Saturday, January 29, 2011

My Plate On The Highway

There is nothing as gratifying to the senses, and to the belly, than experiencing plates, of the culinary kind, on India's highways. I am not talking about Rocky and Mayur's show Highway on My Plate, I am talking of my culinary experiences on Indian highways here.
As any typical north Indian, for me, for years, the highway meant NH1, or the Grand Trunk Road, as it was called in the years gone by. And that meant stopping by at the Murthal dhabas for sinfully thick tandoori aloo parathas, with huge dollops of fresh white butter (be sure to fix an appointment with the cardiologist after such heavy duty Punjabi food) and baingan bhartha! The first time we stopped there for a hearty meal was in 1991, at Gulshan Dhaba, and we were pleasantly gratified, for then eating out was not the norm for us. The pleasure of eating crispy, hot parathas and bhartha was complemented by the sight of a herd of white rabbits chomping on their crunchy dinner of cabbages and carrots.
In these last twenty years, the dhabas along the NH1 have undergone quite a transformation. From plain hearty Punjabi delicacies, they have graduated to stuff like dosas (clearly, this indicates a growing homogenisation of the Indian tastebuds), pizzas and the Indian version of Chinese cuisine, the greasy variety that comes with loads of turmeric!
Travelling along the NH1, it is all but obvious that dhaba food has become a full fledged industry. Every kilometer along the highway will have at least 2-3 dhabas. And each of them is packed 24/7, with a bevy of cars and SUVs lined up in the parking. The patrons are obviously the very homesick, burly Punjabi men and svelte females either headed abroad to the West (Amrikka or Kanadda, as they would call the United States and Canada!!!) or returning back, downing makki di rotis and sarson da saag, alongwith full bloodied daal makhanis. Needless to say, it is the authentic taste of home that us, Punjabis, miss so much, that gets in the flock into the NH1 dhabas! It holds true for me, for sure!
While the turnaround is fast, cover rotations is in double-digits and food is fresh, occasionally they do give you a bad tummy, like the way Mom had a few months back!
Things have taken a chic and modern turn at places like the Haveli at Karnal, where there is an attempt to recreate the environment of the pind, the village, with statuettes of, unmistakably, Punjabi women (in their characteristic Patiala salwars) doing a Gidda jig or churning a pot of cream for butter, or a mother oiling a Punjabi belle's hair, or a newly wed girl, with a choora giving her man water to drink, or a village munshi checking out his ledger or the village well! And to recreate the complete Punjabi experience, they have a gaily painted truck on the inside!
But all these chic developments on NH1 are faux. The real, the hardcore, the authentic stuff lies deep inside the heartland of Punjab. I recall driving from Pathankot to Amritsar way back in the summer of 2002 and we stopped by at a small, nondescript, countryside dhaba right next to the fields. Our family were the only patrons that sweltering June afternoon. We refreshed ourselves at the hand-pump and then dug into fresh tandoori rotis with daal makhani and some vegetables, sitting on charpoys. This was followed by glass-fulls of cool and the very refreshing masala lassi! My grandmom, Ammi, was thrilled to the core as this reminded her of her childhood! And as we returned home from Amritsar, we stopped by at a dhaba on the outskirts of Ludhiana, where the ingenuity of the Punjabi mind was in its full splendor - washing machines were being used churn out butter and lassi!
But while Punjab and Haryana have been instrumental in creating destinations out of highways, what can be called the "highway economy", I would not mind admitting that other states do have some small outlets that carry some real authentic local fare, though, nothing matches the scale and size of the NH1 highway economy!
Once travelling from Madurai to Thirunelveli, we stopped by for some real south Indian tiffins - that's what the localites call their snacks - crispy vadais, dosas and uthappams! The spiciness of sambhar complemented with sweet and warm filter coffee drained out all the exhaustion of the day!
Another time, at 11PM while returning from Thirunelveli to Madurai, we stopped at a military hotel (!!!) - that's what the South Indians call the places serving non vegetarian food. We had spicy kothu parotta with spicy chilli chicken, south Indian style with lots of curry leaves! The kothu parotta is made in an interesting way - the south Indian parotta is minced, using a two halves of a cut steel plate, on flat cast iron base - the kinds used to make dosas. In go chopped onions and chillies with other aromatic spices. (The video alongside gives a hint of how they come up with the delectable kothu parotta.) The concoction was heavenly and kept me salivating for two days!!!!

The beauty of south Indian roadside eateries is that they are absolutely clean and hygienic. And the sights of the food being put together right in front of your eyes is some kind of foreplay before the real thing happens - the food itself!!!!
One freezing winter night, I was travelling from Jodhpur to Jaisalmer. Our tummies were rumbling with hunger as we raced through the Thar. The driver suggested that we stop for some quickie grub at a hamlet called Dechu on the way. The eatery, Om Navrang, was fairly big and open air. They proudly advertised their winter menu - haldi (turmeric) ki sabzi and gajar ka halwa. We gulped down the haldi ki sabzi with aloo parathas, alongwith tea. The haldi ki sabzi is a winter Rajasthani speciality which is supposed to keep one warm. These unique delicacies are rare to find in any fancy restuarant in metros. You really need to get out, out of the city, the run of the mill eateries to enjoy this kind of stuff!
On a recent journey on the Bangalore Mysore highway, we stopped at the Kamat Lokaruchi at Janapadaloka, at the recommendation of a friend. The ambience was amazing and seemed out of yesteryears - stone flooring of 1930s-40s, characteristic thatches - reminded me of Malgudi Days of the Doordarshan days. The mythological murals gave the place an uncharacteristic aura, while hanging plantains and onions gave it a real rural touch!
The curd rice at Kamat Lokaruchi was the best I ever had. The idlis (of the Mangalorean kind called Muday, steamed and rolled in banana leaves) were amazing - not the usual, conventional kinds. We also had the set meals - South Karnataka and Karavali - south Indian style - on fresh green banana leaves. The meal had fresh methi (fenugreek) leaves to be eaten with the ragi rotis. The uniqueness of Kamat Lokaruchi stood out - the earthy decor seemed out of another, bygone era, the service was impeccable and enthusiastic. And above all, that was the best Kannada food I ever had!
The real danger that the highway economy faces is from the McDonalds and Cafe Coffee Day kind of outlets that are mushrooming all over. For instance, on the Bangalore Mysore highway, I myself counted at leat 8-9 Cafe Coffee Day outlets (and that for sure is an underestimation). And to compete with the likes of Kamat Lokaruchi, Cafe Coffee Days have also started serving vadais, dosas and idlis! But authenticity is another question all together. Such a transformation is also underway on the NH1.
To see the detrioration that the highway economy could face, you must look at the food courts on the Mumbai Pune Expressway. While I do enjoy my vada pavs over there once in a while, the MacDonald-isation is all but obvious. You just have to eat and scoot. The eateries there are food factories - functional and mechanical. The ambience simply prevents you from savouring the rustic flavours. I wonder if that kind of fate would meet the NH1 dhabas or even the likes of Kamat Lokaruchi that are struggling to keep the rustic culinary traditions of yesteryears alive!
Will my plate on the highway taste the same twenty years from now? Will it be the "attithi devo bhava" or will it be an artificial "hi" followed by a quick "bye"?

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Republic Day - A Day to Exult?

The 61st Republic Day is dawning upon us, this very moment.
It was on this day, in 1950, that we, Indians, got our constitution that not only defines our rights and responsibilities to the state, but also what the state is obligated to guarantee to us all.
It was also on this day in 1930, that the Congress Party adopted the Purna Swaraj declaration, or Declaration of the Independence of India, resolving the Congress and Indian nationalists to fight for Purna Swaraj, or complete self-rule independent of the British Empire. from then on, till our actual independence on August 15, 1947, this day was celebrated as our independence day, and was marked by unfurling of the national flag.
The nation belongs to Indians, the flag is a symbol that makes us proud. The state gives each citizen the right to fly the flag respectfully in our land, to exult in our freedom.
Yet, when some of our citizens are shamefully prevented from proceeding to Srinagar to unfurl the flag, to exult in the glory of our republic, I get jitters about what the custodian of our constitution, the government stands for.
What is the government trying to say, here?
Is it that Indians have no right to express their sense of pride in the freedom that we enjoy, in our own land, Kashmir?
Or is it that the government accepts that it cannot guarantee the security to anyone who wants to exult on this momentous day?
Or is it that the government has accepted that it is an "occupying force" in Kashmir?
They have to come clean on all this.
Kashmir is legally isolated from the rest of India - no one but a Kashmiri can acquire property in the state, yet the government engages in sweet talk of Kashmir being an "integral" part of India.
The fate of the Kashmiri Pundits hangs in a balance, after being persecuted in the state, forcing their exodus from the state over 20 years back. They are a forgotten, godforsaken lot in their own country, today. India, thus, has the dubious distinction of having internally displaced people from the same community as 86% of the country's population, the Hindus.
As for Kashmir today, it is a pampered state, with practically no economy of its own, even Bihar would be better off today. Kashmir survives on doles from the Indian government, with one of the highest amounts of per-capita aid from the centre.
The Kashmiris today are having a whale of a time at the cost of the Indian taxpayer, who ensure their subsistence, while they engage in their favourite pastime - pelting stones at the instruments of law and order - police and army.
They want azaadi, but I wonder how many hours would they remain azaad if India pulls out. They would be dragged into the same quicksand that Pakistan finds itself in, today.
The real irony is that we send interlocutors to talk to them, yet arrest those who want to express their pride in being Indian! Is this not a violation of the constitution on Indian soil, by the Indian government itself? Is the government not accountable for all this?
So, the question today, on Republic Day, is whether we do have a real reason to exult or not?

Saturday, January 22, 2011

The Return of the Natives!!!! Part 3

After The Return of the Natives!!!! and The Return of the Natives!!!! Part 2, the final part of Neelima's photographs from Kampala are here! I just hope I get to go there soon, very soon, with Papa, Mom and Neeti.

This where it all began, Rubaga Hospital, the hospital where I was born over 34 years back!

Another view of Rubaga Hospital! Wonder how it looked that Easter Monday?

Crossroads at Rubaga (Lubaga)!

Lubaga Cathedral, close to Rubaga Hospital! God blessed me when I was born!

The Sanatan Dharam Temple in Old Kampala! That's where I learnt about our richreligious heritage!

Swaminarayan Temple in Kampala. Am not sure it was there 30 years back!

The beautiful insides of Swaminarayan Temple. There is a stark difference between temples in India and those abroad. Temples abroad are congregational in nature, providing Indians with an opportunity to meet and socialise.

The Gurudwara in Kampala! That's where I learnt Wahe Guru (ਵਾਹਿਗੁਰੂ) and Mattha Tekna!

The Langar (ਲੰਗਰ) at the Kampala Gurudwara! I had it many times 30 years back and will again, soon!

The beautiful Bosa family! Dr. Bosa was Mom's boss. And we became family friends over time. Mom told me that Mrs. Bosa once made a very smart shirt for me! We were pals with Sheba and Herbert! Estella was born after we left Uganda! They all have naughty but smart kids now, who love dancing to the tune of Shakira's Waka Waka! Speaking to all of them recently was like speaking to family. Yes, we have loved ones back home!

A lovely Ugandan treat laid out at the Bosa's! Can see lovely matoke laid out on table! I am hungry and I need matoke!

The Kampala Sheraton was home to my Nanaji, my Godfather!!!

Kaka Motors - a workshop that catered to our car's repairs! The Kaka family were friends. Sadly, Mrs. Kaka died recently. May her soul rest in peace!

Bank of Baroda has a major presence in East Africa, Uganda included. I used to visit this place often with Papa and Mom. They continue to be the bank's clients in India, 30 years on. That's called customer loyalty!

Friday, January 21, 2011

The Return of the Natives!!!! Part 2

Continuing on, from The Return of the Natives!!!!
We go alongwith Neelima's journey through my land, Uganda. The Natives returned (metaphorically) and they saw, eyes moistened, with emotion!

The Coat of Arms of Makerere University! The splendid crested crane stands for everything that is Ugandan, to me!
Makerere University was where Mom taught for a good number of years

The magnificent, colonial, administrative block of the Makerere University. That's where, I, as a four year old posed with Neelima, then a year old, for a smart photograph in 1981!

Makerere University's Faculty of Sciences, where Mom taught!!!!

Quarry House in the Makerere University campus. We called this place home!

The entrance to Quarry House!!!!

B 8, Quarry House, our home! So many memories, so little space to pen them down!

The balcony, where we all posed for photographs, with baby Neelima and Mom, when I animated the flight of plane. And again with friends, Sheba and Herbert, with me holding up a sketch of a plane. I remember running to the balcony when Papa used return back in his blue Fiat 127!
But some people move out, some move in, like this family, who graciously allowed Neelima to come in and click photographs!
That's where I used to play with other toddlers in the campus!

The Quarry House staircase. That's where I gallantly rode my tricycle down with a stunning result - I busted my forehead. Papa heroically rushed me to Mulago Hospital to stitch up my forehead. Bawling my guts out, I was pinned down by Mom, as Papa continued on with the task at hand!!!!

That gallant feat gave me the characteristic scar that I will have for the rest of my life. They say, everything happens for a reason! The scar will remind me of my home, forever!

Mulago Hospital, Papa's karambhoomi!

The hospital shot into the news internationally, when Dora Bloch, one of the hostages in the Air France Flight 139 hijack, was kidnapped from Mulago Hospital and murdered later.
Thank God, Papa wasn't on duty then!!!!
Mulago Hospital - Papa must have walked around here in his smart, white, doctor's coat, 30 years back!

The Return of the Natives!!!!

They say that one always retains an emotional connect with the place where one is born and where one spends one's formative years. That had always been true for me, there has and will always be a soft corner in my heart for Africa in general and Uganda in particular, for that's where I came from!
Recently, my sister, Neelima, got a wonderful opportunity to visit Uganda. And Papa, Mom, Neeti and I were getting a live stream of the action there through her photos on mails and Skype.
Those moments were so emotionally charged and intense for all of us and particularly me. Thanks to Neelima for allowing me to share some of her photographs here. These show the places and sights that I had experienced in the first 30 years of my life.
Here comes the first of the series!!!
One of the first glimpses of my motherland, the land where I was born, Uganda!
Every place is unique, but the greens and blues of Africa have hues, nowhere else to be found. And Uganda stands out. Little wonder, Sir Winston Churchill fell so madly in love with this country that he called it the Pearl of Africa!
Lake Victoria! Will always have fond memories of its shimmering blue waters, green grass and palms fluttering on its shores!
Touchdown! The Return of the Natives!!! Wouldn't I have kissed the soil?
I am dying to get back there, with Papa and Mom to relive those moments 30 years back and to show Neeti where I grew up!!!!
Times change! Uganda Airlines went bust and now you have Air Uganda, but Entebbe etched into the embankment is an enduring image!
I will always remember Uganda Airlines Fokkers and Boeing 707s and its lovely African livery, with the majestic crested crane adorning the fuselages!!!
A magical view of the grand old Lake Victoria! I am dying to see you!

And I am told, the roads in Uganda have Airtel all over. Such is the convenience that you can buy Airtel SIMs from roadside vendors - no verifications, no activations, no paranoia, like we have in India! Such is the innocence in my land - they know no terror! Hope it stays that way, forever!!!

Kampala, the city that gave me birth! The city of seven hills! Makes me fall in love all over again!

There's always a little bit of India where ever you go. More so, in Uganda, where Indians have lived since the 1800s, except for a brief interregnum in the 1970s.
Fusion has been a natural consequence of the long Indian existence in the country. Neelima told me that chappatis and samosas have been integrated into daily Ugandan cuisine.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

The Parable of the Pencil

I came across this meaningful piece on the Net and thought of sharing it on Rajeev's World. Here goes:

The Pencil Maker took the pencil aside, just before putting him into the box.
"There are 5 things you need to know," he told the pencil, "Before I send you out into the world. Always remember them and never forget, and you will become the best pencil you can be."
"One: You will be able to do many great things, but only if you allow yourself to be held in Someone's hand."
"Two: You will experience a painful sharpening from time to time, but you'll need it
to become a better pencil."
"Three: You will be able to correct any mistakes you might make."
"Four: The most important part of you will always be what's inside."
"And Five: On every surface you are used on, you must leave your mark. No matter what the condition, you must continue to write."
The pencil understood and promised to remember, and went into the box with purpose in its heart.
Now replacing the place of the pencil with you. Always remember them and never forget, and you will become the best person you can be.
One: You will be able to do many great things, but only if you allow yourself to be held in God's hand. And allow other human beings to access you for the many gifts you possess.
Two: You will experience a painful sharpening from time to time, by going through various problems in life, but you'll need it to become a stronger person.
Three: You will be able to correct any mistakes you might make.
Four: The most important part of you will always be what's on the inside.
And Five: On every surface you walk through, you must leave your mark. No matter what the situation, you must continue to do your duties.
Allow this parable on the pencil to encourage you to know that you are a special person and only you can fulfill the purpose to which you were born to accomplish.
Never allow yourself to get discouraged and think that your life is insignificant and cannot make a change.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Making Sense of the Sensex?

Making sense out of the Indian bellwether stock market index, the Sensex, is much like making sense out of sex.
Things just happen, believe me. they just do!
Things, indeed, did happen in the last few trading sessions, with the Sensexbeginning its free-fall last week. That was just when the supposed experts on the markets were predicting the index touching 24,000 to 30,000 levels.
Isn't it amazing to see the frequency with which these predictions go wrong?
Just three years back, before the liquidity crunch induced the global slowdown, market pundits were predicting levels of 30,000 to 40,000.
But these predictions have never seen light of the day, at least till today.
It is true that we go overboard both with our pessimism as well as with our optimism. I remember those days in the early 2000s, when I religiously started micro-SIPping on the markets through mutual funds, 8,000 was a great big deal, with the levels nowhere being in sight. Then by 2002, markets tanked to the hellish 2,800 levels only to kiss 8,000 by 2005-2006. In all that my SIPping added to quite a lot in terms of an impressive return, though the absolute quantum was minuscule!
That was when people were starting to talk of India.
Today pessimism is in, I am told, because of runaway inflation, increasing crude oil prices and consequent growth concerns.
But then, India, with its 1 billion odd people will grow over the next 20-30 years, will consume, will produce for the world and will extend its services Timbuktu to Machhu Pichhu. If one does have that confidence in India, it will never be a wrong time to place a long term bet on the markets, even when it doesn't seem to make any sense at all (like sex!), even when things just seem to happen.....
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