Friday, June 10, 2016

The Dosas of My Home-Town-In-Law

A version of this piece appeared in The Hindu.

Every year, when I head to my home-town-in-law, I have just one thing on mind – food. While the cosmopolitan nature of the town ensures you have access to the best of food from all over the country – Litti-Choka from Bihar, Puri-Aloo from UP, Rolls, Noodles, Puchka, Rasgulla & Sandesh from Bengal – it is the Dosa here that is closest to my heart, and something I long for all through the year. 
And so, hungry & tired after a 24-hour journey, the husband & I stop by at our favourite dosa cart even before we get home.

At 8:30 in the morning, the shop is overflowing with people buying Idli, Upma, Vadas, and a special variety of Dosa that is stuffed with Upma instead of the usual potato mixture (it supposedly keeps you full for longer). We park ourselves on the narrow wooden benches & look longingly at the griddle.

The griddle that is at the centre of all the action is thick & round and totally coated with batter, over which the man spreads a generous helping of onion, carrot, and beetroot mixture. He then goes on to spread the potato mix, and pours a huge ladle of oil over it. The result is a triangular dose of crispy heaven, served on a battered steel plate.

As we dig into the watery yet flavourful Sambar, the runny Dal Chutney & the perfectly golden Dosa, every minute of the year long wait for it seems worth it. 

"The Dosa arrived in Tata Nagar back in the 19th century along with its workforce from the southern states. In the last 100 years however, it has acquired a character of its own. The Dosas here are triangular & stuffed with salad apart from the potato mix, the Chutney is made with dal, not coconut; the Sambar is watery, with barely any vegetables. But one thing hasn’t changed: it still feeds the large, hungry workforce of the Steel City every morning."

Thursday, June 9, 2016

What Stanford University Case Has Taught Me

This post appeared in The Huffington Post. 

The first thing I noticed on my tour of Europe last week was the women. Not only were they drop-dead gorgeous, most of them -- from 16-year-olds to 66-year-olds -- could be seen strutting around in tiny skirts or shorts and tops that were barely there. They wore make-up and heels with poise and élan that could put a model on the ramp to shame. To say that I fell in love with their confidence would be an understatement.

But more important than the women, how they looked and what they wore, was the fact that no one, and I mean no one, looked at them with awe, disgust, lust or desire. In fact, no one even turned around to give them another look. Not in the day, not in the evening, not even late at night, or in the wee hours of the morning. Having grown up in a country where not only men but even the women find it impossible to keep their eyes to themselves, it was quite difficult to believe something like this was possible. I will not be exaggerating if I say I envied those women.

I came back happy and hopeful. Happy to know that it is possible to be a woman and yet not be noticed, and hopeful that someday my girls might also live in a world where they will not be treated like beings from another world and be stared at.

And then I read about the Stanford University Case.

Turns out that I was wrong. That nothing changes with geography, country, culture. Boys are raised the same way throughout the world. That clothes, appearance, race, colour, religion, do not make a difference. That as long as you are a woman, you can be violated. 

Much has been written and said about the issue. There are clearly two sides. The judge unfortunately seems to have been on the alleged rapist's side. Just as his father, and his ex-girlfriend. Not that it surprised me. One is almost used to people who let something as heinous as rape sound acceptable. 

What stood out in this whole incident, however, was the grit of the girl. The fact that she decided to let her ordeal be known to the public. That she had the support of her family and society in doing so. It also made me wonder if we, in our society, will ever let our girls and women talk about their suffering without labelling them as loose or immoral. After all a woman who goes out at night to drink and dance is inviting trouble, isn't she? What right then does she have to complain?

The most unfortunate part is that we, even as women, teach our girls to stay quiet. We tell them to ignore people who make passes at them, to look away if someone stares at them. To cover their body, arms, even face so that they do not attract attention. To stay indoors so that they are not vulnerable.
But we do not teach our boys to respect girls. We do not tell them that the girl on the road is not your property. That any girl, young or old, rich or poor, known or unknown, has the right to her body and what she does with it. 

I cannot even count how many times I have ignored the prying eyes and the so called accidental brush of a stranger. I cannot even remember how many times people around me, who I have known, have made me uncomfortable. And I cannot deny the fact that I have been quiet throughout the 37 years of my life because every time I thought it was my fault. 

But things need to change. Someone needs to change it. And as a mother of two young girls, it is my responsibility to change what I can for them. And I urge each mother to do that. 

It is high time we tell our daughters that their body is theirs. That no one, not even the people closest to them, have a right to look at it, feel it, touch it, or violate it. That if something like that occurs, it is not their fault. That there is no shame in talking about it. That there is no loss of dignity or honour in shouting from the rooftop and shaming the man or woman who makes you feel uncomfortable.
Most importantly, we need to tell our sons to respect women. To remember they are humans with a heart and a mind and not only a body. 

And maybe, just maybe, slowly and steadily, we can make this bad world a better place.

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Finding Peace in the Kalinga Valley

This piece first appeared in The Hindu. 

After winning the fierce battle of Kalinga, the land none of his predecessors could capture, a satisfied & content Ashoka stood atop Dhauli Hill to survey his newly acquired kingdom. He had expected to see lush green farms flanked by the pious Daya River and rich coconut groves, what he witnessed instead was death & devastation. The river, clean and pure until some weeks before, had turned red with blood; the farms no longer had crops, just dead, decomposed bodies. The sight transformed the ruthless emperor forever and he embraced Buddhism then & there.

I reach Dhauli on a bright, warm Sunday Morning expecting it to be full of tourists & travelers, but am pleasantly surprised at the emptiness of the place. Other than a few shops selling locally packed food, I see no trappings of a tourist centre either. 

A small flight of stairs leads me to a landing. Flat & large, it looks like just another temple courtyard, not a hilltop. On one side of the courtyard is a small enclosure with a Buddhist temple. The large blue board outside the temple declares the connection between the temple and Buddha’s predictions from 2,500 years ago. The temple doors however are shut, but I find the window open and peep in. 

Inside the compact room, banners of Na-Myo-Ho-Ren-Ge-Kyu hang between two pillars, and the ceiling is festooned with red, blue, and yellow buntings. Numerous idols of Buddha are placed on a high platform along with prayer books, bells, candles; a drum stands on the side. I want to ask someone when will the temple open but can find no one around. Disappointed I walk towards the Stupa.

Located just off the Bhubneswar-Puri highway, the imposing white Pagoda is visible from afar. While the hill, and the history associated with it, dates back to 261 BC and even has relics from Ashoka’s time, the Stupa is fairly recent – it was built in 1972 by the Japanese Buddhist Sangha and is the current face of Dhauli. The same foundation has also built the temple in the courtyard.

By now, the hitherto quiet surroundings of the hill have started to stir. Some tourists have arrived in a mini bus and a few local couples on bikes. While the tourists soon start doing touristy things – lighting incense sticks, clicking pictures with the family, talking in high pitched voices – the couples get busy doing couple things. I spot one sheepish pair trying to steal a kiss under a golden lion, in no mood to spoil their reverie I look away.

It is evident that the place has had a glorious past. The Stupa, adorned with murals depicting scenes from Ashoka’s life, idols of Buddha, and large golden lions perched atop tall columns, must have looked resplendent in its hay days, presently though it is in shambles. The plaster is coming off from places, idols are defaced with graffiti, and paint is peeling off at several places from the walls. The golden lions have turned pale too as if mourning the neglect.

What strikes me though is the peace and quiet of the place – despite the crowd & clamour there is a sense of serenity here that is hard to miss. 

As more and more people fill the narrow corridor of the Stupa up, I retreat into a corner and look at the panoramic view of the Kalinga valley. From where I am I can only see shades of green and blue, and a silver Daya river winding across the fluorescent expanse. Some stray clouds meanwhile float in the deep blue sky even as soothing breeze fills the place up. I try to imagine how Ashoka would have felt when he looked at the river of blood & the carpet of bodies from the same spot, but fail. The positivity here overpowers every negative emotion. I am reminded that it is this peace & tranquility that both Buddha and Ashoka had intended to achieve by spreading the faith; they certainly seem to have succeeded in doing that.