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!

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

No crying, please, boys!

The public message on television says it all too clearly! The camera pans on a little boy's face, a little boy who has tears running down his cheeks. The reasons may be galore - either he has been bullied by somebody, or he has fallen and hurt himself. Maybe his friends didn't want him to play with them! Or it could be a deeper hurt - his father has walked out on him and his mother. Or his pet has just died and his tender heart is breaking!

Whatever the reason, the message is, 99 times out of a 100, the same. "Don't cry! You're not a girl!" and "What's wrong with you? Don't you know that only girls cry?" "How dare you be a namby-pamby?" Parents repeat this like a litany, classmates enforce it, and the world turns into a war zone, with emotions battling it out with attitudes that refuse to ever change.

It is said that most of a child's learning takes place at his mother's knee. And if mothers reinforce the above message, their little boys grow up, ashamed to cry and to show their emotions. However miserable they feel, they maintain a stoic exterior, having learnt to keep their chins up and "to take it like a man", much like in the British public schools of yore. "Hey, old chap, don't be a ninny! And don't let the other blokes catch you crying!"

The public message goes on to show how the little boys grow into big strong men, who refuse to cry. They swagger around like heroes, not realizing how bad it is for their hearts to bottle up their emotions. For the heart is like a pressure cooker that explodes when it is subjected to too much pressure! This is why men are more prone to heart attacks than women are.

But the public message does not end there. There are times when all those emotions play havoc with the emotions of loved ones as well. The message continues to show shots of a battered woman, her face all bruised, sitting in abject depression, finally glancing at the man who has done this to her, a strong man who knows not how to cry, a big man whose emotions are all churned up within him, a relentless man who does not know where to stop. If only he had been allowed to cry, allowed to be more human and humane!

Happily, the final statement says it all. "A real man is not one who does not cry, but one who does not make women cry!" A real man respects women, and does not abase them. A real man can be tender and loving, not harsh and judgmental. A real man is allowed to cry and show his emotions!    

Now that makes sense, doesn't it?

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Happy International Women's Day!


Let’s throw those clich├ęs away today! And for all the wonderful, caring men around, (I have a few in my family as well!) this post is a pat on your backs!
For the rest:
Don’t stereotype women by hemming them into the multiple roles they play – great- grandmother, grandmother, mother, sister, aunt, daughter and granddaughter!
Why is there a woman behind every successful man, not alongside him, shoulder to shoulder? A hand held out is worth all the nudges on your back!

Do not portray mothers as self-sacrificing? The sacrifices come straight from the heart; little joys and sorrows that are part and parcel of bringing up a child. Look upon them as the rungs of a ladder.
Why do sisters need to step aside for their brothers? Let them do so if they want to, and not because they have been forced to! Brothers can be wonderful human beings too, if you peep into their psyches.
Why does outer beauty define a woman? Tell her she is beautiful within, and that is all that matters. Facades are mere facades, after all; the worth lies within.

A daughter can often turn into an advisor and a pillar; don’t be surprised when she does don these roles. Age has nothing to do with wisdom, and I talk from experience.
Let the men in your lives praise, not patronize; love, not judge; let them hold your hands to maintain their balance as well, and not just to prop you up.

Women are emotionally stronger than men. True, but give them a chance to refrain from being emotional superwomen all the time.  
For all the wonderful women who celebrate Women’s Day today:

Take a deep breath and smell the roses and the fresh earth.
Be whimsical, impractical, silly, flamboyant, not-in-control, adventurous, irreverent and downright funny!
You only live once... don’t take the burden of the world on your own shoulders. Distribute the weight around.
Wear rose-coloured spectacles, crack terrible jokes, laugh with your family, let there be dust in the corners of your homes, once in a while... you never know, it might just be fairy dust!
Above all, keep that wellspring of love within you going strong, like a coffee percolator! It only grows stronger every time you use it!

Friday, March 3, 2017

The Sparkle Effect

Being a grandmother is like having a piece of Paradise in your hands all the time. This time, when my little sparkle came to India with her parents, she had begun to smile, and to respond to our timid overtures. She sat and bobbed about on the resplendent mat that was a riot of colours, following us with her large eyes, smiling at the profusion of blocks, noisy musical toys and little knick-knacks strewn around. Despite the cushions we placed behind her, she toppled over, hit her head and screamed for just a moment, till her curious mind found something more interesting around.
And then there was a transformation, from a cute little caterpillar who wriggled around to an even cuter butterfly, flitting around, as she began to stand, chubby legs all a-wobble, looking like a tiny Atlas holding up the world. And in two shakes of a duck’s tail, she was careening around like a mini cannon, as she scampered from side to side, following me into the kitchen and her grandfather to the bedroom with the alacrity of a tiny bolt of lightning.
One evening, when daughter dear had put her to bed with great difficulty, and come out to sit down and have a peaceful glass of coke, and we were all set to have a conversation, there was suddenly a giant thud following by a screech. We rushed into the room, and there she was on the floor, even as our hearts broke to see her there. Luckily God saves little babies, goes the old saying, and apart from a hard knock on her little head, and a bruised ego, she seemed fine.
In no time, I was warbling ‘One Little Finger, Tap Tap Tap!’ while I washed the dishes and Grandpa blared ‘Johnny, Johnny” the moment he came home from office. The little one would wait for him to say ‘Open Your Mouth’ and chortle, ‘Ha ha ha!’ ‘Where is Zoya?’ would elicit a prompt response, ‘Here I Am!’ as she would point to herself.
I found myself humming tunes like ‘Baa Baa Black Sheep’ and ‘Old Mac Donald’ while on a walk or in my kitchen, and my husband, who had never sung a rhyme in his life was now dancing to various ditties. However, the shocker came when we realized that, while rhymes were all very well, her favourite song was one unfortunately called ‘Bloody Hell!’  from the latest movie Rangoon. The moment the opening bar was played, she would drop all that she was doing and zoom on to the television, and Kangana Ranaut couldn’t have a more avid little fan, rocking away and cooing at her dance moves.

Miracles are everywhere, one wise soul said. Our miracles are simple – we watch the little one smile her toothless grin, waiting for tiny white pearls that take their own sweet time to emerge, even as she goes through ‘teething’ problems at regular intervals! We miss a heartbeat as we watch that little twinkle in her eye when she does something smart, or something mischievous! As she traverses three wooden steps all on her own, her hair all over her chubby face, or reaches for our luckily docile cat (tat!!!) with her chubby fists with not an iota of fear, as her nails grow like tiny little talons every week, and especially as she mouths words like ‘Mama’, ‘Dada’ and ‘Ammamma’, our hearts turn into marshmallows. Also when she says ‘Ummm every time she wants food, and opens her mouth like a little bird at the sight of her spoon. For she is the greatest miracle of all, this little Princess of ours, and may God bless her forevermore!

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Birds of Prey - Archana Sarat

“A person who does not protect a child doesn’t deserve to live.”

The cover speaks volumes... a fluffy white bird that sits on a fragile branch, unaware of the sharp black talons that hover over it, the threat clearly perceptible against a blood-red background. You are all set to delve into a tale that is stark and unvarnished, but ‘Birds of Prey’, published by Readomania, is more gritty and raw than your wildest expectations.
At one level, the book is a fast-paced thriller that digs into the underbelly of the city of Mumbai. Ex-ACP Anton Pinto, who is living a life of sedate retirement “fishing, eating, drinking”, is unwillingly dragged into a high-profile case that points to the disappearance of men from wealthy families. He promises his wife that he would only assist in the case, and not involve himself in the actual ground work.
However, even before he knows it, he is in the thick of things, starting his investigation from the prestigious Prism International School, which has forty schools under its banner. Startling facts come to light, as the disappearances continue, and he traces an inexplicable connection between them and a strange, old lady with a limp.
Slowly the facts are dug up as Anton speaks to various people, piecing together a story of child abuse, incest, horrific brutality and immense suffering, a story that wrings the heart and leaves the reader with a deep ache.
Archana Sarat is a superb chronicler. She tells her story simply, but graphically, and that is where the second layer of the story emerges, a layer that horrifies the reader, a story that is played out in many a home under the nose of the authorities. Her characters live and breathe, and remain in the readers’ minds even after they shut the book.
Verdict: A book that, once read, can never be ignored, or forgotten!

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Knitted Tales – A Collection of Emotions by Rubina Ramesh

If you want to read stories that are akin to a cup of tea, comforting and familiar, tales that will fill your heart with nuances of romance and joy, ‘Knitted Tales – A Collection of Emotions’ by the talented Rubina Ramesh  is not for you. These stories sear and sizzle; they portray harsh realities and forbidden themes that are normally swept under the carpet. They leave out the trappings and tell only the truth. Rubina Ramesh does not believe in candy floss and tinsel, at least not in her debut collection of short stories, which, in my opinion, need to be explored, if only to show the dazzling variety of topics that Rubina has touched upon.
1.      A Secret in Their Closet:
“Cruel hands were holding her down, smothering her... maybe she could pretend to be dead and then these monsters would leave her alone.” What is the mystery behind ten-year old Payal’s nightmares? How do Satya and Anjali deal with the trauma their daughter is going through? This is a tale that touches the heart and horrifies, in turns.
2.      Betrayal:
An assortment of events is seen through the eyes of Sudesh, who feels betrayed by his wife, Shweta. As the story progresses, the reader goes though myriad emotions, till the horrifying denouement, which he does not see coming.
3.      Chiclets:
This story is reminiscent of a popular story by Leo Tolstoy in which children are portrayed as more mature than their elders. How does Sunaina tackle the bullying of her classmates in school? How real is the menace of racism in the US? The subject is treated with the grace and sympathy that it deserves.
4.      Forgive Me, For I Have Sinned:
A letter from his past stops Abhijeet from letting the dilemma of his past ruin his future. Who is his harbinger of trust, the one person who makes him believe in himself again? Speaking of past loss that ends on a note of hope in the future, this is one of the stories that stands apart theme-wise, from the others.
5.      Lolita:
The beautiful Lolita is the unattainable dream of many, the heartthrob of a nation, the one who wields power gleaned from the weaknesses of men. What is her weakness, her vulnerability, and the memories that are like “the unwanted dandelions in a garden”? The author dwells within the mind of a unapologetic protagonist, who has been crafted in a cruel world!
6.      No Regrets:
Raima and Arvind live a mundane life in the US, but does the latter know what his wife really wants? How does the presence of a third person bring back the spark, ensuring that there are no regrets left? An intriguing account with a trace of mischief, almost!
7.      SuvarnaRekha
Poignant and hard-hitting, this story tells of the trials and tribulations faced by lovers of the Kharia tribe, a seer tribe who is believed to be able to “play with spirits”. Does true love finally win over the orthodoxy of the tribal heads? In a world that’s fast-changing, there are, sadly, still pockets within our country that remain tethered to the past. As a result, this story comes as a contrast in its treatment.
8.      The Little Godmother:
Arunee‘s whole life changes when a new person comes into her life, and turns it upside down. Is it possible to see the two sides of a coin, and decide which one you want to see? The little Godmother is a story of the spiralling emotions of a young girl, told perceptively and with feeling.
9.       The Missing Staircase:
This is one of the best-crafted stories in the whole collection, as Christie comes back home to her grandfather, to a home of which she had such fond memories. The descriptions of childhood, vibrant memories, ambitions that took her away from home and confessions, sitting on that very staircase, make it heart-warming and joyful. The ending is a shocker, but takes away nothing from the beauty of the narration.
10.  The Other Woman:
Aru, a young girl secure in the love of her parents, finds out a bitter truth about her parents’ marriage when her grandmother lands up and makes accusations against her mother. This story paints a picture of modern marriages, but softens the harshness and the heartbreak through its sympathetic narration.
11.  Daddy, Hear Me Out
Jaspreet tackles the bugbear of examinations, breaking away from her timidity and lack of confidence, as she receives a message from a higher being. A saga that is replayed in the lives of our students, and will do so as long as marks and examinations remain paramount as a testimony of success.
12.  Cliff Notes:
 This moving tale talks of how human beings, who should be brothers under the skin, cheat and harm one another, while Mother Nature plays the role of benefactor. It works beautifully as the closing story in a collection of tales that leave the reader with “thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.”

Rubina Ramesh reveals that she is not easily influenced by other literary minds, as she pens down her thoughts in a style that is unquestionably her own. There is no doubt that a sequel would be a good idea.