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!


  ‘Tales that Entail’ by Jaseena Backer is an anthology of stories that are hard-hitting and realistic. Right from the first story, the auth...