Tuesday, July 26, 2011

What Lurks Behind Grief?

I attended the ceremony for Mashi, who had recently passed away. Simple Vedic rites in a room full of well wishers (mostly women clad in those traditional Kolkata sarees which are a beautiful and peaceful off white), with the flames of the fire as witness, reminding us of our connection to the elements of nature. The prayers themselves are wishes for peace for everyone - for those who have left but more importantly, for those who remain. The chanting of mantras also helps soothe and focus the mind. These days, however, prayer books are not handed out and those of us who know the hymns can chant them, but most of the people are dependent on the priest to carry out this procedure.

All went well until the prayers ended and the priest (a very pleasant lady) began her discourse, which brought me back to earth with a painful thump. It was all about who we have lost and I sensed waves of pain in the room and found myself immersed suddenly in inconsolable grief for a day. I was mourning for Mashi and all that I lost with her passing.

A certain amount of grief is natural and is a protective shield for internal wounds until they heal, but grief must pass, like everything else. I realized in this one day, how easy it is to hold on to pain and the past - a kind of self indulgence. For one grieves most for oneself. In the process, we sometimes use grief as another subtle form of attack - the world is not good enough anymore. Nothing is right, everything has changed and we don't want any share of it. People are well meaning but we don't want their kindness; we want to be alone, isolated and view the world as something which takes from us our most precious objects, giving nothing in return. This is an illusion for the perception of beauty, love and happiness (as well as pain and attack) is all from within. Events unfold and we view them as we want to.

The last hymn after the rites is a simple one, asking that our inclinations be purified and that we overcome the desire to feel or inflict pain. There is a very slight difference between the two desires, I think. Pain is felt in various forms - in the body or the spirit - and it sometimes functions in a parasitic way. It drains all it can from you and is quiet for a while before returning, or it expresses an urge to move on from you to other people or things. Perhaps a fanciful notion but I think that there are times we can sense pain or negativity in others or in our surroundings. And it is almost always linked to the past.

After thinking about these aspects of grief and watching myself use it to propagate negativity and to postpone dealing with present reality, I snapped out of my pain. Soon enough I felt peaceful and my mind returned to a state of equilibrium and I found there was much love and beauty all around me.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Mashi in Action

Mashi, my husband's aunt, passed away peacefully yesterday. She had been ailing for some time and she somnolently drifted off, as a stream changes course and leaves everyone around it high and dry.

I have no regrets though, for her time had come. I choose to remember the times when she was full of life. Her element (according to the Chinese five elements) was water, I think, and as I have the same guardian element, we understood each other in a very simple and intuitive way. We also shared many other things - a fondness for cooking (and good food, especially delicacies such as fish heads!), embroidery (though she was far better than me) and gardening.

She was a tremendously good sport, literally and otherwise - her early days were spent in the Shillong Club, playing tennis and dancing, praying fervently to God (to save the Queen!) and also moving through the forest on elephant back from place to place (her father was a gifted forest officer). She grew to be a beautiful and talented young lady (and was called 'Blushing Beauty' in those days).

She married and moved to Calcutta, but her days were spent in camp, along with her well known geologist husband. Even then she was renowned for her food and hospitality. A memory no one can forget is of her traipsing through the forest at night, lantern in hand and young daughter in tow, looking out for the tiger that was supposed to be in the vicinity! Her daughter still shudders when she talks about it.

When I met her she was old and mellow, and we took to each other immediately. It was truly love at first sight. She kept a beautiful house, filled with relics of an intriguing past - an elephant leg stool, an album of elephant pictures, a collection of minerals and beautiful sculptures that the Archealogical Survey of India at one time had sold for a song. Beds were covered with quilts and bedcovers that she had sewn, my husband's favourite orange sweater was knitted by her and she had trained Daya -one of the best cooks in the neighbourhood (from whom I learned how to cook traditional Bengali food).

I spent many wonderful mornings with her - visiting the local Kali temple, hands full of hibiscus, shopping for tiny ferns and mango ginger in the market (and bargaining vociferously) and later, when she could not walk much, just sitting in the sun and reading. There was a feeling of homecoming that I cherished in that large, airy house of hers.

I also saw her struggling with her physical ailments and with the terrible fear that the water element endows, in moments of weakness and fatigue. But what I remember most is her desire to make everyone feel welcome and comfortable and her utter delight in listening to our adventures (mine were mostly culinary). She loved the head hunter's bag we brought back from Nagaland and was delighted with the giant cinnamon stick we presented to her after our trip to Myanmar - she immediately broke off a piece and crunched on it, muttering, "Delicious!"

Through the years she kept for me some of her most loved objects - her capes (from the British days), some of her favourite sarees and, to the surprise of us all, her entire collection of party baking dishes. These are things I cherish and use. I would try and call her after every large party and she would want to know what I had cooked. Then, if I hadn't already mentioned, she would ask, "Did you use my dishes?" And of course I had and she knew it anyway. So - nothing much changes; I still cook large amounts and invite people for meals and use Mashi's baking dishes and wherever she is, she will still know of it and smile to herself.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

When Life Gives You Pomelos, Make Marmalade

Life handed me a pomelo in yesterday's yoga class. Literally. One moment everything was the same as usual. A few minutes later there was a large pomelo lying next to my bag.

I figured this was the work of my yoga friend Amit, who knew I had been scouting round for pomelos a few weeks ago, with little success. And now, when I was least expecting it, here sat this large, round, extremely bitter-sour fruit, waiting for me to take it home.

So of course, yesterday was devoted to pomelo cutting and cooking. I had been growing curiouser and curiouser about jams in general and marmalades in particular. They sounded so tedious to make, yet what if the process was really not that bad? I wondered how proper home made jams would taste, especially because the jammy kind of fruit are expensive and short lived in India and commercial jams are often too sweet. I read several recipes and realized that one had various options in jam making - one could choose high pectin fruit, use apples as a natural pectin source, lemons as a source of acid and unsealed bottles would also last a couple of months in the refrigerator. After thinking about it for some time, I figured that pomelo would be a good place to begin.

Pomelos (as I wrote earlier) are making a come back in Bangalore. However, this variety of pomelo is not easy to eat - it's extremely sour and dry compared to many other kinds. It's also very large and there's only so much pomelo one would like for breakfast! Anyway - when I went looking for them, they were elusive but when I finally put the thought of pomelos out of my mind, I promptly received one!

Yesterday I put together a couple of recipes and began work by peeling the rind, removing the flesh and chopping the bitter, pectin-rich pith (which comprises about half of the fruit) into chunks. Everything was thrown into a large pan (the pith was tied in a muslin cloth) along with a specific amount of water and left to slowly simmer, soften and thicken. Then I removed the pith and added some sugar (about 80% of the weight of the fruit), stuck a thermometer to the side of the pan and calculated that I would need a temperature of 215 degrees F in Bangalore to reach setting point. The mixture finally began looking and smelling like jam though it took a while for the temperature of the syrup to rise. Once the jam was cooked, it had to be cooled and then bottled.

At this stage the pretty pink shades were replaced by a beautiful glowing orange and the jam tasted bitter-sweet - just the way I would describe life! I have put it into small jars to distribute; the first jar of course is kept aside for Amit and Tracy, in thanks for their thoughtfulness. The rest we shall eat in small amounts everyday.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Artisanal Livelihood During Industrial Growth

Yesterday I went to the annual crafts fair, not really to buy things, but just to get a feel for the kinds of crafts on display and to see the craftsmen. One of the most interesting stalls for me was that of a person from Agra who displayed marble carvings (some intricate carvings and others, inspired by the Taj Mahal, inlaid with semi precious stones) and also a section of glass work. I was his first customer that day (a very auspicious thing) and perhaps he was also relieved at meeting someone who was familiar with Hindi, for he launched off into a description of several of his creations - what he had in mind when he made them, how specialized and difficult the work was and what the final product was intended to be - some were pieces of art and others objects that could be used in unique ways. For instance, an incense holder in the shape of a carved box; you would not see the incense or the burnt out dust, but just smell it through the tiny carved holes. Another beautiful piece was a carved hollow cylinder of flawless white marble - the carvings were all of different wild animals arranged such that it made a logical sequence. The marble was translucent and there was an arrangement for a small bulb to be placed inside and he was trying to explain to me the effect of the light and shadows that would appear on illumination. Finally he explained how he had to pack each of his pieces carefully and bring them by train (at least a two day journey) for this exhibition and how very few people want to continue this work because it is time consuming and a lot of marble dust is inhaled so one can only do it for a few years. This set me thinking once more about artisans and their lives - and how we are barely aware of all that is involved in making some of these beautiful objects.

The traditional crafts are no longer a preferred means of livelihood in many places - and perhaps none have been affected more than the weavers. The rising prices of raw materials and the lack of interest by the younger generation in carrying forth the tradition (a factory or call centre job pays much more and doesn't require the tremendous concentration and skill that craft demands) has led to a notable decline in woven materials and related crafts. In addition, the rise of a new breed called 'designers' has severely affected traditional forms and patterns in an unfortunate way (I think). This is most evident when one goes saree shopping. I have the onerous task of taking women visitors here to buy sarees and it is always unfortunate how hopefully they begin and how dismally it all ends. Bangalore, a place with few tourist attractions, has always been known for its sarees - many which come from Mysore and from the neighbouring state of Tamil Nadu. But now the original styles and colours have vanished and are replaced by fairly hideous and uninteresting mix and match combinations. Many are designed by (you guessed it!) and the feeling I get on looking at the sarees is that they have been designed by people who do not wear them. In other words, the long woven pieces may look pleasant when hanging on a wall, but will not look nearly as nice when draped on a person.

Another area that has been coming under threat is local traditional farming. This is much in the news as these land acquiring schemes often become maelstroms of political and corporate power play (as the Singur histrionics have revealed). The news is often incompletely reported and it is difficult to understand why land must be acquired in non transparent and radical ways for industry. One of the recent commendable battles has been in Orissa where the Pohang Iron and Steel Company (POSCO), the world's third largest steel maker by market value, is trying to acquire fertile fields to set up a steel plant. The government claims that this will provide jobs and money to people in the area, but it turns out that the farmers and landless labour there are actually very content with their current livelihood of growing betel leaves (a highly skilled job) and continuing with traditional farming and fishing. The villagers confronted the local police and government officials successfully in the first round, but it may not end as positively. It is ironical that people in power don't understand what we stand to gain and lose in this process of development - the loss will be something irrevocable and the gain - well, that's a matter of personal opinion. There is a nice article on life in the vineyards of Orissa in today's newspaper here, the site is

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

The Riveting World of Records

With the purchase of a new record player, old memories have burst out unexpectedly. Our previous attempts at installing old record players and speakers in various permutations have always been unsuccessful - something or the other inevitably breaks down. But now, with this new American machine connected to our existing music system, we are able to play (and record from) all the old LPs. And how wonderful it feels to hear those old sounds (and the occasional scratches) blowing through the house.

So far we have just opened a few of our enormous family collection - and memories come drifting in already. We each remember buying our precious few records after painstakingly listening to them in tiny booths or small shops that have since begun selling other things.

I can now fill the house with the lilting Scottish tunes of Kenneth McKellar, the haunting simplicity of the Singing Nun, the whackiness of Peter Sellers and the tongue in cheek songs of Tom Lehrer.

My husband (and his parents') collection is a whole new world. One of the most miraculous finds for me is Glenn Gould (whom I had never heard before) playing The Well-Tempered Clavier. We find ourselves playing it over and over at different occasions - while cooking, at dinner, with friends or even at a party and it sounds perfect each time.

It's not just the sounds of the records which are nostalgic and warm, it's the covers as well. Large, expressive and radiating a certain seriousness of intent or screaming out a distinctive mood, they leave impressions that the modern CDs just cannot. Moods of the sixties and seventies - a stark picture of a starving baby on the cover of the Concert For Bangladesh record is striking, as is the intensity of an album with close ups of Janis Joplin. Gifted to my husband by Simon, a family friend, at a time when no one here had heard of the heartbreakingly intense songs of Janis Joplin. Another gift is a beautiful set of German recordings from the Villa Hugel - I vaguely remember the extremely courteous gentleman who presented it to my grandfather decades ago.

There are also old, original recordings of Indian classical musicians, of unusual concerts at Albert Hall, of music from Spain and Iran. Biddu and Carl Douglas's 'Kung Fu Fighter' docilely reclines against The Monkees and it appears that Frank Sinatra doesn't mind sharing shelf space with Cat Stevens.

All was harmoniously well till yesterday, when our record player mysteriously fell ill. Perhaps it's just fatigue or a sore throat. It now lies quiet, wrapped in bandages, and will soon be taken to a suitable clinic. I wish it a speedy recovery, the house seems very still in its absence.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Ingredients We Don't Use Any More

Yesterday, I was making some cauliflower and I threw away the stalks without even thinking about them. I realized a moment later that they looked fresh and green and had tender leaves on them, but by then it was too late. This set me thinking about how our changing lifestyle (and taste) has gradually eliminated several things from our kitchens in the span of a generation or two.

This is something I think about often (and only occasionally try to rectify)! Some of the vanishing recipes attempted to utilize every possible bit of a plant and there are certainly many nutrients found in the skin, flowers, tender leaves and stalks that we may not get just by eating the vegetable. But it's also true that food was grown locally and everything was fresh and fairly clean; some people also had their own kitchen gardens. The options nowadays are - trying to find local organic food shops (for greens etc.) and growing some of your own in pots or on terraces (companies in Bangalore have initiated projects to set up and maintain terrace gardens for people, which is a very nice, new step I think). We, on campus, are hampered by marauding monkeys and bandicoots, but...

Hope is not lost, there are still options of properly using existing vegetables. Like those cauliflower stalks! They make a very tasty dish. And so do the skins of vegetable marrows and bitter gourds (if one knows how to cook them). Leaves are easier to deal with - tender ones of cauliflower, beetroot, knol khol, radish can just be sauteed and eaten with rice. Then there are pumpkin flowers, melon seeds, ferns... I also learnt, from my Bengali relatives, of wonderful plants that grew in Chittagong (now in Bangladesh) and that just refuse to grow here - tiny, round fragrant chillies, small coriander like greens but with a completely different aroma when crushed (and of course the unrivalled ilish (hilsa) and other types of fish that lived in the Padma river).

These are just a few things I am familiar with, but when I read books on south east Asian food, I am amazed by the variety of ingredients they use. Many of these are seen in India but not really used in the same ways, some are not eaten at all. For instance, certain Cambodian salads use green beans, slender brinjals (aubergines), green papaya, pumpkin flowers, basil leaves - this is something we would never find in a raw salad here. Burmese dishes, with their infinite options, may use leaves of pumpkin, tamarind, sweet pea, roselle, sweet potato, acacia (conveniently bunched together under the title of 'green stuff'!). There are many more, which they obtain from hedgerows and woods. These have lovely local names that sound rather strange when translated into English - Royal tusk, Young lad of the hillocks, Respector of rulers, King of lions, Curliest letter of alphabet and more. Unfortunately there are no illustrations or pictures of such plants in the books. But it's nice to read and think and imagine - and slowly begin to learn more about these. A tiny first step towards actually using some of them at home.

A few edibles from my garden - tender leaves of neem and of ajwain (carom):

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Bringing Home the Bacon

It was another of those rainy days in Bangalore, when the sky, just to reassure you that the monsoons haven't gone away, dribbles a bit from time to time. And like all good Bangaloreans, I was out, Saturday shopping, without my umbrella. Along with a large and motley group, I scanned the horizons, not for rain (which was undoubtedly imminent) but for convenient shelter spots along the road - a large rain tree, a small awning, a bus stop.

When I first arrived in sleepy Bangalore I was amazed at this novel way of dealing with one's routine - one went along and did whatever one could and waited for the weather to clear up wherever one was. A nice way to spend a day and make new friends. When I asked the locals why they didn't use umbrellas, I would be greeted by incredulous looks, "And carry something in your hand?" they would ask in a horrified way or just shrug it off in the "Swalpa adjust maadi" (please adjust a little) style.

Well, this Saturday, I was walking to Bamburies, the Goan cold store for meat, and fortunately, the weather allowed me to do so without interruption. On reaching I found they were just beginning to slice fresh bacon and it looked wonderful. So that's what I decided to get for my weekend, along with plenty of fresh eggs. It's always interesting to visit little food shops rather than huge stores because one is never quite sure what one will find. And it's nice to work out combinations of meals revolving around the little bits and pieces that one collects.

I stopped at a bakery and then at a fruit shop to pick up some delicious summer cherries and mangoes, then headed homewards, feeling distinctly satisfied and hungry.

Some of the bacon was immediately consumed - we had a light lunch of crusty onion buns that I had baked, along with scrambled eggs (the creamy kind), bacon and slices of cucumber. A quick and easy meal.

Much of the bacon was used up today, when we had friends over for lunch. I made the classic Quiche Lorraine (a favourite of mine) with a light soup and salad. Our friends had brought delicious little creamy desserts and we rounded off the meal with a bowlful of small cherries.

There's still a bit of bacon left and I shall wait for the next rainy day to select my next bacon dish. There's something nice about bacon sizzling in a pan while it is raining outside.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Hair Raising Tales

Looks like it's a bad hair day for the nation, or at least, for this state. If you are between the ages of 5 and 95 in Bangalore and possess a cell phone, chances are that you are currently receiving periodic messages asking if 'u r suffrng frm hair loss' and telling you who to contact. These daily reminders are clear and concise, however they don’t dwell upon the mysterious treatments promised or provided (or minor details like the cost). Short of getting a hair transplant (do they really work?) there’s actually very little one can do about these things. Much simpler to accept that it's all a part of life. Hair today and gone tomorrow.

Of course, now that I look around, I see that there is a large market waiting eagerly for these remedies. My hair stands on end as I see the range of advertisements and products for lustrous tresses. Is this just a gimmick or does something more sinister lurk beneath (as often happens in those Erle Stanley Gardener books - The Case of the Hairless Heirs?)

But these days, Bald is extremely cool, as those social butterflies (rather moths) who flit from party to party will tell you. However, that is when one is completely, absolutely bald (and preferably sporting a tiny diamond earring). Do you think these guys (yes, they are all men) would want to grow back their hair and begin looking like everyone else? I wonder what the Drones Club would think. Certainly Bertie Wooster would have more options these days, instead of merely restricting himself to those upper lip experiments.

For the younger, college going crowd, it's a very sorry state of affairs. There are only two hairdo's doing the rounds - short and straggly and slightly longer and straggly. Gone are the days of curls and fringes, large buns, clipped 'boy cuts' and the carefully combed and parted locks that heroes would die for - can one ever forget Rapunzel? (thereby hangs a grimm tale). That passion and intensity seem no longer to be found. I wonder why...
Parting, after all, is such sweet sorrow.
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