'With his conch, wheel and coils, Vishnu
readied to find suitable couple
seeking strapping male babies
albeit with tad complex background.
In the process, Vishnu hoped he may learn
what it feels being human.'
'The Ramayana: A Retelling' by Daljit Nagra (b 1966)
It's the culmination of Diwali today - the Hindu Festival of Lights and I've been reading 'The Ramayana'. Diwali incorporates a number of different aspects, practical, financial and mythical. Firstly it marks the harvest festival of the Indian subcontinent and thus the end of the agrarian year. So in exactly the same way as Michaelmas, it's when a farmer can sell his crops and pay his debts and most importantly, his rent. It's easy for us urbanites to forget that although we might have lost a direct connection with the land, a huge proportion of people on earth still sow and reap in the same way as our ancestors. Their lives depend on it.
Diwali and harvest festival are also similar in the opportunity they give for a rest from toil, a giving thanks for harvest and an opportunity to spend some hard earned money. Let your hair down - it's Diwali!
'The Ramayana' is one of the oldest stories on earth and it predates Christianity and Greek myth by many centuries. It's an epic tale of a God, Vishnu, becoming a man - Rama, a name that means 'peace' in Sanskrit. Rama is put into earth to defeat the evil Lord of the Underworld, Raavana. Vishnu has to do this, because only a mortal can over come the evil in the world represented by Raavana. Vishnu seeks out a royal couple who want a son and when their son is born he is Rama - the saviour of the world. Is this sounding familiar?
Rama is helped by his brothers and by his wife Sita. She's a terrific character, but unfortunately whilst Rama and his followers are exiled in the forest for fourteen years (for reasons I won't trouble you with) Raavana comes and kidnaps Sita and takes her off to the underworld. So Rama has to go and rescue her and defeat Raavana in a terrific battle where he is aided by an army of monkeys (some of whom are, of course, Gods in disguise.)
Anyway, to cut a very long story short, Rama rescues Sita from Raavana and defeats him in battle. As they proceed from the underworld to the real world, via the forest of exile, people light lamps to show them the way. And that's what the word Diwali means - a row of lamps.
My book of 'The Ramayana’ is a retelling by Daljit Nagra and it's just been published. It's also been shortlisted for the T.S.Eliot prize. Daljit really captures the essence of the epic. Although it was first written down maybe 2000 years ago, it is really a tale to be told out loud. So every telling and re-telling becomes spontaneous and new.
I read the prologue to The Penzance Ladies' Book Club last week and the story is so strong and so dramatic, that as I was reading, the verse just took over. It was impossible not to feel that you were making it up as you went along. The man's a genius. His retelling is spellbinding and spine tingling. Buy it for someone for Christmas. They don't need to like poetry, and it's a story for all people for all time.
Two things are traditional at Diwali. Lighting lamps and eating sweets. So I am going to do both.
Almond and Saffron Kulfi
Kulfi is traditionally made by boiling down milk, then thickening it and then freezing it in a special mould called a ‘matka’. This version, like a mango version I made a while ago, uses condensed milk. Interestingly, although I totally made this recipe up, traditional kulfi often includes a starch-based element to help the thickening. Marzipan makes a good substitute.
400g tin condensed milk
300ml double cream
150g good marzipan cut into cubes
A pinch saffron filaments
Put the saffron in a little dish and steep in a tablespoon of boiling water.
Blitz the condensed milk and the cubed marzipan in a food processor until you have a smooth but slightly grainy cream. Add the saffron threads and water. Blitz again.
Whip the double cream in a separate bowl until it makes soft peaks, then stir in the almond and saffron mixture. Pour into moulds and freeze for at least three hours.
I use plastic cups for moulds and then you can rip them away when the kulfi is frozen. They are roughly the right conical shape and usually ridged so you can be sure that you get the same amount in each.
'Rama and Sita, you are the twain essence of life.
You are the twain endurance of the essence.
You are the spirit. The spirit unbound.
You are the breath. The breath unbound.'