Friday, August 26, 2011

Unique Identification Number

A couple of days ago we get a campus message saying that they are facilitating the UIDAI (Unique Identification Authority of India) in the process of issuing unique identification numbers to each of us. Long sentence but grammatically correct. We try and see what it means.

"What is unique about this scheme?" we wonder. What is different about this from the five census and one electoral identification schemes each year.

"Don't you know?" says one smart, techie prof from Mechanical Engineering. "They are going to scan your retina. It's amazing technology. All the big IT and company guys are keen on this. Think of the cost! Amazing!"

"Yes!" say some others enthusiastically. "And you will be fingerprinted. And thumb printed as well!"

Well, it sounds only marginally worse than applying for a U.S. or U.K. visa, so we shuffle along to the large lecture hall, where we find fifty candidates already seated ahead of us, with that determined look on their faces we see in people who are waiting for an examination. Well, we shuffle some more, look at each other and ask, "Is it worth it?"

Outside, the sun is shining and some protesting students are making paper planes out of the UIDAI forms and throwing them about. They are not doing a very good job of this as the planes are not flying at all but falling flat on their noses. Inside, there are murmurs of how this scheme will usher in a new way of dealing with things, all high tech and fancy sounding.

We look at each other once more and then someone else enters. We immediately sit down for fear of losing our seats. And then we wait - and wait and wait. And curse, silently at first and less silently as minutes go by. Each person is taking twenty minutes on average, and there are still forty five fellows and dames waiting; only one man to check the identification details and the place closes at 8 p.m. Plenty of time for that mental math.
"Don't worry," I say to my husband, who has already made two trips to his lab and back, "I think that man will start rushing around tea time. Meanwhile, let me go home and cook dinner."

I go home and return with a racy novel and a bottle of water and take my seat. My neighbour is fidgeting now and all of a sudden the big table in front is buzzing with low level sounds and people. My neighbour is fretting; swiftly he stands up and yells,"Move those people away from that table. Hey you! Security! Get them away. We have all been waiting here!" Heads turn and people strangely slink away from the table. Security man, who is just a normal looking guy like us, sits down at the table pretending to keep an eye on things. My neighbour (a prof.) says, "See- all these forms- these people have been slipping them in without waiting." I frown and nod in support. Then we wait some more.

Finally, after shuffling, row by row, we reach the front. My husband looks at me, "Did you bring the bank details?"
"That is optional," I reply. "We are not submitting them."
We look at the line of people with documents in their hands- phone bills, gas connections, bank statements, passport, driving license, school leaving certificates, ration cards and maybe other stuff too. We look at each other. My husband rushes out, back home, to get some more papers.

The line crawls along. My husband returns in the nick of time. I open my bag and check my passport. It has expired! I have brought my old one! Anyway, all they need is a driving license, I say to myself. And then, we are on stage!!!

Hah! It only takes us five minutes, and that too because I show only my driving license at first. "Passport is preferable," says the man and I take it out like an automaton. He looks at it in the same way, there is so much data to note that he does not see that it is the old one. Anyway. We realize that many people before us had not filled in the forms and so maybe it takes them longer. Maybe they write in a more meticulous way than we have done. Anyway, step one is over. We leave only to realize that we both have the same UID number. Unique?

Behind me is an elderly guy and a very pregnant lady, still managing to sit and wait. Now the solitary man on the table decides that he is thirsty and needs to take a tea break.

We shuffle upstairs and by this time we are tired and thirsty too. Upstairs there is a false ceiling and the room is hot. My husband waits in line while I lounge on the roof above the ladies toilet and kitchen disposal area. It smells not so good, but at least I get some oxygen. I open my book and read and keep reading till it is dark and I cannot see the words clearly. My husband calls on the cell phone. Oh, the wonders of technology! I go back inside and wait a little more.

Eventually I reach the scanning counter. I check the data and again show my driving license and passport and it is over. Almost! We need to check if my husband and I have been given the same Unique Identification Number. We ask the man. Fortunately the place where UID is supposed to be written is only the verification number, which is common for us. The actual UID is different. This is a relief otherwise we would have to shuffle back down.

There is a small space left unfilled on the form. It is mandatory only for children below the age of six and asks for the names of their parents and spouses. However, it seems that we must all fill it in. We do the needful and oblige. And finally, all is done. We leave with a small print out, a promise of glorious things to come- now we can open a bank account easily because we have proved that we are Indian and moreover, we live in India! What better way to show this than the UIDAI card? And if someone doubts us, they just have to look into our eyes and see that we are telling the truth.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

The Personalities of Cupboards

It was cupboard hunting time again! Not really for ourselves, but to furnish a flat we wanted to rent out. In order to decide on the best option, I had to talk to various cupboard makers and sellers, see what people were opting for and also - my favourite bit - look at old cupboards that were on sale.

I love old cupboards because each one has a distinct personality, unlike the new ones. The newly made furniture, covering every inch of wall space, looks invariant, like those busy executives at a meeting or security guards in white or grey. It looks like it is there for one purpose alone and is not really interested in any communication. It looks at you impersonally and does its work efficiently.

Now, old cupboards have a completely different feel. They stand there, tall and imposing, often a little battered, sometimes scarred, but they greet you cordially and you can hear them sigh and say, "Just a little bit of polish is all I need and then you can see my true colours." I saw several capacious cupboards in teak and a beautiful set of "his" and "hers" in Indian rosewood. A gleam appeared in the eyes of Mr Valentine, the elderly salesman, who showed me these cupboards and he proudly opened the gleaming dark doors to display an entire row of fine rosewood rods spaced millimetres apart - for hanging sarees or dhotis (in the days when there were no hangers for clothes). The cupboards stood politely, with the elegance and dignity that rosewood displays. Mr. Valentine said, "The boss doesn't want to sell them on their own, they are not for display. But perhaps you can talk to him and try and convince him." I suppose he recognized a fellow cupboard lover.

I also saw a huge, magnificent teak cupboard, solidly built with a triangular headpiece that was carved in two shades of teak. It had original fittings (including a solid looking lock) and a movable rod at the top that could be swung out so you didn't have to grope for you clothes in the large, dark recesses. It had belonged to an old Chettiar family and the cupboard appeared to have a distinctly patriarchal air.

I took to it instantly and so did my husband, but after considerable thought and research into what people wanted, we realized that people really just needed efficiently constructed space to keep their things in, hinges that moved smoothly, material that didn't expand in the rains, drawers that rolled in and out on steel ball bearings...

So, with a small sigh of regret, we didn't buy any of the old cupboards. However, we did peep into the patriarchal teak one and amongst the odds and ends stored there, we discovered a lovely family of rhinos - a father, mother and baby, beautifully carved in teak. We thought they would enjoy grazing on the wooden side tables in our house, so we have bought all of them, and once their skins are cleaned up a bit, they will be brought home.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Garden Creatures in Action

Yesterday, in the early morning dark, we almost tripped over the bandicoot who visits our garden at night. We couldn't say who was more startled, but we all leapt up and fled in different directions.

However, apart from the marauding bandicoot, the mischievous monkeys and the cacophonous ravens, there are many other creatures who visit our garden - quieter, gentler ones. I try to capture them in images with my camera, but for each picture taken, I miss about five others! It's difficult to take them in action, especially with a tiny, basic camera. By the time I manage to focus, they scurry or fly away in alarm and I don't want to disturb them each time they appear. I have a small plan to counter some of these problems - but more on that in a later blog (once I have tested my ideas)!

So, I am putting up a few pictures of some garden visitors - some are transient visitors and others seem to have made themselves quite at home here with us.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

The Times, They are a-Changing

We all know that India has apparently been shining for some years now and great changes are sweeping through the country. A hint of this came my way when I opened my letterbox yesterday to find a small typed note by my milkman. It said that he was going to be out of station for a day and was enclosing an additional packet of milk. It was neatly dated and signed and two milk packets reposed comfortably in the mailbox. It made me think about how technology has changed our lives in the past decade.

Earlier, we would live a life filled with exciting unpredictability. One would waken not knowing if there would be water or electricity or milk available that particular morning. The newspaper would invariably be delivered but I distinctly remember phases when the ironing man would take large loans and vanish for weeks on end. In between hauling water from the nearest available tank, the trusty iron would be pulled out and put to use (though we would often resort to wearing unironed clothes).

I can also never forget the first birthday party I organized for my husband (a surprise one). On that particular day there was no electricity and very little water (drinking water had to be collected, boiled, cooled and filtered - and this process had to be done the previous day if one was expecting guests). In addition, I had organized a barbecue and my friend who was to bring the grill went into hospital with labour pains. No cell phones, no email at home - one just had to sit and wait and do one's best under the circumstances.

And now, every person has a cell phone and many have computers and printers as well. They are able to function in an impressively professional way, if they so choose. So we get our milk and newspaper on time, email is sent when water runs out and the person in charge is called any time of the day. Some things of course, never change. The maids still bunk. The man who collects old newspapers paying everyone less as he has faulty weights (I know because there is a gleaming new shop with an electronic balance) still gives me a breezy 'hello' even though I have stopped giving him newspapers. The cows still come round to eat garbage. And we all still like to agree to disagree with bureaucrats on the state of affairs in the country.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Freedom and the Common Man

Independence Day this year comes at the end of a long, festival-filled weekend. A day to think, even if briefly, about the meaning of freedom - and tolerance- which is a necessary accompaniment.

Ironically the last week has been demonstrative of some of the worst kinds of intolerance and insecurity-driven violence in word or deed, in our country and others. Yet, at a personal level, we remain free to make our choices: to watch or add to or defuse angry or fearful situations.

We all face such dilemmas from time to time and spend much energy and thought on what is the right way to deal with impossible situations and difficult people. I relate very much to the Common Man, as depicted by R.K. Laxman, one of our best loved cartoonists. A thin, ordinary person who is busy looking upon or dealing with small crises not of his own making and is trying to do so without giving up his sense of humour or intrinsic optimism. Freedom and what we do with it depends on our state of mind (and spirit).

On this day too, I remember the words we had to memorize in school, which meant so little then and mean so very much now - a poem by Tagore -

Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high;
Where knowledge is free;
Where the world has not been broken up
into fragments by narrow domestic walls;
Where words come out from the depth of truth;
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection;
Where the clear stream of reason
has not lost its way into the dreary desert sand of dead habit;
Where the mind is led forward by thee into ever-widening thought and action-
Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.

Monday, August 8, 2011

A Mesmerizing Saree

The Dastakar Nature Fair is back in town and, as always, we visit, resolving not to buy too much. So, full of uplifting determination, we slowly walked past the little stalls from different states.

I always like to visit this fair, for though it is commercially oriented, many of the stalls are manned by original craftspeople and one can pay them directly for their creations. It is also interesting to be able to talk to them and ask whatever we wish to about their work. As this fair focusses primarily on textiles, is of particular interest to me as I am always intrigued by colours, weaves and patterns.

Trouble loomed as we approached the Chhattisgarh stall, which displayed an array of beautiful tussar silk sarees, a dull grain-gold in colour, overlaid with simple but effective geometric patterns in beautiful natural dyes. I impulsively shortlisted a muted natural green, pink and gold saree for myself. Three stalls down, thirty more to go!

We moved on and I also shortlisted a saree in a Maharashtra stall - a traditional Vidarbha saree, in off white with small red woven motifs and a temple design (making it suitably auspicious).

We then proceeded towards the north eastern states, which have some of the most skilled weavers and then to Himachal Pradesh, which, mercifully, was selling a variety of organic beans and honey. There was no real decision making to be done here; we quickly gathered a few bottles and walked on.

Spent the next many minutes happily buying gifts for the family and all was well until we reached Orissa. I always get stuck at Orissa because I find their creations irresistible. I have been buying Oriya sarees consistently each year for many years now and sometimes the stall owners recognize me and start beaming when I approach. This time my roving eye spotted nothing, partly because I had firmly decided that I would get something different, things that I had already shortlisted in my mind. But I suppose it was fate! Or perhaps my husband's unerring eagle eyes - amongst the row of sarees that had been awarded a 'master craftsman' title (and that were frightfully expensive), there lurked a traditional saree in red and white checks.

I had seen it but not given it much thought as I already had a saree with this red and white pattern (and in fact, so had two of my friends). But my husband just wanted to see it - and so it was brought out and displayed - just a very traditional saree, the weaver said in a matter of fact way. Not a new design. But as it was unfolded, it seemed to us breathtakingly beautiful. It was an ikat saree, exquisitely, intricately and strikingly woven in red, white and black and shades in between. There were the enchanting Oriya animals woven all through the saree - rows of tiny glowing fish (in luminescent lemon) at the borders, spotted deer, peacocks and particularly woozly elephants and ducks at the pallu (one end). I looked at the saree, it looked back at me and glimmered.

Resolutely we walked out into the fresh air to look at the other stalls, but the saree had occupied a small space inside me. "Red and white checks!" my mind said disapprovingly, "And large ones at that! And look at all those shades of black - too dark! Too dark! You'll look terrible." But my spirit whispered something entirely different. My husband seemed equally mesmerized. Inevitably, we returned to buy it. I still had a little money left - which meant I could buy another saree! But, I was so completely content and somehow enveloped in this one that I couldn't think about any others.

So, instead, we ate some organic green pepper bhajjis (large green peppers coated in gram flour and fried) and went home.

Note: I have learnt since then that this is a saktapar wedding saree, named because of the checkerboard pattern. A board game of the same name is traditionally played by the bride and groom after the wedding. This is considered to be an auspicious pattern.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

My Garden in the Monsoons

We are in the midst of the monsoons; I'm loving it and so is my garden. I haven't done a thing to it in the past few weeks yet it looks so happy and alive. Rain is marvellously renewing.

Flowers that used to wilt rapidly earlier can stare into the sun without too much trouble, perhaps they know that it will rain soon and all the heat will melt away.

Leaves look greener and glossier; even the cactus acquires a jaunty air.

The guppies in the water pond (yes! last month I bought a couple of couples and now the pool is filled with baby fish) swim out onto the water lily leaves, which serve as tiny shallow pools. The older fish love to float about in these and I can get quite close to them without them fleeing in alarm.

The air is full of moisture and delicious scents and promises of more wondrous rain.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Two Unusual Cookbooks

Last month I acquired two books on baking- two completely different approaches to baking- each with something new to tell me.

The first, How Baking Works (by Paula Figoni), is a scientific treatise on the mechanism of baking - how the ingredients, equipment and kitchen conditions work together to give a particular product. Each chapter has simple, scientific explanations as well as exercises (several involving math) and suggested experiments to understand various aspects of baking. This makes it easier to break down and understand recipes and also evaluate different recipes (for example the role of eggs in a recipe - how much egg does one use? Is the whole egg needed or just the yolk or white? Is it to be diluted with water?). Based on the science, there are also a large number of helpful hints thrown into each section - these are truly helpful. Though the book is intended more for baking schools or shops, it is useful for all those who are interested in approaching baking professionally without having access to training under master bakers or professionals.

The second is a book on artisan bread making called Tartine Bread (by Chad Robertson with wonderful photographs by Eric Wolfinger). This describes Chad's journey in exploring bread making, from apprenticing with some of the best artisan bakers in the US and France to setting up his own (very successful) Tartine Bakery in San Fransisco and ultimately developing a method of replicating this process of bread making for the home baker. There is also a section on how Chad asked a range of people (some already familiar with baking and some novices) to try making this bread from scratch - and the insights received as a result of this process. The last part is a collection of recipes on using days-old bread - a rather gourmet section, not surprising as the author and his wife are both professional bakers. The photographer, Eric, offered to teach Chad how to surf in exchange for learning how to make bread (in true Californian spirit).

I am not sure when I will begin to make use of these recipes but they provide a very different perspective on bread making and on the importance of the process of leavening. I had no idea, for instance, that brioche and croissant were, at one time, made using natural leavening and that they tasted and kept very differently from the ones we see now in bakeries.

I quote below from each of these books, to give a flavour of their approach to baking. They have taught me to think differently about baking and I hope soon to actually put some of these thoughts into practice.

"The food scientist uncovers how different ingredients are processed, views ingredients as made of individual components, and views processes and procedures in the bakeshop in terms of interactions between these components. If ingredients can be viewed in this way, their behavior in the bakeshop begins to make more sense. How they will react under new conditions and new situations can be predicted better, and failures in the bakeshop can be averted. The goal of this book is to share the views of the food scientist with bakers and pastry chefs.

Beyond the practical usefulness of science, there is a beauty to it, a beauty best appreciated when science is applied to the everyday world. I hope that this book allows those who might not yet see this beauty to at least see the possibility of it.

...Numbers can sound deceptively precise. For instance, the temperature at which yeast cells die is often cited as 140 degrees F (60 degrees C). But was the heat moist or dry? Was the temperature brought up quickly or slowly? What strain of yeast was used and how much acid, salt and sugar were present?

The actual temperature at which yeast cells die depends on these and other factors, and that temperature is not necessarily 140 degrees F (60 degrees C)."
(How Baking Works)

"Traditional, intuitive bread making does not lend itself naturally to a written recipe. Before the study of microbiology, bakers understood the subtleties of the process. The nature of fermentation was second nature to their own. That is, they understood fermentation in relation to the rhythms of their own lives. It is necessarily the same with modern artisan bakers.

Tartine Bread is devoted to the use of natural leaven, often called sourdough. I promote using a "younger" leaven with very little acidity. It's a sweet-smelling, yeastier relative of the more sour and vinegary-smelling sourdough. When making bread with nothing more than flour, water and salt, aspiring bakers should apply their attention to learning how to control the process of fermentation. The concept is not without precedence.

...In France I had fallen in love with the sweet, creamy flavor of bread fermented with wild yeast leaven that contradicts the widespread perception of "sourdough." I wanted anything but sour bread. I wanted a deep auburn crust to shatter between the teeth, giving way to tender, pearlescent crumb. I wanted my baker's signature, the score made with a blade on top, to rise and fissure, and the crust to set with dangerous edges. Rustic forms from the forge of the oven would be the final expression of the process. To gain a following from these large, crusty loaves, I would make sure to bring the bread that was still warm from the ovens to the markets."
(Tartine Bread)

Monday, August 1, 2011

My Experiments with the Bothi

Being in Kolkata implies being immersed in traditional eating (and cooking). Bengalis are passionate about their food and are happiest when eating it and perhaps equally happy while talking about it. It was no surprise then that my thoughts turned towards a long cherished dream - the idea of acquainting myself with a bothi.

A bothi is a traditional sickle-like knife that is nailed to an iron or wooden stand. Traditionally a woman sits down and runs the vegetables along the sharp edge of this knife in different ways to generate a variety of shapes and sizes of cut vegetables that the cook can then transform into various dishes. Using a bothi requires a high level of precision and skill; the blade is very sharp and at times the vegetables need to be cut very fine to generate a particular texture while cooking.

Perhaps it can all be done using a conventional knife, but the traditional way is with the bothi - and so something in me felt that my knowledge of traditional cooking would be incomplete unless I had used it (perhaps mastered it). I felt instinctively that the bothi is more suited to some aspects of Indian cooking, certainly to the Indian way of doing things. A knife is useful for cutting straight and even pieces but when it comes to curves, a bothi is more handy. There is also the advantage of being able to sit on the floor instead of standing for long hours.

So, on a sunny afternoon, I asked one of the maids to show me how to use the bothi and we spent a pleasant hour cutting cabbage and potatoes in different (completely unusable!) shapes according to various recipes. It took a long time because I was assiduously trying not to cut my fingers to the bone!
At the end of this practice session, I decided to buy a bothi and try and use it periodically at home. The movement of peeling and slicing on this knife has a nice feel to it. So the entire family set off on an expedition to Kali Ghat (which abuts the famous Kali temple) where traditional cooking ware is sold.

We were directed to a particular shop and amidst all the modern bothis with iron nailed on to wood, we spotted a beautiful one made completely in iron, with a slender frame and a beautiful slope and curve. I wanted to try it and sat down (on an old newspaper offered by the shopkeeper) on the dusty floor of the tiny shop. I put my knee down on the bothi and held it in place and looked around for something to slice. Spotted some old, used matchsticks but decided to abstain! The bothi seemed well designed and the shop keeper appeared satisfied with our selection.

He said it cost two hundred rupees but he would sell it to us for a hundred and fifty and it would last two hundred years without requiring re-sharpening! To illustrate, he picked up a piece of metal and began shaving off slivers from it using the bothi. Some of the family members shuddered. I was wary but calm as I know that a blunt knife is often more hazardous than a sharp one. The man looked at our pale faces and continued blithely, "This bothi was made in Bangladesh. You can't get these here. They were used in the war to behead people..." We looked at each other and decided it was time to get going.

The man waved a cheery goodbye. "Try it and if you like it, come back," he said and the bothi was gingerly passed on from hand to hand until it reached mine, where it remained, firmly held until we reached home.
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