Wednesday, March 02, 2005

"Have You Eaten?": Arriving at LAFTI (.D. Willis)

We arrived late last night in Kuthur, sometime around 10:30 pm. The ride from Thanjavur was more than harrowing, the wild game of passing and near-misses played out on Indian roads between overloaded buses, lorries, and cars, always intruded upon by the unexpected: herds of cattle, goats, water buffalo, sheep, donkeys, people of all shapes and sizes, bicycles, motorcycles, scooters, even the occasional elephant. We saw all of these on our journey yesterday.

Kuthur is a remote village, but it is connected to a main road. We had no idea where we were going and had to stop frequently to ask, even our taxi driver on this last leg not knowing. Finally a signboard appeared for LAFTI. We swing around into the village
and soon found ourselves facing a compound wall with a large painting of Mahatma Gandhi and sayings of his written in Tamil. All was dark and quiet, but some young men appeared as we entered the LAFTI compound. Smiling, always smiling in Tamil Nadu, they took us to our room, where we soon went to sleep.

Rising at 5:30 am just before dawn, I start out of LAFTI’s main building and suddenly Amma appears, arms outstretched, reaching for my hands, her wonderful smile beaming. She clasps my hands, looking deeply in my eyes with her charismatic sparkle, a big smile on her face, immediately asking how my children, my two sons, are doing. This is characteristic of Amma, asking after your family and then you, before anything else. Amma’s selflessness. We talk for some time, my asking after her and Appa, their children Sathya and Bhoomi, and then her work recently. We will go see it, she says.

“Then, have you eaten?” In the very Tamil form of greeting, it is one of the first things you ask the other person. Everyone must be well fed! And Amma’s cooking, as we are to find out, especially with the help of Jyothi, Mani, and others, is superb. Slow food in action.

We noticed during our stay in Kuthur that to eat is very close to the Gandhian philosophy of to live. Simple, wholesome country food, the ingredients all from local fields, trees, and plants. This is village food and vegetarian. The philosophy of nonviolence has permeated eating with Gandhians, too, and one will not see tandoori chicken at any Gandhian gathering! I do note, however, that many of the Dalits whom Amma is working with are meat eaters, including beef, though this meat-eating is also considered at least partly responsible for their low status, according to various caste origin myths.

Sekar’s daughter Rohini has admirably translated some of these myths and their commentary, and shown them to me, the inevitable gloss being that something bad happened and they therefore ended up as meat eaters. There is, thus, an aspiration for vegetarianism and the higher status which it confers. At the same time, the protein in meat of course helps people who must do a lot of hard manual labor in the sun. We do notice that the usual concerns with purity and pollution associated with eating practices in South India are very much absent at LAFTI, aside from washing one’s right hand before and after the meal. Everyone sits and eats together, using the same plates and cups. There are no individual utensils, of course, since all the food is eaten by hand.

David has spoken earlier of sambar powder, the base of the gravy or sauce that usually accompanies rice or other foods in South India. A masala or mixture of dry spices, it is the foundation of what is called curry powder. Garam masala is another word for a
masala of dry ingredients, and every house has their own recipes depending on the type of curry that is being cooked. Curry, by the way, simply means food, like gohan in Japanese. There are also wet masalas.

We eat in a large thatched shed, sitting on the ground on woven straw mats all together with round stainless steel trays as plates. Amma is very on-task with all the cooks in the preparation of the food, and we notice her directing the general preparations often. Amma is involved in many aspects of the operations of LAFTI, but this duty she seems to especially relish.

Morning is usually idli, the round Tamil steamed rice/dal cake. We typically eat four or five of those. Part of the batter is ground rice and part ground dal (lentils), ground in a large granite mortar and pestle and then left overnight to slightly ferment. It is a nutritious and tasty batter used to make iddis and the thin crepe called dosai. Sambar gravy with vegetables, which also has a dal base, and freshly ground coconut chutney with mustard seeds and green chillis are the accompaniment for idli and dosai. We also have a rice mixture with mustard seeds and curry leaves. The curry plant provides fresh or dry leaves that are a pungent and important part of all South Indian curries, two other major ingredients being chilli powder from red chillis and turmeric root which gives the characteristic yellow color.

South Indian food is rice-based, and the main meal of the day is lunch, when a large mound of rice with two or three side vegetables, some curds (yogurt), sambar and rasam, fiery pepper water. Seconds, thirds, and fourth servings are expected. And after lunch there is a long nap of one to two hours. Quite sensible given the intense heat of the middle of the day in South India.

Some variations on dosai with sambar and chutney or perhaps the northern wheat-based chappati or deep-fried puri breads, along with a potato or other vegetable curry, are evening meals. Indians also love sweets, and Sekar and I bring sweets into the landscape! They are not typical in LAFTI, but everyone is happy to see them nonetheless! Appa in particular has quite a sweet tooth.

Sugar cane is originally from India, by the way, and I think the attraction of sugar was as great as spices to the early Europeans coming to Asia. They did not have sugar, nor did sugar exist in the Americas. Indian sweets are very sweet, usually ghee- (clarified butter) or milk-based. But they are not often seen in village South India, where day-to-day struggles for food and getting something on the plate is the highest priority and, for some, a difficult one to meet.

The Other David


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