The art of food

Growing up in an Indian household, grains, wheat, and meat were staples. Split red lentil soup with rice or bread was dinner on most days. I thrived in that environment.

I used to wake up to tea—strong leaf tea infused with full-fat cow’s milk—that’s what I survived on. And I always told myself the uncomfortable gassiness, bloating, and smelly farts were normal.

Until I grew up. For one health reason, I decided to go vegan about three-four years ago. And since, for many socio-economic reasons, I’ve continued a vegan lifestyle.

Not long after my transition, I realised that there was another sect of people reacting to gluten the same was as I did to dairy.

Now, I have friends who can’t eat gluten. I’ve cooked for them, and shared meal with them. And so, I’ve become more attuned to the amount of wheat and gluten I consume.

That’s why I like challenging myself to make gluten-free meals. After all, I cook for myself. How bad could it be?

So a couple of days ago, I tried to make gluten-free pasta. I aimed for a simple rice-flour-based spaghetti-like noodle. I realised soon enough that the flour wasn’t as pliable as wheat. Of course, it had no gluten—what was I expecting?

However, after some rigorous kneading, rolling, and scrunching it all up into a ball, I chose the easy way out. Surely, little blobs of dough would still make bite-worthy pasta? I ended up making gnocchi, without a single traditional gnocchi ingredient.

I used a vegetable and tomato curry as a sauce, and to my surprise, it came out well. I was even proud of how quickly everything came together—it was faster than any basic baking endeavour that requires proofing and waiting overnight.

Mix, roll, cut, and shape. Why, it was easier than deciding what sauce to make for the pasta!
Today, at the supermarket, as I looked at the price of gluten-free pastas, I couldn’t help but laugh in my head. Now that I’d done it once, I knew I could make much more for much less.

Food shouldn’t be about convenience. That’s the unhealthy mentality that leads to food-related issues. Instead, when you pursue it with precise care, food becomes art, and that art can sustain us.

Let's just get out of the way

At least ninety percent of the people I interact with daily involve themselves—and boast about it—in some sort of activism against governments’ inaction on climate change. Until as recently as a couple of months ago, people rallied in closed spaces, furiously discussing the endless possibilities of rallying outdoors, with cheeky signboards and stern yells at authority. It feeds their ego—makes them feel like angry mothers, with a hand on the hip, waving a finger at their uncontrollable toddler.

Now though, with the world gradually going into an impending lockdown, I haven’t seen any of these cluster bombs around me. 

Instead of halting traffic and playing their own part in increasing the excess gas pumped into the air as drivers clutched their gears, revving engines, instead of yelling at the top of their voices, as if that’d make global leaders care more, and introducing unnecessary noise pollution in otherwise, quiet streets, instead of wasting everyone’s time just to make themselves feel better as if they’ve achieved something, these non-violent protestors are now in their homes.

Socially distancing themselves from each other, but still unsure what that means, some gather in smaller groups, in each others’ living rooms, to chat about the world and despair at having to cancel protests.

In the meantime, though, the earth has just woken up. 

Remember, the first time you let an ant crawl on your hand, how mesmerised you were at its tinyness? How you allowed it to wander up and down from your elbow and knuckles, smiling at its worthless, feeble life at how easily you could crush it? It’s a wonderful experience—to watch an ant strut. Until—it starts to tingle your arm hair, and you feel the ant moving, you sense it more acutely, and soon, you can’t help yourself but smack it or slash it away. The fascinating creature becomes a pest, and like a dog ridding itself of a flea around its ear, you shake it off. 

We’re the earth’s ants. We’ve scratched her too long—and now she’s shaking us away.

As we crouch away from all contact, hide in the confines of our own couches, life as we’ve never known it, is returning to its original state. Look at Italy, for instance. 

Venice, a travel destination for many, was always too small to treat all the greedy tourists of the world. As a result, it’s faltered under the weight of human pollution. With the country in lockdown, however, because of you-know-what, the waters of Venice are clearer than ever before. Without any humans around, swans and fish rejoice because they can finally breathe the oxygen in those waters.

How sad is that?

The planet’s fine, mate. It’s the people who’re fucked.

First world problems

One of the initial and biggest culture shock for someone visiting a western country from the third world is walking into a toilet cubicle and seeing a roll of toilet paper. 

On the first morning of my first trip to the United States, in 2017, I texted my brother from the bathroom.

“First world question: is it safe to flush toilet paper?”

I had my reasons, too. For in many parts of the world, places that are still undeveloped after more than fifty years of developing, the toilet system can’t even handle a healthy person’s plump and fibrous roll of waste. It takes more than a few flushes to make sure everything is indeed flushed off and not as disgusting for the next person.

That’s why I was terrified of flushing a wad of toilet paper and messing up the four-star hotel’s drainage system. And so, a wave of relief swept over me as the response came in the affirmative.

Later that morning, my colleague pulled me aside to discuss, in hushed voices and rolling eyes, the great toilet paper incident and how bizarre it is to have so much bog roll but not knowing how to use it. We couldn’t figure out how first worlders could feel comfortable with a backside that potentially harboured dried waste.

Growing up in Asia, my colleague and I were both used to washing ourselves with water. As toddlers, we were potty trained, which not only helps strengthen thigh and waist muscles for later in life but also makes it so much easier to wash ourselves after we finish our business. Even to this day, countless Indian homes have potty-style bathrooms that are highly effective in preventing the spread of germs introduced by western commodes.

However, even when Asian countries adopted the modern and more convenient commode system, they still retained the washing habit by installing hand showers in the bathroom. Hand showers that required some additional plumbing, but made a lot of sense nevertheless. Resembling a sprinkler garden hose, it’s fitted into the wall next to the toilet, making it easy for the loo-goer to squish, splash, and then return it to its stand and walk away clean.

I’ve visited the US a couple times afterwards, and since migrating to Australia last year, I’ve become far more accustomed to the idea of using toilet paper multiple times every day. 

Source: Giphy

All that said, when coronavirus came into the picture, just as the bushfires were settling down, we went from one unprecedented incident to another one. From donating supplies to people evacuating fire zones, we’ve gone to physically assaulting each other for a roll of toilet paper. This paper crisis and the disastrous fight for bog roll has taken over the internet with memes, devastating videos, graphic images of empty supermarket shelves, and suggestions to use yellow pages instead of toilet paper. 

Amongst this incredible, insane situation, a few odd people have been brave enough to suggest the time-tested Asian washing method, only to be sneered at. It’s not unheard of, of course. Many Australians have travelled widely, and the country itself homes millions of migrants in every state. The hand shower idea isn’t as novel as the coronavirus. It’s even the more environmentally-sustainable option compared to toilet paper. Sure, recycled toilet paper is marketed as better than regular ones, but hey, nothing beats water.

Dear first world, welcome to the third world.

Of women’s safety

The 4th of March is national safety day in India, and my concerned Indian employer emailed all employees about being safe in the workplace and society in general. It’s a tradition. Every day for an entire week, we get an email discussing a specific theme.

To commemorate International women’s day a couple of days ago, the email that day spoke about women’s safety and best practices.

Of the many bullet points, one stuck out weird, like a sore thumb, reminding me of the sore safety situation that’s an issue across the world, and specifically rampant in certain places like India.

“Don’t get into a vehicle that has more than one man seated in it.”

Not obeying that piece of advice is a recipe for disaster. Or so people think. Hence the warning. 

However, heeding that warning is an even even bigger problem.

Telling a woman to stay away from an enclosed space that has two or more men is stupid. The world is half men. At any given time and place, there’re more than a handful of men in a gathering. If women avoid being in the vicinity of men just because they’re men, that only shows how poorly we think of our men.

And when we think poorly of men, we, in turn, think poorly of the women who raised and influenced those men.

In a convoluted, indirect way, telling a woman to stay away from menfolk’s presence is like asking a woman to lock herself in her room. That’s limiting a woman’s ability to be herself, to be an active participant in society’s everyday activities.

Coming from an Indian background, I’ve seen and, more often, heard about women bartered off in the name of marriage. As if they’re incapable of thinking and speaking for themselves. When fathers and husbands, concerned about the safety of “their” women, tell—or even subject—them to stay at home thinking that it’s best for them, those men miss the whole point about equality and freedom for all. Sure, they’re worried about safety in the streets after hours. They’re terrified of what’ll happen if their daughter’s the only passenger on a bus at 11 pm. They’re so focussed on preventing bad things from happening that they often overlook the cause of that in the first place. 

You see, we always insist on avoiding trouble, but in the process, we avoid identifying the real trouble.

A woman sharing a cab with three other male colleagues isn’t a problem. The problem is our mindset that men are so low that they only need a small chance to become violent towards women. In a way, we’ve created a culture that treats men not as fully-functioning, even wise, humans, but as mindless animals that’ll attack the moment their prey slacks. 

The saddest part? Most people don’t look twice at these warnings. Or even spend a minute to wonder how it impacts the minds of our future generations. Tell a young mother she should avoid densely populated male areas, and she’ll automatically transfer that fear onto her daughter. As for her son? He’ll grow up forever terrified of the women who treat men as aliens.

It’s such a vicious cycle.

Old habits die hard

That’s such a popular saying. It means that it’s hard to change habits you’ve had for a long time. And it makes sense too if you think about it—skills we learn as children make up who we are as adults.

One such skill I acquired, quite early on in life, was swimming. My mother, like most over-zealous parents, hoping I’d become a smart athletic one day, signed me up for a swimming club. I was perhaps five or six.

The poor instructor spent many an hour in the water, trying hard to get me to co-operate with him. I wouldn’t. About four years later, I still hadn’t learnt anything except that the canteen had delectable fish pastry and ice-cold chocolate milk.

Undeterred, my mother signed me up for the school swimming classes. It was a free service offered by a school-sponsored instructor, and it completely eliminated my potential plea about wasted fees.

I had no way out.

So I learnt to swim. The instructor was exceptionally skilled, and started us off on the baby pool. Because it was so shallow, it was so easy to wade in the water and get accustomed to kicking and arm strokes.

I even began enjoy swimming.

The school instructor had managed to achieve what the paid instructor couldn’t for years.

Not long afterwards, life happened and I had to give up swimming.

Fifteen years later, I signed up for a different swimming club. Yesterday. In Canberra.

That’s when I realised: old practices don’t just come back after all those years. I spent almost 30 minutes in the pool, too scared to swim. Memories from my old swimming club rushed into my head, swelling into my chest, reminding me of that paid instructor who never succeeded.

Today I went back. This time, I headed to the wading pool—the shallow one, equivalent to the baby pool. I practiced on my own. Replaying the old instructions in my head—powerful arm strokes, kicking, breathing in while my face is out of the water and blowing out bubbles when in. It took me about 20 minutes, but by the end of it, I’d done it. I’d recalled a large portion of my swimming lessons.

I’m not finished yet. I still have at least a few more self-learning sessions in the wading pool before I can go back to swimming properly again.

So yes, old habits do die hard. But once they die, it can be quite challenging to revive them too.