Friday, July 30, 2010

Chalo Chalo

Landing at the Kolkata airport never fails to entertain and educate in the ways of the utterly unpredictable and excitable Bangali (pronounced Bongoli).  This time, I was amazed to see three well dressed policemen standing close to the arrivals gate, one held a placard for 'Miss S. Butter'.  I walked past, then as an afterthought, pulled out my camera and ran back (ignoring suggestions to be careful lest I get myself arrested), but the placard holder had vanished.  Presumably Miss Butter had been on our flight.  The remaining policemen were greeting another passenger who had on a large, black cowboy hat.  This might look incongruous in any other part of India, but in Kolkata, no one would even give it a second glance, probably figuring that the man was a fan of Mithun-da (the ancient actor who still plays hero with flamboyance if not flair).

I paid a brief visit to the toilet, where two airline staff were busy drying a saree beneath the automatic hand dryer.  No one minded.  No one cared.  We just washed our hands, shook the water droplets off and left.

It always takes a few days to reconcile to the immense contradictions of this city.  If it were possible to run a city entirely on temperament, the Bangali would gladly do so.   As of now, I suppose it runs partly because of the large number of (despised) immigrants from other states.  But the Bangali temperament is what provides the charm and the spirit of unpredictability to this city.

Fancy that...

It is only here that the American embassy has been assigned a prominent place on Ho Chi Minh Sarani (lane), an eternal reminder of a lost war.  The Zambian consulate happily faces a 100% eggless pastry shop.

British remnants are strewn all over and have acquired, over time, their own Indian interpretations.  Park Street, not quite what it was, still has a number of fascinating shops.  Flury's- the European style tea room is going strong and just outside it squats a villager who has brought an exotic range of cacti and orchid-like plants to the city to sell.

Pavement outside Flury's

Food is of overwhelming importance as almost every street in the city indicates.  It may be in the form of posters, restaurants, sweet shops or immensely popular, little pavement stalls.  This is the season of ilish- the highly prized fish equated to salmon (but much superior) that swims upstream from the Bengal estuary towards fresh water, to spawn.  The city is overflowing with it - it's in markets, restaurants, houses.  I even saw a bus carrying a huge poster of delicious ilish.

Ilish everywhere
This is not really the season when visitors come to Calcutta- the monsoons can bring the city to a definite halt as soon as the rains begin.  Water rises rapidly, as if there were flash floods and little waterfalls appear at the edges of flyovers.  There are power cuts and the weather is sultry.  But, the air is fresher, the city greener.  The last of the mangoes are still available and there are mushrooms, ferns, pineapples and of course - ilish in mustard to eat.  So, we happily say, Kolkata chalo, chalo (let's go, let's go to Kolkata).

Passionfruit mousse cake from Flury's

Friday, July 23, 2010

Rainy Days in Delhi

It poured continuously for over a day in the capital, bringing everything to a standstill. Blame it on the upcoming commonwealth games. Newspapers are overflowing with pictures of dug up Delhi and stories on how the new stadiums are being washed away with the rains. Conversations abound on how many crores (tens of millions) of rupees have been handed over to the middlemen (and the top men as well) for digging up perfectly good roads and pavements and replacing them on whim with new materials (leaving gaping holes all round). What a mindless waste.

But, sheltered as we were at home, the rains brought a refreshing coolness and clearness after the summer haze - washing down the trees and the ground and allowing us to eat the fried and spicy food that summer does not permit! I enjoyed every bit of the rainy spell.  And it looks like there's another one round the corner.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

For Those Who Have Nothing

Last week, in one of our class discussions, we wondered about the reams of writings on yoga - What is necessary? What is useful? What is desirable?- according to various accomplished yogis. This is a confusing area, strewn with subjectivity, many times topics are described in the absence of context or level of difficulty.

Finally, our yoga teacher gave his own views, repeating several times that yoga is for those who have nothing. Nothing? Not exactly - but what he meant was that people who have already attained control over their minds, their physical selves don't really need most of these practices. But for the average person, physical health is necessary to carry out most of what one wants to achieve, and along with this a certain peace of mind and sense of satisfaction are desirable. For this person (which includes most of us), yoga is a simple step towards staying healthy and peaceful. There are many different approaches to yoga based on our specific temperaments and affinities.

In a more physical sense too, all one really needs to practice yoga, is a bit of land or a part of a room, where one might be undisturbed. In addition, having a yoga mat is perhaps not asking for too much! And of course, a bit of time. But that is all it takes to begin.

Somehow, the phrase 'for those who have nothing' stayed in my mind and I began thinking of the verses composed by Adi Shankaracharya (an eighth century spiritual preceptor) in his Atma Shatakam (the song of the self). According to the story about him, when he was eight years old, he was walking through the Himalayas in search of a guru. He met a sage (the teacher he was searching for)who asked him who he was. The young boy replied with this Sanskrit poem, of which I quote a few lines:

Mano Buddhi Ahankara Chitta Ninaham
Nacha Shrotra Jihve Na Cha Ghrana Netre
Nacha Vyoma Bhoomir Na Tejo Na Vayu
Chidananda Rupa Shivoham Shivoham

I am not mind, nor intellect, nor ego,
nor the reflections of the inner self
I am not the five senses.
I am beyond that.
I am not the ether, nor the earth,
nor the fire, nor the wind (etc. - the five elements).
I am indeed,
That eternal knowing and bliss,
I am Shiva, I am Shiva.

Na Punyam Na Papam Na Saukhyam Na Dukham
Na Mantro Na Teertham Na Vedo Na Yajnaha
Aham Bhojanam Naiva Bhojyam Na Bhokta
Chidananda Rupa Shivoham Shivoham

I have neither merit,
nor demerit.
I do not commit sins or good deeds,
nor have happiness or sorrow,
pain or pleasure.
I do not need mantras, holy places,
scriptures, rituals or sacrifices.
I am none of the triad of
the observer or one who experiences,
the process of observing or experiencing,
or any object being observed or experienced.
I am indeed,
That eternal knowing and bliss,
I am Shiva, I am Shiva.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Butterflies in Bangalore Airport

I was delighted to spot butterflies (and moths) in the busy Bangalore airport and more so when the airport staff happily allowed me to step out of the queue to take some pictures. Here are the results:

Friday, July 16, 2010

The Sweet Smell of Turmeric

Of all the spices used in Indian cooking, turmeric surely must be the the most used. Even if nothing else is available, our food must have salt and turmeric added to it. Even so, I didn't recognize it when I first saw it. So used to dried and powdered turmeric am I that the rhizomes - not quite ginger, definitely not mango-ginger, initially puzzled me. Then the shopkeeper broke one and showed me - fresh haldi!

I brought it home, planted a few in a pot for the future (turmeric grows very easily and doesn't need too much sun) and only recently began to use the rest. Cooking with fresh turmeric requires a little more effort - it has to be washed, peeled, pounded before it can be used.

And so I began with a simple marinade of garlic, turmeric and salt for seafood. And discovered very soon that the fresh turmeric was completely different from the dried variety. As soon as it was pounded, a very clean, sweet smell filled the air and the grinding stone turned a mango yellow. This was definitely not the spice to be used with garlic or any other pungent flavour. It was a thing of mellowness and freshness - very different from the strong, almost disinfecting, deep yellow dried counterpart.

I felt that I would need to rethink all the recipes where I was planning to use it and began thinking about how our cooking has evolved to assume that one will often use dried spices and herbs. These recipes end up having stronger flavours and often, more than one spice (many times at least three or four) might be used in combination. But on those rare occasions, when one finds freshly harvested spices, a single spice will flavour the food wonderfully.

And so, if you don't mind spending a few extra moments, I urge you to try fresh haldi, and, if possible- do pound it yourself and breathe in the fresh, sweet aroma that really can't be described. And use it, just with salt in the dal or those baby potatoes - and taste the difference.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Football - The Final Saga

We watched the final football match with some friends who had dropped by from Berkeley. Sitting on a blanket, sipping wine and munching on cheeslings while the sleepy stomach protested. We watched the game with a growing sense of dismay and disgust; the kick from de Jong was one of the worst scenes of the match.

Our friend predicted that Spain would score in the 75th minute and then, as the clock ticked by, changed it to the 89th minute. Finally, when they moved into extra time, we left, feeling that we had watched a game that was never allowed to take off. Fortunately the Spaniards seemed to be keeping their cool.

We drove back through the deserted streets, hoping that it was too late for the sniffer policemen - it was past two in the morning after all. Next morning, we were naturally pleased to know the result, especially as it was Fernando Torres's pass and Iniesta's kick that made the day (I really enjoy watching Iniesta on the field).

We heaved a collective sigh of relief for the fact that ugliness had not won over skill. And appreciated wholeheartedly Vincent del Bosque's words when he said, "I'm here to talk about the beautiful things in football."

For that is eventually what should matter. Let's not complain about the fact that FIFA has blocked most internet sites that show that final winning goal, preventing people from seeing it after it is all over. It is not about the Hand of God that denied the only African team an opportunity to reach the semifinals. It is not about what South Africa will do with the stadium and how much money has gone into the tournament- and to whom. Nor is it about Shakira's performances (at least the incredible Ladysmith Black Mambazo was asked to perform as well). Many of these things are orchestrated in complex ways. But when we all stay up to watch a football match, we hope at least that we will see some games of beauty and intelligence being played out.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Visiting Butterflies

This year we have seen lots and lots of butterflies, fluttering by, or just resting, sunning themselves, sipping the rain water that collects in the hollow of leaves. I have begun to try and photograph them - quite simple at times but very difficult for certain kinds, which just gather themselves up and fly off the moment they see me approaching. Here are a few snapshots and I hope I will be able to get some more later.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Football again

Well, for better or worse, Paul did it again. Nothing fishy about it. The Spain vs Germany match was one of the better matches I saw (I saw only a few). It was very nice to see a cohesive team in action and they appeared more skilled than the Argentinians when it came to playing the Germans. The relatively diminutive Xavi and Iniesta (though I really don't know their heights) moved the ball so fluidly- a reminder as to how skill and concerted understanding between players is far more effective than size or speed (certainly something Indians ought to think about).

A well written article in New York Times clearly brought out the fact that many of the Spanish players had been playing hundreds of matches together for Barcelona and their style of play remains similar in both teams.

Certainly the Spaniards this year are a formidable lot; it happens once in a while that a certain combination of players can come together and make things seem so easy on the field. Apart from skill, those thousands of practice (and real) sessions have something to do with it.

Though not directly related, this reminds me of a doha (couplet) by the spiritual poet Kabir that was drilled into us as children-
करत करत अभ्यास के, जड़मति होत सुजान
रसरी आवत जात ते, सिल पर परत निसान
With constant practice, even an unintelligent person becomes wise. The rope goes over the stone well so many times that it leaves a mark on the stone.

Many of the teams have high levels of talent but they seem to lack the implicit understanding between players that can come only with playing together. One can almost see how Messi for instance might fit effortlessly into the network of the Spanish style of play though he sometimes struggles in the Argentine side.

Having said that, Germany is a good team and I hope they win today's match against Uruguay for third position. When it comes down to it, I prefer any of Paul's tentacles to the highly dubious Hand of God.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

A Test of Trust

Some weeks ago, I met a family friend - a Welsh lady, married to a scientist, who has been living in India for many decades now. She is full of the most amazing stories and views on life and is, I feel, decidedly fey. She was telling me about how it is very easy to tell when people are lying. Apparently their eyes change; she described it as a sort of film which comes over their eyes.

Apparently, many years ago, when she mentioned this to her father in law, he decided to conduct a little experiment. He took her to a room where sat several of his clients (he was a lawyer) and asked her to write down her views on whether each person there was a crook or a straight man. Apparently she was amazingly accurate in her assessment.

I recently read a review in a science journal (PNAS, June 22, 2010, 11149-11150) where scientists discussed the correlation of testosterone and oxytocin levels (a class of hormones that are present in higher levels in males and females respectively) with the ability to trust people. Apparently, a part of the brain called the amygdala is involved in the fear and stress response and this region contains receptors for the above mentioned hormones. When stimulated (as with testosterone, the male hormone), it produces a fearful response and when blocked (as with oxtocin, higher in females) it produces a trusting sensation.

An intensive series of experiments (with a number of controls taking into account heredity, socio-economic factors, prior experiences and the investigator himself/herself) with women indicated that although no one could predict how each woman would respond, there was a corelation between scepticism and testosterone levels in certain kinds of women. When given testosterone, the women who were intrinsically sceptical of people did not change their judgement but those who were trusting became less so.

There are many causes for perception of fear and distrust, and human behaviour is not as simple to dissect out as a mechanical device. However, these results are interesting as they highlight the fact that hormones and the mind have many subtle roles to play in not just out own feelings but in how we perceive and relate to the world. It also highlights changing perception with our internal rhythm or clock, which is something we tend to neglect.

In women, testosterone levels rise just before ovulation and oxytocin levels are high during pregnancy and lactation. The scientists say this might be evolutionarily driven. How much one reads into the experiments and hypotheses is subjective, nonetheless, I think we must remember that we react to situations depending on how we feel at that particular moment. It is futile to look back (or forward) and try to gauge our reactions to situations involving emotions and personal decisions such as who to trust and what to fear.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Some Football Snippets

We are still recovering from Brazil's surprising and seemingly avoidable loss, reminding us that no man is an island. Certainly Melo could have been mellower and perhaps would have served more if he stood and waited. Meanwhile, life has come to a standstill in Calcutta (the heartland of Indian football) and Bengalis are indulging in a spate of pujas (prayers and rituals) on behalf of Lionel Messi as India, lacking a football team, supports the Argentine favourites. In the midst of all this frenzy, one comes across several snippets- interestingly written, about players and coaches, of which I quote a few:

One of the secrets of the success of Fernando Llorente's physical playing style is a skin-tight shirt that makes him look like the Incredible Hulk, according to the powerful Spanish striker, reports Reuters from Potchefstroom. He came off the bench shortly after halftime to replace the misfiring Fernando Torres, sowing chaos amongst the Portuguese defenders with his strength and height, and was involved in the build-up to David Villa's winning goal.
"Everyone was laughing because (the shirt) was very tight on me and I looked like the Hulk," the 25-year old said. "But I feel very comfortable with it and it also helps my physical performance," he added.

London, IANS: The wife of assistant referee Mauricio Espinosa, who wrongly disallowed British footballer Frank Lampard's goal against Germany in the World Cup, says 'she couldn't believe his decision'.
"We knew it was a goal. I couldn't believe his decision," said Sandra Espinosa. She wept and shouted at her TV: "No, no Mauricio, you're wrong!"
England lost 1-4 in Bloemfontein on Sunday.

Okada (coach of the Japanese football team) is set to retire to a life of poetry and farming after the Blue Samurai were knocked out of the World Cup in the last 16, triggering a search for his successor.
"I want to get away from soccer," Okada told Japanese television on Thursday. "Even if I was offered a new contract. It won't happen so let's not talk about it."

Guardian News and Media (Richard Williams): There were candlelit vigils not just outside the hospital in Buenos aires but around the world. After spending 12 days in critical care with heart and lung problems, Diego Maradona was lying among the patients in a psychiatric ward while his family argued about further treatment.
"They were all crazy there," he later recalled. "One guy said he was Napoleon and they didn't believe him. I said I was Maradona and they didn't believe me either."
...The contrast with other coaches at this World Cup is almost hilariously vivid. But then none of them has lived a life remotely like his. It is as though everything in Maradona's 49 years, the bad and the good, the sublime and the reprehensible, has been leading up to this and he is not going to let it go now.

DPA: The prediction of a German octopus named Paul that Germany will beat Argentina in Saturday's quarterfinals has not gone down well in the South American nation. Some newspapers have called for Paul to be boiled and made into paella, while others have sought out local animals and tested their psychic powers. Not surprisingly they all picked Argentina to win.
Among the tipsters were Pepe the parrot, Jorge the tortoise and Sayko the dolphin.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

A Small, Short Indian Wedding

This is the wedding season and having attended innumerable ceremonies and functions over time, I was delighted to attend a small, short wedding that retained its traditional feel. This got me thinking about the essence of happy occasions that involve social gatherings. I think the core of such events lies in the people themselves. There is a certain threshold beyond which a celebration loses its personal impact; something not many people realize - so used to jostling crowds are we in India. The recent functions I attended were simply done, with maximal family participation - which meant that we were warmly met by a range of relatives while the hosts were free to carry out the prayers and ceremonies in a relaxed manner. There was an air of ease and warmth which made one feel very much at home and no one pushed their views on how things ought to be done on unsuspecting guests! The food was not overwhelming in richness and variety - just fresh and well made and served. The rituals were cut down from two days to half a day, retaining the essence of the ceremonies. At the end, walking away from the marigold strewn rooms and the pleasant and courteous people, one felt warm and content - as if all of us had been drawn together to celebrate a very nice moment in time - which is as it should be.

Everyone doing their own thing (at the paan stall)!
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