The Six Tastes of Life

Ugadi greetings to all who frequent this madhouse. Ugadi greetings to those who have chanced upon it now. Gets me thinking why we attach so much significance to beginnings and ends. Hindu festivals, like all other religious or cultural festivals, usually commemorate the passage of time, the seasons, linking it to mythology, the cycles of life, and the movement of the planets. Ugadi is derived from Yuga (age) and Adi (beginning) and is observed on the first day of the waxing moon fortnight that falls in the month of Chaitra. For Bengalis, Chaitra is the end of the calendar year. For Telugus, it is the beginning of the year. For the missus and me, it is double the celebration.

Over the years, she has learned how to have a happy festive day, and leaves me out of pretty much everything but the partying and the homme a tout faire treatment, more a massaging of  my ego than true need. So there are mango leaves strung up on the doorway, rangolis at the entrance to the home outing the closet artist. The food prep, like the house cleaning, start days ahead and Ugadi day itself is a frenzy, everybody is bathed at unearthly hours (I work the night shift, so that makes it even more unearthly for me), the recently deep cleaned house is deep cleaned again in the span of the morning and the gods are remembered. The village takes over the kitchen, containers running out and ziplocs taking over. Junior and I get to dress up for apparently no reason, and usually with clothes just bought, sometimes with the price tags still on. Once lunch is over, and you get to think you just might be able to catch forty winks, it is time to socialize, I guess since nobody wants to dress down and then up all over again. Some do though, sometimes just to ensure that all the apparel received for the occasion get broken in. 

This Ugadi, however, is more special than others. It marks the end and beginning of a particularly strange period of our lives. Chandrababu Naidu's withdrawal from the NDA will probably go down as the moment that Indian politics changed. Given the crowded and corrupt fundamentals of Indian politics, it is hard to say with any confidence that great tidings await us, but still. It is a declaration of righteous indignation that should send a message to the unprincipled, and encourage those who choose to live by their conscience. At home, we are going to be looking back at this time with the deepest of gratitude and respect for life, and for the people in our lives.

My favorite and most terrifying association with Ugadi is the Ugadi Pachadi, a cold soup that represents the various flavors of life. Over the years that I have lived south of the Vindhyas, I have overcome my fear of it, and since everyone makes it, and everywhere you go on this day, you are asked to taste it every time, I have begun to develop a palate that allows me to judge the merit of the pachadi, often extrapolating it to what the maker thinks of or desires from life.

Ugadi Pachadi is a blend of six flavors, from Neem, Mango, Jaggery, Tamarind, Hot Peppers, and Salt, symbolizing Bitterness, Surprise, Happiness, Disgust, Anger, and Excitement. It is a symbolic way of reminding ourselves that life is a blend of all types of experiences, and success and happiness lies in being able to deal with all of them with equanimity. 

Ugadi Pachadi (Pic from wiki commons)

Ayurveda goes deep into the science of taste and tracks it from the tongue all the way down to the colon, and has a large body of knowledge describing the physiological, emotional, psychological and spiritual impact that the different tastes have on our constitution and its balance.

Chinese and other Eastern philosophies have similar theories about the six tastes (they consider umami as the sixth taste after salty, sweet, sour, bitter and hot, and umami is a different real story altogether). The way light is sensed by more than just the eyes, taste too is perceived by more than just the tongue.

The traditional Western approach to taste includes umami under the blanket term savoriness, but in reality it is a more complex gift of nature than just attractiveness. It is a magical flavor that makes you want to eat. If you look at the foods and processes that typically produce the umami flavor, you will realize its link to survival and preservation.

Taste serves as a roadmap, and the Ugadi pachadi, which is never made except on that one day, exists to tells us that we need to be aware of the vagaries of circumstance and deal with all of them with gratitude and compassion. My decades-long not-entirely-requited love affair with tea led to a philosophy of taste that is demanding yet simple. Food that tastes healthy is healthy, and leaves you contented with just enough, and that usually means it is integrated (there is a sense of unity and balance in the combination of flavors) and it should remain on your psychological palate long after you have eaten the food filling you with joy and thankfulness.

Think of a good meal, and you will realize what I mean. Unhealthy foods rarely give you that feeling though they taste great when you are having it, and chances are they make you feel like having more and more of it. Try feeling joy and thankfulness for a Happy Meal and you will know what I mean. Ayurveda and Yoga have an explanation for those who are filled with joy and thankfulness when thinking of oily, spicy, starchy, heavy food.

Year ends and new beginnings, birthdays, wedding anniversaries, death anniversaries are really a celebration of life and survival. I remember less than a decade back, I was going through a patch where I was living the most depraved of lives. I was in poor health to a point where my survival itself was a miracle. Like old people often do, I remember giving regret-filled thanks at the end of each winter for not having taken me. And trust me, regardless of your age or your station in life, we all subconsciously feel this way. Subconsciously, we are all survivors of the most basic sort, one sperm cell out of the millions. The celebration of beginnings and ends is really just that - a collective giving of thanks for having made it through one more arbitrary unit of time. 

The fact that our lives are peppered with such celebrations (birth, death, getting married, going to jail without passing go, etc.) gives us an opportunity to look closer at what we are doing in our mind every time we celebrate. The truth is that the past is unchangeable and the future unknown. It is only this moment that we are aware of and to some extent in control of. How you tackle this present moment decides at the same time what your past "will be" and what your future "could bring." As we build a succession of meaningful, joyous present moments, our understanding of the past and future changes.

What we regret becomes a lesson, what we fear becomes an opportunity, what we hate becomes an area for growth, what we desire becomes our runway lights. Each moment can be celebrated at its core just the way we celebrate all other festivals. Yeah sure, mangos happen when mangos do, snowflakes when snowflakes. And honestly, say what you want about life, I am glad Ugadi pachadi isn't made more frequently.  


  1. Very well written. I wish you a very happy Ugadi and a great year ahead.

    1. Thank you, Prasad, and wish you the same.

  2. What a beautifully inspiring and uplifting post... a 'surprise delight' from usual reflections. I love the description of the Pachadi and its metaphor to life. I was stunned by the new perspective to Go to Jail without passing go... never thought it could be real and can only admire your courage and perseverance all the more.. what a lovely gift for the ending of a year or the beginning!

    1. Thanks, Tipu. Always a joy to have your comments. The six tastes are very similar to the eight winds in Buddhist thought.


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