Category Archives: India

David & The Land of Mahatma

It was a beautiful mellowed June evening. The sky was grey, there was something romantic about the waves hitting against the rocks. We had just reached Fort Kochi in God’s own country after a long gruelling journey. But the tiredness of the journey just melted when we saw the vast encompassing ocean.

Fort Kochi

As we were walking under the clouds, suddenly we heard a young voice greeting us with a  ‘Hi.’ We stopped and he introduced himself, “I am David. I run a restaurant here. We serve seafood delicacies for lunch and dinner.” David added, “My father is a fisherman. So he brings the fresh catch and we cook it in the restaurant.”

And then he asked all three of us for introduction. My friends live in Dubai and Mumbai. When I told him, “I am from Ahmedabad.” Immediately, with a twinkle in his eyes, David said, “Oh! you are from the Land of Mahatma. How wonderful.”

Hearing that, my heart swelled with pride. Ahmedabad is the city in which Gandhiji established his Sabarmati Ashram and changed the course of India’s destiny. I am happy that David recognised that essence of India. These are difficult times. The world needs Gandhi more than ever.

 

 

 

 

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Pasta in pesto sauce

While growing up in a sleepy town called Bhubaneswar, Sunday morning luxury was all about my father packing a breakfast of idli, masala dosa and sambar  from a small restaurant. These were earliest memories of pushing the creative boundaries of my palate. Having a South Indian breakfast is what we looked forward to. The same happened when I shifted to Delhi to pursue my higher studies. On some Sundays, the hostel mess used to serve masala dosa and coffee. And if I remember correctly, the girls from UP, Bihar, Orissa (then) and West Bengal were more excited to have the so called exotic Southern breakfast more than anybody else. The same emotion was recently shared by my Gujarati friend’s 80 year old mother. She told me, “I used to feel pampered and loved when my husband ordered a meal of butter naan, paneer butter masala and kaali dal in a restaurant. It was a refreshing change from the roti, shaak and khichdi at home.”

It’s a different story now in urban India.  Many of us probably took the 10 year rule of UPA government with a remote control in Sonia Gandhi’s hand too seriously. Suddenly, pasta became omnipresent. Every neighbourhood kirana shops started stocking pasta packets in different size and shape. With great difficulty, he gives you a list of Fusilli, Penne. From chicken tikka masala and paneer butter masala, urban India has graduated to pasta in pesto sauce, nachos and Mexican hotpot. Suddenly you see restaurants showing signboards displaying proudly, “Punjabi, Chinese, Italian, Mexican.” If you happen to stay in Ahmedabad (as yours truly), you will get a Jain version of everything. From Punjabi, Chinese, Italian and Mexican. You will always have a choice of Jain pizza in Ahmedabad. Please don’t ask me how it’s as I have never tasted it.

three different pieces of macaronis on top of black surface

If you thought that Bollywood with its all jazz and item songs is minting money, then hold on  the food industry is ahead of the film industry.  The all consuming ‘eating out economy’ is on a roll. According to a FICCI report, the restaurant industry is expected to contribute about 2.1 per cent to the total GDP of India by 2021. Eating out is big business in India. If you have not booked a table on Sunday, you will be condemned to stand in queue for hours and count the stars in the sky (if you are lucky to spot them).  In developed Gujarat, if you walk on the road on a Sunday, you might think that there’s a Kumbh Mela waiting to start soon. You have to push through forever hungry men, women and kids to find your own way in between cries of ‘one veg manchurain, one fried rice, double cheese pizza (whatever this means),’ The roads are chock-a-block with milling crowds waiting to have their share of world on their platter.
There’s a gourmet revolution happening in India. Post-liberalised India is on a platter high. And everybody is in a race to be cool. So cool that he finds it uncool to have anything other than Italian and Mexican. So, the uber cool stylish new ‘kids’ on the block are pastas, pizzas, cookies, garlic bread and hold on how can I ever forget ‘cupcakes.’  Few days ago, a colleague bought a box of cup cakes to celebrate her birthday at work. Yes, I did bite into it and wished her very warmly.  But by evening, my sweet craving was so intense that I did run to the nearest mithai shop to have my sinful share of ‘jalebi with rabri.’  Hot jalebis literally soaked in rabri. I could have died of happiness. You can call me ‘desi gal’, I will take no offence.
Yes, food needs to be celebrated and I see no harm food being looked at boundaries. After all, aren’t we living in an age of globalisation? With every other person turning into a food blogger or food photographer, I can see the winds of change sweeping our platter. There’s a glasnost happening there. Modi’s much talked about ‘acche din aayenge’ actually arrived on our plates some years ago.
It’s not just that people are tasting different cuisines at restaurants. But there’s a silent revolution happening on the kitchen shelves. The refrigerator is also witnessing a revolution. The ‘maharaj’ (the man who cooks and takes a salary) needs to be on his toes to master the perfect art of making the pesto sauce. He has to be a globe-trotter in the kitchen, otherwise there is every chance that he might become another Lehman Brothers employee in late 2008.
But I am still unable to understand why urban India is in a rush to prove its CQ (Cool Quotient) only by having pasta, nachos and garlic bread? It’s fashionable definitely. But to link your CQ to your platter might not a very great idea. Or so do I think. But you need not agree with me. India is all about having thousand opinions.

P S: Eons ago when I was working in Delhi, there was a colleague who used to come and share his breakfast menu. To be fair, I used to ask him also to derive some unexplainable pleasure. Rolling his attractive eyes, he used to say, “Oh, normal…bread, butter, omelette, bacon and orange juice.” Poor me used to go green with envy as I was munching my so very ordinary veg puff available in the canteen.
Once he fell ill and didn’t come to office for few days. Out of concern, I made a call to his home (there were no mobile phones then) and his mother picked up the phone. And we had a nice chat and in between she told me, “Beta (She was a Punjabi. As you must have realised Punjabis are capable of addressing their enemy as ‘beta’), please tell him to have his food. Before he had this fever, he used to eat a hearty meal of roti, gobi/tinda ke sabzi in breakfast and go to office.” The moment I heard this, my mind went back to my friend’s talk of ‘eggs, bread, bacon with orange juice.’ Well, the irony called life.
Should I have pasta in pesto sauce for dinner tonight? Let me think.

Marx on my mind

On May 5, 2018 — the world celebrated Karl Marx’s 200 birth anniversary. So, in simple terms, if Marx would have been alive, he would have turned 200. As an alumni of JNU, I have had the privilege of knowing some Marxists from a close distance. My spiritual/intellectual companion (so also my helpline number ) lived a substantial part of his young adult life working tirelessly and dreaming endlessly of bringing a revolution in this country. With a deep laugh, I say to him now, “I am the biggest victim of Marxism.”

MARX

 

On May 5,  I messaged him, “Comrade, Happy birthday to Marx. Woh nehin hote toh aap bhi nehin hote. (If Marx would not have been there… you would not have been here).

He answered, “Yes, let’s celebrate. Ideas never die, they just travel.”

Being in an organic, instinctive relationship for more than two decades, I knew he would call up after this. So, when he called up, I just picked up the call and blurted out, “Yes Comrade.” We then got into ruminating about his days of being a ‘Comrade.’ Once upon a time.

His humble room was like an open house with almost no concept of lock and key. Even if it was locked by chance, the key was kept there on the top of the door ledge. So, at best the lock did what the traffic lights in most two-tier cities in India do, advisory function. As the room did have floor sleeping arrangement (sorry if you are thinking of Japanese aesthetics or tatami mats), it gave enough space for the innumerable visiting comrades to lounge and brood over petty bourgeois. The room at any given time had more than four people.

And just because it was open that didn’t mean that my ‘comrade‘ was in the room. He could be anywhere but his room was 24X7 open for fellow comrades from different parts of the country. Nobody other than these comrades understood ‘atithi devo bhav’ (The guests are like Gods) better.

There was one occasion when I and another friend of mine had gone to his room late in the night to look for our ‘missing’ comrade. The room was open and dark. And we found four/five people sleeping on the floor. In our polite middle-class ways, we kept on telling, “Hello, Hello, Excuse Me.” But there was no response for almost 10 minutes. And then out of sheer frustration and anger,  my friend shouted, “Comrade, comrade..”  It worked like magic and suddenly one of them got up and told us, “We have no idea where’s he. As the room was open, we came and slept.”

There was no concept of personal possession in this world of Marx. Everything was collective. So the shirt bought for this comrade of mine changed hands in less than 48 hours. My blood pressure shot up to 500/200 when I saw another lanky comrade wearing the shirt.  These young revolutionaries lived in their own world. So no wonder then when I made coffee for them, after gulping cups of it, one of them (the brightest among them) said, “Waike hi aap chai bahut accha banate ho.” (You really make tea very well).  I wish I had an AK 47 with me.

There are many ‘comrade legends’ from Odisha I have grown up listening to. One such legend is about a communist-cum-academician riding a bicycle in his own marriage procession. The whole village gathered to see this unique bridegroom on a bicycle as even poor families go extra mile to hire a car for the marriage procession. And after his marriage, he insisted his new bride and now fellow comrade should come with him on his bicycle. His spirited bride went to her new home sitting on his bicycle. Well, this was followed by the bride’s mother weeping inconsolably and howling, “Why did I choose this rakhash (monster) for my daughter?” However, the silver lining was that the comrade bridegroom didn’t take a single item/penny as dowry.

In the neon-lit streets of India where now dreams and material desires are always engaged in a foreplay, the comrades are  a vanishing tribe. But these are also the times of jarring economic inequality. Then when suddenly you look back and you actually look at the comrades with a sense of tenderness. The beauty of being a comrade. When you are young, you dream of the impossible. There are no limits to possibilities. I have always admired them for that vision of a larger world. I may not agree with them but it always warms the cockles of my heart when I look back and remember many bright young minds looking beyond their comfort zone and dreaming of a classless world.

So, here’s to a belated Happy Birthday to Karl Marx.

Time

time

(I am writing this because often now I find people suffering from the ‘disease of being busy.’)

The year was 2003. Prasanna, my sister-in-law was diagnosed with cancer. She was in her early 30s and before cancer took over her life, she was teaching in Ahmedabad’s Shreyas Foundation started by Leena Sarabhai, the montessori pioneer. Born in 1915 to Sarladevi and Ambalal Sarabhai in the prominent Sarabhai family, Leena Sarabhai was a pioneer in the field of education.  Prasanna always had high regards for Leena Sarabhai and really enjoyed working at the Shreyas Foundation. Post her cancer treatment, she was confined to her home. Leena Sarabhai wanted to meet her but she couldn’t come to visit her at home as she was not in a condition to climb up the stairs and there was no lift.

When Prasanna was admitted in the hospital for some complications, Leena Sarabhai came to meet her (the hospital lift made it easier for her). It was a December evening. She came with beautifully arranged flowers on a lotus leaf. It was refreshing to see somebody not rushing to a florist for a bouquet.

That meeting between Prasanna and Leenaben is etched in my mind forever. Probably that will be one of the most beautiful relationships between a boss and an employee. As 88 year old Leenaben held Prasanna’s hand delicately yet intimately, tears flowed freely from Prasanna’s eyes. She couldn’t speak that time as she was suffering from a rare head and neck cancer. Just to watch Leenaben wiping Prasanna’s tears gently was subliminal.  None of us were using mobile phones then and there were no way to capture any photograph then. But then I think it would have felt brutal to capture such love and affection in a camera. Most of us in the room were crying seeing that kind of love.

After spending some time with her, Leenaben left the hospital. Some of us accompanied her till the gate. As she was getting into the car, my husband said, “Leenaben, thank you for your time.”

She looked at us and said with a smile, “What’s time for?” 

Well, there was silence all around us.

(Leena Sarabhai passed away in 2012)

 

 

 

 

Happiness

 

ON INTERNATIONAL HAPPINESS DAY (MARCH 20)

 

pexels-photo-904616.jpeg

 

Happiness is

A cup of tea

Getting lost in the pages of a book

Looking at the changing colors of the sky

October … arrival of autumn

Winter morning, evening, night … actually everything about the winter

Watering plants

Watching children play

Decluttering drawers, desks and wardrobes

An air/rail ticket in my handbag

Glowing table lamps, floor lamps

Colourful handmade notebooks (and saving them for that special occasion… middle-class upbringing)

Conversations with nieces, nephews… kids in general

Cooking meals from memory (as once cooked by my mother)

Rice, egg curry, cucumber-tomato-onion salad

Sitting in a quiet cafe and seeing life pass by

Getting lost in the wonderful world of textiles at Ahmedabad’s Rani no Hajira/ Gamthiwala/Gurjari, Boyanika in Bhubaneswar, Nalli in Hyderabad, Anokhi in Jaipur, Baroda Prints in Vadodara…

Browsing through Fab India and thinking what can be purchased without spending a fortune

Stories dancing in my mind

Mutton biryani

Deleting whatspp group messages without reading them

Never ever opening a ‘Good Morning’ message

Looking for pickles, soaps at Khadi Bhandars

Buying glass bangles at Charminar in Hyderabad (even though not wearing them regularly)

Running fingers through my mother’s saris

Dreaming of owning a cafe in the mountains

Travelling in AC Two Tier in Rajdhani Express

Poori-aloo ki sabzi for breakfast

Watching varied moods of Bay of Bengal

Full Moon Night

Listening to Elton John, Cat Stevens, Adele, Kishore Kumar

Momos, fruit beer at Dilli Haat

Reading Lonely Planet India and imagining 1000 trips in my mind

Vivek Express, Gatiman Express, Nilgiri Toy Train and Palace on Wheels — Imagining journeys in each one of them

Istanbul, the home I have never been to…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

There is no Other

In few hours from now, the year 2017 will go behind the curtains. This is also the time to pause, contemplate and ruminate. This year has been a year full of violence, aggression and lack of empathy. The streets of India are becoming mean and violent. People are being targeted for their food on the plate. Lovers are being dragged to courts because they are from different religions. Attempts are being made to put the all-encompassing beautiful Hinduism in a little black box.  On social media, it’s difficult to have a discussion without receiving choicest abuses. If you are sensitive and compassionate then you are a micro-minority.  Everyone seems to eager to vent his/her anger towards an imaginary ‘Other’.

How does one live life in the midst of so much of distrust, anger and violence? How do we bring up our daughters and sons? How do we move forward as a nation and improve our pathetic yet supremely pro-rich health care and education? How do we improve our Human Development Index? These are the questions that have disturbed me a lot in 2017. How can our daughters walk fearlessly on our streets, play a game of hide and seek in our parks and gardens? How can our daughters say ‘No’ to relationships that they find stifling and not face acid attacks and violent attacks?

It’s time for us to pause, contemplate and ruminate.

How do we move forward ?

The answer lies in “The strength to love, the courage to love.”

This also reminds me of the heart-warming story in which a disciple asks the great sage and teacher Ramana Maharishi, “How does one treat the other?”

Ramana answered gently, “There’s no other.”

 

 

Yes, I love my curls

Last week, I was sitting in my friend’s beautiful kitchen while she was frying fish. There were four of us — talking, laughing and enjoying a drink. She walked up to me suddenly, put my hair behind my ears and told me, “Deepy, You have such an adorable face, why don’t you just tie your curly hair?” She loves me a lot and she just became the newest member of the brigade propagating this ‘tie your unruly curly hair’ philosophy.

I am the only one in my family who has curly hair. Well, it’s genetic as my father had it. Growing up as a girl with curly hair in small town India (Orissa to be precise) was not a smooth ride. To top it all, being dusky was another major ‘perceived disadvantage.’  So, wherever one went during the adolescent years, scores of self-righteous aunts, uncles looked at your hair and asked, ‘Why don’t you have straight hair?’ Or ‘Why don’t just tie it tightly (so that it won’t look like curly hair)?”

As I grew up in  pre-liberalized India, there was no talk of straightening my hair. But, then I was given numerous other names like ‘Sai Baba’, ‘Pagali (crazy) and “African”.  These name-calling were certainly not a pleasant experience for a young child but never once did I think of having  regrets about not having straight hair like my sisters. In fact, I always felt better-off when I used to see my sisters sitting in front of the mirror and laboriously applying lemon juice and egg whites on their straight hair. Mine was ‘zero maintenance hair.’

As a young adult, being in relationships, the hair issue followed me zealously. Otherwise bright, socially aware men had a problem with curly hair and constantly mentioned about tying my hair in a neat ponytail. Well, this was nothing new to me so it didn’t really affect me. I continued with what I was comfortable doing.

But it was unnerving to encounter strangers commenting on my hair. When I went to file a police complaint in New Delhi after losing my wallet and I-card, I was persistently quizzed by the official in the police station,  ‘Aap toh honge Kerala/Goa se baal jo aap ki aise ghoongaralu hai?”(You must be from Kerala/Goa because you have curly hair.” Till today, I have no idea of the connection between filing a police complaint and curly hair. While travelling in the train from Delhi-Bhubaneswar, generous co-passengers never failed to ask me that question (in between feeding home-cooked vegetable pulao and poori-alu) “beta, aap ka baal aise kyon hai?” (Why do you have hair like this?). Look out of the window, in sheer deseperation.

And then something changed in the mid 1990s. India embraced the path of economic liberalization and with the satellite television, people started noticing fashion and style trends from the West. Perming became a cool word in urban Indians’ hair & style lexicon. And then in 1997, Arundhati Roy won the Man Booker prize for her debut novel God of Small Things. Suddenly she became the poster girl (a huge amount of prize money added to the glam). For the upwardly mobile urban Indians, curly hair became a symbol of being cool, stylish, successful and creative too. Suddenly, everybody wanted to become a writer.

I remember, after a month of Arundhati’s win, I had gone to a salon in Vasant Vihar for a hair-cut. Three rich and stylish women accosted me and asked, “Are your curls natural?” When I said “Yes”, they squealed with delight, “OMG, We love it. It’s like Arundhati’s hair. You are so lucky.” I rolled my eyes in disbelief and actually basked in that compliment. Temporary happiness.

Ironically, years later in 2005, when I was travelling in a train from Jodhpur-Ahmedabad, two young engineering students came up to me and asked me for an autograph. They thought I was Arundhati Roy. I thanked God for their poor eye-sight and told them that their mistake had actually made me happy.

The curly sunshine moments have followed me even after this incident.  When I interviewed one of India’s great ad gurus and noted theatre personalities, in between our long engrossing conversations, he told me “The moment you entered into the room, I knew it would be nice talking to you.” I asked him “What made you think so?” He answered, “Your curly hair. In India, it’s not easy to be a woman with curly hair. I know, you have to fight so many battles against mindsets and stereotypes.”

Well, now I love my mop of curly hair. I can’t really remember when did I last go for a hair-cut because the standard comment of hair stylists is : “Can’t do anything to your curly hair.” I have done google search on cool curly hair styles and taken print outs to give ideas to the hair stylists. But all my diligent efforts have only made me poorer by few thousand bucks without any noteworthy result. So, I am saving the money for a pair of cool mean distressed jeans.

Has life changed for this curly-haired woman? Well, sometimes people ask me, ‘Are you an artist/designer?’ And the obvious reason for asking this question is my curly hair and huge silver rings on my fingers. Well, considering the times we are living in India now, by any stretch of imagination, a journalist can’t be an artist. Sometimes, when in a playful mood, I say, “I am a cook (not a chef).” Go, figure out, my love. If that makes me an artist.

Of course, India has loads of people who will be forever on Darwin’s first stage of evolution till their death. So, in the midst of conversations on people who have influenced us, when I say, “It’s Maya Angelou for me.” Some laugh and say, “Oh, it got to be Maya Angelou for you coz you have crazy curly hair like her. You know that African connection.”

Well, when you have poet-singer-actor-human rights activist Maya Angelou as your role-model, you always remember ‘I know why the caged bird sings.’