Friday, December 30, 2011

Happy New Year!

A year goes by faster than we care to think about. For me this has been a year of tremendous learning, of trying to go deeper within myself and of trusting my spirit as a guide.

As my element is water (as described by the Chinese five elements), this is the time I think of Lao Tzu's words -

"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."

This is a translation by the Tai Chi master, Professor Cheng Man-ch'ing, who illustrated its application in different aspects of Tai Chi, for example -

"In the application of Tai Chi Chuan, when it comes to the point of someone wanting to hit me, or to attack me, then the real usefulness of the art makes itself known. For instance, take a piece of cloth. You can beat it but you won't harm it. It doesn't resist you, it's not stiff. So if you're as soft as the cloth, then there's no problem. Moreover, one who is soft will not be afraid when people come to attack. Then you will be able to respond to an attacker's speed and strength in an effective manner.
The first and most difficult point of all is: you have to believe in what I say. If you don't believe it, when the person comes to attack you, you will resist him and then it will already be too late."

His student, Wolfe Lowenthal, explains further in the book 'There are no Secrets':

"The "difficulty" is that softness is a quality of the true self, that which exists beneath our myriad defences.
Resistance is rooted in our lack of faith in the self. We create armor to protect that self from the world: hard images of strength and brittle, false fronts. These images exact a huge toll of energy required for their maintenance.
"The first and most difficult point" would probably be impossible were it not for the wisdom of the heart. The heart knows that the gung fu of softness is not only practical, it's the only path worth taking."

My year was largely spent in warding off attacks of ill health and I realized towards the end of the year that what really helped me was looking deep within and allowing my heart to take decisions instead of focussing continuously on how my brain perceived things. A combination of the two is required, but each has its specific role. Allowing my mind to follow my heart helped me on many occasions.

As the year ends, I find myself opening up to possibilities that my still-water tendencies had never really wanted to explore. As my heart warms up to the thought of an exciting, completely new year ahead, I feel the the fire element gradually making its presence felt within. Towards the end of this year, I feel that I would like to be softer, less resistant to change in the coming year. Strangely enough, my writing, which I thought might be isolating in nature, has brought me in contact with many new people, new ideas and the possibility of new assignments.

And so, I would like to reach out to all the readers, known and unknown, of this blog, to wish them a wonderful, soft and heartwarming new year.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

A Kerala Christmas Spread

Last night, we went to Ente Keralam, the (yes!) Kerala restaurant in Bangalore. It has received consistently good reviews and was always on our 'must visit sometime' list, but inertia intervened. Yesterday, my brother snapped us out of our overwhelming reluctance to drive into town and we met some family and friends there for dinner.

Kerala has a rich (and, like each Indian state, fairly unique) cuisine, owing to its distinct geography and cultural diversity. It is a region of rivers and backwaters, low lying fields and hilly plantations. The land is fertile and just right for cultivating rice, spices, nuts, tea and coffee. It also has a long, accessible coastline. For these reasons, it has traded with Southern Europe, the Arab lands and South East Asia for centuries, resulting in an intermingling of people and culture over time. About 24% of the population is Muslim and about 19% Syrian Christian, the rest is Hindu. Each region and community has its own cuisine.

Thus, it was no surprise that the menu was filled with things we had never tried and while we were pondering over what to order, another 'Christmas and New Year special' menu was produced. This had a list of delicious sounding dishes, many recognizable Syrian Christian specialties. We all decided to sample the fixed (but unlimited) menu that began with mulled wine and Christmas cake and ended with three kinds of sweets (pounded rice cooked with jaggery and eaten with small bananas, a thickened jaggery and coconut milk payasam and tender coconut icecream with a sprig of mint).

We raised a toast to friends, festivity and feasting. Conversations were struck, wine (and more wine) appreciatively sipped and crispy-tender mutton cutlets downed with ease. At some moment, there appeared gigantic silver thalis laden with bowls full of wondrous creations. Golden morsels of fried bittergourd, a bowl of dry lentils and grated coconut, a mild curry made with thickened curd and all kinds of special meat and fish preparations. Roast duck that melted in the mouth and released flavours of ghee, onions and whole spices, creamy and mild mutton ishtu (mutton stewed in coconut milk and spices), a tangy fish curry, almost like a pickle, a mild fish curry in coconut milk (meen moilee, one of the few things I was familiar with), beef fry (a delicious stir-fry of slivers of beef, onion, garlic, whole pepper and curry leaf) - these were served with a local bread (soft and porous), wholesome Kerala red rice and the distinctive Kerala appams that were tender in the centre and golden brown on the outside (this colour and texture is obtained only when the rice flour used to make the appams is fermented slowly with toddy and then cooked in shallow, lightly greased cast iron pans).

At this stage, the conversation was limited to "Have you tried this?" and "I wonder if I can have more of that?". Finally, the contents of the groaning table having been transferred to our now-groaning stomachs, we sat back, with small glasses of Sulaimani chai (sweetened black tea with generous doses of lemon and cinnamon) - a much needed digestive!

I happened to have my camera handy and took some photographs of the food as it appeared, in steady succession, at our table. Here are some pictures; unfortunately blogger does not allow me to attach smells and flavours...

Saturday, December 24, 2011

A Delhi Winter

I'm in Delhi for a short winter break, in the midst of lower than average temperatures and biting winds. The sun is out for about half the day and people are out for much less. The Delhi centenary celebrations draw to a tired close and cultural events are at an all time low. Undoubtedly things will begin to move again during Christmas and New Year's eve.

For now, I spend my mornings outdoors, wrapped up like a mobile Christmas tree, in deep green and carrot orange (alternate, stripy sweater) and red woolly jacket, trying to catch the sun. Evenings find me seated next to a steam heater, sipping hot soup, watching the Christmas special movies on television. Day before yesterday I saw Casablanca, the unforgettable film with the perfect cast and one liners that stay in your mind forever. I don't believe any other actors could have created the same moods as Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman did.

Yesterday I visited some bookshops owned by individuals, not chains - places with eclectic collections and eccentric crowds. Peeped into a shop selling honey glazed hams and European cheeses and bought a small Christmas cake with almond icing. Well fed street dogs seem to lie along pavements, many with little woollen jackets around their middles.

On the road there was a flurry of Krishna devotees selling copies of the spiritual and philosophic text, Bhagavad Gita. Ever since a Siberian court has been moved to decide whether this book should be banned (as it might be 'war-promoting, extremist literature'), heated discussions have begun in Indian political and religious circles.

Today I bought gigantic prawns and large and small river fish - this is truly a great season for seafood and I try and make the most of it. Visited a sweet shop to buy the winter sweets, made with dark and delicious palm jaggery. Had a little talk with the shop attendant about labour shortage and the evident decrease in variety of sweets.

I am leaving this evening, carrying a suitcase of books and a large carton of food. Deep red, sweet winter carrots (for halwa and perhaps, if I desire, a carrot cake), tender white radish with pungent liver-cleansing leaves, dark indigo carrots for kanji (a fermented winter drink), sweet and juicy kinoos (a local orange) and tiny cape gooseberries - some to eat and some to jam. As the winter moves on, I have my work cut out for me.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Snake in the Eagle's Shadow

A wonderfully named kung fu film - the 1978 directorial debut of Yuen Woo-Ping (who later choreographed the action for Iron Monkey, Crouching Tiger , Hidden Dragon, Kill Bill etc.) Yuen Woo-Ping's father, Yuen Siu-Tien played the role of Jackie Chan's teacher - and it was a very unusual coupling of characters. It was the first time anyone had attempted to introduce comedy into the serious business of fighting and the student and teacher seemed to be drawn together more by affection than by a formal arrangement of passing on a tradition. In fact, towards the end of the film, the student modifies what he has learnt and forms a new style, which he wants to call 'Cat's Claw' but his teacher suggests that it be named 'Snake in the Eagle's Shadow'.

I like to watch the late 70s-early 80s kung fu films for their emphasis on non embellished fights (minimal weapons and no special effects except for strange sounds), to view the action in the context of principles of movement that I read about in T'ai chi or Yoga texts. I am attaching a link to a snippet from this movie that brings out the spirit of the film - a scene where Jackie Chan is just beginning to train as a Kung fu fighter. The style is interesting and, as with many kung fu styles, the resemblance to an animal (snake, in this case) is evident. Beneath the levity and lightheartedness lie fundamental principles of how to shift one's weight and also - how to sit and how not to sit on a bench! Do watch this little scene, which the actors seem to enjoy perhaps as much as the spectators would.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Balance and Back Bends in Yoga

Today, after more than a year, I resumed my back bends in Yoga. The spine protested silently and strongly! I felt mildly dizzy and clutched on to my teacher for a few moments, to recover my balance. Immediately afterwards though, there was a feeling of tremendous satisfaction. Back bends are intrinsically invigorating - perhaps it is the nature of the movement, perhaps it is because the mind is compelled to be still while directing such an unusual posture. Back bends also take up a lot of energy, hence they are usually done after the body is thoroughly warmed up and just before winding down the practice.

At this time, I think of the yoga teacher Shri B.K.S. Iyengar, who possesses an amazing level of control and balance and a very supple spine. There is an old 1938 video recording of his, which has now been uploaded on youtube (showing the style that he learnt from his teacher Shri Krishnamachary. Later Iyengar modified this style and formed his own school of 'Iyengar yoga').

This is an interesting film snippet as it shows the vast range of movements that can be done through back bends. It also depicts the lightness and balance that comes only to some, after long hours of practice. The role of physical strength is often overestimated in these postures. Knowing how to breathe, apply internal muscular locks (bandhas) and distribute one's weight at each step is what contributes to the equilibrium attained; this is the ultimate aim of yogasanas (yogic postures). To do this almost effortlessly, as Iyengar appears to, is rare and wonderful to watch.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

The Wedding Spirit

It is wedding season season in India - though the auspicious month for ceremonies has just ended, it is still vacation time, a time when people can travel and the weather is favourable. With busy lifestyles, intermixing of cultures and customs, weddings no longer have a standard format. Yet within all this change, people remain the same and participating in these events is still as interesting (and, at times, exhausting!) as it used to be.

This year, apart from the usual invitations to wedding receptions, I have been asked to participate in three weddings (in different capacities, if that is the right word). Each of these weddings is unique and interesting and fortunately they are spaced out over a few months. I am immersed in this wedding spirit and am enjoying myself hugely in my role as spectator/friend/relative or a sort of mix of these.

The first wedding is just over. A few months ago, my brother came across an unknown cousin quite by chance. We were all delighted to meet and trace our family roots. Interestingly all of us have descended from the same locality of a town in northern India. Quite by chance, we are now all living in Bangalore. Our cousin was to be married soon and last week we we attended the two day event and met many other relatives we had never seen before. It was a Indian-Brazilian wedding and was filled with colour, music, dancing, good food and celebration. The Brazilians seemed very much at home with all the festivity. Indian families at times can be very easy - loose, billowing, inviting structures - there are all kinds and ages of people and one is just swept into the rituals and conversation without much ado. So there we were, celebrating with tremendous vigour along with everyone else, the wedding of our cousin whom we had just met a few months ago!

The next wedding is a few weeks away; my neighbour's daughter is marrying another acquaintance's son. The bride and groom both work in the U.S. and will arrive a few days before their wedding. In these situations, all the arrangements are done by the parents and as soon as the children arrive, they are swept into an increasingly hectic schedule of social and ceremonial functions.

In my view, much of the interesting action occurs much before the wedding; friends and family drop by to help and also to spend long hours downing cups of tea and chatting about relevant and irrelevant matters. Lists are drawn up and misplaced, tailors are issued ultimata, houses are scrubbed, flowers and sweets ordered.

Yesterday I trundled downstairs to view my friend's saree shopping (many relatives are gifted with sarees at this time). We pored over the different things she had bought; discussed workmanship, quality, usability and price; she described the people she had selected each saree for. This is a different aspect of many Indian weddings - a behind the scene glimpse of events that involves reassuring the concerned parents, offering a helping hand or just a sympathetic ear. As more and more people leave their original homes and settle elsewhere, families are unable to come before the wedding to help as they used to in earlier days. Of course, in those days everything was done at home, with just some basic support staff and an official cook. Now events are fancier, time is short and people look to friends and caterers to de-stress and simplify matters.

Today my neighbour came up to my house for moral support and to get some clarity of thought. What flowers are needed, what kind of food would suit elderly relatives, how should one decorate the house, what had been done for my wedding (which was organized completely at home)? We exchanged ideas and I know there will be more such sessions as days go by. It's almost a ritual in itself.

The third wedding, six months down the line, is my nephew's. He is in the U.S. and is marrying someone who lives there, a second generation Indian. The wedding will be along traditional Indian lines, but will be held in the U.S. This will be followed by a reception in India. Needless to say, my help has already been enlisted for the Indian end of things. We are all currently on the look out for suitable arrangements and gifts for a couple who would value something traditional but who now have a very American lifestyle.

My thoughts turn to an American wedding shower I attended in California a few days after I first set foot in the U.S. I was unaware of the concept of 'showers' and found it strange that there was only one relative invited, everyone else who came was a friend. It was also a revelation that one could actually tell people what gifts one would like to receive! A very practical and down to earth custom but it would not work in the India of old.

I observed the wine glasses, the coffee maker and other bits of things being opened up with sighs and exclamations and finally - the bride's mother handed in her special gift - a slender, designer silk nightdress. There were gasps of delight all round and I gasped too, but in amazement! I thought of our solid Indian gifts, designed to last (whether one liked it or not!) - the beautiful Indian silk sarees, the gold and stone jewellery, the family silver; the emphasis on beauty and tradition, far removed from physical realities of everyday life. Well, not always. I could picture my great aunts frowning and saying, "What if there is an earthquake or war or famine - what will you do with your nightdress and glassware?" But then, weddings are weddings and there is a place for everyone and everything in these celebrations and that is what makes them memorable.

Friday, December 9, 2011

The Call of the Coffee Plantation

After visiting the forest near Mysore, it seemed a pity to skip the coffee plantations that lay just a little way ahead - and so we continued into Coorg, the land of the Kodavas. The road being what it was (just about existing in parts and filled with treacherous traffic in others), it took us about six hours to reach. We stopped for a leisurely break though, at Bylakuppe, where there is a large Tibetan settlement and a wonderful Tibetan temple, monastery and school for monks. We had a light but satisfying meal of momos (stuffed dumplings) and thukpa (a hearty soup), amazingly an all vegetarian option was available in the monastery.

As we drove towards Coorg, the dusty plains gave way to cool, green plantations and the road sloped upwards. We passed acre after acre of identical looking land - filled with coffee bushes, interspersed with tall trees upon which were entwined vines of pepper. Birds called mysteriously from somewhere and we missed our forest ranger with the telescopic vision. The road led up and on, and we had to keep track of the landmarks mentioned in our map - an empty bus stop, a corroded bridge which only served pedestrians and then a tiny bumpy road which led us to our destination - BEL homestay in Madapura

A wonderful spot, in the midst of the plantations, with very welcoming hosts, Vijai and Ramolla and their two perky dogs, this is highly recommended if you want a short break away from civilization! They have a few comfortable rooms, beautiful gardens and a sprawling estate which is perfect for walks. This is not a fancy, modern place with gadgets and televisions (electricity is erratic and the generator and a wood stoked boiler are used) but a very welcoming old style, tranquil place with plenty of fresh air and delicious home cooked meals.

Excitement comes in the form of civet cats, dog fights, mongoose chases and bird calls, several of which we witnessed or heard. The air was bracing and up above, the stars peeped through cloudy patches. It drizzled a bit, which was not good for the coffee crop, laden as it was with red berries which would be gathered, washed, dried and opened to get the beans.

Civet cats process the beans in a highly prized manner and dump them along the paths for people to gather, clean and sell as a high end product. But much of the harvesting is done manually from the bushes which grow on slopy, uneven terrain, covered with wild fig trees, pepper vines and thick bushes. A very hard task. But the people on the plantation seem content to be there, in their homeland, working on their own and trying new ways to increase their revenue - planting vanilla, citrus trees and more; the trouble is that prices vary vastly from year to year for each product as global demands change. The infrastructure all around is poor; often owners have to lay and maintain their own roads. The bridge that we passed on our way is submerged upto five feet during the rains and no vehicle can cross at the time. It's amazing that work still goes on and the coffee reaches the market under these conditions.

But we only dwell briefly on these sombre issues. For we are now sitting in the verandah, shooting the breeze. Dinner is being laid at the table behind us - whiffs of delicious Coorg specialties come our way. The dogs, after a decent fight with friends from a neighbouring plantation, are curled up and fast asleep.

We have just walked through the plantation, learnt to distinguish arabica from robusta, learned how the wild fig trees help attract birds and insects which in turn help the environment around the coffee plants. We have seen poinsettia in vivid shades of red and an ancient and most beautiful mauvey bougainvillea in the garden. Tomorrow morning we plan to walk some more, to the top of the hillside and around, and then return to Bangalore - and back to work (sigh!).

Monday, December 5, 2011

Jungle Adventure

Another trip to the forest. Everyone warned us that this was the wrong time of the year - there's plenty of water so the animals don't emerge from the interior. Moreover, a cyclone had hit the coast and it had been raining continuously for two days before we were to leave. But we always like to visit the forest; it's wonderful just to feel the wind, hear the leaves and the river, watch the birds flying and occasionally dipping into the water and to be enveloped by the ever changing mood of the forest.

The day we set out, it had stopped raining. The weather was cloudy and cool and it was a comfortable trip to Jungle Lodges at Kabini. The food was excellent, as always, and after a short nap, we were ready to drive into the forest. The roads were terrible, the worst we have seen so far in the area. It appears that the government, despite all the revenue that this national park brings, is completely uninterested in maintaining the infrastructure around. Our jeep developed a snag soon after we hit a crater in the road - one of the bolts of the wheel got sheared by the impact. Fortunately we had just entered the forest and were redistributed amongst other jeeps. This meant that we were seated right at the back and it made for a terribly bumpy ride. But a very exciting one!

We saw many of the animals we usually see in this forest - herds of elephants and a magnificent tusker walking alone, the large and powerful wild buffalo (gaur), herds of deer of all kinds, langurs leaping on and off trees, wild boar trotting along and suddenly, and unexpectedly, a large leopard that lay lazily across the road. It sat comfortably for a few minutes, ignoring the frantic jeep loads of tourists clicking away, then it stood up and slowly (and very majestically) strode into the bushes. It was an amazing experience. I could not take many pictures at this stage (with my tiny camera from the back of the jeep) and requested one of our co-passengers, John Keller, for some leopard pictures, which he has kindly sent and which are put up here.

The following morning we decided to go on the river in a small motorized boat instead of another jeep trip. It was a good decision, as it turned out. We began by following the curve of the river, past the village land and along the banks of the forest. Our guide was a ranger with telescopic vision who kept rattling off names of birds and beasts that we could barely see with our binoculars! We saw several rare birds and an otter swam alongside us as we slowly moved up the river.

In the distance we saw a pack of wild dogs (dhole) running up the bank, in search of food. They were very swift and we moved parallel to them, along the river and watched as they tried to isolate a single deer from its herd and attack it. They got quite close to killing a spotted deer but it suddenly leapt into the water and began swimming frantically - deer are apparently good swimmers. We followed the dhole as they ran along hungrily; they had split up into a group of four and another of two and tried various tactics to break up the herd of deer that was grazing ahead. Once in a while they would stop, peer into the river and get startled by their own reflections!

Eventually they caught an animal - it happened just round the bend and we could not see it. By the time we turned, they had ripped it apart and in a few minutes, most of the deer was eaten. Birds began approaching, the dogs snapped and sent them scurrying and then continued to consume the remains.

We turned back, towards something that looked just like a small stump, but our guide insisted it was a crocodile and sure enough, it silently dipped into the water as we approached. We saw many more birds, deer and wild boar, and on our return greeted the same otter that we had passed. It was still swimming and somersaulting in the water. Kingfishers were feasting on tiny fish and swallows flew in loops around us.

And that's where we left the river and the forest and returned to land, to a good breakfast, before setting off for the coffee plantations in Coorg.
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