Friday, August 30, 2013

Hopelessly fascinated..

England evokes in me a yearning which will remain unrequited. The sense of longing emanates from a composite of impressions formed reading, all my life, books by English authors which are replete with its rich and varied history. There is also the vestige of colonialism that I saw in India as a cheap imitation of the real thing - the English way in England. Goodness knows I abhor the English for their imperialist ways. And yet there is this perverse fascination with the country and what transpired here over thousands of years! As I walk through Chelsea and South Kensington, where the old is preserved with the new, I peak into those bay windows to catch a glimpse of the oh so glamorous lives of its well healed denizens who include members of the royalty. They have pedigree that can date their ancestors back centuries and are steeped in the tradition that I have longingly read about. Its hard to explain why wafer thin cucumber sandwiches, high tea or even gentlemen's clubs and the depraved lives of Wodehousian characters evoke such a sense of deja vu! Talking about traditions, yesterday we were at evensong at Westminister Abbey and stood enthralled as the voices of choral singers echoed through its gothic beauty. The experience was made richer by the knowledge that I was now part of a thousand year unbroken practice that those silent walls ( or the original parts of it that survived London's many fires) have witnessed.

And yet at the back of my mind lingers this understanding that the thought is never the thing described; the impressions that etch themselves in memory are just fleeting like picture frames, mostly two dimensional, and not available for absorption by the soul. That sentiment has been captured in wonderful drawings of the everyday and banal by Dawn Clements in her art which hangs at the Saatchi gallery that we visited today! It's still fun to create a composite of one's experiences, being selective about what we choose to recall and to share stories? Am I richer from these experiences? In a limited way- maybe. But not because of what it does to my soul. In the end everything is relative and, ultimately, the "dance of the universe" with no apparent purpose. Given this then, the possibilities for enrichment from what I heard and saw, how I managed my emotions, navigated through difference and learnt things about myself are indeed extremely limited. So just for fun then I will list those things about England that I have learnt from and that tickles my temporal fancy. Ranking up there, the importance of a safe, comfortable and reliable public transit system and its impact on the planning of cities and citizens' lifestyles. Then, the government's policy not to charge entrance fees to any of the wonderful museums it operates. The architecture of churches and their evensong services which are held true to well preserved centuries' old traditions. I also like the country's fervent attempt to retain reminders of its historic roots be it through its monarchy, it's museums, its churches, architecture or socio-political structures in its guild halls, it's local governing bodies and community associations. I like its people's commitment to remembering their past, with pride and horror, especially as they recall the lives of their poor, those who fell prey to black plague and cholera, wars and carnage and colonisation. They have learnt from it as is abundantly obvious from their commitment to creating an equitable multicultural society. They are also cashing in on it with their well oiled tourism industry that does a fantastic job of peddling their past! They risk mock and ridicule with so much self reflection, but only as they laugh their way to the bank! Yes England and the English are fascinating!

Thursday, August 22, 2013

London is amazing. A city which optimizes energy use and ensures low healthcare costs and longevity just because of what it makes attractive and accessible has to be! At the centre of it all is a stupendous public transport system. Hopping on and off a bus or train is easier than manoeuvring a car around. So everyone from 0 to 90 years hops on and off. They are much the better for it - since this involves mind- work, planning one's route ahead of time, physical exercise, walking here and there in between train and bus rides, and constant mingling. Folks here, get to constantly rub shoulders with each other in public spaces, and are therefore quite gregarious. Needless to say, all this fosters liveliness in this City and self confidence and independence among its citizens! It enables folks in their 80s to get out and spend time browsing in the City's wonderful libraries and museums. The result - an informed, educated and healthy public, cleaner air, a less burdened healthcare system and a more equitable society.

Two days here and with all the exercise hopping on and off, I am eating less and reaching for fruit. How great if you can get your public to snack on fruit as I see Londoners do. Come to think of it, eating in public spaces may be regarded as rude behaviour in the English book of Manners, except in those trains where tables are provided for dining purposes. On the train from Victoria to Bromley, part of Britain's National Rail, I saw folks eat their takeways at those tables in a very civilised manner.

I also learnt what customer service should be about from the London Underground ( aka Transport for London (TFL) ) staff today. They always warn you to "mind the gap" when hopping on or off a train. Yesterday, in my haste to catch a train I did a shoddy job and lost a sandal to the gap. I was already on the train and proceeded to Victoria where I splurged on a pair of shoes to avoid walking barefoot. Reaching home I said why not go back and ask someone to retrieve it? It seemed like a ridiculous idea. But not to the Station Supervisor who came down to the platform with me, helped me locate the shoe and promised to have the night Supervisor retrieve it, given the rush hour traffic. The sandal was intact when I picked it up today and I happily walked all over town wearing the pair. Such instant action, friendly responses and a willingness to help! The TFL staff are everywhere, all smiles, willingly helping strangers find thir way.

In London, smart business benefits from transit, given they partner with TFL for tons of cross promotional activities and for tourism! After all a city with affordable transit is welcoming to the itinerant traveller under all weather conditions, no? 150 years of the tube makes them a century ahead of the rest of the world. Lets get with the program Toronto!

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

I loved Seattle..

Seattle is eerily like Toronto. The downtown Public Market on Pike mimicks St Lawrence Market, the ferry port, our own and the Space Needle our CN Tower. The highway going downtown is tree lined like the Don Valley Parkway. I have to admit though that the scenery is more lush, the trees taller, the estuary more expansive, and connected to the Pacific Ocean, and the burbs more affluent. The weather here can be a damper I am told, but we had glorious sunshine over our 4 day stay earlier this month. We were at the Snoqualmie waterfall, just half an hour outside the city, and the vegetation surrounding those 500 metre high falls just took our breath away. We made a day trip to Mount St. Helens, three hours away, the site of that volcano which erupted on a fateful morning in May 1980, destroying in its wake centuries old forests over 264 square miles. Here, the signs of renewal, 3 decades later, with plants, insects, small animals and birds milling about, symbolizing the rise of nature from the ashes, moved me to tears. We were in Bellevue and Redmond, world headquarters of Microsoft, a block away from the first ever iconic Starbucks store and within vicinity of global companies old and new, Boeing, Amazon and Expedia to name just a few. The Boeing plant which is located over the single largest factory space in the world reminded me of the grandiosity that made America the super power it has been. Its interesting how these large companies have managed to draw an entire world of talent to the city more than the bounty of nature - hiking trails, mountains and the ocean. A hub for start ups and upstarts alike, this city has a cool vibe that neighbouring Tacoma lacks. There is a buzz of a breakthrough about to happen, a promise of creative disruption to the world as we know it. I did not take the ferry ride on its famed waterways, go up to the Space needle or even pick up coffee at the first ever Starbucks. But I sensed this is a place young people will enjoy living in. This fact was corroborated by my daughter who generally prefers all things European. Several of her bright young friends are making their careers here!

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Curd rice

Nothing makes me happier than a perfect pot of yoghurt set to the right consistency and taste. And nothing makes me happier on a hot summer day than thayir saadam aka curd rice. That prompted me to write this nostalgic piece!

I am so happy I grew up in a Tam Brahm household surrounded by people who extolled the virtues of curd rice- Thayir saadam. I ate it I am sure before my teeth cut through my gums and grew up believing that "thachi mammam" (an endearing way of referring to it) was the next best thing to mother's milk. It was etched in my brain that I could only achieve my full potential if I ate it with every meal. I carried it my lunch box every day along with all other tam brahm kids, often envious of kids who brought jam sandwiches or spicy delicacies with rice or roti. Oh and we never stepped onto a train, when setting out on long journeys, without a big vessel filled with thayir saadam to go with our idlis and spicy powder. When we went for our summer holidays to our village in the deep South, the older folks' only means to quieten the house, so they could take their afternoon naps, was thayir saadam. We would be made to sit in a circle holding out our hands as curd rice was ladled onto our palms. We would slurp it in with a spicy side strategically placed on each mouthful. Favourite sides were, sambar (lentil stew) and pickles.

Before the availability of the range of foods we have today, thayir saadam was the householder's dream food because of its versatility. It was easy to make and added volume as the delicious closer to every meal. It also served as a sole operator, that essential filler, the emergency dish that people conjured up in a jiffy to quell hunger, cool, comfort, heal the body or quieten restless kids on hot summer afternoons. Never mind dinner at a fancy Punjabi Restaurant, we always came home to a bowl of curd rice. We would otherwise have to wake up for a drink of water since any other food would dehydrate our bodies, or so we believed. Every respectable tam brahm household I knew in India carried a supply of curd or buttermilk and enough culture to make the next pot. If people did not have curds at home, well they were sorely lacking. In fact, you often decided if you wanted to eat at someone's house, depending on the quality of their curd. If it was thick, fresh and creamy - well their culinary skills could be relied upon when it came to everything else. If not, you had to wonder. As a kid I used to love lunch at those hotels where they served chilled yoghurt which was individually set in small steel cups. We mixed this in with the rice and ate it with great relish. This for us was better than dessert and the highlight of our meal! Even at age 4, I was discerning enough to label a cousin who did not eat curd rice a wierdo. In short, a love of thayir saadam was part of our DNA. Even Utta who grew up in North America and who shuns all other forms of Indian food experiences, satiates her thayir saadam cravings every once in a while.

However, we thayir saadam eaters were often labelled lily livered cowards who did not have the physical fortitude or endurance of our non thayir saadam eating compatriots. We fit the nerd culture of the weak kneed who were only fit to solve Math problems and do little else. And yet we have remained loyal, even addicted to all the wonderful sensations this ultimate comfort food engenders. We still believe we owe our smarts, our calm demeanour and our sound sleep to it. We can all vouch for its soothing qualities when all other foods are anathema to us on an upset stomach.

Today, dressed up in finery including grapes and other such delicacies, our humble friend masquerades as Bagala baath at weddings and parties. Despite its many incarnations, it will always be Thayir Saadam to me.

Given this, you can appreciate what it meant for me to make the perfect bowl of curd. I carried my mother's culture all the way from India and have now perfected yoghurt making to a fine art! Following is a description of my process and a recipe for a respectable version of Thayir saadam that you can serve to your venturesome guests who dont have a clue what it is.

To make a perfect pot of curd

Boil about a litre and a quarter of milk for 14 minutes in the microwave. Let it cool till it is still warm to the touch. Add a 2 tablespoons of culture and place in the oven with the light on. Alternatively, preheat the oven and place it in a warm oven. The trick is to keep it airtight. So I cover it with a plate and then place a heavy pan on it. In about 4 - 5 hours your yoghurt is ready. It is important to place it in the fridge soon after it is set. If the water is beginning to separate out then its been out too long and it will begin to sour. A few tries and a fervent intention to get the perfect pot is all you need. Store bought yoghurt is not great culture - maybe the probiotic variety is. It is best to start with culture from someone who has it! Enjoy

A recipe

A scene at the neighbour's

Today I witnessed a sight that no one should see and remain silent about. I had the morning off and Utta and I were going to the MTO office to have her car transferred to me. As I came out of the shower I heard screaming and loud cursing outside my bedroom window. The next door neighbour was about 200 feet away and I was startled that his voice had carried so far. It was unnatural screaming by a man who was angry to the point of being deranged. It emanated from his lower belly and echoed through our quiet neighbourhood. I could not see anyone because of tree cover. We were getting late so we hurried out just slowing our car to catch a glimpse of the scene at the neighbours. A short squat young man was standing outside continuing to scream. A slight female body disappeared out of sight inside the house. I have seen two young children and old folks in that house before, but they appeared not to be around or were cowering in mortal dread - somewhere. My husband knew the screamer because he owned a large auto repair business in the neighbourhood, to which we had brought our cars. When the angry rants reached a crescendo, Utta said " this man needs anger management treatment". We could not make out his accusations but he appeared extremely disturbed, spewing profanity and making wild, broad and general accusations that appeared to be directed at his spouse. What is shocking to me is that I as a neighbour did not think that my immediate priority was to call the police. I was lulled into a sense of apathy by the apparent "civility" of the surroundings - a high end neighbourhood where people are generally polite with each other when they take their dogs out for a walk or tend to their neatly manicured lawns and yards. Nothing untoward could happen here on a beautiful summer day. I also did not think it was my place to intervene. I treated it as a family matter. This realisation came as a shock to me, later in the day when we returned home to find two police cars parked outside. The house had become a crime scene and the police photographers were in gathering evidence. There is no one in the house now. We could not speak to the officers to find out what had happened because they were busy and we were rushing between errands. But I sleep now with a heavy heart not knowing what transpired. I did not know them and do not know anyone who knows them. I may have averted or minimised a disaster. But even if it had occurred to me to do something - would I not have placed our family at risk turning this violent man's attention onto us? There is no telling what he could do when he lost control like that. I work in the area of domestic violence and yet my actions belied all my awareness and training !