Saturday, March 29, 2008

My Kitchen

- by Janaki Krishnan

As a teenager, watching my mother toiling in the kitchen all day long, I visualized for myself the life of an educated working woman. I would live in comfort, having nothing to do with the drudgery of the kitchen.

Sixty years of life as a Mumbaikar, married into a Tamil Brahmin family, juggling career and home, children and in-laws, racing against time and battling the space crunch in a tiny flat, have totally changed my perception about life, leisure and happiness.

Strangely, it is the kitchen that is now a source of comfort, a place of solace and quiet.

As I enter it in the morning, the clean L-shaped granite platform seems to welcome me. The white tiles, my appliances, my multi-coloured labelled jars; they all fill me with a quiet satisfaction. Everything in my kitchen is designed for comfort. Frequently used items are sensibly placed within arms' reach. Every inch of space is utilised cleverly to accommodate my spoonstands, coffee tumblers, utensils and plates.

As I boil the morning milk, I enjoy the sight of the tall green Tusli and Kadipatta plants watered and nurtured by my husband. I love green; it reminds me of fertility and freshness. The porcelain Chinaman, holding the kitchen knives and gas lighter in his bulging belly, warns me against overeating. My little notepad hangs from the hook, and helps my husband to run the kitchen in my absence. My shopping bag hangs on a hook next to it. Everything has its own place and purpose, and there is pleasure in entering this orderly calm world.

But there is another, more meaningful aspect of my kitchen - my mini-temple. A small enclosure with arches and pillars of marble houses all the Gods of the Hindu pantheon and their spouses. The Om symbol is placed at the top. There is a small brass lamp that I light at dawn and dusk, to dispel ignorance about the “real Me”.

A quote from the Upanishads says “brahmaiva tena gantavyam brahmakarma samadhina”. One who sees Brahman in all actions verily reaches Brahman. Whatever I cook, I first offer to Brahman and then eat. This simple gesture transforms my kitchen from a mere cooking area, into a place where even my mundane actions have a deeper meaning.

Thus at 72, I enter my kitchen with a feeling of contentment and joy. I gladly prepare my granddaughters' favourite dishes, unmindful of the heat or strain. Now I understand why my mother ungrudgingly stuck to her kitchen. To her, it was not just a place of toil. It was also a place of inner meaning and joy.

Note: Photos courtesy my sister Radha and her new camera!

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Sleeping City

- by Girish Sangameswaran

Sleeping has evolved into a refined art form in Mumbai.

Several variants of this art form present themselves to a keen observer of the city's local trains. Standing and sleeping in a crowded train, for example, is a simple yet sublime form of this great art. The artists have mastered the art of swaying with the crowd with their eyes closed, to complete the day's quota of sleep. Another variant of this art is standing and resting on the walls of the compartment. This is an easier proposition, but more risky if the artist is standing close to the door, where a sudden onslaught at a station may disturb the performance.

Some sleep artists rest their heads on the neighbour’s shoulder. These performances are subject to snide remarks and angry shrugs by the neighbour in question; nevertheless, the performance continues doggedly. The more diffident artists rest their head on briefcases and put up with the discomfort of a curved spine.

Many artists prefer to sit down and rest their heads on the wall near the train window, to enjoy the evening breeze. Undesirable smells from outside may interrupt the proceedings (especially as the train comes towards Sewri) - but the performance of the artist is intense and unperturbed. Talking of smells, sometimes even the most seasoned artist is disturbed when his nose is almost shoved into his neighbour’s head, and the smell of ‘rai ka telh’ (mustard oil) wafts right into the recesses of his nostrils.

But the true master of the art of sleeping is the Mumbai drunkard who considers all the streets of Mumbai as his bedroom. One sees the drunkard lying down in the most awkward positions in absolute bliss. More sophisticated than the drunkard, is the garden sleeper. These artists perform at parks, with a handkerchief on their face, snoring away to glory. The garden sleeper thoroughly enjoys his siesta amidst the sounds of city traffic.

This writer is yet to spot anyone performing this great and versatile art while walking on the road, but would not be surprised if it happened. Until then, he hopes you’ll join him in keeping a sharp eye out for more sleeping virtuosos in Mumbai. Enjoy the performance.

(This article was published in Hindustan Times - HT Cafe 05 April 2008)

Friday, March 21, 2008

Nightlife in Mumbai - taking friends around

- by Deepa Krishnan
Suba and Lankesh, our Srilankan friends, were here for a couple of days. Lankesh is an easy-going guy, and his wife Suba is a very interesting woman who speaks her mind. We've always gotten along famously. Since the two of them wanted to party, we decided to show them the city's nightlife.
"I've heard so much about Enigma", said Lankesh on Day One. "Why don't we start with that?"
"Yes", said my equally easy-going husband. "Let's go to Enigma".
I was running a temperature after the day's shopping (Suba and I spent a small fortune on shoes, belts and bags at Linking Road). So I dropped out of the Enigma trip, and the three of them went.
Suba being Suba, was dressed to her eyebrows. Lankesh is a pretty natty dresser as well, so I coaxed my husband into looking presentable. After the three of them left, I went to bed with an aspirin. I didn't regret it one bit. I'm a thorough Enigma-hater, so in any case, I would have spoilt it for them. At breakfast next morning, Suba was scathing. "No class", she pronounced. "What weird creeps we met! And the music! Terrible!"
It was time to salvage the city's reputation. "Let me show you some different places tonight", I said. "Maybe we can go bar-hopping". So at nine p.m. on Day Two, we went to Shiro for drinks. The minute we stepped in, Suba said "This is more like it!". And I knew the evening was off to a good start. The bartender was attentive, the service brilliant. The starters were excellent. From Shiro, we went to the Dome at the Intercontinental, because I wanted to show them Marine Drive at night. No disappointments there either. The red bar had a nice little buzz to it, the views were outstanding, and the outdoor seating fabulous.
And then we took them to see Mumbai at night - the Gateway of India, the heritage district...and ended up at Indigo for dinner. We got ourselves a table at Indigo, but the menu didn't work for us that night. After all the drinking, everyone wanted something spicy! So we bid goodbye to the still smiling waiter at Indigo, and went off to find Bade Miya.
"You mean we can go walking?", asked Suba, when we left the car behind. "It's quite late, you know."
"It's just the next street from here", I said, "Besides, there will be a lot of people there even at this time."
So we went there on foot, and of course, Bade Miya was a hive of activity even at midnight. See for yourself.
Crowd outside, eating off car bonnet at midnight. One family had a 3 year old sitting on top the car.
The "Miya" of Bade Miya, counting cash. He gave me a dirty look when he saw the camera, but didn't say anything.

A closer look at the kebabs

The roomali rotis that the kebabs are folded into

My dashing husband, with Suba. Bade Miya has now expanded into the building across the street. So while you can eat standing outside, you can also have a sit down meal. We didn't want to stand, not on high heels!

Lankesh and me

Waiter Number 5, our Man at Bademiya. This little card, by the way, is ALSO the menu.

Ta-da! Flip the card around, and this is what Bademiya offers! No prices listed. None needed.

Service is quick, and the chutneys that the roomali comes with are just heavenly.

On the way home, we rounded things off nicely with the legendary strawberries-and-cream at Haji Ali. Suba was all praise for it.

We got back home at 2:00 in the morning, happy and full. I realised that seeing Mumbai through the eyes of a close friend, a first time visitor, is real fun.

Monday, March 17, 2008

The Visiting Grandparents

- by Deepa Krishnan
Flying as often as I do, there's a special class of Indians I always see at the international airport - the Visiting Grandparents. They are usually very respectable looking couples, solidly middle-class, off to meet their children and grandchildren in the USA. The women are often in kanjeevarams; the men in 80's style shirts and trousers.

If they're first time flyers, they look distinctly uncomfortable, clutching travel documents in rexine pouches and looking around anxiously. My heart goes out to them as they battle the chaos of the airport, searching for Immigration, worried sick that the plane will somehow take off without them.

But if they're veteran flyers, ah, then it's an entirely different story. The veteran Grandmother has sensible closed shoes peeking from under the kanjeevaram, and a bold look in her eye as she drags Grandpa along. "Check-in is that-a-way, don't you remember?” she says in an exasperated tone. Grandpa argues about it a little, but then gives up and trundles along, pushing the baggage trolley. He has a sweatshirt that says 'Princeton', and shoes from Nike. The rexine pouch is still there, but the airport is no longer a scary place.

On one of my flights, I chatted with an elderly Tamil couple who looked like veterans. They were comfortable and relaxed as they waited for the flight to London.

"My daughter is in Cincinnati", said the gentleman. "We're going to see her".

"Oh, isn't it winter now?" I asked.

"Yes", he said "she was talking to me last week, and she sent me photos of snow in her backyard."

His wife smiled at me and said "Nowadays everything is on the computer. Skype is wonderful, you know? I don't understand this computer stuff, but my husband does". And she looked at her husband with a fond smile.

"So how long are you going to stay?" I asked.

"We have a six-month visa", said the lady. "My daughter has two small children, so I am going to help her."

"Do you enjoy it?" I asked her husband in my famous friendly-yet-nosy sort of way. "Or is it difficult?"

"The winter is difficult", he said frankly. "It gets dark early. Sometimes I want to run out of the house straight to India. But otherwise, it’s really nice to spend time with my grandchildren."

"He doesn't have much to do around the house", said his wife. "That's why he gets bored."

"She wants me to learn cooking at this age", he said, a little irritably.

"Why not learn?", she retorted. "Do I not change my habits when I go there? Do I go saree shopping or to the temple, or to meet my friends? We must all adjust."

I quickly changed the subject. "What does your daughter do?" I asked.

"Oh," they said, beaming, "She's a senior manager in telecom engineering, at Cincinnati Bell."

"She's just got a promotion, you see, so now she has to travel a lot"

"And the children are still small."

"And her husband also works very late hours."

"So we offered to help."

"Poor things, they're really struggling."

"Six months we stay in the US, then six months his parents stay."

"His parents can't handle the winter, my son-in-law's mother has arthritis. So they go in summer, and we go in winter."

The flight was announced, and they got up and walked away. "We're really looking forward to seeing the grandchildren", said the lady, smiling at me before she left.

As I watched them go, I wondered what their six months would be like. Would the gentleman get grouchy as the months went by? Would the lady miss her friends and social circle? Like all other things in life, I guess being a grandparent is a mixed blessing. There is the delight of hearing a grandchild speak, of watching them grow - things you probably didn't have the time for when your own children were young. But there's also a price to be paid if your children live far away. For this couple, being with their family also meant being cooped indoors in a strange place with hostile weather.

But what is it that makes us value family more than our own selves? Perhaps it is the peculiar social conditioning associated with children and child-rearing in India. Children - the continuation of the family line - are considered somehow above everything else. Detailed discussions of what the child ate, when and how that passed out of the digestive system, what the child drew in playschool...almost no detail is too small to be discussed minutely. Naturally, grandparents are happy that they are valued, useful, and still have a say in such an important part of the family. Internal and external conditioning makes grandparents willingly sacrifice their free time.

And what of the daughter in Cincinnati? Does she feel guilty, commandeering her old parents’ time? Is she doing the right thing? A friend of mine, who lived in the US for many years, says that Indian couples living abroad use their parents as "cheap baby-sitters".

He had this to say: "Here is a message to young Indian couples living abroad - grow up, loosen your wallets and show some respect to your old parents who dedicated their lives to bringing you up. At the very least, before you make a decision to have children, ask your parents if they would be willing to spend miserable months abroad to raise them for you, while you live the good life, and build that fat bank balance."

Strong words! But perhaps he is not being fully fair. Most grandparents *do* want to go help their children. They see it as a continuation of their duty, their dharma. It is natural to them. And to bring a bit of gender politics into this: if you're the mother of a working daughter, you definitely have a big desire to help. Mainly because you know that it is very hard for women anywhere to keep their careers going after children, and if you don't help your daughter, then all that effort your daughter put into her MBA or whatever will just get washed away in nappies and detergent.

My parents helped raise my daughter, because I went back to work two months after she was born. I am not ashamed of asking my mother for help, although we had the means to employ a nanny. This was the right decision for my daughter. Later, I experimented with day care as well. But irrespective of how good the day care system was, it was no substitute for family.

I do not think I was being unfair or selfish. Why? Because I know for certain that I will do for my daughter, what my mother did for me. And that's what makes all the difference. When you pay it forward, the cycle becomes fair.

My mom says nothing worthwhile comes without some pain. For the blessing of children, women go through the pain of labour. Tasty food is usually not healthy food. Travel to exotic places comes with a fat bill and weird food. It’s all about balance. When I become a grandparent, I'll gladly pay the asking price for the sound of baby laughter. What I received as a daughter, I'll give as a mother.