Friday, March 23, 2007

Cashew Cheese

Dear Blue Cheesers and Other Loved Ones,

(If you don’t feel like reading mouldy ramble, and you just want an idea of the space-time logistics of the next few months of my life, skip to the end.)

A couple days after I got home from an Ahmedabad/Udaipur/Jaipur/Delhi trip, I went for a scrounge through the yard around the house to see how it had changed in the weeks I was away. Mangos are only just starting (there are just a few — the yield gets smaller each passing year as our soil gets poorer), but cashews had already arrived before I left. So I expected a few cashews around the tree. But I didn’t think I would find a couple of kilos of nuts (unshelled).

I even found a couple of fruits without too many worm holes, so I peeled off the skin and sucked at the juice and chewed at the flesh (closest fruit to chewing gum, if you ask me) instead of twisting the nut off and throwing the fruit away. Most cashew fruits are either fresh enough to be juicy and difficult to tear from the nut (also, cashew juice stains your clothes. Urckh), but have already been well-nibbled by bugs, birds and bacteria, or they have shrivelled and dried, and just a flick dislodges them from the nut, but they’re nothing you’d want to put in your mouth.

I used to just think of the dry ones as easier to deal with. But I recently heard of a fellow who sun-dries cashew fruits, which are apparently very good for you, and now I think of him. He laments at all the fruits that are left to rot after the nuts are removed (I guessed he’d be psyched to go to Brazil and see the cashew juice you get everywhere.) Funny how things change. My granduncle tells me stories of how, as a boy, he would steal the fruits from a cashew grove and the owner would say, ‘Ok, just make sure you leave the seed’. Of course that’s what he could sell, not the fruit. But the boys would laugh at the fool who wanted the useless little things.

I’ve always loved cashew nuts. One of my favorite Indian sweets is kaju burfi (or kaju katli, kaju for cashew), the key ingredients of which are cashews and sugar. During my vegan experiment it became even dearer to me, because it usually doesn’t have milk, unlike most other commercially available Indian sweets (for vegans who ignore rumours of animal bones and whatnot used to process white sugar).

Then last year around this time, a few months after I had moved to my grandparent’s home here in Kerala, I finally encountered real live homegrown cashews (I’d never been around for the season). I collected them with my grandmother and sat with her to slice/bang open the thick hard skin to get to the soft insides. I smushed the first few, but soon learned to take them out whole, because otherwise the small smushed bits get lost when the lot is fried. They have to be fried because of the non-edible oil around them.

As we shell the nuts, this oil burns our fingers and leaves black skin that peels off over a few days. It doesn’t hurt, but feels scratchy and looks funny. (Apparently there’s some report that says the two most toxic/hazardous jobs around these parts are cashew processing and sand mining. But we mustn’t let this vague unsubstantiated half-information stop us from purchasing a kilo of kaju burfi or adding a second floor of conventional industrial architecture to our house.) After taking part in collecting and processing the cashews, they became dearer than dearerson to me. Imagine how many fingers are burned in some factory to give me just one piece of kaju burfi. Imagine instead if, as part of our education, we spent part of our time growing, gathering, processing and understanding the things we love most.

In February I spent a week at home between getting back from Nairobi and leaving for Ahmedabad. A day or two before I left for A’bad I sliced and scooped the small pile of cashews that had collected.
In February, during the week at home between getting back from Nairobi and leaving for Ahmedabad, I sliced and scooped a small pile of cashews. The dark burned skin appeared on my fingers a few days later during the 34-hour train ride to A’bad, and then started to peel. When I reached A’bad I wrote to my grandparents, on a yellow postcard (a flimsy low-budget thing which costs 50 paise and takes away only half of one side for the address so it lets you write a proper letter, far cooler than the other type, the plasticked tourist snapshot thing that costs a bomb and doesn’t let you write much more than, Dear Mom, With Love-), about the skin-peeling progress, and that I liked it because it was a sign of at least some minimal contribution to the household, although, of course, I was the one to eat most of the fruits of the labor, so materially I was contributing to myself, but I reason that my non-material non-measurable contribution is that my grandmother was happy to see the nuts of the house being appreciated by a child (my dad would probably say ‘nut’ should be used here too) of the house.

The reason I found so many nuts last week was because my grandmother hadn’t had time or energy to collect them. There’s only so much an 81-yr-young woman can do while taking care of a house and a 92-yr-young husband. As I stooped and scrounged and squeezed, I thought about the thing called Work.

In Nairobi the friend whose family I was staying with for part of the time was in financial difficulties. This didn’t stop them from showing generosity and hospitality (they took me in as their daughter) and general good cheer, but their financial situation was weighing on their mind. The father had lost his job a few months before and now went out for what they referred to as ‘cashew job’, which I took to mean whatever work he could find each day. They may feel ashamed, but I say it’s a perfectly respectable position to be in, as long as there is honesty in both the work and the life. But, of course, I have a Bachelor’s degree from Stanford, I can say pretty much whatever the heck I want.

In a conversation in A’bad, a soul-brother defined Work as the thing We do that only We can. I’ll add to that that it should also be valued by at least one other person (including non-humans), and should preferably do as little harm to others as possible.
Only I can wake up and spend an hour traipsing through our yard collecting a skirtful of cashew nuts, sucking the fruits along the way, and bring it back to a grandmother who won’t show it, but is secretly pleased. Only I can sit my bored grandfather down to pull drumstick leaves from their stalks (the ones my grandmother and I collected from the garden because she knows that my favorite food is whatever is grown at home and she won’t show it but she is secretly pleased) so that my grandmother can cook them for lunch, and while we pull leaves we listen to Bela Fleck and only I can laugh with and at my grandfather for thinking the music is from a village band outside the gate, waiting to see it pass, because his hearing is bad. Only I can go to Nairobi and Brazil and Madhya Pradesh and bring back the smells and the words and the wonders to my mother who can, at the very least, travel vicariously through me. Only I can play with my body and voice and words and come up with (be a channel for) dance-theatre performance projects called Navashwaasam, Silent Seeds, Shivataandavam, and hopefully now, an Invitation to a life of Yes!, which are, at the least, even according to others, pretty darn interesting and creative. Only I can write this letter cheese, and I’m pretty sure at least some of you dig it. For me, that all counts as Work.

Work is often confused with the Struggle to Survive, the fight to exist in which we forget to simply Be. It is often confused with any activity that brings in Money. It is often confused with the opposite of Play. Some of us (more than are willing to admit) are lucky enough to be miles more than surviving, so we have to invent our own Work, and pretend we’re not Playing.
Wandering, playful, jobless, unmarried, still a child though old enough to have one. Am I wasting my life, my education, my opportunities, my potential? Do I need to find some “Work”?

I’ll let you figure out what my answer is, what’s yours?

If my ticket comes through I’ll be flying, yes, flying again dammit, to Singapore (April 23-ish to May 3-ish) on the way to San Francisco. I’d like to connect with Stanford and kindred spirits in the rest of the Bay Area. I’d like to work my way down south to see a friend’s (Denali, for those of you know him) flute-friend and my soul baby sister (Deeya, for those of you who know her). I’d like to work my way up north to Seattle to visit Yes! magazine, and maybe Lost Mountain Observatory and Becca Hall. I’d like to work my way east to Atlanta, Georgia to volunteer for and attend the first United States Social Forum (yes, call me officially addicted to the phenomenon that is the Social Forum) in late June/early July. I’d like to work my way over to West Virginia to learn how to build by helping Denali build his parent’s house from June to September-ish. Denali and I would like to work our way, through flute, dance, and anything else, through land, sea, or air, back to India. And maybe by the time I die I’ll realize why this whole damn trip Absolutely Must Be.

If you want to connect with me in one of these body-mind-time-space coordinates, or know of a cheap earth-friendly way of getting from one of these coordinates to another, holler at me. And I’ll be traveling with my costume and bells and my brain and body, as always, so holler if you want to see one of the performance projects. Or if you want to involve me in a new one. And as always, if you don’t want these infrequent but ridiculous nonsensical emails, also, holler.

And to those of you who aren’t receiving the annual birthday greetings I promised, Happy Birthday, I still love you, I just suck at internet organizing.

Peace, love, cashews,
Ammu Mali Malavika Tara Mohanan

P.S. Four years ago today we filled the streets because four years ago yesterday the United States armed forces declared war on Iraq. Now today again we’re saying enough is enough, but this time around we ain’t the only ones. It’s Time. Happy 3/20. May the streets of your heart be filled with the dance of revolution.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

hi dear,
Its nice to know that you also love cashews, cashew fruits and kaja katli. Funny how things do not change. you can also try kaju anjeer barfi, a better version of kaju katli where anjeer replaces sugar making it healthier and yammmmiiiier. i tasted them at a sweet shop near mumbai. they must be more available in north india. try and get one or else do let me know so that i can make arrangement to send them 2 u.

loved ur imagination of spending part of our time growing, gathering, processing and understanding the things we love most. loved it sooo much that i m doing only that since birth.

i know that u know that yet Let me tell u though u r contributing to yourself, your non-material non-measurable contribution is quite worthwhile. About the thing called Work i have figured out my answer. THAT U DO is obviously valued by many like me(including non-humans), and does as much help to others as possible. And only you can do it.

Only you can play with your body and voice and words and come up with Navashwaasam, Silent Seeds, Shivataandavam, and now, an a life of Yes! For me 2, that all counts as wonderful Work in which we excell to simply Be. Wandering, playful, jobless, unmarried, still a child though old enough to have one. u r investing your life, education, opportunities, potential pretty well. pl carry on ur work ur way being u.

I’ll let you figure out what ur answer is
And by the time very soon u will realize why this whole damn trip called life is an Absolutely Must Be.

ofcourse i want to connect with u in one of these body-mind-time-space coordinates, And I’ll be waiting with my brain and body, as always, so holler if you want to share one of the performance projects. Or if you want to involve me in a new one.

And as i don't know ur birthday, Happy Birthday, I remember you with a lot of respect, I just suck at internet organizing.

Peace, love, cashews

9:10 AM  
Anonymous Phila said...

Keep up the good work.

2:21 AM  

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