Tuesday, November 24, 2015

I am proud of being an Indian – Maulana Azad

So India finds herself in the midst of another ‘Khantroversy’. This time it’s Aamir Khan.

The first time I found what had happened from the media, I couldn’t help but think about Maulana Abul Kalam Azad. The same learned scholar and freedom fighter, whom Aamir Khan proudly talks about being related to. So proud that Khan claims he named his son after him.

Maulana Azad was a journalist, poet and politician. He joined the Indian freedom struggle and was against the idea of the Partition of India. But it did happen. And with it came terrible loss and hurt. After Partition Azad worked for the safety of Muslims in India. He toured affected areas in Bengal, Bihar, Assam and the Punjab, guided the organisation of refugee camps, supplies and security. He gave speeches encouraging peace, and encouraging Muslims across the country to remain in India and not fear for their safety and security. He firmly believed in Hindu-Muslim unity.

This post is not to deny the killings of Narendra Dabholkar, MM Kalburgi or the Dadri lynching or the aftermath of it all. These incidents are painful reminders that we as citizens, and our politicians have done something terribly wrong somewhere. And there should be protests against these incidents. This post is for a filmstar who says he is proud to be related to a real leader like Maulana Azad, and then talks about ‘intolerance’ and a suggestion of leaving India. Unlike Khan, his hero Maulana Azad, never thought of leaving India. Even when Partition, something he was opposed to happened, he chose to convince Muslims to stay in India and help them.

“I am proud of being an Indian. I am part of the indivisible unity that is Indian nationality. I am indispensable to this noble edifice and without me this splendid structure is incomplete. I am an essential element, which has gone to build India. I can never surrender this claim,” Maulana Azad had said at a Congress session in 1940.

It is difficult to go beyond criticism and try to change someone or something. It is easier to abandon someone for one’s own safety. But would you abandon a family member if he or she did something very wrong? India is like a family where some members are taking the wrong decisions. If other members feel something is wrong, they should help make a positive change.

Khan, who made the serial Satyamev Jayate, has the freedom to make his opinion. But he should not talk about being a proud relative of Maulana Azad and the ‘suggestion of escaping to safety’.

Maulana Azad did not desert his country.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Jewel in the thali

This is pithla. Or as non-Maharashtrians call it, peetla. Also known as zunka.
The gastronomic jewel that wars have been fought over, in many peace-loving Maharashtrian households. The prize that has turned many a sibling into a foe.

All Maharashtrian children unknowingly learnt to make this dish first, when they stepped into the kitchen as the making of pithla was announced, and left only when the vessel carrying it was taken to the dining table. So ask any Maharashtrian – even someone who claims he can’t cook – what the ingredients and method to prepare pithla are, and he or she will narrate it step by step, from chopping onions to the garnishing of coriander on top of the dish. It is one dish that has had scores of children running into the kitchen to ‘help’.     

While the savoury dish is delicious, licking the pot after it’s nearly over, is what siblings and cousins have battled for. In many of these battles, it is learnt with much pride, that it is often the younger sibling who has emerged triumphant. The battle having ended, with the elder sibling, minus few strands of hair and a sore face and bruised hands, glaring across the room at the younger sibling, also minus equal strands of hair, and a black eye and bruised face and hands to match, but with the coveted vessel in hand, and a big smile on the aching face.

Of course, there have not always been battles over pithla. It has also brought together siblings and cousins with love. On occasion, a visiting cousin has even magnanimously allowed his younger cousin to enjoy licking the vessel clean. A privilege he usually enjoyed under the glaring stare of his older brother at their home. Sigh! The duties one has on being older - never mind if his cousin didn’t hear his heart break when he heard her slurping it. 

There’s always the ladle to lick the remaining pithla stuck to the vessel. But long practicals, and deep study over years have led to the finding, that it tastes better when one uses one’s hands to lick it.

Pithla tastes better with bhakri, but it can also be accompanied by chappatis or rice. But the dollop of ghee on it is mandatory.

The deep study has also led to another finding, that though pithla is served hot,  it is equally delicious when cold.
Many people have tried to makeover this dish, for instance by adding fenugreek leaves to it, but the classic taste prevails. This is one dish that tastes best unfusionised and unmodernised. It remains a tasty dish made with simple ingredients. It is a tradition any Maharashtrian worth his pithla will want unchanged. Fast food, slow food, healthy food, the fads may come and go. But the pithla has retained its place in Maharashtrian houses. It is truly a jewel in our gastronomic treasury.

- alshi maushi

Sunday, June 21, 2015

My foodie dad

I inherited my parents’ love for writing and reading early, but my father’s love for food is just dawning on me.
I am told by Aai that Nana (my father) learnt to cook, because he was in the Bhoodaan movement and travelled for it. It wasn’t that Nana was just a good cook. He would also enthusiastically go shopping for the ingredients. He also read about food and we would often go to restaurants or a shop he had read about. If he liked a dish at a hotel he would try to recreate it at home. Once Aai, Nana and I went to Bhendi Bazaar to a shop that’s open only for a fortnight in a year to sell baklava, after he read about it. I remember in Goa, in the early years, he would hire a cycle, I would accompany him and we would ride to the Panjim market. The Editor in Chief of the Daily Gomantak and his daughter, going to the market on a cycle.

After they got married, my father stayed with my mother’s family for a few months at Girgaum until they got a place of their own. He was a pure vegetarian Koknastha Brahmin in a non-vegetarian Pathare Prabhu house. But that didn’t deter him. He began to get seafood for his new family from Sassoon Docks. He also learnt Pathare Prabhu dishes like bhujane and khadkhadle. Infact, his skills in cooking shamed my uncle who couldn’t even boil water, into learning to make tea! Mama decided he would at least make tea for everyone from then on. And while he didn’t learn anything else, he did make the first daily cup of tea for his family for years later.

It is only in recent years that the idea of spouses helping each other when it comes to running a house, or even cooking a meal, is being talked about. But years ago, Nana never forced Aai to cook a meal as soon as she arrived from work, or barred her from going for talks she hosted as chief of the Maharashtra Parichay Kendra in Goa. There were many times for instance, when she would return late at night because she had to be at a talk she had organised in a village two hours from Panjim where we stayed. He would quietly cook the whole meal and ensure that me and my sister had eaten on time. Even during my sister’s final days, Aai and Nana would tirelessly prepare different foods that she would be able to or had to eat.

My sister and I would often debate as to who made the best andyache bhujane. Was it Aai or Nana? But then Nana really was a good cook. Once he made some really yummy white chicken. Bharli wangi was another dish that he loved to make and eat. Ghada bhaaji, a dish similar to the undiyu, made with many vegetables, was another of his favourites. Speaking of undiyu, he loved it so much, that once a year, when it was the season for it, he would buy it from a particular shop in Santacruz. Another bhaaji he loved was ambadi. As his mother was from Andhra, he would make ambadichi bhaaji as it is made there. Pithla was another of his specialities. He also prepared chutneys and koshimbirs expertly. When she worked in Mumbai, Aai says her colleagues could immediately tell if Nana had made her daba. He even ate non-vegetarian food for some time, but later preferred vegetarian.

Once our cousins had come over. After a great time chatting and laughing, we realised it was very late. My parents insisted they all have dinner. Nana rustled up a delicious egg curry. The cousins loved it. Another guest who loved a bhaaji Nana and Aai made, was the noted singer-composer Yashwant Dev. He raved about the cauliflower bhaaji with ginger, and insisted it should be made the next time he was to visit.
Like all foodies, Nana had his favourite food haunts. In Goa it was Goenchin (we all loved this one), in Mumbai, Great Punjab and of course, when in Pune, he made it a point to have misal and Pushkarni bhel. Whenever he went to a new place, he would ask where the best misal was made and go there to taste it. The owners of Goenchin, the Lees, became our friends. Mr Lee’s (he was Chinese) father had been the owner of Nanking in Pune. His wife was Goan, she was called Mrs T, short for Theresa. The two of them made the whole visit to the restaurant special. They would talk to customers as if they were guests at their house, not restaurant, and while leaving, each female guest got a rose. By the end of the meal, my parents would have learnt a Chinese recipe and Mrs T would have learnt a new Marathi word. She would always credit my parents with having taught her to speak Marathi. 

For me, a meal to Goenchin was often a reward for being good. But it wasn’t just for family and friends that Nana thought of food. Once as editor, he received a threat. I don’t remember who it was, but they threatened to blow up Gomantak Bhavan sky high if Nana didn’t stop writing about them. The night they were scheduled to do so, all employees refused to leave. So Nana said everyone would have dinner at our house (on the fourth storey of the same building). Everyone, the assistant editors, the peons, personal assistants, cleaning staff, had dinner together. Needless to say, the night went by peacefully. On another occasion, the police were stationed outside the building. In the evening, Nana told a subordinate to organise pav bhaaji for them.

For a funfair in the colony, Nana once sold prawn bhaji (fritters). He put up a board – Koknastha Brahmnachi shuddha tupatli kolambichi bhaji (Prawn fritters made in pure ghee by a Koknastha Brahmin). He was soon sold out!

Even for our pet parakeet, Nana would go to Crawford market when he was in Mumbai, buy kardai and haul it to Goa. Raja, our tomcat, always had a supply of fish. When they moved from Goregaon, Aai tells me, Nana gave all the stray dogs there a meal of chapattis lathered in pure ghee.

In his 50s Nana was diagnosed with diabetes. There were many foods he wasn’t supposed to eat. For many years he abided by this. But there were days when he would tire of this and have them. One food that he would insist on having sometimes was eggs. He would make an omelette for breakfast and despite Aai’s disapproval he would also add cheese to it.
As a kid I did not like many foods. Infact, now people who know me must find it amusing to see me read or write about food. Can’t blame them. When one has been ‘Bridget Bones’ for a long time, it’s difficult for people to believe. But for years I have loved eggs. I too would often make eggs for breakfast. I think Nana liked this. I once heard him tell someone, “She makes eggs with such love. A breakfast with eggs is the one thing she loses herself into making, every morning.”

As I said, it is only recently that I have been interested in food. It’s an amazing world. I’ve also tried to write about it. However, I have a long way to go. And even then I will not quite be Nana’s true foodie inheritor. That will be my nephew, his grandson, who’s studying to be a chef. Of all of us, Nana must be the proudest of him.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

To my cousin, from the land of Piku

Dear cousin, born and bred in the queen’s land,

A long time back we had an argument in which you almost bit my head off. I had said it’s not in Indian culture to just leave our parents alone or in an old-age home, and move out. You were angry because you felt I was criticising your culture. While I now feel that some of us Indians distance ourselves from our parents, most of us don’t. And yes, it is because of our culture, the way we are brought up, that most of us continue looking after our parents, and don’t move out. Watch a beautiful film called Piku and you will understand a little of what I am trying to say.
Our country is changing, and some of these changes I really like. Piku shows one of that change. She is a woman who does not abandon her father because she wants to move on. “You can’t be judgmental about parents,” are the lines the actress says, to a character who is trying to talk to her about her father. She knows her father is a hypochondriac and probably just trying to get her attention with his ‘ailments’. But that’s the way he is and she has accepted it.
You in the West may say this is because of her sense of duty to him. Since when did looking after parents become one’s duty? They looked after us and brought us up, so did they do this because of their duty towards us? So how is looking after them a duty?
Piku’s reality, which is the case for many Indian women, is that she hasn’t found a man who will understand her and accept her with her father. In the character of Rana, the writer creates such a man, who understands her.
In the case of an Indian man, it is accepted that he will find a wife who will help him look after his parents. But it is difficult for many an Indian woman to find a man who will help do so for her parents.
I don’t have overwhelming parents like Piku’s father, but I have been unlucky to find a man who was willing to be there for them, with me. The Indian male traditionally thinks of his parents first. Now the Indian woman is saying she also wants to be there for her parents. She is no longer the woman who distances herself from her parents after she is married. She wants her future husband to also accept this. While this may not be a big deal if she also has a brother (with whom their parents will most likely be staying), it becomes a big deal in the case of an only daughter or just daughters.
But the traditional outlook of some Indian men is also changing for the better. I know a journalist couple who spent their week alternating between her mother’s home and his father’s home so neither parent had to live alone for long. Or a man who got his widowed mother-in-law to stay with them.
I also read an interview of actor Abhishek Bachchan - the son of the Indian superstar Amitabh Bachchan, who plays Piku’s father - who said that whether his wife, actress Aishwarya was in town or not, every Sunday, he has lunch with his in-laws. Considering what I have read and heard about the Bachchans, this is most likely true, because they are a progressive family.
Tradition has kept the great Indian family together. Over time, nuclear families meant there were just one or two children. Many modern, educated Indian women, have been brought up by their parents to think of themselves as equal to men. Unlike earlier times when a woman was brought up by banning her from doing or saying certain things because they may not be allowed in her husband’s house, the modern Indian woman has been brought up to respect tradition, but with the freedom to decide and choose for herself. So she has donned the traditional role of the son, that of looking after her parents, and she has decided she only wants a partner who understands, accepts and helps her in this.
The film Piku is being praised all over because many people in India have accepted this change. They are part of the change.
Being modern does not necessarily mean aping everything the West does. Some of us Indians may not have accepted moving out, but that doesn’t make us regressive people. It’s taken the young Indian woman so long to stand up and say she wants to be there for her parents. Is that being regressive? Is that not being modern?   
This is our culture. It’s a blend of the old and new, the traditional and the modern, and keeps us rooted. It’s what keeps some of us close to our parents and why some of us don’t move out.

Your very India-born and bred cousin

Thursday, May 14, 2015

A tale of two brothers

After the accident my mother needed extensive dental treatment. It was during these sessions that I saw him again.
For years he accompanied his father to work every day, and spent it sitting quietly on a chair put up for him in one of the rooms in the dental clinic. Their father retired, and now he accompanies his brother, the present dentist.
I first heard about him from my father, when I was a kid. The mentally challenged son whose father took him to work every day.
He still sits quietly, sometimes doing namaskar, greeting patients. He can’t do much else. At intervals the dentist’s assistants offer him tea. Like a child he sometimes refuses to drink it, and like a child, drinks it when he is admonished.
The time shows on his face now. But not in his manner. He smiles, sometimes tries to talk to patients, but mostly sits quiet.
Quietly he watches his brother work. He doesn’t react to the sounds from the machines or to the patient and doctor interaction. The dentist hums a song that’s playing in the background as he works. Occasionally he explains something to the patient. He instructs the assistants. His brother watches quietly.
I wonder what he thinks. Is he aware of the success of his brother? Is he aware of all that he does for him? Is he aware of the changing scene before him? Of his father’s place in the clinic taken by his brother? Or that his nephew will one day take that place? Is he aware that he has seen time pass in front of him?
In these times when people are reluctant to even speak to their parents, it is heartening to see the dentist’s love for his brother. The unselfish love that made him take on looking after his brother from their father.
Time may have forgotten the quiet man who has spent his life sitting on a chair in a dental clinic, but love hasn’t. It’s all that truly exists for him.