Monday, December 24, 2012

Anchored Islands

Visited  Port Blair last week . Island hopped on middling boats and walked alongside stunning unspoilt beaches at Corbyn's Cove and  Mundapahad.  Viewed  stunning sunrises and spectacular sunsets, and a sea awash in turquoise and thick dense blue gray water that quickly turns blue black as soon as the sun disappears.
There is  a lot  to do at the islands: stroll, sit out at various edges, scuba dive, snorkel and sea walk, or enjoy a variety of water sports such as scooter, banana  and sofa rides.The scuba diving and the sea walking extend  into the heart of the ocean. A whole new world awaits the enthusiastic traveler and  it is an extraordinary experience, to glide over coral reefs and gaze at anemone clusters , watch myriad coloured fish in innumerable shapes and sizes swim past and  marvel at the amazing ecosystems sustained by the coral reefs.  The body becomes weightless and all one has is a discerning eye that is  entranced by this dazzling new world . One meets sea cucumbers and sea-urchins, anemones with velvety underskirts, giant clams that signal that they are not part of the inanimate sea by the zigzag edges separating their bivalve shells.
 Equipped with life jacket, wetsuit, goggles, mask and oxygen tank, it is easy to forget  air-breathing antecedents that  involve  a pair of legs slowly  plodding their way  on earth surfaces.

 Once the sea adventure is  over, it is time to  be awed again by the tangle of sun, earth, water and wind. People at Port Blair are helpful and warm. The views from the Ross and North Bay Islands are restful and incredible. 

 This idyllic group of islands are nautical miles away from our borders. There is an abundance of flora and fauna  and  Chatham saw mill remains even today, the largest wood mill in Asia with its  store of  tree logs.  The anthropological museum  provides information on the extant  tribes  among the several islands that form part of the Andaman Nicobar group.   In the colonial past, political prisoners were housed  first on Viper island  and subsequently incarcerated in  the cellular jail at Port Blair. The Cellular Jail hosts a sound and light show on its premises that recalls and reiterates our hard won independence. Countless Indians from all over the country gave up their lives or struggled in harsh everyday situations, years at a stretch  clamoring for  independence.  A trip to  these islands enables us to  renew and recharge  memories of  our nation's history.  Despite the checkered history  chartered out by violent men and by the imperious  forces of nature,  a  finely balanced co-existence punctuates each day at Port Blair.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Hard Times At Delhi University

As an Associate Professor at an undergraduate college at New Delhi, who has been around  for a fairly long time, I am constantly asked for advice about  what course to join at college.  Last year  when I was asked to offer an opinion, I told students that this was a bad year, since the university was in a spin of some sort, having introduced a semester system in the most haphazard manner.  The semester has split annual courses wide open and hurries students through syllabi in insufficient time and pushes teachers  neck deep into paperwork that is quantitatively exhausting and serves little other purpose.

The newest measure we have is the monthly online entering of student attendance as it no longer matters what we teach or how we teach because all we are required to do is to clock it down as data. Why should you complain, I hear the die-hard optimist ask, if you don’t cook up attendance registers at the end of the year? The monthly system of uploading  is  actually the least of our problems.  It epitomises the hallmark of the semester system. Arguably, anyone who cooks up a register at the end of the year can now  be well trained in doing this ten times a year, but surely there must be other obvious  benefits that semesterization  needs to provide?

In fact, in this  second year of semesterization, for every aspirant to the university who wants my advice I can only tell them that this is the worst possible time to join the university. The university administration has come around to our way of thinking and has accepted that the semester implementation was disastrous. Of course, this has not been said in so many words. People   wielding   power find it very difficult to own up to errors of judgement. The university is now going in for a four year course for undergraduates, offering many avenues for exit, turning the highway to serious academic learning and specialization into a fun -filled fair, with plenty of exit points. You can now drop out of the university system as and when you please , with a diploma to boot.   So what if there are those who  are marginal, dispossessed, poor,  otherwise able, female or on the fringes?  In any case, our system never had much need for such as them. We are now focusing on a masterclass, one that will globe trot for an education across universities .

Where exactly does it leave the poor unsuspecting undergraduates who joined the university last year and this year? We are not likely to find out and frankly we are not expected to care. When a behemoth of a university stirs itself up and rumbles and moves, there will be collateral damage.  And yes, our  Americans advisors on the semester system briefed  us on  issues of  collateral damage  a long while ago.  In enough time, in any case, collateral damage would have been  forgotten about. As for the rest who might have noticed, they would have fallen by the wayside, anyway.

Now that these little issues have been sorted, let me announce that  the vice chancellor is introducing  a four year undergraduate programme, that will get rid of the dismembered and rapidly disintegrating   three year semester programme. The  entire course is a secret guarded by the team of 61 that the vice-chancellor has summoned. Maybe someone should tell him that for something as banal as a cooking show, applications are invited and then a shortlist is prepared and applications are carefully screened   to ensure the quality of the performer on the show. This arbitrary selection of a motley group to make academic blueprints  that will affect fundamentally the futures of lakhs of students and change forever the academic  stature  and nature of our central university which, I would like to believe impacts lives nationally, seems to be an act of short-sightedness and  unprovoked delusionary  Neroism ( maybe, considering the vice-chancellor’s truck with numbers,  zeroism is  more appropriate ?).  All this is happening in a university that has procedurally constituted constitutional bodies to plan and implement academic changes in a holistic manner, democratically.
The far sighted vice-chancellor  has  short term measures in place to aid  and  decondition traumatised teachers . This is through a scheme called the META (Medically  Exempted Terminal Activity) University that is being planned. The actual location of this university is in virtual space. Students will shuttle between universities and choose study options and credit courses. This is the Vice chancellor’s version of Education without Boundaries. The vice chancellor is also planning to run a local express service for students as they shuffle on a daily basis from Jamia to Delhi University and when possible to JNU as well. The other advantage of the express service is that it will familiarize students with all corners of New Delhi on a daily basis. This was yet another opportunity that the vice-chancellor could not avail of in his student days.

 So students will travel ceaselessly for the   promise of an education sans boundaries and teachers.  We shall now have a shifting faculty and shifting demand as student affiliations in a state of flux will ensure that more teachers are not inducted. Departments will shrivel up and die. In effect there will be a reduction in the number of traumatised teachers all around. The free press from which we get our information has told us that the admissions to this course have been postponed to December. If only this state of continued deferral could be permanent!

 We  now have a new registrar on the campus, innovating with newer tricks that she obviously pulls out of her bureaucratic sleeves.  Not satisfied with the quadrupling of paperwork through demands of  attendance uploads, and the  increase in geometric proportions of  computational errors  each day,    she thinks up  innovative means of turning  teachers on adhoc jobs  into clerical staff and discommoding the clerical staff altogether . Attendance is  collected and collated  on loose sheets of paper, and these are  submitted  to the office for uploading.  Before depositing this data at the office  all attendance sheets and students assignments and tests are photocopied in anticipation of  future RTIs. Should institutions be inundated with RTIs then all the tomes of photocopying we are collecting term by term will reamfully come to our rescue! Somebody needs to tell the registrar that we are dealing with students who are eighteen years old or more. Monthly bulletins are required only for calibrating the first year in the life of a baby.

Meanwhile trees are being shred and invaluable time is being quantified. College grounds these days simmer and froth with discontent and badwill. This unfortunately only detracts from academic activity and is an unhealthy space.   When biometric attendance comes in for teachers, and we will be required to clock in our thumb impressions, we will finally be free to leave our minds, ideas and our thinking at home. For clearly then the  makers of this new system will have nothing more to lose, having been divested of working brains  at the time of their induction to university posts. The death knell of Delhi University  now sounds clearly through the attendant cacophony.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Awry Academia

I am  back to undergraduate teaching after a hiatus of two years. It is a break that enabled me to read and write and think, which is what I would like to think I have been trained to do. Workspaces, even when  constituted by  fellow academics are not necessarily happy spaces and at present , functioning as we are under a far from perfect semesterization that has been thrust upon us, I can only see the ragged edges of communication spike unevenly  out of control as we try to make sense of the new system that we have to fit ourselves in.

The semester system at DU has meant a splitting across the centre, and a bifurcation of course content . All hundred mark papers will now be worth  two hundred marks and students will study the course content over two semesters instead of a full length academic year. India's premier central university, located In its capital city could have  certainly done far better for itself and for its students. However, were you to ask any of the members in the team of the present vice-chancellor or the previous one, you would be given to understand  that this illogically bifurcated syllabus  is  because of the resistance  of the undergraduate teachers to change. That reasoned and sustained opposition to introduction of the semester was snuffed out through high handed and devious use of the  academic council  which in any case only provides token  representation to undergraduate teachers, ( 24 elected representatives speak for the college teachers in a house which has a voting strength of over 150) has escaped them altogether.

 Now as they introduce  a meta-university which is to  benefit 20 students and discommode a possible 20000 and will  create new frankensteins of teaching, learning and administration, it might be a good idea to describe a micro -detail in this not yet meta university and this is going to be the first month or thereabouts t in an undergraduate college.  Sri Venkateswara  College is located in the upper rungs of the notional ladder of collegiate education at Delhi University. The first morning when our vice-chancellor was visiting Bhagini Nivedita and  disapproving entirely of its modus operandi,  at  Sri Venkateswara College   orientations for  droves of students  who had joined various courses were underway. We have a space crunch that has to be seen to be believed  and promises to be an unsurmountable problem in the days to come.

Classroom spaces for the humanities and languages  has dwindled in geometric proportions in the last three years.  Teachers are supposed to have a teaching workload of around  18 periods.  As a result of  making the university  OBC inclusive, numbers in the classroom have more than doubled. The University administration  assures us that this  calls for an increase in teaching posts by about 40 percent. No permanent appointments have been made in our department in the last four years. Our previous strength of 11 teachers has gone up by 1.74. Our academic planning committee  reinvents the wheel, and talks of giving us posts for teachers on the basis of  sanctioned strengths.  Although, each year, we admit an enormous number of students into each department, our workload  is never calculted on the basis of actual student strength. No upper limit is maintained for the number of students  attending each lecture.

With semesterization, the  duration of time to teach a text and the  number of classes to teach it in has shrunk. We need to fix extra classes  that do not form part of our official time table in order to do any justice to the course content. Meanwhile  tutorials, that should form the backbone of teaching pedagogy in the humanities are mostly viewed as an after thought in our institution. A weekly  tutorial class for Honours students  in optimal groups of 6-8 is mandatory. I have an English (Honours) first year  class of over sixty five students.  If tutorials are meant to serve their purpose, I would need  at least eight tutorials  with my  I yr class.  What I have been allotted officially (as per sanctioned strength) is five which I am to fix myself with the students, preferably after 3.p.m.  There is an absence of  tutorial rooms in college.

Classes for students begin at  8.45 in the morning. Our corridors and staircases, built forty years ago to accommodate one third of the number of students who throng it  achieve high decibels of noise and near stampede conditions every day.  On different days  of the week, students in first, second and third year  have a random off-day. In practice no department  can plan  any collective academic activity for  all its three years at one time. This ensures  that students  lead truncated lives and are hampered from growing or learning in any holistic manner. Classrooms burst at the seams and  students swell in number and taking roll call becomes a long time consuming activity.

The  issue of fixing modalities on the basis of  sanctioned strength and  ignoring  actual  numbers is one of the most insidious ways in which we cheat students and impoverish both teaching and learning spaces.  Higher education , with the crunch in space and the crush of numbers  and unethical practice  is moving into critical mass.  Unless such  issues are addressed on a war footing,, the pleasure of  learning and teaching will be substituted by the cacophony of impersonal assembly lines producing near imperfect  units.

Sunday, June 10, 2012


We visited Daulatabad fort ( also called the  Deogiri Fort) located sixteen kilometres from Aurangabad.
 The fort is enroute to the Ellora caves and is an imposing structure with its thick walls and double moats and  stretches all the way to the top of the hill. Its cannons are intact and so are most of its boundary walls. A desultory attendant at the entrance checks our tickets (it costs us five rupees each ) and offers us a guide for 750 rupees. This seems inordinately steep so we turn down his offer and proceed to explore the fort on our own, drinking in the beauty of the fort and the surrounding views.

 This is a heritage building where the ASI has been at work since 1951 when it first  put up concrete steps for the benefit of visitors. The ASI imagines that all visitors  are  young and wiry and able to mount steep stairs without any kind of supporting rails. Before the entrance to the second round of fortifications is a very swank building and a new board that announces toilets. Moving in the direction of this structure which has convenience facilities for men, women and  the otherwise abled, one discovers that everything is under lock and key and firmly shuttered down. Possibly it awaits inauguration by some dignitary and in the meanwhile everybody will continue to press down on their bladders or ease themselves on the premises as is being done, wherever possible.
 The  Chini Minar is perched delicately in the middle of the fort  and main section of the fort which probably houses the  Chand Mahal is under renovation , so we lumber  past the renovation  and climb higher to the summit for better views of the fort.

  On our way back we explore the large courtyards to our right  where  a shiny board announces the Bharat Mata Temple.  This is rather intriguing because the gleaming goddess is quite young and was definitely not around at the time when the fort went into decline after the death of  Aurangzeb.  A sari clad woman's form  has been fixed onto a niche in the outer walls of the fort which overlooks a large courtyard. I am informed that the goddess came into being at the time of the Kargil War. How she extended strength to our army from the heart of the Deccan to the northern frontier is a matter of speculation, but clearly our myth-making abilities as a nation have not diminished. Currently Bharat Mata, supported by her unlikely temple wall is adorned and tidied by one of her female descendants and cheerily smiles out into a large open courtyard, that provides a view of  the lawns and the now dry water tank  beyond.

 Her descendants sweep the yards and the steps of the huge fort which apparently fell into disuse because of a paucity of water. I wonder what the women do if they need a drink of water or  have to attend the call of nature, but remember thankfully that people doing menial work are not supposed to have bodies and subsist without any physical needs and requirements whatsoever. The Municipal Corporation of Bombay is housed in splendid heritage buildings. Surely  sections of Daulatabad fort, so close to Aurangabad, Maharashtra's tourist capital,  could be made habitable, house the town's municipal offices and provide better facilities for its caretakers. This would go a long way  in  terms of reviving local fortunes, generating employment and improving the conditions at the fort and increasing footfalls.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Living Institutions

At Teen Murti there is a generous expanse of foliage and large boards with labelled illustrations of the  many  birds that inhabit the trees and shrubs in the spread out and well tended gardens and greens. Occasionally, while stopping  for a drink of water at the water cooler, the peafowl ensconced in  adjacent  tall trees engrossed in companionable mid-morning chats can be sighted.  Each time  I get back from the library, it is with a sense of satisfaction, not only because some minimal reading has been accomplished but also because, the flowers and trees and the flitting, wheeling birds fill the air with so much positive energy and purpose.

At home on a day when the city crowds into my being, I sit at my desk beside the mulberry tree that shuts out concrete and metal balconies and provides a curtain of a spreading green. Magically, this curtain opens out into its own little world. It is in intense fruit and  stocked with abundant purple mulberries that the birds have been feasting on. There is the resident purple sunbird with its less showy mate, the tailor bird whose children inspect all the pots each morning, the regular mynah, a little sulky because the brahminy mynahs have now opted for fruity breakfast mornings, and an old crow, a little disheveled and crochety at the influx of so many visitors, pointedly ignoring the crow perched at the other end of the tree.

Parrots,  babblers, barbets, treepies and green pigeons are occasional visitors but the black magpie robin, distinguished in its black and white colours is now a regular.  So is the White Eye that enquiringly meets your gaze behind a glassy mesh before it flits off  again to another section of the tree.There is also a wealth of bulbuls. The oldest are the red-vented bulbuls, who have lived in the yard for many years and can invariably be found in contemplative or connubial comfort on some limb of the tree. Since last spring two other kinds of bulbuls have established provisional  tenancy rights. There is a pair of red whiskered bulbuls, which arrive with a flourish and nest in the tree. Sprightly and enthusiastic, they strut about in their  jaunty top-hats , reducing their red-vented relatives to ordinary stolidity.

 A pair of white whiskered bulbuls also come by,  alert and watchful as they selectively  perch on the tree and eat their fill of mulberries. Last season there was a precocious chick that they raised and mornings were full of baby bulbul squackings while it learnt to fly. That was the only time that these stylish birds looked a little harried.

There are two demure doves, one with a black ring around its collar and another without and both of them visit the mulberry tree all through the year.The other regular foragers are the sparrows who go all out and gorge themselves on the fruit of the mulberry tree. In the first week of the mulberry season, they eat far more fruit than their stomachs can hold and the floor of the backyard is full of purple purges, while their systems adapt to the fruit diet. Thankfully, the stains are easy to wash off, and don't need to be scraped off in the manner of regular bird droppings.

Sometimes late in the night, when we return home from a metropolitan adventure, the car headlights glide up  the dark  mulberry tree and allow us to glimpse still,  fluffed up, shapes on the  branches of the tree. These are mostly the sparrows, fast asleep on their perches.  Yet another of the quieter mysteries of life and living that clutch and thrill the heart. Yes, sometimes, all it takes is a tree.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

All Of Six Yards: इसमें तो है सारी बात !

I went for a walk fulminating over an article in which Vidya Balan's wearing of saris during her public appearances was portrayed as a disturbing issue for Bollywood's fashionistas.Of course, Bollywood has popularized the ball gown and the dress and at any given point in time, malls in the metropolis abound with women   dressed in frocks. For a lot of women, the frock conceals age, highlights well toned and maintained figures,  provides  cool comfort and probably meets with M.S.Poonia's requirements of being able to get clothed in under five minutes. M.S. Poonia is the author of a piece ,Political Economy of the Saree   published in Manushi. Nona Walia was probably still unfocused after the Holi haze when she said that Balan was trapped in a sari, because surely leading ladies in Bollywood aspire to be actresses first and clotheshorses later? Manushi's editorial decision was definitely influenced by the extended North Indian Winter chill. Editorial damage control after reader outbursts is decidedly stranger. It wonders whether the responses to the article would have been as aggressive if MS Poonia had been " a female feminist instead of being a male one." For starters,Poonia doesn't sound like a male feminist. He recalls the Police Officer from the South who insisted that women dressing in anything other than saris were inviting rape. The only difference between Poonia and  The DG from Andhra is that the former is convinced that saris promote  easy access to rape, aid death by drowning  and prove to be obstacles while escaping  pursuit by ferocious animals.  What a relief  that both these cops   are not invested with portfolios to supervise women's dressing  because  between the two of them they  have  in effect  denuded  the female populace of all items of clothing, providing substance to the belief that men  constantly undress women in their imagination.

When  Shashi Tharoor,  of the clipped Stephanian English and  Page Three  elan wrote an epitaph on the sari as a dying garment, he was forced to withdraw the ill conceived obituary, reeling under the pallu backlash. Many women  have their saris and love them too, and the stretch of sari wearing is not to be undone either by  suave Tharoors or  police officers who are fully dressed  in five minutes to mark their attendance at the alarm parade in training school. Which brings on the curious question:  why exactly is there a "get ready in five minutes drill" at  police academies? Must be part of some ancient voodoo rite because the average police officer is seldom available at any moment of unprecedented crisis within the half hour?

Take heart, Mr. Poonia. If your mother did not teach you to wear a sari, it was in keeping with  heterosexual practice in patriarchal societies where  daughters alone are required to learn this skill.  So let us assure you  that  regular sari practitioners wear their saris in under five minutes, even if their mummies have not taught them to do so. No one takes two months to learn to wear a sari, because it does not involve  rocket science. Wearing a sari has nothing in common with  an alarm parade rehearsal  since after having clothed themselves, women, unlike police officers on show, undertake  a whole lot of  duties  most days of the week, whether they run homes, work in the fields,  in factories, as manual labour or as skilled trained personnel, in rural and urban areas.  And these days enough sites on the net will educate you into the mystery of  the different ways of draping  a sari,(  yes there is more than one way to drape a sari and  is region  specific)  and keeping it in place, which has flummoxed you. For  sari-aspirants such as yourself, let us divulge a secret. The safety pin was invented a long time ago. Most sari clad women despite your fantasies do not have wardrobe malfunctions, which occur with moderate regularity in the case of stitched clothing.

Incidentally, the sari is a preferred mode of dress south of the Vindhyas, which is why your  soul mate in the Andhra police  wants women to wear them all the time. Saris, as an informed observer has pointed out are worn in a variety of ways and without petticoats and blouses, and  have a longer shelf life than most stitched garments, and often cost much less. If our grandmothers heard you on the sari's inability to cover the body, they would be baying for your blood, so try to  discreetly study how women in  real India wear their saris. We realize that your insights come from an overdose of the ramp.

The average sari is  a longer-lasting garment  and serves as a great multitasking  accessory for women.  The edge of a pallu makes for an effective impromptu purse into which keys and coins can be safely  stored.  The loaded pallu edge also enables  effective self-defence. All that is required  is to swivel the pallu end towards a would be assailant.  Old saris  are used by women as makeshift cradles to allow small infants to sleep.  Grandmothers with nine yard saris would use soft fabric not only to wrap babies with, but  also to mop up a whole night of  baby piddle very hygienically, using fresh sections of the sari each time. Imagine the districts under your patrol without this environment and baby friendly technology. Our streets and drains would choke with disposed-off diapers and Johnson and Johnson would be producing mountains of  diaper rash creams  with no room to stock any other cosmetics.

 Did you know Mr. Poonia that women in Bengal handcraft quilts and bedsheets for infants with old cotton saris, because they are so soft? Are you aware that the exquisite craft of Kantha came into being because women worked with coloured yarn from old saris within households to create aesthetic baby sheets? So the next time you see a  dupatta or a kurta with kantha work, stand up and salute the sari.  Saris double up as handkerchiefs and  sunshades and provide privacy by allowing breastfeeding mothers to screen themselves if required.Sometimes(surely you must have seen hindi films,)  pallus are even  torn up to serve  as very efficient instant bandage-strips.

Your doctor friends must also be aware of contact dermatitis  that can  result from  tightly tailored clothing , metal accessories ranging from wrist watches to spectacles , synthetic garments and shoes for example?
 Have you all  made any comparative study?  If not, refrain from unleashing unfounded fears upon an unsuspecting populace with your skewered data from 140 women. You could shelter meanwhile under a jaipuri cotton quilt made from a mul sari or alternately use  a traditional double sheet(the dohar) which also devolves from old saris  expressly stitched  for cool comfort.

 And Mr Poonia, overweight and obese people on an average are that way because of ill health and poor  lifestyle choices. Ideally both men and women need to remain fit , not simply to measure up to your aesthetic standards but because of the benefits of  great health. For the record, men  and women who are fit look better in anything they wear,  irrespective of whether it is saris or  khakhi uniforms.
 There are many terrible things about patriarchy. One of them is that  many men still presume to speak   authoritatively about what women should wear, and  many women rush to defend such men and extol their thinking. However Mr, Poonia, with apologies to  Susan Seymour, isn't it unfortunate that there is no garment to measure the development of  a male from puberty to adulthood? Or does this never happen? I am confident that Foucault would have intuitively responded to the sari and understood that  each weave has its own history, and   that each sari tells its own story.   We wear sarees  Mr. Poonia, because they are there!

Friday, February 10, 2012

Not Run Off The Mill Yet

2012 is the year of the millet. This is not according to the chinese calendar but as per  new year tips from nutritionists and dieticians  to clients, patients and customers and newspaper readers  who form part of the one percent  and are on the look out  for suggestions that will qualitatively improve their lives. Millets are cereal like foods, and are no longer as well known as the two staples, wheat and rice that the world has veered towards over the previous century. In fact in the years that we grew up, we thought of ourselves as a rather evolved family as far as food was concerned.  Our parents moved to New Delhi from The South of India and rice  and its variations was our morning  and noon staple. In the evenings  we nodded at North Indian  cuisine by consuming chappatis and paranthas, occasionally even venturing in the direction of makki  and missi rotis.  Poories,( enunciated as boories in South India) were occasional fare, viewed with suspicion and consumed with  joy unpunctuated  by  gloom since  the calorific value of the oil sploshed in our food was yet to  be tabulated and white polished rice and white bread  were regular visitors on the kitchen shelf.

 Our favourite day of the week was  saturday afternoon, when we  returned from our not so public school,( government aided, and six day week) The Delhi Tamil Association.  Dad was home from work( from  a corporate job that  allowed its employees two saturdays off  and two  half day saturdays) and usually pottering about, not in the absent minded way of  story book fathers, but busying himself with the preparation of  dosas. He boiled potatoes and  minced onions which were then cooked together  for the masala and  ladled out the dosa batter on large flat  iron tavas that he had  got customized for the purpose. Endless saturdays we ate  large, fragrant ghee roasted, crisp  and thin dosas, which dad rolled out and served with aplomb. When we had visitors, this could be office colleagues or relatives,  dad would roll out dosas, while mom chipped in as  chef's assistant,  getting the batter, chutney and sambaar ready each time.   Those saturdays  have long gone by but my siblings and I  learnt to love food and enjoy  preparing  it since within our household there were no gender specific kitchen roles.

Dad  turned all of eighty a few months ago and can still make a "mean masala dosa' and  delicious  difficult to make rava dosas.. In fact both  my children insist that "Thatha's masal dosa" and "Paati's molahapodi"  taste much better than what  I dish out and always hope to get a raise out of me. Of late, coping with my son's  oil-free expectations , which began with paranthas and  toast and have now extended  to the hapless dosa, I have incorporated dad's not so recent innovation with the dosa batter.  To a quantity of approximately 700 ml of dosa batter, (which can make 10 large dosas) ,  I add one tablespoon of gingelly oil and mix thoroughly. This batter when ladled on to a hot greased skillet requires no further addition of oil.  Discounting the invisible oil already mixed into the batter, what we get  are oil free dosas. I make dosas with ragi and bajra and barley, (substituting rice flour with millet) and the oil trick works fine with all of these as well. Yet I struggle with  the cultural racism that is so deeply ingrained  in our food habits. White rice is prettier and more shapely than brown rice. Dosas made with white rice  are apparently better looking. Iddlis with white rice are more attractive to the eye. Bhaturas with maida are lighter of  complexion  than those made with Aata. Cakes with maida are softer than cakes made with aata.. Meanwhile ragi dosas  that are the colour of oil stained pink sandstone and bajra dosas that turn  mud green   are termed  coarse and unattractive.  And so the litany continues...... Eventually, hunger and the flavour of the food renders all protest irrelevant.The supposedly coarse millet which is sold at and bought  from special  niche stores is  a lot  more expensive  than white rice and white bread,  and also takes longer to cook, which is possibly another reason for its low acceptance in urban households, all of which live from time crunch to time crunch.

   I belong officially to a generation  that struggles with  the absence of knowledge on how to use millets in everyday cooking and despairs at  getting  the young to eat up their millets. I wonder whether this  nutrient dense food  continues to be accessible at all to people who fall outside the privileged one percent  Hopefully, close to the lands where they grow, in homes where there is enough to eat, millets are cooked in a variety of ways . Thenai and keyveragu form part of porridges, both sweet and savoury in Tamil Nadu and  Andhra Pradesh. I have eaten delicious bajre ki roti with kachre ki chutney at Dundlod in Rajasthan. At LMB in Jaipur one gets mouthwatering  bajre churma roasted in ghee and flavored with nuts and cardamom. At Lingsur In Northern Karnataka we feasted on  bajra and jaun rotis and ate some delicious  bajra holiges, stuffed with peanut and jaggery paste and this was local fare  at very affordable rates. In New Delhi  roasted amaranth ladoos have been stocked at the  local grocers all through the cold season, well before  niche stores began supplying amaranth at extraordinary prices. Makke ki roti with saag or gur is another well loved seasonal food.  So are kuttu dipped potato pakoras and the jhankar or bhagar kheer and chawal  made during  the vrats around the navratras in North India.  Incidentally, India is one of the larger producers of millets the world over. May the tribe of  millet consumers  in our country increase yearly!

Monday, January 16, 2012

Festivities in the New Year

New year celebrations, announced in urban heartlands get so much coverage that cyclical and  quasi agricultural festivities come and go by  rather quietly. This January has been something of a bonanza for the quieter festivals.Of course a lot of these festivals are celebrated in South India, sometimes in Tamil Nadu and Kerala. Often times  Andhra and Karnataka also pitch in and the Southern countryside reverberates with the celebrations.  On some occasions most of rural  India comes together to celebrate harvest festivals.

This year Thiruvadarai fell on a sunday, the eighth of January.The Thiruvadarai festival is bound by the complex rituals of fasting and feasting. Primarily celebrated by women and young girls, it marks the metamorphosis of Manmathan (the god of love) who had been reduced to cinders by the  radiation from Shiva's third eye. Cajoled by Uma who supposedly attains Shiva through long austerities on this  particular day, Manmathan is allowed to take on a formless entity. So young women desirous of marriage to Shiva like husbands fast and pray. Meanwhile married women  celebrate eternal cosmic concupiscence by collecting in groups, having ritual baths in rivers and ponds with much singing and joyous dancing
 While we were encouraged to bathe diurnally, the same stimulus was not extended to ritual dancing on such occasions. So we grew up with  sombre and measured annual  Thiruvadarai celebrations  whose collateral benefits were delicious foods, produced by skilled in house female labour. There is golden brown kali, made by washing, drying roasting and then grinding rice into a semolina type texture. To this roasted mung lentils are added. The rice and lentil mix are boiled in jaggery water  with coconut shavings  and subsequently pressure cooked. What we get is a delicious sweet rice, to which a garnish of ghee and nuts is added. This is served along with a dish usually made of seven root vegetables(yezhu thaan kootu) cooked with spices and tamarind. Living in the North, away from a lot of root vegetables, new culinary variations have asserted themselves, but a combination of potato, cauliflower, zucchini, peas and carrots and sweet potato garnished with coconut makes for a delicious combine.

 A few days after Thiruvadaria begins the onrush of harvest festivals.  Boghi in the South and Lohri in the North are celebrated at this time. Beginning with Boghi, celebrated to propitiate the rain god  into sending good showers, spring clean the house and throw household waste into bonfires, all these festivals are an exercise in outstanding cosmic PR.  Lohri is part of the harvest festival in Punjab and North India , celebrating  the last day of the sun in Sagittarius and  heralding  the end  of  the  intense cold season. Bonfires are lit  in front of houses and til, gur, peanuts and popcorn are distributed. Everyone collects around the bonfire to partake of  all these snacks and songs and merriment.
This is followed by Makar Sankranti and this  is time  for thanksgiving  to the Sun god for an abundant harvest.  Apparently all the slumbering devas wake up, possibly to the smells of til patti and pongals and this morning is so auspicious that everybody rushes off to bathe in nearby holy rivers, in the hope of an instant  cold water cleansing adrenalin high, if not the promise of eventual salvation. They are of course in hallowed company, because an original patriarch, Bhisma Pitamah  waited for this day to arrive in order to depart from this world, of course in a yuga long gone by? Makar Sankranti is apparently  celebrated all over southern  Asia, is known by different names and  a range of festivities. The common uniting link is the fact that it  marks the progression of the sun in the  sign of Capricorn or makara.
 Makara sankranti is celebrated as Pongal in Tamil Nadu.  In the South rice and lentils and rice and jaggery are boiled together to make  pongals, both salt and savoury and teamed up with a coconut and yoghurt vegetable stew called avial. Within individual homes large quantities of pongal and avial are made and trays carried to the homes of immediate neighbours. Visitors to the house and domestic help also share in the feasting in the cities.
The Pongal season ends with Kanu Pongal, which falls a day after pongal.  Kanu pongal is reminiscent of   rakshabandan because  the festival involves praying for the welfare of  brothers worldwide. Brothers usually toodle off, in search of the pot of gold at the end of  distant rainbows and Kanu is the quaint custom of making offerings  to cows and  birds (usually sparrows and crows) while praying for the well being of brothers. Since cows are bespoke in urban areas and relatively difficult to access, we have confined ourselves to feeding the birds.
 .The birds who visit my terrace wonder at  the largess  doled out on huge leaves for them. There are servings of pongal, sweet and salt and avial and assorted coloured rice rolled into tiny balls.  Whimsical human, they say to each other over the unexpected  one day annual feast that  turns a Nelson's eye to their dining requirements  for the rest of the year. What of the brothers who are invoked? Do these symbolic rituals tug at their heartstrings, remind them of their natal homes, older  associations and  connections  shared childhoods and  slowly fraying ancient dreams?
The varieties of rice  though provide a multi-hued palette of colours  for the eye and flavours for the palate, reiterating the vibrant shades and textures of  a bountiful harvest. The pictures below are from last year's Kanu Pongal platters.