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Paradise found and lost in India

If India was at one time considered the paradise on earth, the credit for the honour should go to Kerala, the home of most of our relished spices, writes Khushwant Singh.

india Updated: Jan 23, 2010 23:48 IST
Khushwant Singh

Nayan Chanda and his wife Geeta are professors in Yale University in the United States. He is Bengali; she a Sikh from Delhi. They first met in Paris when they were students at Sorbonne and decided to get married. So English, Bengali, Hindustani, Punjabi and French came to be spoken in their home. He got a senior editor’s job on the staff of a prestigious English weekly published from Hong Kong which became their home for many years. They added Mandarin to their list of spoken languages. Having become experts in Far-Eastern affairs they were invited to teach in Yale where they now live. They have two sons both working in Europe.

The Chandas are frequent visitors to India. Their sole object is to keep up with their families in Kolkata and Delhi. On their last visit earlier this month, professor Nayan Chanda was persuaded to give a talk on a subject little known to Indians. He was heard in spell-bound silence in the packed auditorium at the India International Centre. His topic was : How for many centuries Europeans regarded India as the Garden of Eden (Paradise) for no better reason than that of spices like pepper, cinnamon, cloves, cardamom, dill, thyme, oregano etc. and all perfumes came from India. Early Europeans cartographers who did not have the foggiest idea about India’s location thought it close to heaven and the Ganga they called Phison, was among the four rivers of paradise, others being the Tigris, Euphrates (in Iraq) and the Nile in Egypt.

The vastly exaggerated myth, that Indian spices were highly rated in Europe because they helped in meat from going rancid and added a pleasant flavour to it, exploded when the Portuguese reached India and took the spiced trade monopoly out of the hands of the Arabs. As spices became common in the European market, the taste in spicy food began to decline. Recently there has been a revival of such food with the popular appeal of Indian samosas and chicken tikka masala. It is a fascinating story which Nayan Chanda spiced into many amusing anecdotes.

All said and done, if India was at one time considered the paradise on earth, the credit for the honour should go to Kerala, the home of most of our relished spices.

Refresher Course

If you want a painless and enjoyable refresher course in the history of modern India from 1930 to the present times you cannot do better than lay your hands on History In the Making: the Visual Archives of Kulwant Roy, soon to be published in India by Harper Collins. It is the outcome of back-breaking work of many years by Aditya Arya, a commercial photographer. A short but lucidly written prologue by Indivar Kantekar, professor of modern history at the Jawaharlal Nehru University. As a work of scholarship, it is endorsed by no less a person than Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

There is quite an interesting story about the genesis of the book. Kulwant Roy, a Ludhiana–born boy learnt photography at a small photo-shop before he moved to Delhi to become a photo-journalist. He covered about every political event he could: Jawaharlal Nehru in shorts, looking like an RSS swayam sewak, Bapu Gandhi, Ghaffar Khan, Sardar Patel, Maulana Azad, Jinnah, visiting British statesmen like Cripps, Pethic Lawrence, the Mountbattens, Indian princes at the time when their domains were being taken over, work of building a modern India. All the pictures including some unused Kulwant Roy stacked in a steel trunk hoping someone, someday, would sort them out and make a book out of them. He died in 1984. The trunk was opened 20 years later and Aditya Arya took on the onerous task of putting the pictures in chronological order.

Readers will enjoy identifying ‘Who’s Who’ in the photographs and filling in the gaps left by Kulwant Roy. For me it was as absorbing a pastime as solving crossword puzzles which I indulge in every morning. It will activate your memory and at the same time add to your information.

All India Combine

A man boards a flight from Delhi to Mumbai. As he settles in, he glances up and sees a gorgeous woman boarding the plane. She heads straight towards him and take the seat next to his. Eager to strike up a conversation, he asks ‘Business trip or vacation?’ She smiles and says ‘Business. I’m going to the annual Sexologists convention.’ He swallows hard and calmly asks: “What’s your role at this convention?” ‘Lecturer, “she says, ‘I use my experience to debunk some of the popular myths about sexuality.’ ‘Really?’ ‘What m-m-m-m-myths are those ?’

‘Well,’ she explains, ‘one popular myth is that African men are the best endowed when, in fact, it’s the Tamilians most likely to possess that trait. Another popular myth is that Frenchmen are the best lovers, whereas actually it is Bengalis. However, we have found that the best potential lover in all categories is a Sardar.’

Suddenly, the woman becomes a little uncomfortable and blushes, ‘I’m sorry,’ she says . ‘I shouldn’t be discussing this with you. I don’t even know your name!’

‘Venkatraman!’ the man blurts out. ‘Venkatraman Mukherjee: But all my friends call me Sardar Joginder Singh:

(Contributed by Paramjit S.Kochar, New Delhi)

The views expressed by the author are personal