Table For One

In a Post-Truth world, I am wary of messages on social media. But a recent one has got me thinking for some time now. And having just watched  71 – a hard-hitting independent British movie about a soldier inadvertently left behind on the riot-ridden streets of Belfast at the peak of Northern Ireland conflict, I began to realize the enormous significance of hope in the midst of fear and violence.

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A Still from ’71                                                                                   Photo Courtesy: The Guardian

At National Defence Academy, India’s premier training institution for young military cadets, the dining hall is a prime attraction for outsiders. Officially known as the Cadets’ Mess, it has a seating capacity of 2100 cadets at one time. But little do people know that just outside, stands a solitary table set just for one with its chair tilted forward. This arrangement is in remembrance of all those brave souls either Missing In Action or taken Prisoners of War.

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On the table is a vase with a single rose indicating the love of the families who still hope for their return.  Tied around the vase is also a red ribbon to show solidarity with all who demand a proper accounting of the missing. The candle on the table is never lit, symbolizing lack of light and happiness in their absence.  A slice of lemon placed on the bread plate stands for their bitter fate while the salt is reminiscent  of the tears shed by their loved ones. Finally the glass is upturned indicating that they cannot dine with us tonight.

What a remarkable symbol of the sacrifice of all those who left to do their duty by their country but never came back!

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“Let the chair remain tilted

Let the lonesome table still be set

The candle keeps its dark vigil

lest we forget, lest we forget !”

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When you have so much more…

The more I think about it, the more I wonder…How would it feel, knowing that you are not allowed to?

OK, then let me start from the beginning.

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There was a time last month when we had guests drop in rather frequently for dinner. I found myself hosting three get-togethers within less than three weeks, I think. Fortunately I had help with the preparations since my exams were right round the corner. Though I prefer to cook for parties myself, having someone to peel, chop, grate, crush, mince, dice, julienne and such-like paraphernalia is a blessing. But something has been bothering me recently about those memories – how would it feel to handle meat, exotic vegetables, imported fruits and quantities of expensive ingredients, when you know you cannot afford them in your own home?

Even though we are not regular party-throwers, my insistence on a wholesome diet means that I often buy foods that ever-rising inflation places out of the reach of many families, like that of my help. So perhaps one day, searching for a spice, she comes across bottles stocked with dry fruits like cashews, walnuts and almonds. Or she may find herself cooking an amount of goat meat enough to feed a party of 15; Or she is washing up even she feels heady with the aroma of saffron-infused basmati pulao that I have just taken down from the gas range – what can possibly go on in her mind when her own children may not have had such stuff on their table for many many months. Then there is the  boiling of chicken, daily, twice a day for my dog!

Indeed, my train of thought began ranging further. How does it feel for a poorly paid accountant to  handle vast sums of money – especially in cash – when his own child may be suffering from lack of expensive medical treatment. Or perhaps for a night-shift nurse in a hospital  caring for patients when her own mother is old and alone at home, with nobody to pick her up if she stumbles in the dark room and falls.

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Such morbid thoughts, you say…but just think, once, how much we take for granted!

Kohima Chronicles

No, I didn’t spot a hornbill – nevertheless there was much to marvel in this Land of the Brave and the Beautiful.

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The brave…

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Sprawled across the slopes of Japfu range is the capital city of the state of Nagaland – Kohima. The city and its people walk with a calm balance – here sunny mornings can give way to sharp, gusty showers later in the day. gorgeous blooms of roses, geraniums and hibiscus grow in dusty pots, if not plain poly bags.

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And the Beautiful.

Though the tinned roofs of the cityscape are an eyesore, the predominance of bamboo walls could be a lesson in organic growth to other Indian hill stations. There are no opulent bungalows and sprawling hotels but neither there are reeking poverty-stricken shanties. Apart from KFC, I didn’t notice many big brands but was elated to find so many shops selling musical instruments and plump succulents. Here is an attractive example of inspirational graffiti art:

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I was warned that the Naga market with its raw display of meats was not for the faint-hearted yet I was found so many types of organic grown greens on sale. Then again despite the messy tangle of corruption, extortion and politics, people appear satisfied and self-contained. In fact my whining about the bone-jarring drive from Dimapur to Kohima was met with mischief-marked smiles – leading me to believe that they don’t mind the torturous access so much if it keeps crowds away. And yet over the first week of December, Kohima throws open its arms to the world for the Hornbill Festival.

Not surprisingly I returned with more questions about this land than answers…I would love to hear more from anyone who has lived and breathed its moist, mist-scented air!

New Market Matters…

Paisleys, stripes and waves dancing on royal purples, jade greens, ruby reds – a myriad colours, patterns and textures shimmering before my eyes. I lapped up the sensory feast though fabrics were clearly not on my shopping list.

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But then, this was how one of Kolkata’s most popular markets made a lifelong follower out of you. Typical of the city’s paradoxical attractions, New Market continues to be called so, despite the fact that it is more than a century old. Built on the express initiative of Sir Stuart Hogg, then Chairman of Calcutta Corporation, it was inaugurated on 1 January 1874 as the first municipal market of the city and a much-needed destination where the colonial settlers could shop for their stationary from R.W. Newman or Thacker Spink or buy their dresses from Ranken and Company. Later the market was named Hogg Market but eventually came to be known as just New Market.

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New Market in 1945

Today, I was interested in a bewildering spectrum of stuff – leather hand-bags, baking accessories, summer shorts, wine-glasses and finally biscuits from Nahoum and Sons, the only confectioners in India that I have come across who sell the Turkish dessert baklava on a regular, no-frills basis. Smoky Bandel Cheese is again one of the cherished offerings of New Market and might well be among the remaining traces of Portuguese cuisine in India outside Goa; just like delicious pork sausages that my friend tells me cannot be matched elsewhere in price and flavour.

Dripping in the humid heat, nevertheless we plodded on – she rolling her eyes at my “under-developed bargaining skills” and I guiding her through the semi-lit, steaming, maze-like lanes. Eventually when our arms could no longer bear anymore weight, we hailed a cab. Truth be told, I a little reluctantly, since my brain was still ticking off the items I could have still bought to take back to the Nilgiris.

Maybe a slice of hot, smoky cosmopolitan Calcutta to carry to my cool, hill-side home. Yes, I would have liked that !!

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New Market now

Follow the harvest trail…

Today amidst the flurry of New Year wishes, one particular post on social media caught my attention.

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The fact that we Bengalis – as a linguistic and cultural community undivided by international boundaries –  share our New Year with festivals in other parts of India invariably gladdens my heart every time April comes around. As we get ready to feast on kosha mangsho and payesh – must-haves on the traditional Bengali spread – Tamil Nadu is celebrating Puthandu, Kerala is enjoying Vishu Kani, Assam is swaying to Bihu, Punjab is rocking to Vaisakhi and Orissa is marking Pana Sankranti.

Interestingly, many parts of South and South-eastern Asia also usher in their traditional New Year around this time. Thailand, Laos and Burma are awash in the colours of Songkran, Pi Mai Lao and Thingyan respectively.  The Cambodian Choul Chnam Thmey literally means “Enter New Year” in the Khmer language and the Sinhalese New Year is known as Aluth Avurudda. The official calendar of Nepal, Bikram Sambath too is unfurled around this time. Indeed Bangladesh celebrates Pahela Baishakh  in a most spectacular manner with the Mangal Shobhajatra in Dhaka now being declared by UNESCO as a cultural heritage of humanity.

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Photo courtesy: The Asian Age

There are many ways of explaining this concurrence of festivities. Astronomically, this time marks the beginning of the Aries zodiac known as Mesh in Sanskrit – thus countries which had been influenced Sanskrit/Hindu astronomy historically, for example as a result of invasion by the Chola dynasty, still follow its cultural observations.

What I like to think though is that all these communities are bound by ancient rhythms of seasons and agriculture. Not so long ago and still so in some places, harvests would be gathered in at this time, larders filled and prayers of thanks offered for Nature’s bounty. What else could explain so many rituals associated with rice, water and earth?

Today, with increasing urbanization, many of these harvest rituals are fading away. And yet, the spirit of cultural belonging remains strong. If music, food, art and nature help Bengalis push religious and national identities in the background to come together on Poila Boishakh, young Khmer girls dress up in all their traditional finery half-way across the world in Georgia, US.

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What an amazing place is this world of ours !

Holi Colours on the Horizon

Soon the sky is going to be awash with dusts of pink, red, orange,  green, blue and yellow.

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That’s right – India is getting ready to ring in Spring with a riotous festival of colours – Holi. Just like with all other Hindu festivals, this too can be traced back to mythological narratives; the story of Holika, sister to Prahlad – an ardent Vishnu devotee,  who is saved from being burned to death by his piety and in whose stead Holika burns.

Or something like that – I never did have a taste for these gory stories…

But on ground, Holi is celebrated with the full fervour and flavour of any other spring festival across the world –  indeed by some accounts, celebrations even touch Dionysian limits of frenzy. By and large though, Holi is an occasion to ring in the rejuvenation in Nature that accompanies the change of seasons from winter to spring in most parts of the country.

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In north India especially, the respite from foggy mornings is welcome as the sun’s rays grow stronger and life-sap begins to flow and hum. In eastern India, this is the season when red and orange  flowering trees like Krishnachura and Palash set the landscape ablaze and fire up the blood. Known as Dol in Bengali, Holi was transformed into a Spring festival, Basantotsav by Rabindranath Tagore in Shantiniketan  where the young year is still ushered with music, dance and poetry.

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Though Holi celebrations in southern india are more muted, nevertheless the occasion is marked by narrating folk songs about the God of Love, Kama and his consort, Rati. In Braj region and western India, Holi is interwoven with the romantic exploits of the butter-thief God, Krishna whose stories still grant a degree of licence to young people across the country to give in to amorous revelry.

The colours of Phagun, the musky fragrance of thandai, lilting thumris in raag Kafi, the dense sweet taste gujiya and the warm embrace of loved ones – Holi is a pure explosion of sensory pleasures.

And I am not complaining !

Mummies of Egypt – an ancient science and a lasting wonder

Of the original Seven Wonders of the World listed by ancient Greek travellers like Antipater of Sidon and Philo of Byzantium, today only the Great Pyramids of Giza remain. Egypt though continues to draw travellers from across the world for a related attraction – mummies.

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The Egyptian God Anubis attending the mummy of Sennedjem

Ancient Egyptians believed that earthly death was the beginning of the person’s journey into the next world. If the person was to live in another world, the body had to survive and to this end was invented the science of mummification. This was a process of preservation of the body – all the internal organs of the dead were removed and put in canopic jars. The body was next covered with a mixture of salt known as natron to remove all moisture. Then the body was wrapped in thin strips of linen, decorated with protective amulets and placed in mummy case or coffins.

Because of the highly expensive and lengthy – the mummification of a single body could take up to 70 days – the process was reserved only for the rich and powerful. However , all Egyptians in those days would be buried with certain goods essential to make the supposed journey to the other world – these would include food, household objects like bowls, grooming tools like combs and other trinkets. The wealthy were of course were expected to make the journey into afterlife in style and hence were buried with jewellery, furniture and later with certain symbolic objects like shabtis and scarabs.

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A complete set of canopic jars

No matter how elaborate the burial arrangements, the living however could not expect their responsibilities to diminish – they were  supposed to continue to visit the tomb of their deceased relatives with food and prayers –  talk about the dead not giving up !