“There will be time, there will be time / To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet / There will be time to murder and create”
“The real violence, the violence I realized was unforgivable, is the violence that we do to ourselves, when we’re too afraid to be who we really are.”
I’ve loved the first quote above from T.S. Eliot’s Love Song for J. Alfred Prufrock ever since I read the poem as a teenager who could hardly claim to understand the meaning of this dark monologue created in a different place and time. As an adult, I still can’t quite relate since a fictional, white middle aged man’s troubled ruminations from a hundred years ago seems utterly irrelevant to my own experiences. Overall, the poem (although intellectually comprehensible) remains emotionally unapproachable for me, and yet I’m drawn to its strange intimacy. T.S. Eliot himself was a known anti-Semite, “not a typical anti-Semite, but an extraordinary anti-Semite,” something I find repugnant (but I will come back to this a little later).
John McPhee recently wrote in his New Yorker essay on writing: “Writing is selection. Just to start a piece of writing you have to choose one word and only one from more than a million in the language….At base you have only one criterion: If something interests you, it goes in—if not, it stays out. That’s a crude way to assess things, but it’s all you’ve got.”
Well, being oneself is a process of selection and omission as well (whether planned or haphazard). We spend an inordinate amount of time selecting, omitting and performing versions of ourselves for the benefit of everyone we choose to have in our lives and everyone else who is in it regardless of our feelings about their presence. This is a common human social practice, which admittedly grows a tad bit tiresome with each passing year. Not surprisingly, friends of mine who’re making the crossing into middle age and who take the time to be more introspective than the average person have started saying that they’re making a more whole-hearted attempt at being their more “authentic” selves (if such selves even exist, but that is a matter for another day’s discussion). “Take it or leave it!” they say. All I can say is that these friends of mine are far more courageous than I am, or perhaps, my crossing over to this “take me as I am or scram” mode of being will take longer to achieve.
This desire to “murder and create” different faces to meet different people, create different projections of ourselves is hard to give up for those of us who have been “performing ourselves” all our lives and I’m not sure giving up this practice is a worthwhile effort. Those who advocate for a dropping of the veils between our outer projected selves and our “true inner self” assume, first, that there is such a thing as an identifiable self devoid of our fictional creations/destructions, attachments, relationships, discriminations, etc.; and, second, assuming there is a “true inner self”, that it/he/she is going to be accepted by everyone else for who they are. Someone who looks like me and is a stranger at home and abroad cannot take acceptance for granted. But, why this desire to be accepted? Why indeed? Well, I’m less brave than most, as we’ve already established. And, as long as I don’t cling to any of these versions as being the “real and only” version of me, I don’t really see the harm.
It’s all I’ve got.
We don’t restrict concocting various selves only for ourselves. We apparently do it with respect to everyone and everything around us! As Hal Herzog writes in Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat, Why It’s So Hard to Think Straight About Animals: “Our tendency to project ourselves into even a robot’s head is a trait that came along with having a big brain. Evolutionary psychologists argue that the capacity to infer the perspectives of other people, to put ourselves mentally in their shoes, would have been a huge advantage to our ancestors, whose success in the Darwinian race to pass on their genes hinged on the ability to forge political alliances, vie for mates, and figure out who they could or could not trust. The ability to imagine what other people are thinking and feeling is referred to as having a ‘theory of mind.’ Humans have this ability…”
So, we’re evolutionarily hardwired to create theories and conceptions about other people, about nonhuman animals, about inanimate objects, about theories themselves (e.g., regarding evolution, climate change, etc.), and as I’ve laid out above, many of us also create projections of ourselves for other people’s benefit, however problematic the whole endeavor may be. Ultimately, such creations or fantasies are tools that the survivalist carries around, and certainly to be found in the tool chest of the most long suffering (in various degrees) of all survivalists — all migrants, immigrants, and otherwise displaced people, as well as trans, queer and gay people.
Not to be be outdone, projecting our worst fears onto others who are unlike us is the tool of the xenophobe as well, in whose eyes a young teen is transformed into a potential terrorist in the making, who at best exercised poor judgement and at worst wanted to scare the “decent” folks in his small town school. Everywhere the xenophobe looks, there is danger. So the immigrants who clean our toilets, water our lawns, take care of our children, cook meals for us, and build our houses are all potential criminals and rapists because only the dregs of Mexican society rip themselves through the barbed wire to crawl up to the glorious Shining City upon a Hill that is the U S of A. As the late great James Baldwin said: “I imagine one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with pain.” And, if not, pain, they’ll be forced to deal with whatever inner demons that roost in their existent or non-existent inner selves. Slaying or taming these demons requires courage, which hatemongers constitutionally lack.
Ultimately, some of us have to compromise more endlessly in the world than others but all of us (including, tragically, nonhuman animals and the environment) are struggling under the burden of our own projected selves and those of others. The only realization I can share is the one I learned from interacting with T.S. Eliot’s poem and his body of literary work over the years. Sometimes to encounter the unfamiliar is to feel dislike, repugnance, pity, anger, fear, pain, indifference. But to make an effort to know and become familiar with the unfamiliar will not make one become more loving, kind, or compassionate (not unless you’re a loving, kind and compassionate person to begin with), but will certainly create an intimacy with the uncomfortable, the strange, the fearsome, the repugnant. At the very least, such an intimate encounter may provide an insight into one’s own and the Other’s many-faceted selves. And, in that elusive plane where we meet, perhaps we can “murder and create” new, more compassionate versions of ourselves and more “acceptable” versions of others (as beautifully illustrated by the work of Judy Clarke, the lawyer who defends the “worst of the worst”).
In keeping with the above theme, the recipes I chose for this post present two faces of the utterly versatile rice.
Zardah with Barberries
The story of the first recipe for Zard Biranj (Yellow Sweet Rice) or Zardah as it is popularly known, a mainstay of Mughal cuisine, is better told by Bisma Tirmizi in her food blog. I followed her recipe for the most part (I omitted pistachios but included saffron), except that I added the flourish of dried Iranian barberries or zereshk (a small tart red berry, which happened to be in my pantry and which is not an ingredient that is used in zardah but in regular, i.e., unsweetened, Iranian pilaf instead), because I couldn’t help projecting my version of the recipe onto the traditional version:-) I used long-grain, aged Pakistani basmati rice (the best I could lay my hands on). Tirmizi’s version has the perfect level of sweetness for most palates, but for those who like their desserts toothachingly sweet, you can consider doubling the amount of sugar in the recipe.
Zardah even merited mention in the Emperor Akbar’s 16th century Ain-i-Akbari, which is also fortuitously appropriate for this post’s theme of “murdered and created”, multi-faceted, amalgamated/contradictory selves, as Akbar still stands in the historical imagination as an exceptional example of a Muslim ruler who promoted an extraordinarily integrated religiocultural, sociopolitical worldview during his reign.
Rainy Day Khichuri
Tirmizi also gives us the detailed story of Khichri or Khichuri (Rice with Legumes) — a dish that takes on a wide variety of faces ranging from the British Kedgeree; to a food offering to the Hindu gods, which according to Bong Mom, “when mixed with devotion, faith, respect…and lifted to the sublime…[becomes] Bhog er Khichuri”; to the comfort food which I will always associate with the magically rainy afternoons of my childhood during the monsoon season in Bangladesh. While both Tirmizi and Bong Mom provide a couple of excellent variations of this recipe, below is my variation of my mom’s recipe.
On a parting note (no pun intended) — Khichuri, a dish that’s been around since before the Common Era, is often a child’s first dish in South Asia. For my last day on earth, if I’m very, very lucky a simple plate of khichuri will usher me out of this life.
Cooking Time: ~1 hour
- 1 inch ginger (peeled and crushed into a paste with a little water in a food processor)
- 4 cloves garlic (crushed into a paste with a little water in a food processor)
- 3 bay leaves (whole)
- 1 tbsp cumin (whole)
- 1 small yellow onion (peeled and sliced)
- 1 tsp. turmeric powder
- 4-5 dried whole red chilies (optional)
- 1 small to medium-sized cauliflower (carefully separated into its florets)
- 1 cup rice (I used arborio rice since this dish reminds me of Risotto alla Milanese)
- 1 cup split orange lentils or masoor daal
- ~7 cups hot water
- 3-4 tsp. salt or to taste
- Enough olive oil to cover bottom of pot
- 1/2 stick of butter or equivalent clarified butter or ghee (to my chagrin I was out of my favorite Bengali ghee but had on hand the best butter available in the US).
1. Heat oil in a heavy, large pot over medium heat.
2. Saute the onion until soft along with the bay leaves and the red chilies (if using).
3. Saute the cumin briefly (taking care not to let it burn and become bitter).
4. Add the rice, lentils and water (adding 4 cups first and the rest as needed throughout the cooking process and remembering to keep the water heated, so that the end result has a creamy consistency).
5. Carefully skim off the foam that rises to the top.
6. Once the rice, water and lentil mixture has come to a vigorous boil and little or no foam rises to the top, add ginger, garlic, turmeric, salt and the cauliflower florets (making sure that they’re submerged in the liquid).
7. Adjust the water as needed so that all ingredients are just under the water line and the ingredients don’t stick to the bottom.
8. Simmer on low heat. Stir gently once or twice if needed (which allows the lentils and the rice to break and create a creamier consistency) taking care not to break the cauliflower florets.
7. After 15-20 minutes, once the desired risotto-like consistency is reached and the rice, lentils and cauliflower is cooked, stir in the butter carefully and turn off the heat.
8. Serve warm.