Monday, November 08, 2010
The World That Is The Family
by Aditya Dev Sood
When I think of home, when I think of where I am from, what comes into my mind is a large courtyard, hidden above the colonnades of Connaught Circus, where my Grandfather's house was, and in some sense, still is. My cousin Lohash and I duck into a dark recess among the shops in the colonnade and climb three quick flights of stairs to enter that unlikely retreat, so different from the hubbub below. The trees sprawling out of the planters are large and overgrown, but seem ashen from neglect. So much has been changed around in the rooms, but the art deco bedroom set in my grandparent's room is still in place, and perhaps that was all that mattered about the place, for all the other rooms ranging in different directions around the courtyard were always in transition, accommodating some fraction of his many children, always growing larger and more numerous, never quite growing up.
Lohash is here to try and take a few photographs for our cousin Aparna's project, The Sood Family Cookbook, which will be forthcoming from HarperCollins next year. The book collects recipes from different members of the family, also including a discussion of how each recipe was acquired, when it was used and how and where it came to be appreciated by other members of the family. The book opens with Pahadi food, madra, palda, khatti dal, the core dishes of the family from the highlands of Punjab, which remind us of who were were, are, and must remain. But then it moves on to family classics, which have emerged over time, on account of the food traditions of those who have married into the family, or the innovations created by people in response to specific challenges or events in their life, or the global influences and experiences of different contributors. These include, for example, all the chocolate cakes and desserts that my mother brought from New York, an aunt's Sindhi Fenugreek-Fish, and an uncle's 'Whimsical Spaghetti Pancake.' Even us non-cooks have the odd recipe in there, for example my Kapi Al-Sikandar, a kind of Mocha Alexander with spices and vanilla ice-cream. It is, in a way a compendium of the knowledges and memories of this family, a primer on how to maintain its traditions, a training manual for someone who wants to become a part of it.
I am to write a foreword for Aparna's book, providing some kind of background and context for the book, and I’m hoping that coming back here would give me inspiration. Right now, looking around us, all we can see is desuetude, the mausoleal smell of mold. The place, I know, lives more and more in our minds than in our lives. On account of their absence I remember my grandmother's narangi trees, which were planted in pots all along the front of the kitchen wall, which Aparna and I would sneak up on, to steal their large lush orange fruit and to eat it whole, its intense sour flavor singing in the mouth, the bitter rind easily spat out when no one was looking.
The cooking in that house would begin at dawn, with dalia and tea, mitha-parantha, puri-aloo, halwa and biscuit-milk, before setting up for lunch, to be eaten in shifts, with family members coming back from the shop downstairs, from college, school, to sit at the dinning table and be fed piping hot roti-s made by Hari Singh the cook, and ferried in by his assistant Bhisham. And after a short siesta, the kitchen would open again, to feed the fifteen to twenty to twenty-five children, teens, unmarried and married adults and their children, visiting relatives.
In my early childhood, I was always in and out of the place, especially when my cousins were visiting from out of town. While the nights were still cool, we would put the beds out in the courtyard and sleep in rows, dormitory style, boys and girls separated by an aisle. In the morning I was often the first one up, awakened by the fluttering of pigeons, the kawing of crows, the chirping of sparrows. All of us and none of us live there now, yet the place sits in legal limbo, for a rented property like this can neither be sold nor sublet. All kinds of time are still etched into the space, the memories of which are now flooding me all at once.
In the wan light of a winter Sunday morning, we might be sitting in the courtyard on oval cane chairs, with a thali of muli and a chutney of mint and green chillies. When I'd had too much and my tongue was bristling from the chillies as well as the raw radish, I'd beg for water and scrounge around for pieces of gudh, jaggery, or unrefined sugar. From the corner of my eye, I have the vague impression of the greenness of a green leafy vegetable, giving its color to the grey sickle that hooked up from the floor, held between my grandmother’s toes. The world seemed complete, and everyone who needed to be in the courtyard was already there. That space has long been lost in our lives, and it seems obvious to me that Aparna's book project is her way of marking that absence, making of it a positivity, a means for us to share in something again.
My grandfather had an impressively situated shop downstairs and just a few shops down, diagonally opposite Regal building. M. R. Stores was originally a general provisions store, selling things like buttons and knitting wool, as well as pliers and dog-collars and leashes, and individually-welded chain-links so you could safely lock your suitcase to the poles and hooks of your train compartment. The shop was double-height, with a mezzanine overhead for extra-stock that wrapped around the square shopfloor below, where salesmen stood behind glass display cases, talking with you first to make sure it was worth their time to slide the glass doors and take out, say, the waterproof flashlight that you were interested in buying.
I have memories of my grandfather and grandmother taking turns sitting at the shop, at a large wooden desk with drawers, of which the top left-hand drawer held a series of katori-s, or cups, into which different kinds of change would be deposited. The one and five paisa coins were similarly square with rounded corners, while the two and ten paisa had similar round serrations running all around their light nickel-aluminium body. The other set of coins, the chavanni, athanni, and one rupee coins were all heavier, darker and more substantial by contrast. This was the steady stream of sri, prosperity, generated downstairs and consumed upstairs that gave the two of them such a long period of personal and domestic stability, in which time they raised their ten sons and daughters.
I have often wondered at my grandparents' unrepressed fertility. This was the way things were done in those days, I had always heard said in my childhood, perhaps especially when Sanjay Gandhi's forced sterilization campaigns were serving as the storm troopers of India's Family Planning Program. I imagine that Mangat Rai and Parmavati enjoyed their intimacy, wanted a large family, and encountered no major life upheavals or other challenges to their long period of connubium, which might have led to them ever contemplating birth control. Only one of their many children, Kailash, died in childhood, so along with prosperity and stability, modern medicine must have played some role in the family's large size.
Mangat Rai first had a shop in Simla on Mall Road, and later set up another one in Gol Market in New Delhi. As the capital of British India shifted up to the hills in the summer, and back down to the plains for the winter, so he too would move, along with his entire family. By the early thirties, the builders who had constructed Connaught Place were desperate for shopkeepers to come and populate the neoclassical stage set that Lutyens and Baker had built as the commercial hub for the Imperial capital of India. Mangat Rai was then trading in grain, and couldn't see the point of moving to the sterile emptiness that Connaught Place then represented. To set up his own grain shop, he had broken with his own father Thakur Das, an old-style moneylender up in the hills of Kangra. Our last name, Sood, means financial interest, and so we are descended of bankers and usurers from the mountains north of Punjab.
Mangat Rai was eventually convinced of the commercial prospects of Connaught Place, and in 1934, he took indefinite leases on the shop and courtyard house where he would spend the rest of his life. Neither he nor his friends and relatives in that colonial city could have imagined how suddenly Delhi would change in 1947, with the partition of India, and the sudden arrival of Punjabis from large cities, small towns, and mufassal villages. Nor how rapidly the city would grow up all around them to accommodate its new population, with the growth, almost overnight, of West Delhi, and the colonies of Nizamuddin, Jangpura, Jor Bagh, Lajpat Nagar filling up what had been farm lands all around New Delhi proper. In a way, Delhi happened to them, only much less violently than Partition happened to the refugees from Pakistan's Punjab.
The photographs of the house I have seen from this period show a series of undifferentiated spaces branching left and right from the main bedroom, where Mangat Rai's ten sons and daughters apparently played, teased one another, ironed their clothes, changed, shared, borrowed and stole belts, bangles, combs, jewelry and every other kind of accessory from one another, as they lived in and out of each others trunks, cupboards and suitcases. Life was a perpetual circus, with people arriving and departing, but it could not have always been easy for them to have lived that way, with one's space continuously being contested by older and younger siblings of both genders, with older siblings serving by turns as rivals, accomplices, and surrogate parents. The necessary intimacy and mutual imbrication of life in Connaught Place also caused any number of petty jealousies, simmering resentments, and angry stand-offs among the ten of them. Still, they all seem wistful and warm when I've talked to them about their childhood, and it is difficult for any third party like myself to filter their past for this sepia tint of nostalgia.
There is a peculiar parallax of mind that plays out when we look backwards in time. Because of the plenitude of family, because of the living presence of the patriarch, and because time was yet to unfold, the past can seem grander, fuller, greater than our vexed present. But my grandfather had only a high school education, enough for him to read the Urdu newspapers, plan his business, and to be able to calculate financial interest, revenue, and profit margin. My grandmother had even less formal education, and neither of them spoke English. But all ten of their children went to college, and many got advanced degrees, intermingling with and eventually joining the ranks of those who were actually building and planning the city of Delhi.
I'm told that my grandfather was eager to get each of his sons and daughters married, and to send them out into the world to pursue their own destinies. But without lands to further bifurcate, or a scalable business that any of them could join and expand, I doubt whether he or his sons had any choice in the matter. The brothers became by turns a restauranteur, a purveyor of fine men's tailoring, a highly networked wheeler-dealer specializing in property, an army officer, and an engineer who eventually took over the running of the shop. The sisters married an economics professor, an exporter, a couple of management professionals and a banker. Between this generation and the families of my own cousins, nieces and nephews, the descendants of Mangat Rai and Parmavati now live in Bombay, Bangalore, Dubai, Toronto, New York, Atlanta, Perth, Singapore, Dhaka and Calcutta.
I've often thought that my family could serve as a particularly good sociological case study for the process of nuclearization, the transformation of what is known in the law and for tax assessment purposes as a 'Hindu Undivided Family' into the modern and universal standard of Mommy, Daddy, You, and I. It is in the years between the death of my grandfather, in 1974, and my grandmother, in 1983, that the character of our extended family changed most. So far as I’ve been able to figure out, the daughters received dowries and their share of the family jewelry at marriage, while the property and intangible assets that remained came to be held jointly by the brothers. They would meet to manage and apportion them from time to time in long-drawn out, emotional meetings punctuated with dramatic flare-ups.
The complete division of our common inheritance meant that none of us held joint stake in any larger resource or mission that might provide for our common and mutual well-being. Every nuclear family was freed into its own financial destiny, which also hardened the social boundaries between family units. There were still holidays and sleep-overs, and Diwali, Christmas, and Holi parties, and of course weddings, but what had been lost was a sense of each of us proceeding along the same path, rather than the varied and divergent paths that now seemed to be emerging. Now that the family recognizes itself primarily through these intermittent festive and communal gatherings, food increasingly serves as a substitute token and symbol for the collective resources of the family. Through its ritual commensiality, the family is able to once again enact, express and recognize itself. This is the deeper sociological truth, I believe, that Aparna's idea for a Sood Family Cookbook manifests.
Beyond a shared inheritance, beyond a common food culture, to be a part of a family is to be a part of a larger series of narratives, memories, conversations, within which one's own life has meaning, and can find its place. And this involves carrying around a full backup of the on-going conversations, conflicts, disputes and dialogues that make up the family narrative in the wetware of one's super-ego, which then provides the basis for determinations of value, exercises of judgment, and the making of life-choices. A large family, like any social collective, will create normative social pressures, whose cumulative force we may describe simply as the culture of that social collective. While these social pressures may have been responsible for the substantial success that its members have enjoyed in different parts of the world, I think it has also been disabling for some, especially those in my own generation, who struggled to find themselves in relation to their parents, who were themselves struggling to find an independent social and subjective footing in relation to their larger family and its value-systems.
If the underlying values of the family were founded in money-lending, commodity trading and shop-keeping, these were subtly updated and modified when members of the family began setting up export houses and garment factories in the 1970s. In my own generation, many of my cousins are involved in work that involves the creation and dissemination of intellectual property, rather than tangible things. Like Aparna, like Lohash, their trade is in media, design, photography, film, the arts, or even more abstract and public goods such as development and humanitarian assistance. With the on-going complexification of India's economy, and with the tremendous globalization of this family, more and more diverse ways of making one's living and living one's life have had to be accommodated into the still evolving and changing values and interests of the family.
Some of us have thought and talked a bit about how this family will change in the future, once the current generation passes on, as it eventually must. Given that the family now numbers some ninety individuals living in so many different parts of the world, with such diverse experiences of everyday life, will we be able to retain any filial feeling or sense of community? The Sanskrit proverb vasudhaiva katumbakam is often translated as 'the world is but one family.' But now I have the vertigenous sense that my family is being diffused into the world, becoming commingled with it in a way that might make it impossible to be known in the future, as it once was in the past. Perhaps this is inevitable, perhaps this is the continuous process of splintering and splitting through which the world, the unknown and unrecognized mass of humanity, is necessarily made, and we can have little say in the matter. Or perhaps, with contemporary forms of media, travel and other technologies, it will in fact be possible for the family to perdure, to continue to know and recognize itself, despite its growth and dispersal.
One idea that has come up is to establish something like a Mangat Rai Foundation, that might organize charitable activities for the family to participate in. The idea would be to bring members of the family closer in the process of accomplishing different kinds of activities for social and public good. This is a difficult ambition, which would require some shared focus and collaboration across the generations to achieve, but which might provide the globalizing members of this family with an active, purposeful means of getting to know one another while also doing good, fun, and rejuvinating things together.
Whether or not that plan comes about in future, we will certainly have Aparna's Cookbook in the near future, which will organize the knowledge and memories of our collective for future members of the family. Using, updating and contributing to the Cookbook will offer a new and creative way of being part of this family. It will be a resource in which we can all share, with none of us depleting the share of the other. It will be a way for members of the family to find themselves, no matter where in the world they should be, as well as a way for the world at large to become part of the Sood family.
Image: A geneology of the Sood family in the form of a tree of life painted in the Maithili style that was commissioned in 2007 by Aparna Jain.
Posted by Aditya Dev Sood at 12:30 AM | Permalink