Friday, April 27, 2007

The family next door

A house is under construction in the site next door. One of the construction workers has doubled up as a watchman and lives in a little brick shed outside the house, with his family - his wife Selvi, a son, and a daughter Khushboo. Their life, values, attitudes, stories, can fill a whole book. I'll just tell you enough to fill up this post.

Selvi's brother was going wayward (read going after girls), and so they got Selvi's 15-year old daughter Khushboo married to him, so that he will be "in control". But has marriage ever cured a roving eye? Khushboo's husband left her and disappeared in a few days, and they received news that he is living with another woman. So Selvi brought Khushboo to live with them.

Now, about Selvi and her husband the watchman. The watchman doubts and suspects her every move. Selvi has 50 beautiful sarees but she keeps it all locked up, and doesn't wear any, coz if she does, her watchman looks at her with suspicion. "For whom are you dressing up?" So she goes around in tattered, faded sarees. If the watchman has to go out on some work, and if some new workers are expected to come to the construction site for work, he is hesitant to leave his wife to deal with them. Suspicion again. And yes, this same watchman had once upon a time, left Selvi and gone away to live with another woman, and Selvi went and beat up the other woman and brought her husband back. So he could do it, but his wife shouldn't. Oh no, she is a woman!

Another strange attitude of this watchman's - the family has an acquaintance who lives a little distance away. To reach their house, one has to pass through a particularly isolated area. If somebody has to go to the acquaintance's house for some reason, the watchman sends his teenaged daughter to run the errand, and not his forty-year old wife. His explanation is that he fears for his wife's safety. Logically, his teenaged daughter is more susceptible to rape than his wife. [There is no logic in a subject like rape, but one should be forgiven for this assumption.]
So ultimately, he sends his daughter into the lion's den, but not his wife. And this, when he has an excessive blind love for his daughter. Besides, if he really feared for anybody's safety, he should be the one running that errand. But no, he sits on a stone and surveys the world at leisure while the womenfolk do the work. So ultimately, what does it mean? It is not anybody's safety that he fears for, it is just his wife's "purity".

Ok. One fine day, Khushboo's husband came back. No questions asked about the woman he was living with, and why he came back, no explanations given, Khushboo coolly takes him back, and he also starts living here with them. Khushboo starts talk of moving into a different house with him and starting a family once this house is completed. When asked if she is not afraid that her husband might leave her again, she says, "No, the house we are planning to live in is close to his aunt's house. He is scared of his aunt, so he won't try any tricks". Meaning that she is sure that he will not redeem himself, but will stick to the line only out of fear for his aunt. What if he burdens her with children and takes off? She hasn't thought about it. And now that her husband is back, is he treating her well? He beat her up a week ago because she asked him about an account of how he spends his money. "You are a woman, know your place". And what was Selvi's mother doing when her daughter was being beaten up? She could have ticked off Khushboo's husband, after all, he is Selvi's own brother. "But a husband beats his wife sometimes, you know - it is their personal matter, why should I intrude?"

Now, consider Khushboo's strange attitude. Now that her husband is back, she takes sides with him, womaniser and wife-beater that he is, against her own mother. Food is not scarce in their home, but when they make or buy something special, Khushboo sets aside a little for her husband, not for her mother. She makes sure that her husband eats well and goes to bed with a full tummy. But she doesn't bother to check if her mother has eaten, after working all day at the site. The husband, who left her for another woman. The mother, who took her in when she was in trouble and looked after her with the love that is natural for a mother towards her daughter.

Not only that. Khushboo accuses her mother for not giving her enough gold and gifts and dresses. She says that her mother doesn't care about her, as she hasn't given her husband any new clothes. So to avoid these accusations, Selvi digs into her savings and buys them gifts and clothes.

And all such behaviour is not questioned at all. It is taken for granted, as natural.

It is us, the onlookers, who get hoarse throats trying to tell these people to open their eyes to what is happening. They look at us with an indulgent expression. "I'm sure you mean well, but I don't think you understand". If we threaten to tell the police if the husbands indulge in wife-beating again, they don't take it seriously.

And yes, despite all these problems and complications, on any given peaceful day, you can see the whole family sitting together, talking, laughing and eating, apparently without a care in the world.

I just don't understand.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Earth Day - How do we spread awareness about the environment?

The good people at Pooh's Den are celebrating Earth Day (which is on April 22nd) with a competition. They ask a question -

“What do you think needs to be done to get Indians more aware of their environment and how do we go about protecting it? What in your opinion will be the ideal law to get things moving in the right direction?”


...and ask you to blog your views.

I believe that the solution, in principle, is very simple - awareness should be given to the individual when s/he is a child.

India is facing quite a few problems due to lack of awareness in people. But broadly I would classify it thus:

1) People pollute the environment without a second thought. They do not even know what they are doing.

2) Absolutely no sense in people about conservation. Energy conservation, water conservation, conservation of the environment, or conservation of resources like paper, etc. is unheard of. People just do not care. "Have, will use" is the attitude.

Most of the people I know who are aware of environmental issues tell me that awareness and knowledge about these issues have been inculcated in then in childhood, either taught at school, or instilled in them by their parents.

A child's mind is highly malleable. The right things fed to him at the right time will make all the difference. Besides, a child understands things innately. He might not appreciate the enormity of the situation, nor grasp the urgency, but when things are explained to him, he will understand. And he will even act on it.

Last Deepavali, I read a statement in the newspapers by one of the top filmstars of the Kannada industry. When asked how he celebrates Deepavali, he said something to the effect of, "As kids, we would burst crackers. But our son told us that he was taught in school about the harmful effects of bursting crackers on the environment. He has decided not to burst crackers. So we have stopped now". I felt that this speaks volumes about what effect such education has on a child, and what effect a child can have on his parents.

But how do we achieve this?

1) Make environment education compulsory in schools. But please please make it interesting. No boring lectures on conservation. Short, interesting points, with examples should suffice. Movies, preferably, and documentaries for children should be used - they should give the child a jolt - but not enough to disturb the child.

2) Have different programmes for the Urban Child and the Rural Child.
Education for the Urban Child should stress upon the conservation of resources - energy, water, and paper, for instance, for these children have these in abundance, and would tend to overuse it.
Education for the poor Urban Child should deal more with hygiene, pollution control and such issues.
Education for the Rural child should dwell upon issues concerning rural problems [haven't really thought much on these lines. Maybe you can give me suggestions].

If we start such a programme today, we will hopefully have a set of aware citizens in the next generation. Of course, the children we teach will immediately start sharing their knowledge with their parents, and as long as the parents are not obstinate or bull-headed, they will understand.

Problems:

1) We already have a dearth of educated and committed teachers. Who will teach such an important subject with interest?

2) The urban poor, for example, have enough worries on their head to bother with the big picture. Will it really work with them?

I can think of some more problems, but hello, I am writing about solutions - so I will stop.

With all its problems and drawbacks, educating the child is the solution that I think will begin to solve the problems we face.

As for laws and legislations - slap staggering fines on offenders. But once again, the problem is - who will enforce these laws effectively?

I leave it open for discussion.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Have some more!

Warning: A rambling foodie post. Don't read it on an empty stomach and then sue me! :)

A lot of people mentioned "force-feeding" in the comments on my previous post. This is carried out very frequently in the name of "Upachaara". Upachaara in Kannada, means hospitable treatment. Probable equivalent is "Mehmaan ki Khaatirdaari". Making sure that the guest is comfortable and eats his fill and makes himself at home without any "Sankocha" (Hesitation arising from shyness).

[Since there are no English equivalents for Upachaara, Sankocha, etc., I will use these words in the rest of this post.]

The mark of a good host has traditionally been how nice he is to the guests - in other words, how well he does Upachaara. And what is the highlight of this Upachaara? Force-feeding.

I am sure that you have all been subject to this force-feeding at some point or the other. Some people do have a lot of Sankocha, and it is for these people that Upachaara might be necessary.

But nowadays I have seen that hardly anybody is really shy when invited to dinner. People eat their fill, and comfortably. [Or am I speaking for myself?]. I, for one, do not need any kind of Upachaara. If they have asked me to dinner, they had better have enough food for me - for I will eat as much as I want to. And conversely, if I am playing host, I assume that my guests are eating enough. Sometimes this can backfire. My guests might have a lot of Sankocha, and I end up saying, "Will you have another Chapati? No? Ok!" And then the guest might think, "Oh no, what a bad host, she has no idea how to do Upachaara!", and he goes home hungry.

So, my rule of thumb is, if a person does Upachaara, then he needs Upachaara.

I am sure you all have horror stories of being force-fed until you were ready to puke. My first such experience was at a classmate's house, where he had invited us for a birthday lunch. The food was delicious, but there were so many courses that I lost count. And it was the worst kind of situation - where all the food was not placed on the table, but was brought out course after course. So I ended up eating 8 puris with chhole, three large helpings of pulao with raita, and two large helpings of curd-rice, in addition to the side-dishes and papads and sweets and curries. And no, I did not ask for so much food, I was force-fed it. Rather, the food was heaped on my plate when I was not looking, and I just had to finish it, as we are taught not to waste food. After I staggered away from the dining table and went to the living room, they brought out huge containers of thick, sweet delicious vermicelli payasa. I nearly fainted. I ate the payasa over two hours.

I learnt my lesson. When invited to lunch, I shamelessly ask the host, please tell me what you have made, and whether there is dessert, so that I can plan my meal. Doesn't work in formal settings, but in such cases I eat very little of everything, and keep my plate closely guarded so that nobody heaps unwanted food on my unsuspecting plate.

Ok, why did I start talking about Upachaara here? The same Upachaara which I dread when I go to people's houses, comes as such a lovely surprise in restaurants. Seriously, have you heard of a waiter doing Upachaara?

My friend M and her husband B were in India last month. S and I went out for dinner with them and their four-month old baby. They wished to eat some good South Indian food - and they zeroed in on North-karnataka cuisine. The Kamat restaurants in Bangalore dish up some really good cuisine of this kind, and so we went to Kamat Minerva at Minerva Circle.

The restaurant is named "Upachaar"(yes!), and we went to the North-Karnataka section, where the specialty is the "Jolada Rotti" meal [Rotis made of Jowar].

The waiters were very attentive, they went out of their way to make it comfortable for us, and they laid out a separate chair for the baby's car seat. Ok so far so good, all restaurants do this.

Then they served us these delicious, light, soft, Jolada rottis on a banana leaf, with some really yummy side-dishes. They kept watch over our leaves, and came right up with hot rottis just as we put the last bite of the previous rotti into our mouths. They were right there, unobtrusive, but ever watchful. I lost count of the number of rottis I ate. I ate and ate, and ate. When my friend M felt that she had enough, she refused the next rotti the waiter offered. He stood there in horror. "Madam, how can you say no? You get ordinary food everywhere. This kind of food is special - you have to come all the way here if you want to eat this food. Take one more, do take one more". "How can I say no if you put it that way", asked M, and ate another. I took the hint and went on eating.

Finally I realized that I just had to stop, and told the waiter so. He tried to persuade me, but I was firm. He disappeared and came back with hot steaming rice. "No! NO rice please" I said. He stood by me with a pained expression. "Our drumstick sambar is very popular, very famous. You just have to taste it. You cannot leave without tasting it, Madam! Just a little, you won't regret it, madam!"

I relented. True to his word, he served a little rice, and before I could protest, he drained a whole spoonful of hot, fragrant ghee on the rice, and then served the drumstick sambar. I have to give it to him, it was indeed from another world. I wished I could eat more, and I would have, given that the waiter was standing by me with a pleased and expectant expression, rice piled high on his serving spoon, but I just had to say no. I wouldn't have been able to stand up, had I eaten any more.

Funny. The same Upachaara that would have been frustrating and exasperating in a domestic setting was such a welcome change in a restaurant. A very homely and comfy feeling. The restaurant hardly has much to lose by that Upachaara - but look what it gained. Publicity! :)

[Btw, Upachaara is not equal to force-feeding. Force-feeding is one of the major aspects of Upachaara, that's all]

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Please come home sometime.

No, I am not inviting you to my home (not yet). I am just talking about this very common utterance of formality that I hear everywhere. very common, but utterly devoid of feeling. And the one who is being invited, says, "Oh yes, yes, sure!" - and this is said totally blankly too. So why say it?

I am sure you know what I am talking about. Two people meet, and before bidding one another goodbye, each of them invites the other to their home. And with a lot of head-nodding and "Of course"s, they go their own ways. And the very existence of the other person, let alone his home, is forgotten in the next two minutes.

I don't really know, but I guess this has always been a common form of politeness and a gesture of friendliness and hospitality to invite someone home. In the days of yore, it probably held some meaning too. With small towns and cities, with approachable homes, and with a lot of time on hand and with loads of respect for personal relationships, this would have been a sincere invitation, and it would have been taken seriously too.

But now, honestly, I think it has lost all meaning. I have seen people inviting each other, and each one doesn't have an idea of where the other's house is, still they say, "Oh yes, yes, we will surely drop by some day". Both of them know that the "some day" will never come. Then why, why still stick to this silly phrase? Let's move on!

I am not saying that all such invitations are devoid of meaning. Oh, many certainly mean it sincerely. But think about it - the other day, i was out with a friend, and we happened to run into my friend's in-laws' former neighbour's daughter-in-law. They talked a while, and during "goodbye" time, this girl turns to me and says, "Please come home sometime". All I could do was gape. For heavens' sake, why would I be interested in going to the home of my friend's in-laws' former neighbour's daughter-in-law, with whom I have nothing in common? And why would she be interested in inviting me? So why the silly formality? And yes, you guessed right, she didn't tell me where her house was. And as it turns out, my friend doesn't know either.

I usually answer this invitation with a "Ha ha". It might be rude, but it is the truth.

Before you think I am an anti-social element, let me tell you that I am a firm believer of good socialization in this mad era, with my definition of socialization being that we meet up and spend quality time with friends, relatives, and develop contact with new acquaintances with common interests. But I wouldn't issue empty invitations to all and sundry, and I take with a pinch of salt most of such empty invitations that come my way.

So please let us find some other more appropriate goodbye phrase!

While I am at this, there is another aspect to this "Come home" business.

This one purely concerns sincere(or that's what I think) invitations. I understand that you would like someone to visit you, but please do understand that person's limitations! He might genuinely not be able to accept your invitation for lunch/dinner because of a number of problems. He might be much too busy with other stuff (he has a life of his own, too, you know), or he might have a problem with commuting so far, or he might have some other personal problem which he cannot tell you about. It could be anything. So please don't harrass him. And please don't think that he is alive on this earth just to have a meal at your place.

And worse are you who expects a person visiting the city on a vacation to make it a point to visit your place. The poor lady has managed a short vacation, and has come down to visit her family, and you extend an invitation to have a meal at your house. If she could, believe me, she would. If she has to skip visiting your house, it is because either you are not in her first circle (face it), or else, the time is much too short for her too spend time with everybody. If you really love her as much as you claim to, then you can very well go and visit her for a short while where she is staying, so that she can spend more of the scarce and precious time at home and less commuting on the wretched roads in the obnoxious traffic to come to have a meal at your place. And if she had said she would come, but then she couldn't, then give her the benefit of doubt - and please do not complain to the whole world for the next one year that she did not visit your place when she was in the city.

And if the said visiting person is an elderly person, who finds it difficult to travel from one place to another in the heat in the crowded roads of the city, then the thought of insisting on him having a meal at your house should not even cross your mind. If you want to pay your respects to him, you can't do better by going to where he is staying and spending a couple of hours with him. So there.

Ahh. I have it all off my chest. That feels good. Thank you, Blog.

Monday, April 02, 2007

What is your comfort food?

My comfort food is Saaru-Anna. Saaru is a kind of Rasam, but it is thicker - it has dal(pulses). Where Rasam is best drunk, Saaru is best mixed with rice (and.. err.. ghee) and eaten. But yes, Saaru can be drunk too, when you allow the thick dal part to settle down, and you carefully ladle out the watery part into a cup - best had hot.

There are varieties of Saaru too, with less dal, with only tomatoes, with only pepper, etc., but my favourite is the standard version - the one with dal and tomatoes, and a garnishing of asafoetida and mustard in ghee. And of course, topped with coriander and curry leaves.

Give it to me with soft, steaming hot rice (Anna), and sigh.. life is good.

But. But, when asked to name my favourite dishes, Saaru-Anna hardly ever figures in the list. But if I go for a week without eating Saaru, I start craving for it - and I feel like I have had a good meal only when I eat a plate full of hot Saaru-Anna.

Saaru-Anna was what I would request for while visiting relatives from the hostel, and my mom always made Saaru-Anna for the first meal when I came back home for the holidays. If I am recovering from an illness and don't feel like eating anything, it is usually only Saaru-Anna that is palatable.

I am a foodie, as I have said a number of times on this blog, and I love to taste new dishes. I enjoy the gastronomical delights of the place I am visiting, when I go on vacations or holidays. But when I come back, it is only Saaru-Anna that soothes my taste-buds (and also mind, body and soul).

I don't even need to eat this everyday - I can go for days on end without it. But when I do finally get to eat it, I feel at home. Its like that old pair of pyjamas - that gives you peace of mind.

I see this Saaru-Anna phenomenon all around me. My entire family, friends, most people I know who are accustomed to Kannadiga cuisine behave just like I do when it comes to Saaru-Anna.

So what is your comfort food? [Please mention the kind of cuisine you are originally accustomed to, along with your reply. Just a personal survey. Thanks :)]
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