C Y Gopinath : Stupid things we do and never think about
Why do Mumbai high-rises have grilled windows? And is that how you get the bitter out of a cucumber? Really?
Window grills are installed unquestioningly for the same reason: everybody does it, so there must be a reason. Representation Pic
Nearly every building of any size in Thailand will have a small and involved mini-temple in a corner. Called a spirit house, or san phra phoom, this is alternative housing provided to the spirits that were supposed to have lived on the plot before the builders came. Many spirit houses have a four-headed Brahma figurine at the centre. Fruits, food and incense are daily placed at the spirit house because, you know, spirits need to eat, too. Passers-by will always join their hands worshipfully.
When Bangkok's famous Erawan Hotel was built in 1956, astrologers, realising that construction had started on an inauspicious date, suggested that a larger-than-usual spirit house be built. The numerous accidents and death that had plagued the construction were offered as proof of a curse. The result was the Erawan Shrine, also called the Brahma Shrine, now a crowded tourist Bangkok landmark.
No one ever really questions that there are actually squatter spirits rendered homeless by construction or that they get pissed off if not given alternative quarters. Just like no one thinks that accidents on a construction site could result from poor safety and materials.
It got me thinking about things we take for granted as true in daily life and actions we perform routinely without wondering why. Here's a simple, silly kitchen thing - I learnt from watching my mother that the way to get the bitterness out of cucumbers is to cut a small slice off one end and rub that against the exposed part of the remaining cucumber until a white foam appears. The rule required that this be done before anything else. I would share this insider ritual in cooking classes with the air of man who was full of tips and tricks.
It was only late in life that I began wondering: how would you know that a particular cucumber was bitter to start with? You'd have to taste it, but according to the rules, you couldn't do the rubbing trick if you'd already tasted the cucumber. So people do something they don't quite understand, just because someone else did it and said it worked.
WE USED TO BE TOLD that the grills outside the windows of our Andheri flat were to keep off burglars. We believed it. But I look around Mumbai and see a changing skyline with some pretty tall buildings - most with grilled windows. Honestly? Would a 33rd floor window really be the preferred port of entry for a burglar? I decided to check.
Most Mumbai buildings, even low-income housing estates, have 24/7 gate security. If I were a seasoned burglar casing a joint, doing a perilous Spiderman act on the outer wall would certainly not top my list of ways to enter. The simplest would probably be to walk right past the sleeping guard; the second would be to ring the front door bell and be warmly welcomed in.
Cat burglars are so rare here that last year when Ghatkopar police finally arrested two of them, Anand Sakpal and Ajay Deokar, for shinning up high-rise pipes and robbing residences, it made the news. However, even they did not use windows; they shimmied up drainpipes and entered through utility areas like the kitchen or bathroom.
But who builds houses logically anyway? A Vaastu specialist must speak. A door facing north-west could bring health, wealth and prosperity. You'd never need to visit a gym again. A north-facing door would keep the main male out of the house for long spells; if west, memsahib would be the one affected. Window grills are installed unquestioningly for the same reason: everybody does it, so there must be a reason.
A FRIEND OF MINE in the film industry tells of a time when he had been asked to pick up the Big B for a shoot. A religious ceremony was afoot at Bachchan's house, with a havan (a ritual fire) at the centre and all family members around. Towards the end, Bachchan was presented with a box arrayed with rings and gemstones, and picked one.
In the car, my friend learned that the ritual was pretty much daily practice. After a silence, the Big B said, "I know what you're thinking. It's superstition, illogical." More silence, and then unexpected wisdom. "You know, with great wealth there also come great fears."
BACK TO THE CUCUMBERS. These fruits - yes, they're not vegetables - produce a bitter chemical called cucurbitacin that helps keep herbivores away from the plant. Cucurbitacin is mildly toxic and tends to cluster towards the ends of the cucumber, and sometimes in the skin. Chances are that if you just sliced the ends off and peeled it, you'd have a bitterness-free cucumber. What about rubbing the ends till it frothed? That's probably just to make you look like a pro.
Here, viewed from there. C Y Gopinath, in Bangkok, throws unique light and shadows on Mumbai, the city that raised him. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org Send your feedback to email@example.com
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