Monday, July 09, 2018

The Goddess Tree

 Neemari Devi

There is a little temple of the Goddess in the route of my evening walk.
It is an intriguing little temple - firstly the murti inside is not of the Goddess as we normally see her but a black stone in the shape of a lingam. So I thought it was a Shiva temple. But outside, at the entrance, were these two beautiful feet - female
So I asked a woman who was worshiping there and she told me that it was in fact the temple of the Goddess and the stone had manifested itself.
But why the neem leaves, I wondered. I researched and got my answer.
The Goddess in the temple was Mariamma as she is known in the South, or Durga or Kali. And the neem tree is considered a manifestation of the Goddess so much so that the tree is often called Neemari Devi and the goddess Mariamman is said to wield the neem leaf as a sword.
So naturally, neem leaves are used to worship this avatar of the Goddes.
And this evening I did.
So, if you have a neem tree outseide your house - like we do - or somewhere nearby, remember that the Goddess is with you, protecting you

Thursday, October 05, 2017

The Alternative Tom

Once upon a time, five blind men came upon an elephant.
“What is this?!” asked the first one, who had run headlong into its side.
“It's an Elephant,” said the elephant's keeper…
Except that this elephant had brilliant blue eyes that stared directly not at but into you, blond hair, a rich baritone that rumbled somewhere inside your solar plexus and a nose that thespians are made of—strong and noble, like a ship’s prow. And the elephant’s name was Tom Alter. That’s the easy part, telling you his name. (Thank God, you have only one, Tom). Telling you about the rest of Tom is like—how shall I put it? Like five blind men trying to tell you what an elephant is…

“Wow! So this is what an Elephant is like!” said the first blind man, running his hands up and down the elephant's side. “Why, it's like a wall! A large, warm wall!”

First of course, there’s the bit about Tom’s nationality. What’s the problem here, you ask impatiently. It’s quite simple, isn’t it? He’s an “Angrez” settled down in India. (Angrez is an ubiquitous word that covers anybody whose skin is white and lives anywhere in the great blue yonder called Paschim.)
Ah, but you see that is not so. What is not so? That he’s not an Angrez? Yes and no. Though Tom is the son of American missionaries, he was born in Mussorie and has lived all his life—except for a brief stint in the USA, but more on that later—in India. So that makes him what? An American Indian? Nope, those are the ones whose skins are red and whose ancestors had names like Hiawatha and whom Colombus found when he reached what he thought was India but was actually America.
Okay, so how about Indian American? Nope, that makes him sound like an NRI—and he can’t be non-resident if he’s lived in India most of his life, can he? Okay, fine. So how about just Indian? I’m okay with that. There couldn’t be anyone more Indian in heart and spirit than Tom Alter and anyone who speaks Hindustani with a tehzeeb as elegant as Tom’s can’t be anything but a…well, a Hindustani? So that’s settled then. Tom is an Indian with blond hair and blue eyes who speaks Hindi like a Lucknowi nawab and plays ….

“A wall?” said the second man, wrapping his arms around the elephant’s leg. “This isn’t a wall. You can't hug a wall! This is more like a pillar. That's it! An Elephant is like a pillar!”

…cricket. It’s virtually impossible to write about Tom and not write about cricket. Because not only does Tom regularly play cricket even today (he’s pushing 50) as part of a team called—believe it or not—the MCC, it was Tom who…Puhleez. Now you’re going to tell me that Tom is a sportscaster and a writer. Yes he is. Did you know that Tom did the earliest recorded interview with Sachin Tendulkar when Sachin was just 15? That he has hosted sports shows on television like Sportlight, Quest for Gold, and One on One? And that Tom was one of the first people to predict what the commercialisation of cricket would do to the game in his regular columns on the sport in the Mid-Day and the Sunday Observer way back in the early 1990’s? (He also wrote for Debonair, Gentleman, The Independent and in 1984, together with photographer Anil Sharma, put together an 8-page colour feature on the great sports personalities of India for Sportsweek.)

And did I mention that he’s also one of the best cricket statisticians in the country, having authored a book called The Best in the World – India’s Ten Greatest World Cup Matches? Which is why when he tells you that “statistics often conceal more than they can reveal”, you believe him. “What statistics can never tell you about a batsman, for example, is his style or his timing. And the prime example of this is Vishy (Gundappa Vishwanath), whose figures, nowhere as spectacular as Sunil’s, never speak of the poetry of his batting technique or the magic of his stroke making.”
It’s difficult to say which comes first for Tom, his passion for cricket or his love for acting. Because for Tom, cricket is like acting. The actor faces the camera and the director, much the same way as the batsman faces the ball and the bowler. So it’s the bowler—or the director—who calls the shots? Yes, till you master your technique, Tom tells you. “And when you’re really batting ( or acting) well, you take control. It takes a certain boldness, a certain extreme confidence in your ability to become the attacking force as an actor or a batsman. But when you do, you dominate the director. And the bowling.”

“A pillar?” said the third man, stroking the elephant’s trunk. “It’s too thin and too flexible to be a pillar. This is more like a snake. See, it’s wrapping itself around my arm! An Elephant is just like a snake!”

Which naturally brings us to the bit about Tom that everyone knows about. And what would that be? That he’s an actor, of course. Really? Come on, don’t you know that he’s one of the most recognised faces in Indian television today, having acted in over 50 serials—Jugal Bandhi, Junoon, Zaban Sambhalke, Ghutan, Deewarein, Saher…
So what about Charas and Gandhi and Shatranj ke Khiladi and Ram Teri Ganga Maili and Kranti and Parinda and Aashiqui and Sardar and Shaheed Uddham Singh and…do you want me to list all the 150 movies he’s acted in? Okay, so Tom is one of the most recognised faces in Indian TV and Indian Films.
Actually, if it weren’t for a small town in Haryana called Jagdhani, Tom would probably have been a schoolteacher instead of an actor. (Or a missionary, like his father? No, says Tom, he never felt a calling in that direction.) Jagdhani is where his father found him a job as a schoolteacher after he dropped out of—hold your breath —Yale University, where he had been studying English Literature. And it was in Jagdhani that Tom fell passionately in love. With Hindi films, which he began to watch because there wasn’t much else to do when school was out.
There was only one place to go after that. To the Film and Television Institute of India in Pune, from where he graduated in 1974. With a gold medal, presented to him at the convocation ceremony by the chief guest, Satyajit Ray, who said to him, “Tom, we’ll be working together soon.” When the call finally came from Ray’s producer—“Manik Da wants to meet you”—Tom’s reaction was “Who’s that?” The possibility that a passing remark by the great Ray would actually come true was so remote that he had forgotten it.
And the rest, as they say, is cinematic history. Tom’s role in the film Shatranj ke Khiladi as Captain Weston remains even today one of its most memorable, that of a sympathetic Englishman who could see the terrible, tragic, effete beauty of Wajid Ali Shah who was never meant to be a king or wanted to be. Ray sent Tom the script of the film six months in advance, asking him to record a scene in his voice and send it back—along with a lock of his hair. Tom remembers one particular incident during the making of the film vividly. They were shooting the scene where General Outram, played by Sir Richard Attenborough, quizzes Weston about Wajid Ali Shah. Shot after shot happened, each with just one take. Ray said nothing, either in approval or rejection. Finally, a worried Attenborough came up to Tom and asked him if he’d worked with Ray before. No, said Tom. “Do you think he has film in the camera?” asked Attenborough anxiously.
People often say about Tom that he has been typecast in the role of the “Angrez”. “But I’m very proud of the fact that in the role of an Englishman, I’ve played every major English character from a scheming Robert Clive to a gentlemanly Mountbatten, spanning the whole sweep of the British Raj.”
The place  in which Tom got a chance to do other kinds of roles, where he wasn’t cast as a “firangi” was television. “People didn’t give me roles for the colour of my skin in television.” Maybe, that’s partly the reason why Tom feels that television has more elbowroom for variety and experimentation. And a place for talented actors whom cinema has rejected, because there was no room for them in the rigid formulae of its system. Actors like Kanwaljit, Shekhar Suman, Benjamin Gilani…and Tom Alter?

“Snakes don't have hair!” said the fourth man in disgust, pulling the elephant's tail. “ This isn't a snake, it’s a rope. Elephants are exactly like ropes.”

Is this where we are going to talk about Motley? (I guess that’s a good word to use when Tom’s around.)  Motley, which means a mixture of different things, is also the name of the theatre group of which Tom was one of the founding members, together with Naseeruddin Shah and Benjamin Gilani. Started in 1979, the group has performed the works of Shakespeare, Samuel Becket, George Bernard Shaw, Neil Simon, Chekov, Edward Albee, Herman Wouk, Albert Camus and … the list is awesome.
Ask Tom if he’s a “theatre person” and he’ll say not entirely. Because “to be so requires a commitment and a passion which I, very frankly, lack. I love acting in theatre. My commitment and passion is limited to this fact.”
But ask Tom about how one does 40 performances as “Lucky” in Waiting For Godot night after night (which he did) without letting staleness creep into your acting and he’ll say, it’s like batting. (If ever there is heaven, it will be on a cricket field, wouldn’t it, Tom?) “Everything is the same—the same ball, the same stumps, the same stage, the same lines. And yet everything’s different. The weather, the pitch, the audience, the atmosphere. Every single time you face that ball or that audience, you reinvent your performance to suit the conditions. And that’s the magic.” For Tom, all sport is theatre and all great sportsmen and women are as riveting performers as the great actors.

“You guys are crazy!” the fifth man cried, feeling the elephant's ear. “It’s large alright but thin as a leaf and flexible, like a piece of cloth. No one except a complete idiot could mistake an Elephant for anything but a sail!!!”

So what shall it be, Tom? Actor, writer (you’ve even reviewed Javed Akhtar’s “Talking Films” for the London Times!), sportsman, commentator? I think more than anything else, Tom is one of the world’s last remaining gentlemen. For whom life is a Test match. Lived by the rules of nature, controlled by the natural rhythm of life. Leaving time enough for crumpets and tea and to be awed by the brilliance of Azhar’s batting or Amitabh’s  acting and how they make it all seem so easy, so effortless.
But the tragedy is—not just  for Tom but maybe for all of us—is that no one has the time for all that any more. Cricket and cinema have been ruined by the craving for instant gratification. “Everything’s become Macdonald. The food is not very healthy but it’s easy to buy. One-day cricket is easy to watch, but it’s not very healthy.” Which is why he feels there’s no room in our hearts for heroes anymore. Only court jesters and puppets, performing by the strings of TRP’s and sponsors and made in an instant, “like popping a tea bag into hot water.” And dispensed with as easily. “One slip and out you go. A lifetime of achievement has no meaning.”
So, in a world where increasingly, everything, even cricket or acting, has become “something to buy or sell” Tom is somewhat of a misfit. Because for him, what is important is to do it for the love of it. “The appreciation of the difficulty of what is done by an artist or a sportsman is totally lost today. It doesn’t matter if you’re a brilliant actor or writer or sportsman. If you don’t have a black Mercedes and a driver, you’re not valued by the world at large…” Judge Tom by this yardstick of success and he comes through poorly. He lives with his wife and two kids in an unassuming flat in an unfashionable part of Mumbai, has no cell phone, answers his own calls and forget the black Mercedes and the driver, does not even own a car. But then, that’s like the five blind men judging an elephant. When they don’t have the faintest about what is the being in front of them. Is Tom a bitter man? How can he be when he’s found bliss in watching that ball winging like a bird across a hot blue sky and falling with a satisfied, stinging thwack into your eagerly waiting hands…

The interview was over. I sank back into the sofa and heaved a sigh. I was not closer to finding the real Tom. Every time I thought “Gotcha!”, another Tom would pop up. The five blind men had given up and gone away and I asked Tom, “If God were to ask you to choose between acting and cricket, what would you choose?” He gave me one piercing blue glance, then slowly closing his eyes and heaving a sigh like King Lear might have done, he almost whispered, “Oh gosh! I think cricket might just win out…” 

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