Sunday, May 13, 2012

"Vanishing" Poriborton

So Mamata completes a year in office.  In the coming days newspapers , magazines and television  will try to outdo one another with articles and features analyzing ad nauseam her  performance so far, to which – no doubt -  Op-Ed writers and “Bidwojon-s” of  the National Media will add their wisdom and pass  ‘interim’ judgment. So,  thought it is an opportune time for me to tuck-in my 2 penny bits to it before other illustrious and more qualified people get into the act.

A very senior Delhi-based columnist and media commentator, a non-resident Bong, has been commissioned by a top national magazine to do such a piece on Trinamool’s 365 days in power. I was mildly flattered, when he invited me for a beer at one of the clubs – to have my take on some of the issues. And, it took  me just a swig of Kingfisher to launch into my pet rant on everything that Mamata and TMC seem to be doing wrong.

But, about half-way through our conversation, I paused like a subject on a therapist’s chair, and asked – wait a minute, are we being entirely fair to her? After a while – we both agreed, it’s probably too early to write her off yet and the jury is still out.  Disenchantment is a creeping process – though it may not take another 34 years, as it did to throw CPIM out – it’ll be some more time before it turns into a tide against her.  For that to happen earlier, she has to commit some terrible blunders – which she probably won’t, as – at the end of the day – she has too much political horse-sense to know she can’t mess around with her constituency beyond a point.

Megalomania or Incipient Paranoia

Yet, she is beginning to show disturbing signs of megalomania. Her intolerance to criticism, vulnerability to flattery and sycophancy  and – what the famous Ashish Nandy calls  - incipient “paranoia” (they want to “vanish” me ), reveals some shades of Indira Gandhi in the height of power. Though, it would be rather harsh to call them fascist traits as few die-hard cynics might tend to do.

Again like Indira Gandhi followed a different agenda at home and abroad – Mamata has a different line in the state and another one for the centre. When in Delhi, she flirts with non-Congress CMs to play the ‘federalism’ card (NCTC) , takes adversarial positions with the Centre on matters of fund allocation to the state and policy issues such as FDI in Retail. She wants to be consulted foreign policy issues with neighbours (Bangladesh - Teesta).  These too are reminiscent of Mrs Gandhi’s and parallels can be drawn with her dalliance with the Soviets and the “Non-aligned” Block or trying to prop up SAARC.  Back in Calcutta – she reverts to IG’s “Garibi Hatao” like populist chant of “Ma, Mati, Manush”.

Take a deep breath

There’s absolutely no denying , what brought  Mamata to power is her  call for change – “Poriborton” . But, while capitalizing on it for electoral success – she hasn’t been able to harness the goodwill, enthusiasm and positive energy of the masses for transformation of the state.  Something that, a Nitish Kumar in Bihar and Narendra Modi has been able to do. Today, one can feel a palpable pride among the Biharis – which has also been transmitted to the Diaspora living across the country and even overseas. In Gujrat too – the heightened sense of  chauvinism fuelled by the  state’s success in almost every field  is there for all to see – not just at the Vibrant Gujrat summits or the Amitabh Bacchan’s “Breathe in a bit of Gujrat’ TVCs.  ( See one by clicking here )

Attitude is everything

What is needed to transform Bengal – is a change in the work culture and attitude of people. Industry and investment will come in only with that – not by trying to market the state by signing up Sharukh Khan as Brand Ambassador and holding Bengal Leads or Rising Bengal Summits – a la Gujrat.

And, no one was better placed to do that than Mamata Banerjee. Even her worst critics would admit, Mamata’s singular strength is her ability to connect with people.  it's not for nothing that, TIME Magazine has named her among the 100 most influential persons in the world today. She has an earthy charisma and the girl from down the lane who-made-it-good  appeal, which she could use to her advantage to become a truly inspirational leader of the masses. Her call for change shouldn’t have ended with asking for votes for a change of guard at Writers’ Building – but going much beyond that to imbue the people with a new spirit of determination and enthusiasm to transform the state from within. Alas, this is where she has failed  to rise to the challenge and display the qualities expected of a visionary leader.

Governance is the key

The second issue where she seems to be completely out of depth – and in which both Nitish and Modi have scored spectacularly – is governance.  This is an area she should focus on to salvage the state from the morass it is swamped in. To do that would mean two things. One she has to cut off the politicians and establish direct channels of administration – as Nitish, Modi and – to some extent – even a Navin Patnaik has done.  But, perhaps – she can’t do that because she needs her party network to counter the grass-root machinery of the CPIM.

In the process, she is weakening the state administration, without - perhaps - realizing it,  even more than what it used to be during the Left Front rule. This is coupled with her lack of trust in her won colleagues and the scant regard with which she treats the bureaucracy or officials (as was evident in her action against  the South Calcutta Dy. Commissioner of Police, Damayanti Sen after the Park Street “rape” incident or from the peremptory manner in which she deals with senior  bureaucrats in public).

Forget a Nitish or Modi – who have some of the most competent and progressive officers  working for them , whom they have empowered completely –  a Mayawati or Akhilesh Yadav  too realize the importance of an efficient bureaucracy. People may have different views on the things Mayawati  (or, say  Jayalalitha  in her previous terms ), may have done in her 5 years – be it building gigantic monuments or getting private operators of her choice to make world-class Expressways. But, she couldn’t have achieved any of it without having officers with strong execution capabilities under her. And, all of them realize the importance of law and order in governance. So, even the detractors of Mayawati credit her for retrieving UP from “goonda raj”.

Listening (in)ability

The next is the ‘trust’ factor. All good leaders have a few strong aides, political managers and administrators around them. They understand the value of experience.  But, Mamata doesn’t make use of talent.  She has made all the capable people around her ciphers. A Subrata Mukherjee or Saugata Roy – could very well have played the role of elder statesmen in the party or government. But, they have been sidelined. The story of Dinesh Trivedy is well known. An Amit Mitra and Manish Gupta are non-entities in her scheme of things. She is the No 1, 2 and 3 of the party as people say of Sonia in the Congress (the cartoon below could have would be true of her as well  - just that no cartoonist would dare lampoon her anymore).  A leader must also have the time and patience to “listen”. But, she loves the sound of her own voice too much and is a narcissist when it comes to her own thoughts and ideas. 

But, more dangerously - perhaps - she seems to believe she alone has all the answers. someone joked, after Tagore, Mamata is probably the most versatile personality in the history of modern Bengal . She is at once a politician, an administrator, an artist, a poet, a singer, a town-planner, an educationist. The list can go on.

She is not Caesar’s wife. She is (still) single

The last count on which she makes me extremely worried is corruption. All said and done – during the Left Front regime “corruption” was almost miniscule – as compared to the rest of the country.  There is an apocryphal story about a late CPIM leader having gone to a non-resident Bengali  tycoon, who had the reputation of being a ‘banker’ to many politicians, asking if would keep some of his money. It seems the tycoon told him – 'I don’t deal in small change, first learn to earn and then come to me".

This is changing very fast.  And, perhaps unalterably so. It is common knowledge that Trinamool is breeding all pervading corruption in the system and her party workers and leaders are all on the take, trying to make a quick buck while it lasts.  I don’t believe this is something Mamata is unaware of. Though personally, she may be unimpeachable (it would probably be an affront to her maidenhood to compare her with Caesar’s wife) – but, perhaps, she is helpless as this is a by-product of the political structure and organization she has created.  But, if left unchecked this may come to haunt her soon.

Bengal at a cusp

In most marriages the ‘honeymoon’ lasts for some time. But, there are some in which the trauma and ordeal start from the nuptial night itself.  This one seems to be like that. But, there are instances in which the most troubled relationships settle down over time and even give way to love. Let’s hope this turns out to be a case of the latter.

So, as I said at the start, it may be too early to put a ‘paid’ stamp on the Poriborton bill. Mamata (and, by association West Bengal) is standing at a cusp. From here things can go either way.  With intelligence and some amount of  wisdom and vision Mamata can check the secular decline of West Bengal and change its trajectory like Nitish has done to Bihar or Modi has been able to accelerate in Gujrat. The sad contra scenario could be, she would  take it down like Lalu – not by her lack of integrity or intent (as Lalu had )  – but by sheer administrative incompetence.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Porn in the Gully

Food Porn, I believe, is the new  “in” term. Quite appropriate too – because much of what is dished out in the form of “food blogs” these days is so crass it could easily pass of as Porn.  Real Food writing is supposed to evoke the taste buds of the reader through words and titillate the palate by description of the experience (somewhat like what Music or Art critics do) – rather than photos uploaded from smart-phones with smart-alec captions.

Most people who like to call themselves Foodies actually know trifle little about food. Gourmets and Food Connoisseurs are a vanishing breed – not surprisingly, because ‘fine dining’ is a dying cult.

With fewer people cooking at home and domestic  chefs  (bawarchis and khansamas) nearly extinct  - people have to look outside  for great dining experiences.  But, even that is difficult find in a world taken over by  fast food revolution. What today passes off as  “specialty restaurants”  are rip-offs  and “nouvelle cuisine ” is a con-art.

Therefore, other than in Europe (essentially France), Tokyo, New York, San Francisco and, perhaps – arguably, London and Singapore  - the best places to eat are actually in the streets and hole-in-the-wall eateries. And, which can be a better place to go on a culinary expedition than in the by-lanes of Lucknow.

Tucked inside the serpentine gully encircling Awadh Gymkhana Club in Quaiserbagh is Sakhawat.  In my book , by definition, any food joint in Lucknow that has a web-site is at once to be disqualified, as it can't be authentic. Blatant self-seeking publicity is against the grain of the city’s Nawabi culture. So, as soon as Tunde Miyan’s decided to open outlets in Malls and extend franchises to other cities, they immediately got knocked off my list.  But, I am willing to make a concession for Sakhawat’s , as yet – even though they have a web site ( - warning terrible navigation) and the present co-owner Mukhtar Ali has a visiting card listing their credentials , which he hands out on asking.

Mukhtar Ali’s great-grandfather  - Nazim Ali - was a chef for a Brigadier of the British Army and had also cooked for several Nawabs’. In 1911, his son, Wahid Ali opened a small dhaba near a mazhar opposite the Awadh Gymkhana Club.  He later obtained the contract for running the canteen of the club, which he ran for 36 years till his death in 1960. Later, following differences with the Club Management – his son, Haji Sakhawat Ali, started the present day Sakhawat Restaurant.

Mukhtar Ali

Nazim Ali and Wahid Ali were highly decorated. But the subsequent generation too are accomplished as you will find listed on the site. But, what - to my mind – really sets Sakhawat apart is their Institute ( or Training Centre) of Awadhi Cuisine – which, if run well, can be a great service towards preserving the royal tradition of Awadhi Food .

Sakhawat’s has a repertoire of over 100 dishes – many of which they make only on order or for private catering. But, they have daily specials on the Menu, like the Mutton Champ and Boti we had on Thursday evening.

Wahid Ali's Decorations
Recent Awards & Recognitions

The Kebabs of Lucknow are characterized by their softness – “melts in the mouth” quality - unlike the more challenging, tougher and sinewy Barbecues of the North West Frontier that traveled to India via Peshawar. That's because most Awadhi Kebabs are “cooked” on Tawas or pans rather than roasted in the Tandoor. Even those – like the Kakori – which are skewered over fire – are mashed and tenderized to perfection. North Indian Kebabs use very little condiments other than ginger-garlic paste, dried red-chillies and yoghurt for marinade – but subtle spices like saffron and garam-masala make a quiet entry as  east towards Lucknow.  As the preparations rise up  the evolution ladder the more exotic nutmeg, mace, shah jeera and shah marich find their way  into recipes. The Boti Kebab  at Sakhawat was sautéed  with juliennes of ginger  and black pepper – which gives it a zing which is pleasant and not sharp on the tongue.  The champ, in contrast,  had a touch of elaichi and cinnamon.

Kebab Paratha being made
Even the texture of the breads turns more sensuous.  They are no longer the challenging ‘break me if you can’ variety of Karari Tandoori Rotis or Naan – but have a more inviting ‘bite me with love’ quality  of the  nubile Shirmal or the more sinful paratha. All this might lend credence to the theory  of the Lucknowi Nawabs having poor dental health.  However, at Sakhawat’s they make an interesting  variant of kebab - paratha by pounding the dough on an up-turned Kadai lightly brushed with oil. It’s a thin flat bread slightly burnt in the middle – crispy but only just so  to scoop up the masala of the kebab from the plate to linger on the taste.

Prakas Kulfi House -Aminabad

Like any honest "only meat" restaurant, Sakhawat doesn't serve any sweets. So, we had to adjourn to another part of the town to indulge our sugar craving.  Prakash in the old quarters of Aminabad – is a basic, no non-sense Kulfi-wala. The best part is – they make only one variety of Kulfi – take it or leave it – knocked out of old-style metal dabbas .  No weird variants of colour and flavours that’s become the bane of  so many, once traditional, dessert counters.

No not exactly a Nawabi end to an evening of food adventure – I succumbed to the Kulfi as someone had told me – the frozen condensed milk helps to settle a heavy greasy meal. Be that as it may, it was a nice wrap up of a professionally unproductive but gastronomically rewarding day.