Friday, April 15, 2016

In Search Of Solitude

This piece first appeared in The Hindu.

At 10 in the morning, the sun is as bright as it is hot. It is hard to keep your eyes open without a pair of sunglasses on, just as it is difficult to stand in the sun for long without having to scurry for cover every now and then. However, shade is not that easy to find; after all, I am at a place where there is hardly anything except the sun, sand and some roofless ruins.

The idea of travelling 2,700 km from home to a tiny shoal of land jutting out from the southern tip of the country had struck me while reading about The Ramayana. I had not only discovered the interesting past of Rameswaram — until then, it was just a pilgrim centre to me — but had also come across the story of the ghost town of Dhanushkodi. I had planned to visit soon after reading about it in December, but could manage to get away only in the middle of summer, after months of planning and days of travelling.

According to legend, when Rama’s army had to cross over to Lanka, he built a stone bridge over the ocean. After the war, when there was no use for it, he broke it with the end of his bow. Dhanushkodi happens to be one part of that bridge.

If one part of Rama’s bridge lies at Dhanushkodi, the other end is not too far away: just 30 km into the ocean is the Sri Lankan border town of Talaimannar. Supposedly the other end of Rama’s bridge, it is a flourishing coastal town and the closest land border with India.

Strange as it may sound, until only 52 years ago, India and Ceylon were connected through these two towns. The Indian Railways ran a train called the Boat Mail from Madras to Dhanushkodi; from there, passengers were ferried across the straits in boats to Talaimannar. At this time, Dhanushkodi was a bustling town with a sizeable population.

All that changed on the night of December 23, 1964, when a cyclone of unprecedented scale hit the coast. So high were the waves, that not only the coast, but the entire town was taken in its wake.
The tide engulfed homes, schools, hospitals, post offices, railway lines, and even a running train with more than 100 people on board. Neither the train nor its passengers were ever found. The town was declared unfit for habitation. The railway line was terminated and diverted to Rameswaram. The only way to travel to Dhanushkodi is by vehicles that have been converted into a 4-wheel drive indigenously, by attaching a small metal part to the wheel. No other vehicle can run over such thick layers of sand. We travelled in one such jeep from Rameswaram. Since the time we left the chaos of the temple town behind an hour ago, we had only had the Indian Ocean and the Bay of Bengal for company on either side. There were some stone walls too, erected for the safety of tourists and pilgrims. Beyond the haphazard walls was a never-ending stretch of gold: the sun’s rays dancing on the surface of the sea. The sky, meanwhile, was a deep shade of blue. 

The surreal drive, with the glimmering waters, the uneven boundary walls, the sound of the sea and the salty breeze, was an experience that I thought could not be outdone; until I reached land’s end, that is.

It is ironic that devastation should be so beautiful. With its untouched beaches, sparkling water, and distance from the chaos of cities, Dhanushkodi could pass off as any exotic location in the Indian Ocean. Should you build a luxury resort here, it could give the most exotic islands a run for their money. But all you see are ruins: the walls of a church, with its altar and windows intact but the ceiling missing; a wall-and-a-half of the hospital; a tall column and some arches of the railway station; and a few neatly arranged rocks that denote what was once a railway track.

There are some humans too — five, to be precise. They run shacks here, selling trinkets and packed food and beverages to the few who find their way into the wilderness. But they do not live here; they come here much after the sun rises and return much before it sets. 

My not knowing Tamil at this point became a handicap, even though I wanted to talk to these people, to find out if they belonged to Dhanushkodi, or if their ancestors ever lived here, but all I could manage was a polite greeting before going ahead.

The quietness was unsettling; the lack of any sign of humanity eerie, and the melancholy the place induces, unnerving. 

I tried looking for signs of life — a stray dog, some birds, trees, vegetation — but apart from some tiny crabs on the sand and some wild weeds, I saw nothing. I walked a little more, and then, I did not have even the weeds or the crabs for company; just the sun, sand, sea and me.

I thought of looking myself up on the map — by my estimate, I would be a tiny dot placed almost inside the sea — but gave the thought up midway and quickly headed back to the vehicle.
I had come to Dhanushkodi looking for solitude, but was now eager to get back to the commotion of Rameswaram.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Of Voyeurism, Kate Middleton & The Frustrated Indian.

This morning, the first thing I read in the papers was about the court declaring voyeurism a punishable offence. Case in point was a man peeping into a girl’s bathroom regularly. While the report left a bad taste in my mouth, I was reminded of the girls I know who underwent the same trauma.

These were not the girls on street who had to go on the road or the bushes, but girls like me who lived in big houses protected by boundary walls and iron gates, and yet, they were vulnerable enough to be violated in the apparently protected environment of their own homes. While today, after twenty years of the incident, they may laugh the matter off, it cannot negate the fright, terror, and humiliation they went through at the time.

I was in a way happy that the judiciary is becoming conscious of the right to a woman's privacy, although not sure how much a law can change the mind of a man who views a woman only as meat.

The next thing I saw, this time on FB, was Kate Middleton's picture at Rajghat. Apparently the wind had gotten into her dress while she was paying tribute at the samadhi and the press went camera crazy. The picture went on to be published on the front page of a national daily, complete with a crappy headline. I will not be surprised if the photographer gets a promotion for doing a wonderful job and raking in the money for the papers, but will be pleasantly amazed if he is sacked.

The picture, which I refuse to share – for if I do, I would also be compromising the dignity of the woman – tells exactly what is wrong with our country. It is a testimony of our sexually frustrated society, our perverted minds (I can bet that at least 70% of us, who have not seen the picture yet, will look it up after reading this post) and our voyeuristic mentality, and the fact that a woman is nothing but a piece of meat. It does not matter if she is Royalty or the woman at the road.

While we pretend to be moral, chivalrous, modern people on the outside, specially when it comes to sharing posts on Facebook, re-tweeting tweets on twitter & circulating moral messages on Watsapp, in reality we ogle at the legs of the woman who chooses to wear a skirt, we strip the girls in sleeveless clothes & low neck tops with our eyes; we grope the women with dupattas and saris with our hands.

We also create advertisements that talk about grabbing buns, breasts & thighs; about providing, or not providing women at a pub. And we find this funny.

The saddest part is that it is not only men who do that. Women are equally at fault: have you seen a mother, mother-in-law, sister, or wife telling the man to look away if the woman is in a state of disarray? No, they have always told to women to cover up lest the man be tempted. 

A few days ago, a well-meaning neighbour patronizingly told me how he is concerned about my daughter's safety. The daughter, who is barely eight, dresses is shorts when she goes down to play. And, according to him, it can be harmful for her. "You know how the men think, we need to be careful."

I wanted to tell him that I don't need to be careful of how my child dresses, a man who looks at her badly needs to be careful of me, lest I pull his eyes out. But I just nodded my head and walked ahead. And that is what is wrong with our society.

Saturday, April 9, 2016

Of Dreams & Realities.

I did not grow up reading voraciously. Or wanting to be a writer. 

I started reading seriously only a few years ago. Until when I was too busy doing things that I thought were far more important than plonking myself on a sofa with a book not caring about the dirty dishes or the soiled bin. One reason could be that I realised if I picked up a book, I would not keep it down until I finished it, and that would mean ignoring everything else which I could not afford to.

The other reason was, just like films -- also something that I did not, or do not watch -- good books transported me to their world. For weeks I would think only about the characters, talk to them in my head, think about the story and the plot. In short they kept me away from the reality, which a seemingly practical person like me did not want: to me it amounted to losing control. So I never read and used the precious time doing more relevant things instead.

A few years ago, when I was tied to the house with my little girls and had nothing much to occupy my head, I reached out to my husband's library (with a collection so large & diverse, that is what you call it), and happened to lay hands on a certain book. The book led me to another & then another. And before I knew, I was doing exactly what I dreaded: living in a make belief world of books.

They say everything happens you do is a part of a bigger plan that the universe has for you. Maybe this was one such action too, for my sudden inclination to read led me to getting to know some writers, and talking to them led me to re-starting this blog. And the blog into helping a writer friend extensively with his book. 

While writing for the blog & helping the man finish his book, I was also reminded of my long lost dream of writing for the papers. The dream, of which I have written extensively about before, was abandoned in pursuit of other materialistic things that I knew I would not have achieved as a journalist still lay in some deep crevice of my heart. Every morning when I would look at the papers I thought how nice would it be to see my name in there. And one fine day, a little less than two years ago, it was!

The thing about dreams is that the more they come true, the bigger they force you to dream. Seeing my name in print after fifteen years did the same to me: I now wanted to do bigger things. And hence the thought of writing a book took seed. 

While reading is a simple, often pleasurable task, writing a book -- or even thinking about it -- is hard work. In the year I spent helping my friend piece his book together I had realised that writing is not meant for the faint hearted. It needs hardwork. Lots and lots of it. And a lot more.

Now, I am not afraid of hard work, it is the lot more part of it that has kept me away from a book until now. Things like what to write about? Who do I write for? How do I find the time to write? What happens to the manuscript? Who will publish it? And most importantly: who will read it? 

With the answers to these questions being unclear, and the pressure to run the life and home smoothly being greater than before, I see myself going the same way I did fifteen years ago: abandoning a dream for a reality. I only wish I don't succumb to it.

Thursday, April 7, 2016

This Summer Colour Your Rice Yellow.

The article first appeared in The Hindu. 

The first time I had to describe Tehri to someone, I was at a loss. More difficult than explaining the simple one-pot rice dish was accepting the fact that there was someone who did not know what Tehri was. After all I had grown up eating it every other day.

As luck would have it in the years to come I had to describe the dish many times over, to many people. And so I adopted a simple short cut: I called it ‘The Yellow Pulav’. It is another matter altogether that Tehri and Pulav are as different as chalk & cheese: their only similarity begins & ends with being a one-pot rice dish. And that difference is something I usually leave for my culinary skills to explain.

Almost a staple of the vegetarian households in dusty small towns of Uttar Pradesh, Tehri is a potent one-pot meal that owes its origin to the vegetarian employees of the Nawabs of Awadh who could not eat the meaty Biryani and invented a vegetarian counterpart, which was much simpler to make. Another story goes that during the time of famine, when meat was hard to find, the cooks of the royal kitchen substituted mutton with potatoes & thus was born Tehri.

Unlike it’s celebrated cousin Pulav, or the aristocratic Biryani, Tehri is neither rich, nor ceremonial, but an ordinary meal for ordinary people. And in that ordinariness lays its specialty. Although cooked throughout the year, it is in spring that the true character of the dish comes out, when other than potatoes, peas and cauliflower are also added to it.

One does not know if the rice dish got its colour from spring or if spring adopted Tehri for its rich yellow colour, but during every Spring Season, when bright yellow flowers blossom on the rich soil of the Hindi heartland, a pot of Tehri is certainly being cooked somewhere closeby.

Here is how I make mine.


2 cups long grain basmati rice, soaked for 20-30 minutes

1 cup shelled green peas

1 cup cauliflower florets

1 large onion sliced

1 large potato cut into 4

Cooking oil (mustard oil preferred) – 50 ml

Bay Leaves 2

Cumin ½ teaspoon

Turmeric 1 teaspoon

Coriander Powder ½ teaspoon

Red Chilli Powder 1 – 1.5 teaspoon

Garam Masala Powder ½ teaspoon

Salt – to taste (1-1.5 teaspoon)

Ghee – 1 teaspoon

Water – 2.5 cups


In a large, thick-bottomed pressure cooker pour the oil and let it smoke. When the oil begins to smoke, add bay leaves, cumin seeds, and onion. Stir.

When the onion turns translucent, add the potatoes and the cauliflower. Stir for another couple of minutes and add the Turmeric, Coriander Powder & Red Chilli Powder.

When the vegetables turn a light shade of brown, and the spices are cooked, add the soaked rice & stir gently for about a minute, until every grain is covered in oil. Make sure the rice does not break.

Add shelled peas and water.

Finally add salt, garam masala & ghee, and give it another stir. Shut the cooker.

Turn the gas off after the first whistle and let the rice cook in its own steam.

Open the cooker after about ten minutes; serve immediately – with plain curd, fresh coriander chutney, or pickle.

Best eaten in the warm spring sun, among flying kites and playful banter.

Note: In summer, the dish can easily be made without the peas and cauliflower: just increase the quantity of potatoes from one to two-three. Soaked soya Nuggets can also be added.

Monday, April 4, 2016

A Place Called Home

I have always avoided going back to old places. By old places I mean places I have had a connection with in the past but have nothing in common with now. This holds true not only for towns and cities but also for schools, colleges, places of work, even neighbourhoods. Life however has a way of giving you things that you do not like and experiences that you run away from. That's the way it makes you strong I guess.

In the recent years my life has been making me strong too, by taking me to all places I had been running away from. It has taken me to my first place of work and the second (I have worked only at two places); it has taken me back to schools I have studied in and cities I lived in. And continues to take me to the only city I can called home.

I left Lucknow exactly fifteen years ago on the same evening when I wrote my last exam. My parents had already left a year before and the only family that remained there -- my uncle and grandparents -- left the year after. And so even though I kept telling people I belonged to Lucknow, for twelve years I hardly set a foot in the city. 

Some years ago when my father decided to go back, I was naturally very apprehensive. In these twelve years we had lived only in the metros -- Delhi, Bangalore, Mumbai, Calcutta -- and had gotten used to the luxuries of life. I wasn't sure if they will be able to adjust to the life of a small town  with almost no connection, friends or family left there. But more than anything it was the fear of going back to a place where I had spent the best time of my life, only to realise that everything had changed.

And just like I had thought, everything had indeed changed.

It took me a long time to get used to the place. Every time I went back, I looked for the home I had left behind. I looked for my room with a shelf full of journals, letters, cards & books; for my music system in the corner, and my single bed with two Dunlop mattresses. I also looked for the house that I had done up by saving my non-existent allowance with pots & pans, baskets & terracotta, and many, many Ganeshas. I looked for the cane swing in the lobby and gold rimmed clock on the wall.

But I found none of it.

What I found instead was an unknown house that had been unloved and uncared for. The house whose pristine marble floors had turned brown, whose robust teak wood had crumbled; a house that had more pests than people, more loneliness than joy. A house which was not even a faint shadow of the beautiful home of my growing up years. It was like my worst nightmare had come true. And so even though my parents lived there, I avoided going home; whenever I did, I spent most of the time outside, running away from the uncomfortable truth.

All this changed last year, when I was forced to spend two whole weeks cooped up at home with my mother in the hospital struggling to live.

In the two uncomfortable weeks I realised two things: one - there is nothing worse your parent's house without your parents; two - even though you may have severed ties with it, your home remains your home. Those two weeks also showed me how hard my ageing parents had been working to keep up the house. They had slowly yet steadily transformed the ghost house into home again: the leaking taps had been fixed, the teak had been re-polished; the musty walls had been painted into our favourite shade of  white, the dead lawn was alive, the gold rimmed clock was replaced with a brown frame. The books were back in the shelves, the soul back into the house. And although it was not what I had left behind, the estranged house had started to feel like home again.