The bottomest 1%

Wasps on guard

Wasps on guard

It was a hot summer day, late in the evening, in a railway station in south Tamil Nadu. This was one of the bigger towns, that over time became crowded and dirty. I was waiting for my train, seated on one of those granite slabs. The slabs were still holding on to the heat from the sun, and were warm.

I arrived early, and it was a long dreary wait for the train. A fat boy was near, eating his bag of chips. Once he was done, he just dropped the shiny “Do not litter” wrapper, right where he sat. What he was doing was perfectly natural. After all we just throw the banana peel, or any other fruit peel right where we are. Assuming the place has plants, animals and micro-organisms, the peels are eaten or transformed into nutrients for plants. Except that here we have cemented ground, and non-biodegradable wrapper.

Potato chips have been around in this country for a while. Initially the packets were small, and puffed up with air. The first time I popped open a packet, there was this unpleasant stench. Today we get started with chips or coco-cola while we party among our peers, so we are less likely to remember the initial experience of these “approved and regulated edibles”. But the picture on the package was inviting, even as I wondered who would eat this, I put one into my mouth. And started my journey into the world of potato chips.

Now the mention of stench, reminds of another event that happened much later, in Austin, Texas. We went on a trip, which included a visit to a vineyard, which also meant wine-tasting. There was a store in front of the vineyard, it had a huge room, for tasting the wines. The guy who would do the demonstration, passed us wine glasses. It was a paid-event, so we get to keep the glasses. The group had mostly elderly people, but did include a few middle aged, and young folks too. Not a big group, though. So I get the glass and was admiring it. The demo guy takes his first bottle of wine, and pours a little for all of us. Then he swirls the glass, tells us how to hold the glass against light, read the color and sparkle of the wine, smell its fragrance, and a bunch of whoo-whoo. I held the empty glass near me, it didn’t have a smell. But now after the guy poured a little of the white wine , there was this putrid stench. This wine had gone bad. I look around, and all are listening intently to the whoo-whoo, doing all the actions of elite society, and to my surprise smelling the wine in their glasses in absolute bliss, ready to drink it. The miracle of peer pressure. I walk to the patio, pour out the wine, wash the glass, and hope that the next wine wouldn’t be bad. Even before the first glass of wine, tasting lost its allure. There went the dream of joining elite society, imitating their rituals.

Back to potato chips. The oily, fried, smell draws you in. The saltiness gets you started. After a while the greasy feel of oil keeps you going. Finally smell and taste matter less, the crunchy crispiness, and the mechanical motion of your jaws, put you in the zone. You crunch away in glory.

I had this big bag of oily, salty, crunchy potato chips. It probably had about 100 chips. Made with the right machinery, the potatoes sliced into uniform thickness, frozen for a while, and then fried in oil at the right temperature, with the right chemicals to keep it from foaming, and then salted. Eating this is a harmless pastime. After all FDA or India’s FSSAI would have inspected and approved everything from the ingredients and processes. If the wage laborers in these regulatory agencies, didn’t do this noble job of certifying “food” as safe, what will wage coolies like us do to find safe food? We would just starve!

But this is an ideal world, where things work. And I was eating the chips, slowly and then for some reason, faster. Soon I was down to the last chip. Deep inside the bag was the very last one, and a few broken crumbs. It looked brown, ahh the more nutritious skin, puffed up. A little shiny, more rounded, covered in salt and oil. An invitation to a final experience of the crunchiness. Strangely the last chip tasted richer. The crumbs, a couple of them were thin, deep brown, and seemed to have spines, like insect legs. But the salt, and oil, who could resist? I licked the bag clean, and threw away the shiny “Do not litter. Keep your city clean” plastic bag. Blown away by the winds, it can spread its noble message of cleanliness to the masses, and add glitter to the barren landscape, that the coolies can gaze on.

So how did the cockroach end in the bottom 1%? Here is an elite organism, that got resistance training from carefully engineered “Hit” and other powerful pesticides, built its muscles, agility and reaction time by going against the fastest housewives and their brooms. A cockroach that lived among other well trained elites. Like the parthenium weed that comes up after rains, in soil, devoid of vegetation, that has been scraped and re-scraped by cleanerers. Like the mosquito that has been fogged, fumigated and sprayed, so that the only thing you see in the mucky sewage drains, are wriggling mosquito larvae. Like the rats, that have built their immune systems from the various poisons, and improved their IQ dodging well-designed traps.

How did the elite, the pinnacle of evolution, end as a delicious victim of circumstance? Greed, a momentary loss of self-control, as it went after the fried chips?


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