Monday, August 30, 2010

Small new worlds

In my four days' absence from home, a whole new world seems to have sprung up in my garden. I returned expecting signs of neglect but the plants seem to have thrived on the monsoon rains and many new creatures have crept, fluttered or crawled their way into the little terrace garden. Many had never seen me before and were obviously irritated at this heavy footed intruder peering into their tiny, comfortable homes.

We all know that insects see and sense things differently from us, but it is never more evident than when one tries to take those close up shots of them and their environment. Trying to capture this while they are fluttering with the breeze, gliding through air currents or crawling to a safe place is not very easy but it's certainly a lot of fun.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Pre-Psycho Snippet

Robert Bloch, creator of Psycho - the story that was adapted by Alfred Hitchcock into a chilling classic, wrote a number of other kinds of stories before he moved to horror. One of his initial ambitions was to become a comedian and some of his early works combine a strange, quirky humour with fiction or science fiction. I quote a small passage from one of his stories which features his Runyonesque character Lefty Feep, who is always trying to make a little money especially at the race tracks. (Of course Damon Runyon will always be a class apart, with his unforgettable friends - Harry the Horse, Spanish John, Little Isadore - and the race track characters - Bookie Bob, Sam Salt and others). But while reading some of Bloch's early stories, one gets a glimpse of a cold, strange world, described in a lighthearted manner that is a world apart from the chilling uncertainty of Psycho.

"Sylvester Skeetch and Mordecai Meetch are bending over a big white table. They are wearing dark glasses and those scientific nightgowns. A big light shines down on the table, and also shines on the knives and saws in their hands. Skeetch is sewing something up and mumbling to himself.

I tiptoe and sneak a peek.

Then I give a gulp.

They have a body on the table and they are sewing it up!

Absolutely - there is a guy lying out on the table, and they are cross-stitching his neck for him!

'Hippocrates' oath!' I mutter, or some such profanity.

Skeetch and Meetch wheel around. Their glasses glare. Then they recognize me. Meetch smiles.

'Well, if it isn't Feep!' he says. 'Glad to see you again.'

I can only stare at the body on the table.

'What kind of morgue smorgasbord are you cooking up there?' I gasp, which is something to gasp.

'Nothing at all,' Meetch answers. 'How's our patient, Skeetch?'


'Patient?' I say.

'Well, you might call him that.' Meetch turns around. 'Ready to get up now?'

Sure enough - I see that the guy on the table is smiling. He nods when Meetch talks to him. I stand there waiting for his sewed head to fall off, but it doesn't.

Instead the guy sits up then stands up.

So does my hair.

'Feep,' says Skeetch, 'Shake hands with Robert.'

I look at Robert. He stands stiff-jointed with a very wooden smile on his face. But he holds out his hand and I grab it. We shake very gently.

He stops shaking hands.

I don't.

Then I look down at my hand to see what I am holding. His arm! It comes off at the shoulder!

'Curse it!' yells Meetch. 'You aren't glued tight enough!'

He grabs the arm, grabs Robert, and throws him down on the table again. Skeetch runs over with a big can of glue and another needle.

I can't bear to look. I cover my eyes..."

This is taken from 'The Racing Robot' and you might guess by now that the man being sewn up is none other than Robert the Robot, who goes on to live a life many humans might die for - to race in the big races, fall head over heels in love with a mannequin beauty Roberta, who smiles back at him and more...

Saturday, August 21, 2010

The inception of Inception?

The film 'Inception' has been a box office hit, straddling the worlds of science fiction, psychology and slick Hollywood production rather successfully. New York Times dismissed it as being overly simplistic, but it proved entertaining and intriguing to a large number of viewers. The film dwelt on the power, complexity and creative potential of the mind as also on its possible weaknesses - addiction, vulnerability and the negative or dark turns that it can take.

The idea behind the film is rather simple and is one that we actually come across in many spiritual texts - identify with an idea or image and it becomes real for you. Many of the images we identify with are just a result of the play of the mind and emotions, and are illusory - termed the ego in some texts, maya in others - the unreal which gets in the way of our seeing the real, the non self which prevents us from clearly understanding the self. The way to get round this is also suggested - no totem or individualized measure of reality as in the film, but a non-identification with all images that the mind dredges up.

The true essence of things cannot be described or imagined - it must be known, say the texts. This core of truth is something that cannot be threatened or altered, does not vary with our variable worlds. Furthermore, our inner core has a close connection to the true essence of things around us. Perhaps this is why different people can access it in different ways - through creative endeavour, nature or just stillness - when the mind is alert, receptive (and often creative) but not churning out constant thoughts or circling round images that have been drawn from our emotions and experiences.

And to step out of the dream, one need not be destroyed or shocked (Hollywood style!) but merely recognize and disregard the false and thus gradually align oneself with the real - of course easier said than done!

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Recipes for Success

Fortunately or unfortunately, a cookbook is as good as its worst recipe. A high level of subjectivity creeps into judging food writing, partly because very few people have the time or inclination to try all the recipes in a particular book and everyone's taste is different. We generally end up sticking to a subset of familiar favourites.

While reading Chitrita Banerji's recently published food travelogue 'Eating India', I couldn't help thinking of how food writing has changed over the years.

The trend of Indian authors seems to be to try and cater to as many different kinds of people as possible. Thus we have books emphasizing low fat cooking, fusion food, simple and quick cooking, Indianized Western or Chinese cooking, simplified regional cooking... All this may sound commercially viable (and it probably is) but it does not cater to people who want to be able to turn out classic or just plain wholesome everyday food without cutting corners.

Non resident Indian authors have made a niche for themselves but the desire to write new books perhaps results in the later books not really living up to the standards of the initial ones. Chitrita Banerji's 'Eating India' is terribly disappointing - a superficial glimpse of culinary styles seen in different parts of the country and is a far cry from her original 'Life and food in Bengal' - which was full of detailed and accurate descriptions and recipes of Bengal. Madhur Jaffrey's book 'An Invitation to Indian Cooking' (published originally in 1973) was a commendable accomplishment that introduced ways of cooking the traditional, well loved recipes of Delhi to the Western world. However her later books, though skilfully written and handy, contain recipes from many other regions that she did not have detailed first hand information of. I think this is the reason that they do not contain the same level of insight or specialness.

India has an almost limitless repertoire of recipes, but a superficial listing of them (as seems to be the current approach) is not particularly useful. What then are my favourite cookbooks? Penguin has an extensive, almost state-wise break up of cookbooks, but I don't really fancy them. The most useful books I find are slender, low cost editions written by local women with the intention of recording traditional recipes for generations to come. These are generally not available outside of the state they are written in, though they are gradually becoming more accessible. I like books which have distinctive recipes that do not require too much tweaking. It's always nice to read books written by enthusiastic and talented cooks without excessive attitude and temperament thrown in. Books that describe general principles of culinary styles and methods are always interesting to me.

My favourite Asian cookbooks are
Cook and Entertain the Burmese Way, by Mi Mi Khaing
Thai Home-Cooking from Kamolamal's Kitchen, by William Crawford and Kamolamal Pootaraksa
The Modern Art of Chinese Cooking, by Barbara Tropp

and my favourite European cookbooks are
Mastering the Art of French Cooking, by Julia Child, Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle and
The Art of Viennese Pastry by Marcia Colmon Morton

Friday, August 13, 2010

Little Things With Great Love

The state of Jammu and Kashmir (in particular parts of Kashmir and Ladakh) is going through terribly troubled times, to say the least. News trickles in, biased and incomplete, about the number of people killed in riots in Srinagar and those killed in flash floods in Leh and perhaps worse - those that are missing. The army is working round the clock in Leh - trying to mend the Leh- Manali highway, rescue people and ensure that the tourists are safe. An uneasy peace has been broken again in Srinagar, with the imposition of curfew today and the civilian protest against the police and paramilitary forces continues alongside.

This large scale devastation affects each one, and we sitting far away in Bangalore are no exceptions. One of the students here, a Kashmiri, has been highly disturbed - too upset for a while to do anything other than keep calling his relatives, who want him to do no more than focus on his work. But he is unable to stop thoughts of how the forces ill treat the locals from flooding his mind, combined with worries about his diabetic mother who cannot get insulin if the curfew continues. People are angry with the police and paramilitary. But the problem is complex and is made graver by political play and militancy, which rise phoenix like each time a modicum of calm descends in the valley.

We also spent the last two days trying to trace someone's son from Bangalore who had gone on a motorbike trip to Leh. All phone lines were down, the communication towers had fallen during the flash floods. Finally we asked someone in the Institute of Astrophysics, a resident of Leh, who located the young man and then sent us a reassuring e mail. What he did not mention was that his own sprawling house had been washed away (as were many others - houses in Leh use locally available mud as packing material as there is normally very little rainfall there). How he and his family are managing is anybody's guess. How and when the young man will return to Bangalore is not known. But at least they are all safe.

Each personal story brings closer the gravity and tragedy of the situation at present. But it also highlights the strength and compassion of many - families sending their children away so they may study and do well, locals who are attending to work and helping in rescue operations without a word of despair or dejection. All these serve as beacons of hope and change.

Hope and compassion are things we must not give up on. As Mother Teresa said, "We are not born to do great things. We are born to do little things with great love." And little things done with great love have the ability to change people's worlds.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Felicitating Kalamandalam Gopi

Of the Indian classical dances, Kathakali is one with great dramatic impact, owing to the highly perfected style of narration, the colourful costumes which retain a strong element of symbolism and the powerful vocal and instrumental accompaniments. The stories - old tales retold, are often selected from the epics and other early or traditional sources of literature. Traditionally the performance takes place all night in temples or certain special houses, the only illumination being a large oil lamp - the kalivilakku (kali- dance, vilakku- lamp). So, when the Bangalore Club for Kathakali and the Arts staged an hour long performance in the grand ballroom of the Leela Kempinski hotel, purists raised their eyebrows.

I attended this performance, being a member of the club as it brings highly accomplished artists from their home state, Kerala, to the city of Bangalore to perform. Yesterday's function included a felicitation to Padmashree Kalamandalam Gopi, currently one of the best known artists in the field.

As I traipsed in, I was caught unawares by a retinue of Leela Palace staff, pressing upon me delicacies like tandoori prawns, smoked salmon, crab on toast and fruit punch, which I did not refuse. The wonders did not end there.

We all moved to the ballroom, where seats had been laid out and a reasonable stage set up. No one checked for passes or asked for identification. I found myself seated next to the chartered accountant of the society and asked him how they had managed to pay for all the extravaganza (the previous performance that I attended had been in a tiny hall with the musicians standing out on the street welcoming passers by). He said that the owner of the Leela Kempinski hotels was a supporter of the Kathakali club and he had arranged for the felicitation award and for the performance to be held at the hotel.

Before the performance, we heard a small introductory note by Meena Das Narayan, who has just finished making a film on Kalamandalam Gopi and the film trailer was screened. This can be seen at

Though highly abbreviated with credit shots interrupting the footage, the trailer gives a brief glimpse of Kerala and snapshots of some of Kalamandalam Gopi's roles that he no longer performs.

This was followed by a speech by Captain Nair, who apparently began his career in running (highly successful) hotels at the age of 64. He is currently 89, sharp as a pin (or a cocktail stick) and full of joie de vivre. The audience grew restive as he recounted story after story, but I was quite happy to sit back and listen. In a way, he reminded me of my grandfather with his forthright and entertaining tales.

Kalamandalam Gopi came up on the stage to be felicitated, and I was amazed to see that he had a slight build, a ready smile and eyes that twinkled behind his glasses.

Unfortunately he did not perform, but one of his colleagues - Margi Vijayan and several other accomplished dancers played out the second day's narration of Nalacharitam. This performance normally lasts for four days, describing the many twists and turns in the fate of King Nala and his love for the beautiful and much coveted Damayanti, who loves him in turn, but is not allowed to be with him for long after they are wed (blame it on the demons - who are always exciting to watch!).

After the dance, just before we rose to leave, there was an announcement inviting the audience to cocktails. This was obviously a gracious gesture by Captain Nair, though he was not mentioned any time, nor was he very visible at this most amazing of cocktail parties. A bar had been set up in a corner of the large room and a few tables bore a host of nibblies and the most amazing bite-sized desserts - macaroons sandwiched with almond cream, tiramisu that melted in the mouth, tiny fruit tartlets (we couldn't try the others). And then a retinue of waiters appeared, loaded with so many piping-hot appetizers that we couldn't keep track of them - vegetable spring rolls, keema samosas, fried wontons stuffed with duck, crab cutlets on sticks, spicy fried fish, mushrooms on toast, crab on toast, creamed cheese and figs, giant batter fried prawns, minced meat balls, chicken tikkas, tiny chicken burgers...

It was a fairytale feast under chandeliers. Certainly not traditional, but it created a buoyant spirit of bonhomie and good cheer. It was also nice to see all the artists, now almost unrecognizable in their shirts and dhotis, comfortably melting into the crowd and relaxing after their wonderful performance.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Working Through One's Element

I write this with some trepidation as I am neither skilled nor trained in five element acupuncture.  I am an amateur observer, however, over the years I have enjoyed and benefited from applying information about the five elements in my life.  Five element acupuncture, one of the traditional Chinese schools of healing, focuses on the nature of the elements (wood, earth, fire, metal, water).  Each of us is driven by one element more than the rest, this may be called our guardian element.  This element endows us with certain characteristic traits, which are expressed in a unique way depending on our internal and external environments.

For some time I have been thinking about professions - and how elements provide us with footholds or steep slopes, as we move along a career path.  This is something we don't often think about while choosing a career, perhaps we think of some aspects of our inclinations and try and imagine what the work will involve and require of us.  But many times, we are driven by an interest in a certain area followed by the economics of it, the time and travel constraints that the profession demands.

And so, when I unexpectedly found myself working as a journalist- doing interviews, I did not think too much of it initially.  It was only later, when I began dissecting the niceties and the technical aspects of the work that I began to think what my strengths and weaknesses were, in terms of my element - water.  Initially, I often felt that the warmth and joy of fire, the ease with which it deals with people, would have been an asset.  Or even, the mellifluous and satisfied verbalizing of earth, or the precision of metal with its ability of hitting the nail on the head in inimitable style.  In moments of doubt, the outward drive of wood might have made life simpler.  Instead, I find the jerkiness and uncertain restlessness of water, creating an environment that is not perhaps optimal for conversation.

We all find certain things easy to tackle and others more of a challenge.  The important thing, I realized, was not to lose sight of the intent and then to stay in one's element in a comfortable, (hopefully) balanced state and trust the element to enable one to find one's own way of doing the job. 

After reading several interviews done by other people, I realized that each style was very distinctive - there were some that were strongly judgemental, some where the interviewer intercepted often with his/her own views, some where the interview sounded like an interrogative battle and others that were easy, free flowing.

I realized then that the strength of water is in its fluidity and that I had no desire to put forth any view.  Another strange ability of water is to almost vanish from the scene when it so chooses.  In a sense, I could create a space for words to flow from the speaker without interrupting.  At the end of several interviews, people said to me, "I don't know how I ended up speaking so much, but I enjoyed it."  And various readers (who were familiar with the speakers) wrote or said that while reading the article, they could easily visualize the person speaking.

And, in my own way, I enjoyed it too.  It required quite a bit of concentration to remember my aim and not let preconceived notions get in the way.  I had to allow myself to function in a way that came naturally to me and to the speaker.  This resulted in a cohesive, distinct piece of work, I think.  I learned a lot as I listened to distinguished Indian scientists talking - and it wasn't just about science.

Monday, August 2, 2010

What am I treading on?

I was saved by a whisker, from the temptation to pick up that can of pesticides and relieve my plants from masses of aphids.  Well, by a paper in Nature actually- a scientific and statistical study on organic farming ("Organic agriculture promotes evenness and natural pest control" by Crowder et al., Nature 466, 1 July 2010, 109-112).

The authors studied two aspects of species variance in controlled plots of land - species richness (the number of species) and species evenness (the relative abundance of each species).  While several people have noted a decrease in species richness in conventional farms, few have paid attention to species evenness.  This paper shows that organic farming promotes both richness and evenness and a higher evenness (not possible in chemically treated land) results in better natural pest control (and an increase in plant size).

A plant pest, at different stages of its life cycle, is susceptible to different predators and pathogens which might be in the form of other insects, nematodes or even fungus.  Thus a rich web of interactions is spun on and around the plants above and below the ground and this controls the pests more efficiently than the conventional method of destroying large numbers of species indiscriminately (often resulting in the evolution of a pesticide-resistant creature whose natural predators have been destroyed).  The authors also showed that different predator groups did not compete with other predator groups (but just within their own species) for survival and that they had a synergistic effect on pest reduction.  There seem to be ecological niches which remain under-utilized when species evenness falls and then the ecosystem cannot function optimally. 

Thus one can conceive of an intriguing, interactive environment in a farmland or garden.  "Where on earth have you been?" the beetle Hippodamia convergens might say to a passing nematode, "Let's meet."
"Ha!  Ha!  Damn funny," the earthworm might reply scathingly.

Or one could imagine a  rich orchestra of soil and air and moisture, with noted players such as Beauveria bassiana (the fearful fungus) or the duo of Nabis alternatus and Geocoris bullatus (predator bugs of the mighty potato beetle Leptinotarsa decemlineata).  And wonder what kind of chaos one inflicts when one reaches out for that can of pesticides...  Before we stamp out all that has taken years to form, let us ask ourselves what it is we tread upon.

I think of Karel Capek's words as I write-

"...When mother in her young days was telling her fortune from cards she always whispered over one pile: "What am I treading on?"  Then I could not understand why she was so interested in what she was treading on.  Only after many years did it begin to dawn on me.  I discovered that I was treading on the earth.
In fact, one does not care what one is treading on; one rushes somewhere like mad, and at most one notices what beautiful clouds there are, or what a beautiful horizon it is, or how beautifully blue the hills are; but one does not look under one's feet to note and praise the beautiful soil that is there.  You must have a garden, though it be no bigger than a pocket handkerchief; you must have one bed at least to know what you are treading on.  Then, dear friend, you will see that not even clouds are so diverse, so beautiful, and terrible as the soil under your feet.  You will know the soil as sour, tough, clayey, cold, stony and rotten; you will recognize the mould puffy like pastry, warm, light, and good like bread, and you will say of this that it is beautiful, just as you say so of women or of clouds...

And from that time on you will not go over the earth unconscious of what you are treading on..."
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