This morning I called an old friend for a general chat, something we do a few times a year. And she asked me why I was not posting any blogs these days…….and yes, I have to admit that the frequency has declined gradually. Every now and then I resolve to change that and post a few, but have not been able to sustain the interest. In any case, it was not as if I was promoting it any big way or that I had a big following. I have been quite clear that the purpose of the exercise was more to record my thoughts and events for my own future recall. Since the apoptosis of memory cells seems to be accelerating, I think it will serve me well to be regular in this effort.
Joint communal prayer on Friday, is an integral part of the Muslim faith. All of us in this country would have visual recalls, if not of actually have seen, from the media visuals of rows of men offering prayer. These pictures are on the front pages every Id, just as we have those of visarjans (be it Ganapati or Durgma), rath yatras (most famously of Puri), the Dussera display at Mysore or the Onam boat race of Kerala. They are all part of our annual calender as a nation.
But things feel a bit different this Friday, although Ramdan is only to start next week and Id is 5 weeks away. Tension has been brewing in the city where I live, over the last 3-4 weeks about the prayer being conducted in open spaces. While tensions have been developing on many issues across the country, a growing helplessness had led me to discontinue watching any Newschannel on TV and decreasing newspaper subscriptions from 3 to 1 ( and I am mulling over the need for that too!!). Since I am fully retired, and have limited social engagements, I am building a personal barricade of sorts I find. Is this good I wonder, or just selfish! A way to block out the noise and so find peace!! But is this the peace I want? I can only honestly say that I am confused…….
I did, however, step out and attend a non-party, non-religious group meeting of citizens last week, which in response to the recent disturbances wanted to reassure ourselves that there are enough of us who do not think in terms of division alone!! And sitting there among a 100 or so attendees, of which 2/3rds were probably Muslims, I realized how few Muslims I have had close associations with. The only times I was among so many Muslims was when I used to take an occasional class in one of the Denominational Universities, or attend a ‘nikah’ of a colleague or student ( and there were few enough of those). And in that meeting and in the chatter of the WhatsApp group that was born that day, I was confused and concerned, by the sense of gratitude that Muslim friends felt towards the non-Muslims for having stepped forward to give support. It brought home to me how physically and emotionally disconnected my life has been, as must be that of so many others.
For me a human is a human is a human….. every human is a sapien first, and has evolved over many millenia from the apes. The human intellect and its achievements has probably accelerated the rate of evolution, but are we also accelarating the reverse trajectory? Only time will tell, and I do not regret that I wont be around then.
P.S. Over the last week, I have been trying to rectify some of my ignorance about the religion ‘Islam’ (a difficult task for a a-religious person) using Google (of course, our master teacher!!). I wish there was a better way to learn more.
When I saw the announcement for a curated walk through Connaught Place or CP (it is still that to me!!) under the title of ‘bookworming’, I was intrigued. Digging deeper, I realized that this was a term used for a walking and experiencing a city through a book! And the book selected in this case was Sam Miller’s “Delhi – Adventures in a megacity”. This was more than I could have wished for – a combination of my 2 favorite activities, reading and walking. And the book in question was one I had read a few years ago.
Sam Miller is a flaneur, which is a French word “for someone who wanders aimlessly through cities” despite having the means to “travel by car, take a taxi, or ride the train; or perhaps even stay at home”. Miller chose to walk in an outward spiral starting with CP as the center. And since this walk planned to cover the first couple of loops of the spiral, the meeting point was early Sunday morning at the Rajiv Gandhi Metro Station. We were a small group of 6 adults and a young child, and we set off with the lead walker and organizer, Shriti. She gave us a background to Miller, his book etc, since probably not everyone was familiar with the book..
The walk took us along the inner circle corridor of E and F blocks, and we crossed over to the Palika Bazaar. This ‘infamous’ underground market, which Miller calls ‘sunless, shrunken, sunken doppleganger of CP’, was a popular destination for shoppers in the pre-mall days!! No one was keen to dive underground, and so we walked over to catch a magnificent view of the iconic Jeevan Bharati building designed by Charles Correa. I must admit that in all the years I have been in Delhi, I have never seen it from this angle.
Then we crossed over to the outer circle, and walked counter clockwise, to take in the Statesman House, which lies at the corner of Barakhumba Road. Further on, we took in Gopal Das Bhavan (where Miller, who was worked for BBC, had his offices), the Fire Station, Shankar Market, Minto Bridge, the VIP entrance to the Railway Station before we crossed the road to take in the youngest sufi shrine of Delhi. All that you see on the road side is a masjid, and then as you go through the small lane at its side you come into the peaceful, paved courtyard that is the dargah of Hazrat Abdul Salam Chisti. This dargah dates back to the early part of the 20th century, and protrudes into the Lady Hardinge Medical College grounds. They had a much larger piece of land earlier, the major part of which was taken away for the new medical college which came up in 1916.
We continued around the outer circle and ended the walk at the iconic Regal building, or Re(g)al Theat(r)e (with the missing G and R, its original name.
This was in its time, a grand cinema hall with ornate balconies and embellishments, columned foyer etc. built to match the grand theatres of London. It with few parallels in the country, Opera House in Bombay and Mayfair in Lucknow come to mind. As single screen halls around the country bow out to the multiplexes, this one has now become a wax museum – the famous Madame Tussad’s, no less!
For me the outing was more than just a walk, as I have been seeing CP since 1955. I grew up in the New Delhi of the 50s and 60s and lived in the sarkari part of it. The go-to market for us was Khan Market – CP was an occasional luxury. During school and pre-med days, it was usually for the occasional family outing to Kwality for an ice cream sundae treat (and that institution is as it was then, although I have not had the ice cream sundae for many decades), an annual expedition to the Khadi Gram Bhavan (still at the same location in Regal Building, albeit much modified) at the time of the Gandhi Jayanti sales, an occasional family expedition to the movies especially in the summer vacations, when cousins were visiting. Many are the morning shows (9.30 am sharp) and matinees (3.30 pm) that I have seen in Regal, Rivoli and Plaza. And then there were the 6 college years at Delhi Gate, when CP was the place for movies, eating out (United Coffee House, Wengers, South India Cafe, all Institutions that still survive) and occasional shopping. Till I left Delhi in early 1973, there was no structure taller than the buildings around the circle itself, all the radial roads were open to low volume traffic in both directions and the central area was a tree filled park. In the late 60s and early 70s, various new structures appeared – Shankar Market, Apna Bazaar in its own (the first department store!) building across from Shankar Market and some landmarks disappeared. The iconic India Coffee House, at the site where Paalika Bazar stands, moved to the new location on Baba Kharak Singh Marg, where a row of shops with various State Emporiums came up.
Between 1973 and 2009, I was only an occasional visitor and did not witness the transformation of the area – the first high rises, the Jeevan Jyoti building, the new Statesman House, the business centers that developed along KG Marg and Barakamba Road, the rejuvenation of the central Park and widening of Barkhamba Road with the building of the Metro. Since I moved back to the NCR in 2009, I have reached CP only about half a dozed times or so. And major efforts have been made to re-do the frontages, clean up and re-pave the corridors etc. especially around the centenary of the Delhi Durbar of 1911. But I was disappointed to see the paan stained corners and the dirty corridors of the outer circle, which smelled like a long continuous urinal. This is suprising, since the whole area seems to have become a long chain of eating places and ‘Bars’. One would think, that at least the owners of these establishments would take some interest, keeping their clientele in mind.
Much remains the same, while much has changed too!! And I really felt good about having made the effort to reach CP for a #morningalk with a difference!
The arched windows – preserved for the most part
And other arches, revealing the less sanitized inner parts
Everyone has a ‘comfort food’, an item of food that one associates with childhood, home, mother…….and for me for ever so long it used to be ‘curd rice’! How I grew out of that is another story, but for these last many years my ‘comfort food’ has been a drink, the filter coffee. Children were not allowed to drink coffee, but amongst my earliest memories is one of my grandfather, sneaking me a sip from his ‘tumbler’! Of course, no chinaware entered our Brahmin house then. It was a time, long before plastic had entered our lives in any manner or form.
Coffee was a ritual and was made only in the morning and at tiffin time, which was the late afternoon. The first thing that was done in the morning was to light the wood fire and put water to boil. My mother would have already had her bath before this and cleaned the fire and put kolam on the walls of the stove. Once boiling, the water was added slowly to the ‘peetal’ filter. These were in various sizes, and on any given day, the one used depended on how many people were in the house and were eligible for this morning ritual.
The morning coffee was extra special, as the milk was fresh. Since we did not have our own cattle, the milkman walked his cow to our door, and my grandmother would stand guard with a hawk’s eye, to ensure that the milkman did not tilt water into the vessel from a source tucked into his mundu! My maternal grandmother did keep cows, and I remember her standing and supervising the morning milking, in this case to ensure that the ‘servants’ did not steal some of the milk. The milk was boiled, added to the ‘decoction’ along with sugar, usually a generous amount for my grandfather as he had a sweet tooth. (Technically, since the water percolates through the powder packed in the upper perforated vessel into the lower vessel, the coffee is a filtrate, but is always referred to as the decoction.) The mixture was tossed between the davara (the lower dish) and and tumbler, and the frothing coffee was carried almost with reverence in the folds of the saree pallu, (since it was too hot for the hand) to the recipient.
I do not recall many of these details from those early days, but they were discussed in later times when the adults were reminiscing about the bygone days, and the decline in the quality of coffee! The men were the first recipients, and I can imagine my mother bending and leaving it a couple of feet from my grandfather, since the daughter in law had to keep her distance.
Once the first round was over, any decoction remaining, was put into a separate container for those who may demand seconds. My father was one of those, and I can hear his “Kamlam, arai cup coffee” (Kamlam, half cup coffee), which was his routine to the end. Those were frugal times – more water was boiled and added to the same filter, and the second harvest of weaker coffee was what the older children and the domestic helpers got.
Many of these rituals continued for many years in our house. I do not remember the roasting and grinding of the coffee seeds in those early days. But I can smell the distinct aroma of the roasting coffee seeds, in our Delhi house in the late 50s and early 60s. It was a ritual unique to our house as we did not have other Tambrahms in the neighborhood. The roasted seeds were stored in air tight tins, and ground with a hand-grinder in small batches so that the freshness was retained.
The switch to pre-ground coffee powder happened in 1965 when my parents moved to London. When they returned in the late 60s, a lot of things had changed. My mother no longer had help in the kitchen, the Government apartment they were allotted did not encourage the strong smell of roasted coffee I am assuming! Although by this time I had reached the age of eligibility for coffee, I was in the hostel and had a cup on my occasional visits home.
The years in the hostel had hooked me to chai, the only available option. Coffee (if it can be called that) was a late night activity, for study breaks, in which boiling water was added to a vigorously beaten mixture of Nescafe and condensed milk. The real ‘coffee’ was enjoyed on the occasional visits to India Coffee House in CP. Later a branch was opened on the college campus and made the wonderful brew more accessible. After marriage, for many years we continued to go to India Coffee House for the coffee fix. Then I spent 2 years in US, and drank large amounts of the perk coffee, Maxwell House being the brand that was popular in the lab where I worked. The lab tech would get into work at 7 am and the first thing he did was put on the machine. As I walked into the lab at 8, this aroma would be floating down the corridor. And is perked the whole day, and we all drank volumes of it, although I needed milk and sugar, unlike many of my American colleagues. But if anything, it turned me off coffee…..
For many years after I came back, coffee was an occasional indulgence in a restaurant maybe, and chai became the staple drink at home. My parents shifted to Bangalore in 1981 and my mother went back to roasting and grinding her coffee beans. This went one step further, when a friend gave her a coffee plant which in 3-4 years started to yield enough seeds to suffice for the 2 of them for many months. We were in Mumbai in the 80s and made many trips to Bangalore, and it was then that I really learnt to appreciate good filter coffee and heard again of all the rituals that go with it.
After shifting to Lucknow in 1987, my parents started to visit every year, spending 6-8 weeks initially and after my father passed away my mother spent 2-3 months. In the early days she always came with a good stock of home ground coffee powder, as my father did not drink tea. She continued to do this, although Subhash and I had the luxury of enjoying the morning coffee only on Sundays.
My mother moved to Chennai in 1994, found her local source for freshly ground coffee powder with the exact amount of chicory added and continued to enjoy the brew. I kept my supply lines going through her visits, and the occasional trips Subhash and I made to Chennai. And it continued even after I moved to Gurgaon, and after my mother moved to Gurgaon, my brother kept the supply line going. And over the last few years I have become more and more of a coffee connoisseur. Over my many European visits, I learnt to appreciate the strong flavor of Nespresso brewed coffee. I gave up milk in general in mid-16, and particularly with coffee. I got a French press. Black coffee allowed me to enjoy the flavor of the bean itself. I started to explore all the fancy new coffee sources, the single estate coffees etc. I brought back a Nespresso machine on one of my trips, and the capsules are standing order for anyone visiting me from Europe.
After the Chennai source for the filter powder dried out for a variety of reasons, I started to source the it from other places. But, the coffee was never up to the mark, and after my mother passed away a year ago, I found that I was making it less and less. Then about 6 months ago, by chance I struck gold, and found this easy central Delhi source. And now I am back to enjoying my filter coffee – not every day, but a couple of times a week, realizing that it is ‘comfort’ food for me, with memories of childhood and my parents. Now I think I need to rescue my dawara-tumbler too!
Every new year is welcomed with great new expectations, new resolutions and new anticipations, and ends with “Oh, is the year over? There was not enough time to fulfill all those expectations or achieve the goals and targets”!! There was a time that I too went through these cycles – but have now reached an age when the external pressures have fallen away and the internal pressures are fading.
2017 was an eventful year, in which significant events were sandwiched between a quiet beginning and a quiet end, albeit in different parts of the country. The year was welcomed in Puducherry, with my sister-in-law Liduine. But soon after, we got back to Gurgaon, to find that my mother was not doing well. A hectic few days of medicines, doctors, hospital, ICU – and on 14th she left us. The following days were filled with the nitty-gritties that follow this final departure, made complex by the fact that my generation of the family has drifted away from the rituals and traditions that were so important to my mother. We tried our best to do what she would have liked!
Over the following weeks, I struggled to find a new rhythm to my routine, which in some ways had settled around Amma’s routine. The major change was around food, as she needed a typical rice-based kerala-brahmin meal at lunch time – and a non-chapatti dinner as her teeth had been growing shaky in the last few months. I am not a rice fan! So idli-dosa moved from dinner to breakfast and chapatis took center stage. It took a while to sort out her things – and the final break came when the young Jharkandi maid who had helped to take care of her, left in mid April. Around this time I also dropped sugar from my diet – although I must admit it is not quiet 100%, I have managed to stay >90% off, with an occasional spoon of dessert from some one else’s plate!! This has been definitely my proudest achievement of the past year. Over the following months, my diet has grown more organic, less cereal based with larger share of uncooked vegetable and fruit!
In March I spent a few days in Goa, and as joined by Mukta and the kids for some of that time. We had 2 days by the beach at the Mahindra resort, which the kids really enjoyed.
During the summer, I spent 3 weeks in Paris with Mukta, Radha and the kids. This was made possible by an assignment Mukta had with the Diederot University. We rented an apartment, spent time at our own pace and used the opportunity to see Paris at leisure. We started with great enthusiasm, setting sight seeing lists and gastronomic goals. Needless to say, we did not get to the end of either! However, the footsteps target of 15,000 was exceeded on most day, many a crepe was eaten and many a museums visited. While we were happy to escape the searing Delhi heat of June, the first week of our stay felt even hotter than home since neither the homes or public transport (except for some very recent additions) have AC. The weather then slipped to the usual European summer and rain actually bothered us only on a few days. While Eiffel Tower, Louvre, Notre Dam, Musee Rodin, Musee d’Orsey et al were visited, day trips to Versailles, Disneypark and Fontainbleau were the high points. Of course, we never did get to Pampidou Centre or the catacombs, by the middle of week 3 kids were happy chilling at home. So there is enough left for another visit….
Paris at its best
Versailles – always impressive
Burger picnic by the Seine
The other high point was the birthday week-end in August – I turned 70 and the family planned a week-end at the Nimrana property at Tijara. It is barely 2 hours away from our place in Gurgaon – the Chennai group turned up on a Friday afternoon and we drove over on Saturday morning. We had a leisurely day and a half, spending many hours at the pool – one of the loveliest I have used anywhere! The food was reasonable, the company excellent and we meandered home on Sunday afternoon, through some interesting old monument, the exact history of which we could not make out! The party continued on Sunday evening, with friends for dinner and cake cutting, and spilled over to Monday lunch, before the Chennai group flew home. I cannot thank all those involved enough for the lovely gesture and making a significant landmark, so memorable.
For the rest, there were some minor travels in late October/early November to Lucknow (to catch up with old friends), Chennai (official), Dehradun (to spend time with a dear friend) and Pune for the release of the release of ‘Technology Vision 2015: Education’ – a venture on which I have spent considerable amount of time these last 2 years. And then, while waiting for the taxi to take me to the airport at Pune, I got a call from Chennai saying that my brother had been taken to the Emergency and was in the ICU with severe blood loss from a GI bleed. Many anxious hours later, I was in Chennai and spent more anxious hours outside the ICU, before he was out of the crisis. In the weeks since then, he has made a slow and steady recovery, and is re-orienting his life to take in the new realities. It has also brought a sense ‘the finite’ to all of us, his friends and family, something that continues to stay with me!
For the final week of the year, it was back to Goa bringing in the New Year quietly at home with family. There was a virus floating around, and everyone took ill in turns, which is why this post, which should have gone out in late 2017, is delayed
2017 was my first year of total retirement and I have had no regrets regarding that decision. The full year also passed without a full time driver, enabled by the wonderful new facility – the app-based taxi service. Academic commitments are gradually decreasing and I attended only a couple of conferences in 2017. The days fill up – some cooking (which I really enjoy), some exercise and a lot of reading ….. I had set a target of 52, and finished 72 books. And in August/Sep/Oct I became obsessed, as I took a challenge to complete all 13 Booker nominated books (announced in mid-August) before the winner was declared on October 17th. So 2018 is to be a year with no book challenge – and a greater effort to do non-reading activities! Lets see how that goes!
One of the positives of the year has been regular yoga sessions at home, thanks to the excellent teacher we have been lucky to find. This with the change in diet, has left me, maybe not much lighter in weight, but energetic enough to look forward to an active and healthy 2018. It is going to be transitional year, as some changes are being planned and also a year of travel – as I want to make the most of the time of health and well being that are left to me!! And I also hope to write more (unlike 2017). So here is wishing all of you a great and healthy 2018, and that you achieve whatever are the goals you are looking for. As for me, the time for goals is over and as I start the eighth decade, I will try to take things as they come and live for the moment, to the extent that is possible.
I am not a movie buff, but have always enjoyed good cinema. While I can appreciate many of the finer points, I don’t understand enough about the process or the final product to comment on the finer points of a particular movie. But I do believe that cinema has a larger role beyond entertainment – as a recorder of contemporary society and for its influence on the society it portrays. And in this context, the recently released ‘Mukti Bhawan” is a movie that fulfills both roles, ably and responsibly.
As the name suggests, the action or the lack of it, takes place in a run down Varanasi guest house for the elderly, waiting for mukti – from what else but LIFE? How can you watch 100 minutes of such a morbid subject as death, you my ask? And that is what is so right about the movie – while it maybe slow at times and even funny at others, it is not morbid. It deals with death, just as it we all should – as the the inevitable end to life itself, another event in the passage of time, that is final for the concerned individual, personal for the immediate family and friends and of variable consequence to the larger society.
The movie deals gently and deftly with the strained communication between the father (who insists on going to Varanasi to await his turn) and the son, whose sense of filial responsibility makes him accompany the father, albeit unenthusiastically. The son is restless being away from his work yet tied to it through the umbilical cord of the cell phone. The slow thaw that comes through close and constant association is warm and touching. The host of characters that fill the small gaps, such as the pragmatic manager of the guest house (ably played by an old friend, Dr Anil Rastogi), the fellow guests etc. are etched with affection and authenticity. The bond with the grand daughter is warm and spontaneous. Overall, it could be any of our families out there…..and it is not so much the preparedness of the protagonist for his own end, but how the experience prepares the family for that end.
This is not, however, the way we are currently dealing with death. Almost every passing is not a gentle fading away, but the end of a harrowing experience in the corridors of an Intensive Care Unit. Recent statistics from the US (which may not be very different for urban middle class India) shows that >50% of the elderly die in the ICU. Of course, every premature death, is a tragedy and every attempt should be made to save young lives. But, for the elderly the same norms should not hold and everyone concerned needs to accept and come to terms with that.
“Threescore and ten I can remember well:
Within the volume of which time I have seen
Hours dreadful and things strange; but this sore night
Hath trifled former knowings.” from Hamlet
Shakespeare probably borrowed this time frame from the Bible (Psalms 90) – “The days of our years are threescore years and ten”. Our own scriptures, while not prescribing a time frame, urge us to renounce worldly matters and embrace destiny.
As I reach the end of the time allotted to me, and ponder on a balance sheet of the life gone by, I do feel that it is in the positive (in my own estimate, of course). I trust that whatever more is given to me as the bonus years, I will face with equanimity. And I would urge everyone, both young and old, to see this delightful piece of cinema.