Tuesday, January 31, 2006

An Ayurvedic Lunch & Another Review

Well this afternoon my sister, my mother and my aunt G went out together to a restaurant serving authentic "Ayurvedic" meals -- not merely vegetarian, but healthy in that Mystical Eternal India manner (cue sitar music in the background. And curling wisps of incense. And coconut oil. And a tiger or two).

Those of you who know me will realize that this is NOT my scene at all, but I survived, nevertheless. The main pleasures were: taking my Mum out, despite her difficulties walking and the trouble she has managing since she broke her wrist a couple of months ago (it's healing well, but of course is still a worry); taking my Auntie-G out, because she so enjoys the sacred food concept; being in a small restaurant that takes itself SOOOOO seriously, yet in an entirely different direction to the Michelin Guide-wallahs. After all, who can resist a restaurant which has a sales counter out front, at which one can buy small packets labelled "Simple Enema"?

The meal we had was a set menu. We were seated at a table to ourselves in a small air-conditioned room, whose walls had been decorated by a loose lattice-work of bamboo wands (not especially attractive). A fresh banana leaf was spread in front of each of us and of course there was no question of cutlery. We had a personal attendant (so does anyone who orders the set menu) who advised us about the procedure: we would get 28 items in all, small portions of each. We were to eat only in the particular order in which these items were served; we would not be offered water during the meal, and the rice course would come only towards the end.

It began with two slices of banana sprinkled with grated coconut. Immediately following this were five dainty little glasses with, in order: date juice, almond-cashew milk, beetroot-pumpkin juice, mint-buttermilk, red rice congee (gruel??) -- and the tastes ranged from sweet, less sweet, salty, sour and ... umm ... bland.

The next course comprised one portion each of four uncooked items -- salad-y type things of which the banana-stem item was undoubtedly the best -- then four semi-cooked, which I didn't much enjoy coz there was a white-pumpkin item and a beetroot item, but the mound of banana-flower [something] -- the texture of soft dark sand --was quite pleasant. Then four cooked items, plus red rice. Now this red rice wasn't merely sissy-pale red, it was more like MAROON rice, and had a muscular, nutty flavour. A neat touch: it was served with a spoonful of yellow daal, so softened that it looked EXACTLY like the ghee that would NORMALLY be served on rice. And sambar.

All the cooked items were just okay, in my opinion, not because they didn't taste okay but because they weren't my closest friends, veggie-wise (cauliflower's okay, but the various gourd-type things don't appeal). This was followed by another round of liquids, including rasam, a goo I didn't like, plain buttermilk and a sweet payasam (not rice, but the kind I used to call Brown Payasam as a child and that I didn't ever touch -- but I will admit it was quite nice here). And finally, to round it all off, a teaspoon of honey which was deposited into the palms of our hands (!!) -- which we were told quite sternly to lick up in one go, it was part of the whole procedure -- and a "beeda" -- a paan leaf with betel-nut components of unknown identity wrapped inside it, as a digestive.

The important features to note about the meal were that it was wholly grease-free, everything being pretty much steamed (I think) and that there were no "heaty" veggies, such as onion and garlic, and no spices of the cardamom, clove, turmeric brigade. I am pretty sure there were chillies lurking in the savoury green mango relish that was one of the four "uncooked" selections, because it was certainly chilli-hot -- but the rest was refreshingly low-spice, natural flavour -- but maybe I am wrong and it was only fresh pepper combining explosively with the mango (and maybe cilantro? I forget).

I don't think I'd go again -- mainly coz I don't like eating with my fingers and feel queasy about the raw veggies concept -- oh and I NEVER like to feel that I'm doing anything consciously sacred (does everyone notice how close the word "sacred" is to "scared"?) because ... well, this is my blog, and I don't have to justify anything. I don't like it, and that's all. But the little man who watched over us as we ate was very sweet and seemed genuinely concerned that we should follow the proper procedure in order to get the maximum benefit from our meal. His presence -- like that of the whole restaurant -- was a reminder of that entire world of otherness regarding food -- of food as medicine, as ritual, as tradition -- the supreme opposite of food as entertainment, as titillation, as indulgence.

It's not where I'm at (I mean, medicine/ritual/tradition), but I enjoyed entering that world anyway.

Right! And now ... back to theatre:

Harvest/January 30, 2006
By Gwen Orel

In answer to the comment that "no one goes abroad these days," Jaya (Diksha Basu) mutters, "Not whole people, anyway." It's true. In Manjula Padmanabhan's play Harvest, bits of impoverished Indians go to America through voluntary organ donation sponsored by the company InterPlanta. InterPlanta's mordant commercials (the video director is Matt Bockelman) punctuate the scenes and are one of the best elements in a solid show; the happy actors' sincerity, and InterPlanta's little jingle, "We make life worth living," are uncomfortably close to the euphoric promises of Viagra commercials.

Jaya, the wife of organ donor Om (Debargo Sanyal), is the play's moral center, although the action is driven by Om and by Jaya's brother-in-law and lover, Jeetu (Rupak Ginn), a street hustler who says, "I don't mind being bought, but I won't be owned." After Om signs with InterPlanta, guards (who farcically finish each other's sentences) come to the house and take all the family's possessions. They install a hanging white rosette called a "contact module," through which their sponsor, a blond Southern woman named Ginni (hilariously bossy Christianna Nelson), beams her image. She treats them like prospective livestock, and in return sends them a toilet, shower, couch, and television. Ma (Naheed Khan) purchases "video paradiso," which breathes and eats for her as she watches television inside her mind. Act II provides more exposition; though the material is dramatically successful, the play is less powerful when the circumstances are pinned down.

Thanks to Padmanabhan's lyrical language, director Benjamin Mosse's pacing and humor, and a solid cast, Harvest is a fascinating, funny, and frightening glimpse of what happens when we commodify human beings. Although it addresses globalization, the play's issues are universal. As Bruce Springsteen sings, "Everybody has a hungry heart." Keeping body and soul together in the face of images of plenty is a human challenge not limited to the Third World.


Daniel Gardner said...

Hi Miss Padmanabhan--I saw your play at La MaMa last night and thought it was remarkably entertaining. I happen to be a big sci-fi geek as well, so to be able to watch a smart play that infuses sci-fi themes was a real treat for me! Do your other plays also incorporate sci-fi ideas into them?

Marginalien said...

Hi and thanks! No, my other plays aren't especially science-fictional but I've written (and published) a few SF short-stories. At one time it was my favourite genre but I wasn't able to make a living from it so I wandered away from the fold. I still hope, some day, to publish an SF novel.

Heather Rubenstein said...

Greetings from New York City. I attended a performance of your play Harvest two days ago, and wanted to let you know that I had a wonderful time. Your script was quite engaging, and the cast was very talented. It reminded me of the great movie "Dirty Pretty Things" (however, I know that you wrote your play several years before that movie was made) Can we expect more of your plays to find their way to our city in the future?

Marginalien said...

Thank you -- how nice! I'm very pleased for the cast and crew of NYC's HARVEST -- it certainly seems to have been very well received. I've seen photographs which I hope to post here soon.

About something else of mine being brought to the New York stage, well ... ECA, the production company that brought H to NYC, and I are talking about it. Naturally, I'd be delighted for that to happen.

Actually, through SALAAM, a small but very lively South Asian theatre group -- link in the column to the right of the main-page here -- there have been readings of five of my plays, including HARVEST. I am including, under the title of "plays" the two sets of short pieces called THE SEXTET and HIDDEN FIRES. I have written six plays so far and am working on another two.