Tuesday, July 29, 2008


- by Janaki Krishnan
The news in the morning paper caught my eye. It had a cheerful photograph of South Africa's first black president, with the caption "Mandela turns 90". On his birthday, he received goodwill messages from all over the world.

I was reminded of how birthdays are celebrated in my Tamil Brahmin community. There are three birthdays that are traditionally celebrated with pomp and splendour - the first birthday, the sixtieth birthday, and the eightieth birthday.

I still remember how joyously we celebrated our daughter Deepa's andu-niravu (first year-completion) with a visit to the temple, an ayush-homam (a prayer ritual for long life) and a grand feast for friends and relatives. A professional photographer was hired, the child was garlanded, and we all posed for photos.

My daughter Deepa's first birthday - outside our old Sion building

I remember my father's sixtieth birthday equally well. His sashti-abda-poorti (sixthieth year completion) was done the traditional way, by conducting a second marriage of him and my mother. My mother wore the traditional nine-yards saree, and amidst the chanting of mantras by the priests, my father tied the yellow thiru-mangalyam (wedding thread) around my mother's neck exactly as he had done on their wedding day.

My father's sixtieth birthday was celebrated along with another important event - my grandfather's eightieth birthday. For the eightieth birthday, children conduct a sadabhishekam (hundredth-year completion) ceremony. After the religious rites are over, everyone queues up with offerings of fruits and gifts to get the blessings of the Grand Old Man.

My father's sixtieth birthday at Matunga. He is standing next to my mother. My grandfather is seated in front.

Outside the sphere of religion, the birthdays that I really enjoy celebrating are those of my ex-colleagues. We are a gang of teachers (many of us 70 and above) who celebrate each others birthdays by organising get-togethers.

It is a day when we set aside our usual responsibilities and worries and live in a different world. We bring gifts and delicacies for the 'Birthday Baby'. We talk, laugh and eat, remniscing and reliving old incidents. We tell each other funny anecdotes, and enjoy the birthday to the fullest, singing 'Happy Birthday to You' as loudly as we can!

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Elephant Mania at Lalbaug

I was driving past Lalbaug today, and here's what I saw: Complete and Total Elephant Mania!
They were assembling several more elephants in the compound nearby (at least 7-8 more). I think they're going to place them all along the road. If you go over the Lalbaug flyover, you'll get a great view of all the elephants being lined up. So hurry! Find some excuse to drive on that route!
Looks like this year's Ganesh Chaturthi is going to be very grand indeed. Lalbaugcha Raja is truly going to be a raja!

Monday, July 14, 2008

Fabric Therapy

Let's face it - spending two hours examining silks of various colours and shades can be very, very therapeutic.
Don't believe me? On a dull rainy day, when you're feeling down, head over to any of Mumbai's large covered fabric markets. Settle down in one of the many little shops, and watch as the magic unfolds. Service is unfailingly excellent, and the men at the stores have endless patience. Oh and they also have surprisingly good taste, and an expert eye for colour. They'll help you find exactly what you want.
You don't need more than 500 rupees in your pocket, so this has got to be the cheapest therapy ever. And I promise, you'll come out of market with a little jaunty something in your walk!
My personal favourite is Mangaldas Market, where there are rows and rows of little shops, housed inside one larged covered bazaar. While we were inside the bazaar, it started pouring outside. The rain made a pleasing tattoo on the tall roof; I felt snug and dry as I examined yards and yards of fabric.
The nicest thing about Mangaldas, actually, is that you can have a thali lunch at Rajdhani after your little shopping expedition. This is the 'original' Rajdhani; the first restaurant that was set up before it became such a popular chain. It is just across the road from Mangaldas and is airconditioned, thank God. These days they have a guy in a turban to open the door.
By the time we finished lunch, we were in that pleasant daze that only good shopping and great food can bring on. Honestly, this has got to be among the best ways to spend a rainy afternoon in Mumbai! Go on! Try it! And if you need motivation, here are more pictures from my Fabric Therapy session.

Post Script, 2013: The Rajdhani restaurant is now called Revival, and the thali still rocks.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Ganesh Festival - to each his own

- By Janaki Krishnan
It is mid-July, and the city is getting ready for the mega-festival of Maharashtra - Ganesh Chaturthi. As the festival draws closer, more and more large idols such as this one will become visible in makeshift sheds all over the city.

The Ganesh festival means different things to different people. At its basest level, it is just another opportunity for fun and frolic, and an excuse to keep away from any kind of productive activity for the two weeks of the festival. On the positive side, it is an opportunity for people in every building and locality to come together. Groups are formed throughout the city, collections are made, and streets are swept clean. Youngsters participate in bringing and decorating the idol, distributing prasad, and finally immersing the idol.
In many Maharashtrian families, this is the time when sons and daughters living afar get together. Although it is a religious occasion, it is also a happy day of family togetherness.

For the ritual-minded, the Ganesh festival offers the opportunity for the purification of the mind through various prescribed methods - aartis, keertans, pujas, namsmaran and other practices, done according to Vedic ritual. At the big common Ganesh mandaps (tents), serpentine queues of people to receive the blessings of Ganesh are a common sight. The biggest of these queues is the Lalbaugcha Raja (pic below). The Wadala Ganpati of the GSB community, the Ganpati at Matunga decorated by the flower sellers, and the one in Tilak Nagar (whose mandap is usually a replica of some famous ancient temple) also draw huge crowds.

Among all the noise and merrymaking of the festival, there are also a blessed few who see the real Ganesha. In meditating on Ganesha, these seekers do not focus on his form, or his fondness for sweets - they focus instead on his Real nature. For them, he is Satchidananda (True Knowledge and Bliss), Parabrahmaswarupa or Omkareswara. Through such meditation comes Self-Realisation, and the seeker becomes one with the Eternal Truth.

If you're in Mumbai during August/September, you can join us in celebrating this festival. For two weeks, you can enjoy the colour and gaiety of the processions and the tents, or attend the evening aarti. On Visarjan day (the last day of immersion in the sea), you can join the entire city as we bid goodbye to Ganesha, and ask him to come again soon next year!

- Posted by Deepa on behalf of Janaki, Published in HT Cafe July 20 2008

Sunday, July 06, 2008

Some things should not be forgotten

- by Deepa Krishnan
My friend Shoba was in Bombay last week, and she invited me to a book reading at Crossword. It was Robin David's 'City of Fear', set in the backdrop of the Godhra Hindu-Muslim riots.

I don't particularly like book readings. I speed-read most books, letting the story and the mood come to me in flashes. Except when I'm telling a bedtime story, the idea of s-l-o-w-l-y reading a book aloud doesn't hold much appeal.

But Robin David's reading held my interest, mainly because it was a first person account of the 2002 riots in Ahmedabad. What better way to experience it, than by listening to the author tell it in his own voice?

The book reading at Crossword. Robin David is in the centre, in black

City of Fear is set in Guptanagar, a Hindu area of Ahmedabad. On one side of Guptanagar is the Muslim locality of Juhapura. Robin and his mother live in a house on the border of the two localities. As communal riots erupt, the area is placed under curfew. Robin is Jewish, and therefore an outsider to the Hindu-Muslim conflict, except for one little technicality - he is circumcised.

The fear and anxiety of living in a curfew area come through beautifully in the book. Robin worries about running into a mob, about having his pants pulled down, about being hacked to death. He quarrels with his old friend Jayendrasinh, a staunch Hindu, who refers to Muslims as 'those bandiyas' (referring to their circumcision). His Hindu barber, with whom he has a long-standing relationship, turns hostile after failing to understand the difference between Judaism and Islam. His Parsi friend witnesses the stripping and brutal killing of Geetaben, a Hindu woman with a Muslim husband. Even walking through the neighbourhood is difficult for Robin - groups of people cluster outside houses, eyeing strangers with suspicion. He makes it a point to wave to familiar faces, so that he can pass safely.

In the charged atmosphere of rioting Ahmedabad, Robin is unable to stay secular - he must take sides, just to survive. As relationships fray, and old friendships are betrayed, Robin and his mother leave their home in Guptanagar.

City of Fear is more than just a first-person account of how riots dehumanize people. Robin manages to weave several other threads into the story. He writes about the devastating Gujarat earthquake in 2001, just a year before the riots, and how it damages his house. It is this double-whammy of destruction, one natural and one man-made, that drives him from his Guptanagar home. When he moves with his mother to a small apartment in a 'safe' area, they have to leave behind not just old memories and bric-a-brac, but also their dog Ora. Living in the apartment is particularly difficult for Robin's mother, who develops a fear of heights after the earthquake.

Another recurring thread in the book is the concept of home. Where does Robin belong? Where do the Jews belong, in a country that doesn't even know they exist? Robin tells of their family's repeated migrations to Israel - they come back every time, convinced that they belong in India. Guptanagar is their home, but the riots destroy that sense of belonging. In leaving Guptanagar, they lose more than just a home.

The book also is a painfully honest account of Robin's life, his girlfriends, his relationship with his mother, and his awareness of his body's defects (he is hemiphelgic, one half of his body is not quite in synch with the other). At times, the navel-gazing can be a bit tiresome, but that does not detract from the appeal of this very readable book.

At the book reading, someone asked Robin why he wrote this book. "A lot of people say we should forget the past and move on", he answered. "But some things cannot be forgotten. They should not be forgotten." As someone who lived through similar riots in Bombay, I couldn't agree more.

Friday, July 04, 2008

The Ash Gourd and I

- by Janaki Krishnan

The sight of tender green ash gourd piled up at Matunga market brings back many old memories. The elavan or the ash gourd has been a constant part of my life, through childhood, marriage, motherhood and old age.

My connection with the ash gourd started in the forties, when I was a kid studying at SIES School. For lunch, my mother used to make delicious molagootal - a bland preparation of ash gourd, yam, drumstick, beans, and carrots. The vegetables were boiled with salt, and to this was added tuar dal and coconut paste. We ate it hot with rice and ghee; and sometimes spiced it up with vadu-manga (tender mango) or lemon pickle.

The ash gourd was also the staple vegetable for my mother's other Kerala speciality, olan (made with ash gourd and pumpkin).

After my marriage, I lived in Kerala for a year. I was always fascinated by the sight of giant sized white gourds, tied together and suspended from the wooden ceiling in the living room. Since we lived in a remote village with no access to markets, people stored ash gourds for use throughout the year. I learnt then that the giant ash gourd or kumbalangai can last upto 6 months without spoiling.

We came back to Mumbai from Kerala. When my first child was born at Bhatvadekar's Nursing Home in King's Circle, I remember my mother standing by my bedside with molagooshiyam, a preparation of ash gourd, moong dal, salt and pepper, garnished with coconut oil. I used to gulp down mounds of rice with the molagooshiyam, enjoying the divine aroma of fresh coconut oil and pepper.

But it was only at the age of 40, when I undertook a Nature Cure course, that I understood the medicinal qualities of this wonder vegetable. Naturopaths prescribe a glass of raw ash gourd juice in the morning on an empty stomach for eliminating toxins in the body. It is especially recommended for people with chest and bronchial congestion. It is easily digestible by both children and the elderly.

In my sixties, when I visited my grandchildren in Chennai, I saw yet another use for the ash gourd. Huge mounds of ash gourds were heaped on the pavements of Chennai for sale. These were bought by people to ward off the evil eye. Shopkeepers ritually circled their shops holding these gourds, and then smashed them on the ground to dispel evil.

Now in my seventies, I have invented new ways of continuing my affair with the ash gourd. For dinner sometimes, I cook up my own version of a spicy ash gourd sabzi. I saute onions and tomatoes with green chilli, add capsicum and ash gourd to it, and throw in a little bit of garam masala for taste. It is absolutely delicious with hot phulkas.

In these days of inflation and soaring vegetable prices, I am happy that my dear ash gourd, tender and green, is available in Mumbai throughout the year. A two kilo gourd costs just twenty five rupees.
Long live the ash gourd!

(posted by Deepa on behalf of Janaki)