Thought I could add some spice to your life...

Thursday, June 02, 2005

Shaak and Spinach

Here is a beautiful article, titled "shAk and Spinach", by Amitabha Mukherjee. It is about food, language and memories and life elsewhere:

I quote a part here, but I suggest you read the whole:

Words fade in translation. It is futile trying to convey the richness of bugumbilia or shAk to the foreigner. Transcending words, one needs the direct experience, but even then it is a poor approximation to the totality of shared experience that shAk represents.

Going the other way, the same word is merged jostled in the crowd and merges with a host of other meanings. Its colour has bleached, its associations are frayed, and when you meet him in a distant land, part of you also seems lost with it. When you eat bhAt in America, you are eating rice. When you buy chAl, or the farmer grows dhAn, it is also rice. But rice comes in many more shades to the Bengali in me, each intertwined into delicate strands of memory. The feel of bhAt as I mix it with my fingers - the chAl as I sieve it through my hand directly from the jute sack - how can I relate this with the neatly pre-packaged grain that I eat directly from the rice-cooker? And the word itself - it means everything and therefore it means nothing to me. What of the process of serving and eating rice - bhAt bADA and bhAt bhAngA - which will never have an analog in English? What then of polAo, the festive mood of which is irrepairably lost in the colourless "fried rice" that degrades it to mere food, and worse, lumps it with a myriad dishes from far east and elsewhere. Then there is pAyes - rich, sweet, lush and creamy - off with your banal "rice pudding". There is "muri", and "khai", and "chiDe" - what a letdown it is to eat "puffed rice mixture" when what we are eating is muri-chAnAchur. The eskimo has twenty words for "hole in the ice", and I am sure he also feels the same sense of loss and devastation in a pagan land that knows only ice in the fridge. What of lankA and marich - both "chile": or when you say hot - is it jhhAl or is it garam? And then there is the untranslatable: what of the sondA gandha - how can "smell of the earth after the rain" tickle the nostrils the same way?

This difference in translation is, of course, also a difference in culture, and ultimately, a difference in identity. This is the gap that is so palpable between a second generation Indian and one who grew up in India. Communities in exile, like the Tamils of Singapore, or the Jewish diaspora with Hebrew, hold on to a purer form of the language, which mutates and may even be lost in the motherland. This is their fragile attempt to hold on to something that is uniquely theirs. Words define us; shared meanings define our identity. When we lose a word, we also lose little bits of ourselves. When we are in the same place, each loss is replaced with more new ones; but in a foreign land one can merely cling ever harder to what was there in the past.

20 Comments:

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