Thursday, February 21, 2013

Our Moon has Blood Clots- A review

In the year 1990 I was probably running down the tea gardens outside my house in gay abandon. In the year 1990 a 14 year old boy and his community were forced in to an exile which they have still not managed to come out of.

‘Our Moon Has Blood Clots, The Exodus of the Kashmiri Pandits’ is a memoir written by Rahul Pandita, a Kashmiri Pandit and a journalist.
The 256 pages of the book and the timeline at the end of the book tell a tale that many of us are familiar with but vaguely. In ‘us’ I refer to people who have known that Kashmir has faced problem (s), thanks to TV and the newspapers and that a certain Pandit community faced exodus years ago.  

The memoirs are moving and it is not just in the way they have been written. The stories of brutality, atrocities on men, women and children, episodes and incidents that have been narrated are gut wrenching and heart pulling. There is kindness also but largely there is blood and hunger and loss.

This sense of loss that the author has felt and that, which has stayed with him since the age of 14 when he was forced to leave Kashmir along with his family, pervades the book. You don’t feel like stopping in between but you will have to. In fact many times; may be over and over again, often during the course of reading a single page as your eyes moisten making it difficult to proceed.  

There is a Kashmir- the one equated with paradise- that Pandita has seen and lived in his childhood, one that he had to flee and then there is a Kashmir, in tatters, that he often goes back to, which must have initially taken a lot of courage.  His own story holds you by the cuff. There are people from the community he meets with in the refugee settlements where hardly ever there is water and electricity. Their stories don’t let go of you either.

His sense of loss and homelessness is a personal tragedy but in the book he also reflects on the political tragedy, insensitivity and mockery that people in effective places have made of it.

I have often wondered what leads men to be brutal to others of their own species. 
The tears or the wailing cries for mercy and help would sound the same in any language; even then men turn in to beasts and carry out such acts of violence that makes really wonder what could possess such men. There are many such horror stories recorded here as the author says that he has ‘reduced my life to names and numbers. I have memorized the name of every Pandit killed during those dark days, and the circumstances in which he or she was killed. I have memorized the number of people killed in each district. I have memorized how many of us were registered as refugees in Jammu and elsewhere.’

The worst part is that this tragedy stuck Kashmir not once but twice. Most of my generation would not be aware of the loot and plundering caused at the hands of the Pak-aided tribesmen from the NFP in an attempt to occupy it.

Our Moon Has Blood Clots is also a reflection of many authors, poets and philosophers that have impacted the exiled life that Pandita’s led. In the terse book, you come face to face with the 14 year old often. At times you come across a grown-up angry man, at times a helpless watcher but at all times you are confronted with a question how could this have happened.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Winds of taste from the sandy desert

The ethnic group of people from the princely Marwar region of Rajasthan is called Marwari. Though the term is used to refer to all the people from Rajasthan or those having roots in Rajasthan, the term specifically refers to the bania or trading community of Rajasthan.
You might wonder why instead of writing about food in my column I have shifted my attention towards anthropology. Worry not, this detour will only lead us to the destined land of tastes and slurrrps. As you might have figured by now, today we are going to discuss Rajasthani cuisine, which has been spread far and wide by the travelling business community, the Marwaris.
Dal baati churma is the most common name amongst the dishes ladled out of this desert region that you might already be aware of. Let us take a look at what else is on offer.

The Marwari traders used to travel far and wide on the Ganga-Yamuna trade route for business. Not much of their food was influenced by their travels though the people of this community, with their astute sense for profit-making, have been at the forefront contributing to the development of the country.
The people of the Marwari community generally consume vegetarian food which is prepared with generous helpings of desi ghee. The food of these desert people has been characterised by jowar or bajra, which is used to make rotis and khichuris, and by an effusive use of chilli and asafoetida to impart strong flavours. The lack of leafy vegetables ensured a pronounced use of lentils, pulses and legumes in Rajasthani food. The cuisine relies heavily on dry mango powder or amchoor to substitute the taste of tomatoes which do not grow in abundance in the desert area. Amla has traditionally been in use to make delicious preserves and pickles as the tree is commonly found in this region. Amlana, a delicious cool drink to fight the desert heat, is made of tamarind and infused with the goodness of black salt, pepper and cardamom. This is a drink fit for kings.

Amongst fruit, mangoes are considered to have a cooling effect on our systems. Hence the aam ka panna or kairi ka paani, a drink made of raw mango pulp and spiked with jeera powder and black salt in great quantities, is a favoured drink to fight the intense heat of the desert. The mango pulp when simmered with the fennel flower and seeds yields a pickle that is a must in the Marwari household as an important accompaniment for afternoon meals.
The arid conditions do not favour a lot of vegetation and hence not many dairy animals can be reared around the desert. yet the ingenious people of Rajasthan devised various ways to include the wealth of vitamins and minerals of dairy produce in their diets. The camels yield thick, creamy milk which can spoil because of the heat and so it is curdled and used to produce amazing dishes like the gatte ki kadhi that is known far and wide. The chaas made of curd is served in every household and can be sweetened or salted to suit the taste of the consumer. Curd is also used to prepare dahi shorba — a frothy yoghurt-based soup, often served at the beginning of a meal. The use of curd and buttermilk in gravies not only acted to improve the flavours but also substituted the need of water.

It is always amazing to see how human beings have striven to make hostile circumstances work in their favour. Rajasthani cuisine is one such example of ingenuity and working with the resources available.

(This post appeared as a column in The New Indian Express on Feb 15, 2012. You can read it here as well.)

Thursday, February 14, 2013

The school question

I am back at it. Though on second thoughts I haven't really had to do it uptil now. She would go to the best montessori right across my office was decided the day I started work with the Chandigarh Administration. When the husband got transferred to Kolkata he found a school for her that was willing to take her and was closer to a residential complex that met our 'must-have' list

After a year that she has been going to this school, I am looking at others for Netra and I have no qualms at accepting that I am lost. So I am taking my father's advice and putting down things on paper. (I realise that there is an e in paper here)

To apprise you of the situation. Netra is 5 years old (OMG I have been a mommy for this long...hmm no option but to grow up now). She currently goes to a school where there are 60 children in her section. (I sent chocolates for her birthday). To top it all there is only 1 teacher for those 60 princesses.

Now on to why I am all worked up about the school. Seriously, do you even need to ask. 60 kids to 1 teacher is criminal on all accounts.

There are kids who learn to jostle and make a space for themselves; there are kids who outshine everyone else thanks to their genetic make-up and then there are kids who need a push or a prod at times. All the kids falling in the first two categories will do well in the class of 60 but those who need a push or who can not jostle or push will need assistance.

**  What would I want my child to gain from the school where she will gradually come to spend the large part of her day? 

  • My child probably falls in the third category. So I need a school that has a lesser teacher to student ratio so that she gets more individual attention from the teacher. 

  • I would like it even better that the teacher who takes up my child is not a disgruntled soul. For example: I wanted to be a doctor but I could not get admission in anything else but a BEd course and I hate these puny little things because I wanted to heal the world and make it a better place.

  • I would like her to go to a school where they do more than studying. I would like her to learn and imbibe various other qualities missing mostly in the younger generation I have been confronted with (during my work years) namely, hard work, humour, compassion and integrity.

  • I would like her to learn and know herself first and then hold her ground. I would not like her to sway like her tiny form when the wind blows a little harder.
  • I would like the school to offer her an opportunity to dabble in many things so that she gets a fair chance to find what she likes to do
The big debate is whether such a school, if exists, should be chosen or should instead a renowned institution be selected which offers:
  1. Branding
  2. Improved student-teacher ratio
  3. Discipline 
  4. Overall grooming
What to do looms large? I am praying for the divine light to shine upon me. Divine intervention would be even better.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Notes from the book fair

I could only go to the Kolkata Book Fair that ended yesterday... well yesterday.  I had made promises to myself and the husband that I will just go and look. I believed in my promise earnestly whereas he gave me the all-knowing smile and the nod of head which when I later ruminated over was meant to convey 'yes, yes we will see'.

Anyway, there I was at the book fair sans the husband and the child. I entered the grounds with the stroll of someone who was on no agenda and was free to turn back and go any moment. Instead (and I do not really know how it happened) I spent around four hours bought 12 books of various size, colour, shape and subject.

I did not realise when that aimless stroll of mine gained purpose. Maybe it was the need to cover every possible hall and stall or maybe it was the intention of checking out all the offers of the last day. I got drawn in by the books would be an understatement. I should probably say I was under the spell. This does not mean I regret buying the books that I bought. These ranged from Nora Roberts to Dushyant Kumar to Ismat Chugtai to Moni Mohsin. My lovelies accompanied me back along with a few children's books which I told myself would come in handy as gifts and other as practice books for Netra.

On my way back I was reminded of the look on the husband's face. I smiled knowing that maybe I also knew when I promised that my heart was not in it- the promise. In retrospect I began to think about the takeaways, other than the books, from the fair. Here are a few for the serious pursuer of the printed word at the fair:

Children's Book Trust: Look at the pamphlets and look at the boards giving you directions. If any of it points towards the CBT stall and you have a kid/s, GO to them before you go to any of the known publishers and book sellers. The books are lovely, cheap and there is a wide range on offer. Benita Sen from TARGET writes for them. Here the books were available in Hindi, English and Bangla. There are new-age stories like the Feet Problem, old stories like Panchtantra and 'Gold' collections of stories from other parts of the country and world.

Reading list: The reading list should be made. If you are just going to the fair to check out things, it is another matter entirely. But if you are there and mean business, aka saving some money, the book fair is the right place, Mostly everyone- booksellers as well as publishers- will offer a minimum of a 10 per cent off. if you want better, wait till the last day when the offers become slightly better. If you do have a reading list, finding the publisher will also stand you in good stead. You can head straight to their stall and take your picks before you have finished your moneys. The only danger is that if you wait till the last day (for the discounts to get bigger), 'the book' might be snapped already. It happened with many lovers of  'Madhushala' who came inquiring after it in couple of Hindi book sellers stalls where I was camping for the better half of my day.

Gems: Every fair of any nature will hold them. Hidden at times in the nooks where no one would bother come looking and at others lost amidst the loudness of the known names. So is true for the book fair. It will have those publishers or sellers whose name you might have never heard but who will yield conversations, nuggets and histories. I found one at the far end of the Science City grounds. A Hindi book seller from Bada Bazar. They had possibly every author and his most of the works displayed neatly in rows. Ramdhari Singh Dinkar, Indira Goswami, Shivani, Manto, Amrita Pritam, Nirala; ghazals, poems, short stories, biographies and autobiographies, novels; hard bound  as well as paper backs. But I think the owner was the real find. You picked up a book and he had story about the writer. He told me how Dushyant was jailed and what saved Nagarjun from Mrs Gandhi's wrath. He sang from Madhushala and quoted Subhadra Kumari Chauhan. It was a delight. Pure delight.

Roam: Of course, you will, I know, but have a good breakfast and get a good night's sleep the night before hand so that you do not get tired or are lured away by the chicken lollipops and green grass. Also carry your own water, may be something to chew on as well. All the walking around will make you hungry, tired and if you do not look after yourself who will? Only if you are energetic enough to roam will you find the gems or come across fantastic offers.

Be a little mindless in your roaming. Be a little adventurous. Sneak a look at the authors' picture. Read a page or two of the story to see if it makes friends with you easily. Look at the print carefully. Feel the paper between your fingers. Smell the book. Run your hand on the cover. Thumb a few pages. Take home if not the book, then the amazing sense of having been surrounded with various worlds enclosed within those books

Spilling the bean

The great poet T S Eliot is known to have said, “I have measured out my life with coffee spoons.”

Though India is largely presumed to be a tea drinking nation, recent studies conducted by the International Coffee Organisation (ICO) in 2012 show that coffee consumption has steadily grown over the years. According to the ICO data, while in 2001 the country consumed about 1.02 million bags of coffee, in 2010 this number touched 1.71 million bags of 60 kg each and in 2011-12 the coffee consumption in our country went up by 3 per cent.

India is the world’s sixth biggest exporter of coffee and the growth in coffee consumption in India is even more than the global rate.
After all these mind boggling figures let us direct our attention towards the beginning of mankind’s affair with coffee. Legend has it that Kaldi, an Ethiopian goatherd, noticed the effect of the coffee beans on his goats who ‘danced’ from one shrub to the other after grazing on the cherry-red beans. History informs us that in Africa, some tribes ate coffee alongside balls made of animal fat to boost energy.
Coffee as we know it today was first brewed around 1300 AD in Arabia. It was a beverage that got a nod from Islam where drinking alcohol was prohibited. The rise of Islam can be said to be a great contributor to the spread of coffee. Wherever it went, coffee travelled as well and reached North Africa, eastern Mediterranean and India. A merchant from Venice introduced coffee to the Europreans in 1615. In 1696 a colonial coffee plant, maybe the first one, was founded in Java. Gradually coffee reached Brazil where it became a coffee empire and moved to the hands of the common man from the elite.

Despite its reach across the globe, coffee was banned in 1675 by the King of England who claimed that coffee houses were places where people gathered and met to conspire against him.
The coffee tree can grow to be 30 feet tall but is generally cultivated to be around 10 feet for easy picking of the berries. These are dried and stripped down until all that is left is a green bean . The bean is then roasted at a high temperature for a few minutes when it pops and doubles in size and then pops again indicating that it is now ready to be ground into powder. The heat sparks a chemical reaction in the bean that turns its carbohydrates and fats into aromatic oils, further unlocking the flavour as the moisture and carbon dioxide present in it are burnt.
Today as more and more coffee shops come into business we are introduced to many variants of coffee. India’s first specialist coffee shop, Cafe Coffee Day opened in 1996 and today has 1,350 cafes all across India. Once there was simply Espresso — the name given to a method of preparing coffee where hot, pressurised water is shot through the finely ground coffee — which was a rare treat at weddings.

Today there are options like latte, mocha, Americano, breve and cappuccino to choose from.
Scientists have been studying the health benefits of coffee. Studies suggest that coffee consumption reduces the risk of certain cancers, Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease and may help fight some heart conditions. Caffeine also acts as an acute antidepressant.
Here is the recipe for the perfect coffee by French statesman Talleyrand according to whom it should be ‘black as the devil, hot as hell, pure as an angel and sweet as love.’

(The blog post appeared as an article first in The New Indian Express on February 8, 2012. You can read it here-

Tuesday, February 05, 2013

Chai time customs

Tea time is observed with great reverence in my household. At fixed hours in the morning, noon and evening I have my tea, preferably in absolute peace and with my favourite sweets or snacks. Delve a little deeper into the history of tea and traditions associated with it, and I promise you will be thrilled to know the varying cultures of tea all over the world.

In China they have loved tea since 2000 BCE. Initially this love was cultivated for the great medicinal values of the plant — its leaves were chewed on, and then later on, it was used for its refreshing qualities. Wikipedia informs us that in the early 9th century, Chinese author Lu Yu wrote The Classic of Tea, which mainly focuses on the cultivation and preparation of tea. For many centuries China was the only tea exporting country in the world but gradually India and Ceylon, now known as Sri Lanka, began to give it stiff competition as the soil and climate conditions in the two temperate countries met the requirements for this aromatic beverage.
Japan acquired the tea culture from China and soon Korea picked it up too. In Japan tea was served to priests, monks and royalty in the Buddhist temples. Japan boasts of the elaborate tea ceremony called the Way of Tea, which developed as part of the Japanese culture. Each action in the preparation of tea — how a kettle is used, how tea cups are chosen, how tea leaves are scooped and put in the kettle — is performed in a specific way. Sen Rikyu who lived in Japan in the 16th century is credited with the full development of the Way of Tea. He set forth four principles central to the ceremony — harmony, respect, purity and tranquillity. It is interesting to note that these principles were based on the philosophy that every meeting should be treasured as it can never be reproduced.
Let us now take a trip to 19th century Russia. People there used to drink tea while holding a sugar cube between their teeth in those times. Culinary expert Willliam Pokhlyobkin noted that in Russian society tea has been often consumed in the company of scones, jams and even fruit. Tea was introduced in Russia by the Chinese who brought it with them while travelling for trade via the Great Tea Road which was a part of the Silk Route. I am sure the mention of the harsh winters of Russia sent a chill down your spine as it did mine.

In the United Kingdom, the custom of afternoon tea is credited to Anna, the 7th Duchess of Bedford. She conceived the afternoon tea, taken usually between 4 and 5 pm, in order to ward off hunger pangs between lunch and dinner. Gradually with evolving times, tea became an integral part of the cultural life of the people in Britain and Ireland. Tea time in England also came with refined customs like pinkies up.
The porcelain cups that were used during the initial days did not have any handles. So, in order to avoid spills, the cup was to be held by placing the thumb at the front of the cup, index and the two other fingers at the back and the pinkie (little finger) was raised to create a balance ensuring that the hot beverage would not spill.
It is customary in Britain not to use circular motions to stir in the sugar, rather the spoon is placed at the front of the cup and moved back and forth a few times.
There are many more wonderful traditions and stories associated with tea. India too has an interesting tale or two for the next time.
(This post appeared as a column in The New Indian Express on Feb 1, 2013. You can read it here.)