Kala jeera, books, Mars, and bats

AUGUST 26 03

I haven't used kala jeera seeds in a long while. Kala jeera translates as 'black cumin' but they are not to be confused with the less subtle and rather boring ordinary cumin seeds. They smell like the bottom of a rabbit's cage and are one fifth of panch phoran (Indian 5-spice). The other day I went into a shop near me that I suspected had a good range of Asian spices and found some to fill the empty jar in my spice cupboard.

When I am cooking for myself I tend to cook two day's worth, and when I cook something like a chilli or a potato curry I will cook two day's worth of boiled basmati rice as well. Second day I fry the rice, perhaps with chopped tomatoes or a dash of Caribbean pepper sauce, but a far better way to cook fried rice is to throw kala jeera seeds in the hot oil before crumbling in the rice (boiled basmati cools as a cake of rice). Fennel seeds make a good addition too, which is also a constituent of panch phoran. Panch phoran itself contains methi seeds (fenugreek), which tend to go very bitter if cooked too hot, so I prefer to seed fried rice with kala jeera and fennel on their own.

I find cookery the ideal antidote to thinking too much. Given what I was writing yesterday, it's interesting that one of the biggest books I have read is Elizabeth David's 'English Bread and Yeast Cookery', a book I was very excited by at the time of my bread-baking experiments. Looking back, I have fond memories of certain books, such as Seneca's Letters read in the ruins of an Iron Age settlement by torchlight, Thoreau's 'Walden' read at a time when I wanted to simplify my life, the Chinese and Japanese poetry translations of Kenneth Rexroth, which are still probably my most prized books, along with Logan Pearsall Smith's 'All Trivia' and the 'Collected Poems' of Edward Thomas in a 1945 war-stock edition. I remember how I raved for years about Yasunari Kawabata's 'Snow Country' and 'House of the Sleeping Beauties', the latter I waited for for ages on special import from Japan. So how can I say I no longer am able to read, it's just perhaps that I have no special memories of 'DHTML and CSS' or 'Dreamweaver MX in 24 Hours'. You only have to look at a wall of computer books in a bookshop to see that it is an ugly noise of books.

Cooking is good for making you look again. I couldn't divorce Zen from my life even if I tried, it is there in the smell of the spices, it is there in snipping bay leaves from the bush. But still, I miss the days of silence, silence unbroken by the drone of a CPU fan, when so many possibilities still seemed open and many of my dreams still remained unfulfilled. Whatever dreams I have now I do not want the way I used to want things, there is an undercurrent of resignation, which while it makes you less grasping, less in awe of desire, less affected by not having, also makes you reach less far, makes you draw your hand back empty sooner. But the very dissatisfaction this evokes also tells me that resignation too is a thing to crush and throw away, that it is not a truly desireless state but a giving up.

Acceptance of one's lot though does lead to fewer complications, which is probably why sudden upheaval is so good, in that it enables you to accept something that wasn't even on the agenda before. As when Aldous Huxley's marvellous library burnt down, but afterwards he said he felt nothing but relief, that a burden had been taken from him. I also recall when Thoreau in 'Walden' described seeing a hobo carrying everything he owned on his back and how much he pitied him, but then he surprised me by saying he pitied him not because he was so poor but because he still possessed so much. Periodically, I reassess along similar lines, seeking a way to transplant myself from my current situation to something utterly different. There's this woman who tells me I am that rare thing: happy, genuinely contented. Even the habitual reorganizing of the expression on my face saying something like 'Are you mad woman?' seems to her to come from a place of deep peace. Maybe I am like a Dalai Lama who goes around saying 'Yeah, sure'.

I have never stinted from facing the dark side of my existence. When purpose contorts itself into worthlessness and delusion I sit down and wrestle with it. But I never countenance losing to the devils inside of me. Turmoil sharpens me up, boredom enables me to cast away the old. I have no real or inspiring objective though, not any more.

Purpose, I recognise, can come from nowhere. Overnight. A sudden realisation, a chance meeting, an unexpected windfall, a death in the family, all can bring purpose in their wake. Purpose, when you have none, sometimes also comes from reassessment and discarding of all that presently clutters up your life. It can also come from recognising the true value of things you have taken for granted and thus far discounted or insufficiently appreciated. In fact, it can often come that way, which is a better way for it to come as it tends to settle into you more deeply since it has already been hovering around you for a while by the time it arrives. So I never worry too much about loss of purpose, to me it signifies transition. Tomorrow, Aug 27, when Mars it at the closest it has been to Earth in 60,000 years (10:51 GMT), something will probably happen, even if only a settling of a realisation. I've been going out at night to look at Mars the past week from the garden, it's certainly impressive at the moment. A good time for casting away unrealistic hopes, possibly even for becoming satisfied with what one has, a culmination of things waited for and realising that something lesser is actually better. I think that would be my interpretation of what could become possible. I suspect also it could be the onset of something unconventional. Though Mars gets to its closest point to Earth tomorrow and has got all the publicity, the actual opposition, when Mars, Earth, and the Sun are in a straight line, occurs on Thursday Aug 28, when Mars is also very near to its perihelion (closest point to the Sun).


People sometimes email me offbeat questions, here's one I got the other day from a young lady:

Is a small bat trapped in a room an omen? (the windows don't open and can't let her out… can't get her to the door nor catch her in a towel…)

In European folklore the bat is sinister, associated with the powers of darkness, the vampire legend etc, but in China the bat is one of the supreme symbols of good luck. This is because the character for 'bat', fu, is phonetically identical to fu, 'good fortune'. (Much the same way superstitious Chinese people don't like the number 4, si, because it sounds the same as si, 'death'.)

Usually five bats are depicted together in popular Chinese iconography to represent every sort of joy coming your way, i.e. the Five Blessings (long life, riches, health, love of virtue, and peaceful death). You can come across interesting pictures of children capturing five bats in an ornamental jar. You also see pictures of five bats and three peaches. I suggested she offer the bat a ripe peach in a large jar or vase, and cover over the top when the bat went in and then take the jar outside. But she managed to solve it herself:

a very nice bat.

I turned out all the inside lights, put the outside one on, and made every possible path for her and went to sit in another room so she could find her own way out. Then she found me in that room. Did the same thing again better and she did find her way out.

Next time I will use the fruit. :)