like a broken record in all of my posts, but this is important).  For the main entrees we ordered Punjabi Bhindi (okra), Kashmiri lamb chops, and Lakhnavi murgh (chicken) biryani.  You will note that as in many other Indian restaurants, the dishes at Sakoon  bear the names of places in India, implying a certain regional authenticity.  This is by and large BS—there may be some regional guidance behind the spirit of the dish, but the authenticity generally has as much credibility as the Manchurian Gobi (cauliflower) that is popular in today’s Indo-Chinese restaurants.  This is not to say that these dishes do not taste good.  If it helps, the regional reference can offer the seduction of ethnicity.  Imagine that that the lamb chops that you are eating, where folks at the next table are talking about 10G Ethernet technology, could be the same as that cooked  on an open fire, by brooks bearing ice melt from the Himalayas.  Or that the Lakhnavi (from Lucknow) biryani is the one that a chess playing nawab takes a spoonful of askew while he makes his move on an ivory chessboard, eyeing his zenana beyond.

The biryani came casserole dish styled, with the mouth of the dish sealed with a naan, similar to dum cooking, where the food is mildly pressure cooked in its own aroma and vapors by putting a lid on a casserole that is sealed by the flour batter.  This had subtle themes of spices, and rice that remained white rather than the typical yellow coloration that biryani often takes.  The lamb chops, notwithstanding visual imagery, were marinated and cooked to tender perfection.  We used the Bhindi, a blackish looking dish in the dim lights of the restaurant as dry curry added to the biryani or had it with the naans.  It was good, though I always have a love-hate relation with Indian vegetable dishes, where the essential technique involves overcooking the vegetable.  There was Kingfisher on draft available, which is always an added bonus.

For me, Sakoon brought a dose of respect back for North Indian restaurants in the Bay area, given my earlier disappointments with Shiva’s in Mountain View and a restaurant in Burlingame a couple of years earlier.    

Sakoon on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Entropy & D Nu English

“Sm1s lkn HOT!!!!!”  gushed the Facebook comment on a profile picture, the economy of letters so impressive at the beginning, jettisoned in a gust of apostrophes at the end.  Of late I have been befriended by nephews and nieces and in their posts, I see a terse elegance and minimalist language, an English that is being reheated and hammered into compaction through texting and social networking.   Nothing brings the sense of urgency like “nuf  sd”, the superficiality of a “ :-) “, or the delicious longing in the suddenly redundant  “meeeeesss youuuuuuuu!!!!!!!!”.  Writers and poets speak about compressing lines till they express only what is intended, no more, no less.  The poet Linton Kwesi Johnson in an interview on NPR spoke about whittling down a poem, cutting away at the words like a sculpture, till it became a perfect distillation that carried his thought. 

This new language take us further along this minimalist path. From the poet’s task of tightening the sentences by removing words, the objective expands to economizing the letters within the words themselves.  It is like adding a new dimension to the space: words, themselves previously static, now acquire varying textures and shapes.  The communications theorist  Shannon studied redundancy within the English language in the 1940s and found that most sentences could be shrunk down by 50% without losing their import.  Shannon first introduced the mathematical concept of entropy as a measure of the amount of information in a message—something that has had enormous significance in data communications (I thank M for this exposition).  Digging into the English language, he estimated its entropy by identifying the probabilities with which certain letters follow others (such as u after a q which can make u redundant). These posted FB and cellphone missives of today are arrows in the direction of Shannon’s wind, messages stripped down to their bare entropic content, an entropic English devoid of redundancy, whose sparse beauty gains meaning through the principle of minimal expended effort.

This style of messaging is very popular in India-- quite the opposite of what we were taught, a flowery version of English where one adjective was merely the opening salvo.  This was less than 25 years past Indian independence, at a time when little children still wore sailor outfits—the traces of the last century still not quite gone.  Exuberant writing in Indian English took its roots in the 19th century (it is more or less absent now, the last well known Indian English author who wrote in this manner was Sasthi Brata in the 60s).  Here is the famous poet Michael Madhusudhan Dutt writing in English in the 1840s to his friend, upset over an arranged marriage that his father had planned for him (he subsequently converted to Christianity to successfully avert the marriage):

“My dear Gour,
It is the hour for writing love-letters since all around, now, is love-inspiring.  But alas!  The heart that “Melancholy marks for her own’ imparts its own morbid hues to all around it….........It harrows up my blood and makes my hair stand like quills on the fretful porcupine! My betrothed is the daughter of a rich zemindar;--poor girl!  What a deal of misery is in store for her in the ever inexplorable womb of Futurity!  ……… The sun may forget to rise, but I cannot remove it from my heart…..” etc.

Had Madhusudan had the benefit of a mobile phone in 1800s Calcutta, instead of turning to paper and quill, he may have simply texted:

And while it is unclear how Gour responded, had he lived today, he might have countered:

That would be it! There would have been no subsequent body of his poetry and prose in English, no admonition from John Drinkwater Bethune that what was needed was not another Shelley or Byron in English, but one in Bengali, and perhaps no mid career metamorphosis, when Michael Madhusudhan , turning to writing in his mother tongue, emerged as one of Bengal’s greatest poets.

Borrowing from Shakespeare (and as has been noted by others) “2txtrNt2txt tht is d ?”  Do we tarnish our literary skills in this new age of texting? In general, the arguments appear to be pro-texting.  The British linguist David Crystal in his book, “Texting: the gr8 db8” holds that what we are seeing is simply a welcome and natural progression in the evolution of the language.  Similar endorsements abound on the web, along with some scattered curmudgeony resistance.

Part of texting seems to draw from a communication philosophy that is similar to the stoic ethos of speech in the Midwest—depicted with accuracy in the movie, Fargo.  Two farmers stand against a backdrop of flatness, in slanted physical acknowledgement of one another.  Peering at the sky in a drawn and stony silence, one of them finally punctuates the cold Midwestern air that seems so averse to the propagation of sound: “its gon’ rain tonight”.  A brisk “yup” from his companion ends the conversation. Five words, several seconds of silence, and there in front of us lies the brevity of spoken Midwestern English.  There is one part of texting and social networking lingo that draws us in this direction-- peremptory entries and precise information that discourages further engagement.  And alongside this style, looms the other tempestuous, larger than life side of messaging that can expand imagery through the process of compaction ( for instance, “rotflmao”) or lets it all hang out with the rubber band stretching, “ sooooooo beeauuuutiful”.  What it misses between these two end positions of the pendulum, are the mid tones of emotion. Like the photograph that has reduced its grey scales, there is no equivalent in this new language that could grade the emotions inbetween  “  :-) “ and “ :-D “, for instance. 

I have been slowly warming to the use of this new style of communication, though a bug in my instant messaging software on the Mac makes the application crash every time I try to insert a smiley.  As a result, I never smile—and, just so as to even it out and appear not to look like a crabby old guy, I never “frown” either. 

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Aditi Indian Kitchen at the Union Station in Washington DC

Food court, Union Station,Washington, DC

I met an old friend after almost 25 years and had lunch at the Aditi Indian Kitchen, in the food court of Union Station in Washington, DC.

This is a barebones affair.  A few dishes are set out behind the counter and they dole it out to you on paper plates.  The vegetarian dishes caught my eye, for they are not that common. There was vegetable biryani (common enough), but along with it “bonda karhi” and “chana saag” (chickpea-spinach)”.

The food was just what you would expect on a busy street restaurant in India.  Nothing delicate about it.  The vegetable biryani was good--it is really hard to screw up a biryani.  Curry is derived from the traditional North Indian “karhi”, made with yogurt and gram flour.  It is a smooth yellow sauce, and the yogurt seems to bind everything together, soaking into anything that it encounters.  Let lose into this karhi are the “bonda”, pronounced not as you would 007’s last name, but as in “bone”—potato dumplings with a crusted batter around it.  After being cooked in this karhi the bonda loses its crispness aquiring the pliant texture of a junior accompanying artist.  There is nothing junior about the bonda though, when it is well made, and this was a good karhi that afternoon at this Indian Kitchen.   The chana saag was somewhat watery, not as dry as the curries you get here, which is a good thing for North East Indian palates like mine, the spinach nicely offsetting the  bite of the chanas.  The food was hot, but it was not due to an overdose of powdered red chili—this is only too easy.  It was honest food.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Trip to the 2011 North American Bengali Conference (NABC) and Longwood Gardens

The annual North Americal Bengali Conference (NABC 2011), a major affair attended by several thousand Bengalis from all across the country,  took place at the Baltimore Convention Center over the weekend of the 4th. of July.  Having never attended one before, we decided to take a road trip, detouring for a day at the Longwood Gardens near Philadelphia, one of the grand gardens of this country.

I hoped to do some photography at Longwood, and I packed both my cameras --an old Nikon D70 with my favorite 60 mm f2.8 macro, and a small Panasonic GF1 with a 20mm f2.0 lens, a great street camera for those who cannot afford Leicas.  The sun was high at the time that we arrived at Longwood, too high for good photography, but the garden was breathtaking.  Built up by the du Pont family in the early 20th century, this 1000 acre property was a planned arboretum since the late 18th century and is home to the most magnificent trees and gardens.  M  walked eagerly ahead.  She rattled off names, histories, breeding histories for plants, while I worked the shutter. A couple of hours passed by.  It is a worthwhile education even for a non-gardener like myself.  There are spring gardens, forests, fanciful wood houses integrated around enormous trees, elaborate waterworks, and an indoor conservatory with rolling lawns, several ship’s worth of exotic plants, and a roomful of pianos.  It is not just the variety of botany, but the opulence of early 20th century, ultra-rich in America that one gets a feel for. 

We head for Baltimore the next morning along US-1 South:  a semi-rural highway lined with old stone houses and cornfields that takes us across the Mason Dixon line. The car pops up and down over gentle undulations on a largely flat countryside.  It is a blazing hot day.  A yellow sign by the road warns that the bridge ahead may be frozen.  Many years ago, as a schoolboy, I had seen an American comic book with a picture of a field of rutabagas, somewhere in the flat Midwest, and in the middle of it a bleak, forlorn house.  The image impressed upon me the enormity of the scale of the American countryside, and has remained with me.  It gets reinforced on trips such as these.

Three to four thousand Bengalis from all across the country have descended upon the convention center at Baltimore.  The NABC is a mega-cultural event conducted with commendable efficiency over the course of three days, packing in film screenings, concerts, theatre performances from top “artistes” (this now a word that the Bengali language has appropriated—arteeste—offering a certain license, both sartorial and behavioral, to the personality deemed as such) flown in from Kolkata.

The downtown Hilton has been taken over by Bengalis.  We pass a couple in their fifties, the woman regal in a sweeping silk sari with muted elegant colors, her moth eaten husband with a half head full of unkempt hair, a plastic shopping bag and sneakers follows a step behind.  Inside the convention center, another lady in her 50s berates her husband—“you are really something” the befuddled man has been trying to find a cell phone number.  In his red T-shirt with a breastpocket full of pens clipped to it, and an old Lt. Colonel style mustache, the little man passes by us with a grunted namaskar--a seasoned boxer who knows how to roll with the punches.  The world is small.  A professor of nanotechnology, whom I know professionally, walks past me.  Bengali friends from various places are here.  We define ourselves by our children—what they are up to, where they are headed.  My older son is with me. I suspect that he tires at times being with us and is reassured when one of my friends lets him know that he will skip the comments on how big he has grown in these years. 

We walk into a large exhibit hall with a moderately sized trade show representing real estate, jewellery, and music, but very few books and not a single dedicated bookstore of quality.  This I found to be uncharacteristic-- for it is unthinkable to me that the middle class Bengali can be too far away from a book.  But yet , there was the distinct feeling that in this enormous hall full of sari clad women swirling around like whirling dervishes, and men in long embroidered kurtas, there is a changing of the guard and an emerging lifestyle that is part Bollywood glamour, part American pragmatism.  I see little signs of the introspection of the traditional Bengali intelligentsia, except for brief glimpses of a famous writer who in his younger days spent time with Allen Ginsberg and the poets around Washington Square Park, but now seems resigned shooting the shit with the somewhat duller edge of the industrious Bengali diaspora.

The evenings had performances by several singers with both regional as well as national standing—their common denominator was a connection with Bengal.  On the first evening, we heard the magnificent Srikanta Acharya, a singer who takes us through a mountain full of exhilarating turns with his silken V8 engine of a voice, singing just past midnight.  The second day, there were even bigger national stars—Sanu and Yagnik—singers who have broken all kinds of records and won all kinds of awards.  They reaffirm their love for Bengal and the Bengali, and the crowd roars its approval.  They sing with rich, luxurious voices, and handle the audience with practiced aplomb.  Their catchy numbers send sari clad middle aged ladies bounding to the dance floor ready to dislocate their hips.  Under the blue and purple spot lights of the stage, they hold the magician’s wand that night.

The poet and writer Rabindranath Tagore hangs like a giant piece of stalactite over any dispensation of Bengali culture.  Several of the songs sung these nights are his, composed mostly in the early 20th. century.  His writings and compositions have changed the course of Bengali literary thought, at times freezing the path for new movement. But where is a Bengali without his poetry?  And for that, all of the songs, plays, and dances, are deftly linked together by occasional recitations of Tagore’s verse by the expert master-of-ceremonies on hand, Ms. Maitra.  There is a practiced cadence to Bengali recitation, honed through the decades, and memories flood back of bright summer mornings in the school yard where these poems are recited or Rabindrasangeet sung, against the backdrop of vendors vocally plying their trade on the street outside, of children with wet, combed hair; of the lower lip that quivers slightly in extolling the intonation of a tune; of the flared nostrils of a seasoned elocutionist who sends your pulse racing with his recital of a poem (as my father could).   

There are screenings of new films.  In the Indian film industry the crown is often passed from parent to child, and the Bengali film industry is no exception to this inheritance system.  Sandip Ray, the son of Satyajit Ray is here with a new film.  Prosenjit, the son of the actor Biswajeet and an actor himself,  masterfully captures the compassion and intransigence of the 19th century minstrel Lalan Fakir in Moner Manush, Gautam Ghosh’s riveting film that examines the Bauls’ conviction of the way human life, desire and belief should be freely enjoyed without divisiveness.

The Bengali band Bhoomi performs on the afternoon of the last day.  They are unpretentious, talented, and play multiple instruments—they remind me of “Dispatch”.  Bhoomi arrived in the early 2000s with a fresh sound referred to as urban folk, but it seems as though they have reached their peak—their song production has slowed, and they sing that afternoon with too much reverb built into the microphones--it provides a satiny quality to the voice, but sucks the life out if it.
They say that the best way to examine the history of a culture is to examine the mores of an immigrant population for they “time-stamp” their practice of the culture to the period of their departure.  One observes this in the festivities of the Trinidadian and Guyanese Indians—my previous Guyanese neighbor use to refer to 19th century hindu festivals that I had never heard of.  There are some signs of this cultural disjoint in the Bengali diaspora, but they are fading, for in this massively networked society, events like the NABC are the great equilibrators that do not allow differences to build up over distances any more.

Alumni networking sessions have been planned for in the afternoons.  The Jadavpur alumni complain that they cannot match the organizational capability of the IIT Kharagpur alumni.  The IIT Kharagpur meeting itself ends in a pissfest—some are despondent about their inability to recruit high quality faculty.  The discussion spills over to the American education system.  Even that is going down the tubes, comments one participant, in sad but assured reflection.  An argument breaks out--that as far as I can make out--seems to be in search of an argument to argue over.  I finally get a glimpse of the Bengali despair and angst that I have been seeking—it is alive and kicking.  It is time to return home.