The Un-Dal Moments

Tell us about your favorite childhood meal — the one that was always a treat, that meant “celebration,” or that comforted you and has deep roots in your memory. Today’s twist: Tell the story in your own distinct voice.

I’ve always been at a loss explaining to people about my roots . After years of staying in Delhi, we have adopted a Punjabi way of living. But along with the identity comes a judgement of the food we eat. Whenever I travel, curious women ask me what food I could cook with the intention to swap recipes. Was it Dal Makhani or was it Punjabi Chhole? Neither? Why?They would be disappointed with a hint of suspicion that maybe I was withholding the recipes. Was I not a Punjabi? Was I not from Delhi? I then would go into a short explanation of my roots which sadly was is limited till my great grandmother. She belonged to a Durrani family from Central Asia and has apart from the food recipes, left us with some stories about uncles with blue eyes. That I am an Indian Hindu is still a mystery to me and most of my cousins I gather, have given up thinking about the strange gene pool.

Religion apart, my mother’s side has always prided themselves on the food.

“Our food is very different” my mom would say, with a sense of pride.

My aunts would nod in silent agreement, sighing about the old times.

We were also fond of entertaining and the house would be filled with guests quite often. At a lunch party, lavish helpings were continuously served to the guests till they would clutch their tummy and complain. It was a great source of embarrassment (and sadistic entertainment) for us kids, as the cornered guest, visiting for the first time, would look towards us with pleading eyes as if to be saved from this situation of being over fed. We could do nothing more than smile slyly and continue picking on our food.

According to my mother, it was a form of offense to the guest, if he was not continuously served with the choicest dishes. But there was a catch, the informed guest also needed to keep refusing some of the helpings served else it would appear rude to the host being confronted with a gluttonous guest. Whew!

Few could but resist the lavish spread. Two types of chicken were generally offered, one with a curd base and the other, with a tomato-onion base. Mutton Roganjosh was also cooked, with a deep red gravy of Kashmiri red chilli and offered as the main dish. Rajma (kidney beans), Cottage Cheese in thick gravy, called Chaman, (sometimes made along with green peas); a light Saag (Spinach) with or without Shalgam (turnips); fried Cauliflower and Dum Aalo (roasted potatoes in yoghurt) were the other accompaniments. Nadru (Lotus stem) would sometimes find its way to the table, when a gracious guest coming from Kashmir would bring it. But the main dish was always the mutton or chicken dishes. Along with a lot of white steaming rice flavored with cinnamon, cardamon, bay leaves; and sprinkled with raisins and cashew nuts for a more special occasion.

My mother later started adding north Indian staples like Dal (pulses) and dry seasonal vegetables, though reluctantly, for the unknown guest’s food palate; along with the Chapatti/Roti, a staple in the plains. Not less than ten different dishes, welcomed the “lunch” or the even more special “dinner” guest. You needed an iron strong will to resist any of the spread. Whatever was leftover of the main meal, and always plenty, would be parceled off as a token.

Having experienced this as part of my childhood, it was shocking when I got married and was faced with oily parathas and dal, subzee (dry vegtable) -Roti combination which was eaten each day of the week. I could not fathom the side dishes that once were placed at the periphery of my mother’s lunch table, were the food that I had to eat everyday. You weren’t goaded at the dinner table to eat a special this or that. The special day would be Sunday, when a Rajma (kidney beans) or a Chhole (chickpeas) would be cooked with a gravy and boiled rice to go with it.

Ten years from then, I have my own place and we have a guest home. Following my mother’s principle, I laid six or seven dishes in front of him, unsure what he would enjoy eating. Both he and my husband were overwhelmed by the spread.

“He is just interested in eating home food.” said my husband, his cheeks turning a red; whether it was pride or embarrassment I could not make out.

“Yes,” agreed my guest. “I would be happy with just that.” He said pointing at a dish. The dish was an unassuming Dal that I had dished out as a last minute extra.

I smiled and remembered my own childhood experiences. Over the years my mother and most of my aunts have stopped eating the lavish fare that used to adorn their dinner tables decades back. They cite health reasons.

“Too much oil”,

“Not suitable for this(plains) climate”,

“That was for hilly mountain regions” ….

I wonder whether it was the lack of appreciation they got due to their unusual feeding customs or not being able to whip up ten dishes effortlessly with age catching up. What remains is memories and an aroma filled with cinnamon, cardamom and bay leaves. Tough to replicate today. I wouldn’t even try.

A Writing101 exercise

$5 Shopping in a Multi Crore trading lane.

 A look into the gold and silver market in the old part of Mumbai, erstwhile Bombay presidency.

I started my journey from an axial junction locals call “Metro”.

Metro junction got its name from the Art Deco styled “Metro Goldwyn Meyer”(MGM) cinema and now called Metro Big cinema, acquired and branded “Big” by a corporate house of Mumbai.

No cabbie agreed to take me to Zaveri bazaar.

“Too congested” said one.

“No entry” said the second.

The third didn’t care to stop when he heard where I wanted to go. Neither did the fourth. He shook his head by rotating it indicating that he agreed with all the reasons stated above by his colleagues.

In the end a cabbie of a battered Fiat, with sympathetic eyes, offered to take me half way up to there. “Can’t go in” he said, “Too much traffic, once I go in, there is no turning back and I’m stuck.”

He left me at the next junction just a kilometer or less, along a straight road towards Crawford market and indicated the point from where I could walk towards my destination.

The minute I stepped out of the cab, I was accosted with the familiar experience each visitor is greeted with. Hawkers surrounded me arms filled with colorful wares and following me the next ten steps of their territorial area. A solitary policeman’s stern gaze sent them back towards their allocated spot, but not before they had convinced their customer of a deal. Was I not interested in the baskets, the table cloths? I agreed to pick a red lacy table cloth for Rs.100 ($1.50) and that is when I was allowed ahead to explore the rest of the lane.

Jostling through the afternoon shoppers, I walked towards my destination. Further on, all kinds of wares were displayed in colorful, vibrant piles for that impulsive buyer. How could you not resist flip-flops for 150 rupees ( $2.25) or a tealight for 30 rupees ( $0.50)? The tea light holder won and I picked a pair.

At the end of this lane, an ornamental mosque and a nearby stone plaque announced “Tribhovandas Zaveri Chowk”. A  police cop, who seemed to be on duty around the clock, guided me towards the right road from the fork.

Further on, art nouveau style cornices announced The Bank of India building. The air gave not a hint of ostentation. Everywhere there were gold and jewellery shops. Shops inside shops. Outside shops.In alleys; and on the street.The largest imposing structure in the middle of the street here was of Tribhovandas Bhimji Zaveri, TBZ, as it is called and perhaps from which the Zaveri bazaar got its name. The building has a bland geometric paneling covering the entire outer façade. I ventured in and the usual standard jewellery shop environment greeted me. Counters and sales persons who could have been in Bandra rather than here. Disappointed I came out and turned to the left.

Right in front of me was history. Or rather I was in middle of two historic places. The Bombay bullion association and the historic cloth market. The two historic greats, TBZ and the cloth market association, face each other. The Mulji Jetha cloth market where the business industrialist Dhirubhai Ambani is said to have first set up his shop and started business in Mumbai, is nearby.

Standing in this nondescript lane in the middle of an old forgotten part of Mumbai, I fell into nostalgia of an era, drawn by horse carriages and steam engines and the sweat and blood of the men who believed they could pioneer enterprise in India and give Bombay the character it has today, that of a financial district.

Government has been trying hard to accommodate the jewellery and diamond trade into a new snazzy building in the Bandra Kurla Complex in a suburban modernist part of Mumbai. But the takers have been few. Even today crores worth of trade is said to take place here in Zaveri bazaar each day.

I turned to return back to where I had come.

Unlock the mind: Stream of consciousness.

I have my twenty minutes to write everything that I think of. Where does my mind meander? What territory does it traverse? Where does it go before it finally becomes one with my hand as I translate my thoughts into writing? I delve into the first layer of my mind. Some story perhaps of things which are..And which aren’t. Something that people can relate to. Why do I think about people and how they can relate to my work? Because maybe in the next layer of my mind I have a deep feeling that these thoughts are uncommon and radical. People don’t like complexity. They like simplicity. “Says who?” say the next layer of my mind. Were the great thinkers’ simple people? They could create complex ideas and simplify them. Aristotle…Socrates…my mind goes down another layer. “the only thing I know is that I know nothing”. A simple quote. But profound meaning. So much meaning. You can interpret it anyway you like. So maybe the twist is in making the complex simple. A gestalt of the mind. May the thoughts surround me now. I move below to another plane in the subconscious and let myself be carried only by the rhythm of the thoughts clicking free on the typewriter. I wish it was a typewriter, think I again… the clicking of the sound..the imprint of an idea would sound so much more bolder rather than this soft touch. Excuses! I smile. That’s what holds you back. Thinking has to be translated into doing. What good is a thought that runs free without a direction, a purpose..a harness? Thoughts that jumble and thoughts that clear. Meditate. Make yourself one with the work. That is true divinity, they say. They say and I believe. Let no negative emotion get imprinted on this sheet. Let no negativity creep out. Let the world be negativity free. A better world. An ideal world. I glance sideways to the computer clock and it tells me that I have accomplished ten minutes of my mission. Thoughts seem to arrive. At least we are getting somewhere now. Ok..Now what again did I want to accomplish? I had it written somewhere. A book. About a better world. How the world should be. are late. Thomas More has already written utopia. Planners have already created a new world based on utopian ideals. Am I too late? No, the next layer of the mind says. You need to get there. Bring the thoughts forth. Let the new Utopia arise. Neutopia. But what do I know about a ….I stop my thoughts.. Look at the positives. I want this place to exist. A place which is perfect not just in its beauty but also by its imperfections. A dream I had decades back. I want to see that. This place where the arts combine with science. Where every beautiful thing in the world has a place. A noah’s ark for culture and beauty. Beautiful people with clean souls. A divine place. Dante….this is the paradiso. The real one. Does it matter that I have read none of these books of none of these greats. But Dante, Thomas More, Socrates, Aristotle..All seem to embed themselves in me. Get forth their ideas for the new world through. A world not bound by laws, nor blemished by lawlessness. A connected world. Just like the connected points in the flower of life, springing through the seed of life. A search for the divine particle within. Have I found it? No, not yet. I am yet to find it. I must begin my work and release this energy strapped within. I am no writer. I am no philosopher. I am merely a channel of my thoughts. Thoughts that grow and grow and grow. About to explode. I can’t hold them back now. I have to write.

Update: the writings are now moved to this blog:

With rain, sprout the city fungi

My first introduction to the world of fungi and mushrooms was during a walk in Borivili national park in Mumbai. since then I have been able to observe and identify some which spring up in unusual places during heavy monsoon showers.

The Unfortunate Man (concluding part to a fictional Story about perception)

(continued from Part 1 and Part II)

“Jingle jingle! Jingle jingle!”. The sound of coins stirred him from his reverie. Money always did that to him. Big or small change. It seemed to be coming from outside. “jingle jingle JINGLE” . It came closer. And closer. It was Saturday and a mendicant in white robes was moving around in the traffic with a pot of oil. He had his back towards his car. Few drivers threw a coin or two into the pot. He saw a bangled hand also dropping one into the pot and it fell with a clank. Then the white-robed man turned and he saw his eyes. The same grey green eyes that had caught him two days back! And that smile of contentment. Jingle! Jingle! The sadhu jingled the coins to beg for alms right outside his window. I can ignore him, thought the rich man. He probably cannot see into the car with its film coated windows. As if he had heard his thoughts, the sadhu stood still with the same pleasant look on his face as he had seen before.

The rich man tapped his finger on the power windows, opened just a little at the top and held out a bank note wedged between his two fingers. The mendicant just stood there in silence. He waved the bank note again.

“He must be blind” offered the driver; he had been a silent spectator to this entire episode.

The rich man touched the torn sleeve of the man and offered him the note. The mendicant took the alms and seemed to bless him. A thought suddenly struck the rich man.

“You are blind?” he asked.

“Yes sir, partially blind” replied the sadhu.

“Then how are you able to climb on top of the building?” he asked.

The sadhu was calm , yet surprised. “When did you see me? I worship on the ledge of the tallest building every morning at daybreak.”

“That’s a lie” exclaimed the rich man,” I own the tallest building!” he regretted his words the moment he uttered them, for now the mendicant knew who he was, the most powerful and rich man.

The mendicant only smiled.

“You are blind and begging. Your condition, it’s unfortunate! You should take some more money from me, it will help you.” Offered the rich man reaching for his wallet.

“I don’t want more money” said the mendicant.

“Why not?” the rich man was surprised, “ You can eat better, live better and have a good life”.

The mendicant started laughing his grey green eyes shining as if filled with some force of energy.

“Why do you laugh?” asked the rich man, puzzled.

“With my alms, I get to eat some food, which is enough for my sustenance. I pray every morning thanking God for everything he has given to us. The beautiful trees, the air, the sunlight, which I appreciate as much as I can see from my half blind eyes.. from the ledge every morning. Look around me and there are lovely buildings and well groomed people in fancy cars and smelling nice. Every morning I see your magnificent building and remark that it is a wonder in the world. At daybreak, the first sunlight reaches your building and reflects off the mirrors on the surface and reaches across on our west facing ledge and I receive the blessings each day. ….”

He paused…” And you? What do you see when you get up each day? When you travel on the street ?” he asked the rich man ”..the dirt, the haze, the poverty…..Me?”.

The rich man rolled up his window and fell into deep thought.

What do you think he thought about? Who was the more unfortunate man?

The Unfortunate Man (Part II) (a fictional story about perception)

(..continued from part 1)

He continued fidgeting with the instrument. Feeling its smooth neck sending sparkles in the sun. He adjusted its angle and pressed an eye against the cold metal. It was hazy . He looked away into the street below. Yes, the street WAS hazy. Grey, grimy, dusty and dull. The trees..There weren’t any. Only the ones on the periphery of his mansion. Houses were built so close to each other that they appeared to crush each other as they jostled for space in this megapolis. In every 500 square foot of space a linear building complex had sprung. It was a super expensive piece of real estate. “All due to my house” he smirked in his mind.

He then moved the lens, forward back, left right; till it clicked into a position of some clarity. He adjusted it again and the picture got clearer. He saw a movement in the lens. He looked away and tried to look at the movement with bare eyes, but it was barely discernable through the haze of pollution separating his verandah from the street below. It happened again. A gentle movement. He looked again through the lens and this time he saw clearly. He had somehow focused on the terrace of one of these buildings . Amid the outdoor water tanks was a single figure who seemed to be in meditation. A smile on his lips. Eyes closed. He seemed to have an aura of peace and calm around him.

A mendicant? Doing surya namaskar in the early morning rays? He zoomed out and was shocked. This man appeared to be doing his morning rituals balancing dangerously on the ledge of the building. Was he about to do something else?…a horrifying thought passed his mind and a bead of sweat fell from his forehead with clammy hands, he zoomed in again and this time on the face of this person as if to gauge his thought. Suddenly, the man opened his grey green eyes and looked straight ahead. The rich man moved away from the lens as if he felt caught. Red faced and ashamed at his spying, he turned around and headed back for his room.

His guilt stayed with his for a few days. He checked everyday in the papers if there was any incident of a man falling off his rooftop or stories of suicide, but the paper had squeezed the crime stories to make way for advertisements on that page. He had probably been only praying, he sighed with relief.

One day to work, he decided to take the limousine instead of his usual helicopter to his main office. He avoided the traffic outside his house as much as possible. Cars, bikes, cycles, buses all rammed into one another bumper to bumper. A single scratch on his stretch limo cost him a fortune to get repaired. The beggar’s kids also loved to make marks on his gleaming car. Not that they could see anything on the inside, but loved admiring their own reflection on the mirror like body. The worst were the potholes that seemed to grow bigger with every rain.

His work assistant sat next to him. A young guy out of the best business school in the country But this assistant was ok. He took care of all the email work on the go, was educated fairly well and his biggest perk in life was perhaps this limo drive with me right now. Plus he is helpful in shooing away the beggar boys, shielding me from their stares. ” What a pity, my own son never wanted to study further!” He thought. The car stopped at yet another traffic signal. This time it seemed an unusually long one. His assistant got out to inspect the cause.

( be continued in concluding part III)