Tuesday, May 23, 2017

A Shot in the Dark

War loves to seek its victims in the young.

                                                                                                     Greek saying

A pall hung over like a grey curtain. People were on their way outside the main gate. The Cantonment was winding up for the day. Autumn leaves lay in heaps on the ground, freshly swept orange piles, as the security checks went on relentlessly. Things seemed peaceful, a bit too peaceful for Srinagar, a city prone to blasts and bloodshed. However, the cantonment was like a fortress... entering it meant going through a rigmarole of frisking, questioning and stringent checks. The men in green knew their jobs and went on with it like clockwork.

Suddenly the quiet of the evening was shattered by loud explosions. Since it was Diwali eve, it was assumed that fireworks were being let off. But there were people who realized that these were gunshots, and that they sounded very close by. The news spread like wildfire, as guards scrambled to warn people off the streets, “Hurry up and go home! There is firing going on!” No one waited to listen further. They took to their heels, and locked themselves up in their warm secure homes, worried about those who were out in the cold.

The story was out soon enough. Three militants of the Lashkar-e-Toiba group had taken refuge in the Cantonment Board building right next to the main gate, waiting for the right chance to plunge in and attack. Showering bullets at the security guards at the gate, they clambered over the outer wall from the top of a bus, and charged into the first building they could find... the office of the Public Relations Officer. At the sound of the first gunshot, the PRO, Maj. Purushottam, who had three Kashmiri journalists with him at the moment, hurriedly pushed them into the bathroom, and picked up his telephone to inform security. The two armed ruffians crashed through the door, shooting haphazardly at every person they saw, killing as many as they hit. They found the PRO behind a sofa, trying to get his call through, and they shot at him point blank, injuring him fatally.

The whole Cantonment was in shock at the brutality and the futility of the incident. There were ten men lost in the shootout, and many more injured, for after the massacre, the two militants ran back and took refuge again in the Cantonment Board building. A couple of brave officers went after them and tried to get them out of their holes, first by cajoling and sympathising, then through promises and enticement. When those did not work, they resorted to firing, and in the process, they themselves suffered splinter injuries as the intruders lobbed grenades at them. Lady Luck was with them, however, and soon the two gunmen were dead. There was no trace of the third who was assumed to have been a lookout and seemed to have looked out and saved his own life at the opportune moment.

What is tragic in this case is the loss of lives of innocent people... those who contributed their mite by providing information to different media sources. The unkindest cut of all was that they were unarmed and defenceless, cut down in cold blood by hired assassins who were willing to sacrifice their own lives for a fanatical cause. It is in such situations that we realise the significance of the saying that ‘Man’s life is like a candle in the wind’. A puff can blow it away, leaving anguish and heartbreak in its wake.

What is done cannot be undone. However, security was stepped up further and all loopholes plugged as far as possible. After the Red Fort break in and the Srinagar Airport firing, things seem to be snowballing on us. Today as the Government waits for a positive reaction to the ceasefire that began during the month of Ramzan, the country stands with bated breath for a solution to the Kashmir crisis. But the truth is that as long as men take oaths to achieve their goals, courting even death in the bargain, it will be difficult to make a place absolutely impregnable. For it is the fear of death that makes a man retrace his steps, and when that fear is snuffed out of him, he becomes the deadliest weapon ever known. For then there is no stopping him ever! How true this is in the wake of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Centre buildings in the USA and the Indian Parliament. For this article was written when we were posted in Srinagar, but the carnage still goes on and innocents are still dying for nothing.

An extract from Deepti Menon's 'Arms and the Woman' that was published in 2002 by Rupa Publishers, Delhi

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Finding the Angel - Book Review

Rubina Ramesh has done it again! After her first book of short stories titled, ‘Knitted Tales’, which brought forth myriad moods of life, her ‘Finding the Angel’ comes across as a breezy romance that is easy and pleasant to read. The mystery kicks in later, but romance it is that reigns, and lingers.
“When he became the seeker, she was his haven. When she became demanding, he became her beacon.”

Shefali Verma is employed to catalogue the Ranaut antiques, and entrusted with the Angel with Egg in a Chariot, a rare, beautiful Fabergé egg, part of the private collection of the Ranaut Dynasty, given to Rani Gitanjali Devi by her late husband. “The Angel, a Fabergé  renowned for its workmanship, was a legend, a sort of folklore, amongst art collectors”. 
Enter the cool, handsome hero, Prince Arjun Ranaut, who had taken over the helm of the Ranaut empire at the age of twenty-three. Disarmingly handsome, with a magnetic personality to boot, it requires all Shefali’s will power to heed her boss, Kalpana Desai’s advice to keep away from him as he is reputed to be a heartbreaker; advice easier given, than followed!

Kalpana, Shefali’s mother’s best friend, had cocooned her against the world after the death of the latter’s parents. She had lovingly moulded her into “the confident and articulate woman she had turned out to be”.  The Ranaut project is vital for Kalpana’s company, and she has full confidence in her protégé’s ability.  

An interesting first encounter with the Prince starts off with a minor misunderstanding, which Shefali handles with élan. This is a man who is used to women throwing themselves at him, and she will not succumb!

The characters are fascinating, almost etched from real life – the elegant Gitanjali Devi, Sonakshi, her elder daughter who takes her royalty and her husband equally seriously, guarding both jealously, and her husband, Arvind Singh, who has a roving eye. In stark contrast is her bubbly younger daughter, Raima, who proves an ally to Shefali, and her rather tame husband, Sameer Kothari. Another storybook character is Shekhar Ranaut, a cousin, who is interesting in his own right.

When Shefali abandons the prestigious Ranaut project after the loss of the Fabergéblame falls on her slender shoulders. How will she handle the scandal and the heartbreak of losing the man she has fallen in love with? Arjun Ranaut makes it clear that he “could forget the Angel but not the deception.”

‘Finding the Angel’ is a tempestuous love story that has its ups and downs as contrasting emotions grapple with one another.  The sprint and the chase, the sudden changes in mood, the tantalizing game of romance and the obvious attraction between the protagonists, keep the readers on tenterhooks as they wait for the inevitable. But before that, there is a mystery to be solved as well.

Rubina Ramesh tells a simple story, one that is a delight to read. The scenic beauty of Ranaut, a hundred miles away from Pali in Rajasthan, comes across in her picturesque descriptions, as do the traditions that lie hidden in expressions like ‘‘Khamaghani’ the Rajasthani greeting, ‘Hukum’, ‘Bhaisa’ and ‘Kuvar’, titles that are so typical. She tells the saga of the Ranaut dynasty in almost soulful prose.
“How many names of lovers were carved on the stone wall, most of them dying a silent death of unfulfilled promises?”

Finally, all the threads are tied together and the mystery dovetails into a satisfactory ending, leaving the reader content at having enjoyed a good read.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

A Sky Full of Stars

“You have a cataract in your left eye!”
I felt the world spin around me as I heard the doctor’s calm voice. I hadn’t ‘seen’ that coming! My husband looked just as stunned. A cataract at my age? I wasn’t close to seventy yet, even if my hair was a natural burgundy, as I always claimed. How could I have a cataract?

The doctor smiled in amusement. “Yours is probably a pre-senile cataract!” she explained, as though that made it better. “People in their forties sometimes develop this condition.”
“Ahem, I am in my mid-fifties,” I coughed modestly.

“Oh, then it is a senile cataract!” she amended decisively, making me cringe for my poor cataract. “But don’t you worry! We will fix you!”

  Fix You - Coldplay

I went home in a daze, half apprehensive, half elated at the bombshell I was going to drop on my unsuspecting family. And I was not disappointed, for all of them were flabbergasted, each one climbing over the others to assure me that it was going to be fine, there would be no pain in a laser surgery and that I would be able to look on the bright side of things when my eyesight improved drastically.
“Oh, you might actually be able to see the man you married properly!” quipped my brother-in-love.
“And yes, imagine being able to recognize people from a distance!” said my sister, referring to an article I had once written, which was titled ‘Glassy Eyed!’

If I have deigned to write about any malady till now, it is because I have gone through it, a la ‘Hysterics over a Hysterectomy’, which I had written after that oh-so-vexing ‘period’. Luckily, these proved good fodder for my writing, and the aforesaid article actually won me an amazingly accurate thermometer which calculated body temperature through the ear. That my enthusiastic Army husband made me donate it to his Unit Hospital/MI Room is a different story altogether!

My thoughts flew back to my childhood when I had thought my relatives who had had cataract surgeries singularly blessed. All they did was loll around on their armchairs wearing glamorous dark glasses, listening to music or the news. They were forbidden from any strenuous activity, and from going out into the heat and dust. Special dishes were made to tempt them to eat and drops were assiduously poured into their eyes every couple of hours. What was best was that they were not allowed to bathe, an activity that many of us wished we could get out of, as it ate into our playtime.
Many a harassed student, yours truly included, had gazed at the cataract survivors enviously, bemoaning the fact that we ourselves had to pore over prodigious amounts of school work or beastly projects we had to complete in ‘record’ time.

As I grew up and meandered towards Literature, the word ‘cataract’ took on a whole new meaning.  Wordsworth said poetically in Tintern Abbey, “The sounding cataract haunted me like a passion” and Tennyson expounded on how “the wild cataract leaps into glory.” As I read these words, my heart leapt with passion and glory, and cataract surgeries seemed too far removed and unromantic to be worried over.
A scientific minded cousin of mine scoffed, “A cataract is a mere waterfall, in literary parlance.” I recall retorting that Botany was the art of insulting flowers in Latin and Greek, which led to an amicable truce.

 Thus, I ambled along through life, rose-coloured spectacles perched firmly on my nose, when gradually I began to sense a lowering of sight in my left eye, which had always been weak. My right eye was a lone ranger and had put an understanding arm around the left from a very young age as if to murmur, “Don’t you worry, my boon companion! I am there to take care of you!” And so it did so, taking over the whole load of its lazy companion who promptly decided to roll over and play dead.

As I lay on the surgery table, my eye having been regularly doused with drops over the past couple of days, clad in the green hospital gown, with only my left eye exposed, my doctor came to me, and said, “Don’t worry! It will all be over soon. Only lie still and don’t move your eye at all!” That was easier said than done, as my heart beat violently, and my single eye stared up at the blinding lights above.

However, what followed was, indeed, an experience, as I witnessed an explosion of colours, hemispheres colliding, and a sensation of water cascading over my eye at regular intervals. There was no other sensation and I relaxed and lay back, as the colours continued to dance and frolic before my eye. In about fifteen minutes, she told me, “We are almost done, OK?” I was overwhelmed when, after bandaging my eye, she explained that not only had she removed the cataract, but that she had also corrected my vision as well.

Once home, my concerned husband hovered around like a mother hen. He handed me a brand new set of earphones, saying sternly, “No exerting, no reading, no watching TV, no cooking...!”
“And no living!” I retorted. But I knew he was right and gave myself up to sitting and contemplating on all the future books I would write, and all the mouth-watering dishes he would cook for me. However, after the first two days, I needed to have something else to occupy my mind. What could I do?

The first thing I did was discover ‘Coldplay’, the band that had come and conquered our capital, unlike the next hyped young singer who came and apparently lip-synced his way out of the hearts of all those poor souls who had spent a bomb for the gala event.
Next, I found a treasure trove; a website that offered almost 7000 free audio books, which consisted of all the old classics that I had always adored. From then on, I did not have a moment to lose as I lost myself in such gems as ‘The Scarlet Pimpernel’, ‘Lady Audley’s Secret’, ‘Wives and Daughters’ and ‘An Ideal Husband’.

I then veered towards crime stories, choosing ‘The Abandoned Room’ by Wadsworth Camp as a first choice, listening to an eerie voice read out the story as I lay in the dark, night after night. It was not surprising that, on one of those nights, I walked into the bathroom, and almost jumped out of my skin at the sight of a monstrous visage that glowed out at me in the inky darkness. I screamed, as my husband jumped up and hastened to put on the light, his heart in his mouth.
“What is the matter? Are you fine?” he asked anxiously.
I looked at him sheepishly, one eye covered with a cup that was stuck over it to protect it. I had seen myself in the shadows, and my one eye without its generous ‘racooning’ of kajal had quite undone me! Almost as scary as seeing movie stars minus their painstaking make-up on! It would take a month for me to look human again.

However, my sky was full of stars as my eyesight had gone from a minus 8 in my left eye to almost normal. I would not need glasses anymore, except for reading. How huge a miracle was this, and how amazing were the nano surgeries of today which had transformed the old painful procedures in the past into an experience that was more pleasant under the meticulous hands of my doctor, than not! The biggest blessing of all was that I had experienced no pain at all, during the surgery or even after.

So now, “when on my couch I lie, in vacant or in pensive mood”, I marvel upon the mysteries of nature and medical science, that dance together in a harmonious waltz, to create that ultimate miracle... in my case, the boon of good eyesight for once, in all my years of life! And as Walt Whitman said so poetically, “Every moment of light and dark is a miracle.”

A Sky Full of Stars - Coldplay

Thursday, May 11, 2017

The Story Behind Cantilevered Tales - Guest Post

Jayant Kripalani has always been a name to reckon with, whether in filmdom or in the world of theatre. He has lived his roles to the hilt, be it the charming protagonist of Mr Ya Mrs,  or the suave Rohit in Khandaan.  Now he is all set to prove his prowess as a writer in Cantilevered Tales, and there is no doubt that he 'cantilever'! (can deliver)

The story behind Cantilevered Tales

Why Jayant Kripalani wrote this book?

Why did I start writing this set of short stories that became one long story? I don’t really know.

I was on way my back from somewhere by train and at Howrah Station a group of taxi drivers tried to extort a higher fare from me.  This was before the time of pre paid taxi booths.  Rather than shell out five times the fare I thought I’d take a bus. It was peak hour in the morning and though I did get a seat since the bus started from there, I hadn’t calculated the length of time I’d be sitting in the bus on the bridge. Forty five minutes of inching along later I heard a voice behind me say, “AitakiHaora Bridge na Laora Bridge?”
I knew exactly what he meant.
I knew exactly what he meant.
I knew then that I had the beginning of a story.
“Where are you getting off?” I turned around and asked.
“High Court,” he replied.
By now we had reached the East end of the bridge. It still looked like we’d be on the bus for another 45 minutes.
“Walk?” I asked him.
“Let’s,” he said.

And that as they say was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
His name was Khokon. He lived in Santragachhi. And because of that immortal first line, I called the protagonist of my story Khokon. In the book though, the line belongs to his colleague Ashutosh.

Some time later, I overheard a group of people talking about saving a water body from some unscrupulous builder.ArunLal the cricket player might have been a part of the group but I’m not sure.  I started keeping tabs on them. Not because I was interested in saving the environment or even that small little lake.

I am not a crusader.

I hate getting involved with issues.

But if you live in Calcutta, even for a short while, trust me, you’ll get involved.

More power to the builder I thought after I first saw the lake if you can call brackish acres of sludge a lake.

What did interest me were the disparate lot of people, and some desperate ones among them, who were determined they were going to save a stagnant water body from becoming an office complex.Frankly in my opinion that lake had outlived its usefulness to be anything at all.

I didn’t give a damn what happened to the lake.

But over a period of time I did start worrying about the people. And of course fell hopelessly in love with them. Their wellbeing and their good health became a matter of great concern to me especially since I saw the array of ‘villains’ lined up against them.
So rather than concentrate on Builder v Helpless Citizen – enough stories had been written about them, I concentrated on their stories and their histories.

This is their story or should I say these are their stories.  Some of the people are real; some of the people who come to their assistance are thinly disguised caricatures of people I admire; some are just people I met on buses and trams in my journeys across the bridge who wormed their way into the book.

And that is how this book got wrote.

Jayant Kripalani

Book Blurb


I overheard a group of people talking about saving a water body from some unscrupulous builder and started keeping tabs on them. Not because I was interested in saving the environment or even that small little lake. What did interest me were the disparate lot of people, and some desperate ones among them, who were determined that they were going to save a stagnant water body, which in my opinion had outlived its usefulness as anything at all, from becoming an office complex.

 This is NOT a Builder v Helpless citizen epic. In fact that is the least important part of the book. This is about a group of inept people who you want to reach out and protect but you discover are more than capable of taking care of not just themselves, but of you too.

Author Bio:

Jayant Kripalani is an Indian film, television and stage actor, writer and director. Known for his work in TV series like Khandaan, Mr Ya Mrs and Ji Mantriji, he graduated
from Jadavpur University with a degree in English Literature.

He has played character roles in movies like Heat and Dust, Rockford,
Jaane Tu. . .Ya Jaane Na, 3 Idiots and, most recently, Hawaizaade and The Hunger. He has directed and produced a number of films and is actively involved with theatre. He wrote the screenplay for Shyam Benegal’s film Well Done Abba. He is the author of the heartwarming and nostalgic New Market Tales, set in the historic New Market area of
Kolkata in the 1960s and 1970s. His recent foray into writing performance poetry has brought him acclaim in poetic circles around the country. When he is not in Calcutta, he is either fishing in Himachal, pfaffing in Bombay or being a beach bum in Goa.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

In God's Name?

The sound of the prayer rang out in the misty dawn. “Oh, no, there it goes again!” groaned Pushpa. She tried to burrow her head under the pillow to drown it out. She had hardly slept as little Misha had been restless all night. And just as the baby had dropped off to sleep, the strains of the prayer had begun.
It had not been this bad earlier, till that last meeting when the idea of loudspeakers had been mooted. “I say we must buy loudspeakers, if only to drown out the noise of the loud music which starts off at dawn!” Ahmed said persuasively. Blessed with the gift of the gab, and a tenacious grip on his religion, he knew he would be able to push his point through.
The elders had nodded. “Yes, that cacophony drives me crazy in the morning! Let’s give them a taste of their own medicine!”
And so, out came the cheque books, with each devotee wanting to prove how devout he was through the power of lucre. The loudspeakers were soon installed, shattering the eardrums of all and sundry, even if it was only for a short while. For, five times a day, passers-by would almost jump out of their skin, and heart patients would clutch at their chests in protest.

The rival committee was up in arms. “How dare they do this? This is noise pollution in the most brazen sense of the word!” pronounced Anandaswamy, who had taken the mantle of spokesman on himself, mainly because he could outshout all the others.
“I heard that Mani’s wife delivered her son in sheer fright when she jumped up in sheer fright at the sound!” exclaimed Potti, a close friend of Mani’s. “She didn’t even have time to go the hospital.”
“Must have saved the doctor’s fees!” smiled Jay, with a crooked smile, which was wiped off when he saw the others glaring at him. “Could you be a tad more sympathetic, Jay? Being a chronic bachelor gives you no right to be nonchalant!”
The meeting ended soon after. The decision was that the loudspeakers needed to be put out of action. “Let’s cut the power cables,” suggested Potti.
“Oh, yes, they will be waiting with garlands for you to do so!” scoffed Anandaswamy. “They might just about use the scissors on you!” he added meaningfully.
The power cables had to be cut, but it would require proper military planning to do so.
In the other camp, there was jubilation. Their prayer had been heard by the world in the most wonderful way possible, and their happiness knew no bounds. “We must be vigilant,” remarked Ahmed. “Our rival group was looking rather glum today. You never know what they might do to sabotage our loudspeakers.”
 Balaji and Amina were playing in the park the next evening, along with their friends. Balaji was Anandaswamy’s son, and Amina was Ahmad’s daughter. They had been friends from the day they had begun school, and being in the same class had cemented their bond even more. Now they were both in the seventh standard, and aware of the undercurrents that ran deep between their families due to their different faiths.
“Amina, those new loudspeakers are so loud!” exclaimed Balaji.
“Isn’t that the whole point of a loudspeaker, silly?” chuckled Amina. “I don’t see anyone complaining about the loud music that comes from your side of town!"
Balaji looked at her enquiringly. “Does it disturb you? Or anyone in your family?” he asked her.
Amina shook her head. “Not really! In fact, we have got so used to your music that I would miss it if it were not there. Except when I need to study, of course!” She sighed a little, and then continued. “Actually, my uncle came down from London a week back. He is very staunch about his religion... our religion, and when he heard the music one dawn, he convinced my father that he needed to do more for his religion as well. That’s where the whole controversy began.”
Balaji looked at her in astonishment. The two religions had always lived in harmony. However, it had only taken one tiny spark to cause a huge conflagration, a barbed remark from an outsider.  
“I wish we could do something,” continued Amina.
“But what? We are only children?” countered Balaji.
“My English teacher, Mrs. Nair, told us that we must never underestimate ourselves, just because we are children. She said that there are always two paths... the violent and the non-violent. Maybe there is something we can do!” Amina said thoughtfully.

The next few days went by as Amina and Balaji put their heads together to chalk out their plan. Their young minds worked with diligence, as they pored over books and wrote down their conclusions. Finally, a week later, they were ready with their plan.
“Appa, could we talk to all the elders in our community? There is something we would like to show you.” Anandaswamy looked at his son’s serious face, and smiled. “Is this a new game you have learnt?”
“In a way!” was the reply.
Amina too approached her parents with the same request. A time was set for that very evening.
Accordingly, that evening, there was a mixed group of spectators from both communities, who were astonished to see that chairs had been placed around the well that served as the centre of the village. Soon people from other communities also sauntered in, waving at their friends, even as they seemed astonished to see almost the whole village present at the scene.
“Do any of you know what this is all about?” asked Ahmed, as he looked around for his daughter.
Many heads, both grizzled and otherwise, shook in denial, as the local tea shop owner came in, with a huge toothy grin on his chubby face. He was followed by the children of the village, who held cups of steaming hot tea on trays. They carefully served them to their elders, who took them, patting them on their heads. Balaji served Ahmed, who smiled at the young boy. “Thank you, son!”
As the tea went down appreciatively, Amina and Balaji made their way to the front of the gathering.
“Thank you all so much for being here this evening!” Balaji began. As he spoke, all the children started streaming in, one by one in perfect accord, and stood in a line behind him. Amina took over, saying, “Dear Uncles and Aunts, we, your children, want to show you something that we have made. Please do give us a few minutes of your time.”
At the count of three, the children behind them held up colourful placards which had words written on them in bold letters. There were three main ones, and as the elders strained to read them, Balaji and Amina signalled to the children to go closer to the gathering, one by one.
The placards were eye-catching, the words in bold colours.

“For there is one God; and there is none other but He!”

“God is only described in the scriptures of one religion because He is One, and thus only described Once.”

“There is only One God.  He alone is the Sustainer and Creator of the universe. He is the Most Merciful, the Most Wise, and the Most Just.  He is the First, He is the Last.” 

Balaji took the first placard and Amina held up the second one. "Daisy, will you bring the third one forward?" Balaji called out. The three placards stood, proud and erect, as the adults took in their message.
"So what's new in these?" asked a voice in the crowd. "Don't we know all this? Do we have to be taught by a group of children?"
Three more children stepped forward, holding smaller placards, and held them silently under the others. There was a combined gasp, a whisper that went through, and then a profound silence from the gathering.
Balaji's message was from the Bible, and Amina's from the Hindu scriptures. The third message held up by Daisy was from the Quran. All three were almost identical in their thinking.

As the elders struggled with their emotions that ranged from bewilderment to understanding, and finally pride, the rest of the children held up one last placard that evoked a guffaw of laughter in the crowd.


Not surprisingly, there was peace and quiet the next day. Both communities had done away with their respective loudspeakers, and the music that ensued, thereafter, was melodious and soothing to the ears. Not only had the children won, but they had ensured a win-win situation all round, bless their little hearts!

Friday, March 17, 2017

My Date with Sambar!

Spoiler alert: This is not for those who have read my daughter’s status on Facebook! J

“Shall I make some dal (lentils) today?” I asked my daughter, Priyanka, who is a true-blue carnivore, quite expecting to be turned down. Chicken curry is more to her taste, after all.
I was pleasantly surprised when she answered, “No, Ma, make sambar instead!” So off I whizzed, all my maternal instincts oozing, as I set out to make a spicy, flavoursome dish for the children. The one thing I had to look out for was the fact that the spices in South Africa often wilted before those in India. So I needed to put double the quantities, and pray to the Almighty while I was about it as well!

Is it Murphy’s Law that warns one that if something has to go wrong, it will? Canny old soul, this Murphy! He certainly knew his business, and that of everyone else, as well, considering the number of times his name gets invoked in a day around the world.
So there I was, humming as I pared potatoes and onions and washed the oily South African lentils. Trust me, I have no idea why they are oily. The potatoes were because my son-in-love, Varun, does not approve of lady’s finger, brinjal, drumstick or any similar veggie in his sambar!

That didn’t really matter because the pressure cooker I used had a mind stronger than mine apparently because it refused to open its mouth and whistle. Must have been one of its blue days, I guess!

By the time I realized that the cooker was not feeling like itself, and opened it in a hurry, the lentils were a soggy mess and the potatoes and the onions had quite disappeared. I fished around desperately for them, but there was no sign of them.

The tamarind, which I had cleverly soaked earlier, was now ready to be added to the lentils, along with all the masalas, including the sambar powder, and I chucked everything in, hoping that they would all find their own niches, and transform my sambar into a delicious cornucopia. After all, appearances weren’t everything!

Moments later, as I pored over the boiling cauldron, I sensed trouble afoot. The lentils had apparently swallowed in the spices and the tamarind, but the colours remained bland and unappetizing. I dared to put in a spoon and taste the mixture, and oh blimey, the whole thing tasted sweet. Obviously the tamarind needed a glucose drip to make it stronger and sourer.

In went lime juice and vinegar, followed by red chilli powder and the sambar powder, as I kept tasting and adding, much akin to the old tale of the monkey and the cats.

Finally the mustard seeds went in, albeit unwillingly, hanging on desperately to the curry leaves and the red chillis. The asafoetida sneezed, the salt blushed and even the dollop of ghee on top refused to make the dish sing! (I had stopped singing by then!)

My poor daughter tasted the so-called sambar and smiled weakly. “Ma, it is a little sweet, but otherwise, it is nice!” (Isn’t ‘nice’ simply the worst word in the English dictionary? It can mean anything from bad to bland, and everything in between.) I didn’t blame her, of course, for she had the decency to add, “This is how the sambar here tastes!”

Varun came in like a lion all prepared to enjoy the sambar, a favourite of his. I stayed away, even as I heard some cupboards being opened and shut. He came out of the kitchen, like a little lamb, quite chastened at the sight of the sambar. When I apologized, he said, “Don’t worry, Mama! It’s nice!!! I added more salt and lemon juice to it!”

That night, as I was clearing away the dishes, and putting things into the refrigerator, I noticed the packet of tamarind on the counter. As I picked it up to put it into the cupboard, my heart sank. For there in bold letters were the words – Pitted Dates! I had actually been idiotic enough to put dates instead of tamarind in my sambar, oh blimey!

As Priyanka and Varun guffawed and little Zoya wondered at the hilarity, the latter had already posted the incident on Facebook as her status. And before I could even blush, around ten people had already read it and added their own reactions! J News does get around fast, doesn’t it, especially if it is of the comic variety!

Later on, when on my couch I lay, as the poet put it, “in vacant or in pensive mood”, my date sambar flashed “upon that inward eye”. A vignette from the movie Sholay came to mind.

“Arrey oh Sambar, kitne dates thhey?”
“Poore adha kilo, Sarkar!”
It was time to call it a night!

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

The Ides Of March

According to William Shakespeare's play, Julius Caesar was on his way to the Capitol, when he was suddenly accosted by a voice in the crowd.

Who is it in the press that calls on me?
I hear a tongue shriller than all the music
Cry "Caesar!" Speak, Caesar is turn'd to hear.
Beware the ides of March.
What man is that?
A soothsayer bids you beware the ides of March.
Set him before me; let me see his face.
Fellow, come from the throng; look upon Caesar.
What say’st thou to me now? Speak once again.
Beware the Ides of March.
He is a dreamer; let us leave him: pass.
Julius Caesar – Act 1 Scene 2

It was William Shakespeare who made the phrase ‘the Ides of March’ popular through his play, Julius Caesar.

Can you imagine the scene being enacted? It is the festival of Lupercalia, an ancient Roman holiday. The dictator, Julius Caesar, steps out in all his glory, surrounded by his coterie, when he hears the voice of a soothsayer issue from the crowd. “Beware the Ides of March,” intones the voice.

The Ides of March fall on the 15th of March, according to the Julian Calendar instituted by Caesar himself.

Shakespeare builds up the suspense and stirs the imagination of his audience through omens and portents that play such a significant role in his plays. The day before the assassination, Caesar’s wife, Calpurnia, screams out thrice in her sleep, “Help, ho. They murder Caesar!” When she wakes up, she pleads with her husband not to go to the Senate, as she had seen blood flow from Caesar’s statue, and the Roman senators washing their hands in his blood. There have been many dreadful omens witnessed by the Romans the night before.

 “A lioness hath whelped in the streets; 
And graves have yawn'd, and yielded up their dead; 
Fierce fiery warriors fight upon the clouds, 
In ranks and squadrons and right form of war,
Which drizzled blood upon the Capitol; 
The noise of battle hurtled in the air, 
Horses did neigh and dying men did groan, 
And ghosts did shriek and squeal about the streets. 
O Caesar! These things are beyond all use,
And I do fear them.”

Caesar, who is superstitious, asks his priests to offer the sacrifice of a bull to determine what these omens augur, and is distressed when they inform him that the sacrificial bull was found to have no heart.

Casca, one of the conspirators, also describes a number of evil omens – a thunderstorm “raining fire” on Rome, a slave whose hand remains “unscorch’d” despite being burnt, a lion striding along the streets, “a hundred ghastly women” who lamented about “men in fire” walking through Rome, and a “bird of night” that sat “howling and shrieking” in the city marketplace at noon.

Unfortunately, Caesar’s arrogance impels him to reinterpret a few of the omens. He takes the omen of the sacrificial animal to mean that he would be a coward if he refused to go to the Capitol on that fateful day.

When he does decide that he would not go to the Capitol, especially after Calpurnia’s dreadful dream, Decius, who had come to escort him, persuades him to change his mind by playing on Caesar’s arrogance. He flatters Caesar by saying how the people of Rome receive their lifeblood from the strength of Caesar, which is what, according to him, Calpurnia’s dream signifies. He also tempts Caesar saying that the senators had planned to offer him the crown, thus playing on his ambition.
The straw that breaks the camel’s back is when he slyly adds,
“If Caesar hide himself, shall they not whisper
 “Lo, Caesar is afraid?”
Thus persuaded, Caesar makes his way to the Capitol. On his way to the theatre of Pompey, he meets the seer and jokingly remarks to him, “The Ides of March are come,” a hint that the prophecy has not come true. The seer replies, “Aye, Caesar, but not gone,” a grim reminder that the day is not over yet.

Caesar arrives at the Capitol, where he is stabbed thirty-three times by the conspirators, and his heart breaks as he witnesses his favourite, Brutus, and exclaims, “Et tu, Brute?” He falls at the base of Pompey’s statue, an act which is described by his friend, Mark Antony, as “the most unkindest cut of all”.

Thus, beware of the Ides of March!