Saturday, March 31, 2012

Stationery Shops Don't Move

Premier bookshop closed down some time ago as its owner was unable to pay the high rent demanded. Now it's Gangaram's turn. The bookstore and stationery shop (owned by two brothers) are winding down; the bookshop may reappear but the stationery shop is unlikely to.

Stationery shops don't move, a friend of mine said. And I console myself with this small joke. Landlords are asking for 30 lakhs a month (that is 3 million rupees). I bumped into Atmaram (owner of Gangaram's Stationery) yesterday. I was walking towards his shop and he was walking away from it. Not forever, but just to deliver some books, as it was the last official working day of the year for him. I wanted his advice on publishing some of my books (he is a publisher too). He asked me to accompany him while he delivered his books so we could chat on the way.

Of course, these by the way conversations and invitations are forthcoming only in an old Bangalore spirit. And they are likewise accepted. For who else but old Bangaloreans would walk down, to the beginning of busy M.G. (Mahatma Gandhi) road that leads to the church grounds (where his car is parked) and spend the morning driving in the heat, delivering books? Why not get someone else to do it? And why accompany someone who has to do this kind of stuff? Utter lunacy, but there we were, driving down to the Governor's residence (where some books were off loaded amidst suspicious looking security agents) and then to the tiny, crowded lanes of Gandhinagar, where some more books were offloaded in officious government buildings. We celebrated the end of this assignment by drinking large amounts of fresh coconut water bought from a coconut vendor near M.G. road.

We spoke of this and that - the hazards of publishing, Atmaram's great desire to relax and retire (but will he do it?), the difficulty of finding people to take over a prosperous stationery store. The internet has made so many aspects of our lives redundant; a mere handful of people buy cards, wrapping paper and fancy stationery nowadays. Finding good staff is hard too. Inevitably, at some stage, these individualized stores wind down.

Who would pay so much in rent for a shop? I look around M.G. Road and wonder. Parking on the road is out of the question but with the new metro station just opposite, the area is quite accessible. Chain stores are doing well as are fast food restaurants and jewellery stores. Over time old Bangalore is being dumbed down, its nooks and crannies smoothened out by the impersonal hand of retail chains. An iron fist, well sheathed.

So, art stores are not artful enough, bookshops have no bookings and - stationery shops don't move. They just suddenly vanish.

P.S. I just read that Casa Picola, the Indian-Italian restaurant (which I didn't frequent, but plenty of people did, for decades) is winding down, for the same reason. And have just recalled that the wonderful old houses behind India Garage (which housed two or three generations of old Bangaloreans and some close friends) are going to be pulled down to make way for a spanking new mall. And Hesserghetta, a large water reservoir and surrounding grassland (where we used to swim or just sit or walk about), might be contracted out to companies to make a film theme park. Sigh! are we heading the right way?

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

The Kilim Fields

Not just kilims (a kind of flat carpet with geometric tapestry like weaves) but rugs and carpets too. Sheets of colour and pattern piled, strewn and hung all over a large, empty room. A fragment of central Asia in the midst of a Bangalore art gallery. It felt surreal, as though we were stepping back into time (some of the pieces were well over a hundred years old) and floating westward into space. It was a good thing the collector Danny Mehra and his niece, Seema, were around, to firmly bring us down to earth again, with details of dates, weaving styles, colours and prices. A very interesting collection (of which I'm sure we only saw a fraction), that might be auctioned at a subsequent stage in India.

Danny has a collector's eye and passion but is also happy to share his views and information in a pleasant and gracious manner with one and all. He says the carpets speak to him and we understand, for they speak to us as well, and to anyone who might care to listen. These are all tribal creations that emanate from a weaver's imagination. This makes each carpet unique and the hand, the eye, the mind and at times, the very soul of the weaver are reflected in the carpet. Some are amazingly complex and some amazingly simple.

In Danny's words:
"The end product is a visual story, full of icon and expressions. Flowers. Plants. Birds. Animals. Human figures. Mythical objects. Shamanistic symbols. You will find many things that will put a smile in your heart through an art form that you may not have experienced or explored before. You are invited to mingle with these woven stories."

It was an irresistible invitation. I'll let the pictures speak for themselves (though I was unable to capture the real colours and feel of the materials in these pictures).

Our final selection:

Friday, March 23, 2012

New Yoga Class In Mysore

Masterji, as our yoga teacher, is generally called, has moved from Bangalore to Mysore and his new yoga school is up and running. Masterji (or M.S. Viswanath) comes from Mysore and studied with his uncle, the eminent yoga teacher, Sri Pattabhi Jois, for many years. He is one of the few teachers to have learnt aspects of Ashtanga yoga rigorously from Pattabhi Jois over a long period. He is quite involved in teaching students yoga for their personal practice and also to enable them to teach others.

We just returned from a short trip to Mysore, partly for work and partly to meet Masterji once more. Mysore is always a wonderful change from the raucous, rushed city that Bangalore has evolved into. Mysore has also grown and expanded, but its sleepy, friendly air still remains and R.K. Narayan's descriptions still flood my mind as I drive through market places, enter ancient streets with old family names etched on houses and eventually find my way to Lakshmipuram, where the yoga studio is located.

It's not as large as the Bangalore set up but there is an air of purpose and a nice energy that emanates from the class. For me, it's always a joy to meet the teacher who has taught me so much about the practice of yoga. The landlord, a pleasant, middle aged man, trundles up for his daily yoga class along with the other students.

The weather is warm but there's a refreshing breeze and one hears the rustle of coconut leaves and occasional strains of music or vendors' calls from the streets below. There is very little traffic in this area and it's easy to get around with a two wheeler or, of course, with the ubiquitous autos (autorickshaws). It's a nice little set up and Mysore will probably remain a gentle, unhurried town for another decade or two before it catches up with the madness of Bangalore.

The address of the class is 946/1A-CH16, 2nd Floor, Behind Lakshmipuram Post Office Road (on the bylane left to Homkara internet café, next to Sri Hebbar’s house), Lakshmipuram, Mysore. Details can be obtained from

The class is not easy to locate from the address alone. The simplest way is to go past the Lakshmipuram post office until one sees a sign on the right, (put up on the wall of a house) for Masterji's yoga class. This sign is placed just before Homkara café. Near the sign, to the right, there is a small lane which one has to walk down. The studio is located a few houses down the lane, on the left, at the top floor of a house and it has a sign for Masterji's class.

There are some options to rent rooms in the area. However, it is easy to move around in Mysore and one can look for accomodation in our neighbourhoods as well. The rooms don't often come with food or cooking options, one has to make independent arrangements. Good food and a comfortable room are important to sustain one's practice so it's well worth looking at the options carefully before deciding. There are also lovely weekend possibilities for overnight trips from Mysore - to forests or hills or to a Tibetan settlement, if one has the energy to travel after a week of intensive yoga!

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Two New Sarees

My resolve not to buy any new sarees is a fragile one, easily broken, as yesterday indicated. It's not that I have an insatiable urge to buy clothes or de-stress by shopping. But the appeal of yards of beautifully woven material lies in the fact that I love colours and have a soft spot for craftsmen. Saree weaving, an art in itself, is a dying tradition as mechanized looms take over and high quality yarn becomes expensive. Besides, many people (even older women) no longer wear sarees in the larger cities; salwar kameez and western outfits are more popular. Even when sarees are worn as formal wear, Bollywood apparel seems to dominate. In many of the weddings I have attended over the past two years, many people (especially the bride and members of her family) choose thin materials which are embroidered and studded with stones and crystal. I find it inelegant. But this is what the public seems to prefer.

Anyway, when I read in the newspaper that Vimor (an old Bangalore saree shop) was having a sale titled 'From My Grandmother's Cupboard', my resolve weakened. Vimor is a shop set up in the house of the feisty Coorgi lady, Chimy Nanjappa. She began working with weavers many decades ago, trying to revive old patterns and styles of weaving. Her daughter, Pavithra now does most of the work and apart from reviving, also designs her own sarees, some of which are traditionally inspired and some are modern abstract creations.

The exhibition was held in one of those beautiful, high ceiling-ed old houses, with red floors, wooden beams and terracotta tiles. The Vimor ladies remembered me and I met some of the next generation as well. It was a grand family affair and the men - clean shaven younger ones and walrus-moustached older ones sat behind a long table, gossipping and helping with the bills. The women, each wonderfully dressed, floated about, explaining the stories behind various sarees. A truly joyous occasion and under the circumstances how could I not buy a saree or two?

Well, two it was, after much deliberation, glancing into the mirror, looking at the sarees indoors and outdoors and so on... I took my time for there was a lot to see and think about and no one seemed to be in a hurry. On the contrary, more and more people were drawn in, each giving their views on the sarees and my selection. Just the usual rituals in fact which make saree shopping interesting.

I eventually chose two sarees - a lime green 'morning' one and a fancy evening one in shot purple silk - a mix of reds and blues over which were woven beautiful motifs in gold and silver (intermixed for a soft effect) in a non symmetric way. Everyone approved greatly and I left with a light and happy heart and a heavy package.

Monday, March 19, 2012

On Omelettes

A few weeks ago I read a recipe in New York Times about beet greens and feta cheese omelette.

These recipes are always eye catching and appear wholesome and nourishing. However, my palate yearns for simple things and I put away the newspaper and turn to the prospect of what I would really like for lunch. An omelette? Mais, oui. But not NYT style. Elizabeth David style perhaps, or Julia Child style, or (inevitably) my own style with some bits of mushroom and a hint of cheese or parsley thrown in. Served with the crackling, crusty bread that my cast iron pans are now steadily producing. A small salad on the side. If I don't have these ingredients, then an Indian omelette would satisfy me as well - bursting with finely chopped onion, a little green chilly or coriander leaf, a bit of fresh tomato.

It's hard to find satisfying omelettes, simple as they are to make. Omelettes are easily overdone, sometimes oily. I generally prefer using butter for cooking these - the taste is better and its easier to gauge the right temperature of the pan. I cannot cook them as lightly as is desired for fear of salmonella, but I do try and retain at least some of the original creaminess and tenderness. Most importantly I serve (and eat) them remarkably swiftly.

I quote from a couple of books, charming aspects of omelette making and serving (am not able to get the perfect fonts, so please excuse some of the French):

"As far as omelettes are concerned I cannot do better than to quote "Wyvern's" wholly admirable views on the subject:

"The recipe for this omelette differs somewhat from those usually propounded, being that of the cuisiniere bourgeoise rather than that of the Chef. The latter looks very nice, and is often finished tastefully with a pattern skilfully wrought with glaze, cordons of purees and other decoration. To my mind the omelette suffers in being made so pretty, and is not as good thing a thing to eat as that of roadside inn or cabaret.

"An omelette ought never to be stiff enough to retain a very neatly rolled up appearance. If cooked with proper rapidity it should be too light to present a fixed form, and on reaching the hot dish should spread itself, rather, on account of the delicacy of its substance. Books that counsel you to turn an omelette, to fold it, to let it brown on one side, to let it fry for about five minutes, etc., are not to be trusted. If you follow such advice you will produce, at best, a neat-looking egg pudding.

"Timed by the seconds hand of a watch, an omelette of six eggs, cooked according to my method 'by the first intention', takes forty-five seconds from the moment of being poured into the pan to that of being turned into the dish.

"Though cream is considered by some to be an improvement, I do not recommend it. Milk is certainly a mistake, for it makes the omelette leathery. I confess that I like a very little minced chives in all savoury omelettes; but this is a matter of taste. Finely chopped parsley should be added with a seasoning of salt and pepper."
(A Book of Mediterranean Food, by Elizabeth David)

"A good French omelette is a smooth, gently swelling, golden oval that is tender and creamy inside..." (a two paged recipe follows!)
(Mastering the Art of French Cooking, by Julia Child, Luisette Bertholle, Simone Beck)

But the very nice thing about omelettes is that even if you mess them up totally, they still taste quite good when served warm with a hot crisp slice of toast or bun, especially on a rainy day.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Silent Spaces Of The Mountains

The Himalayas are a fascinating mix - of high mountains, crisp, clear air, thundery storms, elevating expanses, huddled villages, tiny temples, egoistic priests, spiritual seekers, frauds, charlatans, enlightened spirits, kindhearted souls.

But what I love most about the mountains are the silent spaces that abound and that enter one's mind, hesitantly in the beginning and then with more assurance until something from inside unconsciously lets go. I find myself spending a lot of time, just sitting, looking at the snow topped ranges, revelling in the peace and beauty of these powerful mountains.

I find it most relaxing when I am just sitting in a place of natural beauty, not climbing a challenging slope or scaling a peak or trying in particular to achieve anything. Not even consciously meditating. Just being in one place and listening - to the occasional sounds (a bird call, a rush of wind, a gushing stream) but most of all listening to the compelling yet soundless call of the spirit of the mountains.

Gradually, without conscious effort, things begin to sort themselves out. The future no longer holds horrendous obstacles, the present seems simple and effortless. Questions about what to do next (or what not to do) are resolved in unexpected ways and solutions offer themselves to questions I didn't even know I was asking. With such visible strength and beauty, it is easy to surrender to the mountains (and no surprise that there are so many temples built here), to trust them to lead me to places of safety and wonder that exist both within and around me.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

On The Road, To Himachal

We just returned from a six day trip to Himachal, of which about three days were spent on the road - Delhi- Chandigarh- Kullu- Naggar. Our final destination, the tiny village of Naggar, stretches peacefully on a mountain side flanked by the great Himalayan range.

The road trip was interesting - it had been over a decade since we had travelled in this area and the highway had undergone a transformation. The road to Chandigarh is straight and smooth, bypasses have been created at most towns along the way, which makes driving very easy. An enterprising Cafe Coffee Day stands alongside the highway, further down, near Chandigarh, the inevitable American Mc Donalds serves mc aloo tikki (potatoey stuff) and of course, we head further on, looking for a roadside dhabba to eat.

Punjab is always a good option for a food stop - the road is surrounded by green fields (yellow at this time, filled with mustard flowers), the people are welcoming and always serve everything with spoonfuls of fresh butter. We generally stick to thick rotis, fresh from the tandoor, and dal.

After Chandigarh, the road visibly deteriorates. The Kullu road twists up into the hills and we look on in pleasurable anticipation. Finally - we bid goodbye to the plains! But, to our dismay, we are greeted by a convoy of trucks - in both directions on the tiny one lane (each way) road. It is a choked, smoky, slow and frustrating drive of over a hundred kilometres more until we reach the outskirts of Kullu. Why, we wonder, have things changed so much in the last ten years?

Cement factories! There are four cement factories now in this stretch - which have all but taken over the road and left nothing but dreadful, continuous, irreversible pollution on the once pristine hillside. It is moments like this, when one comes face to face with blatantly bad governance and utter disregard for the environment, that one's heart breaks. It doesn't help. Those fragments of hope are just buried deep under rubble, and crushed to dust as development rumbles on.

Therefore, next time, we may take the Simla road instead of the Kullu one, even if it is a detour. Anything to escape the trucks - and the heartbreak.

We stop for the night at Bilaspur - there is a small rest house run by Himchal Tourism. It stands on the highway, but fortunately is built downwards, into the mountain side, which shelters us from the incessant noise and diesel fumes. I promptly have a migraine and retire until next morning, when we continue towards Kullu.

Kullu is now all concrete and so is Manali, but our destination lies in between. A good by pass helps us avoid both towns. We soon find ourselves winding our way upwards, alongside the just-thawing Beas river, towards Naggar, which was once the capital of the region of Kullu.

There is an old palace, where the royal family resided. A glorious little structure of solid stone and giant, carved beams of wood. This has been taken over by the state (Himachal) tourism department and this was where we stayed - in a large, airy (somewhat cold) room that looked out onto the apple orchards (now bare and dry) and the great mountains beyond. Luckily, we had brought our own quilts, hot water bottles and brandy- and we gradually settled into our temporary new home.

Apart from a few Russians (the extraordinary Russian artist Nicholas Roerich settled here in 1929, this village is very much on the Russian tourist map) and some honeymooners, there were very few tourists and we were left alone with the calming mountains and the bracing air and the soundless nights that lulled us into a state of contemplative peace. But more on that later!

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