Usili fusilli beans and dill
If I cook it up will you eat it still?
Borne along by the swell and fall of life at 40+ with two kids and at least two jobs (but thankfully only one Verne), I’m often quite late to parties–even the Chennai ones happening around the corner from where I live.
This week, a friend re-introduced me to Krish Ashok, among whose many self-descriptions is the following from his Twitter profile: “Blogger, Columnist, Meme starter, Amateur Multi-instrumentalist, Podcaster, Madras liker, Crow lover, Jalsa & Jilpa, Paruppu Usili connoisseur.” Or this, from blogadda: “Krish Ashok is an anti-social, music loving philistine who is doing jalsa, showing jilpa, enjoying gilma, thinking about matter, vuttufying peter, sutthufying ooru and generally having gajabuja fun.”
If you’re a Tamilian (like I am) or a Chennaite (like I sort of am), then you’re getting all the allusions and expressions already and are probably smiling. But if you’re reading this post from any place else, it’s already not making sense, so let me get to it: think parody, remix, and general good-fun cultural foolplay, none of which will ever make sense unless you know what exactly is being parodified–which is the Tam way of saying, “that which is being made a parody.” Get it? Parodify. The -fy suffix makes a word a verb (think: nullify, mortify, glorify, gratify, clarify, and on). So you use it randomly, with English or Tamil words of your choosing and totally Chennai-fy your language.
Let the foolplay begin. With some good old-fashioned food play or what Ashok calls “Menusic.”
These are Ashok’s quite literal readings of restaurant menus. The first is set to the tune of Veṅkaṭeśasuprabhātam, or the hymn used to awaken the Lord of the Seven Hills in Tirupati; the second is very literally inspired by a reading of this menu at Tuscana Pizzeria in Nungambakkam in Chennai, and set to the tune of the Mahishasura Mardini Stotram which celebrates the Goddess Durga’s victory over the buffalo demon Mahisasura. Both epitomize playful irreverence. (Lyrics to the “Mozzarellasura Linguini Stotram” are below for chanting along).
Ai Funghi Linguini Foccacia Capellini Pizza Fettucine Lasagna Penne
Spinaci Bolognese Pesto Minestrone Cannelloni Porfirio Asparagi
Ravioli Spaghetti Alfredo Pescatore Fresco Pomodoro Tagliatelle
Tiramisu Arabiatta Farfalle Stagioni Calzone Gamberi Pepperoncini
Ai Frutti di Mare Quattro Formaggio Risotto con Pollo Paesana Roma
Napolitana Fagioli alla Checca Gorgonzola Gnocchi Carbonara
Now that you have an, er, taste of some of Ashok’s (damned popular) “Parodesi noise”–which you can read as paro-desi-noise, or with something between a thick Tam twang and an American-accented English, pardesi naais (=”Canines of foreign persuasion”)–I can no longer resist a little anthropologizing. What’s with all this parody remix stuff anyway?
Let’s get one thing clear: it’s nothing new. My father has been parodesifying for as long as I can remember. Hear his version of “Baa baa black sheep” here–a mashup of the nursery rhyme and the Carnatic kriti, right down to the kalpanaswaram; parody of everything.
And for as long as we can remember, we have been chanting such things like: Matriculation examination is a great botheration for the Hindu nation whose main occupation is cultivation.
Plus cracking jokes like: Dai! What state is half the size of Kansas? Arkansas. [pronounced Ara-Kansas; Code: in most South Indian languages, "arai" or "ara" means half]. ROTFL
But being the good TamBrahm (Tamil Brahmin) children that we were (until we grew up and married Reddy and Punjabi and white boys), we never ever made jokes about shlokams, stotrams, and other chants. That was just not funny. (Although I do remember one Aunty from way back when, who would sing some classical Carnatic songs backwards. That was apparently OK, and did not reveal the presence of Satan in anything).
We took our heritage seriously–so seriously that we’d do one of two things. We’d either embrace that old-world cultural ethos and embody the temple-going puja-making shloka-chanting Tam-speaking way of life that had been handed down to us in bits and pieces by parents who were themselves not sure of the words to Viṣṇusahasranāma. Or, we’d sit around in circles and ponder our historic privilege, cursing our backgrounds and our rituals and our superstitions and our parents, and cultivating self-loathing while studying Engineering and simmering puli kaachal in foreign lands. There were only two choices: to be or to reject.
A stage of life thing or a stage of culture thing, I don’t know which, but these days there’s a lightness that has crept into our negotiations of culture and identity. Equalized as consumers of culture, enabled by technologies that make everything easy, we can at last do it all: be, reject, and remix because we live in the 13th century, the 21st century, ChennaiNewYorkSanFranciscoLondonThoobai; speak Tamil-English-plus whatever else; throw pizzas on one side and cook thokku and sambhar on the other; and because mixing and mashing is just not just the reality of our inter-generational inter-cultural experience but the only way to make sense of existence in what is fundamentally an existential time-warp.
Ashok gets it right when he says that we’ll all grow up with memories that’re marked by technological experiences–those scratchy vinyl LP sounds, the feel of community on Facebook. Cultural production is always-already remix, but with the right tech tools it’s remix at warp speed.
As a result, our forms and personalities are evolving: consider this piece on the many forms of the TamBrahm maami (or Aunty figure) that manifest in Chennai. Add Krish Ashok’s special for iPhone 4S “Siri Mami” to that list. Maamis are globetrotters and not technophobes, be sure about that–at once exemplars of how tradition adapts to the modern, and the very voices of our cultural consciences.
Put it together, and it’s one solid Readers’ Digest throwback that would do our parents and mamis proud: Laughter is the Best Medicine.
Interestingly enough, and no matter how much anyone plays with the “TamBrahm” as cultural form or eats tacos and tortellinis, we still love our rasams and our paruppu usili. Parody is parody, but food is food. What becomes of paruppu usili when it’s mashed with fusilli on a plate isn’t funny, it’s chi! yucky. Thair sadam [curd-rice] is going always to be thair sadam, no matter the variations with dill and pomegranate seeds. So we remain food purists even while eschewing vegetarianism and eating Peruvian and learn to make lehyams [Ayurvedic concoctions made of medicinal spice combinations] from our grandmothers, the original TamBrahm maamis, before they’re not around to tell us the recipes any more. When it comes to food, it’s the form that takes the parody, not ultimately the substance.
But it’s great that way–we get to have our fun and eat it, too.