Sunday Levity: Curry, roast beef & Italian wine

Tamil non-vegetarian cuisine two millennia ago

From K T Achaya’s wonderful little book, The Story of Our Food (pages 78-79):

Many animal foods are described with great relish in the early Tamil literature.

Even Brahmins did not lack relish for the meat and toddy served to them at feasts held by the chieftains and princes of the land.

The meat dishes cooked with (black) pepper were called kari in Tamil, a word now used in English as curry. Fried spiced meat was called tallita-kari, fried meat was pori-kari, and meat with a source sauce made of tamarind was termed pulingari

Beef was freely eaten: there are four names for this meat in the early Tamil language, showing that it was a common and well-liked food. In the north, as we have seen, the domestic fowl was not eaten, but there was no such taboo in the south. Other delicacies were the cooked aral fish served piping hot, and the meat of the tortoise, rabbit and hare. Wild boar was hunted using nets; it was then kept in a pit and fattened by feeding it with rice flour to yield pork of exceptional taste.

Here is a description from the Tamil literature of a feast given about 150 AD by a Chola ruler:

Goblets of gold with intoxicating liquor, soft-boiled legs of sheep fed on sweet grass, and hot meat, in large chops, cooked on the points of spits … fine cooked rice which, erect like fingers and with unbroken edges, resemble the buds of the mullai (jasmine) flower, together with curries sweetened with milk.

It is interesting to note the reference to wine and to roast kababs, and the beautiful comparison of shining white rice grains to jasmine buds. Tamil literature also describes the brisk trade with both the east and the west from the ports of south India; one commodity brought in was Italian wine for use by the royalty.

Tamil Nadu alert

Tamil chauvinism must be prevented from taking an anti-India form

It is repugnant, but legitimate, for political groups in India to support the LTTE. It is repugnant, but legitimate for them to engage in lawful political activism to promote their cause. But it is wholly illegitimate and totally unacceptable for them to attack an Indian army convoy for any reason. So the ‘activists’ from of Periyar Dravida Kazhagam (PDK) and Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (MDMK) who attacked an Indian army convoy near Coimbatore must be dealt with utmost seriousness.

The attack itself is unusual and was quite likely to have been conducted after agents provocateurs spread rumours about the convoy carrying an arms shipment for the Sri Lankan army. Like the riot that occurred at the Madras High Court campus a few months ago, this attack suggests that an unholy nexus between Tamil chauvinist politicians and the LTTE’s supporters has not only been allowed to exist, but been given the license to carry out acts of violence against symbols of the Indian state. M Karunanidhi’s DMK government—which never made a secret of its sympathies—and the pusillanimous UPA government in New Delhi cannot escape responsibility for preventing the nexus from developing in an anti-India direction.

The Coimbatore incidents must not be repeated. The prosecution of those arrested for attacking the army trucks must carry on without ‘politicising’ it. This is possible if both the DMK and Jayalalithaa’s AIADMK agree that some lines ought not to be crossed. The chances of this happening appear slim—but without leadership and deft political management the Sri Lankan issue could destabilise Tamil Nadu for the next few years.

Rioting lawyers are rioters

Watch out for the LTTE’s mischief in Tamil Nadu

The LTTE leadership probably calculates that destabilising Tamil Nadu by inciting widespread political violence will serve its interests. If you think that lawyers in the Madras High Court turned into violent mobs, torched police stations and got into street battles with riot police just like that, think again. Political violence doesn’t work that way. It is a deliberate attempt to spark off widespread violence across the state, disrupt internal order, divert the resources of the law enforcement machinery and create tactical space (in both the political and security sense) for the LTTE. In this, the media has played the usual role of sensationalising the entire issue and brazenly projecting a “neutral” morally equivalent perspective between those who broke the law and those who enforced the law.

As for police brutality—the Chennai police did not act with any greater harshness than is the norm. Those norms are not pretty. Those norms must change. But our shock and disapproval of the norms of riot control in India should not get in the way of repudiating the moral equivalence. The media coverage benefits the law breakers, and the law breakers know this.

Both the UPA government in New Delhi and the DMK government in Chennai must do whatever is necessary to control, deter and punish political violence. As the principal opposition party, the BJP must unambiguously signal its support for actions towards this end, and hold the governments to account. For their part, the LTTE’s supporters and their opponents should be welcome to pursue their agenda without resorting to violence. The next few weeks will test Tamil Nadu’s political and social stability: Indians should realise that there is a foreign hand behind the ugly scenes they see on TV.

Cornered Tigers and after

Non-interference and its unhappy consequences

It’s not over until it’s over—and there is some fight left in the LTTE yet—but judging from available news reports, it is clear that the Tamil Tigers are cornered in Kilinochchi and a few other towns. The ripples of the situation have crossed the Palk Strait and have already rocked politics in Tamil Nadu state. There is a risk that they will rock the UPA government in New Delhi.

It has come to this pass because the UPA government’s policy paralysis on Sri Lanka. As the The Acorn had warned at that time, the critical moment was in December 2005. Failure to rein in the combatants at that time led to the inevitable war and bloodshed. Failure to coerce the Tamil Tiger leadership to give up its maximalist aims caused it to break the ceasefire. Failure to intervene pushed the Sri Lankan government into the arms of Pakistan, China and Iran for military support. India was too timid to support or oppose any one side. As a result it not only finds itself as little more than a bystander, grasping for ways it could avoid the consequences of the Sri Lankan civil war from destabilising Tamil Nadu, and indeed, New Delhi.

Let’s be clear about one thing: that the Tamil Tigers (not to mention the Sri Lankan Tamils) find themselves in this situation is due to the fault of their leadership. Velupillai Prabhakaran did not take advantage of the international mediation to transform the rather successful insurgency into a political process towards autonomy within a federal setup, at least as a first step. The LTTE’s sympathisers might argue that it was the Sri Lankan government that upped the ante: even so, Mr Prabhakaran’s failure to reject violence and keep the international peace brokers on his side allowed President Rajapakse to prosecute the war. In the event, rather successfully. And for all the drama in Chennai, the cornered LTTE leadership is yet to directly call for a ceasefire.

Now, as T S Gopi Rethinaraj has argued in the April 2008 issue of Pragati, as also in a recent op-ed in Hindustan Times, the prospect of a military victory for the Sri Lankan government can have negative consequences for India’s geopolitical interests. It is conceivable that a jubilant Sri Lankan government will swing over to its Chinese and Pakistani patrons. It will also not have any reason to deliver on its promises of equal treatment of its Tamil minorities. By this token, the survival of the Tamil Tigers is India’s insurance policy against this eventuality.

In fact, had the Indian government understood the realist logic underpinning Dr Gopi Rethinaraj’s arguments, it would have played a stronger role to freeze the balance of power in Sri Lanka in 2004-2005 and transform it into a political settlement. It didn’t. So it finds itself in an exceedingly satisfactory position now. It can’t close its eyes to the new reality on the ground—one of the Sri Lankan government achieving a victory on its own terms. But it also cannot ignore the reality that the war-ravaged Tamil minority will have to live under the victor’s rules. Despite their promises, it is by no means clear that the Rajapakse government will pursue an enlightened policy towards the Tamils and move towards healing the decades old ethnic conflict that underlies the civil war.

Whether the LTTE is practically wiped out in the coming weeks or manages to turn the tide of the war in its favour, India must set aside its policy of non-intervention into one of engagement. On the one hand, it must try to cobble up a Sri Lankan Tamil political formation that can play the part that the LTTE didn’t. And on the other, it must deepen its engagement with the Sri Lankan government in all spheres, to ensure that it can guarantee that Colombo keeps its word. It’s not going to be easy: there are few Sri Lankan Tamil leaders of the required stature, and elements within the Rajapakse government might well say “no, thank you”. But what alternatives does India have?

Periyar, Bhagat Singh, untouchability and poverty

And a very faulty analogy

In a piece commemorating Bhagat Singh’s hanging by the colonial British government, historian Irfan Habib describes how the Dravidian movement in Tamil Nadu interpreted his politics. Bhagat Singh’s views on the political use of religion struck a chord down south. As did his economics.

Periyar wrote further in the editorial that “to abolish untouchability we have to abolish the principle of upper and lower castes. In the same manner, to remove poverty we have to do away with the principle of capitalists and wage-earners. So socialism and communism are nothing but getting rid of these concepts and systems. These are the principles Bhagat Singh stood for.” [The Hindu]

The fallacy should be clear: one cannot change one’s caste, but one can get richer.

Now it is possible to argue, with some justification, that the social structure and colonial policies made it practically impossible for people of the early decades of the 20th century to break out of poverty. But the analogy was philosophically wrong then, as it is now. Economic fortunes of people did change, albeit very slowly. Instead of calling for economic freedom and individual liberty that would create avenues for upward mobility that generation of leaders fell for the easy seduction of Socialism and Communism.

Those short-cuts didn’t work. The tragedy is that almost a century later, with abundant empirical evidence that these short-cuts are cul-de-sacs, India’s leaders still fall for the same faulty premise.

Stalin’s papa

Disinvestment is dead. Nationalisation on the cards

(Tamil Nadu) Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi said on Thursday that his government was firm on the announcement made on Wednesday on nationalisation of some industries.

In an attempt to make available cement at an affordable rate, the State Government on Wednesday decided that cement will be sold through the Civil Supplies Corporation’s warehouses at cost price.

At a function to mark handing over 1,094 buses to transport corporations here, the Chief Minister refrained from naming the industry the government intended to take over, but referred to it as “some industries that the government announced yesterday [for nationalisation].”

Mr. Karunanidhi recalled that when the DMK government decided to nationalise private transport corporations and approached them, owners of the corporations had cooperated.

They even attended the function held to mark the transport nationalisation project.

“Like that in the future, the government has announced that it will nationalise some industries. When an event of that nature is happening, I believe that the industrialists will come and felicitate us,” he said. [The Hindu]

Now what kind of industrialist will felicitate the government for taking over his business? Ans: (a) the kind that is glad to get rid of a troubled, loss-making venture and (b) the kind that is forced to grin and bear it.

But really, it’s not just a question about whether industrialists line up to garland Karunanidhi. It’s a question of whether ordinary people will be any better off. It is only a scriptwriter’s fantasy to believe that selling cement at cost in government shops will make it available, and at affordable rates.

Only when all the non-grinning industrialists, non-lossmaking industrialists had fled the state did another chief minister realise:

“We have to accept capitalism; where is State capital? This is being realistic in a situation where there is no alternative,” (West Bengal chief minister) Buddhadeb Bhattacharya said while addressing an audience on the occasion of the 42nd foundation day of Ganashakti, the Bengali daily and mouthpiece of the Communist Party of India (Marxist). [The Hindu]

But Tamil movies are not know to take ideas from Bengali ones.