Memory and sentiment often go together. Memory is a sensorium, a vista of smells, sounds, a nostalgia for the touch, taste or texture of an object or event. Memory can be sublime as one remembers a place of pilgrimage or a piece of music or it can carry the fables of everydayness, the joys of childhood.
Today when I watch Maggi and other noodle packets banned from the stores, I feel a sense of sadness. Maggi was not just a food, it was a way of life, a celebration, a marker of some of the best moments of childhood and college life. Maggi noodles could have been a chapter in many an autobiography.
I remember at school there was nothing like Maggi. The closest to instant food was the samosa, or a bouquet of pakodas which one wolfed down with chutney. Our chutneys not only added spice to food but to our expectation of life. Samosa and chai were the ideal snacks and no school, no street corner was complete without it. In our socialist world with its ascetic dribbles of pocket money, chai and samosa spelt luxury.
The advent of Maggi was thus a triple conquest. The conquest came in several stages. The first Trojan Horse, the warning sign was the ubiquitous bread pakoda. It was an industrial product, sliced bread filled with potato and chutney yielded reluctantly to sauce. Sauce, tomato sauce deprived chutney of its mystique. Sauce like comic books never got full parental approval, so sauce, tomato sauce smelt of freedom. Instead of the spiciness of chutneys, we preferred the freedom in sauce.
The walls of Jericho crumbled further when chow mein entered our universities. Chow mein was a world of its own served by Tibetan refugees and Nepali assistants. It was seductively cheap, a compost heap of spices and smells. It was a distant cousin to the Chinese food served in sophisticated restaurants. This chow mein was proletarian, cheap, piled in huge quantities so students who were broke could share it. This chow mein was desi, Indian, as local as anything, the perfect challenge to idli-vada or the bread pakoda. It verged on the unhealthy but filled happy stomachs.
Maggi noodles followed chow mein. It was more antiseptic, more industrial. After instant coffee, it was my first introduction to instant food. In fact, for me globalisation began with Maggi noodles. It represented instantaneity more visibly than finance capital or Internet. Maggi noodles graduated from materiality to mentality. Someone called it the Mother Teresa of foods. One mother explained, “My son survived IIT Madras and the US, thanks to Maggi noodles.” In those days she even carried packets from India for her son.
Maggi entered and transformed our lives in myriad ways. It was the first advertisement beyond Surf and Hamam that we internalised. Cooking Maggi was sacramental because it was so ridiculously simple. Mothers’ cook books were unnecessary. It was the illiterate cook’s discovery of skill.
Maggi was sheer solace. If you worked hard and returned from work late at night, food was ready before one could spell ajinomoto. Maggi in those moments was a salve, soothing hunger and tiredness, in a way no other food could. With its flavours also came a sense of choice and Maggi and tomato sauce were the food of the year, an indestructible pair no cook could rend asunder. One realised it lacked vitamins, calories, nuance but one did not care. Maggi was a Linus blanket. No student, no hiker could go hungry as long as Maggi was there.
The trouble with Maggi is, one never saw it as a multinational product. There was something desi about it. Maggi sounded like a desi name. Maggi referred to all noodles. The way the name Tommy referred to all dogs. Brand and generic merged to create household folklore more than Boost, Bournvita or Horlicks, Maggi merged to create a self-sustaining world. It was so unpretentious that anyone could adopt it, so humble that all could eat it, and yet, so modern that it felt absolutely contemporary. Eating Maggi was like going to Sunday school or attending church. It evoked a community of sharing.
I somehow dropped the Maggi habit after college. One almost felt pious about it. I even pretended to look disapprovingly at Maggi consumers, not that it made a difference. Fortress Maggi was impregnable.
Thinking back, Maggi was one of the first non-socialist products. It was not public sector. It was not individualistic. One shared it. It suggested cottage industry though it behaved as a multinational. Maggi was the lingua franca of a new generation. Maggi went with TV serials, school food and late night breaks from tedious homework. It was even an answer to boredom nibbling at your entrails. Maggi noodles became the open sesame to the modern world like Amul butter, Maggi noodles was no longer a brand. It had acquired mythic proportions. One felt Maggi was there to stay.
In fact when the controversy happened, I did not think it would go so far, or be treated so seriously. Adulteration marks many an Indian product. Our fruits have chemicals, our vegetable hormones and our milk water. I thought Maggi would recover.
I think controlling Maggi gave the government — especially when it cannot control pollution, corruption or radiation — a sense of vindication. Our new regulatory economy needed a minor victory and suddenly Maggi acquired an instant demonology. The media turned pious, our consumer groups became vigilante, but my nostalgia makes me sad. I miss Maggi though I know I won’t eat it again. What Maggi adulterated was not food but memory. It contaminated nostalgia and disfigured the immaculate myth of instant cooking. It was a fall from Eden where a new generation was thrust into the world of health food. But I guess I am a sucker for ads.
As I watch Madhuri Dixit advertise Maggi oats noodles, I realise an era has ended. Both Madhuri and Maggi will disappear together. I have to mourn and say goodbye. They marked a life and lifetime. One will miss them. I think I will buy myself a new cook book, a classy one or return to my dosa and idli.