Saturday, January 6, 2018

Oh! The Places You'll Go


If there was one thing I did in 2017, it was travel. Mostly across the country, sometimes across continents. I travelled on the first day of the year, and the last, and also many, many days in between. I went to some old places, and many, new ones. Which then were my favourite?



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1. How do you even begin to describe a city that has books written after it? How do you, try to bring out the story of a city that is over two thousand years old? How do you put on paper the spirit of a city so vibrant that colours fail to describe it? You cannot, and do not fit Paris into words. You only try to capture some elements of it and do your best to paint a picture with words hoping it will be a tribute to a great city. Paris had me at its buildings and squares, people and dogs, parks and streets, river and cruises. I cannot wait to be back!


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2. Brussels encompasses many worlds in one. From having a hauntingly beautiful town center, buzzing with tourists and visitors, to having a chic and swank business district inhabited by Gucci and Armani clad business executives; from narrow winding lanes that transport you back in time to sprawling parks that help you rest your aching feet, there is so much to see and do, that 5 days seemed inadequate. 


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3. Flanked by two hamlets called Prantik and Bolpur, and two tiny rivers called Kopai and Khoai, Shantiniketan lives in times gone by. People commute on bicycles or on foot, motor vehicles are hard to find, food is served on dried leave pattals or in clay pots. Roadside shacks do not serve anything other than tea, and touristy things are hard to find. My father always wanted me to study in Vishwabharati and I had laughed his suggestion off, after being there I realized why.



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4. Heritage is everywhere in Bruges. In the squares that make the scenic heart of the city, and the horse-drawn carriages that trot around the Markt; in Belfort and in the grand old buildings which date back at least a few centuries. While the entire town is surreal, it is the houses that adorn the narrow, tree lined streets, which stole my heart. Identical in nature, tall and narrow, these townhouses with bell shaped roofs, tiny windows, and brick facades stand testimony to a rich, if turbulent, history of the economic capital of Flanders. As if the houses aren’t enough, the pointy gilded architecture, linger-on cafés, vivid art, people on bikes, and meandering canals dotted with swans further add to the dreaminess of Bruges.


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5. My girls and I often talk about going back to and settling down in Disneyland. They will work at the park they say, I can be the aunty at the ticket window, and the father can perhaps be an usher. Nothing had prepared us for Disneyland. Neither the websites that I had browsed for hours, nor the brochures that I had found in the apartment the night before; not the things I had read up, not the pictures I had seen. What made Disneyland unforgettable for me was passion with which they work to make you smile and the joy they spread. So much happiness in one place is hard to find. I left a part of me in Disneyland.


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6. Ghent is often referred to as the hidden treasure of Belgium. A lesser-known university town, which is often overlooked in elaborate itineraries, happens to be an electric blend of traditional and modern. Dominated by the gothic bell-tower and the mediaval count's castle, the quaint town is all about cobbled streets, narrow lanes, gliding tramcars and meandering canals.

 
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7. A tiny town in the heart of rural Bengal, surrounded by paddy fields and hutments, flanked by low hills and lakes, little known to the outside world, and taken for granted by the locals — Bishnupur, at first glance, may seem like an ordinary hamlet, displaying no visible sign of being an important centre on the historical and cultural map of West Bengal. Reaching Bishnupur is a task, but, once you get there, the town rewards you with humble people, magnificent sights, and exquisite craft.


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8. Allahabad is hardly a new place. It is a city I called home, a place where I learnt about love and life, friendship and jealousy. But it is also home to Anand Bhavan, Sangam, Civil Lines, and Gangaji. I went back to Allahabad after 20 years and was glad that not much has changed. The bungalows are still as beautiful, the schools still as grand, the university still as awe inspiring, and the food still as soulful.

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9. When we could not find an apartment in Amsterdam, I was heartbroken. I moped and cried and cursed my luck. When I finally arrived in Harleem, I knew why they say what happens happens for good. A quiet quaint town, with tiny townhouses, imposing cathedral, sprawling town square, beautiful art galleries and designer boutiques, and no people. Harleem, to me, was the perfect antidote to the noisy, crowded Amsterdam.


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10. So, I almost left Amsterdam out even though it is touted as one of the world's most popular places. Why then, did I not like it? Well! It could just be bad timing. I arrived in Amsterdam on a Friday morning when the whole world seemed to have descended upon the Dam Square. On to of it I was with kids, and tired from ten days of travel. So, I guess it is not as much about the place as it is about the circumstances. What I loved about Amsterdam however was the water, and how integral it is to the city, how so many people live in the canals, in boats which have water and electricity connection, and a permanent address. Will I give Amsterdam another chance? Maybe not. There is so much to see in the world, why get stuck to a place.
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Wednesday, January 3, 2018

2017: A year of great food

Okay! So this post comes a little late. Three days to be precise. But then, when most people were summing up their year, I was busy making the most of the remaining days of 2017 by travelling some more. 
2017 was a year full of travel for me (which one isn’t?). It started in January with Hyderabad, and went on to Calcutta, Bolpur, Shantiniketan, Lucknow, Paris, Brussels, Amsterdam, Ghent, Bruges, Jaipur, Jamshedpur, Bishnupur, Bangalore, Allahabad, Jabalpur, and of course Delhi, Gurgaon and Mumbai. This also meant a lot of good food and some unforgettable experiences. From the biriyani of Hyderabad, to the kebabs of Lucknow, from the fries of Belgium to the cuberdons of Ghent, from benne dosas in Bangalore, to papad ki sabzi in Jaipur. 

Here is a little recap of some of the great meals I had in 2017. 


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Mithai & luchi at Bandel Junction. 
 
1. This, perhaps, was the most unexpected of all of my food experiences ever. A wrong train, an unknown station, being stranded for hours, unsure of what to do next. But food saved the day. The rasmalai from this man at the platform, followed by two air-light luchis and alu tarkari and some freshly cut cucumber nourished me on this cold January morning. 


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Kusum Rolls in Park Street, Calcutta.

2. They say if you haven’t eaten at Kusum Rolls in Calcutta, you have not eaten anything. Okay! I made that one up. But then the rolls here are legendary and world famous. Crispy on the outside, soft and chewy inside, filled with the most flavourful chicken, finished with a dash of chillis, fried onions, and sauces. Okay! I am not salivating. 



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Chaat in Lucknow.

3. It could also be my bias towards the city and its food (after all I am a lucknow girl), but then I truly believe there is no better chaat in the world than the one found in the streets of my city. The burst in your mouth pani ke batashe, the tangy dahi-batashe, the tender nimbu ki matar, the crispy alu-tikki. If you have not eaten the chaat in Lucknow, you must do that now. (I will help you get there and eat also if you want!).


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Frites in Brussels
 
4. While most people were busy eating mussels, I was content with my fries in Brussels (that’s poetic, I know!). Dense, rich, and doused in mustard mayonnaise or ketchup. They were quite a handful and a mouthful too, and nothing like the limp, tiny fries you are used to in India. But, I must admit, they were too many and by the end of it I was looking at someone who could rid me of the burden. 


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Waffles in Belgium
 
5. I have a confession here. Until May this year, when I went to Belgium, I had never had waffles. I had had the waffle cone with ice creams, but I had no idea that the real waffle was soft and airy, almost bland, and yet satisfying. Thankfully that changed this year. The waffle I had was freshly made by a frowning woman, and handed over after waiting for more than 10 minutes in a long queue. It was crisp on the outside and airy inside. Topped with rich beligian chocolate, and icing sugar, it was, by far, the most beautiful dessert I have ever had. 


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Akoori, Cheese Rolls at Cafe Regal, Jamshedpur.
 
6. Akoori, Cheese rolls, and Parsi Bhonu in a town set up by the first Parsi family of India. My experiences in my home-town-in-law are mostly dominated by husband’s choice of places. But the town is ever evolving in terms of food and we got to experience that at Cafe Regal in Jamshedpur this year. The akoori was smooth and spicy, velvety and flavourful, the coffee was world-class, and the cheese balls were fried to perfection. We went there thrice in three days. The final day was made of dhansak, brown rice, sweet and spicy chicken, and apple pie. Cannot wait to go back. 


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Benne Dosa at Airlines hotel, Bangalore
 
7. While MTR is an inseparable part of me, this time, I discovered Airlines hotel in Bangalore. I had always known about the place, but had somehow, not gotten down to eating there. On a nippy Sunday morning, I finally made my way to one of the oldest Dosa places in town and spent more than an hour devouring this piece of art under hundred year old trees, among kannada speaking people, and with strong, sweet filter coffee. I think MTR has competition now. 


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Luchi and Ghugni at Bondhu Hotel, Bishnupur
 
8. Nothing explains the law of diminishing marginal utility like a meal. The first few morsels, are the tastiest and most satisfying, the last few, often seem like a burden. On this morning, when I was famished by a three-hour long early morning drive, a warm meal of luchi-ghugni at a nondescript place in Bishnupur filled me with warmth and happiness. I can still feel the softness of the luchi and the flavour of the ghugni. The mishti that came afterwards was the icing on the cake. 


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Idlis & chutney at Sendhoor Cafe, Bangalore. 
 
9. I am not an idli person, so having a meal of idlis on this list means something. This, also, is the second place from Bangalore, which is hardly surprising: I could make the entire list out of the garden city, and maybe I will soon. Anyway, the idlis were a discovery in the land of dosa. They were soft and fluffy and melted in the mouth. The chutneys were so hot that I sweated through the meal, the sambar was so falvourful that I am salivating as I type. I think I am shifting back to Bangalore soon.


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Samosa at every random halwai in Allahabad

10. What’s in a samosa, you may ask. A lot, I say. Having spent almost all of my life in North India, I have had the chance, or should I call it a privilege, of eating samosas day and night (I know it shows!). I have had it from the most fancy shops to the most dilapidated stalls,  from those filled with exotic dry fruit and fried in ghee, to the ones with barely any filling, fried in overused oil, but one thing is for sure, there is no samosa like the Allahabad ka Samosa. The crust is flaky, crisp, and perfectly fried. The filling is tangy and spicy, and it hits you hard if you are not used to it. Take a small piece of the crust with a tiny portion of potatoes, and dip it in the sweet and sour chutney, and you’d never eat any other samosa again.

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Tuesday, December 5, 2017

घर


इन दरवाज़ों के पीछे कभी ज़िन्दगी बसा करती होगी, इस दहलीज़ के अंदर कभी महफ़िलें सजा करती रहीं होंगी;
इनके आँगन में कभी गूंजा करती होगी बच्चों की किलकारी, कभी नानी, कभी दादी, कभी प्यारी सी बुआ हमारी

इनकी चौखट पर कभी चाची की प्यासी आँखें चाचा का इंतज़ार करती रहीं होंगी, इनकी दलानो पर कभी चाचा ताऊ की तकरार भी हुई ही होगी;
इस दहलीज़ को लांघ कितनी बहुएं घर आयीं होंगी, और सिर्फ अपनी मय्यत पर ही इसको छोड़ कर जा पायीं होंगी

अंदर की कोठरियां तो दिखाई नहीं देतीं, पर शायद वहां मोहब्बतें पनपी होंगी, कुछ किस्से बुने गए होंगे, कुछ कहानिये पढ़ी गयीं होंगी;
चौके के चूल्हे पर कभी गरम रोटियां तो कभी कभी अम्मा की उँगलियाँ सिकीं होंगी, पर किसीको एक आह भी नहीं सुनाई पड़ी होगी.

बरामदे की खटिया पर बैठती थी शायद दादी, कभी मटर छिलती तो कभी बढ़िया बनाती; कभी मेहरिन से बतियाती, कभी महाराजिन को हड़कतीं; बड़ा नाज़ था उनको अपने इस परिवार पर, इसकी हर एक ईंट, हर दीवार पर;
क्या कभी सोचा था उन्होंने की एक ऐसा भी दिन आएगा, जब उनका यह घर खँडहर बन जायेगा, न कोई इसके आँगन में हसेंगा, न कोई खिखिलायेगा, न यहाँ कोई रोयेगा न मुस्कुराएगा;
क्या कभी सोचा था दादा ने की उनका ही पोता उनके खून पसीने की कमाई को बेच खायेगा, उनके टूटे हुए सपनों पर एक आंसू भी न बहायेग.

कौन जाने किसका का है ये आशियाँ, जिसमें न अब जिस्म बचें हैं न जान; शायद भूत रहतें होंगे अंदर, आवाज़ें तो आतीं हैं तरह तरह की अक्सर: कभी बेतहाशा हंसी की, तो कभी फ़ूट फ़ूट के रोने की, और कभी कभी किसी बच्चे के खिलोने की;
कहते हैं जो रहतें हैं इस गांव में, भूत ही सही कोई तो बचा कई इसकी टूटी फूटी छाँव में,
सच ही तो है ये कहानी, आख़िर में न राजा बचता है न रानी, बस रह जाता हैं उनके ख्वाबों का खंडहर और उसकी बर्बादी की कहानी I

Monday, November 6, 2017

Of Bangalore Dosa and Madras Idli

So I hadn’t slept all night. It is a typical trait of my travel: I am so excited that I do not sleep the night before, and I cannot sleep on the flight or the train. And then when you arrive in a city like Bangalore at 5:00  in the morning how can you sleep?


Bangalore Morning

Since stepping into the city, at 5 in the morning, I had been craving for the typical Bangalore Dosa. I had discovered it one similar morning 9 years ago, when I had, for the very first time, come in the city with the intention of making it my home (and I did for some years). The Dosa was nothing like anything I had eaten until then. It was thick, it was rich and it was soft and crisp in equal parts. The most exceptional thing about it was the garlic masala smeared on the inside. For a girl who had only eaten the flimsy, Tamilian, roasts until then, this Dosa was a revelation. I am not ashamed to say that for many days afterwards, I had survived only on the Masala Dosa and filter coffee. It did cause my clothes to shirk, or waist to expand — its the way you look at it really — but it had played an important part in my finding my feet — and food — in an unknown city.  And so began my lifelong love for the Dosa.


Idli with green, red, and white chutneys — all made with coconut. 


There was a problem though. I moved out of Bangalore two years afterwords.
Today, in town after 6 years, I could only think of the Dosas. The crunch of its crust, the body of it’s filling, the texture of its chutney. And of course all of it coming together in the mouth. Sigh!
So at 7, I walk into this place with friends, dreaming of my Benne Dosa and Filter Kapi. The tiny hole in the wall joint was packed — as all joints are in Bangalore — and the fragrance of coffee wafted far and wide. My mouth was watering and my heart was full of joy. I looked forward to meeting my Dosa after years of staying away.
It was only inside that I discovered that this place is a Tamilian joint. Now, don’t get me wrong, I totally love Tamilian food. Their melt in the mouth idlis and the fragrant flavourful sambar, the soft, smooth vadas, and their meals. But today, at this point, I only wanted my Dosa. So yeah, I was a little disappointed.




But then I saw the man manning the place. Dressed in clean clothes and with a kumkum tika on his forehead, laying out banana leaves for us on a tiny corner table.

The 10X10 room was full to the brim, each table laden with food and banana leaves. The air was thick with the heady smell of the Sambar and freshly fried vadas. Each table had a pail of Sambar and a pot with the three kinds of coconut chutneys. The food started arriving soon after — idlis, soft and pillowi, like cotton candy, vadas, tiny and crunchy; chutneys, sharp and potent, rich with goodness of coconut and fresh tadka. And the Sambar, of course flavourful and fragrant — only the way Tamilians can make it. Together they made a stellar combination and for that moment, temporarily, I forgot about my dosa.


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Oh yeah, there was coffee too but my hands were too soiled to take any nice pictures…
What’s your favorite dosa story.. would love to hear!
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Saturday, November 4, 2017

Lucknow: A Paradise for Vegetarians


Think of Lucknow and the first thing that comes to mind are kebabs, biriyanis, kormas, and sheermal. While the legendary non-vegetarian food deserves all the attention it gets, there is also an entire alternate cuisine that the city specializes in (and not many know about). The lip-smacking vegetarian options that you find in Lucknow are as good as, if not better than their non-vegetarian counterparts. Don’t believe us? Try for yourself.




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  1. Dahi-Jalebi-Khasta.
No morning in Lucknow is complete without the special dahi-jalebi and khasta combination. No matter what time of the year it is, every morning carts magically spring up in nooks and corner of the city to make fresh jalebis and khasta. Where there are no carts there are shops. The jalebis are best eaten with curd that has been set in clay pots, and the khasta is served with a dry preparation of potatoes laced with chili, asafetida, and, dry mango powder. Every lane of the city has its own Jalebi shop, but some are more coveted than the others. Try Kanchan Sweets in Indira Nagar, or Neelkanth in Gomti Nagar to sample the freshest Ghee jalebis and Khasta.




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  1. Pooris & Kachauris.
Served with a tangy potato curry, these deep fried discs define vegetarian feasts in this part of the country. While every home has its own recipe of the dish, some shops are so famous that even housewives rely on them to feed their guests. Served with a sweet and sour dried mango chutney, boondi ka raita, and a dry preparation of either pumpkin or potatoes, this meal is best had mid morning. The pooris come soft and luscious and the kachauris are crisp and crunchy. They are flavourful, full-bodied, and very, very satisfying. The most famous places to sample them in the city are Netram Ajay Kumar in Aminabad, and Bajpayee Kachauri Bhandar in Hazratgunj.

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  1. Kulfi- Faluda.
Sweet after spicy and spicy after sweet – this is how a typical foodie in Lucknow describes a meal. And so, after Kachauri comes Kulfi. Served with bland, noodle shaped faluda, topped with flavoured syrup, the kulfi here is rich, sweet, and laced with nuts. The faluda offsets the sweetness and the syrup adds seasonal flavours – rose, mango, saffron. The special thing about the kulfi here is that it is still made the traditional way inside a large earthen pot. It’s not only delicious but also eco friendly. Saunter into any sweet shop and you will find their version of kulfi but the best-known shops are Prakash Kulfi in Aminabad and Chanakya in Boothnath Market.




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4, Chaat

There is nothing a true blue Lucknowite loves more than his chaat. And he has reasons to do so. Pani ke Batashe, Aloo ki Tikki, Nimbu ki Matar, Dahi Chutney ke Batashe, Suhaal, Palak ki Chaat, the list is endless as are the flavours and textures. Whether it is the blandness of the mashed peas against the tang of the lemony jaljeera water, or the crispness of the fried potato patty against the softness of beaten curd, the textures will have you and so will the flavours. Once you have tasted the chaat of Lucknow, you will be ruined forever. The most famous place to sample this: Shukla Chaat House in Hazratgunj.


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  1. Mithai/Sweets.
People in Lucknow take their sweets seriously. So seriously that the most expensive sweet here costs Rs. 36000/- a kilo. While that may be an aberration, there is no denying that the city is home to some of the most mouth-watering sweets in the region. Delicate Doodh ki Barfee, robust Motichoor Laddos, or the indigenous Malai ki Gilori, the sweets from Lucknow are famous worldwide, especially the Malai ki Gilori. Shaped like a paan and made with fresh malai (milk cream), the sweet is filled with crystallized sugar and nuts and garnished with silver varq – thin sheet of real silver. This melt in your mouth mithai defines the very core of the city – sweet, delicate, and unforgettable. You can find the most delectable Malai Paan at Ram Asrey, Hazratgunj.
This post first appeared in The Hindu
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Got some recommendations for us to try in the city of nawabs? Do let us know and we’d love to try out.

A.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

#metoo even though I wish I could say #not me.

I have been thinking long and hard. I have read through every #metoo post that has appeared on my timeline in the last few days. I have felt the pain in each of them, I have understood the anger behind every story, and, needless to say, I see myself or someone I know in all of them. Even though I always knew molestation, harassment, and sexual abuse is rampant, these stories have filled me with a deep sense of helplessness. Or should I say fatigue?

Fatigue of fighting all the time. Fatigue of watching my back every second of the day. Fatigue of looking at every man with suspicion. Fatigue of checking on the eye and hand movements of every friend and relative who is close to me, my sister, my daughter, my niece, my friend, my cousin…

I was never taught to stay quiet about the wrong that was done to me. But I was also not categorically told what to do if someone tried to violate my body. Hell! The subject was never even spoken about at home. And with no elder sister, aunt or cousin, I was left to figure things out on my own. Whether it was the 45 year old, seemingly educated and gentle looking tenant at my aunt’s place, or the doctor who operated upon me at 14 — I remember every touch that has made me uncomfortable. But I did not know what to do about it. I did not know I could tell the elders about it, or share it with my friends. All I could do was cringe and wince, and pray to god that I do not have to face the person ever again.

And so, even though I was never taught to stay quiet, I did. Because I did not know any better.
I kept quiet when my math teacher routinely stood behind me and placed his hand on my back, feeling up my bra strap. I kept quiet when some random man flashed at me inside a museum in Calcutta in broad day light. I kept quiet when the lecherous gaze of my father’s young cousins scared me out if my wits. I kept quiet when I was told that I was too grown up for my age. I said nothing when I was groped in the middle of the road or touched in the dark of a movie hall. I even stayed quiet about the man who stalked me every morning for over a year. In retrospect it was such a stupid thing to do, but at that time I did not think so.

Initially these incidents troubled me — as they would trouble anyone. Later, however, they became a part of life. Sometimes I remembered them, sometimes I forgot about them. But I never spoke about any of them, for I always believed that it was something that happened only to me and hence it should be my fault.

It was much later that I realized how every girl I knew had a story to share. Well almost. The friend who’s uncle regularly felt her up right in the middle of family get togethers. The class-mate who’s cousin almost raped her. The cousin whose cousin who she found naked next to her one night. Everyone had a story to share but none of them had told anyone about it. The reason? The same feeling of guilt and shame, and the belief that reporting it may cause families to break.

I do not know who told them that the family was more important that their dignity or well being, but somehow the belief was conveyed and so like me they had stayed quiet too.

But I also found those who taught me to fight. Like the cousin who chased an auto guy who had passed lewd comments on her and pulled him out of the auto to kick him in his stomach before handing him over to the police. Or the friend who told me how I ought to stand up for myself and fight back the man who was trying to come too close. Even though I succeeded in doing so, and hitting, fighting, and protecting myself, I cannot say the same about the others.

I really don’t know if #metoo is going to change anything. Maybe like most internet movements this too will die its own death. Or maybe it will make a small little dent somewhere. Maybe it will succeed in bringing forth the magnitude of the problem. Every change begins with acceptance and talking is the first step to changing. Or so we can hope.

And yes, #metoo. Like everyone else. And I really hope there are more #notme than #metoo.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

In Gods Own Home

Miles and miles of fluorescent green paddy fields covered in mist. A gleaming white Pagoda in the horizon. Impossibly blue skies with cotton candy clouds floating in and out of the frame. Patches of fluffy Kaash phool swaying to mild autumn breeze. And, among all this, the serpent of a road slithering majestically. No, I am not talking about some exotic location in the heart of the Indian Ocean, but a humble highway that is taking me from the capital city of Odhisha to the home of Lord Jagannath, Puri.

I have started my journey for Puri at 5 in the morning rather reluctantly — after a 24-hour long train ride, all I wanted was to sleep — but just twenty minutes into the drive, I am already glad that I have decided to spend my morning on this road rather than in the uncomfortable hotel bed. The hour-long drive turns out to be one of the most picturesque drives that I have taken in a long time.

Jagannath Puri, or Puri, as it is commonly known is a tiny town at the eastern edge of the country. Geographically, it is just another coastal town like many others in the state of Odhisha. But, historically, spiritually, and religiously it is one of the most important places in the country. It is, after all, the abode of Lord Jagannath, and one of the oldest cities in the Indian subcontinent.

All roads in Puri, naturally enough, lead to only one place — the Jagganath Temple. And all action is concentrated along the main street called boro dhandoo. at the end of which stands the imposing three-tired Jagannath temple.

We arrive at the main street, boro dhandoo, a little before seven and even though I want to drive all the way until the temple, we realize that cars cannot go beyond a certain point. It is holiday season and I expect the street to be narrow, claustrophobic, crowded, messy and chaotic. The breadth of boro dhandoo however defies whatever I have seen and experienced about temple towns until now. What I see along its length however is starkly similar: beggars, lepers, hawkers, vendors, policemen, rickshaw pullers, food sellers — all seem to co-exist comfortably along the margins of Puri’s lifeline. Soon we become a part of them.

According to folklore, Puri is believed to be the home to Lord Vishnu. It is said that the idol of Lord Jagannath, another form of Vishnu, or Krishna, had manifested itself at the shores of Puri in the Vedic times. Later, when Adi Shankaracharaya was laying the foundation of the four dhams, he made Puri the home of Vishnu. Some other estimates claim that the temple is more recent, and that a local ruler had built it about 900 years ago, in the 12th century. But everyone agrees with one thing — the temple has relics of Gods, which are the life force of the idols here. Those who frequent the place, also claim that unexplained energy can be felt inside the sanctum sanctorum of the temple. Being a sceptic, I have doubts

The temple stands along the Bay of Bengal, built on high platform enclosed by a high boundary. Four gates, one on each side, guard the complex. The Lion gate, or the Eastern gate, happens to be the main entrance and is adorned by large Lion statues and a tall monolith pillar called the Aruna Stambha. It is flanked by umpteen shops selling prasad and flowers, doubling up as shoe stands. There are cows too, scores of them sitting leisurely watching the world go by. The interior however, is surprisingly clean and organized.
What I find interesting about the place is its unique form. The sprawling complex is divided into several sections and hundreds of small shrines dot the complex, each complete with its own deity and priest. In front of every shrine I see a congregation of people — mostly poor — with their hands folded and heads bowed, as if asking the Gods to rid them of their miseries. I wonder if God can really help them.

Whether or not God can help the pilgrims, the priests here surely claim to help people get closer to God.

The priests happen to be most powerful set of people inside the Jagannath temple complex. They are infamous world over for extracting huge sums of money as dakshina from innocent pilgrims in lieu of helping them connect with God and thus getting rid of their miseries.

Even as we walk past the shrines towards the main sanctum, a group of priests appears out of thin air. They ask, in Hindi, if we’d like to pray for our ancestor’s peace, or our children’s prosperity. Upon refusing, they insist that we do: what is the point of travelling so far if you do not worship? My husband’s knowledge of Oriya comes in handy at this point and he tells them off quietly yet assertively.

The main hall of the temple happens to be much less crowded than I had expected it to be. With its walls, pillars, and ceilings covered in traditional pattachitra paintings, it looks pleasantly vibrant. The sanctum is different too — a large dark hall devoid of any ornamentation and decoration. Other than a sea of people — this part of the temple is crowded — there is nothing between the Gods and you.

Unwilling to fight the crowd of devotees and priest, I decide to stand at the threshold of the sanctum, and directly look into the eyes of the deities. Even as I look at them transfixed by their sheer magnitude and grandeur, I can feel the energy and the power of this place in my gut. I now know why they say that the Gods reside in Puri.
*

This post first appeared in The Week. 

Friday, October 6, 2017

This Mental Health Week, Learn How To Tame Your Mind

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It happens so quietly that you cannot prepare for it, and before you know, you are enveloped in its grip so tight that escaping seems impossible. So what does one do? Does one sit in a corner with the head bowed, eyes shut, and arms tightly wrapped, waiting for it to leave, or does one stand up and fight?


Battling with anxiety, stress, and depression can be hard, but it is not impossible. With a little care, awareness, and self love, you can manage, if not overcome, the perpetual feeling of despair. How do I know? Well, I do it every day.



Stress, anxiety and depression are the three demons of modern times trapping more and more people in their clutches every passing day. National Institute of Mental Health describes depression as "a common but serious mood disorder that causes severe symptoms that affect how you feel, think, and handle daily activities, such as sleeping, eating, or working". According to a WHO report almost 36% of people in India suffer from some form of depression, most of them young and at the peak of their lives.



Here are some things that really work.



1. Accept.


Acceptance is the beginning of healing. You can, of course, ask 'why me?' or gloat in self pity, or you can take it in your stride and move ahead. Mental disturbances are no more than physical disorders. They are often caused by chemical imbalance in the brain, or external triggers just like physical disorders, and just like physical disorder, they can happen to any of us -- some are affected more than the others, and some deal with them better than others. Accepting it makes a whole lot of difference. So breathe deep, smile wide, and embrace yourself wholeheartedly.



2. Share.


Having someone who understands makes a lot of difference. If you are not comfortable sharing your feelings with immediate family, spouse, or even close friends, reach out to a support group. There are numerous mental well-being communities worldwide that extend help and support. Look them up online, connect with them on social media, or be an active physical member, the choice is yours. Knowing you are not alone always makes you feel better and more confident.



3. Identify Your Triggers.


Most episodes of extreme stress, anxiety, and deep depression are followed by a trigger. The trigger could be an intangible feeling or fear, or a more concrete situation. Is it fatigue, or feeling out of control that does it for you? Or is it coming face to face with an unpleasant situation or person that pushes the wrong buttons? Recognizing what triggers the discomfort and despair helps not only dealing with them better, but also preventing the feeling to a large extent.



It feels good when people understand you. Or at least try to. When they trust you and believe you. When instead of doling out advice, they listen. Sometimes all you need is someone to talk to without the fear of judgment.



4. Pursue A Hobby. 

Doing what you love doing is a great and easy way to feel good. Investing time in yourself is proven to make you feel more positive and happier. Recall a long forgotten passion and revive it. Music, arts, dancing, gardening, philately, travel, writing, poetry, pottery -- all of them are ways of healing and feeling positive. Join online and offline communities and connect with people who share your love. Creating something new, even as an ametuear, gives you a feeling of accomplishment which goes a long way in ensuring metal well being.


5. Walk. Run. Work-out. 

Picking yourself up and stepping out for a run is the last thing you'd want to do on a bad day, but trust me, once you have overcome that hurdle, rest will be much easier. Studies have shown that physical activity helps the body produce endorphins, hormones that promote feeling of happiness and euphoria. According to NCBI "Exercise improves mental health by reducing anxiety, depression, and negative mood and by improving self-esteem and cognitive function." If running or working out seems impossible, just step out for a walk in the park -- looking at the green grass and blue sky will do you more good that you can imagine.


6. Love Yourself. Unconditionally.


We live in times where loving ourselves is not the easiest thing to do. The perfection portrayed in the media, films, and social media makes it even more difficult to appreciate our imperfections and flaws. The trick is to understand that what is portrayed is not always complete, and that perfection may not always be possible. Knowing our limitations and capabilities helps us appreciate the flaws in others too. Love yourself unconditionally no matter what and the rest will follow.



Note: While these are ways and methods to manage your condition, the importance of professional help cannot, and should not, be ruled out. Seeking medical attention, or help from mental health practitioners -- counselors, psychiatrist, phycologists -- is important to ensure you feel and perform at your best.


Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Calcutta’s Must-Try Street Food in Durga Puja

Come Puja and the city of Calcutta turns into a life-size food court. Streets are lined with stalls, people queue outside eateries, and plates full of food are passed between family and friends. Then there is bhog, the most important part of any Puja. On some days it comprises of simple khichdi and labda, on others it is a lavish fare of mutton curry, luchis, sweets, rice, and payesh, the Bengali version of kheer. While most of the country fasts during this time, Calcutta feasts and why not, food after all is an integral part of any celebration—in Calcutta no celebration is bigger than the homecoming of the goddess and her children.

So whether you are busy hopping from Pandal to Pandal appreciating the art, craft and beauty of the festival, or walking miles in search of a taxi and cursing the drivers for quoting obscene amounts, food remains a constant companion throughout. It however changes forms depending upon which part of the town you are in – the posh south or the more down to earth north.

While eateries in Calcutta are open all night during the Puja but even at 2:00 AM you may not get space to sit in a restaurant. Street food therefore is your best bet. It is fresh, it is authentic, and you’d never have to wait for more than a few minutes.

Here’s a list of things you must try this Durga Puja.



Rolls, Chowmein, Chops & Cutlets

Everyone who knows Calcutta knows about its rolls. Flacky parathas filled with chunky chicken, fried egg, and sliced onions, seasoned with ketchup and chillies, and wrapped in a butter paper are found everywhere, especially during the Puja. These rolls define Calcutta in one bite. The huge griddle is also used to dish out spicy noodles tossed with julienned vegetables, eggs and shreds of meat and topped with chili and tomato sauce. No one makes roadside noodles like Calcutta does.

Chops and Cutlets are slightly more subtle. Made with Chicken, Fish, or vegetable mince, they are coated in bread-crumbs and are deep fried before being handed over to you with kasundhi, salad, and rock salt. The egg devil however, is a different devil altogether – boiled egg, coated in spicy potato mix, rolled in breadcrumbs and deep-fried. Think twice before you order the second helping of this one.



Puchka, Jhaal Muri, Alu-Kabli
No trip to Calcutta can be complete without the three essentials — puchka, jhaal muri, and alu-kabli. While Alu-kabli – a mishmash of chopped boiled potatoes, chickpeas, onions and cucumber, seasoned with green chilli, cumin powder and tamarind water – is the city’s favourite snack, the Puchka needs no introduction.

Calcutta’s Puchkas are in a league of their own – large, crisp, and filled with zingy potatoes and tangy water. Every pandal has at least half a dozen puchka sellers lined up, and each one of them has at least a dozen people waiting their turn. That’s is a lot of puchkas!

Jhaal muri comes next. A mixture of various textures and flavours in a base of puffed rice, peanuts & potatoes, the bhel like mixture hits you hard if you are not used to it. The secret is in the raw mustard oil added in generous quantities. The jhaal muri is the quintessential snack that keeps you company as you walk through the Pandal, or during the day-long adda session outside a pandal.



Chicken Korma and Biryani.

Calcutta loves Biryani like no one else does. No, not even Hyderabad or Lucknow. And in Puja, the demand for it hits an all time high. When the popular joints struggle to keep pace with the city’s insatiable hunger, the street side vendors spring in action and set up stalls outside the pandals. More often than not their Biryani is better than the most famous names in the city. This Biryani, kept on low flame in giant pots, is had best with chicken korma offered by the same stalls.

These Succulent pieces of chicken smothered in thick gravy, pan fried and doled out on steel plates can also be eaten with rice or luchi, but as I said have it with biryani for complete Puja indulgence.




Sondesh, Mishti-Doi, Rosgulla

It is hard to say if the Durga Puja started earlier in Bengal or does the love for sweets of the Bengali predates the love for celebration of the Godess’ homecoming, but one thing is for sure: there can be no celebration without Mishti. 

Every street in Calcutta boasts of its own sweet shop, and every neighbourhood has a favourite Mishtir Dokan. Make the most of the city’s sweet obsession and gorge on the famous Mishti doi, Rosogulla, and Sondesh. While at it, also try the local version of the Samosa, Singhara, and some lesser-known sweets like Shorbhaja, Ladykeni, and kacha gola.

Remember though, that sometimes these shops maybe hidden behind the pandals. Do not hesitate to ask a local for the nearest sweet shop, chances are they’d walk you there themselves.

A version of this post appeared on The Huffington Post. 

Monday, September 25, 2017

An Insiders Guide to Surviving Calcutta’s Durga Puja


There are two types of people in this world: one) who love Durga Puja, two) who hate Durga Puja. There is another tiny variety though — of people who hopped over the fence somewhere along the way. I belong to that category.

Making the switch is not, however, the easiest thing even if you are a sucker of food, arts, music, and culture — elements that signify the festival. It takes grit, and a lot of time, to fall in love with the overwhelming Pujos of Calcutta. But it is not impossible. With a little planning & preparation, you can enjoy, if not fall in love, with the beautiful experiences that the festival brings with it.

So let’s get started.

Basics:

Durga Puja begins from the Mahalaya Amavasya, the day before the auspicious period of navratras, or nine nights of the goddess begins. The festivities however commence only on the 6th day, called shashti, when the goddess and the four children are invoked, and lasts until dashami, when she is sent off with a heavy heart and teary eyes. If you are planning a visit, plan to reach Calcutta by Pamchami and settle in before the action begins.

Timing:

In my 15 years as an insider at the Durga Puja — after my marrying a bong boy — if there is one thing I have learnt, it is to get the timing right. To witness the beauty and grandeur of the art, craft, and spirit of the festival, you will have to make an effort to beat the locals to it. In a Puja Pandal, it always pays to be early.

Shashti and saptami mornings are best to go pandal-hopping. The Puja Pandals are already up but the people have yet to come out in full force. There is still some space to walk, drive, breathe, the queues are smaller, and you can take your time to appreciate the themes, decor, aesthetics and the gods in each pandal.

It is important to know that Calcuttans do not sleep during the Puja, at least not in the nights. For that is when they are out with friends and families for a night full of revelry. If crowds intimidate you, avoid getting out in the night, especially on ashtami and navami, or be ready to swim in a sea of people and sway in whichever direction the crowds take you.

Commute:

Taxi drivers in Calcutta go crazy during the Pujas. They are in great demand and the public is ready to pay any price for their services, so don’t be surprised if they quote obscene amounts. Either hop in or walk off — they will not wait for you.

A better way to commute is by metro or bus. They are cheap, take you from point to point and ply all night. Also, be prepared to walk a lot. Imagine you are in Paris, or Rome, and it will be easier for you. In any case chances are you’d spot the Eiffel Tower and the Colosseum somewhere along the road. In fact, Calcutta now has its own Big Ben too: but for the sweat streaming down every part of your body, you can very well imagine walking the streets of London.

If commuting into the city from the station, cross the Hoogly on a boat, and soak in the beautiful skyline of the city, stock up your lungs with fresh air, and hop in on the taxi at Babu ghat. It will save you time, effort and a lot of traffic. If you decide to fly in to save travel time, you can rest assured about it being compensated in the cab. Fares will be equitable too!
 
Pandal Hopping:

Pujas in Calcutta revolves around two things Pujo Pendal, and Thakur. The pandals come in all shapes and sizes. So do the gods. So while you will have a 100 feet tall Durga at Deshopriyo Park, you will also have a rojger ginni at Hindustan park. The themes range from surgical strikes to demonetization, from Bhutanese tourism to a humble village set up, from the Meenakshi temple in Tamilnadu to the Somnath temple in Gujrat. Then there is recycling, global warming, deforestation. If the brilliance of Bengal is visible anywhere, it is in a Puja Pandal.

Every street in Calcutta has a Puja Pandal that you cannot miss and every para showcases something unique; how do you then decide what to cover and what to skip? You don’t — just start from one place and join the dots as you go. It is best to cover the most famous Pandals in the morning, and meander into smaller ones on the way. They are all interconnected and the crowds will lead you from one to another. Stay closer to your home/hotel/residence in the evenings — so that even if you have to walk home you can.

Do not miss the smaller Pujos in North and South Calcutta, for it is in these tiny pandals that you’d discover the most beautiful idols, and most innovative themes.

Some of the lesser known pandals that you should have on your itinerary are:  Mudiali club, Shib Mandir, Seebak Sangha, 66 Palli, Maddox Square, Jorashonko, Kumhartuli, Hindustan Park, Durga bari, Jodhpur Park, Dhakuria. Ahiritola, Kumhartuli. You can thank me later!


Food:

No one eats at home during the Puja. Not that they need to with a feast laid out at every nook and corner. Lined with stalls selling everything from biryani to korma, from coffee to cola, from ice cream to sweets, the streets of Calcutta transform into food courts during the festival. While most of the country fasts during this time of the year, Kolkata feasts.

Use the opportunity to sample Calcutta’s lip smacking variety of street food. Gorge on the tangy Puchkas, try the zingy jhaal muri, taste the aloo kabli, and stuff yourself with cups of mishti doi, and dozens of rasgullas and shinghara. When you are done with street food (I never am), get on with chicken korma, biryani, kheer and kulfi, and later to noodles, rolls, momos, and more mishti doi.

The best thing about eating so much is that the walking offsets the effects — at least it digestion part of it. So when you are hungry again, head to the evergreen Park Street where, open from noon till well after midnight, the iconic eateries of Calcutta await you. Choose from Mocambo or Peter Cat, or walk into Bar-B-Que or Trincas. But ready for long queues: the whole city is out to eat during the Pujas.

Exit:

Why would somebody need to plan the exit from a city? Well, because it is Calcutta and it is Puja. And I cannot leave you wandering on the crowded roads without a taxi — if I have got you in, I better get you out too!

So, first and foremost, never plan a train or flight out on Dashami. The city swells that day like a river on the rise; there are no cabs, there are no autos, there are hardly any buses either. Unless of course you have a friend who is willing to sacrifice the whole day battling traffic jams and barricades (trust me, no self-respecting Bengali will do this), it’s best to leave a day before, preferably in the day. Else, you can always walk back from the airport after a missed flight, or sleep over at the Howrah station post a missed train. The city will always have space for you.

Also featured in Huffington Post