A Prayer for India…

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On the occasion of the 70th Anniversary of India’s freedom from British colonial government – celebrated as Independence Day in the country – no other poem feels more relevant today, than this one from Rabindranath Tagore’s Nobel Prize winning anthology, Gitanjali:

Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high
Where knowledge is free
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments
By narrow domestic walls
Where words come out from the depth of truth
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way
Into the dreary desert sand of dead habit
Where the mind is led forward by thee
Into ever-widening thought and action
Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake

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Spice it up!

India for centuries has been home to some of the most exotic spices in the world. For the same reason, it has long attracted explorers and traders – indeed the country was a prominent stop on the famous Spice Route that at one time extended from the west coast of Japan to the Mediterranean.

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 Spices of various kinds

And it is here, in the Nilgiris, that many of these coveted spices are still grown. A moist climate throughout the year together with moderate temperatures and rich soil works wonders to sprout these jewels of exquisite flavours.

Fresh peppercorns look like garlands of plump, green berries. Depending on the kind of processing, they turn either black or white – while the former is hot and pungent, the latter is milder and smoother. When soaked in brine, the white peppercorns acquire a luscious pink hue. Black pepper in traditional medicine is believed to be a digestive, diuretic and stimulant.

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Types of peppercorns

Cardamoms again can be of two types – the green is smaller but more fragrant while the larger brown variety has a bolder taste. Besides refreshing the breath, cardamom is believed to aid the digestion and act as a heart stimulant too. A small shopping tip – buy cardamom that is still encased in its pods so that its flavours remain intact. After using the cardamom seeds, you can put the pods in jars of sugar or rice to impart a sweet aroma.

Cloves are actually dried flower buds that have a sharp astringent taste. Apart from flavouring food, clove is used for dental hygiene and its oil applied to treat toothache. However use clove sparingly – a little of this intense spice goes a long way.

With its warm, sweet flavour, Cinnamon is a must-have for any self-respecting gourmet. And believe it or not, it is actually the inner bark of trees of the Cinnamomum genus. Apart from jazzing up cakes and curries, cinnamon is again thought to alleviate symptoms of acidic peptic diseases.

Isn’t it wonderful how our very own corner of the Western Ghats is home to such flamboyant flavours? No wonder then the masala chai brewed from all these spices turns out to be the perfect  accompaniement  to cold, misty Nilgiri evenings.

A Peek into Toda Culture

The winding uphill path suddenly opened out to a wide grassy plateau-like feature. We had arrived at a Toda village – the chief reason why I had signed up for this 14 km hike in the first place.

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The Todas are an indigenous tribe of the Nilgiri hills in southern India. They are originally a pastoral community, even though the modern day members are steadily settling down to agriculture and small businesses. Regular contact with civilization has eroded many socio-cultural practices, like fraternal polyandry as well as much of their distinctive language. Paradoxically though certain aspects of their culture have become disproportionately popular – like their shawls brightly embroidered in red and white as well as their signature jewellery – indeed in recent times a rising awareness about the need to conserve their habitat has actually led to new construction of their typical oval, half-barrel-shaped hutments.

No such structures were in sight here, though. But as several Toda men and women milled about on the grassland and even performed a traditional rhythmic dance, my gaze travelled to a secluded grove lined with stones, in which their temple was housed.

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The Toda religion is as distinctive as their temple. In keeping with the central position of the buffalo in Toda culture, their religious head is the priest-milkman who tends the sacred buffalo and apparently, lives under numerous strictures, including leaving behind his family for the time he acts as the keeper of the sacred dairy.  Again we did not get to see either the priest or the animal – instead the organized merry-making concluded with a highly animated visit to the busy Toda handicrafts stall and then finally the customary felicitation of the village headman by the hike organizers.

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As we started back, I could not help feeling that this brief, superficial interaction was not exactly what I had in mind when I had set out for the hike. But then, I realized that a deeper engagement with their culture based on long meaningful conversations and preceded by a good deal of reading was the stuff of serious research, lifelong study and dedication – and surely this ancient people deserved no less!

The Hunt is on…

On the day of The Hunt, the sun dawned on a regal scene. Red flags fluttered in the gentle breeze as the lush valley glowed a pale emerald in the heart of the Wellington Gymkhana Club – today the site where the dashing riders of the Ooty Hunt Club would converge on their steeds after a three hour ride. Even as elegantly dressed ladies twittered in the pavilion and their bundles of energy darted through chairs, there was a palpable sense of expectation – any moment now, the riders might come into view…

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The Hunt in this context is actually a formalized horse-riding exercise, often through uneven terrain. Though real hunting of game no longer takes place, the hounds faithfully carry on before the riders – in a throwback to the British tradition whereby the erstwhile colonial rulers brought the Hunt into this corner of the Nilgiris in 1835. It has remained active ever since, thus making the Ooty Hunt Club the only functional one outside England and Ireland. The Club is primarily patronized by the riders of Defence Services Staff College in Wellington, whose Commandant is its Honorary President as well. Every year there are around ten Hunts conducted, with each getting progressively difficult.

Low sighs of wonder rustled through the audience as the riders galloped into view – the Masters of Fox Hounds resplendent in their red blazers and other riders – including a lady and two kids as well – smart in their navy ones. After the new riders were ceremonially given their lapel pins, it was photograph time…

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All around were bright, happy faces – riders and spouses posing proudly with the mounts, kids petting the now-sleepy hounds, the grooms beaming proudly upon being complimented on their excellent work – I wondered at the shrill ugly voices of hyper-nationalism, always dangerously near. Always up in arms to defend “tradition”, would they ever understand this scene before me? These values of fairplay, respect for rules, regard for the sport and sheer love for these grand animals – values that represented tradition in the best sense of the word.

 

Super-powers of the Deep

Recently I came across something very interesting about certain creatures of the deep sea. At great depths of the ocean where there is no natural light, there are a few species which actually produce their own light. The angler fish and the appropriately-named flashlight fish are two such kinds. In fact the angler fish has a spinal projection from its head at the end of which is a bulb that glows – it can even switch on and off the bulb by controlling the flow of blood to the particular part of its body. Incredible!

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Photo courtesy: nationalgeographic.com

The phenomenon of living things giving off light is known as bioluminescence. And while glow worms and fireflies do this by mixing chemical compounds in their bodies, the deep-sea fish described above, do it with the help of special light-producing bacteria in their bodies.

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Photo courtesy: Ammonite Films

Then at the other end, is a kind of deep sea fish which has the ability to make itself practically invisible. Known as the hatchet fish, it has sides covered with large silver scales that act like mirrors besides two rows of light-producing organs on its underside. With any light falling on the fish being reflected back by the mirror-like scales, it can easily escape detection by its enemies and predators.

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It is only a matter of time, I guess, before DC and Marvel Comics come up with a super-hero inspired by these amazing creatures of the deep!

Should it come to this…?

On a day that I received a whatsapp forward with a link to a news report about a most unsavoury incident regarding two services wives, I was sceptical. So much of fake news is afloat on the internet that I don’t bother to go to the link unless I recognize the name of the news site.

But because this mentioned a specific incident, I decided to click on the link. The details I will not go into but for the purpose of this blog only indicate that a lapse in military etiquette escalated into an incident of reported physical assault. Fortunately I personally know neither individual involved but unfortunately I am all too familiar with the situation. Services wives throwing around the ranks of their husbands and using it to humiliate younger ladies is one side of the picture while on the other side is a pressure-cooker environment where otherwise ordinary personalities crack under pressure of expectations from the upper hierarchy and break out in unacceptable behaviour.

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The army is too vast, varied and hence complex for anyone to come up with easy solutions to such problems. All that I realize is that with every passing day is that it becomes more difficult for the organization to live in a cocoon and pretend that it will remain forever untouched by the rapidly changing interpersonal, socio-economic dynamics of the larger society. Equally undeniable are challenging working conditions of military officers which in turn determine their special social and gender codes. The way ahead probably lies somewhere in between and would require reorientation at every step but till it is found, some sensitivity and mutual respect would, I think, go a long way…

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ART You Like It…

In case you thought that the only art worth owning in the world was the Da Vinci’s Monalisa and Van Gogh’s Sunflowers, you will probably not believe that narrow alley walls and iron corrugated sheets can be the site of art installations. Here are then two kinds of creative expressions that have pushed the boundaries of ‘art’.

Graffiti Art

Isn’t that an oxymoron – scrawls on disused building walls, one would think, was the exact opposite of Art. But Graffiti in the hands of artists like Banksy is now not only appreciated as a highly creative form but it has been around much longer than the of modern urban slum. The word actually is Italian in origin and means ‘scratched’ – in fact the first ‘graffiti’ artists were busy chipping patterns on rocks and pebbles a whopping 30,000 years back.

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Pop Art

Soup cans and comic strips as Art ?! Yes, you read it right – these were some of the everyday objects that was transformed into cultural icons during the 1960s. the most widely recognized example of the Pop Art movement is perhaps the golden print of Hollywood sex goddess, Marilyn Monroe by Andy Warhol.

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On a day when I left chose a quiet drive into the mountains over shopping malls and city restaurants, this quote by John Muir said it all for me:

“Keep close to Nature’s heart and break clear, once in a while, and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods. Wash your spirit clean”

With worldly commitments, a week away would have been clearly impossible, but I did come away refreshed in soul and the smell of pines in my hair…

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A Beginning…

Amidst the misty environs of the Nilgiris, few pursuits can be more fulfilling than reading. With a book in hand and a steaming cup of Darjeeling tea, one could easily get lost in winding, twisting lanes of Imagination or get transported to faraway times and places.

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And so, a long-held dream was given shape when our very own book club met for the first time. It included members from fields as diverse as pure sciences, management and literature. We began talking about the kind of books we read and subjects that interest us.  What a myriad colours went up to make the palette – travel, fiction, poetry, philosophy, biography and so much more. We discussed the perplexing plot of The Time Traveller’s Wife which is nevertheless made relatable by its charming comedy. Also up for discussion was the philosophy of spiritual leader J Krishnamurti and the challenges involved in its comprehension. Far more engaging was the digression to Rishi Valley School, based on Krishnamurti’s vision of education and its relevance to present-day educational system. Scattered mention of Oprah Winfrey’s new biography as well as Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet added variety to our discussions.

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Eventually we got down to the business of choosing a book and headed for the library’s biography section. After a good deal of rifling through shelves and badgering the assistant librarian about book titles, we decided to go with four different biographies of the first woman Prime Minister of India, Indira Gandhi. With her being at the helm of several controversial and decisive moments of the country’s history, the texts promise to be interesting!

When The Lights Went Out

As I looked for the candles, one of the stories from Jhumpa Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies came to my mind. In this short story titled, “A Temporary Matter”, an estranged couple makes a series of confessions over four nights of power outage which eventually impacts their marriage in important ways.

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Will this evening bring about such significant changes around me too? Unlikely, I thought as the cheery voices of my neighbours rolled in from their balcony, singling ‘Mamma Mia, here we go again, My My how can I resist you”.

In these times of social media compulsions, masks and faces have become increasingly difficult to differentiate. Perhaps, this darkness brought about by a two-hour power cut might be one of those rare occasions when, with no gadgets to fall back upon, human souls would be compelled to dig into their innermost resources. Thus while some belted out songs from a carefree past, one settled down with a book in the light of the candle. While I rustled up comfort food in the flickering kitchen lamp, another persistent soul, I realized with a rueful smile, sought out the powerbank to connect the smartphone.

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What would people have done long ago, I wondered as I sat down beside my dog – petting her occasionally, unfamiliar as she was with this kind of darkness. In the past, when people’s lives were governed by the rhythms of nature? They would have got up with the sun, worked in fields or shops or travelled, and then winded up things with nightfall. Life would have been simpler ; indeed the significance of the Bengali ritual of lighting the evening lamp struck me now – in the gathering darkness, the first lamp to be lit in the home would be at the sacred altar accompanied by prayers for the family’s safety and well-being as well as the blowing of the holy conch. In fact according to my mother, the sound of the conch would serve to scare of any wandering snakes trying to get too close to village homes…

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A chill ran down my spine – simpler, maybe, but never easy. Life has nowhere, not at any time been easy!

The One Known as Shakyamuni

Paradoxes attract me. So the other day when searching online for images of inspirational quotes, I was quite intrigued to find so many by the Buddha. For a world battling violence, hatred and destruction at multiple levels, it is curious how popular his words are.

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This is turn motivated me to refresh my knowledge of Buddhism. Dating back to 5th century BC, this religion preaches nirvana or liberation from the cycle of birth and death through the practice of meditation, morality and wisdom. Buddhists believe in the Four Noble Truths according to which this world is chiefly characterised by impermanence and suffering which can be avoided only by walking the Eightfold Path of right understanding, intention, speech, action, livelihood, effort, mindfulness and concentration.

Though Buddhism does not believe in rituals or worship of deities, its followers regard the Buddha or the Awakened One as the ultimate source of spiritual wisdom. Originally a prince of the Shakya clan,   Siddhartha Gautama, went through a spiritual journey which ended in the sixth century BC when, seated under the Bodhi tree, he received enlightenment on how to move beyond the cycle of suffering and rebirth to nirvana. The teachings and ways of living that emerged from this enlightenment eventually became formalized as Buddhism.

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How is then Buddhism relevant to the contemporary world? For a society steeped in materialism and vulnerable to violence, do Buddha’s precepts apply at all? Some would say his messages of non-violence and detachment to earthly pleasures are more pressing than ever. But to me, it is the focus on personal spiritual development that is most empowering. Removed from all notions of ritualistic practices and human inequality, his is a call to discover the core of stillness and purity within the human self and then act accordingly in the outside world.

 

Through the forest trail

A ten km hike – did you say? I pushed my brains to some extreme calculations – alright, if the morning walk with my dog amounts to roughly one and a half kilometre, then multiply that into…mmm….a little more than six times?! And yet even after such mental calisthenics, I was no nearer to gauging how the hike would turn out in reality.

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When I had first looked up the word ‘zen’, I had found that one of meanings was a state of such complete absorption in a particular experience that there was no place for doubt or anxiety. Something similar happened in the hike – both my physical and emotional faculties were so deeply immersed in the sights, sounds, smells and texture of the forests that we passed through, that nothing else mattered – not the undone laundry at home, unreplied mails, pressing work deadlines or long pending appointment with my hair stylist.

The soft forest floor which sprung ever so gently under our steps, the myriad shades of green all around us, the refreshing scent of pine and ever so many kinds of bird calls – chirps, trills, whistles and even the occasional outburst of the laughing thrush…all this engaged my senses so entirely that at the end of three hours – including a couple of ten-minute breaks – I returned to the everyday world with mixed feelings – looking forward to a hot, three-course meal but also concerned for the sanctity and the vitality of these sylvan Nilgiri slopes.

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Eye of the Crocus

Famous for warming up any dish or drink with its intense colour and delicate aroma, Saffron is undoubtedly the most attractive of spices. And the fact that it is the most expensive too, only adds to its luxury quotient.

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Saffron’s exorbitant value owes directly to the fact that it takes over two hundred thousand stigmas from around seventy thousand Crocus sativus flowers – grown in roughly the size of a football field  – to yield just a pound of saffron ! Fortunately a little of the good stuff goes a long way – you need only a few threads of this to add the rich red colour and honeyed aroma to a family meal.

While Iran today accounts more than 90% of the world’s saffron production, good quality spice also comes from other Meditteranean regions of Greece, Morocco, Azerbaijan, Spain and Italy as well as the Kashmir valley in India.

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A parting tip before you buy saffron – check for red threads with orange tips. If the threads lack the orange tips, avoid them as they may be dyed.

While saffron has been used in cosmetics, medicines, fabric dyes and even pesticides in different cultures, today it is most coveted for its power to transform the simplest of dishes into food fit for the Gods. So dust off your recipe book and see what you can make from this most gorgeous of spices.

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How To Make Your Teen Read More…

The twentieth anniversary of the release of the first Harry Potter book, saw a flurry of media articles on the way J K Rowling has changed kids’ reading choices forever. A lot was discussed on how  stories of the boy wizard making his way precariously through the forces of good and evil has caught the imagination of both young readers and their parents.  And statistics have been quoted to prove how the habit of reading was alive and kicking among children.

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And yet, why are these trends so rarely reflected in our own families? Why do I find it difficult to engage my teen with books? A major reason, I am told, is the vast range of recreational options available to kids these days. Smartphones, tabs, laptops, Playstations, the telly – a virtual Disneyland of electronic entertainment which streams endlessly into our homes… Why then take the trouble of choosing a book and make the effort to read and use your brain to figure it out too?

Experts on the subject have no dearth of suggestions on how to get kids and teens hooked to the world of books. Make them relevant, some say; why take them to Malory Towers and  Hoggwarts, when the wide open fields or the fantastic mythology one’s own country can be the setting for stories? Again others believe one has to make an extra effort to get these kids’ attention  – sign up for  story reading workshops, take them to celebrity book launches or get movie stars to act out the stories in films and TV series so that they can go back to the written word.

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Or maybe, just find the time to sit and read together. Though the initiative comes from me, and I have to call upon my limited dramatic skills to make the narration as lively as possible, after a few days of doing this, she picks up the book on her own and looks for the page where we left off. I guess, this works best with my teen –  let me know what works with yours…

The F word…

Today I came upon an interesting bit of news, tucked away in the inner folds of the newspaper – actress Emma Watson leaving around copies of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale all across Paris in an attempt to enhance awareness about women’s issues.

Despite being in an industry where an image is carefully crafted to appeal to the widest public opinion, fortunately Watson has no qualms calling herself a feminist. This got me thinking about iconic feminist books, one of which is The Feminine Mystique by the American writer Betty Friedan. The title refers to “the problem that has no name” – a sense of worthlessness women feel in roles that require them to be emotionally, financially and intellectually and dependent upon their husbands.

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Published in 1963, the book grew from the responses Friedan got to a questionnaire she sent to other women in her 1942 Smith College graduating class. Most answers indicated a vague dissatisfaction with their lives which led Friedan to expand the scope of her research, including not only suburban housewives but also looking into the psychology, media, and advertising of the time. Through her findings, Friedan hypothesized that women are victims of a false belief system that requires them to find and meaning in their lives only through their marriage and motherhood.

The impact of the book was immense – it asserted that women’s issues were not merely a private matter but were shaped by forces of politics, culture, media and commerce. More importantly The Feminine Mystique went on to influence theories in other related fields such as politics, sociology, history and literature as well as women’s studies, thus ushering in the second wave feminism in United States.

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Of Paddy and a Silly Bro-in-law!

So many of these posts are about the rains – not consciously though!

Monsoons are a big part of India’s natural, cultural and emotional calendar, like I mentioned in one of my previous posts. And it is that time of the year now!

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Besides, presently living in the Nilgiris, I love these gentle drizzles – just enough to moisten the air and the earth but with none of the ferocity or the resultant muck typically of heavy rains on the plains.

As I was listening to old Bangla songs on rains, I came across a few lines which in turn took me back to folk rhymes of my childhood. These would be traditionally short stanzas – lively and colloquial. One goes thus:

“Aaye brishti jhenpe,

dhaan debo mepe,

dhaaner bhetor poka,

Jamai-babu boka!”

The above may be loosely translated as:

“O Rains, come down hard

so that we can plant paddy

but insects have spoiled the grains

and guess what – brother-in-law is a duffer!”

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I completely understand the befuddlement of readers unfamiliar with Bangla language or folk culture. What on earth does paddy have to do with one’s bro-in-law!

Maybe because ‘poka’ (insects) and ‘boka’ (silly) rhyme well!

Seriously though, all I can think of, is that the arrival of monsoons ushers in relief and merriment among the village women folk and thus, in spirit of the season, a brother-in-law ends up as a convenient object of ridicule. Indeed the relation between a shaalika and jamai-babu – a young girl and her elder sister’s husband – is traditionally a fun bond involving gentle teasing and at times mild flirtation too!

More on Bangla folk rhymes next time…

A Sip of the White Peony

At a time when the world is looking for ways to de-stress, the good ol’ cuppa has enjoyed a resurgence of popularity. Green tea especially is known to be rich in anti-oxidants and hence to boost the natural immunity of the human body.

But which tea is the most flavoursome? The one grown on the mist-laden slopes of Indian Himalayas, many would agree – more specifically the Darjeeling variety, known as the ‘Champagne of Teas’ for its aroma and delicate body.

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Photo courtesy: makaibariteam.wordpress.com

And if that is so, some connoisseurs would point out that the equivalent of a Dom Perignon in the tea world would then probably be Makaibari. Shadowed by the third highest mountain peak of the world, the Kanchendzonga, Makaibari is a premier tea estate in North Bengal, India. Comprising over 250 hectares of Camelia Sinesis on slopes ranging between 700 m and 1500 meters of the majestic Himalayas, this plantation has several firsts to its credit – the most significant are being the wold’s first tea factory in 1859 as well as attaining the world’s first organic certification for a tea garden in 1988.

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Away from the world of statistics, I prepared for myself a cup of Makaibari Bai Mu Dan or White Peony tea. The brew had a pale green colour  – almost white – and it was subdued on the palate with a mild honeyed aftertaste. And though I failed to recognize the aroma of “soft peony and mown hay”, as mentioned on the cover, I realized that my gaze had already drifted to the straggling geranium bushes in my flower beds whose shadows in the gathering dusk appeared like slightly drunk,  swaying caterpillers on the garden wall – happily, the tea was doing its work!

One in the Other

Yesterday at a friend’s place, I spotted a set of nesting dolls – a series of dolls of decreasing size, the smaller fitting into the larger. Since she had just returned from a trip to Russia, they could only be the country’s famous Matryoshka dolls.

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While I had come across such sets in museums and living rooms before, looking up its history never occurred to me. So I turned to the internet and found a delightful blog detailing the probable origins of this form of folk art. It appears the Chinese were the first to come up with nesting boxes which eventually gave way to crafts based on the basic premise of one hollow structure encompassing another. The Japanese too have their tradition of kokeshi and daruma dolls which draw on its ancient mythology as well as tradition of Zen Buddhism.

The first nesting dolls to be made in Russia were apparently by a folk artist named Sergei Maliutin assisted by Vassily Zviozdochkin with the support of Savva Mamontov, a wealthy patron of the arts. Eventually the craft of making these dolls spread to East Europe and other parts of the continent.

Today, nesting dolls come in an attractive variety of sizes and themes – while mythology and folk culture remains the traditional models, modern artists are drawing on politics and pop culture too to give nesting dolls a contemporary edge.

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My imagination however began ranging further – what is the reason behind the timeless popularity of these nesting dolls? Is it because they are painted in bright colourful patterns, depict matronly women to appeal to the infant in us or perhaps because they symbolize one of the fundamental truths of the universe – that life can be known only by peeling off its many layers – one after another…

 

Monsoon Musings

With the monsoon clouds gradually spreading their welcome shadows over the length and breadth of India, I felt like searching for poems which would make apt reading as it gently drizzled outside.

And while I browsed through a few classic verses on rains, it occurred to me how different cultures feel about this natural phenomenon. For the European landscape, where rains usually intensify the cold and bleak weather conditions, it can mean misery and suffering while in a country like India where the fields and its people wilt under the blazing summer, the arrival of the rain-bearing monsoon winds – ‘from the Arabic word ‘mausim’, meaning seasonal – spells relief and prosperity.

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Here is a poem by renowned American poet Emily Dickinson, which depicts the transformative beauty of the rains – its arrival is celebrated almost as a festival, something that Indian folk culture can relate to !

Summer Shower

A drop fell on the apple tree,
Another on the roof;
A half a dozen kissed the eaves,
And made the gables laugh.

A few went out to help the brook,
That went to help the sea.
Myself conjectured, Were they pearls,
What necklaces could be!

The dust replaced in hoisted roads,
The birds jocoser sung;
The sunshine threw his hat away,
The orchards spangles hung.

The breezes brought dejected lutes,
And bathed them in the glee;
The East put out a single flag,
And signed the fete away.

-Emily Dickinson

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Rainy Evening Treats

What is better than a cup of steaming tea on a rainy evening?

A plateful of hot fritters to go with that steaming cuppa, of course.

I am not sure if there is any complex physics as to why fritters should taste better with the rain pouring outdoors but it just does. Common sense tells me that the cold dampness brought about by the rains is naturally evaporated by the warm fumes of tea and hot fritters. But then why doesn’t other stuff like a plate of scrambled eggs just off the stove-top or roast leg of lamb fresh out of the oven warm the cockles of the heart equally?!

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Let’s break apart that fritter and see what goes into it? Variously known as pakora, bhaji, tempura, arancini, calas or latkes across the world, these are fundamentally, bite-sized fried finger foods made from a batter of chickpea flour, cornflour or egg, coating cut, sliced or mashed vegetables, cheese, meats, fruits or starch and then deep fried in some form of fat.

But wait – “hushpuppies” and beignets have no filling to speak of and yet they are lapped away as fritters too!

So, like all things universally successful, the fritter too scores because of its simplicity – lending itself to a whole range of permutations not only with ingredients but methods as well – some can be shallow fried on a skillet too; ideally you  just need some stuff for the filling, a batter to bind it all with and away it goes, sizzling into the hot oil…

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…So all ye gods, bring on the rains!

‘My Story’

Many a time when I am used by people, I am described as white – does it mean I come in other colours? The other extreme, perhaps – black? Or an indeterminate, in-between shade – grey, maybe?

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Of far more variation is the purpose to which I am put – to gain power, riches, love or to kill and hurt but equally to save, protect, indulge in social niceties and sometimes simply to make someone feel better. At times, I am dragged into a matter merely to act as a ballast to an ego or conjured into existence simply out of habit.

Isn’t it curious that considering the rampant use that people make of me to realize their own interests – small and big – they are equally keen on inventing mechanisms that are supposed to put me away? Personality tests, behaviour study, graphology, high-tech machines and even the practice of swearing on a holy book before a court!

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Men and women, young and old – each human makes use of me sometime or other. However there have sprung up popular legends about some personalities who reportedly became famous without much help from me – there is George Washington and story of the cherry tree as well as the persona of the ‘Honest Abe’. Again the iconic proponent of non-violence, Gandhi, conceived an entirely philosophy and plan of action named ‘Satyagraha’ in opposition to me.

Sure, there are people who claim to be able to do without me just as societies and religions devise ways and means to find me out. But guess what – I am gonna be here a long, long time, my friend…after all, how will the world run without a lie?

-Extract from, The Autobiography of a Lie

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Travelling Light

Ask any veteran traveler and he/she will tell you all the benefits to carrying minimum luggage on a journey. You can breeze through airport check-ins; spend more time sleeping in; watch the sun go down the mountains; dawdle over the morning cup of coffee with your beloved…generally take your time over myriad little pleasures that life has to offer.

On the other hand, if you have a mountain of stuff to lug around, you are sure to be sucked into the whirlwind of planning, plotting, packing, forgetting something, taking a few items out and trying to fit it all back in – in other words, using precious time and energy obsessing over things you probably don’t even need in the next destination.

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Sounds uncannily true of life, too – doesn’t it? Yes, it sure helps to shed some weight as one transits through significant phases in life’s journey. Does one really need all the baggage of the past? Why not leave behind the praise and blame with equal grace! Just as you wish to walk away from the hurtful experiences after learning its lessons, so also absorb the strength of joyous occasions and then move on.

The great Latin writer Seneca wrote, “Every new beginning comes from some beginning’s end.” And travelling light is the best way to prepare oneself for a brand new start…

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“Lake water lapping with low sounds…”

In the wake of the World Environment Day, I thought I would pen down something about the need to protect the natural beauty of the Nilgiri mountain range. Ooty, variously known as Ootacamund and Udhagamandalam, is the busiest city of the Nilgiris.  It is an extremely popular summer holiday destination for people from the plains of southern India. Unfortunately in recent years, it has been showing the ill-effects of such popularity too. Roads choke with traffic, parked vehicles and garbage while ugly hotels and unplanned construction pain the eyes.

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Thus it was with a great sigh of relief that we left the town behind and turned to the narrow path leading to the Pykara Lake. Technically a reservoir formed as a result of the dams on the Pykara River, the Lake nevertheless mesmerizes with its azure blue waters. This is exquisitely set off by the emerald green of the bordering forests. As part of the protected nature reserves, these forests have been known to shelter a variety of wildlife including herds of wild elephants, bisons and even the odd tiger.

The Pykara Lake has exciting boating options for visitors ranging from motorized speed-boats to rhythmic canoes and even comfortable paddle-boats. A short distance from the Lake are the Pykara Falls which look gorgeous with their white foaming waters after they have been replenished by the monsoons.

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With better road connectivity and more tourists coming by cars, such hidden gems of nature have become more accessible now. Unfortunately this brings with it the danger of environmental pollution – hence the challenge remains to balance tourist delights with preservation of pristine habitats.

Literature and Setting

On a day when The Hindu carried an interview with the Booker-winning Indian author Arundhati Roy, my mind turned to what really goes into writing fiction. When the interviewer Zac O Yeah asks her about how much autobiographical detail goes into her book, she responds with a question of her own – “…where does your imagination end and experience begin?”

As I began to ponder over the question, my eyes swept over the misty blue hills visible from my front veranda and my attempted intellectual exercise took an unscheduled turn. So then, could a physical setting – the colours, sounds, smells and even the mood of a place affect your writing? I began to wonder…

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There are accounts that writers look for a peaceful and evocative places to compose poetry – certainly the Nobel Laureate Tagore did that! He not only visited naturally exquisite places in India like Ranikhet and Shillong where he wrote some of his best works but travelled to far-flung places like Japan, Turkey and South America which provided the impetus for his essays and letters on a range of topics like culture, nationalism and history. Then there are the famous English Romantic poets like William Wordsworth who found inspiration in the serenity and beauty of the Lake District.

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On the other extreme are women writers – no surprises there! – like Emily Dickinson and Jane Austen who barely left their immediate surroundings and yet left a mark on the history of English literature.

How about dirt, pollution, conflict, violence – can one write in a place marked by such intense negativity? Even though a writer could be writing about experiences like riots and forced migrations, but can he/she do it while all around the landscape burns and smokes?

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These are questions to which there are no simple answers and which take me to entirely different time periods and settings – far, far away from my bit of paradise in the hills where my dog sits softly curled up at my feet and nuzzles me for her breakfast.

A Case for the ‘Little Grey Cells’

This afternoon was devoted to Poirot and Hastings as they unravelled The Tragedy at Marsdon Manor. Since I had never come across the title in an Agatha Christie book, I was quite intrigued when it popped up on Youtube. For around fifty minutes, I let myself be carried away by the fantastic play of the famous little grey cells – I love practically everything about the ITV series – the authentic setting, smooth direction and of course David Suchet’s meticulous acting as the titular Agatha Christie’s Poirot.

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When I finally settled down for my siesta, my mind began wondering about what was it about detection stories that have always captured a large section of readers and now viewers – is it a recognition of the villain’s evil desires in the shadier realms of our own heart? Or the more straightforward civilizational longing to see good triumph over evil ? When harmless young girls and hapless old women or any such innocent people are brutally killed, something rages in us and demands that justice be done, that the murderer gets his/her just desserts – and the instrument for this is of course the ever-reliable detective.

Indeed so popular has been this subgenre of fiction that today one can find various subdivisions of this figure – there is the amateur detective like Miss Maple, the private investigator like Sherlock Holmes, the police detectives in the manner of Inspector Dalgleish and now thanks to the TV series, forensic specialists too – the most (in)famous of whom is perhaps Dexter from the eponymous series.

But of course where would the detective be without the faithful assistant! Sometimes providing comic relief or the humane angle, at other times the much-needed support of the brawns to the brains and very often the narrator’s voice – an effective assistant is indispensable to the success of detective fiction. And so Holmes’ exploits are narrated by Dr. Watson, Poirot is complemented by Hastings and even the bungling Inspector Clouseau has his devoted Ponton.

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At the end of the day, the appeal of detective fiction, may lie in something simpler – the innate human desire to put together the jumbled pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, to find the answer to an intriguing riddle. Perhaps it is this which makes us want to curl up on a rainy evening with a mug of steaming coffee and a good who-dunnit !

Happy Reading 🙂

Crossing Frontiers of Gender Roles

It was while writing my book on 20 Greatest Explorers of the World, that I first came upon the figure of Sacagawea – an amazing Native American woman who played a crucial role in the success of the early nineteenth century Lewis-Clark expedition which became the first American group to discover a route to the unexplored North-western part of the USA – all this at a time when women were expected to stay at home and bring up children!

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Here are a few more jaw-dropping facts about the woman pioneer:

  • Sacagawea was the only woman in a 33 member Lewis-Clarke expedition
  • She was from the Lehmi Shoshone Indian tribe and acted as a guide and translator for the expedition thus ensuring the leaders of the expedition could negotiate with the Indian tribes along the way in a fruitful way.
  • Her traditional survival skills were of great help to the well-being of the expedition. She was extremely knowledgeable about where edible roots, plants and berries could be found in the forests – all of these were used as food and sometimes, even as medicine.
  • When the preparations for the trek began in full swing, Sacagawea was pregnant with her first child. By the time the Clark-Lewis expedition set off, Sacagawea had given birth to a baby boy who would be named Jean Baptiste and would also make the entire trip and back, snugly resting in a sling on his mother’s body.sacagawea.jpg
  • In July, 1998, the then US Treasury Secretary Rubin announced that an image of Sacagawea would be chosen as the face of the new dollar coin. Though the decision led to some controversy since it ended up replacing the Susan B. Anthony coin, eventually the choice of Sacagawea put the seal on her rightful place in the annals of the great explorers of the world.1_Dollar,_United_States,_Sacagawea,_2000_D_-_National_Museum_of_American_History_-_DSC00279.jpg

 

‘How I Feel About Changing Schools’

Today’s crumbs are scattered by another pen – My daughter’s:

*Huh. People want to know how I feel. That too, about changing schools – A topic I could not be more familiar with.*

“I really don’t feel like lying now, so I’ll come out with the truth – I HATE changing schools. Ever since I moved to Wellington, school has been stuck in my head. This caused the following nightmare to hijack my dreams of swimming in chocolate: I dreamt that for some reason, I was late on the first day of school. When I reached class, my friends from my previous school were in one section, and I all alone in the other. Fortunately, I was woken up by the loud sound of Rabindra sangeet playing somewhere on my mom’s phone. Ugh. Anyway, good riddance, I thought.

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Actually, changing my school (again) has been bothering me since we left from Secunderabad. I wasn’t tensed as much as mamma or papa about the packing, furniture etc.  What was really depressing, was changing my school. I counted the number of schools I had changed, and it came to a grand total of seven…! When we arrived in Secunderabad, I told myself not to get attached to anything, or not make too many friends, since we were only there for ten months. But  I found the best friends I had ever made in my life. I felt accepted there, which is something every kid of my age wants. I found amazing teachers there. Leaving all that behind, especially for a cranky teenager like me, didn’t exactly help my self esteem.

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But, like all things, I guess there is a good side to changing schools too. I thought about this and realized, I have a chance to make friends all over again. So if I get lucky, who knows? Maybe I’ll have better friends and teachers here. Eh, the more the merrier, am I right? :D”

Rediscovering Don Quixote

 

While setting up house, I discovered that the abridged copy of Don Quixote – admirably retold by Henry Brook – that I had bought some months ago for my teenage daughter was still in a suspiciously good condition. After being assured that “Of course, Mom, I have read it till the end”, I decided to probe no further since I was myself guilty of merely skimming this classic when it was part of my undergraduate curriculum way back in college.

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So, I decided to give the Don another chance.

To say that I enjoyed it would be an utter understatement! Don Quixote, which is today best remembered as the source of common proverbs like “tilting at the windmills” and adjectives like ‘Quixotic’, has so much more to offer its readers. Yes, it is bustling with pranks, comedy, eccentricity, and wit but at the same time it underlines the importance of being true to one’s purpose – no matter how much derided by a world which does not understand.

Both the main characters are unforgettable, to a great extent because of the way they contrast and complement each other. The lean, middle-aged Don Quixote fantasizes about being an errant knight which repeatedly puts him at the receiving end of pranks and skirmishes, often with great cost to his physical and emotional well-being. His squire Sancho Panza on the other hand is more practical and loves his creature comforts, especially a good meal of pig’s trotters and a flagon of red wine.

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And yet all is not so simple – in the second book, Sancho Panza too succumbs to illusions perpetrated by the Duke and his wife. And in fact it is Don Quixote – the butt of jokes all this while -who eventually comes off as the epitome of true knightly qualities like simplicity, modesty, helpfulness as well as courage and conviction that are not just physical but moral.

Indeed, one of the most interesting aspects about the work is a self-referential exercise by the author. In Part Two, Don Quixote is told about how a book has been written about his ‘exploits’ and what a huge best-seller it has turned out to be. Here we can appreciate Cervantes’ nod at his actual literary project and possibly poor financial returns since at one point, the Don asks whether the author has been able to make any money out of the book – a predicament that us writers can commiserate with!

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Miguel de Cervantes is today regarded as among the greatest writers of all times and the most famous poet of Spain. Though his literary corpus includes poetry, plays and other novellas, his most enduring work remains Don Quixote often praised by eminent literary historians as the “first modern novel”. For someone like me, reading it on the other side of the world and four hundred years later, the novel not only appeals with its engaging plot, lovable characters, gentle humane vision but most poignantly the idea that before time runs out, follow your dreams – if possible with a companion who need not be a romantic partner and need not entirely share them but just someone who has your back!

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3 Things I Now Know About Superheroes

With the hype building around Spiderman’s Homecoming, most movie channels are raining Superhero movies on their hapless viewers. After watching quite a few of them this summer, here are 3 things I now know about superheroes.

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They have daddy issues

When viewers meet the superhero for the first time, he is well into adulthood. We almost never see him being brought up as a child – at the most, we get back stories and inevitably they involve missing parents. Though generally brought up by a loving foster family, our superhero remains angst-ridden all his life over the fate of his own family and this mystery often make up sub-plots in successive films.

They love getting Kinky with costumes

Half the fun of transforming into a superhero is deciding on what fantastic costume to take on. Think Rubber, lycra, leather, armour – you name it, and there could be a look waiting for you. Though capes and tight-fitting body-suits are slowly giving way to high-tech ‘intelligent’ costumes, still there is a lot of space to play around with colours, materials and masks.

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They get the coolest girls

Fighting alien monsters and saving the world are all in a day’s work for our favourite superhero. But if this is a job description that you wouldn’t care for, consider some of the perks that he gets to enjoy. And among the most attractive of these are the girls that the superheroes get to romance. These range from spunky reporters like Lois Lane and Vicki Vale to the resourceful Pepper Pots and the vivacious Gwen Stacy. Of course – none of these romances can turn into happily-ever-after stories since our superheroes are kept busy battling ogres of all shapes and sizes. Still, till the time their girlfriends are around, there is never a dull moment.

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What else have YOU deduced from the many superheroes movies? Share with us in your comments…

When do you know that a friendship has ended?

If you are like me, then you take a long time to let a friend close to you – and a longer time to realize she has moved away.

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Friendships come difficult to me – to chance upon a person who shares my interests and fundamental values is in itself a timing-consuming undertaking. Next follows the delicate business of reaching out to such a person and gauging whether I might mean as much to her as she could mean to me. At last comes the chemistry bit – how do we really feel when we both hang out? Are the breaks in the conversation comfortable or embarrassing? Do we look each other in the eye when chatting and laughing or are we checking the phone every other minute? Are we eager to make time for one another despite busy schedules? Do we finish each other’s sentences or share the highs and lows of our own life?

Over many months, it became increasingly clearer that none of this was happening between me and her. Physical distances are an undeniable fact of modern life when social and professional mobility scatters people who have grown up together. And yet the modern age also has given us the amazing gift of technology which makes keeping in touch across the miles easier than ever.

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What do you do to find closure when you know a friendship isn’t going anywhere? I could call and text – yet again – but will probably be met with silence or a curt “been busy” like every time I have tried in the past months. Or I could go for the surgical measure of deleting her phone number, pics and memories from my system. If neither works, perhaps I need to find a way to let my friend know how much she meant to me and how sorry I am we moved away from each other.

If only she were reading this…

When does a house become a …Home?

As I settle down with my family in this shady corner of the Nilgiri Hills – having moved house yet another time – I wonder what is it that transforms a physical shelter into a ‘home’.

  • when you start cooking meals at a place for yourself and your family
  • when your dog finds its corner and curls up comfortably
  • when you hang up paintings and family photos on its walls
  • when you plant flowers and sow seeds on the adjoining patch of earth

So many ways to fashion, mould and remake a dwelling into one’s own.

Ah…another difficult word! Do I actually ‘own’ all this – the brick, wood, earth – with which I put together a home. It is a predicament familiar to those living in rented places, staff quarters, company bungalows and so on.

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What then makes up my home, why then should I care, how then can I put down roots..!!

 

As I ponder over these questions, I find a vague comfort in a section of Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet:

“…Your house shall be not an anchor but a mast.

It shall not be a glistening film that covers a wound, but an eyelid that guards the eye.

…For that which is boundless in you abides in the mansion of the sky,

Whose door is the morning mist,

and whose windows are the songs and the silences of the night”.

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A Sunday Treat

Tucked away in a corner of the Nilgiris, one gets to appreciate the true bliss of a misty Sunday morning. With arrangements for brunch safely out of the way, I slid back into my snug bed with the Sunday papers and my second mug of coffee that morning. After lazing about for more than hour, I decided to get up. Reheating the said mug of coffee for the fourth time, I strangely felt comfortable in my warm kitchen even as I could see a grey mist just hanging out from the windows. I left the clothes in the adjoining verandah to their damp fate on the line and allowed the aroma of the coffee to swirl through my veins. My eyes fell on two golden yellow mangoes in the fruit basket and I remembered how I had blogged about the divine fruit a few days ago. A thought started taking shape through the wispy coffee vapours…

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What extra-ordinary experiences are possible when technology and nature come together! Thanks to broadband connectivity, within 5 minutes I had found a recipe which listed most of the ingredients that were lying around in my pantry. To get me going, I chose to play Tagore’s Megher Pore Megh jomecche  in Suchitra Mitra’s powerful voice…

“Clouds gather on the horizon,

darkness descends on my sky.

I stand at the doorstep, My Beloved

You make me wait – Oh why ?”

Perhaps the comforting aroma of baking somehow clashed with the melancholy lyrics but by the time I was tidying up the counters, my senses were awake in a curious way – alive and saturated, as though, in all that was beautiful and evocative…

Oh – in case you were wondering about the recipe:

Pre-heat the oven at 200 degree C and line an 8 inch round tin. Cream together 2/3 cup of unflavoured butter and 1 cup of white sugar till light and fluffy. Beat well 2 eggs into this mixture. Sieve together 1 ½ cups plain flour with 1 tsp baking soda into the mixture and give everything a gentle swirl. Now fold in ½ cup buttermilk (can be substituted with sour milk – for that add a tablespoon of lemon juice or vinegar in half a cup of milk and rest it for 10 minutes) very gently. Pour into the prepared tin and bake for around 40 minutes. When it has cooled, glaze the cake with warm mango jelly and finish with a mango rosette on top!

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Board Results Out – What Next?

It is that time of the year again – no I am not going to discuss my tax woes or daughter’s birthday bash arrangements. But something that pushes thousands of young adults – as well as their parents – to the darkest pits of anxiety. Class XII Board Results.

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College or course

For most, the declaration of results is just the beginning of another race – admission to a graduation programme. Now if you are lucky – or have the marks to vault over the impossibly high cut-offs – you can study the course of your choice in a college of your choice. The majority understandably have to compromise either on the subject or the institution. The latter becomes important because of highly qualified faculty, lucrative placements, interesting co-curricular clubs and the general environment of research which is extremely important in shaping a student’s academic breadth. On the other hand, studying a course of choice ensures that a student has the passion for the subject and hence can willingly put in hours of hard work required to excel. If there is a choice that has to be made, personally I believe that studying a choice course is better than sacrificing your interest for the sake of big-brand institution. One can then look for other ways – like sign up with reputed online course and look for well-regarded internships – to give your resume that added dose of glamour.

Professional course or general stream

If a student aims for a professional course like engineering or medicine, there are the entrance tests with increasing levels of difficulty every year. In the event that he/she is not able to crack any of these, should they continue with preparations or join a general graduation programme? Most take the middle way out – sign up with a relatively undemanding graduation course and focus on the professional entrance tests. The more confident ones on the other hand take a year off from formal studies and decide to focus solely on the tests. Sometimes this gamble pays off, at other times it doesn’t. If you are faced with such a predicament, objectively evaluate your level of preparedness and proficiency and then take a well-considered call.

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Take help

I am a firm believer of reaching out to others for help, especially professionally. If you are unable to figure out what to do, rather than simply following your friends to whatever they are signing up for or falling prey to full front-page newspaper advertisements, seek out a career counsellor. Granted that would cost money, but your options and aptitude will be put before you in black and white. And if resources are a real problem, then talk to industry experts or even college faculty members – most will be glad to help.

So then, wishing all students the very best in their endeavours! Even if you haven’t scored as well as you would’ve liked to or not got through the college of your dreams – have faith. Keep your passion alive for your goals and sooner than later, you will find a way to reach there.

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Why Pop Music Fans Go Crazy…!

Even as the teen pop sensation Justin Bieber was flying out of Mumbai after performing at the showbiz hub of India, social media was already abuzz with reports of him lip-syncing most of the songs at the concert. Jokes and memes began to fly thick and fast on how Beliebers had been practically taken for a ride.

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As only a mildly interested observer of the contemporary pop music scene – primarily because of my fourteen year old daughter – I tucked away this bit of information at the back of my mind till the next day I saw it played at prime time on all popular nation-wide news channels. And when she  commented with a smirk, how fans had fought for tickets worth thousands of rupees for this, I decided it was time to do some digging.

Mumbai’s May 10th gig was part of Bieber’s Purpose World Tour and the concert at DY Patil Stadium was suitably hyped as the biggest pop music live performance till date in the country. No wonder then, though tickets started at Rs 5000, it shot up to as much as Rs 75000 which included backstage passes and Bieber memorabilia.  And with a packed crowd of around 60,000, the resulting Rs 20 crore business must’ve pleased the organizers.

But how does India compare to international concerts? Not too badly – it turned out ! According to a Forbes report, of the top five US concerts in 2016, the highest average ticket price was $216 for a Madonna concert. Incredibly the 50-something pop diva is the only one to have tours where the average cost of entry exceeds the $200 mark !

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What is it then about pop music that makes fans cough up big money? That makes them scream, tear their hair out and swoon at the sight of their favourite stars on stage? Apart from the teen penchant for idol worship, it may be the specific ambience of the live performance. There is the energy of the performers multiplied several times over by the reciprocating crowd, not to mention the exciting interaction between the performer and audience which produces its own electricity. Swaying, dancing, singing along, thumping your feet or even just clapping with thousands of others is a feeling that cannot be matched by any digital device. In fact the vibrations produced by loud music at concerts – especially with the help of modern sound reinforcement systems – have been known to induce physical sensations which young people find pleasurable and hanker for.

Finally, such concerts act as a gathering venues for music lovers with similar tastes; meeting other fans and networking with professionals in the field have their own appeal which draw thousands to a favourite band’s/star’s gig.

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So, whether or not Bieber lip-synced in this one, what will continue to matter for music lovers around the world is that for a while at least, they access that ecstatic space where enthusiasm resonates with talent and they can go back home with a bit of immortality in their memories.

 

In Silence, Thy Voice will be Heard…

Tumi Robe Nirobe…

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Today – on the 156th birth anniversary of Rabindranath Tagore – these words of the Nobel Laureate’s deeply moving song is a reminder of the continuing relevance of his poetry and other writings. He was the first Non-European to receive a Nobel Prize when in 1913, his collection of poems titled, Gitanjali was awarded the coveted prize for Literature in recognition for having “written the finest poems of an idealistic tendency”.

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And yet his global reputation has not always been even.

When W.B Years, Ezra Pound and others tried to make the world aware of Tagore’s works, they heavily depended on the popularity of contemporary schools of mysticism, Theosophical Society and other spiritualist groups. This led to the image of Tagore as a Mystic of the East, the Bard who was the keeper of timeless fountains of spirituality and through his poetry was now spreading its precious waters across the world. Indeed Rabindranath’s physical appearance—handsome, bearded, dressed in Oriental robes—may, to some extent, have encouraged his being seen as a carrier of exotic wisdom. The problem with this image was that instead of encouraging people to evaluate Tagore’s works in actual literary terms, made them seem merely spiritualist, and as time went on, he and his writings began to be seen as repetitive and distant.

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The truth on the other hand was that his short stories, novels, plays, essays and letters show a keen engagement with the real world. He had practical and clearly thought out views about nationalism, war and peace, cross-cultural education, freedom of the mind, the importance of rational criticism, the need for openness – and did not just concern himself with mystical and religious experiences as the West would have liked to believe.

Tagore’s essays particularly traverse a wide range of topics, beginning from literature, politics, culture, social change, religious beliefs to philosophical analysis and international relations. Co-inciding with the fiftieth anniversary of Indian independence, a selection of Tagore’s letters by Cambridge University Press was published which has helped readers and critics to rediscover Tagore’s ideas and reflections and made them extremely relevant to the modern world. Apart from being a literary genius, Tagore was a talented painter as well whose pictures, with their mixture of representation and abstraction, have started to receive the acclaim that they have long deserved.

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While the rest of the world has now only started rediscovering the beauty and power of his writings, Rabindranath Tagore has always remained a towering figure in the Bengali literary tradition which goes back to more than a thousand years. Not surprisingly in 1971, the newly independent country of Bangladesh chose one of Tagore’s songs—the “Amar Sonar Bangla” which means “my golden Bengal”—as its national anthem. Tagore had already composed the music and lyrics of Jana Gana Mana or “Thou Art the Ruler of All Minds” which had been chosen as India’s national anthem way back in 1947. This makes Tagore the only poet in the world to have been the composer of the national anthems in two countries – surely as significant a measure of his lasting relevance and greatness among the authors of history as any.

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– Excerpt from 20 GREATEST AUTHORS OF THE WORLD Kalyani Mookherji, Prabhat Prakashan, 2016. ISBN: 9788184303599, 8184303599

5 Ways You Can Use a Mango

Among the few things to look forward to in the blistering summer of the Indian plains is the prospect of experiencing that most divine of fruits, mango. When ripe, the sweet fleshy fruit  – depending on the variety – glows in colours ranging from emerald green to passionate crimson and can make you heady with its delicious fragrance.

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Here are then 5 things that you can do with the mango:

Eat It

Before you roll your eyes at this most obvious of inputs, consider this fun fact – globally, more fresh mangoes are consumed every day than any other fruit. And if you are wondering how, truly you are spoilt for choice. Mangoes can be eaten raw in salads and salsa, cooked in curries and chutneys, pureed and used in a variety of desserts, preserved as pickles, jams and murabbas or just peeled, sliced and gobbled up whenever the fancy strikes you.

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Drink it

Ways to slurp up mango can range from enjoying its sharp tartness to its heavy sweetness. Aam panna  is a refreshing drink made after roasting the raw fruit and then seasoning the flesh with mint leaves and spices like freshly roasted and ground cumin. Aam ras is a thick sweet drink and usually rounds off a meal in the western part of India. There are of course the usual milk-shakes and smoothies which use the golden flesh of the mango to give the drink a delicious body but also try out mango lassi that gives a fruity spin to the popular summer yoghurt drink.

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Smell it

Of course, you do that while buying mangoes from the fruit vendor but have you ever enjoyed of its fragrance outside the dining table? Mango blossoms have a distinct smell – a sort of a combination of sweet and musky. While modern perfumers – check out Mango from The Body Shop and Mangue from Sephora – have only recently began exploring the possibilities of this special fragrance, in Indian culture the aroma of mango blossoms holds a special place. In Hindu mythology, mango blossoms appear as one of the five arrows of Kama-deva or God of love while the Bengali poetic giant Rabindranath Tagore was reportedly energized by the early summer fragrance of mango blossoms to translate his Gitanjali into English, which in fact went on to win the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Paint it

The sensual appeal of the mango is further refined in the sphere of fine arts. The elongated shape of the fruit with a delicate point appears in the art world as the Paisley whose origin has been traced by design historians to India – very likely due to the fact of the country being home to this most delicious of fruits. Paisely patterns are popular in saris, shawls, scarves, carpets as well as other exotic fabrics and accessories.

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Pun it

If you are exhausted by all this sensory overload, take heart from the ways the mango can lend itself to delightful puns too. Hence the commercial by a popular fruit juice brand which pitches its mango drink as Aamsutra, telling you that it probably is the next best thing to Kamasutra, the ancient Indian love manual. Finally you must have heard about Banana Republics but how about the Mango People’s Party? While the Delhi Chief Minister has his hands full already with party infighting and corruption charges, the ordinary – which actually puns with the Hindi name for the mango – people can surely use the wordplay to get some comic relief!

The Open Road…

Today I took a road trip from Hyderabad to Bangalore – a distance of 580 km under a white-hot summer sky. As the scrublands of the Deccan dotted with flaming Gulmohar trees flew by, my thoughts wandered on the many meanings that The Road has come to acquire in language and culture.

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There is the obvious one of the physical journey symbolizing earthly life – travelling along a road with its many twists and turns, crests and valleys, meetings and partings is a common metaphor for the entire course of a human life with birth as the starting point and death as the final destination. Of course for the more positive or religious among us, the latter can be conceived as entry to another world – perhaps the beginning of another metaphorical journey !

Indeed because of its symbolic richness, the road has frequently been the focus of poems, songs and movies. The old country classic “King of the Road” celebrates a life on the go, free from material and emotional baggage while the Kishore Kumar gem “Rahi tu mat ruk jana…” from the 1964 movie Door Gagan ki Chaon Mein is sure to uplift any tired sun-scorched traveller with the eventual promise of a shady green oasis.

In fact, there is an entire genre of road trip movies where the protagonist’s physical journey unfolds both as the setting and the instrument for the search for an inner purpose or spiritual meaning – or simply the attempt to preserve life, as evident from the many violent thrillers in this genre. While the Hollywood ones are too diverse to discuss here – my personal favourites are Rain Man as well as Thelma and Louise – in Bollywood, they are finally making a more frequent appearance. Dhanak, NH4, Road Movie and Finding Fanny are some that I have watched recently and liked.

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For me personally, the road and all that it signifies is best evoked in the poems of Robert Frost. In “Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening”, the speaker notices the beauty of the wayside but eventually heeds the call of responsibilities since:

“I have promises to keep

and miles to go before I sleep”

Even more expressive of my deepest thoughts is “The Road Not Taken”. Giving up easier options, popular choices – all this I can better relate to. It is the untrodden way that beckons me – new challenges that make me feel alive! I can almost believe that when writing about which path to take, the great American poet had my life in mind :

“I took the one less travelled by,

And that has made all the difference.”

Bon Voyage !

 

First blog post

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“In this Universe, teeming with life –

Amidst this plenitude,

have I found a place –

My very own space

…and it fills me with wonder !”

These words indicate my humble attempts to translate one of the most epiphanic songs written by Rabindranath Tagore, winner of 1913 Nobel Prize for Literature. In the original, the Bengali song  begins as “Aakaash Bhora, Shoorjo Taara…” and as it gradually rises to a sonorous crescendo, it never ceases to inspire me with the realization that Life – with all its vicissitudes and anxieties – is a Gift to cherish and nurture. And every time I hear the song, it moves me to silently bow my head in grace and thanks to the Creator.

There is, in fact, a more direct reason for choosing the words of this classic Rabindrasangeet to launch my blog – words, books, poetry, music and being a Bengali are all facets of my identity that I am passionate about. At the same time I am keenly aware that there are so many writers out there whose blogs on these topics are perhaps more popular than mine can hope to be.

And yet – here am I…This blog is my effort to claim in this digital universe a place of my own…my very own space…!!!