About Harsh Mehta
Latest Posts by Harsh Mehta
I was in the movies you made, don’t you remember? Pretty much a character myself, like the actors who danced on my soil, like those bangle adorned women whose songs echoed in my deserts, like the Rudali who wept through my sands. I was in your music when Aerosmith played the sarangi in ‘Taste of India’. I was in your food, each time you added a dash of spice.
Yet, to the undiscerning, I was and I am, dead as a desert. No wonder you never realised I had a soul too. That somewhere, in the middle of the very same desert, buried under those sands, lay my spirit, my soul. I know, I know, you couldn’t see it. How could you? You were the tourist. You came all the way from the west and saw only snake charmers. But you never listened to the music that charmed its way through my alleys. You saw the palaces, the havelis and the repertoire of huge vessels in their kitchens but you never saw the oodles of affection that the mothers and grandmothers of the havelis poured in those vessels. Heck, you even ate the ‘ker-sangri’and you never figured out the one ingredient that made those bitter ‘ker’ edible. My soul. You only saw what you wanted to see.
Yet, every now and then, a few crazy souls roam around in these sands, those who’ve probably lost themselves but end up discovering me. I know it in their eyes. I know it when they see me..
..in the vibrant hues of the turbans that adorn me…
Or in the smiles that run as wide as the pride in my glorious moustaches..
Or in the valiant chapters of history that my eyes behold..
In the music that wades through my streets and alleys..
Or even in the poverty that snakes its way into the hands of my children..
In the graceful walk of my women..
Or in the not-so-grand humdrum of my grand palaces..
In the countless tales of men & women crossing the border to meet their kin..
And of the camels that accompanied..
In the innocence of my kids..
And in the solitude that this innocence meets..
In the endeavour to find your own God in the middle of my desert..
..perhaps you may just find yourself here, as you explore my people and my land.
I was & I am the spirit of ‘Rajasthan’!
‘Halva??’ remarked my friend, wondering if it referred to the same thing as that he sees in India. I answered in affirmative. This would be any food lover’s eureka moment. I had mine when I travelled to Turkey. And ever since, I have been enamoured of the idea of how sweets have travelled across kingdoms and civilizations over centuries. Like this instance. This wasn’t India. This was, however, a moment when three Indians were sitting at a Persian restaurant in Dubai and wondering how ‘halva‘ made it to this menu.
As I sit down to finally share the ‘sweet’ moments of my Middle east trip, I take a second to wonder what makes sweets so special? What is it that makes the Cadbury advertisement in India say ‘Kuch Meetha Ho Jaye‘ (‘Lets have something sweet’) before an auspicious occasion? Why is it that festivals, across peoples, regions, religions, whether they be Christmas, Eid, Diwali or even the Chinese Mooncake festival, are marked by the preparation and consumption of sweets? Why is it that a humanity which subsists itself on salt (salary, the word is understood to have come from ‘salt money’), finds the expression of its utmost happiness in sugar? How is it that sweets such as Halua/Halwa/Helwa, Zlabia/Zlebia/Jalebi and Baklava/Paklava have made their way across nations, each nation adding its own identity to the sweet, a modicum of saffron added here, a bit of pistachios sprinkled there, sometimes just a nuance added to the preparation while sometimes altering the sweet altogether? Among all this, what does prevail, is the inherent sweetness, cutting across barriers of societies, in some ways akin to the goodness of people, which has kept civilizations in co-existence over millennia. No wonder, sweets end up representing the good.
As I continued to explore the rich associations of these foods tendered sweet by human interactions over ages, my travels took me to the middle east. Here I just share a glimpse of some of those wonderful sweets that made me admire the food culture of Dubai & the middle east in general. If you like sweets, there’s little doubt that you’ll like what you see next. If you don’t, I hope the pictures that follow help you reconsider :)
This I believe, is similar to (or exactly same as) what the Greeks call Loukumades. This was being prepared at a desert excursion we went to. The very first bite of these delectably honeyed fried dough balls is enough to ensure you do not stop at the first one. Very frankly, I cannot remember the count of how many I ate. (above)
A cake made with what we call reva or semolina. Made soft & gooey with the addition of syrups, it’s a must taste on a middle east trip. And if the usual one is too sweet for you, try the ones with date fillings or the ones with coconut sprinklings.
For me, this is the king of all sweets middle eastern. It’s crunchy, it’s full of nuts and yet it’s soft. One of those sweets, which’ll simply melt in your mouth as soon as you eat them. Do NOT eat the local ones you may find in your cities. Come to a middle eastern town to enjoy the fresh ones prepared every day. They come in varieties Syrian, Lebanese, Turkish, Greek, Iranian and with fillings of all the nuts you can imagine, pistachio, almonds, walnuts. Diamond shaped, square cut, rectangular, rolled over, round, you’ll have your hands full if you like baklava.
And some more…
A sweet start to the day
I know one can’t really call them sweets, in the strict sense of the word. But they are worth craving for. The pancakes with Maple Syrup at the Arabian Tea House Cafe in the Bastakiya quarter (which otherwise also, if a wonderful place to visit) are a vegetarian’s delight. Yes, they are eggless and don’t seem to go wrong anywhere.
And finally, a bit of these as well..
The Cheesecake Factory in the Dubai mall is a dessert lover’s paradise. They willingly let you have a look at their menu, which goes on and on with descriptions of the most sinful desserts. Wonder if anybody has ever been able to resist having these desserts..
The Oreo Cookie Cheesecake topped with Oreo cookie mousse and chocolate icing. Descriptions and views such as these fill your senses at the Cheesecake Factory :)
Suggested Eating : All the above and the Kunafa, Mammoul, Ummali that I could not have :)
Have you too been to the Middle East? Did you too like any of these or other foods? Is there a history associated with any of them?
Somewhere in the land of Persia, a man sits in the bleak light of a setting sun, and in the khumar of the Beloved, he writes verses of remembrance. Another one, centuries later, sits under a tree in Afghanistan and perhaps, driven by the same remembrance, plucks his Rubab to a deep, expressive music.
Close by, two girls bind the same verses into a melodic song & somewhere, in the far off land of the Ottomans, a hand stretches out, towards the sky, as if soaking in all the energy from the vast expanse through its spread open palm. And the other hand reaches out to give to the earth what the first one asks from the skies.
Slowly, as a Ney weaves out a soulful tune behind him, the man with these hands suspended mid-air and his head inclined on one side, turns & twirls. And his white gown whirls in space, like his longing soul that sways somewhere between two worlds. As the poem in Persia grows, from love to pain to nashey, and the fingers on the Rubab pluck even faster than before, the singing grows graver and the feet in the Ottoman land spin swiftly and more swiftly until there arrives a moment when all of these feel that they have united with the One.
What seems to bind all these together, is the world of Sufi music. A world that spans far beyond what we usually imagine. From the whirling dervishes & Sufi music of Turkey to the quatrains of Omar Khayyam & quotes of Rumi, the poems of Bulleh Shah in Punjab, and the compositions of the Grammy winning A.R. Rahman in India, it transcends beyond states and their borders.
Singers over generations have weaved these lyrics into profound yet beautiful songs in a multitude of languages from Turkish & Persian to Punjabi and Hindustani. Instruments from various musical schools such as the Ney(a kind of flute), Rubab ( a lute like instrument), Tabla, Iranian Bagpipe, have all tuned their way into this music.
Songs of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Abida Parveen, A R Rahman (such as Kun Faya from the movie Rockstar, Haji Ali from Fiza & Khwaja from Jodha Akbar) or the famous Lal Meri Pat (performed by several singers & bands such as Junoon) have been adored by listeners for decades, each of these compositions somewhere retaining their Sufi influence. As intense as it may sound, this is music that has struck a chord with deeply varying peoples, cultures, languages, and traditions. It is, what one would call, “Music that travels”, that finds reverberance across continents.
Join me as I travel to the far off desert of Thar in India to the World Sufi Spirit Festival to unravel a bit more of this wonderful form of music!
Until then, if you may want to, try closing your eyes & listen to ‘Paimona Bideh‘ by Zeb & Haniya or ‘Kun Faya’ by Mohit Chauhan/A.R. Rahman or ‘Lal Meri Pat‘ by Junoon or may be just ‘Bulla‘ by Rabbi Shergill to build up the mood.
Photo credit: avaxhome.ws
Six voices shout in unison with those of our driver and his friend as we cross the mighty Chang-La on the way to Leh. Our driver and now friend, Namgyal Tibetan, as he insists we call him, tells us that everyone who crosses the several passes in Ladakh chants this.
Ladakh means “the land of passes”. Namgyal, who perhaps has the most impeccably managed car in the mountains, tells us the meaning of the phrase, which I now only bleakly remember (and with a bit of help from Google) to be somewhere close to “Victory to the Gods”. The stereo of the car plays songs sung by Namgyal’s Tibetan friends who have been long enough in India to be in the army and get posted at the LoC (Line-of-control). As a male voice sings ‘LoC pe baithe hum yahaa… (Here we sit at the LoC)’, we wind our way back from Sumdho, where we had stayed back last night at a school for nomadic Tibetan kids, while visiting the twin lakes of Tso Kar and Tso Moriri, during the weekend.
And I say weekend, because it wasn’t a vacation. It was a six week internship, with Ladakh Ecological Development Group, that brought us to this fabled land. LEDeG, as it is called, is an NGO working for and in Ladakh and seems to have been around for donkeys years. It is only a testimony to the extensive development work done by the organization that almost everyone in Leh and the surrounding villages knows them by the name of ‘Ecology’.
We started our stint with a brief introduction to everyone at the small but spacious office at Karzoo in Leh. For the next few weeks we were going to work with the very same people and gather some key information for them. These would form the basis for an informed case study of the development work done by the NGO over the past several years, or even decades. We were about to realize, volunteering doesn’t always have to be about building houses with spades and shovels or clearing crops. In our case, the NGO wanted resources that could help with more managerial inputs and devote time to a case study for them. It is here that for so many of us, who have studied at technical and management institutes, the opportunity lies, to give back to our society.
Over the next few weeks, with great help from the NGO, we extensively visited the remotest of villages within Ladakh; from Leh to Kargil and the valleys that lay in between and beyond, of Suru and Sham, of Shyok and Nubra. The key challenge with an arid land like Ladakh lies in the seasonality of agriculture and irrigation. For more than half of the year, the land remains covered with snow. Realising this, LEDeG has over the past several years, invested in developing alternative sources of energy, irrigation and water distribution across Ladakh.
And, we had set to gauge (and if possible, measure) the impact of these interventions. We met several families. In some places, the interventions had massively helped farmers to the extent that they could now buy multiple cars and in others, only modestly. We met farmers who loved the machines provided by LEDeG, and those whose cattle, houses, and trees (and hence wood that is a crucial commodity here) could all in some way be linked, even if indirectly, to the aid and support provided by our NGO. We surveyed them, chatted with them, ate with them and stayed with them in their homes.
There were the other experiences, which were difficult to measure in counts of cattle and houses. Like the moment when we met the residents of a village which had ended up being in a different nation at the end of one of the Indo-Pak wars. Borders mean little here. If you ask them, “Which nation do you prefer?”, they don’t have an answer. But then, if we had been the ones facing the brunt of enemy shells in three different wars, would we be left with any answers?
But most probably, you’ll come back with much more, with the understanding of how people in a far off land, with little access to even electricity, leave aside cinema, live their lives with such grace and contentment. How, in spite of gathering their own wood and walking miles to collect water each time they want to wash their clothes, they don’t complain and how money is just a small part in a community that somehow just knows how to greet every visitor with a smile, whatever the difficulties.
The Happiest People
Lots to learn? Yes. Visit them once. More than anything else, you’ll come back with the experience of a life time.
This article was originally published with The Alternative