Sunday, June 27, 2010

Who designed the sil-batta?

Who Designed the Sil Batta -
and why should we care?

When my mother-in-law came to Delhi from Calcutta, more than forty years ago, she brought with herself a stone-grinder – a sil batta – on the train. The sil was part of the household goods given by her family, to start her new life as a married woman. A few days ago, in the absence of my cook, I ground fresh coriander and garlic chutney on the same sil-batta. It was vigorous exercise for my arms. As the volume of green leaves transformed into a darker green, and I saw and smelt the shape of the white garlic clove disappearing into the green paste, amidst my growing anticipation of tasting the chutney, I was struck by a thought. Who designed the ubiquitous sil-batta, that indispensable part of every Indian kitchen even today? Was it designed at all? Or did one or many of our ancestors simply pick up a stone lying around by chance and use it to beat something on another convenient stone?

The germ of the idea may certainly have come from there, but when I look at the smooth black oval softness of the batta and consider how snugly it fits into my hands; the pocked and dotted surface of the sil and how well it uses friction to grind finely, it seems to me it must have been designed. Designed not in the sense that we think of today, with elaborate drawings, concept doodles and engineering drawings, but in the classic sense of the word – ‘thought of, conceived, deliberately visualized in the head’. Individual makers would have introduced minute changes in the basic configuration – depending on their personal or regional preferences. So the oblong batta preferred in Bengal becomes triangular in North India. The size of the sil varies. But, by and large, the sil-batta is instantly recognizable – the type is standardized yet each piece is unique, with its own identity.

The widespread use and acceptance of the sil-batta and its enduring popularity shows the success of its design. Of course, along with the sil, most conventional Indian kitchens today also house an electric mixer-blender, the ‘mixie’. I have one too. A Black & Decker model, bought less than a couple of years ago. We believed that it would perform better than the locally made mixie which had given up fairly soon. In about a year, much before the locally produced model, the blade of the wet-grinder of the ‘branded’ mixie had broken, and the vessel of the dry-grinder had cracked. Considering how infrequently it was used for our small family of three, and considering the claims of quality and durability of this international brand, this was unexpected - to say the least!

We considered toting the mixie back to the shop in Sector 18, not far at all from our home, but increasingly intimidating to reach with the intervening metro construction, road widening, stacks of malls and cars. And after all that effort, the shopkeeper would probably direct us to the company office, somewhere in the Industrial Sectors of Noida where we would spend more time and energy. After spending a precious morning in hunting out the bill and warranty card, we let it be.

In any case, the mixie was rarely used. One had to consider carefully what could be ground in it. The fine poppy seeds, the beloved posto of the Bengalis, used for flavouring and texturing vegetables, emerged virtually unchanged from the mixie. Mustard seeds, another favourite spice for both fish and vegetables, could only be ground in huge quantities, and even then not fine enough to bring out their pungency. Dry grinding other spices in the mixie was fast, but most of the flavour was lost.

If you pause to think about what the sil-batta does for and to you, it seems that it may actually be far more progressive and modern to use it rather than the mixie. The energy and resources consumed in its design and production are minimal – the design is well-disseminated, familiar to both maker and user, does not require fancy 3D mock-ups or scale-models, and contains no high energy parts such as steel or plastic. The stone may require high-energy resources in quarrying but further shaping is primarily by hand tools wielded by skilled stone-workers, and causes practically no pollution in production. The stone for the sil-batta in my family must have been quarried half a century ago. Unless I drop it on the floor and break it, there is no reason why it will not give service for another half a century more and be used by my daughter to pass on to whoever she wishes. Whenever my cook or I use it, the only energy we expend is ours. The taste is fresher, I believe the nutrients are retained, and I do not need to go to a gym to get exercise for my arms!

Contrast this with the steel and plastic mixie. Its production is complex, and requires detailed drawings (now probably produced on a computer, itself made with high energy materials) as a prelude to being manufactured in a large complicated factory - the setting up and running of which consumes precious water, and energy - and causes toxins to be released in the air, water and land. Every time the finished product is used, it consumes a lot of electricity. And then it breaks down in about a year.

Why don’t I throw the mixie? Or give it away to my maid as I do so many extra utensils? Perhaps it’s the particularly Indian habit of thrift. Perhaps because I nurse a fond hope that I may discover that there is something that the much advertised and branded mixie is good for. Or perhaps because it occurs to me that Gandhiji was right – giving away things whose use you have outgrown but whose usefulness you believe in, is acceptable. But giving away things that you think are practically useless, is hypocrisy.

I am, however, almost sure that my maid will be pleased to own a mixie. Why? Because we have been led to the belief that the mixie - like the image of the ‘pucca’ house - symbolizes modernity and progress. It is another matter that the pucca houses of concrete that practically every villager in India aspires to live in - and which already disfigure our cities and towns - are climatically and structurally quite inappropriate for most parts of India. They heat up dramatically in the summers, lose heat in the winters, and are unable to cope with the cycles of dry heat, humidity, or cold weather that make up the climate in many parts of our sub-continent. Whether it is the capital complex in Chandigarh that is said to represent the epitome of the ‘Modern Style of Architecture’, or the AWHO or the DDA built flats in the National Capital region of Delhi, or the hastily put up structures by local contractors all over the country, they all spall, rust, crumble and flake sooner rather than later. Sometimes, they also collapse and fall apart much before their slated time – like my Black and Decker mixie.

So we have gone back whole sale to the sil-batta. Pink onions and green mint, brown roasted cumin seeds, soaked almonds, fresh ginger, mixed dals, are all freshly ground, and just as much as we want. I no longer have to store huge quantities in the fridge, or waste much water in rinsing out the grinder, or worry about power cuts getting in the way of preparing food. The mixie is still there, occupying space in the kitchen. I hold onto the split vessel tightly trying to prevent spills when I summon up the will to use it (perhaps once in the past six months), curse it when I occasionally dust it, and look gratefully at my mother-in-law’s faithful sil, and marvel at its designer and maker.

Anisha Shekhar Mukherji
23 June 2010

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

In Search of the Sun...and the Rain

Surya, The Sun God, 8th Century AD, Rajasthan, Black Stone

‘Sister moon will be my guide

In your blue blue shadows I would hide……
I'm a stranger to the sun

My eyes are too weak

How cold is a heart

When it's warmth that he seeks?…
My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun

My hunger for her explains everything I've done…’
Gordon Sumner alias Sting, Sister Moon 1

‘My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun; Coral is far more red than her lips' red…’
William Shakespeare, Sonnet 130 2

The words of a musical superstar and a celebrated poet take on a different meaning in the clear yellow sunlight of a winter morning in Noida, barely a few kilometers from what remains of the Yamuna River in the plains of Northern India. It is many miles away and many degrees warmer than the England of Shakespeare’s and Sting’s rearing, where the sun is a very rare and therefore a precious sight, to be celebrated in song and sonnet.
The elusiveness of the sun in the Northern Hemisphere is the reason, one is led to speculate, for colonization―the hunt for spices, for warmer climes, for an abundance of foods, for salt, for richly worked precious materials. And, by a similar reasoning, for industrialization. The British like their other North European counterparts, were led to invent a variety of devices because before such inventions life was cold, bleak and dismal for a greater part of the year. Much of medieval and ancient Europe was thus, bereft of the proverbial and abundant riches of the warmer and mysterious East. One might say that industrial glass had to be invented in Europe if nothing else than to let in the golden sun to warm European homes on the occasions that it did appear.

In fact, perhaps the East was mysterious to the European precisely because everyone seemed to live a good life, with leisure and sunshine. Most of the ancient cultures were centred in the regions of the world endowed with the gifts of the sun―India, Egypt, Persia, Greece, Byzantine. The Roman civilization, the most widespread of the European civilizations, became richer and more prosperous only after her fleets and troops reached warmer lands. The western world’s continuing colonization of these lands―now under the guise of ‘development aid’ and transmission of ‘modern’ technology―are perhaps the inevitable result of an ancient envy. The remnant of the memory of being left behind to eke out an existence in the cold.

Memory however, works in different ways. And so many parts of the world colonized by Europe and America in the last few centuries neither remember their indigenous customs, nor the reasons that underlay such customs. They consider themselves ‘undeveloped’, ‘under-developed’, or ‘developing’, having been made to forget that their cultures led the world’s material, spiritual and technological development through most of history, not that of the industrialized West whose ways they now embrace so eagerly. The sun, for instance, was not just sung about but was revered, even deified, in most ancient cultures of the East. In India, his powers were associated with enlightenment; his role enshrined in myth, history and ritual. It is from the sun that Lord Rama is believed to have descended. Each day was traditionally supposed to begin with Surya-namskar, salutations to the sun. Locations of towns and cities, the form and orientation of buildings, clothing, were devised keeping in mind the power of the sun.

Neither was the Sun worshipped in isolation. The Vedas emphatically link Surya with Varuna, the Lord of the Sea and the Ocean; the Sun with the Rain. An important myth in the Rg Veda tells of the winning of the Light and the Waters by the Gods. One interpretation links this myth to the unique yearly climatic condition in India wherein the monsoon rains occur at or around the summer solstice, the time of the year when the days are longest and maximum sunlight is received. 3

As inhabitants of such a land, it should not be unnatural for us to associate sunlight with rain. But despite our past cultural understanding of the role of the sun, despite its overwhelming presence in our skies for the greater part of the year, and despite our supposedly greater levels of education today, it appears that we no longer know how to integrate it in our lives. Perhaps it is poetic justice that drought is imminent in many parts of the country, as the monsoon―one of the most unique climatic features of the sub-continent―recedes every year.

Is it fanciful to link the threat of drought with the loss of our collective and cultural memory? Not really. We are so embarrassed at the thought that our ancestors worshipped nature, that we now design our homes, cities, clothes in opposition to nature following the unshakeable Western belief that technology will solve everything. Consider that even a few hundred years ago our social and cultural practices were such that we could maximize the benefits of both the sun and the rain. These practices cut across religion or wealth. Till even two generations ago, most people prayed every dawn to the sun, in recognition of the healing benefits of the early morning rays. They recognized the foolishness of venturing out during the day without covering their heads with pagrees, odhnis, pallus or angvastrams. They took care to protect their homes, their villages and their town and cities by ensuring that trees were planted and maintained.

Just as it was deemed praiseworthy to worship trees, it was considered auspicious to celebrate rivers; to dig ponds and tanks and harness rain-water. Elevating the digging of wells and planting of trees into acts of piety ensured that all over India, not just kings and queens, but farmers, householders, widows, holy men protected forests and endowed or built step-wells, dams and ponds. This ensured that every drop was utilized when it rained, either to regenerate plant cover or to be saved for a time when there was excessive sun. When the British came to India they discovered five million ponds in 500,000 villages from Kashmir to Kanyakumari, from Jaisalmer to Konkan.4

Less than five hundred years ago, Sher Shah Sur, the Afghan King, got trees planted all along the great Grand Trunk Road that he established. In the mid-17th century, Emperor Shah Jahan’s new city in Delhi was planned on the banks of the Yamuna such that more than half of Shahjahanabad was covered by orchards. The huge gardens of his imperial Red Fort were extensively planted with fruit trees; water used in the fountains and canals was recycled for irrigation. Older ponds and step-wells dating from earlier cities in the Delhi region were not summarily covered over, but were integrated within the design of the new city. So it was that Delhi, not so far back, was recorded to have had about 340 small and big wells and ponds.

Contrast this with our capital city today, whose image sets the benchmark for the rest of the country. Its inhabitants display no sense or sensibilty in dealing with the sun or the rain either in their attire on in their decisions for the city. Its landscape is of interminable roads and transport networks to construct which it is perfectly acceptable to cut thousands of trees. Crores of rupees are spent to replace natural forests with stony ‘parks’ where exotic trees and shrubs which consume precious water and give no shade or fruit are planted. Most urban architecture neither maximizes insulation nor takes advantage of cool evening or morning breezes. It imitates facile western glass-box buildings that soak up the sun or let in the rain without a thought for correct orientation.

And so the rain that we pray for as respite from the heat brings us no joy. We squander it on our kilometers of paved roads, leave it to clog our drains, bring traffic to a halt, and breed mosquitoes. We profess to be alarmed at the frightening reduction in the ground-water levels, yet we continue to build on our nahrs and rivers or convert them into dirty nalas. We claim to prepare for the Commonwealth Games by ushering in ‘new standards for the urban environment of Delhi’5 even as we ruin the Yamuna for all time, by building parking lots, flyovers and housing on its drainage channels, river bed and flood-plain.

As another 15th August comes and goes, it is time that we proclaim our Independence from current conventional industrialized notions and try to rediscover appropriate ways in our own culture of dealing with the sun and the rain. We may not be able to influence the form of the city unless we are bureaucrats, town-planners or politicians. We may find it unreasonable to pray to the sun. But we can surely find nothing to quibble at all in planting indigenous trees or shrubs that act as natural pesticides or bear fruits to sustain human, animal and bird life. Change, like charity, begins at home. We can transform our immediate environment by starting with our own back-yards, terraces or colonies. Then at least, somewhere, the rain will not have been in vain and we will be able to appreciate the sunshine.

1. The title of Nothing Like the Sun, a 1987 double album comes from Shakespeare’s Sonnet no. 130 ("My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun"), which Sting used in the song "Sister Moon". The album was apparently influenced by two events in Sting's life: first, the death in late 1986 of his mother; and second, his participation in a Tour on behalf of Amnesty International, which brought Sting to parts of Latin America that had been ravaged by civil wars, and introduced him to victims of government oppression.
2. The entire Sonnet reads:
My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun;
Coral is far more red than her lips' red;
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head
I have seen roses damask'd, red and white,
But no such roses see I in her cheeks;
And in some perfumes is there more delight
Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.
I love to hear her speak, yet well I know
That music hath a far more pleasing sound;
I grant I never saw a goddess go;
My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground:
And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare
As any she belied with false compare

3. David Frawley, Gods, Sages and Kings, p. 32, Motilal BanarasiDas Publishers Pvt. Ltd., Delhi

4. Anupam Mishra, ‘Past Perfect, Future Perfect’, p. 20,
Civil Society, Vol.3 No. 1, September/October 2005

5. ‘Games are a Chance to Redefine Delhi, p. 6, Civil Society, Vol.5 No. 9, July 2008

Monday, June 14, 2010

The Plight of Street Vendors

On Friday night, the Noida authorities knocked down, took away or destroyed the wares of vendors, hawkers and sellers in many markets. One of these was my maid’s husband, a fish seller. More than fifty kilogrammes of fish was taken away from him. The representative of the Noida Authority accepted 500 rupees to let him go with his cart. Then, his senior came and took away the fish anyway. My maid told me that this is despite the fact that he is asked each month, to pay 1000 rupees each, to someone from the Noida Police and the Noida Authority, to sell fish.
Two months ago, it was not just his fish that was picked up. He was taken to prison, kept in on a trumped-up charge of being drunk and disorderly, and only released at the end of three days after his brother and wife made repeated visits to the police-station, and gave a bail of 2000 Rs and copies of all the bank and other documents they possessed.
What is his crime? That he makes the trip to the mandi each morning to get fish to sell to people like you and me? That he tries to make an honest living? That in a country where we cannot provide enough jobs to the educated, he is self-employed and is no drain on the government?
I heard that ‘the Committee’ came to our local market too. They threw the home-made momos sold in stalls outside, down on to the ground; smashed the earthen handis filled with food; and refused to let the sellers leave quietly with their food, though they begged them to. This is worse than criminal when we know that everyday there are many Indians who starve to death or commit suicide because they cannot fill their stomachs.
I have seen the fear that the Committee arouses. I was in the local market one day when suddenly everyone – the pavement book-seller who stocks authors ranging from Amartya Sen to Enid Blyton; the tailor who replaces zips, repairs buttons and alters clothes; the watchmaker; the newspaper vendor; – started rushing around, stuffing things into crates, dismantling their wooden stands. It would have been a stampede were it not that their movements were driven equally by fear and practice – a shameful reminder that this was not an unexpected event. This must happen frequently enough for them to react in such a concerted manner; and must be brutal enough to drive them into this controlled frenzy of activity despite being expected.
And what for? What after all is illegal in selling books, providing services for repair, stitching clothes? My cook’s husband, a rickshaw-puller was beaten up some months ago, along with many others because he constitutes an ‘impediment’ to traffic if he comes across the main road from where he lives into the sectors where he gets his ‘sawaris’.
I am no expert on legal provisions with respect to hawkers and street-vendors, and unfortunately neither are my maid or her husband. But I understand that the preamble of our Constitution states that India shall secure to its citizens equality of status and of opportunity and that all Indian citizens have a fundamental right to practice any profession, or to carry on any occupation, trade or business. This is limited only by the right of the government, to prescribe professional or technical qualifications for certain trades or professions, and to create monopolies in certain trade, business or industry in the interest of the general public.
What I do see and understand is that we, the privileged of this country, no longer think of the poor as our people. We do not consider rickshaws, cyclists or pedestrians in our traffic plans; do not give any incentives for street-vendors to operate in a dignified manner; repeatedly thwart their attempts at making an honest livelihood – and then are surprised when they turn to crime. If this is what you or I received in return for enterprise, thrift and resourcefulness, what are the odds that we would not? This happened in my neighbourhood, but it is happening all over Delhi and the NCR, and all over India, despite organisations supporting hawkers and street-vendors and legislation in their favour. If there are any of us, who can stop this persecution in Noida or anywhere else – in any way – please help.

PostScript: My maid’s husband’s cart has still not been returned, “since it is a week-end”, but the Committee found the time to visit the market again on Sunday on their ‘cleanliness drive’.

Anisha Shekhar Mukherji 14 June 2010