Ramzan Walks

Seven Arabic years ago, when I was still vegetarian, and a rather squeamish one at that, a friend had regaled me with stories of going on a “meat walk” on Mumbai’s Mohammad Ali Road, savouring delicacies (I took his word) like ox’s tongue and cow’s udders. It was Ramzan, he said, and it was the time of the year when delicacies which were otherwise hardly available would make their way to the markets. He was going to make it an annual ritual to “do the meat walk”, he had said. I’m not sure about him, but I know that people who accompanied him on that walk do make it a point to repeat it annually.

I might have documented elsewhere about my transition to a carnivore back on our vacation to Greece two summers ago. At a streetside cafe there, the vegetarian stuff looked insipid while the meat looked succulent, and I converted. “If I’m to lose my religion I’ll lose it completely”, I had decided and started my meat eating career with some beef souvlaki. In the intervening two years (mostly in the last one year), I’ve tried several species, and nothing makes me queasy in terms of the source of my food – though I might change my mind after I complete the holiday I’ve been planning to the Far East.

My first “Ramzan walk” was in Bangalore two Arabic years ago. These walks (in each city) have their own ritual to it. In Bangalore, it starts at Albert Bakery on Mosque Road in Frazer Town, then proceeds across the road to Fatima House where they procure Haleem (flown in daily from Hyderabad). Then round the corner on to Madhavaswamy Mudaliar Road for some kebabs and then across that road for chaat and kulfi. I’ve done the exact ritual twice over already, and have quite enjoyed it (though the first time around I didn’t get down to eating Albert’s famed Brain Puffs). But people had so far told me that I hadn’t done “the real thing” until I did a similar Ramzan Walk on Mohammad Ali Road.

So this evening I made amends to that particular deficiency in my meat eating career. A bunch of people from my client’s office were planning their annual visit to the famed road for this evening, and I tagged along. I write this on a sugar high, after having stuffed myself with sweets through the evening.

The waiter at Tawakkal Sweets, off Mohammad Ali Road, reminded me of the priests at Mantralaya (of the Raghavendra Swami fame, in Andhra Pradesh). Priests and temple officials in Mantralaya are famed for their “maDi”, and their way of keeping themselves clean is by not touching anyone. So you have this ritual where one of the monks there gives you a stole, but in which he throws it over you from about a feet above your shoulders to prevent touching you. I don’t know if the waiter at Tawakkal had similar constraints in terms of keeping himself clean, but he kept plonking our sweets from about a few inches above the table, just enough to make sure that the Mango Malai (something like mango souffle with condensed milk) didn’t arrive on the table perfectly set. But I’m sure I ate more than my fair share of the Malai that arrived at the table, thus giving me the sugar high, which persists.

In Kannadiga Brahmin functions, I’ve never understood the concept of adding plain (unsweetened) milk to the sweet obbatt (aka hOLige). “Why add something that is not sweet to a sweet dish”, I’ve reasoned. After tonight I begin to suspect that the concept of obbatt with milk is borrowed from Malpoa with Malai. I used to think that the Malpoa is something like the “kajjaya”/”athrasa” but here at Tawakkal and elsewhere it seemed like a reconstructed French toast – where wheat flour is mixed with eggs and sugar to make a batter that is deep fried. And it is served with unsweetened thick cream – which perhaps my ancestors adopted as obbatt with plain milk. ┬áIt is possible that all my previous encounters with Malpoa have been at vegetarian sweet shops, and hence the absence of the egg.

We wouldn’t be done after the Mango Malai and the Malpoa. There was still space left for food in our stomachs and sugar in our blood streams for us to eat mango phirni (kheer made with mashed rice and mangoes). And it wasn’t even the first time in the day that we were eating sweets. The Mumbai equivalent of Albert bakery is the brightly lit Suleiman Usman Bakery, with boards everywhere claiming it has “no branches”. Except that round the corner at EM Road (perpendicular to Mohammad Ali Road) there are at least two other shops which call themselves “Suleiman Usman Bakery”, and which too prominently display that they have no branches.

We began the meaty part of our walk at EM Road (the one with the two Suleiman Usman Bakeries (with no branches). To celebrate the occasion of the holy month, the street was extremely brightly lit, and shops had put out makeshift tables and chairs under a canopy on the road to accommodate the extra crowds (normally, like at other Muslim establishments, food is cooked at the entrance but served inside the shop). Maybe to add to the effect they had strung up what looked like pieces of chicken in psychedelic colours, and for further effect, displayed cages with little chicks even!

Chicken has taken over the world. Traditionally, Muslim establishments are known for their mutton, and sometimes beef. In certain circles (again primarily Muslim) it is considered beneath establishments to offer chicken. But this particular establishment on EM Road only seemed to serve chicken, apart from the odd mutton dish. It’s not really worth writing home about. And the lack of a regular menu means that people who look like tourists are likely to be overcharged.

Soon we were back on Mohammad Ali road for the main course, which was at Noor Mohammadi. Nalli Nihari was consumed with Tandoori Roti and onions, and washed down with Thums Up. This is one of those old style establishments, and one that doesn’t get bells and whistles for Ramzan. There is this ancient Hussain painting hanging on the walls, and next to that is a large board with the menu. Service was quick and efficient and one was reminded of Bangalore’s Vidyarthi Bhavan as the waiter pronounced the bill without much thinking and with great accuracy.

I’ll probably do a formal comparison after I experience Fraser Town sometime later this month, but in terms of sheer numbers (of people) and atmosphere, Mumbai definitely trumps Bangalore. In terms of food, though, I’m not so sure. Those little paper plates of kebabs you get in that corner shop across the Mosque on Madhavaswamy Mudaliar road seem much better than anything Mumbai serves up. But then, your mileage might vary.

Extending the studs and fighters theory

In a seminal post written over a year back, I had classified people into two, based on their working styles. I had called them “studs” and “fighters”. Studs, I had argued were people who had the knack of finding the easy way out. Who liked to work around corners, and find short cuts. And who would try to do things in as efficient a manner as possible.

Fighters, on the other hand, were supposed to be extremely meticulous, and process-oriented, and extremely hardworking. They would make up for their lack of natural talent by way of sheer hard work, and would be extremely determined in order to achieve their goals.

Today, thanks to a shared item on Google Reader by JP, I came across this article in The New Yorker. It talks about how humans get insights. The article talks about the process, or the lack of it, that leads to people getting insights. A large part of the article is a bit technical, and talks about a lot of biology. But if you can navigate through that, it offers a lot of insights on what goes into insights, and what might be needed in order to think in this sort of manner.

One major idea that is presented in this article is that insights are usually developed by the right half of the brain (for right-handed people), while most process-oriented stuff and calculation takes place in the left half. The article argues that in order to leave ourselves open to more insight, we need to take care not to focus too much of the problem. It also explains that you are likely to get your insights when you are least expecting them, such as when you are playing table tennis.

Ok, so going forward on these two lines of thought, I argue that “studs” and “fighters” can be extended to learning styles rather than as just working styles. It is the way in which the two categories of people understand things. Studs, I believe, are the people who tend to get most of their understanding by way of insights. People who are unable to put a finger on the process by which they learn a particular thing. Because of this, their thought is so unstructured that it is difficult for them to precisely and correctly follow processes.

Fighters, on the other hand, get their understanding incrementally, by following a process. They build up their understanding bit by bit. Slowly but surely. They are inherently left-brained people, and because their learning style is so processed and orderly, they thrive in orderly environments. Where all you need to do is to come together and go through a process. They are willing to work hard. They don’t mind if what they are doing is not insightful (partly because they experience insights so rarely). And thus lead low-volatility lives.

One other important insight from this article is that you are not consigned to a career in liberal arts or related fields if you are a right-brained person, as a number of people would like to convince you. Popular belief is that people who are good at math are inherently left-brained, and those good at languages are inherently right-brained. And that the paths for these people are disjoint. And they should stick to what they are good at.

However, what you might want to infer from this article is that all that it means by being right-brained is that you survive on insights. And that you are more likely to be a stud than being a fighter. The old school used to say that engineering is for the left-brained because they saw engineering as being process-oriented. And they saw the liberal arts as being insight-oriented. However, there are enough instances to show that the complementary skill is also important in both kinds of fields. You need studs in engineering, for if everyone would just follow the processes, there wouldn’t be anyone to think out of the box and come up with new stuff. You do need fighters in the arts, for on many occasions it’s a sheer execution game.

In any case, I would advise you to go read the article. It’s longish, but offers important insights. And if you think you are an insight-driven person, as I think I am, it might help to show this article to your bosses, and explain to them that making you focus may not exactly be the best thing to do in the interest of the firm.