Monday, February 22, 2016

The Saffron We Forgot....


Bhagwa. Kumkuma. Zaffaran, Agnishikha, Bhavarakta, Kusrunam, Mangal, Mangalya, Saurab, Zafrah, Zipharana. 
Or then, more familiarly - Kesar, kesari, even kesariya. 
The associations with these names are divine, redolent with the scent of prayer and sumptuous feasts. But say “saffron” and many amongst us will grimace, even flinch. So, to start with, let us wipe our slates completely clean of the ugly associations of religious bigotry that of late saffron has been made to represent. And then, my dear readers, give me your hand and let me take you deep into the beautiful, lush bosom of the Kashmir valley, embraced by snow-covered mountains, 13 km from Srinagar, where a signpost reads,  “The world’s best saffron grows here”. (One of saffron’s many names is Kashmirajanman or “born in Kashmir”.) Where millions of flowers bloom every winter and where, inside each pale lavender blossom as enchanting a girl’s first blush, are 3 delicate red-golden thread-like strands which the world knows as….. saffron. 

Saffron - the Color of healing
As we know so well by now, many of the gorgeous colours with which Nature paints her vast, gloriously hued cornucopia of flowers and fruits are signals, flagging a myriad of nutrients and medicinal chemicals. And so, the deep red-gold colour of saffron - the dried stigmas (the female, seed bearing part) of the autumn crocus (Crocus Sativus Linneaus) - cues the presence of…..
I’ll come to that later but first let me trace for you saffron’s place of eminence in the ancient systems of healing. Saffron is mentioned in the Ebers Papyrus, an Egyptian medical text, dating to about1550 B.C. In Ayurveda, it is called tridosha – i.e. suitable to treat all 3 doshas. Treat what? Well, let’s see now… to control excessive menstrual bleeding, miscarriage, pitta-related digestive problems like biliousness and dyspepsia, respiratory disorders like cough, asthma, skin disorders like sores and acne, eye disorders like conjunctivitus, cataract, nervous disorders….. it’s a long and impressive list. Oh, and did I mention that saffron is also one of the 60 ingredients in Chyawanprash? It’s even more prominent in Unani medicine which uses it to treat kidney and urinary disorders, menstrual disorders, diabetes and as a heart tonic.
The skeptics will say – pshaw, that’s all old mumbo-jumbo and we want to know what modern science has to say.  And so, let me pick up where I left off. And tell you that the saffron’s gorgeous colour signals the presence of plant chemicals called carotenoids - a very important set of antioxidants which also give oranges and carrots their colour. Now the disease fighting abilities of antioxidants are well known, but let’s see what the carotenoids in saffron do - crocin (not to be mistaken with the drug by the same brand name) and crocetin. A growing body of research indicates that they may prove useful in treating a host of ailments. Crocin is found to significantly increase blood flow in the retina, therefore useful for treating retinal disorders, especially age-related degeneration. Crocetin is found help reduce cholesterol and lower blood pressure. (There is speculation that the low incidence of cardiovascular disease in parts of Spain may be because of their liberal, almost daily, consumption of saffron.) And both crocetin and crocin could be useful as a treatment for neurodegenerative disorders accompanying memory impairment. But most importantly, research also indicates that these carotenoids have properties that could help prevent cancer, inhibit the growth of tumours and activate the body’s own immune system.
Oh, and I almost forgot - saffron is one of the richest source of riboflavin or vitamin B2.

Saffron the sybarite
Having got the serious-jelly stuff out of the way, let me present another side of saffron. Spice extraordinaire, flavouring and colouring sumptuous dishes, sweet and savoury all over the world with its delicate, unmistakable presence. Dazzling dye, first favoured by the ancient Greeks, who – including Alexander the Great - used it to dye their hair, their clothes, and even their fingernails. Muse of classical poetry and drama – often literally because apparently saffron was sprinkled on the stage of ancient Greek theatre. Consummate beautician with such a reputation for enhancing the complexion that Cleopatra used it. And last but not the least, famed aphrodisiac, so much so that Aristophanes, ancient Greece’s most famous playwright in one of his most famous plays, Clouds, had one of his characters describe a woman "redolent with saffron, voluptuous kisses, the love of spending, good cheer and of wanton delights."
The sumptuous saffron was so irresistible that its fame spread all over Europe and 4 centuries after Alexander the Great dyed his hair with it, Nero, never known to do anything in moderation, ordered the streets of Rome to be strewn with it for his triumphal entry. By the Middle Ages, Italian ladies were forbidden by the Church to burnish their tresses with this fabulous golden dye and King Henry VIII passed a law that bed linen should not be dyed with saffron because no one washing them after dyed then with this expensive dye!

Saffron the precious?

One of the first things associated with saffron is that it is the costliest spice in the world, one single gram costing upwards of about 35-40 rupees. Naturally. Because each crocus flower yields just 3 wisps of saffron weighing an average of just 0.007 gms. Each flower has to be carefully handpicked and it takes an experienced picker about 12 days to pick 80,000 flowers to make 1 pound of saffron. So, just 170 metric tonnes of saffron which is the world’s annual production of saffron yields a revenue of 170 million $! But consider this. The amount of saffron needed to make kesar ice cream to serve 4 people is only about 10 strands costing just about 2-3 rupees!

Saffron the sacred
Which leaves us to explore saffron’s ancient associations with spirituality. The fact is that it is a colour sacred to the Hindus, but also to Buddhists, Jains and Sikhs. I found this beautiful explanation of why saffron is associated with Hinduism. Fire worship was a central theme during the Vedic age. But as it must have been inconvenient to carry the fire with them always as the sadhus moved from place to place, a symbolic saffron-coloured flag may have evolved - triangular and often forked to resemble the flaming tongues of the holy agni.
But the true significance of the colour saffron is universal, far up above the recent narrow, opportunistic interpretations – on both sides the secular dive. And it is in India’s first president, Dr. S. Radhakrishnan explanation as to why saffron is one of the tricolours on the Indian flag. "Bhagwa or the saffron colour denotes renunciation, of disinterestedness. Our leaders must be indifferent to material gains and dedicate themselves to their work.”
So, the next time someone says “saffron”, think of a glass of sweet, warm milk turning a warm orange gold by a few strands of this glorious spice and remember saffron as the colour that signifies a place above and without the ego and the delicious flavour of health and goodness.


Monday, February 01, 2016

Kamduni - Because all rapes are not equal.

Kamduni is a village: a  medium sized village, the census website tells me, but a village all the same. Located in North Twenty Four Parganas district of West Bengal. With a population of about 1500 people.
On June 30, 2013, almost 6 months after Jyoti "Nirbhaya" Singh was - to use that inadequate word - brutally gang-raped by 6 men, Shipra Ghosh, a 20 year old college student was gang raped by at least nine men. 
No less brutally.
After raping her, the rapists tore apart her legs up to the navel, slit her throat and dumped her naked body - oh sorry, must I clarify? - naked dead body into a nearby field
Yet, from what I remember, the outrage was not even a teeny-tiny-candlelight-march-weeping-in-the-Rajya-Sabha fraction of what there was for Jyoti. 
Not in the media. (Arnab, are you listening? And where are all the Western media who interviewed Jyoti's parents and triumphantly wriggled out her real name. And where were they who talked to Jyoti's her male friend and published his heartbreaking story, complete with that poignant picture of him sitting on that park bench).
Mea culpa. I remember my own searing anger and outrage at Jyoti's rape as I ashamedly admit that I first got to know about Shipra Ghosh only 2 days when 3 of her rapists were sentenced to death.
I remember the tsunami of teeth-gnashing, the torrential flood of trending hashtags on social media of which I was a part of while Jyoti struggled to live and then died. 
Nothing for poor #Shipra. No outraged trending hashtags, Not even for #Kamduni. No women celebrities/politicians(barring Aparna Sen), weeping for Shipra; their angry tears glistening like so many diamonds in the light of so many candles.
No one raged for Shipra. No one marched to Raisina Hill, nobody demanded action from the President of India. (The only protests were limited to Kamduni and a few random ones in Kolkata.)
Nobody flew Shirpa broken tattered body to Singapore. How could they? When they found her, she was already dead.
No politician/prime minister attended her funeral.

Should we even bother to ask why?
Because it's clear that a woman raped tiny village somewhere in the depths of West Bengal is far far out of our big-city sensibilities and therefore out of our minds. 
But here is what really bothers me. 
How many more Kamdunis must have happened that we don't even know about?
Because all rapes are not equal.
The ones that happen in big cities, well within the arm's length of outrage of us are more so. 

A ray of hope, though.
All rapes may not be equal. But going by the day-before-yesterday's judgement by a Kolkata court, it may just be that justice is NOT only the privilege of the urban well-to-do....

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Ode to Joy – the music that #Beethoven heard only in his heart

The word “joy” has been used in the Bible 250 times, "sorrow" 40 and "sadness" only once!

Beethoven first came across the inspiration to his “Ode to Joy” in 1785 when he was a 15 year-old prodigy. It was Friedrich Schiller's poem "An die Freude" ("To Joy"). Beethoven tried to set this poem to music many times but failed. It was only 27 years later that he made his final successful attempt. Even so, it took him 10 agonizing years to complete the Ninth Symphony, during which he rejected over 200 versions before he decided what we now know the Ode to Joy.
 By now Beethoven was 54 years old, ill and completely deaf…
When he conducted the premiere of his Ninth Symphony on May 7, 1824 in Vienna, the story goes that he continued conducting the orchestra and chorus long after they’d reached the end and even after the thunderous applause had begun. It was only when one of the singers turned him around that he stopped and saw the rapturous response to what was to be his final opus, perhaps the most magnificent of all his works…. an Ode to Joy that he never heard with his ears but which played so ecstatically inside his heart!
Incidentally, the centerpiece of celebrations marking the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989 was Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony….
“Joy, bright spark of divinity,
Daughter of Elysium,
Fire-inspired we tread
Thy sanctuary.
Thy magic power re-unites
All that custom has divided,
All men become brothers,
Under the sway of thy gentle wings.”

An die Freude" ("To Joy") by Friedrich Schiller


Sunday, November 29, 2015

"A Hindu View of Life" - A much needed perspective from Dr. Sarvapalli Radhakrishnan

Dr Sarvapalli Radhakrishnan wrote this is in 1926, as part of the Upton Lectures in Oxford. Before we argue hysterically about "Hindutva", it might be a good idea to read these deeply though, beautifully articulated lectures about Hinduism...

"There has not been in recent times any serious and systematic endeavour to raise the mental level of masses and place the whole Hindu population on a higher spiritual plane. It is necessary for the Hindu leaders to hold aloft the highest conception of God & work steadily on the minds of worshippers so as to effect an improvement in their conceptions. The temples, shrines and sanctuaries with which the whole land is covered may be used not only as places of prayer and altars of worship, but as seats of learning and schools of thought which can undertake the spiritual direction of Hindu."

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

The Best Advice on Giving Advice from One of the Greatest Short Story Writers in the world....

“I have always hesitated to give advice, for how can one advise another on how to act unless one knows the other as well as one knows oneself? Heaven knows I know little enough about myself: I know nothing of others. W can only guess at the thoughts and emotions of our neighbours. Each one of us is a prisoner in a solitary tower and he communicates with the other prisoners, who form mankind, by conventional signs that have not quite the same meaning for them as for himself. And life, unfortunately, is something that you can lead but once: mistakes are often irreparable, and who am I that I should tell this one and that how he should lead it? Life is a difficult business and i have found it hard enough to make my own a complete and rounded thing; I have not been tempted to teach my neighbour what he should do with his.

From “The Happy man”, short story be Somerset Maugham

Monday, July 27, 2015

Not because he seems a good, decent man, a man of much learning and some vision, though that too....APJ Abdul Kalam

So much has been said by now about Dr. #Abdul Kalam’s candidature for the Presidency. And a lot of it isn’t very nice. That Dr. Kalam was not the first but the lowest-common-denominator-of-consensus choice. (I mean if merit is all we’re talking about, they hectored, and the presidency is a kind of glorified Bharat Ratna, then why not Sachin Tendulkar?) That it was the result of some really murky politicking and wheeling-dealing in high places. That it was only so that the BJP could have a very fine fig leaf to cover up all that happened and is still happening in Gujarat. (“Look ma, we’ve got a Muslim that doesn’t eat meat and recites from the Bhagvad Gita!” Would we be as ecstatic, I wonder, if we’d found a Hindu that ate meat and recited from the Quran?) That what would a scientist – and that too according to some, not even a great scientist - know about being a President and more importantly, know about being a President which seems to be mostly about keeping one’s nose out of and one’s head above political waters that are more stinking and muck-ridden as the Ganges at Benares?
So much has been said about why Dr Kalam should not be a presidential candidate. Even though it’s almost certain that he is going to be next President of India. And you know what? I don’t care. Because average nukkad-galli Indian that I am, Indian that I am, bankrupt of almost every hero and every god, Indian that I am, paralyzed by cynicism and hopelessness, disgusted Indian that I am because I vote for and am governed by rulers that I respect and have faith in even less than the chewing gum stuck to my shoe, Indian that I am in an India that has the potential to be so great but that is still so little, average Indian that I am, I desperately want this man to be my President.
And this is why…
It’s not because apart from rocket technology, he finds time to pluck a mean tune on the rudra veena and scribble poetry, though that too. It’s not even because he seems to be such an endearing little gnome who wears hair that seems to be sculpted in Brylcreem-‘n-ghee and chappals and bush shirts with such chutzpah, though that too.  It’s not because he seems a good, decent man, a man of much learning and some vision, though that too.
Mainly, it’s because if this man can be President, it means that there is hope for me. And hope for millions of young Indians who have nothing – no rich, well-connected fathers, no powerful, power-broking godfathers, no strings to pull – nothing but the power of their own potential, the might of their belief in themselves, driven by a vision of what they want to be that extends beyond the limit of their own bank accounts. It meant that there’s hope that it’s not all hopeless. It means that we still live in a land where every once in a way, merit matters. Merit and talent as homegrown as tair-sadam (curd rice), lovingly cooked in millions of humble little cottages nestled in thousands of obscure little specks on the map, one of them called Rameshwaran.
I watched Dr Kalam at his first press conference. And after I had got past the hair and the buck-toothed smile and the accent thicker than avial, I was amazed and enchanted. This man talked a different tongue, one that our leaders and teachers once talked but is now long forgotten. There was a strange, unselfconscious innocence about him, a refreshing, childlike faith it seemed in things that, if he didn’t refer to them with such conviction, he’d be a laughing stock. He should’ve been a caricature, a cruel joke but he wasn’t….

Maybe it’ll all come to naught. Maybe like others before him, he will be sucked in and destroyed by The System. But till, then, there is hope. So for all those who look at him and talk about what should’ve been but isn’t and what is but should not have been, this is what I have to say - in the words of my next President. “Whatever has happened has happened for the best. Whatever is happening is happening for the best. And whatever will happen, will happen for the best.” 

Saturday, June 20, 2015

The Tortoise and Yoga


Last Saturday, my yogacharya started another branch of our yogashala and he asked me to speak at the inauguration about my experiences as a yoga student.
I guess the expected thing on an occasion and a subject like this would be to talk about how yoga cured my chronic, debilitating backache. Or that my 20 year old migraine has disappeared or that my blood pressure, once a screaming 100/200 is now a low and sweet 80/120. But while it is true that I did come to yoga because I had a health issue, there were other more important things to talk about. Today, I share some of them with you today …..
Mysore is no stranger to yogacharyas and yogashalas and many would say that it is one of the cradles of yoga not just for India but also, as is evident from this gathering, for the entire world. So, when I decided to learn yoga, my choice of yogashalas was very wide indeed. And I chose Atma Vikas Yoga Vignana Mandira because I found and read on the Internet a talk that Yogacharya Venkatesh had given in which he said something that stood out. He said that yoga is a way life. I can’t tell you why, but somehow it struck a chord somewhere. I met Sir and started learning yoga. That was two and a half years ago. 750 classes later - give or take a few - I’m still here. And still learning. My friends and relatives are surprised. Still learning, they ask incredulously? I don’t blame them. We live in “instant” times. We’ve become used to wanting everything day before yesterday – or then at least in 10 easy classes. Almost every day we are flooded with ads about yoga courses promising to cure everything from asthma to depression in just 21 days. There’s apparently even 5 minute yoga that you can do while tying your tie or brushing your teeth or waiting for your flight to take off.
So, if it’s instant fixes that you are looking for, it’s not a good idea to go to our yogacharya. His guiding principle is a few seconds, a few centimeters a day. He’ll routinely tell you as he teaches you the simplest asana that it’s going to take you 6 months to get this. At least. (He will also tell you that the simplest asanas are the most difficult….) And anyway, what’s the hurry, he asks, when you have not only this lifetime but so many more in which to learn. Ask him if you’re doing the asanas correctly and he’ll say don’t ever ask me that because there is no such thing as doing an asana “correctly”. If anybody could, they’d be God. Ask him about pain, that favorite subject of us yoga students. Tell him that this or the other part hurts and most likely he’ll first laugh indulgently, then tell you very sweetly that it’s going to hurt for a while. (6 months, maybe?!!). Besides, a little pain is good, he’ll say, because learning to endure pain helps you build a strong will. (I remember when he taught me Upavishta Kona Asana. I was splat and spread out on the floor like a swatted mosquito and he asked, “What hurts?” My inner thighs, I said and boy, were they hurting.. Good, he said, and walked off…. ) Go to any one of his yoga demonstrations and his constant litany will be, “This asana is a very difficult one and with regular practice you will need at least 6 six years to master it…”
But I am still at it and God willing, I will be at for the rest of my life.
Why? Especially since it’s been like erasing a book that you’ve been writing for the last thirty odd years and then learning to write all over again? Because, the lessons are about life and you realize that not only is yoga a way of life, but also that there is no other way to live.
And what are these lessons?
First, that after a while, what asana you are doing becomes irrelevant. Sure, certain asana are more important if you have a bad back and others should be avoided if you are hypertensive and so on and so forth. And of course, the body parts that you use for Badha Kona Asana are completely different to Dhanurasana and so are many of the physical benefits. But, other than that, everything else that you use are exactly the same, no matter what the asana. Nothing to do with your body and they are also the very same things that you use outside the yogashala – in life.
For example - patience. When you start doing yoga, there’s the initial “honeymoon” period when you’re all fired up with enthusiasm. The yoga mat is lovely and new, you’re suddenly sleeping better, eating better, there’s a new spring in your step and everything seems wonderful, really. That euphoria lasts as much as a modern day Hollywood marriage - anywhere from 1 to about 4 months. Then you hit the speed breakers. You feel you’ve been struggling for weeks but not getting anywhere. Even the health problem that you came to solve is less, but still there. The yogacharya will talk about “focusing on your breath” and relaxing into each asana. But that’s all double Dutch because you’re too busy straining and pushing and “relaxed” is the last thing that you’re feeling.
And this is the point where you make a choice. Either to quit, telling yourself that this is really not your “thing” and maybe you should try some other yogashala or switch to meditation or tai chi or maybe even knitting ….
Or then, something called patience bit kicks in and you choose to wait. And just turn up at the class everyday, without thinking how long it will take to learn this or that asana or whether you’ll be yoga competition material in a year or why your neighbour on the mat is progressing faster than you etc., etc. And stop fighting with your asanas and yourself. Instead, you just do the best you can for that day. And, most important of all, be content with what you achieved in that session. And wait.
And the big deal about patience is that not can it stave off an ulcer or a heart attack, it is also the flip side of contentment. Om shanthi.
For me, that is more difficult than the most complicated asana. It’s easy to fight, to compete, to want to win, to want more and more – we’re taught this all our lives. As that Pepsi ad said – yeh dil mangey more….
Then, I am learning the real meaning of the word “effort”. For most of us, effort means pushing, straining and sweating. And we do this not just to have thinner thighs and yoga butts but also for flatter TV screens, fatter pay packets, lower cholesterol, more percentage points on our children’s mark sheets, more posh in our addresses, more happiness. We shove and push and strain to try and get into the fastest moving lane or queque only to discover to our horror that there is another one that’s moving even faster.
But I have come to a teacher who believes in …..yup, just a few seconds, a few centimeters further a day. Remember that story about the tortoise and the hare? I think the tortoise in that story must have been my yogacharya’s student. Because, when the tortoise stood with the hare at the starting point, the finishing line must have seemed at least a few lifetimes away. (I’ve often felt like that while doing an asana!) But he just shut his eyes, ignored the taunting chatter inside his head – (“Look, everyone around you has learnt padmasana and you can’t even manage Ardha of it!”) - and slowly tottered down those first few millimeters. And ignoring the equally taunting hare, who, was halfway down the racetrack and resting. Then he went a few more millimeters. Paused for a few breaths, nice and easy. And then, a few more. Till….
We all know how that story ends. But, that’s not important. Because the tortoise didn’t know that he was going to win. In fact, when he started, winning must have seemed as possible as growing a pair of wings and flying off to Florida. But, all the same, he gave it a shot and didn’t give up. Tackling it a millimeter at a time…
So, you could say that I am learning to be a tortoise.
And like the tortoise, I am learning that there’s very little that is not possible if you put your mind to it. We preset our limits, mostly without knowing if they are really our limits and so much of life gets blocked out before we have even tried it. A year ago, if somebody told me that I could do Sarvangasana, I’d have laughed. Today I can. It took me 2 years of almost daily practice to be able to do padmasana. An imperfect, barely padmasana, but a padmasana all the same. Two of my neighbours-on-the-yoga-mat can do pindasana in sarvangasana. In case you don’t know what that is, first you do sarvangasa and then, while still upside down, you wrap your legs into a padmasana and like a well-oiled hinge, fold your body from your hips towards your head so that your folded legs rest on your forehead. According to BKS Iyengar, in his “Light of Yoga”, difficulty rating of 5. According to me, at least 455. In my pre-tortoise days, I’d have thought – I will never ever be able to do that. Today, I think - maybe, someday…..
So I am learning to allow the possibility of the impossible. It’s both frightening and fun.

I also learnt the folly and arrogance of taking anything for granted. Just because my back when beautifully flat and stretched out in paschimottasana today does not mean it will so be tomorrow. Ditto outside the yogashala. So, I’m learning to what I’ve heard my yogacharya droning everyday to us while we are in shavasana – to be not in the past, not the future, but now. In this breath, in this moment, this is where all it all is. Concentration. Contentment. Or, as that Hindi film song says – kal kya hoga, kis ko pata. Abhi zindagi ka le lo mazaa.

Finally, I learnt that life is about small triumphs. No big leaps, no saving the world or the Amazon rainforest. Just conquering one more centimeter, a few more seconds. Like my anger fuse – it’s a little longer. Not much, just a few centimeters. Will there come a day when it will be as long as Lord Hanuman’s tail was in Ravana’s palace – endless and nothing will set me alight? Who knows? Maybe. (And if not in this lifetime, then maybe the next!)
Or then, maybe not.
These are lessons for life, about life. To be like the tortoise. And nothing teaches them better than yoga…..