Saturday, November 8, 2014

THE BUZZ WORD IS “INSTANT”



We live today in a fast paced world, caught in a whirl of frentic activity, living as we do in a jungle of modern gizmos supposedly making life easier for you, but which carry their own overload, linked with high expectations. In the slow paced world I grew up in, there was space for leisure and allowances to make you savour nothingness, which  alone was meditative. “What is this world if full of care, we have no time to stand and stare?”
Take our dear Parmasiva Iyer. He was our family priest, and would wear the softest of mull dhothis, with a small defining border, but no flash of zari or ornamentation. On his forehead he generously smeared ash, and when he was in a hurry the lines which were supposed to be drawn merged into a rectangle. In the centre of this thick white streak sat a large pottu of kumkum. He had a clean bald pate despite which  he sported his defining juttu with elan. He wore an angavastram which he opened out to stave off the early morning coolness of Bangalore. Everything about him was so clean and sacred.
Two days before the devesham dates of my departed ancestors,  Iyer would stride in, greet us all with his broad smile, and announce the “date” for the puja. Though this had gone on and on for many years, he would whip out a small pad which he carried in his bag and write down the list of all the items required for the puja, even though my mother knew the list by heart! She would promptly translate it into an English list in her impeccable handwriting.
Iyer as we always referered to him, would turn up at the appointed time and we the young ones would sit around fascinated at the slokas he recited with such accuracy.  When it came to prathiyath nainamma hain, we knew the puja was coming to a close, and what we loved was his placing the black dot on our foreheads and pressing in yellow rice over it.  He dipped the mango leaf into the water and sprinkled it liberally on us and he walked through the house uttering some more slokas as he sprinkled more water. I felt safe and protected at this ritual.
My father would insist on Iyer drinking some coffee, and though it was not a done thing, Iyer would gulp it down as he was more a friend than a visiting priest. He would spend time with my father and they joked and laughed together.  When he died, his brother took his place, but it just wasn’t the same.  Iyer was there when a baby was born and when the girls came of age, as purification had to be done. Horoscopes were examined by him and he was master of ceremonies in the pandal at our weddings.
 Just as the family doctor disappeared into oblivion so has the family priest. He is replaced today in continuum of the zoom of modernity by priests of somewhat aggressive and commercial personalities.  Though I do believe that these holy men should move with the times and not be submerged with static incomes, the old finesse has disappeared. The last gen of priests were tipped generously because of their goodness and graciousness.
The first time I saw the priests riding two wheelers at high speed with their hair flying in the breeze, undeterred by speed breakers, it took me some time to accept the fact that the pages had turned and the holy sect too bore the stamp of change.
Today the punyam comes in a package. When I wished to do a Navagraha Puja and wondered how to handle it single handedly with no younger women in the home bustling around seeing to the nitty gritty of the rituals, a young friend assured me that it could be done “like a breeze.” The price quoted came in a package. The priest had an email ID and he could send you the list of what he would bring on that day including the number of junior priests who would have to be paid. The  price of the package was quoted and you could respond online or call up the man’s mobile. All you had to do was to  earmark the place reserved for the homam, as long as it faced south east any place with room to move around was fine. The pujari brought in all the stuff except the bricks and the vessel to hold the fire, you didn’t have to worry about little cups or vessels or any paraphernalia.
Oh yes, the mobile…Bad enough when your maids, cell phone pressed to the left ear, head tilted to one angle stirred the curry or burnt the vegetables. Much worse when a pujari in between the slokas answers his mobile which seems to ring with unerring accuracy at the crucial time. I have made it very clear to my visiting priests. “PLEASE SHUT OFF YOUR MOBILES”
The danam to be doled out was specified, and the more the number of priests the costlier it was, but the number of priests gave rise to more slokas and you definitely gained in terms of blessings and the proper vibrations for your home! The quote relieved you of running to the nearest Nalli shop to buy the waistis and upper cloth and hoping that they approved of your choice even though you know they must have hundreds of the same stuff, different textures different borders!

Anyway “instant” has its advantages, and living as we do facing the empty nest syndrome we have to accept changes as part of our blessings. Why, even kozhakattais and adhirasams are packaged in sweetmeat  shops, along with seedais and gulab jamun powders, and my dear husband cannot for the life of him understand why I do things from scratch including pounding (read electrical grinding) of the rice flour at home. We have a friendly argument before every festival, but he hasn’t convinced me of taking short cuts, not just yet!

image from: http://www.mywedding.com/ramwedsaarthi/images/Bhramin.jpg

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Give us this day our daily bread


Do you know that the origins of this favourite food is about 7,500 years old?  Our Stone Age ancestors used to crush barley and wheat  on stone and make solid cakes. Ancient Egyptian tombs contained loaves of bread and rolls. Greeks and Romans accepted bread as a staple food. Bread and wheat were especially important in Rome and considered  more important than meat. Leavened and unleavened bread  is mentioned in the Bible. The cylindrical clay oven was developed by the Egyptians to improve bread making techniques. Other civilisations such as the Incas, American Indians and Asian, Indian and African cultures were also experimenting with bread making.

A Bakers' Guild was formed in Rome round about the year 168 BC. The bakers in Rome at this period enjoyed special privileges. The members of the Guild were forbidden to mix with 'comedians and gladiators' and from attending performances at the amphitheater, so that they might not be contaminated by the vices of the ordinary people! 
The Guild of Master Bakers is still alive today.


In Chennai, my ma-in-law was expert at producing bread snacks, a skill I absorbed from her.  Bread was then not easily available, and one had to buy bread from Spencers, Mc Rennet or Adyar Bakery. Spencers closed down its unit in the eighties, but they do have a long history of bread making, going way back to 1911 in Madras.

Modern Bakery came much later, and at the time could not compete with the other breads in terms of texture and taste. A bakery which made , incredibly soft white bread was Verghese & Sons Bakery with its main supply store in CP Ramaswamy Iyer Road. Being fond of bread as a family, the Bakery would supply us a loaf of bread every day or more if we needed it.. One find day our bread man stopped his deliveries. We waited for months but there was no signs of him. A visit to their  head office confirmed our fears. The place was sold and the legendary Verghese and Sons Bakery had closed down.

Many women of my generation begin to bake bread at home at least the more enterprising of us.. We could change the flavour, spice it with herbs or spike it with pepper, or add nutrients like bran, soya flour etc.. In the sixties yeast was not easily available. We could get tinned yeast in granule form which didn’t work well most times. What was best was bakers yeast from the bakeries, which could not be kept for long. Though the loaves might be denser than the ones from the bakeries, the quality of home baked breads were assured, and  the joy of seeing your own bread taking shape was something.  .

Bread is available today in so many avatars. You get seven grain bread, whole wheat bread, bread with rye etc in supermarkets like Niligiris, and you can have a nutritious bread of your choice in places like Amethyst, Hot Bread chain stores or French Loaf. The clubs bake excellent bread, we pick up brown bread from the Gymkhana Club regularly. The Madras Club offers excellent bread for sandwiches, which is their speciality.

Today I have acquired a bread machine which I bought in the US.  It is a boon and you can experiment with all kinds of bread. I add kothimili or methi leaves for flavour or make it a sweet bread  with molasses and egg. You just place the ingredients in the order specified in the book, and close the lid and switch on. The machine kneads the flour, rests the dough and then bakes the bread, but it takes anywhere between 2 ½ hours to 4 hours.

Bread is versatile in its various forms…you use it to mop up curries or stews, toasted it forms ideal  accompaniment to soups, and it forms a base for delicious toppings Bread can be dried and used for crumbs, and left over bread can be used for puddings. For the tiffin box, I used to make bread bombs, bread dipped into water and squeezed, flattened, and stuffing placed in them and deep fried. I would toast the bread and make imaginative toppings for tea time. Or grind a green masala, blend it into beaten egg with some milk, dip the bread slices and fry with a little oil. Add a blob of tomato ketchup over each slice and serve hot!

We have bread once a week for breakfast and serve scrambled eggs on toast, a spicy Spanish omelette or just sunny side up! What a versatile food, and a great substitute when you don’t feel like having rice or chapattis.

Happy bread day!

 

 

 

THE FLIP SIDE OF THE COIN


 

 

I have stopped saying,  “Wish you a long and happy life” for anyone’s birthday.  Happy yes, but long?  Instead it is better to wish  good health and peace of mind for the coming years. The life span in India was around 65, when people  died peacefully at home with the family around them. Today thanks to technological advancements and the wonder of surgery, life is prolonged and it is quite common to hear of people living well into their nineties and touch the score of “100 not out”!

When children nurture their parents, with loving care, they remain in fairly good health. Even if  they fall seriously ill, they get bailed out and resume their normal lives.  What one should examine is the quality of life led by senior citizens.  If they are lingering, besieged with ill health, dogged by mobility problems, lonely and without family around them the long life they have been blessed with is certainly not rewarding. The “children” who are caregivers, are themselves elderly with their own health problems,  and find it difficult to physically care for their aged parents.

Unable to handle finances themselves, the aged parents hand them over to their children, keeping “a little something” for themselves.  Unfortunately a little something is not enough to keep going, and as a result, it is the children who finally have to shell out enormous amounts of money to pay hospital bills, and the guilt syndrome compounds the burden of old age.  What then is the answer?

Medical insurance is a necessity, taken when one is in good health. The premium increases as you grow older, but believe me it is worth it. A major surgery and a weeks stay at a good hospital, cost Manorama  a tidy sum of ₹ 2 ½ lakhs and since she was in her nineties she had no insurance cover. Rangarajan her cousin, in his eighties, had a successful orthopaedic surgery, but developed post operative complications, which forced him to stay over three weeks in hospital costing him ₹ 3 ½ lakhs. Home nursing, or even trained help, costs about ₹ 350-400 per day for one shift, and the attenders will not do anything more than look after the patient. Full time maids are a thing of the past.

Setting aside money to cover contingencies is not an extravagance. Just think of it as money spent and not available to you. This way the health deposit will earn compound interest and comes in handy in times of crisis.  Not all of us can afford to put away a large sum of money.  Here is when understanding children can contribute to the fund which in turn will help them deal with the situation. Better this than buying unwanted gizmos like i pads, smart phones and gadgets which are redundant as they don’t know how to use them. This again is a sensitive issue, and none of us really wish to go to our children with begging bowls! Old age is layered with ifs and buts, without any guarantees that everything will turn out fine, but at least one can plan and hope for the best. When we are flush with youth, energy and success, old age with its attendant problems seems too far away to be of concern, and when the wave hits you, it is too late to retract or start the planning.

Retirement homes are now possible without any of the stigmas that were previously attached to them. It just means change of residence, often to the outskirts of the city you live in, and sometimes to another area entirely. The challenge of  compromise and giving up the old style of living falls on the elderly. Imagine a life without wondering if your maid/cook/driver will turn up! Or having to worry about what to cook and how to get to the hospital or bank! One drawback is that you live with a community of old people without the young to walk in and out to rejuvenate  lives.

This led me to start a voluntary organisation called Udhavi. I formed a core group of dedicated volunteers, drawn from our circle of friends, and a couple of them are also Club members. We offer assisted living.  Our spotlight is on  the elderly who live on their own without their children, most of them living abroad. Udhavi offers visits to people, conversing with them, offering to accompany them to the bank or shopping, maybe a movie, and teaching them small skills like computer lessons etc. We do not take up household work.

With the alarming reports of old people being murdered for financial gain, the elderly who need help are withdrawn, and they would rather suffer than let strangers into their home. Amazingly volunteers have poured in, but we have been judicious in selecting them. Regardless of status we  go in for police verification so that we safeguard the elderly and assure them that this is done. We have trained about 40 volunteers, each  ready to offer  help  and many of them seniors themselves.

Another important aspect is that we are preparing a data base of home nursing facilities visiting doctors etc. Udhavi is still in its infancy, but we plan to go ahead full steam, and are planning seminars and workshops, and making life meaningful for the old and the infirm, and none of them need to  feel a low sense of worth, but need to squeeze every drop of happiness that is legitimately theirs.

We might merely scratch the surface, but even if we light up 10 lives for the year, it gives us a great sense of fulfilment.

 

Sabita Radhakrishna

 

 

Saturday, August 16, 2014

THE UBIQUITIOUS IDLI


 

 

 

As usual we were cribbing about the prolonged summer irrespective of meeting in an air conditioned room.  How we didn’t feel like eating, thanks to this unrelenting  heat. The topic predictably drifted to food and our unanimous choice was cold curd rice and the ubiquitious idli. My niece who indulged in the culinary conversation spoke loftily about the idlis in her in-laws’ home. “Throw an idli up in the air and it is so light that it will suspend in mid air before it submits to gravity with a gentle thud,” she said with tremendous conviction.  I kept dreaming that night of idlis orbiting in space for a long time before bowing to the inevitable, with aliens floating around biting off large chunks of this delectable dish.

We might not make gravity defying idlis in our home, but they are light and fluffy, and even a non idli person like me has grown to like home made idlis.  There are various combinations and people swear by them. The proportions are debatable, some use the 2:1 ratio, others 3: 1, so it is a question of personal choice.

Where would we be without the ubiquitious idli? Or for that matter, dosais or sambhar? Nowhere in the country do we have such a wide range of breakfast dishes, but the idli-dosai tops the list.  This staple food of the South is a universal favourite despite the stereotyped l jokes on the idli. I remember one beautiful South Indian actress was labelled “idli”  in a magazine edited in Delhi. 

Our counterparts from other parts of India have adopted idli-dosas as part of their culinary repertoire, much the same way as we have, their chaats, phulkas or rosogollas.  While I maintain that not many South Indians can match the prowess of our North Indian sisters in making light as air phulkas, chapattis or parathas, it is commendable that they have learnt the knack of making good idli-sambhar-dosai-chutney. But, for heavens sake why are dosais called dosas? 

It is interesting to go through the historicity of the idli. To quote K.T.Acharya, food historian, the  idli has actually been mentioned in Vaddaradhane, a writing in Kannada, in AD 920, as part of the eighteen items served by a lady to a brahmachari when he visits her home.  Thereafter, the poet Chavundaraya, in AD 1025 divulges the recipe for idli, as urad dal soaked in buttermilk, and ground to a fine paste, mixed with the clear whey water from curds, and spiced with cumin, coriander, pepper and asafoetida powder before shaping. Surprisingly, urad dal which is the main ingredient of the idli is not mentioned anywhere in the ancient literature. The Manasollasa of  1130 AD describes the iddarika as made of fine urad dal flour fashioned into small balls fried in ghee and spiced with pepper powder. The old writings do not describe the lengthy grinding or the fermentation so the idli as we know it now, has evolved probably in the last few centuries.

It is amazing how many variations have evolved from this simple tiffin dish, but I am not sure that I approve of  the hybridisation.  For instance we have not made a beeline to restaurants serving 30 different varieties of dosais, like paneer dosais, spinach dosais, mixed vegetable dosais and so on. One irresistible variety is the delicious keema dosais served in our Club!

A very popular item is the rava idli…which is shrugged off by some as nothing better than compressed uppumav! Anxious to research the origin of the Kancheepuram idli, I marched into the kitchen of Saravana Bhavan in Kancheepuram, and I was told by a couple of elderly cooks with impunity,  that this idli did not originate in Kancheepuram!  More varieties, include adukku idli, sandwich idli and so on…This is the day of fusion food, and if you feel like innovation and have the flair for it, why not?

One of our “scientific minded” friends frowned at my casual description on how idlis are done. He was unwilling to accept the recipe in toto despite sampling our idlis.  His scientific mind plotted a methodology….the amount of water the dals and rice were soaked in, the number of hours, and what stupefied me was the number of revolutions the grinder had to make to result in perfect idli batter.  The urad dal was ground with first a cup of water and then a sprinkling through the grinding process, and, with the right number of revolutions it rose like a leavened batter, and resembled whipped cream. Our friend was the butt of jokes, when he advised that all this should have been recorded in my recipe book in an organised manner.

When he invited us for high tea, he served us idlis, you could have knocked me down with a feather, to see idlis nestling together in a casserole dish, white as snow and the texture unbelievable..porous and soft. Today I wish I had taken him more seriously, and noted down all his findings… as he passed on last year.

When Murugan idlis opened shop we rushed to taste the wonderment of mallipu idlis his brand..  We never got to enter the restaurant as there was a mile long queue and our rumbling tummies reminded us that we could not stave off the hunger pangs any longer.

My mother will swear that the batter made by hand on a large stone mortar and pestle and steamed in the conventional brass vessel using square mull pieces for the idli batter to be poured in, was the best ever! The labour saving devices we have today are welcomed by all of us and I thank God that modern technology has made it possible for us to feast on our delicacies with minimum labour, even attempting  microwaved idlis when we are rushed for time!

 

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Unsung Heroes


 

 

In the days gone by, roles were demarcated, men were the providers and women homemakers.  This article is a tribute to those women who ceaselessly kept the home fires burning without any expectations  whatsoever and without any thought of pursuing personal interests.

In our own home, my doctor father was the  breadwinner, and my mother was the backbone of their nursing home. She would supervise the diets for all the inpatients, many times cooking the food herself, as my father was  fastidious about the quality food his patients sampled. Utterly pampered, their whims were catered to, be it western diets, non vegetarian food, or a strictly vegetarian diet,  tea with snacks and so on. I would always be amazed at my mother taking it all in her stride quietly 24x7, where bed tea soon ran into breakfast, then mid morning “chota”, then lunch at precisely 12.30. After a cat nap she would be up to serve  tea for the patients, then early dinner. In between she catered to the demands of a young family which took her for granted. The staff and servants had to be fed, and I still recall the large balls of “kalli” (ragi balls) which were served to the servants along with piping hot curries, for sustenance and good health, not forgetting the mounds of rice which came later!

As if this were not enough,  our home being the mother home as I call it, there were house guests and various droppers in. I still have the huge vessel my mother used to make biriyani in for her daughters and their families for every get together. Being hardbound non vegetarians, my father insisted on various kinds of meats and curries. Mummy as everyone  calls her would be there to nurse us whenever we fell sick, care for our two grandfathers who lived with us, and duty bound, would take a walk most evenings to visit her sister and her family whenever time permitted.

This is just one example and in my mother’s time there were scores of other mothers who slaved in the home.  Our annual  visits to Madras even if it were in the  heights of summer were enjoyable to us! That one month was the time my mother got a break. I used to admire my aunt who managed a huge mansion with a livery of servants whom she personally trained. She was another heroine who ran the household on oiled wheels and being open house, food was in plenty and absolutely delicious. The graciousness and warmth of the hospitality had to be seen to be believed, and in many ways we carry this tradition with us.

If I had my life to live all over again, I would have stood up and lectured the whole family on taking on some of the burdens these heroic women bore. Did any of us praise the householder?  Did any of us offer to give her a break, taking her out for a  movie, shopping, or  a lunch out..? It was sacrilege to consider that,  as shopping, accompanying the young things to movies etc was part of the schedule.

It falls to the lot of the woman generally to take on multifaceted roles and many a time as caregiver. Nature has built into the woman a different kind of psyche, which covers tenderness, caring and commitment. However good a son might be, it is impossible for him to care for his aged parents the way the daughter can, sometimes attending on them hand and foot. The new gen woman juggles with home and career, and it is an immense strain for her to cope with the mental trauma of illness, time management and running the household. Unlike her older counterpart, today’s woman needs appreciation and help from her partner, to ease  the load off her multi-tasking.

The mother image changes with each generation. For us, mother was a constant presence, to kiss a bruised knee, or to apply the awful iodine, and blow away the pain. Her lap was there for us to lie on and hugs there in plenty at any time of the day.  Fathers were unseen authorities, to be obeyed, because they made the rules.

Today’s fathers are delightfully different, even Indian papas!  They bathe the baby, participate, change nappies, witness the birth of the child and are willing to share household duties, at least a large percentage of them, though side by side, one has to accept the hard boiled MCPs. Both parents make a concerted effort to spend quality time with the children.

One last word about a real hero, Manohar Devadoss who quietly attended to his quadriplegic wife, giving her a meaningful life despite her terrible handicap. With his delightful sense of humour, he pampered Mahema, pulled her leg, goaded her into attemping new skills though confined to the wheelchair. To attend cultural shows, he would carry her into the car, turn her around at night so she didn’t develop bed sores, and what he did for her was legion. All this when he was nearly blind, and it was a handicap which never deterred him from writing books, leaning on his wife’s vision,  and painting exsquisite pictures. With Mahema’s help he donated large sums to charity.  An exemplary couple, the Devadosses to me are role models who have heaped sunshine out of adversity. God give Manohar strength to carry on his life without his beloved life partner. This is one unsung hero I thought I would talk about, before I am accused of gender bias!

 

Saturday, June 7, 2014

my book Kids Kitchen


When I got two of my books back from the publishers,  I decided to publish them online.  The one I have published in Kindle is Kids Kitchen, and was a work of love for my grandchildren.

I thought I had done with writing cookbooks, but they badgered me into it, saying I hadn't written anything for them. It seems so long ago!  I have one grandson and three granddaughters through my two children, and they tried out the recipes and gave me suggestions on what to include and what not to include. their ages ranged from 8-11.

What was thrilling for me, was my granddaughter Aditi who was nine at the time drawing 350 illustrations for the book, even picturising the instructions!  As luck would have it the publishers chose only 15, but it was a wonderful feeling for all of us. I still have a file of all her original drawings.

We had a fun time sampling the food cooked according to the recipes in the book, and my grandson Aditya who was outnumbered by his girl cousins took churlish delight in  sampling the food and offering his criticisms or praise.  Like his paternal grandfather, (my husband) he is a great connoisseur of food, and his suggestions were valuable.

When you publish online, you have to adhere to a certain format which is not so easy for someone my age and one who is not exactly a geek!  And moreover, you have to promote your book! And that is when the grands decided to put me back on Facebook.

Here is a sample recipe, and do try to read Kids Kitchen on Kindle, you can tell your children I've written a story for every chapter!


BISCUIT FACES

 24 Marie biscuits
¾ cup mashed paneer mixed with 2 tbsp of butter
20 black grapes or black currants or black olives
10 tomato slices
6 cheese slices
6 cucumber slices
½ bunch washed coriander leaves with stems

     Place the biscuits on a big plate
  1. Mash the paneer smoothly and apply on each biscuit
  2. Cut each grape into half and use for the eyes
  3. Using a kitchen scissor cut curved strips from the tomato for the lips
  4. Cut thin triangles for the nose from the cheese slices
  5. cut thin curved strips for the eyebrows from the cucumber
  6. Arrange the coriander leaves to look like hair at the top edge of the biscuit faces.
  7. Place all these as you wish, and you can make different faces if you feel like it or use other ingredients

Note:  It is always safer to have extra ingredients so that you will have enough in case some of them are not cut properly. If you don’t like sweet biscuits, you can use any of the salty biscuits in the market. Home made paneer is easier to spread, if you buy the paneer from the shop, blend some butter so that it is smoother.

 

Monday, May 26, 2014

Delightful Indianisms



We have our own brand of delightful Indianisms, cute to an outsider, often thought of as quaint, but to some of us without a sense of humour, downright repugnant. Starting with salutary greetings, the popular American “Hi!” is universally excepted, and easier to respond to with an equally spirited “Hi!”. “Hello!” produced with warmth and the right inflection is nice, but tamer.
At the Gym, it is mandatory for all the employees to say,  “Good Morning Ma’am!” even if morning is long past, and irrespective of the fact that many of us workout late afternoons. I have tried (in vain) several times to convince them that it is appropriate to say “Good Afternoon!”.  The management being great optimists instruct the staff to hold on to the morning even if it is over. I wonder how the late evening gymmers are greeted.
When someone I am introduced to says,  “How do you do?” I am usually stumped. I believe the correct thing to say is “How do you do?” as a response, but I am not convinced…hard core Indo-Brits could provide the answer. On one occasion I actually heard someone answer the “how do you do?” with…”just as you do!” It is accompanied by a handshake, which is supposed to be “warm”, but most of the Indian handshakes I have encountered are limp, where only fingers slide into your palm, and,  apart from a gentle pressure, withdrawn as if the handshaker has been accosted with a scorpion bite. This mainly from shy, gentle men ( and I don’t mean gentlemen) who are afraid of these emancipated women who dare to grasp a man’s hand.
Good friend Ram pointed out another form of greeting, “How are you?” And in case you think that the person honestly wants to know how you are, you are sadly mistaken. The “greeter” turns away before you can draw a breath and questions another person on how he or she is.  The logical answer would have, in the old days, been “I’m fine thank you,” Today you should say “I’m good.” And God help you if you ask someone, “And how have you been?” Please be prepared for a torrent of complaints ranging from arthritis to irritable bowel syndrome and hospital stays, not forgetting lack of domestic help and NRI children.” And do be gracious over it, having asked the inevitable question and remember to make appropriate noises of sympathy at the right time, whenever there is a pause, instead of switching off.
What I really love today is the hug, so freely given, especially now that I am past the age of being hugged by people with sinister objectives. But the mother of all embraces was the one I was locked in when I visited my small vegetable shop. Entering I admired a nice looking lady with an aquiline nose, on which sat a beautiful diamond besari  which I  admired. Determined to take a closer look at the design under the pretext of buying vegetables,  I stepped on a fat shiny aubergine and skated into her arms which were trying to stem my fall. We were both locked in embrace moving from side to side as we teetered to gain our balance, or rather mine. The besari lady obviously thought that this nice friendly lady decided to give her a hug first thing in the morning and must have thought I was a true disciple of the hugging swamiji. The vegetable man grinned and loudly proclaimed that we must have been good friends who were meeting after a long time, for never had he seen a  hug lasting so long nor a woman who, red faced marched out without buying vegetables after the prolonged hug.
We must remember to “lift the telephone” and “off the fan” and no amount of sniggers will change the hard core Indglish speakers. So and so is “going to come” and mercifully not coming to go. Apart from leaving some English purists speech less, we, could also come across some rare happenings, or situations created by well meaning Indians. Some months ago I read in one of  our national dailies that a swan had been arrested in Vijayawada for not following the pecking order. A woman complained that a swan (khajana bathu) pecked at her daughter who was playing outside her house and alleged that the swan was chasing people and causing nuisance. The police arrested the offending creature and brought it to the station and booked a petty case, saying that an inquiry would  conducted into the incident. When the Forest Department authorities pulled them up,  and animal activists protested, Police released the bird which was tied up in the Police station without food or water.
And another caring bit of advice that kindly people give is “Take Care.” In the midst of swirling health problems in my family and associated critical situations, I receive hundreds of emails, phone calls besides cards and visits and at the end there are always these two comforting words…Take Care. Being Caregiver myself how do I take care? Wish someone else would do that for me. But I know that the advice is doled out by people who love and care for us. How have I been able to write this piece in midst of all this? Because writing affords me solace and I can handle any situation after I share my thoughts and more so if I bring a smile into someone’s life.

That is the way I heed everyone’s advice…”Take Care”

A Precious Legacy




 The Textile Industry is second only to Agriculture in India, a recent survey confirming the presence of about 24 lakh handlooms and 43 lakh handloom weavers which include  those connected with ancillary jobs like spinning, warping, dyeing as well as hand block printers. It would not be an exaggeration to state that   that textiles contributed to changing the course of Indian history. When our exquisite textiles, lined the coffers of Britain, and our weavers exploited, it was Gandhiji who led a movement to “cremate” foreign fabric and encouraged Indians to wear home spun cloth which was the forerunner of khadi, so popular today in sophisticated wear. This created a big dent in the economy for the British, and one thing led to another, ultimately to the end of the British Raj in India.
The handloom industry suffered a beating post Independence with the weavers in bad shape. It was Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay who revived our precious heritage, seeking Government support, establishing the Handicrafts and Handloom Board, unearthing our lost textile treasures, travelling to remote corners of the country to resuscitate languishing craft and handlooms, re instating the past glory.
The Atharva Veda  describes day and night as two sisters weaving, the warp symbolising darkness and the woof the light of the day. Sunlight and shadow come together on the loom, and mention of the sisters indicates that originally weaving was possibly the preserve of woman, before it converted to a male dominated guild. According to legends,Vishnu himself collected the rays of the sun to create a magnificent garment for himself. It is said that Vishvakarma was the first weaver of the Gods who made cloth out of lotus fibre.
The Aryan scriptures compiled around 1300-600 B.C. was thought to contain the earliest references to weaving in India till the Indus Valley civilisation was unearthed at Mohenjodaro, on the banks of the River Indus dating  back to the third millennium B.C.The Indus valley inhabitants knew the art of growing cotton, and understood that this innocuous looking fluff could be magically transformed into cloth that would cover their bodies. What a significant discovery it was, when through excavations at Harappan sites, a scrap of coarse madder dyed cloth was stumbled upon! The fragments of cloth were found wrapped round a silver pot, preserved by the metallic salts that impregnated the pot.
 Ancient Sind deserts unearthed terracotta spindle whorls and a bronze needle. It established the fact that not only did the early inhabitants of the Indus Valley know how to spin and weave but the coarse scrap of madder indicated that they knew how to dye the cloth that they wove. In this quest, discovery of dyestuff was an accidental finding. By-products of medicinal remedies from plants and minerals resulted in the delicate-toned Indian palette of colour which was vital for producing dyed indigenous cloth, sensational in their muted colour codes. These natural dyes obtained from barks of trees, leaves and nature, were the only colours known before the brilliant burst of chemical colours which tinted the world of textiles.

The Master Weavers of India had their own poetic imagination melded with traditional expertise, guided by social custom. Weavers from the different regions of India expressed themselves variously specialising in their own art forms. They conformed to needs of various regions, and not to vogue dictated fashion as is the present trend today. The shaping of Indian textiles was governed by the climate, the contours of the countryside, the geographical conditions, the minerals and salts present in the waters running through the land, cultivation of crops, presence of deserts and lush forest areas. The blossoming of  this art was dictated by royal patronage, religious practices and migratory artisans.
Spirituality and poetic metaphors are woven together in the textiles of India. The delicate fabrics of India, moved men to poetry. In the words of the poet Amir Khushru who describes the muslins of Daulatabad, “the skin of the moon removed by the executioner star could not be so fine. It is so transparent and light that it looks as if there is no dress at all, but that the wearer has merely smeared the body with pure water.” He mentions that hundred yards of the fabric could pass through the eye of the needle, so fine is its texture. Eastern India produced textiles of great delicacy. Khushru again talks of the Bihari muslin being “a pleasant gift of springtide, resting as lightly on the body as moonlight on the tulip or a dewdrop on the morning rose.”
The fragile cotton-muslin drew world wide attention. Buddhist literature speaks of the magnificient cotton spinners and weavers of Kashi, where the fabric is so tightly woven that oil cannot penetrate it. Spinning was assigned to the women, and the cotton cloths, washed, calendered, starched and perfumed. So sacred were these cloths, that they were used to wrap the body of the emperors when they died, and it is said that it was used to wrap the body of  Buddha when he attained eternal rest.. The Roman Emperors paid fabulous prices for these Indian cotton treasures, known as ‘woven winds’. Centuries later in the Moghul period, these cottons or Mulmul Khus were given poetic names like Abrawan  (running water) or Shabnam (morning dew)
Textiles provided the canvas for painters, embroiders and weavers to express themselves  like the sujni embroiders in Bihar or the resuscitated Chamba Rumaals of Himachal where the women poured out stories with needle and thread.
Colours and modes of wearing cloth defined regions at one time but not any more. Such is our legacy. A legacy which cannot be brushed off in the quest for modernity and western wear, but it is something to be revered and preserved for all time.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

The Oath of Hippocrates


Party conversations.Politics.Corruption.Ethnic violence.Rape.Cricket. And if you are above sixty, state of health, medications, and yes doctors. “And they take the Oath of Hippocrates!” says one vociferous friend, “you may as well call it Oath of Hypocrites,”  Laughs all around, vigorous nodding, sound support. Most of us are eager to quote anecdotes. Time to raise my voice. “Don’t tar everyone with the same brush,” I venture, at the risk of sounding supercilious. “There are kindly souls in the medical fraternity. I have been lucky. My doctors are understanding and compassionate, they don’t exploit us…perhaps I choose such doctors…”my voice trails off as I see eyes popping and brows knitted together in disbelief. “please introduce us to these wonderful doctors, you would be doing us a favour,” I decide to watch them explode. For bottling up angst causes stress, haven’t we been told a million times?

When health has become almost a paranoia for most of us, doctors are part of the package. India ranks second only to China as the diabetic capital of the world. We are living longer, average lifespan has been pushed to 65, and modern technology has made it possible to survive the most difficult of odds, but the pattern of survival has become different. Do we want to linger, suffer, with the quality of life deteriorating, just to prolong our lives in an offspring-supportless environment? The answer lies in locating and staying with doctors and medical services you trust, and people who help you get on in life. For get on you must irrespective of age.

You might choose a doctor because he is eminent, and top of his profession. “Yes we did, and we ended up waiting four hours to see him, and came back with very little satisfaction.” Don’t choose him because he is eminent.  One of the docs described is forbidding looking with a stern visage and strikes fear into the hearts of his patients. They sit before him expecting a death sentence to be pronounced. “Why should they fear me?” he asks, A kindly soul with a heart of gold..the fear barrier has to be broken before realization dawns that he is compassionate. “ I am so overawed that I forget half the things I have to ask him and before I know it I am ushered out.”  

When an appointment is made with a doctor, please put down every single doubt which crosses your mind, before you see him or her. Normally, BP is checked, your heartbeats, your pulse, a cursory glance at your old records, then a prescription given, to you who sits there dumbstruck, then you are out.  Remember your rights as a patient. You need to know why certain medicines are prescribed and what effect they will have. You need to ask if you take them before food or after food. And, since most doctors specialize in illegible writing, you have to ask them to decode it and note it down in your handwriting provided it is not worse than the doctor’s. Ask the doc if the medication has side effect or contraindications. Tell him about any allergy you might have. Write down the list of medications given to you on your last visit and hand over the paper. This registers better than just “getting it off your chest”.

For all my worldly wise advice, I learnt my lesson through a bitter experience. I was prescribed Osteophos70  once a week. With implicit trust, I didn’t go through the accompanying literature, had it first thing in the morning, and started my usual exercises, bending and stretching. I threw up, suffered intense pain in the abdomen and was in bed the whole day! Only a little later, a friend acquainted me of the strictures, , upright position and empty stomach. Stay still for an hour, she suggested. My husband suffered severe reaction after a few weeks of this wonder drug and could not eat for his tongue was blistered. We were told later that this could lead to allergies for some. Moral of the story, read the literature accompanying any drug.
Choose your doctors with care, it really pays to be fastidious. Do enough research, talk to your friends, find out more about them. If you are the restless kind like me, don’t spend hours outside the doctor’s consulting room. You will find someone else just as good, only not so busy. Find a doctor who has more patience than patients, who will listen to you, and will talk to you and explain things in a way you understand. “There is this doctor who is reluctant to see patients, at the same time can’t close shop. He spends exactly five to ten minutes with you. By the time your driver reverses the car, you have one foot outside his consulting room. And he charges a bomb,  though admittedly his treatment works.”

When you have a rough idea of what the doctor’s fees are don’t crib. Come on, hehas  to make a living. And if he is as bad as you make him out to be, just don’t go there! Of course there are malpractices as there are in every profession. The cuts from prescribing expensive diagnostic tests, links with hospitals who expect doctors to advise hospitalization and the ICU. There was this doctor friend who wanted me to co-author a book especially written for his patients, where the malpractices of the medical fraternity was pointed out with candour. Though I admired him for his guts, I pointed  out that he could be sued.. After taking a legal opinion he thought better of it and just as well!

In these days of specialization, it is good to have a family doctor, the kind my father was. He used to visit his patients and most of them were helped by the touch of his hand and saying they were not so ill as they thought. Only in cases where the prognosis was not good would he call in other specialists for an opinion. Our bleeding knees were administered good old iodine and the nurses would blow on the wound when it hurt like hell.  Squeasy stomach, and Carminative mixture was given or Hewletts mixture!  Medicines were compounded to suit your disease. Ah, those were the days.

But when you discover a doctor that you like so much, don’t turn into a hypochondriac and run to him at the drop of a hat, as he too has a job to do, besides placating neurotic patients!!

Counter Attack

Every one of us should be mentally and physically equipped to respond to attack, says Joe Rodrigues, who conducts self-defence workshops for women

In the wake of rise in crimes against women in recent times, deep concern has been expressed across the country for women’s safety. Nirbhaya has become a household name, and memories of her are triggered whenever a young woman from our homes is out on the road unescorted.
“Women of all ages are targets for assault,” said Joe Rodrigues, founder and former director, Breakthrough Communication Services Pvt. Ltd. Joe was on a short visit to Chennai with his wife. “Every one of us should be mentally and physically equipped to respond to attack,” he said in an interview.
The Mumbai-based Rodrigues has developed a module on self-defence for women, which consists of a three-and-a-half-hour programme with demonstrations followed by on-the-spot practices that can be easily mastered. It is a complimentary package offered by Rodrigues who has conducted many such programmes in colleges and schools, even in far off Shillong and Guwahati.
Thousands of participants from diverse backgrounds such as public sector undertakings, transnational corporations and voluntary organisations have benefited from Rodrigues’ 30 years of training experience. His lectures cover areas such as stress management, assertiveness, creativity, leadership, motivation, communication and negotiation skills.
Why did a man who specialised in copywriting, client servicing, public relations, who was head of publicity in Roussel Pharmaceuticals and later in CIPLA, turn to this unusual vocation? “My love of teaching,” he said, simply. When your communication skills are strong, your messages have an impact. And for people like Joe, his skills are channelled towards a receptive audience, providing them with the tools to cope with the aggressive, deviant behaviour of perverts in today’s society.
He gave graphic examples — body language, to begin with. “If you hold yourself erect, and your head high, and swing your arms as you walk on the road, the message you convey is ‘here is a woman who cannot be trifled with.’ People actually move out of your path.”
According to Rodrigues, there are two kinds of predators — Force Predators and Friendly Predators. Force Predators generally believe in a sudden attack where the victim is totally unprepared, and fear leads to surrender. The foremost myth to be challenged is the one that labels woman as the weaker sex. Like animal predators, the human predator can also recognise the weak that are easy prey. They believe in isolation, and drag the girl to a lonely spot. The Friendly Predator preys on the gullible nature of the woman and traps her into trusting him and then makes his move.
There is no standard formula for self-defence, and every scenario is different. A woman’s instinct and gut feeling is not to be ignored. “Fear could paralyse her, but with mental preparedness, fear could be transformed into rage which galvanises her into action.”
The four ‘stays’
Four “stays” are mantras for protection. Staying fit with physical exercise. Staying away which means avoiding places and situations that could be dangerous and not wearing provocative clothes. Staying alert in public places. A predator who finds you distracted, say with your mobile, finds you easy prey. Glen Levy, Rodrigues’ guru, recommends that you don’t stay while being attacked. Flight is a sure way of escape.
Distract the attacker. Rodrigues quotes the instance of a man, a regular walker on Marine Drive, Mumbai, who spied three men surrounding another walker and one of them had a knife open. He just walked up to the group, as if he noticed nothing amiss and touched the victim on the shoulder, and said, “The others are waiting at the usual place for breakfast, let’s go.” Saying so he pulled the man and they moved quickly out of range of the attackers who were surprised at this unexpected intrusion.
Rodrigues demonstrated a few “measures”. In self-defence you could pinch the attacker. He asked me to pinch the flesh on the inside of my upper arm, and twist it sharply. Ouch! It did hurt. Another vulnerable spot is the inside of the thighs, of course, not so easily accessible. He demonstrated certain grips on the wrists that are hard to break.
These are but few of the “tools” Rodrigues teaches, but the entire gamut is best learned in the Self Defence for Women workshops, part of his Women Empowerment Series. He is willing to conduct workshops for groups of women, especially at women’s colleges and can be contacted at jbrodrigues@gmail.com

Saturday, February 1, 2014

WEDDING BELLES


As kids we had an abhorrence of weddings.  True to form our parents trotted us through every ceremony till we knew the rituals by heart …mercifully the family tree was not in such abundance so the number of weddings were limited.
The only attraction was meeting our cousins,  nieces and nephews, some of them who were much older than me, and some first cousins  old enough to be my mother.  One nephew in particular, took churlish delight in introducing me amidst gasps as his aunt, a habit which he has not given up!. We were strictly told not to “play” with each other but sit primly watching the goings on. No wandering about even accompanied by strong looking male cousins as we would be easily kidnapped what with the jewellery we wore.
The best event was the wedding reception. The bridal couple relinquished the comfort of the sofa to shake hands with well wishers, trying to balance the flow of gifts . They would finally abandon all hopes of sitting till the long queue eased off. The plastic smiles they wore slowly morphed into grimaces.  The most entertaining event was the kucheri. No one bothered to listen to the singers warbling, the women were most engrossed in sizing up each other’s clothes and jewellery and viewing eligible young “girls and boys” who were paraded at weddings. The mridangam player and the nadhaswaram artiste would engage in the funniest of facial contortions, and we would imitate them and convulse into laughter till we were ticked off severely by an adult at this show of deep disrespect.
Weddings stretched to three days and if you were closely related you attended every single one of them. I thought that with the passage of time,  rituals would coalesce into a single window, and a one day wedding. On the contrary wedding celebrations have ballooned into a display of wealth, and aesthetics at a price. It does not matter that you are South Indian. You have a mehndi ceremony for “close women friends and relatives”, the sangeeth, the mappillai azhaippu, muhurtam and wedding reception, making it a five-day wedding.
Out comes the jewellery from the bank and preparations are afoot as every invitee likes to look her best. The men have it easy, or so I think. The pandal d├ęcor could cost anywhere between 2 to 5 lakhs depending on how much you want to spend and you could extend it further. You have event managers who supervise the flow, and in some cases are assigned the task of welcoming!
The best part of the wedding according to me is where every guest is accorded warmth and made to feel that his or her presence added to the wedding something which the family takes on, not strangers. On one occasion there was neither the event managing team nor the bridal couples’ relatives as we entered the mantapam. A smiling stranger insisted we go straight for breakfast, and we headed in the direction he pointed and enjoyed all the delicacies. Lo and behold there were no familiar faces, and as we stepped out we realised we had stumbled on to the wrong dining hall, and hastily beat a retreat to the wedding on a different floor.
“The food prepared is enough to feed an army” said a young nephew fired with idealism of youth and determined to get married under the trees or on the beach when his time came. To prove his point that anyone could partake of the wedding feast, he along with two other bright young men, all of them still in college, and suffering hunger pangs, spruced themselves up and walked in. The girls at the reception giggled and sprinkled rose water on them and offered them buttonholes  and kalkand. As they walked to the dining area, interested relatives ogled at these eligible boys wondering whether they belonged to the groom’s  side or the bride’s  and made a mental note to find out who they were. The boys scooted as soon as they  had their meal, and after several namaskarams to the men who fed them.
Whatever food is left over could be distributed to homes where the poor and needy could have a feast.. The illai saapad has its disadvantages, as much of food served is often left uneaten. Gifting  is another debatable and difficult issue. You cannot really gift something to a couple blessed with everything. Money in envelopes could get lost in the mela. Flowers, even expensive bouquets are tossed out as no one has the time to arrange flowers. And yet, can we  attend a wedding without taking something?
According to me, one  good idea is the gifting of a book, if you know what kind of persons they are. Books on marriage, cookbooks, self help books..there are plenty to choose from . Gift coupons from popular stores work well. The nicest idea we encountered was a little line in a simple wedding invitation. It requested  persons who wanted to gift the couple something  to make a cheque however small in favour of a charity  they were supporting. The envelopes were dropped into a box kept for the occasion after you wished the couple, and there was no surfeit of unwanted gifts.
When we ape the west so much why don’t we think of having a bridal shower?  The bridal couple provides a list of what they propose to buy, and the invitees discuss among themselves what they want to give them. It goes against our Indian way of thinking but I think it is so so practical without spending money on stuff which they would find useless..
One of the best weddings we have attended is on the beach, with just a select crowd of 100 people. Of course the only concession was hiring a white steed, for the groom, who, being a German enjoyed carrying off his precious love after the ceremony.  A priest solemnised the wedding in English  for the benefit of the groom and his family. The thali was tied amongst the strains of soft nadaswaram recorded music. The guests were taken to a restaurant booked for the occasion and we all came back happy.

I just keep wondering whether we will retract from these kind of social customs which have become a way of life, or will weddings stretch longer or whether we will come back again full cycle…it remains to be seen.

Why apologise?



I wonder why, as a nation we are apologetic over most things. More so South Indians.  We are apologetic over our complexions, our idlis, our being Madrasi and yes, on eating rice.  There are fixtures in the minds of many that being descendents of Dravidian culture, we are short, dark complexioned and unsophisticated. And that all populace south of the Vindhyas are Madrasis, irrespective of whether they hail from the great city.
Over the years the little waves of change have created the new Dravidian, who has adopted much of the Northie culture, if only to prove himself or herself and to others that we are none the inferior. We have inculcated the mehndi ceremony and the sangeeth into our already long three day weddings. The wedding crowd do not sport the mind-blowing, vividly coloured traditional Kancheepuram silks, but they favour bling saris, the ghararas and lengha cholis, glitzy with an overkill of design and colour. The salwar kameez for instance which was exclusively the preserve of the North is here to stay in South India and this craze, fashion, or comfort garment  has trickled down to the lower echelons of society, where it is difficult to tell the mistress from the maid.
Just today a friend sent a book to me which was to be reviewed in Gym 3S. My fair complexioned,  good looking, voluptuous maid with her jil-jil salwar kameez, replete with “gold” jhumkis and a glittering bindi, opened the door. My friend’s driver bent double with his namaskaram and bade my maid “good morning” and gave her the book. “Amma had sent you this book madam.” Madam took it without a by-your-leave, flashing that million dollar smile and namaskaramed him with equal ardour. Hovering in the background aware of my simple cotton sari, I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry…
And yes, removing rice from the daily menu has become another food fad for us. I find that the Gen-next have banished rice from the table and apart from the few morsels that they take if the curry served merits it, it is a strict no-no.  The Gen-Y will soon say “Rice? What’s that?” Chapattis, phulkas, parathas (never mind if they are layered with oil) have become ubiquitious in a daily diet. I have heard very lofty expressions from the younger generation who claim that they don’t cook rice in their homes and that they eat only chapattis and bread!  As if it gives them a badge of excellence for ‘graduating’ in their food habits! I love my rice and proclaim it with impunity, but my own family is not exempt from the exclusion of rice most times.
Rice to me (in small quantities) is a comfort food, in any form whether it is ven pongal, lime or tamarind rice or biriyani! It is ancient, sacred, benevolent and nourishing and is the second most eaten cereal grain in the world. I know a couple of nephews who went off carbohydrates and on a high protein (Atkins) diet and soon enough two of them developed gout, and had to face another health problem.  It’s not that I am advocating rice, as wheat grain is extremely nutritious and yes, has carbohydrates but what I’m trying to say is that you don’t discard  what you are used to in your daily diet. For God’s sake you need your carbs more so for the amount of energy expended these days, in multi-tasking. Though no one admittedly, heaps   mounds of rice on the plate as was the custom in the old days.
After a great deal of research, international dietetics and nutrition experts advise that the best way to diet is to eat the food of your region, food you are used to but in small quantities and of course exercising every day. Eating out is the order of the day, and since so much international cuisine is at your door, the  kids  look down upon simple home cooked fresh food.
It was a great experience to visit the IRRI, the International Rice Research Institute, on our visit to the Philippines some years ago. IRRI is playing a key role in helping provide solutions to some of the many problems faced by rice today. The goal of IRRI is to conserve, contribute and create rice species of the world. IRRI was established to help farmers in developing countries grow more rice on limited land with less water, less labor, and less chemical inputs, and to do so without harming the environment. It was amazing to look at the different varieties of rice laid out as exhibits.
The ancestor of rice is Gondwana’s Grass a wild weed grown about 130 million years ago! The thirteenth century Bengali poet Ramai Pandit describes more than 50 varieties of rice grown in Bengal!
So, whether you hail from the North, South, East or West, think twice before you say no to rice….and to the other factors so part of your heritage.