Saturday, May 28, 2016

Flight of the Mynah

A Mynah Bird, much like the one I saw in a bush outside my window that morning.
Photo by _paVan_ at Flickr. Used by Creative Commons license 2.0.
This is another hastily written, last-minute blog written in the the wee hours that the gods made for writers. I fooled myself for a while into thinking that if I just fooled around tonight with the media—YouTube, the History Channel, Netflix, the Playstation—that an idea would strike me with the force of a sledge hammer, but of course inspiration doesn't happen that way. I have to let go and open myself to the opportunities that present themselves (similarly to how one receives a passage from the I Ching). You would think that I have to go through that process only once or twice to remember that I have to go directly to the paper (or the keyboard & screen) and do the vein opening and bloodletting, but the process of denial also seems to be part of the process.

In the way of letting go I fired up a tab on the browser pointed to Amazon Prime music, and rather than foraging about the music lists like a picky eater rakes through his peas, a Steely Dan Prime Station quickly presented itself at the top of the page, so I opened it. That led to Gerry Rafferty's "Baker Street," which I've always related to in a rather nostalgic way, followed by Donovan's "Atlantis," another old favorite. What these have to do with Steely Dan is a mystery to me—I love Donovan's touches of Scottish burr in the line "Across a short strait of sea miles"—but I suspect doctoral candidates in psychology at some great university have found some electronic algorithm by which they can quantify certain qualities in the music—among which the tempo is only the simplest beginning—to hypothesize that if I like Song A I will also likely enjoy Songs B and C. Then they bring on the guinea pigs, the undergraduates from around campus who are always ready to earn some beer money by embedding electrodes in their flesh and answering silly questions for incipient psychologists. Getting paid for listening to songs and rating them on the American Bandstand scale of 1 to 10 in the Psychology Department must be a #1 hit job. How about Marshall Tucker Band's "Fire on the Mountain"—those songs of family, loss, tragedy, foolhardiness and last-minute gambles built on slender hope, all sung with an unaffected southern drawl, always pull at my heart threads. I cry at almost anything sad these days. I don't know why. Dire Straits, "So Far Away," another sad one. Then Steely Dan's Aja, brings Asia to mind—a sleight of the homonym: the song seems to be more about fad and follies in California, a constant theme in Steely Dan lyrics, than about anything Asian, the line about "Chinese music always sets me free" notwithstanding.

The image of a Mynah bird randomly pops up from a pile of favorites that I keep in my mind like a photo album. Fresh out of bed in my teacher's apartment at a boarding school in Coimbatore, looking out the window onto the fabulously landscaped grounds, I find myself looking eye to eye with the Mynah. For a few seconds that bird and I commune. The Mynah bird indulges in looking me in the eye, a vision across species, across evolution, and across history before it takes that instinctive leap into flight and safety.

A woman strikes a piñata in the traditional fashion at a celebration.
Photo by Kitty Carmichael, who makes it available under the
Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication.
Then, as it leaps and flies away, a mental piñata shatters and showers idea candy all across my thought space. I realize I'm accustomed to seeing Mynahs only in captivity, as pets, but now I've just seen one in the wild. So how did the Mynah get from this garden in Tamil Nadu to a cage in a hardware store in Texas where I first saw it? Then scanning across the garden I see all sorts of plants like the Morning Glory, which also grows wild here, and one that looks a lot like the Oleander Bush (but which Wikipedia tells me is different though related and equally toxic).

Harry Nillson. Coconut.

Although the British had gardens long before they came to India, their ideas on gardening and certainly the botanical range of their domestic gardens were profoundly influenced by Indian gardening and the native flora of India and other colonies. Enjoying its golden age during the long reign of Queen Victoria, the Empire cast a wide net across the globe, and the British harvested all the best that the world had to offer.

The backbone of empire is trade, and the backbone of trade lies in habit-forming and addictive substances. For the British this included tea, sugar, liquor, coffee, tobacco, and opium. (For the Americans now the commodities of empire include heroin made from Afghan opium and cocaine from the coca plants of Colombia, Peru, and Bolivia, for which it has utterly devastated the security of nations from the Rio Grande to the Andes.)

Robert Fortune
A Scottish botanist named Robert Fortune brought dozens of plants out of Asia to Europe. The Chinese demanded payment for tea in silver, and as the British began to run out of silver to buy tea, they pushed opium onto the Chinese, for which they likewise demanded payment in silver. The Chinese vainly tried to throw the foreign devils' drugs out of the country during two opium wars fought against the British and American navies and during the Boxer Rebellion. But ultimately, tea having established itself firmly as a British staple, the Chinese tea monopoly had to be broken. According to James Clavell's historically accurate novels about the British experience in Hong Kong and in the treaty port zones of China where foreigners were permitted, the British managed to find an unethical Chinese trader who sold them tea seeds. Robert Fortune took multiple trips disguised as a Chinese into the tea production regions, observed how the leaves were processed so that they eventually became the product used to brew tea. Fortune eventually brought 20,000 plants and "a group of trained Chinese tea workers who would facilitate the production of tea leaves" (Wikipedia) to Darjeeling, India. Fortune's initial efforts failed, but eventually Darjeeling became the center of a British-controlled tea production region that was free of Chinese demands.

Like that Mynah that wound up in a cage in Texas, tea found its way from China and Darjeeling to my grandparents dining table. The Texas summer is not conducive to hot drinks, and in the winter they drink coffee: among old school Texas culture hot tea carries a homophobic connotation, which is why Texas A&M people call University of Texas people "tea sips"—not that UT is a gay cultural center, but because it has an egg-headed intellectual reputation as opposed to the earthy engineers, farmers, and corpsmen of the university in College Station. I remember the ritual of sweetening tea at the beginning of every meal when we visited my father's parents.

Won't Get Fooled Again.

This photo used under the terms
of the GNU Free Documentation
License, Version 1.2 or any later version
At my grandparents' table we would each add to our tea about two teaspoons of that white highly addictive substance—another commodity of the Empire—and then squeeze the juice out of a wedge of lemon before dropping it into the tea where it danced with the ice cubes. Most sugar in Texas before 1960 (and much even still) was produced in Sugarland, which first depended upon slave labor, but as former black slaves were liberated and eventually fled the still nightmarish agricultural fields of Texas and the South, prison labor was phased in to replace the slaves. Neither labor force enjoyed the relative paradise of Gone with the Wind—both the slave forces and the prison laborers were highly regimented and overseen by strict white men armed with shot guns. (Interestingly enough, the Wikipedia entry on Sugarland completely glosses over the shameful barbaric practices that brought sugar in from the fields to the presses.)

So imagine this, the Mynah Bird tells me through that piñata of ideas: my brother and I, our parents, my dad's parents, maybe an aunt and uncle or two with their kids are drinking infusions of a plant that the British, no matter how ingeniously, stole from the Chinese, which is then sweetened by sugar cane, another product wrested out of Asia and cultivated by colonial and slave labor on British plantation in the Caribbean until it reached Sugarland, and this stuff has virtually no real food value, but is harmful, behavior-altering, addictive, and extremely difficult to avoid:"Sugar is found in 74% of packaged foods sold in supermarkets" (SugarScience). I still find the history of how that tea got to the table intriguing despite the morally dubious acquisitiveness of my race.

Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is? Chicago.

My mother's parents did not buy ice because they were too poor, though, by the 1920s and 1930s of my mother's childhood, icehouses were commonplace. Before electricity, people kept food chilled in ice boxes, and the ice in those boxes was either delivered by or purchased from an icehouse. Icehouses began appearing in the 1880s, so they had been around since my father's parents were born. Icehouses slowly evolved into convenience stores like 7-11.

Another Texas food custom that might seem peculiar to outsiders is garnishing beans with a sweet relish called chow chow (not to be confused with the breed of dog). William Grimes's Eating Your Words defines chow chow as "a Chinese preserve of ginger, orange peel, and other ingredients, in syrup," which is great because it's easy to imagine a plausible story: the British tried the original chow chow as a relish in Asia, liked it, and adapted it to suit their own situations. Ginger and orange peel were not readily available on the Texas frontier, so we can imagine chow chow devolving into the simple diced sweet pickle relish that we have today. What surprises and disappoints me is that we didn't take on chutney as well. You can of course buy it in any supermarket today, but it's for people who are bravely cooking Indian food at home. Indian Chutney did not integrate itself into Texas cuisine the way Chinese chow chow did—it's easy to imagine that it could have: "Want some chutney on your brisket there, partner?"

Legend of a Mind. Moody Blues.

Good night. Game of Thrones tomorrow.