Writer'sWorld

B for Babette’s Feast and C for Compassion

Babette collects herbs.
[Source – The Criterion Collection]

Believing in a belief, conclusion-loving, pinning the words ‘this way, please’ on a dimly lit – could be dusk, could be dawn – sky, they followed the direction, unchallenged they went for ages, preaching and praying, walking as said… old eyes looking at the sky, chanting the words again when suddenly a dazzling shooting star strikes through the pinned message… which way now?

Round and round… for the fear of going astray.


Setting the fruit plate.
[Source – Vox.com]

In Babette’s Feast a humble group of elderly believers – tired, corroded by time yet hoarding time, finicky, daft and cement strict – are made to taste another route, taste literally, for they are invited to a feast, “a real French dinner”.

This 1987 Danish masterpiece directed and written by Gabriel Axel, based on one of Karen Blixen’s stories from Anecdotes of Destiny, termed by critics as “gastro-cinema at its most sensual and intoxicating”, “melancholy bliss”, and “a classic of literary adaptation”, in its simplicity and candour trespasses the humdrum routine life, and compassionately so… that you feel full.

Receiving an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, the first for a Danish film, Babette’s Feast most probably is also the first film ever to be mentioned in a papal document, Amoris Laetitia, as it is Pope Francis’ most favourite film and a recommendation too.

Watch the trailer now –


Story – Meet the sisters

Martine and Filippa, two elderly sisters, in a remote region on the western coast in Denmark, have lived a life of austerity, carefully always measuring the rules set – set in stone, grey and seashore stone, often used to hold the roof, the door, the window, sincere and sturdy stone, set in the 19th century – by their late father, a pastor, who named them after the theologians Martin Luther and Philip Melanchthon.

Following the spirit of Protestant Reformation, the pastor had started a congregation, a group with a mission to follow the followers who followed from the beginning the grand words of the follower. Now long gone, the pastor’s congregation is being carried on, thanks to his two daughters.

Sacrificing themselves for a greater good, the two elderly sisters, when young, were heartbreakers; many suitors attended the mass just to get a glimpse of the two beauties. The suitors dared to fall in love, Martine and Filippa dared to love not one but all, and the pastor loved his rule books.

The pastor with his two young daughters, Filippa and Martine, followed by the Lutheran sect members.
[Source – IMDB]

Yet, two true lovers – a Swedish cavalry officer, Lorens Löwenhielm, and a classical singer, Achille Papin – heartbroken, never stopped loving Martine and Filippa.

When Babette Hersant, a refugee, appears on a dark rainy night, begging for shelter, offering to work as a housekeeper for free, showing Achille Papin’s recommendation letter, the two sisters take her in. Fourteen years pass by and Babette, as a cook, serves Martine, Filippa and the congregation with better meals, deftly using from whatever is available.

The handful of folks who stayed loyal to the congregation – attending meetings, reading hymns, sighing, lamenting, cursing, gossiping – forgot, in actuality, why the congregation was formed. Saddened to see the folks bickering, Martine and Filippa, nevertheless, wish to celebrate their father’s hundredth birthday (a modest supper followed by a cup of coffee, that’s the plan).

Babette serves tea.
[Source – The Criterion Collection]

Babette requests the sisters, and it is the first time she does so, to let her prepare the commemorative dinner – a real French dinner – and also allow her to pay from her own pocket as she has won a lottery. The sisters, thinking that Babette will soon return to France and it probably will be her last time cooking for them, agree with her.

When Babette’s ingredients – exquisite wines, quail, a turtle, a calf’s head, etc., – for the feast arrive, the villagers are dumbfounded and the sisters are scared, regretting permitting Babette for she is turning the modest supper into a fantastic feast.

Sacrifice

A sacrifice is something sacred, holy, often done either to appease a deity or for the sake of others by renouncing something significant. Tied down in such a manner, sacrifice carelessly brings comparison in the framework of our societies.

The old pastor, thus, got lost in comparison. Comparing the text in his rule books with capricious people, he made them march-past, sing, sit and stand like the written word. All hail, now!

The congregation listens to Martine… Hallelujah!
[Source – criterionforum.org]

He couldn’t ever think of letting his two sweet bookmarks, his daughters, step out of his rule books, and the daughters knew, and the daughters obeyed, and the daughters gently broke hearts, and the daughters worked hard to run the congregation, to make the commoners appreciate. Hail and sing and love thy neighbour!

The pastor adored his daughters, appreciated the congregation, and loved the rule books for he identified with it the most.

The daughters surpassed the good old pastor’s attempt to follow a righteous path, for they sacrificed with compassion.

Compassion

Compassion works without failing, ceaselessly, for all and that is it; not divisive in nature, all comparison vanishes when a compassionate eye turns and looks through it.

Martine and Filippa are compassionate, always giving. From young to old age, they lived for others, tending and caring, cooking and serving, all seasons, morning to evening.

Not a sacrifice, for comparison rarely touches them, they quietly live – like the wavy grass, the cold ocean-fresh sand, the smoke coming out of the chimneys in the village, the lit and silent candles – cherishing their duty, performing it with love. Love!

On a dark rainy night, the sisters take Babette in.
[Source – The Criterion Collection]

Love engulfed their old father’s rule books and became Martine and Filippa’s sole guide, without declaring it.

But their habit of following the late pastor often led them to troubled states – the congregation was decaying unnaturally – and the rule books offered no solution. Round and round they went.

Who brought a change then? Who?

The act of giving a wounded Babette a place to rest, recover and serve, turned out to be that shooting star that struck through their fixated way of living… unawares the sisters stirred the scene and ripples of change began. It was a simple act.


Story – Babette’s preparing the feast

It becomes a grand affair, Babette’s feast, with the turtle soup and amontillado sherry, buckwheat pancakes with caviar and sour cream and of course, Champagne Veuve Clicquot 1860, then quail in puff pastry with foie gras and truffle sauce, accompanied with what the sisters were earlier worried about – they had asked, seeing the bottles of alcohol, “Surely that’s not wine?” and Babette had replied honestly, ‘No, that’s not wine. It is Clos de Vougeot, 1845!’

The sisters don’t say anything when dining, they had made a pact with all the community members, all of them won’t participate in this “witches’ sabbath”, they won’t accept pleasure and commit sin by describing how good the food is… so they eat everything quietly, the salade and dessert and the champagne and then the cheeses, fruits, sauternes, the coffee at the very end with the Grande Champagne cognac.

They chewed, sipped, swallowed slowly, sheepishly at first, then heartily tasting the fantastic joyful scrumptious heavenly meal, though never ever saying a word about the food, they do talk about their differences, mistakes, fraudulence, foolishness, love for the congregation, the old pastor and the lovely sisters.

Full and happy, pleased and welcoming, they then feel good and so, compassionately sing together, holding hands in a circle like little children.

“Mercy imposes no conditions…”, says General Lorens Lowenhielm.
[Source – The Criterion Collection]

The only one who did acknowledge the excellently prepared and presented dinner, is Lorens, Martine’s former lover, a General and married man now, who attends the dinner with his old aunt – the oldest member of the congregation.

Savouring every combination that is served, relishing the elegant, rounded, rich wines, he shares an anecdote about a woman chef, an artist, a culinary genius, who was behind the success of a renowned restaurant in Paris, and how this meal reminds him of the time when he once dined there.

Thanks to Lorens, the others get to know about the intricacies that made every dish so special. ‘Hallelujah!’ They sing together, the old hymns, looking at the night sky, and this once, find only the stars twinkling, not the pinned message.

Bidding goodbye, Lorens shares with Martine –

I have been with you everyday of my life. Tell me you know that.

Yes, I know it.

You must also know that I shall be with you every day that is granted to me from now on. Every evening, I shall sit down to dine with you. Not with my body, which is of no importance, but with my soul. Because this evening I have learned, my dear, that in this beautiful world of ours, all things are possible.

Sacrifice

The turtle haunts Martine.
[Source – The Movie Screen Scene]

Food chopped and sliced, butchered and boiled, softened, sweetened and spiced for the feast. The running food cycle does not appear like a sacrifice, one depends on consuming food, until one doesn’t.

The running food cycle turns exploitative when one species begins to burden the others, when storing food becomes the norm, when one has only two-minutes to cook. Nothing is sacrificed other than one’s health in such a case.

Says one of the members of the congregation – “Man shall not merely refrain from but also reject any thought of food and drink. Only then can he eat and drink in the proper spirit.” She then sips the champagne quietly.

The good food overpowering each one of them gradually, humbly, without a desire to win over, makes them forget the yardstick to measure goodness. They forget to compare.

Even though they follow Lorens’ lead – copying his manners, what to eat first and how exactly, for the exotic feast is absolutely new to them – they do so without fear. Conditions imposed faded away when they sat down to eat the meal.

Compassion

Babette once worked as the head chef of the famous Café Anglais in Paris, she is the culinary genius – an exception – Lorens spoke about; her passion for food guided her to experiment freely.

Fourteen years pass by and Babette, a refugee from a revolution that devoured her husband and son, scarred and impoverished her, learns to live, daily, by doing housework and cooking, serving meals to the congregation, learning the local parlance, cracking deals with vendors, experimenting with the home-grown herbs … she learns to live by doing nothing extraordinary.

In daily living, emptying herself of the past, she finds space for the present. Paying absolute attention to her chores, unknowingly she falls for it, and when she wins the lottery, after a little contemplation, she decides how to spend it – by cooking a proper feast for the congregation. Money doesn’t bother her now. She prepares a sumptuous meal, setting the stage well with beautiful silver and chinaware, brightening the mood with candle lights.

Head chef, Babette Hersant – an exception.
[Source – The Movie Screen Scene]

Perfectly, she conducts the performance – what is to be served, in combination with which drink, after exactly which dish – with the help of a local kid and the General’s in-waiting coachman, without taking the centre stage even once. Allowing the two helpers and herself to taste the food and sip the drink at the end, knowing well that the task is done.

Her food transforms all the guests; her passion takes the form of compassion; everyone feels grateful for one little thing or more. With the happy chaps gone, the two sisters come running to thank Babette for turning their father’s hundredth birthday into a wonderful celebration, something to remember her for when she returns back to Paris.

But she is not going back to Paris, says Babette, revealing that she was the head chef of Café Anglais where a dinner of twelve costed just the amount she won in the lottery (10,000 francs). Greatly surprised to know this, the sisters worry for her as she is back to being penniless, Martine says, “Now you will be poor for the rest of your life”, but “An artist is never poor”, says a smiling Babette.

The performance was for the guests as well as for herself, she adds, remembering what Achille Pappin often said, “Throughout the world sounds one long cry from the heart of the artist: Give me the chance to do my very best.” Filippa, a singer Pappin wanted to rule the French Operas, gives Babette a warm hug, saying it is not the end, that in heaven her art will delight the angels.

Overwhelmed, the sisters speak the language of the book and Babette of her art, that is all they know, but they speak with love. Love!


The Film

Gaberial Axel’s Babette’s Feast has given wings to this lovely short story by Karan Blixen aka Isak Dinesen, feather light, the 102 minutes long film never feels long. It begins like a folklore that gently plays with time – now talking about the father pastor, now the suitors proposing the young sisters and now the sisters, old, running the sect, then introducing a stranger, a troubled lady, on a rainy night… and now we want to know who she is.

Even though a religious sect paints this village in its colours, the story never preaches nor gets dull and overburdened with saddened affairs of the sad souls. Good food keeps them in good mood after Babette’s arrival, earlier they didn’t know the difference, and when they find out, and have to eat what the sisters cook in Babette’s short absence, they protest silently – grimace on face, one old fellow drops the mushy porridge back in the bowl, mumbling.

Until the feast is served, the community second guesses Babette’s every move – after all there’s an alive turtle in the kitchen – which even haunts Martine in her dreams. When the celebrations begin, we the audience also participate actively in it, watching what Babette serves and how the worried old folks react to it, we watch though not expecting much… for such is the art of cooking and shhhhh… Babette’s at work.

The candle dies out in the end… the feast is over, it fed and restored many, words were spoken, words were heard and understood, now there is nothing more to say, the day’s over and the night sky shines with stars for some, with messages for others… and a shooting star striking through again for the one who looks.


A truly lovely tale of everyday passion, magic and miracles.” – Geoff Andrew

A glimpse –

Read more about Babette’s Feast –

Babette’s Feast: A Fable for Culinary France by Priscilla Parkhurst Ferguson.

On wine and food and a seat at ‘Babette’s Feast’ by Patricia Rogers.


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Surprise!

The Happy Prince and the little blue swallow.
[Image by Jagriti Rumi]

Round the same corner, where the overgrown bushes and wildflowers say peekaboo, where the hilltop takes a sudden steep turn, where the gusty wind is always somewhat high, there, no formula has explained how, one is always greeted with a surprise.

Happy, tricky, charming, daunting, could be anything. The same corner’s sameness, the old corner’s oldness never mars its impact – the surprise surprises the surprised passerby.

Yes, it’s a corner to cross, no one’s destination. Just meeting an unexpected twist by the way, you walk past changed if it surprises you well.

Surprise, the word’s root meaning will take you to meet the medieval Latin word superprehendere which means ‘seize’. No wonder, a surprise seizes you, capturing fully until you see the hidden newness in what you thought was the same-old-same-old.


The Happy Prince & Other Stories by Oscar Wilde, a collection of fairy tales that he wrote for his own family members, is fun and full of surprises.


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The Lion’s Truth

Your highness, you rule!
[Source – Pixabay]

What shade is the lion’s

Truth? Grassland golden, hunting prey in red

Marking the dark night black

Soaking in wet sky blue

Of the stream, cloudy, stony, fish green

And scent heavy wind’s white

Smelling dry muddy earth’s brown

Resting, playing shadows under the sun’s yellow

Colouring death not in sorrow

Mankind behind great walls checks

Time, never finding how come his truth

Is different from the lion’s.

“It is not, truth is truth, same for all”, said the lion.
[Source – Pixabay]

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Temple Food

Short Coverage
From the temple, with love.
[Source – Pixabay]

*

The monastery hidden up in the mountains, the waltzing foggy air, breathes and greets in delight, offering love and care and sometimes offering it through food, what people happily call the temple food. And the one who excels in doing so is a Buddhist nun, Jeong Kwan.

Her simple, soupy, soulful dishes – vegetarian and vegan – lightens and calms both the body and mind. Grown in the monastery’s garden, the vegetables live boisterously.

*

After planting the seeds, I just watch them grow. They grow in snow, rain, wind and sunlight. When it’s hot they grow in heat. When it’s cold they grow in cold. I make food with these vegetables with a blissful mind. And I eat the vegetables with joy.

– Jeong Kwan

Ascetic yet communicating with everyone, delightfully going with the flow and living, simply, Jeong Kwan remembers her mother.

*

When I felt the love of my mother, I wanted to become like her. I learned the mother’s way from my mother. Preparing a lot of food to share. As a monk, I try to practice such a mind, a mother’s mind. A monk is everyone’s mother, not just to a family, but to the whole community…

My mother granted me the opportunity to enter this temple. Even today, I thank her for her mercifulness and compassion for allowing my pursuit of the freedom.

– Jeong Kwan

*

Her late parents, their memories don’t cripple or sadden her, it’s the endless pond of oneness through which she touches upon these few old glimpses. For she is one with all, one with her actions, her surroundings.

Walking, choosing the Buddha’s way, far away from the rush, close to nature, one feels transported. Jeong Kwan transports at will and doesn’t mind the bustling busy crowd at all.

I want to communicate with everyone through food, so I lecture at the Department of Culinary Arts at Jeonju University … I don’t consider my activities to be teaching. It’s communication.

– Jeong Kwan

*

Soy sauce fermentation.
[Source – Pixabay]

*

Here is what she has to say about soy sauce, excitedly she shares –

Every food is recreated by soy sauce. Soy beans, salt and water, in harmony, through time. It is the basis of seasonings, the foundation. There are sauces aged five years, ten years, aged for 100 years. These kind of soy sauces are passed down for generations, they are heirlooms. If you look into yourself, you see past, present and future. You see that time revolves endlessly….

By looking into myself I see my grandmother, my mother, the elders in the temple and me. As a result, by making soy sauce, I am reliving the wisdom of my ancestors, I am reliving them. It’s not important who or when. What is important is that I am doing it in the present.

– Jeong Kwan

*

The Buddha’s way, the temple food, all mixed with a little bit of soy sauce, whether in throbbing loud city or a challenging quiet corner in the forest, is the recipe to make a humble, fulfilling meal that lets the vital life force within and without work peacefully.

*

With food we can share and communicate our emotions. It’s the mindset of sharing that is really what you’re eating. There is no difference between cooking and pursuing Buddha’s way. It’s been almost half a century since I entered this way. I did it in pursuit of enlightenment. I am not a chef, I am a monk.

– Jeong Kwan

The blogger was inspired by the documentary series ‘Chef’s Table’ that is available on Netflix.

*

*

Here’s the trailer –

*

Meet Jeong Kwan –

*

Eric Ripert, a renowned chef, visits the temple –

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Here’s why Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House touched my heart!

Embracing, accepting, forgiving the doll walks on. Struggling, fearing, hoping the doll looks around. Learning, recognizing, changing the doll steps out, no longer a doll, but an individual.

The reign of the Doll ends.
[Source – thelodirampage.com]

It is Christmas Eve and the doll has told maids to hide the Christmas tree from the children until it is decorated and lighted up, and she is going to dress up and perform the Tarantella in the party as it is her master’s wish.

On the day after Christmas she will leave, changed forever, no longer a doll, but as Nora, Henrik Ibsen’s Nora.

At the time when the play A Doll’s House was written, marriages were sacrosanct, women were meant only to look after their husband, children and the house, in return the husband was to provide her with everything that she needed for maintenance; a rich man was a good prospect of making a happy married life.

Nora – managing the Helmer House and all the maids, taking care of her three little children, jumping around like a squirrel for her husband, Torvald Helmer – is struck by a calamity and there is no one on her side to support her, not even her master, Torvald. When the time approaches for the miracle Nora very much hoped and dreaded for to happen, she is left with absolutely nothing in her life.

Henrik Ibsen
[Source – Wikipedia]

From the year 1879 when A Doll’s House was performed for the first time on the stage to the modern 21st century, this play has continued to be appreciated both by the academia and the audience.

Free from the in-style verbose poetical soliloquies and with the woman as the central character, it was both a pioneering and a controversial play; pioneering for bringing the element of realistic drama in the theatre world which till then had been occupied with the historical romance and the thesis plays, and controversial for a woman behaving the way Nora did was unheard of, which is why Ibsen, on one occasion, had to present a leading actress with an alternate ending as she refused to act in the play as a woman who abandons her husband and children.

Many playwrights have also criticised the sudden awakening that Nora undergoes, which then gives her the strength to walk out; the Swedish playwright, August Strindberg, questioned Nora’s decision to leave her children with a man whom she doesn’t trust any more.

But, with or without any flaws, Nora’s story has touched many hearts and has made it a timeless piece of work. Its simplicity, conversational tone and ‘the slamming of the door’ climax gives us a truly dramatic, cathartic and a classic three act play. If the change of heart that Nora’s character goes through in the third act is unacceptable and absurd, then it only magnifies the fact that A Doll’s House is an absolutely realistic work because reality is stranger than fiction.

The storyline moves and grows and evolves and complexes with every scene. Nora, shifted from her father’s doll’s house to her husband’s, from past eight years had been working to decorate it. She, Torvald’s little lark, little spendthrift, knows nothing but to be at her husband’s disposal, by thoughtless choice of course. Ivar, Emmy and Bob are Nora’s dolls with whom she happily plays and she is Torvald’s doll, whom she happily obeys.

Torvald’s little lark.
[Source – cocosse.com]

Nora (goes to the table on the right): I shouldn’t think of doing what yon disapprove of.

Helmer: No, I’m sure of that; and, besides, you’ve given me your word. (Going towards her) Well, keep your little Christmas secrets to yourself, Nora darling. The Christmas-tree will bring them all to light, I dare say.

Uninformed and an act of love becomes unreasonable and an act of forgery for Nora Helmer; she took loan to save her sick husband and forged the documents because that was the only way out. Later when Krogstad present her with the facts, Nora replies,

Do you mean to tell me that a daughter has no right to spare her dying father anxiety? That a wife has no right to save her husband’s life? I don’t know much about the law, but I’m sure that, somewhere or another, you will find that that is allowed.

Krogstad is determined to reveal her secret and Nora is worried only for Torvald as she is sure he will take the blame for her sake and spare her any shaming. This is her fear for she knows Torvald would do anything in the world for her safety. What happens, though, is the stark opposite of this; Trovald is only worried about his own reputation and is even ready to bow and accept Krogstad’s demands. When Krogstad sends the IOU (I Owe You) and apologies for troubling Nora, Trovald changes euphorically and assures Nora that everything is fine.

“I must make up my mind which is right – society or I.”
[Source – cocosse.com]

But nothing is fine for Nora as she finally sees herself; Torvald becomes a mirror for her and the quick personality shifts he presents her with, shatters the mirror altogether and a real view of things comes in forefront. Nora starts to question – question her life, her relationship with Torvald, her role as a mother, her understanding of what society teaches and what she wishes to learn. Torvald’s little lark realises that she can fly and she, thus, chooses to do so.

Helmer: Nora, can I never be more than a stranger to you?

Nora (Taking her travelling bag): Oh, Torvald, then the miracle of miracles would have to happen.

Helmer: What is the miracle of miracles?

Nora: Both of us would have to change so that… Oh, Torvald, I no longer believe in miracles.

Helmer: But I will believe. We must so change that…?

Nora: That communion between us shall be a marriage. Goodbye.

With A Doll’s House Ibsen had no intention to serve the women’s rights movement, rather it was to present the significance of individual responsibility, the importance of understanding oneself, ones’ purpose in life and then striving to achieve it.

By the end Nora is ready to take a stand for herself, without any fear of the society or her master, without her own fears and inhibitions, without any support, but only with a determined and awakened mind, heart to know about herself and her life. And this certainly is why A Doll’s House still charms its readers, after all, the field of studying oneself is not well explored and many discoveries, many inventions are yet to be made.


Originally published at SWA – Blog on January 11, 2017.


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