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Sunday, March 30, 2014

A New Narcissism

The Culture of Righteousness

Oh the irony! 

Delhi’s Khirkee village sprawls across the street from the Saket malls, with their seductive offerings of consumerist dreams. Khoj, an exciting arts collective, is located there and most of the artists and writers who come there share an outspoken disdain for the malls across the street.

Khoj attracts creative people from all over the world. They are as far removed from its location as the people who shop in the malls. Both are light years away; the malls, where once inside you could be in any American suburb. Equally, given its cutting edge creative sensibilities, Khoj may well have been in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village.

Having known and publicized Khoj for many years and been impressed by its progress, this was my first trip to their newly refurbished quarters. In the event, many years later, we found ourselves in their edgily restored offices in Khirkee, the village where the law minister of the ill-fated government of Arvind Kejriwal, led a raid against the many Africans, who live in this disgusting arrondisement.
To get to Khoj, you negotiate the heart-attack traffic near the malls and finally pull into the village, where there are no roads to speak of but there are hundreds of cars, honking and worming their way in a hell-bent-for-leather approach. It has no infrastructure but has the problems of traffic and pollution,

One Wednesday evening, we found ourselves there after a trip that can best be described as appalling. The Khoj property is world class: slick and modern. It is a building that Pradip Sachdeva, a well-known Delhi architect, set up as his office in the 1990s. There’s not much left of his imprint; the Khoj office is interesting still. We learned that the redevelopment was undertaken by a Singapore architectural firm.

The irony doesn't stop there. On the way, the substitute driver, who brought us there, fielded insistent calls from his wife. I heard him say, “Ask the next door neighbor for milk and sugar.” He has a seven-month old child. After his conversation, he turned to me and said, “Please, Sir, can you give me an advance? I have a financial problem.” It made me distinctly uncomfortable to think of our destination and the event we were attending there.

Then we walked into the slick Khoj quarters, there to listen to Ryan Bromley, an academic with an undergraduate degree in international relations from a college in Warsaw, Poland, and a graduate degree from the City University in London in “food policy.”

Bromley’s presentation was titled “Spanish Conceptual Gastronomy: A Curatorial Approach.” He took off from Ferran Adria’s el Bulli restaurant in the Costa Brava region of Spain. The restaurant got varied reviews from people who ate there; many said it was  hard to get a reservation; others could not get over the experimental nature of the chef’s menu. It still started a revolution in gastronomy.

Bromley said molecular gastronomy has its roots in the application of laboratory physics and chemistry to cooking. Cutting-edge concept that it is, the extension from a post-modern science to an avant-garde art form seemed just a bit contrived; it was a bit like witnessing a caesarian birth. I suspect he had to stretch his thesis to accommodate the “artists” who were present there, with little interest in food.

Also haunting and distracting me was the driver’s conversation with his wife. It jarred every sensibility in me and made me much less responsive to the proceedings.I had read lots about molecular gastronomy and even made a laughable attempt some years ago to book a dinner table one afternoon at Alinea, the buzzy Chicago restaurant run by Grant Achatz, who worked with Ferran Adria in Spain.

Back at Khoj, Bromley was joined by Shuddhabrata Sengupta, from the Raqs Collective, a group of creative individuals that has been making waves in Delhi as the 21st century Bohemians. Sengupta took off into philosophical areas; building on Bromley’s thesis that the Establishment including philosophers, scholars, clerics and sundry disciplinarians provided the historical obstacles to the evolution of gastronomy, referring to sacerdotal strictures against gluttony.

What Sengupta added to the conversation was a wow factor. All the young impressionables had shining eyes as he expounded on philosophy and culture, with perfect sound bites that had the audience reeling with hushed applause at the man’s sweep of western philosophy and Hindu mythology; reminded me of my friend. Ashis Nandy, the rock star of the alternative universe.

In the end, I came away from the Khoj event, troubled. Bromley had some good insights, when it came to new school cuisine. Sengupta was impressive with Wikipedia-style knowledge.. In the "interactive session" that followed, a twenty-something artist talked about her eating only raw food, mostly because she opposed processed food and corporations.That was when we left..

Still it was a good evening. 

My take was very different from the earnest questioner. Growing up in the 1960s and 1970s, my generation questioned societal norms and pushed for human rights.Christopher Lasch wrote his 1979 classic “The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations” in which he lashed out against the transformation of  the "Boomer" generation in America into a self-obsessed constituency as it entered its 30s. He deprecated the "pathological narcissism" of young America after the protests, first against the Vietnam War and then against capitalism. Going by the back and forth at Khoj that evening, I can only conclude that we now have in India a culture of narcissism masquerading as righteousness. 

Sadly, the interesting presentation by Bromley on new trends in gastronomy was overwhelmed by the narcissistic righteousness of the audience. Adria was lost as was his concept of molecular gastronomy. Which is what we went there for in the first place.