My cup of coffee

 

six white ceramic mugs
Photo credit: Pexels.com

I have been searching for that perfect cup of coffee since aeons. Now, I really shouldn’t be, as I grew up in a South Indian household, with the tantalising smell of filer kaapi (coffee) wafting through the house every morning. We had started out with the traditional, double compartment steel filter, graduating to the electric filter. The electric filter speeded up the process. If earlier we used to drink warm to hot coffee, now it was piping hot.

filtercoffee-1
South Indian filter coffee is brewed in this

Once I was deemed old enough to drink coffee, I drank it every day. Somehow, my world righted itself when I held that cup of coffee in my hands. It was not just a beverage, but it was the comforting embrace of roots, traditions and habit. That strong, milky, sugary, coffee was just so home!

After marriage I discovered to my utter dismay that my new hubby drank tea in the morning. But I who mocked him, was soon drinking tea myself. Somehow, tea was the easier beverage to make, and I just didn’t have the patience and time to make that cup of filter coffee, just for me. Like so many other small and familiar rituals, this too fell by the wayside. It seemed easier to let go of the old, in the eagerness to embrace the new. Once in a way I cheated by making Bru Instant, which kind of satisfied my coffee soul. (To Nescafe aficionados, I say this – try Bru Instant just once!)

When we moved to Mumbai fifteen years ago, though we lived in Colaba, I made Matunga my own haunt. And I soon acquired a steel filter from Soham store, and the filter coffee powder from Mysore Concerns, both in Matunga. Yet, I rarely brewed it. I was experimenting with varieties of tea by then. My buying the coffee filter was more a cursory salute to the past. Waiting for the decoction to trickle down and then have lukewarm coffee was not my cup of..er, coffee at all. Or so I thought.

This is when Sachin got hit with the Nespresso craze. He acquired the machine and the coffee capsules, which came in their own sleek box, with the different flavours marked out, almost like a jewellery catalogue. Every day, while he fiddled with the Nespresso machine, a half cup of very hot milk, a spoon, and a sachet of Stevia were set on a tray next to the machine. Sachin would pop the coffee capsule into the machine, after much deliberation over which flavour to have that particular morning. It was a grand performance, which Sachin insisted was just about worthy of Nespresso. He achieved coffee nirvana after each such ritual. I think it was more the ritual, and less the beverage, which put him there.

coffee-4
The Nespresso machine 

I just couldn’t bring myself to like Nespresso. None of the flavours appealed to me. But what it did do was kickstart my coffee yearnings. I started having the filter coffee when I could, and Bru when I was rushed. Since I like my coffee with milk and loads of sugar, I had it infrequently…hitting the 40s does have its downside. I can’t abide the taste of sweeteners like Stevia, Splenda, and I would much rather have coffee with sugar on weekends, rather than with these artificial sweeteners daily.

The advent of Starbucks into Mumbai was a milestone as much for our household, as it was for that august Organisation! Sachin discovered that he could also order a cup of Starbucks coffee through Swiggy, which I found amazingly wasteful. I offered to make him as much coffee as he needed, especially for the late nights up working or watching football on the telly. But of course, he wouldn’t be satisfied with Bru or filter coffee. He soon raided Foodhall and got decaf coffee, which frankly flummoxed me. It wouldn’t load him with caffeine and yet would give him the caffeine kick, he explained to me seriously. A coffee, which really isn’t coffee…hmmm.

Meanwhile, I was having my own palate evolution. Last November, while holidaying in Perast, Montenegro, I discovered by accident, Nescafe’s 1+2 instant coffee, which just needed sugar to be added. I discovered that adding a spoon of milk made it even more delicious. In the wintry cold of those November mornings, it gave me the greatest joy to sit with a cup of that coffee, gazing out to the beautiful Kotor Bay enveloped in pleasing stillness. But I couldn’t source enough of it before we left Montenegro. A search in Mumbai stores didn’t yield that particular combination. It was left to a dear friend to get it for me from Hong Kong, and I enjoy that coffee occasionally.

filtercoffee-3
The pleasing colour of the filter coffee!

That said, I have realised that my love for filter kaapi will never fade. A trip to Matunga even today means snacking at Mysore Cafe or Madras Cafe, rounding off the meal with piping hot filter coffee served in the steel tumbler and davra. You cool the coffee by pouring it back and forth between the tumbler and the davra from a height, which also generates a pleasing froth. Just look at the rich colour of this wonderful filter kaapi!

Today, one can even find herbal coffee to beat all herbal teas! And as many varieties of coffee as there are probably coffee drinkers, I guess. So the next time I want to drink coffee or Sachin does, I have an array in my house – Bru Instant, Nescafe 1+2, filter coffee, Decaf, Nescafe Gold, Nespresso, even Turkish coffee. If all these fail, I will head to Matunga, while Sachin can fall back on Starbucks, of course.

The dog we sent away

We had a dog called Maui. He was a pure stray, the kind you find roaming the Indian streets. Maui was highly intelligent, highly energetic, also, very aggressive. Yet, or maybe because of these qualities, we had to send him away. A flat in Mumbai is barely enough to hold humans, and if one stretches it, maybe the more domesticated breeds like the Beagle, the Labrador, the Pomeranian, or the Daschhund. These breeds I believe, have over generations got entirely accustomed to living with humans in confined spaces,  acclimatised to being ‘taken’ for walks down. They are conversant with elevator etiquette and wait patiently for it. A free-spirited stray stood no chance against the reputation of such ‘finishing school’ dogs.

The decision to adopt Maui had been an emotional one. Our mixed breed Daschhund, Joey, also an abandoned dog, had died in the summer of 2016. We had adopted him six years earlier. He was found cowering under a bench in a park in Santa Cruz, and an NGO for strays had rescued him. A friend of ours connected to this NGO, convinced us to have a look at Joey. And we who had gone to ‘just look’, returned with Joey in the back seat!

joey5
Joey, Sachin and Ishaan – the happy trio

Thus came Joey into our home. The vet estimated his age at about a year and a half. We took some time to adjust to this new member, though he took to us without any reservations. He formed the closest emotional attachment to Sachin, while I was the primary care giver – of food and walks. He came with some emotional baggage, a result of having been abandoned, perhaps. It manifested in utter hatred for other dogs, and a dislike of kids. Ishaan was the exception. Joey was fiercely loyal to us, and when he passed away, it was like we lost a guardian angel. Sachin and Ishaan took his death very badly, and the house was shrouded in a pall of gloom for many days. I suffered too, even though I had been always more detached.

I knew their campaign for a new pet would start soon, and sure enough, Sachin and Ishaan started to work on me. Much against my wishes, we adopted Maui, six months later. Maui was a stray pup found on the road. He was a very clever, intelligent pup, from the beginning. He was incredibly cute, and had an alertness about him which was astonishing.

mauipup.jpg
Maui was an incredibly alert pup

We hired a dog trainer, as this time we wanted to tick all the right boxes. He was the trainer’s brightest student, and received many accolades from her. But, we soon realised that his loud bark and charging at people he was suspicious of, didn’t augur well for domestic peace. The staff would tie him up every time the door bell rang, which just made Maui more angry and aggressive. We too couldn’t invest the kind of time needed to train him, as I believe, that persistent training could have overcome genetics. Maui had a special affinity for the garbage bin, and he guarded it jealously, even charging and biting, if necessary, to defend it. When we stepped out, he would shred books on the book shelf. I felt the staff was on the verge of a revolt, and I was not far behind. It was finally enough.

mauinsachin.jpg
Like Joey, Maui’s attachment to Sachin was very strong

We knew we would never put him back on the streets. He couldn’t, in all honesty, be given to another household. We had by now realised that he needed a lot of space to vent his excessive energy. That’s when a member of our staff came up with a brilliant solution – send Maui to his village in Ratnagiri, where there was enough space for Maui to frolic. We were initially skeptical, but were soon convinced seeing his enthusiasm. He said his family, which kept cows and buffaloes and hens, didn’t have a dog.

We got Maui neutered. Finally, one find day, a fully outfitted Maui in a new collar and leash, and with his food and water bowl, set out in a car from Mumbai for Malgund village in Ratnagiri. Sachin and Ishaan were very upset, till we started receiving tidings from Malgund. We came to know that the entire village turned up to see this dog brought in such style from the distant metropolis! The name ‘Maui’ (from the movie Moana)  was a bit too much of a tongue-twister for his new masters, and very rapidly he was re-christened ‘Maavi’. Maui took to the village and his new family like ‘to the manor born’. Soon we were sent videos and photos of him chasing cattle, thankfully the family’s cattle, and generally having a most carefree existence possible. He became that family’s watchdog in every sense. All this news pleased me especially, as I had headlined the ‘send Maui away’ effort. That was autumn of 2017.

Though I knew Maui had taken well to his new environs, the guilt stayed with me, and I promised Sachin and Ishaan that we would one day visit him. That opportunity finally presented itself this winter. We decided to go by road to Goa, and took the Chiplun route to Malgund village, where resided Maui. This was also a good opportunity to visit this kind family which had come to our aid.

It’s well-known that dogs never forget a smell. Yet, I was sure Maui wouldn’t remember me, and even if he did, it would be with some rancour. Such was my guilt. I was mentally ready for the ultimate rebuff – that he would turn away from me in disdain while he enthusiastically greeted Sachin and Ishaan. We reached the village in the afternoon, after travelling on the most crater-ridden road I have ever seen. The new highway being built has destroyed all vestige of the previous one. Travel worn and weary, we stepped out of the car to the sound of the most welcome, enthusiastic barking from Maui!

He was tied up in anticipation of our arrival. We went near him, and he went berserk. After leaping on Sachin, he turned to me and lavished me with all his affection. He was ecstatic at meeting us again. I was close to crying. Dear friend, I said to him, forgive me for sending you away. Maui looked at me with only love in his eyes.

sach-maui3.jpg
Maui and Sachin renew their bond

He ran about and looked at us to follow him, as if to show us his new family and home. When we did a tour of the homestead, he disappeared for a while, ‘on his usual jaunt’ said a family member, and returned at peace, and happy to see us again. He was so secure in his new home, that while he went crazy at meeting us, he didn’t cling to us or follow us everywhere. Maui, I realised, was truly home. I slept particularly well that night…

Chuck Dior, try Dharavi!

I don’t possess very many handbags. And ironically, the one I use the most is also the least expensive one. It is a small, black, sling bag, which I wear across my body, when I go for my evening walks, or to the nearby ATM, or to fetch my son from the bus. I carry in it the essentials – keys, phone, some cash, sometimes, my credit card.

But the truth is, the bag is never confined only to these items. Over several days, it ends up accumulating much, much, more. At any point, I can put my hand in and find things which I don’t really recall putting in. So today I found some Vicks ki goli, a small piece of smooth, glittering, white stone gifted by my son, and Rs.500 in cash (which is a large amount for this unpretentious bag). On previous occasions I have found a tube of my favourite lipstick for which I had been hunting high and low, a tiny notepad in which I had scribbled some ideas as they occurred and then forgotten promptly about, and of all things, a lemon! For the life of me I can’t remember why I would have a lemon in my bag. And almost always, a pack of tissues.

Every few weeks, when I find I can no longer absent-mindedly slide my phone into the bag, I empty it. And these little ‘treasures’ roll out. And I am bemused at what I find.

Slingbag-1
This sling is almost my identity now!

This bag is no Gucci or Kors. Oh, far from it. Can you even begin to guess where it was sourced from? It proudly dons the moniker of ‘Dharavi’. When my niece was visiting from Singapore, the enterprising girl, who loves India with a passion I sometimes can’t fathom, insisted on doing the ‘Slum Tour’ of Dharavi. She wanted to write about it for the magazine she was interning with. So we booked the tour conducted by the ‘Slum Gods’, which turned out to be three hours of pure, unadulterated, education.

Dharavi, if you look at it purely as an outsider, is a hellhole. There is no other word to describe it. There are open, stinking, stagnant, sewers, highest density of population in so small a space, and an absence of civic amenities which doesn’t point to a derelict municipality, but an absentee municipality. When you enter Dharavi and take the tour, your opinion does change. Not about the government, and not about the living conditions, but about its inhabitants. Dharavi teaches the abject lesson of survival at any cost. We were stunned by the enterprise of the small entrepreneurs there, (from leather processing units, to housewives rolling out papads in a central courtyard), and the will to live and survive amid dire poverty and squalor. Our ‘Slum Gods’ tour guide was a homegrown boy, who not only held his own in speaking English (he conducts these tours for firangs too), but was so very proud of the enterprise of his neighbours, and spoke with justifiable pride about the hip-hop band his friends and he had formed. I checked it to out on Youtube later, and it was quite creditable.

As part of the tour, he took us to a leather outlet, where on display were bags of various hues and sizes. Among them, the ‘Dharavi’ brand too. This particular bag called out to me as the perfect go-to bag for the many errands I have to run every day. It’s just big enough for me to carry the essentials, and small enough to ensure I don’t fill it up with rubbish. Notwithstanding the odd lemon and lipstick, of course! The very ease of wearing it, has endeared this bag to me. Now, you may scoff at the look of my bag. It perhaps lacks the design sensibilities that the Europeans so easily impart to bags. But there can’t be an iota of doubt that the quality of leather is among the best. Dharavi is known for its outlets selling quality leather products, if you are adventurous enough to venture there. So I was most happy to buy my  sling on this tour. I loved the fact that the manufacturer had decided to launch brand ‘Dharavi’. It spoke of a certain amount of pride, and self-assurance, which I found oddly touching, and very impressive.

Slingbag-3
When the black sling was new and shiny!

I am glad my little sling isn’t a high-value one. I would then be most reluctant to haul it everywhere. The Dharavi sling has been carried to all places and put to much rough use, and it’s weathered all the ill-usage with smooth equanimity. The leather has just got more soft with time, and I have no doubt it will last me for many, many, more moons to come.

Yet, I have to confess, I am getting a bit tired of its colour. I crave a change. Is it time to go back and find a twin of this bag, maybe in tan, or green, or blue, perhaps? I will keep you posted…Meanwhile, if you find the brand Dharavi anywhere, do patronise it:-)

A dash into Bosnia…

We were in Montenegro, when we decided to visit neighbouring Croatia. Dubrovnik in Croatia has achieved cult status in recent years because of the hit series Game of Thrones (GoT), many parts of which were shot in that city. We are ardent fans of GoT, and Dubrovnik was just an hour and a half by car from Perast in Montenegro, where we were so blissfully ensconced.

Only the desire to see the locations of GoT could have torn us away from Perast, to which we had lost our hearts. In Perast, each one of us had discovered that we could indeed be far from the madding crowd, and be happy. The ethereally beautiful Kotor Bay which was just outside our apartment window, had cast a spell on us so powerful that I had the mad urge to overstay our visa! If souls can talk to a place, mine did, to the tranquility, beauty, and the sheer peace of Perast. I remember a particular morning, when we had ventured out early, and were almost the only ones out in the cold, damp, clear morning. I remember looking out at the tranquil bay, taking a deep breath, and shutting my eyes, capturing the feeling at that particular moment. After returning, I have often wondered, why. Is human nature naturally attuned to the beauty and simplicity of peace and silence? Do we rediscover an innate, but an absconding part of our very being when we inadvertently discover places like this?

IMG_6244 2
The ethereal Bay of Kotor as seen from Perast

But as far as Dubrovnik was concerned, all of our plans came to a naught when we realised that we didn’t have the Schengen visa to enter Croatia. Our US visa had been enough to gain us entry into Turkey and Montenegro, our two ports of call on this trip. Sadly, we gave up the idea of visiting Croatia. But the urge to drive out was now upon us, and I think we looked forward to leaving Perast for the day, just so that we could ‘return home to Perast’!

That is how we found ourselves strapped into the car, setting the Google Map to Trebinje, Bosnia-Herzegovina. We heard there was a lovely monastery to see. The idea of seeing the monastery and eating lunch in another country, before returning to Perast, was so very attractive. So we set out. Once we left the Bay of Kotor behind, the road to Bosnia wound around vast fields and distant hills. At the border into Bosnia, we faced both immigration and customs, while seated in the car. How cool is that!

We were welcomed into the Republic of Srpska, which is one of the two entities of Bosnia-Herzegovina. And soon we were in Trebinje.

IMG_5167
Goodbye Montenegro, Hello Srpska!

Trebinje is a small city, with much history. The Tvrdos Monastery actually dates back to the 4th century AD, though over centuries it has been destroyed and reconstructed, the last one being about a century ago. It’s a peaceful monastery, surrounded by green vineyards, with a river flowing past it.

IMG_6464
The serene Tvrdos Monastery

The monastery chapel, as with most such chapels, is small and serene. There were tourists who were conducting some rituals, and we prayed briefly too. The monastery is known for its wine production, and is quite a tourist attraction, though we didn’t pause to taste any. We then left for the city of Trebinje, a mere 5 km away.

IMG_5137
Ishaan had a great time photographing the river, while a local fished!

Trebinje was for me a surreal experience. I have rarely been in any place in Europe, especially in recent years, where I have seen people stare at us as much as they did in Trebinje. Indians have reached most corners of the earth, and one would think Bosnia is definitely one of those corners. It wasn’t a rude stare, just a shocked one, jaws agape, at seeing a sight one isn’t accustomed to. It was a bit unnerving, but we tried to be nonchalant, three Indians, walking down a street in Bosnia, trying to look as if we belonged! In retrospect, what a hilarious sight we must have presented!

IMG_5143

In the centre of the town, a farmer’s market was just winding up, while we went inside a cafeteria looking for some lunch. Lunch was rather coarse, though tasty fare. A kind of ham sandwich, for which we paid with Euros since we very clearly didn’t have the local currency of Convertible Mark. They happily took the Euros and gave back change in Marks which we discovered later. So we now have a bunch of Bosnian Marks to add to our currency collection. People at the cafeteria thankfully didn’t stare, which went a long way in redeeming the city for me.

For dessert Sachin insisted on going to a rather busy and stylish cafe we had seen. We went with hope and got some lovely dessert, but also enough smoke to coat our lungs for a while. People here have the rather awful habit of smoking indoors. Sachin said it’s a sure sign of a still evolving society.

Trebinje overall, doesn’t give one the impression of being a vital place, which I hope isn’t symbolic of the rest of Bosnia-Herzegovina. There is almost a miasma of tiredness, and of being poorer cousins to their more alive, more prosperous neighbours. The town of Trebinje has loads of history. Yet, there is a sheen of dullness about the place. Despite the autumnal trees and the cool weather.

IMG_5147

We started back from Trebinje soon after and reached Perast by 5 pm, when the tourists had vacated the town, and what a relief that was! It was dark and quiet, and we were  just in time to see a humongous cruise ship glide silently across the bay in front of our apartment, its windows ablaze with lights. What a mesmerising sight indeed, to come home to…:-)

In intriguing Istanbul

IMG_6105

 

 

IMG_6579
Girls with covered heads at the Topkapi Palace

“See, that’s what I am talking about!”, exclaimed our Istanbul guide Zehra (name changed to protect identity) in dismay, pointing to a group of young girls at the Topkapi Palace, a few of them with their heads covered with scarves. “Covering the head is forbidden as per Turkish law. But now, we are seeing more girls with their heads covered”. Zehra, a strong feminist, nationalist, and liberal, was our guide for the day in Istanbul. She was unabashedly critical about the path her country was treading, yet helpless in the face of the ultra-conservatism she saw slowly taking root in Turkey.

For both Sachin and I, this was our first experience of Istanbul. We had transited through the city before, but never explored it. Istanbul to me, seemed the very antithesis of Perast in Montenegro, where we had just spent a blissful five days. Perast was ethereally beautiful, peaceful, and by the second day we were on nodding terms with the locals, with our frequent forays out. It had been almost heart-wrenching to leave Perast. And the contrast, coming into Istanbul, couldn’t have been more vivid.

From the word Go, Istanbul to me, was a riot of colours, a smorgasbord of sensory experiences, and most of all, a perfect example of what happens to culture, facial features, and way of life, when Asia and Europe meet and blend, so riotously. We stayed at Hotel Ajwa located bang in the centre of the congested, tourist centre of Sultanahmet, on the European side of the gently flowing Bosphorus. On an earlier transit we had stayed on the Asian side, and I had been lulled into thinking that here was a calm, benign city. It’s absolutely not. Sultanahmet, to me, was in many ways, a reminder that for all its European efficiency and chic, Istanbul is essentially Asian at heart.

Chaos seems writ large in the city’s very fabric. From the wildly weaving traffic, to the eagerly gesticulating salesmen in the Grand Bazaar trying to attract your attention, it’s chaos. It was outside Grand Bazaar, while tightly sandwiched between two women in a mass of people, that I had an out of body experience. This, I thought, is how it feels when you have nowhere to turn, and nowhere to go. Literally. For many minutes we were stuck like that, and then we came unstuck. And I fled into the Grand Bazaar.

The Grand Bazaar is a covered, busy market, the interior of which brought to mind the beautiful baroque Cloth Hall of Krakow’s Town Square, which has stalls selling jewellery, ceramics, and dainty laces.

IMG_6630 2
One of the entrances to Grand Bazaar
IMG_6644
The lights that shine and beckon at Grand Bazaar!

The comparison ends there, of course. The Grand Bazaar is grand in every sense of the word. The colourful lamps on display blaze with a  zillion twinkling lights, while the vast array of gorgeous ceramics, bags, psychedelic stoles and shawls, chess sets, copper and brass utensils, and gold jewellery, vie avariciously for your attention.

It’s so easy to fall prey to the enticing charms of these wares, but for the bargaining. It is assumed, especially if you are an Indian, that you will bargain, so it’s a real pain to have to bargain. Much to my chagrin, one of the shop owners said, Madam, you bargain well! I hate bargaining from the bottom of my heart, and my attempt had been pretty perfunctory. So I knew he was just going on the charm offensive. Ignoring him was easier said than done, and I bought what I had to buy and got out.

But it was in the Spice Bazaar that we spent the real moolah. From lemon salt, dried fruits and pomegranate syrup, to sun-dried tomatoes and beautifully packaged Turkish delights (sweets) of pomegranate and almond flavours, the Spice Bazaar is a real cornucopia of foods and spices, and emits the most interesting smells.

The Grand Bazaar and the Spice Bazaar can be a bit of a tourist trap though. Everything is way too pat, every response too rehearsed. The lanes and by-lanes outside of the two bazaars have some interesting stories to tell. Here, there are stalls selling a variety of things like the famous Turkish calligraphy, little figurines of the whirling dervishes, handmade soaps, etc. Even the gleaming fresh fish on display may just be of academic interest to tourists like us, but are still so attractive. As one traverses the lanes of Istanbul, every experience takes on more meaning, every sight is visually more appealing, every bazaar seems something out of the Arabian Nights!

IMG_6635

IMG_6659
The lanes outside the famous bazaars have some interesting stalls

The proper introduction to the city came the next day though, with Zehra. Hailing from the northern part of Turkey, she has a healthy disdain, tempered with loads of affection, for Istanbul. With pride she pointed out the sights of her adopted city, narrating the history of her country which has seen, since the beginning of the Christian Era, the Byzantines, the Ottomans and then, the liberal Mustafa Kemal Pasha ruling over Turkey. Kemal Pasha was an especially liberal leader, who vowed to put Turkey on a secular, progressive track, which meant women’s liberation too. Something Zehra is immensely proud of.

But, things are changing subtly. The current political dispensation in Turkey has made education in Islamic schools free, which means a large number of children are being sent to these schools, depriving them of what could be seen as a more liberal, progressive education. Head scarves are back, and the general feeling is that the country is treading a conservative path.

Yet, Turkey is a country with a very large heart. It currently hosts the most number of Syrian refugees, nearly four  million officially registered. Such an influx of refugees has meant a degree of pressure on the social services, and in a bizarre twist, territorial squabbling between the ‘local’ beggars and ‘refugee’ alm seekers! There is a price to be paid for being welcoming hosts.

Not just refugees and tourists, Istanbul attracts all other sorts of visitors. We were stumped by a very strange sight we encountered often on the tour around Sultanahmet – men with bandages (sometimes bloodied) wrapped around their heads, sightseeing. What a sight! Istanbul is apparently, a major hub for people wanting to get cosmetic treatments like hair transplant, botox, etc. Obviously, the men with bandages were fresh from a hair transplant session. I could only marvel at their determination to sightsee!

We spent a considerable amount of time with Zehra that day. It is a testimony to her skill, that we didn’t realise the passage of time. With consummate ease she navigated Sultanahmet, telling us stories about each monument, even pointing out the resident cats of Sultanahmet! Among all the monuments in Istanbul that Zehra took us on the walking tour – from the Topkapi Palace, the Blue Mosque, the underground cisterns, the Grand Bazaar and the Suleiman Mosque, I was most impressed and awed by the Hagia Sophia or Ayasofya Museum.

It so well encapsulates what Istanbul stands for. Built in the 6th century AD, it is considered an epitome of Byzantine architecture. The remarkable thing about this awe-inspiring monument is that for more a thousand years it was a Greek Orthodox Church, which later became an Ottoman Imperial Mosque under the Ottomans, and is today the Ayasofya Museum. Though many of the original features like the altar, bells and mosaics depicting Christianity were glossed over, some still remain.

Ayasofya is built on massive lines, and when you enter through the Emperor’s Gate, you truly feel royal. The gates are so massive that they look fit for caparisoned elephants to enter, like some of the darwazas of Indian forts.

IMG_6598
The Emperor’s Gate at Ayasofya

The massive dome and the extremely high ceiling, as also the colourful mosaics, make for an extremely regal monument. The Ayasofya is also a highly controversial edifice, with ongoing debates about the uncovering of the Christian mosaics, and whether the monument should revert to being a mosque again. A sign of how the wind blows in Turkey today?

99589e06-fe98-42b8-8fdd-c994e379b80e
The Christian mosaic inside Ayasofya

Zehra undertook to introduce us to not just her city’s history, but also to its food. Eschewing the more fancy places, she took us to a small, but a very colourful restaurant, Omar, in the heart of Sultanahmet, where we tasted the testi kebap, a meat dish cooked in a clay pot.

testi kebab again
Testi kebap being served

The last part of the cooking process is done right next to your table, when the clay pot is roasted in the flame, the lid opened, and the kebap decanted with a flourish. I must confess, while I found this dish quite tasty, I vastly prefer and absolutely love the traditional kebaps on skewers, and the ubiquitous doner kebaps that we had at the ‘Hamdi’ restaurant overlooking the Grand Bazaar. The doner is of course wildly popular beyond the country’s borders. It’s in fact, our go-to comfort food too, when we travel in Europe.

Ironically, one of our best meals in Istanbul was an Azerbaijani meal. Turkey has strong ties with Azerbaijan, and ‘Zeferan’, the Azerbaijani restaurant at Ajwa is quite  famous. The food was truly mind-blowing, especially the shah pilaf, a less spicy, more delicate version of our biriyani. When they brought it to the table, I thought it was a mistake, as the dish resembled if not a cake, but definitely some sort of a dessert with the garnish of apricots on top.

Shah rice
Is this a dessert?

We cut into it to discover the most flavourful, delicately spiced rice, and melt-in-the-mouth meat. Food like this makes one grateful that one is able to travel and experience, even if briefly, other cultures.

IMG_5246
Oh no! It’s shah pilaf, a rice and meat dish!

 

a85b5932-0f76-489f-a9c0-d5124462957d
I can drink Turkish tea through the day

I have only one grouse with the Turks, and that is that they take their warm beverages seriously, and I wish they wouldn’t. They slurp many glasses of tea and coffee every day. I love the Turkish tea, there is a charm to drinking black tea which is so light, and aromatic. But Turkish coffee is something I will never get my head, or my taste buds around. I found it thick, almost sludgy, and it tastes, quite frankly, horrible. I am a finicky coffee drinker, I agree, given my South Indian roots, but I can usually tolerate most types of coffee. Turkish coffee, I am sorry to say, I will never have willingly.

While their coffee is of questionable taste, the Turks are a friendly, polite, and a fair race, and I don’t mean their skin colour. They are aware of their place in the world because of their history, which has over the years and especially in the 20th century, been very progressive. The melting pot of cultures that Turkey is, has resulted in a race with bold, handsome, refined features, making them a very good looking race too. And they are confident about their place in the world. They wear their culture and history, very well indeed. I hope and pray, it remains that way.

IMG_6582

 

When She Died

Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was shot dead by her bodyguards on Oct.31, 1984. I was a 11-year-old school girl in New Delhi. When the news of her getting shot by her Sikh security guards trickled in, we were let off early from school. Since we lived close to the 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 weird how these small details get etched in one’s mind, when we often have lost the 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; there were fewer cars and more space to play, earlier

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, were 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 unpeturbed. 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 revelled 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, stationary 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, and nothing else. 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 acknowledgement, 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.

 

 

My Top 10 Series – Part 2

Here’s Part 2 and final list of My Top 10 Series…I loved chronicling my favourite shows, hope you like reading it:-)

  1. Fargo (Season One on Netflix): I have watched the first season of this series, and it’s a crime story with the blackest humour you can imagine, helmed so ably and eccentrically by Billy Bob Thornton (Angelina Jolie’s ex-husband, the couple was known for wearing tiny vials of each other’s blood around their neck!), and the able Martin Freeman. Freeman plays a severely hen-pecked husband, who snaps one day and hits his wife on the head, and she dies. Helping him cover up this murder is Thornton, which subsequently leads to more murders and hilariously bizarre situations. Thornton is deliciously ironic, and this series is so, so worth watching. I hope to watch Season Two soon.
  2. Ozark (Seasons One and Two): The story of Ozark is similar to Breaking Bad in that, it is about a man providing for his family, and also trying to protect his family from his bad choices. Except that, after a point, the choices they make are more voluntary, than forced. Ozark keeps you on the edge of the seat, and is a superbly cast and produced series. Yet, Breaking Bad touches your heart more.
  3. The Crown (Season 1-2 on Netflix):  It is the biographical depiction of the life and times of Queen Elizabeth II, who is currently the longest reigning monarch in the world. The series has been dramatised superlatively, remaining faithful to the real events which are widely known. Two seasons are over and the third is eagerly awaited. Superb, not-to-be-missed series.
  4. Broadchurch/The Sinner (Seasons 1-3 and Season One, respectively, both on Netflix):  The British crime series, Broadchurch, is set in the fictitious town of Broachurch in Dorset. The investigation is into the death of 11-year-old boy which shakes up the close community. Leading the investigation is DI Alex Hardy (actor David Tennant), who is a sharp detective, but with his own personal demons to slay. Assisting him is actress Olivia Coleman as DS Ellie Miller. This unlikely duo works well. This is an outstanding series and keeps you on the edge of your seat. While, The Sinner is about a mother on a beach with her family, a seemingly pleasant, happy day, with nary a cloud in the sky, when suddenly something snaps, and she commits murder. Jessica Biel is the reason you must watch this, what a performance, and what a story!
  5. Alias Grace (Season 1 on Netflix): This American-Canadian mini-series is based on a novel of the same name by Margaret Atwood. The main protagonist is the intriguing Grace Marks who is in prison since the last 15 years for having committed murder. She tells her story in flashbacks, to the psychiatrist Dr. Jordan who is here to evaluate her for a possible pardon. Grace is no ordinary person and till the last moment one is kept guessing about the veracity of her story. Stunning portrayal by Sarah Gadon as Grace.
  6. Fauda (Season 1-2 on Netflix)This is an Israeli political thriller, which gives a glimpse into the complex security and other challenges between Israel and the Palestine territories. The story, though primarily told from the Israeli point of view, does depict the Arab thinking too. Though it has faced some criticism over its handling of the issue, for the rest, it’s a taut and suspenseful series.
  7. Humsafar/Zindagi Gulzar Hai (One Season Each on Netflix): Both these Pakistani serials star Fawad Khan. Bollywood movies no longer seem to have a place for the chivalrous, utterly romantic leading man, which Shahrukh Khan at one point had managed to craft as his image. Fawad is your quintessential romantic hero, utterly good-looking, supremely charming, and so very chivalrous. But not just Fawad, the rest of the cast of both these serials, have done a superlative job. How I wish such realistic, yet appealing serials were being produced in India too. But then, Pakistan has a long and rich tradition of producing well-narrated and sensitive TV shows. Remember Dhoop Kinare?
  8. Sherlock (Seasons 1-4 on Netflix): Most of us saw the first three seasons before it came on Netflix, but having said that, it’s one of the best series on the site. Benedict Cumberbatch plays Holmes as no one before, and even the formidable Robert Downey Jr comes only a close second!
  9. The Chalet (Season One on Netflix)This is a a French crime-suspense mini series. As with most things French, it’s absolutely stylistic, and it’s chilling and spooky, without depicting much gore. Hats off to the director for pulling off this almost implausible plot on the basis of its production values, sets, location and cast. A special mention has to be made of the haunting title song and music. Fabulous and riveting.
  10. Boston Legal (Seasons 1-5) and Grey’s Anatomy (Season 1-15): You may be surprised at these choices. Boston Legal is about a law firm in Boston, which has a set of lawyers, who are morally and ethically sometimes compromised, but are bright, and defend their clients well. I recommend watching this mainly for William Shatner (of Star Trek fame, remember the dashing Captain James Kirk?), and even more, for James Spader.  Spader who acts as lawyer Alan Shore, is brilliant, but is not averse to using shady means to get his victories. Yet, he is honest about his methods, and is uncompromisingly unhypocritical, and that is what I love about his character, and this show. Grey’s Anatomy is about a bunch of new interns at Seattle Grace Hospital in the US, who go through their gruelling training and exciting relationships at the same time. What sets it apart for me, is the sheer casting – Ellen Pompeo who plays Meredith Grey, Patrick Dempsey who plays Dr.Derek Shepherd aka McDreamy, and Sandra Oh who plays Dr.Christina Yang. The chemistry between Pompeo and Dempsey is superb. In its 15 Seasons, the serial has seen many shifts and changes, including the cast, though Ellen Pompeo has been the constant. I would recommend watching upto Season 8 or 9, till when it’s really interesting and keeps you glued.