Friday, April 20, 2007

The Chaat of Destiny

Some paragraphs were accidentally omitted from Somini Sengupta's recent article on Chaat and other Delhi street foods in the New York Times. Because I am a devoted Somini Sengupta groupie (a "Sengroupie," if you will), I was sent the missing paragraphs as a gift, under strict order not to reveal my sources:

The reporter visits a lost alleyway in Mastinagar, a suburb of Delhi. In the alley are an endless variety of special chaat stalls unknown to western taste-buds and unimagined by western food tourists. This is as “street” as it gets; if pressed, the people of this alley all state that they have never been near an air-conditioner or even a piece of plastic. Indeed, it is highly unclear whether the residents of Mastinagar have ever been outside Mastinagar, or even know that their “Shehr” is in the city and state of Delhi. In the lost alley, one finds an almost infinite variety of Chaats, some of which were tasted by a reporter. A short list of the highlights follows:

Orientalist Chaat: This type of chaat will fulfill all your desires for mystical knowledge and understanding, and set your brain on fire. If this chaat is eaten, it is said, the eater will learn a thousand yoga poses (a DVD is included), a thousand Sanskrit chants that will lead to Enlightenment, and perpetual unity of mind and body in pure relaxation bliss. After eating, you will have reached the other side of the moon, tasted the stars, found the ergonomically perfect chair, and finally know the answer to the question, Why Did the Bodhi-Dharma Leave For the East? (NOTE: Insiders report that Orientalist Chaat is exactly the same as regular Chaat, only 10,000 times more expensive.)

Erotic Chaat: This chaat is an aphrodisiac composed entirely of garlic and crushed Viagra powder. Not especially tasty, but surprisingly "potent," as a reporter subsequently discovered.

Chaat Feng Shui: This Chaat, which is composed entirely of wind, water, and garam masala, is not meant to be eaten, but rather dispersed around a room in need of redecoration. Pirated Chaat Feng Shui originates from China, which continues to flood the Indian market with inexpensive rip-offs of actual Feng Shui.

Message Chaat: Kiwi, lime, mustard seeds, and ice cubes. Once the ice cubes have melted on your tongue, it is said, your message has been telepathically sent to the individual you are thinking of (the strength of the message is increased if the recipient has also eaten chaat recently). This type of Chaat is especially popular with Delhi's young men, who are notoriously shy when it comes to talking to women they are not closely related to.

Immunity Chaat: The demons that chase you will be temporarily silenced by this chaat. Their multifarious coloration will be neutralized to blue, and the eater will suddenly be able to eat the blinking blue demons for extra points. This Chaat is also said to protect the eater from "Delhi Belly," and is generally eaten by those who are planning to go on to eat other Chaats. As a result, some Chaat addicts of Mastinagar jokingly refer to Immunity Chaat as the "Gateway Chaat."

Penn Masala Chaat: This chaat tastes a little syrupy, but it is known to cause the eater to burst into spontaneous acapella renditions of Bollywood tunes.

Raagapella Chaat: Raagapella Chaat is ssentially similar to Penn Masala Chaat, but with a funny/clever desi-ized version of "Motel." Many insiders predict Raaagapella Chaat will soon give Penn Masala Chaat a run for its money.

Gandi Chaat: Universally known as the best, most sublime form of chaat of all, Gandi chaat (also known as "Drrrty Chaat") is exceptionally rare. This chaat is made of pure, ancient Indian dirt, and is served with ketchup. What constitutes the dirt is of course a strictly guarded secret; insiders say it comes from tribal regions of India that have never once been visited by outsiders, where all the inhabitants are albinos. Food archeologists have been desperate to understand the properties of this mysterious form of chaat, and have repeatedly tried to have samples sent by secure couriers to western labs for analysis. But the Drrrty Chaat is so addictive that no courier has every withstood temptation -- and the Chaat has always somehow gotten eaten along the way. All the couriers have also mysteriously died, leading to the rumor that this Chaat, if ingested outside of India, will lead to instantaneous death.

(What other varieties of Chaat can be found in Mastinagar?)

Labels: , ,

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Russell Peters' Deaf Jokes

Here are some thoughts about Russell Peters, who I presume needs no introduction; Sepia Mutiny has had many posts on him, and you'll find a fair amount of his stuff up at YouTube. (Also, see Manish's recent post on Peters' show in Bombay from earlier this spring. I saw him last night in Philadelphia.)

At his best, Russell Peters airs out some intra-community dirty laundry. He plays with the mixture of embarrassment and pride that tends to circulate amongst members of various ethnic groups, especially immigrant ethnic groups. While many people might feel isolated within a particular ethnic niche, Russell Peters manages to draw people out, and create a certain amount of cross-ethnic solidarity.

Because he has a fair amount of "insider" knowledge about South Asians, the Chinese and Chinese Americans, Jamaicans, Arabs, and Persians, Peters can usually pull off humor that works with ethnic stereotypes. It also helps that he has a good ear for accents, and usually sets up his jokes with shout-outs to members of the audience: "You in the first row, are you Chinese? [Yes] What's your name? [Tim] Tim, what's your real name? Anyway, thanks for coming out tonight... You know, the thing about Chinese people is..."

Of course, all of that doesn't quite work the same way when Peters makes deaf jokes, as he did for quite some time at his show last night in Philadelphia. There are, presumably, going to be very few (if any) deaf people in the audience at a show like this -- so the sense of talking to people rather than just about them isn't there. Also, in my view humor relating to a disability by someone who doesn't have it doesn't work the way ethnic humor works coming from a brown comic. Some of Peters' deaf jokes were a bit corny and stupid (i.e., wouldn't it be nice to be deaf, because then you wouldn't have to listen to your girlfriend/wife nagging you), while others were flat-out mean.

What was interesting about the end of Peters deaf-joke routine was the way he brought it back to ethnicity. He pointed out that in American Sign Language (ASL), the signs for people of different ethnic groups were, historically, based on pretty offensive caricatures. According to Peters (I haven't been able to confirm this), the official sign for a Chinese person involved a pulled/flattened eye, and one sign for a Jewish person involved a big nose. Even today, the official ASL sign for a Jewish person involves making the shape of a long beard -- though apparently the sign for "Chinese" has changed. Also, to sign "Indian" one makes a "dot" on the forehead with the thumb -- like a bindi. It's not really a "stereotype," but it's also not exactly a neutral or arbitrary symbol. (See The ASL browser for video representations of many ASL words.)

The point behind this being, presumably, that even deaf people are capable of ethnic stereotyping -- it was even built into the fundamental structure of ASL as a language. Of course, if that's what Russell Peters was saying with this whole routine, we could easily respond that the history of offensive signs in ASL (most of which have been replaced) doesn't say anything about whether the people who used those signs believed in the caricatures.


With the new wave of self-consciously "offensive" comics (Sarah Silverman, George Lopez), it's often said that can they get away with it because their audience doesn't really believe, in a literal, non-ironic way, in the stereotypes that are being played with. But I sometimes wonder if the extensive reliance on these stereotypes -- this is Russell Peters' whole career, in a nutshell -- really helps people understand each other better. Sometimes it feels more corrosive than cathartic.

At this point I have a bit of a bad feeling in my mouth about Russell Peters, though I do recognize that he's a very talented comic, and I admire much of his earlier material. Who knows? Perhaps he'll have a version of a Dave Chappelle moment, where he takes it as far as he can go, and then stops to rethink what he's doing. Given what just happened to Don Imus after he said something not so different from Russell Peters' comedic bread and butter, I would have to say that's within the realm of possibility.

Labels: , , ,

Friday, March 16, 2007

"The Cow" -- a Sufi Joke

I came across the following in Idries Shah’s Wisdom of the Idiots (Octagon Press, 1970). Idries Shah is an Afghan writer who emigrated to England in the late 1960s and early 1970s. He wrote several books, and was a kind of ambassador of Sufi philosophy in the west (his daughter is Saira Shah, a journalist, and the author of The Storyteller's Daughter). This collection contains a series of short Sufi anecdotes and sayings, some of them almost joke-like.

The Cow

Once upon a time there was a cow. In all the world there was no animal which so regularly gave so much milk of such high quality.

People came from far and wide to see this wonder. The cow was extolled by all. Fathers told their children of its dedication to its appointed task. Ministers of religion adjured their flocks to emulate it in their own way. Government officials referred to it as a paragon which right behaviour, planning and thinking could duplicate in the human community. Everyone was, in short, able to benefit from the existence of this wonderful animal.

There was, however, one feature which most people, absorbed as they were by the obvious advantages of the cow, failed to observe. It had a little habit, you see. And this habit was that, as soon as a pail had been filled with its admittedly unparalleled milk – it kicked it over.

The present-day relevance of this story is:

a) Clearly, the cow is America's desire to spread democracy, and the milk is democracy itself.

b) Clearly, the cow is Pervez Musharraf's commitment to fight terrorism, and the milk is Al Qaeda.

c) There is no relevance, but did you hear the funny story about the cow in West Bengal who eats chicken?

d) Readers, please fill in the blank. What could the relevance of this story be?

Labels: , , , , ,