28 December 2013

2013 Garden adventures: growing from seed

I have been attempting to garden now for about 4 years. I was a prolific killer in the first couple of years. Being ambitious, I wanted to grow things from seed - not a good idea for someone endowed with a brown thumb. Not even weeds used to grow in my garden. I got around this by buying fully grown plants and then killing them slowly. Buy, water, kill - that was the unintentional cycle I was in. This year though I think I finally managed to grow from seed and maintain, that's right, maintain healthy plants. Yippee.

When I started to garden, like with most pursuits, what I did first was to read the literature and then disregard it completely. My introduction to growing from seed was inspired by a natural farming method advocated by Masanobu Fukuoka. I was mightily impressed by the concept of throwing seeds around and letting nature do the job. Let's remember that, at this point, I was trying to apply a philosophy for farming fertile acres, to a pot of crumbly soil I got from the roadside, in the balcony of my apartment. Somehow this irony escaped me before.

Scattered seeds
I got a crate together and threw seeds around of different plants on it. I thought that once they grew up, I could recognize them. It slipped my mind that I don't have a degree in Botany. This technique I applied to a bag of salad greens (I wrote about it before). The result, as you can see, looked good, but I had no idea what I was eating! So at the next trial, I decided to be more regimental about where I scattered the seeds. I did them in rows. Only I forgot what I put in each row. Aaargh. Also when some of the rows had nothing, I got exasperated and threw in methi or coriander seeds just to have something green. Gardening is supposed to teach you patience; I still don't think I know of the concept.

Finally, I got a seed tray. I got cocopeat. I learned from the GeekGardener how to prepare it for seedlings. Importantly, I wrote down what I planted where. Success. Oh, this also happens to be Gardening 101 which I had carefully disregarded previously.

The [dead] Cucumber
I planted this season - jalapenos, cucumber, tomato (Turkish) and peanuts. The cucumber flourished, gave flowers and then got these black ants all over. I tried to get rid of them by spraying neem oil - nothing changed. Then one afternoon I was on a butchering spree - needed to get my 7 ft tall kadipatta plant (who couldn't support itself) down to size, and the lemongrass, which looked like savannah grass, trimmed. Since I was chopping things anyway, I did the same to the cucumber plant. Not a good idea. It died. The lemongrass and kadipatta made it though. See, I told you I had become better at not killing the plants!

When I transplanted the tomato, there was only one plant in the pot. Soon there were two. I know twins don't happen magically; then I remembered that the pot used to house a tomato plant in my previous home. Maybe a seed survived and bloomed because there was a lot of fertilizer in it? Now I had previously grown a cherry tomato variety in this pot. What I got were golf size tomatoes. The turkish plant on the other hand was giving cherry sized tomatoes. Go figure.

Peanuts I grew as an experiment to rejuvenate the soil - they will plant Nitrogen through Rhizobium. Ultra scientific and all. The plants have come up, so have a couple of peanuts, and surprise, so did a rat. I left the bag of nuts for planting out on the balcony and it turned into a steady supply in the winter for a rat that came in through the balcony door one night and gave us thrills for a couple of days.

Jalapenos - success. 100%.

Then there were things I didn't seed that also showed up - thai basil and beans. The basil is from another pot, so it was in the garden already. The beans are a mystery. Did they come from the leftover kitchen water that I use for watering the plants? or the compost?
I leave you with this picture of the *Star of Bethlehem*, the only flowering plant I have. The sight and fragrance are gorgeous; too bad they only last a night.

22 December 2013

Being an Indian Citizen who counts: Devyani Khobragade

The case of Devyani Khobragade clearly demonstrates who the Indian State considers important. Compare the response by our External Affairs Ministry to a falsely accused Sea Captain Sunil James, who was left to rot in jail for eleven months in Togo, to that of Ms Khobragade, who at least on paper appears to have violated US laws. The sea Captain was a regular citizen, wielding no privileges, while Ms Khobragade's father, belonging to a powerful clique of civil servants was immediately allowed access to the Minister of External Affairs.

The diplomatic furore that has surrounded the actions of the US law enforcement agents focuses only on what happened to Ms Khobragade, not what prompted the action. The allegations, that she lied on a visa application form and underpaid her maid, themselves have been swiftly set aside. Ms Khobragade's arrangement with her domestic staff does not elicit raised eyebrows. After all, In India, which of us has a written contract with our maids? It is also probably not considered odd that Ms Sangeeta Richards, Ms Khobragade's maid, was paid partly in US dollars and partly in INR, into her Indian bank account. Shouldn't there be all manner of tax implications for something like this?

The very act of taking a maid from India smacks of irresponsibility. You promise someone more money, but overlook the social price they would pay. Did Ms Richard's know English? Even English-speaking Indians feel alienated in new cultures sometimes - was there an outlet or mechanism for Ms Richard to cope with being in a new country all by herself? No doubt Ms Khobragade required help to raise young daughters, but why couldn't she hire locally? A place like New York City has sufficient diversity to allow recruitment of household help of a particular ethnicity. But that would have required a higher level of legal responsibility, in addition to financial burden. It appears that our diplomats are no better than us when it comes to household help - get it cheap, and treat the relationship like a favour.

What is further galling is that the Indian Government has come out blazing in its response. Ms Khobragade has been transferred immediately to a position that could offer better immunity to prosecution and apparently in retaliation, privileges have been withdrawn for US diplomats in India. Ask yourself - would this have happened if Ms Khobragade was an investment banker or software engineer in New York City? In that case, the media would have reported it, we would have had two or three editorials about how maids should be treated and the matter would have died down. Because of the nature of Ms Khobragade's position, it appears that the Indian Government wants to purportedly protect "Indian dignity". Let it be known that there are some of us who think it is more shameful that we treat domestic help poorly, than having our diplomat strip-searched. That the Indian Government wants the charges dropped is further proof that we value face-saving, to dealing with the matter in a just and fair manner.

What about Ms Richards? Where is she, and why is it being over-looked that she too is an Indian citizen? Her family appears to have moved to US shortly before the arrest - the obvious reading of this is that the US Government was well aware of how the situation might snowball, but another reading could be that Ms Richard's family genuinely feared for their lives. At one point or another, we Indians have experienced how having "influence" can turn the tide of affairs in the corridors of government power. Isn't it likely that her maid's family felt threatened? One Sunday afternoon, N and I came to blows with riff-raff just because we parked outside a politician's house in Hyderabad. There was no legal restriction to parking; but public space all around that house was commandeered and policed by his goons. When something as trivial as parking space can cause politicians to inflict violence, what would you expect in a more serious case as this?

I am pained that in terms of action, we continue to focus on how our diplomats are being treated and view it in the broader context of national pride. Why can't we discuss and introspect more on what caused this situation, and how we should treat our domestic staff better so they don't feel that their only recourse to legal aid is asylum in another country?

Update: Read here the official charges filed by the US against Ms Khobragade.

15 December 2013

Maids are working women too

Buried in the news story about India's outrage at how our diplomat was treated by law enforcement officers in New York City (Read: Indian diplomat arrested on visa fraud charges), is the not so uncommon story of treating domestic help poorly. Although in this instance, the jury is still out, a couple of years ago another Indian diplomat was convicted of abusing her domestic help, and asked to pay her compensation (Read: Indian diplomat asked to pay $1.5million to ex-maid). More recently, in India, was the horrifying actions of an MP's wife on her two helpers, which resulted in one of them dying (Read: BSP MP, wife arrested for maid’s death in their Delhi house). I find this disturbing. Why are we mean to people we hire?

I grew up in urban India and as a culture, everyone I knew had maids. Most people had daytime help - people who would come for a couple of hours in the mornings, and more rarely, where the stay-at-home help who came from remote villages. So when I came back from the US, I did the usual thing - I hired a maid. Sensitized by my experiences in the US about being politically correct, I thought hard about what I would call this person. "Servant" was out. That just sounded demeaning. Domestic help? Housekeeper? Maid? Hired help? I think the way we treat them starts with this discovery. How would you describe them?

For me, my maids have been extraordinary. They are hard-working women, who are sometimes the only bread-winners for their family. I have also been very lucky with finding them - my maids have been thoughtful honest people who are extremely professional about their tasks. There are two rules that I announce before I hire one -

Rule # 1: You will take a weekly off.

Rule # 2: Please don't ever lie to me. 

For all the maids I have had, Rule # 1 comes as a surprise. They aren't really sure what I mean by it. I try to explain that everyone who works normally gets a weekly off; If I get one, so must you. I also explain that this is included in the monthly salary. My preference is that they take off Sunday. This weekly off is in addition to sick leave and paid-leave for holidays. When I explain my philosophy to colleagues, they mention how Sunday is the only day they get to supervise their maids. Fair enough, then give her another day off. I don't understand how people can expect their maids to work 7-days a week, but find it perfectly acceptable that they get one or two days off weekly from their office.

Rule # 2 is to assure them that I understand how unpredictable life can be, and would like to accommodate this in our relationship. So, if she wants to take 10-days off, I request that she be honest about this. It disturbs me when she takes off for 6 days and doesn't return on day 7. At the very least, I expect a phone call if there are change in plans. 

My experience with both rules is that maids are wary. Till they start working with me and realize that I mean these rules, they don't open up about it. It is sad that rule # 1 is quite useless because other people that she works for, don't give her an off. There are other taboos that I don't follow - our maids eat and drink from the same cups as we do, they don't handle my hazardous sanitary waste or the compost waste, they are welcome to anything in the fridge/ kitchen to satisfy their hunger. I never shout/ raise my voice. If I find something amiss, I point it out gently.

I consider my maids as an asset; without them, it would be difficult for me to be efficient and functional. I also don't set them tasks that I wouldn't do myself. I might dislike doing the dishes, but I am capable of doing it.

Above all, I think of my maids as working women first. Like me, they have to balance work and their own homes. Unlike me, they don't have the luxury of having someone else do their chores. They have period cramps, annoying in-laws and demanding children. Just like I expect professional treatment in my work place, they should get professional treatment from me. As a professional woman, I should play it forward.

13 December 2013

Real estate crazy Bangalore

Hoardings in Bangalore predominantly come in two flavours - jewellery adverts or real estate ads. Why these are the only items worth marketing, is a rant for another post. What really galls me is the content of the ads. Jewellery, is most times Indian. Fine, we like our gold and at least sometimes, these are aesthetic. You might not like jewellery, but you can admire the design. 

With apartment ads though, all you see is - Californian-style villa, Spanish-villa, Italian-marble, German-architect. I never see ads about structures that take inspiration from a Toda tribal hut or Chettinad-style veranda or fabulous ventilation of a Kerala tharvadu? No mention ever about a South-American, African or Asian aesthetic, barring sometimes, a Japanese zen garden. Are we this obsessed with living like the west? 

Regardless of the price you pay for your foreign-labelled home, you'll still have to get your water from the corporation, electricity from BESCOM and your maid from a halli nearby. The thesaurus has been milked dry for adjectives to define "luxury" on the hoarding. When you finally settle in that dream home, everything about it is Indian - a dozen rules were probably flouted for construction, the land might have had shady antecedents and your main source of water would be the bore-well that will run dry in a couple of years. Such a mismatch between what you are promised, and what you get. 

Yet, the city's real estate is like an adolescent on growth hormones. The skyline is dotted with apartments, sticking out like acne. Ugh. I live in one of them, and have to call it home.

3 December 2013

Missing numbers

Rukmini took a sharp intake of breadth and loudly exclaimed, "Ayyo!" She hastily opened the letter from the taxman. Since they weren't known to send out congratulatory letters of any sort, she was certain the news was not pleasant. Despite this knowledge, her heart leaped into her mouth as she read how much the bar owed the taxman. In the agitation that followed, her glasses tumbled on to the floor and she stepped on them.

As she ground the glass with her heel, her mind raced, "How could this be?"

Accounts was not Rukmini's strong point so she had a Mr Swaminathan who did all the numbers. He told her to sign here, here and here. She did. Swaminathan was a friend of Murugan and she has felt comfortable with him. There hadn't been an issue for over a decade. So, what was this all about?

She dialed Swaminathan. After many rings, a woman answered and said he wasn't available to come on the phone. She mumbled something about illness, and before Rukmini had a chance to plead for an audience, she cut the line. When she tried the number again, the mobile had been switched off.

After tossing and turning in bed that night Rukmini decided that she needed to take the bull by its horns: she decided to visit the Tax offices. It was a sunny day, armed with an umbrella, her most faded dharmavaram cotton saree, and a hairstyle that made her face appear vulnerable, Rukmini set out. After visiting each floor, three different Mr Nataraj's, three peons who felt obliged to send her down corridors with stinky bathrooms, Rukmini reached the office of the taxman who had signed her letter.

"Madam, as it says here, service tax has not been paid and the government would like to claim that. What is the problem, eh?" His tone was paternal and perplexed, like Rukmini was expecting to be appreciated for solving the difficult problem of what two plus two equals. After delivering his insight, the officer busied himself with peering intensely at the various files on his desk. Rukmini was flabbergasted, and after a moment, collected herself, saying "Yes Sir. The letter is plain. What needs clarification is how the Government reached this conclusion? I have copies here with all the previous years tax papers. Everything tallies." After browsing all the papers in the file in his hands, the gentleman cleared his throat, looked up, rather confused that she was still sitting in front of him, and intoned "Madam, there is an appeals process. Go to the third floor, they will help you."

Rukmini spent the day learning about various forms, what items were required in triplicate and mused that if one were to be given a choice on being reborn as an annoyance, the taxman must top the list, followed perhaps by a mosquito.

Swaminathan was still not reachable by phone, so she decided to finish her day by visiting him. His office was shut. Seeing her confused expression, the security guard of the office opposite informed her that Swaminathan's office had been closed for three months. Had he been ill for so long, wondered Rukmini? Must be something serious. So she decided to visit his home.

When she got there, she was surprised to find the metal gate, which served as the entrance, was bolted and locked. She started rattling the gate and shouted, "Mr Swaminathan! Mr Swaminathan!" Nothing stirred. In a fit,  Rukmini jumped over the gate, ruing that she had worn a saree. Then she rang the bell. Again and again, giving vent to her exasperation. She stopped when she felt the vibration of her mobile phone. An SMS from Swaminathan's number. Come to the back door.

"Be quiet" Swaminathan's wife, assumed Rukmini, hissed these words as she pulled her roughly by her hand into the house. All the curtains were drawn so it took a while for Rukmini to adjust her eyes to the darkness. The house felt warm and suffocating, likely because no window had been opened in a while. "My name is Rukmini. I am Swaminathan's client. Please calm down. I think I spoke to you yesterday, and you said he was sick. So, I wanted to make sure it was nothing serious." Rukmini tried to be calm and matter-of-fact, as she spoke. 

The woman introduced herself as Sudha, and motioned Rukmini to sit down "I don't know, ma. He has disappeared. One regular office day, he locked up as usual, but didn't come home. We have been married fifteen years and not once has that man not followed his routine. I waited for a few days and then filed a complaint with the police. That day, he had left his mobile at home, so I can't even use that to trace who he might have talked with. Soon after the police got involved, three thugs started visiting the house. They too wanted to know where he was. They said he owes them money, for gambling." Gambling? Somehow it was hard to imagine Swaminathan, his forehead bearing a red V, the mark for Vishnu, who didn't eat hotel food, didn't keep friends, drank only water boiled in his house, to have got into gambling. Sudha went on to share that because the thugs kept showing up at odd hours, she decided to shut herself in.

Rukmini convinced Sudha to come live with her to avoid the goons. She accompanied Sudha to the police station to find out what progress they had made. Swaminathan was neither a criminal, nor a politician, or a wealthy man, so his priority as a missing person was pretty low. The only thing that stood out was a single transaction, in Swaminathan's bank account; it was a deposit made a week before he disappeared. It had been made by a company registered in Mauritius and was worth about ten times as much as Swaminathan would earn in his lifetime. Sudha had no idea about the account or the money; Swaminathan had always taken care of the finances. When the police contacted the company, they got a lawyer who wouldn't give them any information, till he received orders from the proper channels. It was no surprise to Rukmini that the proper channels involved the Ministry of External Affairs, from whom the police expected a response in six months. 

Rukmini's head swirled - her life had become a movie plot. She got a tax notice, and her tax consultant has disappeared. Somehow the mafia was involved. What next? Was she going to get a death threat? Or a ransom note with Swaminathan's pinkie as incentive?

Sudha was a sad guest to host. She weeped copiously and whenever Rukmini met her, talked about what a good man Swaminathan was, and how cursed she was to be without a husband. Always the one for action, Rukmini shuddered at these meetings and tried to convince Sudha that she wasn't helpless, just a victim of circumstance. After a few weeks, Rukmini conceded failure; Sudha's refrain was that she wanted to go to her village. She needed money to do so, and the police had closed Swaminathan's account. Lawyers were contacted, and Rukmini arranged for Sudha to have access to the account to make a one-time withdrawal, till the police could complete paperwork to declare Swaminathan legally dead. As she waited outside the bank for Sudha to complete her transaction, she wondered what would become of her tax problem.

So caught up was Rukmini that she didn't realize that even after an hour, Sudha had not emerged from the bank. She rushed inside, irritated with herself for not being vigilant. The poor woman was so frightened of those goons! There was no Sudha in the bank however. Rukmini badgered the teller about Sudha, but she hadn't seen any woman of Sudha's description at her post. Just then, Rukmini spotted a conference of the cleaning ladies by the Ladies bathroom. They were holding up what looked like Sudha's saree. Rukmini was frightened. The cleaning lady couldn't understand Rukmini's fear; after all, what was the big deal? Someone had left a saree, neatly folded in the ladies' room. Mysterious, but not scary. Rukmini immediately went to the Manager, explained as best as she could, and had the police summoned. Meanwhile, they checked Swaminathan's account. The account had been closed, and all the money withdrawn as cash. The teller had verified the signature against records, and it had matched Swaminathan's.

Rukmini spent hours at the police station, explaining what she knew. Obviously, they didn't believe her. Luckily she had visited the police station with Sudha, so they were witnesses to some of what she experienced. Being interrogated as a suspect was exhausting, and she was glad when they finally let her go, because of a technicality that they couldn't grapple with. Rukmini was escorting a woman who as per records, had been dead for the last five years. Her family in the village had confirmed this.

Back home, Rukmini found a folder on a bed. It contained neatly filled forms, in triplicate, for the tax office. All she had to do was sign here, here and here.

27 November 2013

BUMmed out

I wanted to get back into running and started as usual with the 3 miler on the treadmill. I like the treadmill to start off because you can monitor your pace and be forced to run the desired distance. Plus, it being India, I can wear shorts in the gym and not have to worry about light conditions, status of road romeos etc. 

So, there I am, running. All going well. I do a mildly higher pace and can keep up. When I start, the soreness usually comes the next day, in the thighs. This time it started in the butt. The annoying thing was I couldn't pin-point the location. Usually if you have a muscle ache if you press this way and that you'll find where the pain is most, and what type of kneading helps. With the bum pain, I couldn't do this. No matter how hard I pressed, all I felt was squishy fatty tissue. With the help of Dr Google I figured out there are plenty of muscles and I might have actually injured something.

Now, the funny thing is describing this. I was amazed to learn that using the word bum, made some people blush. How to describe it? My arse hurts? My posterior, south and outward of the sacrum is throbbing? I have a bum pillow too now. Sitting on hard surfaces for more than half hour hurts. Surely the best excuse to walk out of boring lectures. 

After a major mental battle, I went to see a doctor, whose diagnosis was something something stress, which needs an MRI. So I have to get my ass checked out medically. Thrilling, eh? If the tone of this para was not clear: I dislike going to doctors. The pain has reduced considerably though and I think I might be able to start my yoga routine. I have continued to eat like a pig, but stopped all exercise. Everything is just more squishy and fatty. Ugh.

9 November 2013

In want of a goat

My name is Broccoli. Go ahead, feel sorry for me just because I don't have a unique name. I suppose I could have called myself Brassica oleracea var. botrytis but then you would call me arrogant. Besides, how would you pronounce the italics? 

I don't belong here. I don't know how I know this, but I look around and see that I am a different shade of green. My neighbours are darker, oilier and more hardy. I feel thirsty all the time but my neighbours seem to manage with as little water as they get. My earliest recollection of life was in a really hot place. The sun bore down on me and the only water I got was from a bucket. Ah, water. I still recall how parched I used to get, my leaves too heavy to hold up so they almost kissed the pot. I could barely sway, my limpid leaves hanging like dacshund ear's. Droopy, I got very often. Then I got water and in loads. It made me so happy. Slowly my aching leaves would move up from the ground and hold themselves rigid and proud; catching the sun like a solar panel. I had two siblings then. I don't know what happened to them. We got separated after we moved from the hot place. 

When I moved to the new place, I felt better. It was not hot all the time. My leaves enlarged, I grew taller and I could see all the other plants in the balcony from a height. One time, another plant grew taller than me, a tomato plant; it gave a lot of fruit, and eventually died. I sometimes wonder about that way of living. Giving fruit and then dying. I used to feel really happy just having strong shiny green leaves, but then I began to notice that in the new place, all the other plants gave flowers which sometimes turned into fruit. Their leaves withered and the cruel water tricks made them weak, yet they defended and cared for their flowers and fruits, valiantly giving up water and food just so they would survive. Why didn't I ever produce flowers or fruit? Could I even make babies?

I searched deep. Maybe I wasn't special enough? Was the problem with me or my environment? I was different from the other plants, but was I different in this regard too? There was no one to talk to about this. The other plants merely looked away when I tried to reach out to them. My big leaves prevented them from getting enough sun. Always, there was an excuse to avoid me. Once in a while, just like water from the sky, blobs of brown stuff would descend on me and I would feel rejuvenated. I would grow taller and taller, make more leaves; I could turn towards the sun each day. Yet, no fruit emerged. I don't know why this is. I came to a newer place some time back and it was even cooler than before. Like the last time, yet another tomato plant grew next door, grew bigger than me and started giving fruit. I can't take it any longer.

Why do I just keep growing?

Notes: This is a private story. I have a broccoli plant, whose seeds I got from UK. I managed to grow it from seed in Hyd, but it never flowered there. I thought it was the weather. Bangalore doesn't do the trick either. I have had it for 4 years now. The title alludes to a joke with my friends that the only thing the plant is good for, is to feed a goat.

2 November 2013

Diwali Harvest

My eyes grow green with envy when I go to gardening blogs, when their authors proudly display their harvest. So, here's a picture for the record. The harvest was unintentional. I was cleaning the garden and giving my plants a haircut (trimming), oil massage (neem mix) and growth serum (various biofertilizers I picked up from the Urban Krishi Mela at GKVK). During this adventure, in my usual klutzy way I managed to knock things around and large swathes of branches that I did not intend to cut, lay waste. Besides the Jalapenos, everything else either dropped off or whose stem got bruised as I was bustling about.

16 September 2013

It just happened.

"I love him", sobbed Uma into her hands. Her tear-stained face had peeped into Rukmini's office that evening and immediately Rukmini knew that her Aunty avatar was required.

It was a simple story, repeated ad nauseum in Indian movies. Boy spots girl, romances her, they are an item, their friends know they are an item, they decide to get married, they tell their parents, all hell breaks lose. Love marriage, the family asks? To a boy not chosen by them? Neti, Neti. The story is common and so are the points at which the girls normally approached Rukmini.  

The first break point:
Should I fall in love? Is he the right guy? What will my parents say? What will society say?

The second break point:
How should I tell my parents?

The third break point:
My parents have forbidden it. What should I do?

The fourth break point:
My marriage has been fixed to someone else, but what can I do?

And finally,

The fifth break point:
I am getting married tomorrow to someone I don't love. My life is ruined. I can't do anything.

Sometimes, when the sobbing and sniffling was unbearable, and the gaiety in the bar enticing, Rukmini rued that she didn't write up a little practical advice book on the various means and ways to deal with each break point. The girls wanted to hear the same thing: yes, this is not what would be acceptable to your parents, but do it anyway because love is worth it. Or some such bilge along those lines, sighed Rukmini. For they all inevitably arrived only after they knew what they wanted. It was the final act of articulation, a confession really, that delivered them to action. So sure was Rukmini that Uma's story ran along those lines, that she only half-paid attention to the torrent of words that emerged from Uma. She made the right noises, gestures and then, as was expected, narrated how choices seem difficult but everything turns out alright. Uma didn't seem consoled but was ushered out of Rukmini's office nonetheless. That night, Rukmini was feeling impatient. And the thought of that feeling, the intense desire to brush aside the girl and her trivial problem, was what caused her to feel utterly shaken and then guilty, when she heard that Uma had committed suicide.

This was the first time that a client of the bar had come seeking advice, for the last time.

After the initial period of sadness and dismay, Rukmini decided that she needed to know what went wrong. Uma's friends were not prepared for her death either; they seemed confused and inconsolable that their friend had taken such an extreme step without speaking about it or giving an inkling that she entertained such a thought. They, like Rukmini, felt irresponsible. Yes, they knew of her boyfriend and they gave Rukmini a number to call.

Odd though it would seem, Rukmini decided to call the young man. They met at park near the college where Uma and he studied. Rukmini watched him as he walked towards the park bench and felt his gait to be of a man walking with a broken heart; dark circles lined his eyes and he seemed tired, weighed down by sadness. Why did she do it? I ask myself that every single day he says. We had decided to announce it to our families and we knew there would be opposition. How her parents, or mine reacted was not surprising. Yet, things were not unpleasant or ugly at home; uncomfortable and dramatic, but not violent. Her parents suggested that she should at least meet boys from families that they selected for her, and if she felt they fell short as compared to her selection, they would relent. The day of her suicide, she met one such man. But the meeting happened at home and the family were chaperoning it. Uma had called him after it was over and everything seemed normal. Now, he doesn't know if he will ever feel normal again.

It took a couple of months for Uma's friends to get contact details of the man Uma had seen the day of her death. When Rukmini called him, she got no response. She found out where he worked and tried to meet him at his office. She was unable to get past security; the man was avoiding her.

It was desperation that got her to seek the help of a professional detective. She lied to the professional, telling him that the boy in question was a prospective match for her daughter and she wanted to know a bit more about his habits. The detective even had a standard fee for this service, so common was it in his line of duty. A month later he gave her a detailed report. There was only one aspect of note: the boy made a weekly stop at the city's red light district. This revelation hardly made sense to Rukmini. There was nothing to connect this with Uma's death. Nothing obvious anyway.

Rukmini decided to follow the boy on the night of his paid love. After he had left the building, she approached the Madam. A stone-faced, quick tempered woman met her at the entrance and only Rukmini's foot prevented the door being slammed in her face. Luckily, Rukmini's early days at the bar afforded her some friends in this circle. She implored the Madam to call them and verify that she wasn't a threat. The Madam did so reluctantly and once assured by the voice at the other end of the line, grudgingly let Rukmini in.

No greetings or further personal information was exchanged. As succinctly and unemotionally possible, Rukmini narrated how she arrived here. Rukmini finished her story and looked for a response. The Madam neither acknowledged nor denied details; her thin-set lips moved in rhythm with her tobacco chewing. The eyes conveyed boredom and annoyance. They sat there in silence for a while: two fiercely independent stubborn women locked in a story with a sad ending. That boy, the Madam said, is a regular. He pays up on time, and I have never had a complaint about him from the girls. It is all business, Amma. That was it. There was no more information forthcoming. There was no question of the Madam allowing Rukmini to meet one of the girls; it was working hours for them.

As Rukmini walked distractedly to her car, a man drew up in front of her. His aspect was menacing and he screamed, "What do you want from me?" It was the boy. He was close to Rukmini, his breath percolating on her face and his dark angry face glared at Rukmini.

"I want to know why Uma died. I have no other interest." Rukmini declared as calmly as she could.

Suddenly, the boy broke down. His anger dissolved in a flood of tears and he leaned into Rukmini sobbing. "I don't know, I don't know" he repeated. Taking a deep breath, he found his bearing and recalled, "I met her that morning with my parents. They suggested we take a walk in the park to talk to each other alone. I heard then about her boyfriend and it didn't bother me. I offered to tell my parents that I didn't like her. That night, my mother conveyed the news to their family. Next day we heard she had committed suicide. My family now looks at me accusingly for ruining that girl's life. I haven't slept in days. There was no note, no SMS - I had no communication with her except for twenty minutes that morning, yet everyone secretly blames me. What am I to do?" He staggered away into the night. Rukmini was transfixed. Later, at home, she wondered if it was all a big act. But the boy was not a disingenuous person. The detective's report described a kind and generous personality, with the brothel visit as the only exception to his high "moral" character.

There was no more road to travel. Why did Uma kill herself? That thought would torture a lot of people for the rest of their lifetime. Silly, silly girl.

16 July 2013

Birthday post from Turkey

This post comes from a hotel in the KaƧkar mountains, eastern Black sea coast, Turkey. This morning, I went down earlier than N to breakfast, so as to think about what I realized (!) the past year. It started with a list.

Digression - I think there is a gene out there that compels you to make lists, and it is inherited, in a dominant fashion. In my family, there is no escape - both parents love making them, and in certain scenarios will not discuss further till a list has been made. There is no problem, we think, that can't be solved by making a list. Right from making a list about what qualities I want in the man I would like to marry, down to what I wanted to do with my life after coming back from the US. It's the family antidote to every illness and surprisingly, works very well. If you are ever invited to our home you can be sure that on the fridge, in a scrap of paper, quite possibly the back of an old invitation card which has been cut up neatly with scissors, would be a list of items that will be cooked and somewhere, in the depths of my mother's purse or father's pocket, a list of ingredients that need to be purchased. 

Anyway, this list. What my mother found was something I must have made when I was studying for a BSc. There is no date; I am guessing this from the contents. It was a list of what I wanted to do with my life. I didn't put down when I would achieve those things; I made the list in the confidence that once you put something on paper, indented it with numbers or bullets, you had a good chance of getting them done. The optimism in the list is unfailing. By this birthday though, I know there is much I won't realize from that list - like learning ballet, or french. Not because I can't, but because I have different interests now. Well, that's an excuse that would work only for some items on the list. Something physical like learning ballet, I just don't think it would be possible. Sure, one could be inspired by Protima Bedi, who took up Odissi as an adult and then excelled in it. But I am certain I will not be that way. And that's what is amazing about this time and age for me. Knowing my limitations and making peace with them. These limitations are not truly holding me back; they are merely an acceptance of the way my body and mind work.
The other thing that I get more confident about as the years pass by is regarding competition. In more and more areas of my life, my competition is with myself. Not the 1st ranker in class, or the classmate who has a faculty position now, or the contemporary who has two chubby children. When I do or think of doing something now, it's with the confidence of knowing that the only person I really need to please is myself. Does that make me selfish? Perhaps. But labels I can live with. Deceiving myself, I cannot. 

Oh, I did achieve one thing from that list. I got a PhD.

Pictures from our Trek at Kavron today. It was incredibly misty - couldn't see more than 50m at some parts.

29 June 2013

Telling stories

In the early days, even on a Saturday, the bar had no more than five clients. While starting the bar was easy, attracting customers was not. Rukmini had assumed that it would be 20-somethings, flush with salary they earned at their first job out of college, who would enjoy a quiet place to drink and socialize. But she could hardly go to the IT companies where many of these girls were employed, and be welcomed to promote her bar - for most would wonder what other licentious and equally morally dubious activities happened there, in addition to the sin of consuming alcohol. A bar was a seedy joint, where drunks lay splattered inside a dark room illuminated by a dull red light; a room whose entrance was through a dirty thin curtain. No amount of respectability could be imagined for it, even if it did serve pure vegetarian snacks only.

It wasn't surprising then that some of her first customers were women who plied the trade. Rukmini tried hard not to categorize them as they walked through the door, but they had a distinct sense of dressing: hair filled with strands of jasmine flowers, a shiny sequined saree or salwar, strappy sandals with long heels, conspicuously bright jewelry and a gayness in the form. They would walk in alone, confirm that the bar was really only for women, use the bathroom and then leave. After a few weeks, finding a friendly face and ambiance at the bar, they descended in groups, sometimes with the Madam in tow. They started to drink and eat at the bar, using it as a waiting lounge, talking loudly, arguing fiercely, and depending on business leaving and returning after an hour. When other customers would walk in, they would be greeted by this commotion and beat a hasty retreat.

Rukmini was in a dilemma. She didn't want to ask these women not to come to the bar. After all, they were professionals in a sense, they paid their tab and though aggressive, always behaved well with her. She had requested, and they had accepted, that no man should loiter outside the bar and all monetary transactions should happen a few streets away. But the women scared away other customers, and unfortunately, once her bar acquired a reputation, it would be difficult to attract other clients. She could make a separate party room, she thought, for these women. But then it went against her principle of treating everyone equally. What to do?

At her beauty parlour, Rukmini received the sign: "This women's day, feel special. Get manicure free with pedicure." That's it, She could use Women's day as an event. Now, what sort of activity would draw women to her bar? She ruefully acknowledged to herself that advertising the location as a bar would not get her new clients. So, for the interim it would have to be a cafe. A font trick on the sign board should take care of that. She had observed, that women of all ages and  backgrounds generally like to speak about themselves, so how could she turn this into an activity? Telling stories about their lives might actually help them realize that they are not too different: making difficult decisions, under compelling social conditions. She branded the event as "Autobiography night". Already struggling to balance the books at the bar, Rukmini decided to take this chance. She spared no expense in splashing it in newspapers, women's magazines and local journals; even paying for flyers to be distributed outside malls and offices. She knew her advertising was effective when a few policemen came sniffing around for payment to provide security for the event, payable of course, in free booze.

Rukmini was nervous opening night - more than she had ever been in her life. The cafe nee bar was re-organized: a small clearing was made in the centre of the bar, a mike had been placed there, as well as a spotlight. The counter was cleared off alcoholic beverages and the menu spruced up. Extra help was hired for the evening. Women started to trickle in, lured by the advert and then gently ensconced in their seats by the snacks. Then the moment Rukmini had been preparing for, arrived. Her colorful client entered. She stopped at the door, suddenly aware of the new faces. Not seeing any of her friends, she immediately exited. Rukmini followed her out and invited her back in. "Amma," implored the woman, "it would not be good to be seen here." Rukmini assured her that she was welcome and to stay at least till her friends came. It was difficult to convince her, so Rukmini held her hand, and with head held high, walked her to the counter. She came. Similar tactics were employed for her friends. They sat together, looking uncomfortable. Rukmini had to keep orbiting them to ensure they didn't slip out.

When a sufficient quorum was established, Rukmini began the event. Each women in the audience was invited to share her story. She could either talk about herself, or a small incident from her life. Prizes were on offer. Rukmini started with herself, recalling humorously how she had an inter-caste marriage. Everyone laughed. The stage was set. A young girl came next. She spoke about the road romeo who followed her to bus stop everyday and then today, got bitten by a stray donkey. The stories got rolling. Rukmini had to push a sequined outfit on stage. You could tell she was very nervous, so Rukmini asked her to talk in any language she felt comfortable. Rukmini provided translation. Her story was simple - she spoke of her home town of lush greenery, tall coconut trees and jackfruit. In the audience, there were whispers and nudges, but the topic kept the judgements in check. The darker stories emerged a bit later. Rukmini set the tone by talking of Murugans' death and starting the bar. When she mentioned alcohol, there was a loud gasp. Some people walked out. Some asked for a drink! Rukmini ran the event for the next several weeks. The clients became familiar with each other, and the stories more personal. There was laughter, tears, oohs and cheering.

And this was how Rukmini's story-filled evenings began, for she realized that in each story everyone saw a little of themselves.

24 June 2013

Oota from my thota & Millets Idli

I was pleasantly surprised when the "Oota from my Thota" event took place in our neighbourhood. Organized by the Garden City Farmers, this event brings together garderners, local food producers and makers, and eco-friendly products. It makes for a wonderful Sunday stroll.

This time we met Mr Dinesh, whose group, earth360, was promoting the consumption of millets. To make the point, there were goodies prepared from various millets - payasa, bisi bela bath, roti, crackers. If you have never tasted millets before, a good way to be introduced to their granular texture is the payasa. Nothing that jaggery, elachi and dry fruits can't turn into a delicious introduction. We have been using millets for the past 3 years. There are many varieties, the most common one that we were familiar with being Ragi or Finger millet and Jowar. There are other types that are available (in English) - Barnyard, Proso, Kodo, Little (Same in Kannada), Pearl (Bajra), Foxtail (Navane - which I hold in my palm). You can learn more about them and some recipes here.

I find adding millets to our menu a bit challenging. The texture is not as smooth, so upma tastes a bit grity, and having them as a substitute for rice only works for us in Khichdi, or if you have a heavy dal like Whole Urad, Rajma etc. At the event we were introduced to Ms Kalyani, the chef of the above millet items and got a booklet on recipes where they work. Here's a recipe for idlis that works for us, modified from the recipes she shared. We make dosa/idli batter once a week and in this form, the millet tastes great. 

Foxtail Millet Idlis
Navane - Finger Millet - 1 cup
Dosa rice - 1/4 cup
Urad dal - 1/2 cup
Methi seeds - 1/2 tsp

Soak these separately overnight, or at least 4 hours. Methi seeds can be soaked along with rice. Grind together and keep batter to ferment. I usually check how much it has risen, the air bubble situation and smell, to decide when it is done. 8 - 10 hours is usually good. Add salt. 

Steam to eat as idlis. The idlis are soft but heavy. 
OR Add chopped onions, coriander leaves and chillies to make rava-dosa like dosas. 

6 May 2013

Karnataka elections 2013 - Voting experience

Fortunately, the Election Commission is prepared for illiterate voters like me. When I got to my polling station there were more volunteers than voters. I produced a slip of paper (white) and was given another slip of paper (Pink). I forgot my Voter ID card; I had actually gone to check up on the waiting time situation and did not expect it to be negligible. Luckily, I had my Driver's License on me which was acceptable.

There was absolutely no loitering around at the polling station. You showed your ID like you do at the airport, and are immediately ushered towards an officer who based on my part number assigned me a door. I walked through and was greeted by yet another set of people who checked the pink slip and my ID. Then my nail was blemished. I entered the voting booth.

Yikes. It was all in Kannada! I was thankful that our voting system took illiteracy into consideration because without the symbols there would have been no way for me to know who I was voting for. It took me a few minutes to figure out what to do and there was no heckling. So I went through all the pictures, hoping to recognize what I wanted. I pressed the button, got a loud beep and then was promptly asked to exit the premises. No loitering, like I said.

It took all of 5 minutes and worked very well.

26 April 2013

Karnataka elections 2013 - Issues

Let me begin by stereotyping myself as a voter: urban, educated, middle class. If reports are to believed, I am the type of person who is indifferent to voting and feels disenfranchised by the democratic process. That may be the case in general, but I specifically don't feel that way. To appreciate this post, it is important though to remember my voter stereotype. I wanted to examine issues important to me.

These are the issues that are important to me as a voter that I think need to be addressed by the state government:

1. Water: I am very concerned that our ground water is being abused by the construction companies. Borewells are rife, water supply patchy and water quality abysmal. I want to see a concerted effort to rejuvenate lakes, stricter enforcement of rain-water harvesting, adequate recycling of sewage water for non-drinking purposes and tighter laws for bore well construction.  
2. Traffic: I want to see lesser private vehicles and more buses on the roads. Car-pooling should attract subsidies and parking should be charged at all public places. Street parking by home owners should be outlawed and commercial establishments who do not provide parking should be fined.
3. Garbage: Recycling should be made mandatory. Garbage handlers should be given a minimum wage and health benefits.
4. Legal services: Getting your marriage certificate, or house registered should not be a mysterious process that involves giving a bribe.

Over the weekend, I will peruse the party manifestos to see which matches my priorities.

21 April 2013

Karnataka elections 2013 - links to information for Bangalore

Update: 25 April. INC released its manifesto yesterday. It has been reported in the media, but neither can I find an online version, nor does the INC webpage carry one. 
This is the first election that I would be casting my vote. As an armchair citizen I went online today to figure out who was standing in my constituency, and what were the general issues they or their party wanted to address. As a service to other armchair citizens, here are some links which would hopefully make your voting choice more informed.
  • If you are not already on the voter list - yikes! The date for getting your name on it has passed.
  • To figure out your constituency visit the website of the Chief Electoral Officer, Karnataka. Find your name in the voter list, doing so will also reveal your constituency and where your polling station is. 
  • To know who has filed a nomination for your constituency
    • CEO, Karnataka website: Although, I found the list incomplete for my constituency; perhaps, they are still updating the list. The advantage of this website is that you can view the affidavits filed by the candidate: get their phone number, email ID (!) and list of assets, amongst other things. 
    • Electionaffairs.com: You'll only see a list of names, their affiliation, age and sex.
  • Party Manifestos
    • Bharatiya Janata Party: This link is to the manifesto in English. For Kannada, try this. It's 40 pages long; if you are only interested in what they promise for Bangalore, go to page 33
    • Indian national congress: Cannot find a manifesto for Karnataka or Bangalore. The INC website is devoid of this information. All they have is a list of names!
    • Janata Dal (Secular): I have only linked the manifesto for Bangalore. They are the only party to list two separate manifestos: one for the city, and the rest for the state. There are no pdf versions.
    • Karanataka Janata Prakash: Former BJP CM Mr Yedurappa's new party. Formatting isn't a strong suit of the document. You'll have to use "search" to find Bangalore specific promises. There is a one page blurb beginning on page 37 about what they envision for the city.
    • Lok Satta Party: I could not find a Karnataka specific or Bangalore specific manifesto. On the party's webpage when you click on "Manifesto" you come to the "Aims and Objectives" of the party.
    • Other parties listed in my constituency, but with no online manifesto/ official information : Social Democratic Party of India, Rani Chennamma Party, Badavara Sharmika Raitara Congress, Bharatiya Praja Paksha (webspace shared with a real estate company!), Bharatiya Dr B R Ambedkar Janatha Party
  • Independents: Getting information on independents is difficult. The easiest way to know more would be through the CEO, Karnataka link but as I discovered not all candidates are up there yet. 

7 April 2013

A Journey of Discovery II

I am exploring writing lengthier pieces. This is a continuation of the "A Journey of Discovery" I wrote before. You may enjoy the characters more if you read the first piece and are familiar with Rukmini from A bar called Shantam Pappum and Thanks Ma.

It was an overcast morning; shafts of light punched their way through small gaps between the clouds, their soft light bathing the city. Despite the chaos of traffic, animals, garbage and pan stains, Varanasi, also known as Benaras, featured high on the list on any pious Hindu, for a pilgrimage to this city is considered mandatory for entry to heaven. To bathe in the ganges was to be purified. Never mind that to bathe today meant a dip into unholy sewage and willing exposure to industrial effluents, rued Rukmini.

After a noisy breakfast, all the women had gathered in the hotel foyer, making conversation with their tongues and passing judgement with their eyes. Everyone noticed Loopey's arrival, for with a pretty green salwar suit she had matched pink slippers with a furry bunny on the top. Her slippers clapped against her heels as she walked across the foyer towards Rukmini.  In unison, everyone's sight followed her trajectory. "Did you intend to step out in pink slippers?" she asked Loopey. It was then that Loopey realized her mistake: she had descended in her house slippers. "A gift from my granddaughter." replied Loopey, trying to blink away her embarrassment. "Hold the bus for me…" and she rushed out with the echo of her slippers following her. Huffy, who stood nearby remarked indignantly to no one in particular, "What is the guarantee that she will come down with the right footwear?"

Luckily Rukmini did not have to face the wrath of menopausal women, held up in a cramped bus. Loopey returned on time, with the right footwear. Their first stop was the Kashi Vishvanath temple. The bus could only take them up to a point, after which they would have to navigate bye-lanes by foot. The clouds has dispelled by the time they started their walk. A radiant sun shone down on the cobbled path. The more beauty conscious women took out umbrellas from their hand bag. It always surprised Rukmini: the vast treasure trove of items that women carried in their handbag. A remedy for every situation was contained in it. They were walking on a narrow lane, constricted on each side by two story buildings, with wooden double doors that either led into a home or a school for vedic sanskrit chanting, interspersed with small shops. People moved about in file, adjusting occasionally to accommodate cow dung or a cow. Rukimini tried to keep track of the direction they were headed in, but soon had to declare being lost in the labyrinth, realizing that without a guide she would not be able to find her way out. She had also taken it upon herself to become Loopey's keeper.

By the time they arrived at the temple, the number of people had increased such that single line strands of people traffic had formed - each strand going towards a different direction. Sometimes, Rukmini felt someone bump into shoulder or step on her foot, but she never knew who it was for to pause in the traffic was impossible. The umbrellas had to be put away now, and handbags were tightly zippered up and clutched tightly to the breast. Slippers had to be left a few meters away from the temple entrance, by placing them in a bag and receiving a token number in exchange. Rukmini quietly put Loopey's footwear with her own, in anticipation of a token loss if Loopey were to be left responsible for this transaction.

They were hustled through a narrow entrance to the temple. Their guide counting them as they went past him in single file. People were present all around; a nightmare for a claustrophobic. At moments Rukmini felt small hands grasp her pinkie; a child lost in the melange of tall people, only to lose it and see a pink frock trail away. The sheer volume of people pushed the crowd along a proscribed path. Many of the ladies broke out into chants, some in a whisper with only moving lips as evidence and some loudly, trying to convince the resident idol that they had come, and were offering prayers as required.

In seconds, darshan was over. The line moved along the hundi where devotees were pouring out their pockets; hoping that their donation would nullify all their accumulated sins. Of course, no one considered pushing and shoving fellow devotees or stamping on their toes a sin. These rupees were for bigger crimes, which they would have committed without their knowledge, for to admit to a crime, would make you a criminal while to beg for forgiveness for acts done unknown was modesty. Amid the out pouring Rukmini was surprised to see what Lily did: she took off her mangalsutra, her finger rings, toe rings and earrings, and put them all in. Believing that Lily may have not realized what she was doing, Rukmini stuck out her hand to stall her, but Lily looked at Rukmini defiantly, with a determined conviction radiating from her eyes. Shocked, Rukmini withdrew her hand. Why would a woman, to whom family meant everything, drop off all symbols of her marriage, into a bottomless pit?

14 February 2013

Driving to success - For real

A few posts ago, I printed a story in the "The bar called Shantam Pappum" series, where an abused  woman from a poor socio-economic background, turns to chauffeuring as a profession.  Just like the bar, this taxi service too is only for women, run by a woman.

I was really happy to read this article on the BBC today, which is on the same subject: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-21380262

Read my story in two parts:

13 February 2013

The toffee economy - 1 rupee equals one toffee

At some point, Rupee 1 became equivalent to a toffee. I didn't get the memo from the RBI.

I don't know how common this is in other Indian cities, but in Bangalore when they don't have proper change (which by the frequency of occurrence of this phenomenon -  never), you will get a toffee for every Rupee owed. This is bizarre right? You pay the cashier legal tender, but get offered edible change

When a shopkeeper does this, I ask them in my sweetest voice, "Do you get paid in toffees? The next time I pay here, will it be acceptable if I offer you a toffee instead of a rupee?" Responses to this vary. My local grocery store worries about it's reputation - shrill ladies at the cash register are not good for business. For the first few times he tried to look sorry and mumbled excuses. When I insisted that I be allowed to use the toffee as payment next time, I was given change. Now he recognizes me and never offers me a toffee. (For the picture in this blog, I paid him a rupee for the toffee! It was fun to see his jaw drop to the floor.) At really busy lines, the impatient cashier has refused to oblige. I am given a wave of the hand and disgusted look that demands I be reasonable. I normally stick like glue to the counter at these situations. What is remarkable is that never, and I mean not even once thus far, has any other customer supported me on this. If at all some squeak of another customer has penetrated my battle with the cashier, it is to remind that the line is long and I shouldn't be holding things up. 

This is a good scam. The shop buys these toffees in bulk, at wholesale rates and then tenders them at the maximum retail price. So, when you indulge this, do you realize that you are being scammed by 10 paise? Of course, to each of us individually this doesn't matter, but think of shops with high customer volumes. It starts to add up. 

Why do we accept this? Are we so drunk on materialistic success that we can disregard a rupee today, and perhaps 5 rupees tomorrow? I have been informed. "Madam, it is only a rupee." But my point is I don't get paid in toffees, I don't pay my employees in toffee, heck, that cashier doesn't get paid in toffees, so why should I accept this? It's clear though, widespread public acceptance of this type of exchange and willingness to participate in it has created a situation where the practice has all the signs of continuing. We are cupable as a society and if we, the customer, don't protest, be ready to hoard toffees or to find them stuck in the roof of your kid's mouth.