Monday, May 30, 2011

My Chettinad Sarees

I discovered the beauty of Chettinad sarees quite late in life! Being in the north, one sees only a subset of the southern textiles and these sarees had eluded me until a couple of years ago, when I bought one at an exhibition in Bangalore. They come from the neighbouring state, Tamil Nadu, from the region around Karaikudi. Used mostly by the Chettiars, a traditional banking and business community.

Perhaps these sarees were never popular outside this region because they are quite different from many other sarees - they are thicker, heavier and are woven in deep or earthy colours containing stripes and checks for visual contrast. They are certainly very different from the pastely affairs of Delhi social mornings or the off white, tissue-thin, crackling Bengal cottons, the richly woven Benarasis or the elegant southern Kanchivarams. The Chettinad sarees breathe and exude an energy of their own. Originally their width was less than that of the usual saree so that the anklets that the women wore were visible!

The first Chettinad saree I bought didn't convey all this to me because it was modified, probably for broader appeal. Most people turned away at the price (many people here prefer to buy light silks rather than fine cottons for the same price) but I was instantly mesmerised by the subtly woven blue-green saree with a creamy beige border and pallu (end) of woven animals. It looked like a tranquil and happy sea filled with all kinds of creatures. I was delighted to buy it and wear it.

A few weeks ago, at a relative's housewarming ceremony, I was given my second Chettinad saree - and a what a wonder it was! Relatively simple in style, but a lovely colour. It was a beautiful weave of red and yellow strands that created a distinctive orangey-yellow - the kind of shade that only natural colours can impart. It had a little red and green stripey border. I was happy that I already had a suitable green blouse to wear it with (matching blouses is a fairly time consuming exercise)...

But I was unprepared for the feelings it evoked when I actually draped it around me. The warm earthiness felt so alive and so powerful, I felt I was radiating a wonderful mix of the earth, the setting sun, strewn marigolds, the power and beauty of celebration and strength and compassion. It had a vibrance of its own especially outdoors, in the sunlight. As I sat amongst many other women in the open temple courtyard (I was attending another puja for the same relatives), most people wearing silk as is traditional, I could feel my cotton saree breathing and living a life of its own. Perhaps it was my excessively active imagination! But it was then that I realized the strength of a thick, earthy, well woven cotton saree and how strongly the material and the colours could affect one.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Baking On A Rainy Day

What is it about rainy days that makes me want to curl up with a good book and some chocolate? Or bake crusty bread, more to smell it than anything else? Or to walk outside, feeling the rain (without getting overly drenched!) and smelling the earth and plants?

Today, it seems that all of these wishes will be fulfilled. The monsoons are beginning to make their presence felt. Clouds gather gradually each day and bread making becomes more of a challenge. Yesterday, my dough rose very slowly and, as a last resort, I left it overnight without much hope.

When I awoke, I realized that it had begun to rain and the weather was just right for an early morning walk. I saw no one other than the newspaper men making their morning deliveries and it was a quiet, meandering walk on paths full of fallen flowers and twigs.

The dough I had left overnight had miraculously risen and it was ready to bake. I was trying a new recipe so it was with a tiny burst of excitement that I placed the small round loaf into my oven.

This was a wholewheat dough with some honey and olive oil and a generous amount of raisins and walnuts sprinkled inside. Just the thing for an unexpected rainy day. It turned out fine - a little fermented, a little crumbly and sticky (as we were too impatient to let it cool down!), but perfect for our breakfast - with a dab of butter on one slice and a smear of hazelnut butter on the other.

And now, I have the rest of the day to curl up and read and fill up those spaces inside that I have kept reserved for a little bit of chocolate.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Mangoes and more (mangoes)!

April is a relatively lean season for fruit and we only see the usual stuff that we turn up our noses at - the cheeku (sapota), bananas and papayas that we get year round. But come May and the mangoes begin trickling in. We know that these are early for the season, overpriced, not the most flavourful and above all - induce a soaring heat within - but we still succumb! Mangoes begin early in the south and fortunately so do the rains. For the rains have a lot to do with mango growing and eating. Early rains inevitably mean a loss of fruit - they fall off the trees and don't ripen properly. The summer heat is needed for growing the perfect mango. But not for eating it- we need the coolness that the monsoons bring to resist the tremendous heat of these fruit.

We know! We are to drink milk and eat lots of poppy seeds (non opium-ated of course!) but milk is something I have never liked. Poppy seeds are delicious, soaked and ground into a smooth thick paste eaten by itself (with hot steamed rice and raw onion) or added to various delicate summer vegetables. To counteract my lack of milk drinking, I eat light, cooling dals (mung, masur) and onions! To my great surprise, onions are considered to be cooling. I find it instictively hard to believe, but am trying them out this summer. And mint for the stomach (for mangoes are hard to digest) - in the form of chutney or raita (ground and beaten into curd) or a digestive drink with lots of jeera (cumin). The other option, of course, would be to eat less mangoes - but would anyone ever do that??

(My summer lunch - rice, mung dal, posto (poppy seed paste), karela (bitter gourd) with onions.)

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

The Unfathomable Absence Of Ceiling Fans

Where have all the ceiling fans gone? For that matter, where have all the ceilings gone? If one strolls down the market lanes and ventures into an office or a shop (most of these being a franchise of a large company or chain store), one finds glass fronted (sometimes glass-sided too!) buildings looking unbearably greenhouse-like. Well, India's shining and everyone wants you to see just how nice it all looks. Or perhaps all this gleaming glass just makes you feel comfortable, when you arrive from New York or even Singapore. Or it indicates a reassuring level of transparency meant to inspire confidence. I am unclear as to the reason why architects design these structures in tropical countries.

When you step inside, you find a lowish false ceiling with some wires tucked in here and there (and if you visit at night you might hear the patter of little mice-feet). There are air conditioners discretely placed, but they are never switched on because of cost cutting measures! There are no windows in these buildings, just sheets of glass. And no ceiling fans! The result is a terribly claustrophobic room (and in the summer, a sweaty one as well!). It certainly makes me want to leave as soon as possible and I wonder how the employees feel. Most of them seem quite comfortable in these surroundings and look very surprised when I enquire about irrelevant issues like ventilation.

Ah! How I long for those high ceilinged-rooms with the ceiling fans hanging down from their long rods. And those solid brick walls with regular windows (preferably looking out onto a quiet road or a strip of greenery). Ah! For those thoughtfully made colonial buildings and also for those shaded tribal huts plastered with mud and cow dung which keep one cool through the summer. Wonderful designs which are rapidly vanishing.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Yoga After A Break

A few months away from Yoga and my body (and mind) feel rusty and slightly out of gear. Trying to return to the practice is always hard, especially after an illness or loss of internal balance. Our normal routines often make us forgetful of how stiff and rigid we keep ourselves (especially the major joints - the hips, knees, shoulders) and how irregular our breathing is.

While trying to return to asana practice, one tends too think too much. Will I be able to do this so soon? Shall I attempt this - or wait? What is that twinge I am feeling? Will I get injured? These are natural reactions and it is always better to be cautious and go slow rather than try and push the body too hard, too soon.

I find that much of the time, it is simpler not to attempt to answer these questions with the rational, thinking mind. It is not too difficult to get an idea of one's internal energy levels - if you wake up refreshed (or feeling comfortable) in the morning and feel like stretching and moving, it is time to get back to the asana practice. One has to push through the stiffness and doing unfamiliar movements is tiring, but on the whole, one should feel relaxed and well stretched, not completely drained out at the end of the practice. Focussing mentally on parts that are stiff or weak initially is helpful to loosen them, but this results in a neglect of other parts or aspects of the posture. I find it best to keep my mind blank (as much as possible) and focus on feeling the asana as a whole, the intention being to relax, breathe deeply, remove areas of tension and keep the body properly weighted, balanced and stretched. At these times, the mind and feelings work together over different parts of the body and one can loosen and relax as a whole. The other advantage of not thinking is that one does not create mental barriers due to fear of injury - the movements then are not jerky and limited but smooth and free flowing. The stiffness or weakness in the body is often less than one imagines or fears - and an uncluttered mind results in less resistance and pain. And if something is not to be done, your body will unhesitatingly tell you so - not in the form of twinges that vanish once the posture is released or the quivering of weakened muscles, but as an intense pain or feeling of extreme discomfort.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Magic Moves On

Eva Ibbotson, creator of wondrous characters in her ghost, monster and magic-filled books is no more. I only realized when I bought her book 'The Ogre of Oglefort' a few days ago (her last book - 'One Dog and His Boy' is yet to be released here.) Eva Ibbotson is one amongst the top of my list of children's fiction writers. Her stories are full of the fun stuff - monstrous creatures who have the misfortune of being gentle and kind (she attempted to counter the fear that supernatural stories propagated)- I quote from her books as there is no better way to illustrate her style

"Humphrey the Horrible was a ghost. Actually his name was simply Humphrey but he had added 'The Horrible' because he thought it would help him to become horrible, which at present he was not.
Nobody knew what had gone wrong with Humphrey. Perhaps it was his ectoplasm. Ectoplasm is the stuff that ghosts are made of and usually it is a ghastly, pale, slithery nothingness - a bit like the slime trails left by slugs in damp grass or the mist that rises out of disgusting moorland bogs. But Humphrey's ectoplasm was a peachy pink colour and reminded one of lamb's wool or summer clouds." (The Great Ghost Rescue)

of strange and loving aunts (fashioned after aunts of her childhood)-

"Aunt Etta and Aunt Coral and Aunt Myrtle were not natural kidnappers. For one thing, they were getting old and kidnapping is hard work; for another, though they looked a little odd, they were very caring people. They cared for their ancient father and for their shrivelled cousin Sybil who lived in a cave and tried to foretell the future - and most particularly they cared for the animals on the island on which they lived, many of which were quite unusual...
...So on a cool blustery day in April the three aunts gathered round the kitchen table and decided to go ahead. Some children had to be found and they had to be brought to the island, and kidnapping seemed the only sensible way to do it.
'That way we can choose the ones that are suitable,' said Aunt Etta. She was the eldest; a tall, bony woman who did fifty press-ups before breakfast and had a small but not at all unpleasant moustache on her upper lip.
The others looked out of the window at the soft green turf, the sparkling sea, and sighed, thinking of what had to be done. The sleeping powders, the drugged hamburgers, the bags and sacks and cello cases they would need to carry the children away in...
'Will they scream and wriggle, do you suppose?' asked Aunt Myrtle, who was the youngest. She suffered from headaches and hated noise." (Monster Mission)

of meetings and organizations of unusual creatures and their helpers (for her husband, a naturalist who loved unusual creatures)-

"Aunt Maud was right. There was someone who cared about ghosts and who cared about them very much. Two people to be exact; Miss Pringle, who was small and twittery with round blue eyes, and Mrs Mannering, who was big and bossy and wore jackets with huge shoulder pads and had a booming voice.
The two ladies had met at an evening class for witches. They were interested in unusual ways of living and thought they might have had Special Powers, which would have been nice. But they hadn't enjoyed the classes at all. They were held in a basement near Paddington Station and the other people there had wanted to do things that Miss Pringle and Mrs Mannering could not possibly approve of, like doing anticlockwise dances dressed in nothing but their underclothes and sticking pins into puppets which had taken some poor person a long time to make.
All the same, the classes must have done some good because afterwards both the ladies found that they were much better than they had been before at seeing ghosts." (Dial a Ghost)

Her adult romances (now marketed for young adults) describe the strange, devastating and eventually blissful lives of people in love. Definitely not for the cynics, they are at times illogical, indulgent, emotional - yet have a strange hold on the reader because of the unusual settings, the temperamental and sometimes funny secondary characters and how all these affect the fates of the endearing, idealistic young lovers.

" 'You cannot be a housemaid, Anna,' said Miss Pinfold firmly. 'It is quite absurd. It is out of the question.'
'Yes I can. Pinny. I must. It is the only job they had vacant at the registry office. Mersham is a very beautiful house, the lady told me, and it is in the country so it will be healthy, with fresh air!'
Anna's long-lashed Byzantine eyes glowed with fervour, her expressive narrow hands sketched a gesture indicative of the Great Outdoors. Miss Pinfold put down the countess's last pair of silk stockings, which she had been mending, and pushed her pince-nez on to her forehead.
'Look dear, English households are not free and easy like Russian ones. There's a great heirarchy below stairs: upper servants, lower servants, everything just so. And they can be very cruel to an outsider.'
'Pinny, I cannot remain here, living on your hospitality. It is monstrous!' Anna's 'r's were beginning to roll badly, always a sign of deep emotion. "Of course I would rather be a taxi driver like Prince Sokharin or Colonel Terek. Or a doorman at the Ritz like Uncle Kolya. Much rather. But I don't think they will let women-'
'No, I don't think they will either, dear,' said Pinny hastily, trying to divert Anna from one of her recurrent grievances." (A Countess Below Stairs, now published as The Secret Countess)

Eva Ibbotson was born in Vienna in 1925, her parents separated in 1928 and she emigrated to Scotland with her father in 1933. A year later her mother moved to England and Eva divided her time between each parent's house until, in the course of her study at college she met and married the ecologist Alan Ibbotson. She evidently draws upon her early experiences and impressions; her books often contain descriptions of life in Vienna (especially the music, the food, the countryside and the Lipizzaner horses), of orphans, children being shunted from place to place and of European emigres trying to adjust to life in Britain. Her stories are far from grim and always end happily ever after. A depth of feeling, a dash of humour and an amazing imagination (her book 'The Secret of Platform 13' was written a few years before Rowling's books describing magic platforms and trains) is what sets these books apart.

Her last few years may not have been her happiest - she lost her husband in 1998 an soon after was afflicted with lupus (a painful autoimmune disease). At this stage, for a few years, her peppy ghost stories were replaced by more descriptive children's adventures (the award winning books 'Journey to the River Sea' and 'The Star of Kazan') and then she returned to ghostly writing with 'The Beasts of Clawstone Castle' and 'The Ogre of Oglefort'.

With her passing, the magic has certainly moved on, yet some of it lingers in the form of delightful and deplorable characters that she created. It lingers to remind us that the world is not as terrible a place as we think, not while Arriman the Awful, Humphrey the Horrible and the kraken are in our midst!

P.S. My favourite books by Eva Ibbotson are 'Which Witch?' and 'Monster Mission'.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Caution! Elephants Crossing!

As our taxi headed from Bangalore to Mysore, we fell asleep at a crucial junction and missed the road to Kabini – the wildlife sanctuary abutting the Kabini river in Karnataka. Thus it was that we awoke to see not a forest, but the large, glimmering Kabini dam on our right and the green foothills of Coorg in the distance. Tempting as it was to continue straight on, we turned around and found our way to the narrow bumpy lane that led, through a small village, to Jungle Lodges, where we were staying.

It was no surprise that we had dozed off in our taxi. The previous night had been rather eventful after I absentmindedly locked my husband out of the house and fell soundly asleep. He eventually managed to waken me by climbing on the terrace and tapping at the window with a large stick! By the time everything was sorted out, it was around midnight. We rose early, spent a short time on breakfast and considerably longer on locating my husband’s glasses, then shot out of the house and were on our way.

Jungle Lodges, a private company that functions in association with the Karnataka government, is remarkably well organized and efficient. It was set up in 1980 by the wildlife conservationist (and pioneer of wildlife tourism in Karnataka), Col. John Wakefield, in an area that originally belonged to the Maharaja of Mysore. Col. Wakefield envisioned (and built) a beautiful camp for tourists around this place, next to the Kabini river. He stayed here until his death (at the age of 95) in 2010. Since then the place has seen a few changes – a little modernization (fortunately the colonial buildings where the Maharaja entertained the Viceroy and other guests are still in use) but the spirit of the place remains unchanged.

We stayed in a small cottage, with windows on three sides; it felt like a small spaceship that had landed at the river’s edge! The wind blew straight into the room, a clump of bamboo and a large banyan tree creaked close by and the river made happy swishing sounds that we could hear all the time.

We were taken into the forest early mornings and evenings, by jeep or boat. Each experience was different – though many people prefered the action oriented jeep trips, we equally enjoyed our boat journey which allowed us to see a couple of elephants swimming from one bank to the other, a bit of river-life (birds, insects, a baby crocodile, a water snake) and, at a distance, animals on the river banks. These animals seemed undisturbed by our speck of a boat and continued with their activities, ignoring us completely. Thus we could see herds of herbivores grazing, a peacock trying to attract a peahen (which looked uninterested and very bored), a small mongoose trying to lift a long log and other sights.

The jeeps took us deep into the forest, but they also more easily disturbed the animals. Much depended on the sensitivity and training of the accompanying guide and driver. We were lucky to have with us experienced and enthusiastic guides on several occasions and we saw some incredible sights. In the forest, the action often lasts just for a few seconds – or minutes, then everything is as before.

On our first evening, our guide insisted on waiting (while other jeeps sped past) at a place which was an elephant crossing (as he had spotted an elephant lurking in the bush). After a few minutes a large tusker suddenly emerged and cautiously made its way past our jeep, just a few feet from us. The guide told us that this particular animal had migrated from Coorg the previous year and had been attacking all the jeeps for many months. It had now settled down (fortunately for us!) and had gotten used to seeing vehicles.

We saw a stripe necked mongoose, digging busily at the base of a tree. Near a watering hole were several wild boar, one with crows clinging to it, feeding off the insects on its skin. We saw an eagle with a snake in its beak, a blue jay frenetically chasing a langur off its territory, a male woodpecker peering into a hole from which a female suddenly emerged and flew out! The male then popped into the hole and soon after, popped out and resumed its pecking.

We saw herds of deer – spotted deer, sambar and a lone, shy barking deer- grazing unconcernedly or leaping in a startled fashion or just looking at us, mesmerized. We stared back, equally mesmerized. There were herds of gaur (Indian wild buffalo) and we came face to face with a large solitary male- it was hard to say who was more startled at the encounter! It was a beautiful, powerful creature and it stomped off into the brush after seeing us.

There were small groups of elephants on the river banks, in the forest and on the distant hills. Often quiet, very graceful, one forgets their immense strength and majesty until one sees a large lone tusker or hears one of them trumpeting. Yet at times, like all animals, they can be amazingly still and silent and vanish like a shadow on the grass.

The vegetation was incredibly beautiful and I often missed the forest for the trees! There were many other wonders along the way - a brightly coloured feather, moss growing on fallen logs, the changing jungle smell, golden orange light shed by a setting sun, wind blowing through the trees...

We had our moments of action and adventure. The last morning we came upon some fresh pug marks and heard some warning calls – a tiger in the vicinity! A radio call alerted us of a tiger close to the river and before we knew it, the jeep roared in action and we raced off. I was flung violently about for ten minutes before I managed to find a more stable part of the jeep. An air of expectancy and tension filled all of us. Spotting a tiger here is a big deal for many people and somehow just the sound of the word brings a shiver of excitement and apprehension. We didn’t get to see it, but another jeep on the opposite bank did. Anyhow, we did get a thrilling ride!

Finally after a large and delicious breakfast (like all the other meals served) we left for Bangalore with our hearts content and our minds happy and full of the forest.


Jungle Lodges

A beautiful film on the tiger

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

The Summer Garden

sweet limes, slowly ripening
In summer, the garden seems to acquire a ripe, heady beauty of its own making.  I have done nothing for weeks yet it seems to thrive on the early summer showers and the increased light and warmth.  Plants which I had dismissed as being too ill to revive have put out healthy new leaves - and flowers. Saplings of small fruit trees which I had potted ages ago and given up on, display fruit in various stages of development - tiny sour limes, sapotas barely visible and the larger, very obvious sweet limes.

Herbs grow in profusion and as I weed and prune, I can smell each one even if I barely brush past them or when time I water them.  The Mediterranean herbs do reasonably well here- they are not as large and fragrant as in their native countries, but are still quite wonderful to see, smell and taste.  Oregano, rosemary, sage, thyme are fairly happy in the garden.  And various varieties of basil, which I like to eat fresh or just keep in a tiny glass of water in my room.
purple basil

galangal - a Thai rhizome
I also have some Asian spices and rhizomes - ginger, turmeric, galangal, ajwain (carom) that I use for cooking and all spice that has wonderfully fragrant leaves (no berries yet, but I am hopeful!).  I would like to add a creeper of pepper in the coming year.

all spice leaves

Lilies and frangipani are beginning to flower, petunias trail in between; the garden has a typically tropical beauty right now.  As I stand and marvel at it, I wonder sometimes what I have done to deserve such perfect loveliness without putting in an iota of effort in the last few months.  But this month onwards, I will - in fact I have begun from today!
flowering frangipani
stripey petunias peeping out amidst the lilies
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