Sunday, December 21, 2008

I watch a hockey match

Last month, my husband and I went to the Mumbai Hockey Association’s stadium to watch kids from Akanksha Foundation play a match.
A glorious bright Sunday.
My husband is a huge sports enthusiast, and has been speaking to Akanksha about helping with their sports initiatives. So we went to take a look at some of their efforts.
It was just a local match, so the stands were empty except for a few of us who came to cheer the Akanksha team. I found myself enjoying the sense of space.
Some of us Akanksha supporters under the cool pavillion
Scoreboard at the Mahindra Stadium
The match started out with high hopes, but as the game progressed, there was much moaning and agonizing over every lost goal (the other team had much better, more seasoned players!). The samosa-walla provided a very welcome diversion.
Five rupees for two samosas. Extra chutney for free.
As everyone queued up for samosas, I realized once again how much I like going to small local club-level competitions. There is something homely and warm about cheering for players who you know. It’s even nicer when you know the people in the audience and can exchange “expert” comments or wisecracks. Compared to “big league”, serious, competitive sport (NBA Playoffs, cricket matches), I find that this sort of almost intimate sporting experience is much more satisfying for me.
To tell the truth, I am not a big fan of commercially organised sport. I’m not sure why - perhaps I don’t like the like the advertising and sponsorships and media frenzy. Or perhaps I don’t like the way huge numbers of sports fans become polarized, especially when games are played across countries. (Did you watch the Olympics? Surely people don’t need MORE ways to pit themselves against each other and prove that “we” are better than “them”?).

But I suspect the real reason that I don’t like organized sports is because I understand all too well that sports is a substitute for war. When I watch an India-Pak match on TV, or football hooliganism, it reminds me that humans are an aggressive, unattractive, jingoistic species.

Of course, it isn’t as black and white as that. Games teach us how to cooperate with each other to achieve common goals. They teach discipline and hard work. They help us learn how to handle defeat.

More important, they teach us how to overcome odds. On a recent trip to Masai Mara, we were on a long dusty drive between two villages, when I saw a long-distance runner on a training run. I don’t think he had access to fancy equipment or expensive coaching, but he wasn’t letting that stop him. When we passed him, running alone under the vast Kenyan sky, he raised his hands and smiled a broad smile – it was both a greeting and a victory sign. To me, this is among the most attractive features of sports – that it is a great leveler. Rich or poor, urban or rural - if you have sporting talent, that’s what really counts.

In India, where gross inequalities are embedded into the societal framework, sports can offer a new ray of hope for poor children with little or no access to the benefits of an English education.
And of course, sports can create a new sense of self-worth. As the first match drew to an end, I watched a new team of boys from Akanksha get ready for the second match. As they kidded around, showing off their moves, I couldn't help thinking how happy they looked. Some of them didn't have the right shoes, or the right socks or ankle guards, but their smiles were bright and they were on top of the world.

The Akanksha motto "Aspire. Achieve. Be the Change."

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Cuisine tour photos

I always love it when I get photographs in my email. The latest ones in my collection are from Katie and Allyson, two guests of mine, who sent pictures of their recent cooking session. They were part of a group visiting Mumbai on business, but they stayed back a couple of extra days to do some private tours.

The cuisine tour was led by Arundhati, who is a wonderful cook, and whose lovely apartment was the venue for the cooking. Arundhati has published a very nice cookbook (that's her in the centre, signing autographed copies of her book for each of them).

The cuisine that Katie and Allyson tried was South Indian - a Tamil Brahmin meal, to be precise. Before the cooking session, they went to Matunga Market to look at a traditional bazaar and to understand the basics of Indian cooking. Freni, their guide for the tour, explained different ingredients and spices, and also the ayurvedic /philosophical classification of food in India. They also bought banana leaves, to use as plates for the meal.

After the bazaar walk, they went to Arundhati's house, where Katie and Allyson both tried their hand at making vadas and dosas. I was there as well, because Arundathi lives almost next door to me, so it was easy for me to join in. Arundhati did most of the cooking, but it was fun for me to watch Katie and Allyson experiment with Indian cooking techniques and compare it with their cooking back home.

It was a very pleasant afternoon, with great food and lovely conversation. The menu, in case you want to know: Masala Dosa, Lentil Vada, Coconut Chutney, Sambar, Coconut Rice, Vegetable Rice, and Kesari. We all ate too much, I think! The coconut-rice was absolutely divine, and the tamarind in the sambar gave it a special tangy kick that we all loved. (The shallots and spices in the photo are some of the other ingredients for the sambar).

Arundhati brought out a photo album of her traditional religious house-warming ceremony, and we discussed the costumes and rituals. Arundathi's teenage daughter (who was Chief Taster for the day!) and 20-something son added to the family atmosphere.

Katie and Allyson had done city tours with Mumbai Magic before that, but I think they enjoyed this one more. I think it's because it was very much like visiting friends; they could go to someone's house and really see what life in Mumbai is all about. When the tour ended and the goodbyes were said, I was very pleased with myself for organising it!

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Hair secrets

- By Janaki Krishnan

Kerala women are known for their long, lustrous black hair. Their secret? Traditional hair care methods.

I remember my childhood days in Matunga, when Tuesdays and Fridays were "oil bath" days. We children would gather in the bathroom, and take turns to sit on the large stone seat in the centre. My mother would massage til oil, heated with pepper and cumin, into our scalp. It was called neer-piditham - both cumin and pepper are belived to have heating properties, and were meant to keep us from catching cold. There was always a lot of rush-rush-rush on oil bath days because all of us had to get ready for school.

The oil was washed off with a home-made shampoo - we would pluck tali leaves and grind that with shikakai to wash off the oil. If the leaves were not available, then the kanji starch from the previous night's rice was used with shikakai.

As I grew up, I had neither the time nor the inclination to look after my hair. In fact, I've never shared the common belief that long thick hair is an important aspect of female beauty. Maybe it's because I've never had long thick hair! My usual retort is that you can either grow grey cells, or you can grow your hair! And I usually conveniently point at my youngest sister, who is the brainy one in the family, and has short hair.

But at the age of 70, I became a little worried as I experienced severe hair fall. It was then that I spotted, in a Tamil magazine, a recipe for a hair oil that guaranteed dark, long hair. I've adapted that recipe to my needs, and now my hair care routine includes this oil. I do feel that the hair loss has stopped.

Here is how my recipe works:

In a pan, collect the following: shoeflower (you can use both the leaves and the flower - if you don't find the flower, just use leaves), fenugreek, curry leaves, pepper powder and cumin powder. Heat the ingredients until the leaves become a little dry.

Add coconut oil and heat over a low flame. When you see oil bubbling (usually a white froth forms), then switch off the flame.

Let the oil cool, preferably overnight. Strain and store in a cool place. Apply on your scalp 30 minutes before a shower.

The original recipe I saw in the magazine also had henna leaves in it. But I don't want my hair to change colour, so I don't use henna. Also, henna has cooling properties, and it's easy to catch a cold when oil is infused with henna.

Another aspect is the pan itself. Traditionally, a heavy iron pan is used for heating hair oil. The oil is left in the pan to cool overnight, it is believed that the iron reacts with the oil, adding some of its properties to the oil.

So now you have it - my secret recipe for hair care! If you do try it, let me know the results!

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Finding the magic

On Saturday we went to this new club called Magic, in Worli.
Very nice if you want a quiet sophisticated place for a couple of drinks after work. High ceilings, and tasteful decor. Cocktails were very decent, although my husband swears there was no alcohol in his Jack Daniels ("How come I'm still standing after so many rounds?!").
The trouble with Magic is that after 10:30 p.m., the teeny-boppers take over and the music gets downright terrible. There were six of us, and not one of us liked the music. Admittedly, none of us were teenagers, but honestly, even teeny-boppers shouldn't have to put up with that kind of house music.
By 11:30 we decided enough was enough, and made a quick escape to Worli Sea Face. There were several cars parked already, we found some space for ours. Families were out strolling, there were couples, and groups of friends. The pavement had been dug up. "Perhaps they're doing it up, like Marine Drive", said Rajeev.

There was a half-moon glimmering on the water. On the horizon, we saw ships, and a curve of land glittering with light. I clicked several photos, but none of them did any justice to the moon or the waves or the cityscape.

At midnight, a coffee vendor came along on a cycle.

"Kaunsa coffee hai?" asked Roopa. What coffee is this?

He showed her a branded sachet. "Instant hai", he said, in an accent that placed him firmly as a first generation migrant from UP.

He served us coffee in little plastic cups, at 5 rupees a cup. As he walked away wheeling his cycle and calling his wares, Roopa said in a very matter-of-fact way: "Kuch-na-kuch kaam dhoond lete hain sab". (Everyone finds one way or another to make a living). "Look at this guy, he's chosen to walk here at midnight selling coffee."

Thursday, December 04, 2008

UK Government amends travel advisory

"We no longer advise against all but essential travel to Mumbai", says the new advisory from the Foreign Office dated December 2.

They also say "Mumbai is returning to a degree of normality. You should however, exercise caution around large public gatherings."

Today at Dadar

Freni and I went to Dadar today, to cook up a new Dadar Bazaar Walk. My camera was out of battery, so here's what I managed to click on my Nokia E90 phone.
At Phule covered market - crabs for sale.
There were mussels, dried fish, bombil, and all sorts of other fishy treasures on sale. The fisherwomen as usual, had tongues as sharp as their curved fish knives. I was asked if I wanted to hold a live crab. My hurried refusal led to much merriment.

Resting after the day's sale. Note the green and maroon khun!

Outside the covered market - Goddess in Finery (Someone please, please tell me what's going on with the coconut + eyes + jewellery + new clothes thingy. I'm dying to know. Is this Lakshmi? Durga? Some other Devi? )

Another stall - the Goddess obviously has a thing for bright colours! Lots and lots of women were buying things from these stalls. We asked them, but got incomprehensible answers. "It's for puja", they said. All I gathered was that there was a festival this month.

I call him The Yam Accountant.

She was concentrating on making a "veni" - flowers for the hair

Plastic covers for computers and television sets - So it's not just Goddesses who like bright things! I always enjoy seeing how the Indian love for colours transforms even practical things into a feast for the eyes. Near the plastic covers, green bangles (favoured by married women) are stacked in a basket in sets of twelve. The other side of the basket, by the way, had bangles in a deep red.

We stopped for lassi and snacks at a nearby restaurant. I had misal-pav, a brilliant Maharashtrian invention that doesn't get the press it deserves. Misal is a tangy spicy dish, eaten with bread. In my hurry to eat it, I forgot to click a photo, but if you want to see what misal is like, there's a great photo here. The most satisfying part of the misal is when you dunk the last of your chunky bread into the last of the gravy, and polish it all off with a final tasty mouthful.

Sigh. I'm quite certain now. I've inherited my mother's irresistible attraction for marketplaces.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

It's the schools, not the kids, "stupid"!

It's a problem fairly common in schools, but we don't know how big it is. It has solutions, but we don't know how to implement them. All we've done so far, is sit by, and let children blunder on.

I'm talking about kids with difficulties in reading, writing and math.

No one really knows how many children in India have learning disabilities (LD), but it looks like a staggering 20 to 50 million might be affected. And still, there are very few schools that have any mechanisms in place to identify children with LD, or offer remedial therapy. The real tragedy is that LD children are not "stupid" - some of the brightest minds of our time, from Einstein to Edison to Pasteur, have had LD.

This Saturday, I went to an LD conference at the Hyatt, a gathering of educators, teachers, researchers and parents. The conference was hosted by Tata Interactive Systems, as part of their CSR initiative. As several speakers presented their thoughts and experiences, I learnt a lot about LD.

What I found most frustrating, though, was the realisation that the real problem is not with the kids. The real failure seems to be of school boards, administrators, and teachers. A survey of school teachers across CBSE, ICSE and SSC schools in Mumbai, conducted by the Bombay Teachers Training College, shows very low levels of real awareness amongst teachers ("Oh, I didn't realise, you mean like Taare Zameen Par?").

If those who are entrusted with teaching our children are themselves blind, then where do the rest of us go?
For the past 2 years, my mother has been tutoring a little girl from the slum nearby. Pranali has problems with the Marathi and the English alphabet. She's also bad with numbers and multiplication tables. But she's a very bright child, with twinkling eyes and winning ways, and can recite poetry and lessons beautifully. My mother's patience, her fair but firm handling, and her genuine love are making Pranali blossom.
The child loves coming to our house, loves to write her squiggles, and is almost tragic in her eagerness to please. If my mother moves away to another room, the girl follows her. "Mi ithe basu ka?", she asks......"Can I sit here (near you)?" It is like a flower finding the warmth of the sun and wanting to bask in it forever. It is the first time the child has found love and understanding, instead of strict balwadi teachers with frowning faces.
Last year, she passed her second standard exams, and has now moved to the third standard. To help with her third standard Marathi lessons, my mom enrolled for Marathi language classes nearby. I am amazed at my mother's dedication. "I promised Pranali's mother", my mom said. "So I'm going to do the best I can."
When I compare this with the thousands of other children subject to the tyranny of indifferent balwadi and municipal teachers, I'm telling you, it's enough to make me cry.
There are some small glimmers of hope. The B.Ed curriculum just got modified to include lessons on learning disabilities (finally!). At Sion Hospital, Dr. Kulkarni is doing some outstanding work in testing, diagnosis and remedial therapy (that's her in the photo below, a small grey haired lady with an iron will). Parents in Bombay are increasingly driving change at schools. Some schools already have counsellors and special needs educators, and more schools are waking up to the need. Last month, the school I went to, SIES, appointed a counsellor and is going to have a Special Needs Teacher from the next academic year.
There is progress, yes, but it is frustratingly slow. Several questions remain unanswered - for example, is there lower dyslexia in studying Indian languages than in English? Are Devnagri graphemes easier for those with dysgraphia? Does living in joint families, where there are different speech cadences, make a difference to infants? Does losing traditional lullabies result in increased LD? Do Indian girls have more LD, given the potentially lower attention in childhood? How early can we diagnose LD in India, and through what mechanism? Does improving balwadi nutrition programmes offer high rewards in improving performance of children with LD?
Many questions come rushing at me when I think of the social and cultural issues involved in something as complex and widespread as LD. Every one of these could make a significant research topic, if only the funds (and the academic will) were there! I am deeply grateful Tata Interactive is putting not just money, but also thoughtful and invovled effort behind this. More power to them.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

"Estoy en la maquina" - I am in the machine

It is 7:30 p.m. on Monday. I have been neck deep in meetings and work.

I am on the way home, but I see that the traffic is jammed from here to hell. My laptop is on my knees. The driver has resigned himself to this crawl. Two cars away, another man is on the cell phone, and his laptop is open as well. It looks like Bombay is back in all its glorious busy mess.

Alvaro, an old college friend of mine, sent an email just now. His work day is just starting, and he is bemoaning that Monday morning has caught up with him in the US.

"Estoy en la maquina", he says. "I am in the machine."

Not just you, my friend. The machine's got me too.

Monday, December 01, 2008

Silver lining

Two cruise ships cancelled scheduled stops in Mumbai this week, so many of my tours could not run. Some business visitors have frozen travel to Mumbai, so that has also resulted in cancellations.
But over this past weekend, and this morning, something very nice has been happening. Individual travellers (who comprise most of my business) have begun to send me fresh tour bookings.
One lady says:
My beloved son (28) will be in India over the holidays. We want to support your country in spite of this horrific tragedy and not let the terrorists define our lives. My son is very interested in cultural life, religious traditons (.......) I read your website and would like to arrange some tours for him.
Another couple sent me this:
We are glad our trip is coming up in 2 weeks and will not let these terrorists interfere with our first visit to India and to Mumbai. We've heard so many wonderful things about your tours (and we feel like we know you already from your blog :) - We arrive in Mumbai on Dec 21nd and would love to schedule a bazaar walk for December 22nd if that would work.
There are still other emails that echo similar sentiments. When the first of these messages came in, I thought of it as a one-off case. Then, as more similar messages came in, they made me sit back and think. What do these tour bookings really say about us as humans?
Perhaps they show that when we are given a choice, human beings choose to react in ways that show the strength of the individual spirit. I think I learnt, in the nicest possible way this morning, that there are no "one-size-fits-all" answers to how we choose to live our lives.
What a unique species we are!