Saturday, November 25, 2006

Opening a tin of salmon

For lunch today, I had salmon salad with tomatoes, cucumbers, onion and a lime & wasabi mayonnaise. Sounds impressive and wasn’t bad.

As a treat, I’d bought a tin of salmon in wasabi mayonnaise at the supermarket. I’ve only been to the supermarket about 4 times and I feel like a kid in a sweet shop whenever I do. I buy things I wouldn’t even look at twice in the UK, but, as mentioned before, the unremitting diet at RUHSA can cause extraordinary things to happen. On one visit to the supermarket, I became so overexcited at a tin of processed cheese, that the security guard thought I was planning a raid and nearly escorted me from the premises. I mollify myself with the thought that every Indian friend I have ever had cannot exist in England without chillis and curry, so I shouldn’t feel guilty for craving things that resemble stuff I might have at home every now and then.

It’s not that the flavours here aren’t good, it’s just that it seems to be a bit of a one trick pony. Rice or bread with soft vegetables or, occasionally, chicken, in a sloppy sauce – which looks much the same on entry as exit. I remember last time I was here, craving, from deep within my soul, crunchy boiled French beans, and even now (at home) they still have the power to truly excite me. My teeth long for crunch, my masseter muscles yearn for resistance, in short, I want something to bite into and make it worth while having teeth. Nothing in India really requires them. As it is, despite the amount of sugar consumed, most people here have fantastic teeth, perhaps its because they hardly use them. The vegetables dissolve in the mouth, the chicken pieces – which are anatomically pretty unrecognisable (I think the butcher just chucks a whole one up at the fan when it’s going round at top speed) - have barely a morsel on each piece and usually the best one can do is suck the juice off.

And everything has sugar in it; the bread, the tea, the coffee, the tin of salmon in wasabi mayonnaise. It’s not really surprising India has such a phenomenal rate of diabetes, I can feel my own pancreas is exhausted. Not only does everything contain sugar but it contains it in vast quantities. Every drink ordered comes with added sugar, even fruit juices like pineapple. I ask for everything without sugar, even fresh lime soda, which is not unreasonable to drink sweetened. Everytime I order it, I get the same reaction.

"Fresh lime soda, no sweet, no salt, plain, plain". I look at the waiter’s face. He hasn’t taken it in; it doesn’t register.
"No sweet, no sugar," I reiterate (otherwise it comes with an inch of sugar in the glass).
"Ok, ok," he says, "Little sugar."
"No. No sugar. Plain, plain."
"Ok, ok. Salt."
"No. No sweet. No salt. Plain, plain." Sometimes it comes plain. It’s a little ritual I shall miss when I’m home again.

Anyway, back to lunch. So, I was very excited at the prospect of my salmon salad. I had it all planned out. I would cycle to KV Kuppam and buy tomatoes, cucumber, maybe some mint and coriander and a few limes. I set off, waving like the queen (except she rarely uses a bike) to some of the many, many children who yell out "Hello, Madam" as I ride by (it’s going to be very strange being anonymous again, when no-one is the least bit interested in my passing) and ignoring the many, many men who, with balletic grace keep their eyes fixed on me as they ride past on their mopeds without a wobble, despite paying as much attention to the road ahead, as a 1940’s film star driving through a Hollywood backdrop.

I got to KV Kuppam and, without any effort, found tomatoes, cucumber, limes, onions, coriander and mint. I found great difficulty trying to find a tin opener. I went into a shop which sold tins and kitchen utensils and asked for a tin opener with a faintly hopeless air, as it was clear that no-one could speak English. And why indeed should they. I bet no Guildfordian in Robert Dyas on North Street speaks Tamil. Not even a flicker of understanding. So, I tried miming opening a tin. Despite my previous success on the Stage of India, this performance met with blank looks and Tamil mumblings followed by a questioning glance as he pointed at a water jug. Try again. This time I attempted drawing what I wanted. I drew a tin closed, a tin open and a tin opener. A look of dawning comprehension mixed with desperation passed over the shopkeeper’s face. He pulled out a wok. I gave up and went to the next shop. I was marginally more successful in conveying my needs, but no more successful in fulfilling them. I decided not to try and purchase a tin opener as it was exhausting me, maybe my friend would have one. Whilst doing a bit of sneaky Christmas shopping in a silver shop, I texted her. It turned out she didn’t have one either. The prospect of having salmon for lunch was rapidly fading, but as I was having a lovely time browsing through the extraordinary array of silverware, I sort of forgot about it for a bit. I was also beginning to draw a crowd.

When I finished choosing, the man in charge added everything up with one hand and opened new boxes of things to show me with the other, all the while chattering away in good English. Suddenly it dawned on me, I could ask him where to buy a tin opener.

"A tin opener?" he replied.

"Yes," I said, the tin of salmon beginning to drift back into reach.

He burbled to his wife for a bit in Tamil, and then suggested a shop I could find one.

"Could you write it down for me so I can show it in the shop, because no-one understands me when I ask for it?"

"No problem," he said, picking up a piece of paper and pen.

Meticulously, he wrote: T-I-N O-P-E-N-E-R.

There was a brief pause, before I couldn’t help myself saying "Yes, I can write it in English. Could you write it in Tamil?"

"Yes, yes," he said.

He put brackets around "TIN OPENER" and, somewhat confusingly, wrote underneath "TO OPEN BOXES". I persisted stubbornly and a little bit rudely, probably, but, having found myself in a similar situation in Barrow with a "Korean" interpreter, I was keen not to leave him with the impression I wasn’t fully conversant in my own language.

He was so kind and only wanted to help me, because he actually sent his wife or daughter off to try and find one in his own kitchen. She came back with a selection of articles, including a chisel and pair of pliers, which he assured me were perfect for opening a tin, especially if I could hit the chisel with a hammer. I didn’t like to say I had no hammer, nor refuse his assistance, so I cycled home with a bag full of vegetables, silverware and a selection of Black and Decker tools. You know what? The tin had a ring pull.


Anonymous said...

Dear Bel
This is Mouse. I love your story about the tin which I read to your godson-with-tonsilitis. I laughed alot and he smiled.
Great work, and let's have lots more stories in the 'Bel struggles humorously with language barrier unnecessarily' genre.
Love Mouse

Anonymous said...

That's one of the best entries yet! I can only imagine your face when he wrote in English. And God only knows what he thought of you, not being able to write your own language!