Sunday, January 24, 2010

Eric in Bengal

First a geography lesson for those who know as little of the geography of India as I do. "Bengal" sounds a lot to me like "Bangalore", and one might think these two places are related. In fact, Bengal is a large region in the east of India, adjacent to the boarder of Bangladesh, unrelated to and located quite far from the city of Bangalore. The metropolis of Calcutta is located in the state of West Bengal. I have just returned from a a week spent attending a professional meeting in West Bengal. From the Calcutta airport, it was a five-hour ride in a van, traveling 200 km southwest, to the meeting venue, a beach hotel in a village on the coast of the Bay of Bengal.

The village economy rests on fishing year round, and on beach tourism during the few months when it is neither too hot nor too cold to go to the beach. January is held to be cold for the beach but for the first few days of our meeting the village bustled with visitors from the nearby towns to the village's once-a-year fair, partly religious and partly commercial. Our conference overlapped with the last few days of this boisterous event. The weather was pleasant: dry, cool, and sunny. The beach hotel is actually located about 1.5 km inland from the beach to gain some protection from the cyclones that roar in from the Bay of Bengal (more about which in a future post.)

After the fair ended, the village emptied out. I went for a walk down to the beach along with a young scientist, a native of the nearby state of Orissa, who was back in the region to attend the meeting.

The village boasts an active boat yard, and there were four or five wooden fishing boats in various stages of construction, being worked on by perhaps a dozen men: one is a mere wooden skeleton, one has the planking complete along one side of the boat; one is completely planked and with a wheelhouse being erected on the deck; one is painted white and looking tidy, seaworthy, and ready to launch. The boats are larger than the lobster boats but smaller than the sea-going trawlers of the fishing fleets of my own home region. These boats looked like they might be manned by perhaps three or four fishermen. Looking at the boatyard as an economic enterprize, I noted that its owners apparently do not believe in tying up their capital in unnecessary infrastructure or inventory. There is no warehouse, no shed, no enclosing fence, not even a dock. Just a smallish pile of lumber, a few hand tools, and some saw horses. Each unfinished boat frame is held upright with a minimal, jerry-rigged wooden cradle, and there are some winches, perhaps for dragging the finished boats across a short stretch of mudflat to a tidal estuary that at high tide would be maybe deep enough to float the boats out to sea. I believe the boats are to be propelled by an inboard motor, but I saw no trace of that equipment. I wonder if those are installed elsewhere*.

*After writing this, I went and had a look at the boatyard on Google. In the "satellite" image, you can see what looks like four boats under construction, with an empty "slip" among them, although I think the slip is just a dent in the mud. When I visited, the river was much lower than in this image, and the surf much lower as well. I did not see the docks shown in this photo as I walked along BenFish Beach Rd. down to the beach. When I was there, the docks must have been partially disassembled or hidden behind the long low refrigerated warehouse you can see just south of the boatyard.

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The beach in the depth of the Bengal winter was all but deserted. The beach slopes very gently and at low tide it is hundreds of meters wide, and stretches for many kilometers into the distant haze in both directions. Scrubbed afresh by the tide every twelve hours, it was quieter, emptier and cleaner than any other place I've seen in India.

Thousands of tiny beach crabs dig their holes all along the beach. These crabs are nature's obsessive-compulsives. Each time they emerge from a hole with a freshly excavated lump of sand, they dont't toss it willy-nilly in a heap, but instead arrange the successive lumps in long rows running radially out from their hole. They carry the lumps on their hind legs, I think, and after several hours' of fussy labor, a crab may have eight or nine rows of sand lumps, each consisting of dozens of tiny lumps evenly spaced about every five millimeters, with the rows stretching out like the radial strands of a spider's web from the central hole. Then the tide comes in and washes the whole thing away, and the crab starts fresh.

When my colleague and I got back from our stroll along the beach, I stopped at a little stall set up just where the village's main street ends at the beach.

Ever since I got to India I have been working up my courage to buy a coconut (see photo at bottom of Celeste's post for the Bangalore version of the coconut experience) from a street-side vendor, and this stall in the shade of what was in fact a heavy-laden coconut tree seemed as good a place as any to try it. What followed was a ritual I have seen enacted all over Bangalore as well. The vendor selects a coconut from his pyramidal stockpile. Holding the coconut firmly in his hand, he grabs his knife (a machete-like blade, very sharp, hooked inward at the point) and, thwack, thwack, thwack, he cuts off slices from the tip of the coconut's fibrous hull, with each thwack going a little deeper until he opens just a penny-sized hole in the spherical hollow interior. He puts a new plastic straw in the opening and hands it to you, the customer. In coconuts I've bought from supermarkets, the milk has largely dried up, leaving only a few spoonfuls of thickened, sweetish fluid. In a fresh coconut, harvested young, the milk fills the whole interior, perhaps 300 cc in all. Sometimes the milk is even slightly pressurized, so that a little spritzes out when the nut is opened. The sweetness is only barely perceptible -- a really refreshing drink.

After you slurp the last of the milk, you hand the coconut back to the vendor. He holds the coconut in the palm of his hand and hacks with seeming abandon with his blade, right down through the center of the coconut, towards his palm. Were the coconut to split apart faster than he planned, the sinews and bone of his finger would surely offer less resistance to his blade than the tough fibrous hull. From one edge of the hull, he slices a chip, maybe five cm in diameter and just a few mm thick. This is your "spoon." He prises the split halves of the coconut apart, and uses your spoon to scoop the flesh from the interior of one half and add it to the other half. Then he hands you the half shell and the spoon. I'm accustomed to the flesh of coconuts being dryish, woody, and with a pronounced coconut flavor. The flesh of these street-side coconuts is instead silky in texture, like thick yoghurt or thin ricotta, with a very delicate taste.

When you are done, you toss the empty hull and spoon onto a towering pyramid of "empties." Of various street-side food and drink experiences you can have in India, a coconut consumed this way is one almost certain to be hygienic.

My colleague the Orrisan postdoc did not join me in a coconut cocktail that evening but instead told me the harrowing story of a time when the naturally sanitary nature of fresh coconuts helped save the lives of his family. I'll transcribe that story to this blog, in a few days.

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