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Saturday, August 31, 2013

Limerick for a Prime Minister

There was once a certain Prime Minister
In whose mind it did not ever register
That he would be called cool
Only if ever,  Ah ! if ever he did rule
Failing which his actions, oops inactions , would always be judged sinister

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Can there be peace without war ?

 The humidity of a typical Delhi August ! I look through the glass windows at the sky. Dark clouds are gathering. I cross my fingers for the much needed rains .Inside the house the air hangs heavy -it is  oppressive with unsaid  words and suppressed emotions. I look at her. She is still doing something on  her laptop and  managing to ignore me with studied nonchalence. I look down at my book and try to read some more. Ten minutes later I abandon the charade and look at her - " We need to talk". She looks up reluctantly and says, " what about/'. I tell her in no uncertain terms what  needs to be spoken . She replies and then I say some more and then she says some  and before we know it we are in the middle of a  heated argument. Ten minutes later I look out of the window. It is pouring . I throw open the windows. Fresh , cool air blows in and the humidity in the room dissipates. I look at my daughter. " Should we have some tea?" " I will make some, mum " and she waltzes happily  out of the room. There is a sense of peace in the room - the tears and acrimony of the previous ten minutes all but forgotten.

It leaves me thinking - is war necessary for peace? I had always thought of myself as a peacenik but now I realized I was moving towards a thought process which advocated that in some situations peace could only come after war. Consider this : King Ashoka  earned his place  in history for two reasons- the battle of Kalinga and the aftermath of the battle viz the peace that engulfed his kingdom, his people and the king himself. That one battle brought about an everlasting peace to Ashoka and a conversion to Buddhism.. Yes, the war saw many lives being lost, but it also ensured that no more lives would henceforth be sacrificed at the altar of a kings need and greed for power and supremacy.

America became the United States of America after a bloody civil war that lasted all of  four years, saw more than 600,000 soldiers killed and countless civilians butchered. What did the civil war achieve? Plenty. It saw the abolition of slavery, the coming back of the errant southern states to the fold and the dawn of the mightiest country in the world. One war- many gains.

Closer home , let's look at the role of 1857 in Indian history. Things were chugging along smoothly for the East India Company when out of the blue a regiment stationed in Meerut ignited the first war of Independence for India. The mutiny was brutally put down, an ageing and ineffectual mughal king beheaded,  the queen of Jhansi ,  and  other bravehearts killed- but 1857 did achieve a lot. It was the spark needed to bring peace in our minds and hearts- the peace that comes only when we know we are free.

Have you watched vintage Mahesh Bhatt movies? Arth, Saaransh  etc ? The commonality in his movies is the thread of violence and volatality , interwoven with angst, portrayed by his protagonists and antagonists. Peace does come but only after a celluloid eruption of  volcanic emotions  . His movies left the viewers battered and bruised but happy that Shabana Azmi could walk away into the sunset with her head high and the 'other' woman  still battling her demons.

Here, I pause. I realize it is important to also analyze what  exactly we mean by war. A person can be at war with himself or herself ; there can be a war carried out in words; an armed military conflict ;  a war on something- say food prices/ corruption  etc.  And now the important question- do we need a war today in India? against an aggressive neighbor in the north east ? against an ineffectual government? against a silent head of state? against dipping moral values ? A war  for peace ?

Friday, August 23, 2013

The Road Not Taken - Robert Frost

Why do I like this poem ? I like it because the poem is a nostalgic commentary on life’s choices; on the eternal dilemma of having to choose between two paths without having any knowledge of where each will lead. After having to make many choices over the many years of being in existence one can only laugh at the truth of the lines-
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:...
Here is the full poem...

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,

And sorry I could not travel both

And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim
Because it was grassy and wanted wear,
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I,
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Friday, August 16, 2013

The month of Sawan

The temple nestled in the middle of a clearing, surrounded by trees. It had drawn me from the very first day of my visit to the small hill town. On my morning walk I would stop at the temple , do ‘darshan ‘of the deities and after receiving ‘prasad’ from the priest, leave-smiling my farewell to the couple of regulars. Today was different.There was a steady stream of devotees, mostly girls and women, all carrying ‘pooja thalis’ and small milk urns. I asked the temple priest the reason for the sudden surge in activity  . He smiled and said, “ beti, today is the first day of the month of shravan”.  I nodded understandingly and said, “ so the activity is only for today?” He tut tutted  and said, “no, it is the holiest month of the hindu calendar year, dotted with  festivals and ceremonies and each day of the month has a significance and ritual behind it. The devotees throng the temples the whole month.”  Well, till now I had thought I knew all about sawan- the month of dark, swirling clouds , lashing rain and hot tea but  it now seemed I was a babe in the woods where shravan was concerned  and so I said, “ I would like to know more”. The priest smiled approvingly and sat on the ground on a woven mat, indicating that I too should do so . Some women who had been standing nearby also sat down.
The priest started,”                       
the month of Shravan is the fifth month of the hindu calendar, beginning from chaitra, and is the most auspicious month of the chaturmas. The nandadeep (24 hour lamp) burns steadily in the temples.  During the course of the month the star 'Shravan' rules the sky, hence the month is called Shravan. The legend says that when the churning of oceans - Samudra Manthan - took place in the month of Shravan, fourteen different types of rubies came out. Thirteen of these were distributed amongst the demons. Lord Shiva drank the  fourteenth, Halahal (poison) and stored it in his throat.( Hence the name Neelkantha -meaning blue throat- is attributed to Shiva.)To negate the strong effect of poison, Lord Shiva wore the crescent moon on his head and the pantheon of hindu Gods started offering the Ganga water to Lord Shiva . Since, this happened in the month of Shravana,  the Shiva devotees still offer  Ganga water in this month.” Just then a girl came upto him and said,” where are the ‘bel ‘leaves ?” The priest excused himself , only to return with a basket full of leaves .The girl bend down and  carefully chose some leaves. I looked at the priest enquiringly. He said, “ today is Monday, also called Shravani Somvar. It is a day for the worship of Lord Shiva .In Shiva temples the Dharanatra hangs over the Shiv-ling ,for 'abhishek',ie to bathe it with milk and holy water.The Shiv-ling is worshipped by offering Bel leaves and flowers,while chanting the Shiva mantra.Devotees observe a fast till sunset. By observing all such Shravan Somvar,the worship of the whole year is supposed to be complete. It is supposed to bring luck to an unmarried girl in the form of a good husband.” “ You said all the days of the week are significant in this month. Please tell me about the other days,” a young mother, her baby nestling in her lap ,said.  By now the priest was well into the groove , noticeably happy with the attentive audience.” Well, after Shiv somvar comes shravan tuesday- the day women worship Mata Gauri for the good health of their family; wednesday is  dedicated to Vitthal,a form of Vishnu; thursday to the worship of Buddha and Guru (teacher); friday to the worship of Mata Lakshmi and Tulsi . (Worshipping Goddess Laxmi during Shravan month is highly auspicious because the whole month is dedicated to the divine couple, Lord Vishnu and Goddess Laxmi.  As the eight forces of the world, known as Ashta Lakshmi – primeval force (Aadi Laxmi), wealth (Dhana Lakshmi), courage (Dhairya Laxmi or Veera Lakshmi), wisdom (Vidhya Laksmi), Children or family development (Santana Laxmi), success (Viajaya Lakshmi), food (Dhanya Laxmi) and strength (Gaja Lakshmi) are dedicated to Goddess Laksmi . The Puranas intone that observing Vara Laksmi Vratham will bless a woman with all eight energies for life); Shravan Saturday to the planet,Saturn (Shani).This day is known as Sampat Shanivar (wealth saturday); on shravan  sundays the Sun God is worshipped”. Here, the priest got up to give ‘prasad’ to a prosperous looking couple. An elderly lady, who had been sitting quiet till now said ,” there are some things that are of special importance during this month and bring immense benefits. We should recite the  Shiv Chalisa and the shiv ‘aarti’; chant the Maha Mrityunjaya mantra; wear rudraksh ; fast on Mondays; make an offering of ‘panchamrit’(milk, yoghurt,  pure ghee/ butter, honey and jaggery) on Shiva Ling and then distribute the prasad ; end the fast in the evening by eating vegetarian food .”  I asked her , “ which  festivals fall in this month?” She  rattled off ,” Naga Panchami,Kalkayavatara, Putradaikadashi, Hindola, Narali Purnima, Shravani Purnima, Raksha Bandhan, Vara Lakshami Vrata , Sitala Saptami , Janmashtami ,Ajaikadasi ,Teej…” I couldn’t control myself at this point and interrupted her to ask,”  but who has the time to observe all these festivals?” The lady said, “ in our times sawan was the month when married women would go to their parental house.  Daughters-in-law would go to their mothers house for teej and come back after Rakshabandhan. This had a two fold benefit –the women folk could enjoy all the festivities and  also get respite from their daily grind. Traditional families still follow this custom.” The young mother said,” tell me more about Teej”. The priest had come back by now and he took over. “ the festival of ‘Teej’,is also called the ‘Sawan Festival’, because it comes with the the arrival of the rains and ends the  long summer season. Married women pray to goddess Parvati for the well being of their husband. It is a joyous occasion ,with women and girls dressing up in traditional costumes.The reigning color for the day is green .Henna is applied on hands, ‘solah shingar’ is done, swings are put up and special Teej songs are sung . Since no festival is complete without food-a mention of Teej delicacies is a must. Ghevar and churma is a given on this festival.  There are three types of Teej : Hariyali Teej which falls in the Shukla Paksha of the  month and is celebrated at the beginning of the monsoon season. On this day, women wear green colored clothes and worship the  moon, and   Radha –krishna. Then comes Kajari Teej which is celebrated in the dark half (Krishna Paksha) of the  month .  Women sing devotional songs and gather near a neem tree and worship it. Hartalika Teej  is  the most important and is celebrated for three days . On the second day women keep a ‘ Nirjal’ fast  for the   long life and prosperity of their husband.”
I thanked the priest and rose to my feet. The mention of ‘ghevar’ and ‘churma’ had opened a floodgate of memories buried under the debris called eking out an existence . But it was evening when I rang the number.” What, you are coming home?” “yes, ma, I am coming home. Didn’t you always say that all girls come home in the month of shravan for teej?” 

Om Namah Shivai

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Forgotten Recipes of India

It is two months since my mother died . My son remembers. He hugs me tight. My daughter also remembers. All her memories of the living and dead are centered around food and so she says, " nanu would make golgappas for me everytime I visited her."   " Not in the rainy season", my son says wisely. " Nanu would say that the golgappas turn soggy."  His sister continues, " and she would make raw banana vegetable,  delicious lotus stem  veg , churma ke laddoo  and ..." Here she trails off.  She is trying to fathom the cause of the disapproving look in her sibling's eyes .I am drawn into the conversation. I like this talk  of my mother's kitchen . My nostalgia gets a smiley face.  "Do you remember her patode (a snack made from colocacia leaves   and served with imli ki chutney)"? " Yes. Nanu would send two boxes - the deep fried ones would be for Atharv and me and the roasted ones would be for papa, so that his cholesterol levels would not shoot up. There is quiet in the room, our individual and collective memories of 'nanu', nanu's house, of her kitchen , enveloping us . ' Let's make Patode- just the right  monsoonish weather for it, " I say with a touch of over enthusiasm in my tone. Two  pairs of sceptical eyes swivel in my direction. "You know how to ?", they chorus. 

Mamma would make patode only in the rainy season. The onset of  the sawan month would see her telling the gardener  every other day to pluck the arbi  ( colocacia )  leaves from the  kitchen garden and deposit them outside the kitchen .The leaves would be washed and dried gently with a clean cotton cloth. Then she would take a big bowl and in this make a paste of  besan and ground channa dal . To the paste ,salt, red chilli powder, amchur powder, hing, garam masala powder,  finely chopped green chillies, chopped coriander leaves would be added.... But why am I telling it this way- hang on- let me be organized and give the actual recipe and the step by step procedure.

Ingredients: (Serves about six)
10-12  fresh colocacia leaves
approx 2 cups besan 
about 1 cup channa dal
1 tsp garam masala powder
1 tsp red chilli powder
1 tsp turmeric powder
2  tsp amchur powder
2 tsp coriander powder
1 tsp garam masala powder
1 tsp hing ( asafoetida)
2 green chillies finely chopped
2 Tbspn chopped coriander leaves
salt to taste

Soak the chana dal for 2 to 3 hours. Grind the dal . Keep aside. Wash the leaves properly.  Remove the stem from the leaves. Keep it aside.
In a bowl, mix besan, dal paste,  coriander leaves, green chillies and all the spices With a little water make a smooth and thick paste of dal mix.
Place the leaves upside down (the smooth side of the leaf facing down and the rough side up).Apply a layer of the  paste over the leaf. Place another leaf over this leaf upside down and apply a  thick layer of  paste over it. Arrange 2 more  leaves like this.Now roll the  leaves like swiss rolls. Repeat with the remaing leaves.  Steam the rolls in a steamer for about 20 minutes. Let the rolls  cool down and then  cut each roll into round  slices of  about ½” width.
Heat oil in a pan  Deep fry the slices  in hot oil till brown and crisp. Remove and sprinkle  some  chaat masala on the top or squeeze some lemon juice. Serve hot with  tamarind chutney .