RUMI – The Mystic

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The other day I managed to beat the alarm.

After lying in bed and staring at the darkness for what seemed an eternity, I decided I might as well enjoy some coffee.

Now fortified with caffeine, I was raring to go. But rather than diving into work, I wanted to do something different – “let me use the early hour”, I thought. As I stared at the wallpaper, I realized a change was long due – soon I was browsing for a suitable replacement.

Rumi has always been a favourite voice for inspirational quotes and images. While I have quite a few of these on my phone, I hunted for an image of good resolution for my wallpaper.

But first a little about the person himself. Jalal-ud-din Rumi was born sometime in first century AD in Balkh – a flourishing centre of arts and learning in Khorasan, north-eastern Iran. Like his father, Rumi became highly respected as a teacher and philosopher, even before he turned 30.

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But soon his life was to be turned upside down. At 37, he met a wandering dervish named Shams al-Din Muhammad bin Ali Malikdad Tabrizi and was deeply influenced by the latter’s mystic teachings. However Tabrizi’s fame earned the jealousy of many and the seer left without telling anyone. Though heartbroken at Tabrizi’s disappearance, Rumi was inspired to write Divan Shams Tabrizi, now considered his greatest poetic work. Eventually all of Rumi’s teachings and philosophy came to be compiled in six volumes of Mathnavi, by his loyal disciple, Hesam al-Din Chalabi.

Today Rumi’s words quite often find their way into lists of inspirational sayings and quotes. One reason why they are so popular could be perhaps that even when taken out of context, they do surprisingly well. Then again their essential mysticism means that they lend themselves to varied interpretations – depending on the inner compulsions of the reader. Finally the natural imagery, fluid verses and a sparse symbolism means that despite being translated from Persian, his words glow with hope and generosity across time and space.

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Why the Republic Matters

Today India celebrates its 69th Republic Day.

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A Republic is understood, technically, as a nation where supreme power is exercised by elected representatives of its people. In India, the President is elected by Members of Parliament and State Legislatures who in turn are elected by the people. Granted the process is circuitous, but at the end of the day, even the highest executive authority in the land cannot govern just because he/she happens to be born into the right family, gender, caste, religion or class.

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If the Republic is the temple of Indian democracy, then its reigning deity is none other than the Constitution. The longest written Constitution in the world, this lays down the fundamental rights as well as the duties of Indian citizens.  The Preamble crystallizes the essence of Constitution, laying down for all time to come in clear, ambiguous terms the core principles of the Republic namely, Justice, Liberty, Equality and Fraternity.

The real message to take home after all the pomp, splendour and self-congratulation is over.

3 Top Signs You Are With A Frenemy

Among the more colourful portmanteau words to have invaded pop culture in recent times is Frenemy – someone who appears to be a friend but often, insidiously, behaves like an enemy. If a couple of people in your personal circle send out such ambiguous signals and leave you feeling confused, here are top 3 ways to spot a Frenemy.

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Back-handed compliments

Do words of apparent praise from this person actually leave a bitter taste in your mouth?  If yes, watch out! Say you just pulled off a negotiation with that difficult client and instead of celebrating a sure-shot fat commission or a corner office coming your way, he/she says something like “Wow, now you can go on more out-of-town office tours in business class” , focussing on the minor negative – longer tour hours – rather than major positives like higher pay or perks.

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Goading you to make bad choices

Yet another sign of a toxic pal is him/her pushing you to make choices that may be couched in trendy words but are clearly bad for you – a lip colour that makes your skin look paler or stripes that make you appear stouter. Once you have fallen for your frenemy’s suggestions,  he/she is sure to smirk and point out that they would not be caught dead wearing THAT.

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Makes you feel bad

So why do people stick with such toxic personalities at all – frenemies usually take pains to be nice in the initial stages of a relationship and by the time you have recognized them for what they really are, they have put you down to their heart’s content and thus got their pay-off before moving on to other unsuspecting souls. Again such personalities are usually hyper-social and appear to be very popular, fashionable which attracts people rather shy or less self-assured.

Unfortunately the high of being befriended by someone apparently popular is a very brief one as sooner than later, their words and attitudes leave you feeling more miserable and introverted than before.

So wise up to that cool girl/dude feeding off your insecurities and before he/she can hurt you again bid your frenemy goodbye!

A Walk through Calcutta History

1724 – Calcutta gets its first European Church, built by the Armenians.

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The Armenian Church Spire

So, what else is happening across the world in early 1700s ?

In mainland Europe, the War of Spanish Succession pits the Grand Alliance of newly united England and Scotland, the Dutch Republic and Austria against France, the kingdoms of Naples, Sicily and supporters of Philip in Spain.

North America is still a stage of colonial struggles among the British, French and Spanish though the colonialists are facing far more defiance in the southern continent from its original inhabitants and slave communities like Maroons.

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St. Andrews Church at a busy Calcutta crossing

Europeans have arrived in Africa in search for trade opportunities and found slaves to be the most lucrative prospect; Australia is still being “discovered” by European explorers while the Qin empire  around this time has made China the biggest economy in the world. In the Indian subcontinent, the Mughal empire is past its prime, 1707 being the year of demise of its last powerful ruler, Aurangzeb.

Fourteen years later Calcutta already has a thriving Armenian community who have the resources to build their first church. As more European traders flock to this hub of trade and commerce at the mouth of the Ganges in eastern India, the city opens out its arms to communities and people from across the world.

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The Portuguese Church in Mediterranean colours

And this is what the walk, was all about. Over the course of three and half hours lit by a weak winter Calcutta sun, we explored old churches, temples and synagogues practically hidden by shops and stalls on busy streets but all of them rich repositories of a diverse, multi-cultural ethos that Calcutta is still proud of today.

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Gorgeous interiors of the Maghen David Synagogue

Along with the Armenian Church on (ahem !)Armenian Street, we looked up St Andrews Church in Dalhousie Square, the Portuguese Church in the Bara Bazar, the Beth-el Synagogue on Pollock Street, the newly renovated   Maghen David Synagogue on what else !, Synagogue Street, the Saifee Masjid in Chitpur and the remains of the older Fire Temple on Ezra Street. The walk was rounded off with the visit to the Chinese Sea Ip Church on Terita Bazar as well as the Burmese Temple next to Central Avenue.

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intricately carved wooden panel at the Sea Ip Church

Cheekily titled, The Walk of the Unfaithful, the tour was conducted by let us go; well-known blogger and guide Rangan Dutta regaled us with facts, legal tangles and trivia about all these heritage structures and the colourful past that they symbolize.

Calcutta – so proud of you! Can’t wait to go back and sign up for another walk…

 

My New Year treat – date palm nectar

What sweet libation is this…Nectar fit for the Gods!

The date palm is not among the more famed offerings of the east Indian state of Bengal. Sweets like rosogolla, fine cotton and silk textiles, umpteen variety in freshwater fish delicacies and a penchant for the artistic temperament – yes! But date palms? Isn’t that part of the usual desert landscape? Or the mandatory prop of an oasis scenery ?

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But come winter and the date palms that dot the Bengal countryside – unlike anywhere else in the world – offer the most delicious liquid molasses, known in Bengali, as jhola gur. The sap from the date palms is collected in earthen handis tied to the trees and then after a bit of cooking on wood fire results in a golden brown liquid very similar to maple syrup in appearance but much more fragrant.

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Further cooking on the fire leads to a thickening of the syrup which is then poured into moulds made within the earthen floors of the thatched huts of gur-makers.

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In fact the final product may be of two types – a lighter brown jaggery that is mellower in taste and smoother in texture

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And one that is harder and slightly grainier with a more intense sweetness. Where this variety scores over the former is in its longevity as the lighter coloured version tends to spoil sooner while this harder version keeps well in the refrigerator, over an entire year even!

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I wish this blog post could reach Champaka Haldar, and her family who are among the fast dwindling tribe of creators of this truly delectable variety of jaggery.

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Unfortunately the range of skills involved in its processing – starting from the climbing up the palm trees and tying the handis to collecting the sap and cooking it on the firewood stove for varying lengths of time to get different textures is on its way out. With fields being cemented into urban settlements, younger generation migrating to cities in search of work, lack of government support for such cottage industries and winter setting in later or temperatures not dipping enough, I fear that the art of making patali gur may not survive for long – and with that Bengal will not only lose the flavour of nolen gur in its prized winter sweetmeats but the distinction of being the only culture with the knowledge of processing this tree nectar into the tastiest of molasses and jaggery.

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