Saturday, December 22, 2012

Sarawak Stories 2 : in which I discover the Orchid Seekers of Borneo

We reach Mulu to find a dazzling blue sky - no sign of the monsoons.  We step out of the one-roomed airport and see a line up of vans, rapidly ferrying passengers to their destination and returning.  How far is the rain forest from here?  We see the forest before we notice the signboard at the airport.

The van screeches to a halt in front of a long bridge, drops us off and promises to return to collect us on our departure.  We get down, drag our bags noisily over the bridge and enter the visitors' information area.  There is a wooden counter in front and before long, someone materializes and beckons.  It is a young and efficient lady.  She gives us a set of brochures and maps, snaps little paper visitor bracelets onto our wrists which indicate our day of departure and explains about possible expeditions.  We make our payments, leave our luggage in our rooms and head for lunch.

The Gunung Mulu National Park lies sprawled all round us.  We are still to get used to the foliage, the insects, the incessant jungle noises.  There is life, sound and colour at every step.

Before our eyes, the sky starts clouding up.  Large grey balls of water vapour glide in effortlessly, seemingly from nowhere.

We walk swiftly to the cafeteria - there is only one which caters to all the staff and visitors, and it is remarkably efficient.  They serve local and Western food; by and large we stick to the local fare.  Everything is served steaming hot and it all looks very appetizing.  Jungle ferns, local fungi, fresh fish from the river and slightly sticky Borneo rice.  Who could ask for more?
It has been a long morning and we tuck in, gratefully.

After a little nap, we contemplate stretching our legs and getting a feel for the place.  Immediately there is a roll of thunder,followed by sheets and sheets of rain.  We sit on the wooden verandah, watching the rain, sipping tea and waiting for the weather to clear.  We sit for three hours, waiting.  It doesn't really matter, for we are on holiday.  We see people rushing to and fro, completely drenched, but we are not quite ready for this as yet.  The air feels cool after the heat of Singapore.  The rain gradually lessens, we grab our umbrellas and run towards the cafeteria.  It is now dinner time and though we haven't done anything so far, we are hungry once more.

After dinner, we walk into the store next to the cafeteria.  This sells basic food (snacks, chocolate, rice and a few cans) for camping, some local clothes, rain ponchos and T-shirts, postcards, handicrafts and books.  They also sell wi-fi cards, in twelve hour slots.  Each of us heads to a different section.  My husband checks the wi-fi, our friend Madhu looks at the sharp local knives that can slash small branches (and undoubtedly other objects as well) to shreds in seconds and I gaze at the books.  There I find 'The Orchid Seekers of Borneo' - an adventure story first published in 1893, written by Ashmore Russan and Frederick Boyle. It has been recently reprinted by the Natural History Publications (Borneo).  I read the introductory note (see footnote) and I am entranced.  I can't wait to read more - and to venture deep into the forest, looking for orchids (amongst other things).  When we return to our rooms, I sit in bed and read a few pages before dropping off to sleep.  Tomorrow we go into the forest, up into the limestone caves, beyond the river.  Tomorrow...

Footnote:  I quote, from the introductory note:

"Some of our boy readers may cry, on seeing the names of the two authors on the title page, "What!  A couple of 'em?"  And at any point they will be likely to ask themselves, "Now, I wonder which of the two wrote this?"
   The public in such cases is commonly left to wonder, but circumstances here are unusual.  When Mr. Ashmore Russan formed a project of writing a story upon the subject of orchid-collecting for the Boys' Own Paper, he applied to Messrs. Sander, of St. Albans, the great importers of orchids, for special information.  They referred him to Mr. Frederick Boyle, as one who had travelled in many lands where those plants flourish, who grows them, as an amateur, with unusual success and publishes much about them.  Mr. Boyle had no time to take an equal part in writing the story, but he consented to advise, direct, and in general to lend his assistance.  The outline of the tale is his, and for all statements therein, historical, local or scientific, Mr. Boyle is responsible.  It naturally happened, since he was treating of scenes he had himself beheld, of peoples and individuals he had himself known, that he found it necessary to take the pen from Mr. Russan's hand and write a few lines here and there.  But in general he confined himself to his functions of director and critic.  It will be understood, after this explanation, that the tale rests on a solid basis of fact all through."

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Sarawak Stories 1 : in which I am introduced to leech socks

We flew from Singapore's busy airport into Kuching (capital of the state of Sarawak, in Malaysian Borneo) by Air Asia, a remarkably well run budget airline.  Kuching airport was smaller but busy as well.  All our baggage was x-rayed on arrival and then we found ourselves outside - in the bright tropical sunlight, looking for the hotel taxi.  We didn't have very far to look.  There was only one man with a large sign - a jovial, chatty driver (Mr. Soh) who effortlessly loaded the bags and us into a large, gleaming white van.

Our destination was the Lime Tree Hotel - a zesty little hotel, done in white and lime green, perched at the edge of Chinatown, about two blocks away from the river.  By the time we reached, it was already afternoon.  The sun was blazing down from a partly cloudy sky.  We strolled around a few streets of Chinatown, trying to get our bearings.  Cats of various shapes and sizes - real and models- stared at us.  Kuching (which means 'cat' in the local language) is full of fairly well-kept cats.

We ate some steamed buns for lunch and drank an iced coconut milk drink, which was quite refreshing.  After a little rest, we decided to walk towards the river front and buy some things for our forthcoming rainforest trip.

Malls are a big deal in Kuching.  The first thing everyone tells you about is the latest mall that has come up and where it is located.  Kuching is a city of about one million people and it looks, on the whole, quite clean and prosperous.  The only hazard here is trying to cross roads, but coming from India, it was a relief to feel that one could actually attempt to cross roads without getting run over or horned out.  The traffic moved swiftly and silently.  We also discovered, over time, that though this is one of the larger cities of Malaysia, it is also an incredibly friendly, relaxed and honest place.  "Everyone knows everyone else," a shopkeeper told us one day, "We cannot afford to cheat our customers."

We had only one evening in this city before we left for the rainforest, so a little checking on the internet provided the name of a mall which might have - leech socks.  Leech socks, which we had been looking for in Singapore and India, had eluded us so far.  This mall was not far from our hotel (in fact most places of interest were walking distance), so we headed there.

The mall, like many parts of the city, was Christmasy and busy (Sarawak has a large tribal belt and most of the local tribes have been converted to Christianity.  The Muslim population here is much less that in other parts of Malaysia).  Within the mall, there was only one shop which stocked leech socks - Greek's Outgear's Discovery.  A visit to this shop (which was fairly well stocked with outdoor gear) revealed that there were indeed leech socks available - in two styles.  We went up to look at what these might be - and they turned out to be large, shapeless green stockings with bits of elastic.  We could easily have got them off some of the Christmas trees, had we but known.  The style we preferred had only one piece left and my friends generously allowed me to buy this.  They purchased the second, inferior model, wondering all the time whether this would work at all.  Only time would tell..

We then proceeded to the basement, to a supermarket, and bought an array of small snacks to keep us going - fried local beans of different kinds, fried anchovies (very popular here), shrimp wafers, rice and sesame seed crackers - and from a fruit seller, a big bag of Mandarin oranges, all the way from China.

We walked down the river front, which was cheery and festive - full of smells of food, sounds of hawkers and sights of bright lights, prettily strung.  We ate in Hong Kong Noodles - a restaurant close to our hotel, which served delicious Chinese (or Malaysian-Chinese) food - stir fried greens, large prawns with a buttery curry flavour and a fish curry that was chunky and spicy.  Then we walked back to the hotel and I fell asleep almost immediately, dreaming of the rainforest that we would see the next day.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

A Short Visit To Singapore

We have been on the road for about two weeks, a journey that began and ended in Singapore.  Our main destination was Sarawak - a state in Malaysian Borneo.  Singapore is a convenient hub for low cost airlines that fly between the two countries.  Besides, we had friends in Singapore (our primary reason to visit this part of the world) and so we set out, looking forward to spending some time in this warm, wet clime.  The winter monsoon had set in but it rarely rains for more than an hour a day in Singapore.  The common joke here is that there are only two seasons in Singapore - indoors and outdoors.  This is really not funny when one experiences it, for most buildings are air-conditioned and are really cold and as soon as one steps out, a warm blast of air hits you; this constant change is very disconcerting.  I think the island could save a considerable amount of energy and money just by raising the temperature on their thermostat settings.

We spent our little time in Singapore mainly in the company of friends, catching up on work and news.  They took us to some very nice places to eat - food is certainly a highlight of this country.  The amount of tasty, fresh and affordable food here is incredible and unique.  We ate all kinds of things especially assorted seafood, which we don't often get in India.  Singapore is known for its 'chilly crab' and there is a string of restaurants along the coast that highlight this preparation.  We have never found this to be an exceptional concoction; this time however, we discovered 'pepper crab', which really was outstanding.

I also enjoyed eating the Chinese food, another cuisine that is hard to come by in India (except the Indianized version).  We had dinner one evening in a mainland China restaurant (part of a chain that actually exists in China) and it was so interesting to see and taste several of the things that I had only read about in books.  To me the food was very satisfying because, like Indian food, there was a range and diversity that covered seasons, tastes, styles and flavours.  There were delicate subtle dishes, strong, hearty ones and in-betweens.  Things were steamed, stir-fried, deep-fried, slow-cooked, smoked and one could select a combination that suited one's appetite or mood.  I also appreciated the high level of art involved in cutting, slicing, shredding different foods before they were cooked.  This is also emphasized in traditional Indian cooking, but not to these high standards, and I feel we are slowly losing this skill and knowledge in India.

Orchard street - the main tourist shopping area was packed, and not just with tourists.  Several of Singapore's large, famous malls are here and they had all put on a good show for Christmas.  The air was festive, the lights were strung, the roads jammed at all times of the day with shoppers.  I like to visit Takashimaya, the Japanese giant, for they invariably have an interesting set of kitchen appliances and often very unusual and usable crockery, from Japan.  This time I bought a small set of porcelain plates in a soft blue and grey pattern with matching chopstick holders.  Perhaps this will motivate me to try some more recipes from my Chinese cookbooks!

Holland village is another popular destination amongst tourists, expats and locals, but different people head to different sections in this area.  There is a bustling local market and a row of oriental restaurants on one side.  In another quieter lane are located slightly fancier restaurants, an Italian bakery and three stores selling kitchen equipment and supplies.  My interest, of course, lay in these shops, which stock an incredible array of equipment, ingredients, books and knick-knacks for the kitchen.  Much of it is not affordable or practical for me to buy but I like to look around and generally find something small that I need to pick up for my kitchen.

That is about all I did in Singapore on this visit.  Given more time I would have liked to visit the Botanical Gardens (especially their beautiful orchid section), see some of the museums, contact a few more people, but that will have to wait. We came in and left via Changi Airport - possibly my favourite airport amongst those I have visited.  They have an excellent hotel for transit visitors, advance reservations are required to book the rooms here and one can book a room by the hour.   There are lots of interesting shops, plenty of good food and a nice wine selection.  I have never come across any other airport where the prices of everything (all that I could make out) are exactly the same as the prices in town.  The official are helpful, immigration desks have bowls of sweets placed on them (and the immigration officer actually offered me one)!  A very tourist-friendly spot to relax, spend a little time - and money!

The only thing that saddened me was watching lots of elderly people hard at work, generally doing menial jobs.  There seems to be no pension system in place for the locals and traditional family set-ups seem to have disintegrated, leaving a lot of old people to fend for themselves.  This is perhaps a problem of recent origin (I do not know enough) and I hope the country looks into it in the years to come.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

A Day Of Discoveries

Bangalore is changing so rapidly that one even forgets to lament for the loss of old Bangalore ways, so caught up are we in trying to keep track of which roads have suddenly become one-ways, which shops have shut down and what real estate is changing hands.  This week was filled with particularly nice discoveries - exploring some different, new places and finding nooks and crannies where old Bangalore still survives.

Some days ago, I had a lot of miscellaneous shopping to do, so I left home early that morning.  I was headed to an old part of  Bangalore that was once on the outskirts but has now become premium commercial property.  This is the area called Malleshwaram; it has several old shops selling food, utensils, clothes and knick-knacks.  I had to buy some traditional sweets and this time I visited not an old, well known shop but a relatively new place (Maiya's), founded by the younger generation of a famous family of restaurant owners.  This is a modern set-up - glass walled and air-conditioned.  Fortunately, all else remains old-style (including the quality of recipes and service).  This means that when you ask for some sweets to be packed, you are invariably handed a few pieces 'to taste'.  The person serving you rattles off a list of the entire store's contents, hoping to tempt you into buying some more.  He then carries your packets to the billing counter and 'hands you over' to the cashier.  Outside, a smell of freshly brewed 'filter coffee' permeates; customers always have time to stand on the pavement and sip coffee from steel tumblers before they leave.

Also on Malleshwaram's busy and noisy roads, stand some old houses where people still live.  Many of the houses are now rented to commercial establishments or converted into apartment complexes.  But the houses which still exist invariably have some old occupants and on early mornings one can spot them wandering around their gardens, exchanging news with other neighbours or vendors.  This is a sight one rarely sees as the day wears on - perhaps it is too noisy outside or perhaps people get involved in other work.  This morning, I saw several elderly people lingering around, happily immersed in conversation.  I especially enjoyed watching a feisty old woman peering over her garden wall, animatedly talking to an elderly gentleman on the street, who was nodding at periodic intervals, unable to get a word in!

My next stop was a new organic food shop (Buffalo Back) which has a small and eclectic selection of organic foods.  (Apparently Bangalore has the largest number of organic food stores in the country.  Fortunately, these are not chains but individually-owned stores, with a diverse selection of food.)  This particular shop keeps whole organic milk (which has only recently become available in the city), good organic spices and a particularly tasty popcorn.  The popcorn is made with a tiny, local variety of corn and is served without any seasoning.  It makes a good snack for those in between moments.  This morning they also had a basket of small custard apples which looked like they had just been picked.  Very different from the large variety one sees in the shops.  I bought a bagful of these as well.

The next destination was to an American grill store (Weber) - something very new for us and not unwelcome.  We have a long tradition of cooking with wood, charcoal and dried cow dung cakes, but this is no longer viable - environmentally or physically (given the small, enclosed houses of the cities).  While a lot of work has been done in changing the designs of wood fired stoves, these cooking units are mostly developed for industrial or rural markets.  Therefore, having one's own kit of things for home use (something Americans are very good at generating) is very welcome.

I meandered quite a bit while trying to find the store, as the Google map was not very accurate.  In this process, I discovered a tiny lane that led nowhere, with a pretty looking sign in cursive writing, 'Wedding Planners.'  Next to it was an obviously flourishing florist.  I turned back and walked along the parallel street (Haudin Road), which eventually reached the main road opposite Ulsoor lake.  At the corner was a pleasant old house converted into a restaurant (Naachiyaar's).  I stopped to ask for directions and was greeted in the typical Bangalore style of easy, polite familiarity.  I know an old Bangalorean when I see one, and the man in charge of the counter was one such soul.  He gave me clear directions ("Just here, Madam", which is the correct and unfailing answer).  I, in turn, asked what kind of food they made and how long it took to get a take out parcel.  On learning that most things took only ten to fifteen minutes, I promptly launched into a discussion about what I could order (there doesn't seem to be much point in pondering over menus in this kind of a place).  This is a Chettinad restaurant (serving food of the Chettiars - the traders of Tamil Nadu.  Their cuisine is rich in spices and influenced by places the traders would visit, especially eastern Asia).  The cook, who seemed to be hovering somewhere at the back, ambled up and explained what exactly they meant by 'thick curry' as opposed to 'thin curry' and 'dry fry' and I selected some prawns.  I ordered, settled the bill (a very small amount) and headed out.

The grill store was interesting with helpful staff, but all those imported American things were only on display!  However, they reassured me that whenever I needed something, they would make them available at a suitably located dealer or deliver them to my house.  It was interesting to see some of the designs and the accessories and I handed them a small list of requirements.  Though I haven't tried the system yet, everything looks well made, so I hope to be able to grill and smoke and roast food outdoors, on my terrace soon.

I returned to the restaurant and, sure enough, a plastic bag lay waiting for me.  There was no one to check the receipt or ask who had come to collect the food.  The cook had presumably returned to the kitchen.  I took the packet home and opened it out.  There, lined with fresh banana leaves, was my lunch - soft parottas, still warm, and a large number of prawns in a ginger-black pepper ("medium hot", which was the mildest of their preparations!) masala with a bag of thin, ubiquitous gravy on the side.  The prawns were fiery and delicious and went down rather fast!  It was a relief to eat reasonably-priced food that was well cooked and not loaded with red chilly powder.

While I enjoyed these discoveries, I found later, after talking to people, that everyone has a different view.  As with most experiences, these are highly subjective and depend on who one meets, what one does and sometimes, even - the time of day!  But I had a wonderful time, and I will probably re-visit these places in the near future.

Friday, November 16, 2012

The Marvellous Maillard Reaction

One of the perks of cooking is being able to smell all the delicious smells that emanate as the food cooks.  This is often more satisfying than actually eating the food; one gets saturated after a few hours of just sniffing and tasting.  I recently discovered that several of the aromas produced during baking or roasting are caused by chemical reactions between amino acids and sugars, broadly classified as the Maillard reaction.  This array of chemical reactions was discovered by the French scientist, Louis Camille Maillard as part of his PhD thesis (discovered in 1912 and published in 1913).  The reactions describe how amino acids (components of proteins) react with reducing sugars (generally found in carbohydrates).  The catalyst is often heat (provided when we begin cooking foods) and the specific reaction depends on the kind of reactants, the pH, the temperature, the water and fat content etc.

The result is a browning (which is different from caramelization) and the formation of many different molecules which have specific aromas and flavours.  These molecules can break down into other smaller molecules (each with different properties of smell and taste); thus a gamut of flavours and textures can be created.  The Maillard reaction is partly responsible for the range of brown colours (formed by compounds called melanoidins) and roasted flavours of many breads, cookies, cakes, beers and popcorn.

I did not realize how important these reactions would become in my life until I began using my cast iron pans regularly.  Of course, these reactions have always been going on in the kitchen, but I did not give them much thought and never dreamt that so many changes would belong to just one family of reactions.  I began to pay more attention to the appearance and smell of food when I bought a book on artisanal breads by Peter Reinhart and began to experiment with a different kind of baking.  These breads are made with very wet dough that is fermented slowly overnight and baked at high temperatures in a moist environment, to give rise to a distinctive outer brown crust and inner open crumb.  The moisture in the dough, the surface tension and aeration are all important as is the temperature at which it will be cooked.  I had to experiment with several different conditions to get a good loaf.

Subsequently Smokey Joe (a small turquoise blue charcoal grill) entered my life and for a while I did not know what to do with it.  In order to understand the process of grilling and barbecuing, I bought a book written by an Argentine chef, Francis Mallman.  This book is titled 'Seven Fires, Grilling The Argentine Way' and it describes seven different ways of applying heat in order to grill foods (and improvised versions for people who do not have access to traditional Argentine grills and large open spaces).  Much of the cooking is done using direct heat of different kinds or in very hot cast iron pans.  I recently began with the simplest possible dishes - crusty potatoes and charred tomatoes, both of which tasted wonderful.  This was largely because while I was throwing in the ingredients, standing back and waiting, the Maillard reaction was doing its stuff - producing crisp, brown, delicious crusts on the outside and leaving the inside tender.

For me, this is a new way of thinking about heat and ingredients - trying to get a perfect roasted or slightly charred surface without burning it, trying to gauge when food is ready by its smell and appearance, trying to retain the lightness and freshness of the food (that is so easily lost on overcooking even slightly).  Of realizing the wonders of high heat, when used in controlled ways.

I am indeed indebted to this wise French scientist and to many chefs and cooks who perfected this art over the years.  Of course, the process does not end here, one can create endless variations by tweaking these reactions.  Molecular Gastronomy is exploring these aspects in academic and commercial ways while home cooks like me are discovering a new way of enjoying the results of this chemistry.

I have no pictures of my attempts at grilling as yet.  I am attaching here some pictures of my experiments with different kinds of breads.  As I have mentioned in an earlier blog, it is unfortunate that I cannot attach the smells as well!

Monday, November 12, 2012

Do Yogis Dream Of Lycric Shorts?

This poem emerges after myriad experiences - reading the April 2012 issue of Vanity Fair (which describes new American yoga empires being set up in the name of famous Indian gurus), watching new yoga schools, styles and stores mushrooming in our neighbourhood and pondering over Patanjali's ancient Yoga Sutras.

This poem was written on the eve of the festival of lights and I wish all my blog readers a happy Deepavali (Diwali).  Interestingly, the word guru means 'one who leads you from darkness to light' (gu - darkness, ru - light).

The title of the poem is inspired by Philip K. Dick's novel "Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?"

Do Yogis Dream Of Lycric Shorts?

I read a hand-me-down issue
Of Vanity Fair, two-oh-one-two
Of Yoga schools, apparel new
From Texas down to Timbuktoo
And in my mind arose these thoughts,
"Do Yogis dream of lycric shorts?"

The Brand Ambassadors look so strong
Well tanned, with their hair rather long
"Try our Yoga," they all proclaim,
"Be part of our new branded name."
As I read this, my mind retorts,
"Do Yogis dream of lycric shorts?"

Neon signboards that glow next door
Announce a brand-new Yoga store
Urge you to stop and give a thought
To Yogic gifts that must be bought.
(The things that Yogis really sought
Did they include new lycric shorts?)

I took a journey in my mind
To try and see what I might find,
Dredged up a Yogi I had met
Asked him if he would like to get
A brand new pair of lycric shorts
He smiled at me and said, "Why not?"

"Really," I asked, "What would you do?
If I got a pair for you?"
"I'd give them to a needy soul,
This world is hard and takes its toll.
Creates the haves and the have-nots
Invents Yogis and lycric shorts."

A twinkle in his eye appeared
He stroked a non-existent beard
Said, "Dreams in dreams - they matter not
We aren't Yogis - and these aren't shorts.
We can but try and still the mind
Not hurt others and just be kind.

In our dreams or our wakened state
Hope that our thoughts may soon abate.
Our actions, guided by our souls,
Do not conform to chosen roles.
And when the mind is free of thoughts
There is no I, there are no shorts."

Friday, November 9, 2012

Aimless In The Airport

A late night finishing odds and ends combined with an early morning flight that is successively delayed without intimation, is enough to ensure surreal airport experiences.  No hallucinogenic substances are required to induce that feeling of free floating while still being on firm land.  I drifted through the check in counter with loads of time to spare, wafted gracefully through security without the customary alarm at seeing long queues, then found myself in Bangalore's relatively new terminal with several hours to kill.

It was not as difficult a task as it sounds.  Impaired abilities make it considerably easier to while the hours away.  One needs to look at everything many times over and then jog those neural connections to understand exactly what the eyes are seeing or the ears hearing.  Apart from resisting the temptation to curl up on one of the chairs and fall asleep, I had an easy time of it.  There was one difficult moment, I confess.  A casual glance at a giant wall clock gave me a sudden nasty jolt; I felt I had missed the flight announcement (and the flight) to Delhi - but soon I realized that that particular clock was set to Hong Kong time.  Pretty tricky, all this hi tech, free floating information.

Some of my time was spent browsing in the airport bookshop.  As I was taking so long at every shelf, the sales people offered me a stool, upon which I gratefully sank, and continued my perusal of cookbooks.  Fifty Favourite Karela Recipes - hmmm.  I wondered who would want to eat so much bitter gourd.  Of course, it turned out to be Kerala not Karela, but I had spent a few interesting minutes pondering over this.  The next shelf was labelled 'Self Improvement'.  How I longed to pick up a large number of these books and pass them on to the Air India counter.  But there were other things to do.  Thoughts of food had unconsciously made me hungry.  I surveyed the options.

I decided against the sandwiches and the ready to go meals.  There were two 'live counters' which looked promising.  One was a dosa counter and I peered over the edge of the wooden framework to watch the chef deftly pouring out the batter, which sizzled on the skillet.  Late nights have unfortunate effects on the digestive tract and the thought of eating this dosa with spicy chutney and sambar was not to my liking.

I moved on to the pasta bar which was making omelettes at this hour.  The chef there beat a couple of eggs effortlessly, swirled them into a pan, added onion-tomato-green chilly and flipped them.  A part of the mixture fell on the floor.  I watched with rapt interest.  As he made no attempt to retrieve the fallen out egg, I concluded that hygiene levels were good here.  (I also internally sympathized with him.  I have had my own flipping problems on days.)

I ordered an omelette without green chilly.  "Madam, choose your bread and toast it," the chef instructed.  My eyes widened - a choice of white and brown bread!  I toasted one slice of each.  My omelette meanwhile was ready (perfectly flipped).  I sat at a small table and surveyed it.  It was teeming with tiny slices of green chilly.  Oh well, just another of those tests of Life and Character.  I endeavoured to eat my omelette with relish (the mental kind) and, to a large extent, succeeded.  Physically, I ate it with Kissan's Fresh Tomato Ketchup from a small sachet.  The brown bread was pleasant.  The white bread was exactly the same as the Modern Bread of the seventies - the same tasteless, textureless slices that I remembered; this induced a tremendous feeling of nostalgia and thankfulness that I no longer had to eat this everyday.

I looked around at fellow passengers interestedly.  My mind roamed at random, making up possible stories about the origins of these people.  Hmm - software engineer, land owner, politician, Usha Uthup...  Here my mind came to a standstill.  Was that plump figure dressed in an orange and pink saree with armloads of silver bangles really the popular Indian 'crooner' (as she is called), who has sung in an amazing number of languages - or was it just a dream?  I looked carefully a few more times.  Not many people could carry off that saree - and also get through metal detectors with all those accessories.  Yes, it was indeed Usha Uthup (or a startling look alike).  I wondered if I should take a picture, then decided to be safe and desist.  There was a call for Kolkata passenegers and she drifted away.  I wondered what she was here for.  Perhaps she was promoting the next Super Singer Junior T.V. show. I thought of one of her popular songs - a new version of 'Dum Maro Dum' ; this only added to the general whacky atmosphere that had built up.  (Just for information, the link to the original song is given below.)

Next on the agenda - tea?  I debated this issue for a while then decided against it.  I had had enough previous tea thing troubles.  Decided to go on a longish stroll instead, from end to end of the terminal.  Left the white bread for the sparrows (Bangalore airport is perhaps the only one with sparrows living inside the terminal).  There used to be lots of them flocking to the restaurant area but now I just see them sitting on signboards.  Perhaps they are wary of passengers who try to feed them white bread.

I walked for a while until the flight was announced - the new Air India Dreamliner.  Sounded like just what the doctor had recommended.  I managed to make my way along with hundreds of others, into the gargantuan craft, to find someone sitting on my seat.  He obligingly agreed to get up after I had showed him my boarding pass.  I sighed to myself as I sat down.  It was reassuring that even with new aircrafts and airports, some things never changed.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Mexican Food For The Soul And Stomach

Some time ago, I received by registered mail, all the way from Mexico, a giant pictorial cookbook called 'Mexico The Beautiful Cookbook' (recipes by Susanna Palazuelos).  It was sent by a family friend who had visited India and with whom I had several enjoyable conversations on food.  This book is part of a series of 'The Beautiful Cookbooks' that run along the lines of the Time Life food books but they are less academic, more glossy and picture-filled.  This does not mean that they lack content - they are replete with information on the geography and history of a country and how these relate to its culinary trends.

This book contains a range of recipes, classic and contemporary.  It makes for good reading and even better experimenting (inevitably I cannot find several of the ingredients mentioned so I need to periodically substitute or delete some).  The style of narration is relaxed, lively with a touch of humour and the pages are filled with the colours of Mexico - vivid blues, greens, whites, yellows, browns - as much a feast for the eyes and mind as for the stomach!

I quote below some descriptions of Mexican food and drink that are mentioned in the book:

"Atole made from the treasured cacao bean was reserved only for the noblemen of Moctezuma's court, who drank it from special gold ceremonial cups.  The women  were served their atole flavoured with chia and a topping of chile.  Oaxaca is especially famed for its chocolate, which is sold in all of its markets.  It does good to pay heed to the time-proven advice "Ni amor recomenzado ni chocolate recalentado" ("Neither rekindle a love affair nor reheat chocolate")."

"Horchata is another culinary adventure, having its roots in the Arab world, where it was first made from the ground tiger nut.  Brought to the New World by the Spanish, horchata first appeared as a popular drink on the Yucatan  peninsula.  This Oxacan version uses milk instead of water and sometimes includes fruit of a local cactus for a pink colouring or a few almonds for flavour."

"The term "cocktail" is said to have originated in Mexico.  According to a widely accepted story, British naval crew used to gather to fortify themselves at a favourite tavern in Campeche.  While most liquors were drunk straight, at times, the English preferred their tot of rum mixed with other ingredients, which were then stirred with a small wooden spoon.  One day an enterprising waiter, being out of these spoons, used pieces of thin, smooth roots of a plant known as "tail of the cock" because of its peculiar shape.  The name "cock's tail" caught on and by the end of World War I these drinks were the rage of England, Europe and the U.S. nightclub set.  The best known in Mexico is the margarita, first made in a Chihuahua bar."

"Huevos "Rabo de Mestiza" - No one seems to know how it got its name, but "in rags and tatters of the daughter of a Spaniard and an Indian" is the very loose, unliteral meaning given to this hearty dish of poached eggs that dates back to the early days of the Spanish conquest."

"Jicama con Pina - This botana (snack) is a refreshing variation of the traditional Jaliscan pico de gallo ("rooster's beak") made with jicama (yam bean), oranges and chile piquin.  Since jicamas are available in the wintertime, they are a harbinger of the Christmas season.  The smallest, crispest ones are combined with candies, peanuts, tangerines, sugar cane and small toys and stuffed into pinatas."  (A pinata is a jar or pot suspended from the ceiling at festive occasions.  People take turns at being blindfolded and trying to break the pot using a stick).

Thursday, October 25, 2012

To Pickle Green Peppercorns

Many local markets here have one shop selling what can only be termed miscellanea.  These shopkeepers look askew when one asks if they stock the onion-potato kind of vegetables, they refuse to have anything to do with fresh greens and are uninterested in exotic imported vegetables.  Instead, they display an assorted collection of small pickings of the season.  Things like fresh, pale yellow turmeric, new ginger in its wafer-thin skin, green mangoes for pickles, bitter orange, mango-ginger or large red chillies for chutneys.  Shopping at these stalls is tricky for you never find the same selection twice and it's impossible to complain about quality or price for lack of comparison.  But it's also quite a treat see the assorted collection and to be able to buy something unusual; a reminder of things that we have forgotten about in our supermarket-driven shopping.

Last week, I was buying some stems of ginger, translucent and freshly dug out of the ground, when I spotted a cluster of green vines that I had not seen for over a decade.  Instinctively I reached out for them with a satisfied sigh.  A shopper next to me looked curiously and asked the vendor what that stuff was.  "Pepper," he said, picking up handfuls and dropping them on the weighing scale.  The lady turned away as I made an unsuccessful attempt at bargaining.

Green pepper!  Fresh from the hills south of Bangalore - seaweedy-green, zingy and almost alive, still clinging to the tender vines upon which it had grown.  The man spun some story about how he was already giving me a reduced price but it didn't really matter.  For he knew as well as I did that I had succumbed to their fatal attraction.

Green peppercorns are young peppercorns, at the stage before they ripen and turn black.  They have a short life span are therefore not often sold in markets.  These peppercorns lack the depth and fiery heat of the black ones, instead they possess a unique zesty piquancy.  The best way to preserve their flavour is by gently pickling them - without any strong oils, spices or additional flavouring.  I like to place them in a sterilized dry jar, cover them in freshly made and cooled brine mixed with a generous dose of fresh lemon juice.  I arrived at this recipe through a mixture of searches on the internet and by experimenting a little.  The specifics are not too important - the brine should be medium-salty and the lemon juice is added to taste.  The important thing is that all the peppercorns should be completely immersed in this mixture.

The pickle is ready to eat anytime (though it tastes better after a few days) and is stored in the refrigerator.  It's a translucent green in colour, reminding  me of happy sea creatures.  It goes well with most things - Thai curries as well as biscuits and Stilton!  It's something I can't buy anywhere and each time I help myself to a little, I resolve to visit those old miscellanea shops more often.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

India's Grand Old Man In Britain

This, I hope, is the last of my current blogs on East-West encounters as viewed from an eastern perspective.  Each time I put the idea out of my mind, something crops up to remind me of it.  In this instance, it was an editorial article in the Hindu yesterday, titled 'The Grand Old Man and his miscellanea', by Dinyar Patel.

The Grand Old Man refers to Dadabhai Naoroji (1825-1917), a multifaceted man - a Parsi priest, professor, businessman, politician, founder member of the East India Association, founder of the London Indian Society, London Zoroastrian Association and the Indian National Congress.  He travelled to London in 1855 to establish the first Indian company in England and once there, involved himself in trying to get the voice of India heard in Britain.  He was the first to express his views on how Britain was draining India's resources at a time when industrial, legal and civil reforms were essential for the country.  He was the first Asian to become a British Member of Parliament in the House of Commons (1892-1895) and the first Indian to claim self government for his country.

The article reconstructs a segment of his life in Britain based on his correspondence.  The complete article can be viewed at
I quote from it:

"The spring of 1901 was a moment of despair for Dadabhai Naoroji, then in residence in London. While struggling to secure a new constituency from where he could attempt to re-enter the British Parliament, the Grand Old Man had to contend with increasingly retrogressive Tory policies toward India and flagging spirits within the Indian National Congress. But on 24 April, Naoroji received news of a different yet equally troubling variety: his toilet was malfunctioning. “The plumber has done what he can to rectify the defects of the water waste preventer, & we regret that it is not now satisfactory,” FW Ellis, builder and estate agent in Upper Norwood, London, grimly informed him by post...

...Since Naoroji was the senior-most Indian resident in the United Kingdom, he was regularly consulted by his countrymen who travelled to the imperial metropole for study, work, or pleasure. There are literally thousands of letters in the Naoroji Papers from such Indians — documenting incidents of racism, financial trouble, or plain homesickness — and nearly all of them received a prompt and detailed reply from the Grand Old Man. Naoroji functioned as a guardian of sorts for many Indians in Britain. Around 1 am on 2 January 1891, for example, he was awakened by a telegram from a London police constable informing him that a ‘Mr. CK Desai’ was under arrest for public drunkenness and wanted Naoroji to bail him out of jail. Aside from such correspondence, there are reams of letters from concerned parents in India who asked Naoroji to keep tabs on their sons (and, increasingly, daughters), making sure that they were being financially prudent and not consorting with Englishwomen.

The Papers also provide an insight into how Naoroji and his fellow nationalists in London adapted and reacted to life abroad. In addition to collaborating on the formulation of various economic critiques of the Raj, Romesh Chunder Dutt used Naoroji as a character reference for securing his flat in Forest Hill in 1898. While Dutt eventually returned to India in 1903, his fellow Bengali, W.C. Bonnerji, the first president of the Congress, took to London so much that he and his family put down permanent roots there, purchasing a house in Croydon that they christened Kidderpore. The extent of their Anglicisation was evident when Naoroji in January 1893 invited the Bonnerjis to attend, in Indian attire, a function held in Central Finsbury to celebrate his election to the House of Commons. “I am extremely sorry to say that we have not an Indian dress in the house,” a family member responded.

Others dearly missed the staples of Indian life while in England. In January 1906, the radical nationalist Madame Bhikaiji Cama — staying with a family member in North Kensington — invited Naoroji and his grandchildren over for a Sunday ‘Parsee lunch,’ an offer the Grand Old Man must have leapt at given the boiled and bland fare otherwise on offer in London. Some cultural adjustments were easier. Although in his sixties and seventies, Naoroji appears to have taken a fancy to English sports. He was the president of the football club in his parliamentary constituency, Central Finsbury, and the vice-president of a north London cricket club. A tantalising clue about Naoroji’s affinity for the gentleman’s game is offered by his campaign secretary, who in 1895 wrote to Naoroji that, “One would really imagine you to be a God of Cricket.”
But there was one great cultural challenge in Britain that Naoroji had great difficulty in surmounting: people just could not spell his name correctly. In newspapers, posters, and his incoming mail, the Grand Old Man was addressed by creative variants such as Dedabhan Naorji, Devan Novoriji, and Dadabhai Nowraggie. Matters improved slightly once his campaign secretary suggested that he simply go by ‘D. Naoroji.’ After he won election to Parliament by a mere five votes, he was frequently referred to as ‘Dadabhai Narrow-Majority,’ which was presumably easier to remember and spell.
While mastery of English was a challenge to some upwardly-mobile Indians, deciphering one another’s handwriting was a headache shared by all. I have probably done serious damage to my own eyesight by trying to make sense of the scribbles found in the Naoroji Papers. Understanding them was evidently a challenge to the original recipients over a century ago. Naoroji occasionally admonished Behramji Malabari, the prominent Parsi journalist and social reformer, to write neatly. William Wedderburn, one of the British stalwarts in the early Congress, grumbled to Naoroji in August 1891 that he could not read letters from Dinsha Wacha, the longtime Congress general secretary (“But you must not tell him this,” he added). And Allan Octavian Hume, while attempting to go through a draft of Naoroji’s presidential address to the 1893 Lahore Congress, confessed to Naoroji that “your handwriting is rather hard to read.” Perhaps it is appropriate that, toward the end of his life, Naoroji helped fund a bright Maharashtrian inventor, Shankar Abaji Bhise, who was working on new models of typewriters."

Thursday, October 18, 2012

An Indian Mathematician Visits Cambridge

Strangely, as I dwelt on stories of Indians visiting the west in the past few days, I was suddenly re-introduced to a real story by a chance email.  It is a story we know well in India - that of the mathematical genius Srinivasa Ramanujan and his collaboration with the Cambridge mathematicians, Hardy and Littlewood.  But I realized that it is not a story that everyone knows.

Ramanujan, an accounting clerk in Madras (Chennai) began a mathematical correspondence with G.H. Hardy in Cambridge in January 1913.  The result of this exchange was that Ramanujan was invited to visit Cambridge and, after much thought, he sailed westward in 1914.  He spent about four years there, during which he produced unusual and inspired work.  He was elected to the London Mathematical Society in 1917.  Soon after, he became a fellow of the Royal Society and a fellow of Trinity College.  His mathematics continued at a furious and prolific pace despite the war and his own ill health.

The story has no fairy tale endings, but it is a remarkable and enduring one.  A very well made film has been uploaded on youtube, in four small parts, about Ramanujan, his life and experiences.  I am giving the link below.  It puts Ramanujan's work in a social, historical and academic context (through his letters and a series of conversations with people who knew him or his work or environment) in a very interesting manner.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Inspector Ghote Goes To London

Quite by chance, I was reading H.R.F. Keating's 'Inspector Ghote Hunts The Peacock' last week (when I saw the film 'English Vinglish').  In this book (published in 1968), Keating looks deep into the heart and mind of Inspector Ghote during Ghote's first visit to London.  And this is what he discovers:

"...Cautiously he (Inspector Ghote) made his way down to the Tube platform.  The train, when he got into it, was immensely crowded, but the mass of people seemed infinitely more orderly than those of the similar morning rush in Bombay.  Even in the very closest proximity they contrived to ignore each other with magnificent calm.  He felt proud of them.
   It was at about this time that he became fully aware of his first live mini-skirt.  In the preoccupation of making sure he got on the right train going in the right direction he had had eyes for nothing but illuminated notices.  Then he had been too jammed tight to see anything.  But now as the train cleared a little, he found himself looking straight down the long carriage at two girls with skirts showing four long plump stretches of nylon-covered leg above four soft rounded knees.
   For perhaps two minutes he regarded the phenomenon earnestly.  Then he found that his mind was made up.  He did not approve.
   But already the station names were getting dangerously near to the ones immediately before the Bank, where his briefing had told him to alight.  He concentrated his fullest attention on being absolutely ready to jump from the train the moment it reached his destination.
   He made it with colours flying.
   He negotiated the tricky circular exit from the station without a hitch.  Out in the street, he paused long enough to be absolutely sure he had got his bearings and then set off following the directions in his briefing, happily confident that he was not putting a single foot wrong.
   He found each turning exactly where he expected it to appear.  He noted with a comforting feeling that the walk from the Tube to Wood Street was taking not a moment longer than he had thought likely.  He spotted a tall, strikingly modern building that he guessed would be the newly built police station which the briefing had described well before he got to it.  And when he arrived at the broad flight of entrance steps, sure enough they proved to be those of the building itself.
   The only trouble was that he had arrived one hour and twenty seven minutes too early.

Ghote walked hastily round the corner so that no one coming out of the building should spot him as a conference delegate who had made the mistake of turning up so ridiculously long before necessary.  And there he stood and considered.
   For a minute or two he pored over the pages of his newspaper-covered guide.  And, yes, he should be able to do it.  From where he was standing it could not be more than fifteen minutes' walk to the Tower of London...

...The huge black and grey walls rose up massively in front of him.  Beyond them the pinnacled inner towers stood out  against the softly grey sky.  Which one of them was the Bloody Tower, he wondered.  Never mind.  When he made his proper visit he would find out for certain and savour its rich associations to the utmost.
   For a brief moment he caught a glimpse on a high inner gallery of a Beefeater, a sudden richly coloured figure lighting up the sombreness all around.  And, he thought, in due time he would see such figures by the dozen.  And the ancient ravens that haunted the place.  And the very axe under which Queens had bowed their necks.  And the glowing splendour of the Crown Jewels, symbols of the proud and ancient monarchy of this proud and ancient land.
   He gazed and gazed.
   Yet, oddly enough, at the very moment when he got up to go back to Wood Street police-station, leaving himself a decently reasonable time for the return walk, he found suddenly that he was overwhelmed almost to drowning point, it seemed, by a totally unexpected and desperately acute attack of home-sickness.
   It was stupid, but abruptly he wanted to be back in India.  He wanted the brightness, the noise, the easy-goingness.  He wanted, he found to his simple astonishment, to be standing looking at peacocks.
   Peacocks.  Nothing else.  He wanted to see the gaudy plumage, the bright, light-reflecting jewel colours of the proud birds.
   He shook his head angrily.
   What nonsense was this?"

Sunday, October 14, 2012

The English Vinglish In My Blog Vlog

The recently released Hindi film,'English Vinglish', about a woman who cannot speak English and her experiences when she reaches America, is proving to be a big hit in India.  This is not surprising for many can relate to it - those who find themselves in a changing world where English is a requirement or those who reach the US and encounter moments of extreme rudeness and unexpected sensitivity.

It is a good attempt to bring these aspects together and one wonders why such movies have not been made earlier.  The characters are well developed and thoughtfully drawn out (especially the ones with smaller roles) and all the actors are very convincing.  Sridevi, of course, is superb (much better than in many of her previous, glamourized roles) and the film really revolves around her.  The plot begins excellently and has tremendous promise but seems to lose course mid-way.  Though the story could have taken many interesting directions, it tends to drift towards overly sentimental, spiel-filled scenes.  This is unfortunate, for several reasons.

The primary reason is that the movie contains more than a grain of truth and a lot of women around the country relate to it.  It would have been good to have seen a little more spirit and activity packed in.  This is especially true of Manhattan (where the film is set), which is an amazing kind of place.  This is a place filled with people from all over the world with different income levels, an area where streets change character rapidly and distinctly as people shuffle in and out.  An Indian, saree clad lady is bound to have adventures of all kinds while walking down the streets of New York.  (How I wish that Paul Gallico or H.R.F. Keating had been in charge of script writing!)

The second reason for wanting more from the film is because learning a new language (especially along with other students) is always an interesting experience.  Languages open new doors and the film could have explored this in a little more detail.

The third reason is that foreign countries are always mysterious - unexpected hurdles come up in the simplest possible forms.  Also, the life style of NRIs (Non Resident Indians) is a curious mix of Indian customs (as they remember them) thrown together with the conveniences and demands of their new surroundings.  In this case, Shashi (Sridevi's character) had much to offer her NRI sister but, unfortunately, this part of the story was not dwelt on in any detail.

Nonetheless, English Vinglish is a film worth watching.  It is a film that stays with you for a bit and offers plenty to think and talk about.

I am attaching below a link to the official trailer (with English subtitles).

I am also attaching a link to one of the songs (with the lyrics).  This is a catchy, lighthearted song in English and Hindi, with incredible words like 'Aflatoon' thrown in.  (Aflatoon is the Persian name for Plato, though it is now used colloquially in different ways.)

And finally - an explanatory note about the manner in which Hindi is spoken (for those unfamiliar with the language).  When the main word is followed by another apparently meaningless rhyming word, it is done to indicate that you are referring to things related with the first word, in a general sort of way.  For example, 'chai shai' would mean not just tea but a little snack and perhaps some gossip.  Similarly, 'English Vinglish' roughly means 'All Those English Things'.  A vague term but one that provides scope for discussing all kinds of things - a language, a way of thinking, a newspaper, an experience and more, as the film indicates.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Bangalore Food Festivals

Buttermilk served in the traditonal way
Popular Gujarati gramflour snacks

A delicious preparation with colacasia leaves
Every Friday, there are lots of restaurant advertisements in the newspapers.  Bangalore is hosting some interesting food festivals these days, many are too expensive for us but occasionally something worth while comes up.  I personally prefer cooking and eating at home but it's interesting to see a different place and to sit back and tuck into some food one would normally not make at home.

We generally prefer buffets because it's easy to try a range of food and we wait  each year for the St. Marks Hotel festivals.  They used to have two or three a year, but now it's reduced to the most popular one - a vegetarian Gujarati and Rajasthani food festival.  These are very different cuisines from distinct (though neighbouring) geographical regions.  Rajasthani food is geared towards a hot, harsh climate, with lots of ghee, chillies, local berries and herbs, solid breads and rich sweets.  Gujarati food is milder, with a hint of sweetness in many preparations, a large variety of pickles, curd based dishes, lots of peanuts, fenugreek leaves and sprouts and, in the summer, aam ras (a thick juice made of fresh mango pulp that is drunk on its own or eaten with poories).  I personally am not very fond of Rajasthani fare and quite like Gujarati food; my friends have different tastes.  So a mix of styles suited everyone.

It was a good spread, with tangy buttermilk to begin and lots of little fried snacks and pickles (in Gujarati style) - arbi (colacasia) leaves, stuffed, rolled up and fried in little spiral wheels, khandvi (steamed gram flour rolls), bowls of different kinds of sprouts.  There were khichris with ghee, spicy chaats and dals (from Rajasthan), Gujarati and Rajasthani kadis (curd thickened with gram flour), undhiya (one of my favourites - a mix of freshly harvested vegetables mixed in a clay pot which is buried in embers and cooked for a long time), all kinds of vegetable dishes with interesting flavours and the typical Rajasthani dal bati churma (very popular but not something I can eat much of!) - solid, unleavened wheat bread rolls served with lentils and a mix of crushed wheat that has been cooked with ghee and sugar and topped with more ghee!  There were also very nice little rotis (breads) made with different flours and the puffed, deep fried poories with aam ras, shreekhand (thick, sweet curd flavoured with cardamom) and plenty of sweets - the honeycomb like ghevar, thin, crisp jalebis, burfis, kheers of thickened milk and more.  A satisfying meal.  The only thing we could have done without was the Gujarat government's promotion tape playing constantly in the background, with Amitabh Bachchan (the Gujarat brand ambassador) humming and telling us of all the tourist destinations we could visit!  This was particularly irritating because both Gujarat and Rajasthan (and especially Rajasthan) have very nice folk music.

Beginning the meal
Sweet pickles, curd in clay bowls
Peanut and sprouted gram salads
Rajasthani Ghevar
Shreekhand (sweet, thickened curd) with saffron, nuts and cardamom
Last week, Citibank announced the second year of its annual 'Restaurant Week', an initiative to promote restaurants in Delhi, Mumbai and Bangalore.  One could sign up for a particular restaurant meal (at some popular and some fancy restaurants) and get a fixed price three-course meal, with a pre-decided menu.  I promptly signed up for it - everything was waitlisted and I thought this was yet another scam!  But, things worked out very smoothly- the waitlist cleared, the hotel called us and last Sunday we found ourselves at a frontier-food restaurant, Baluchi, at the Lalit Ashok hotel.

The menu was divided into three sections, and had sixteen dishes listed.  I assumed that we had to select from each section, but as it turned out, we were served everything!  It was a good menu, though, as generally happens, the vegetarian food was hotter and spicier than the non vegetarian.  This is an inexplicable phenomenon seen in most Indian restaurants.  We were served lots of delicious kebabs, leavened breads, some interesting curries, their special slow-simmered creamy black dal (lentils), a very nice salad and two strange looking but tasty desserts!

An unusual menu
A cold cheese starter
More starters!
Tender kebabs
The main course
Our dinner was made particularly enjoyable by a musical trio, who played and sang old Hindi film songs.  They did this with a certain dash and sense of complete enjoyment that soon spread to the audience.  The singer sang the peppy hits with gusto and the slow songs in a suitably sentimental fashion.  We were hearing these songs after a long time and the evening was not just about food, but one filled with applause, laughter and reminiscences.

Musicians singing our requested songs

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Unexpected Rains

Unexpected rains for a few days have brought out all the birds and insects once more.  The trees are full of huge butterflies and tiny birds, flitting or hopping about.  They come in search of water, and probably, other juicy little insects or flowers.

Orchids have opened and the sweet lime is in flower.

The air is thick with flying ants which head to the nearest light source, falling easy prey to spiders, crows and frogs who patiently at at these spots.  It's a pity these ethereal looking insects are so tasty!

A couple of days ago, a huge rat snake frightened all our downstairs neighbours away.  Probably its home was filled with water and it had briefly stepped out.  I was just grateful and relieved that a few snakes have survived the tremendous concrete-ization of the campus and hope that it manages to survive.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Beautiful Odissi Pictures

A continuation of my previous blog on the Odissi performance I attended a few days ago.  I did not mention in the last blog that as I sat watching the dancers and wondering how best I could capture the experience, I realized quite soon that my tiny camera would not serve the purpose.  I had to preserve the events of this evening in my mind and try and put them onto paper in some way.

As it turned out, quite by chance, there was a man seated next to me, professionally clicking away, and from the angle and timing of the camera clicks, I knew he was getting some good pictures.  Blogging makes one meet and talk to people one might not otherwise.  So, after some thought, I requested him to send a few pictures, if he didn't mind.  He kindly agreed and has, indeed, done so.  These are some very striking pictures of some very talented dancers, taken by Saroj Kumar Mishra during the 'September 2012 Dance Discourse' programme.

I am attaching a link to the set of pictures taken by him.  (If you click twice on the first image, you can see a full screen version of the set).

Monday, October 1, 2012

An Evening Of Odissi

Young Odissi dancers of Bangalore
Yesterday I braved the rain and the crowds to reach a small auditorium for an evening of Odissi dance. Odissi, a relatively newly acknowledged classical dance form (from the south-eastern state of Odisha), is one of my favourite Indian dances.  Though considered one of the oldest Indian dance forms, and initially a secular dance form, Odissi was confined to temples for many centuries and it only stepped out of this enclosure about seventy years ago.  This was largely due to the efforts of a handful of gurus, whose desire to dance to a general audience and to teach this in its pure, classical as well as folk-derived forms, overcame the restrictions that were imposed on who could dance Odissi and where.  Currently, Bangalore, despite its distance (geographically and culturally) from Odisha, has a high density of schools teaching Odissi.

In an attempt to battle the weekend traffic and ensure that I could locate the place, I found I had arrived an hour early and hovered around near the door for quite a while. As I was one of the first to enter, I managed to be seated right next to the stage, which I always enjoy, as one gets to see the musicians and the dancers (especially their feet movements) up close.  One also gets to see the deity (in this case, Lord Jagannath, a form of Vishnu, worshipped in Odisha).

Lord Jagannath, a form of Vishnu worshipped in eastern India

The evening's programme was an overview of some dance schools of Bangalore and began with the youngest - children who were six and older.  They were all good dancers and one got a glimpse of tremendous promise and talent especially from some of the smallest ones.  Odissi is a very exacting style (like most classical dances).  However, it is especially hard for young dancers, I think, because it is largely based on depicting ancient poems, mythology and scenes from the walls of wondrously carved Odisha temples.  To be able to narrate all this requires a certain depth, imagination and maturity apart from training and ability.  Certainly, the children are given simpler sequences, but I could discern a certain confusion in the older (perhaps teenage) dancers, which is not surprising.  I guess they are trying to discover their form and style.  My aim is not to dissect the dances closely and critically; I find it interesting to observe different movements of the dancers and think about how their styles emerge.

The end of a wonderful performance by students
I was able to take a few pictures, but I realized that flash photography was not allowed, so I have no more images of the subsequent programme.  However, pictures would probably not do justice to dance and so I attach older utube videos to illustrate what I felt during and after the programme.

Much of the dancing was done in the style of Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra, who had trained a lot of students from outside the state.  His is a slow, soft, sensual style with many stances where the dancer looks as though she might be frozen into or just emerging from the wall of a temple.  Interestingly, Guru Kelucharan's own style was different from that of all his students (whom I have seen).  His own emphasis was largely on narrating a story in as expressive a way as possible.  He sometimes added stories to existing old tales, to incorporate an extra layer of drama or movements, and he easily played more than one role at a time in an inimitable fashion.

Yesterday's programme began, as all dances do, with a Mangalacharan, a prayer to the gods (in Odissi, it would normally begin with mother earth and then proceed to Ganesha or Lord Jagannath (Vishnu), however modern dancers often leave out the earth element, as was done this evening - the cost of stylization and urbanization!).  But it was a nice beginning anyway.  I attach below a picture of the children doing Mangalacharan, followed by an old performance of Mangalacharan by Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra and a recent one by his daughter-in-law, Sujata Mohapatra.  Sujata's style is traditional too and it is the style which all his students have imbibed (this video is about eight minutes and you need not watch the entire dance if you are not inclined to; watching about half (unfortunately, it begins with an advertisement) will give you a general feel for the movements and how they differ from Guru Kelucharan's own movements).


The other guru whose presence was felt, in a tremendous solo performance (by one of the organisers, Madhulita Mohapatra) was Guru Deba Prasad Das.  I like his style for its earthiness and emphasis on strong expressions of moods.  In this case, Madhulita depicted a scene from the poem 'Geeta Govinda', an old erotic-mystical composition in the bhakti tradition (where Krishna (a form of Jagannath) is worshipped as a lover).  This will need a section (or a blog) in itself to describe, so I won't get into details here.  This dance was the highlight of the evening and had everyone on edge, watching Madhulita showing an abandoned lover's grief which ended with her sitting disconsolately on the stage, tears flowing down her face.

Just to depict Guru Deba Prasad's style, I add here a link to a dance sequence by another talented Bangalore-based dancer, Sarita Mishra.  In this snippet, she performs the beginning of Geeta Govinda, a description of different avataras of Jagannath as he appears on earth to vanquish arrogance or evil.  As you can probably make out from these performances, Odissi is a dance which has the potential to reach out and touch you - gently, enticingly or passionately, invoking happiness, sorrow, love or awe as the dance proceeds.
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