Sunday, June 27, 2010

Naans Anyone?

Hot, crusty and just a little soft, I have discovered the delights of naans, freshly baked at home. The dough is flexible and forgiving, the recipe similar to that of fatless pizza dough. The preparation time minimal - after letting the dough rise for an hour or two (or overnight in the fridge) the baking takes just about ten or fifteen minutes in a very hot oven.

They're wonderful for breakfast, served with a dab of butter and a sprinkling of kalonji (onion seeds) or with cheese and olives (as we often had in Turkey). They're pleasant, warmed up as an accompaniment to soup and salad for a light lunch. And they're very handy for those Indian dinners where one wants to provide fresh bread or rotis for several people but doesn't want to spend hours at the stove.

I make mine with a lightly fermented dough - a slightly yeasted mix of flour and whole wheat flour, roll it and then pat it into a large thinnish rectangle, top it with dried spices or herbs of my choice (chives are very nice and so are poppy seeds)and bake it at the bottom shelf of my oven set to the highest temperature (450 or 500 F). The baking tray doesn't even need to be buttered. It's the closest one can get to replicating a wood fired oven or a tandoor - those large round, clay ovens that all homes in the north had at one time for making delicious rotis, grilling meat and vegetables and simmering dals.

It's substantial enough for breakfast without containing the oil that traditional Indian breakfast breads do and tasty enough to be eaten with just a little something on the side. Addictive and yummy!

Sunday, June 20, 2010

My Football Dream

I wish that someday, at the end of a FIFA World Cup, once all the dust (and animosity) has settled, a post-final set of friendly matches could be organized. This would be without any countries and logos- just players who want to have some fun and spectators who wish to watch a little football action without having to strongly side with countries or teams.

I feel that the unerring sense of timing and skill, seen only in very few players, requires an emptying of the mind and a sense of judging the ball a few moments before everyone else can. Though these qualities can be fine tuned, I think they would work best when the players are stimulated yet relaxed and when they are actually enjoying the game instead of worrying about how their game is perceived. And so I think that if they could just play - with other talented and skilled people to unwind in a sense, to meet new players and just to have a little fun, we would see some very nice football.

There would be no need for media (in this utopian world!) and only people who want to watch the players in action would attend.

This is actually not so hard to do - it just needs willing participation and one extra day after the games to turn it into reality. Let's hope that one day it will be so!

Thursday, June 17, 2010

To Find A Yoga School

I recently read an article by Lindsay Clinton titled 'Do I smell an opportunity here?'
on how India is not making use of its traditional resources like Yoga and Ayurveda effectively to enrich its economy and society.

There is a strong element of truth in this though the article is abrasively written and superficial in part. I quote:

"Ever since the microfinance investment story began in India, investors have been scouting the “next big ‘social’ thing.” One category has been overlooked—affordable wellness. India has cultural assets—yoga and ayurveda—that, if harnessed effectively, could create tremendous value for communities and the economy.

But without social entrepreneurs and investors willing to take on the work of professionalizing these assets, we may never know their true worth.

Case in point: yoga. Pick any major city in the world—London, Paris, New York, San Francisco, Singapore, Bangkok—and you will find a great studio and a menu of yoga options. Try to find the same thing in Delhi, Mumbai or Calcutta, and you’ll have a difficult time.

With the exception of a bright spot or two in Mysore, Pune, and Rishikesh, practicing yoga in its birthplace is either exceedingly dull or completely bastardized (“power yoga” does not a yogi make). Yes, there are plenty of spots for “yogations” (yoga vacations) but they cater almost entirely to tourists and are often taught by tourists. Why come to India to be taught by a German instructor? Where are the great Indian teachers and the great Indian studios?..."

Where indeed are the great Yoga 'studios' (a popular American term that has no translatable equivalent in Indian languages. Nor for that matter are there words for 'menu' and - 'yogations')? Not surprisingly, schools exist in those tiny places that have patronised and sheltered yoga through decades- princely states with erstwhile patrons such as in Mysore and their neighbouring areas where the influence spills over (Bangalore in this case), Munger- a tiny town in strife ridden Bihar- the state where Buddha was born and from where came much spiritual learning, Chennai- where the learned teacher Shri Krishnamacharya moved from Mysore, Pune - the home of one of his students, Bengal - another spiritual stronghold and many well known and little known places in the Himalayas.

It's true that one will not immediately find a school of one's choice in any random city in India, but the reasons for this are diverse and complex, and finally boil down to a matter of personal choice and options. Traditional forms of health and healing have not touched the common man's life to the extent that they could, but having viewed the system from both sides, I think this is because these systems are not intrinsically set up for easy systematization and replication in the form of assembly line units. Certain basic methods can be taught and used everywhere, and this is in fact being done- but without the necessary quality control. It is a difficult task, made much worse by superficial paramters of 'certification' issued by the government and other public and private organisations. For who is to say that their interpretation is the right one when there are hundreds of schools and amongst the many competent people, many more who are not that competent and some who are just phonies? And the aims of business are not always allied to those of promotion of health.

One forgets that Yoga (and allied systems such as Ayurveda) do not involve mere physical training and mental discipline. These aspects are undoubtedly important and effective- and one cannot deny that just learning these practices will do most people a world of good, but it is just as important to include in this framework a powerful component of ourselves- our spirit.

To be a teacher of yoga, or a facilitator of balance and healing is quite different from being an instructor of asanas or pranayama - and I feel that both are required in the world. Let us just not confuse or equate the two.

Let there be the super studios in London and Los Angeles and the bright spots in other parts and let them grow and help people in their own way. But let there exist alongside schools of deep learning and teaching that are not necessarily easy to find but not so difficult either, if one really looks for them.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

A Nocturnal Observation

There is something magical about a garden at night. Of course, there is a fragile beauty in the opening of a jasmine bud or the slow unfolding of the lotus as dawn breaks, but the night brings its own mysterious beauty. Shadows flit and plants that are meant to be asleep nod gently in the breeze. Everything looks dark, but if you wait, the wind whispers things to you and the garden takes on a life of its own.

Last night, my bryophyllum bloomed as it does generally once a year (almost on the same night each lunar year- for just one night). The flowers, hanging off the very edge of a giant leaf were so bright and wonderfully scented, like beacons for the little nocturnal insects that soon began crawling into them. Interestingly, the fragrance was strongest not close to the plant, but a little distance away.

Last year, a leaf cutting of my plant was put into my brother's garden. And sure enough, last night, I got a call, telling me that the plant had flowered. This intrinsic annual rhythm never misses a beat and one wonders- how? And- why? Why does a plant that grows vegetatively expend so much energy in flowers of such beauty and fragrance?

I suppose the answer lies in the plant's evolutionary history, but I think that's just the way this world is. Why do things happen the way they do - and why do some people seem to nucleate, at times, facilitate peace or happiness or healing when they have nothing evidently to gain from it? I suppose it is their nature.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

In My African Dream

The World cup began and I missed Johnny Clegg. (I confess I didn't watch the opening ceremony, but read about it and the spirit of celebration in South Africa - with its usual mix of blessings and curses).

Of course, Johnny Clegg performed at the World Cup final draw. But, given South Africa's abundant musical talent, the list of musicians put together for the opening ceremony left a little to be desired. And one of those little bits, I think, was Johnny Clegg.

And so as I write, I think about the amazing friendship of Johnny Clegg and Sipho Mchunu that began in 1969 and culminated in the first mixed music group in Johannesburg(in 1976, called Johnny and Sipho that eventually became Juluka in 1979).

Johnny Clegg learned some basics of Zulu music and Zulu street dancing from a Zulu apartment cleaner, Mzila, who used to perform near Clegg's suburban home in Johannesburg. Sipho Mchunu, a self styled guitarist (whose first guitar was made of a used gas canister and fishing gut)came to Johannesburg in search of a job as a gardener. He happened to begin work in the same neighbourhood that Johnny lived in.

And so, they met, took to each other- played together and formed their own musical style that was a mix of white music and Zulu. At this time, Sipho (who was also a traditional dancer) was dancing at a migrant labour hostel. No non-black men were permitted in these hostels which were guarded by "Blackjacks" (municipal police linked to security police and South African police). Sipho invited Johnny to these meets and arranged to slip him in. A well organised and executed plan followed (where Clegg,who would be standing close to the hostel was engulfed in a mass of dancing Africans and swept into a room whose windows were sealed up with mattresses to block all sights and sounds). The dancing would go on for several hours, at the end of which the same procedure would be followed in reverse and Johnny would be swept out of the premises safely!

The duo went on to produce some lovely music- not traditional, but making use of the inherent Zulu rhythm and chants and the western sounds of the guitar and their very own lyrics. They travelled, sang and danced in various migrant labour hostels, stirring up musicians, dancers - and the government. In 1985 they split up - Sipho Mchunu returned home to support his community and Johnny Clegg formed the group Savuka.

As one of their songs (Ibhola Lethu - Our Football Team)has become a promotional song for this World Cup, I write the lyrics (in translation)-

"Tickets in your hands all you spectators of ours!
This is the day when we will put an end to all the big talk

We want to know who can beat us at our football
Where ever we clash with our opposition it is so
spectacular that the crowd roars its approval
We want to know who will dare to touch our football
Where ever we clash with another team, their
resistance just crumbles

The referee says to all the young players :
Prepare yourselves!
Run well with the ball so that
the spectators get so excited
that they whistle loudly-
says the referee..."

And so the games begin! Many players are already injured in the warm ups and there is a lot of hype mingled with excitement and talent. Some dreams fulfilled, others broken. We rejoice with the players and spectators as we grieve with the Mandela family. And sing with Savuka-

In my African Dream you blessed the rain
let me stand proud, eased my pain,
you raised me up
gave me love, filled my cup.

A)Video clip of Johnny Clegg and Savuka's tribute to Nelson Mandela in concert -

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Snakes - and Humans

Two nights ago, I dreamt of a snake. It was a huge, cream coloured snake with green bands. This was probably after a conversation we had had over lunch with some friends (snake conversations are often interminable and ghoulishly satisfying to one and all). My brother was describing a snake he had recently seen in a forest - a small and highly poisonous creature and our friend, who has an estate adjoining that forest was nodding wisely and saying it was probably a krait.

This morning, my doorbell rang and surprisingly it was my neighbour. "I just wanted to let you know there's a baby snake on the staircase railing," she said. "One of my boys touched it while running down the stairs."

I walked out and the snake didn't look like a baby to me. "It's probably one of the smaller adult snakes," I said. "Not the usual ratsnakes which are common on campus."

"What do we do?" she asked.

"Normally we call the Ecological Science department," I said.

"I've blocked my front door," she said. "I thought you might like to know, so you could do something. I'm heading out."

"All right," I said.

She paused. "I think Dave (the earlier flat resident- this is a flat for transient visitors) left a number for snakes. Do you want it?"


"Here it is."

"Thanks, I'll call," I went in to the house to call, leaving the door open, but there was silence at the other end. She and her two boys had left.

I asked the person on the phone to hold on while I closed the door in case the snake slid in. The neighbours had certainly slid out rather fast.

The Ecological Sciences people said, "If the snake is outside, leave it alone. It will go away."

I said, "It's going up and down the banister. I think it can't find its way into the garden."

"We'll try and send someone," they said and disconnected the line.

I went out to see the snake. It was still stuck. I considered taking a picture to identify it, but didn't want to startle it.

I returned to the house, thinking about the last time such a thing had happened. It was a few summers ago, when I was alone in the entire block of apartments. Everyone was on vacation. I was climbing up the stairs with a grandfaher clock that had just been repaired, making a clanging noise and I saw a large branch wedged in the railing leading to the terrace.

"I must clear that branch," I was thinking. "What a big one! I wonder how it fell," when it suddenly uncoiled and started flowing down. Luckily I was at my doorstep by this time and after putting the clock inside, I went out to see where the snake was. The snake had gone half way down but couldn't find a way out and was coming back up. We were heading towards each other; both of us stopped and moved away.

As this was the first time I was alone at home with a snake, I wondered what to do. I didn't want to encounter it on the landing. I called a friend who suggested the (yes!) Ecological Sciences department. I called and was asked to contact Natasha, our famous local ecologist.

"This is she," she said (for those unfamiliar with India, this Americanism is never heard on the phone in these parts but I was not really concerned with all this miscellanea).

"I have a large snake on the staircase," I said.

"Have you identified it?"


"Go to our website, look at the pictures and identify it. I'll come in half an hour."

"I don't know where it will be in half an hour," I said. "And I'm concerned that it might come in through the windows which have no grills. Is it possible?"

"Yes," she said.

"Can I do anything to prevent it from coming into the house?"

"Not really," she said and a silence indicated that the conversation had ended. Not quite.

"Call me after half an hour, after you've identified it."

"All right," I said and now the conversation had really ended.

I waited for a while and then peeped out. The snake was slithering around, trying to find its way down. Finally, it slithered up the landing wall, dropped onto the ground and made its way up a tree. I was relieved.

Back at home, all was well till the evening. "Would the snake return?" I wondered, thinking of all the morbid stories I had heard. I needed to leave early next morning for Yoga. I couldn't go down the stairs in the dark.

I called my brother in law. "I'm coming over to play hockey," he said. "I'll drop by and take a look if it is lurking around."

He came by and reported it wasn't around.

"Thanks," I said, relieved.

"Well, I'll head out now," he said. "I don't know why people are so scared of snakes. I just can't understand it. I'm never afraid of them. Most of the time they don't do anything."

I returned to the present thinking these thoughts. Probably true - I feel now. These snakes are just trying to get back to their habitat, but the kinds of encounters I have had with humans in this process have been far more revealing.

Anyhow, to cut a long story short all has ended well. I dragged my husband out of the campus interviews with an SOS phone call and he walked to the Ecological Science department (a few minutes away from the interview site)and came home with a student (not Natasha, this was a steady looking guy). The snake had vanished.

"What did it look like?" he asked.

I described it.

"Wow!" he said.

"Is it - a krait?" I asked in a low, trembling voice.

"There are no kraits here," he said. "It was probably a kukri. It's non venomous, but it's pretty rare. We hardly see them around."

He searched around hopefully, but couldn't see it.

"Sorry to trouble you but it seemed stuck and people go up and down this staircase."
(I have now learned to apologise for panic at seeing snakes trapped near my house. It seems to calm the academicians.)

"Call me again if it comes."

But I don't think it will, and I don't think I'll call him or any other humans if it's really a kukri. The campus website describes it as being a timid, inoffensive snake. It's certainly quieter than many people around.

Friday, June 4, 2010


Gradually, I am noticing distinct changes in my Yoga practice. The days of pushing with all one's strength to attain a certain posture seem almost over. Instead, the emphasis has shifted to one of balance and relaxed breathing. Little tensions have to be released and the emphasis is on stretching and an expansive kind of opening, even for those chin-to-knee postures, which look so much like one is squeezed against oneself.

It is more about trying to make small changes to perfect postures and realizing that these require a large amount of focus and effort from within. It is also about understanding the purpose of each movement; no longer am I looking just at attaining the final position, but at the process involved in getting there.

There is a distinct lightness that overflows sometimes as a little laugh, but that generally expresses itself in a contented calmness inside me. I find that I am willing to accept myself as I am and move to strengthen and balance myself rather than wish that I could move or think differently - more fluidly or without pain. I am also learning that it is easier for me to release pressure and pain using gentleness rather than force - both in the body and the mind.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

The Monsoons Are Here!

No matter what the meteorological department says, the monsoons are here! I mean in Bangalore (where they were to arrive two days later). And it is amazing how soon they make their presence felt. From one hour to the next, a great coolness has descended (along with sheets of water that have made their way through the windows and splattered a rainbow of dots on the computer screen).

The signs were all there – and I don't mean the satellite maps. For the past two weeks, we have witnessed clouds of butterflies migrating in a wave – moving from the west coast to the east to avoid the rain front. The swarms of flying ants appearing from nowhere, the dragonflies hovering at the tips of the dried out lily stems. A toad looking a little sheepishly at me as it hops onto the bird bath and dips one leg into the water in the evenings. Not to mention the compelling call of the koel which is so romanticized here that we all delight in it, but which has been driving several Japanese that I met round the bend (as they are waking up at four each morning due to the insistent cry).

And all this while, we have been moving round in a withered state that the summer rains just could not change. For the summer rains bring a momentary sigh of relief, but lack the immensely quenching effect that comes only with the monsoon rains. Now, I get the urge to bake something hot and fragrant, and so I must say goodbye!

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