Monday, April 30, 2012

Roaming in Ramanagaram

Yesterday, as a friend was visiting, we went on an impromptu trek to Ramanagaram, a village about 60 km. outside Bangalore, on the Mysore road.  At one end of this (behind the Ghousia college of engineering) lie the Ramagiri hills, a peaceful and scenic cluster that is popular with rock climbers.  This is where the iconic Hindi film 'Sholay' was filmed decades ago.  There is a Rama temple on the top of one of the hills, which attracts a few visitors.  Further on, there is a small path and steps cut into the rock face which lead to the very top.  From here, one gets to see miles of countryside and hilly tract all around.

We began our trek enthusiastically, with lines like "Kitney aadmi the?" ringing in our ears (from the Sholay days).  In my urgency to avoid the concrete steps (that the devotees take, which lead straight to the temple), I missed the beginning of the walking trail and we soon found ourselves in the thick of a jumble of trees that led to a series of increasingly steep rocks.  It was a beautiful sight.  We moved on in the hope that the rocks would connect up to the temple path further on.  So, higher and higher we ascended, until there was nowhere else to go!  We then resorted to half walking and half sliding down ungracefully till we hit rock bottom (we now know how this feels!) with few exciting moments on the way such as loose rocks that bounded down, my unthinkingly clutching a cactus for support, a friend wandering into a patch of wild grass thick with thorns (the kind that immediately dislodge and dig themselves into your clothes), another friend getting cold feet (until we reminded him of his Lama origins).

At the bottom was a ravine which seemed to lead in the right direction, but between us and the temple stood sheer vertical rocks on two sides and a large stone wall in front.  The choice was rather simple.  So up we went, along the wall, making enough noise for all the snakes and lizards to slither out before we climbed, somehow hauling ourselves over the top.  Not much more penance was required.  Just a few rocks to surmount, a crawl under a broken barbed wire fence - and we were back on the temple path!

It was an unforgettable walk; we saw thickets of wild grass, outcrops of cacti around which which chameleons cautiously moved, tiny trees tenaciously clinging onto stone and the magnificent stark rocks towering around us.

Of course, we also passed places littered with plastic waste, informing us that humans had indeed walked these ways before.  It is always sad to see these reminders of our thoughtlessness and utter disregard for the environment and all creatures who live there.

There were several people at the temple but no one further on; we climbed the vertical rock face holding on to the side rails and found ourselves in the company of a solitary kite perched higher than we could ever reach.  The blue sky was close overhead.  The wind blew gustily.  We were happy.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

My Summer Garden

We have had a long, hot summer without the intermittent rains that normally come.  There were clouds and hints of rain, an occasional drizzle, but nothing substantial.  My garden managed to survive because I was generous with water and nutrition despite the water shortage all round (everyone in Bangalore is buying water this summer - a sombre sign of things to come if we continue unsustainable development).  A spot of greenery is a welcome respite from the summer sun, insects and animals were grateful for it as well.

The frangipani trees have grown very tall and I had to re-pot them, in huge containers that I hope, will not have to be changed again.  They have just begun to flower and their fragrance spreads all over the garden.  The queen of the night creeper adds its heady nocturnal perfume.  Gulmohar trees nearby send down orangey-red flowers like sparks and little fire-wheels and I plunge them into water where they float about happily.

The lotus has begun to flower again, it seems to enjoy the summer sun.  My bird bath has frequent visitors especially as there is a huge bee hive behind my house and a wasp nest on the window sill.  Figs are ripening, bats and squirrels are regular visitors.

These are some pictures from my summer garden.  Last night we had our first shower that brought about earthy smells and a delicious coolness.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Make Mango Pickle While The Sun Shines

A sure sign of summer - tiny green mangoes, with their raw, resinous fragrance have been falling off the trees the last few days.  Miraculously surviving their perilous fall, they lie in small clusters where I spot them during my morning walks.  Somehow they escape the monkeys, the cleaning staff, the students and other morning walkers.

It's a wonderful way to begin the day - walking over to the mango trees and searching below them.  I can smell the mangoes even before I see them and I have now mastered the art (almost!) of distinguishing perfect, whole fruit from the damaged ones.  My pockets are deep and can hold a dozen mangoes on each side!  However the tell tale signs are always there for those who notice - the strange, uneven bulges and patches of resin stains.

If Holmes were here, he would immediately catch me.  "Pocketing raw mangoes again - hand them over!" he might say sternly (though with a flicker of something in his eyes).  I would reluctantly empty out my pocket.
"Ha!  Note, Watson - Mangifera indica, the descendant of a wild mango tree that still exists in north eastern India.  Mangoes are grown in many parts of the world, but the Indian species is undoubtedly supreme."
"Yes, yes," Watson would reply.  "Had a good many of them back in India.  Quite hard on the digestion you know.  These are too raw to eat."
"Perhaps you have heard of chutney...   You might not have observed my use of the word 'again' in the first sentence, Watson.  This is not a first crime.  The resinous stains on her pocket tell me that she has been doing this for three days!"  Then, looking at me, he might wave a dismissing hand.  "Off with you!"
"Jaao!  Jaldi!  Jaldi!" Watson would add, in remembrance of days of the Raj and I would run like the wind (well, almost).
"Notice the crab like gait, Watson."
"Hmm - polio at birth?  Rickets?  Maybe just a thorn in her shoe," the good doctor would reply.
"Nothing of the kind!  She has another pocketful of loot hidden elsewhere on her person.  Mark my words!  She's going to rush home and make pickle!"
And he would be right, as usual.

However, in the absence of such discerning observers, I just saunter down and calmly do the job.  I have been gathering mangoes in this way over the past three days and I now have a basketful.  They stain my hands, fill my nose with a tangy freshness and make my mouth water the way all sour things do.  These mangoes are too tiny to eat, not plump enough to be grated into green mango rice or ground into fresh mango chutney.  Pickle, then it shall be.

I open my tomes for recipes - and once more am surprised by the range of options (each state seems to have its own sweet (and spicy) way of dealing with these fruit and, as always, I find just a recipe or two that seems to satisfy me.

The critical thing about mango pickle (as I learnt the hard way!) is to dehydrate the mangoes.  It's amazing how much moisture these hard, green objects contain.  The summer sun does the job efficiently, but two days after sunning, it begins to rain!  And the rain brings with it another windfall.  So, I snatch all those moments of sunshine to make pickle.  I wash and dry the mangoes, cut them into bite sized pieces and rub them with rock salt.  Then they lie innocuously outside, slowly drying out.

I am now in the midst of getting together the spices - I have decided to make two kinds of pickle.  A sweet pickle with jaggery, cloves, cinnamon, bay leaf and cumin (a combination I have never tried before).  A tangy one with seeds of mustard, fennel, fenugreek and onion, coarsely pounded with a pinch of asafoetida and red chilly and dunked into mustard oil (it sounds harsh and sharp but melds into a wonderful mix on maturing).

So as I clean out bottles, weigh ingredients (difficult because many recipes begin with "a hundred small green mangoes" or "twenty five large, perfectly shaped mangoes") and pound away, I also keep an eye on the sky and hope to catch the mangoes before they get drenched in the next summer shower!

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Kahaani - A Yarn Well Spun

It was because some friends and family strongly recommended this film and the fact that it stayed for over three weeks in Bangalore cinemas that I felt we should see it.  And I'm happy that we did take the time to do so.  Kahaani ('Story') is an unusual movie - an intelligent and entertaining low budget creation that can give several Hollywood thrillers a run for their money.  There are holes in the plot (this I do not deny, especially in the second half) but the film moves along at an exciting pace (good editing) and you are swept away in the frenzy and colour and chaos that is Kolkata.

Yes, it is set entirely in Kolkata and the characters are amazingly similar to people we have known or met over time in that city - the Bangali babus, the anglo Indians, the east Bengalis with their Burmese features, the culturally rooted west Bengalis, the skilled craftsmen and others.  The scenes are familiar - Durga puja, Kalighat, the Hooghly river, metro stations, street vendors, tiny lanes and byways.  This is the Kolkata we have seen and one that tourists rarely get a glimpse of.  For this reason alone, it is worth watching the film (and I hope a version with subtitles is released).

This is a thriller, but not along the lines of Fleming's or le Carre's novels.  The director, Sujoy Ghosh, seems to have leanings towards Hitchcock and Satyajit Ray (though no comparisons can ever be made with these master film makers).  It is also commendable that such a talented group of actors agreed to work in a film that revolves around a female protagonist - an unglamorous, very pregnant one at that.  The acting is skilled (except for the few south Indian bits, which are not authentic enough!) and a delight to watch with a host of veteran Hindi and Bengali film actors.  A note of caution - this is not a glossy, glitzy production.  It is earthy and uncannily dusty on the whole - it is as if the entire heat and dirt, chaos and struggle of Kolkata is unleashed upon the viewer from beginning to end.  The only things I miss are scenes of home food and adda (long gossip sessions) that are the Kolkata Bengali's trademarks.  (No signs of fish and no mutton curry- that too on ashtami (the eighth day of the pujas)!)  But this is not a documentary on the city.

The music - for a Hindi movie, there is surprisingly little.  Tagore's haunting and inspiring song 'Ekla chalo re' has been sung by Mr. Amitabh Bachchan who has done a surprisingly good job (even if the pronunciation is not completely Bengali).  I can't figure out why a Bengali couldn't have sung it for the film.  I am also not a fan of most fusion music but the youth (especially the youth of Kolkata) like it immensely; perhaps this is why those pop/rock elements figure in the song.  I attach a link, which is the film song overlaid on the official film trailer.  The lyrics (translated into English by Rabindranath Tagore) are:

If they answer not to thy call walk alone,
If they are afraid and cower mutely facing the wall,
O thou unlucky one,
open thy mind and speak out alone.
If they turn away, and desert you when crossing the wilderness,
O thou unlucky one,
trample the thorns under thy tread,
and along the blood-lined track travel alone.
If they do not hold up the light when the night is troubled with storm,
O thou unlucky one,
with the thunder flame of pain ignite thy own heart
and let it burn alone.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

My Incredible Experience of the Bangalore Metro

I must be one of the few to have visited the (recently built) Bangalore Metro stations and come away without boarding a train.  This is how it happened:

Two days ago I was sitting and thinking about the film I had seen the previous evening - Kahaani (This film will be discussed in a separate post.  But one of the key points of it is that horrifying scenes are enacted in some Kolkata metro stations).  At this point, the phone rang and someone said, "Er- who is this?"  This type of call always gets me irritated and I indicated that in my reply.  The voice at the other end was somewhat apologetic, asking for Sujata Varadarajan and saying that she had left her work files in the Indiranagar  Metro station.  Quite surreal because I don't possess any work files and I have never been to any Bangalore metro station.  In fact I haven't visited Indiranagar for many years.  The man read out the names of the "files"- and I realized that these were the manuscripts I had left with Gangaram publishers.  They must have forgotten them in some train and the security office was calling to ask me to collect these in person.  "You can come anytime Madam," the man said.  "We are open 24 hours a day."

Incredible!  I couldn't get over the efficiency and politeness of the  Metro staff!  Well, I decided to go the very next day, just in case...  And so I drove up to one of the stations and stood there gaping for a while.  These stations are huge, gleaming edifices with just a soul or two involved in the exercise of catching a train (this was mid morning).  There are also smartly dressed, ultra alert and helpful staff - they all speak two or three languages, even the floor cleaners.  I was guided to the Customer Care section, which had two employees (both in their seats), who directed me to the next metro station, which is where my package lay.

Their directions were precise.  I located the next station, designed in the same way (and therefore easy to navigate).  I glided up on the smooth escalator.  I was the only person there.  Bits of the film (Kahaani) flashed before my eyes.  I moved on, mentally and physically.  Past the security and to Customer Care once more, who established, in less than a minute, that my books were indeed in their office.  I did not want to pay the entrance charge and they willingly agreed to let me go through without a ticket.  A security man escorted me to the Security Control Office.  I could see one or two commuters in the corridor. The trains rumbled periodically.  Otherwise all was silent and spotless.

I reached the Control Office and was given a chair and a glass of water.  Tea and coffee were offered but I said I didn't normally drink these.  The man hopefully asked if he could give me a glass of Bournvita and I apologetically declined.  I showed my ID, which was whisked off to be photocopied.  The man behind the desk was the same person I had spoken to the previous day.  We chatted about this and that, I glanced at the multiple computer screens showing different views of the station and the trains. I wrote a letter and filled out a form in A.C. comfort, seated in a plush chair.  Another security officer ambled in and began asking fairly interesting questions about the title of my book.  It turned out that he was an amateur script writer and wanted to make small films in his spare time.  He narrated a story about how Rabindranath Tagore left his manuscript 'Gitanjali' in one of the Kolkata trams and someone eventually managed to return it to him.  Tagore won the Nobel prize for this piece of work.  "Maybe, Madam," the young man said hopefully, "The same thing will happen to you."  Unfortunately, I had to dash his hopes.  (I probably should have said' Tumhare mun mein ghee shakkar i.e. "May you eat (good stuff like) ghee and sugar, for saying these sweet and kind words").  My husband said I should have offered him half the prospective Nobel prize money...

We all chatted some more and then I had to leave.  The two men escorted me all the way until the staircase, when I finally turned to them and said I would make my way out.  The person who called said he would have delivered the books to me himself but security rules had to be followed.  I thanked them once more.  On this cordial note, we said goodbye.  I walked down the stairs, a smile on my face, my mind in a whirl. I would have loved to take a trip on the trains (the security man even told me which was the best station for parking etc.) but time did not permit this.  And so the metro ride must wait for another day.

(Meanwhile, I have decided to publish one of my books online.  Apparently there is a very good Indian publishing site that has come into existence along the lines of lulu, called pothi.  Enough of publishers!  I will try this on my own in the near future).

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Bangalore Blues

Summer comes to Bangalore much before it arrives elsewhere - bestowing brilliant night skies, bright yellows, pinks and reds on trees and just a bit later- mangoes! But summer brings with it parched throats (I never realized until I put up my birdbath how many thirsty bees and wasps lived near my house), sweaty clothes - and blues. Swimming pool blues. Blue sky blues. Jacaranda blues. Missing old summer holidays (and family) blues. Deep rooted, heart felt, long lasting blues that only this warmth and sunshine can induce.

In response, I bake new breads, plan for my approaching vacation, invite friends home for meals, soak mangoes and grapes in cool water for breakfasts and dinners, soak myself in cool water after sweaty yoga sessions. And redesign my blog. My blog is soft and bluesy, I think. (The picture is from my recent trip to Himachal). Do take a look!

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Some Indian Wines I Like

After a recent wine tasting session in South Africa, my husband returned with a bottle of some delicious bubbly stuff and asked us all to try and figure out its fruity flavours. This was the first time I gave some thought to wine tasting and how one needs to use all parts of the mouth (and of course, the nose) to appreciate the flavour and bouquet. I was the only one who managed (quite by chance) to identify peach and citrus - a rather nice concoction.

This was also the first time I began to wonder how these flavours developed. I had always assumed that wine makers would dunk in some fruit (like we do in our primitive home made brews). How naive! It was intriguing to read about how the combination of the grape and the fermenting and maturing methods used could create complex and varied flavours. A remarkable art and incredible chemistry.

India is still new to wines and wine making but things are rapidly changing each year. Wine consumption has considerably increased in the cities despite the high costs (due to state taxes). I still prefer a small glass of wine on its own, with something light on the side and rarely pair food with wine (preferring regular water as all Indians normally drink with meals, especially in the heat). But there are always exceptions. These are some of my experiences with sampling Indian wines:

Of late, I think Bangalore's own local Grover (a vineyard established on the outskirts of the city) has improved tremendously and their La Reserve (made from Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz grapes) is very nice (I don't mention years and such because I just don't keep track and these wines, new as they are, seem to be better made as years go by). Most Indian wines seem to benefit from airing and slight chilling; they taste better after being opened, left for a day in the refrigerator and then kept at room temperature for a short while before they are drunk.

Sula, a vineyard started in Nasik (by the Stanford engineering management graduate Rajeev Samant) has been making some new and interesting things. One of its most appealing and distinctive wines is a slightly sweet white, the Chenin Blanc, which comes in an elegant long necked bottle and is very nice for the summer and also with seafood. The slightly drier Sauvignon Blanc is also nice.

A recent and exciting introduction to Bangalore has been Reveilo. We discovered it in an annual food exhibition and wait every year to buy our stock (it is only available in a few stores in the city). We were drawn to it by the charismatic owner who had set up a wine tasting stall near the entrance, the only stall of its kind. And he was happy to pour out a range of wines for us, including the high end selection. Some of the premium wines are indeed very nice with slightly smoky flavours induced after aging. Of the whites, we like the light texture of Grillo and the stronger flavours of Chardonnay Reserve. Our Reveillo reds are long (drunk and) over for this year, one of the memorable wines was the Syrah Reserve (made from Syrah grapes and aged in oak barrels).

A friend recently gifted us some wine made by Big Banyan (a relatively new Bangalore winery), but I haven't tasted it yet. The Indian wine industry (aided by European, American and other master wine makers) is now bubbling over with activity, which is rather nice for us.
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