Wednesday, April 23, 2008

A Goddess for the Summer

- by Deepa Krishnan

The fierce April heat brings with it rashes, skin diseases and the dreaded pox.
Before it was eradicated in India, smallpox was one of the most feared diseases of summer. Chicken pox is still a big worry for Indian parents. Many communities believe it is the wrath of the Goddess Mariamman that brings on these diseases, and that she must be propitiated to ward off the pox.

In Mumbai, a small community from Andhra Pradesh worships the Goddess Mariamman every summer, seeking protection from smallpox, chickenpox and all forms of disease. My housemaid is from Andhra Pradesh, so I went with her to see the annual Mariamman ceremony. Mum came along, of course, to find out what it was all about.

The first thing we saw (heard) were the drums. Three men came walking from a little lane, and posed for me.

Then the women emerged from several lanes, carrying offerings for the goddess. Their bowls had a sort of thin gruel, made from ragi and buttermilk, and flavoured with chillies. Ragi, or finger millet came to India 4000 years ago from Ethiopia. It is now a staple part of the local diet.

There were neem leaves in the ragi gruel. Neem has medicinal properties and is used all over the country as a cure for chickenpox.

Several children and young girls wore skirts of neem, as protection from the pox.

A temporary tent had been erected, where everyone gathered with their offerings.

Inside the tent, there was a little shrine. In the villages of South India, there's a distinctly different looking Mariamman. But this is Bombay! There is no consecrated idol of the goddess here, so a popular representation of Durga was housed inside the tent, with the customary trident.

Mariamman is a proto-Dravidian goddess, not a part of mainstream Vaishnavism or Saivisam. But as usual, both Saivaites and Vaishnavites have appropriated her, because she has such a large following.
To get things going, there was a dance. Two male performers had come from a little village in Andhra Pradesh. They were not just dancers, they were more like shamans, intermediaries between the Goddess and the rest. They said a little prayer and tied anklets on their feet.

The dancing lasted a short while, but it was energetic and graceful.

After the dancing, there was a brief prayer ritual. An elder from the community performed the arati. The prayers to Mariamman are "non-agama" i.e. not from the sacred Vedic texts. Brahmins do not conduct prayers to this Goddess, except in a couple of very large Mariamman temples in Tamil Nadu, where the worship has morphed into a fully agamic tradition.

After the prayer, a desi fowl was offered as sacrifice to please the Goddess and ask her protection.

This pot would be taken around the city after the sacrifice. It was filled with water, turmeric and neem leaves, and decorated with turmeric, red sindoor, neem, lemon and flowers. In Bombay, this vessel goes to various Tamil and Andhra localities in Dharavi.

The ragi gruel was then served to everyone as prasadam. It was delicious and cool, by the way. There were a couple of neem leaves in mine, bitter as expected. I ate them, mindful of all the medicinal properties neem has.

Customary group photo at the end of the day. This is a section of women from my maid's community. They are Yadavas, a Kshatriya caste who are traditionally cowherds and shepherds. My maid Vasantha is on the extreme left, in an orange saree and red blouse.

(Modified version published in the Hindustan Times HT Cafe City Beat page May 10 2008)

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Desi pickle, foreign spice

- By Deepa Krishnan
The green mangoes I bought from the market are now safely pickled. This sort of pickle doesn't keep, so it has to be polished off quickly. We've been eating it everyday with rice and yoghurt.

Here's what went into the making of the pickle: Fenugreek, sesame, red chili powder, salt, groundnut oil, and last but not least, asafoetida or hing.

Have you smelt asafoetida? Aza - resin, foetida - stinking! When you fry it in oil or ghee though, it has a tangy sort of smell, like onion and garlic. It is a great substitute for onions, so it is used widely by the Jains in Mumbai, and by South Indian Hindu Brahmins who don't eat onions.

Hing used to come in little smelly pieces, that you soaked in water to soften and extract the essence. These days it comes in powdered form, in white plastic containers. A clever scientist at the Mysore Central Food Technology Research Institute figured out how to make hing powder. I'm sure millions of grateful Tamil maamis would give him daily thanks, if only they knew who he was.

Indians are the largest consumers of asafoetida in the world. But strangely, all of India's supply of asafoetida comes from Iran and Afghanistan. The damn thing doesn't grow here, I don't know why.

Laljee Godhoo & Company, they guys who make LG Hing, are a household name. They are an old trading company, established in 1894. In my fertile imagination, I have LG Senior doing a long arduous trek through cold mountain passes, to forge trade links with bearded strangers in Afghanistan. In reality, it was possibly an adventurous Pathan who came to Mumbai, bringing with him a smelly yet precious cargo of hing. I've always wondered why there were Pathans roaming around all over India. Now I know one good reason at least!

Today LG imports the raw stuff, and then compounds it in their factory in Andheri, Mumbai. Three generations of their family have been selling hing, and they have 70% of the Indian market. A nice but smelly business to be in, huh?

Monday, April 21, 2008

Prasad at Mumbadevi

- by Deepa Krishnan
In the little lane behind the Mumbadevi temple, doodh pedhas are still made the old fashioned way.
Milk is mixed with sugar, heated and stirred constantly, until it thickens and acquires the colour of a creamy latte.
It is then hand-rolled into little offerings for the Goddess Mumba. Not that she hangs on to them permanently - she merely blesses them, and the priest at the temple hands them right back to you as holy prasad.
Prasad or prasadam is a Sanskrit word which refers to any material substance that is first offered to the deity, and then consumed (usually fruits, sweets, flowers). The process of offering is called naivedya. Once accepted, when the prasad is returned to the devotee, it has the deity's blessing residing within it. So every temple visit usually has a two-way transaction in offer something to the Gods, and you get it back enriched with blessings. What's more, when you go back home, you also get to share it with friends and family.
In the early Rig Vedic texts, though, prasad was something else altogether. It was originally a sort of inner mental state experienced by the Gods, or by wise sages, characterised by a spontaneous generosity and a bestowing of boons. The morphing of this mental state into a material substance appeared only in later texts. Perhaps devotees needed something concrete to take back from the daily ritual of prayer at the temple. Or perhaps this very pragmatic religion understood that religion should nourish not just the soul but also the body! Personally, I like to think that the ancients discovered guilt-free eating many years ago, and institutionalised it into edible prasad. At the Mumbadevi temple, you get to take prasad home and eat it happily, safe in the knowledge that you're acquiring merit with every calorie!
Coming back to the pedha - to me, the doodh pedha has always been a very comforting sort of sweet. Perhaps it is the simplicity of the whole thing - just milk and sugar, really, stirred patiently for hours. The texture is not too grainy, and not too soft. It is a perfectly balanced fudgy smoothness that melts when you bite into it.
Some pedhas have dry fruits and spices for flavouring. Cardamom is popular, so is saffron (kesar peda). But honestly, I like my pedhas simple. Milk and Sugar. That's all I need. Why mess with something that works so well?
If you go on the Mumbai Magic bazaar walk, make a pedha offering to the Goddess. And tell me if you like your prasad plain or flavoured!

(Published in the Hindustan Times HT Cafe May 3, 2008)

Friday, April 11, 2008

The Teacher Taught

- by Janaki Krishnan
With more than three decades experience as a teacher, dealing with students ranging from ten to twenty years, I had developed a sense of pride in my teaching abilities. I thought I could teach or coach any student for an examination - all I needed was the prescribed text book, and a model question paper.
But lately, my attempts at teaching my ten year old granddaughter her CBSE curriculum at home have taught me some new truths.
I have come to realise this: teaching in an educational institution, and teaching at home have nothing in common! The theories in Child Psychology I learnt in B. Ed (I got a distinction) have been tried and found sorely lacking.

My successful teaching tricks - a serious tone, a stern face, and a cultivated reputation for strictness - have no place at home. The only things that really work with my granddaughter are saama - sweet words and negotiation, and daana - outright bribery! My chances of success are better if I approach the unwilling learner lovingly, make requests, promise rewards, and allow adjustments and suggestions in the study plan. It is also better for me to turn a blind eye to little time-wasting ploys - for example, lengthy visits to the toilet, forays to the fridge for sweets, or a chatty phone call to a friend.

But that's not all I've learned. Teaching my 10-year old granddaughter has also taught me that the old saying "One thing at a time and that done well" is not a universal truth. Kids these days do a lot more things than they used to: they juggle many activities and have a lot on their minds other than schoolwork. Today's children are smarter and more knowledgeable in many areas - it is the grandparents who are ignorant. Giving children space to grow and think in new ways may be the best gift a grandmother can give. To quote Kahlil Gibran:

Your children are not your children
They are sons and daughters of
life's longing for itself.
You may give them love,
but not your thoughts,
for their thoughts dwell
in the house of tomorrow
which you cannot visit.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

A thousand shades of Mango-Green

- by Deepa Krishnan
Mum and I went to the market this weekend. The little green mangoes were there in all their splendour, tempting me.
"I want to make mangakari", I said to mum. Mangakari, pickled green mango cut into little bits, is a summer favourite of mine. Snazzes up a meal like nothing else and leaves everyone wishing for more. So we set off to find the perfect green mango.
The mangoes were in different sizes - tiny, not-so-tiny, medium and largish. I walked around with mum looking for a largish size that would still have the special taste of unripe green. We rejected several larger mangoes that looked as if they would be sort of sweetish inside.
Finally we found a vendor who had just the perfect shade of green! He handpicked them for me - they were a little smaller than I would have wanted, so we'd have more effort in cutting, but at least they would be delicious.
And now to make the pickle. Watch this space!

Published in the Hindustan Times - HT Cafe - April 11, 2008

Saturday, April 05, 2008

Elephants and cities just don't mix

- by Aishwarya Pramod

Have you ever seen an elephant on the roads and thought, “I wonder how it feels, being forced to walk on tar roads, in the hot sun, among potholes and a crass cacophony of car horns…”

If you’ve dismissed your concerns with “Oh, whatever, I’m sure that elephant is fine”, please think again.

In the July of 2007, a ban was implemented on elephants on the streets of Mumbai. Why? Because the poor elephants are often mistreated. They are mostly underfed (out of 24 hours in a day, wild elephants spend 18 foraging for food…basically, they eat a lot). City elephants suffer from skin ailments, eye cataracts, spend most of their time chained up and unable to move and have a really sad and boring life, separated from their loved ones at a really young age. (Yeah, loved ones. Elephants have a complex social network, and they even mourn their dead relatives.) Plus, despite their bulk and size, elephants have delicate feet, and can’t walk on the hot city roads. Basically, elephants and cities just don't mix well.

It’s really great that Mumbai authorities have banned this and tried to make provision for their rehabilitation. It has greatly improved their lives. However, people continue to use elephants for begging in many parts of India and I really think it should stop. There are 3600 working elephants in India, 1000 of which work in Assam, in the logging industry. A working life is too cruel for them, and I hope that this practice will soon stop for good.

(This post was published in the Hindustan Times - HT Cafe, City Beat, City Culture page on April 6, 08. Retitled "Jumbo Walk")