Thursday, September 30, 2010

A Dash of Capoeira

The increasing connectivity of the world was very evident yesterday as we went to a Brazilian performance in Bangalore. Simply titled Brazil! Brazil!, this show won the top prize at the Edinburgh festival. With its interesting music - samba, bossa nova and more, its skilled capoeira performers and an unusual series of football antics by a talented young footballer, the show was destined to be a hit. But what really appealed to me, apart from the very evident skill and talent of the performers, was the uplifting energy that resonated from the performance.

The band was thoroughly enjoying itself as were the elegant and graceful young women with beautiful voices- equally at ease in high heels as in their bare feet. The stupendous martial art, capoeira, whose evolution was depicted in a series of dance performances - beginning with African workers gathering to clandestinely hone their fighting skills by disguising the martial art as a dance and ending in its more theatrical versions. In between these snippets appeared The Footballer, who very gently tipped the ball onto his face and shoulders and swung it in arches, circles, bouncing it off himself in a hundred different ways, in a graceful tribute to Pele. "Everybody in Brazil knows that the ball has a soul," the announcer said with utter conviction. And looking at them, one could really believe that it was so.

The performers leapt off the stage in a natural, matter of fact way, interacted with the audience and pulled up little children gently onto the stage (to serve as an extended obstacle course for a capoeira performer to leap over). You could feel the happiness bouncing off the stage and onto the audience - and it was a simple, effervescent feeling.

For me, this is what was most endearing about the show - it was not the fancy lights, the loud sounds or the glittering carnival costume of the petite dancer, but the opportunity to glimpse into the soul of an incredible country.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Uncommon experiences in Commonwealth games

A wealth of stories is appearing on the lack of organization, infrastructure and safety during the Commonwealth games. It is sad that security issues are being quoted as reasons for athletes and sportspeople to bow out of the arena, for India is no more or less dangerous than most countries in the world. The lack of proper facilities however is a different issue. Every day the news focuses on mishaps - and there seem to be far too many of them for comfort. For instance, today the South African High Commissioner said that a snake was found in one of the athlete's rooms. (He is quoted as having said, "We found a snake in one of our rooms. We don’t know whether it was an Indian snake. It certainly is a threat to our athletes' lives.") The good news is that we all thought snakes had been forever wiped out of Delhi. The bad news is - obvious.

The Indian pugilists arrived from Patiala (Punjab) to be kept waiting for four hours till a bus could take them to the sports village. The rooms were expectedly dirty, but what was unexpected was that the 2006 Commonwealth gold medallist, Akhil Kumar, was knocked to the ground even before he reached the arena. His bed collapsed as he tried to sit on it.

The media is complaining of lack of access to the warm up matches, information on participants etc. As a result we really don't know who is coming and who isn't until they write their blogs or announce their arrivals or cancellations through their governments.

What do we feel about all this? Needless to say, views are divided. But for the average middle class Delhiite, the last year has been ridden with frustration - seeing the entire city dug up and not put back, superficial face lifts in the name of improving infrastructure (coupled with an untimely monsoon) have made moving in the city very difficult. In addition, dengue has been spreading in all parts of the city because no matter how clean you keep your house and surroundings, those mosquitoes thrive in dug up roads and drains, fly long distances and zoom in on you. And you can't do much about it.

I have spent hours along with many others on the road, just gazing at people's faces and waiting for the traffic to move (in between calling to postpone meetings and chatting about who made how much money in which scam). Apart from all this, we know that the Yamuna river bed is not the best place to construct a games complex and town planning does not require designer super-slippery granite pavements, toilets which double up as coffee outlets and other such wonders at the expense of the taxpayer.

So, under the circumstances I can quite understand that most of urban Delhi will heave a sigh of relief as they vacate the city during the games (as schools and offices are closed) and move to the hills or beaches. At least this will promote tourism in India and partly compensate for all the cancelled foreign reservations.

As for me, I am hoping for many more gentle fiascos during the games, mainly because I hope that India's bid to host the 2020 Olympic Games will be foiled so that we can live in peace. A perverse and pessimistic kind of patriotism, perhaps.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Bread stories

Man cannot live by bread alone, a little bit of butter is also necessary. This is how I feel as I go through a frenetic phase of bread making and tasting.

Bread has always been taken seriously though we never really evolved to eat it. But somehow it has found its way into cuisines western and eastern and intertwined itself in the very culture of countries, into festivals, revolts, romances, poems and stories.

"How can a country be great if its bread tastes like Kleenex?" wondered Julia Child. Undoubtedly more poetic pieces have been penned. The abysmal taste of American bread has always puzzled tourists, but there are certainly pockets of good artisanal baking. From one of these comes the book 'The Bread Bible', which I have recently added to my growing collection of cookbooks.

Four hundred and thirty pages of instructions! It is well written and contains recipes from various parts of Europe and America. As I read and knead, shape and bake, smell and taste fresh bread, I marvel at the simple combination of starch, yeast, liquid and heat which conjures up these marvels.

Strangely enough, as I go through recipes for western breads, I also begin to understand concepts of making Indian breads (which are rarely fermented, and if so, are done using air borne yeast).

Immersed in pondering the nature of starches (I recently made a nice potato and buttermilk bread), the gluten content of different brands of wheat flour, the use of butter - melted into the tender Jewish challah, softened and added copiously to brioche, kept cold but pliable in croissant. The rich overtones of olive oil and herbs, sundried tomatoes, cheese in Italian breads. And the sweeteners - honey, sugar, raisins, dates, caramel, apricots, bananas - the list is unending. Though one of the most satisfying breads (both to make and eat) is the French baguette - with its crusty exterior and simple flavourful interior. I am still trying to work out a good way to make it in India's warm climate and trying to imitate the hot steamy baking conditions in a small electric oven.

Bread making is an exacting task for professional bakers, perhaps that is why mechanization is now the norm (yes! even in France!!) and perhaps that is why nothing seems to surpass a fresh hand made loaf, baked at home. With all this hard work, I can only sympathize with Viennese bakers of yore, who were governed by a municipal law that punished dishonest bakers by Bakershupfen - the baker would be tied to a long pole, tilted over the Danube and dipped into the icy waters for a period of time that depended on the nature of his misdemeanour. The other option was to place him in the Mehl Markt (the Flour Market) and let irate customers pelt him with insults in the form of verbal and physical missiles! One day one might unearth a waltz that had been composed to commemorate these occasions...

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Stop War and Start Tennis

"Stop war and start tennis" - Indian tennis player Rohan Bopanna and his Pakistani partner Aisam-Ul-Haq Qureshi said, on the eve of 9/11, as they lost their (very creditably played) US Open final. Simple, heart warming words that one hopes can be implemented!

The Davis Cup world group play offs are round the corner and India is to play Brazil, fortunately on home ground, this weekend. The Brazilian singles players, Thomas Bellucci and Richard Mello are ranked higher than any of the Indians, but let's hope the old Paes-Bhupathi magic still works. The duo have had spats in the past, but do come together generally at Davis cup time. They seem happy to play in Chennai and discussed ownership rights of the city with reporters yesterday-

"I was born here," Bhupathi said.
"I grew up here," Paes insisted.
"I've played a lot here too," the incorrigible minnow, Devvarman added.

I watched Paes and Bhupathi play in Bangalore many years ago. Bangalore was less crowded; walking into a stadium to watch a match required no previous planning. The relatively inexpensive tickets were quite enough to provide a birds eye view of the court as the stadium was not that big and not that packed, even though this was an international tournament.

I was amazed by the coordination and implicit understanding that Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi displayed, Paes's dramatic shots and Bhupathi's efficient ones were wonderful to see. They won (of course!) and Paes flung his racquet into the crowd, missing us by a couple of feet and going into the outstretched arms of a man behind. As I turned back to look, I saw another man quickly grabbing the racquet away from the first person and then a tiny squabble beginning, which died down surprisingly soon.

My hackles went up as the crowd began filing out. I rushed forward and admonished the racquet bearer. "Return the racquet! You should be ashamed..." (and he was not that young either, I thought, to be snatching racquets). Heads turned to stare at me and the man who had lost the racquet was actually smiling! The man I was addressing just shrugged his shoulders. "He is my brother," he said, in a matter of fact way and moved on, leaving me quite embarrassed. A racquet racket! Let's hope the brothers actually played tennis as well as they snatched racquets. (I shall never know...)

Monday, September 13, 2010

Call of the Kabir Panthis

Yesterday, we were fortunate to hear the songs of the famous Kabir Panthi, Prahlad Tipaniya and his group, who had arrived early morning from his village in Madhya Pradesh and had graciously agreed to visit our campus after a morning performance in the city. Kabir - the 15th century devotional poet has a large following (Kabir panth). His teachings, beautifully worded, rooted in spirituality, have a deceptive simplicity. Many of his poems use analogies and examples to convey the message of brotherhood, the importance of moving from ignorance and falsehood towards knowledge and truth. In this process, the role of the guru is also emphasized, as the medium that helps us bridge the gap, the one who drives our transformation and makes us see things that we would otherwise be oblivious to. The nature of the songs is such that they reach out to the masses; they contain a simple moral but underlying this is often found a deep spiritual concept. The play of words is beautiful, especially when sung by those who live to practice the words, as the group who visited here.

We sat upon a tiny grassy patch, on a Sunday evening - some on the ground and some on a few scattered chairs and benches- and took in the wonderful songs (interspersed with explanations) which struck a chord deep inside. After the recent reports on religious divides coming from different parts of the world, it was very soothing and calming to listen to the voice of reason and peace. The Tipaniya group comes from Malwa, a place in central India, which has a distinct musical tradition influenced by Rajasthan. The following are sites to a couple of recordings of Prahlad Tipaniya and his group:


This is the song 'koi sunta hai' - only a few - the guru, the wise man, listen to the voice in the sky - the sound of which is very faint ('jheena jheena'). Unfortunately in this recording you cannot see the musicians, but the nice thing is that the words come on the screen along with English translations on a backdrop of textile (perhaps as Kabir was a weaver?) The translation of this very profound piece is simplistic, but gives one a flavour of Kabir's songs and their folk rendition. Here, the 'left' and 'right' (ida, pingala) according to Yogic tradition, refer to the channels through which the vital force (prana) flows through the body; ida represents the energy of the moon and pingala that of the sun. When the energy is allowed to flow unhindered along the channels, one attains a clarity of mind, body and spirit.


(You may need to reduce the volume here). This is a performance at an annual event of spiritual music (not translated into English). Prahlad Tipaniya begins the concert with 'guru vandana' - a prayer to the guru, without whom we cannot move from a state of searching to finding. Who is a guru? There are many descriptions over time and Kabir simply says -

Sab Dharti Kagaz Karu,
Lekhan Ban Raye.
Saat Samundra Ki Mas Karu
Guru Gun Likha Na Jaye

“Even if the whole earth is transformed into paper with all the trees in the forest made into pens and if the entire water in the seven oceans are transformed into writing ink, even then the qualities (glories) of the Guru cannot be written.”

Friday, September 10, 2010


Strange episodes on the eve of 9/11, and Florida pastor Mr. Terry Jones is just one, though one that is highly publicized. Freedom of speech is a much talked about fundamental right in the US, so words of hatred can be swallowed if doused with a large dose of purgative speech directed to a very Western audience, for instance Mr. Obama saying, "This could increase the recruitment of individuals who'd be willing to blow themselves up in American cities, or European cities," and Ms. Clinton saying,"It is not who we are."

"We"? I wonder if that includes anything outside the US? Probably not. Probably not even everything within, as is evident from US foreign policy (and unfortunately often used by media and politicians to stir up trouble).

In another US state, an entirely different kind of drama has been unfolding. Based on news snippets, we gather that the Indian documentary film maker, Vijay Kumar has been imprisoned for the past 20 days, living on bread and water (as he is vegetarian and these are the only vegetarian foods served). His crime? Carrying brass knuckles in his checked in baggage, apparently for his protection (which is allowed by US federal laws but not by 'Texan' law). After his initial arrest, he was asked to surrender his passport in order to get bail. Immediately after he did this, his visa was revoked, he was detained by Immigration and Customs and imprisoned without the option of bail. If the case was resolved within 90 days, he could voluntarily leave the country otherwise he would be deported.

The Texans claimed that they also found 'Jihadi literature' in his bag. However, it turns out that Mr. Kumar was invited by the Hindu Congress of America to lecture at a peace meeting on interfaith discussions and the harms of terrorism.

Fortunately (!) the case came up for hearing a couple of days ago. Vijay Kumar did not contest the charges and agreed to voluntarily leave the US. In an interview, he appeared to be confused and initially scared at the treatment meted out to him.

The US government attorney opposed voluntary departure, citing threat to national security, on the grounds that Vijay Kumar's luggage might contain explosive residues. However, the judge pointed out that an examination of the luggage had ruled out the presence of any explosives. At the end of all this, Vijay's lawyer said that as a result of the misdemeanour conviction and visa revocation Vijay would find it harder to get a US visa in the future!!!

It is also not evident that the Indian government has done much to help Vijay though there may be events in the background that are not brought to the public's attention. So where all can the blame be apportioned? Beyond a point, it just boils down to who and where you happen to be and how you are perceived.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Visiting Russell Market

With St. Mary's feast and Ramzan drawing to a close, Russell Market (in Shivajinagar) is bustling. The elegant St. Mary's basilica rises on one side of the road and the arched facade of Russell Market stands stoically on the other (the two are separated by a muddy strip where cars are washed and parked, cows and goats fed etc.). A whole row of carts and stalls selling plastic flowers and odds and ends have placed themselves outside the church and devotees garbed in the distinctive peach-orange sarees and shirts flood this part of the street.

On the other side, there are large hoardings from the politicians wishing people a happy Ramzan festival, restaurants with large vessels simmering on low heat until sunset (or moonrise - when the feasting begins), parts of mutton being swiftly and efficiently dispensed to eager buyers - mostly men in their traditional white prayer caps.

I like Russell Market for its corridors overflowing with fresh flowers and all manner of fruits and vegetables, its noisy fish market, its bustle and chatter - sounds of people bargaining, gossiping...

I have my friends there - shop owners and their assistants who I have been visiting over the years. I meet the fish guy, who loudly yells an exorbitant price for tiger prawns, then whispers a much reduced version in my ear, saying, "This price is from my heart." I succumb.

On to the tomatoes - where I learn (in confidence) that many of the varieties being passed off as local are actually hybrid. Hmmmm - "No option," the tomato man shakes his head sadly. "If you were to see the local tomatoes at this time, you wouldn't even want to touch them." He invites me home for biryani, at some unspecified time in the future. I smile and agree, thank him.
"How is the fasting?" I ask him.
"Not bad - here in Bangalore we are comfortable, but out brothers in Gujarat are finding it so hot that tears run from their eyes in the afternoons."
I shake my head in commiseration.
A prospective customer arrives. The tomato man shoos him away. "Can't you see I'm talking?" The man nods comprehendingly and wanders off.

All the shop keepers I visit in this market happen to be Muslim. There are mainly two kinds of traders that I see- local Muslims and men from the adjoining state of Kerala (often Hindus or Christians). I tend to gravitate naturally to the local Muslims as they are a friendly, gentle community, fond of exchanging notes. The Keralites, perhaps as they come from further away, tend to be efficient, taciturn and business-like.

On to the greens man, whom I haven't seen in a long time. He explains that he is diabetic and can no longer reach early in the morning. He pulls out a bunch of fresh spring onion greens and a mass of dill - the freshest possible. This will go well with the free slices of fish that have been slipped in by the side of the tiger prawns.

I nod and move on to my most favourite shopkeeper - an old school teacher with an amazing eye for tiny, local vegetable varieties and a penchant for old Hindi songs and football. He has already filled my bag with things he considers I ought to eat this week and moves me on with a wave when I stop to pay. "Go and finish your shopping. Where will the money go?"

Fruit - last on the list and the fruit seller has a unique way of introducing his ware. "This is from near your homeland - the land of Kapil Dev," he grins. Golden apples! After eons! Two kilos! And what about those big, red apples? "From the land of Richard Hadlee, Martin Crowe..." I refuse. His brother forgets to return my change and the fruit seller apologizes . "My brother's getting woozy with all this fasting," he says, and bestows hundreds of good wishes on me and my family as I gather my bags.

The new supermarkets are fine for convenience but one is denied the delight of getting that free handful of green chillies, that extra lemon for a rupee less, the tiniest cucumbers placed in one's bag - even if one doesn't really need them - and all those minutes spent in exchanging notes on the best recipes ever, the lives of everyone's relatives, what's cheap and what's expensive and more. And when I come home, I know that each ingredient has a story to tell; for better or for worse, rustling up a meal is always more fun when the process begins in Russell Market.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Being Soft

Nothing in the world is softer and more supple than water,
Yet when attacking the hard and the strong,
nothing can surpass it.
The supple overcomes the hard.
The soft overcomes the strong.
None in the world does not know this.
Yet none can practice it.

(Lao Tzu: chapter 78)

The concept of softness in eastern philosophy is very different from the common western use of the word. This term, which comes up time and again in Tai Chi Chuan and Yoga, implies an internal feeling of being completely relaxed and at ease, at equilibrium. It happens when there is fearlessness - when one doesn't feel threatened from within or outside, even if there is attack of any kind (in the real world, we are often faced with threats to our peace of mind, if not actual physical pain or discomfort). In the face of attack, one can then focus on how best to fend off the attack - in Tai Chi, one is instructed to yield to the force like water, be able to absorb it and then throw it out when least expected, unbalancing the attacker. In Yoga, one is attempting to prevent or deflect rather than fight. But, the lessons are useful for our simple, everyday battles - whether against road rage, bossy bosses or lazy subordinates.

I have found the concept very helpful in my recent visits to dentists and other doctors. The inflicted pain of drilling, invasive examinations etc. has a hard, brittle quality that contains (fortunately, several times) a distinct transience. Remove pressure from the nerve and you feel nothing. And so, while moving the softness that I interpret as deepness of breath, relaxation of muscles (especially of the shoulders and lower back) and calming of the mind, I am able to yield to the pain without making it a traumatic experience and without fighting it constantly. The moment the source of pain is removed, I am then able to focus on regaining equilibrium and moving on. Thus I have managed to take minor drilling without anesthesia etc. in my stride.

Of course, the mind moves faster than any physical object, and in these situations it is that (and one's internal state) that need to be 'soft and fearless'. In the words of the Tai Chi teacher, Prof. Cheng Man-ch'ing -

'Moreover, one who is soft will not be afraid to respond to an attacker's speed and strength in an effective manner... The first and most difficult point of all is: you have to believe in what I say. If you don't believe it, when the person comes to attack you, you will resist him and then it will already be too late.'
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