India, I have always believed, is an acquired taste. It takes some getting used to. Some love it and some love to hate it. But once this phenomenon called India succeeds in getting under your skin, it is hard to ignore and forget. In the beginning the staggering chaos, never ending jostling with crowds, unbearable temperature extremes and a curious mixture of overwhelming yet not entirely unpleasant fragrance, may appear stifling. But a few months in and the chaos finally settles down in a rough semblance of order in your mind. Things start to make a little sense. Enough, so that you don’t feel you are hopelessly shuffling with the crowd in a direction you are not entirely sure you even want to go.
I am a native, born and bred near the national capital region, but unlike most who grow up with a sense of deep – unshakeable yet not completely understood – patriotism, India for me took some getting used to. Thirty one years to be precise. Growing up, everything about India irked me – the crowds, the all-permeating dust, the poverty, people just sitting idle waiting to be saved, the stifling social conventions, the sun, the heat, lack of green pastures – nothing made sense and I had little patience to spend time looking at deciphering it. My disillusionment often left me wondering what others saw that I seemed to be missing.
And then one average day, something clicked inside my head. A bolt fastened. A screw landed in its perfect slot, perhaps. And then India happened. Very much like an out-of-body experience, I began to see India, how I believe others see it. The India that despite its several failings continues to enamour and mystify.The diversity I always heard people shouting about, I started to experience it. Live it.
If someone asks me one word to describe India, I think I would say colourful. It is hardly a decorative term. Indeed. But when you think colour, its associative terms are vibrant, radiant, bright, lively, animated, rich, picturesque, each true for the India I now see.
Colourful is my strongest memory, when I think of states like Rajasthan, Gujarat, Tamil Nadu. There are others but am yet to experience them first-hand.Attend a wedding from any of these states and it is like blobs of paints exploding inside your head. Think kanjeevarams, chaniyacholis, kediyus, leheriyas, not just as a reflection of their state of origin, but from a viewpoint of India – a country culturally in love with everything colourful and vibrant.
As India continues to unravel itself to my new eyes, I realize that nothing charms me more than the perseverance of a group of deeply secretive artisans residing in small hamlets in distant parts of India, shelling out artifacts – the knowledge of which is religiously passed on from one generation to the next – in a protective and honourable attempt to immortalize their predecessors’ legacy. I talk of the stunning and absolutely mesmerizing Aranmula mirror of Pathanamthitta in Kerala. I talk of the mystical fragrances of Attar of Kannauj in Uttar Pradesh. I talk of the Rogan paintings of the Kutch region in Gujarat.
I love the fact that if someone asks me about my favourite dishes in India, I often end up quoting names of dishes the origin of which is credited to different states across India. Think rosogulla, dhokla, sambhar-vada, balmithai, litti chokha. When it comes to food, I think we Indians are truly secular. From the spiciest concoctions to the most delicate flavors, our taste buds can decipher a most complex bouquet of flavors, isolate individual elements and celebrate each of them separately. As they should be;celebrated, I mean.
And I had my own private celebration of a similar kind on my recent visit to an outwardly nondescript food wonderland in Bangalore. I talk of Annapoorni. I am a Bangalorean at heart and have gorged on succulent South Indian delicacies for over 5 years, but this experience was incomparable to any previous food journeys of my past.
I do try to avoid hyperbole at all cost but every morsel I had at Annapoorni restaurant detonated simultaneously in my mouth like a well-timed orchestra. But of all that I tried, my standing ovation goes to the til (sesame)powder served with a pea sized dollop of curd that forced my eyes to close in absolute wonderment.And I wonder even today how something so simple can be so meteoric. I would like to stress that my little eulogy about my experience is not just a figment of my underused or under-appreciated taste buds as for me food is my religion and I willingly pray a lot (if you know what I mean)!
But I realize I may have digressed a bit. Mea Culpa.
In essence, over the past few months, I have started looking at things a little more meaningfully, enjoying and appreciating India a little more deeply. And not just as scattered moments of wonder but as a collective phenomenon that India is.
I have decided to give in to India. The flavors, the colours, the souvenirs all ready to be taken in, imbibed and celebrated.