Over the past few years, writer and film-maker Ruchir Joshi has been photographing the food and drink in his daily life. Moving from his home in Calcutta to different corners of the world, Joshi’s photographic ‘food diary’ has captured edible and potable materials in many different contexts and in startlingly varied light. Here, the writer adds another layer to the photographs, adding four imaginary texts to four of his images.
He Hoe, Burma
The driver stops our Toyota in a small town, not far from the border of the Shan province, and also not far from Lake Inle. ‘Village market!’ I exclaim, happily. My guide corrects me. ‘Actually, yes, but actually, it’s a local tribal market. This town, He Hoe.’ In her soft voice, the ‘He’ is a ‘hey’, and, like many people here, she pronounces ‘actually’ as ‘aichurally’.
It’s the weekly tribal village market in the highway town of He Hoe. It reminds me of the different haat-bajaar I’ve seen in Birbhum, Bankura and Nadia. A bamboo-supported, tile-roofed, plastic-sheet-covered world. There is a grid of lanes between the ‘blocks’ of stalls, but, as happens all the way from Odisha to Vietnam, it is a riverine grid; the lanes curve and change, logicking around the shapes and piles of local produce. As we walk through it, I irrationally keep humming along with Paul McCartney and the Wings, singing ‘Ho! Hey, ho!’. There are some strange vegetables creeping around the straw baskets and also some very familiar ones like tori, karela, and small, elongated beigun. Among the unfamiliar: a boy who sells nothing but ajinamoto powder, pyramids of MSG, of different varieties, it seems. In another stall, tight, bulging, transparent plastic bags of spice-mined Burmese salads. Everywhere, mixtures of smells, just off-register from the familiar, I’ve seen-your face-somewhere smells, someone-almost-like-you smells.
Outside, on the main road, a young man gets off a motor-bike wearing something odd on his head. He heads with brisk intent to a store. As he passes me, I look again. Sure enough, it’s a headpiece copied from the infamous Second World War German army helmet. Sure enough – unbelievably, achurally – it has a Nazi swastika on the side, complete on a background of white circle in red square. I stare at the thing, horrified, as the guy starts to chat up the girl behind the counter, the one he’s clearly come to meet.
My guide, Miss ____, notices my expression. She brushes my arm with her fingertips. ‘Aichurally…’ I can see she’s very concerned, clearly she’s had to explain this before. ‘Aichurally, this is just pfashion! Pfrom China!’ She gestures to her right as if China’s right there, which it kind of is. ‘He… doesn’t know what it means. For him, just a nice brand, like Gucci or Nike.’ Goorchi or Nyaaikee.
I can see she’s right. We’re sitting in a tea-shop having some tea. Even as I listen to her, I notice the bowl of sugar, perched on what looks like a pair of deep-fried Dhakai-parathas. The sugar looks like the sugar at home. The parathas don’t look so foreign either. The cassette player is still running in the back of my head, still playing ‘Ho! Hey, ho!’
Cali-fucking-fornia, you do my head in. You suck in everything from the world, every single thing. You’re like a black hole, but a sunny black hole, if that’s possible to imagine. Forty kinds of onions. I mean, think about it, forty kinds, all different shapes and sizes, all there, all fresh, all in one place. Fucking imagine. Then about fifty kinds of tomatoes. Every colour, including black and white. Imagine. Almost as many potatoes on the roll-call. Every edible thing, from everywhere on the planet, you have to have it, otherwise life would be incomplete, unsatisfying, un-Cali-fulfilled. Aisles and aisles of mostly ‘organic’ stuff, every kind of cheese known to man, every kind of charcuterie, canyons of shelving, every kind of chilli, every kind of garlic, every kind of gourd, swede or pumpkin. All shovelled in from somewhere or the other. All sucked in. Daily. From plentiful places and starving places, varieties of bananas, pineapples, dragon fruit, lauki, tori, and sooran, even. Ima-fucking-gine. You know what’s the worst? Seven kinds of karela variations, more than in Bengal, Burma and Vietnam put together. That really gets me.
So, after this horror of plenty at the organic ubermarket in Berkeley, this tsunami of everythings, after that trauma, something a bit familiar. Bacon, poached eggs, bread, coffee. Luxurious, fuck yes, but at least these are known things, familiar like friends’ faces, or so I think. But…break open the poached egg, put it in my mouth, and I almost start crying, it tastes so good, so alien. Crunch the bacon, holding back the tears, my eyes crossing out of focus. Unworldly. Mop up some egg-lava with the sourdough bread, avoiding the tears now flecking the plate. Fuck you plentiful Califuckia, fuck you and your ceaselessly working maw. I don’t want to live here. At least not settle down here, no, never. I’m going to miss you so badly. Say, listen, if you don’t want it, can I have the rest of that bacon? Thanks. Fuck you.
When he took the witness stand, he reminded me of nothing so much as a plump, raw chicken. Even though he’s a vegetarian. He was so sleek and round and proud. He looked like he had devoured everything in the world, all the delicacies, all the ghee, all the sweets, everything. He was like a, like an… oil tanker of smugness. Round, slick and untouchable.
Was your boss scared? Mm, this smells good.
Well, we had a few leads but nothing that would dent this bastard. Also, the guy’s smart. And they had good lawyers, the best.
I know, so…?
Well after the first hour of cross-examination, court adjourned for lunch. Someone mentioned the raw chicken thing and my boss’ eyes lit up. He’d had an idea. He said, ‘let’s roast this chicken’.
Well, we turned the heat up on the guy but not at once. Small questions, small uncomfortable questions, that accumulated doubt around his testimony. Slow heat, you see, like you would when…
…Cooking a roast chicken in somewhere abroad. Well, you could put it in high heat, directly.
No, much better to start with low heat and keep it going for a long time. So, questions about the elevator, about how many CCTV cameras there were in the hotel, about how many men he had assigned to follow the…
All of which he answered?
Yes, but after a while you could see the skin of his confidence begin to swell and pucker. He made small mistakes at first, and then bigger ones. Then we asked him about who was driving that night. Very casually, but a critical question, what was the driver wearing, what did he say, at what point?
How long did all this…
Oh, four days, quite tedious but detailed questions, nothing much the defence could object to also. By the end of the fourth day we turned up the heat and he started to crisp up properly. When he made the mistake of admitting that he participated in two phone calls to his henchmen, we knew he was cooked to the bone. So the boss turned on the grill.
That’s why they call it a grilling, I guess.
Yes, exactly. Some more? Shall I give you this leg and some gravy? And some more wine?
Someone almost like you, smelling almost like you, but her kiss is different, the way she pries open my mouth with her tongue is different, her breath, knocking up into my nostrils, is new.
Her neck and shoulders, already warmed though the windshield, are almost hot, but her breasts, without fuss suddenly in my hands, are somehow cooler, momentarily of a different body, till I become greedy and they re-join everything, her shoulders, my mouth, her belly moving, the suspension of the car parked on the slope.
I’m scared at first, afraid of the local police, I’ve heard these Italian carabinieri are quite racist, but she laughs, just like you might have, laughs through her gasps, just like you, and tells me this is Tuscany and they are not going to arrest two tourists for making love on a hillside. It’s. Agchualli. What. This. Place. Is. For.
We are just behind the rise of a hill, bracketed by a row of poplars which should distract anyone looking. After a couple of minutes, the anxiety goes out of me, I stop worrying about the police, about Nazis looking for Partisans here in 1943, about how someone might see the rocking dot of the parked car from miles away, about how she’s different from you. As the sun cooks us through the magnifying glass of the windshield, I manage to luxuriate in what I’m receiving, what I’m in place to give.
Driving to the nearby mountain-top town, she’s slightly unsteady on the wheel. My knee still aches from where I’ve banged it. My hand shakes a bit as I lift the glass of wine. ‘The best wine in Italy,’ people have repeatedly told us, and it’s not hard to believe. I take a second mouthful, regretting having to lose the taste of her, but it’s fine, she’s just there across the table, smiling and shaking her head, licking the spot on her lip where I’ve bitten too hard.
I lift the glass and watch the wine slide down the curve, viscous, the deep red gone transparent. I suddenly remember a small smear on the car windshield. From my hand? From hers? No, from yours. Not in this car.
I know she’s the type who will cross-examine me about previous lovers. I won’t tell her about you, or about other cars, or other hillsides. Right now, I’m replete, absurdly drowning in everything, simply everything one could want from a particular moment. I won’t tell her about other wine. Or about how badly I miss you sometimes. Right now, in this sliding minute, there is only her, there is only this wine, there is only this sunlight.