Toast and the Brahmin pundit
Purushottama Bilimoria, PhD is Visiting Professor at the University of California at Berkeley.
He has held fellowships at Oxford University, Harvard University and Shimla University, India.
Professor Bilimoria’s research and publications cover classical Indian philosophy, comparative ethics, traditional Indian moral codes of conduct and Indian legal systems and jurisprudence.
In her sparkling and effervescent reminisces of ‘the ghosts of toasters past‘ (the Downton Abbey’s New Toaster article) the Honorable Lady Arabella Plumer-Erskine recalls a bygone era.
Lady Arabella reminds me of a certain type of British person that one used to find when traveling in India. In a certain way – perhaps due to her unique views on what seem like the most trivial of matters – she also reminds me of a Brahmin pundit I once met on my travels.
This Brahmin seemed also to go on about something seemingly inconsequential – in this Indian pundit’s case it was the need to have some toast. Trivial? Perhaps… or perhaps it is also profound. Perhaps the trivial and the profound can coexist? That appeared to be the aspiration of this quirky, quintessential Brahmin pundit – here is the story of how I met this Brahmin:
Toast and the Brahmin pundit
It was a long day on the road; the tourist corporation country bus in those days had no aircon and the windows had no glass shutters, so one had to cope with the dust and wind that swept through the wide apertures as the bus trailed across the winding roads and amazingly green pastures of Tamil Nadu. We even sought out the two legendary fishermen of Mahabalipuram.
However, our scheduled arrival (where?) at the more civilized hour of 8 or 9 pm had been horribly delayed, due to the fact that whenever and wherever the bus would stop for a small break (for tea, lunch, a quick walk through a famous temple or paying respects at the Samadhi – tombstone of a Guru), our roving compatriots would wander off in their unserious attempt to strike bargain on the trinkets and hand-crafted souvenirs from one vendor-stall to the next, or they would walk down lanes in utter abandonment marvelling at the architecture or some hitherto unseen wonder, forgetting to mark their territory for a swift return to the bus.
Or, just linger and chat with the spice merchants.
The journey seemed never to end; it was already very dark, and the little villages we went past seemed to have already called it the day. Our tired travelers too were dosing off in their seats or drowsily stooping over the person next to them. It was some three hours since we had stopped in some small town for what was supposed to be dinner. There was not time now to stop for supper and another chai.
Suddenly the bus veered towards a faintly-lit road (half the street-lamps seemed dead) and I could make out at a short distance head an array of small cottage-like dwellings that reminded me of quarters or barracks the British had built for their prized civil servants during the Raj.
We made brief stop to take a stroll on the lovely seaside at Pondicherry and have a chat with a young vendor on the beach selling all sorts of scintillatingly spicy and delicious delectables…
Sure enough, we had, after an arduous journey, reached the state government-run tourist corporation bungalows, as they were called. After the Britishers left, the nicely-constructed cottages around the country were converted into low-maintenance, affordable tourist sleep-overs, used widely for middle-class domestic tourists on some sort of a low-budget spree visiting temples, sacred sites, and an ashram or two along the way.
As we arrived at the serene streets of Pondicherry it was time for ‘high tea’.
Amidst rattling sound of porcelainware clanging, the swing-door on one corner that appeared to lead into the kitchen, flung open and three lean-looking men began bringing out trays dotted with pots of tea, cups with saucers, and jars of steaming milk. The tea-serving attendants that moved aside the toast-racks and sugar-jars to make room for the ‘high-tea’ being served.
It wasn’t long before the attention of the servers – and unhelplessly of the entire congregation – was drawn by a high-pitched voice that bellowed out from of the table not far from where I was seated.
As I turned my gaze wondering what the sudden ruckus was that had erupted, disturbing the near-slumbering calling of the night, I beheld a brahmanic-looking figure, dressed in traditional white kurta and dhoti complete with a Gandhian cap, who until this moment had maintained a rather demur or shall we say placid demeanour, with not much as a word or complaint about the vagrant wandering-off miscreants down the vendor stalls and lanes who had been the cause of this overly-delayed arrival at the resting nest.
Truth be told, this Brahmin appeared to uncannily resemble the Hindu Brahmin pundit, Professor Godbole (immortalized so gracefully by Sir Alec Guinness) in David Lean’s film version of E.M. Forster’s novel, A Passage to India. He had the same mischievous twinkle in his eyes.
What was the issue I wondered? I am sure everyone there did.
Well, in a husky voice that comes of a long tired day but with the pitch and volume turned up as loud as he could or his priestly brethren would permit themselves in performing ritual or ghee-and-grain-offering over a smoky altar that is the preserve of his caste membership, again in rather imperative tone so that his call would not be missed by those concerned fleeting in and out of the swing-door, he becried these words: ‘
The pitch went higher as in mantra recitation with each enunciation of his query:
“Have you no toost?”
“What is this, sarakari [government] toorist bunglow and no toost?”
While he awaited his answer, he eyed the golden toast rack on display in the cottage, luxuriously laden with literate letters. This golden toast rack symbolized the British Raj.
The somewhat large-built chief kitchen-hand with hanging-belly graced by a clean apron was summoned over by the young servers to provide an answer to this very literate question in this ungodly night hour: ”Sir, we not to having any toost here at this inauspicious hour…”.
The pandit-in-all-white from Allahabad, or at least from Utter Pradesh region, as one could make out from certain characteristics and intonation, by now had lost his cool. Before the very shaken chief kitchen-hand could finish his apologetic response, with one hand he picked up the toast-rack and banged it on the table, as if for the toast-rack to ask:
“Then why this toost-rack is here, baba? Is it for the Britishers only that they will get toast-on-demand? What kind of a toorist-bunglow this is where there is no toost?’
His literacy and stature of such a comparably high order as he made it plain by his gestures and gesticulations, that no one in the group or among the kitchen-hands and waiters would dare rise to the challenge and combat him in words or action. The Britishers of course had left long back, perhaps they left behind the toast-racks too, as seemed to be suggested by the sheer vintage and the make of the toast-racks; perhaps these had been retained as momenta and no toast ever gets served in this God-forsaken remote pilgrim’s bungalow because the nearest bakery is far away, in the French quarters of Pondicherry.
“Why not bring the starving panditji some pakodas or dosa or idli, baba?”
Someone from another corner of the dining room blurted out, without as much as raising their head lest their eyes would cross with the gaze of the Brahmin and the latter would have to find himself in double or triple rage.
‘This town perhaps has no bakery and there is no bread therefore”, I pleaded in a tone that I hoped would not cause any further rancour and would assure the learned philosopher pandit that by our Indian logic it must ‘follow as the night the day’ (to paraphrase Shakespeare’s pondering Hamlet) that without the facility to bake bread there cannot follow (be) any toast.
He summoned me with a whisper, and I sat next to this Brahmin and he explained this whole charade: He had been moved by the scenes of wheat gathering in the rural fields of India.
He had wanted to connect to the wheat. He wanted to forgive the British. He wanted to celebrate the harvest of both the British and the Indian. He craved for harvested wheat baked into bread that would bridge the cultural divide between we the Indians and they the British.
The ordering of “toost” (toast) was a spiritual quest – a way to see the oneness in the cultural divide and rule which The British Toast Rack symbolized.
The Brahmin pundit was celebrating the end of the British Raj by embracing their traditions (toast on a toast rack) without effect. He said he dreamed of buttered toast – the toast being British, the butter being the desire of Krishna the butter thief. Lord Krishna, who tricked his mother into seeing the glory of the Universe when she pried open his mouth to find the butter.
“Did you know,” whispered the Brahmin pundit, “that in Great Britain they are also having a wheat harvest? From this very same earth upon which we Indians share with the British?”
I did not know that, I acknowledged.
“I have been pondering and pontificating on Pondicherry,” he continued, “I have been going on about Goa, and bristling about the British. It is time to stop all that now and have some toast. The French in Pondicherry, the Portuguese in Goa, the British everywhere else – they all want the same thing that we do – they want a good harvest. Toast, toast, toast is my meditation…”
“Your meditation?” I quizzed, not understanding what ‘meditation’ has to do with ‘toast’.
“Meditate on toast!” He asserted somewhat overstimulated by my bewilderment.
“I don’t understand,” I hastened.
“It is simple: the Europeans have a good wheat harvest and we have a good wheat harvest and we can all bake bread and then we can make toast. Toast is the outcome of a good harvest. First there is healthy harvest, then there is fresh baked bread, then there is toast.”
Just as it occurred to me that this Brahmin himself was a trickster and prankster my audience with him came to an abrupt end. He stopped whispering of spiritual causation and instead began to shreek in a sharp and shrill voice demanding physical effection (and ingestion):
‘Toost, toost, bring me some toost…”
The night did not sleep, and the Brahmin pilgrim from the north awaited his much desired and missed toast, until around 3am when the delivery truck from somewhere near or far arrived loaded with bread, freshly baked and piping hot.
A dream comes true even in a waking-sleep state.