Sunday, June 26, 2011

Thoughts After Watching Kung Fu Panda 2

A rather wordy title! I don't claim to have any expertise in the martial arts, nonetheless these are some things that came to my mind after watching the much publicized sequel.

The film itself was technically wonderful and story-wise not quite as new and deep and fun as the original. I missed seeing the different Kung Fu animal styles or perhaps they were lost in the rush of fighting moves and flashbacks. The part I found most endearing was the set of movements that were passed down from Master to Master, on how to gain Inner Peace. Inner Peace - something not easy to come by for Shifu, the Panda's troubled teacher and for the Panda himself. The moves, made visually very appealing by showing the Kung Fu masters catching and releasing water droplets, reminded me of the Tai Chi form and the film in general brought to mind some of Lao Tzu's teachings. I quote, from Professor Cheng Man Ch'ing's books:

Nothing in the world is more soft and weak than water
But for attacking the hard and strong
Nothing can surpass it.
And therefore nothing can take its place.
That the weak can overcome the strong
And the soft can overcome the hard
Is well known to the world
Yet no one can carry it out...

And the way to this (by following the Three Fearlessnesses while practicing Tai Chi) also reminded me of Po and Shifu's battle with Inner Peace in the film.
(The Three Fearlessnesses are:
The Fearlessness of taking pain
The Fearlessness to suffer loss
The Fearlessness towards ferocity)

These are the reminders I took home from the movie and the parts I most related to. When I returned home, I watched Professor Cheng Man Ch'ing's short Tai Chi form on utube. Devoid of sound, shot in a shaky black and white, it has little superficial resemblance to the scenes from the latest Kung Fu Panda film. However, the essence is there- the amazing rootedness, the controlled yet relaxed movements, the latent strength and ocean of calm is apparent even to someone like me who has not studied these arts.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Why Delay Joy?

Some days are just special; everything goes right in unexpected ways. Some days are full of insight, with gifts of love and understanding. My birthdays often fall somewhere in between. I used to think (till as late as last year!) that my birthday was actually a special day, when everyone, including benevolent spirits, would send good wishes my way. I realize now that what makes the difference is not them but me.

I wake up with a pleasant feeling of anticipation. I open my eyes and look around, discarding visions of hatred and focussing on beauty (for instance, this morning instead of seeing crazy bus drivers, I saw a snowy white horse ambling on the road, a rider on its back). I shrug off the stress of the world and carry on with my happiness, saying to myself, "This stress can surely wait another day." Perhaps this is all it takes to make my day satisfying.

Of course, friends help. And so do those unexpected gifts they give, of kind words and acts. My day this year has begun well. The garden looked beautiful - the water lilies were out in all their glory and an annual red lily decided to open all of its petals this morning. There was a flurry of butterflies.

The yoga class was fun as always, unexpected as usual. Each of us does his/her own thing, the class looks superficially confusing but at a deeper level, each one of us is generally trying to learn as much as possible. A beginner watching my husband moving into Bakasana excitedly burst out, "I want to do that, I want to do it now!" The Yoga teacher tries to explain to her that she needs to wait. I am lounging beside the Yoga teacher, watching him help a student when a flurry of waves from the other corner catches my eye. It is another student, asking (in sign language) if we want to indulge in a ghee-rich breakfast after practice. The Yoga teacher has just remembered that it is my birthday and gives me a bear hug. And we finally proceed to partake of crisp dosas and soft idlis doused with ghee. Watch a dog lying on his back, paws up, sunning himself in the middle of a complex traffic intersection.

I come home, very satisfied. I am longing to make myself a cake, but I have decided to spend the day catching up with other things. Perhaps I will just bake a tiny dessert, peaches with cinnamon topped with a bit of crunchy streusel. I continue to think about what it is that brings me peace and contentment. My eye catches a small card my calligrapher friend has made. It sums up my feelings today:

Why indeed?

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Yoga and the Mind

Yoga is inextricably linked to the mind - this is not a surprise; in fact Patanjali's Yoga Sutra (the earliest known treatise on Yoga) begins with this aspect. "Yogah chittavrtti nirodhah" or "Yoga is that which restrains the operation or conduct of the chitta" (chitta encompasses the mind, intellect and conscious sense of self that seems to drive us each moment). Why is it then that we are so surprised when we see this in action, especially while doing the asanas (postures)?

Perhaps it is because when one begins to learn Yoga, it is steeped in movement, and often, in discomfort and pain. One forgets about the mind though at the end of the practice, you feel better and more at ease in a general sort of way. Once the movements become easier, it is possible to dissect out the effect of various parts of the Yoga practice on one's mind and feelings. This has been my experience, as I try and focus more on my internal state while doing each movement.

I find I am affected in different but specific ways while practicing the asanas (postures) and the pranayama (breathing techniques). This sounds horribly complicated already! I will just focus on my experiences with the asanas in this article.

In the asanas, my feelings and thoughts change over time; there are two stages - when I am involved in attaining the final position and after I release the final position.

In the forward bends, I find my mind calms down a great deal while moving into the posture and as I remain in the asana, I am often aware of things stirring below the surface - feelings and emotions that I was not aware I had sometimes slowly rise to the conscious mind. I often emerge with new thoughts and ideas (though I am trying not to think too much at this time!)

While doing the back bends, all thoughts are removed from the mind because it takes so much energy just to get those movements done! But once I finish, I feel a kind of exhilaration, a wonderful sense of satisfaction.

The inverted poses just make me feel good; while doing them, I am looking at the world from a different angle and once I have finished, I feel relaxed and recharged - ready for the world!

After all this, I end with padmasana - the lotus pose, a very good posture for beginning pranayama or meditation or just for keeping the spine straight and relaxing completely. And life feels good...

Sunday, June 19, 2011

When Monkeys Hurl Mangoes (or How To Make Mango Chutney)

This morning I had a fruitful walk. It was Sunday and there were not too many walkers, mostly the regulars. I decided to take a different path from most of them and wandered into clumps of trees and rambled alongside old bungalows that serve as offices. Suddenly I spotted a mango on the ground and picked it up (the mangoes on these trees are small but flavourful). It had teeth marks on it and I threw it back on the ground. As I walked along I saw plenty of such mangoes, many half eaten, flung carelessly in all directions. Monkeys at work! This is the time when one really appreciates descriptions of marauding monkeys that one reads about in the Ramayana. As I walked further down, I saw many more such mangoes but to my surprise, they were all intact. I don't know if they had been hurled uneaten or had just fallen as the monkeys leapt from tree to tree. For me it was a windfall.

I collected all of them and somehow, arms full of small, slightly squishy, sticky fruit, managed to walk down in the direction of my house. These mangoes were wonderfully fresh - I could feel the sap that clung to them and smell the distinctive tang of raw mangoes around me. The walkers stared at me and a raven cawed disapprovingly. I tossed my head. Almost home! Just the last stretch past the dogs. From the corner of my eye, I saw an elderly man sitting on a stone slab, watching me. As I walked past, he suddenly stood up and I was expecting a string of questions about where (and how) I had got those mangoes! Instead, he held out a plastic bag. "You can use this," he said in that old, polite Bangalore style. I thanked him and explained about the monkeys and offered him many mangoes, but he refused to take any. "You keep them," he said and there was a twinkle in his eye.

Back home - and thinking what to do with them. Decided to make some into a chutney, which is quick and easy. Of course, as I began, I thought about other options - a cooked curry with tamarind and jaggery, an uncooked curry with ground coconut and mustard or just roasted mangoes with salt, cumin and jaggery - they all taste different and they are all very good! This is something one doesn't find in most cookbooks (and, naturally, never in the western ones). There have been so many times when I relied upon imagination and substitution to create those Viennese wonders or French delicacies or solid British fare. Now, I write out this recipe for mango chutney based on my morning experiences for people who might be anywhere. Don't worry if you can't recreate the monkey bit - it's a very forgiving recipe and can be used with most (preferably) unripe or semi-ripe mangoes and whatever spices you might have at hand.

Mango Chutney

An armful of small mangoes freshly hurled off a tree (or about 1 kg. - 3 or 4 large mangoes), washed, left unpeeled and cut into pieces about 2" long and 1/2" thick
1 Tablespoon oil
1/8 teaspoon each of the following whole spices: cumin (jeera), fenugreek (methi), mustard (rai), fennel (saunf), nigella (kalonji)
1 cup water
1/2 cup sugar (or to taste)
1 teaspoon salt (or to taste)

In a large pan or kadhai, heat the oil. When it emits a few wisps of smoke, add the whole spices and let them splutter and darken for a few seconds. Add the mangoes and fry for a minute. Add the water and let it cook uncovered until 2/3rds of the water evaporates (the mangoes should be tender by this time). Add the sugar (the exact amount of sugar and the cooking time depend on the kind of mango you use. Add the sugar in steps, tasting each time). Add the salt to taste. Let it cook for another 5 minutes or until the sugar has dissolved and the consistency is thick and syrupy. Cool and refrigerate (this will last for a week or ten days in the fridge).

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

What A Butterfly Whispers

These days when I water the plants, a little cloud of butterflies bursts upon me and hovers around for a while. Then it vanishes and reappears when I put the sarees out to dry. Butterflies sometimes perch on the sarees; they seem to enjoy basking in the sun and drawing a little moisture from the cloth. A few days ago, as I stretched out my hand to hang a towel on the clothesline, a butterfly promptly came up and settled itself on my towel-covered hand. It was quite an incredible feeling and I waited, wondering if it would soon fly away. It didn't. It sat there, opened and closed its wings, sucked at the towel and seemed very comfortable with life in general. My hand was beginning to ache, I moved it a little and the butterfly fluttered off.

I read once that certain Native American tribes feel that there is a close link between women and butterflies, that butterflies often come around the women to talk to them. I liked this thought and it has been with me ever since. I often stand in the garden, waiting for them to stop circling and settle down so I can hear what they have to say. What might they talk about? I like to think that it would be a gentle, whispered exchange - an exchange I would have to pay close attention to lest I miss something, something beautiful that floats upon the breeze and is caught up by the sighing of the trees and the rustling of the bamboo in my garden. I used to think it might be a conversation about the pleasure of drifting through air currents or basking in the sun on cold days or perhaps just letting off some steam against all the predators of the world!

But standing there, with this creature so close and so apparently fearless, I thought it was telling me about the wonder of nature, the phenomenon that each creature, however fragile it appears, has its own place in the world - a place they can occupy with a calm certainty and sense of belonging.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Give Me The Open Skies

Last night I heard that our house might be demolished to make way for multi-storeyed buildings. These are just rumours floating about yet they have a distinctly disturbing effect. I thought I might vent my feelings by writing a blog about it (which I might do at a later stage) and I thought of all those animals who just stand and watch while their homes are being cut down. Where does it all end?

Today however, I had other things to do. Back to Russell market to get things for a special Sunday lunch. The crabs were huge and came from nice, clean waters. I picked up a couple of kilos for a crab curry. There was a large red snapper too and I bought a piece of it. Many vegetables and the usual summer fruit - mangoes, lychees, peaches, plums and cherries. On the pavement people were selling cashew fruit - very attractive with its yellow-orange-red colours - the colours of a particularly vivid sunset. And pomelos are definitely back for good. There was a time when they were fading out of Bangalore but pomelo planting has been recently revived. Mangoes of all kinds were spilling out of the pavements, onto the roads. It's always nice to see people sitting or standing under trees, selling fruit. There's something different about open skies and tree filled landscapes.

On a whim, I proceeded to a plant nursery, just to walk around. To my delight, I saw a row of pots filled with blue lotuses. My lotus (that I photographed for my blog profile) had recently died and I missed it terribly. Of course, I bought one immediately and then found myself talking to a very nice lady about growing and keeping lotuses (hers never bloomed) and growing little fish in ponds outdoors (something she has successfully done and that I have been planning to do). She said the fish just ate insect larvae and other things in the water and she never had to feed them. But they had to be robust enough to live outside an aquarium, exposed to the sun and rain. So, arms full of lotus and head full of ideas, I returned to my little pond on the terrace, full of happiness and satisfaction. I don't need crockery smashing or retail shopping to cheer me up! Give me the open skies anytime.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Woozles Welcome

" You know you can't stay here anymore," I said sternly to a large millipede that had ensconced itself in my bathroom, nudging it with my foot. "This is not a salubrious place for you." In turn, it curled up sulkily and refused to communicate any more. I picked it up and put it back outside and it refused to say goodbye.

The next morning this routine was repeated thrice, once for an earthworm that had crawled up the wall, once for an unnamed innocuous insect that pretended it was a baby scorpion (but it didn't fool me) and once for a firefly that had spent the night in our bedroom.

"Why do they have to come?" I asked my husband in exasperation. "Why, when there are acres of trees outside, must they crawl into my house and hang around until I throw them out?"

"It's just a welcoming sort of house," he replied, "Especially for woozles".

Now I don't claim to know a woozle when I see one. It's hard to identify, as Pooh would tell you. I do know that most of the relatives who visit here seem to spend the first few days eating and sleeping and reading in copious amounts. Perhaps this amounts to woozling. But that's not the point.

That evening we had the rains and sure enough there arrived a swarm of flying ants. Not diffusing inside and hitting the lights like they do in most houses. No, these ants were here to stay and they meant business. As they have been doing in the past week, they headed straight to the speakers of our music system, crawled into a hole behind them and made frenzied preparations to line it with dust balls and make a comfortable little room for themselves.

"What does one do with them?" I wondered. If Mma Ramotswe had been here, she might have advised me on the edibility (?) of these. Were they the delicious mopani worms that solved the protein problems of southern Africa? I checked on the net and realized they were not. Anyway, it was irrelevant. One could bite the head off an unwelcome guest but this was taking things too far. I dismissed the idea. Anyway, these ants mysteriously vanish during the day and don't seem to affect the sound system, so I may as well let sleeping ants lie.

"Swalpa adjust maadi," the inherent slogan of this state ("Please adjust a little"), used by one and all - by the maids when they are taking leave, by the carpenters when they wrongly nail a shelf to the wall, by the auto driver who parks such that your car can't get out - if they can use it, I thought, why can't the insects and animals? So the next time I look at that tiny bee hive hanging precariously on my window pane or the bandicoot that comes up at night to revel on the terrace or the innumerable ant armies of all shapes and sizes that are marching through my rooms during the rainy season, I feel them all looking at me, shrugging their shoulder-equivalents and saying, "Swalpa adjust maadi," before continuing with whatever it was I had interrupted them in.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Memories Of Daya

Orissa is an unusual state - mired in poverty, hit periodically by cyclones and violence yet known for its natural beauty, wondrous temples, unique weaves (that create the ikat and bomkai sarees), its sensuous classical dance and uniquely talented people. Oriya cooks are considered amongst the best in the country and to me, Daya was amongst the best of the cooks I have seen.

He came to work for Mashi, my husband's aunt in Calcutta, when he was a young boy and stayed on until his sons grew up and it was time for him to return to the village. Trained by Mashi, over time his repertoire grew and in his last few years (when I got to know him), it was modified by his own views on how food should taste.

Thus I saw changes and innovations introduced based on some picture he had in his mind - a technique I often use myself when cooking. But each person's mind brings forth its own images and the dishes he created had his own signature of simplicity, lightness and of course - a wonderful flavour.

During my visits to Calcutta, I would spend each morning watching him cook and discussing politics (a subject he was very fond of) - a ritual that both of us enjoyed immensely. Thus I watched him grinding the masalas, the marinades, the powdered spices by hand on the grinding stone, watched him slicing vegetables dextrously, frying fish - large and small with an ease and fearlessness that I admired!
Buying live crabs at one's doorstep (Calcutta style!)

I learnt how to gauge the temperature of oil suitable for frying without using a thermometer, the best way to crumb fish, to fill 'chops' (stuffed Bengali cutlets), to lighten the heaviness of mustard paste (a favourite Bengali ingredient, very hard on the stomach!), to make unusual shukto (a mix of specific vegetables and seasoning), rosella chutney and murighonto (my favourite - a slow cooked preparation using fish head). Bengalis are very particular about the way each vegetable is to be cut (the size and shape depend on the specific dish that is prepared) but Daya never stuck to the traditional. He preferred long wedges of brinjals (aubergines) to thin round slices, large cubes of potatoes to small ones - and who were we to argue? Everything tasted so good! His speciality was making things crisp on the outside and tender within, something I have not properly mastered yet.

He is back in his village now and all I have is a tiny notebook with scribbled notes and recipes to remind me of those morning cooking sessions. Whenever I pull out my kadhai or grinding stone and my Bengali ingredients- the mustard oil,
the river fish, the pui daata (tender stems of pui), the panch phoron (mix of five spices) and more, I unconsciously think of Daya and try and recreate those flavours in my mind before I am ready to begin. Since then, several cooks have come and gone in Mashi's house but I have never had the same level of interaction with any of them. They cook well, but something is missing for better or worse - it's Daya's light hand with the spices, his general concern about everyone in the family, his hovering presence in the dining room - and his strong views on various political parties!
Daya - what is he holding?

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Old Bangalore Haunts

My favourite Bangalore haunts are all connected to food - Russell Market (for fresh fish and vegetables) remains high on the list and then All Saint's Bakery (for fresh yeast, fermented rice flour breads and other such stuff) and Bamburies (the Goan meat shop - which I haven't been to in ages).

I visited some of these places recently, after a gap of almost six months. Russell Market has been showing a steady decline- both in infrastructure and customers. When I went there was no electricity and each shop had its own candle or lamp. It looked pretty but you couldn't see any of the vegetables or what you were stepping on (the small paths have to be navigated with care or one ends up slipping on the stray tomato or cabbage leaf). But I had gone mainly to meet my old friends, the vegetable and meat sellers.

They were very pleased to see me and told me at length about everyone in their family - someone's wife had hurt her back, someone's brother was the deputy tax commissioner and had recently been transferred to Hyderabad, someone was looking for suitable schools for his child and so on. It is a world apart from mine and I always find it amazing and intriguing and extremely enjoyable, having a nice long chat with these middle aged or elderly men who are always trying to ignore customers that threaten to terminate our talks with their demands! I am not an intrinsic bargainer and I suppose that is why our conversations are not about the price or quality of foods, instead we talk about books and weather and the changing world and also our own lives. These people have a hard time - competing with the modern malls and supermarkets, having to rent stalls in this ancient, crumbling building, catering to changing needs and demands of customers and rising costs - but they are quite cheerful about it all.

They are courteous and ask if I would like some tea or perhaps, even better, some home-cooked biryani. They enquire about my health, tell me that I have lost weight or am looking unwell at times and instruct me on recipes and nutrition, admonish me for carrying heavy shopping bags and so on. And I get plenty of little gifts - this time it was a black pomfret, a red cabbage, red and yellow peppers and a pomelo. It's always an interesting and sensitizing experience when I visit.

All Saints - the traditional bakery run by a Kerala family is a place I am partial to because it's one of the few bakeries that sell fresh yeast, which is hard to find. It's a medium sized bakery and store - it doesn't contain everything under the sun (as the big malls do) but it has all the basic stuff that one needs to meet one's cooking and cleaning needs. It's frequented not by young people rushing around or large families elbowing one out, in search of bargain deals, but by steady and brisk looking middle aged women (and occasionally someone younger). It is evident that many are serious cooks and no nonsense kinds - the pile of unprocessed foods on the counters and their clear voices ringing out asking the cashiers (whom they address by name) the availability of an item, the price of another, discussing with me why some particular commodity is not available and so on is something I find familiar and comforting. I almost feel that if there was more time, we would begin to exchange recipes and irrelevant bits of information with each other.

I feel that I am one amongst many such women in the bakery but when I reach the counter, the lady asks me why I haven't visited for so long. I am surprised she even noticed. She seems highly concerned about my health and wants to know if I am all right. She has time to take out the eggs from their plastic bag and put them into the container I have brought. She knows that I always buy 100 grams of yeast at a time and she doesn't need to weigh it. Similarly, I suppose, she must be familiar with all the other regulars' tastes and shopping choices. It's a very different experience from the large shops, which leave one feeling exhausted after one has dealt with clueless attendants, uninterested staff, long lines and irate customers. I may not find the fancy stuff in these old Bangalore haunts, but I get plenty of healthy, wholesome food along with smiles and greetings that have their own nurturing effect.
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