The Bitter Taste of Life

Karela-thumb109408 By Aditya Dev Sood

The other evening, Behenji Bua invited us over for dinner, especially to try her new karela dish. It was sublime, setting off taste sensations all round the apperceptive palate. The slightest sweetness, a balanced coping of salt and sour, fullness and complexity, all built around the fundamental bitterness of bitter-gourd, as karela is unfortunately called in English. I’d never liked karela as a child, and adults around me seemed to understand that – it was especially prepared, I recall, for Behenji’s husband, and for other vegetarian connoisseurs in the family, and I don’t think any of us children were even especially encouraged to eat our share of it. It was not a delicacy, but an acquired, perhaps adult taste. Nowadays, I’m sure it is my favorite vegetable, and I’m sure my mindbody and aesthetic sensibility would be poorer for not consuming it at least twice a week.

What is it about bitterness, that allows it to become a part of one’s aesthetic appetite later in life, having been the opposite of pleasure in one’s youth? From when I was a child, I'd always loved raw mango, tamarind, every kind of chat, and even those spicy-salted prunes putatively from Afghanistan. But only recently have I begun to drink Campari-soda by choice, enjoy green vegetables of all kinds, including arugula, kale, colacasia, and seek out those super-hoppy beers that can sting my senses with a burst of pure firstness, as if I were seventeen again, experiencing sushi and wasabi for the first time, learning that warm sake can fumigate the nasal cavity just as wasabi can inflame it. My taste for bitterness is, perhaps, partly founded in the search for novelty, but there is also something else, a transformation of the body's biochemistry in early-middle age, to a new and shifted harmonics of taste.

Over a couple of Christoffels at Bangalore's only Jazz bar a few days ago, I asked my friend Gabriel to help me think about bitterness.

Gabriel seems uniquely qualified to help, being a biological artist, now working on a project to feed silkworms anything but mulberry leaves so as to make their secreta predictably variable. Only catch is, he hates the taste of bitter-gourd: “I don't get why everyone around here is so into it — it seems to me like just a single sharp note, no complexity — and I thought I liked bitter things… Like this beer!” The Christoffel sure is hoppy, the only Dutch beer among the Belgian brews they're serving here. But we've spent years learning to taste beer, and he has yet to put in the time to learn to taste bitter-gourd.

It doesn't take Gabriel long to reprise for me the essential link between bitterness and poison. Most natural poisons taste bitter, and he seems to remember that it is somewhat hard to synthesize a poison that doesn't taste bitter. All kinds of green plantlife may naturally select in ways that render them poisonous, and therefore bitter, or else merely bitter, similarly discouraging animals of all kinds including humans from munching on them. But Gabriel is interested to relate the story of newts and snakes somewhere in California, newts having brightly-colored orange underbellies, which they might expose provocatively to attacking snakes, the snakes biting them and dying immediately of the tetrototoxin stored in the newt's flesh. In some areas newt-flesh being immediately toxic to snakes, their encounter having only one outcome, but in certain special hotspots, their interaction going on as long as the snake and mongoose in parts of India, and the outcome no longer being certain. The snake might die, might survive incapacitated, take another bite, the newt's toxicity might spike, its orangeness might fade, the behavior of flipping over to reveal the underbelly might change, and so and so forth.

Gabriel's story somehow reminds me of local newspaper reports of tens of people dying from drinking sugarcane juice because a lizard had somehow gotten caught in the presser. The inherent toxicity of the flesh of this kind of animal has mythopoetic overtones, and the idea of mixing a bitter toxin with sugarcane juice suddenly seems a profound foundational narrative for India. The poor souls who drank that bittersweet mixture may not have chosen that day for death, but they would likely have tasted a well balanced drink with an unimaginable kick. In fact, a kind of beer, for all beer can be defined as the addition of a bittering agent to an otherwise treacly mash of fermenting carbohydrates, usually from malted grain, but also possibly from rice, honey, and why not, sugarcane. As I've recently learned, the characteristic use of the hops leaf in beer dates from the Rhinesgebot law of 1516, which was partly intended to prevent peasants from poisoning themselves by adding to their brews randomly selected local plantlife, which often turned out to be not only bitter, but in fact toxic.

But the more interesting consequence of Gabriel's bio-evolutionistic theory of bitterness is that it reduces my aesthetic apparatus to mere chemoreception. It is demeaning, at first, to have the particularity of one's aesthetic reception reduced to thousands of years of competitive play between plants and varieties of mammals or even primates, but then it quickly feels thrilling and vertiginous. It strikes me that I am right to meditate on bitterness as the transcendent taste, which brings us into difficult contact with the rest of creation, as opposed to sweet, sour, salty, and fatty. The sweetness of an orange has never filled my mind with wonder, the way it might have for Rumi, for there is too easy a fit between its ripe perfection and my own voracious appetite. But the taste of bitterness in leaves and vegetables is the taste of their life forces pushing back against ours.

I am reminded of Peter Greenaway's infamous movie, The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, Her Lover, whose courant intertextuality and pop philosophizing made it the rage among us budding highbrows and turtlenecks on campus two decades ago. Other than the vivid colors, I am haunted by the careful explanation of the chef as to how he prices different foods: more for anything black, which represents death, and which can be mastered by consuming it, like a black olive. I remember being struck by the artfulness of this reasoning, but also sensing that it was a glossy, gauzy veil that disguised a deeper truth. Gabriel's reminder about the bitterness of poison helps me to reconstruct the intended homology: black = death = poison = bitter.

But can bitterness be securely identified with the color black? I'm not so sure, for bitterness allows for a wide range of nameless but distinct kinds of chemoreceptive experiences, tinged with salt, touched by sour. It strikes me that the visual spectrum breaks discontinuously into the perceived categories of color, leaving a rather large swath, indigo to the outer edges of violet, where while we can know color though we cannot understand it with as much nuance. So also, bitterness leaves us infused with the barest taste, knowable only as something indescribable, barely sensible, unknown. In some Hindu iconography, shyam, the color of night, illuminated at its edges by the moon, or else by the refractions of an already set sun, is identified as the color of mystic divinity. It is a limit condition of knowledge, a place of self-awareness, reverberation, and presence. Never darkening to pure flat black, but remaining a blue-black shimmer it may also sometimes lighten, like a purple cloud, nearly to the color of ash, khak.

“Is bitterness like noise?” offers Gabriel, “Is it like a taste of variousness, unevenness?” While noise is constituted of the same elements that can otherwise make up signal, we know that tastes are perceived at varying locations on the human tongue. So the same things that taste sweet, sour or salty, cannot in some inappropriate admixture taste bitter, unless they actually have a different and new chemical composition. Still, the signal-noise metaphor does make some kind of sense, for it is through an evaluation of their non-bitterness, that foods become recognized as edible. All the things in the world have some kind of taste, even if mostly bland, vaguely gross, metallic, and bitter-bleachhh, and it is only against their horizon that the high notes of starch, carbohydrate, sugar, fat, protein can be made out. When bitterness is appreciated, which is to say experienced aesthetically, it is analogous not to noise, but rather to Noise, the contemporary experimental style of music, which has adherents many parts of the world. My own aesthetic conception of karela, meanwhile, sits inside my brain somewhere near those lobes which store the intensely dissonant Dhrupad stylings of the Dagar Brothers, who are playing now, at full volume, even as I write, pushing all those limits en route to eventually delivering me to harmonization, meaning, cessation, satiety.

There are no tactile analogues to bitterness that immediately come to mind, only visceral ones. If sweetness is a smile, or a kiss, or even an embrace, bitterness is a swift knee to the balls, with all of its lingering afterblow. Gabriel and I agree that there is something salient about the fact bitter is tasted towards the back of the tongue and mouth, and this might mean that it is linked to the gag reflex, and the body's ability to purge itself of a toxic build-up in the stomach. Gabriel also points out that many naturally occuring poisons in nature are alkaloids, as are narcotics like the chemicals in opium and cannabis, along with other non-poisonous chemicals that merely taste bitter. There was, in this sense, a continuity between the sensation and apperception of bitterness and intoxication, and with sheer toxicity. Exploring bitterness as a limit region of the sensorial manifold, then, appears as a threshold point or even a gateway for the expansion of the mindbody's given boundaries, and the search for transcendental sensations through the ingestion of hallucenogenic substances. Interesting to note, given the Ara Bier I've now moved on to, that in beer the bitterness is actually added to the alcohol, unlike vegetal intoxicants, in which the bitterness would already inhere.

It was hard to say anything more profound about the body's reaction to bitter substances at the bar, especially without access to a brain scanner. Instead, I offered Gabriel the parable of Nilakantha. In a primordial era, well before this one, the deva-s and the asura-s were locked in a manichean tug of war, but looped around a churning device, through which the mixed-up soup of the cosmos came to be clarified, and separated. Many valuable treasures were created from this churning, including the immortalizing nectar of the gods, but also created was halahala, the terrible toxin that began immediately to poison all life around it. As the gods and the demons were both threatened by it, they turned to Shiva, who immediately gulped down the poison, but who also managed to hold it within his gullet, preventing it from either metabolising within his yogic body or irrupting back into the world. While the poison remained within his gag, it darkened his throat to a bruised blue color, on account of which he came to be called Nilakantha, Bluethroat. The story nicely associates poison with the threshold of the body which it must not cross, while also suggesting that it is possible, at least for Nilakantha, to differentiate the bitter taste of poison from its harmful physiological effects.

I also shared with him an account of a time three weeks into my first year of college, when suddenly overcome with homesickness one Friday night, I wandered into an illegal progressive party, ending up locked inside a room where they were doing tequila and triple sec shots, of which I remember five, having already downed several beers and multiple cubes of a slimy-wriggly fluorescent-green vodka jello. After we were all busted, the paramedics evidently determined that I didn't need to have my stomach pumped, and a hallmate watched me all night to make sure I didn't drown in my own puke. For months afterward, however, I experienced nausea at the smell of alcohol, principally beer, every time I went out. The mindbody can have certain aversions and associations hardwired into its system, and evidently acquire, as well as forget, new ones through experience. This experience also often comes to my mind when I hear Maqbool Ahmed, of the Sabri Brothers, pronounce, “pina haram hai — na, pina haram hai — nahin, pi ke hosh mein ana haram hai…” It is not drinking that is vile / damned, but rather the coming round to those very conditions of life that one had sought to escape.

Upon deep reflection and introspection, I now believe that it is not the knowledge of the certainty of death that condemns us to the human condition, but the Sisyphean certainty of yet another day, trapped in the same social and material circumstances with which we began the night. While the mindbody is a strange loop infinitely turned on itself, this crushing insight is the most bitter of all possible aspects and manifestations of bitterness, which is only vaguely approximated in gustatory or visceral modalities of the concept. Our experience of everyday life affords much sweetness, and some calm, but also periodic knees to the nuts: disappointment, discouragement, uncertainty, confusion and alienation. Even when we cannot control the causes of these experiences and emotions, artificially inducing them can provide some satisfaction, if only because it gives us temporary control and respite from their capriciousness. So far, so Freud, whose basic formulation of repetition and mastery, while clunky and inelegant, would seem to help me understand why I was once accustomed to drugging myself out of the unheimlich quotidian of my painful everyday.

With age, or with time, my mindbody seems to have righted itself since those dark days. It has, one might say, begun following the example of Nilakantha. It prevents halahala from entering into itself, while still remaining open to the extremities of life and the abundance of the sensorial world. I'll be helping it along tonight, with a Campari-soda-slice-of-lime, or maybe a beer, karela done three different ways, gooseberry preserve, chocolate pudding, and after-supper coffee.