Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Delights Of British Food

British food is not very highly rated back home (perhaps elsewhere as well).  I will never know why.  My nephew (who spent a couple of years in England before going to America) always makes a face and says he much prefers his current options - and so do many others apparently.  Perhaps many people look for vegetarian options and don't find much, or don't take kindly to the boiled and bland options available.  I disagree.

Perhaps it is because much of my vacation time in England has been centred around London, which is a melting pot of cuisines.  Perhaps it is because I have had the good fortune of being invited to home cooked meals with British friends who serve wholesome and tasty food.  Looking back, I find that while in America I would eat largely the food of immigrant origin, in England I look forward to sampling British food.

In India we grew up on a hearty diet of traditional and western (Anglo Indian) fare.  In the pre-oven days, my grandmother would turn out delicious steamed puddings served hot with custard and would roast chickens in a large pressure cooker.  We could smell the fragrance of the ginger, garlic, black cardamom and bay leaves long before the chicken appeared at the table.  Roast mutton, fried fish and a variety of soups and stews periodically made an appearance, along with rajma, chicken curry, kulfi and other favourites.

My mother acquired a Baby Belling, a reliable and sturdy little oven, on a visit to England.  This tiny, accurate device works still but is not used by anyone at home any more.  In this oven, we made our hot puddings, baked potatoes and it was with this that I learnt to make my first cakes and tarts.  I would pore over the Women's Weekly recipes (and I still love to flip through this British magazine, if I find issues of the sixties and seventies, which were utterly charming) or the Reader's Digest gigantic tome of recipes arranged month wise, and decide what I wanted to try.

My family and I visited London this month and ended up eating meals that we could easily assemble in the apartment where we stayed, buying not very exotic fare from shops close by.  We were lucky to be in a 'good food zone' (I think certain areas of cities just have a higher concentration of better food options than others- not just restaurants but also shops, big and small, that make and source fresh food).

Just down the road from us stood a little Nordic bakery with unusual and delicious seafood and dill sandwiches,  pastries strewn with berries with a hint of sugar and more (the question of Brexit raises its unpleasant head, and one wonders what one will see a couple of years down the line).  Further down the road was a fruit seller who stocked fruit from England and parts of Europe.  Opposite this there was an organic food shop which had delicious soups, stews, fruit, vegetable and meat.  Waitrose - the excellently stocked store, our sustenance really - was where we bought oatcakes, smoked salmon, cheese, cold meat, olives, cider and fresh bread in copious amounts.  My little son was often content with his summer berries and a plate of bread and butter, Cornish Yarg (a cheese) and Scottish smoked salmon!

One Sunday we visited the local farmers' market just outside Paddington Street Park (a short walk away) and (bought and) sampled an excellent array of local food- potted shellfish (freshly caught), savoury British pies (which I like immensely - steak and ale, chicken and leek and my son (who wanted to have Stilton) ate a delicious meat and Stilton pie).  We also tried the handmade fresh sausages - freshly fried with onions and served in a soft roll of bread (we could only manage one between the three of us), and these were very flavourful.  Along with all this, we had fresh summer greens, eaten raw, with just a dash of dressing.  We rarely made it to desserts, but the summer fruit in all its forms (particularly delicious by itself or served in puddings and sweets with whipped cream) was the perfect way to end a large and satisfying meal.

Not for me the chicken tikka masala or balti chicken (ridiculous names in my opinion though these dishes are immensely popular).  A glass of cider, fresh bread with smoked salmon or a crisp, hot pie, a handful of watercress and dark sweet summer cherries would be my perfect summer meal.

Monday, July 24, 2017

Dreams Drift On

One relearns many things through little children.  The importance of dreams, for example.  Not the kind that come when we are asleep but the ones we actively generate.  Much of the time we are too busy to dream, too reticent to voice them.  But children have no such reservations.  My son has a distinct set of things he would like to do in an ideal world, and he says them all aloud.

Saying things aloud has a different effect from just thinking them.  They seem more concrete, like little rose coloured clouds that take shape in front of us and drift along beside us.  Our companions, not our foes, that serve not to dredge up frustrated goals but to remind us of wondrous possibilities.  If only..

One of my son's most predictable dreams is to swim in any water source he sees.  Thus it is not surprising that he now wants to swim in a lake close to our house, called Sankey Tank.  This is a dreadfully muddy and polluted place, so it is now his dream to clean it up so that people can swim there.

A long list of what he has to do follows - remove the mud and the rocks, take them to a dump, filter the water, add some chlorine and ozone to clean it up and then, finally, to put up some signs.  What kinds of signs should he put, he asks me.

"Please don't throw garbage in the tank.  Use the garbage bins," I reply.

He nods.  And then dreams on.

"I think we will have some more signs -

'Hallo and welcome and how nice to see you'

'Have a good swim'

and

'Bye bye and thank you and see you next week'"

He laughs and claps his hands, and I'm amazed that these dreams did not occur to me.  Now that we say them aloud, it seems as though it may only be a matter of time that Bangalore lakes are cleaned up and full of happy swimmers.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Swimming Lessons

My three year old son and I are going to the swimming pool everyday, until school begins (for the first time, next week).  We wake up early, get ready the way we would for school and set off in the car.  The driving time is about the same as what it would be to drive to school.  We carry our bags, filled with the same things we will take next week.  We meet people and swim and, afterwards, sit and watch the swimming classes for older children while eating our tiffins.

I did not plan this routine months ahead, it just fell into place by itself.  I'm not a meticulous planner!  This schedule has given my son a sense of direction to his day (he loves water so it's nice to see him waking up all excited every morning), a sense of independence (he now happily converses with all the 'aunties' sitting around (the children are too busy swimming to notice him)) and has increased his stamina to the extent that I am confident he will not get completely exhausted during his long school hours.  He has also figured out ways to cope with the unpredictability of traffic and road conditions.  Apart from all this, he has learnt to make egg sandwiches from scratch and loves doing so (more than eating them)!

I too have learnt much from my visits to the pool, which in the mornings, is filled with elderly people and children who are taking swimming lessons.  There are no young people or teenagers in sight.  All the mothers (and an occasional father) are sitting at tables scattered around the pool, waiting for their children, shouting a few instructions now and then.  Some are talking to each other, many are busy with their cell phones.

My son and I are cheerily greeted by many of the women, the coaches smile when he comes because he's so excited about going into the water.  He and I are the only ones to enter the children's pool.  All the other children are hard at work in the main pool while we are playing about in the water. Many mothers are surprised that I am teaching my son on my own instead of handing him over to the coach next year.

I realized, with some surprise, that parents feel that other people (especially professionals) are better equipped to deal with the education of their children.  This is something I came across while searching for schools as well - mostly it was said by teachers (except for a small number who urged me to keep my son at home in the early years), but it seems to resonate within a large group of parents as well.

I see four year olds crying, throwing up and older children wanting to 'goof off' periodically in the pool.  The parents are not sympathetic.  My instinct would just be to go and hug the child and say, "It's all right.  You can relax," but parents look disapprovingly at the child and a bit apologetically at the coach (who is a very dedicated and well meaning teacher in my view, but not every child is ready for intense coaching).

Play is greatly underestimated nowadays, especially spontaneous play.  My son and I have a wonderful time playing in the water, driven mostly by him.  He is at the stage where make believe adventures have just begun, so he's not just swimming when he's in the water.  He is standing like a sea horse, jumping like a dolphin, floating like a jelly fish.  He is surfing, he is hunting, he is deep sea diving.  He has learnt how to move in water, how to cope when water gets into his eyes, nose or mouth.  He has understood the feeling of floating and he loves to enter the big pool whenever he is allowed (the sense of buoyancy and the excitement of seeing so much water is far greater there).

I have learnt the importance of sharing these adventures and moments of learning with a child.  Of being there at the same level, and doing the same things, to enable him to overcome fear and hesitation easily.  Of not pushing him into things he is not ready for or not meant to do no matter how sensible or worthy the ideas appear.

Of enjoying each step of life along the way, if I have the chance to.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Supplements To Counter Ill Health

My migraines had reached a level of frenzied frequency last month and constant travel, stress of various kinds, disruption in food and sleep did not help.  It was a time I was on pain killers half the month and finally I felt that enough was enough.  My migraines are triggered by hormonal changes in relative levels of estrogen and progesterone (I have figured this out on my own), so they are triggered repetitively each month.  Several women I know say they experience these (Asian women have lower levels of estrogen, and are therefore more susceptible to migraines apparently) and menopause is the solution, something I don't agree with in principle!!  Apart from this, who wants to wait that long??

Migraine sufferers know that there is no universal solution, each one has to work his (or her) way through the condition and hope for the best.  Circumstances, lifestyle and temperaments dictate choices.  For me, the first choice is always nutrition (perhaps having been brought up with a mother who was a nutritionist), and I began a search for information on diet and migraines.

Of course, there are the usual trigger foods that one has to avoid, but there are also a lot of supplements which seem to help some people.  The internet is a vast (albeit slightly biased) source of information, and internet delivery services make many things accessible to us which were not earlier.  This helped me choose my nutritional supplements.

About two weeks ago, I began to add supplements to my diet.  Magnesium, vitamin B2, vitamin B12, vitamin D and vitamin E.  Also a highly purified extract of feverfew, which is the only known western herb which can be safely taken for migraine relief.

Around the same time, I began to take my son to the swimming pool evryday, where he and I splash around for 45 minutes.  Exercise always helps migraines, and I find swimming and running in combination with yoga to be ideal (if one has the time, which I don't right now!).

Most treatments are said to take effect in 2 to 3 months, but I have already noticed a decrease in intensity (and more recently perhaps in frequency as well).  I have also noticed an increase in energy, both physical and mental.  I am also sleeping a little better.  Long term control will require optimising safe combinations but this is a positive beginning.  In a short while, I hope to return to my yoga and also to get some acupuncture treatment, which has always helped me.  And I will take it from there.

The role of specific nutritional supplements in reinforcing good health and in relieving even drastic symptoms has long been discussed.  Linus Pauling's theories on the role of vitamin C in curing heart disease and cancer continues to be debated and there are innumerable such examples and other studies in progress.

A recent very interesting scientific study (published in the Proceeding of the National Academy of Sciences in March 28, 2017) showed that giving mothers who had recently given birth certain selected protein components (tyrosine, tryptophan) and blueberry juice and extract (rich in anti-oxidants) helped greatly in reducing the depression that often arises after delivery.  This depression is triggered by the sharp decline in (100 fold of) estrogen and (50 fold of) progesterone hormones and an equally sharp rise in other molecules that increase oxidation.  The activity of many molecules that ultimately contribute to this postpartum depression can apparently be lowered just by taking a small set of nutritional supplements.  I looked up the kinds of foods that tryptophan and tyrosine are normally present in and I could see that a traditional Indian diet (specially vegetarian) prescribed currently for new mothers will not contain high levels of any of these molecules.  It's probably time to reassess our nutritional needs based on some of this emerging evidence especially because postpartum depression is far from being on the decline (and given modern lifestyles, it may well be on the rise, I don't know).

Finally, I quote from an old book that belonged to my mother, a book I have always enjoyed dwelling upon."Anatomy Of An Illness as Perceived by The Patient', by Norman Cousins (who managed his crippling illness on his own when conventional medicine had no solutions to offer)-

"Pain Is Not The Enemy-

We know very little about pain and what we don't know makes it hurt all the more.  Indeed no form of illiteracy in the United States is so widespread or costly as the ignorance about pain - what it is, what causes it, how to deal with it without panic.

...Of all forms of pain, none is more important for the individual to understand than the 'threshold' variety.  Almost everyone has a telltale ache that is triggered whenever tension or fatigue reaches a certain point.  It can take the form of a migraine type headache or a squeezing pain deep in the abdomen or cramps or pain in the lower back or even pain in the joints.  The individual who has learned how to make the correlation between such threshold pains and their cause doesn't panic when they occur, he or she does something about relieving the stress and tension.  Then if the pain persists despite the absence of apparent cause, the individual will telephone the doctor.

If ignorance about pain is widespread, ignorance about the way pain killing drugs work is even more so.  What is not generally understood is that many of the vaunted pain-killing drugs conceal the pain without correcting the underlying condition.  They deaden the mechanism in the body that alerts the brain to the fact that something may be wrong.  The body can pay a high price for suppression of pain without regard to its basic cause."

We are far from understanding basic causes and effects that happen in our bodies, but my recent experiences have made me more open to taking supplements in terms of nutrition and alternate medicine, even though I don't completely understand how they work, as long as I seem to feel stronger and more balanced from within.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Bond, Agents And All That Stuff

I've been busy the last few weeks, with travel, and also trying to get my children's book into some shape.  That's why the blog has been dormant.  The work is still in progress but I've learnt quite a bit that I didn't know about trying to get a book published!

When Bond brings to mind Michael rather than James and agents are invariably literary, it's time to finalize that list of people to send your manuscript to.  I began with Indian publishers for children's books and wondered whether to contact an agent or not.  Searched on the internet and found a handful of agents and authors and children's publishers (no dedicated children's book agents) - each set cursing the other and decided it's probably simpler to begin on my own.  The good news is that apart from the usual publishers, I found a couple of small but enthusiastic new ones - Tota and Yolk Pickle, whose voices I liked.  Whether they will like mine is moot.

I continued my research by checking on U.K. agents (largely based in London), the idea being that the commonwealth group might be easier to reach out to, in the case of an Indian book.  I've made a list of fifteen (though ambitious authors advise going through entire books of agents' addresses and mailing them in batches of twenty five!  Almost all agents now only accept queries by email, which seems to enable this kind of process).  Of these, one represents Bond (yes, the one who wrote Paddington), another Milne and  Shepard (Winnie the Pooh etc.) ...ooops!  Regarding illustrations, there seems to be no rule.  Whether one should write 'XXX and YYY' for author and illustrator, (the advantage in this case as far as I can tell is that some publishers only want single author cum illustrators (I don't know why) and maybe will extend themselves to a team) or whether to specify 'written by XXX and illustrated by YYY', which, to me is only fair.  Then there is a another set who says 'Don't bother with illustrations, we have our own illustrators and so do the publishers' (or we know what we want).  It's too late to pander to this group though they are welcome to reject our illustrations.  A tiny set say, 'No unillustrated manuscripts will be read'.  I can safely send my draft to this minority.  Whew!

As for the illustrations, they are still in progress, about two thirds are done.  It's been a terrific learning experience, working with an unknown foreign artist miles away.  Once we got to the thick of things, where the story moved to India, chaos began.  The illustrator (naturally) had no idea that small town garages and shops were not gleaming and filled with machinery and that women were not typically tall, aggressive and dungaree-clad.  Where to begin to fill the gaps?  I gave a one-paragraph description and about five pictures of street scenes (including Indian cows!) and he came up with a terrific picture, so realistic that one would not guess he had never stepped into an Indian town.  In this process, I also remembered that in the sixties and seventies, the only cars sold were fiats, ambassadors and standard heralds.  From there we proceeded, with the usual ups and downs, some successes and some failures and a lot of learning.

I realised how invaluable Indian film songs were to describe certain scenes, and it turned out he liked music and now wants to visit India with his girlfriend sometime!  What songs did I send?  My story is set is the sixties and seventies, a time when many pleasant songs existed in relatively down to earth settings.  But to showcase some of the natural beauty and joy that still exists in this large and varied country, the song I liked best was from the early nineties, 'Chinna Chinna Aasai' (from the film Roja).  It's been translated into other languages, but I give below the link to the original Tamil version.  When I need to take a break from those long lists I am still compiling (will have to begin the U.S. agent list next, which will be an uphill task), I sit back and listen to this song, which my son likes as well.  It translates to 'Tiny tiny hopes...'

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3dT99bwT8io

Saturday, March 11, 2017

A Flying Finish

My mother had a little sign in her consultation room (that doubled up as my bedroom).  It hangs there still, many years after her death, and each time I see it I remember her philosophy.  Hand painted, blue letters on a white board proclaim, "Miracles happen".  I have always believed in miracles and am ever delighted when I see them unfolding around me.  Not the phenomena couched in mysterious, religious or philosophical explanations, but in those down to earth situations that call for determination, faith and the sensing of an inner purpose.

Sport is one of the most direct and dramatic ways to see some of these extraordinary achievements- the result of people who use their gifts, with the necessary focus and intuition to attain something previously unreached.  The recent Champions League football match (Barcelona vs Paris Saint- Germaine) was one such event.  In a way it was more exciting than watching a solo performance for it was a team effort, with both teams playing at full strength.  Individuals certainly helped but the game went beyond big names.  Fortuitous events did occur, but they did not dominate in any way.  It was the effort of a team fighting for everything, with no time to spare (without the luxury of extra time), willing to convert every move into an opportunity and believing in themselves until the end.

Many people have described it better than me; the New York Times had a write up which summed up the situation and game wonderfully (if one ignores a stray reference to the American Super Bowl, possibly thrown in to woo their local readers).  Here is a link-

https://www.nytimes.com/2017/03/08/sports/soccer/champions-league-fc-barcelona-paris-saint-germain.html

Here is another link to some highlights leading to that soaring, giddy feeling of having achieved the (almost) impossible - a flying finish that is just the beginning.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tSJvuyfNNhc

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Thoughts On Writing

I can't think of a time when I didn't enjoy writing.  And so, when I came to a blank wall at a stage in my career as a scientist, and had the option of choosing an alternate way to spend my time, I decided to try my hand at writing.  It began with a trickle (and continues, for various reasons at that pace!) but in the course of over a decade, I have tried my hand at various kinds of writing and have learnt an enormous amount, more than any formal course would have taught me.

A few days ago, after my recent manuscript was shot down (it has happened on innumerable occasions!) I happened to sit and reminisce, to dwell on where my various pieces of writing had led me.  It may not be as interesting for readers as it is for me, but I decided to write down some of my thoughts.

When I first began, I wrote whatever came into my mind.  I felt I needed to write, to begin the flow of thoughts and their translation into words.  I began with a children's book (which I illustrated) - far from perfect, but enjoyable.  All the neighbours' children liked it, which was good enough for me!  A series of poems and a short play followed.  No one was interested in doing anything with these though people were happy to read them.  The short pieces led me on - I wanted to write longer stories and I began writing novellas and a longish interconnected tale of stories- science fiction for young adults.  At the time, the ideas were all part of fiction but now several are taking shape in our present world as science advances.  This manuscript actually made it through to the final stage, past the editors, but was shot down by the marketing team who said they would not be able to sell it.

Writing long pieces is very different from short stories - I learnt about the importance of discipline, consistency and also about my strengths and weaknesses as a writer.  I have no illusions about my writing - it's done in a very basic and simple (often conversational) style.  I write largely but not entirely for myself, in the hope that people might relate to or be helped in some manner by a few of my thoughts.  Sometimes I just write to vent my feelings!  Most of all, I like to write to express my faith in the strange but wonderful ways of life and the world around us.

Science fiction led to real life science reporting - a form of archiving.  My husband pointed out one day that no one interviewed and recorded Indian science in the country (that was over a decade ago).  Why not try?  There were several outstanding scientists and engineers who had innovated and invented entirely in India - their work would be interesting to document and it would be good for people (especially students who keep talking about the limitations of opportunities in this country) to know about amazing things that could be done with good ideas and determination.  I approached a science journal for permission to write.  Reluctantly they agreed.  Before each piece, I would get their permission and then be given a relatively free hand to proceed.  This was my introduction to interviewing people, recording their words and thinking about how to demystify technical issues for a lay audience.  I also had to do some basic photography, for I needed recent photographs of the speakers (and had no cameraman with me!).  It was an incredible experience and all the scientists I interviewed were enthusiastic and gracious.  Somehow this column gained a lot of popularity and many others began to do similar series of interviews.  I decided it was time to bow out.

I had always felt that one needed to be outgoing, outspoken and quick thinking to do justice to interviews but I realized that this was not essential.  I (a water person, according to the Chinese five elements) blended so much into the background that I found the scientists talking aloud, almost as if to themselves.  All I had to do was sit and listen, and to talk only if a clarification or specific change in direction was required.  It was a time when I really learned the importance of listening and accurately conveying information without distorting it or bringing any aspect of myself into the picture.  I got letters from several readers who had known the speakers, saying the interviews gave them the feeling that the speaker had appeared before them and was talking to them.

There is often a pattern in the way we work, though it is not evident to us at the time.  After the interview series, I realized that just as there were people who had changed the way Indian science  functioned, there had been drastic events that had reshaped Indian lives and our environment - these were often described in political terms but not scientific ones.  One such extreme event was the Bhopal gas tragedy.  I wanted to document it in greater detail as seen by the scientists who were actually on the scene.  Now the information is declassified but when I began, no one was allowed to publish their Bhopal scientific data.  Short interviews would not suffice.  I began by talking to some of the more active scientists, several are dead now and the ones that remain are very old.  I did not finish this piece of work but it led me to a phase of conducting very long recordings that gave me a glimpse into ways of doing science very different from how they are done today.  I gave up this project during my pregnancy for I felt it was too morose a subject to pursue at the time.

Somewhere along the way, one of my very close friends suggested writing a blog and I wondered.  Well, you know the result of that venture (and I thank you all for your patience in reading all that I have to say).  Writing short pieces for an unknown but direct audience (no editors!) and the ease of publishing things online brings with it a different kind of responsibility.  The typed word cannot be erased - a sobering thought when spontaneity beckons!

In the midst of all this, my aunt wanted to write a cookbook.  She and I share a passion for cooking, and I began this as well, along with a friend who is a photographer.  Documenting family recipes, testing them, making notes and the most challenging of all - trying to photograph them at home under very basic conditions was a different kettle of fish.  This is a huge tome and it's still very far from completion.

Recently I wrote a draft for a children's book, this one was based on my own experiences with my toddler, who wanted to read 'Marco Polo Gets A Job!'  Not finding any such story, I wrote one, and sent it as an entry for a contest.  As with my other manuscripts, this one did not even make the shortlist (far from getting any awards!!).  But the friends I sent it to liked the story and I do too (on the scale of children's books, I think it's quite comparable to some of the more entertaining ones).  So I have decided to get it illustrated (by someone better than myself), send it out for another round and then if (or when!) all else fails, to self publish.  This recent exercise has been one of tremendous learning once more.

I wrote to an illustrator in Bangalore but got no reply.  I looked at all the Indian children's books we had collected but could find nothing suitable to the style I had in mind (the current trend in books here is a colourful folk style, which doesn't really suit my story).  I looked at the foreign children's books that I really liked - all my favourites were from British publishers.  I wrote to the illustrator I most admired - Juan Wijngaard (who magically illustrated 'Cloud Tea Monkeys') with no hope of getting a reply.  Surprisingly, he did write back - a long detailed letter about how the world of children's book illustrators worked. explaining the time and financial commitments, the royalty involved and the fact that basically the publishers dealt with the whole exercise.  It was a very kind letter, giving me a glimpse of a world I knew nothing about.  He added that he was flattered that I had thought of him (!!) and that he had stopped illustrating children's books and only focussed on art that he wanted to create.

After that, I confess I didn't spend hours looking for all possible Indian illustrators - I have very little spare time each day.  I knew that my book on its own would never make it to a publisher - publishers rarely touch unknown authors and one needs a very good agent, someone I have not yet found.  I tried the internet and eventually contacted a person whose illustrations I liked, whose time frame and budget were reasonable.  In this manner, I have begun this new venture, with an illustrator from Uruguay, who is pleasant, who seems to have liked my story and is enjoying illustrating it.

We have just begun and I have never before worked with an unknown person across the net.  It's the first time that my words are being put into pictures by someone else - and I have given them the freedom (with a brief explanation of what was in my mind when I wrote the story) to depict the characters and scenes as they want to.  Now I truly understand the importance of a symbiotic relationship between writer and illustrator - the words tell a story but the pictures draw attention to some aspects of it in a distinctive style.  It's very enjoyable to see the addition of colour and pictures to black and white typing - drawings that would not be meaningful on their own but that make a page come alive for a child (and hopefully for their parents too).  I have no idea where this will lead or how it will turn out, but it's a new and very interesting turn that my writing had led me to and I'm enjoying every moment of it so far.

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