Saturday, August 27, 2016

Lingering Flavours of Coorg

This piece first appeared in The Hindu

I have come to Coorg looking for two things: white coffee flowers and dark pandi curry.
The coffee flowers have evaded me. I have not bothered to crosscheck the information I have about the time of their bloom and have reached Coorg only to be greeted by torrential rains. So I pin my hopes on the other thing: Pandi curry.

I have heard many stories, watched numerous food shows, and read reams about the rich, flavourful treat from the region and, even though Pork is not my first choice of meat, I am eager to experience the phenomena called Pandi Curry.

Going by the stories I have heard, I already have a flavour of the dish in my mind: I have imagined it to be hot & spicy, with thick gravy, which tastes somewhat like the spicy mutton preparations of Andhra or the peppery chicken of Kerala. I could not be more wrong. The curry is spicy and yet bland (yes, such a combination does exist), I find it too high on spice and too low on flavor, and it does nothing for my taste buds. I make do with the beautiful rice chapattis called Akki Otti and some bland chicken.

With both my motives of travelling 2500 kilometers from home having been defeated, to say that I am now dejected will not be an exaggeration.

“What is a broken heart that cannot be mended by good food?” Says my host Kaveri when I share my disappointment with her. In a matter of minutes, I have a plateful of the most crispy onion and potato bhajjis accompanied by cups of strong coffee. I am not even done with it when her cook, the ever-smiling Lakshmi, asks what would I like for dinner. I ask for basics and eat my dinner of the perfect poriyal and parathas a few hours later in candlelight. A steady stream of rain falling on the asbestos rooftop of the cottage accompanies me for my meal.

What began with the bhajjis in the evening continues in the morning with perfectly steamed rava idlis, hand ground coconut chutney, and endless bowls of tomato Sambar (with baby potatoes). The idlis are soft as cotton, the sambar full of flavour – hot, spicy, tangy, sour all at once – and the chutney ground to perfection. I spend close to an hour sitting by myself in the brick walled verandah enjoying every bite of the food and listening to Laksmi sing a melancholic tune in Kannada.

As I get ready to pack, I realize Kaveri was indeed correct. The steaming idlis, the spicy sambar, the velvety chutney, and Lakshmi’s melancholic song have more than made up for my disappointment. I promise to come back only for them.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Discovering the Real Rasgulla

This post first appeared in The Hindu. 

Legend has it that once, upset with Krishna for not taking her along for the rath-yatra, Laxmi decides not to let him into the Jagannath temple. Upon his return, when Krishna discovers the doors to his home shut, he pleads with Laxmi to let him enter. Having had enough of the Lord’s hide and seek, she refuses to budge. Krishna tries every trick possible, but fails. Helpless, he leaves the temple, only to return in a jiffy with a pot full of soft, fluffy rasgullas. The trick works and Laxmi opens the temple doors in no time.

The story happens to be one of the many legends prevalent about the origin of the rasgulla in Odisha. Not only the legends, but the documented history of the Jagannath Temple also has mentions of the syrupy sweet. It is believed to have existed in the land of Lord Jagannath since the beginning of time.
The rasgulla has, therefore, always been a bone of contention between the Bengalis and the Oriyas. While the Bengalis believe that it was ‘invented’ in their backyard by a certain Mr. Das in the 19th Century, Oriyas laugh the claim off: How can you invent something that has always existed?

Bengali or Oriya, I have forever been in love with rasgulla and I have had my share of good and not-so-good ones too. The best so far has been the warm, nolen gur rasgullas from a non-descript shop in a bylane of South Calcutta’s Hindustan Park. The worst I prefer not to remember.
But all of these have been the Bengali version. In the land of Lord Jagannath now, I cannot wait to lay my hands — or spoon — on the legendary Oriya version.

My quest for the sweet begins as soon as I step into the temple town on a fragrant autumn evening, but as luck would have it, I get to sample it only on my third day there. In a sweet shop, after completing my pilgrimage to the Jagannath temple, and all associated places of worship, I have finally earned my share on a pattal (leaf bowl), which is handed to me by the gentleman behind the counter of the shop.

The rasgullas are large, off-white to the extent of being beige, and look deliciously different from their posh, gleaming-white cousins in big cities. I try to cut through one of them but fail. Fresh off the kadai, they are too spongy to be cut by a flimsy wooden spoon, so I choose the easiest way out. I pick up an entire piece and put it in my mouth.

It causes an explosion in my mouth. But it is not that of overwhelming sweetness or artificial sponginess; it is strong, slightly chewy, and not too sweet. 

In a matter of seconds, it dissolves in my mouth, leaving behind a lingering caramelly flavour. As I reach for the other, and another, I know why Laxmi let Krishna in. A pot full of these rasgullas is worth so much more than one’s pride.

Friday, August 5, 2016

The Pran of Indian Toons

This piece first appeared in The Hindu. 

Long before I set foot in Delhi — a city I now call home — I had seen it through the strokes of his brush. Not only Delhi, I had also seen Jupiter, an alien and a computer much before I had actually seen any of them, and I was not the only one, there was an entire generation of children who did.
As a young girl of six, who had just learnt to read, my motivation to visit my uncle’s place in Allahabad would be the many books that I got to read there. I would often ride pillion on his assistant’s bicycle and go to Civil Lines to pick colourful comics, which kept me entertained and engaged for hours. All these comics — Billoo, Pinki and Chacha Chaudhary — bore a similar signature on them, which, at that time, I read as Prap (I was too young to understand arty fonts). It was much later that I realised that the man was called Pran, a name well-suited for someone who infused life into mundane, everyday incidents and characters, and made them immortal. 

Pran Kumar Sharma, fondly known as cartoonist Pran, can easily be called the pioneer of comics in India. In the 1960s, when he started drawing Daabu for a Delhi-based newspaper, there were hardly any comic strips around. Most comics available at the time were reprints or imported versions of Phantom, Mandrake and Superman. In 1969, he created Chacha Chaudhary for a magazine called Lotpot. A character that later became his trademark, and found itself a permanent place in the International Museum of Cartoon Art, USA.

An extraordinarily intelligent old man, Chacha Chaudhary, is always impeccably dressed in a white shirt, black waistcoat and a red turban. Armed with just a charming smile and a small wooden stick, he can, in no time, make the fiercest of dacoits and strongest of villains bite the dust. His mind is faster than a computer and sharper than a needle, which he uses to tackle the toughest of situations with √©lan, when he needs strength; he has Sabu, an alien from Jupiter and his dog Rocket. The endearing old man, not only overpowers the rogues but also teaches lessons in honesty, goodwill and brotherhood — all this while entertaining you.

While, on the one hand, you have the larger-than-life, fantasy-driven adventures of Chacha Chaudhary and Sabu, on the other, you have the very real boy – and girl – next door in Billoo and Pinki, the other two most famous characters of Pran. 

Billoo is our very own version of Archie Andrews — an average school-going teenager, who loves watching TV and hates studies, he tries hard to woo his classmate Jozi, and is often chased away by her rifle-wielding father, Colonel 3-0-3. He also has his run-ins with the neighbourhood wrestler, Bajrangi Pahalwan, whose windowpanes are often a subjected to the wrath of his cricket ball. 

If Billoo is your average teenager, getting into trouble with his teachers and parents, Pinki is a cute little five-year-old. The apple of everyone’s eyes, she lives with her grandfather called dadaji, an elder sister called didi and a squirrel called tuk-tuk. A hyperactive child, Pinki tries her best to help her family and friends — whether they need it or not — and invariably ends up creating bigger problems for them. Her goofy moments, cute mannerism and disarming smile are not only delightful but also relatable. 

Together they — Chacha Chaudhary, Billoo and Pinki — transport you to a land of fantasy, happiness and joy, a land where I, and many more of my generation, have not been in a long, long time; the land where Pran, the Walt Disney of India, in his passing, seems to have escaped to, to become immortal like his characters.

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Men, Women, Sex and Other Bitter Truths

Discovering your old writing is quite interesting. It not only tells you about how you wrote back then, but also reveals who you were and how you have changed since. I happened to discover something I wrote as a comment/response to someone's blog post about women & sex. This was written even before I had started writing here, for this blog. Interesting to see how bold my writing was back then. Maybe because I knew no one was reading it. 

Here's a sneak peek.

What a co-incidence! Just on our way back from Amritsar, my husband & I were discussing the same thing.

Its funny that if a woman goes out wearing modern clothes and much make up, has a drink or puffs a cigarette, talks to men, it is considered as a visible sign of her being fast & immoral. It's the other women who label her so. Perhaps they are just plain jealous that they can not do the same; the men, in all probability, usually silently appreciate her. Some might bed her too. Nothing wrong in that as long as the woman is happy, right ?? But then, the same men, when want to get married, want a virgin for a wife. Why are men not chauvinistic then ? 

A man can go out, have sex, come home & sleep like nothing happened. Even if his wife finds out, there's not much that will happen -- some emotional drama, some false promises and life will get back to normal. 

Now imagine the other situation. The wife goes out, makes love -- I use this term because, I think, women mostly make love and not have sex -- comes home, gets back to normal life. Only this time guilt hounds her, especially, if she's a "good girl". In time the husband gets a whiff hell breaks lose. I needn't explain what all can happen here.

Coming back to women vs women.

In school, I was the only one who wore short skirts and dresses, as most of the other girls had switched to suits by the time they were fifteen; I remember what a scandal it used to be. How all other girls stared at my legs, some even suggested that it was inappropriate way of dressing: what will people think?

Many years later, when I had moved onto suits, a few close friends at work were discussing men & sex when I joined in. I will spare you the details, but, what came out most significantly, was the horror when I readily participated in the conversation -- nine out of ten did not expected me to talk about it. Reason? I wore Indian clothes and looked like a good girl. If you wear indian clothes, don't use makeup, don't look "hot", you can't have or want sex, you see. Quite amusing!

Nobody imagined that someone who's dressed in a suit, hates make-up and is good at her work, can have or even want sex. So sex is a bad thing for bad girls. Maybe that is why, I too used lovemaking rather than sex. Conditioning you see!

That also reminds me, I used this topic in the first ever job interview I gave. I still remember the horror on the face of the interviewer. I think it was more to do with my being a girl, that too from a small town & not so much to do with the topic.

I think, I will write a post on that someday.