INDIA'S AFFAIR WITH COAL has been red-hot over the centuries. And it’s not just about the sacred fire. In some versions of the Ramayana, when Sita underwent a trial by fire (agni pariksha), the burning coals were said to have turned into lotuses. The ancient ritual of walking on a bed of red-hot coal is still practised in many parts of the country where people pledge their fidelity or test their faith. Coal was even a part of the Vedic economy; a consumerist mindset, where everything is looked upon as a saleable commodity, was called Angaraka (red like charcoal). In this model of consumption, based on the commercial mindset of a coal seller, the worth of a tree was judged solely by the amount of coal it produced, and not on its intangible benefits.

Closer to the present, coal has been the subject of theatre and cinema. Thespian Utpal Dutt’s famous 1959 play Angaar highlighted the wretched conditions of workers in India's coal mines, dramatically culminating in the drowning of the miners. Then there’s the 1979 multi-starrer movie Kala Patthar, based on the 1975 Chasnala mining disaster in Bihar. The heroic efforts of characters, played by stars Amitabh Bachchan, Shashi Kapoor and Shatrughan Sinha, to rescue the trapped miners were a huge hit in the cities. And, of course, many movies have celebrated the more cheery aspect of coal—catchy songs set in, and around steam engines.

Whether it’s popular culture or economics, coal plays an important role. But any Indian is likely to forget all this at the first whiff of corn or groundnuts roasting on coal embers. The aroma of haute cuisine is nothing compared with this.

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