Friday, April 29, 2011

The 'Eating' Fast

I am a hopeless foodie. Hopeless because I can't cook for nuts, and foodie, well.... because I can gleefully tuck in anything that does not spring up and eat me first! I think that explains why 5 year old me (raised in a city without crows) ran after a very large, well-fed crow in my hometown so that we could cook up the 'chicken' in my strictly vegetarian ancestral home - much to my grandmother's horror.

I also believe in leaving the healthy eating to others! I am content with eating anything that looks and smells like its been cooked (actually, in some cases even uncooked will do!). My stint at the Hotel management institute I studied at, did wonders to my already confused definition of food. We passed off burnt, yet undercooked (we were talented at magically pulling off antonyms together!!) chunks of bone.. err...meat as food, unwashed pulse bits floating on water as dal, and rock hard, bounce-worthy blobs of gluten as bread. I learnt new levels of tolerance here, understanding that cooked food also included the exotic names with weird combinations of tastes we invented.

The circuitous routes in life took me through courtship where I made omelets with oodles of love and loads of turmeric, causing my amour's face to take on the same shade of yellow as the omelet while eating them; then through a period when I'm sure I was slow poisoning myself through all the experiments in my little, under stocked kitchen - they did say necessity was the mother of invention! Infact, come to think of it, I am SURE the cooking was what caused strange behavior in me - from thinking I could sing like, nay - better than, Lata Mangeshkar (much to the dismay of my neighbours), to kicking the stupid cat which used to pee on my foot mat, to deciding to get married...

If there is a food heaven, Delhi it is, Delhi it is, Delhi it is! You'll find find not one, but atleast two versions of the same cuisine - the original, authentic version; and a Pujnabi-Delhi version of the same, which would send the native owners of these cuisines into depression. (In fact, I know from reliable sources, that our tampering with the sacred Chinese recipes was what caused the Indo-China War!)

Thus, you will find Chinese food generously garnished with coriander leaves, and Italian food with garam masala. (But I must admit the darn thing smells and tastes heavenly!) Other wonders you can treat yourself to are Paneer masala dosas, and chikken tikka pizzas and many such "nouvelle cuisines" (this is a word that would bring a smirk on the faces of my acquaintances from Hotels !!)

But today, what prompted me to write this post is an incident that happened at work. I just HAVE to explain it verbatim, to be able to do justice to the incident. Any resemblence, to persons living or dead are purely hilarious err..... unintentional

Me : Its 10 in the morning! Why are you opening up your lunch?
She : Well..... I am on a fast today.
Me (with a really dumb look on my face):  So?
She (Exasperated at the dumb look) : I am fasting. So I cannot eat lunch...
Me (Still unable to fathom the connection): But can eat at any OTHER time?
She (snapping shut her lunch box to give me full attention AND to make sure I don't ask for my share) : Look, I can eat anything anytime as long as it does not contain grain... like rice, or wheat or pulses... get it?
Me : So you can eat fish? (hmmm..... I already like this fast... only fish and meat... wow!!)
She (gasping as though someone stole her priced lunchbox!) : NO!! No non veg too!! and no onion, no garlic, no salt....
Me : Why? Onion is not a grain, or a non veg .... neither is garlic!! And salt?? Oh come on... that's not even an organic thing - its mineral!
She : (looking like she could do with a long vacation) : Oh.... its like this - we can eat anything that reminds us we are fasting. Fruits, juices, potatoes, chips (yeah! can u beat it??), tea .... got it?
Me (kinda getting there) : errrr..... and you have to like, ummm..... KEEP eating the whole day, EXCEPT at mealtimes?
She (smiling) : Yeah... now you get it. Except, (she now pauses for dramatic effect)... I can eat at lunchtime too.... See, since I am on a fast, I will need to keep replenishing my energy no?
Me (now I could do with a long vacation) : Then how are you on a fast ?
She : See, I am not eating LUNCH, I am eating vrat ka khana ('food for fasting' ... as if THAT made any sense!!) ... so I am fasting. Also, my husband orders out dinner, or does the cooking himself today.....
Me: Because you suck at cooking??
She (with a coy smile) : All this fasting makes me weak na?

Well, whaddaya know!! Delhi is not all that bad.... I am kinda liking this fast game!

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Sare Jahan se Achcha?

A little article on the newspaper a couple of days ago made me go back a few decades, when customs clearance was a big, controversial word in Kerala. Why do I say Kerala? Simple - because every household had someone who was packed off to the 'Gelf' or 'Duubaai' .... Which could mean anywhere beyond the Arabian Sea!!

Families who came visiting once in 2 or 3 or 5 (!!) years were eagerly awaited by all human population within a radius of 10 kilometers of the house that the 'gulf' family resided. There would be talks about the visit a few months before, and a few weeks (coz' then its time to start talking about their next visit) after their 2 month vacation....

The article spoke about the strange things that passengers checked in when they were travelling on flights. The article stated that there were people who tried to check in a pet tarantula, a bath tub (!!) a dead cow, a bagful of sand and sea water, and other such strange items into their flights. This started me thinking.... what if we could carry anything we wanted into those darn flights, guess what luggage I would carry from these locations...

Let me start with my favorite:

Kerala : A roomful of coconuts, maybe a coconut tree or two, a 'settu-mundu' (a white sari with gold border - every woman in Kerala with a strand of self-esteem owns one - and so do I) an of course, a few tonnes of pure Dubai gold (which, incidentally, is available in more abundance in the Alukkas showrooms than in the rest of the world put together!)

Bengal : (I go from Kerala to Bengal, because I think they are twins separated at birth - ask Communism and seafood if you have any doubts) ALL the cds on Rabindra sangeet that EVER got made, a few bucket fulls of Rassogollas, another few buckets of fish... and of course... the Satyajit Ray movies!!

Delhi : Swanky new car (which will get bumped on the side in a few hours on Delhi roads), a sworvoski laden sherwani / Sari for the big fat Indian wedding, all the chaat one can eat,  branded merchandise from sunglasses to socks (wanted to say something else instead of socks, but thought the better of it!!) and packetfuls of Haldiram / Bikanerwala namkeens!

Gujarat : Namkeens, namkeens and some more of them! Of course, the seductive chaniya cholis for the next Navratra event, some of their business acumen, and definitely Falguni Pathak!

Mumbai : All the filmy stuff, including the k-k-k-kiran accent (speaking of which, accents in Bollywood seem to create more controversies than shrinking clothes!!), loads and loads of the attitude that Mumbaikars can pull off (please stand informed - it doesn't matter what language your parents speak, what foods you ate when you started solids, what clothes your folks wished you wore.... eventually, in Mumbai, you become a Mumbaikar with a healthy diet of pav bhaji and street smartness, mingled with a care-a-damn attitude .... i could kill for that one!!)

Lucknow : the non veg recipes for the dishes those Nawabs ate, chikan-work sarees, sheets, and ANYTHING else made of that stuff, some of the 'Tehzeeb' (could use some of that here in Delhi to wash out some peoples' mouth!!), some of the stress free bindaas attitude.. (i swear, when you are pulling your hair apart coz of a flight delay, there are people who would help you out with 'shayari'...)

GOA : tra-la-la-la-laaaaa-la-la-la-laaaaaa .... oh sorry!! that's what happens when i think of Goa. A few bottle of the lovely sweet fortified (like hell!!) wines, the finger lickin' prawns - in any form! Cashews and its cousin called Feni, those hippie sarongs, buckets of sand ....on second thoughts, I'd rather just miss the flight and stay on there...

Bhubhaneswar (don't ask me how it made the list, but i spent a few months there!!) : I'd definitely carry back the afternoon siesta - the capital city is like its been cast a spell - from 2 to 4 in the afternoon, even the flies take a nap!! Then I'd carry some artisan stuff - colorful and bright. The tastiest vegetarian food I've eaten is the 'chappan bhog' of the Jagannath Puri temple - I'd definitely pack a few kilos of that!!

Bangalore : I'd begin with packing in all my friends and family who stay there (I have more people to meet there than I have in any place, including my home town!!).... and if I still am allowed to board the flight, I'd carry the euphoria of the place; and of course, some south Indian silk sarees. (of course, these come from little villages, but i could see the entire range there!!)

To be continued..... let me end here for now before your patience wears out! In short, I'd just like to say that  each city has such a wonderful uniqueness about it, and there are hundreds if not thousands of such cities in India. Is it a wonder then, that a trip to any of these time machines brings one back to the heading of this post?? Jai Hind!!

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Golden dawns and yellow flowers.......

The previous night would be exciting for everyone except my mother! She had a long night ahead, and she would do all she could to coax us into bed as soon as possible; for the real work could start only after the kids were tucked in bed! All we knew that we were woken up in the morning by her, with a palm held over our eyes, and her whispering into our ears, "Don't open your eyes... today you have to see the 'kani'... the best will happen for the whole year round." This was to make sure we did not open our eyes by mistake and see the mundane before we did the divine; and hence we would be accompanied by all the same sights all year round. Thinking back now, maybe it would have been a good idea to have seen her excited, happy face as part of the kani as well!

She would then lead us into the beautifully laid out pooja room. There would be the familiar idols of all her 'ishta devtas' and of course, the hero of the evening - Lord Krishna. There would be a gleaming brass lamp, which she would have scrubbed for hours to make it shine. There would also be a colorful array of vegetables and fruits. I remember some of them : Bananas, pineapples, mangoes (ripe and raw), melons, tomatoes and squash (a special variety called Velerikka). There would also be bright yellow flowers called 'konna' which, along with the diyas, brought a divine glow to the whole room.

Gold and silver, a mirror, coconut, raw rice and other items indispensable to a Malayali lifestyle are laid out. Mom would explain the significance of each item. I remember most of them, but the most profound is perhaps the mirror. The mirror of course reflects the light of the lamp and brightens up the entire room. But the real significance is that it shows us our own happy, excited faces in the kani. It also signifies the importance of understanding that the goodness of the Almighty exists in all of us - we just need to bring out that existence in our actions. Me and my sister would then sit on the floor with folded hands, taking in the beauty in front of us, under the watchful and contended gaze of Dad and Mom. What went through their minds at that time, is something I only understand now, after taking on the role of a mother myself.

This was followed by the 'kaineettam' - where elders gave younger relations money. In a time when pocket money was not a trend, this money came as a very exciting proposition to young kids. Many of us made quite an earning each year on that day. Then we would bring out the fire crackers - literally!

The Vishu Sadya (traditional feast) is something that still makes me weak in the knees (this year my sister is attempting a home run in this formidable feat!!)..... it consisted of a million dishes, and there have been instances when the entire menu had not even been tasted for want of space in our little tummies. Mom would hover around us while we ate, carefully watching out for replenishment on anyone's plate.....

 As we grew older, our involvement was extended into choosing the perfect fruits and vegetables, arranging the flowers and the kani with Mom. The feeling was always that of anticipation - listening to all of Mom's little anecdotes and explanations while we were at it. Such immense pleasure in simple things of life is such a rare treat now!

To all of you - my most cherished thoughts for Vishu is the message of the mirror - May your lives shine with the light of a million lamps, may you have 'mirrors' to tell you the unadulterated truth, and may the Almighty reside within you! Happy Vishu !!

Monday, April 11, 2011

Asato ma satgamaya

My sister and I, we grew up in a city far away from the roots of our ancestral lineage. We learnt to speak other languages before we were fluent in our mother tongue (which in our case is Malayalam, recognized now as one of the toughest Indian languages to learn!!). But I owe a lot to my mother, who insisted we learn to read and write the language that her parents were familiar with. Her most endearing line was "When you write to them in Malayalam, they can read it again and again - unlike when you talk to them on phone..."

Thus, we learnt the language in all its beauty - along with the rich bounty of poems and songs and of course, movies. This helped us when we finally returned to Kerala, and I joined my 10th standard in Chinmaya Vidyalaya in a quaint little town (which has changed very little even today!) called Kannur. Both my sister and I were above average performers in our Dubai school. But the first day came as a rude shock - even the assembly.

I remember feeling silly and almost tearful standing in the morning assembly, unable to quote a single line from the prayer at the beginning of the day, or a hymn at the end of the day. The first prayer of the day was the famous shloka from the Upanishads :

Asato Ma Satgamaya
Tamaso Ma Jyotirgamaya
Mrityor Ma Amrutam gamaya

Loosely translated (for some of these words have no English equivalents), it means:

"From ignorance lead me to truth
From darkness lead me to light
From death lead me to immortality"

The beauty of this prayer is that it does not ask for anything tangible - not food, not shelter, not fame, power, money.... in fact, not even health, or longevity. Neither does it ask for good fortune, or prosperity - no, not even peace of mind.....While some may argue about the "Amrutam gamaya" (the immortality) part, the true sense of this line is something else.

The line actually implores the all-powerful to give one the sense to understand that life, death and all that comes in between, doesn't belong to to the individual. One is then, just part of a larger scheme of things.... which is immortal...

Why have I suddenly thought of this? Well, I am caught up in the frenzy of the Navratris which are scaling demonic proportions in cities like Delhi. All of Delhi put together, crores must have been spent in the name of 'Mata Rani' through 'Jagrans' (all-night gatherings where everyone spends the night in singing hymns appeasing the Goddess) or bhandaras (where food is served free of cost to anyone who visits)....or, at a smaller level, as kanjaks, where money, gifts and prasad are distributed to girls...

Of course, we strictly adhere to the no-onion, no-garlic, no-non veg, no-alcohol regime for these nine days. We also make sure at the end of the nine days, we worship the girls we invite home for the kanjak (many folks i know wash the feet of every girl who come into their home that day...). But that doesn't necessarily mean we respect womankind.. it doesn't mean we will stop leching, molesting or raping our womenfolk.

We worship the Goddess, follow every rule in the book with fervour during these nine days. We ask for wealth from "Lakshmi", prosperity through education from "Saraswati" and power to fight our enemies from "Durga".... what a far call from the prayers I recited every day in the morning....

Is it strange then, that the devotion I felt in the simple one minute invocation of the Gods in blistering heat outside my school, is dearer to my heart than all the rituals I do today?

....Tamaso Ma Jyotirgamayaa!! Jai Mata Rani Ki......

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Of Wars and Economics

These days, there is a television serial (yes, you heard that right!!) which gets me glued to the television. Its called Chandragupt Maurya -  and gets televised on Imagine TV. It was refreshing to see a world where there are bigger concerns than the sari competition between the women of the serial home, or the extra marital affairs and illegitimate children of the protagonists of these serials.

This is a historical drama, which tells the tale of the first Maurya king - Chandragupta, and the story of the dethroning of a Nanda king, by the sheer foresight of an unarmed, saffron clad guru.... a kingmaker in every sense of the word. Chanakya (or Kautilya, as he is known) is the author of Arthashastra - which deals with the economics of the nation; and Chanakya-neeti, which deals with the right behaviors for the ruler and the citizens.

What is most interesting are the dialogues which sometimes reminds one that our great land had a highly evolved civilization, when much of the world was inhabited by wandering nomads. But what also grabs my attention is the Chanakya-neeti that makes so much common sense...

The latest was an episode where a very young Chandragupt faces hostile reception in his class of Yudh-shastra (the science of war) from the rest of the class, mostly royalty. So when he has to perform a difficult task assigned to him by his guru, he asks the classmates for help. Of course, he receives none. When he goes to complain to the guru, what do you think the guru says?

The guru says, "if there's something that you need to get done, you find the solutions yourself. The gurus will not help you. If it is help you need from the class, you will need to find ways to MAKE them help you." ... to me that is Human Resource Management in the most profound words. It is motivation, inter personal skills and leadership.

Of course there are many more such statements, which makes one sit up and wonder - what has happened to this great land that gave birth to so many great sons and daughters? Why is it that our Chanakyas, Gandhis and Anna Hazares have become a small minority now? And when are we going to revive the glory of this land ?

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Survival of the smartest ??

New blue shirt, cream trousers and sparkling new shoes. I must have clicked a few hundred snaps to capture my three year old son in his new avatar.

He couldn't understand what all the fuss was about. "Just another day of going out, Mom".... his face seemed to say. Oh! The sinking feeling of sending my baby out into the 'real' world without me!!

I accompanied him to his bright, loud class, where others anxious moms and dads from the same species were battling their inner demon of fear. The sight  in that classroom would have looked comic for a detached watcher .... kids varying in emotions: from those howling at the top of their voices, to those seated determinedly in the seats they were parked at by their parents, refusing to let other scheming parents place their kids there. (Let me clarify here - We parents are a weird lot - we goofed away our entire studying years in the back benches of schools and colleges, but come the first day of our kids school, and we want them to sit right under the teacher's nose; or right on her table, if possible!!)

Well, my three year old is more determined than his mom - he walked straight to the last table in the last row and placed his prized possessions there  - a water bottle, a toy car (which he refused to leave at home) and his bright red 'Ben Ten' bag. No amount of coaxing, threatening or bribing helped move him from the last to the fast filling seats in the front rows.

"Takes after his Dad" I muttered to a smiling teacher, who assured me she does not have eyesight or hearing problem - so my son would be taken care of even in the last row. Moreover, she clarified, they are rotated all the time.

I came back home, pacified. But what set me thinking was the attitude we all carry : the I-want-the-best-seat-in-the-room syndrome. We do it for everything in life, don't we? The best seat in the theatre, the best seat in the bus.... oh, did I say bus? What I meant was flight...  NOT bus (See even the mode of transport has to be the BEST !!) The best room in the hotel, the best cabin in the office, the best car in the buiding, the best kids in the country... And we put Maslow's theory securely in the grave......

Maslow's theroy says (in simple non-doctorlike statement) that when basic necessities are met, we move on to the next necessity. In that order, we move from necessities, to luxuries to esteem needs, and finally to self actualization. (That, i presume is the stage when we become emanicated like the pictures of sages in Amar Chitra Katha, and we get a halo behind our heads!)

No, on a more serious note, our basic necessities have grown so much - No, its not enough that we eat good food, it also matters WHERE we eat it - the Taj or the Oberoi, or at least the most happening swanky restaurant in town!! In fact, we are so busy fulfilling "basic" necessitites, we never actually get to the self actualization phase .... Sad fact, considering how much greatness the human mind can achieve...
But getting back to all the 'BESTs" we aim at acquiring .....  that does wonders for our blood pressure, doesn't it? Not to mention what it does to our already honed skills in negotiation, bargaining and name-dropping to get unfair advantage in acquiring the best ! In the process, we teach our next generation how important it is to get the 'best' out of material stuff in the world. We teach them that only the smart ones, the selfish ones, the ones who fight the hardest, survive.

And then we wonder why the world is getting worse with each generation...... are THEY really the ones to blame?