Monday, September 12, 2011

9/11: In Remembrance

When a moment of personal triumph or grief finds resonance in a public one then it acquires a different dimension. Ten years back, on 12th September morning I was travelling in Rajdhani Express from New Delhi to Calcutta. I was too engrossed in myself. I knew for sure that a chapter of my life had ended but did not know what lay ahead. Excited chatter of my co-passengers forced me to come out of my reverie and grab a newspaper. The headline read “Thousands killed in terror attack in New York” - it took a very long time to sink in. It took me another few hours to reach home and see the most dramatic moment ever recorded in the history of television in this planet. For reasons completely unconnected with 9/11, New York had already become a part of my daily existence.
Throughout history, residents of every city on the verge of capitulation must have felt a terrible agony. Yet some of these falls have been more earth-shattering events than the others. Fall of Rome to “barbaric” tribes in 476 AD was seen by contemporaries as a victory of darkness over civilization. Exactly the same sentiments were echoed in 1453, when Constantinople fell to the Ottomans – it was widely believed (not completely acceptable today) that this fall triggered an exodus of ancient wisdom from Byzantium to the cities of Western Europe, thus providing the much needed spark for the Renaissance. Similarly the sack of Baghdad by Mongol forces under Hulagu in 1258 was described as a moment of unacceptable destruction of ancient heritage – when the Tigris was turned into a river of black ink as all the famed libraries of Baghdad were emptied out there. There were many terror attacks in different parts of the world – before and after 9/11, yet 9/11 is the most spectacular terror attack ever recorded in human history.
Since 9/11, experience of air travel has changed completely. As a famous commentator wrote recently, makers of security apparatus are the main beneficiary of our growing sense of insecurity. In India there has been a tremendous boom in the business of security agencies (rest of the world buys more instruments and in India we deploy more security guards – human life is cheaper here than a body scanner). It has also spawned a growing cottage industry of security experts, Af-Pak specialists complete with mind-boggling advances for their latest tome on genuine inside stories of Jehadi organizations.
USA launched an assault on Taliban regime in Afghanistan in 2001 itself and today after 10 long years victory is nowhere in sight. President Bush launched a war on terror, famously warned all of us that either we are with him or with “them” and after Afghanistan invaded Iraq in search of elusive WMD (weapons of mass destruction). When we try to think about it a series of photographs come to our mind – Saddam Hussein captured like a rat with his mouth agape, of tortured Iraqis in Abu Ghraib and hooded prisoners of Guantanamo Bay, suicide bombing and helicopter shooting of journalists – in most conservative estimate at least 2 lakhs people have died in these two countries directly from this war on terror. Not to mention millions of refugees and broken lives and families. US troops have now exited Iraq but the country is far from peaceful. Earlier this year, in its biggest success so far, US forces managed to finally kill Al Qaeda Chief Bin Laden in Abbottabad, Pakistan. But still the threat of terror looms large everywhere. As a direct result of these wars, today USA is the most hated country to the Muslims around the world – an image, despite President Obama’s repeated insistence that the US is not against Islam, is not likely to change in near future.
In 2001, ten years after the fall of the Soviet Union, USA was the lone super power and its domination of global politics and economy was absolute. The war on terror cost the US tax payers more than $3 trillion so far and it is going to go up further (Stieglitz et al). As Washington focused more on war, US economy began to slide. Ultra low interest rate regime and housing bubble masked the deep rot. More than 2001, New Yorkers today would perhaps more dreadfully remember a certain Monday in September 2008, when they saw iconic US financial institutions melting into nothingness. By 2021, China would surpass USA as the biggest economy in the world. For much of its existence, USA avoided military conflicts to focus on economy – even during the Cold War economic strength was never neglected – in the last 10 years, they have completely forgotten their age-old credo. If a future historian has to see 9/11 as the starting point of a trend, then that would inevitably be the beginning of the end of US economic hegemony.
2001 was a terrible year for India too– the litany of disaster started with the Bhuj earthquake on 26th January and ended with the attack on Indian Parliament on 13th December. We believe only in placing floral wreaths in remembrance and not in sincere actions. After 2001, USA created its department of Homeland Security and they have so far been able to ensure that no terror attack takes place in the US. If there is a single lesson for India in the events of 9/11, then it should be this example in prevention of disasters. But as long as we fail to put premium on the life of each and every Indian citizen, we will not be able to achieve that.
Standing in lower Manhattan, I got this feeling that I was at the capital of the world and I knew I was not alone in experiencing that. More languages are spoken in this city than anywhere else in the world, you would find food and culture of every part of the world thriving in some corner of this metropolis, everyday market movement and investment decisions made in NY make or break fortune of nations… is the dream city of every immigrant…..every idea and innovation finds home in this city. For a decade now, my work day starts with checking New York Times headlines and weather updates of NY-NJ and ends with checking Dow and Nasdaq late night. New York is the ultimate metropolis of dream, which could so easily have been my home too. People around the world share such sentiments and that is how an attack on the Big Apple was felt as an attack on our collective conscience. Even as we blame our soft state, ineffective security agencies, how many of us actually feel that an attack on Mumbai or Delhi is an attack on the idea of India itself?

Friday, September 2, 2011

Ice Ice Baby

There are some people like my wife, who live solely because there is a treat called ice cream in this world. Recently during our visit to Ahmedabad, which could easily be described as the ice cream capital of India, I was amazed to see the craze for ice-cream – of every shape, colour and flavour. It was even more amazing to think that ice creams – as we know it today – arrived here just a century back! Cold desserts in many avatars are known to mankind for a long time. Ancient Babylonians, Romans and Chinese used to pour fruit juices over crushed ice. The process of cooling a mixture using salt petre, to make something akin to ice-cream was discovered in China. The Arabs perfected the recipe of flavouring milk with dry fruits, cinnamon etc and then cooling it at freezing point using salt petre. By tenth century, such ice creams - actually more like Kulfis - were sold in all major cities in the Arab world. Western tradition says Marco Polo brought ice cream to Italy from China – like many other legends associated with Marco Polo – this one is also doubtful. The French learned the secret of flavoured ice - Sorbet - in the early 16th century when Catherine de Medici married Duke of Orleans and brought Italian chefs with her. By the end of the 16th century, flavoured ice was a much-preferred royal treat in Europe.
In the 18th century, we come across the recipe of modern ice-cream for the first time. Availability of ice in summers through import from Scandinavia and prosperity of Victorian Britain helped in experimentation. Still the difficulty of large scale production and refrigeration restricted the appeal of ice creams. In Britain Carlo Gatti opened a shop selling ice cream outside Charing Cross station in 1851. Several manufacturers started selling ice creams from their shops or carts making it available to general public for the first time. But the lady, who changed the complexion of the industry in Britain, was Agnes Marshall. Mrs Marshall, who wrote four famous recipe books dedicated to ice creams, came up with a portable hand-cranked machine to make ice-cream easily. She is also credited with the idea of serving ice-creams in edible cones. Apart from selling ice-creams, she also started selling machinery for ice-cream making. Mrs Marshall for the first time came up with the idea of using liquid nitrogen to make ice cream (the idea came to her after attending a lecture at Royal Society). When she died in 1905, rights of her recipes were bought by famous Mrs Beeton and thus, it became part of the most famous recipe book in British culinary history.

Of course, the Americans believe they invented true ice cream. Quakers introduced flavoured ice treats in the New World. Leaders like Washington, Jefferson, Franklin regularly used to enjoy ice creams. In 1843, Nancy Johnson of Philadelphia was issued a patent for a hand-cranked ice-cream maker. Throughout 19th and 20th century, a whole range of innovations in ice-cream right from sundae to banana split to dots took place in the states, not to mention top brands like Ben & Jerry or Haagen-Dazs. Improvement in refrigeration technology from 1870s is the single most important factor, which made ice-cream accessible to all.

In September 1833, an American ship named Tuscany arrived in Calcutta. The most unusual cargo carried by this ship ensured a rousing reception. Tuscany brought ice blocks from lakes near Boston. This is for the first time shipment of pure ice reached India. Since that first arrival, every time an ice ship landed in Calcutta for next 50 years, its arrival sparked off spontaneous celebration in Calcutta’s White town. The crew in 1833 was presented with a silver cup by Governor General William Bentinck and the owner was instantly granted a monopoly of ice trade in Calcutta, Bombay and Madras. Ice was declared a duty-free good and Calcuttans pooled their own resources to build a modern ice house close to the river. Similar ice houses came up in Bombay and Madras too. Madras is the only place out of these three cities, where the original ice house still stands – Swami Vivekananda once stayed here and in his memory this building located right on the sea beach has now been converted into a museum.
The man behind this unusual venture was a Boston businessman, Frederic Tudor. He had earlier exported ice to some places in the USA and nearby tropical islands but the business failed miserably. He was persuaded to send ice to Calcutta by another businessman, who was eager to import tea and other stuff from Asia but had to send an empty ship every time. Ice trade was fairly common in Europe. It may be difficult to believe today but till around 1950s, Britain used to regularly import ice from the Scandinavian countries. In fact one can still see remnants of underground icehouses almost all over the continent, where large blocks of ice used to be stored for use in summer. But sending ice from Boston to Calcutta was an altogether different matter. Tudor came up with significant innovations to ensure that a large part of his cargo survives nearly 5 month long sea voyage. He decided to cut ice in rectangular blocks of equal size and then pack them so closely that air could not pass through them, he designed special insulation chambers and covered ice blocks with pine dust, which was a bad conductor of heat but fragrant. This way Tudor managed to keep a large part of his cargo intact throughout this long journey.
Till Tuscany arrived in Calcutta, the only thing close to ice was Hooghly slush – they used to store boiled water in earthenware on riverbank and the cooling effect used to produce thin films of ice. It is generally believed that the Mughals brought Kulfi to India. Kulfi was frozen by using salt petre. Was Kulfi a commonly available treat in those days? Unfortunately I could not find any reference to that. Abul Fazl has mentioned in the Ain-i-Akbari that everyday a boat laden with 10-12 blocks of ice used to arrive at Lahore from the hills for Akbar. Perhaps there was a similar system to bring ice to Agra or Delhi as well. Till well into the 19th century, rich households used to have special servants, known as aubdars - it was their responsibility to ensure that drinks are stored properly and served chillled. Their normal practice used to be cooling down water using sal petre and then wrap bottles with wet clothes.
For around fifty years from 1833 ice trade was a thriving business. Tudor, who was neck deep in debt in 1833, died a multi-millionaire. In 1879, Bengal Ice Company established the first plant in India to produce artificial ice – very quickly artificial ice business spread to other cities and towns, particularly to upper India. Soon, every town came to have a Barfkal of their own. Modern ice creams became available in Indian cities – particularly at hotels and clubs - at the turn of the century. In the 1930s, ice creams were no longer a novelty for upper class children in metro cities like Calcutta and Bombay. Today un-branded push carts of our childhood have yielded to ice-cream parlours and multinational brands launch Indian flavours, prominently displaying a green dot!