Sunday, December 19, 2010

Why Mittal Patel is one heck of a lady

Some days ago, I met Mittal Patel, a very determined young lady from Ahmedabad.

Mittal is a journalist by profession. But for the past 5 years, she has been working with the nomadic and de-notified communities of Gujarat, trying to get them access to basic rights. In doing so, she's taken on two of the biggest challenges in India - the bureaucratic system, and the caste mindset.

Mittal Patel

It was my neighbour Rashminbhai who introduced me to Mittal (or Mittal-ben, as she is called by most Gujaratis).

At Rashminbhai's invitation, I spent an evening at Amulakh Amichand School in King's Circle, watching Mittal tell her story to an audience of 100 people.

Mittal talking about nomads. The speech was in Gujarati.

I was so fascinated that the very next morning, I went over to Rashminbhai's house, and spent three hours chatting with Mittal. Over many cups of chai (and Rashminbhai's delicious farsaan), I listened to more details of her work.

It was quite an education.

The nomadic tribes of India are spread over multiple states, primarily Maharashtra, Rajasthan and Gujarat. In Gujarat, they number around 4 million, and this is the target group that Mittal has sworn to support (that's roughly the population of Singapore or Ireland, by the way).

One nomadic family with their cart. All their belongings will typically fit into the cart.

Gujarat's nomads are not one single community (there are over 300 communities listed in the government list). They follow different religions, practice different occupations, and have different customs and beliefs. The Dafer people, for instance, are typically employed to guard ripening crops. The Saraniyas are knife sharpeners. The Kangsia are bangle sellers and traders. The Nat and Nataniyas are performers - bards, musicians, acrobats, dancers, fire-eaters and so on. The Vansfoda work with bamboo and sell bamboo products. The Vadis are snake charmers; the Madaris work with monkeys.

As Mittal rattled off one community name after another, I was struck by the one thing that all these communities have in common - their traditional way of life is either dying, or dead already.

Television and cinema have largely killed the demand for traditional entertainment. Legislation has killed the livelihood of those nomads that work with animals. Plastic has replaced bamboo and other materials. And so on. In the past, people in a village waited for the nomads to show up on their annual routes, trading goods, services and entertainment. Now, there is no demand. So the nomads are quite literally, out on the streets, reduced to begging and theft for their livelihood.

No takers for acrobatics.

As if the loss of livelihood was not enough, the nomads have another big problem: As far as the government is concerned, they don't exist. I'm not kidding. The nomads have nothing, no birth certificate, no ration card, no land deeds, no school admission record, nothing. Not a single piece of paper, to prove they're part of the Indian population.

What this means is that they are completely left out of all government schemes. Take NREGA, for example, which promises work and an honest day's wage to anyone who wants it. Even if a nomad woman says she wants work, she can't get it. Why? To be eligible for NREGA you need to be a resident of a village. But village panchayats routinely refuse to let nomads be registered as part of the village population. They're nomads, right? They don't belong! So what if they've lived on the outskirts of a particular village for 20 years. They still don't belong! In fact, Mittal tells me that when she goes looking for a nomadic settlement, villagers typically do not even acknowledge that it exists.

Saraniya settlement on outskirts of village. This is no man's land, typically on the boundary of two villages. So neither village owns up to the settlement.

Apart from this, old prejudices and caste issues also kick in. Some nomadic communities have traditionally been labelled thieves. Most are from the lowest rungs of the caste hierarchy, with zero respect from other, higher castes. There is also the fear that if they are formally acknowledged, they will stake claim to government benefits.

Net net - the nomads are left out there in the cold - with neither the government nor the village recognising their existence. Not surprisingly, Mittal's biggest effort is firstly, to get every nomad a piece of paper that says, Hey! Look at me! I'm here! I am Indian! I'm Gujarati! I live in this village!

This ought to be simple, but as anyone who has worked with government machinery in India will tell you, it's staggeringly difficult in practice. In the first place, the whole thing requires forms to be filled and submitted - and how does an uneducated nomad do that? Mittal told us a quirky story about how she tried to help a middle-aged nomad with filling a form:

Mittal: Janunath, where were you born?
Janunath: I'm not sure. You write what you think is right, Mittal-ben.
Mittal: But how can I just cook this up? At least tell me something more about the areas where you roam, so I can write something sensible.
Janunath: I don't know, Mittal-ben. Ask my mother.
Janunath's Mother: We go to many places, Mittal-ben. I don't know where we went that year when he was born.
Mittal: Fine, I'll write something or the other. OK, Janunath, tell me what your age is.
Janunath: 18
Mittal: 18? Are you sure? You look older to me.
Janunath: I don't know, Mittal-ben.
Mittal: Do you have children?
Janunath: Yes, four children, here they are.
Mittal: Ah, so this one is the oldest? He looks like he is 14!!

So Mittal gives up asking questions, and she estimates everyone's age by looking at the age of their oldest child! And thus the form is filled for the whole clan, with approximate age, approximate place of birth, and so on :)

But form filling is only the beginning. The next problem is that the form verification process requires the village panchayat to certify that the details are correct. This is, of course, next to impossible. So Mittal and her team have to keep shuttling endlessly between the government and the panchayat office, patiently coaxing people to do what is right.

Without going into all the painful stories, let me just say that it is STUPENDOUS achievement, that Mittal Patel has finally got voter id cards issued to 20,000 nomadic people.

Way to go, Mittal-ben!!

That's not all. She has lobbied and got the Gujarat Government to pass a new State Resolution, which gives nomadic/de-notified people land rights. In the first year of allotment, 502 plots of land have been alloted to people who previously had no piece of earth to call their own. Mittal has started "tent-schools" for nomadic children, conducted "group marriages" to help reduce the burden of wedding expenses on nomad families, rescued nomadic girls from prostitution, and taken on many other social issues.

Honestly, I can't think of a more difficult challenge than trying to change the way "society" thinks. And I can't think of a more frustrating task than to get the big slow blundering bureaucracy to do something different. But Mittal has taken both these challenges head-on, and proved that it can be done.

When you meet people like Mittal, you end up feeling like you simply have to do something to help. You can't just sit there and let someone struggle against huge odds. I've started by contributing from my company's profits to Mittal's NGO; and next April, I'm planning to work on training and providing employment to some of her nomadic women. I'm looking to make a trip to Ahmedabad soon. Anyone who wants to contribute is welcome.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Discovering carrom at Chor Bazaar

- By Deepa Krishnan

I was walking along Chor Bazaar when I spotted these carrom coins. Nostalgia grabbed me, and I stopped in my tracks.

I played a lot of carrom as a child. Summer holidays were usually filled with competitive carrom games, and I suddenly remembered how we'd emerge from the games with white and powdery fingers.

I looked around, to see if I could find the carrom board. Ah yes, there it was, stacked up casually against another stall.

I was tempted to take the board home. God, but I used to love this game!

When I was growing up, there was a carrom club in the building where we lived (although "club" is probably too grand a word for it). The game was played in a small garage in our building, mostly by guys, but there were a few women and girls as well.

Each evening, we'd wait for grown ups to push up the garage door, so that we could troop in and set up the heavy carrom board. Four of us would sit at each game, one on each side of the table. Other kids (the poor latecomers!) would gather around, watching the game, waiting for their turn.

There was not much conversation, really, beyond the game itself. In fact, the game was everything. The only things you heard were small little expletives, or frustrated groans. We lived for the pleasure of the perfect shot, and praise from a keen audience. "Great shot!"..."Too good, yaar!" and so on.

As the evening progressed, the older folks, back from the office commute, would come and join the game. Younger kids would get shooed off the game, to make way for the older "dadas". The younger ones wouldn't leave though, they'd just stand around watching the older gang at the game. A single yellow bulb would come on, lighting the board as it grew darker. At seven thirty, the kids would go home, while the older ones played on.

The game was played intensely. Players had reputations to live up to. Mr. X was good at straight shots. This other guy, Mr. Y, his backshot was perfect. Z was a 'thumbing' champ. And so on. Every year, we'd have competitions, and reputations would be made and broken.

When I left Bombay for Calcutta (to get my MBA degree), I discovered to my delight that there was a carrom board at IIM Calcutta. So carrom continued to be part of my life for another two years.

Then I got married, and discovered that carrom was played in my husband's family as well. I remember some long ago afternoons, playing carrom with his cousins. Of late though, there have not been any games, as most of the cousins have dispersed.

I've stopped playing now, more's the pity. The last time I played was five years ago, when we moved into a new apartment in Bombay. There was a carom competition here, and on an impulse, I enrolled my name for it. It was fun, and I even won the darn competition.

I should really start playing again. Game anyone?

Monday, November 01, 2010

Hair can be so annoying!

- By Aishwarya Pramod

I've always wanted long hair - long, lustrous, wavy/straight black hair. But my hair's never been very long - a short bob or a boy cut when I was tiny, and just past my shoulders in high school and college.

It's not for lack of trying to grow it, though. You see, my hair goes through an annoying cycle, which seems to force me to keep it permanently short.

The cycle has four stages:


I have short hair in this stage. I get my mom to massage oil into my scalp every time before I shampoo it, which is twice a week. It's really shiny, healthy, glossy. No hairfall or anything. At this stage, I'm convinced that my hair will be able to grow long and strong.

I have great hopes for you, hair :D


My hair's grown a little longer, so it needs more care. I really should oil and shampoo as regularly as I did when it was short, BUT I've grown lazy :(

Plus, somehow in this stage, there's usually some kind of distraction like an upcoming exam, for which I need to study furiously 3 weeks in advance, or a trip outside Mumbai to a place that doesn't have hot water or enough time for mum to sit and massage oil into my scalp. So I skip the coconut oil and shampoo directly. Sometimes I don't even use conditioner. :O

This happens a few times, but I tell myself "You've been very regular with the oil upto now, it's ok if you miss it this time." (Big mistake, btw.)

I can't really focus on my hair HERE, can I?


My hair decides it's payback time and revolts. Hairfall, split ends, general destruction. I desperately get my mum to massage coconut oil into it every 3 days, but it's too late.

Oil Massage


I hate my hair. I'ts thin and shapeless. I have to get it cut.

I give up! Time to head for the salon.

I get it cut short, and then I'm back at Stage 1!

This four stage cycle thing has happened to me thrice. :| Wow.

This time I swear I will take care of you, hair. I would have been at Stage 3 (desperation) right now, but thankfully, stage 2 (complacency + lack of time/energy to oil stage) wasn't as bad as the previous times. So I'm going to get it cut, but only to shape it a bit so I can grow it long. This is a whole new Stage for me B-)

Anyway, a bit about hair oil:

I use Parachute coconut oil sometimes, and sometimes I use a special ayurvedic oil prescribed by a Vaidyan (ayurvedic doc). No idea what's in it - medicinal plants I guess.

Every time before I shampoo, I sit down on the floor with a book while my mom (or if my mom's busy, the maid) sits on a chair behind me and massages the oil into my scalp for 15 - 20 minutes. I sit with the oil in my hair for an icky hour, then I shampoo and condition. The cleanliness feels good after the oil.

I'm convinced that the secret to good hair is regular use of coconut oil. It's supposed to be very good for hair (and skin). I really think that if I ever have healthy long hair, it will be thanks to coconut oil. And lots of it, regularly.

My weapon of choice!

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Weekend with Ranjana

I've been working too hard, frankly, and so has my husband Pramod. This weekend, though, our friend Ranjana (bless her!) came to spend Friday night with us; and we finally made time for a long overdue night out in the city.

Friday night, at our apartment complex, waiting for the car.
I'm wearing a halter-neck top that I bought eight years ago. That's how dated my wardrobe is. As I was dressing up, I decided enough was enough. I would definitely go shopping on Saturday. Being a workaholic is ok. But wearing the same darn thing over and over again? Sheesh. I'm not *that* ossified.
When the car came, we set out for Bandra, to pickup an old school friend of Ranjana, and then headed to Aer, the rooftop bar at the Four Seasons.

Ranjana and Pramod at the Four Seasons rooftop bar
If you want my honest opinion, this is truly the most outstanding piece of real estate for a bar/restaurant in all of Mumbai. The cover charge at Rs 3000 per couple is stiff by the city's standards, but the incredible view of the city glittering below is very worth it. We hung around at the bar for a few minutes, until our table was available.
City glittering below
Honestly, this photo does no justice to the view. The full moon was out overhead, and the city lay beneath us. The walls are of sheer glass, making the most of the view. The seating is a sophisticated white, and the dim lighting is perfect. It lifts the spirits, this place.

All seats taken
On a Friday night, all seats were taken. The crowd is a mix of all age groups; but this is not a teeny-bopper place; it is significantly older. There were many people here catching a drink after work; I saw a lot of business suits and formal office wear. The Four Seasons is very conveniently located for people with offices in Worli and Lower Parel. For those working in Nariman Point or Fort, it is a logical mid-way stop on the way home. I rather liked the feeling of being part of the "office crowd". Tables are large, so even for bigger office groups of 8-15 people, there's lots of space.

We ordered nachos and chicken satay; the nachos were not as crisp as they should have been. The satay was pronounced excellent. I didn't even look at the menu; so I don't know what else was on offer.

The worst part of Aer is really the music. The night we were there, it was some electronica/techno type of thing; totally ugh. After an hour of listening to it, I was ready to give up and die. Pramod - who is more sensitive to music than I am - walked up to the DJ and said, hey, check out the people here, do you think this is the kind of music this age group is looking for? As it turns out, the DJ had nothing else to play; or maybe he had been instructed to play nothing but this nonsense. Pramod and the DJ chatted amicably for a long time; while the rest of us looked on and wondered what they were talking about - maybe they were earnestly discussing the city music scene :)

It was a relatively cool October night, but I think November-February would be perfect. I'm definitely going back again, to see if the music changes at all. Fortunately, the music isn't loud.

After Aer, we went back to Bandra and dropped off Ranjana's friend.
It was midnight by then; and on an impulse we decided to check out more places. I dragged Pramod and Ranjana to Pali Village Cafe for pasta and dessert and coffee. But we got there too late; they could only offer wine and dessert. So off we went to that old favourite, Olive.

Chilling out at Olive
For a place that is so much part of the city party scene, Olive is quite unpretentious. The food is good, the service is decent, and the crowd is a merry mix of all sorts. We found a nice corner at the bar to hang out; and then Pramod wrangled us a table to take a late order for pasta and pizza and tiramisu. Quite a lovely end to the day.

Oh - and one more thing - if you're wondering whether I kept my shopping resolution - here's the proof :)

A productive Saturday afternoon at Zara
We went shopping at Palladium on Saturday. Ranjana and I were joined by my sister, and we spent a happy afternoon trying on all sorts of things.

Zara is such a delight - I could kiss every single designer that works for them. By some miraculous magic, the clothes at Zara make you feel feminine and beautiful, in a way that other stores don't quite manage. Ranjana bought up half the store; and my sister bought winter clothes for her upcoming trip to Istanbul.
I was content with three simple additions to my wardrobe. But I'm already looking for another weekend out now, so I can wear them. Pramod, are you reading this? :)

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Of grand hotels and other things

No, I'm not writing about the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel!
The Taj is undoubtedly a city icon, but Bombay has been home to several other fancy hotels; some older than the Taj, and some its contemporaries. It's time someone wrote about them! By some quirk of history, none of these grand hotels now survive as working hotels, except the Taj. But several buildings remain, reminders of past days when these were grand hotels where the elite of the city hob-nobbed and conducted business.

The Majestic Hotel, Colaba, 1909 (built just 6 years after the Taj Mahal Hotel).

The Majestic used to be one of the city's premier luxury hotels; it was built by an Italian firm that ran the super-snobbish Savoy at Mussoorie and Carlton in Lucknow. Nothing but the best would do for the Majestic! These days though, it houses a hostel for members of the legislative assembly, a basic canteen, and a department store on the ground floor. Quite a come-down from its glory days!

The Majestic is not the only old grand hotel; there were others too. Where did these hotels come from? Who built them? For whom?

To look for answers, we must go back 150 years, to a glorious era of prosperity when Bombay became an important global centre of trade and commerce.

In the 1860's, Bombay saw unprecedented growth because of two key events. First, the American Civil War (1861-1865) led to a global shortage of cotton, because exports from the cotton fields of America were blockaded. The demand for cotton from Bombay shot up; prices rose to astronomical levels, and dizzy fortunes were made overnight by the city's cotton traders and shipping merchants. The second momentous event was the opening of the Suez Canal in 1864, which dramatically improved shipping.

As trade grew, traders and merchants from overseas started coming to Bombay for business; and naturally the demand for hotels went up. Hotels were certainly a more attractive option than the "chummeries" or clubs that gentlemen could stay in. What's more, travellers by sea had become used to the high hospitality standards offered by well run steamships, and looked for similar comforts in the ports.

Among the earliest grand hotels was Watson's Hotel; which reflected the owner's enthusiasm for ironwork (considered cheap to build).

Watson's Esplanade Hotel, 1867-69

It was a 'Whites Only' hotel; and was built by John Watson, who ran a drapery business in the city. The building's unique cast-iron frame was imported from England, and reassembled here. In its heyday, the hotel boasted  well-appointed rooms, and a grand ballroom. It's most attractive feature was an atrium. The waitresses, I am told, were imported from England as well :) After John Watsons died, the hotel closed down. Today it is a warren of small offices. I took a photographer on a walk into this building, and she clicked this very interesting photo of the nameboards inside Watsons.

After Watsons came The Bycullah Hotel built in 1871; and the Green's Hotel built in 1890. Both these buildings were earlier mansion flats; they were converted to hotels.

Green's Hotel was bought by the Tatas, and demolished in 1973, and in its place, the Tower wing of the Taj came up.

The Bycullah Hotel, 1871.

I'm not sure what happened to the Bycullah Hotel - but it's not there any more. The pillar in the photo is still there, it's locally called "Khada Parsi" or The Standing Parsee. It is now squashed between two flyovers; see this photo. So Bycullah Hotel has disappeared, then. Does anyone know when or how?

The next hotel to come up was The Great Western, converted to a hotel in 1890 or so. In the late 1700's, this building was the residence of the Governor of Bombay; then subsequently it was the home of the Commander-in-Chief of the Indian fleet. In the 1800's it was the Recorder's Court House. Today, the building houses small businesses, an art gallery, and a designer garments store.

The Great Western Hotel, 1890, originally home of Governor Hornby (who bunded the breach at Mahalakshmi)
The road on which Great Western is located is Dockyard Road, now called Shahid Bhagat Singh Marg. The facade of this street remains the same today as it was all those years ago. The Doric porte-cochere of the hotel was demolished to widen the street, so the Great Western is like a face without a nose :) but other than that, walking on this street is a great way to experience the old Bombay.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Hungry kya? Take a walk! (Article in Times of India today)

The Times of India featured our Matunga Food Walk in this article today in the Wine and Dine section of Crest. OK, so they got the prices wrong, but all publicity is good, right? :)

There's also a photo of me in a red saree, looking like a little blimp. I swear I am not this fat! It's the *others* who were tall and slim, dammit!

Hungry Kya? Take a Walk!
by Mahafreed Irani
Sep 25, 2010
Times of India

For tourists who want to skip the clichêd tours of Mumbai, culinary walks are an interesting alternative. "Food is one of the most interesting ways of understanding a culture, " says Deepa Krishnan of Mumbai Magic, a tour company that organises food walks in the city. "Tourists are increasingly looking for more insightful and interesting experiences than merely visiting monuments.

Bazaar walks and cuisine trails help to showcase some very rich aspects of Indian society. " The Mumbai Magic food walk starts with a guided tour around Matunga market and ends with a cooking demo and tasting of traditional food at an Indian home. While at the market, a culinary expert guides tourists around various food-speciality shops. Even though Matunga isn't a tourist area, Krishnan chose the market as it has a number of eateries and stores that sell regional ingredients. "Most foreigners have limited knowledge about Indian cuisine and may have only tasted Punjabi fare like butter chicken, " she says pointing out how they are surprised that Indian food is not as spicy as they have been led to believe. "Regional food is a pleasant discovery for them."

The package which costs Rs 1, 000 per person for a guided tour for six includes a visit to a Gujarati, Parsi, Goan or South Indian home. During the visit, tourists can choose to participate in the cooking process of a traditional meal or sip on some Indian wine and observe the cooking. The demonstrators have been flooded with queries like, "Can we peep into your fridge?" and "Please explain the use of these unfamiliar cooking gadgets", says Krishnan referring to tourists who were curious about metal tongs.

Krishnan also organises food trails in Delhi, Agra, Jaipur, Chennai and Kottayam. In Kerala, the walk includes visits to a private spice plantation, paddy fields and toddy shops and in Jaipur, tourists learn how Rajasthani cuisine has been influenced by the hot climate and scarcity of water.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Lifffftttttttt !

I live in a tall building, with 18 floors. We are on the 14th floor. This means that everyday, we go up and down the lift at least a couple of times.

Like all other tall buildings in Bombay, the lifts in our apartment complex are operated by liftmen.
They sit inside the lift on a little stool, but stand to attention when any of us enter the lift. We tell them what floor we want to go to, and they press the right button. That's their job. To stand at attention, and press buttons.
There are several liftmen, all nameless. They go by the generic name of "Liffffffftttt!" because that's what we yell whenever we want to grab their attention. The residents of our apartment don't really 'see' liftmen as individuals or address them by name.
This is not true of all buildings in the city. I have seen, in some buildings in Napeansea Road and Cuffe Parade, greying liftmen who have been there for ages. Everyone knows them, and their names are heard often. "Ganpaaattthhhhh....jara lift roko !!!".
One of my friends lives in a Parsi colony where the lifts are ancient. The liftman is a critical part of their life, because the lift must have manual supervision, and it responds only to his magic touch. ("Oh God I'm getting late for office, where's Kadam, the lift is not working"). As a consequence, there is, in this colony, a "tring-tring" bell to summon the elusive Kadam. Kadam is also an errand-man ("Dina darling, I forgot my car keys, can you send it down with Kadam?"). Like the lift, Kadam is also a fixture, grey and creaking.
But in our building, the liftmen change every other week, using some sort of complex roster system that I haven't figured out. Our building, like most tall buildings these days, has sub-contracted the maintenance and security to an agency. So we have armies of smartly uniformed staff, but we don't know their names. By the time we find out who they are, and exchange the first pleasantries, they're gone.
In addition to the liftmen, we also have a guy who sits at a desk on the ground floor, just opposite the lift. I'm not quite sure what he does. He goes by the name of 'Security', although I'm can't see what security this skinny kid provides (there is a another bunch of older, somewhat tougher looking Security guys at the gates). The 'Security' desk is a promotion from the lift, I think, because you only get to sit at that desk once you've done the lift assignment and you know all the residents of the building.
Today there was a new guy in the lift, even younger than the previous one. This one looked like a new migrant. He was uncomfortable with his navy-blue uniform, he kept fiddling with the big fancy belt buckle, and didn't know numbers in English. So the Security guy helped him, by telling him my floor number in Hindi. He still messed up and pressed the wrong button, and stood there dejected when I quickly pressed the right one. "It's ok", I smiled at him, remembering my first job and how terrified I had been. "You'll learn soon". He was too raw to even nod or acknowledge what I said, let alone smile.
Hmm, I said to myself when I got off the lift. One more new migrant. One more guy here to see if the city will work its magic on him. They keep coming, these young hopeful men, barely out of their teens. Maybe his uncle is here in the city; and is providing the initial support. Or maybe it's someone else from his village, who has brought him here, introduced him to the contracting firm that manages our lifts, and stood guarantee for him. I hope he will learn the lift numbers quickly, before some resident complains.
I recently had an overseas visitor who laughed and said "God, why do you guys need a guy to push lift buttons? Can't you do it yourselves?" On the face of it, this looks like a logical statement. But I was recently in a lift with a precocious kid, who pushed the emergency button, because the lift was unsupervised for 10 minutes. My new maid doesn't know how to summon a lift, let alone operate the number keys. My mother doesn't like being alone in the lift. Almost no one knows what to do in case of an emergency or a lift stopping midway. So I say, until the state of affairs changes, until everyone gets an education, Let There Be Liftmen !

Sunday, September 05, 2010

The dosa gets my vote

Four hungry people. One Giant Paper Dosa. Lots of coconut chutney, and lots of sambar.

Paper Dosa at Sunder's, Kabutarkhana, King's Circle

Have you tried sharing a paper dosa? That first crumbling of the perfect cylinder shape, the vain attempts to preserve some semblance of orderly eating...until chaos descends and everyone is just eating whatever crumbs they can find? What fun :)

Ordering four separate dosas just isn't the same, is it?

Sunders is a regular stop on my forays to King's Circle market. Apart from the paper dosa, they serve a wacky menu with several different dosa varieties (including a schezwan dosa).

They do a decent masala-dosa as well. I'm not a big fan of the masala-dosa. But it does seem to have found its place under the sun. Food writer Nilanjana Roy gave the masala dosa her vote for "national dish of India" in an article in Outlook earlier this year. She says: The dosa has crept into our lives in a quiet revolution, a stealthy and entirely bloodless coup. It can be found in dhabas in the Himalayas, stuffed with exotic ingredients in five-star restaurants...It can be stuffed with paneer, or with chicken and keema fillings for the unregenerate carnivore, but it’s the masala dosa that flies its flag across India. You can even, experimenting with spinach and carrot fillings, create a suitably tricolour masala dosa, while retaining the potato stuffing that is the trademark of the true Udupi stalwart. We can continue to argue over the rest of the menu for a genuinely nationalist Indian banquet, but for the moment, the dosa gets my vote."

So what say? The masala-dosa as a national dish? Sacrilege? :)

If I were to think about Bombay, instead of the whole country, then here's my list of the top three popular eats in the city:
- Vada pav
- Bhelpuri
- Dosa

(Yep, the dosa, gets *my* vote too)

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

To market! To market! (HT Brunch - Sun Aug 22)

The Hindustan Times did a lovely story this weekend, on "Hidden Cities" - little known delights of Mumbai, Delhi, Kolkata and Bangalore.

I thoroughly enjoyed taking Mignonne, the writer who covered the story, on a walking exploration of Bhuleshwar and Kalbadevi.

These vibrant areas of the city constantly surprise me - even when I think I know it all, they throw something new at me. This time, on the walk, it was a little signboard in Mangaldas Market, that said "Extra Gully".

Mangaldas Market is one of the largest wholesale fabric markets in this area - a somewhat addictive experience if, like me, you have a thing about fabrics. It is divided into little lanes, and each lane has a number that helps orient you in the maze. I've been there several times, but this was the first time I saw this little board - Mignonne pointed it out to me. An Extra Gully - a builder's quirk, perhaps, but firmly declaring its presence :) We are here too! say the shops in this lane! All you have to do is follow this arrow!

I had to squint up to look at the board. Hard to spot!

The sign is in English, Devnagri and Gujarati. By its very nature it reminds me of the multi-cultural mix of traders who have made this area their home. Muslim, Parsi, Hindu and Jain traders, all use the Gujarati script. Marathi-speaking dealers use Devnagri. English is commonly used by all these communities...notice that the word Extra is English; and so is the word Gully...that doesn't stop anyone from understanding it and writing it in whatever script they want!

On the walk, I also took Mignnone to one of my new favourites - a fantastic little bindi shop near the TBZ store, called Tanvi.

What fascinates me about this shop is how they constantly have new products. How does one innovate in something as simple as a bindi? Apparently, the possibilities are endless.

For example, I spotted this bright orange box amidst other bright boxes, and asked "What is it?" Kya hai? "Khol ke dekho madam", said the guy at the shop. Open it and see.

The box that caught my fancy

So I open it, and ta-da! It's a Bindi Wallet, with a little mirror on top for me to admire my forehead.

Given how expensive fancy bindis are, a wallet to keep them all in order is a practical idea, but what evokes my admiration is the design effort that has gone into making the wallet attractive and appealing. Clearly, this is designed so that it is perfect as a part of a bridal set, or maybe just a wonderful embellishment to a woman's dresser.

And if you find the bindi wallet too large to carry around, here's a tinier version, to slip into your purse :) Notice how the design is more no-nonsense, perhaps it is meant to appeal to the working woman of Bombay? :)

Go wow 'em at the office, girl!

And that's not all. The world of bindis extends beyond the forehead, to hair ornaments, anklets, tattoos for the arm and back...and all manner of body art.

Body art in every colour you can dream of

There are new designs every couple of months.

I see the stocks of bindis and tattoos constantly changing, and marvel at the design impetus behind it. It is the market itself that drives this design. The Indian woman - with her love for all things colourful, and her readiness to try new things - is at the heart of these products.

Photo of me which appeared in HT Brunch - at Tanvi Bindi Shop.

Tanvi is a wholesale shop, but you can see how the entire business is geared towards appealing to the women of the city. "Yeh chalega kya"? Will this work in the market? This is the single-minded question that drives all of Kalbadevi and Bhuleshwar into a frenzy of innovation and change. More power to this machine, then! May it thrive and prosper!

P.S. If you want to read the full article then it is here, with many interesting other tidbits about Bhuleshwar.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

What's it with women and cameras

I was chatting with my friend Derek this morning when he said, hey I bought a new camera lens.

What is it, I asked him, what did you buy?

It's a SIGMA something something, he said.

Actually, that's not what he said. He correctly named the exact model. But I usually get a dazed look whenever anyone reels off any numbers. So only the Sigma registered and I kinda lost the rest of the plot there :)

Anyway, Derek is off happily experimenting with this new super-zoom lens.

Talking to him, I felt that sharp familiar twinge I always get when I hear about cameras. When are you going to buy a better one, Deepa, I asked myself.

For two years now, I've been wanting something better than my point-and-shoot. But I haven't gotten around to buying it.

It's not that I cannot afford it.

As I was chatting today, I finally realised the real reason I haven't bought a camera in two years.

Guilt. With a capital G.

My ultra-conservative-about-money upbringing doesn't allow me to spend a hundred thousand rupees on a gadget.

And it's more than that. I also realise the real problem is that I'm unwilling to spend on a gadget that is purely for me. No one else in the family will use that camera. It's going to be just my own personal toy.

An expensive toy. That will lead to further expenses as I get into accessories, more lenses, photography lessons...

Guilt, guilt, guilt.

A peculiarly female thing? I guess a sociologist would have a field day over this. After all, this is a country where women eat last, after they have fed the rest of the household. Where women consistently undervalue themselves and their interests.

But is my guilt over an expensive purchase a female thing? I know many women who indulge themselves to death; usually in the form of jewellery or clothes or shoes or purses. They're buying fancy mobile phones these days as well; and cars and laptops. Many of these are women who don't have careers; it is the husband who brings home the bacon, so to speak. There is no guilt over these purchases - instead there is just pride and vanity, blessed by social sanction. Clothing and jewellery are a woman's way of telling another woman how rich she really is.

Unfortunately, that logic doesn't extend to womens' cameras. You can't show them off to other women, you see? :) Fancy mobile phones, even laptops and cars, you can show off. But the only people who seem to really understand cameras are men :)

Men really understand expensive toys, don't they? My male friends almost always egg me on to buy that new camera, and most of them offer advice on what model to buy.

My husband definitely has fewer qualms about expensive toys than I do. As I type this, the Bose he bought sits there twinkling at me. Before that, there was the custom-configured Wharfedale. But hey - to be fair to him, it's just two things in all our years together. So does he have guilt too? I *think* so. He certainly has the same ultra-conservative-about-money upbringing! Maybe that's why we don't squabble about money matters :)

Anyway, I think my camera story is drawing to an end. Why? Two things have happened - first, a new Croma store just opened near my house. Which means I am just ten minutes away from my camera. And second, we finally exchanged our credit card points for 35,000 rupees of Croma vouchers. Which means my guilt trip just substantially lessened :) Watch this space!

P.S. All advice welcome! Budget is anything upto Rs 100,000 for relatively light camera and decent zoom lens.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

A Dummies Guide to Sabudana Khichdi

Let's face it. Sabudana khichdi is the easiest thing to make.

Strangely, I totally *suck* at it, producing a gooey mess every single time, instead of a happy light breakfast. It's a complete mystery, because I am otherwise a competent and creative cook.

Thankfully, with the arrival of my new maid, the sabudana khichdi in our household has morphed into a work of art. Since Shravan is here, in all its supposed holiness, and people are buying sabudana by the kilo, I thought this a good time to produce this Sabudana Khichdi for Dummies.

Note that I am merely recording what my maid is doing, I'm not cooking. I'm convinced I'm jinxed when it comes to this sabudana thing :)

Step 1: Sabudana soaked overnight

Aha. Hang on there, because this is the first stumbling block. Most recipes will tell you this soak overnight stuff. The real trick though, is to Know Thy Sabudana. The right amount of soaking (1 hour in our household, but 30 minutes in some others) is required. After this, you drain all the water out, using a colander, and you leave the wet sabudana in the colander overnight. When you come back in the morning you'll find that the sago globules have morphed into fat moist little delights, waiting to be cooked.

Step 2: The Ingredients - Cumin, Lemon, Chillies, Peanuts coarsely ground, coriander for garnishing

There's a missing ingredient in this photo, which is a boiled potato (optional, strictly speaking, but hey, who doesn't like potatoes? And it adds a nice extra texture). By the way, the ground peanut thingy? The more you add the nicer the whole darn thing tastes.

Step 3 - Heat oil in kadhai, add cumin.

Easy, no? The thing is not to burn the seasonings, so keep the flame low, wait for the oil to heat up, then add the cumin.

Step 4: Slice chillies lengthwise

If you're in a household of brave men and women, you can chop the chillies into chunks, or chop them really fine for a spicier dish. I prefer not to be surprised into biting chillies, so we slice them this way to spot it easily.

Step 5: Watch green chillies sizzling in oil. Careful. The pods tend to pop when hot.

Step 6: Add the sago. No, it doesn't stick to the sides of the pan, but cut the flame to as low as you can.

Step 7: Squeeze lemon

My maid and I don't see eye to eye on this lemon business. To me, lemon is something you squeeze at the very end, like a garnish, after you take this thing off the flame. My maid doesn't have any such qualms, and adds lemon anywhere anyhow. Given that her food is outstanding, I should just sit back and let her do what she likes, right?

Step 8: Add salt to taste

How much, really, is "salt to taste"? Different salts have different saltiness, so this one, my friend, only works by trial and error. The golden rule is of course, Less is More. Go easy on the salt. Err on the side of caution. And so on.

Step 9: Bring on the ground peanuts. The more the merrier.
This is also the time my maid brings out the boiled potato, cuts it into tiny squares and pops it into the mix. I've also seen potatoes added at the beginning, just after the green chillies. That seems more sensible to me, but hey, what do *I* know.

Step 10: Give it a good stir. Watch it go from white to a happy brown.

Sabudana cooks quickly. In about 5 minutes, the sago turns translucent, which is when you know it's done. But it also sticks a bit to the sides of the pan, so you have to keep stirring.

Step 11: Chop coriander into bits for garnishing

Step 12: Serve hot

This is important. Cold sabudana is like biting into very dead fish. Hot, steaming, spicy, with the fantastic smells of coriander, lemon and chilli, that's how to eat this thing.

And the best way to eat it is plain. Maharashtrians ruin it, according to me, with a ridiculous sweet yoghurt dip to go with it. But hey. Whatever floats your boat.

And now to breakfast....

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Men, women and bonding

My friend Raju posted a link to an article from the Wall Street Journal about how men and women have different types of friendships: Friendship for Guys (No Tears!).

Women, according to that article, bond by talking. They share personal information, ups-and-downs and relationship difficulties, bonding over long conversations with their female friends.

Men, according to the same article, prefer to "do" rather than talk; playing sports together, or going on adventure treks and so on.

The article primarily refers to an American population. But I'm wondering if it applies to Indian men and women as well.

My husband doesn't have a all-male buddy gang that takes off for the hills once a year in macho style, but he definitely likes "doing". His idea of a fun day with a friend is "Let's go to the club and play tennis." Or scuba-dive. Or try para-gliding. Or some such thing. We went to Greece on holiday; and all he wanted to do was the 17-kilometer Samaria Gorge trek. Thankfully, he's blessed with a sporty daughter; so the two of them went for a whole day's grueling trek, while I spent the day snorkeling and taking a boat cruise around the island.

We often holiday together with my sister's family. Somehow in these holidays we're always "doing" things. Whether it's Borneo, or Africa or Ranthambhore, we always seem to be up and on the go. This suits the men quite well, although they'd really like to do less wimpy things than shepherd us around in "safe" activities.

Rafting in Borneo. Example of low-challenge wimpy stuff :)

But in spite of all the sporty stuff, my husband isn't averse to "talking" either. He certainly is loads better at talking than I am. I don't really talk to anyone about my personal relationships, or any problems / difficulties that I might have. When I have trouble at work, or want to vent, I call my husband :) But mostly I just think about how to fix the problem, or - if I think it can't be fixed - how to cope with it. If I'm exceptionally hassled, I go to sleep and hope the next day will be better. Or I go off and shed a few private tears in the bathroom. I usually don't call up other women and talk about it.

Maybe I just haven't had a bad enough crisis in life, eh? Or maybe my regular weekly Sunday sessions with mom and sis are already quite enough of a release valve :) This morning the three of us sat around and did the usual laments about maids, traffic, and the lack of civic sense in the city. We discussed exams, children, new recipes and upcoming family weddings. Dad wandered in and out of the room; half chatting, half supervising some masonry work.

None of us did any soul-baring, but this sort of idle morning chat is enough to recharge batteries and let you get on with the week ahead. Quite therapeutic! Can women bond over trivia, then? It would seem so, at least with family.

- Deepa

P.S. My cousin Satish wrote this piece today called Male Bonding (curious co-incidence, both of us writing about the same stuff!!)

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Want to come on a bazaar walk this Saturday?

I was looking through my photos of Bhuleshwar, and I remembered this basket in the Flower Market which I photographed three years ago.

I couldn't identify several things in it, so I asked the lady and she told me. The long maize-like thing is actually kewra. Who knew?

Anyway, I'm inspired by this kewra photo to go see more new things in Bhuleshwar, so I'm organising a walk this Saturday.

Does anyone want to come?

The Invite for the walk is here: Mumbai Magic on Facebook

Let me know if you want to come. I was originally going to do it this Saturday (24th), but given that it's pouring rain this week, maybe we'll do it next Saturday instead. Please email me at deepa at mumbaimagic dot com to check.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Frommers India 4th Edition - Mumbai Magic

Frankly folks, I don't know whether to grin or blush or what.

You guys simply *have* to read this review that just appeared in the latest Frommers India guide!!

For those who want to know what the 3-star rating means - here's the guide to Frommer's ratings:

According their website: "the Frommer's star rating is meant to quantify the kind of intangible, experiential elements that help travelers make informed decisions.

The "baseline" recommendation is zero stars - every hotel, restaurant, attraction, shop, and nightlife establishment that Frommer's chooses to review is recommended; otherwise, we simply wouldn't include it."

I'm soooooooo very pleased with this review! Actually, even that's an understatement. At the moment, I want to twirl around and hug someone at Frommers (if only I knew who wrote this!). Unfortunately, after being labelled "super-sophisticated", twirling is out, so I am forced to offer a more sedate thanks.