Friday, December 21, 2012

Women Hold Up Half The Sky

"Women hold up half the sky" - Mao Zedong
The latest assault makes me shudder each time I hear about it. My blood curdles, I feel dizzy each time television channels start their meaningless debates on the subject.
What wrong did the girl do to deserve this kind of an atrocity, an atrocity of the worst order. What life will she have if she survives? Will her scars ever heal?
The girl is a citizen of this country. She had potential to contribute to the country's economic and social well-being, yet her potential has been nipped in the bud for all practical purposes.
Who is to blame?
It is easy to blame lax policing and easy laws, but we are talking about a larger social issue.
This is a society which despite having leapfrogged into the e-age has quite a medieval and feudal mindset towards half of our population - the female sex. Successive governments and social organisations have not focused on the root cause of the problem.
The solution lies at home. If little boys see their sisters being loved and are taught to love their sisters, they would never become such demons. If the little boys see equality at home, only then would learn to respect girls.
If the girl child is treated with the same respect, loved, cared for and tended to as boys are, only then would boys see girls as equals, as partners in progress and not as mere lesser mortals or just sexual objects.
Preference for the boy child, female infanticide also results in a warped sex ratio. Distortion in the sex ratio essentially results in a whole lot of sexually frustrated young men, which in Northern India has resulted in a well-oiled trade in "brides" from the East, which is nothing but human trafficking.
And then there has to be compulsory sex education in schools and colleges. Women must also be compulsorily taught self-defence techniques to deal with such demons.
To deal with these demons, I don't really think death penalty will help. Instead, they should be chemically castrated and put behind bars for a minimum 15 years. On release, their foreheads should be tattooed with the words "Rapist" to make them live the rest of their their lives in indignation. These should deter any demons in the making.
Gender issues we face as a country essentially means that half of India isn't as productive economically as they could potentially be. Look at China.
If only we understood what Chairman Mao meant when he said "Women hold up half the sky".
As for the girl, I hope she's revived, gets an intestinal transplant, returns to society with full honour and dignity and moves on to realise her dreams. 

Sunday, December 9, 2012

AAP Ke Liye?

After being touted as a transforming agent and a democrat, Morsi of Egypt showed his true side by attempting to consolidate his powers as President. Yet sometime back, during the season of the Arab Spring, he was a darling of the Egyptian masses, and also the West!
Then I happened to see a documentary yesterday, "The Queen And I". It was on the life of the very elegant Queen of Iran, Farah Pahlavi. The film was produced by Iranian-Swedish filmmaker, Nahid Persson Sarvestani. 
The Queen's husband, the late Shah Reza Pahlavi was deposed by Iranians, who saw the imperialists as oppressors and Khomeini as a messiah. But as the film showed, letters written by ordinary Iranians to Queen Farah showed how things had worsened, how the messiahs were worse than the imperialists and how the people thought they would have been better off under the imperialists. 
It is however an entirely different speculation that Khomeini as propped up by the British and French simply because the Shah had planned to nationalise foreign-owned oil companies.
Today, in India, we are being shown an alternative Aam Admi Party, or AAP, led by a maverick, Arvind Kejriwal.
Should we really be enthused about AAP?
Perhaps not, I believe. 
He's untried, untested and more importantly seems publicity hungry to me. What are his true intentions? Would he be like Morsi or would he be like Khomeini?
While we may like some of the ideals he presents, we may find them appealing, I find them unrealistic.
Human nature is prone to greed, corruption and vice. Its inbuilt into our DNA. Every nation is corrupt in its own way, degrees may very. For instance, many of the "least corrupt" nations of this world are tax havens and countries that stash ill-gotten wealth from all over the globe.
The deciding factor is not the extent of corruption, because eradicating corruption would be something quixotic. Instead, we should determine the dividing line - how much is enough.
The PV Narasimha Rao government of the early 1990s was corrupt, yet was the most efficient in independent India and did indeed revive the sputtering economic growth engine, setting the stage for India to assume economic superpower status. Similarly, the NDA government too was corrupt but it had a vision of growth which was implemented in the form of telecom reforms and the highway projects!
So decide for yourself, is AAP for you?

Saturday, December 1, 2012

"East Meets West" & "The End of The World"!

After reading up on European cuisine and watching television shows, I have developed this particular fancy for visiting Europe, starting in Paris and then travelling by road down to Spain and then further eastward to Cyprus.
I can imagine myself driving on the French countryside amidst vineyards and olive groves, sampling the goodies on offer - the cheeses, the wines and delicatessen. I had written about France earlier - the Rungis in Paris and all that. 
Now for something new....
At the crossroads of Europe and the Middle East lies the island of Cyprus. Cyprus is unique - it is the only nation whose map, copper coloured, is on its flag - with two olive branches below it.
Based on its unique blend of ethnicities - Greek and Turkish, Cyprus has developed a unique food tradition - an unorthodox "East meets West" kind of place. This is the place where kebabs meets pasta, where Arab mezze meets cured meats, Oriental spices meet vegetables like Okra from Africa! 
Cyprus is a place I have always wanted to visit since 1983, when I saw photos of sun-kissed Nicosia, the green Mediterranean countryside and the sun-kissed beaches. But Tonia Buxton's show My Cypriot Kitchen, was quite a revelation that Cypriots have blended various culinary traditions to evolve a very delectable cuisine.
The Basque region of Spain particularly excites me. The Basque people are believed to be the original Europeans, who inhabited this continent much before the Indo-European races migrated from the Caucasus region. Their language, Euskara, is much unlike the rest of the Indo-European languages. A lot has been speculated on the origin of Basques - speculative reports on the internet say the Basques are from Atlantis or are of alien origin (gasp!) - but truly, they are unique!
One unique tradition of Basque is the Txoko - a closed gastronomical society, traditionally only open to male members who come together to cook, experiment with new ways of Basque cooking, eat and socialise. The first record of a Txoko goes back to 1870 in San Sebastián, Spain, from where the concept spread. During the Franco dictatorship, Txokos became increasingly popular as they were one of the few places where Basques could legally meet without state control, speak Basque and sing Basque songs. 
The Txoko tradition has helped in the revival of many traditional Basque dishes, which could have otherwise died out. These clubs have also influenced the development of new dishes as Txoko members frequently experiment and innovate with Basque cuisine. The tradition has led to Basque cuisine being both highly refined and affordable.
Anyone for a Txoko in Mumbai?
Travelling westward from San Sebastián along the northern coastline of Spain, to Cape Finisterre, where the bay of Biscay meets the Atlantic promises to be exciting. The Finisterre are has several rocks associated with pre-Christian religious legends, such as the "holy stones", the "stained wine stones", the "stone chair", and the tomb of the Celtic goddess Orcabella. 
The significance of Cape Finisterre is this - it was believed to be the end of the world - 100 metre high cliffs and the Atlantic waves crashing below. Finisterre is the final destination for many pilgrims on the Way of St. James, the pilgrimage to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. Cape Finisterre is about a 90-km walk from Santiago de Compostela. This is said to be the remnant of pagan traditions which have become very Christian today. 
It is a tradition for pilgrims to burn their possessions - clothes or boots at the end of their pilgrimage at Cape Finisterre. Perhaps that is to signify ending the past and beginning on a clean slate! That makes me want to visit Finisterre, "the end of the world", perform this pilgrimage (despite not being a Christian but a devout Hindu) and make a new beginning, in what I love the most, yes - it is food!

Friday, November 30, 2012

"Coq Au Vin" or "Scotch da Kukkad"?

Off late, I have become a big fan of Fox Traveler. The reason is but obvious - the channel features food shows back to back - Poh's Kitchen, Food Safari, Dolce Vita and Twist of Taste, making it my favourite channel, whenever the television is on at home.
In Saturday's edition of the Food Safari, the presenter, Maeve O’Meara covered traditional French cuisine which included an interesting part on a very traditional French preparation, coq au vin - poulet de Bresse (Bresse chicken) cooked with Burgundy wine, lardon, mushrooms and aromatic herbs.
The secret of an authentic coq au vin, as I gathered, lies in the coq or authentic poulet de Bresse - poultry that originates from the Bresse area of the Rhône-Alpes region of France. Raised in limited quantities, these birds are "highly valued for their gamey flavour, fine, tender flesh and delicious, clean-flowing fat" as Maeve described it.
The Bresse evokes a great degree of French nationalism. The coq is said to represent the colours of the tricolore or the French flag - a distinctive red crown, white feathers and blue feet, a national mascot of sorts! Under French Law, only the chicken reared in a certain area in Bresse can be certified as poulet de Bresse!
Such is the passion the French have for their food! Indeed, admirable!

The poulet is tended for, cared for, in exact and specific standards.  Each bird is allocated a minimum of ten square meters. Diet and slaughter times are strictly controlled. Birds are required to spend their final days in an epinette, a building traditionally used for forced feeding with grain mash and milk. Probably that's what gives the poulet de Bresse its repute!
I just can't wait to visit the Rungis in Paris to lay my eyes on this very sexy bird(!), though buying it is another matter - it is said to cost €15 a kilo, that's over ₹1000(!), which is indeed quite a lot by our standards! 
From what I saw on Maeve O’Meara's show, coq au vin seems to be a rustic but hearty preparation. The origins of coq au vin are ancient - from the times of the Romans and the Gauls! I wonder why Asterix and Obelix never had coq au vin?

The poulet de Bresse is marinated in Burgundy alongwith vegetables and a bouquet garni overnight. The poulet is then seared in lardon or bacon fat, then simmered with the marinade. Maeve's version of the dish involved the addition of finely minced liver to thicken the gravy. At the end, mushrooms were added. As I saw Maeve and her guest chef prepare the coq au vin, I had an uncontrollable urge to have it immediately!

Surely, besides being lip-smacking, hearty and having an avalanche of flavours, the dish itself seems to be quite healthy. French cuisine, while relying on a lot of red meats (coq au vin being an exception) uses wine extensively in cooking.
Wine is said to raise levels of HDL, the "good" cholesterol, and helps reduce the risk of blood clots forming in coronary arteries. Red wine (and the skin of red grapes) contains resveratrol, an antioxidant that has been shown to promote longevity in laboratory conditions and is believed to slow the progress of age-related diseases, including diabetes, cancer and Alzheimer's. Besides these benefits, cooking with wine certainly does enhance the flavour, while at the same time neutralising the ill-effects of the fats that go into this dish.
Julia Child, the legendary American chef and food-writer (who was immortalised in the enjoyable 2009 Hollywood film, Julie & Julia?), is said to have popularised coq au vin across the Atlantic. Probably, its time someone did the same in India. Given India's (or probably the Punjabis') love for the bird, our Indianised version of coq au vin with garam masala and turmeric a good measure of hearty Scotch thrown in to replace the Burgundy, there is a decent chance our Scotch da Kukkad will excite the Indian palette!
As for me, the one closest to the authentic would do! I would rather rush to get a bottle of Burgundy and Godrej Real Good chicken (that's the best I can do here!) and conjure up some French magic in the kitchen!

Saturday, November 24, 2012

A Timeless Cycle?

As bizarre it may sound, the other day, a friend and I were engaged in an animated conversation on the ancient world and the mysteries of that ancient era that have confounded modern man. 
My friend made an astounding statement - that the Pyramids of Egypt were actually power plants or nuclear reactors
Power plants? Nuclear reactors? That too thousands of years back?
I had to Google this and indeed there were numerous references on the internet of research that had been carried out to uncover this supposedly hidden side of these ancient Egyptian marvels.
That set me thinking - is there a link between the supposed Curse of the Pharoahs and the so-called nuclear aspects of the Pyramids?
Then yesterday, I Googled on one of ancient India's mysteries - the sudden decline and abandonment of the grand city of Mohenjo-Daro. A few references of the possible causes of the sudden decimation of the city was, yes, a nuclear blast!
A nuclear blast thousands of years back? 
Another set of mysteries relating to the Nazca Lines in  Nazca Desert in southern Peru have led to a set of astounding theories. The Nazca Lines comprise of hundreds of individual figures that range in complexity from simple lines to hummingbirds, spiders, monkeys, fish and lizards. These are visible only when viewed from above, say, when flying but not from the ground. There is stretch that resembles a table top runway in the Nazca Desert. Theories floating around are that Nazca was a landing base for "aliens"(!).
Is all this true?
I do not know, but yes, there certainly was a high degree of technological complexity in the civilizations that have predated the history as we know it. A good example is close home in Hindu mythology.
The Ramayan talks of flying machines - the legendary Pushpak Viman that carried Ravan all over the subcontinent. The Mahabharat talks of weapons of mass destruction or Bhramastras. I came across a verse from the Mahabharat which says:

“Gurkha, flying a swift and powerful vimana hurled a single projectile charged with the power of the Universe. An incandescent column of smoke and flame, as bright as ten thousand suns, rose with all its splendor.
It was an unknown weapon, an iron thunderbolt, a gigantic messenger of death, which reduced to ashes the entire race of the Vrishnis and the Andhakas. The corpses were so burned as to be unrecognizable. Hair and nails fell out; Pottery broke without apparent cause, and the birds turned white. …After a few hours all foodstuffs were infected…to escape from this fire the soldiers threw themselves in streams to wash themselves and their equipment.” 

Was it a reference to an ancient nuclear blast?
These mysteries perhaps will never be solved. Perhaps there was a high degree of technological advancement in civilizations before us. That knowledge was lost, left for successive generations to recreate from scratch. 
Perhaps this is a timeless cycle that swings between knowledge and extreme ignorance.
Who knows, we can only guess today!

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Another Southern Sojourn!

Visiting Bangalore is always exciting for a few simple reasons - great weather, greenery, great food and a great crowd! I don't mind the traffic though, after being so used to it, here in Mumbai!
Couple of weeks back, a colleague and I visited Bangalore and Maddur for a day. After landing in Bangalore, we were to cross the city to get to the Mysore Highway. On the way, our vehicle, a Tavera, had two accidents, one of which was near fatal for a biker. We had it, we just couldn't move forward in the same car.
After an hour or two we got a replacement cab, an Indica. The journey then was pretty uneventful, though we were quite late.
We stopped by Kamat's Lokaruchi for some great local food. We had North Karnataka thalis. I have been a big, big fan of this place for the last 2 years. Alongwith the thali, we were served something called Oora Mirapakayalu or "curd chillies" - red chillies soaked in buttermilk, sundried and panfried, which was absolutely awesome - a different kind of spicy flavour. My colleague and I were absolutely sold out on the "curd chillies".
The rest of trip was quite okay. The weather at Maddur was again great. The place was idyllic. While my heart wanted to stay back, we had to leave!
We touched Bangalore at about 7PM. As we were passing by Jayanagar, my colleague asked the driver to take us to a place where we could get curd chillies. We were taken to a neighbourhood store where we picked up a couple of packs of curd chillies. Alongwith that, I found something very interesting - sundaka vatral, an interesting ingredient for vatral kozhambu, a delectable Tamil preparation that I had enjoyed in Trichy earlier this year in February! I was as elated and excited like a kid in a toy shop.

We proceeded to Residency Road, where we were to stay for the night. After checking-in at the hotel, I was reminded of Nagarjuna Residency close by which serves an excellent Andhra thali! As Navratras were on, I chose a vegetarian thali alongwith. A cauliflower pepper fry. The thali had assortment of greens, sambhar, rasam, daal and a variety of chutneys and pickles. Gongura chutney that I had first had at Rajahmundry was there, so was fresh mango pickle! Both of these were awesome! 
And one interesting bit - though I usually avoid rice, authentic South Indian food makes me want to eat rice!!!!

The food was amazingly spicy, as Andhra food is always supposed to be! My eyes, scalp and skin were watering profusely, due to the "heat"! My only regret - I could not have spicy mutton gravy or chilly chicken, though I was tempted to give the Navratras a pass!
We then took a long walk along Residency Road and MG Road, passing by the newly constructed the Namma Metro line. I stopped by at an open-air Coffee Café Day. Having a hot cup of Assam tea in the cool breeze was a different experience. I would have loved to sit at the café a little more, but we had to leave - we had a flight to catch at 8AM, for which we had to check out at 5.45AM.
I reached Mumbai pleased with myself for getting back a treasure of curd chillies and vatral!
This morning, out came the sundaka vatral and the curd chillies. We made idlis (a premix from MTR), vatral kozhambu using the sundaka and fried curd chilly! What an amazing breakfast that was!

I find it really interesting - despite being a hardcore North Indian, after experiencing authentic South Indian cuisine, in the south, I have fallen for South Indian food in a big big way. For me stuff like vatral kozhambu was a true revelation, an interesting surprise! And having it at home, having family experience it was extremely pleasing!
Perhaps, as they say, travel does in many ways does broaden your horizons!

Friday, November 16, 2012

Plane Spotting at BOM

As we pushed back from Gate A2 from Terminal 2C from Mumbai's CSI Airport for a 0620AM departure, sunrays filled in the skies. What a wonderful morning, that was in mid-October!

After towing my Boeing 737-800, the pushback tractor makes its way back.

A Kingfisher Airbus A320 idles away at the end of a taxiway. What a sad state of affairs.... When they flew, they did scare the hell out of Jet Airways. I hope they do fly again....

An Air-India Boeing 777 long range aircraft parked, probably after a long journey overnight.

A view of the new, under-construction integrated terminal. Looks impressive, but pales in size compared to Delhi's T3!

A FedEx, Federal Express Boeing 777 freighter parked by the side of the new terminal....

An El Al Boeing 767 that flew in from Tel Aviv-Yaffo sometime back. 

An interesting line up of airliners at Terminal 2B against the morning mist!

Wow! A Kenya Airways Boeing 767! Splendid colours, truly the Pride of Africa!

Two Saudi Arabian jetliners - a Boeing 777 and Boeing 747-400! A nice view just before we veered onto Runway 9-27 for take-off!

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

A Special Diwali Dinner!

Diwali is undoubtedly a special occasion, not only because its a joyous event on the Hindu calender, but also because it is one day when all of us, at home, put our heart ad soul into a special dinner that stays alive in our hearts, in our minds and on our tongues for one year, till the next Diwali comes!
This Diwali dinner was another special occasion that has gotten etched indelibly in our memories.
While shopping for the Diwali dinner, at Godrej Nature's Basket, I came across the first strawberries of the season. Next I came across the long green chilly peppers, the ones that go into the delectable mirchi ka salan.
Without question, all that had to bought for the feast.
On Diwali morning, Neeti reminded me that I had to do the maa-ki-daal. The daal had to be immediately soaked in water to ensure ease of cooking later in the day. At noon, I started preparing the making the daal, multi-stage cooking style, the way I had learnt from my Mom, who had perfected this Amritsari style over the last 30-odd years!
The daal was boiled for nearly an hour, without any spices. After the daal was three-fourths cooked, in went whole spices - cardamom, cloves, cinnamon, peppercorns, alongwith finely chopped ginger, garlic, onions, tomatoes. That was boiled for another 10 minutes, after which turmeric powder, salt and a tablespoon of mustard oil were added, and was left to simmer on low heat for next 90 minutes.
While the daal was simmering away to gooey thick consistency, Neeti assumed the role of Captain on the Hyderabadi  mirchi ka salan, and I gladly played the role of her First Officer! Peanuts were roasted, so were cumin seeds, sesame seeds, nigella seeds, which were roasted on a skillet and ground to a fine consistency alongwith fresh coconut. As I ground the aromatic spices, Neeti went about seering the chilly peppers in an extremely hot pan.

Neeti then skillfully brought it all together in her best ever Hyderabadi mirchi ka salan, better than what even a professional would do in Hyderabad.
This time around, for the Diwali puja prasad, we didn't pick up any sweets from the market. Instead, Neeti made one of her specialities - strawberry cream, with the strawberries I had picked up the day before.

Our cook chipped in - she made mattar-paneer and methi rotis. And we topped it off with digging out the delicious bhallas that Neeti's mom had brought in with her when she came here to Mumbai last month. The bhallas were soaked in warm water for 20 minutes and then were added to beaten curd, alongwith a yummy, tangy tamarind chutney.
Just before settling in for dinner, the maa ki daal was given a special tadka or seasoning of asafoetida, cumin, onions, ginger, garlic, pepper and coriander powder!
And what a dinner that was, a remarkable, yummy Diwali candlelight dinner!

Spread the Light, Spread the Warmth....

Diwali has just gone by, the New Year has started. 
I pray that the afterglow of the brightness of Diwali, the warmth of the festive season remains with us for the rest of the year, guiding us to be good human beings.
May be the positivity of this festive Diwali season spread its light, spread its warmth, all year round, till the next festival season!

Saturday, November 10, 2012

"Roll With The Punches! Tomorrow Is Another Day!"

After a long sleepless night, which is rather unusual for me as I do sleep like a log, I mustered the courage to sneak out of bed and literally smell the coffee.
Here I am sitting in front of my computer. The windows are open - a cool breeze is blowing in. The sounds of the night, those of crickets and other insects are as melodious as can be. And I stumbled upon a webpage, on one of my favourite movies of all times, on IMDB - Jerry Maguire.
The protagonist, Jerry Maguire, played by Tom Cruise, is a successful sports agent. During one sleepless night, Jerry gets an epiphany, a serious crisis of conscience. That makes him pen down a mission statement, which implores his firm to think long term - think of the ultimate interest of the clients rather than milking clients today! 
What follows isn't any surprise - Jerry is fired! And he walks away with Flipper, a goldfish and Dorothy Boyd (Renee Zellweger), an accountant, who also happens to be Jerry's secret admirer and at that moment is deeply moved by Jerry's "memo".
What follows is a struggle that Jerry has in getting his first client, as a solo agent - that client happens to be  Rod Tidwell (Cuba Gooding Jr.), a football player whose pride and arrogance hindered his path to success. Tidwell's character is a stereotypical Hollywood depiction of an Afro-Americans, but his and Jerry's frequent encounters on "showing him the money" pepper the film with appropriately spaced comic sequences.
Jerry has a hard time convincing Rod to play from his heart, and not to play for the money. Jerry believes that greatness (and money) would follow from playing with the heart. (There's message for us here!)
Rod does achieve his moment from glory after doing just what Jerry had always said - play from the heart! And he does see the money.
Paul McCartney's instrumental piece, Momma Miss America, somehow defines the sense of purpose that Jerry Maguire chases through the movie.
But without doubt, the most enjoyable comic sequences in the films are between Ray, Dorothy's  precocious six-year old kid, played by Jonathan Lipnicki. Ray is an quintessential epitome of cuteness with his spiked blonde hair and round spectacles. (Neeti thinks that as a kid I would have been a lot like Ray!!!!)
Some of Ray's quips are particularly heartwarming and endearing, like the ones here from YouTube.

And then there are those memorable gems by Dicky Fox:
Look I don't have all the answers. To be honest, in life, I failed as often as I succeeded. But I love my wife. I love my life. And I wish you my kind of success. 
Roll with the punches. Tomorrow is another day.
Jerry Maguire is a good mix of entertainment and inspiration and certainly a must-watch for all those who are pursuing corporate careers. I must confess, I have seen this movie at least 20 times over, thoroughly enjoying it end to end. Each time I feel somewhere, somehow, parts of the movie resonate with my life. And I always end up inspired.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Smell The Coffee!

Even though I have largely been a tea-drinker for the last 15-odd years, I do occasionally enjoy a cup of very strong coffee with a hint of cream and just about a pinch of demerara sugar.
Coffee for me has this amazing ability to "wake me up", to heighten my sensory faculties, to leave behind that amazing bitter after-taste in my mouth that keeps me "high" for a few hours. And the aroma of coffee is  nothing but simply magical.
Coorg was the place where I discovered the best coffee. I cannot forget that day in January 2011, sitting in the veranda of that 100-year old colonial plantation bungalow and sipping on an amazingly aromatic thick black coffee liquor. It was a lazy day, bright and sunny with a rather cool breeze blowing. All around were sounds of silence, green plantations and the aroma of freshly brewed coffee wafting in the air.

That was sheer bliss for me!
More recently, Bru introduced premium world coffees in the market, Bru Exotica - coffees from the Killimanjaro, Brazil and Colombia. I could not resist picking up a bottle of Killimanjaro coffee despite its steep price of Rs. 300 a bottle, simply because this coffee supposedly came very close from my motherland, Uganda.
Talking of Ugandan coffee, which has been very prized for long, during Idi Amin's reign of terror, the economy had collapsed and the Shilling crashed alongwith the onset of spiraling inflation. In those trying times, coffee was the unofficial currency for Ugandans in the countryside. The resilient Ugandans used to risk their lives carrying coffee in their canoes all across Lake Victoria to Tanzania or Kenya for some money that was worth more than wads of Ugandan Shillings. (My Dad has lucidly described the resilience of Ugandans in his blogs). That's how they survived. Today, however, Uganda has regained its prestige in the world of coffee, but climate change does threaten it.
One coffee that I would really love to try is the one from ancient land of Ethiopia. The Ethiopian civilization is quite old. It predates Christ and goes way back to age of Solomon the Great, who supposedly was madly in love with an Ethiopian queen, the Queen of Sheba. (Indeed, Ethiopian women are really pretty - ask me, I recently saw the flight crew of Ethiopian Airlines in Mumbai - they were all lissome and sharp featured!)
Legend has it that Ethiopia has been the cradle of coffee. A sheep herder once saw his flock chewing on some berries and getting high. Those berries, with time, came to be known as coffee berries!
In 1981, our family did pass by Addis Ababa for a few days. I was 5 then - too young to have coffee. But today, I am a big boy(!) and I would love to go back to Ethiopia, smell and drink Ethiopian coffee and also visit the great heritage of this ancient civilisation - rock carved churches at Lalibela, monasteries at Axum that are believed to house the legendary Ark of the Covenant and tablets of the Ten Commandments, the Blue Nile monasteries of Bahir Dar, castles of Gondar and the grand Rift Valley! Ethiopia also has a rich culinary heritage - injera (much like our Indian dosa), fit-fit, wat and many other delights!
It isn't hard to understand why they say "Smell the Coffee". But for me, smelling the coffee right in the morning is a big NO. I would rather wake up saying to myself something I adapted from a dialogue from one of favourite films, Jerry Macguire - "I have rolled with the punches, but today is another day!"
That does keep me going, till about afternoon, when I sometimes indulge in literally smelling the coffee!

Friday, November 2, 2012

Deja Vu in Orissa

Earlier this week, I was in Orissa for a couple of days. After landing in Bhubaneshwar, we traveled northwards towards the coast at Paradeep, back to Bhubaneshwar and then to Angul and Dhenkanal and then back to base.
Orissa has a reputation for being a very warm and humid region, the weather this time around was amazing. Despite the golden warmth of the Sun, the temperature barely touched 30 degrees Celsius. In fact, we were happier putting off the air conditioning in the car.
The route to Paradeep is very beautiful. Green paddy fields on either side of the road made the drive an intensely pleasurable experience, a treat for weary urban eyes gone sore by the sight of concrete all around.
Paradeep is lovely port town. Life in the town centers mainly around the port and a few mineral processing industries. The town itself is well managed by the port trust - wide neat roads and a lot of greenery. A self-contained town, Paradeep has all facilities, including schools, hospitals, markets, hotels and yes, a golf course!
We stopped by at a local hotel to grab some food before our return back - Empires Hotel, which belongs to a local Oriyan business group. The hotel caters to the shipping crew who stop by at Paradeep, and that shows in the tariffs. The hotel itself is very well located, has an inviting decor and is quite compact. The lunch buffet had an amazing variety of Oriyan delicacies. There were a number of local Oriyan delicacies on offer. There were a few vegetable preparations - greens etc., which were delectable. I attacked the Oriya style baingan bhartha, which was more like babaghanoush, aloo bhartha (spicy mashed potatoes) and tomato bhartha (to me that was a lot like Mexican salsa).
And then my Oriya friend pushed me to take bowls full of crab curry, mutton curry and fish curry. The crab was the best - extremely spicy with a generous helping of garlic. The crab was so fresh and succulent - the only hitch was the mess I was afraid of creating, cracking open the shells! Dessert followed - all typical Oriya delights!
On the way back, my friend (and colleague) got me a box of local pedas from Cuttack. Mildly sweet and fragrant, the pedas were too soft to dig into, alongwith a warm cup of Assam tea.
The next day, early in the morning, we set out for Angul in the interior of Orissa, passing through Dhenkanal. Unlike the route to Paradeep, this area is not cultivated. Instead, there are quite dense forests on the way, alongwith rolling hills, grasslands - a varied landscape. And the bright blue sky above, with a few clouds floating around in gay abandon. This reminded me of Zambia! It was almost like deja vu, as though I was back in Zambia!
Adding to the sense of deja vu, I came across a number of anthills and mud huts with thatched roofs! This was it! And as I was seeing all this, Miriam Makeba's song "Africa is Where My Heart Lies..." was ringing in my head!

Thursday, November 1, 2012

There's A Price To Be Paid...

It is over 9 PM right now. I am on my way back from office. I have been stuck in traffic for over one and a half hours now. Luckily for me, the agony of my commute back home has been partly ameliorated by some cool hits being belted out on 94.3 Radio One, truly "soundtracking" my way back home!
But as I sit on the wheel, my foot on the accelerator ready to zoom the moment the car ahead of me moves even an inch, I wonder what causes all this.
Didn't I learn about an interesting concept in physics, way back in school, called Brownian Motion? I bet - if you were you were to fly high above this crazy megapolis, the sight of the roads would be something like this - the big vehicles stuck and the smaller ones like autorickshaws, bikes and small cars moving around, haphazardly crisscrossing lanes much like Brownian Motion!

But just then, I thought a little more. I thought a bit harder.
Aren't roads also like cholesterol clogged arteries? 
Now think of this - a truck breaks down on the Western Express Highway. This truck has no business to enter the city during peak hours. Somehow the trucker greases palms and enters in. Given the poor state of maintenance of truck fleets, they are susceptible to breakdowns, especially on the kinds of roads you have in the megapolis of Mumbai! So, invariably, during the peak traffic hours there would be some idiot trucker, whose vehicle would have broken down in the middle lane.
That's a lot like a clot of cholesterol in the artery!
Now when you have vehicles moving around in fashion similar to Brownian Motion and a "clot right in the middle of an artery", you are bound to spend over 2 hours to traverse 13 kilometers!
Now comes the best part - the traffic cops who are rather "proactive" in non-peak hours simply vanish when you have this disastrous cocktail! They should be out there booking drivers for violating traffic norms during peak hours. So much for the efficiency of this city!
I cringe at the thought of an ambulance carrying a patient stuck in this kind of a helpless situation.
My folks who are just back from Beijing are raving about the orderliness they have experienced on Chinese roads - both urban and rural. If you ask me why we don't have that kind of order here in India - perhaps, there is a heavy price to be paid for a democracy of consensual indiscipline, which cannot hold anyone accountable for any damn thing!

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Chaat-ing Around On The Streets of Delhi!

Today when we were out shopping for our weekly groceries at Star Bazaar at the Crystal Point Mall in Andheri West, we saw a chaat counter as we exited. Naturally Neeti and I were tempted, tempted beyond any imaginable control!
Before we could think rationally, we ordered a plate of paani puris (or gol gappas, as we North Indians call them) - six of them shared between the two of us.
Was it the same thing that we have so loved? No way!
Agreed High Point in Lokhandwala Market is far better than what we had at Star Bazaar, but nothing matches the gol gappas you get in the North.
My first introduction to the chaat kind of stuff happened in 1984 at Hauz Khas, in Delhi. It was a "sinful" treat that my good old granny, or Ammi as we lovingly used to call her, used to give us, me, Neelima and our cousins, off and on. Too much of it was bad, we were told - it could make our throats go bad and give us a temperature too. That used to keep us from pestering her most of the times, but most of the times, she would lovingly lead us to Shiv Stores, a neighbourhood restaurant known for its South Indian fare, chaats and sweets.
I loved the dahi papdi chaat a delectable melange of crunchy papdi, sweet and sour tamarind chutney and cool curd. Thus began our love affair with this sinful North Indian concoction.
Times have changed quite a lot. Today the owners of Shiv Stores have closed their restaurant business and have gotten into the much lucrative business of property redevelopment. In place of the erstwhile Shiv Stores, a swanky new new office has come up from where their redevelopment business is managed.
Changing times have not changed my liking for these sinful delights. Any trip to Delhi is an event to look forward to for one significant reason - having chaat, gol gappas and tikkis.

It is always a treat to see the vendors behind their elaborately illuminated counters picking up the gols, putting a bit of boiled chickpea, mashed potato, onion, tamarind chutney and dipping in the spicy paani! These guys do it so stylishly - it has to be seen to be believed.

And girls go crazy on the gol gappas. It's sheer madness when they have all this. They shriek with joy and plead with the vendor, "Bhaiyya, ek aur!" or "Thoda saunth dena!".
Unfortunately Mumbai's Gujju-ised, sev-laced chaat variants are no match for the very magical authentic Delhi chaat. People in Mumbai go crazy about the stuff you get at Elco's on Hill Road in Bandra or at High Point in Lokhandwala. These poor souls, in Mumbai, haven't really tasted the real thing. The Mumbai variants lack the robustness in flavour that the Delhi version has. Plus the besan sev spoils the whole fun.
The tikki chaat in Delhi is another yummy delight. The aroma that wafts from the wide iron skillet with the sound of fat tikkis sizzling on it is simply magical. And then when it's time to eat, imagine two fat crispy tikkis sitting on your plate with mint and tamarind chutneys and bit of beaten curd. The Mumbai version of the tikki chaat, Ragda Pattice, comes a poor 10th, let alone second, third, fourth or whatever for various reasons. I personally find the name hard hitting and not appealing at all. Secondly, the size of the tikkis make them look anemic like pygmies, when compared with the Delhi ones! Thirdly the chutneys lack the robustness and character that chutneys in the North have.

Make no mistake - this is no rant about Mumbai. But somehow for any true bloodied, self respecting North Indian, its hard to accept Mumbai's Gujju-ised variants as palatable. Having chaat in Mumbai is as bad as having pav-bhaaji in Delhi (for Delhi chaat eateries pav-bhaaji is an absolute must on the menu!). It's just not the real thing. That does explain why for my first 2-weeks in Mumbai I had pav-bhaaji every single night!

And yes, I forgot the aloo chaat that is ubiquitous in Connaught Place - that's another yummy heartwarming treat for a cold winter day!
Probably, the best place to have all this is in Old Delhi, in and around Chandni Chowk, where certain shops have a built a sterling reputation vending chaats for centuries!
As I am writing this, I am already plotting my next move - a visit to Old Delhi, to tingle my palate, to go chaat-ing around on the streets of Delhi!

Starbucking Has Just Begun!

A few years ago, while visiting Hong Kong, Starbucks (Staabaa as the locals called it in Hong Kong!) was the preferred place for us to have a steaming hot cup of either coffee or tea, alongwith a few green tea cookies which we absolutely loved.
Then, almost a year after that we visited Coorg, where it was enthralling seeing how a uniquely aromatic coffee is grown in lush green estates of Tata Coffee, alongwith spices like cardamom and pepper. That inspired Neeti, a pure tea-drinker to write about flirting with coffee, which she had covered in her blog.
Little did we realise at that moment that Starbucks was going to partner Tata Coffee to get the chain to India, sourcing coffee from the same lovely green plantations that we had visited about two years back.
About 10 days back, their first outlet opened at Horiman Circle followed by two more, one of which was closer to home, at Oberoi Mall.

We made a serious attempt to visit the outlet for breakfast today - the anticipation of having green tea cookies again kept awake till long last night! But we overestimated ourselves. Breakfast at Starbucks was tall order, as laziness ruled the weather, at home, this morning.
I thanked my stars when we finally left home at nearly 1PM. In about 20 minutes we were at Oberoi Mall. But the time we saved in getting to Starbucks was all wasted in the long queue full of excited people - mostly young, some elderly and few expatriates for whom having Starbucks coffee surely must be nostalgic.

After about 30 minutes of waiting, we got a table. We were to place our orders - frappucinos, double chocolate chip muffins, mushroom chicken pie and a corn brioche.
I must admit that the frappucino was intensely flavourful. The pie was flaky, crusty and fresh - the chicken inside was meaty without an overbearing spiciness that is so common at a Café Coffee Day or a Barista. The muffin too was much better than what I have had elsewhere. As Neeti put it, it was again, another flirtation with coffee!
But to my dismay, there were no green tea cookies!

As we moved out, the Café Coffee Day outlet hardly had a soul in it. So did Gloria Jeans. This was the Starbucks effect for sure.

While the stuff here at Starbucks was excellent, it is indeed too early to give a verdict. Today Starbucks has only three outlets, all in Mumbai. Will the quality still be the same when they have over 50, 100, 200 outlets? I wonder! It will be a challenge - in the Indian restaurant and café business quality does indeed take a plunge with an increased reach.
Despite enjoying a decent snack, my mind was still on the green tea cookies! And I could not resist calling my sis to send in some from Starbucks in China! Our real Starbucking has just begun!

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Immature Indian Airlines!

As though depressing news wasn't enough, it was sad to hear of the DGCA canceling the licenses of Kingfisher Airlines.
But then the likes of Jet Airways and IndiGo are somehow surviving. The best are the foreign carriers which are thriving flying in and out of Indian skies and laughing all the way to the bank.
The Wall Street Journal had a story on the oddest air routes in the world. And one tiny carrier, with just 11 aircraft, from the nation of Armenia, nestled in the Caucasus highlands, Armavia is flying the Sardars from the pinds of Amritsar to Birmingham, via  Zvartnots International Airport at Yerevan.
My folks recently traveled to Beijing from Delhi, to meet my sister. they flew on Air China. Air China too picking up Punjabis and giving them free transit hotel rooms in Beijing and flying them onward to Trrannto (Toronto) and other places in Cannadda (Canada). Other Chinese carriers are also swamping Indian airports - China Southern, China Eastern besides Air China which is adding a 2x daily frequency to Kunming from Kolkata, yes, that's right Kolkata of all places!
Jet Airways recently pulled out of New York's JFK Airport, while it continues to fly in to Newark. The void left behind Jet Airways is being filled in by Virgin Atlantic, which starts flights to New York from Delhi on October 25, 2012.
The best is Emirates, which has been called as India's "national airline" by the Economic Times flies Indian passengers from mini-metros like Ahmedabad and Hyderabad to far flung places like Rio di Janeiro, Sao Paolo and Buenos Aires, besides the whole of Africa and Europe.
I feel Indian carriers suffer from a classic problem - a short sighted management which fails to see opportunities coupled with a stupid and stifling bureaucracy-politician nexus.
The managements of airlines have no long term vision - they just seem to be content with living the day rather building a future. They simply fail to see the opportunities within  that the Armavias and Emirates and Air Chinas are capitalising on. Indian carriers are mentally ill prepared for a long gestation period before they can actually cream the long-haul market. The worst offender on this count is Jet Airways which hastily pulled out of the India - Shanghai - San Francisco and India - Johannesburg sectors, routes where South African Airways and Chinese carriers are flourishing.
The government should be working on building multiple Indian carriers of quality and repute to feed in passengers from the West into hub airports and fly them to the East - India is strategically located to do that. But do they have the vision?
But has anyone given a thought to the tragic ordeal of Kingfisher employees? Certainly not the Mallyas who are cooling their heels abroad as Mallya Jr tweeted about the club life at 5AM in London. How tragic and immature!

Thursday, October 11, 2012

I Want to Fly... I Want to Soar!

I want to fly...
I want to soar...
See the world,
From the skies above...

It's a different world, up there...
Away from pain, deceit and despair...

The splendour of God's colours...
So pristine, so pure...
Are there to be seen,
To be cherished.

But it anguishes me, to think...
"What have done,
Down below?"

I want to fly...
I want to soar...
See the world,
From the skies above!

Jiyo Malala!

Two days back, the Taliban in Pakistan's Swat Valley targetted schoolgirl activist, Malala Yousafzai - she was shot in her head.
Her crime - supporting the cause of female education much to the chagrin of the Islamic fundamentalists.
Television channels were prominently featuring this news since then. This morning news is in that Malala is out of danger - doctors in Peshawar have successfully removed the bullet from her skull.
NDTV carried a clip of the feisty Malala speaking of how determined she was to study!
I was impressed. Girls like her will make the world a better place to live in...
Interestingly, the Pakistani journalist, Nadeem Paracha tweeted "Alas, the only real man in Pakistan turned out to be a 14-year-old school girl."
Just after that heartwarming news, there was another news of continued atrocities against women in Haryana. Supposedly, a minor had been raped in my hometown, Yamuna Nagar. I was shocked. And then the stupid comment from the strongman politician, Om Prakash Chautala, justifying underage marriage as a solution to these ghastly crimes.
How can we have these guys with a Talibani mindset govern us?
Forget politicians, I really give up on Indian men - men who have this mindset confining women to a narrow role, despite being well educated and claiming to be progressive.
While Indians may like to pan Pankistan for atrocities against women, we in India too have a long way to go. Hope India too gives birth to millions of Malalas - nearly 50% of the nation - women who have progress on their mind. They will make India a better place, an economic growth engine.
Jiyo Malala!

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

We Feel Lucky!

No matter what is said about earthly possessions, there really are those things that mean a lot to you for various reasons, mostly sentimental. Loss of these things can be really hurtful, as Neeti and I figured out over the last few days.
Neeti had a very cute and pretty bracelet which was gifted to her by folks when we tied the knot. She really loved it a lot, she rarely moved out of home without it. But the other day, while on an official training trip out of Mumbai, while doing a jungle trek, it fell off and was nowhere to be found, despite the effort she had put to search for it. She was crestfallen when she reached home.
I too had a similar scare. Yesterday morning, while getting ready for work, I could not find my watch - the same old smart watch that Neeti had gifted me for our wedding. I remember that Sunday afternoon when Neeti had dragged me to Delhi's Sarojini Nagar Market to prod me to buy something! And Neeti took an instant liking to this watch that I also had liked. This watch has been with me ever since, for daily use, telling me the time, but also reminding me of that exciting courtship period.
I was shocked. I thought I had dropped it on my desk in office, or dropped it while returning back home. There was some hope that I might recover it on my desk. I kept the hope alive till I reached office, but I was disappointed. The watch wasn't on my desk! Was it picked up by the outsourced janitors or the utility people? These thoughts were running in my mind as I looked at everyone suspiciously.
I messaged Neeti that I had lost it. I too was crestfallen. Devoid of energy, I somehow pulled myself through the day till I returned home.
As I settled back in, I saw something shiny under the blanket. (I sure did chide myself for the immature thought of suspecting others of picking up my watch.)
My God! That was my watch! We were somewhat lucky to get it back. But the bracelet is still lost....
Despite the loss of something sentimental, I still feel we are lucky to have the love, togetherness and blessings of the family...
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