The ongoing palaver over the ‘idli is boring’ statement by an English historian is, frankly, getting a bit tedious. There’s a whole army of self-righteous voices on mainstream and social media, particularly the latter (surprise, surprise) who have decided to take up cudgels on behalf of India’s favourite breakfast dish. Make that south India’s. Edward Anderson, the errant historian from the United Kingdom is the ‘culprit’ who is being held guilty of this unpardonable solecism. This is what Anderson, to give the devil its dubious due, is purported to have said, ‘Idli are (sic) the most boring things in the world.’ The fact that Anderson’s wife is from Kerala, where idlis go down a treat, as they do in Tamil Nadu, Andhra and Karnataka, adds a piquant touch to this storm in a filter-coffee cup.
Speaking of Kerala, our man from Thiruvananthapuram, the silver-tongued Congress Party MP Shashi Tharoor naturally had to stick his loquacious oar in, if you’ll pardon the mixed metaphor. This puffed up gem from Tharoor went viral, ‘Civilisation is hard to acquire: the taste & refinement to appreciate idlis, enjoy cricket, or watch ottamthullal is not given to every mortal. Take pity on this poor man, for he may never know what life can be.’ As is his wont, the oratorical Tharoor delivered a mouthful there, prior to presumably bolting a mouthful of idli accompanied by a dollop of chutney. I had to look up ottamthullal, a traditional Kerala dance form. It is very like Tharoor to casually throw in an arcane reference, jolting the reader scurrying to the ubiquitous Google search. He could have said kathakali, for instance, which is more readily identifiable. The reference to enjoying cricket escaped me. Surely, the British gave us the game.
The fact is idli qua idli, can be a bit of a bore. In saying that, I run the risk of incurring widespread obloquy from my fellow south Indian gourmets or even, gourmands. By definition this white, round, spongy dumpling is tasteless. Well, almost. It is the spicy accompaniment of other condiments such as chilli powder (aka gunpowder) and oil or clarified butter (ghee), coconut chutney and sambhar that make the idli a delectable and wholesome dish. Anderson could wriggle out of his predicament by stating that he was referring to the idli, the whole idli and nothing but the idli. And he would have been right. The jury would have unanimously said ‘not guilty’ without having to retire to consider their verdict. As for those philistines who would insist on hyphenating the idli with mutton chops and the like, I shall give them the haughty ignore they richly deserve.
At the end of the day, what this idli brouhaha teaches us, once again, is that we Indians tend to be awfully thin-skinned if a foreigner says anything even mildly disparaging about us, even with his tongue firmly in cheek. Anderson being a Briton, belonging to a race known for its understated sense of humour, could quite easily be taking the mickey, to employ a Cockney colloquialism. He is probably laughing out of the other side of his mouth. Our response should have been equally calibrated and subtle. An ideal riposte would have been something on the lines of, ‘a tasty British dish is an oxymoron,’ or ‘I tasted haggis today, it tasted offal.’ That would be telling him! After all, if you eat tripe, you will talk tripe.