The way it was: Tasting the collective good

Mian Ijaz Ul Hassan

Bush and company needed to build a new democratic Iraq. In the same spirit Nero burnt Rome to give the Romans a better city. What a laudable and splendid agenda

There must be more than one way of cooking bhindi, or what in English we call Lady Fingers. I wonder why in England they should be called okras. I can also understand our baingan or brinjals being called aubergines by the French but once again I cannot fathom why the Americans should call them eggplants? Things can have more than one name, I suppose.

Most of us love eating bhindi cooked with or without meat. I have always found the meat cooked with bhindi has a rather good taste of its own. Unlike the Pashtuns, I prefer the meat cooked with vegetables. All meat has the distinctive flavour and taste of the vegetable with which it is cooked. Compare for instance the shabdeg meat, which is cooked with turnips with the one that has been in the company of potatoes or karaila (bitter gourd) and you would agree with me. Each has its own piquancy.

We don’t like our bhindi to be soggy but prefer them dry. The old desi bhindi, which is almost impossible to find now, used to be absolutely delicious. It was large and crisp, pregnant with scores of smooth pliant seeds, which added to the taste. The best bhindi in town was without doubt cooked by my nani in a terra cotta pot on slow fire. The desi plant was tall and lanky and provided only a few bhindis at a time for the handi. The present day dwarf hybrids are like small bushes and are leaden with a crop of bhindis but they are small and flaccid, with very small seeds, which while eating one cannot even feel rolling around the tongue.

Have you ever had bhindi the way they cook it in south India? They like to have them when they are really ripe. Almost close to seeding. These hard ripe okras, which we would consider superannuated, are then allowed to slowly simmer in water and spices till the turgid curry becomes nice and gluey.

In England in the sixties, before fresh okras began to be imported from Kenya, they came cooked and packed in round tins, in the south Indian style. I remember an angrez, scanning through the menu of Shalimar Restaurant in Cambridge, ask his companion what he thought of okras? ‘It is a most ghastly dish!’ was the instant reply. I can imagine people used to eating fried fish and chips, stiff sausages and kidneys, would find south Indian okra curry a bit gluey. Actually if you have them with the thick khameeri roti as people do in Quetta they can be quite nice. Those who insist on holding a different view can always use the curry in urgency for sealing envelops.

Individual tastes can differ, but surely there is more than one way of doing things. But everyone is adamant that his grandmother cooked okras the best. No harm letting people believe that. It is hard to persuade anyone to surrender what he believes. Beliefs are a product of lifelong personal experience and social interaction. They are thus a valued possession. To abandon a belief is like erasing a part of one’s self. There is often a wide gap between personal experience and facts, between beliefs and reality. The disparity can partly be narrowed through a richer social practice. Real knowledge is the sum total of personal experience and accumulated knowledge of others. To gain knowledge one needs to keep his eyes and ears open, and — mostly — the mouth shut. Only then can a person objectively perceive and feel the fleeting moments of revelation in the commonest things through which truth manifests its self.

All truths are transitory. There are no ultimate truths. The only permanent truth is change. Those who assert the permanence of ultimate truths are gross or selfish, or too lazy to adjust to what is right and must be done each new day. There is a sense of comforting permanence in holding on to prejudices. With prejudices life is static but steady. Life is absolved of the pressures of constant intellectual engagements. It is extremely demanding to have to think where one should be standing, or who one should be supporting and defending each day. Having to judge the world and the conduct and actions of others is fraught with the danger of having to make commitments. What would then a person do with his bagful of tribal, ethnic, religious, patriotic loyalties? Surveying the world from this discomforting perspective a person might discover that Hindus, Buddhists, Jews, Christians, Muslims and others may claim to represent monolithic truths but being humans are all a motley crowd of this and that and what not. The majority likes not to be bothered and to be left in peace. The vast majority of the world citizens would just like to raise their families and lead peaceful lives doing little things and being happy in their small achievements. This is not too much for them to demand. Is it?

The world in spite of latitudinal and longitudinal differences, with great oceans separating the continents is full of good men and women. This was amply demonstrated by their joint protest against the Iraq war. The war could not be stopped because Bush and company needed to build a new democratic Iraq. In the same spirit Nero burnt Rome to give the Romans a better city. What a laudable and splendid agenda. Nero played the flute while Rome burnt. Bush will not stop at burning the world, if he could have his way, to improve it.

There are always good aspects to bad things, which can help to propel events in the right direction. The solidarity, which was demonstrated by the world citizens, could never have been perceived before the Iraq war. Their action has demonstrated beyond dispute that the people of the world regardless of how they prefer their bhindi like peace better. They have carved a large area of common perception and feelings, which needs to be strengthened and upheld. Meanwhile, Let us oppose all kinds of martial music, regardless of the instruments it is played with.

Prof Ijaz-ul-Hassan is a painter, author and a political activist