Saturday, December 31, 2011

A Punjabi Wedding - The Ultimate Foodgasm!

Being a compulsive foodie, it is undoubtedly apt that I sign off on 2011 with some piece on food.
And there cannot be anything better than this - Neeti and I were in Delhi a few days back for her cousin's wedding. This was a rare occasion to experience Delhi in its wintry splendour.
North Indian weddings are known to be lavish, and Delhi weddings are literally big and very very fat! While people in Mumbai are used to a time bound schedule - say a hall would be booked strictly from say 7 to 11, Delhi is much more casual and open to fun in that sense.
On the feasting side, food in North Indian weddings is probably as important as, if not more, than the nuptial ceremonies - the robustness of flavours in wedding cuisine is something to talk about for days, the aromas set the digestive juices gushing out like a gigantic flood. Now that is quite unlike weddings in Mumbai, where caterers are majorly influenced by the Gujju palate and nearly every dish would have a sweetish tinge to it, though there was one exception - a pal's wedding I attended in June this year had exceptional Maharashtrian fare followed by Puri and Aamras for dessert, which I am sure to salivate over for years to come - dare I say that would be a foodie's equivalent of a wet-dream!
So coming back to the wedding in question - we looked forward to being back in Delhi for a couple of days, more than anything else, enjoying the weather and the unique winter delicacies that North India has to offer.
One of the best ways of enjoying an outdoor winter wedding is to stand beside burning charcoals in angithis, which are set up strategically, and warm hands in the near freezing temperature. That happened during this wedding too.
Then come out the waiters with a mouthwatering array of starters - fried stuff, tandoori stuff and papdi chaats. It is indeed sheer bliss to pop a hot aloo tikki straight into your mouth in the freezing cold.
In such functions, young women would dress up in their very best - sequined sarees and lehengas, baring the elements, showing a generous length of their bare slender midriffs and happily chomping away on fried stuff, blissfully unaware of how diet concious they were a few hours back. What the hell is dieting? Obviously a wedding treat is a convenient excuse to forget all that, isn't it?
The papdi chaats and spicy aloo tikkis with mouthwatering chutneys that make the guests endlessly salivate are actually ticking timebombs! Having this kind of stuff on a cold winter night is sure to give a good 50% of the guests a nerve wracking sore throat, but the temptation always gets the better of you.
The best, or rather, the healthiest bet would be to gulp down tandoori mushrooms (these are usually tangy, juicy and fresh), paneer (cottage cheese) tikkas, tandoori potatoes or other grilled and barbecued stuff. Not only are these equally yum, they also save you the morning-after guilt of counting the 4-digit calories!
I go after papdi chaats (notwithstanding the sore throat that follows!) and the grilled snacks with an indescribable gusto. I do try to avoid the fried options, but sometimes I do succumb to the temptation.
The main course usually comprises of standard North Indian fare - dal makhanis, malai koftas, tawa sabzi, paneer in some exotic sounding gravy, sarson ka saag and the likes. I usually the main course a pass unless I get too tempted, in which case I attack the dal makhanis, select okra, baby aubergines and bitter gourd from the tawa sabzi (minus the gravy) and some sarson ka saag alongwith a steaming hot naan or a makki ki roti!
After loads of starters and a light main course, the best is saved for the last - desserts, sinfully delightful and absolutely unavoidable!
As things have taken a modern turn, continental desserts like chocolate mousse and trifles have crept in into wedding menus. But the Indian fare is the safest bet, in terms of being sure of what quality you would finally get. one can be very sure to find ice creams, kulfis with falooda, tender gulab jamuns in thick sugary syrup, jalebis with rabdi, gajar ka halwa or moong dal halwa on the menu. This is the best part of the treat, the grand finale! The trick is to sample each of these first and then go hogging on the best. In this wedding I went after the jalebis with rabdi and gajar ka halwa without the khoya and nuts. My dessert platter got a rare thumbs-up from Neeti, who is impossible to please when it comes to desserts!

While the guests enjoy the delicacies on offer, I pity the hapless grooms and brides who are barely able to relish these treats. The functions that we normally have are rather torturous on the duo - they go through a gruelling schedule in the run-up to the finale, then force plasticky smiles for long-lost relatives or unknown family friends and the worst of all - posing in the so-called "romantic" poses for zealous photographers!
For us North Indians, the wedding buffet is somewhat of an event in itself besides the main event. Memories of a great feast would be etched forever in the hearts of guests, whether they remember who got married to whom and when and blah blah, like my grandma, who remembered the one wedding she attended in Lahore in the 1930s, as a teen alongwith her folks, where food was simply heavenly - she remembered the wedding feast till she died in 2004! That is the magic a great wedding feast can do on you!
But as the feast got over, I was reminded that we would return to Mumbai in the afternoon - Holy crap, not again - the thought of an inflight meal on Jet Airways made me feel pukish!

Friday, December 30, 2011

Mile-High, No Quads?

A few days back, I happened to see a BBC documentary on the now defunct American carrier, Pan-Am, titled Come Fly With Me - the Story of Pan Am. The documentary traced the evolution of the airline from propeller aircraft to the jet-age heralded by the Boeing 707.

Instantly, I was taken back to the 1980s. That is when I took my journey on a quad-jet - the Boeing 707, of Uganda Airlines, probably between Entebbe and Nairobi. That was an amazing jet, with a splendid livery in the colours of the Ugandan flag - a crested crane on the tail and prominent yellow, red and black band that stretched along the fuselage.

Then followed journeys on Boeing 707s of Air-India and Zambia Airways. The Centaur on the Air-India Boeing 707 tail always looked smart. I still cannot fathom why Air-India dumped the Centaur.

The first Zambia Airways Boeing 707 I saw was at Lusaka Airport, in October 1984, at twilight, with its tail, an orange Z stylised as an eagle, set on a green background. We flew on that beauty to Bombay, in what was my most memorable intercontinental flight.

As we approached the Indian airspace, dawn broke and we woke up. It was enthralling to see two engine nacelles hanging from the wing, against the backdrop of the azure Indian Ocean. What ensued was a quick visit to the cockpit, led by an eager stewardess. The flight crew were Zambians, and were happy to show off their smart cockpit to me, a precocious 8-year old, before they commenced their descent. Those were different days and innocent thrills of seeing a flight deck at work were easy to come by. Today that's unimaginable, for obvious, security reasons.

We flew on a trijet, McDonnell Douglas DC10 after that, which was again pretty smooth, but not quite like a quad - the thrill was lacking.

My last flight on a quad was on the Air Mauritius Airbus A340 from Plaisance to Bombay in October 2005. That was a pretty interesting flight - seeing the slim red nacelles hanging from the wing was a sight to behold.

In the last few years, I flew largely on Boeing 737s, Airbus A320s, Airbus A330s and Boeing 777s. But these flights were completely devoid of the thrill that one has of peering out of the window and seeing two nacelles hanging underneath the wing!

The era of quad-jet airliners which started with the Boeing 707 in the 1960s, seems to be ending now, with twin-jets being deployed for the job. Last month, Airbus announced that it was discontinuing the A340 line. With this development, the choice of quad-engine aircrafts reduces to just two - the Boeing 747-8 family and the Airbus A380. These Jumbos are niche products, which would not make much sense for most airlines. With limited flexibility of operations, these Jumbos can operate only from a limited number of airports around the globe, as a result of which we'll see fewer and fewer quads with each passing year.

A lot has been said about the efficiency and reliability of the twin-jets, which have been extended operations certified or ETOPS certified for non-stop intercontinental operations. For a few years now, they have been deployed for non-stop operations from India to the US East Coast, overflying the the Arctic. This cuts the flying time, bypassing a stopover in continental Europe.

The twin-jets, Boeing 777, Boeing 787 and Airbus A330 have specially designed engine with a diameter exceeding the quad-engine nacelles by a factor of over 1.5. The higher diameter provides for the increased airflow through the engine for the required lift.

But twin-engines lack the redundancy that the quads provide. I dread to think of a situation on a twin-engine overflying the Arctic and one engine fails. Where would the aircraft land?

But an aviation enthusiast would lament the loss, the excitement of being mile-high (pun unintended) on an intercontinental flight and peering down upon two engines!

Friday, December 23, 2011

My Nightmare!

I had a nightmare early this morning.
I dreamt that I had gotten very late at office. When I left office, I could not get any cab to get back home. After a long search I decided to walk back home. The roads were deserted and not a soul was to be seen.
And then as I was walking, I looked up and I was shocked to see fighter jets flying in a V formation - they were at least 20 of them and at quite a high altitude. Two jets were trying to engage them in a dogfight.
We were being attacked!
I was scared. There was not a single car, bus or bike on the Western Express Highway. It was dark and scary. But I had to get back home, fast.
The dogfights were going on in the air. The sounds of the fighters made the silence on the ground even more eerie.
After a long walk, I touched New Link Road. Dawn was breaking. The eerie silence was all pervasive.
Then I saw a long queue. Citizens were lining up to register for emergency evacuation.
Chills ran down my spine. That's when I woke up.
This is not an unreal scenario. With the kind of neighbours we have, we can face this scenario, though I hope we don't.
But we have to be prepared, prepared to fight back with arms, tactics and strategies. And we need to fully, unconditionally support the Indian armed forces to ensure that such nightmares don't come true, ever and forever.

La Dolce Vita, Viva Italiano!!!!

Today, a Facebook contact posted an interesting fact on his wall. The post said "Pizza Margherita was named after Queen Margherita of Italy, by chefs of Naples to commemorate her visit to the city in 1889. Red tomatoes, white cheese and green Basil represent colors of the Italian flag."
Interesting facts like these are little known but they do give an interesting twist to whole experience of having the preparation.
Of all foods, I find Italian food the most gratifying. My first brush with Italian food was early in the 1980s, when my Mom's friend, an Italian nun, Sister Vitelina, invited us for a meal of cheese and macaroni, spaghetti and roast rabbit. That was amazing!
As years went by, off and on, Mom used to make amazing pasta in tomato sauce, typically for New Year eve dinners.
Then came in Pizzas. My first experience with the baked concoction was at the Sector 17 outlet of Hot Millions (or HMs as we used to call it) in Chandigarh!
Then Dominos came to India. My favourite was their Pepperoni Pizza - the melted globules of fat from the pepperoni gives a unique meaty taste.
In Delhi, I discovered the Slice of Italy which delivered gourmet pizzas and pastas, that was a welcome break from the mass produced Dominos crusts.
Another exciting find was Flavors, a trattoria under the Defence Colony flyover - I got the chance of visiting the place twice, once with colleagues and the next time, it was a date with Neeti. The place had an amazing artisanal pastas and hand-tossed, wood-fired pizzas! I haven't visited the trattoria for years now and would love to go there again.
In Bombay, despite all the glitz surrounding the city, attitudes towards food are defined by what the Gujjus want. That makes a lot of restaurants go vegetarian with a vengeance. Little Italy is one such trattoria - there used to be an outlet on New Link Road, where Neeti and I went a couple of times. The pizzas were crisp and flaky, the pastas and risottos had an earthy flavour. Then tragically the outlet shut shop - the half life of restaurants in Bombay is really short, you can safely blame that on artificially elevated real estate prices, which these outlets unviable. The closest Little Italy is now in Juhu, but finding time is a big issue. I lately heard about Ristorante Don Giovanni on Juhu Tara Road which is now undergoing a renovation. But hope it stays long enough - the Chef, Giovanni Federico, had been upset with the real estate prices for a long time.
I started experimenting with pizzas and pastas at home. Into the kitchen, came bottles of olive oil, pasta sauces, olives and capers, with fresh herbs - oregano and basil, from Godrej Nature's Basket.
Neeti came up with her version of tangy pizza sauce which came in very handy for rainy Monsoon dinners when the cook played truant.
The latest concoction we evolved is earthy pasta sauce - chargrilled tomatoes with herbs and spices which made for a delicious pasta.
What I like about Italian cuisine is the earthiness and healthy, crunchy vegetables. Tomatoes are rich in antioxidants, olives are rich in vitamins and healthy fats. Sadly, we have to rely on packaged olives and capers here.
There's lot more than the bastardised Italian that we know of from the likes of Dominos - it would be grave injustice to bucket all genres into one. One really needs to experience the various regional cuisines- Tuscan, Tyrolian, Veneto, Ligurian, Campanian, Puglian, etc. Artisanal stuff like lardo, South Tyrol speck make my tongue tingle with anticipation. Experiencing all this can only happen on a culinary tour of the country.
Till then I will eat my way to health and cry aloud "La Dolce Vita, Viva Italiano!!!!"

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Smooth As Silk!!!!

Long back Thai Airways had adopted "Smooth As Silk" as their commercial tagline. Those who know me as an aviation freak would think this post is about Thai Airways. No it isn't! (Sorry to disappoint aviation freaks!)
This post is all about Vidya Balan in her role as Silk in the latest Bollywood blockbuster, The Dirty Picture, which succinctly depicted the life of the southern star, Silk Smitha.
When Vidya made her Bollywood debut in the 2004 hit, Parineeta, I could tell that there was something about her acting that was unique. She got into the character of Lalita making the movie feel real.
Many men were actually smitten by her then. A close friend jovially remarked that she was the ideal "marriage material"!!!! I certainly did not go that far but I too did admire her a lot!
Then came Bhool Bhulaiyaa, which I saw on a DVD when I was travelling to Satara in January 2008. She played the role of a woman, suffering from Dissociative Identity Disorder to perfection! She deserved the Filmfare Best Actress nomination for this movie.
Then the same month, I travelled to Delhi on a Kingfisher flight. She was on the same flight, in the forward first class section. For some reason, after landing she stayed back inside the cabin, presumably waiting for the rest of her retinue, while we all deplaned -that is when I got a glimpse of her. Later at the baggage claim, she waited, fidgeting with her mobile, while her bags were being collected. She looked stylish, pretty and quite slender but was quite conscious of all the attention she, the "Parineeta-wali", was getting - that forced her put on her shades.
She acted in a few movies after that but was majorly panned for her dressing style, after which came Ishiqya, which saw this southern belle getting into the role of crafty, expletive-spewing North Indian widow, who manipulated two horny crooks, played by Naseeruddin Shah and Arshad Warsi to make her ends meet. And "Ch...ium Sulphate" became the essential part of the expletive folklore!
Paa was next, which again proved that she had it in her - the ability to play non-conventional roles with an uncanny finesse. Though I have not seen No One Killed Jessica, I am told she did pack in quite a punch. By any stretch of imagination, the glamdolls and size-zeros of Bollywood could not have done even half of what she had rightfully achieved.
And this week, The Dirty Picture, a biopic on the southern siren, Silk Smitha, opened to rave reviews and record breaking collections. The portrayal of Silk was not only brutally honest to the character but was also replete with the typical 1980s' heaving bosoms and thunder thighs. From a viewer's perspective Vidya performed brilliantly, just as smooth as silk!
And already I can visualise Vidya Balan "Ooh La La-ing" her way to presentation ceremonies at award functions.

Garam Masala or Wah Baharaat?

Yesterday, TLC aired the Sino-Australian restaurateur, Kylie Kwong's show Cooking With Heart & Soul recently in which she cooked up a Moroccan meal - a lamb tajine with salads and rice.
To make her tajine, Kylie used an Arab spice, Baharaat (بهارات‎), which she said was used to give a unique flavouring to Arab cuisine.
I did a quick websearch on the Baharaat on Wikipedia after the show was over. The Baharaat is a spice blend used in Arab and Middle Eastern cooking to season meats, fish and gravies.
Peppercorns, cardamom, cloves, coriander seeds, cumin seeds, cinnamon sticks and paprika form the essential ingredients of the Baharaat.
Ohhh, that is much like our own garam masala (गरम मसाला), which is ubiquitous in North Indian cuisine. Now cardamoms, cloves and pepper originated in the spice plantations on the Malabar coast, right here in India. Arab trading dhows which had been visiting Malabar for over a thousand years would have taken these spices to their lands, so today what we call garam masala is known as Baharaat in the Arab lands.
My Mom used to and still makes her supply of garam masala. She used to dry roast all these spices on a griddle, with a wonderous, exotic aroma filling the whole house. The roasted spices would then find their way into the mixer, making the aromas even more potent. The ground spices would their way into airtight bottles. The treasured spice would then be used to spice up dry vegetable preparations, chickpeas, red kidney beans and non-vegetarian gravies.
When I moved out of the nest and set up the first home at Delhi, I used to buy vacuum sealed packs of garam masala from Malviya Nagar market. That wasn't even half as good as Mom's concoction. And then Mom visited. She was shocked to see the kind of mild, tasteless garam masala we were using. That was it! She then ensured we get an endless supply of Mom's special concoction, which she would get on her monthly visits to Delhi! Homecooked food, all of a sudden, underwent a magical transformation!
And then I shifted to Bombay, got married and things took a healthier turn. Salt intake was reduced, fat intake was greatly minimised, food became less spicy, with a greater emphasis on fruits, salads and yogurts! So intake of garam masala greatly reduced.
But the magical smell of Mom's garam masala wafting through the air will still make me go crazy!

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Invictus And The Madiba

One great leader who had always fascinated me is the Madiba, Nelson Mandela.
The reasons for the fascination are many. For one it is the Africa connection - I had known of Mr. Mandela since 1984 or so, when the anti-Apartheid struggle was at its peak. At that time I was barely 8. Newspapers in Zambia were full of news on the anti-Apartheid struggle and Mandela. One just just could not miss that.
The second was the way Mr. Mandela maintained his dignity and guarded his sanity despite 27 years of his incarceration, which is in no way a small achievement. He came out of the Robben Island prison and literally took his nation from isolation to the center stage of the world.
Thirdly, and certainly, not lesser in importance, Mr. Mandela passed on the baton after a single term as president of the Rainbow Nation. How many world leaders have actually had the guts to do that? Our own stalwarts, in India, desperately clung on to power till they died, little did they concentrate on building systems and structures to serve the country. However, Mandela created a system that was independent of him, that lives on, despite his not being active on the political front.
Fourthly, the Madiba envisioned a nation of unity, not a nation divided by sectarianism. He walked the talk, when he supported the Springbok rugby team in the face of severe opposition. He selected the Day of the Vow, which was celebrated to commemorate the victory of the Boers over the local Zulus in 1838, in the Battle of Blood River, where over 3000 Zulus were massacred. The majority had long viewed the Day of the Vow as an oppressive celebration. However, the Madiba prevailed, and today, the Day of the Vow is celebrated as the Day of Reconciliation to foster national unity.
A few years back I read the Madiba's autobiography, The Long Walk to Freedom. More recently I saw Invictus that captured the journey of the Springbok rugby team - a symbol of Apartheid from the lows of ignominy to the heights of winning the World Cup. That was all because the Madiba rallied the Rainbow Nation's support for the Springboks. The Springboks, thanks to their skipper, Francois Pienaar on the other hand, matched the trust the nation, and the Madiba had reposed in them. Imagine how well can Indian politicians leverage use cricket to harmonize India, but I can trust them for never doing it. It's rather sad we, in India, never had a Madiba.
The Madiba's nature came out very well in an interview Francois Pienaar gave on Invictus, on how he developed a deep bond with the family.

The Madiba has had his style-statement - the Madiba shirt - shirts printed with African motifs, in the pan-African colour combination of black or green or yellow or red. He broke out of the mould - the conventional, stiff dressing style of world leaders.
The movie Invictus, as well as his autobiography did allude to the fact that Madiba drew the strength of his character from a poem, Invictus, written by William Ernest Henley, an English poet, way back in 1875. That shaped his attitude in the years after he left Robben Island.

Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds and shall find me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.

If such powerful words could steer the Madiba to greatness, imagine what they can do to all of us!

Saturday, November 19, 2011

The Chessboard Is Set!

As I had been predicting for long, today, Asia looks like a stage perfectly set for another version of the great game.
The last two months have been peppered with small developments all over Asia that signal a significant undertones of the evolving great game.
China has been threatening Indian vessels - both naval and exploratory vessels operating in the South China Sea, off the Vietnamese coast, which is claimed by China as its own fiefdom, ignoring the rights of the littoral states that abut the sea. Vietnam and Philippines have also faced the brunt of Chinese aggression in the region. By that logic, the entire Indian Ocean and the Bay of Bengal is our area, and wouldn't it be sane to boot the Chinese from its upcoming bases and listening posts in Myanmar (Coco Islands) and Sri Lanka.
Another signal of capitulation was the American denial of advanced F-16 fighter jets to Taiwan - that is despite the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979 which obligates the United States to provide weaponry for defence of Taiwan against the obvious aggressor. Instead the Americans dangled an offer to upgrade Taiwan's aging F-16 fleet. It appeared that the United States capitulated under Chinese pressure. Was there a quid-pro-quo - the United States gives up in return for Chinese economic support?
But then Japan, the United States, Australia and India revived the idea of a dialogue on regional security. It is understood from the press that India expressed its discomfort in participating in the dialogue given the mistrust that Australia had shown towards India by denying us uranium supplies. The Rudd doctrine seems to have been given the boot by Julia Gillard, in an unprecedented, but pragmatic move.
Australia because of its strong regional presence has an important role to play, India knows that and would be willing work alongside the Australians. The major irritant, uranium, would hopefully be dealt with, but public opinion in India could be a deciding factor, for there has been simmering anger over continued racist attacks against Indian diaspora in Australia.
But then baby steps are being taken and some military exercises are being planned.
Within India, not only in the north, but also in the south, there is a great public anxiety over the Chinese military build-up on the northern borders. The government has to get its act together to equip the forces in the north with infrastructure and armaments. We need fighter squadrons and mountain battalions in these regions. India, according to the defence journalist, Shiv Aroor, is likely to test fire the Agni V missile, with a range that covers the whole of China and beyond.
India off late has given the Chinese more than enough signals that we would not capitulate. Deepening ties with Vietnam have led to speculate that it emerge as "India's Pakistan" vis-a-vis China. I doubt that personally, but certainly we can work together in an alliance.
Defence buys from the United States are increasing. That without question, as history has proved, lays the foundation for military alliances.
The Chinese will certainly be irritated with the Americans and the Australians with the opening of the Darwin military base, one of America's biggest bases in the region. The first brick of the alliance has been laid.
China has economic and military might, but at the same time its conduct has made it appear demonic in the region, laying to rest all that talk about the "peaceful rise". If such conduct continues, Asian powers with the United States will coalesce into an Asian NATO. India should not shy away from partnering the United States, Australia, Japan, Vietnam and other powers here in the region, as Chinese provocation would not abate any time now. That was obvious when the Chinese Ambassador to New Delhi, Zhang Yan, asked an Indian journalist to shut up when being questioned about an inaccurate depiction of the Indo-Tibetan border. If the Chinese provocation continues, we do have the Tibetan card to play.
The next 15 years will, undoubtedly, be very interesting. The strategies will play out on this vast chessboard that stretches from the Red Sea to the Pacific. Its a big question as to who would checkmate whom!
But the big questions today are quite a few. Is the ostrich is finally taking its head out of the sand? Is finally India finally playing a strategic game or is it still making unconnected tactical moves?

Bangalored Again!!!!

There are a few places that one loves to visit. Bangalore is one such place for me.
I landed in Bangalore early yesterday morning, en route to Maddur on the Bangalore Mysore Highway.
One of the worst things about traveling on early morning flights is the way the sleep pattern gets screwed. But the cool weather of Bangalore city that I experienced on landing had a magical effect of instantly invigorating my sleep deprived mind and soul.
In a few moments we were on the road headed towards Maddur. The sad part about cities here is the painful commute one has to endure. It took us a painful 90 minutes to get to the outskirts of Bangalore city. Once we were out of the city, we almost flew! The highway is pretty smooth and we cruised along at speed of over 100 kilometers an hour.
In about an hours time, we touched Janalokpada. That is where Heaven truly is, Heaven on earth!!! I meant Kamat's Lokaruchi. I had written about the lovely time we had at Kamat's Lokaruchi a few months back and this opportunity of being here at Kamat's Lokaruchi again was like Godsend!
It was nearly 11 am, a good time for coffee. We landed up at Kamat's and ordered coffees and some snacks - rava dosai, mude idlis (a Mangalorean variant of the idli, steamed in banana leaves) and vadais.

The rava dosai was unique and flavourful. Ginger and whole peppercorns had been mixed in the batter and the flavours of these spices blended into the crêpe really well! I bet these kinds of dosais are never to be found in cities like Mumbai or Delhi. The ambiance was very traditional and rustic - a throwback to yesteryears!
I was tempted to have a vadai with the filter coffee. The vadai was crisp on the outside but really soft on the inside, which made devouring the vadai an absolutely divine experience. The filter coffee was strong and steaming, an absolute nirvana for the sleep deprived soul!
The coffee did the magic - we were awake for the 30 minute drive into Maddur! The detour from the highway took us deep into the countryside. Green paddy fields, flowering sugarcanes and coconut groves made for an idyllic picture postcard backdrop. We stopped to have sugarcane juice. It was ages since I had the green nectar. This variety was unique, it was spiced with ginger, mint and rock salt. As we stood under the shade of coconut palms sipping on the juice, there was a cool breeze blowing, but the sun was warm! It was a pretty enchanting sight!

And then it was time to return to Bangalore city. It was 3PM, we were famished. We had to stop again at Kamat's Lokaruchi for a north Karnataka thali! Again that was an astounding meal, with baby aubergines in a spicy gravy, assorted greens, chutneys, pickles, sambhars and rasams!
Soon we were back in Bangalore and there was work to attend to. After finishing off my meetings, it was time to catch-up with old friends.
I met one of our friends who have a baby girl. This was the first time I was meeting the little one. What a pretty little kid she is! In the beginning she was quite cranky. But then I gave her two brightly coloured boxes of toys that I had bought for her earlier that evening. Her eyes lit up, her lips curved into the sweetest smile I had ever seen. The smile revealed one tooth on the upper jaw and two on the lower, much like stalactites and stalagmites in cave!
She looked at her mom for approval - the nod transformed her crankiness into squeals of pure unadulterated joy! What a sight that was! Kids are somehow like clean new slates - minds with clear and clean emotion. As one grows older, experiences cloud the slate, that is the way of this world!
The next port of call was at an old friend's place. We both studied together, for two years, in higher secondary, at DAV College, Chandigarh. We became friends and he was a vital part of my support system in Chandigarh. At that time, way back in 1992, long distance calls were exorbitant. Calling home was a luxury. My hostel had just one phone for the 1000 of us, that too for a limited 2-3 hours in the afternoon. So my folks used to leave urgent messages at my friend's place, who incidentally was a day scholar. The next day, I would promptly get the message. Sometimes when I was homesick, I used to visit his home in Sector 44 to have lunch! What a welcome relief that used to be from the watery, tasteless hostel food - round fluffy chapattis, nice thick dal and vegetables.
After we graduated from DAV College, my pal and his family shifted to Delhi while I stayed on, joined PEC in Chandigarh. We stayed in touch for 2 years after that - he went on to do a hotel management course at Jaipur. Then we lost touch.
But then a few years back, I joined Facebook and soon realised that this kind of social networking was a wonderful way to reconnect with long-lost old pals. I finally tracked him on Facebook last Diwali. We spoke a couple of times and did try to meet when I was in Bangalore or he was in Mumbai, but the meeting was elusive.
This was the chance - meeting an old pal after something like 17-18 years. He invited me home for a Biryani dinner! And then we met - my friend had not changed a bit. He is just the same. It was nice hear his stories of how he moved from hotel management to the airline industry to the Indian Army and then to a corporate role. All I could do is admire his hardiness and adaptability to varied roles!
We had a few Breezers followed by the amazing chicken Biryani and just went on talking late into the night about DAV, Chandigarh city, life in Delhi and stuff of that sort!
I must say it was quite an eventful day. It's always invigorating catching up with old friends and spending time with babies - that's what I call a heady cocktail of nostalgia and envisioning the tomorrow that the little ones of today will create when they grow up!

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Celebrate Gender Equality!

There have been two interesting developments or events as you may call them, in the recent past and today. These events could give a new and a positive direction to the Indian society.
For a little over a month now, Colors, a Hindi entertainment channel, has been telecasting a reality show, Bigg Boss, which has been modeled on UK's Big Brother. While the show this year treads on the fine line dividing decency and indecency, the channel did a good thing by getting in a transgender activist, Laxmi Tripathi, as a contestant on the show.
In Indian society, transgenders are looked with a heightened sense of fear, disgust and contempt. Little do we realise that transgenders are as much as humans as we are, they are as much as God's children as we are and are as much as Indian citizens as we all are. They are the way the are for no fault of theirs but they too have the same rights that we do. So what makes us discriminate against them? It is high time we think about it.
Another big issue facing India, or rather looming large over India is the declining sex-ratio, which could derail India's economic success. Today the brouhaha in the media and amongst the Twitterati on birth of a girl child in the Bachchan family gives me hope that we could arrest this sad practice.
Personally I have never been a fan of the family. I got quite a shock, when 2 years back, we were at Aamby Valley for an offsite. Mr. Amitabh Bachchan happened to be there, shooting for a television show. A colleague, who is normally quite reserved and serious, caught a glimpse of the star. And the transformation was instant - this guy kept beaming for the next 3 days, as though he had achieved all that he had to. This is the way people idolise this family.
Frankly I don't think too highly of the family at all - they are far too snooty. We once met and got photographed with the Junior B, Abhishek. As he was speaking to our group, his phone rang. The guy disconnected the call. We obviously didn't ask him who called.
But out of the blue, the guy exclaimed with glee "Oh, it was my wife!" Good, heavens, we all know that the ex-Miss World, Aishwarya Rai, is his wife. It seemed that he wanted us all to realise, realise all over again, that he was married to the ex-Miss World! Should we have said "Wow!!!"?
(Then came the best part, when one of us in the group said this in fairly audible tone - "Bugger, if he didn't want to speak to Aish, he could have given me the phone.")
All this trivia is okay, but the fact is that the whole country idolises the first family of Bollywood, the B Family. And today, Baby B, a girl child has entered the B Family. The whole family is rejoicing, so are the rest of Bollywood and their fanatic fans.
This should be a good signal for the rest of India that the birth of a girl is reason to celebrate. In fact the B Family could do well as symbols in the anti-female-infanticide campaign, which is critical especially since the sex-ratio in the prosperous parts of India, South Mumbai, Delhi, Gujarat, Haryana and Punjab, is abysmal.
I am not homo-phobic, but then if the sex-ratio continues to fall, what option would the males of India have? Save the girl child today, else your son will be forced to be a gay tomorrow!
So celebrate gender equality!

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Hope Kingfisher Lives!

The crisis which had been brewing in Indian aviation for some time now, has come to what seems to be a climax.
Kingfisher Airlines has reported record accumulated losses and has had to curtail flights to minimise operational losses. Kingfisher did not start off this way. The airline was a breath of fresh air in Indian aviation.
The day Kingfisher was launched, I happened to be at CSI Airport's Terminal 2B in May 2005. The Air-India hanger next to the terminal was the venue for the launch party. The new Airbus A320, with its Kingfisher emblazoned red tail, was looking smart.
Then, a few months later, in August 2005, Neeti was the first, in our family, to travel on the new airline on the Delhi-Bangalore-Delhi sector. She kept raving about the service and the IFE, in-flight entertainment, a first in Indian aviation. She was not wrong.
I took my first Kingfisher flight on the Bombay-Delhi-Bombay sector in October 2005 and I too was blown over. The aircraft were new Airbus A320s, clean, spic and span and smelt fresh. The decor was warm, very much unlike Air-India or Jet Airways.
Despite the titillation onboard, suggestively skirted flight attendants, the launch of the airline was an epochal event in Indian aviation. Service was good, food was great, the IFE was a first - no I am not referring the red-skirted two-legged kind of IFE, but the in-flight entertainment programmes. They pioneered the concept of web check ins and seat selection. I dumped Air-India Flying Returns frequent flier membership and took to joining King Club with gusto.
In all, Kingfisher was a breath of fresh air. They forced Jet Airways, which by then had become quite a haughty brand, with staff having an arrogant and "holier than thou attitude", to change.
The credit for this went to Mr. Vijay Mallya, who claimed we, the passengers on board, were like guests in his home. I truly did feel so, felt like a king on board.
But Mr. Mallya wanted to grow, grow fast and target profitable international routes. To get to fly abroad, he acquired Air Deccan (which was about to complete the required 5 years before international operations could commence).
The airline announced orders for a number of widebodies - A330s, A340s, A350s and A380s. It was widely believed that Mr. Mallya wanted to fly the A340s non-stop between the world's greatest Silicon Valleys - Bangalore and San Francisco. That made a lot of sense.
By the global credit crisis struck. The already loss-making Air Deccan lived on as the low cost variant of the airline. That certainly come naturally to Mr. Mallya and Kingfisher, which by then was known for its flamboyance.
Payments for the widebodies became due. The airline took deliveries of the A330s, five in all, and launched them on select international routes - London and Hong Kong only, while the other international destinations were served by the A320 family.

While the A340s were ready at the Airbus facilities at Toulouse and had already been painted in Kingfisher colours, Kingfisher was forced to cancel the order, and these aircraft went to Arik Air of Nigeria. The dreams of Kingfisher flying non-stop to San Francisco went straight into the trash can.

An aviation blog says: "Clearly, Arik saw a good thing in the tremendous effort put in by Dr. Mallya and the team at Kingfisher, in designing the interior of their A340-500, and plans to use the same aircraft configuration, for long-haul services to London, New York and Houston."
After the Air Deccan acquisition and the credit crisis, Kingfisher service deteriorated prompting me to shift loyalties to Jet Airways. But when I recently traveled on Kingfisher on the Bombay-Hyderabad sector, I was shocked to discover that they don't serve butter anymore with breakfast. That spoke of the impending disaster.
But today, the airline which dreamt of new horizons and forced arrogant incumbents, like Jet Airways, to change is on the verge of a saddening closure.
It is even more painful to see Twitterati joking about the impending collapse. Truly speaking, had Mr. Mallya succeeded, he would have been feted as an avatar of the legendary JRD Tata. But the sad fact of this world is that success is a bastard, and no one loves people who failed.
It has to be emphasised that the role the government has played has left a lot to be desired. They need to recognise that a healthy vibrant aviation sector is essential for a growing economy, but they chose to overtax the sector and pad up the costs artificially, which has been counterproductive. Look the support the Gulf airlines get, or even what the African carriers get. The Indian government has done zilch in comparison.
In such a scenario, a one-time bailout, for all airlines, would the best atonement, for allowing airlines to fail would be counterproductive for India, which should one of the top five economies in the next 20 years.
And as an aviation enthusiast, it would be sad to see Kingfisher Airlines die.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Sinful Nirvana!!!!!

Today afternoon, Neeti and I had to drive down to Churchgate for an appointment with our home mortgage provider.
The meeting was at 3PM. Keeping a sufficient margin, for delays in traffic, we left home at 1PM.
With the kind of randomness the traffic in the city has, unexpectedly we reached Churchgate at 1.45PM.
We needed to kill time, we needed to quench our thirst in the sweltering heat of 37 degrees and we were famished.
Eureka! Just as Archimedes discovered buoyancy in his tub, we figured out that we were headed to Stadium, despite having a choice of other decent eateries around.
Stadium is an Irani café by the side of Churchgate station.
I first visited Stadium way back in 2000. And that was just the beginning. I kept coming back for more and more of their delights.
This was the place that I used to come to enjoy the bun maskas, keema paos, bhurji paos, dhansaks, keema ghotalas, caramel custards, during those good old days when office was at Churchgate! I once forgot my handphone there after a late Sunday afternoon snack. We had reached Annie Besant Road in Worli when I realised what an ass I was to forget my lifeline there. We turned around and drove back to retrieve the gadget, which had been safely kept by the cashier! Thank God for such souls!
The place is quite old, but is airy, with a ceiling that is at least 7-8 metres high, with a large entrance and fairly big windows - that's the closest you can get to dining I.
The tables were small but neatly laid out diagonally with charming green check table cloths covered with a glass sheet.
But change comes, slowly but surely. The green check table cloths were sadly gone! They were all replaced with brown table cloths.
As was customary, we went straight to the point. The order was for pao-bhurjis. Pao is what Mumbaikars call buns - the word is derived from the way the first colonisers of this amazing called the bread way back in 1500s.
The Stadium bhurji, a spicy scrambled egg preparation, with chopped onions, chillies, tomatoes and spices was greasy to the last morsel.
The paos that Stadium serves are soft, flaky and smell fresh, as though they've just been taken out of the clay oven!
We went for it - impatiently tore open the paos into morsels larger than bite-sizes and scooped out the spicy steaming bhurji, going into our salivating mouths! What a sinful nirvana!
To get all the grease settled in our tummies, I went in for a black tea, while Neeti took a lemon soda! Wow, what a meal.
After we were done with our appointment, we headed home. Both of us fell asleep the moment we left HT Parekh Marg. I was just woken up by the driver, as the Bandra Worli Sealink toll plaza was approaching!
The sinful nirvana had done its magic!

Monday, October 24, 2011

Look Beyond The Surface!!!!

One more inspirational gem from the internet:
A bat who fell upon the ground and was caught by a weasel pleaded to be spared his life. The weasel refused, saying that he was by nature the enemy of all birds. The bat assured him that he was not a bird, but a mouse, and thus was set free.
Shortly afterwards the bat again fell to the ground and was caught by another weasel, whom he likewise entreated not to eat him. The weasel said that he had a special hostility to mice. The bat assured him that he was not a mouse, but a bat, and thus a second time escaped.
The moral of the story? It is wise to turn unfortunate circumstances in your favor. Look beyond the surface.
You may find a varying perspective or option that can help turn things around.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Never Give Up

Another dose of inspiration:

A frog was hopping around a farmyard, when it decided to investigate the barn. Being somewhat careless, and maybe a little too curious, he ended up falling into a pail half-filled with fresh milk.
As he swam about attempting to reach the top of the pail, he found that the sides of the pail were too high and steep to reach. He tried to stretch his back legs to push off the bottom of the pail but found it too deep.
But this frog was determined not to give up, and he continued to struggle. He kicked and squirmed and kicked and squirmed, untilat last, all his churning about in the milk had turned the milk into a big hunk of butter. The butter was now solid enough for him to climb onto and get out of the pail!
The Moral of The Story? "Never Give Up!"

Break Free!

Another great story picked up from the net, is here to inspire you to break free.
Most people are like the circus elephant. Have you ever seen a giant elephant in an indoor arena tied to a little wooden stake. That huge creature can pick up two thousand pounds with its trunk, yet it calmly stays tied.


When that elephant was just a baby, and not very strong, it was tied by a huge chain to an iron stake that could not be moved. Regardless of how hard it tried, it could not break the chain and run free. After it a while it just gave up.

Later, when it is strong, it never attempts to break free.
The "imprint" is permanent. "I can't! I can't!' it says.

There are millions of people who behave like this creature of the circus. They have been bound, tied and told "You'll never make it," so many times they finally call it quits. The may have dreams, but the "imprinting" keeps pulling them back.

Today, eliminate the source of your limitations. When you mentally break free, the boundaries will be removed from your future.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Be An Eagle & Soar!

I cam across this story on the internet which inspires you to follow your dreams. Read on and follow your dreams!

Once upon a time, there was a large mountainside, where an eagle's nest rested. The eagle's nest contained four large eagle eggs. One day an earthquake rocked the mountain causing one of the eggs to roll down the mountain, to a chicken farm, located in the valley below.
The chickens knew that they must protect and care for the eagle's egg, so an old hen volunteered to nurture and raise the large egg. One day, the egg hatched and a beautiful eagle was born.
Sadly, however, the eagle was raised to be a chicken. Soon, the eagle believed he was nothing more than a chicken. The eagle loved his home and family, but his spirit cried out for more.
While playing a game on the farm one day, the eagle looked to the skies above and noticed a group of mighty eagles soaring in the skies. "Oh," the eagle cried, "I wish I could soar like those birds."
The chickens roared with laughter, "You cannot soar with those birds. You are a chicken and chickens do not soar."
The eagle continued staring, at his real family up above, dreaming that he could be with them. Each time the eagle would let his dreams be known, he was told it couldn't be done. That is what the eagle learned to believe.
The eagle, after time, stopped dreaming and continued to live his life like a chicken. Finally, after a long life as a chicken, the eagle passed away.
The moral of the story: You become what you believe you are; so if you ever dream to become an eagle follow your dreams, not the words of a chicken.

The Arty Café, Earthy Food & Caife Gaelach!

After a day of running around the city running errands and completing odd-jobs that had piled over the weeks, we missed our lunch. By evening, Neeti and I were famished, craving for anything edible with, literally, an intense fire in the belly!

As we finished the pending tasks at Santa Cruz (West), we took the the SV Road towards home. As we drove along the road, we recced the outlets there - Dominoes and Subway were ruled out. We turned left towards Mithibai College. Neeti suggested that we try our Amar Juice Centre or the Mithibai canteen. I vetoed that - Amar Juice Centre is at best overrated or at worst crappy! And I ruled out the Mithibai canteen as well - I wanted a wee-bit of sophistication at the place where we ate, instead of having raging hormones, strange accents with weird hair-dos around us.

As we approached the Gulmohur Road junction, I suggested that we head to Prithvi Café. With some amount of trepidation Neeti agreed and we headed towards Janki Kutir.

After parking the car on the road we walked into Janki Kutir. Janki Kutir is anything unlike any other place in Mumbai. With cobbled streets, giant leafy trees and single or double storied apartments, Janki Kutir has a certain village-like appeal.

Nestled in one of the cobbled streets lies Prithvi Theatre - this place is an institution in itself. It was set up by the veteran actor, Mr. Shashi Kapoor in the memory of his father, Mr. Prithviraj Kapoor, the doyen of Indian cinema!

Today we returned to the theatre after nearly 3 years. The place was bustling with people looking forward to the next play. There was other groups, arty people as was evident by their looks and style of dressing, gathered at the open air Café sipping on endless cups of teas, coffees and sodas, having long winding intellectual discussions. Makarand Deshpande was roaming around, so were a number of other theatre and television personalities.

The Café used to have a decent array of exceptional continental bites - baked beans on toast, sauteed mushrooms on toast, besides omelettes and beverages - Irish coffee has top of mind recall when it comes to Prithvi Café. But a few years back the Café contractor had changed and this was the first time we were visiting after the transition.

The croissants, muffins, sandwiches and other bites on display at the counter were hardly appealing. There was a chaat counter, the sev puri kinds, which hardly appeals to any self-respecting North Indian - that was easily passable.

At the very end, much to our relief, we discovered a new section serving full meals. The menu was limited but the waiter was eager to help. We ordered a dal makhani, gobhi paratha, roomali roti and tawa chicken, with lime soda. For some reason, I expected a mediocre meal, but the full bloodied earthy tastes were a pleasant revelation.

The dal makhani was authentic, the lentils were soft, the gravy thickened over the hours in true north-western style! The chicken was tender in a spicy gravy reduced over the heavy iron griddle. The roomali rotis were flaky and thin. The gobhi parathas were delectably thick with a generous filling of spicy grated cauliflower. Our waiter, Qureishi, was exceptionally patient and very courteous, a personality trait which is rarely found in newer eateries.

After quickly gulping down our early dinner, we turned our attention to the beverages. I am always ready for Irish coffee, while Neeti selected green tea with a pinch of lime.

As legend has it, Irish coffee or Caife Gaelach as the Irish would call it, was concocted by Joseph Sheridan, a head chef at Shannon Airport, after a group of American passengers disembarked from a Pan Am flying boat on a miserable winter evening in the 1940s. Sheridan added whiskey to the coffee to warm the passengers. After the passengers asked if they were being served Brazilian coffee, Sheridan told them it was Irish coffee. So began the legend!

Prithvi Café does not use whiskey, instead it uses a flavouring. The glass of flavoured black coffee was topped with whipped cream, a centimetre thick and a coffee bean on the centre.

Although, Irish coffees are available at Café Coffee Days and Baristas, the Irish coffees here at Prithvi are different - the espresso is distinctly bitter here, the whiskey flavouring intense and whipped cream is barely sweet, making the whole sensation intensely flavourful!

Thankfully, though the menus at Prithvi have evolved, Irish coffee remains strong on the menu!

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Headwinds or Tailwinds? - Some More Random Thoughts....

A few weeks back, I had written a blog titled "Headwinds or Tailwinds?" on the latest in aviation, including the launch of the Boeing 787 Dreamliner.

Yes, we have shrunk distances! The Dreamliner goes a long way from the Boeing 720s and 707s that I used to fly with my parents from Addis Ababa to Mumbai. Then planes had to land in Aden to refuel because they burned a lot of fuel while taking off from Addis, blame the altitude! Then came the 767s, one of which crashed of the Comoros islands after it was hijacked. The moot question is, Do we need aircraft for long distances, or do we need aircraft for shorter hops? The Second question is, in spite of the hype, will the Dreamliner sell? The Airbus A380 is a high capacity aircraft. I wonder whether it will sell in large numbers because it would not be cost effective to fly below its full capacity! The same goes for the Dreamliner, will it be cost effective, will it be a money spinner, would you like to bet your money on it?

So true, we have come a long way in air travel. But the whole charm of flying in a Boeing 707 was something that is almost indescribable. My mind still has vivid memories of the very regal Air-India Boeing 707s in the early 1980s and that of the Zambia Airways Boeing 707, resplendent in the pan-African colours, and the classic "Z" stylised as an eagle on the green tail!

Those were the days when there was a certain charm in flying. Now it is more of a chore. And sadly now, there is only one scheduled operator of the Boeing 707 - Saha Air of Iran! The other Boeing 707s are either junked in boneyards of Arizona or the Mojave Desert in California or operate as fuel tankers for air defence forces, especially in the United States and other NATO countries. The Indian Air Force also did operate a fleet of Boeing 707s, but those are rusting away in the Palam Technical Area of Delhi Airport - they are clearly visible from the road that links Terminal 1 and Terminal 3.

I recall travelling in an Ethiopian Airlines Boeing 727 from Addis Ababa to Bombay in 1981. It was raining heavily when we boarded the trijet through an aerobridge - that was such a wow for me, a 5 year old then! As we took off from Addis Ababa, there was a lovely site of green terraced fields on hillsides - those memories are crystal clear. The majestic Lion of Judah, which symbolised the airline was everywhere on board - on the meal trays, napkins, etc. Then the meal that was served was one of the yummiest I had!

My sister recently travelled Ethiopian from Washington DC to Entebbe, and she did say the airline is still damn good - in the same period, Air-India has gone to the dogs (sic!). As was acknowledged by the Economist a few months back, Ethiopian, South African Airways and Kenya Airways are effectively serving the world by linking major commercial centres of the world to African cities.

Now Mr. Lal spoke about the Ethiopian Airlines Boeing 767, flight ET 961 crashing off the Comoros Islands. Yes, that was a sad incident which was widely publicised in India in 1996 - the flight originated in Bombay and after a stopover at Addis Ababa and was headed to Nairobi. The flight was hijacked by Ethiopians demanding asylum in Australia. The brave pilots refused to give in to the demands and the aircraft soon ran out of fuel and had crash land in the Indian Ocean. The horrific incident was videotaped by a South African couple on the Comoran beach, who actually though that the Boeing 767 was a part of an airshow.

Now coming to whether the Airbus A380 will be a viable option for airlines, in the long term, or not - well that's anyone's guess. But there are certain high density routes where such a massive capacity can be deployed. Airlines in Japan already deploy Boeing 747s on domestic routes. Korean carriers deploy Boeing 747s and Airbus A380s between Seoul and Hong Kong. There is a market at least for now. The Centre for Aviation brought out a listing of the busiest air routes last month, and the Delhi - Bombay route was listed as the 8th busiest in the world. Imagine, if we had carriers that were imaginative enough, a fleet of 5 Airbus A380s would be good enough to put the Rajdhani Express of the Indian Railways out of business - economies of scale will push down prices. We need to realise that travel time has an economic cost - it does not make sense to travel for over 16 hours when you do it in 3 hours, taking into account the checkin time.

The Dreamliner will sell - the aircraft is built with composites and plastics, making it much much lighter than similar aircraft in its class. In this age, where fuel costs are high and emission trading schemes are being enforced in the EU, airlines would look at the likes of the Boeing 787 and Airbus A350 favourably.
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