Why I do the things I do

I had a moment of epiphany the other day. In the act of measuring out rice, I paused just as I was about to fling a few grains back into the container. It was a reflex action. I have seen my grandmother and my mom do it in our South Indian household and here I was, absent-mindedly doing the exact same thing. Why was I putting the grains back? I have a dim memory of my granny explaining that this ensures the rice container is never empty! A wish and metaphor for a plentiful larder, and life.

In today’s changed circumstances, when India is a ‘land of milk and honey’, maybe this ritual makes no sense. But I am loath to ‘unfollow’ these. Here are a few more:

  • To ward off the ‘evil eye’ while praising a loved one, look up at the blue sky! 
  • If you want something badly, deprive yourself of something you love (especially in the food category) for the necessary duration.
  • Don’t plant coriander in your home as it’s a bad portent and could force you to leave your place of residence.
  • Don’t make a firm decision about anything important just before you go to sleep. Sleep on the thought and decide the next morning.
  • Never say ‘I am leaving’ when you leave home. Instead, go with ‘I am leaving now and will be back’.
  • The rigorously-enforced childhood ritual of popping the Seven Seas fish oil capsules and Calcium Sandoz tablets every day!
  • Never shampoo without oiling your hair first or you will catch a cold.
  • East or West, Pears soap is the best!
  • Never, ever cut your nails after twilight.
  • You will never get exact cooking measurements from that generation. Everything is – ‘a pinch’ of masala or ‘a small fist’ of rice or ‘throw in’ some pepper.
  • Ward off the evil eye by circling a person’s aura clockwise and anti-clockwise with a fistful of salt and in utter silence.

This list can go on. To me, these are some quaint and harmless traditions, which I am happy to continue as a link to the past. 


A yo-yo-ing day during lockdown…

6.30 am: I wake up with a start. It’s Monday. I feel its blues. I really don’t want to walk today, not with a mask on. I so hate the mask. I want to curl back in bed. I hear the seniors chatting in the garden below and I haul myself out. I decide not to wear the blue surgical mask. I don a cotton, chequered one, instead. 

7 am: It’s been my ritual to listen to M.S. Subbalakshmi’s morning hymn – the Suprabhatham. It’s 20-minutes long and I manage to walk about 1.6 km in that time. Kind of slow. Today some fatigue has set in. I select the gayatri mantra and listen to its repetitive chants for 10 soothing minutes. I have met most of the regular walkers and exchanged greetings with them. I have ignored my undone shoe laces so far, but a feisty senior points to them. I sheepishly bend and tie them. 

9 am: I have breakfast fatigue. I haul myself from the dining chair and open my laptop. The yellow stickie note has a long list of to-dos. I stare at it for a while and wonder if changing the colour to lilac will help. I change it to lilac.

11 am: Upto my neck in work, I wonder if I will survive the day. In between work I have made a paytm payment for ‘exotic fruit’, a google pay for ‘exotic bakery’ and cash to an apothecary (ok, ok, chemist) for completely unexotic medicines, decided the lunch menu, checked with the aircon guy about servicing the aircons (will he wear a full PE suit? Will he wear gloves? Can he please not speak or breathe while he is at my house?), complained to the broad band provider for the slow wi-fi, and ticked off my son for excessive chatting on online school. 

2 pm: I feel sleepy (rice, that bane of my existence and balm for my soul), but there are calls galore. I think dreamily of grabbing a book, my phone and go sit in the garden. And the mask? That decides me. I stay put.

4 pm: The ache in my back is accentuated today. Sitting on chairs not meant for long hours of sitting. I finally cave in and order a study table and chair for myself. There seems to be nothing temporary about wfh, anymore. 

6 pm: A friend calls. I feel the acute need to socialize. But it’s an impossible dream. I haven’t stepped out of my apartment complex in months. 

7 pm: I am in a dejected mood as I go down to for my evening walk. It’s been a crappy day at work. I couldn’t do my intermittent fasting, which means I will go up and pig out. I don’t want to meet a single person today. I look at my playlist. I decide to go with U2 and blast it. For 30 blessed minutes there is only Bono in my ears. I go up in a happier frame of mind. 

9 pm: I am in a baking mood. I decide to bake a loaf of bread. I look up the ingredients, and start my prep. My house help shakes her head at me and I promise not to mess up the kitchen. An empty promise and she knows it. She leaves me alone and as the rest of the household settles down, I bake. 

Finally, I am at peace.

13 dishes from Kerala you must taste before you die!

I obsess about food and I dream about food. And what can be more fun than writing about food! So, here I am, starting with the South Indian Kerala cuisine, which I love to eat and dish up. Except the meat and fish dishes, none of the vegetable dishes I have mentioned below use onions or garlic, which is uniquely Palakkad, my hometown in Kerala. And yes, we use tons of curry leaves and coconut in our cooking!

By no means exhaustive, here are the 13 dishes from Kerala, I believe you have to try!

Mutton stew with aapam: This soupy, white, coconut-based mutton stew is just what the doctor ordered – on any day. It’s small chunks of mutton cooked with onions and potatoes, ginger and green chillies, with coconut milk being added to it later, along with curry leaves and some pepper powder. A dot of ghee (clarified butter) takes it to another level. Teamed with lacy aapam (made out of a fermented batter of rice, coconut and a few other ingredients), or even our local pav bread, it is simply delicious. Many like to eat it like a soup, even. And one can make it as delicious with just potatoes and onions!

Here, the lacy aapam is teamed with egg curry and vegetable stew

Avial: This is literally a hotchpotch, rather bland dish of vegetables, which somehow scores high with everyone. A medley of vegetables – carrots, beans, drumsticks, red and white pumpkin, ivy gourd (tendril), elephant yam – are cooked with salt and turmeric powder. Later, beaten curd, curry leaves and ground coconut-green chillies mixture are added, along with a dash of coconut oil. Easy peasy!

Chicken fry: This has many variations, of course. The one I make has tons of onions, garlic, ginger, curry leaves, fried, into which I add the marinated and cooked chicken. And then fry it on slow fire, till the rooster crows. Ok, am kidding. Just an hour of slow frying will do. And what a lovely dish this is, with a slightly crispy texture.

Avial-Chicken fry
Rice, avial and chicken fry

Sambhar: I am from Palakkad which borders Tamil Nadu and sambhar is as much my dish too as any Tamilian! This is the ultimate in terms of balancing pulses or dal (toovar dal), vegetables (bhindi to radish to brinjals), tamarind and spices. I like my sambhar a bit crowded and tend to add many vegetables. Have it with rice, the beans or cabbage podthul (featured below) and some papadam, perhaps? Truly sublime!

Beans/cabbage podthul: Minutely cut up the beans or cabbage, season with rai or mustard seeds, slit green chilli, and urad dal, cook with a dash of turmeric powder, red chilli powder and salt, add some grated coconut once it’s cooked. Though it sounds bland, it’s a must-have at any Kerala sadya or festive meal.

Mango Curry: This is the dish to make in the summer season, when mangoes are aplenty across India. It has chunks of mangoes ground with coconut, red chillies and curd, which is then cooked with cucumber in turmeric, salt and curry leaves. Yum!

Sambhar and mango curry

Pineapple pachhadi: You cook pineapple with turmeric and salt, add ground coconut and green chillies and beaten curd, and voila! You have a lovely, soothing, sweetish dish, which goes well with rice and rotis!

Puttu and kadala curry: This is Kerala’s favourite breakfast. It’s rice flour and scraped coconut steamed in a special apparatus called ‘puttu kutti’ (which has by the way featured in Ellen Degeneres’s show!) It’s eaten with black chana curry or vegetable stew.

Puttu with kadla curry and bananas

Fish curry: One can make this with different kinds of fish. I love to make this with black pomfret or halwa as it is called locally. The fish is cooked in tamarind water with onions, ginger and green chillies. Ground coconut-red chilli mixture is added to the fish, along with plenty curry leaves. Serve this hot with rice, what a combo!

Fish fry: My mom has this long and winding road to a fish marinade, which I am only now beginning to really appreciate. Marinate the fish with turmeric powder, red chilli powder, ginger-garlic-onion paste, and salt, and refrigerate for a few hours. Then fry it in the tava or pan.

Sardine or mathi fry: Most people I know are wary of sardines, and with reason. It’s full of small bones, and difficult to eat. Till someone teaches you to chew through most of the bones, except the central one. In my case, my dad did. I marinate it as any other fish for frying, and then on a tava do a vagaar of rai (sesame seeds), curry leaves, green chillies and grated coconut, and fry the fish in it. Oh it’s so tasty, and this fish is a good source of Omega-3 fatty acids.

Ney choru or ghee rice: This dish I learnt very recently. Yes, as the name suggests, it does need dollops of clarified butter or ghee, in which the basmati rice is fried, before it’s cooked in water. Garnishing it with fried onions and fried cashew nuts is a must. This rice goes with absolutely any of the dishes mentioned above. The aroma will get you first, before the taste slays you!

Chicken or mutton biriyani: The Kerala biriyani I haven’t yet mastered. But I hope to, soon. This is one of my favourites, especially the one you get at Fountain Plaza restaurant in Fort, Mumbai. The succulent meat, surrounded by its spice mix in the bed of rice, with fried onions on top, has to figure on the list of top dishes to be tasted.

When She Died

Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was shot dead by her Sikh bodyguards on Oct.31, 1984. I was an 11-year-old schoolgirl in New Delhi. When the news trickled in, we were let off early from school. My sister and I walked home, where I promptly dived into an Enid Blyton book, and a lunch of aloo parathas and mango pickle. It is strange how these small details get etched in one’s mind when we often have lost more meaningful memories. As the day wore on, we heard that she had succumbed to her wounds. The evening news confirmed what everyone knew by then. The analysis of her controversial political career began, and for many, it was also a time for mourning. The backlash against the Sikhs had started brewing.

In those days, home was a central government colony in R.K. Puram. Our colony was two rows of flats facing each other with a small maidan in between. The colony was a microcosm of India; Punjabis, Telugus, Marwaris, UPiites, Malayalis, Tamilians, Bengalis – all co-existed peacefully, the children getting together every evening to play in the maidan. From learning to cycle (on a milkman’s unwieldy cycle), to playing hockey, and hopscotch, we kids tried everything together, sans hovering moms.

Sector 4
The R.K.Puram colony which was our playground

In any case, my mother with her brood of three kids, and a  husband, who was always away on work, had no time to track us. During the cold winter months, we would come back from school to find the colony ladies sitting in the sun on string charpoys, knitting furiously, gossiping gaily. My mother was never a part of that, and sometimes I used to wonder why. I have realised today that both my parents were complete misfits in that government colony in Delhi, where we kids were very much at home. They were from Kerala, on the extreme south of the Indian peninsula, extremely well-read, their cultural moorings as different from Delhi as it was possible to imagine. Mismanagement of properties by family members had ensured that my father turned away from it all in disgust. It was my father’s stubbornness at holding down a cop’s job, which had landed my parents and us, in distant Delhi, where the weather and culture, were both so very alien.

Our neighbours in that colony often changed. Occasionally, there were those who refused to move even after retirement. They were given many notices and then forcibly evicted, all their belongings – furniture, vessels, mattresses, thrown out on the road along with the people. The kids watched wide-eyed but unperturbed. I like to think that these incidents in a way prepared us for what was to come after Mrs. Gandhi died.

The rumours started gradually. Like straws in the wind, they came into view and gently drifted away. Sikh bodyguards had shot Indira Gandhi, so the Hindus were taking revenge, the rumours said. We heard the adults talk about Sikh neighbourhoods and shops being ravaged. We heard about large-scale looting in the markets. No one believed them. But it was fear-mingled disbelief because we also heard that the Sikhs were taking revenge.

The Sikh community was omnipresent in Delhi. But during the time that Jarnail Bhindranwale held sway over the Golden Temple in Amritsar, Punjab, people had started looking at them with different eyes. We reveled in words like ‘mono sardar’ to denote Sikh men who had cut off their tresses, indicating that it had been done out of fear. My father, who was a CBI sleuth, used to visit Punjab to investigate cases often, in those days. If you remember, terrorism was rampant in Punjab in the early 1980s. Father would return from his long absences to tell us about Hindu families with Sikh kids, and of a gentle, Sikh daaba owner who used to keep his eatery open well into midnight so that my father and his colleagues would not miss dinner. ‘He slices extra malai (cream) and drops it into our lassi, my father would say appreciatively, while we kids would feel nauseous at the thought of that malai. My father was a tall, impressive figure of a man, and he used to tell us how he towered conspicuously above the devotees in the Golden Temple. I imagine, he with his cropped hair, must have stood out like a sore thumb – a Hindu – in that fast-festering environment.

But Bhindranwale was the one who caught our morbid imagination. We traded gory, imaginary details about the fate of Hindus caught by Bhindranwale and kept to be tortured in the Golden Temple. Yet, that didn’t colour our views about the Sikhs living with us and the Sikh children playing with us. Kids have the amazing ability to compartmentalise their lives.

When Operation Blue Star happened, and the Golden Temple was badly damaged in the crossfire between the militants and the Indian Army, there was widespread anger and disbelief among the Sikhs in Delhi. Mrs. Gandhi became instantly unpopular, and in a way, her assassination was almost inevitable. But what the Sikh community may not have expected was the brutal backlash against them in Delhi after her assassination.

That particular day is seared into my memory. Our colony had a market attached to it, as is the norm in Delhi. The market had all possible shops, including a Mother Dairy milk vending outlet, clothes stores, stationery shops, provisions stores, an electronics store, small daabas, and a very popular shop selling piping hot samosas and jalebis. Many of those stores and daabas were owned by Sikhs.

Mrs. Gandhi’s funeral was still a day or two away. That day, groups of people were talking furtively in our maidan. Many apprehensive glances were being thrown in the direction of the market. Something was surely afoot. A while later, I was leaning out of the balcony and saw a couple of men staggering out from the direction of the market carrying something heavy. A closer look revealed it to be TV sets! Just as I was wondering about it, a few more emerged, with clothes, pressure cookers, and more TV sets. Some of them were hollering, whooping, and running like the very devil was chasing them. Mobs, even small ones, acquire maniacal strength, and they collectively, even if only temporarily, lose their conscience and goodness. With horror I realised, these people were taking away looted goods. A chill ran up my spine at the thought that shops we patronised were being looted and vandalised. Unsettling noises from the market rent the air through that day. What if the mob decided to turn on the residents randomly? I was paralysed with fear. My father wasn’t around. I don’t recall seeing any policemen around, either. Did anyone try to call the police and report this vandalism? I don’t know. But I do know that the general, and oft-expressed feeling was, “Let the Sikhs pay. Didn’t they distribute sweets at news of Mrs.Gandhi’s death?”

By evening the Hindus in our colony started spreading rumours of truckloads of Sikhs coming our way, seeking vengeance. It was said they would poison the water tanks. It was said they would cut off heads with their kirpans. Rumour fed on rumour, fear gorged on fear. All the adults gathered, and strategies were planned. In the event of an attack, women and children it was decided, would take shelter in the first-floor flats and terraces, while men would patrol the colony. Someone suggested that chilli powder in mass quantities could be kept ready to counter the attackers. We listened to all this planning, shocked. I remember a spidery web of fear spreading inside me. The adults were too stressed and preoccupied to notice that children were actively eavesdropping. We looked at each other in utter terror.

Night came and went. The men patrolled the colony in turns, but no Sikh mobs came to our colony, not then, not later. It was just rumours. The looting of the Sikh shops continued through the next day, till there was nothing left of their shops. The losses the community suffered, the trauma they went through, the rest of us and the Indian state have a lot to answer for. I, for my part, am selfishly thankful that I didn’t see anyone being burnt or killed, only shops being looted, which was traumatic enough. More than 300 Sikhs – men, women and children were butchered in Trilokpuri Colony, while many more hundreds were slaughtered across rest of Delhi. The miasma of fear that hung about our colony and indeed, the rest of the city, must have been a nightmare for the Sikh community, and I wonder how, and if, they ever got over it. It was, and is, one of the most damnable chapters in our post-Independence history.

Slowly, things settled down, as they must. India’s love affair with the new Prime Minister, Rajiv Gandhi, began. I remember my friends and I sending a long letter to the Prime Minister’s  office, which ended with us requesting him for an autographed photo of his family! Of course, we didn’t get a reply, not even an acknowledgment, which rankled for a while. India’s obsession for Rajiv too did not last, but he did give us a great sense of hope, and new beginnings. Though, even he never attempted to ease the burden of what the Sikh community faced on those cataclysmic days.



Of summers, and some fears

When we were kids, we had the most marvellous summer holidays. The years we didn’t make the long journey from Delhi where my government officer father was posted, to Kerala, our native place, we spent them in Delhi. I looked forward to it equally.

There was nothing gentle about the Delhi summer. The sun shone brilliantly and a hot breeze was its natural corollary. The afternoons would be so hot that “no one save mad dogs will be out at this time”, my mom would say with exasperation. But to my friends and I, the hot afternoons were the perfect time to be about. We would roam the housing colony we lived in, climbing trees, drinking deliciously cold water from various homes as the afternoon wore on, getting scared out of our wits by dogs in the stairways seeking the coolness of the stone floors there.

It was on one such hot afternoon that I got my first introduction, and look, at the hijras or eunuchs, such a part of the Delhi landscape. About 4-5 of them had decided to pay a visit to a house in our neighbourhood, where a baby had just been born. They were a raucous bunch. The way they conducted themselves – their clothes (the sari worn carelessly, the pallu like a brahmin’s sacred thread (poonool) across the chest), the devil-may-care swagger, the rough voice and the louder talk, the unruly claps – all combined, froze me to the spot. My friends had vanished. I couldn’t take my eyes off them. They sauntered to the house where the new born baby was, called upon the gods to shower blessings on the baby, were suitably rewarded and came out a happy bunch. As they started towards me (or so it seemed to me), I vamoosed from there and watched them from the safety of my staircase.

RK Puram flat

I narrated this to my family in the evening. My parents then told us about a similar group who had decided to visit a close cousin’s home, who were new parents too. Now, this couple happened to be doctors. When the husband refused to pay up, the hijras threatened to strip right there. This cousin pulled up a chair, sat down with the air of a man who’s in it for the long haul, and asked them to go right ahead! As a doctor he had seen more than what they could ever reveal, he calmly informed them!! Needless to say, the hijras left, crestfallen.

This story did much to alleviate my fear of the eunuchs. They are a highly marginalised community. And though some pretend to be hijras to make a quick buck, the genuine ones are truly a neglected lot. I don’t like any kind of extortion and I do not endorse the extortion they resort to, playing on peoples’ fears and superstitions. But if people are going to be foolish and cave in, then one can’t really blame the hijras for trying to make a fast buck. After all, they are just using some native psychology and gift of the gab to part you from your money!

Now, I watch some of them at Mumbai’s traffic junctions. They seem to ignore the cars where the glass is up, the aircon on, a most effective shield they know, and target the cabs and motorists. They recite a litany of blessings and sometimes curses, in a singsong voice. Some give in, some don’t. As for me, I don’t oblige either, but that’s because I don’t fear them. Unlike that distant day in the past.