November 19, 2004

Nylon Sev

Just what is nylon sev? I assume it’s a regional speciality and not a pair of stockings from the Harrods lingerie department. (Review of The Oberoi-Penguin Celebrity Cookbook, Hindustan Times, 24 February, 2000)
Sev is the familiar crunch fried snack made from gram flour. It can be thick as noodles, or more commonly, thin as vermicelli. These days, with the use of modern sev extruders (yes, these things exist), manufacturers can churn out sev that is finer still. Imagine 'hair type thin namkeen': doesn't that make your mouth drool? Superfine nylon sev is what they're serving in the best Gujarati households these days, along with the cocktail samosas and the macaroni chaat. There was a time when 'disco' was the word tagged on to every novelty food item (remember disco papads and disco papayas?). But now it looks like 'nylon' has taken its place: out there in the khau gallis of India, you can find nylon poha, nylon khaman dhoklas, nylon papdi and doubtless many more such synthetic marvels.

Before the fall

Interesting essay by Ramachandra Guha on bilingualism in the pre-Hinglish generation.

November 16, 2004

Something black in the lentils

'Something black in the lentils' is a facetiously literal translation of the Hindi idiom 'daal mein kuchh kaala hai', which is the Indian way of saying there's something fishy going on. The earliest use of the phrase I remember is from the 1975 film Prem Kahani, which featured an Anglicized character (did he play Mumtaz's father?) who was fond of pointing out that there was 'something black in the doll'. The phrase is sometimes rendered in English as 'something black in the lentil soup', as in the title of this book by Reshma S. Ruia: an inaccurate translation, since it assumes that the daal is of the cooked variety. As any cook will tell you, there's always a lot of black stuff in lentil soup.

The lover is so afflicted with envy/jealousy that he's convinced that 'there's something black in the daal' [that is, there's some cause for suspicion].(A Desertful of Roses: website by Frances W. Pritchett, Columbia University)

Methinks there is something wrong in the state of denmark, something black in the daal, etc. (Post to Spoon Collective mailing list Seminar 13,10 Jan 1996)

Definitely something black in the lentils, here. And that my dear Elysa Gardner is a synonym for jealousy in Hindi. (Shobha De, Outsourcing dreams, The Times of India,May 23, 2004)

There must be some catch, some red herring, some blue oyster or something black in the lentils that would thwart my dreams.(Rohit Gupta,The Rs 5,00,000 blank cheque, Mid-day, January 2003)

At one point Shekhar is left behind on a school trip, but using his super-speed, Shekhar actually manages to beat Verma and Gita to their destination. Seeing Shekhar there, Verma comments, "There is something black in my lentils." (Review of Superman [India, 1987],Stomp Tokyo)

The black in this lentil soup is represented by Pran who has designs on her fortune and on her person. (Jerry Pinto, Time Out Mumbai, November 5-18, 2004)
The original Hindi phrase is also commonly used in Hinglish, especially in gossip columns and filmi magazines.

All I can say is that there seems to be kuch kala in the dal. Some black in the lentil, as they say at home.(Pamela Philipose, Indian Express, November 26, 2001)

Dal mein kala in mid-day meal scheme (Headline in Indian Express, April 28, 1999)

Amid picturesque background and marvelous camera work, the two fall in love. Now comes the daal mein kaala. Enter Sonali Kulkarni, who is Khan’s wife..(Review of Pyaar Tune Kya Kiya by sonia,

November 04, 2004


One of the characteristics of Indian English that sets it apart from British or American English is the manner in which it mixes registers of language. We are ruled by babus, and their jargon has made its way into our everyday speech. For instance, issueless would be considered legalese in most varieties of English, but in India you will find it used rather casually in matrimonial advertisements.

Some legal and administrative jargon has been borrowed into Indian languages in a corrupted form, especially in street slang where the original English phrase may undergo a significant shift in meaning.

Hapichole is Singlish for ‘habitual’, but the word has undergone a semantic restriction. In its original application it may have been used in some set phrase as ‘habitual offender’, but now, standing alone, it describes a good-for-nothing, a vagabond, a parasite, a hanger-on.

(Arjuna Parakrama, Dehegemonizing language standards)
Another such word is powertoni, a keyword in Suketu Mehta's account of Mumbai politics and society. This is a corruption of 'power of attorney'; according to Mehta, its street meaning goes beyond the accepted legal definition to stand for 'the only kind of power that a politician has, a power of attorney ceded to him by the voter'.

'The ministers are ours,' he said. 'The police are in our hands. They cooperated during the riots. If anything happens to me, the minister calls.' He nods. 'We have powertoni'.

He repeated the word a few times before I realized what it meant. It was a contraction of 'power of attorney', the ability to act on someone's behalf, or to have others do your bidding, sign documents, release criminals, cure illnesses, get people killed. In Mumbai, the Shiv Sena is the one organization that has powertoni.

('Mumbai', Suketu Mehta, Granta 57)

November 02, 2004

MLA Pesarattu

Pesarattu is a variant of the dosa made with moong dal, what a pretentious restaurant menu would call 'a green gram and rice crepe topped with onion and chillies, served with ginger chutney'. It is an Andhra speciality, typical of the home cooking of the region.

During Chandrababu Naidu's time as Chief Minister of Andhra Pradesh, the State Tourism Department cooked up a scheme to project the pesarattu as a symbol of Andhra's Best. First step was a website on this quintessential Andhra snack:

"We are making all efforts to add as many details as possible about the dish on the site, including 60 different ways of making the snack," says the Director, Tourism, G. Kishen Rao. After all, 'pesarattu' has a reputation built over generations and still lingers long on millions of taste buds. "Like gongura, pesarattu is as Telugu as it can get," he smiles.

The idea floated by the Chief Minister, N. Chandrababu Naidu, at one of the review meetings of the department set off Project Pesarattu with the Tourism officials scurrying out for the ideal recipe, master chefs in Andhra hinterlands and of course, webmasters who could host the website.

(K V S Madhav,'Pesarattu' steps out of your kitchen!', The Hindu, Feb 17, 2002)
Was ever launched? Even if it did make it to cybersapace under another name, it's highly unlikely that the site survived the change in government: Chandrababu Naidu lost the Assembly elections this year, partly because voters thought he was wasting his time on constructing virtual Cyberabads when farmers were starving in his state.

It's tempting to link the MLA pesarattu to Naidu's folly, but it seems that the dish was invented before his time. The MLA stands for 'Member of the Legislative Assembly' of course, and the dish itself is a richer, VIP version of the humble pesarattu, stuffed with upma.

But why name it after a mere MLA, when every two-bit Mughlai restaurant in the country lists Chicken Shahjehan and Chicken Jahangiri on its tattered menu? The answer is that the MLA is all-powerful in Andhra Pradesh in ways we cannot imagine. Think of all those Telugu films with titles like Rowdy MLA and Independent MLA, and you'll understand that the term is a badge of status in the region. In fact, there may be an element of satire involved in naming a jumbo dosa an MLA dosa, a dig at the politican's voracious greed.

And how do you pass up a dish with the mysteriously tantalizing name of M.L.A. pesarat? This lentil pancake stuffed with an opulence of crisp-sweet, barely cooked onions, green chillies, fresh ginger and garlic is named for Members of the Legislative Assembly (because it's very rich -- get it?)(Greg Cox, 'Who needs meat?', restaurant review on, September 26, 2003)

As V.I.P's in India pesarattu is served as MLA Pesarattu (Member of Legislative Assembly) with upma folded in it and topped with a scoop of salted Amul butter. (post from prasad2 to EGullet Forum, September 23, 2004)

The MLA Pessarattu, which is the usual pesarattu served with upma. It sells like hot cakes in Tirupati and Vijayawada. (Alina Sen, 'Trailing the Andhra food route',The Times of India, September 12, 2002)

I think Vizag's most famous breakfast dish is the Pesarathu, a pancake-like dosa made out of green moong dal. It is cooked in every household and is also available on the menus of every tiffin restaurant in the city. It is popularly known as the MLA Pesarathu. Legend has it that MLAs of this city have always been fond of this dosa and demand it wherever they go... The Pesarathu, apart from the green moong dal, also has a little rice. The composition is, say, 95 per cent moong, which is soaked with the rice and made into a dosa paste. Into this dosa is stuffed not the spicy potato masala with onions, but a regular portion of upma!(Krishnan Nair,'Pesarathu, The Dosas MLAs Have For Breakfast!',Upper Crust)
Next week, children: the Spring Dosa.

Raisina Hill

Raisina Hill is the site in New Delhi where Rashtrapati Bhavan and the Secretariats are located. Some conscious symbolism was intended by the British architects who placed these structures on top of the hill, and Parliament at the base. Still, the address is frequently used as a synonym for the central government or the political establishment in New Delhi.

Delhi, Mumbai and Bangalore live in a world very far from Kolkata and Kochi and they want to know what the arrival of the comrades on Raisina Hill means for them. (The Indian Express, May 17, 2004)

Kargil war's shadow continues to hover over the Raisina Hill. (The Pioneer, 18 June 2004)
Usage is by no means standard. As the following examples show, there are far too many seats of power in Delhi for one address to reign supreme. In the last citation, Raisina Hill is used in a narrower sense, for the President of India.
Nearly a decade of being 'nice' to the Americans as a policy is coming to its logical cul-de-sac in New Delhi’s Raisina Hill. That policy started with stray, isolated gestures during the days of P.V. Narasimha Rao’s prime ministership, when South Block was told by 7, Race Course Road, the prime ministerial home, that the United States of America was the most important foreign policy priority for India and that the Americans needed to be wooed. (K P Nayar, The Telegraph, November 13, 2002)

Since the 'Constitution Review' is premised on the Vajpayee Government's penchant for 'stability', the presidential remarks once again underline the divergence in thinking between Raisina Hill and Race Course Road. (The Hindu, January 26, 2001)