Editors' Choice

Pancakes and Coffee

By Jon Whittle

Being a guest in another culture poses surprising conflicts, and presents new ways of seeing, and not seeing.

On the way to his coffee plantation, Vishwa mentions that he has one son and two daughters. We pull up outside his fancy new house, the only source of light in the area for miles, and two female figures descend from the front porch to meet us. Both are visions of beauty. The elder, dressed in a seductive blue saree that complements her black hair, heads straight for my bags and is halfway inside before I have a chance to carry them myself. "This is my wife," explains Vishwa. The younger, a child perhaps ten years old, is even more beautiful than her mother. Her skin is darker, her hair is as black as the night around us, and her deep brown eyes radiate as they reflect the light streaming from inside the house. "What a beautiful daughter you have," I remark to Vishwa’s wife. "Actually," she says, "that is a servant girl." Blushing with embarrassment, I pick up my remaining bag and go in.

I was staying with my dance guru in Bangalore when I happened to mention my desire to visit a coffee plantation in the lush hills of Karnataka. In California, I share an office with a German who insists that we drink vast quantities of strong coffee to help pass the day. So I have more than a passing interest in seeing what a coffee plant actually looks like. "Oh, I should contact my brother," my dance teacher enthused. "He has an old school friend who lives on a plantation near Hassan. You can stay there." Two weeks later and I am learning that not only does Vishwa live on a coffee plantation; he owns it. And at seventy acres, this is one of the largest privately owned plantations in the area.

"Please, sit," says Vishwa. His wife places a freshly prepared dosa in front of me along with some coconut chutney and a selection of Indian pickles. I take a bite and she asks "Is it too spicy for you?" "No, not at all. I love spicy food. Especially pickle." "He likes pickle," Vishwa says to his wife, beaming. Ten minutes later, I am chatting with Vishwa about the political maneuverings of India’s Prime Minister Vajpayee, as his wife brings more and more pickle out of the kitchen and watches with glee, as I taste every one. Mango pickle. Tomato and ginger pickle. Lemon pickle. Tiny mangoes pickled individually and served dry. Minute limes salted and left out in the sun. None of these, I am proud to say, is spicy enough to challenge my taste buds.

Vishwa’s wife brings out an excellent bean curry. Just as I am about to help myself to a serving, she jumps for the ladle and spoons some of the mixture on to my plate. Not so unusual you might think – just mere hospitality. She continues serving me – adding curd, rice and pickle and even breaking off half a roti as I protest that I will eat lightly tonight. As a guest in an Indian household, one is used to this kind of treatment. She serves her husband and me everything we could possibly need. What astonishes me, however, is what happens when Vishwa has finished his first serving. I can tell he is still hungry. He makes sidelong glances at the food every now and then and occasionally looks over my shoulder towards the kitchen. I am a little perturbed by this. Is my company not scintillating enough? It is true that our conversation has not been as lively as some of the other heads of families that I have met, but it is very unusual for an Indian to show his displeasure in this way. I desperately try to rectify the situation by inquiring of the latest news of Veerappan, the legendary jungle bandit, when I realize what his agitation is all about. His wife comes out of the kitchen and sees that our plates are empty. She rushes over to dish up another serving. Now, Vishwa eats. He is completely unable or unwilling to serve himself.

A dosa is a paper-thin, wafer-like, melt-in-your-mouth pancake. Back in San Francisco, my first attempt at making dosa is not going well. I bought a tawa - a large round flat skillet - from the local Indian grocery store. I soaked the correct proportions of rice and dahl yesterday evening and before going to work this morning spent a good hour grinding the ingredients in my tiny little electric mixer. The quantities were too large for a single grinding so I grinded and emptied, grinded and emptied, grinded and emptied. My finger is still sore from pressing the "grind" button. Following my recipe, I heat the tawa, test the heat by splashing a few droplets of water on it, and am now ready to add the oil. "Shit!" I exclaim as the over-abundant quantity of oil drifts towards the edges and makes a jump for freedom, dripping down the side of my oven and onto the floor. The friend I am having over for dinner sits in the corner chuckling as I get down on my hands and knees and desperately start mopping up the oil.

Vishwa’s wife shows me the mortar and pestle she uses for grinding – or rather, the mortar and pestle that her servants use. At home, mine is about two inches in diameter and about three inches long. Hers is a good foot across and stands about four and a half feet tall. The principal operator of this gigantic kitchen utensil is the mother of the young girl I mistook for Vishwa’s daughter when I first arrived on the plantation.

I was eating my first Indian meal in Bangalore when the strange division between servant and master in the average Indian household first confronted me. My dance guru was introducing me to her daughter, Prakteesha, her film actor husband, Vijay, her mother-in-law and her father-in-law, her sister, a couple of cousins who happened to be visiting that day, and three dancers who were rehearsing for an upcoming festival in New Delhi. She did not introduce me to the servants. One of them was a young girl, Kavya. She looked exactly like Vishwa’s servant girl except that she was dressed rather shabbily. Her hair was unwashed and uncombed and her dress had holes in it. She was a very lively child, however. She ran around the house without supervision, getting under everyone’s feet and teasing the small white yapping dog that was chained to the kitchen table. During my weeklong stay, my guru only spoke to Kavya twice. Once, she was shouting at her for tormenting the dog. The second time, she sat her down and in a low voice gave her a lecture in Kannada. I do not know what was said, but from the look in the eyes of the girl, I could tell that she had done something wrong.

For a Westerner with Western ideals, it is somewhat disturbing to live among servitude. Kavya’s mother served me my meals. She took my plate away when I was done. She brought me coffee in the morning and tea in the middle of the afternoon. I have been brought up to believe that accepting hospitality is gracious, but the guest should also do his bit. But to offer to wash the dishes in this household would have been laughable. I wanted to speak to the servants to ask them if they needed my help in escaping from their shackles. Maybe I could put in a good word with my guru and they would be released on good behavior.

One afternoon, in between dance classes, I found myself alone with Kavya. She seemed curious about my white skin and my red hair. I had forgotten to put on sunblock the day before and the red patch of skin on my forehead was like a new toy to this girl. She poked at it as I tried to read a "Who’s Who" of Indian classical dance. Realizing it was hopeless I showed her my digital camera. We took a picture of the fern on the verandah and the girl giggled with excitement. I motioned for her to smile and took a picture. A look of purest wonder came over her face when she saw the result. For the next thirty minutes, I taught her Indian dance poses and took her picture. Each shot was accompanied by squeals of joy. The girl’s mother interrupted us and commanded the child to leave. I was not sure if she was angry because my camera was somehow stealing the soul of her child, or because her child had chores, or just because it was not proper for us to play together. The next day, however, the mother brought her daughter to me. Kavya’s rags had been exchanged for a cute red dress with sequins scattered across it like stars against a desert sky. Her hair had been neatly combed and her face was washed cleaner than my camera lens. I took a picture and showed them the image. Now both mother and daughter were giggling.

My second attempt at making dosa is more successful. I have a large Tupperware dish full of batter in front of me. My instructions tell me that the batter should be "of thick pouring consistency." But what does thick mean? Peering into it, I see that the batter is full of tiny bubbles from the fermentation process. It smells awful, though, like the mustiness at the back of my closet. It does, however, seem to be of thick pouring consistency, so I grab a ladle and spoon a generous amount of the mixture onto my tawa. Things look good at first. I move the ladle in concentric circles to spread the batter out into a large flat disc. I dribble extra oil around the edges and in a few minutes the underside begins to look crisp. Wow! This is going to work. I give it another second or to for good measure and head on to the most intricate part of the process – the flipping. I edge my spatula under the outside of the dosa and it peels off from the tawa pleasingly. But as I make my way to the center, I realize that I have been thwarted. The middle is too soft and it is too late to go back. Before long, I have nothing more than a gnarled mess of uncooked batter lying at the bottom of my trashcan.

The longer I stay in India, the more I come to accept its social strata. Like heavily spiced food, if you are around it long enough, you come to forget its potency. During my first few days with my dance teacher, I was appalled by the lack of consideration shown to poor Kavya and her mother. I made up scenarios in my mind as to how they had come to be waiting hand and foot on this middle-class Indian family. Perhaps Vijay had bought them at the local market. Or maybe they had been kidnapped and the girl’s father was scouring the towns of southern India desperate for a sign that they were still alive. Kavya and her mother ate off and slept on the kitchen floor. They were the first to rise in the morning and the last ones to sleep at night. Each morning, I listened at 5 a.m. to the melodious sound of chanting coming from the nearby temples. It was Ramadan and the Muslims were exercising their vocal chords. The Hindus wanted to join in too and now there was a dual of religious song, which I probably would have slept through had it not been for the sounds of banging pots and pans from the kitchen below. The servants were already preparing food for the day. One morning I went downstairs early. Kavya was sleeping while her mother worked. She lay in the corner of the kitchen covered in a mass of blankets like a mummy. I knew it was her because the lump was so small. The dog started yapping at me and the lump moved ever so slightly. It was a relief to know she was still alive.

I lost interest in Kavya after that. Maybe it was because my dance classes demanded more of my attention or maybe because my guru realized the end of my stay was near and so was leading me on tours of the theatrical sights of Bangalore. But perhaps it was also because I was undergoing my initiation into the Indian way of life. Few here see servitude as a socially unjust custom. After all, the servants are given a roof over their heads, food to eat and clothes to wear. Many of them would be worse off if they were left to fend for themselves in the shanty homes that line Bannirghatta Road, the high-tech center of Bangalore’s fast growing computer industry, where beggars and child workers compete for space with BMWs and Mercedes. The servants would probably become shoe-shiners or trinket sellers or worse. Nevertheless, lose interest I did.

I finish dinner with Vishwa. His wife serves me filter coffee that was grown on the land directly outside the house. I compliment Vishwa on its taste and we say goodnight. It is only once I have retired to my room that I realize that Vishwa’s servants are mere shadows to me. The servant girl, who I mistook for the daughter of the house and who looks so like Kavya, does not hold my attention. During the remaining few days of my stay at the plantation, I converse happily with Vishwa’s family but do not give a second thought to his servants. Vishwa’s servant girl is just as cute as Kavya. Her origins are just as mysterious. Her lot is just as pitiful. Yet, I have become accustomed to my elevated status within Indian society. And I have accepted its implications. I am no longer a critic of the servitude system. I am part of it.

Dosa making attempt number three – I have developed a new strategy. Working on the basic principle that flipping the dosa is beyond my current abilities, I have decided to use the advantages that a modern kitchen can arm me with. I will cook the underside of the dosa as before, but rather than tempting fate with the flip maneuver, I will place the tawa under the broiler and cook the topside that way. Unfortunately, my plan does not result in success. Although the broiler does indeed do its job and I am able to pry the dosa from its skillet without the nasty sticking problem of my earlier attempt, it is thicker than an American pancake. So much for wafer-thin! It tastes good on the outside, which is crisp and brown just like in the pictures, but the inside is not cooked and the raw batter feels on my tongue like wet cardboard. Back to the batter board!

On my final day in Bangalore, my guru took me out for lunch in a fancy Andhra restaurant opposite the Kalekshatra, the main performance venue in Bangalore. My guru is a closet meat-eater. A strict vegetarian at home, she ordered tandoori chicken on the bone and chicken biryani. I went for the South Indian "meal," a selection of exquisite curries with curd and pickle, and we were both served our food on the traditional banana leaf. This was the last meeting with my guru. I had graduated from her five-day class and as a result, felt I could talk more frankly with her. Not wishing to offend, I broached the subject of her servants carefully. Where exactly did Kavya and her mother come from? It turned out that they were not purchased for the price of a stack of dosa and a jar of pickle as I had once imagined. Instead, their story is more human.

Kavya’s mother grew up in a village outside Bangalore, was married young to a local stud and they had a child together. Soon, however, the husband deserted her – no one knows why – and the mother was left alone with her daughter. The traditional Indian sati or ritual suicide for a widow works on the principle that a married woman without a husband has no life left worth living. Although the British outlawed this practice, the stigma attached to single motherhood means that my guru’s servant, with no prospect of a second marriage, would have lived a dangerous and poverty-ridden life if she had stayed in her village. My guru took her and Kavya in.

I will admit to being somewhat relieved on hearing this story. I had grown close to my guru and the thought that she was, in fact, scouring the countryside nabbing innocent women for her kitchen filled me with disappointment to say the least.

It is only when I am back in my cozy apartment in San Francisco that I realize the extent of my submersion in the Indian way of life. I realize that beyond my initial "What a beautiful daughter" comment, I had no interaction with Vishwa’s servant girl. In fact, I am ashamed to say that after that initial encounter, I recoiled from her and made a point to avoid her. I saw her around the house helping out Vishwa’s wife or clearing the plate that I had eaten off, but not once did it occur to me to ask her name or show her Indian dance gestures or take her photograph. As I sit here with my beautiful looking, successfully made dosa in front of me, I cannot help but think back to the plights of all those millions of servants in India. I do not know if they are happy to have a standard of living higher than those on the streets, or if they are secretly plotting to overthrow their masters, or if they simply do not think about such issues. All I know is that some of the most colorful characters that I met during my time in India were servants.

I break off a small piece of dosa with my right hand, dip it into the vegetable masala accompaniment and raise it triumphantly to my lips. It tastes perfect – just the right combination of crispiness on the outside and softness on the inside. With the spicy juices of the masala wetting my flesh like a really good kiss, I think back to India. I raise my second sliver of dosa in toast to Vishwa and to his wife, to my guru and her film actor husband, and to all their relatives. But most of all, I raise it to the two little servant girls who looked so alike but never knew one another. Maybe one day they will meet and share a dosa with each other and talk about me.


Jon Whittle is a scientist, writer and theater artist living and working in San Francisco. He is currently studying classical Indian dance which he will perform as part of his San Francisco Fringe Festival production, "Searching for God in Kerala," in September 2003. Jon will return to India next year with Karina Sliwinski to write a book about the obscure possession ritual, theyyam, that takes place every year in Northern Kerala. A short story on this topic can be found on the web site dweebproductions.org.

About Editors' Choice:
Every week we choose one of the great stories we've received from travelers around the world and present it here as our "Editors' Choice." For an archive of these stories go to the Editors' Choice link on The Flying Carpet; for more about the editors, see About Travelers' Tales Staff.


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