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Rice, rice, baby

Scientists have curried favour with rice.

india Updated: Jun 29, 2002 20:04 IST

Scientists have curried favour with rice. Two teams, one from China and the other from the Swiss-Brit biotech firm, Syngenta, independently succeeded in mapping the genome-patri of this tiny grain. Half-baked science writers will dine out on this story for weeks. However, it may be some time before Swiss gnomes are replaced by unnumbered genomes.

The editor of ‘Science’ stated that this work will make more of a difference to human health than the mapping of the human genome. He’s right. We can eat rice, we can’t eat people. It is also humbling to learn that rice has several thousand more genes than we do. It gives a whole new dimension to flour power.

While acknowIedging their stupendous achievement, I hope the genome-mappers understand the deep cultural repercussions of their choice of grain. This one decision has overturned the traditional domination of the macho, wheat-favouring North. The rice-eating South, globally or nationally, has always been lower in the pecking order. Now, a sociologist with the appropriate name of Kate Millet might need to write a thesis called ‘Cereal Politics’ on the visceral agenda-gap between the cultures of chapati and chawal.

Scientists may have chosen the second over the first for strategic reasons. Hunger is associated more with ‘die’ than with ‘diet’ in those parts of the world where rice is the staple. Now, in what could be the real clash of civilizations, masses of well-fed Indians, Chinese, even Arabs might challenge the power of the Wheatabix West. As rice-eating cultures slice up the hegemony of the Bread Barons, the resulting political mayhem could be as a Cereal Killer. More so because, like the Boston Strangler and the Delhi Monkey Man, genomes strike in sequences.

The choice of this grain over all the rest will be hailed, not just by starving Asian peasants, but also by the Wild Rice Brigade — and by its highly polished Bran Ambassadors. They will celebrate the victory by stirring together a healthy (and inedible) gruel of rice varieties: Japonica, Bhutanese Red Heirloom, Filipino Pinipig ( which sounds like a lab animal, but is actually only a flakier version of our ‘poha’ or ‘chira’) and Balinese Black. Rahul Akerkar will tell you that this exotic breed turns Indigo when cooked; it’s best served with an accompaniment of olive virgins and glazed credit cards.

This khichdi will be served in the scores of herb-tossed outlets, which have been sprouting like moong beans, across our cities. Like all elitist rustic fare, it comes at a price which makes you scream ‘Cordon Bleu murder!’

In India, the North is high on muscle, but low on other counts. Recall the cliché about Punjab’s only culture being agriculture, apart from dancing the bhangra while Singhing lustily. On the other hand, rice-eating peoples, whether of eastern India or South-east Asia are associated with grace and artistic flowering.

Rice is entwined into the Japanese DNA, so much so that the Emperor is the embodiment of the god of the ripened rice plant. Among Bengalis, a child’s weaning is marked by the ‘annaprasana ‘, the rice-eating ceremony. Not only is the infant celebrant decked out exactly like a mini bride or groom, hordes of guests are fed as lavishly as at a wedding. Rice is so central to this community, that the uninitiated think that the commonest Bengali surname is Bhaat-acharya.

The Indian polity is even closer to rice. Every politico claims to be our ‘annadata’, even the ones not directly associated with the Anna DMK. Like rice, parties have been so cross-pollinated that all of them are now hybrids. Each one is a new strain. Politicians may not be high-yielding, but they are certainly blight-resistant, even doubt-resistant. They add little of nutritional value; indeed they themselves are prone to Vitaministerial deficiencies. Of these, the most endemic plight-blindness.

Mr LK Advani may not consider a biryani to be an appropriate medium for the flowering of saffron, but our mistresses of the kitchen cabinet represent quite a spread of rice-based dishes. Sonia conjures up the image of a risotto. Mamata is as parboiled and unpolished as the favoured variety of her native state. As for the real Anna lady, Jayalalithaa resembles an out-of-control idli. No surprise really considering how many coarsely pounded opponents have gone into her making.

Alec Smart said, “What’s the feature of the BJP’s party building in Gujarat? All Modi cons.’’