Blog: My (mini) marathon

While family and friends across the capital were celebrating outstanding shows of physical endurance, willpower and focus with those who had completed the London marathon, I was seated in a restaurant in Hoxton feeling like I’d just completed a marathon of my own.

The setting for this scene was the Red Dog Saloon.  For those of you that watch the excellent Man v. Food, this is the first restaurant I’ve come across in London that offers one of the famed challenges from that show – the super spicy chicken wings challenge.

The night before, I’d been out for a friend’s birthday and it was there that the challenge was presented.  “I only managed 2” said one.  “I had a taste of the sauce and decided better of it” said another.  But the key reason was the performance of one of their friends.  He’d completed the challenge, but not without a great deal of pain and grief.  Apparently, he’d been pacing the restaurant, retching and involuntarily discharging saliva (sorry for any TMI).  So myself and another friend (Jaz K…total star!) agreed to take the challenge on the very next day.

We arrived at the restaurant, both excited and apprehensive.  Jaz perhaps more so as she had brought her beautiful daughter along and, given that there was a real possibility of fainting, she understandably was not so keen on her daughter seeing her like that!

We settled down, the menu was presented to us and on it, in clear flame writing:

“Hot Wings Challenge – made with fresh Naga Viper chillies”

Now, to give you a sense of just how hot these chillies are, a brief chilli education.  The spicy heat of chillies are measured in Scoville units.  0 would be the standard bell pepper (capsicum).  A jalapeno pepper or tabasco sauce comes in at between 3,500 and 8,000 units.  A habanero chilli is between 100,000 and 350,000 units.  The Naga Viper chilli comes in at just over 1.3 MILLION Scoville Units.  1.  Point 3.  Million.  In fact, it was officially the World’s Hottest Chilli until February 2011 (it is now the Trinidad Scorpion Butch T pepper, as at March 2011).

Being part-Bangladeshi, Naga Morich (Morich is Bangla for chilli) is relatively standard fare – I’ve had pickles made out of it but even then, it’s the tip of a teaspoon with plenty of yoghurt to hand.  But this seemed like a completely different kettle of fish.  In fact, one of the spectators (there were about 18 people watching) had just completed the London marathon.  He was still in his running gear and said that he’d rather run the marathon again immediately than trying this challenge again (he had completed it last year but not without tremendous pain for the next few days!).

Jaz and I ordered our Hot Wings Challenge and they promptly brought over a waiver form for us to sign, which read like this:

DO YOU HAVE WHAT IT TAKES TO MAKE OUR WALL OF FLAME?

Ghost Wings Challenge rules

  1. Eat 6 ghost wings in 10 minutes, followed by 5 minutes burn time
  2. No other food or beverage may be consumed in that time.  No bathroom breaks allowed.
  3. Wings must be completely eaten
  4. Successful challengers will be pictured on our “Wall of Flame”

WAIVER: I understand that Ghost Wings are extremely spicy hot.  Good hot wings always burn twice.  Red Dog Saloon is not responsible for next day discomfort.  Red Dog Saloon is not responsible for all other wings tasting bland or lifeless after consuming our Ghost Wings. 
 
I am a damned fool.

I signed the waiver and, 5 minutes later, 2 portions of the Ghost Wings (one for me and one for Jaz) and pairs of plastic gloves arrived on our table.

In a basket were 6 chicken wings, each sized like half a chicken leg, lathered in a thick, orange, gooey paste.  It wasn’t runny like a sauce…it was thick gloop.  I don’t normally sniff food before eating it but had to, just to see what I was letting myself in for.  There was a slight tickle on my nose but nothing that was alarming me.

Would you like some milk with that? Well…you can’t.

I pulled on my plastic gloves, listened as the waitress re-read the rules and waited for the “Go!”.

As soon as I touched the wings (remember, I’m wearing gloves), the spice ran up my fingers, warming my hands as though I’d put placed my fingers on a radiator.  I dug into the first wing and didn’t feel much.  Same again with the second.  I was midway through my third when the back of my throat felt like it had exploded.  I didn’t really know what hit me and had to take a break to look up to the sky as means of spreading the pain inside my throat.  It didn’t work.

I used that opportunity to start shredding the chicken off the bones from the remaining wings and caught a glimpse of Jaz who, 3 wings in, had tears streaming down her face and hair sticking to her cheeks – but she was fighting through.  My heart rate had clearly gone through the roof and my mouth was numbed as though I’d had dental anaesthetic applied to my mouth.  I couldn’t tell if I was chewing.

I started putting in mouthfuls of the shredded chicken but by now had involuntary pins and needles in my hands and arms.  Every time I touched the chicken, it was as if I was putting my hands into a live electric socket.  Any sense of feeling in my hands and mouth (both hands…I was eating with my right!) had pretty much disappeared.  But the heat in the back of my throat was the only thing that let me know I was alive.

I’d finished the chicken wings within 6 minutes (a remarkable performance I’m told) and began my 5 minute burn time.

I somehow rested my forehead on my wrists and was promptly told to take off my gloves, as the heat could’ve gone to my eyes.  I took off my gloves, closed my eyes and waited to see if my throat would still be there after.  My ear canals were bursting at the seams so I had to take off my hearing aid and place my index fingers in to try and keep them in place.  Those 5 minutes seemed to last an age.  I kept turning round to ask the manager how long was left.  “2 minutes 34″….”2 minutes 19” were the responses.

By this point, the heat had travelled down my shoulders and arms and, coupled with the pins and needles, I could easily have fainted but clenched my fists and my teeth together to try and overcome the pain.  At no point did the thought of giving up cross my mind.  My throat, hands, arms, shoulders, fingers and ears were considerably hot and incredibly painful but there was no sweating and, outwardly at least, I looked pretty normal.

As my 5-minute burn time came to an end, the cold glass of milk that had been staring at me throughout that time was the most beautiful thing I’d ever tasted (I couldn’t even tell it was full fat :s).  I devoured it and asked for another, but other than the psychological peace of mind, the milk made no difference to the immense heat.

As my burn-time finished, Jaz was halfway through hers and had her hands clamped firmly on the table, clearly wary that she might go through the roof because of the heat.  Her face looked as though she’d been through tremendous physical and emotional turmoil.  But, when her 5-minutes were up and she was presented with her glass of cold milk, she uttered the immortal words, “Pass me the vodka!!!”.  Genius.

We promptly had our photos taken – me with my banana and peanut butter milkshake, Jaz with some tissues to wipe her tears – had them placed on the Wall of Flame and sat down to an awestruck table.  And rightly so.  Jaz and I put in a truly Herculean effort to overcome this particular challenge.

That said, it’s not something I’ll be doing again any time soon.  This will most likely be my first and last Super Hot Chilli Chicken Wings challenge in this or any other country.

I knew I could take quite a bit of spice but I never realised I’d survive this kind of onslaught.  I did and the dreaded “after-effects” have been reasonably ok – nothing too dissimilar from what some of you might experience after eating a particularly angry vindaloo.  But the pain and heat I suffered is something far beyond a vindaloo would manage.

If you do fancy yourself as a bit of a chilli-head, then by all means try this challenge.  But believe me – be prepared to give up after at least the second chicken wing.  This is most definitely not a challenge for the faint-hearted and if not anything else, I learnt that my tolerance for pain (and spice!) is far beyond anything I’d ever imagined it could be.

I did it.  And so did Jaz.  And now the video is available!

Awesome.
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Blog: Happy Bengali New Year, 1419

The majority of people I know will know about a few New Year celebrations.  There’s THE New Year (you know, the one where you end up somewhere in London looking at fireworks and travel “free” on the underground but it’s not really because you have a monthly travelcard); there’s the Chinese New Year (this is the year of the Dragon) and, possibly, the Islamic calendar, generally owing to Ramadan (this is 1433 according to the Islamic calendar).

Today, 14 April, marks the start of the Bengali New Year, 1419.  It is generally celebrated by Bengali speaking people across the world, predominantly in Bangladesh and India (specifically in West Bengal, Assam and Tripura).  Of course, Bengalis abroad will celebrate too – I’ve been to many a “Boishakhi Mela” (“Boishakh” being the month and “Mela” meaning Fair) in London in my time! In fact, the “Pohela Boishakh” (Pohela mean first) mela in London is believed to be the largest Asian festival in Europe and the largest Bengali festival outside of Bangladesh and West Bengal.

So where did the calendar come from and why? The calendar itself is based on a combination of the Hindu solar calendar and Islamic Hijri calendar.  There are two generally accepted hypotheses surrounding its history.

The first is that the calendar started with the year 1 during the reign of King Shoshangko in ancient Bengal, who ruled approximately between 590 and 625 CE.

The other is that the Mughal Emperor Akbar (yes…my namesake) created the Bengali calendar for tax collection purposes.  Land and agricultural taxes were collected according to the Islamic Hijri calendar which, of course, is a lunar calendar.  This didn’t work so well for the agricultural year.  Akbar’s astronomer, Fatehullah Shirazi, started work on a new calendar based on the Islamic Hijri and Hindu solar calendar.  It is believed that instead of starting at 1, Akbar jump-started the calendar with the (then) Hijri year.

The Boishakhi Mela this year will be taking place in Tower Hamlets in May, so get yourselves out there if you can.

In the meantime, Shubho Noboborosho (Happy New Year) to all!

Blog: My fortnight at The Times

Some of you may be aware from my previous posts that some of the articles I wrote were during my 2-week internship at The Times newspaper, arranged by the UpRising programme.  Unsurprisingly, they’ve wanted me to write  a piece about my experience ever since and, embarrassingly, I’ve been incredibly poor at getting to them.  Better late than never I say and so, here it is.  You can now read the version on the UpRising website.

There are many organisations and initiatives that talk of “raising aspirations” for young people.  There are few that actually do it.   In my experience, the UpRising programme is the only one that has.

I was given the privilege of spending two weeks in the company of some of the biggest names in journalism with a placement at The Times newspaper. And it wasn’t just a generic work placement.

It is testament to the UpRising programme that the Managing Editor of an ubiquitous brand like The Times took time out of her schedule to not only speak to me at length about my aspirations, but deem it fit to place me on the Leaders/OpEd desk – the place which sets the tone for the paper on a daily basis.

As I was introduced to some of the most influential people in journalism – Daniel Finkelstein, Phil Collins, Hugo Rifkind, Oliver Kamm and others – it soon dawned on me that, for a while at least, these individuals would be my colleagues. And it’s all because of UpRising.

Sitting at David Aaronovitch’s desk, I’d hardly had time to compose myself before my boss for the fortnight, Anne Spackman (a Times stalwart and former Managing Editor herself), whisked me off to the daily News Conference.  Walking up the stairs, I was briefed that this is where section Editors (from Home Affairs, to Sport and times2 magazine) brief the Editor, James Harding, on content in the paper.

I sat down, notepad in hand, looked left and sitting next to me was Matthew Parris.  I could hardly contain my excitement but did my best to look engrossed in News Conference with the words “I’m sitting next to Matthew Parris” playing on loop in my head, preventing me from concentrating.

Whilst the “intellectual celebrity spotting” was exhilarating everyday, I was there to do some proper work.  And work I did.  After News Conference, on a daily basis, I would prepare for Leaders Conference that would take place immediately after.  Here, the Leader Writers (Phil Collins, Daniel Finkelstein, Oliver Kamm etc.) would meet with the Editor and tell him what they wanted to write about.  This was important as the Lead pages set out the tone and position of the paper – whether it be supporting another runway at Heathrow or criticising Bashar al-Assad in Syria – this part of the paper would have readers and commentators saying “The Times thinks this on this particular issue”.

To be part of that meeting on a daily basis and, at one point, having my suggestion warmly considered (that Scottish independence may have been dealt a huge boost by David Cameron’s decision to veto the European treaty on the Euro) was nothing short of inspiring.  I was even invited to a breakfast presentation hosted by Emily Maitlis at the Royal Automobile Club by Daniel Finkelstein who was debating the Euro with Oliver Kamm.  Embarrassingly, after the event, I left them waiting for me for a while as they jumped into a taxi as I’d decided to take the tube back to the office, even though Daniel suggested I take the taxi with them back the day before!

As the afternoon arrived, Anne suggested I develop my writing by trying to write something for Comment Central, the Times online blog.  What an amazing opportunity.  I would write every day and (after a few edits by the awesomely named James Dean), would see my pieces published on Comment Central.  I wrote about a range of things – from the Euro through to Ilford being the top tourist destination in 2011 – and was actively encouraged to do so.

But perhaps the biggest highlight of my time at The Times came on my last day.  Peter Brookes is nothing short of legendary in current affairs circles.  He has been The Times’ leader-cartoonist for 20 years, capturing the ever-changing national and international political landscape with his sharp observational cartoons.  Within hours of the News Conference, he would come to the Leader/OpEd desk with his initial sketch, asking our opinion (even mine!).  Generally, our feedback would be “Oh that’s just amazing!” – I’m not sure how much that helps him…

On my last day, the Managing Editor invited me to her office and we had a chat about my time at The Times.  She then handed me a signed copy of Peter Brookes’ collection of cartoons.  Signed.  By Peter Brookes himself.  I had to thank him in person immediately after and did with the most inane grin on my face.  I hope I hadn’t freaked him out.  But nonetheless, this book now has pride of place in my living room for all to see.

Not only do I have a signed copy of Peter Brookes’ book, I have wonderful contacts who have been generous with their time and advice since (Daniel Finkelstein wrote me a recommendation on LinkedIn!) and have the opportunity to write for Comment Central whenever I come up with a decent idea.  Not bad for 2 week’s work.

And I have UpRising to thank for that.

Speechwriting: Writing slogans

A family friend of mine is always intrigued by the range of things I do – from my day job to the writing to the dancing and random (and confident) babbling in Bangla.

So he’s enlisted my help to write a slogan (and a jingle! HA!) for a product of his (he’s an entrepreneur). I’ve signed a non-disclosure agreement so can’t say much more but have agreed in return for a testimonial (at least!).

I’ve always imagined slogans to be the work of marketing folk – I chose NOT to do a marketing module at undergrad because I thought it wasn’t challenging enough. Little did I know…

So I’ll be updating you on my progress with this!

Random.

Blog: URGENT: Support Rawshanara

A video has recently surfaced on the internet (amongst the billions of others!) that has moved me to write this post and I request you, the reader, to give this your full attention.

The video shows a girl by the name of Rawshanara dancing to Beyonce’s “Run The World (Girls)” at what appears to be a dance-off at the Suede Shisha Bar in Mile End, East London.  “So what?” you might think, and rightly so.  Unfortunately, the video has generated a steady wave of (sometimes vitriolic) criticism from some within the young Muslim community because the dancer in question is wearing a Hijab.

The original video, thankfully, has been removed owing to the good work of a friend of mine (DocBeg at YouTube).  But, as is the nature of these things, copies/recordings have gone viral, crossing international borders.  I am not posting the link up as it defeats the purpose of this mini-campaign of mine, but will draw your attention to some of the comments that this video has generated:

ALL THEM PEEPS FREE MIXING ESPECIALLY THEM FAKE HOEJABBIS GOING THERE JOKING AROUND WITH BOYS HAVE SHAME. IM GONNA FINISH THE OWNERS, HIS ALL READY WANTED THATS Y SO MUCH SECURITY THERE PROMISE HE WILL GET IT AND SISTERS IF IM GOING PASS N C U FAKE ASS BITCHS THERE USE WILL GET FINISHED TOO

k221224 4 hours ago

Ouch! Seems the Muslim woman, are human after all. Pity she is a chubby one, or i would have had a five knuckle shuffle over the immigrant….

EnglishCyberArmy 15 hours ago

Astagfirullah. She should be shot.

Im22Sikkk 18 hours ago 2 likes

“Astaghfirullah” means “I seek forgiveness from Allah” but is used frequently in a “Lord, have Mercy” kind of way.

Now I know that the internet and YouTube comments don’t always mean that someone will go out and shoot the girl but, there are some things that we must bear in mind:

  • her name has been disclosed
  • she has distinctive physical characteristics
  • it is likely that if she is in an area like Mile End, it may be easy to identify her.

A lot of people have already made a stand (like DocBeg) and are highlighting that spreading the video is an “un-Islamic” trait in itself:

Can you please take this video down. It is not up to us to ‘expose’ this girl. Each to his own. This video is doing no good, and is only portraying Muslims negatively. Not to mention the bad points the person who posted this will get every time it’s viewed by a male, or encourages hatred towards Muslims. For the sake of everyone please remove it.

ThatOne678 18 hours ago 11 

I am sure that upon seeing some of the backlash, the girl in question not only regrets her actions but fears for her safety.  As do I.  By raising awareness, I’m hoping we can ensure her safety.  I’ve set up a Twitter hashtag #standupforrawshanara and have commented on the YouTube videos still visible with the following message:

Please follow #standupforrawshanara on Twitter if you want this video removed and fear for her safety.

I will #standupforrawshanara.
Will you?

Blog: AWOL (and career woes…)

Given that writing, particularly creative writing, is socially acceptable schizophrenia, I have to pretend I have millions of followers to satisfy my own egotistical tendencies…

So here is an apology to all my readers for my lack of activity on this blog since the initial set-up.  I have been busy at work and, perhaps more critically, been struggling with negotiating the career crossroads I find myself in at the moment.

I’m in a politically-restricted post at work, which means I have to be very careful about what I write about (seeing as this blog is under my REAL name!).  This has been frustrating for me because some of the juiciest things that have happened in the last few weeks are inherently political – Cash for Access, Pasty Tax, Granny Tax, United winning the league…(well, the last one ain’t political but MAN it’s a great feeling knowing we’re practically going to tomorrow).

But needless to say, I’ll be trying my best to write more often (nothing like a public declaration to get me moving eh?)