Idli for President!

The first 20 years of my life, I hated idli. Oh, for my international readers, this is idli. Idli is to a south Indian what toast is to most Caucasians. Anyway, I hated it. What’s there to like – it’s bland, it’s a boring white, it’s not crispy, there’s no oil involved! Boh-ring!

And then I got a job and moved cities. From home, I went straight to this city called Hyderabad where the nearest idli was at least 20 km from where I lived. When you’re a single girl, on your own in a big city for the first time, dependent on public transport, it might as well have been 2000 km. For almost a year, I didn’t eat good idli. The ones I did eat were not even in the same food group as idli. I missed the buggers!

Then wedding happened. And hey, my mother bought me this wet grinder to make my very own batter and all my idli fantasies took flight again. Heaven.

Without further ado, here’s my idli journal. These were made in the course of the last month or so. See. And enjoy.

Idli, with Sambar and chutney. The Holy Grail of South Indian breakfast.

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Idli, with Chicken curry. Typical breakfast fare in a Telugu household when the son-in-law is visiting.

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Idli, with Peanut chutney. This is my childhood, at my maternal grandmother’s house, on a plate.

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Idli, with Pappulusu. Rayalseema fare. Comfort food when you miss Mommy.

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Idli, with Kurma. This is my humble idli making the most of a parotta-chapati invasion from the North.

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Idli, with Kumbakonam kadapa. Native of Tamilnadu but very joyously adopted into a Telugu household!

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Idli, made with oats, with Tomato pachadi. This is my idli adapting to the health conscious 21st century.

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These are just the ones I made and had the patience to take a photo of before stuffing my face. There are countless other accompaniments and variations of the idli, it’s actually ridiculous.

So, let’s raise a mug of sambar and a spoon of chutney to this most humble, unassuming of breakfasts – to the humble idli, which let’s the accompaniment take all the credit, while silently being the rock (not literally, mind you) on which they all flow.

Idli for President!

Book Review: The Wildings

The Wildings
The Wildings by Nilanjana Roy

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I picked up this book solely because of the author – I’ve read her journalistic work and found them engaging and good. And I also had just finished another book by a journalist (Jerry Pinto) and was completely wow’ed by it. But the similarity between ‘Em and the Big Hoom’ and ‘The Wildings’ ends right there. While the former is a prose-lover’s paradise, the latter comes off as young-adult popular fiction and not really a great novel. Nothing wrong with being YA or popular fic – just that it wasn’t what I had in mind when I picked it up.

The idea of a cat world, where humans are just the props in the narrative, is genius. I read the blurb and I instantly bought and started reading it. I liked the attention to detail in terms of the ‘lifestyle’ and habits of all the animals involved in the plot – it was well researched (I can iamgine the author stalking cats to figure out how they lived and it’s not easy!) and well thought-out. The characters were good, too – cats, cheels, birds, people – all of them. But…but.. :-)

…just a few pages into the book, I realized that I wasn’t enjoying the book as much as I expected to because the words were merely words – there was no vivid imagery, no playful hide and seek between the author and reader, nothing that made me stop and imagine for a second what the words were hinting at. If I wanted to read a tree being described as just a tree, I wouldn’t read fiction; I’d read an encyclopaedia, no? So that was my problem (because I’m a sucker for good prose, to the extent I can put up with a lousy story if the underlying prose is like poetry!) and it was more pronounced in the first half where the story was meandering around to the big set up and the wild, albeit expected, climax.

I also had to contend with Roy’s style of changing PoV midway in a paragraph. One line we’re seeing through Beraal’s eyes and a fullstop later, it’s through Mara. I found that a bit distracting because it doesn’t let us get comfortable enough with a character, to empathize more. It’s not bad writing, it’s just a very jumbled way of going through feelings and somehow it didn’t sit well with me.

After a point, I gave up on the prose and just read for the sake of the story – not my most favorite thing to do, but it was all I could because I didn’t want to give up on the story, per se. And I quite enjoyed the plot, mind you. So, by the time I finished, I guess I was generally ok with the book.

Am I nitpicking? Maybe. Because it’s such a letdown. It could have been so much more because the underlying seed of the story is a great one. But, alas, the curse of lackluster prose.

By the way, if you are a cat person, you should definitely pick this up!

The last few lines may be a spoiler – be warned! :-)

P.S: For some reason, this book reminded me a lot about Harry Potter :-D. Similar circumstances, similar good-cat, bad-cat, teacher-cat thing going on and the big ‘war’ at the end, with the good-cats almost losing and then, thanks to the ‘hero’, winning. But that’s ok, I guess. Harry Potter is a great story! :-)

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A penny for two thoughts?

A couple of thoughts that got processed over the past few days, interestingly both related to books in a way –

I was reading a book review (this one) and it made me realize that motherhood has made me weak-hearted in some ways. It’s another matter that I’ve become brave on certain other fronts, but let’s leave that for another day. So this book –  from the review, I could imagine it would be a nightmarish read. The kind that would twist your insides and make you want to curl up in a corner and die. And I’m almost sure it wouldn’t have been so if it weren’t for the mother part in me. Because, and I’ve been noticing this very often, every time there’s a person in pain, I end up seeing my son’s face.

Those child beggars at the traffic stop that we’re so used to seeing that it’s part of the scenery now? I notice them more. And I can’t bear it. It’s a very uncomfortable feeling. The closest description would be someone holding your heart and squeezing it till you feel nothing but an emptiness there. Slowly, that emptiness travels to your gut and there are some moments of weightlessness, like just before a fall. You’re this close to breaking down and then the light turns green, you drive off and remember to breathe.

I don’t recollect being like this before my son was born. It’s a bit like the character May in Sue Monk Kidd’s ‘The secret life of bees’ – she takes empathy to an extreme level wherein she starts to feel sad as if she herself were enduring the pain, even if it was actually happening to somebody else.

So, yeah, to quote what I had written as a comment on the book review, my tolerance for pain or sadness has gone down a lot. It’s probably because of this feeling of helplessness that after that moment when he came out of the birth canal, my son is on his own. Yes, I’m here for him but I can no longer shield his body with my body. I can no longer nourish him with mine. He’s another person – OUTSIDE of me. And he can be in pain, all on his lonesome. And THAT, by far, is the most scariest thing ever for me.

Sentimental, much? Ok, I’m stopping.

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The other one is on this article, about those weirdo children’s books we reading-parents come across all the time. I say ‘weirdo’ because, even though the language is fine, the books themselves are an empty read – there’s nothing to remember or learn, other than the actual act of reading to the little person in your lap. I could identify so much with what’s written in the article! Like this bit –

The problem is that young children have terrible taste and enjoy garbage. Another problem, which compounds the first problem, is that they want to hear the same books hundreds of times in a row. So for all the joys that storytime can offer, it frequently entails a kind of dismal self-abnegation that’s too excruciating even to describe as tedium—an actively painful sense of my precious time on earth being torn from my chest and tossed into a furnace.

It’s so so true. And I also agree with the part that we tend to buy books that we remember from our childhood – but the thing is we’ve forgotten what the book is about and we only have the nostalgia of seeing that book when we were kids. And, honestly, when we come across the stories now, my first response is usually ‘What the heck?!’. Like the one about the goat kids and the wolf – the wolf eats up the kids but the Mother Goat then goes and cuts up the wolf’s belly, takes out the kids and sews it back up, with stones inside. Say what?! I had to change that entire bit to say the wolf stole the kids in a bag and the Mother Goat saved them by tearing open the bag. Why couldn’t the story have used bag instead of belly? Which kindergartner needs that kind of gore?! And how am I to explain to him later that you can’t just cut open stomachs and sew them back up with stones stuffed inside? As if I don’t have enough tough questions to answer as it is.

That said, I feel we shouldn’t THINK too much about the content, as long as it is written in a coherent manner, with tasteful illustrations and without any general bias or prejudice. Just like those umpteen nursery rhymes about old men being thrown down the stairs or little boys indulging in eve teasing (yep, those are rhymes. See this.). The article refers to ‘The little engine that could’ as one of those ‘terrible’ books – I don’t agree! :-) It’s a story about how an engine breaks down and the toys in the train try to hail some other engine to pull them up the hill. Most engines give some reason or the other and go away without helping. And along comes a little engine which hasn’t really pulled a big train but is willing to help and try! It’s a bit adorable, actually. I’ve read it many times to my son and recently, in a different context about helping me with chores, he just said, “Like the little engine helps, Amma. I help.”. What more do you want of a children’s book, eh? So, yeah. Let’s just screen the books for language and child-friendly content and let the kids have some fun without worrying about morals and lessons and what not. They have their entire life ahead to deal with that!

Review: One Part Woman

One Part Woman
One Part Woman by பெருமாள் முருகன் [Perumal Murugan]

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I first heard about this book when its author declared that the writer in him is dead. The book raked up some controversy in Tamil Nadu about some of the events being derogatory to some caste-based community or whatever. Lot of noise later, Perumal Murugan comes out and says he’s done with writing. So, of course I had to read such a controversial book.

And I did.

It has been 3 days since I finished the book and I still don’t know which part was controversial. I looked that up on old news later and apparently it was the part about the ceremony that used to happen (pre-Independence, mind you!) when any consenting man and woman can end up having sex on a certain day, irrespective of their marital vows. So they can have children. You know, when there was no IVF or fertility treatments, not even proper hospitals for childbirth. I don’t know what the big deal is. It’s fiction. Who bloody cares? Well, looks like some nitwits do.

Anyway, history aside, the book was very average. Probably more poignant and real in its original Tamil, I’m assuming. In the English version, the prose is nothing to write home about. The plot is new, yes, but the build-up towards it gets very repetitive after a point. That said, I did enjoy the images the author conjured about Thiruchengode and the villages around. But that’s pretty much it. These are times when I wish I could read Tamil fluently enough (I can read, but not fluent enough to read an entire novel! More like skim through news headlines and read political posters on Chennai roads!) because I can sense the poetry the words might have had. Example, there’s a scene where Kali’s mother is lamenting about his childlessness and the English word used is ‘dirge’ – with my limited Tamil knowledge, I’m guessing the Tamil word would have been ‘oppari’. Now, dirge is the very literal translation of ‘oppari’ – what we hear in a funeral. But I feel ‘lament’ would have been a better word here, given the context. Yeah, small things like that do get lost in the translation. Pity.

Bottom line, if it weren’t for the controversy, it’s a pretty average book in its English avatar. In it’s Tamil version though – would’ve been a tad bit more enjoyable because the point of this book is the prose, not the plot (we know the plot from the blurb already!).

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[Re-post] Rail Sneham

I blogged this back in 2008. When Chennai Egmore was celebrating its centenary (news link at the end of the post). I’m glad I wrote this. Now it serves beautifully as a memory of a memory. Perks of blogging, yo. ;-)

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The alarm goes off at 4:00 AM. Alarms, by some freak of nature, are audible only to parents. Dad and Mom are up and ready in no time. And since we’re children (my bro and I, that is) we get an extra 1 hour of sleep. There’s something about brushing your teeth and getting ready at 5 in the morning, isn’t there? Crappy is an understatement. But then, if you’re getting ready to catch a train that will take you to your favorite aunt’s house for summer holidays, there’s nothing that you won’t put up with. Even getting up at 5 AM.

For a family of four, we sure had a lot of luggage. 2 full bags. (It’s a different story now – for a family of two, we carry 4 bags). And Dad always made a comment on how we (Mom and me, generally) never travel light. I’m too sleepy to care. My brother, ofcourse, is falling asleep on his feet. I still wonder how my Dad can be so chirpy in the mornings – one thing his children did not inherit.

A 45 minute bus ride (and a nap) later, we’re at the railway station. People all dressed up, aunties smelling of Ponds powder and jasmine flowers, uncles smelling of vibhuti and Charlie and kids our age, sleep-walking behind the parents. The moment we enter the station, I wake up. Not because of the noise or the crowd, but because of the huge time table with the train arrival and departure timings. No one told me then that my parents were very literate and could read out the departures and platform numbers themselves. I took it upon myself to patiently stand there (the sleep fairy nowhere to be seen), ticket in hand trying to find our train. Another matter that our train was almost always on platform number 1, bang in front of my eyes. And the moment we enter the platform, I used to look at the huge railway clock and adjust my own watch to the same time – after all, that was the time the train was going to follow so I might as well follow the same! We had rituals as kids, didn’t we?

Next came the hurried walk down the train’s length trying to get into the right compartment. Since our parents were excellent planners, we rarely had waitlisted or unconfirmed tickets. Get into S1 or S2, fight with brother for the window seat, give up when Mom reminds me that I’m the older one, punch him once for good measure, have him sit at the window seat for exactly 15 minutes after which the poor thing would be sleeping, gently move him beside Mom and hog the window seat for the next 5 hours – phew, it was a lot of work getting settled on a train. Having a brother who used to sleep at the drop of a hat, helped.

Like all children all over the world, the first thing we did after settling down was to start asking the million dollar questions – “When will the train start?”, “When will we reach Madras?”, “When will the breakfast come?”, “Can I have vegetable cutlet and tea?”, “I have to go the bathroom. Can I go now before the train starts?”. The last one was always met with a hard stare and a stern line that one does not use the bathroom at stations ‘coz that will make the tracks and the station stink. Good sense prevails. The second thing we did was to make Dad get us the latest copy of Champak, Gokulam and Chandamama.

The smells and the sounds of a train are from another world, aren’t they? The iron smelling windows, the rexin seats with the Southern Railway emblem stamped on it, the two sets of shutters, one just plain glass and one with ribbed bars. The stinky toilets, the gymnastic balancing act one had to do to actually use them. And above all this, the food! O dear God, the food! I’m yet to have masala dosa that tasted as yummy as the ones sold on Southern Railways. The hot coffee. I always burned the tip of my tongue trying to drink the coffee when the train was moving.

When we run out of books, we turn to the window and watch the paddy fields go by. My brother would have occupied the other window seat ‘coz the benevolent looking uncle whose seat it was, felt sorry for him.

Each big station on the way was a milestone. “How much longer to Madras?”. “Is the train late?”. “Will uncle come to pick us up?”. “Can we go by auto?”. (FYI – I thought autos were proprietary to Madras. No other place on the planet had autos.)

The moment we reach Tambaram, all hell breaks loose. People scrambling to get their luggage down for the next station, Mambalam. The train stops there for a mere 2 minutes, so if you had to get down you had to be standing at the door. We used to sit with a smug expression that we’re going till the very end and we didn’t have to hurry.

The train rolls into Mambalam. The platform is much higher and seems more closer from the window. I always thought Madras had a distinctive smell and feel. Maybe the sea breeze, maybe the humidity, maybe the Coovum (which, by the way, was a landmark)! Or maybe the simple thought of a long holiday without any books or homework.

The first sign of home were the extra railway tracks. Small stations had only one or two. Big stations had 9 or 10. Big station meant home at last! The moment the platform starts, our heads were trying to get out of the windows trying to catch a glimpse of Uncle and wave like mad so he can know the devils are here. After being sufficiently satisfied that Uncle has spotted us and won’t go off without picking us up, we impatiently wait for Dad to bring the luggage down. Champaks and Gokulams neatly packed in to be given to the cousins at home.

And as we get out of the train, surrounded by this huge sea of humanity, getting propelled out to the entrance even without doing anything, I always turned back for one look at the great giant who got us there. Tired, puffing and panting, creaking and stretching, the great big train stood there – mission accomplished. A mission of getting hundreds of people safely to their destinations.

There’s still a small part of me that longs for those train journeys and summer holidays. That feeling of having done the journey, of travelling from one home to another, the sights and the smells – you don’t get that when you travel by air, do you? It’s an experience in itself to travel by rail. And when you go home and wash off the smell of the train from your body, it is with the knowledge that 30 days later you will be at the same station, waving goodbye to Aunty and Uncle, ready for another journey in that wonder of a transport mechanism, the train. And exactly a year later you will come back for another summer, on another train, but the journeys are new each time.

Chennai Egmore celebrates 100 years of being Chennai Egmore! For close to 18 years I have set foot on those platforms every year, without fail. There’s a personal relationship with Egmore that’s not there with any other station – not with Chennai Central, not with the Secunderabad station. Egmore was summer holidays and cousins. Egmore meant I was going to see Grandma in about 30 minutes. Egmore was the destination.

So, here’s to the big station. Here’s to the station being what it is to me, to many more children in future.

P.S: ‘Rail Sneham’ is a term used in Tamil for the friendships one makes over a train journey. My friendship was more with the train itself than the people in it!

Book Review: Em and The Big Hoom

Em and The Big Hoom
Em and The Big Hoom by Jerry Pinto

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I had to create a new shelf on Goodreads for this book – family. Because that is what Em and The Big Hoom is about. Family, in all it’s fragility and pain. But Jerry Pinto has somehow made a painful sad story into one of love and hope, of accepting our human-ness (for want of a better word) and all that it entails, even at the cost of one’s sanity. It doesn’t make you sad, this book. It just leaves this warm fuzzy hangover of a feeling that you knew the Mendeses as intimately as the author himself. There are little parts here and there that pierce straight to your heart and, if you were to mull upon the words, it brings out feelings that you won’t normally have when reading a book.

Em is the mother (she herself says it like a cuss word – Mudh-dha). The Big Hoom is the father. There’s Susan the sister. And our narrator. They live in a 1 bedroom-hall-kitchen flat in Bombay. What makes them different from any other middle class family of their time is Em – she’s ‘mad’. Manic depressive or schizophrenic or delusional – there’s never just one diagnosis. And the narrative is about how the family copes with Em and her repeated attempts at suicide. The story is set more like a set of events and dialogues, attempts by the narrator to learn about Em and her history with The Big Hoom (their rock in that tumultuous ocean of depression that was Em).

I love Em. She’s so endearing, even in her madness or rather because of it. She’s so honest and irreverent, even towards her children (in one of her bouts of depression she says she didn’t really want to have children!) that, at times, you don’t know whom to feel sorry for – Em or her family. We are exposed to all those moments of self-doubt and fear the narrator has, when he has to be there for her but doesn’t really want to even though she’s his mother. That conflict, for me, was the most poignant piece of the story. I have extended family who deal with differently-abled children and I can imagine that pain, that helplessness one feels when being a caregiver 24×7.

This paragraph describes perfectly how it all is, to be one –

“I sympathized with Granny but I also felt a deep vexation. She loved Em and she thought that should be enough. It wasn’t. Love is never enough. Madness is enough. It is complete, sufficient unto itself. You can only stand outside it, as a woman might stand outside a prison in which her lover is locked up. From time to time, a well-loved face will peer out and love floods back. A scrap of cloth flutters and it becomes a sign and a code and a message and all that you want it to be. Then it vanishes and you are outside the dark tower again. At times, when I was young, I wanted to be inside the tower so I could understand what it was like. But I knew, even then, that I did not want to be a permanent resident of the tower. I wanted to visit and even visiting meant nothing because you could always leave. You’re a tourist; she’s a resident.”

The style of the narrative is something I’m encountering for the first time – it’s refreshing and easy on the mind. It’s like this window through which we can see into that little Bombay flat, seeing that family go through a not-very-normal life in a normal way. You can’t help but fall in love with them.

There’s also a bit of humor in the narrative, which is surprising considering the subject. And also a bit of a relief. Like this –

“‘You know when I found your Debonair …’
‘You what?’
‘Oh, I put it back, don’t worry. Behind the tank in the toilet, what a place! I suppose you’d have hidden them under the mattress in your room, if you had a room. Poor beetle, where else are you going to fiddle?’
‘Em!’
‘Anyway, I looked at the centrefolds and I thought, some nice girls. But I didn’t want to nuzzle.’
‘Em!’
Her conversation had a way of reducing me to exclamations. I think she enjoyed that and worked out exactly how she was going to do it.”

There are many more heart-warming and some chilling conversations too. Probably what kept me hooked because it was all very comforting and disconcerting at the same time!

And hence the hangover. I haven’t picked up my next book yet. I don’t feel like it. I don’t want to lose this fuzzy feeling I have. Maybe I’m in mourning.

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If not God, then what?

I’m reading Jerry Pinto’s “Em and The Big Hoom”. Right now, the protagonist is losing faith in God seeing his mother’s suffering due to manic depression.

Here’s what he says –

No one could offer any explanation for the suffering I watched my mother go through. Nothing I read or heard fitted with the notion of a compassionate God, and God’s compassion, one uncomplicated, unequivocal miracle of kindness , was the only thing that could have helped. The sophisticated arguments of all the wise men of faith— their talk about the sins of a past life, the attachment to desire, the lack of perfect submission— only convinced me that there was something capricious about God. How could one demand perfect submission from those who are imperfect? How could one create desire and then expect everyone to pull the plug on it? And if God were capricious, then God was imperfect. If God were imperfect, God was not God.”

And it got me thinking. We all have our moments when we doubt our faith and our very belief in God. Especially in times of strife and loss. It’s probably a very human reaction to pain – the “why me?” and the “how can God let it happen?” parts. I have had those moments too. But it didn’t last all that long. Why?

Because every one of those times, I asked myself what will I do when I’m confronted with something beyond my control, which hurts me or the ones I love. And the only answer I get is I’d pray.

And I wonder what the atheists do. What do they believe in? In their most desperate, vulnerable and helpless moments, whom do they turn to? Do they get any answers to the “why me?”?

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Unrelated pic: a rainy day and a little boy by the window.