Wednesday, 3 June 2015

'Maggi'cal Two Minutes or Miasmic Ones?

A few years ago, the brand that is making headlines in India over the last few days for its purported high lead levels and mono sodium glutamate content, asked for personal 'Maggi' stories, for advertisement purposes. For the uninitiated, ( read my readers of non Indian origin! ), Maggi is the name of the most popular brand of instant noodles in India, marketed by none other than the multinational giant Nestle, of the Kit Kat chocolate fame. I, mercifully for me and my husband and children, have never been a fan of Maggi but I did have a couple of personal stories that I never made the effort to send to them ! Now when every Arnab, Rajdeep and Vishnu and every Barkha, Shobha and Tavleen is airing his or her opinion on every single Indian News Channel on television, let me add my 'masala' (spice) to the hot water too...
A tight, rigid, socialist economy in India meant that as school kids we were exposed to barely a couple of international brands while growing up. So imagine my surprise one day, way back in the year 1983, when huge boxes were brought into our class room at school and brightly coloured packets popped out. We were each given a free packet to take home and try. My sister brought home one too and we had our first taste of instant noodles! Nestle started with just one flavour - Capsicum- to entice the Indian market and that was the start of a huge revolution where, slowly but surely, many Indian school kids were weaned away from traditional Indian home made snacks and Maggi was introduced in their stead, in many homes across different strata of society. I still remember the cost of a packet then. It was all of one rupee! (1/65 of an American dollar!).
In India it was cleverly marketed as something your mother fed you because she really loved you and cared for your feelings and wanted to cheer you up. They picked up the "tag" line that kids say all over the world to their mothers the minute they are able to verbalize their feelings " Mummy I'm hungry! - Mummy bhook lagi hai, in my national language Hindi ! And the solution? The mother could cook and serve the noodles in just a couple of minutes! The child would feel great and the mother would feel good, duty done with minimal effort!
Thankfully for me, my own mother never fell pray to this gimmick but my sister was a fan of this new snack on the block, so we did have it occasionally! One such occasion was when an unexpected guest had dropped in and my mother did not have time to make us a hot snack by the time we came home from school. So she handed me a couple of rupees,(yes just two rupees, hard to believe but true!) and asked me to buy two packets of Maggi. We lived in a huge colonial bungalow as my Dad was then posted to our home town Pune. So I got onto my bicycle and pedalled up the drive way and opened the high gate without getting off my bike, by shoving it with my foot. My little toe got caught in the chicken wire that was entwined on the gate and I yanked it out. It hurt a bit but I cycled to the shop, bought the Maggi Noodles and cycled back home. By this time, my little toe was swollen and throbbing and I just collapsed on the sofa. Diagnosis? A fractured and dislocated toe which had to be set under general anaesthesia. Those packets of Maggi certainly proved expensive for my parents since my Dad rushed me to a private hospital and not the free Army one!
Cut to a few years later and we were planning my sister's ninth birthday party. We were scratching our heads hard for an appropriate return gift when we suddenly hit upon the idea of a Maggi noodle packet for each child. By the late eighties, the price of a packet had shot up from a rupee to five rupees but it was still very affordable and much loved amongst most kids. So it was indeed a brainwave!
The party was a huge success, every one ate to their heart's content but each child's eyes really lit up as those yellow packets were brought out and there were shouts of glee! Such was the excitement that instant noodles generated in our childhood... The next morning every single mother called up mine and told her their child had insisted on making and having the noodles that very night! They could not even wait till the next morning for this treat. Stomachs full of party food were no bar for Maggi Magic!
By this time Tomato and Masala flavours had been added to the original Capsicum one and they introduced a non vegetarian flavour too. It came as a boon to students in hostels, to bachelors and to many harried mothers who had started working full time by the time the nineties dawned. It was a god send to Indians travelling to countries where finding vegetarian food was a challenge. Maggi needed just hot water and two minutes to make! Soon, Maggi with real vegetables was introduced and then Oats Maggi "with fibre" was marketed with a vengeance, though how processed food can have fibre is beyond my thinking skills! The punch line this time was "Taste bhi (also) , Health bhi," probably to assuage all those guilty consciences who knew they weren't ingesting the healthiest of foods...
 Long ago, my own mother was once excitedly telling me how our neighbour's nine year old son drew up a chair to the kitchen counter each day, lit the gas and cooked himself Maggi, since his mother was out for work when he returned. I was in my mid teens at that time but the incongruity of it struck me even then. I asked her if it was really safe for such a young child to light the gas when alone at home and secondly was it really good to have Maggi every single day?
That is the question our government is now asking too. Many of the Northern states of India have banned sales of the yellow packet for the next few days and every single state is now carrying on independent tests. The verdict remains to be seen. But my daughter gave her verdict long ago, as a seven year old, while studying in the Indian School in Dar es Salam, Tanzania. When asked by classmates why she brought 'parathas' (Indian whole wheat flat bread)  to school in her lunch box every single day when practically every Indian expatriate kid was getting Maggie, she was quick to answer " It's because my mother cares about my health!"
Yes, my kids can safely say, "Mummy I'm hungry". There's no way they will be served mouthfuls of lead and MSG, ban or no ban !

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