The Commerce of Remembrance

History has a new audience nowadays.

Gone are the days of cerebral discussions in conferences, workshops, graduate or post-graduate classrooms and columns of heavy reading in learned journals and literary magazines. History is now available through online streaming services and a vast cross section of non academics now sit down over dinner and make their way through the annals of British history (The Crown, Victoria, The Tudors), colonial history (Beecham House), the great monarchies of the world (Catherine the Great, The Last Tsars) or period dramas (Poldark, Downton Abbey). The more ‘modern’ a country becomes the more it looks back to the past, while the past itself is now a carefully cultivated mythology.

Self-identities, always a complex matter, are now being created by hearkening back to a golden period very different from a muddled chaotic present. History is now a meticulously staged event, recreated through lavish costumes, manor houses , palaces and rolling parklands. For serials set in the Orient, usually India, history is an exotic escapade with the usual props of the lotus and the tiger, the snake and nautch girls, bandits and fair damsels in distress.

Such are the economics of successful historical dramas that an entire ancillary industry develops. During our Downton Abbey phase we bought Downton Abbey calendars, mugs, and signed posters. The commercial puffery works quietly and one doesn’t really stop to consider what we are doing as we hit the pay now button on our screens. History is being commodified through the Poldark and the Downton Abbey tours but we don’t really worry about the money.

Salman Rushdie in his essay “Outside the Whale” had described movies based on Raj nostalgia (Gandhi, A Passage to India, The Jewel in the Crown) as being part of the refurbishment of the Empire’s tarnished image at a time when Britain stood beleaguered under the Thatcher era. Today, caught in the chaos of Brexit, all those who share the cosmos of the British cultural legacy return to bouts of nostalgia through a glut of return-to-the-past TV shows. Many of these shows rework the grand imperial theme albeit through a newly stylised, commercially profitable avatar.

Through continuous representation creeps in a subtle legitimisation, as if colonial history, though condemnable, nevertheless had an aura and grandeur about it.

Indians are complicit in this process. Most post-colonial writers living in the West choose to systematically highlight those concerns which can make a good Booker nomination. To read Jhumpa Lahiri, Amitav Ghosh, Chitra Bannerjee Divakaruni, Neel Mukherjee and even Amit Chaudhuri (to name a few) is to return over and over again to the same themes: diasporic conflict, identity, displacement, disruption in the “margins” and the “centre” . Perhaps these novels, legitimised by their Booker shortlistings, conform to what the Booker still wants β€” Britain as the legitimising centre of cultural work. And so a re-hashing of the familiar themes!

For those of us who live and work in India without the comforting security of summer sabbaticals and writing retreats to Europe and America, our daily problems are very different from what these writers articulate.

Park Street in Calcutta is not the hallowed haven of partying and Flury’s cakes that diasporic Indians still remember fondly; it is a road chock full of traffic with jaywalkers, Uber cabs and a Kolkata Police sergeant looming up with traffic tickets as we struggle to reach a pathology for a blood test.

The old bungalows of the 50s and 60s mean nothing to us for we are caught up in the privations of daily life, paying hefty municipal taxes for living in them, trying to keep the road in front of our house free of street hawkers who are politically patronised, wondering whether the garbage vat will be cleaned, negotiating broken pavements and unruly cab drivers β€” an endless cycle of errands and duties in a city where civic systems have been eroded over the years.

Doubtless those who live in other Indian cities face the same.

And yet, like a Wes Anderson movie, such real lived experiences are never described in the works of these writers. Caught in the moment of rupture sometime in the 70s, 80s or 90s they create worlds of post-colonial exotic in much the same way as the makers of Victoria and Downton Abbey create mellow worlds of escape.

Cabaret dancers in Calcutta 1960s

The Kitchen World

The world of the kitchen is almost Dantesque in preoccupation. Re-reading George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London, a classic tale of sorrow and slavery in the kitchen pits of big hotels in Paris in the 1920s, I was struck by the references to fire and heat in the dark tunnelled world of a hotel basement kitchen.

It was lighted by one dim electric bulb, and four or five gas-fires that sent out a fierce red breath.” The hot steaming kitchen was a “stifling, low-ceilinged inferno of a cellar, red-lit from the fires, and deafening with oaths and the clanging of pots and pans”.

Orwell’s analysis of poverty has always struck me as being peculiarly effective, perhaps because of his real lived experiences.  Dorothy in A Clergyman’s Daughter or Gordon Comstock in Keep the Aspidistra Flying have the battered un-heroic poverty of the very middle-middle class, a world in which appearances have to be maintained and the dinner at an expensive restaurant has got to be paid for airily, languorously even,  although the heart is racing at what this means for the rest of the week.

In Down and Out in Paris and London we take a step further and walk down into those mysterious caverns from which the fine food emerges only to find a sordid tale of poor wages, hours of drudgery, fights, drunkenness, cursing and every other kind of folly and knavery that the outside world has.

Hundreds of years before, Shakespeare had given us similar insights. In Twelfth Night Or What You Willβ€”a play performed in 1602β€”the genteel world of the nobility in which the  thwarted romance of Duke Orsino for Countess Olivia is played out, is balanced by the seamier sides of the kitchen world of Malvolio, Sir Andrew Agueheek and Sir Toby Belch.

The subplot traces the fooling of the steward Malvolio who is duped, confined to a dark room and driven half mad by a series of supposed acts of tomfoolery under the adroit planning of Maria, the lady’s maid.  There is something sinister in the world of the steward and lady’s attendant and their childish acts of pure cruelty that approximates tragic overtones.

Even in the heightened world of period dramas like Gosford Park and Downton Abbey, the lilting notes of Christmas cheer aired in the Christmas Special episodes are entirely at variance with the dark concerns in the downstairs world.  Barrow’s homosexuality makes him particularly vulnerable, but so are the army of maids who get into ‘trouble’ because of their liaisons with the lord of the manor.

The kitchen frequently became a war zone where sex, class and prejudice combine. Briskly stirring a white sauce or decorating a roast, Daisy and Mrs Patmore had fierce arguments over literacy, propriety and hierarchy.

“Gastronomy is the science of pain” said Anthony Bourdain in his 1999 classic article in The New Yorker entitled  Don’t Eat Before Reading This.

It most certainly is.

Not only in the systematic slaughter and decapitation that cooking involves, carving out head and heart and kidneys, skinning animals still warm with life, washing off bits of clotted blood but also in the appearances that have to be maintained: dressing stale food and passing it off as fresh, using the same ingredients in disguised ways to create a new-fangled soup, huge amounts of pretence in using the same old butter and garlic and cream in a hundred so called innovative ways.

And of course, the tiredness, the rudeness, the squalid lives of the men behind the glass door. Last month, at the Madras hotel in which I was staying, I saw a bitter looking man of twenty something send back his uneaten pasta thrice, complaining that it was tasteless.

Three times the waiters sent it back to the cook, and three times the cook sent it back again with new forms of pasta, garnishing, sauce and yet to no avail. The bitter young man had tasted pasta ambrosia somewhere and no earthly penne could soothe him.

“Everyone seemed to be in a hurry and a rage” noted Orwell. Yes. From Paris in the 1920s to Madras in 2018, from the sham shouting of Gordon Ramsay to the real humiliation of the chef at our hotel, the world of the hotel kitchen is the world of the Inferno. Unknown battles with flesh and vegetables become the Roast Mutton with Brandy Sauce.

Hell’s Kitchens in hotels and restaurants prepare our meals and wait for the depressing business of eating to be got over with before the shift can be brought to an end. Till it begins next morning again.

And so the tedium continues.