Opinion

Why India needs a khichdi fix urgently

Nominating the dish a brand ambassador is the first official acknowledgement that the nation urgently needs to drain the toxins in the body politic.

Food Processing Minister Harsimrat Kaur Badal has announced that khichdi, that mishmash of rice and pulses, will be upgraded to “Brand India food” this week. She clarified that it won’t be named India’s national dish – but it should be. I can’t think of any other food this nation needs more than the original Indian body cleanse staple, handed down from generations.

We’ve been a sick nation for a while, and nominating khichdi as a brand ambassador is the first official acknowledgement that we urgently need to drain the toxins. It’s time to go back to childhood, to the basics, to rediscover the origin of our Indianness. Mix this with that and add that and whatever else you like and cook it all together seems like a recipe we urgently need to relearn. Besides, khichdi is a baby step in the never-ending battle for gender-equality. Even that original helpless householder – The Indian Man – knows how to make the popular, pressure cooker version of this one-pot dish.

I’m sympathetic with those who question the need for a national dish. I still wonder why the banyan is our national tree? What advantage did it have over the gulmohar, rain tree, neem, peepul and ashoka and coconut? I’m scared to tell you my other favourite tree because you will call me an anti-national Kashmiri sympathiser and stop reading this piece. But labels notwithstanding, a lightly-flavoured dish that soothes even the most distraught gut is exactly what the doctor ordered for New India, a foul-smelling cauldron of hate, venality and self-destruction.

For all tastes

It’s a reflection of our times that picking khichdi over the more obvious, sexier, Eid staple biryani, immediately became a communal issue on Indian Twitter. Responses unspooled as predictably as when the Supreme Court recently announced a ban on selling firecrackers before Diwali in Delhi and the National Capital Region. Many saw that as an “anti-Hindu” move.

One thing any food historian will tell you about khichdi – it has no religion. The Mughals loved it (even Tarla Dalal has a version called Shahjahani khichdi), and almost every state does its own thing with this supposedly boring staple. What is pongal if not a version of khichdi? This dish slices through our deep divides of caste, class and religion. Everyone from emperors to peasants have at some point in our history, sworn by the miraculous properties of khichdi.

Michelin-starred, Mumbai-born chef Vineet Bhatia has a fancy version of it, Rosemary Chicken Tikka, Chilli Pipette and Black Olive Khichdi, which takes only seven-and-a-half hours to prepare. He’s a fan of the dish and recreates it often. In one signature version, he tells an interviewer, he prepares lobster with ginger, chilli and curry leaf with a broccoli khichdi. The server sprinkles the dish with unsweetened cocoa at the table.

An international merger

A posh Dubai restaurant promotes its 48-ingredient Birbaal Ki Khichdi as the world’s most expensive and its most instagrammable dish. This experiment should be filed in the same category as $3,000 distressed, ripped jeans.

Food writer and author Vir Sanghvi references it many times in his writing. In 2016 his list of favourite meals included the fish khichdi at Gaggan in Bangkok. In another essay lamenting the lack of knowledge about authentic royal cuisine, he says that Mughal Emperor Jehangir “shunned overly rich food and preferred a simple Gujarati-style khichdi”. When discussing the origin of biryani, he points to the controversial premise that it was created by “merging India’s spice and khichdi traditions with the Turkish pilaf recipes”.

So while the victory of khichdi may feel like a cop out for a nation with such a deep and wide culinary history, it’s actually the healing miracle we were all longing for.

Priya Ramani is a columnist for Mint Lounge.

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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.