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Archive for March, 2009

The Food Bond

The other day I was at Ratna Café, a quaint little restaurant with a formidable reputation for the best idli-sambhar in all of Chennai. I’ve never been there before and as I entered the waft of fragrant sambhar hit me hard. Taking a corner seat, I looked around to see about 30 people eating there and all of them eating only idli-sambhar! I mean, I’ve heard of staple food and all that but 30 people gobbling up idlis drowning in a sea of sambhar as if it was elixir was a bit of a shock for me. Not a single person had dared to order for any other dish. I asked the waiter for a menu card and he gave me a have-you-just-landed-from-Mars look and pointed to a blackboard with some five items scribbled on it. Topmost on it written in bold was IDLI-SAMBHAR. Fine.

“I’ll have…”

He cut me short. “Idli Sambhar? Ok. Anything else?”

“But I never asked for idli-sambhar”

He repeated the ‘mars’ look mentioned above with some added dosage of incredulity and asked slowly as if trying to let the fact sink in.

“So you don’t want to eat idli-sambhar”

So it was some sort of hideous crime to go to Ratna Café and not eat idli-sambhar, I understood.

I gave up. “Ok, idli-sambhar. And a plate of sambhar vada. And coffee” Now he gave me a ‘are-you-going-to-eat-all-this-yourself’ look. Oh please, can’t a girl have a ‘healthy appetite??’ I gave a stare and he slunk away uneasily.

Two minutes ticked away. Our waiter arrived with a plate of fluffy white idlis and placed it before me. He had a large jug in his hand and I adjusted the water tumbler so that he could pour some water for me. Only thing the jug happened to contain sambhar and not water. He emptied the sambhar on top of the idlis. Now I had two large, soft, fluffy idlis swimming tantalizingly in a jug full of sambhar before my eyes. I broke off a piece and out it into my mouth. My eyes closed automatically and the mouth went hmmmmmmmm… Divine is the word to describe the feeling. It’s the closest I’ve been to Moksha. The sambhar drenched spongy idlis just melted in my mouth and I couldn’t stop myself from a second helping. And a third. Err and then there was the vada which was another heavenly experience. And the filter coffee made with the right mix of freshly ground coffee beans and milk with sugar was the perfect way to round it all off

I was still in a trance when I walked out of Ratna Café. I had this immediate urge to sit somewhere and write about food. Good food can do so much to the soul. And being a true foodie, I have a lot of memories associated with food. A lot of interesting, funny or plain day to day bonding over good food, bad food, ok food….

My first brush with bad food was during college hostel days. Having been pampered all along with mom’s cooking, hostel food was a VERY rude shock.

Breakfast: Stony idlis or pathetic dosas with muddy brown sambhar. Those dishes where an insult to the original idla-dosa-sambhar but we had no go. Else we had bread that seemed to have been made during the stone age and a small coin sized amount of a butter look-alike to go with it. And the milk/tea/coffee was primarily hot water with a drop of the actual milk/tea/coffee to provide an illusion of having drunk the thing. My guess is that they made one small cup of tea everyday and added enough water to serve 80 people

Lunch: Rice with assorted insects falling from the mess roof, leftover muddy brown sambhar from morning, greenish algae like concoction which formed the vegetable component and sour curd.

Dinner: don’t remember since I hardly ever remember having dinner in the mess. It always used to be biscuits or cheap tapioca chips or cup noodles. It was later that I understood why the hostel canteen is called a mess. Simply because it is a MESS.

But the bad food always gave us, the gang of friends, so much to bond over. We spent hours in the college stores each night, talking over tapioca chips and soft drinks (paupers that we were back then we hardly had money for anything better), afraid to set foot into the mess for dinner. And when one of us was really famished and starts showing signs of cannibalism we rushed off to the ‘city’ (my college was some 50 kms on the outskirts of a city!) for some real food. Hot Chips (the baby corn crispy chilly fry was our favorite!) or MarryBrown or Pizza Hut – it all depended on the budgetary constraints. Sometimes we used to get ready for college half-heartedly and suddenly change our minds about actually going to college, take a bus to the city to do some window shopping and eat chocolate cake at Nilgiris or if we were high on money, lunch at Wang’s. Later after we all started making our own money, Barista and Coffee day were within reach but still nothing could beat gossip over maanga and molagapodi at besi beach and dinner at MIK. By the way, MIK isn’t some fancy Italian eatery, its our dear old Murugan Idli Kadai 😛 Still remember how some five or seven of us used to yell “butter onion uthappam” all at once at a shell shocked waiter and look at the butter coated uttappam reverently once it arrived. Back home me and dad had this weekend tradition of ending an evening walk with bajjis and piping hot tea at a roadside tea shop. How I used to look forward to those chai sessions which were filled with loads of leg-pulling, teasing and discussions on politics, sports and current affairs!! The joy of laughter, chatter and harmless gossip with family and friends over some good food is something that can never be substituted. Atleast for hard core foodies like me.

The irony now is that everyone has the money to afford luxurious dining but the luxury of spending time together is not there. But bonding over food with near and dear still tops the list of my most favorite to-do things. After all, who can resist the pleasure of biting into a juicy burger or tearing of a piece of butter dripping uthappam when it comes along with the warmth and company of loved ones? Nah!! Not me!!!! 🙂

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The pigeon nest

Nilanjana sat sipping coffee at the front porch of the three storied duplex house. It was a conservative old fashioned house which seemed to be an eclectic mixture of aggressive raw looks and elegant neatness. The porch which seemed to be built more of raw stone and lime rather than bricks and cement gave the front façade a rather cave like appearance which was in sharp contrast to the passive quiet elegance of the rest of the house. But the carved wood railings and imitation Chippendale furniture somewhat smoothened the effect. Ashima sat on the couch next to Nilanjana, legs stretched on a table, dozing. Looking at Ashima sleep with her head tilted on the neck to one side, forming a double chin, Nilanjana felt sleepy and light headed. The coffee was for sure not doing its trick waking her up. Three in the afternoon, the perfect time for a nap but she had chores to do. The washed clothes had to be put up for drying and the dishes were to be done. Moreover Ashima would put a long face if she saw Nilanjana sleeping when she woke up. Sleeping in the afternoons was a strict no-no according to Ashima. But that didn’t stop her from ‘dozing off lightly while looking at the papers’ every afternoon day after day. Nilanjana glanced at her sleeping mother-in-law, drank the coffee to the last drop and went in to the kitchen. As she drained and washed the coffee cup, her eyes fell on the calendar. March 16, 2009. Exactly four months since she first entered this house on a cloudy day, blessed, wished well and surrounded by dozens of friends and relatives. Four months since she married Ashok.

She carried the bucket filled with washed clothes up to the terrace. This was the place she loved the most in the house. The only place which gave her solace when the loneliness threatened to drive her senseless on some days. She thought of Ashok. Her husband who had a time table for everything. Eating exactly 20 minutes after bath, sleeping half an hour after dinner at night. He loved her but showed it only when the time table permitted him to. He asked her if she wanted anything while knotting up his tie everyday. And kissed her goodbye when he put the car keys into his pocket. As per time table. She thought of her father in law who barely acknowledged her presence in the house. In fact he acknowledged nobody’s presence. All he cared about was his hot water bath, three meals a day and cricket on television. She thought of Ashima, who pretended to love her but complained about the new bahu to every single guest who came home since the wedding. Complaints that Nilanjana found ridiculous at first, rebelled at later and then accepted with a stoic silence with time. She reads such thick books written by foreigners, god only knows how corrupt it would make her! Listens to English songs with obscene lyrics and even hums them in the bathroom. Wears imitation jewellery, such a let down for a dignified family. Sits cross legged on the chair before husband and mother in law, no respect for traditions. Tired of the arguments and rebellion and fighting, Nilanjana gave it all up. Reading, English music, writing poetry, laughter, everything. Her days were now an endless cycle of household chores, mind numbing television soaps and gossip of which she never wanted to be a part of.

She wrung the clothes and put them up to dry. As she was placing a clip to hold the last one in place, she heard strange noises coming from a side of the terrace. Like water gurgling from a running brook. She went over and looked along the edge of the terrace. There, she saw it. In a corner of the terrace wall, along a crevice on the outer side, was a pigeon nest. With a mother and its baby pigeon inside. The mother pigeon sat with its wings spread out and its baby was nestled underneath. The mother looked at Nilanjana with wide benign eyes but made no effort to move or make any sound. She saw the pigeon as a reflection of herself, frightened, hopeless, cramped and lonely. She saw it as a being which lived only out of love for its baby. Just like how she lived only out of love for Ashok and her parents. She felt connected to the pigeon by some unknown common thread and the pigeon nest became a part of her life from then on. She would make an early morning visit to the terrace to see the mother and baby ruffling their feathers and waking up, making gentle noises as if to assure the dawn in. She brought them grains after serving Ashima breakfast and watched with pleasure as the mother opened up the baby’s beak gently and dropped the grains down its throat one by one. She stroked the soft flaky feathers of the baby when the mother was not around, having been nipped once trying to touch the baby in the mother’s presence. She watched sometimes, with a lump at the throat, the two pigeons cuddled together looking like a single white ball of fur late in the evenings, thinking of her own mother who was now all alone by herself a hundred miles away. She watched the mischievous glint in the baby’s eyes as it nipped its mother’s beak playfully while being fed.

Nlanjana watched, smiled, laughed. She felt light, relaxed and happy when she was in the company of the pigeons. She began to hum to herself again, initially only in the solitude of the terrace or her room but later sang occasionally while cooking in the kitchen. She felt herself grow out of her loneliness as the baby pigeon grew day by day. Seeing how careworn and unkempt she looked, she made a visit to the beauty parlour to have her long hair trimmed a little. She went shopping for colorful bangles and bindis. She smiled a dazzling smile when Ashima complained about the changes in her. Ashok noticed that her eyes shone when she spoke and was happy to see his wife finally stop looking miserable and unhappy all the time. She started reading Tagore and Shelley again. She visited the pigeons five times a day, feeding them once, singing to them another time, reading out poetry to them some another time and just watching them together sometimes. The happiness the pigeons passed on to her spread over to the other parts of her life as well. Life began to look more tolerable and a lot more pleasant to Nilanjana.

It happened on a Sunday, a week after Ashok came back from his business trip to Bangkok. Nilanjana finished her morning chores, made lunch for the family and went shopping with Ashok. While sifting through sarees she suddenly remembered that she hadn’t fed the pigeons in the morning. How forgetful, Should feed them first thing after going home, she scolded herself furiously. Back home, she found her mother in law in a very good mood. Ashima welcomed both of them with a smile and said she was waiting for them so that the whole family could have lunch together. As she set the plates for lunch, Nilanjana heard Ashima talking to Ashok in the hall.

“Guess what Beta, I’ve made a special dish for you today. I made it as a surprise after you and Nilanjana left for shopping. Have you ever tasted pigeon meat? It’s such a delicacy. Especially the young tender meat of a pigeon that’s only a couple of weeks old. I’ve been waiting for the right time ever since that pigeon built its nest on our terrace and laid egg. I know exactly the time, when the flesh would be just right for cooking…”

Nilanjana ran blindly across the room and clobbered up the stairs to the terrace. Her eyes rummaged the pieces of straw and rubbish from the nest on the terrace floor and slowly with dread fixed on the empty nest. Then her eyes fell on the mother pigeon sitting on the terrace wall with its beak open but with no sound coming out of its throat. She retched and began to vomit uncontrollably on the terrace floor.

* All names from Jhumpa Lahiri’s Namesake and Unaccustomed Earth.

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Work or no work??

I’m amazed at the superficiality of the IT industry in India. I can only talk about India since I’m not sure if this is the same way things work elsewhere in the world also. There is a primeval hierarchy for survival. The Presidents above the Vice Presidents above the Technology Group Heads above the Technology Managers above the Team Managers above the Team Leaders above the Engineers. Phew! It’s more a stylized jungle with people at each others throats and vying for each others positions constantly. The money is good and more the money greater the ego, attitude, self importance etc. There’s so much professionalism around that you’d almost drown in polite words and Thanks-and-Regards mail threads. Hushed whispers, code reviews, bug fixes, unending meetings, to-do lists, calendar schedules, everything is done to clock work precision. But I realized the futility of the entire thing about a week back. My entire team was working in break neck speed for a release, fixing and coding and meeting and the whole circus, receiving polite butter-coated threats from the animals higher up in the ladder every other second when we got this meeting invite which was scheduled in half an hour. A round of murmuring went around that meetings were the last things we needed on the packed schedule right now. But the Manager drove us off (with a polite ‘you will be required there’) to it and then the Raymonds suited man (the head of our tech group) cleared up his throat and started talking. None of us were paying attention in the beginning. He started with recession, down time, focus on goals, long tem planning, needless expenditure cuts and then when he came to project wind-ups across the world and lay-offs all of us jerked up as if electrified and sat staring at him numbly. With one hand inside his expensive suit pocket, he showed us some parabolic graphs (the parabola stopped growing somewhere around 2008 end and stood tentative hovering dangerously close to the X axis) and said very smoothly, “As you can see, the interface for a venture capital like project with focus on sustainability and development rather than scope for immediate growth is not a viable business option in the current scenario which requires rapid growth and revenue generation.” English please, our minds screamed in red alert. And then, “The ABC project would thus be integrated with all its current features and latest revisions with the earlier XYZ project which in effect would put a permanent and lasting end to the viability of the ABC project in terms of customer perspective options.”

English translation: The project for which we had been working nonstop for days together has been dumped/dropped/killed without notice. By the time we had even translated his funda into English and registered it in our minds he was off with a wave and ‘Good Luck.’

All our work of two years, the hundreds of thousands of lines of code, the endless code reviews, testing, politely vicious mail threads everything down the drain in precisely five minutes. Without a foreword, without a warning. It took just five minutes for us to go all the way down, from well-placed-software-engineers-drawing-hefty-salaries to no-project-do-I-still-have-a-job-here nervous wrecks. It was then that I realized how futile ad artificial the entire workplace had been. All along we had knowingly fallen into a false sense of security. People who were in the thick of work were benched suddenly without reason. Each second is spent worrying if we would still be employed the next day. Each day is a fight for survival when the sole bread winners are employed in IT industry. I know government offices with crumbling buildings and moth eating paper work filling the tables but they do not have to butter talk to each other to save their jobs or be sent home suddenly without sense, without reason. They have a job and they have it. Period. No wonder Government jobs and Civil Services are in demand once again.

As for me I’m technically in a project but with no real task assigned its as good as being benched. Gone are the days of coffees on the run and hurried lunches to meet the End of Day deadlines. Now I have all the time in the world for a one hour coffee break, the entire afternoon for lunch if I wanted and cricket matches in the cafeteria. I know most of the articles in the Outlook, The Week and India Today by heart. What fun, I thought at the beginning. But I’ve just discovered that being useless and jobless is the most boring thing in the world. It is mind-numbingly BORING. Sigh! Will somebody give me some work please???

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Small Things, Big Things

I’ve been looping a song over and over again while at work for the past few weeks. Not that it’s a brilliant number or has top notch music. In fact it has a terrible chorus at the end of each paragraph which goes ‘va va va va va’. Sukhwinder Singh chews and spits out Thamizh mercilessly as usual, but the opening lyrics of the song totally floored me.

புன்னகைக்கு நேரம் ஒதுக்கு

பூப்பறிக்க நேரம் ஒதுக்கு

நிலவுக்கு நேரம் ஒதுக்கு

தினம் நிம்மதிக்கு நேரம் ஒதுக்கு

மழைத் தண்ணீரோடு ஓடும் குமிழி போல்

வாழ்க்கை இருக்கு

பொழுதோடு காதல் வலு காணாமல்

வாழ்க்கை எதற்கு?

which roughly translates to

Set aside time for a smile

Set aside time to pick flowers

Set aside time for the moon

Set aside  time for some peace.

Like a bubble with rain water, Life is washed away

What is Life, without Love getting stronger everyday?

If you have already excused the terrible translation, thank you, let’s move on. I make it a point to listen to these lyrics everyday morning just to remind myself that there are certain things to life other than ambition, money, career, fame, power. That there are Small Things that make a Big difference to what life means to you at the end of a lifetime. The world now is fast food and cut throat. It is considered a heinous crime if you stop by at the office cafeteria to smile at a colleague. “You could have fixed two bugs and got a pat on your shoulder instead of wasting time smiling at strangers”, Ambition sniggers. “Soap up the manager. Don’t you want a raise this time?” Career jeers. “You don’t have to know people. Let people know you”, hisses Fame. Amidst all these Big Things, the smaller players lose out. They are crushed, forgotten and battered. We are all busy scheming and plotting to pull each other down and Love lies tossed aside, unwanted and unattended. We remain caged in glass cubicles, staring at computer screens not knowing who sits next to us. Friendly Banter lies gagged, hushed up and stuffed into the cubicle locker. We travel in luxury cocoons, irritated at a drop of rain on our faces or a ray of sunlight on our eyes. Nature lies ignored and unsought. The mobile phone mints money and makes business across continents. Family lies uncared for next door. We exchange Rainbows for Mirages and remain content. Only when the Big Things are all there, we realize that we still aren’t happy with Life. We are still restless, sad, disappointed and hopeless. We realize that we’ve locked up Happiness, Love, Kindness, Peace of Mind and lost the key somewhere along the way in the mad rush for Bigger Things.

Do we have the time for a cup of coffee while looking at the sun rise over the horizon? Do we have a few minutes to share secrets with the moon at night? Do we still have time for Love, Joy, Peace and Happiness? The Small Things are all there. Waiting for us. Do we have the time?

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