Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Easily Forgotten

So simple

Three days of sunshine -
Amidst soft snow, we speak of
Winter that was past.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

I did it... Did you?

Earth Hour
We shut off all our electrical appliances for an hour on Saturday! Mom was not in for it initially as she thought this was merely a gimmick. I explained to her that it was a gimmick but even if 40% people fall for it, it saves a lot and is still worth it! So we switched off everything and discussed my Conscious Living series and the sheer audacity of mankind to take the rest of the world for granted (and some human beings actually complain that they can't take others for granted and how wrong that is!!). It was fun sitting in the dark talking about stuff at the global level. I had some difficulty having to give her examples (and more so when I had to do some of them in Tamil) but it was a fun time together. I had assured her that I would make dinner (and we had sumptuous cream of roasted red bell pepper and tomato soup with Penne with Alfredo sauce) today in bargain. I was elated when my mom (at the end of my tiring speech) declares that we should follow this one hour thingy every week (but only when her serials are not on!!). Feels good to be able to educate people and help them see rightness.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Maavadu/Vadu Maangai

It starts with people looking up at the sky and ponderously nodding (at nothing in particular). They would then appear rather serious and walk towards their favourite chair. Someone would have to enquire into their deep thought (a lot of life in a family is playing along and rewarding everyone with due cues and consideration) upon which the serious individual would remark, "Hmmm. I think the mango season is here. We must visit Mambalam market before the padis empty." Without exception this scene follows the day when the vegetable vendor or the flower vendor had informed this person about the arrival of mangoes in the market!
Children would always be in awe of this person who is like the mango-Nostradamus. In all likelihood the kids don't know who Nostradamus was but they know what tongue-clicking green mangoes are, especially the ones that fit snugly in their fists. They always try to make the loudest clicks after a bite and suddenly a well populated and poorly guarded house sounds like the stampede of the stiletto brigade. Mangoes herald a lot more than mere taste and lazy afternoons with fistfuls of green gold; it speaks of summer vacations and visiting relatives and pickles. So now you know why mango-Nostradamus is so loved by the children of the house!

If you are wondering, why I haven't rushed into the pickle recipe, then you are probably new to this blog! You should probably thank your stars that I am not discussing browser performance and how Safari 4 is better than the previous version. Yes, you guessed it - this post is written within the frame of Safari 4 though I am always an Opera loyalist (can't help it with over 4000 bookmarks in there).

Maavadu is a popular pickle in South of India. It is debated as to which state should own rights to it, and I have just concluded that good, tasty maavadus belong to me. Simple. To those who think pickles can only be made by Priya, MTR, Bedekar, Ruchi and Mother's Recipe I have only one question to ask: How did the farmer manage to get the whole 250 ml of OJ into that orange ball?

Maavadu is made from whole, small raw mangoes - bonsai mangoes. They are probably the size of the pebbles David used against Goliath or in simpler terms, the size of a malnourished and out-of-shape golf ball. They are small, that's it. How else should I try describing that!? I have always had an issue with describing size. I could be pointlessly accurate in giving you the volume of the mango (314.594 cc) or I can describe them to you. Problem with qualitative description are that most of them depend on the dimension of your organs (easy! I mean palm and mouth and such). E.g.
  1. You could probably hide them in your palm. Issue: What is the size of your palm?
  2. 3 of them would fill your mouth. Issue: What is the size of your mouth. Another issue would be 3 of what!?
  3. If you pierced a moderately ductile needle through 2 of them and bent the metal between them, they should be just large enough to cover your eyes when you do not have the oh-my-god-she-really-did-that? look on your face. Issue: What on earth did she do?
So do understand my helplessness and humour me. These raw mangoes are small, about the same size of the pebbles David used to kill Goliath, measuring 314.594 cc (no, not Goliath!).

These mangoes come in two varieties. One is the rotund ones which are mostly what bounce on your mind's canvas when someone says "small raw mangoes" and the other is like the space between two "S"s, vertically offset and fused at their ends. The latter are called (in Tamil) kili-mooku (which means, parrot's nose or beak, the correlation is probably what the parrot knows! Sorry PJ). Kili-mooku pickles are tasty too but the mangoes are less juicy and more like a badly chewed gum. I like both varieties (and the gross descriptions are purely to discourage you from asking me for samples). Who am I kidding!! I am crazy about both varieties though my personal preference is for more flesh (guys! I am talking about mangoes. Yes, the edible kinds). The reason is that when you nibble at the rotund ones, the ooze with salty nectar which is why they are most loved. Frankly, if the previous line aroused you, it was unplanned!

I believe the best way to prepare maavadu is by recalling all that you did the previous year and how rewarding it had been. Pickles aren't pasta which in turn aren't crunching on a carrot. Pickles take a lot of energy and a lot of time. Results are typically known only in 10-15 days (and my mother snapped at me for demanding a tentative date when they are good to eat: What kind of an idiot would want a deadline for pickles!? They are ready when they are ready!! Now you can thank me for the more accurate descriptions in this blog). Pickles are passed down generations. Actually the recipes are! I learnt the recipe from my mom who learnt it from everyone except her mom and I have no clue where her mom learnt it from!

So this is how the story goes. My mom and dad were traveling in their early days as a couple (and in India, a couple then meant that they were already married). They reached Bombay (where all good things used to happen) and were supposed to stay at a friend's place. This friend was actually my grandfather's friend. They did stay there and my mother learnt her first version of maavadu from the lady of that house (yes, those were times when the ladies of the house knew how to cook!).
Few years later (when yours truly was already born and critiquing the food made at home) back in Bombay there was (I am sure she is no more) a kind lady whom we called "Vembu maami". To my child-mind (which hasn't developed much since then) it sounded irrational why she should be named after the bitter flowers of the Neem tree (in Tamil, those flowers are called Vepampoo and I would in my hurried talk pronounce Vepampoo and Vembu quite alike). I would also imagine her giving my mother the horribly tasting rasam (which we call saaramudu) made with those flowers. So I searched in vain, some bitter facet of that lady whose face I have now forgotten (I do remember their house and her entering the bedroom with the balcony where I was sitting awaiting sweets and pampering).
Vembu maami polished the earlier version of the recipe for my mother. The earlier version was a little saltier and not to everyone's palate. What follows is that version. It will follow, trust me.
Thanks to Lakshmiammal of Cook Food Serve LoveBuying mangoes is an art as good as mango-Nostradamus'. I do all that is necessary to make the merchant believe that I know my business. I smell the little 'uns and roll them in my palm and rub them hard and smell them again and give a hard glance at the basket full of green pebbles (Goliath should have simply opened his mouth) and ask him the price while smelling again. Today he said, "Rs. 20 for a kilo". I looked at him disapprovingly and continued smelling. I asked for a knife. He was shocked and he wanted to lower the price or do anything that I wanted. I smelled the mango as if it were a rose (and I a Shah Jehan buying veggies).
"Get me a knife."
He complied but stood his distance. I asked him to place the knife down as one doesn't hand the knife from one's hands to the other (it makes enemies of such folks, or so the belief goes). He carefully placed it in the empty basket without taking his eyes off me. I whipped the blade out and cut a sliver (actually, more than that). Holding it between blade and thumb I dropped it in my mouth. One bite and I was dying to click my tongue, but they were watching. I slowly nodded and asked him (yes, the bewildered one), "How many padis in a kilo?" For the uninitiated, padi is a measure which isn't standardised by the BIPM (and it never will be). Padi is pronounced puh-dee like maavadu is pronounced maa-va-du :-D
The poor guy thought I was from some arcane society out to mark him for trading in mangoes or something, because he swore an apology for not knowing what a padi was. I kicked myself for listening to my mom (well, she's twice my age and belongs to the era where an anna made sense) and asking him what she had asked me to ask him. He turned around and asked the majordomo. The latter clarified that they sell by the kilo. I said that I knew that but how many padis would there by in a kilo or conversely (and I actually said "conversely" in English because my Tamil or their Tamil wasn't good enough to handle "conversely" in Tamil). He said he didn't know so I smelled the mango again before instructing Mr. Scared Pants to give me 2 kilos. All the while I prayed that my mother doesn't kill me for picking mangoes unworthy of a pickle. I picked the pebbles myself and ensured that they were nearly all the same size (yes, 314.594 cc).
As I said, purchasing mangoes for maavadu is quite an ordeal. To the cynical few, all of the above could be accomplished within two minutes: Reach the shop, touch a few of the round ones (mangoes, guys), ask for price, buy two kilos, get back home and be scolded anyway! How boring! I am sure these are the same folks who wonder "Why isn't he giving us the recipe yet!?" God!
The funny thing with the market is that mangoes with about an inch or two of stalk are priced at 70-80 which doesn't make sense. Nobody uses the stalks for anything beside garbage weight, so why the higher price? The storekeepers were dutifully questioned to which they replied, "Because they have stalks!" Now you know!

The mangoes should be washed well and allowed to dry naturally on a dry cloth. I added naturally because I don't wish to field questions like "On a drying bed?", "On a desiccator?". Naturally, under the ceiling fan, if you must, on a dry piece of cloth. Ensure that there is atleast a stub of stalk left on each mango. Oh! BTW, I passed the mango buying test. Of course, I knew very well how to buy the right mangoes, and...

Once they are fairly dry, here is how your proceed (oh! yes, the recipe indeed):

For 10 Kg of mango, use 1 Kg of crystalline salt (that is white salt in sizes bigger than table salt but not bigger than the biggest gem you own. If you have really big gems, what are you doing reading this blog!? See? Same problem with describing sizes), 1 Kg red chili powder, 0.5 Kg mustard powder (not Dijon) and about 10-12 tbsp castor oil and about 2-3 tbsp turmeric powder. There are different ways to prepare this and I am giving you how my mother does it before getting into variations (some of them untested). Since you are never ever going to try with 10 Kg. let me talk in smaller measures. For about 2 Kg. of mangoes, use 200 gms of salt, 200 gms of red chili powder a little over 100 gms of mustard powder and about 2 tbsp of castor oil and turmeric powder by experience! Mom adds the mangoes into a large vessel and then gradually adds salt, tossing and turning the mangoes around (never ever use your bare hands as it might spoil the mangoes). Once that is done, in goes the chili powder with pauses and tosses and turns. Then follow mustard powder, castor oil and turmeric powder. All the while the mangoes should be tossed and turned to evenly coat the mangoes with the powders. Please rest assured that this current state of the mangoes is not how things are going to be in the days to come. I shall try to explain how.

Before I embark on that, a couple of points to note. As mentioned, never use your bare hands (though in India nearly everything is done with bare hands, pickles are an exception). Something about your perspiration or glandular secretions spoils the mangoes. Secondly, table salt is never used for pickles. My mother blames it on the iodine. I am merely quoting and following so I too shall blame iodine. Down with iodine! Thirdly, never let the pickles rest in a metal or wooden container. The latter will absorb all the water (oh! there will be lots of that) and the former will get corroded. Please remember these.

The typical container used for pickles is the Kerala Jaadi (as we call it) or the Bharani jars. These are beautiful jars made of porcelain in dual tone and are very very good for containing pickles. These have been in use for at least several decades if not a few centuries (and I exaggerate). One could also use glass jars but then the mystery of maavadu is lost. You will get to see the water collect and the mangoes soften and all the wonderful things that are best left as a mystery. So let's all use the Bharani jars. They come in various shapes and sizes and are quite aesthetic too. Thanks to Indira of Mahanadi

Once the pickle-amateur has been transferred to the jars, cover the mouth with a clean, dry cotton cloth and fix the lid tightly. I wouldn't recommend using plastic or anything synthetic. Leave this aside. Every day for the next 10-15 days (or as the high priestess says, "Deadlines!?") one must open the jar and mix the contents properly with a spoon/spatula. Cover with the cloth and fix the lid tightly. Do not forget the last bit (no, the eating come later). After about a week or so, it is recommended to taste the pickle. Only the experienced tongue knows the exact state of pickleness and can gauge the number of days left for pickling. It can, and I assure you, will vary.

There will be water (as God said to Adam when Eve broke her nail and was about to burst out crying). Osmosis assures you that the moisture content of the mangoes will be released. The salt attracts moisture too. All of this and the magic of maavadu assures you a lot of water. Soon your pickle will no longer remotely resemble the dry stuff you put into the jar on Day 1.

There are variations (as God said to Adam when he didn't understand what Eve meant when she said that she didn't want the parrot-green fig leaf but the teal fig-leaf as was shown on the Vogue magazine cover). Some prefer to add a bit of boiled and cooled water to the initial mixture. This creates more "gravy" which allows for mixing with rice. Some maavadus are not mustard based. Some people mix all the powders together and then pour it over the mangoes (like it matters). Some people make an even paste and "gravy" of the powders. Some people use fenugreek powder. Some people buy Mother's Recipe Vadu Maangai (oh! btw, maavadu and vadu maangai are the same but maintained distinct to confuse the tourist who lands in Madras). The latter category of people are ignored until when they offer some of their purchase. You take it and ignore them again till you are tired of ignoring them.

Thanks to Annita of My Treasure...My PleasureMaavadu is best eaten. With what? Anything or nothing. It is an ideal accompaniment for curd rice (with mustard seeds, and grated carrots and pomegranate seeds and fried urad dal and curry leaves and red chillies and... damn! Now I simply have to eat it!!) but goes well with rava upma and many other dishes. Enjoy!

I just realised that I need to beg some other bloggers for pictures of mangoes, pickles and the bharani jars. Mom simply refused to let me take pictures. Reason: The pickles will get spoilt if pictures are taken (it is some interesting combination of the evil-eye, photosensitive mangoes, her touch and a few other phenomena that are best not discussed).

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Las 13 Rosas

Las 13 Rosas

Beautifully weaving through the lives of 13 young women, this movie brings to the screen an amazing portrayal of what war does to people and at the same time, what war couldn't do to the simple girlish souls of these lovely women (I am suddenly in love with Spaniards especially after I got to spend a wonderful week with one of them who was more Indian than any Indian I knew). This movie, directed by Emilio Martínez Lázaro, was the most spectacular thing that happened to me on a Monday evening. Last night, I returned home feeling the beauty of creativity, of completeness, of respect accorded to an art and smiled all the way back and even at unwary pedestrians.

Las 13 Rosas (and my sister hates it when I pronounce Spanish/Mexican words in an accent of that region) is about the lives of 13 women (mostly minors) who hold idealistic views about freedom and dignity and how they end up getting framed for a crime they did not commit and sent to the firing squad. The entire movie takes place in the rising Franco regime and depicts how people are ill-treated by soldiers and the police, how suspicion and baseness rules under the fear of death and torture. The movie is not all sad and there are happy and cheerful moments, but the seriousness of the movie is not lost. Some of these women are loved by men who either die with them or who leave them in their hour of need or are left behind. The love painted is always tender and sweet. In a truly Mediterranean spirit, love is not shown as vulgar or petty but human ideologies and honour are up for examination.

I simply loved the tenderness of the movie and the entire cast and screenplay. The women and men are common, simple and lovers. They care about the basic things of life but hold ideals which aren't challenged in meaningful ways but by Fascist regimes (of Franco). Their idealism is revealed in their rather stupid and unplanned act of distributing pamphlets where a lot of them are caught and taken into custody. Julia (pronounced Hulia) was portrayed beautifully by Veronica Sanchez and I loved the helplessness that Blanca brought to the story. She and her husband are sent to prison because they gave their own money to a friend who had to escape Madrid. She keeps repeating that it is a mistake (their arrest) for which the warden (who comes across as a very caring person or as a lesbian or both) remarks, "Quite possible. With so many people arrested and detained here, I am sure a few mistakes are to be expected." The triviality of life stands out in that one statement. The warden performed her role brilliantly. Somehow this movie centres around women but doesn't get desperately women's-lib or sympathetic on matters that would dilute the tone of the movie. When Blanca and Virtudes (Marta Etura) break down in the chapel is heart-rending. Blanca's husband and Virtudes' boyfriend are also one of the 43 sentenced to the firing squad. The women are busy writing their last letters to their family when they hear gunshots in the distance. Suddenly it sinks on them that their lovers have been shot and they break down. This whole scene with the same realisation on the other women's faces was brilliantly captured. Virtudes tries to console Carmen on their last night together as friends but is clearly consoling herself. She asks Carmen to be brave and not forget this night to which Carmen replies, "How could I? It would be like forgetting you!" and Virtudes realises what she was actually asking of Carmen and says, "Yes, Don't forget me." The dialogues throughout the movie are plain but very tender and heart-felt.

The scene where Adelina's father (who actually hands her over to the police out of a sense of duty) meets her in the jail and hands her a note saying "Te Quiero" (written in quite a boyish handwriting) when he had never said that he loves her in all her life with him, was touching. Adelina mentions to her boyfriend that her father is very duty-conscious and has never said that he loves her, to which the boyfriend replies that there is nothing more that he would like to say to her.

The scenes in the torture room were cringe-worthy (and the audience - mostly grey haired gents which made me wonder what happened to all the "educated" youngsters of this generation - would exclaim every time Gaspar would enter with his boxing gloves) and the scene where the police chief puts out his cigarette on Julia's nipple really made me double over and cry "Ouch". The whole movie retained the rustic touch of Madrid but brought a seriousness to the scene which wasn't missed. The scenes in the jailhouse where the girls sing and dance and play pranks unmindful of the fact that they are in jail are truly joyous and reminds one of Life is Beautiful. Actually the entire jailhouse made me look for that nasty prisoner and the like only to realise that all these people were jailed for being just and honest. No black-toothed boxing lady to expect amongst them!! Even when they are taken to the military court, Julia comes up with a random idea of it being lucky if everyone wore something that was borrowed. Suddenly the truck erupts in a raucous chatter and giggle piece where everyone is lending some piece of clothing to the other girl and taking some nice (and matching) piece of clothing from the other. All of this, being done under the watchful eyes of two soldiers!

In summary, this is a movie that must be watched. Please find time to buy/borrow/share the DVD of this movie. It is worth it. Or join a movie club in your city (like the ICAF, in mine) and beg/bribe them to screen this movie! :-)

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Aaj Jaane Ki Zid Na Karo - An Experiment

I first heard this in the movie Monsoon Wedding. I felt quite embarrassed having to confess that I hadn't heard this one before (though I had heard Farida Khanum earlier). This beautiful nazm is written by Faiyyaz Hashmi and has been sung by many singers though Farida Khanum's rendition stands out. It would be wise to listen to it first!

This is an experiment in rendering a nazm. Below, you will hear the song - half sung, half recited - with a background score from an entirely unrelated source. I am not sure whether it will be to your taste, nevertheless, here goes:

The reader should note that I translate the last stanza differently and the ones you might find elsewhere all follow one particular translation. Only the poet can confirm which is the true one (and he left this mortal earth way before I was born).

[Aaj jaane ki zid na karo
Yoon hi Pehlu mein baittey raho
Aaj jaane ki zid na karo.

Don't insist on leaving tonight
Just sit by my side
Don't press on leaving tonight.

Hai! mar jaayenge, hum to lutt jaayenge
Aaisi baatein kiya na karo.

"Alas! I shall die, I shall be undone"
Don't speak such words.

Aaj jaane ki zid na karo.
Don't insist on leaving tonight.]

Tum hi socho zara
Kyoon na rokey tumhe
Jaan jaati hai jab utt ke jaatey ho tum (2)
Tumko apni kasam, jaane jaan
Baat itni meri maan lo.

Please reflect on this
Why should I not withhold you?
My life ebbs as you rise to leave my company
My love, swear by me (that)
My smallest whim you'll grant.


Waqt ki kaid mein zindagi hai magar, (2)
Chand ghadiyaan yahi hain jo aazaad hain (2)
Inko khokar meri jaane jaan
Umr bhar na taraste raho

In Time's shackles is life, nevertheless
Fleeting moments are these that are truly free.
Having lost them, my love
Don't thirst for them eternally.


Kitna masoom rangeen hai ye sama
Husn aur ishq ki aaj meraj hai (2)
Kal ki kisko khabar jaane jaan
Rok lo aaj ki raat ko

So innocently variegated is the world
Beauty and Love are in ascension
Who has ever known what tomorrow brings?
Please pause this night (before it's too late).


In the last stanza, several sites quote the line as "Husn aur Ishq ki aaj mein raaj hai" which would mean "Beauty and Love are ruling tonight" or as this site interprets it. I am uncomfortable with that interpretation as it doesn't sound right to the ear nor does the meaning hold aesthetically well. Meraj is the day when Prophet Muhammad ascended to the heavens and the word Meraj is used (usu. in Islamic contexts) to mean the ascension or the perfecting of a soul. Here, the poet possibly means that Beauty and Love have risen tonight to that level of perfection that they could well meet with Allaah (not pronounced Ala or Alla but Allaah with a stress on the 2nd syllable). Hence, Husn aur Ishq ki aaj meraj hai. Of course, I could be wrong, but I prefer this interpretation till I am corrected.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Of Pains and Medicines

I have this fetish for not taking any medicine. I mean it. I try to find some excuse to not take medicines (unless my hand has a fractured humerus which wouldn't be one bit humourous). I do apply "home" remedies (though the quotes should actually be around remedies than home) like warm brine gargling, fasting, kashayam (that is a decoction of pepper, dried ginger and a few other ingredients), honey-lime in hot water, etc. but anything that comes as capsules or tablets repels me. If I simply have to take a pill I would, but I would avoid it as far as possible. Just yesterday I was thinking how much of a misfit I am in this family (or any family)!
My dad loves to tease. Maybe I inherited those genes though not his fortune of being surrounded by people who had a sense of humour. I really wonder why people are so touchy and stupid. Where was I? Aah! So my dad would tease his father-in-law (my grandfather) about how he (the older he) would prescribe an ointment called "Jamback" (or that is how everyone pronounced it) for nearly everything. He (the younger he) would quip, "I am sure if my bike refused to start, he would rush out with a Jamback!" My mother would try her best to support her father but she was no match for mine. I never saw this scene because I was either nowhere in the picture or was busy wetting some piece of cloth under me only to hear half a dozen "Tcho Tcho" cooed in unison (or worse, out of sync).
Pan to the days when I am older and wetting less pieces of cloth. Camera zooms in on my father who hears about my sprain and he sighs before prescribing, "Sloan's Balm". That was the dread of my life. Dad always prescribed Sloan's Balm. Not sure I have met anyone in my life who uses Sloan's Balm. It happens to be a product of Pfizer and still available at the chemist's store (no not the same bottle). I used to think that Balm was Bomb spelled by a 2 year old (but he'd have to be one smart 2 year old to get that spelling). The damn thing used to burn wherever it touched. I would scream my lungs out whenever dad applied it on a shin or elbow. Of course, my sister screamed too though I am not sure whether dad did. Perhaps he had a milder version of it. For him every pain could be cured by Sloan's "Killer" Balm. And when it burned, he would assure us that that was a good sign: if it burns, then there is surely some reaction and the pain was being healed. As you will soon see, this was just the start of a bad childhood.
Then there were cuts and bloody wounds. Fortunately, Sloan's Balm wasn't recommended for those. Tincture of Iodine was. That burned too. The explanation was the same. The urge to run away was the same and the screaming amplitude was also the same. Dad oscillated his prescriptions between Hell and Hell. If I ever got a cut, I would rush to a nearby bush and (of course not, I was a kid then. Gosh! You and your imagination!) pluck the leaves, crush them and apply the juice of that to my wound. The wound would at least stop bleeding and I would act as if nothing happened (though with shorts, it was difficult to cover wounds). That is where I had my first lessons in creativity. I would do all kinds of things to avoid being cornered. I would come home dirty (who wants to frisk a filthy kid?), or wear tracks and claim to have done my practice for the athletics meet. I had to distract parents with something weird and some more (can't afford to list them out).
A couple of days ago I suddenly recollected all this and was laughing my head off. Everyone in my family takes medicines when required, save me (hence, the misfit mentioned earlier). The ladies (and here I include extended family) seem to enjoy it. I wonder what gave my dad the right to tease my granddad (though everyone has the right to tease anyone). It must have been fun to watch him tease grandpa and then have someone else tease him. I don't think any of this influenced my preference against medicines. I have always found it annoying to submit to a bunch of chemicals when I feel my body is capable of healing itself. I never could word it thus when I was younger, but as I grew older (and the process continues) I realised that I found it lazy not to let the body understand the ailment and heal itself. I watched animal and learnt to lick my wounds (and then wash them as we don't lick anything and leave it unwashed). But that apart, I still find it amazing when people reveal their favourite cure-all! They will swear by it and actually are offended to hear that it didn't help someone: "Maybe you didn't take it regularly". What's yours?

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

(Belated) Holi Wishes

For the past two years I have always been away from home (or what one can call home) for Holi. This year I had a splendid time and returned to the days of my childhood. I did return with the dirtiest T-shirt and trouser (to have my mom admonish my childish ways) and I do not intend washing them ever!! Here is a collage of the shots my friend and I took on Holi. Happy Holi!

Happy Holi

Back On (Ubuntu) Track

With my computer down and a million other things to bother my mess, I am more than glad to be on an upgraded system with Ubuntu (8.10) on one partition and typing this blog post out from in there! I will be back with more sensible posts shortly! I am happy! Life has been fun!

Thursday, March 05, 2009

Understanding Virtue - Zen Koan

Mitsuo-san was very troubled that particular September morning. He didn't know it was September (though he did notice the trees wear a different colour) but he knew it was morning because he set out for a walk wearing a warm tunic. His favourite nephew had returned from the war and he was rather disturbed. Mitsuo-san went to meet him two mornings ago and saw his nephew slouched in a corner playing with a reed. He tried to cheer him up and took him to the market to eat something spicy and fried. The prawns were fresh and in special chili sauce they tasted juicy and crunchy. He knew how much Hachiro loved prawns and he had paid an extra amount to the fat lady behind the stall to add some extra ginger flakes to the plate. Hachiro ate one of them and smiled. He returned the plate to the lady and thanked her for a wonderful dish. He sat down beside Mitsuo-san waited till he finished. Then they went to the gambler's square but even that didn't stoke an interest in Hachiro. They went to the lady's den and Hachiro walked through it all and returned to where Mitsuo-san was waiting (the teacher would not enter the streets of vice). Nothing had cheered Hachiro-san. Finally they stopped by a farm fresh with an eager crop.
"Son, what is it that bothers you? Was it something about the war? All your friends have returned to a normal life with gusto save you. What is it that ails you?"
Hachiro-san was quiet and he listened to the music of green waves. He continued to play with the reed, occasionally looking into the distance as if expecting something to run out of the woods. Mitsuo-san waited patiently because a question pressed often doesn't provide the right answer. Hachiro eventually respected that patience and spoke out.
"Dear uncle, it is perhaps the war and perhaps not. What happened, could have happened anywhere but it happened in the war, so it is not due to the war."
He paused to check the skirts of the forests.
"A soldier was wounded in the fight. He belonged to the Tagasaki army, not ours. He asked me to give him some water and I did. He asked me to pull him to a spot away from the fight, and I did. I tended his wounds and took care of him because that is what one does when a man lies wounded in front of you, is it not?"
"A noble act, indeed."
"When he felt better, he took his sword and attacked me. I defeated him and killed him."
"A just act, indeed."
"I was unable to fight the war anymore thereafter."
"Why, Hachiro-san?"
"I don't understand people, uncle."
"Were that to be required to wage a war, the world would be the most peaceful place."
"Why did he attack me?"
"Because you belonged to the opposing army."
"But had I not taken care of him as his own?"
"That does not win the favour of his sword."
"Not even of his conscience?"
"Apparently, no."
"Then what is it that you wise men talk about love and that love conquers all? It is all a lie, isn't it? It is just a convenient call to the hopeful and the believer, isn't it? And those who benefit from it, will still continue to be their petty selves."
Thus had ended that day with no discussion further extending it. Mitsuo-san was disturbed because he had no answer and he felt miserable being a teacher when he couldn't instill in his own blood the strength of what he taught and preached. What use was it to talk of love and forgiveness when his own blood was left unconvinced. Other teachers would have taught to use love to their convenience or cut ties when no advantage was to be gained, but he didn't believe in that. But he had no answers either. He knew that he had to consult Master Nobuyuki before his nephew be mis-guided.
He found Nobuyuki-san practicing Tai-Chi with his rake in the rock garden. They are but different dimensions...It was a pleasure to watch him move the rake as one would move a desultory arm over the boat's side. There was not the glisten of sweat on him nor the breathlessness of patterning gravel. A brush at the blunt end of the rake might have painted beautiful scrolls. Mitsuo-san stood by the fence and watched the great Master calmly complete his moves. The gravel was now drawn into perfect concentric circles rippling into sinuous lines and immovable rock. Lines were perfectly straight and framed various parts of the entire creation in their stoic sense of purpose. Nowhere were Nobuyuki-san's footsteps visible except under his feet.
"Mitsuo-san, you bring the morning to me?"
"Good morning, Nobuyuki-san. My feeble mind met the beautiful morning in your garden."
"So you do bring the day to me, after all. Do come in. The tea is still delicate."
Mitsuo-san loved the tea Nobuyuki-san prepared. He used the same leaves that most others did and the water from his well but something about the kettle, the fire and his melodious inspection of the contents created a tea like he had never had at any other ceremony. They sipped tea peacefully, pursing the golden fluid in their mouth and cooling it with the air they breathed in.
"Your nephew is back from the war, I gather."
"Yes, it his trouble that is now mine."
"Since when did trouble have kith or kin?"
"You speak wise words, Master, but his concern needs more than words."
"I am sure wordless meditation could be of some use, or tea."
"In wordless chambers his mind conjures pictures and they speak louder than syllables."
"Such an unfortunate thing, this mind. Always has to create something and never happy in nothingness. Like a swan that knows its vitality from its reflection in the lake, the mind must inhabit chattering mirrors."
"True, Master Nobuyuki-san. But what the mind creates is not always illusions."
"No? Then you must tell me what disturbs you."
Mitsuo-san spoke all that happened two mornings ago. Nobuyuki-san swayed to the music of the last sip he took.
"Beautiful! Wasn't it?"
Mitsuo-san was shocked and then looked down at his cup with cold tea in it and felt ashamed.
"Never mind, Mitsuo-san, have another. Ferns grow well when fed tea water. Here, give it to me."
He emptied it in a pot nearby and re-filled it with tea. Mitsuo-san drank the tea slowly but couldn't savour it much.
"Come, Mitsuo-san. We shall go for a walk."
And soon they were down the path that led to the lake. Nobuyuki-san realised that he was teasing the distressed teacher too much and decided to speak.
"Well, love is not as absolute as people believe it to be, my friend. It has its worth and it has its inefficacy. Young Hachiro seems more distressed that the man he cared for bared his fangs at him than from a teaching gone wrong. Had that teaching never been made, he would probably still be distressed. Now, he simply has a wagon on which he can cart his dead belief. Let me tell you a story of Hakuin. He was my friend and we had studied together at the Kyoto Monastery. He was the true embodiment of love. Once,..."
"Dear Master, do forgive the interruption, but every child in Japan knows the story of Hakuin and the pretty girl."
"No, not quite. Listen carefully. Once, there was a pretty girl who knew that she could have her way with men. She would pick her man and get him to crawl at her feet. One such man she picked for a night and he left her pregnant. He wasn't willing to accept that child because he wasn't sure how many men had bedded her before. She too was not aware of the real father. Her parents pestered her about the identity of the father and she unashamedly pointed at Hakuin-san who was then busy weeding his garden. The whole village was shocked. How could the noble Hakuin-san be such a vulgar commoner? Not one person in the entire village suspected the vicious wickedness of the girl. Her parents found it convenient to have such a respected man as their son-in-law and their anger was not doubted. When the villagers rushed to Hakuin-san and accused him of fathering the child of the pretty girl in such an irresponsible manner, Hakuin-san simply dropped the weeds in a bag and said, "Is that so?". The villagers who were only used to cunning words knew not what to say in response to this simple admission. When the child was born, the petty girl would have nothing to do with it. She had her parents drop the child at Hakuin's place. They said to him, "He is your bastard" to which Hakuin responded, "Is that so?". Many years passed and the pretty girl grew stale. Her guilt bit into her and she could hold it no longer within. She confessed all to her parents who rushed to Hakuin's cottage and apologised. They requested him to return the child that was burdened on him after informing him that the child was actually not his. Hakuin-san handed over the child and said, "Is that so?" It is till here that everyone knows the story and not beyond, dear friend. Now listen to what Hakuin-san shared with me as one shares the same air for a breath. The villagers thought that Hakuin-san accepted the child because of some guilt. They thought that he had probably played with a womb in his youth and hence, was atoning for it. Hence, they still refused him entry into the village. The pretty girl on the other hand got married to a rich old landlord who didn't care how much of a liar the girl was as long as she could fondle him at night."
Nobuyuki-san paused under the shade of an oak tree. He smiled and asked, "Do you understand, my friend? Hakuin-san didn't love because he should but was just himself and the purity of that couldn't touch the corrupt souls of the people in the village. What use then is such purity, Hachiro-san might ask."
Mitsuo-san was quiet and followed Nobuyuki-san when he proceeded on the walk. He understood what Nobuyuki-san was saying but he didn't understand what use was love if it was like a seed dropped in a bottomless well. Even if there was no use for love, shouldn't it be transformative, else why would all the seers suggest that man should love everyone around him?
As they walked on, they saw the village idiot under a tree. He held cow dung in his hand and was mumbling something with his eyes clenched tight. Nobuyuki-san stopped beside him and went on his haunches.
"Koji-san is busy with his lessons?"
Koji-san's eyes burst open to stare at Nobuyuki-san and then Mitsuo-san before returning to the dung in his hands.
"Oh God! It is still not a rose."
"What is not?"
"This", and he stretched his hand out to Nobuyuki-san.
"I am becoming dull with age, Koji-san, and can't keep pace with your riddles. Why should this be a rose?"
"My Master said that if you focus enough with a single mind and put in all your effort and intent, then you can make anything out of anything. You can make a wise man of an idiot", and in pointing at his heart, he smeared his tunic with the dung,"and a rose of a thorn. So I decided to make a rose out of this ball of dung and", he looked down at his tunic, "I will have to start all over again."
"Why do you want to make a rose of dung when there are so many roses around you, Koji-san?"
"Because Master said it is possible."
"You are very sincere, Koji-san. May you get what you deserve."
Nobuyuki-san walked on and when he realised that he was alone in his walk, he turned around to see Mitsuo-san bow low to Koji-san. He heard the teacher whisper, "Thank you."

Wednesday, March 04, 2009


OmThis was a drawing I made when I was in a class. I was thoroughly bored and didn't know what to do. So I created a picture of the Divine light and Divine inspiration blending into one. The alert reader would observe that the entire sketch is but a single line from left to right.

Look deep within

This is just a technical beauty. The whole picture is 2D but just by skewing some portions and applying some filters, I was able to create this image of a transparent bauble on a bent mat.

My private worldThis is a design of a bookshelf I wished to make. It will probably remain a wish. The upper half of the picture shows the shelf as it would appear if you were standing in front of it with the flanks separated for clarity into the construction. The curved portion at the bottom of this view is where one could lie supine (though curved) and read a book. There would be light fixtures and another gadget (whose design is in a notebook) to hold the book for you in case you wish to keep your hands free. This would lower itself from the plank above. The slots in the left hand side of the "mountain" (and this is where your knees and calf muscles would relax) are for keeping books. Both the flanks are for books while the portion just above where you would lie down is for a computer. The bottom half of the image above is the top view (with the flanks brough back into place). This completes the world in which I would love to spend most of my waking day. Books, computer, place to read and rest... what more does a man need!!?

Given that I have lost a lot with my computer crashing, my sudden whim to put these three pictures up should not appear vague. These were images created at 3 different stages in my life and it is only my imagination that would give them a personality to reflect my state of mind (I am glad that as they stand, there is no correlation between my life and what I enjoy doing).

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Little Angel

I was waiting for this
When I would shower my love on you.
I even imagined
The impression of my palm
On your back.

I had dreamed while driving
How I would take you to school
And frown when guys
Followed your walk -
I would deny having ever done that.

I had bought the same numberAn angel is born
Of blue and pink bibs and jumpers
Though I had secretly stashed
More of pink -
Because I knew you would come.

I had already told
A hundred tales to you
While your mother slept
And kept changing names
For the little birds and cats
So that you wouldn't be bored.
I am still making up stories.

I called you different names
But called you Anaaya
More often - no one noticed.
I hope you like it
And not complain tomorrow
Because your best friend thinks
It is so "plain".

I would imagine you walk
Slowly, down the street.
Boys would suddenly come out
To check an empty mailbox
Or try silly stunts on their bikes.
And you would giggle
And hug me more tightly - "just like that".

I would smack you on the head
Because I just told you
That the square root of 196 is 14.
And then kiss you there
Assuring you that you will never
Forget those numbers now.

I would watch you yawn
And hope your granny watched it too.
She'd say, "He used to yawn just like that"
And I'd know that we belong
To each other
Through bonds which are strongest
When you hold my little finger
Clenched in your fist.

That same hand would reach
To find mine as protection
Against street dogs and rash drivers,
Stray colds and headaches,
The first broken heart (oh! how could he!!),
The first confession,
The first time when you assure me
That you will never forget me.

All of them would try hard
To pacify you when you cry
But they'd give up
And hand you over to me
And I would whisper the song
Of all the Love that beats in my heart
And you'd pause to listen
To that one Truth
Whom no one can ever speak.

I will convince you
That that boy doesn't deserve you.
But you will laugh
And then get annoyed
Long enough for me
To come and hug you and say
"Ok, but no touching or kissing, ok?"

Now you are here
And I wonder whether
I can ever give enough
Because in merely being born
You have given me more
Than what I can possibly
Ever shower on you.
But I'll try, dear Anaaya.
Please give me some time
To learn how to Love like you.

Monday, March 02, 2009

Tata Turtles?

A vulgar death...

In September 2008, after heightened protests and nearly 100,000 dedicated Greenpeace cyberactivists calling on the TATAs to relocate the port, the TATAs agreed to a dialogue with those opposing the Dhamra port. In the ensuing negotiations, TATA agreed 'in principle' to an independent assessment, yet it continues to build the port, and with every passing day, the turtles' future looks dimmer… That's why Greenpeace and other groups are calling on TATA to immediately halt construction and commission an independent assessment.

Please go here to send a fax directly to Mr. Ratan Tata asking him to be conscious of the world we live in and not assume that every piece of land and water is for his shareholders' profit.

Sunday, March 01, 2009

Art and Artists

The deeply rooted shall growThe deeply rooted shall grow

The entrance is narrow and the neurotic might think of it as an indicator of a reluctant host. Perhaps it is. Austerity makes a man appear unaccommodating and that is as far from the truth as Kalakshetra is close to being the kingdom of beauty. Still the entrance doesn’t allow a 4X4 to drive through casually. Kalakshetra cannot be bothered by frivolous.

I had always heard of this place spoken of in hushed tones as if it were the temple of the Gods, perhaps even a place where the Gods entertained themselves (after all, dance was also discussed whenever Kalakshetra was mentioned). My folks tried to get my sister an admission in the school here but Destiny had other plans. I had never seen this place until recently and then again before becoming a rather common visitor (by my measure) of this place over the past few months. Here is where dance is worshipped, then taught and then played with to explore its boundaries (more like exploring one’s own creative limits). Though the cynics complain that this is a place where people only follow and things are too “strict” I am yet to come to a dance class which wasn’t ruled by one dance teacher and everyone following her. My personal experience has only revealed that there is a martinet everywhere and some people prefer one to another. Very few people are truly interested in dance to actually explore beyond what their teacher’s teach them. They become the great artists. The remaining are merely good performers. Kalakshetra has created great artists and performers (though the latter outnumber the former but that is true of every great institution in mostly any field) and if I am to judge merely based on their performances, I realise why Kalakshetra has been treated with such respect.

My friend, his wife and I walked into this place breathing in the serene surroundings and listened to the chirping birds as if everyone was clearing their throat and tying the salangai (dancer’s anklets) for a grand performance. There was going to be no dance that day but the birds didn’t know the schedule. I was showing them around the place and introduced them to whatever little I knew and a lot of hearsay. They were in love with the place and for reasons unknown, I felt proud. Perhaps it is difficult to disconnect beauty from one’s own sense of taste and goodness finding pride in acknowledgement as if it were an approval of one’s own refinement.

We walked around the place and stopped at the canteen. My friends were hungry and I had not had enough of this beautiful place. Madras is one the few cities in India which still houses such exotic locales for the lover of things simple and spiritually beautiful. The other place I like to hang out is Vasant Vihar, but more about it later. While my friend and his wife were picking from a rather meager range of edible items, my attention was caught by a small boy playing around the tables. As expected, I started playing with him only to realise that he spoke words I didn’t understand. Even when I filtered the baby-talk the words seemed familiar though I couldn’t make sense of it. I tried talking to him in a combination of English, Tamil and Hindi and the boy continued to play with me and talk to me in a language I couldn’t understand. At one point, I gave up, and laughed my way into a surrender.

“Sorry, sweetheart, I don’t understand what you are saying?”

Then, in a truly sweet voice, he replied, “He is speaking in Malayalam.”

Since his lips hadn’t moved I looked up to see a beautiful young lady dressed in the practice costume of Bharatanatyam dancers.


“He is speaking in Malayalam and he is basically asking whether you can lift these chairs and …”

I missed the rest of what she was saying. I had heard long ago that there is a Goddess (Meenakshi?) whose nose-ring shone like the moon and her face was so radiant that the most austere of Gods (another imposing host?) couldn’t resist her beauty and charms. Here in front of me in blue and dark mustard sari stood a person who could very easily play the role of that Goddess in any dance drama (and she already had a nose-ring that shone beautifully in the dimming lights of the day).


She smiled and responded likewise. I could only think of Lord Shiva and as it always has been whenever I invoked the Divine Lords, I bowed my head.

“Is he your son?”

I think she said, “Yes.”

“He is very cute and rather active. Do you mind if I play with him?”

She smiled and shook her head.

I asked Lord Shiva, “Had the Goddess Parvati come to you with a child as beautiful as Kumara would you have still lost your heart to her?” and the Lord replied, “She is a Goddess and not a human being.” I laughed and the lady wondered how I understood her son’s statement and laughed. The boy had no such concerns and hence, I preferred being with the more beautiful of the two.

We played for a while before I was told it was time to go. I rose and bowed once again to the mother (no one could have ever guessed that she could be a mother) and we left. My friend hadn’t missed the beauty that the woman had carried so lightly. He exclaimed about it and his wife punched him playfully and they discussed how men would always be men (what were we expecting, anyway? That they would become Cocker Spaniels on a Monday morn?). My friend couldn’t help saying something like, “A woman should be like that! Man! To be married to one like her” and it sounded familiar. I laughed the most genial laugh before adding this to my growing list of observations about art and artists.

So many friends of mine, when introduced to good-looking artists feel that that particular woman is the right partner to have and it amazes me how often the average male falls into that trap. I was on a bus with a bunch of college girls (and I was in college then, too) when a guy pulled out a sheet of paper and sketched the ghats where we were stuck. The girls simply couldn’t resist getting introduced to him and chatting with him about a lot of things unrelated to the ghats or to sketching. I think he expected the effects. After Titanic, many a woman friend of mine wanted to be sketched in the nude though they were too Indian to go beyond just dreaming of that possibility.

Though I love artists I have invariably found most of them rather touchy, moody and unpredictable not to mention besotted with personal predilections and overpowering concerns which make an average human being wonder aloud. History has been filled with artists who threw temper tantrums, were over-sensitive, possessive, insecure, jealous, suicidal, megalomaniacs, narcissists and visited by several mental aberrations which arise from a sensitivity that also promises them their gift in an art. Poe, Woolf and Hemingway made me feel sad for them but what they created was brilliant (perhaps not that much for Hemingway). There are a few “normal” artists too but they are so rare to come by. Although I could arm every one with this information and plausible caveat, everyone looks at an artist as if s/he was genuinely a beautiful human being. How could someone with such a sweet voice be a wicked person? How could someone so graceful be vulgar? How could someone so talented be so selfish? How could someone who painted like a poem, be petty? How come the sculptor is so touchy? And that is where the questions reveal our assumption: We think of the artist as the art. We think of the dancer as someone as beautiful as the dance itself. We think of the singer to be as morally rich as the aalapana. They are but normal human beings when the mask comes off and that is something we can never be prepared for. As a human being they can be as disgusting as a psychopath or as beautiful as a child (and now you know why I picked the child’s company!). So I turned around to look at the lady with her son and wondered what her true story was. Vulgar and petty? A liar? A thief? Or perhaps like her dance, beautiful, generous and soothing?

And this is where the beauty of Kalakshetra comes in. As soon as I stepped into the auditorium not a single thought accompanied me. I was in the world of beauty willed with stoic seniors dressed in traditional South Indian wear and looking gorgeous (even the men). Wicker chairs greeted us while we waited for the screen to lift. I looked around and watched foreigners, who had come to learn the art, carry their attire effortlessly. Dedicated, I thought to myself. These people were here for a few years and it was not something easy to live through. They had to resign themselves to a routine involving practices other than learning dance and these practices are quite difficult even for some Indians (perhaps because they strove to become as much non-Indian as possible). I admired them as they walked around assisting in the arrangement of the show. I bowed my head to all of them. Kalakshetra didn’t seem to make exceptions and that made me respect the institution even more. It annoys me when people/places faun over the “big” people or as is common in India for the “white” man. That is why I like temples in Kerala – no special treatment for anyone. Kalakshetra was true to its cause and would disallow anyone who wished to break that discipline. I think every person should also be like that – be clear as to what they want to be and disallow people and relationships (business, included) which isn’t in tune with their core. As Alfred says (in The Dark Knight, and I paraphrase) one needs to be able to stand alone and do what is right. Why accept the vulgar and nurture it when rightness is lost and brownie points don’t count?

The violin concert was to begin and the duo had taken their seats. They were the children of a great artist and as I watched the man play a note, I wondered, “Like his strings, would he be soft and yielding with his friends and family?” I noticed a blond girl in a baby pink sari and asked myself, “Would she be as innocent as she appears?” and I laughed before calling the cab service to pick us up at 21:30 hrs. There are things that one can understand and count on and then there are things that life will reveal to us in its own ways. Art is beautiful while the artist is human.

This Week's Read: Vol 1 Issue 4

With this issue I have made it as good as Alvibest lasted!! ;-)
My system has crashed and I have somehow managed to get this post out. In case you feel like congratulating me and buying me dinner, I am open to that!!

  1. You simply are an ape! I would so love to say that to the folks I know who have no taste in reading and who can hardly rise above Tinkle but I am not for insulting apes. I recall reading a paper on oral literature and how our whole assumption that literature is purely written is a recent invention. Nevertheless, these guys simply need something to keep themselves occupied!
  2. Juggling. It should not surprise the reader that I cannot help but multi-task though those who know me how I can mess them all up. Isn't that an art too? No? Well... I think it is absolute fun to be able to read something while listening to folk musicians and busily scratch a nice pet dog while holding my plate of food in one hand and... you get the picture? Singular focus, in my life, is rare but those that have commanded it are indeed the finest things/people in the world.
  3. Gaza Strip. For those who are not sure as to what on earth is the problem with a bunch of small countries throwing explosives at each other, here is a decent summary. I personally thought that the countries had nothing better to do and hence they were emptying their cache of weapons on each other. There seems to be more issues than lightening the baggage!
  4. Don't sneeze. I always told you to rub the rabbit's foot and not to walk under the ladder. People thought I was too old fashioned. Now science is entering the space of superstition and they are finding sense in there. Fingers crossed!
  5. Let Islam win. This is a thought provoking article and I am still reading through it. Give it a shot.
  6. Human enhancement. This is another interesting article and quite thought provoking. I disagree with their main notion of what is good and how that can be determined. I am still working on the article about balance and the human catastrophe, but till then, this article might be interesting enough.
  7. Chicken Scratches. That is what my handwriting was called. Everyone around me seemed to write better. This article discusses penmanship and its role today.
  8. Must read. I would like people to read this review. It is good in discussing the notions of "white" people and I would like the Indian reader to notice how common such views are becoming in India. The best point raised in this article is about the difference between progressive and open-minded. I am so stuck with people who think they are open-minded while they actually are more closed than the conservatives and traditional people.
  9. History of songs. Here is an Edge video about a discussion about attempting to trace the history of songs.
  10. A matter of taste. The first article link being about taste and evolution, it makes sense to end this post with an article about the historical routes of establishing taste.