"Keep working on a plan. Make no little plans. Make the biggest you can think of, and spend the rest of your life carrying it out." Harry S. Truman

Monday, April 28, 2008

A celebration of fusion

The previous post made me think about the word "fusion" and what it means.

I love it. I'm actually annoyed that I didn't think of it when I was trying to come up with a name for this blog. I'm not good with titles, and scribbling being such a huge part of what I am, I went for that. Besides, I kind of jumped into this blogging thing without a clear idea of where it would go. Now, a year later, I think that "Fusion Katia" would have sounded pretty good, too, and it would have been true as well. Maybe something to think about.

I first came across the term "fusion" - as it is used more and more, to indicate a mingling of cultures and expressions of cultures - when we moved to India and I went to a restaurant that offered a Fusion menu. Now, in India, the concept of fusion food remains a little tricky and will often be used to describe Western dishes prepared with an Indian twist ( read, a copious amount of chili - among other spices - thrown in, because in the mind of most Indians, especially in the south, eating food without LOTS of chili remains a concept they cannot really wrap their minds around. Same as totally dry food. To be good, a dish must be hot and swimming in sauce, which is called curry, here), and that "Indian twist" can make it hard to catch the dishes' original flavor. But that's only fair. After all, we ARE in India.

The concept of fusion doesn't apply to food, only, but to fashion, to art, music, etc. Maybe it is quite big, here, because India, before it became a nation, was composed of so many princely states, with numerous languages, cultures, and religions living side by side. There was always some sort of fusion, here and there. It is so much easier to become tolerant and open to others' ways of doing and thinking things when cohabiting with diverse ways of life. What is racism and xenophobia, after all, if not a fear of the different, of the unknown?

I always keep a very mundane example in my mind when dealing with a new, strange situation : the first time I ate Japanese food. It was in Paris, and I was in my early twenties. I shared a "chambre de bonne" with a friend - an 8 m² room with a shower in a cubicle and a toilet on the landing, at the top of an old bourgeois building. We dreamed of traveling far, but not having any money, we could only treat ourselves to a foreign restaurant once in a while ; discovering foods from far-away countries was our way of sampling another culture. When we went to that Japanese restaurant, I ordered Sushis, and when I tried the pickled ginger, I almost spit it out. I was totally unprepared for such a strong taste, and I remember that I gave all my ginger to my friend. I couldn't eat it. Nowadays, if I don't eat ginger once in a while, I crave it. I love the stuff. I make sandwiches with pickled ginger, and I use it a lot when I cook. My point ? I rejected the taste of ginger because it was so totally foreign to what I'd been used to. Thankfully, I did not give up on ginger and Japanese food ranks very high on my personal chart of favorite cuisines, if not at the very top.

Back to fusion. Extensive exposure to other ways of doing things is bound to attract some sort of fusion effect. While reading William Dalrymple's "White Mughals", set in Hyderabad, I was fascinated to learn that first the Portuguese, as early as 1510, after the conquest of Goa, and later the British who came to live in India, from the 17th until the beginning of the 19th Century, were very quick to mingle and adopt the local ways : they happily wore light cotton pyjama kurtas, smoked the hookah, ate Indian food, and married local women, had biracial children, etc, etc. The whole divisive, straight-laced attitude came later, with the Victorian era.

A quote from the book: "The success of the East India Company in its formative years depended as much on contacts across the lines of race and religion as it did on any commercial acumen, and to varying extents the traders, soldiers, diplomats and even the clergymen who ventured eastwards had little choice but to embrace the Mughal India. Nor should this tendency surprise us: from the wider perspective of world history, what is much odder and much more inexplicable is the tendency of the late-nineteenth century British to travel to, and rule over, nearly a quarter of the globe, and yet remain resolutely untouched by virtually all the cultures with which they came into contact."

Of course, wherever extremism and fanaticism raise their ugly heads, fusion has a hard time striving, and unfortunately, these scourges are here as much as anywhere else, in spite of India's long multicultural history. No matter. Fusion is out there, and I want to believe that it's there more and more, in spite of everything. And we ought to encourage it, and celebrate it everywhere we witness it.


Nandini said...

Dear Katia,
Well said :-)!!! Speaking from the perspective of a mainstream North Indian and a (spice in the melting pot) NRI ... I find people hold on so tight to their identity sometimes because they feel threatened by the unfamiliar. The mainstream and minorities both have their own insecurities. Wish everyone would just relax and let the flavors fuse. Like the story of the sugar in the milk – do you know that story? It’s about when the Parsis (Zoroastrians from Iran) first came to India seeking asylum. The King in Gujarat, where they landed, thought there wasn’t room in his kingdom for all these strange people. So he offered them a glass of milk, full to the brim, as a sign that there was no room for anyone else. The Parsis, after some discussion, put a spoonful of sugar in the milk, where it dissolved, and presented the glass back to the King. Point being, not only was their room for them, they would make the milk better. The King let them stay. May fusion flourish! Nandini

Katia said...

Hey, Nandini, yes I know that story and I love it. Indeed, it is a perfect example of the beauty and value of fusion. Thanks for bringing it to the forefront. And "may fusion flourish," indeed !