Friday, December 29, 2017

Fabled, festive Fatehpur Sikri

“Why don’t you drive down to Fatehpur Sikri , since you are already here in Bharatpur? suggested a Bharatpur resident bird specialist. This seemed a better option than climbing two floors of the slowly being renovated Khas Mahal where we were staying, although it has gorgeous terraces and a bid’s eye view of the city. In any case, what is not to love about an opportunity to visit Fatehpur Sikri? To stand inside Salim Chishti’s dargah and be gripped by the fabulous music at the dargah’s entrance , be carried inside by the sway of the devotees and to be energised by the myriad hopes and prayers that flutter threadlike on the marble-filigreed windows of the dargah? To walk past the expansive sandstone courtyard, after entering through the emperor’s gate and stand awestruck as always at the Bulund Darwaza, looking at the magnificent architecture of the gated entrance and the aerial view it provides of the city and to drink in a world of people, within and without, praying, wandering, visiting, staring, selling odds and ends and fresh fruit and vegetable salads and consuming all of it is momentous. Each visit is always one of encountering wave upon wave of headiness, that stetches all the way to the ibadatkhana at the other end of the dargah. A little way off from the Diwan-e-Aam and close to the Diwan-e-Khas, the ornately carved sandstone pillar that speaks of the craftsmanship and traditions of diverse communities, reiterates that only special people, with access to the diwan-e -khas can visualise a Din-e-Illahi , a composition of multiple faiths. Here, then, is a moment of fruition, of calm and repose, within a beautiful idea. Emperor Akbar believed in this possibility in the seventeenth century. Administrators in power should be able to build entire worlds in the 21st century, were they to draw upon such strong foundations.

Thursday, December 28, 2017

Bird-Visiting at Bharatpur

We drove to Bharatpur over the weekend to see the birds at the Keoladeo National Park.This is a wetland of extraordinary beauty and we spent a December morning here, partly ferried on cycle rickshaws and partly on foot looking at the feathered visitors afoot. At the start of the national park, amidst scrub and dry stretches there were the occasional yellow-green pigeons,the bulbuls and the babblers and the tailor birds, but as we neared the swampland, the landscape became magical and the inhabitants increasingly varied and exotic. The white breasted kingfishers seemed to strike poses as they sat facing visitors or in side profile, ostensibly looking for living food. Large female neelgai grazed in the distance. The water was full of migratory ducks and geese. Saw the whistling geese and the bar headed geese, and an array of Pochard and pin tailed ducks, to say nothing of a small herd of Sambhar poised on watery territory, choosing to munch water soaked greens. There were black and purple moorhens and small and large teams of coots. Many migratory birds could be seen dotting the water, far away from human sight,and clearly far less tolerant of human intrusions into their territory. The birds were a delight. The grey stork and the purple heron stood in all their splendour, shutting us out and focusing on the fish. little mounds of green in the swamps housed a host of birds that amicably shared standing space. I saw the red and black crow pheasant for the first time, and the young ones of the scope owl who had decided that they wanted at least the early morning out. There were a large number of eagles, who flew over head, steering and wheeling in the sky, diving down to annoy the whistling ducks and coots and purple moor hens whenever they saw fit. The geese whistled and flew off, but the moor hens and coots just scuttled away from the eagle's attention.
The trees en route to Bharatpur turn into cormorant rookeries, but the bird that was for me the showstopper on this trip was the oriental darter or the snake bird that dived and swam, looking for fish. The darter tosses up the fish it catches and then grabs it in mid-air before making a meal of it and a generous wildlife photographer showed me pictures to this effect. However, this extraordinary bird, around the size of the cormorant, has a snake like head and looks quite like an eel when it is in the water. Once it has had its share of fun, it surfaces and stands on a mound or atop a low branch, spreading out its wings and allowing them to dry. The cormorants do this too, because apparently unless their wing feathers are completely dry, they cannot really fly. Which is perhaps why the proverb speaks off how effortlessly water slides off a duck’s back. The cormorants and darters have not been similarly equipped with waterproof feathers by nature. Possibly, these are details overlooked from an earlier evolutionary design., but of course, I say this whimsically. Anyway, the darters holding up their wings to the sun and skies were possibly the inspiration for the caped superheroes we have created to save the world we are so busy wrecking. Since, that isn't working after all, watching darters at work and play is a real choice available to all of us.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

The last month of 2017

Along with the hundredth anniversary of the October Revolution in 2017, the internet assisted in upsetting the apple cart or whatever it is that gets disturbed when status quo is suddenly and unceremoniously disrupted. Women on social media spoke of sexual harassment and intimidation that they had faced in different spheres of their lives, including the workplace. these are links to two pieces I wrote for Hardnews this was the first piece i wrote. I felt compelled to write another piece, which was also carried in the November 2017 print issue of Hardnews. The editors at Hardnews are I confess just brilliant at providing titles for pieces..and I think "hashtag coup" is a very good point of reference.

The beginning of 2017 This link is to a piece I wrote for Hardnews when TamilNadu was being consumed by the Jalikattu controversy, which as the seasons go by and the year comes to an end is likely to rage and cause more deaths this year.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

The Pleasure of Pootharekulus

In the Eighties, an uncle sent us a visitor from Hyderabad. This young man was a friend's son and he was looking for a job at New Delhi. He stayed with us for a brief period and his mother packed for his hosts some sheets of what I can only describe as tissue paper like sheets made of rice powder. We did not know how these were made, but if you applied a little warm ghee on the paper and packed it with coarsely powdered cashewnuts and jaggery , it was a mouth melting treat. Anyway, the sheets of rice paper faded away into memory until I went to Guntur last year, saw them at a sweet shop and brought a packet of the ready made sweet back home. The shopkeeper told me the name of the sweet 'Pootharekulu, he called it ;and I carried both the sweet and the name back home. The friend I went with to the sweet shop in Guntur swore entirely by Bengali sweets, was preoccupied with a sick dog, an impending posting for her husband which would take them back to Calcutta, preparations for an oncoming wedding and with ensuring that everything was running on well-oiled castors.So when I came back to Delhi, the rice paper sweet I tried out had a humdrum taste, because this shop had used sugar powder instead of jaggery, which decelerates the excitement of eating pootharekulu altogether.
Last week, my neighbour , who is a great foodie herself, handed over our shared wall, a pretty box of sweets which said Almond House and was adorned with a print of coloured pipal leaves. "These came from Hyderabad," she announced, "and I thought you would love them."

The pleasure in opening boxes to discover unusual sweets or savoury snacks continues to sustain and provide joy.Upon peering inside,I was delighted to find the exquisite looking pootharekulu inside. It was almost as if the universe had heard my sighs and organised a series of happenings so that my desire could be accommodated. 'Pootha' means covering and 'rekulu' means sheet.
These had toasted and chopped cashewnut and jaggery and there was a lovely orangish colour to the filling that could be seen through the translucent rice tissue in which it was encased. The rice tissue paper brings back the feeling of awe that is generated by the delicate sheen of tissue paper in which pieces of jewellery or precious stones are wrapped. Picking up this delicate tissue sweet and holding it between one's fingers and biting into it, is an enchanting experience. Cardamom and ghee flavours can be inhaled and when the cashew and jaggery crumble touches the tongue, the diaphanous rice tissue melts at the same time. A net search allowed me to find out how the pootharekulu was packaged and I also discovered that Almond House has an online facility at which a range of pootharekulu can be ordered by the box. Thanks to Sid the Wanderer, I also got to see for the very first time,through the pictures he provides on his blog how these thin rice sheets are actually made. Thin rice powder batter is rubbed on to the back of an inverted earthen pot, heated over a slow fire. When the rice dries, it peels off into circular sheets which are stacked atop one another and supplied to shops. This is an artisanal sweet and like most of the unusual snacks and savouries grandmothers made once, this too is fast receding. Very few people know about the existence of this sweet and those who how to assemble it from scratch are even less in number, It is in stumbling upon these little nuggets of cultural delight, i.e/ the special foods and sweetmeats that different parts of India continuously reveal that leaves the heart aglow with pride in our amazing food diversity. How little we know about any of it and how easily we succumb to the unthinking banality of accessible over the counter purchases. Perhaps, Pootharekulu needs to be advertised as new age gluten free pastry;in order to be rediscovered?