Saturday, January 26, 2013

The ritual of the morning meal

As I lie in bed with a fever, remembering home ....,

My in laws are advanced in age and live in Chennai.  But even today, the morning meal is a holy ritual, with both of them in active participation.   Even simple fare involves elaborate preparation time.  We put out all the cooking vessels the previous night.  In the morning we inspect the fridge and pick vegetables based on the dishes that are paired.  There is nothing haphazard about the menu which is steeped in hundreds of years  of tradition.  Besides, certain vegetables are eaten or avoided on certain days.  For eg, raw plantains are cooked on new moon day when ancestors are remembered and special prayers offered to them.  Also after oil bath, a ritual carried out on Fridays, dishes that aid digestion are consumed.  Also on the days following full or half day fasts special greens are eaten which are light on the stomach and have medicinal and healing qualities.  

This morning meal which is prepared only after we have bathed and changed into freshly washed clothes, and listening to Carnatic music on All India Radio, usually consists of rice, a light and thin lentil soup (rasam) cooked with tomatoes in a tamarind base and spiced with curry powder, cumin, pepper, coriander and curry leaves.  Accompanying the rasam, there is usually one sautĂ©ed vegetable flavored with mustard seeds and coconut.  And another salad or cooked vegetable  in a sauce with a coconut base.  A stew variously made of vegetables and lentils, in a tamarind or yoghurt base is the entree.  To prepare the meal - we first chop up all the vegetables.  We then soak the tamarind and dhal in water and measure and set aside at least 8 different spices.  We then boil the water and measure and pour it  into the prewashed rice and presoaked dhal which are placed in the rice and pressure cookers, respectively.  The rice blooms nicely with this treatment, is not sticky, is cooked to perfection and stays piping hot in the rice cooker  As the lentils cook in the pressure cooker, alongside in the next burner the tamarind water boils for the rasam until its flavours are just right for the cooked lentils to be added.  The stew that makes up the entree comes next and the vegetables for it are precooked first in the microwave.  At the end, all dishes are seasoned for which varying combinations of mustard seeds, cumin, asafotida, dried chillies and fenugreek are sputtered in oil or ghee and added with a flourish for that slightly smoked/flambĂ© flavour.  The rice/lentil crisps (papads) are fried in oil or microwaved.  

Before the table can be laid - serving dishes are set aside for each and an offering is made to the Gods with a sampling of the cooked meal.  But first, the gods are elaborately decorated with fresh flowers, incense is burnt and the oil lamp is lit.  Customary prayers are chanted as a flame is lit on a plate with some camphor and shown as a final purification ritual.   The food offering concludes the prayer.  We all then prostrate before the altar giving thanks for this daily bounty and in eager anticipation of the hot, fresh, flavorful meal.  It is now 11 a.m. and  over the past three hours, the aroma from the food which we have prepared without tasting, further augmented by the incense and camphor, has stirred our digestive juices.   But wait, we dare not put a morsel in our mouths  until the crows have been fed.  

We go into the backyard with a plateful of rice, lentils and ghee and call out with varying tones of caws.  We lay the table putting out, besides the meal, three different types of pickle, chips, buttermilk, ghee, other preserves and condiments.  We take our time enjoying the piping hot meal eating each of the entree, rasam and buttermilk, with rice.  We start by pouring some ghee on hot rice and the flavour from that sets the tone for the meal.  

On hot summer days, the meal is usually followd by a blissful siesta which further enhances feelings of well-being engendered by the meal.  

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Kahiin duur jab din Dhal jaaye/ Somewhere far away when the day dulls

I am always up for some adventure.  The operative word is "some".  Even when my flight from Chennai to Frankfurt was diverted to Nurnberg after it had waited an hour in a holding pattern, for runway space, I wasn't nonplussed.  I would miss my connecting flight but a worse fate could have befallen me?   I was being willfully optimistic and a tad premature.  When we finally took off from Nurnberg I began to feel restless.  4 hours in an idling plane on a runway would do that.  We landed in Frankfurt at half past one, 5 hours late.  

My flight which should logically also have been delayed was nowhere in sight and for that matter out of the hundreds of flights shown to be departing over a 4 hour window there were none showing as Toronto bound.  That's when it dawned on my dull head that the situation was a lot graver than I had hoped.  This came as a crushing realization when I joined a mile long queue with other weary and irate travellers bound for a few hundred destinations.  The nightmare which began to unfold had no end in sight.  When panic sets in, the mind goes irrational.  I had an immediate vision of me trapped in this airport with no way out, reminiscent of a recent Hollywood movie based on said theme.  There were no less than ten thousand people ahead of me in the line that snaked through the terminal and the weather had to hold up for flights to make it out with all of us.  So, not so irrational!  Now the question was if I should stand in this endless queue or abandon it at the risk of having to rejoin it at a later time, causing further delay?  

My situation appeared hopeless and I had a temporary glimpse of a life trapped in despair!  In that  moment I remembered the desperately poor woman with a mentally ill daughter whom no institution would take, back in Chennai, and whom I had been unsuccessful in assisting. That thought and a few calming breaths later, my perspective changed.   I took in the experience as an adventure unfolding and was now excited to find out how it would end.  I abandoned the line.  It turned out to be a blessed decision because I found several people willing to help.  I ended up in a much shorter line meant for long haul passengers.   I was able to partake of refreshments that my  parched throat and  starving belly craved, from the islands of food and drink set up by the airline!  The wait was still long but i enjoyed it people-watching, writing and meditating.  I got rewarded with taxi vouchers to and from Lufthansa's Seeheim Conference Centre in a beautiful wooded park, where I had a nice room for the night, great dinner and a sumptuous breakfast which I shared with an Indian, with whom I also waxed prolific about the wonder and exasperation that is India today!  My taxi drivers both ways were Afghanis with a love of Indian music.  As we were racing down the autobahn in the cold, to catch my flight the next morning, the driver switched suddenly from a German news channel and the melodic voice of Mukesh filled the car and warmed my heart with this song..

Kahiin duur jab din Dhal jaaye
Somewhere far away when the day dulls

Saanj ki dulhan badan churaaye
The dusk sneaks up shyly like a bride

Mere khaayalon ke aangan mein
In the courtyard of my imagination 

Koi sapnon ke deep jalaaye
Someone lights up a lamp of my dreams ...

A perfect end to a perfect adventure.  It was a lesson in living with perspective!

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Caring for our parents

With the aging population and kids living overseas there is a huge need in India, as elsewhere, for home care ranging from help with everyday chores to advanced life care for patients who are palliative.  This trip has been all about confronting that need head on.  Care is not cheap and is not systematic.  You have to cobble together a host of services and then hope and pray that people are honest and do not abuse or neglect the persons in their care.  Since these  caregivers are not licensed there is nothing but their own individual moral code to hold them accountable.

When I landed here one of my close relatives had just come home from yet another trip to the hospital for near chronic kidney failure.  The hospital visit burnt a huge hole in the family's pocket and did not make him any better, the treatment having been sub par.  We decided to manage him at home with medication, not realizing what we would need to do to ensure he could be managed there without incident.  Two days later a crisis set the wheels in motion for palliative care at home.  He had trouble breathing and being all alone at home put out SOS calls to everyone he knew, since there is no access here to a centralized ambulance services or paramedics.  With us having to arrange the transportation to get him to the hospital we did not arrive till half an hour later!  Fortuitously, it was a false alarm.  We replaced his inhaler and averted the trip to the hospital.  However it gave us the impetus to work towards a home care solution.  This involved engaging one of few palliative care doctors in the City, who makes house calls and allowing him to define the regimen for care at home.  The oxygen machine rental,  purchase of a nebuliser and training for the 24/7 patient attender, who was immediately hired, followed.  The attender has been trained to administer medicines and food in a timely fashion, ensure the patient is well oxygenated and his input and output of fluids are monitored.  Such an advanced life care solution for management of a chronic condition, where the patient's comfort is given paramount importance, comes at a hefty price tag that most can ill afford, if they live and work here in India.  Also the solution is far from perfect.  Today when I made a surprise visit, I found the attender had gone out, leaving the front door open and the patient was in his bed breathing rapidly, having taken off his oxygen mask.   We can never be guaranteed the patient's cooperation or predict how the disease will progress as a consequence, and so cannot prepare for all eventualities.  In many ways it is a waiting game and a tough one at that given we have taken all control over care.  In a hospital setting the responsibility is not ours and so we have an entity to turn to or blame.

Just as difficult, is caring for aging parents who have no major health problems but have mobility issues.  Getting any task done in India, even groceries, is no mean task.  Now with gas rations and purchase of water, the necessaries of life are not guaranteed and require considerable effort to ensure supply at all times.  Also use of all electrical devices has to be worked around the state's power outage schedules.  Seniors are definitely kept mentally agile as a result.  Now a solution to this is full-time help.  The right kind of help has to be provided board and lodging which would add to the householder's workload.  If help is brought in to cook and perform chores around the house then additional help is needed for outside chores.  But get this - seniors, especially women, are extremely reluctant to relinquish control over their kitchens if they have been cooking all their lives.  My mother insists additional help would be a burden and she does not see why things should change.  All in all a huge learning for me and an insight into my own old age and what i should be preparing for.  Here's hoping when the 60s babies become seniors there will be infrastructure in place.  However, let's all stay healthy and ward off dependence for as long as we can.  In addition, let us prepare for all associated expenses when we do become dependent!