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America's Newest Public Enemy Number 1: The Humble Pressure Cooker

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When I went to the United States for the first time, long before 9/11, I wondered if immigration officials would harass me, a single young man from a turbulent part of the world. I didn't have to worry. Customs officials and their formidable sniffing dogs were much more interested in middle-aged Indian women. They rifled through the contents of the bursting-at-the-seams suitcase of a lady who could have been my aunt. In those days the "illegal immigrant" America was most nervous about a forbidden mango or a sneaky gourd.

September 11 changed everything. Soon shoes were suspect. Cosmetic bags were viewed as booby traps. Even the clearest liquids and gels signalled danger in an America that was permanently colour-coded threat level orange. And men with beards and brown complexions and Muslim names found themselves regularly pulled aside for questioning.

Now after the Boston bombings we enter confront the newest marker of the dangerous other -- beware the pressure cooker.

Talal al Rouki, a Saudi student in Michigan found the FBI suddenly surrounding his house. Officers said a woman had called them because she had seen him carrying a "bullet colored" pressure cooker out of his apartment.

The young man told the FBI he was cooking a traditional rice dish called the kabsah which he was taking to a friend's house.

"You need to be more careful moving around with such things, sir," an FBI agent told al Rouki.

Indian mothers need to be more careful too, in a jittery America. A Hawkins or Prestige brand pressure cooker has long been part of the must-have go-to-America-kit for any self-respecting desi student. The only question was how many liters -- 2, 3, 5? I never took one with me when I went there, not because my mother was extraordinarily foresighted but because she was sure I'd make an absent-minded mess of it without her on-the-spot supervision.

However, the hiss and whistle of a pressure cooker has always been the signature sound of apartment complexes filled with H1B families. "The whistle is not working" is a domestic crisis on par with a lost green card. In Kolkata, my abiding memory of Sunday morning, is the pressure cooker whistling in kitchens around the neighbourhood -- promising a Sunday lunch of goat curry and rice. In a country where it is hard for grown children to tell their mothers "I love you" and vice versa, we make do by asking "How many whistles?" the sharing of that pressure cooker wisdom as sure a sign of love as any Hallmark card.

The South Asian love affair with the pressure cooker is legendary though it was invented by a Frenchman. The blog TiffinCarrierAntiques hails the stainless steel workhorse of the Indian kitchen for being mother's little helper in managing the "patriarchal expectations of a 'complete Indian meal'" -- a fairly impossible task which "would have been Herculean without the humble pressure cooker."

Now, thanks to the brothers Tsarnaev, the workhorse of the Indian kitchen is being viewed as the Trojan horse of America, its hiss more ominous than comforting. Swati on the blog WhistlingPressureCooker.com remembers how the pressure cooker saved her during Hurricane Irene in 2011.

(W)hen the electricity failed and the shiny, contemporary convection stove and oven beneath it at my in-laws' house in Rhode Island were rendered useless, I cooked chicken tikka masala and rice in my pressure cooker over our tiny gas camping stove. Instead of ripening deli meat sandwiches made with stale bread, my in-laws and I ate a fresh, piping hot curry.

Now she writes of her dismay at the end of innocence as she sets her caramel custard in her trusty pressure cooker: "(T)hat a pressure cooker could be used for anything other than cooking tasty food fast had never crossed my mind. I now feel nervous professing my love for my pressure cookers, and pressure cookers in general, openly."

Swati might be well-advised to change the name of her blog before the FBI comes knocking at her door. But one could also argue the Swatis of the world have been in blissful denial. As Praveen Swami points out in Firstpost, the pressure cooker has been cooking terror for a long time:

In India, the Indian Mujahideen's urban terror networks have used pressure cookers on several occasions -- starting with the attack on Delhi's Sarojini Nagar market in 2005. Pressure cookers were also used in the 2006 attacks on a temple in Varanasi and the Mumbai's train system; again, they were used to in the recent Dilsukh Nagar bombing in Hyderabad. On other occasions, though, the group has used steel milk cans and flour-boxes.

But Indians take the pressure cooker's dark side in their stride. You can still get onto a bus or a train with your pressure cooker without everyone clearing the compartment.

In America it's a different story. But it should not come as a surprise. Soon after 9/11, the Shaikh family of Pennsylvania found secret agents in moon suits and gas masks going through the spice cabinets in their kitchen after neighbours spotted them carrying a large pot of biryani into their friend's home.

At that time I had written:

Multiculturalism was supposed to take care of this fear of the other. But despite Diwali greetings to Hindus from the White House and International Day at school, in the end, multiculturalism has proven to be just a cute, fancy dress party. If it has really made a dent on how we conceive what it means to be American, it hasn't trickled down to the Shaikh family's biryani... Multiculturalism might have made the foreign a little more familiar. It certainly did not make it any more American.

Now we find the pressure cooker has remained resolutely un-American as well -- the shining symbol of diversity that needs to be hidden at home, not carried out into the yard. Perhaps some enterprising pressure cooking enthusiast will embark on a Take Back the Pressure Cooker whistlestop tour of America to restore its lost shine.

Until then you have to careful moving around pressure cookers in America these days. Guns, not so much.

Another version of this blog first appeared on Firstpost.com.