Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Year of the Book #45 Raymond Chandler


"Everything a writer learns about the art or craft of fiction takes just a little away from his need or desire to write at all. In the end he knows all the tricks and has nothing to say."

With each passing day of this Year of the Book, I am more and more relieved to know that the notion that writing is one of the hardest things in the world to do, not to mention the loneliest is shared by many writers other than me!

“Hard-Boiled” is the phrase that many have used to describe both Raymond Chandler’s style of writing and the private eye Philip Marlowe who is the protagonist in his novels. But they were admired by writers as varied as W.H.Auden and Ian Fleming and Camus. They also gave birth to the hard-bitten, cigarette-at-corner-of-the-mouth, heart-of-gold hero of American films, epitomized by Humphrey Bogart who played Marlowe in the film adaptation of Chandler’s novel The Big Sleep.

If you can cut past the poor quality of the recording and Ian Fleming’s British accent, listen to this interview that he did with Chandler

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Year of the Book #44 O. Henry

“Rejections? Lordy, I should say I did have rejections, but I never took them to heart.”

Did you know that the phrase “banana republic” was coined by William Sydney Porter – which was O.Henry’s real name – in Cabbages and Kings, a book he wrote in Honduras where he hiding from the law who want him for trying to embezzle the bank where he had worked as a teller.


Actually, why am I wasting my breath. Because, if you want to meet the master of the short story, the man who wrote The Gift of the Magi and The Ransom of the Red Chief, if you want insights into the art of stotytelling straight from the Henry’s mouth, as it were, read this incredible interview with him done by the New York Times in 1909. (O Henry died a year later.)

’ll give you the whole secret of short story writing. Here it is. Rule I: Write stories that please yourself. There is no Rule II. The technical points you can get from Bliss Perry. If you can't write a story that pleases yourself you’ll never please the public. But in writing the story forget the public…”

Monday, December 27, 2010

Year of the Book #43 Benjamin Alire Sáenz


imageI did not know of the existence of Benjamin Alire Sáenz till this evening when I was desultorily surfing poetry sites. Come to think of it, I don’t even know how to pronounce his last name.

All I know is that I found this poem and I was hooked

According to various bios,  Benjamin Alire Sáenz was born in New Mexico, spoke only Spanish till he was in elementary school, yet has done all his writing in English. He studied theology, was a Catholic priest for 3 years. He also won a slew of awards including the American Book Award in 1992 for his first book of poems, Calendar of Dust, the Paterson Prize, and the Americas Book Award…

“I did not grow up speaking English—though English has become my dominant language. I have struggled with words and language all of my life. I have learned that language is used to dominate people. I have learned that every language is a way of translating the world and that no language translates the world without a particular bias. It is difficult for me not to dismiss writers who do not understand the political nature of language. Like everything else, language is a weapon that can be used for ill or for good. “

All of which is great. But as far as I am concerned, what matters is if you can write a love poem which other will read and think – will someone one day love me like that? Apparently Benjamin Alire Sáenz  can….


To the Desert

I came to you one rainless August night.

You taught me how to live without the rain.

You are thirst and thirst is all I know.

You are sand, wind, sun, and burning sky,

The hottest blue. You blow a breeze and brand

Your breath into my mouth. You reach—then bend

Your force, to break, blow, burn, and make me new.

You wrap your name tight around my ribs

And keep me warm. I was born for you.

Above, below, by you, by you surrounded.

I wake to you at dawn. Never break your

Knot. Reach, rise, blow, Sálvame, mi dios,

Trágame, mi tierra. Salva, traga, Break me,

I am bread. I will be the water for your thirst.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Year of the book #43 Ed McBain

You know, I’m sitting here writing this and thinking – why in the heck’s name isn’t there Ed MacBain in my bookshelf? I don’t know why but it doesn’t in anyway diminish the fact that if there is any mystery writer who I would allow to argue for space in the  Best Crime Writers Ever section with Agatha Christie and Dorothy L Sayers, it would be Ed McBain (1926-2005)image

Or should I say “Evan Hunter”? Or then his real name - Salvatore Lombino?

When I started reading McBain, I didn’t know that he had more than 130 books to his credit, that at the height of the popularity of the 87th Precinct series, he published two novels a year, that he was awarded the Mystery Writers of America Award AND the Grand Master Award, Mystery Writers of America, 1986, for lifetime achievement and was the first American to receive the British Crime writer’s Association Cartier Diamond Dagger.

Or that he wrote the screenplay for Alfred Hitchcock’s film BIRDS…


All that I knew is that every time I opened a McBain book, to pinch a line from Jerry Maguire, he had me from the very first line…

It wasn’t that the criminals were more devious or the crimes more ghastly or even that the detectives were more clever. In the words of Nick Kimberely of the Guardian…

“the novels are best considered as an immense saga in which the dilemmas of modern life are played out, but varied with tremendous narrative vigour. Or perhaps they constitute a love-letter, millions of words long, to the city: New York City first of all, but the American city in general."

This opening para from JIGSAW should make my point.

Detective Arthur Brown did not like being called black

This might have had something to do with his name, which was Brown. Or his color, which was also brown. Or it might have had something to do with the fact that when he was but a mere strip of a boy coming along in this fair city, the word "black" was usually linked alliteratively with the word "bastard." He was now thirty-four years old and somewhat old-fashioned, he supposed, but he still considered the word derogatory, no matter how many civil rights leaders endorsed it. Brown didn't need to seek identity in his color or in his soul. He searched for it in himself as a man, and usually found it there with ease.

He was six feet four inches, and he weighed two hundred and twenty pounds in his undershorts. He had the huge frame and powerful muscles of a heavyweight fighter, a square clean look emphasized by the way he wore his hair, clipped close, clinging to his skull like a soft black cap, a style he had favored even before it became fashionable to look "natural." His eyes were brown, his nostrils were large, he had thick lips and thicker hands, and he wore a .38 Smith & Wesson in a shoulder holster under his jacket.

The two men lying on the floor at his feet were white. And dead.

If you aren’t already hooked, go to

It’s rare to find a website on a writer as comprehensive and as interesting as this one – and the best part, is you can peep inside many of the books!

Shiva’s Ambassador

Basava the Bull. Shiva’s favoured mode of transport. In Karnataka, he visits our homes ever so often as “Kole Basava”, the spectacularly decorated bull, accompanied by his musician-minder. Sometimes, he just stands mutely, waiting to be rewarded for his presence with anything from a lump of jaggery and a handful of roasted gram to money. (The musician minder prefers the money!)

Sometimes, he will foretell the future, nodding or shaking his head when the minder asks him a question on our behalf. (A few surreptitious tugs of his bridle makes his answers what we want to hear. “Will Amma’s daughter be married by Ugadi?” “Yes, yes, yes"!!” he answers in three emphatic nods!)

And sometimes the musician minder will play a beautiful tune on his folk-nadaswaram. My favourite? “Bhagyada lakshmi Baramma”!

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Year of the Book #42 LEWIS CARROLL

imageSometimes, a writer or a poet looms so large on the literary landscape, that to attempt to say something meaningful about him/her in anything less than a full blown thesis would be foolishness. (Wikipedia not withstanding.)

Lewis Carroll is one of them. Or if we are to go by his real name - Charles Lutwidge Dodgson. So, today, I focus on some of his non-literary achievements

Mathematician & Logician  – Working in geometry, algebra, logic (including symbolic logic) and what we today call psephology, Lewis Carroll wrote at least a dozen books on the subjects, under his real name

Inventor – Among Carroll’s inventions is the nyctograph, a device by which you can write in the dark, without having to switch the light on. This is my favourite because I’ve lost count of all the poems and the ideas that I thought I had neatly stored away in my about-to-fall-asleep brain and couldn’t remember a word of the next morning!

Photographer – His mastery of this art also brought him some notoriety. The many photographs of nude or semi-nude little girls led to many researchers speculating that Carroll was a paedophile


End I must with Lewis Carroll the Poet. In fact, his first piece to be published under the name of “Lewis Carroll” was a poem titled Solitude!

Many like Jabberwocky, The Walrus and the Carpenter, You are old, Father William are part of the Alice books, but many like Phantasmagoria and this whimsical poem are not…


A Sea Dirge by Lewis Carroll

There are certain things--as, a spider, a ghost,
The income-tax, gout, an umbrella for three--
That I hate, but the thing that I hate the most
Is a thing they call the Sea.

Pour some salt water over the floor--
Ugly I'm sure you'll allow it to be:
Suppose it extended a mile or more,
That's very like the Sea.

Beat a dog till it howls outright--
Cruel, but all very well for a spree:
Suppose that he did so day and night,
That would be like the Sea.

I had a vision of nursery-maids;
Tens of thousands passed by me--
All leading children with wooden spades,
And this was by the Sea.

Who invented those spades of wood?
Who was it cut them out of the tree?
None, I think, but an idiot could--
Or one that loved the Sea.

It is pleasant and dreamy, no doubt, to float
With "thoughts as boundless, and souls as free":
But, suppose you are very unwell in the boat,
How do you like the Sea?

There is an insect that people avoid
(Whence is derived the verb "to flee").
Where have you been by it most annoyed?
In lodgings by the Sea.

If you like your coffee with sand for dregs,
A decided hint of salt in your tea,
And a fishy taste in the very eggs--
By all means choose the Sea.

And if, with these dainties to drink and eat,
You prefer not a vestige of grass or tree,
And a chronic state of wet in your feet,
Then--I recommend the Sea.

For I have friends who dwell by the coast--
Pleasant friends they are to me!
It is when I am with them I wonder most
That anyone likes the Sea.

They take me a walk: though tired and stiff,
To climb the heights I madly agree;
And, after a tumble or so from the cliff,
They kindly suggest the Sea.

I try the rocks, and I think it cool
That they laugh with such an excess of glee,
As I heavily slip into every pool
That skirts the cold cold Sea.

Happy Birthday, Atlaji!

I wrote this as my very first weekly column in the Mid_Day newspaper

Move over Bacchan, the new Abby is here.
When Mr. Vajpayee became PM the first time around in 1996, I remember listening to a scoop of sorts pulled off by Radio Mid-Day called “The PM on FM”. The Prime Minster of India talking about his favourite Hindi film songs. And as I listened, I was smitten. A man who could be moved by the poignant beauty of Bahadur Shah Zafar’s Lagta nahin hai dil mera, who had imagination to make Mere pairon mein ghungroo bandha de, toh phir meri chaal dekh le his campaign promise deserved my undying devotion. I’ve remained a bug-eyed fan ever since. But yesterday, as I read  his name in a newspaper, it hit me! Yes, girls, it’s finally happened. There’s a new Abby Baby on the block and he’s the PM.
Atal Behari. Apart from his initials, other qualifications to be the next Dhak-Dhak of India? Several. Tall(ish), dark(ish),  handsome(ish), a full, distinguished head of sexy, silvery hair, (no hair weaves, no dyes). Not Young (a mature seventy-one) but Angry (he asked Lata Mangeshkar about Aye mere watan ke logon -  “Aankh mein pani hum kyon bharen? Ankh mein angare hona chahiye”). There’s more. Intelligent, charismatic, telegenic. Makes great speeches, writes even better poetry, has the cutest twinkle in his eye, and is a spiffy dresser in the best dhoti-kurta tradition. And the icing on the cake? He’s single. (And willing to mingle, if we go the long list of  BJP allies including an impressive list of  power babes- Sushma, Uma, Jaya, Mamata.).  So….well, what can I say? Move over Amit, Atal is here (Atalji to you hoi-polloi, Atal to me).
Atal’s most endearing quality is that he comes across as human. Versus Sphinx (Sonia), Yeti (Kesri), Miss Piggy (Narsimha Rao), Winnie the Pooh (Gujral) and Rip Wan Winkle (Deve Gowda). He’s a regular guy like you and me. He likes the good life, (kheer and malpua and Chinese food), appreciates a good flick and is partial to a good tune. But most importantly, he has a sense of humour. I willing to trust anyone who has a sense of humour, and by that I don’t mean the kind when you crack up after you’ve just pulled the political rug from under your opponent’s feet and watched him break at least three ribs. True, the political company he keeps sucks. Jayalaitha, Murli Manohar Joshi, Subramaniam Swamy, Sanjay  Singh, dear ol’ Georgie-Porgie.  But look at what’s in the other witches’ cauldrons. Mulayam Singh, R. K. Dhawan. Laloo. Deve Gowda. Karunadhi. Bubble, bubble, toil and trouble and how!

Drool apart, Vajpayee’s the most decent PM material we’ve had in a long time. There’s not too much the average Indian wants out of that august office today. Just someone who we can trust not to demolish this country any further, who has highest coefficient of least-corrupt-most-competent, and has a fairish chance of sticking around for five years. I think Attu shows healthy signs of being capable of all this. We finally have a PM who doesn’t go to sleep while the desh goes down the tube, (Nero just fiddled and those Dilip Kumarish pauses in between sentences are scary sometimes), doesn’t look like a leftover from Dino the Dinosaurs’ dinner and has a little more spine than your average jelly fish. And is cute to boot.
Let me sum it up. What was Atal’s rallying song to his party workers? “Jo wada kiya tha, nibhana padega” My response? “Jab ishq ka sauda kiya, phir kya ghabarana  humko aana padega.” So let’s give him a chance. After all,  if we can let Amitabh act after Mrityudaata, Atal deserves a second bash at PM-giri. Long Live Abby Baby.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Year of the Book #41 DYLAN THOMAS

If you want to fall in love with words, not for what they mean but for how they sound, as if they were music, read Dylan Thomas (1914-1953).

Rather, hear him.

The first poems I knew were nursery rhymes, and before I could read them for myself I had come to love just the words of them, the words alone. What the words stood for, symbolised, or meant was of very secondary importance -- what mattered was the very sound of them as I heard them for the first time on the lips of the remote and quite incomprehensible grown-ups who seemed, for some reason, to be living in my world. And those words were, to me, as the notes of bells, the sounds of musical instruments, the noises of wind, sea, and rain, the rattle of milk carts, the clapping of hooves on cobbles, the fingering of branches on a window pane, might be to someone deaf from birth, who has miraculously found his hearing.”


Only someone to whom words meant this could have written Under Milk Wood, interestingly enough, not a poem but a radio play in which the main character’s name is “Llareggub”. Which while it may sound very Welsh is actually “Bugger All” spelt backwards

Dylan Thomas’ Voice

Richard Burton’s Voice

“Musical lyricism” is a phrase often used to describe Dylan Thomas’ style of writing and so, little wonder that his public readings of UnderMilkwood and  poems like Don’t Go Gently Into the Night that brought him – especially in America - as much adulation as the writing itself.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Year of the Book #41 CARL SANDBURG

My Pocket Book of Modern Verse has just 2 poems of Carl Sandburg. One called “Lost”, is part of “Chicago Poems”, the collection of poetry published in 1916 that first got Sandburg recognition.

Desolate and alone

All night long on the lake

Where fog trails and mist creeps,

The whistle of a boat

Calls and cries unendingly,

Like some lost child

In tears and trouble

Hunting the harbor's breast

And the harbor's eyes.

The second poem you will be hard put to find in almost any Carl Sandburg collection, but it made that particular page in my Pocket Book one of the most thumbed. And it is the one that I will always remember Carl Sanburg by.

It is simply called “They Have Yarns.” (see below)

Carl Sandburg wrote all kinds of stuff, apart from poems. He wrote a collection of children’s stories called The Rootabaga stories, which he described as ". . . attempts to catch fantasy, accents, pulses, eye flashes, inconceivably rapid and perfect gestures, sudden pantomimic moments, drawls and drolleries, gazings and musings--authoritative poetic instants--knowing that if the whir of them were caught quickly and simply enough in words, the result would be a child lore interesting to child and grown-up."

His biography of Abraham Lincoln (Abraham Lincoln : The War Years) won him one of his 3 Pulitzer Prizes, the other two for his poetry. And if Wikipedia is to be believed, apparently Steven Speilberg said that the face of E.T. was a combination of Carl Sandburg,  Albert Einstein & Ernest Hemingway!


    They have yarns

    Of a skyscraper so  tall they had to put hinges on the  two top stories so to let the moon  go by,

    Of one corn crop  in Missouri when the roots went so  deep and drew off so much water

    The Mississippi riverbed  that year was dry.

    Of pancakes so thin  they had only one side,

    Of "a fog so  thick we shingl'ed the barn and six  feet out on thefog,“

    Of Pecos Pete straddling  a cyclone in Texas and riding it  to the west coast where "it rained  out under him,“

    Of the man who  drove a swarm of bees across the  Rocky Mountains and the Desert "and  didn't lose a bee.“

    Of a mountain railroad  curve where the engineer in his cab  can touch the caboose and spit in  the conductor's eye,

    Of the boy who  climbed a cornstalk growing so fast he  would have starved to death if they  hadn't shot biscuits up to him,“

    Of the old man's  whiskers: "When the wind was with  him his whiskers arrived a day before  he did,“

    Of the hen laying  a square egg and cackling, "Ouch!  " and of hens laying eggs with  the dates printed on them,

    Of the ship captain's  shadow: it froze to the deck one  cold winter night,

    Of mutineers on that  same ship put to chipping rust with  rubber hammers,

    Of the sheep-counter  who was fast and accurate: "I just  count their feet and divide by four,“

    Of the man so  tall he must climb a ladder to shave  himself,

    Of the runt so  teeny-weeny it takes two men and a  boy to see him,

    Of mosquitoes: one  can kill a dog, two of them a  man,

    Of a cyclone that  sucked cookstoves out of the kitchen,  up the chimney flue, and on to the  next town,

    Of the same cyclone  picking up wagon-tracks in Nebraska and  dropping them over in the Dakotas,

    Of the hook-and-eye  snake unlocking itself into forty pieces,  each piece two inches long, then in  nine seconds flat snapping
    itself together again,

    Of the watch swallowed  by the cow: when they butchered her  a year later the watch was running  and had the correct time,

    Of horned snakes,  hoop snakes that roll themselves where  they want to go, and rattlesnakes carrying  bells instead of
    rattles on their tails,

    Of the herd of  cattle in California getting lost in a  giant redwood tree that had been hollowed  out,

    Of the man who  killed a snake by putting its tail  in its mouth so it swallowed itself,

    Of railroad trains  whizzing along so fast they reached the  station before the whistle,

    Of pigs so thin  the farmer had to tic knots in their  tails to keep them from crawling through  the cracks in their pens,

    Of Paul Bunyan's big  blue ox, Babe, measuring between the eyes  forty-two ax-handles and a plug of Star  tobacco exactly,

    Of John Henry's hammer  and the curve of its swing and his  singing of it as " a rainbow  round my shoulder."
    They have yarns . . .

made me go back again

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Year of the Book #40 A A Milne

“If the person you are talking to doesn't appear to be listening, be patient. It may simply be that he has a small piece of fluff in his ear.” Eeyore

“Children’s Literature”, is according to me, a very tricky categorization because more often than not, much of what is considered as fitting into this category is read as much by adults as it is by children. The examples are many – Lewis Carroll, Roald Dahl, Beatrix Potter, Kenneth Grahame and more recently J K Rowling.

And certainly, much of Alan Alexander Milne’s writing that he was most famous for would be also be thus labelled, especially the Winne the Pooh books. (It didn’t help things when Milne’s widow sold the rights to the Pooh characters to Disney and poor Winnie became the cutesy Pooh-Bear, a fate he shared with the rest of his friends.)

But as Milne himself apparently said, “A children's book' must be written, not for children, but for the author himself.” So, Winnie the Pooh is as much a book for children as it is for adults and I think we read these books not only to escape to our own childhoods but also to recapture and refresh things which we once connected to but lost touch in the tiresome business of becoming “grown-ups”


“Rivers know this: there is no hurry. We shall get there some day.”


What I didn’t know about A.A Milne

That he was also an accomplished playwright , writing over 25 plays and adapting The Wind in the Willows for stage as The Toad in the Hall

That his father owned a school where H.G.Wells was a teacher

That he was Punch’s assistant editor

When I was one, I had just begun.

When I was two, I was nearly new.

When I was three, I was hardly me.

When I was four, I was not much more.

When I was five, I was just alive.

But now I am six, I’m as clever as clever.

So I think I’ll be six now for ever and ever

Monday, December 20, 2010

Year of the Book # 39 GERALD DURRELL


I’m constantly amazed at the clarity and the indelibility of childhood impressions. At least that is how it is for me. It is almost as if there is a movie theatre in my head and at the press of a switch, the memory of choice plays as vivid and unspoilt as if it happened yesterday.

(Fortunately for me, most of my childhood was a wonderfully happy one.)

And perhaps one of the most delightful memories is of devouring Gerald Durrell’s books during summer holidays. Once again, he was a gift from my English Literature class in school – and so we studied My Family and Other Animals with as much diligence as Julius Ceaser. But, as heretical as it may be to say it, I left Shakespeare behind in the classroom while I carried my beloved Durrell out and he stays with me to this very day.

Most people would describe Gerald Durrell as one of the world’s most well-known and pioneering naturalists and conservationists. Indeed, he sounded the wake up call about the environment long before it was both fashionable and politically correct to talk “conservation”.

But for me, he will always be the man who wrote

“ Champagne corks popped and the pale, chrysanthemum-coloured liquid, whispering gleefully with bubbles, hissed into the glasses; heavy red wine glupped into the goblets, thick and crimsom as the blood of some mythical monster, and a swirling wreath of pink bubbles formed on the surface; the frosty white wine tiptoed into the glasses, shriulling, gleaming, now like diamonds, now like topaz; the ouzo lay transparent and innocent as the edge of a mountain pool until the water splashed in and the whole glass curdled like a conjuring trick, coiling and blurring into a summer cloud of moonstone white…”The Garden of the Gods 


Know Your Onions

Today, onions are going for 60-70 rupees/kg. I wrote this piece 12 years ago as my weekly column in the Mi-Day, when rains destroyed much of the onion crops. Looks history is a circle

Did you know that the onion belongs to the same family as the lily? Sort of distant cousins, I guess. Impossible, you think, that this aristocratic fragrant flower could be related to that rustic, rumbustious bulb. But the family resemblance is there, an unmistakable tendency to make one’s presence smelt.
With unseasonal rains having rotted away most of Maharashtra’s onion crop this year, the time has come, as the good Walrus would say, to pay a tribute to this smelly but illustrious member of the Genus Lilaceae which till now has been treated like so much kanda-batata
First, my favourite Son-of-the-Soil story. To show that while the flesh may have be born-‘n-brought up on pizza, the spirit is still pure pyaza. Many years ago, as I rode on a DTC bus, my face pressed to the window to get lungfuls of the balmy Delhi-ka-Dhool-aur-Dhooan-laden air, it started raining. Heavily. And all of us who’d shoved and pushed to sit by the windows, now tried to close them. But the windows, as all windows on public transport are wont to do, stayed firmly open. As I struggled with mine, a thin, black arm shot out from behind me, gave the window a short, sharp tug and slammed it shut. I whipped around to see a scrawny little R. K. Laxman version of “Jai Kissan” grinning happily at me. As I thanked him, he proudly told me that it was his daily diet of roti, raw onion and green chilies that made for such takat. Wah, I thought. The indomitable spirit of India. Kept alive by raw onion. And I believed him ‘‘cos I’d seen it in the movies. Hot noon-day sun glints off honest pasina on hero’s brow as he toils on Mere Desh ki Dharti. In sashays heroine, designer-dupatta-wrapped lunch-ki-potli nestled in curve of hip. Hero flashes hungry glance. (At lunch, silly.) Unwraps dupatta, smashes onion with pyaz-powered fist and proceeds to share roti and pyaz-bhari-baaten with soon-to-be-woti.
Fade out.

Every time a thing’s in danger of becoming extinct, expensive and exotic (as the onion soon may be), little known facts about it start to emerge. Which normally turns out that in 563 B. C., in the temple of Horn-i-Billi, the ancient Goat-God of Virility, the soon-to-be-out-of-circulation thing was used as an aphrodisiac. While they’ve yet to discover the onion’s aphrodisiacal qualities, did you know that the onion can cure acne, anemia, bee stings, bronchitis, colic, cough, influenza, insomnia, scorpion bites and warts? It’s also a remedy for stunted growth, (guess Napoleon’s and Mulayam’s mummies didn’t know that) and massaging raw onion paste can cure bleeding gums but there’s no mention of what it can do for halitosis. That’s the worrying part about theses kanda-cures. The raw onion bit. I mean, you may be able to sleep well at night, but it’ll probably be alone.
Did you know that a good way to bunk (school, office, date-with-Dracula) is to put a cut onion under your arm? Will make your body ape a fever. And even if it doesn’t, the ensuing stink will make your underarm the most lethal anti-personnel weapon to date. Can repel humans within a radius of 5 kms. Did you know that the onion was depicted in the tombs of Egyptian Pharaohs as far back as 3200 B. C.? Nothing like a reminder of good ol’ onion breath to keep those aajoo-bajoo ghosts from encroaching on your necropolis. Given the severe space crunch in these tombs. Old Tut’s for example, (Tutenkhaman to you) could barely accommodate 4 ivory-‘n-gold chariots, a jewel-encrusted throne, furniture, footwear and enough roti, kapda and back issues of the National Geographic to last the time it takes to journey from one birth to another. (A mite more than your average Transatlantic flight, nahi?)
And finally, did you know that there are entire cuisines cooked without a single onion? Like Jain pav-bhaji, Jain chow-mein, Jain pizza and even Jain no pyaza. And that a “voting slip” for a music channel’s Viewers’ Choice Award had allocated “election symbols” for each nominated “candidate”. And A. R. Rahman’s symbol was an onion. Does anyone know why?

Happiness - A Poem

The number of times we met
Doesn’t even get past the fingers of one hand
But the happiness inside me
Lingers like a toothache
I fill in between blanks with it
And when that fades
I take out the memory of it
Like a old faded photograph
And that makes me ache all over again
With happiness

Sunday, December 19, 2010

The taste of Nothing - A Poem

the day lingers
in my mouth
as i lick the night

nothing happened
to make it so delcious

the day lingers
in my nostrils
as i sip a dream

and wonder
how nothing can taste
so sweet

Stitches - A Poem

I thought I was done.
I thought I had stitched up
The mocking, yawning mouth of the question
“Will you, do you, when will you…”
With long, tight, hard irrevocable stitches
That said
I thought I was ready
To take the train
Out of you
When suddenly,
I tripped
On something
That burst the stitches open
And spilled me back into that yaw….

Green Tea - a poem

He, she
Between them
A dark green sea
A bitter brew
Of what grew
Out of seeds of words
That were never meant to be silent

Year of the Book #38 ROBERT FROST

 imageRobert Frost (1874-1963) came into my life when I was just 15. I was introduced to him by a woman who I will never forget and whom I hero-worshipped – Sister David, our English Literature teacher in school. Through her I met and fell in love with so many writers and poets but somehow, Frost seemed to make a special place in my heart.

Students of literature are taught 2 sides of the coin. The first is to see a work in the context of the writer’s life and times. The second is to see it standing alone, a face-to-face encounter between the reader and the writer.

Robert Frost won 4 Pulitzer prizes for Poetry and if America had the concept of Poet Laureate, he would have probably been bestowed that honour as many times. But even if you didn’t know any of that – and I certainly didn’t – his poems shine right through straight into your heart.

Perhaps many Indians know (or don’t!) Frost because these lines that were Jawaharlal Nehru’s favourite

“The woods are lovely, dark and deep

But I have promises to keep

And miles to go before I sleep…”

But my favourites are

“The way a crow shook down on me

The dust of snow from a hemlock tree

Has given my heart a change of mood

And saved some part of a day I rued.”  (Dust of Snow)


It's when I'm weary of considerations,

And life is too much like a pathless wood

Where your face burns and tickles with the cobwebs

Broken across it, and one eye is weeping

From a twig's having lashed across it open.

I'd like to get away from earth awhile

And then come back to it and begin over.

May no fate wilfully misunderstand me

And half grant what I wish and snatch me away

Not to return. Earth's the right place for love:

I don't know where it's likely to go better.

I'd like to go by climbing a birch tree…” (Birches)

Friday, December 17, 2010

Year of the Book #37 HARPER LEE

“In surveys asking what one book every civilized person should read, Mockingbird routinely finishes second to the Bible…”

If To Kill a Mocking Bird were a tree, it would be a “perennial” and for so many reasons.

No matter how many times you have already read it, you can read it again and it is as if you were reading it for the very first time. It doesn’t matter who you are or where you come from – the connection is instant.  Scout and Jem and Atticus and even poor Boo Radley are folks we know, not characters in a book. But most of all, it’s a book that is as relevant today as it was 50 years ago when Harper Lee wrote it and as it will be till such time as we learn that there is room enough on this good earth for everyone of us.

“I think there's just one kind of folks.  Folks.” Scout

One of the many joys of doing this series is discovering new things about old favourites. For example, I did not know that Harper Lee was not only a close friend of Truman Capote but that she also helped him in the research of In Cold Blood.

To Kill A Mocking Bird was Harper Lee’s only book. It was enough.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Year of the Book #36 Dorothy L Sayers

I was in love with “Lord Peter Wimsey” for the longest time. (I guess I still am, in a residual sort of way – it’s a weakness for the British Upstairs folk.) Even when I knew that he held a long-standing candle for oh-so-elegant “Harriet Vane”

Peter Death Bredon Wimsey. Younger son of the 15th Duke of Denver, scion of a family that traces it ancestry to the 12th century.

His “vaguely foolish” face and deliberately cultivated idle-fop-about-town with a Bertie-Wooster IQ level belies a 1st class degree  from Oxford, fluency in French & Latin, a penchant for rare medieval manuscripts, vintage cars and wine, a considerable flair at the piano (Bach being a favourite).

The word “sleuth” comes to the lips with difficulty to describe such a man, but that is also what he is – what Hercule Poirot was to Agatha Christie, Peter Wimsey was to Dorothy L Sayer’s enormously successful series of detective novels. It is said that if anyone could dare to compete with Christie’s success, it was Sayers

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Year of the Book Day 35 - John Irving

"Whatever I write, no matter how gray or dark the subject matter, it's still going to be a comic novel." John Irving

When a book or a poem or for that matter, any piece of writing etches itself inside you, what you often remember is not specificities but defining essence, like the memory of a peppercorn bursting in your mouth or the smell of your mother…

So it is with The World According to Garp and Cider House Rules. The residual memory is of  a sad sweetness, of landscapes people as damaged and dysfunctional as any of us but never desolate because of Irving’s take on life, which if it wasn’t so funny, would be devastating.

Or “In the world according to Garp, we are all terminal cases.”

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Year of the Book

You’d think – what would the case histories of a professor of neurology who records have to do with literature? Well, if ever you wanted to read the most  fascinating yet the most empathetic chronicling of the human mind on the fringes of what we can “normal”, Oliver Sacks is the man to read.

Sacks  himself suffers from prosopagnosia, an inability to recognise faces and places and perhaps  we could speculate that it gave him a ringside seat. But I think not. The remarkable quality about his writing is that it is, in many ways, the perfect “beside manner” – the ability to objectively and clinically record the patient’s disease without letting his sympathy for the patient’s suffering come in the way.

Awakenings, Sacks’ book became a bestseller and the inspiration for Harold Pinter’s A Kind of Alaska. (It also became an Oscar winning film starring Robert De Niro 7 Robin Williams, but in my opinion, not a patch on the book.) Many other books followed including The Man who Mistook His Wfe For A Hat and most recently, Musicophilia: Tales of Music, the Brain and The Mind’s Eye (2010).

My book update

My book is selling on Amazon – for 25 $!!!!

Cow Sense!

They are the most unlovable of my neighbours, and believe you me, that’s a very large breed. And one of their most endearing qualities – and they have many; in fact too many-many-many-many – is the way they dispose off their garbage.

Now the boring rest-of-us park our garbage every morning near our respective gates, which is then neatly collected by the city municipality's garbage collecting squad. Neat, but like i said, boring.

But these neighbours choose to handle their garbage in a manner that is, as the Hindi phillum phrodoocer would say, zaraa hatke. It also showcases their heightened sense of neighbourliness, which while it might not be next to Godliness, is important. (Moses just forget to pencil it in into that Samsung galaxy tablet of his.) So, they first pack their daily load of garbage into a plastic bag, making sure the bag is the flimsiest of flimsy. Then, the tie up the bag and toss it over the compound wall onto the road.

All of which shows an extraordinary amount of the aforementioned neighbourliness because before long, the bag is ripped open by passing stray dogs and the garbage is artistically strewed all over the road. As we are all aware, there is nothing like the sight of freshly rotting garbage first thing in the morning to get those bowels moving. And even better if you slush through a strategically placed piece of banana peel during your morning walk.

But that I’m over the moon about my neighbours is not why I write this.

This morning, it was business as usual. The garbage potli has been flung, properly positioned and waiting. As I muttered angrily under my breath and watered the plants, a cow ambled past me, towards the bag…

Now urban cows are well adjusted to their environment and  therefore no stranger to plastic.  So, while plastic bags may not be the choice of bovine provender, these cows have found ingenious ways to get past and through them to – alas, to the garbage which they have learnt to “acquire a taste for” . Like the rest of us in the urban world. But this was a plastic bag that was tightly tied up, so I reckoned the cow would just walk past.

But I had not reckoned for a cow as ingenious as this one!

As I watched in fascinatedly, she picked up the bag by one of the handles that had been firmly tied together and with a dexterity that reminded me of a burlesque queen twirling her nipple tassels, Ms Cow  began to whirl her head round and round And boom, within a few seconds, the plastic bag burst open and its odiferous innards spewed on to the road.

Fortunately, they weren’t the breakfast she was looking for, because she sniffed, examined and moved on…

My point is this – human intelligence is overrated.

Friday, November 05, 2010

Book Release

My book will be released on the 10th of Nov

. Wish me luck!

Thursday, November 04, 2010

In Defence of Mud and Oil


Din soona suraj bina
Aur chanda bin raina
Ghar soona deepak bina
Jyoti bi do nain…
Diya jalao, jag-mag jag-mag…K.L Saigal in the film TANSEN (1943)

Well, we did it one more time. When along with the curtains in the drawing room and the silver in the puja room, we laundered and polished and aired out our goodwill and charitableness, tarnished and dusty for a year’s non-use. No, no, don’t worry, I am not going to be Uncle Scrooge and ruin the lovely Diwali that everyone has just had with my grouchy bah and humbug. Instead I write today of a beautiful but perhaps dying Diwali tradition – the humble clay Diwali diya or earthen lamp.
Naturally, at the outset, let me say that I do not have any suitably weighty body of research that says that it will help cure this, that or the other ailment. So I realize that when I sing praises of what is after all a bit of mud, cotton and oil, I compete with that infinitely more snazzy, more convenient, no-mess, no-drip modern day marvel - electric decorative lights. Which not only come on at the mere flick of a switch (and go off as easily) and in so many chak-mak Diwali colours, but can also be made to “pulse” to the latest Jhankar beats. And no spoilsport breeze can ever blow them out. In comparison, my humble diyas are a messy, laborious rigmarole of cotton wicks and oil and the light is in just one boring colour that will tremble and shiver at the mercy of the faintest wisp of a breeze. So, defending the clay diya is like trying to defend the importance of art, dance, poetry and song in the school syllabus. At least in the case of song, there is enough research demonstrating what amazing things that a spot of music can do to your kids’ IQ. So, if not to introduce Munna to the joy of listening to the sweet, aching sound of Talat Mahmood pleading, “Jalte hain jiske liye, teri ankhon diye….”, then at least to boost up his mathematical skills, we will allow him a few music classes. But what “good” will a few silly, mud (oh, alright, clay, if you insist) diyas that we light once a year do for anyone?

Like I said, the dice aren’t loaded in my favour but let me try anyway….
"The Hindu does not worship an idol
Made of wood and clay.
He sees consciousness
Within the earthen-ness
And loses himself in it."  Swami Vivekananda
Let me start with mud….er, I mean clay. The association of clay with creation and the circle of life is an ancient and universal one. As swiftly miraculously as it takes form, clay can be and is destroyed. Impermanence, change, regeneration – the cycle of life and its inexorable rhythm is embodied in clay and in the potter’s wheel. Even when it remains unformed in the soil, it is invaluable. It absorbs ammonia and other gases needed for plant growth and helps the soil to retain the fertilizing substances in manure. So, without clay, the womb of Mother Earth cannot hold on to its fertility. And out of a lump of clay can be born anything. A Pongal pot, a roof or floor tile, a Dussera gombe (doll), a kulhar, a Bankura horse. Or an Ayyanar deity, fiercely guarding the entrance of a village in Tamil Nadu. Or the 7500 strong terracotta army of life-size soldiers, horses and chariots that Emperor Qin Shi Huang, China’s first emperor had buried with him more than 2000 years ago. Or the 30,000 clay tablets that formed the library of King Sennacherib of Assyria (now partly in Iraq) who ruled from 704 to 681 B.C. Or the thousands of magnificent statues of Goddess Durga and Lord Ganesh that grace our lives for 10 days every year and then sink into oceans and rivers to become clay again.
Or a little clay diya. Or then, mankind itself….
It is said that Brahma fashioned man out of clay. Which makes him the first potter and so, ever since, potters in many parts of India and Nepal have “Prajapathi” as their family name. And the origin of the first earthen pot is equally sacred. During the sagar manthan or the churning the ocean, when the amrut or nectar finally came up, there was no vessel to collect it in. So Vishwakarma, architect of the gods (he designed Indralok, Dwarka, Lanka, Indraprastha to name only a few divine residences), divine sculptor and supreme craftsman, shaped some earth into a pot or kumbh. (So, the potter is called kumhar in Hindi and Kolkatta’s most famous potter’s colony, where the fabulous Durga statues are made every year for the Durga Puja celebrations is called Kumortoli.) Which is why many potters light a small diya as a mark of respect to the great Viswakarma before they start the day’s work.
And it is more than likely that that diya is a clay one and the oil in it will most likely be….
The Sanskrit generic word for oil is “taila” (Hindi – “tel”), said to have originated from the Sanskrit “tila” or sesame - an indication that sesame or gingelly oil’s status as the first among oils. Nurturer and healer, next only to ghee in its sattvic, calming nature, sesame oil carries in it all the wonderful qualities of its parent seed. It is said that the sesame seed formed when a drop of Vishnu’s sweat fell on the earth and in Ayurveda, it is considered one of the first foods of the earth. And so sesame oil, rated by the great sage Charaka as “shreshta” among oils, is indispensable in Ayurveda, used for everything from seasoning healing foods to treat orthopedic injuries and generally improve and rejuvenate the body’s vital systems. And it is this wonderful oil that is normally used in diyas. Why? Well, many say that the flame of a diya fuelled by ghee or sesame oil purifies the air around it. So, what else would we fill into the lamps that will light our way out of the darkness of all that is bad and sad and troubled into all that is good and happy and peaceful – both inside and outside us? How else would we welcome Goddess Laxmi into our homes but with the brave, beautiful, golden flame of a clay diyas?
Which brings me finally to…..Anjali. A lovely name for a girl and means “offering”. But what does it have to do with the diya? Ah, it is a beautiful connection. Cup both your hands together as we do when we offer something in a puja or when we accept a boon or prasadam. Now look carefully at the shape that your hands have formed. It is exactly the shape of a diya. (In Ayurveda, “anjali” is also the volume that can be held by your two cupped hands.) So, every little clay diya, made from the coming together of fire, water, air, space and sacred earth, filled with the sweet, peaceful, healing goodness of sesame oil that gives itself up so willingly to burn so bright and pure, is an offering, a prayer. In gratitude for life, that we have completed one more circle and ready to embark on another. Invoking all that is good and peaceful and healing and that we may have the power to deal with whatever life has in store for us. Remembering that like the clay of the diya, that everything we are, have, own – the new designation, the freshly Asian-painted house, the newly wed daughter-or-son-in-law, even the brand new 26’ plasma TV bought with the Diwali bonus - is only lent to us for a while. So, enjoy it while it is there and when like the oil in the diya, its time is up, give it back without grief….
So, my dear, dear readers, I hope that this Diwali, the humble little clay diya blessed each one of you and your homes with its simple, beautiful blessing.
Happy Diwali

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

A little about my book...

Did you know that a couple of bananas a day could keep your blood pressure down? That nineteenth-century sailors ate potatoes to fight scurvy? That Ayurveda considers rice the perfect healing food? That George Bernard Shaw was a brinjal-loving vegetarian? That turmeric could be an anti-carcinogenic? That urad dal is an aphrodisiac?

Ratna Rajaiah takes a walk down memory lane, only to find it redolent with the aromas of her mother’s and grandmother’s kitchens, and lined with the spices and condiments of her youth. Pausing often, she meets old culinary friends – coconuts and chillies, mangoes and jackfruit, ragi and channa dal, ghee and jaggery, mustard seeds and curry leaves – and introduces us to almost-forgotten joys, like the sight of steaming kanji or the aroma of freshly cut ginger.  Taking detours off the beaten path, she shares recipes for old favourites (often with a surprising twist!) and reveals delightful slivers of trivia and fascinating nuggets of gastronomic history. 

Delving deeper, she discovers that traditional fare is much more than comfort food (many local ingredients are health-giving and healing too!) and that much of what the West is discovering about foods as nutritionists and healers has been known to our ancients for centuries.  An unabashed and wonderful ode to the blessings of simple, traditional vegetarian foods."

Monday, November 01, 2010


It’s finally happened! My book is printed and out!! Yippeeeee!


Saturday, October 30, 2010

“There is a Cucumber in My Dosa!” - The Alternative Dosa Guide


It would not be an empty boast to say that if a South Indian were marooned on a desert island, he/she would probably find something to make dosa out of. What I mean to say is that the popular perception that a dosa is “a fermented crepe made out of rice and black lentil” is like saying that India is made up of 28 states and 7 union territories. It is also an insulting definition because it undermines the inventiveness of the average dosa cook. In fact, I like to believe that the astonishingly vast variety of dosas has been partly sired by boredom at the prospect of eating yet another of the aforementioned fermented crepe for yet another breakfast/tiffin.
Naturally, the question is - how many kinds of dosas are there? In order to answer that question, I will have to demolish a couple of popular dosa myths.
The first is that a dosa is the collusion of rice with black gram or urad dal. Well, first of all, historically speaking, that was not how the dosa started off. According to food historian, K T Achaya, the first mention of  ‘tosai’ is in Tamil Sangam literature, dating back to the 6th century AD and at the time, it was probably made only out of rice.  (A close relative of the dosa, the “appam”, first mentioned a hundred years earlier in the Perumpanuru, one of the ten anthologies in the collection of  Sangam poetry called Pathu Pattu, is made out of fermented rice batter, but the fermenting agents range from toddy to yeast, never urad dal.) And even more interestingly, the  “dhosaka” mentioned in Manasollasa, the Chalukyan king Someswara’s massive encyclopedia about daily life in 12th century Karnataka, was made only of dals - no rice at all!
So, it is true that the most common variety of dosa eaten (and sold) today is made out of a fermented batter of rice and urad dal. But it is said that there are 330 million gods and goddesses in the Hindu pantheon and while it may be rash to claim that there is a variety of dosa to appease each of those 330 milion divinities, let’s just say that there are enough to keep our mortal palates perpetually tickled and titillated. And many of these dosas stray off the fermented-rice-and-urad-dal path. The most well known examples are pesarattu and adai – favourite alternative dosas in Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. While rice is present in both of them, it really plays a sidekick, the centre-stage occupied a whole melange of dals, all the way from green gram (moong) to channa dal.
But to illustrate my point more vehemently, let me tell you about a lesser known yet far more interesting family of dosas that hails from coastal Karnataka.

Family name (Tulu)- balchat
Most members of this family are made out of rice, but what makes them different is that the grain is ground together with a vegetable. Which could be a selection of greens, though not boring old spinach but a whole host of local, seasonal greens like malabar spinach and colocasia (arvi) leaves and some so local that they don’t even have a name in English! Or then, it could be one of the two vegetables that are my favourites balchat additions – cucumber and white pumpkin. For two reasons. First, both vegetables lend a very distinctive but delicate flavour to the dosas. But they also colour them a beautiful pale, pista-green shade, guaranteed to elicit a very gratifying gust of “oohs” and “aahs” when presented to the uninitiated.
Did I say “ground together”? Actually, that is not always so, because many balchat aficionados prefer to chop the vegetable very fine and then add it to the rice batter rather than grind it along with the rice. The result is that you get these little crunchy bits of the veggie in every mouthful of dosa – absolutely delightful!
And then, though not a member of the balchat clan, there is the dosa with a fruit in it! As any jackfruit lover will tell you, during jackfruit season there is such a glorious glut of the fruit that it inspires cooks to look for hundreds of different ways to use it all up. And one way is to make a dosa out of it – by grinding ripe jackfruit together with grated coconut and rice. The resulting faintly golden, slightly sweet, sumptuously “jackfruity” dosa is so delicious that it requires nothing but a splash of melted ghee to accompany it!
These are traditional recipes and sadly, an endangered species. Which is ironic because there are two things that make these dosas particularly relevant for modern day living. First of all, the presence of vegetables or fruit makes them very healthy and loads them with nutrients like vitamins, minerals and fibre.
And secondly?

Now, that brings me to the second dosa myth. That a dosa is a laborious time-consuming dish, requiring hours of preparation needed - to soak the grain and dal and ferment the batter. Once again, while this is true of the rice-and-urad variety, there are enough examples that are otherwise. The pesarattu, the adai and entire balchat family of dosas are quickies, made from batters that used almost immediately after they are ground. In fact, one member of the balchat family is what I would call the true instant dosa. A version of it, called godhumai dosa, is a popular emergency snack especially in Tamil Nadu and is made out of wheat flour. But the balchat cooks have bettered on this, going straight to the actual grain. And the recipe is brilliantly simple and quick - wheat grain is washed, then ground into dosa-batter consistency and made into dosas and within a matter of minutes, you have a gorgeous, high-fibre, low-cal meal!
But, as far as I am concerned, the star among these no-ferment quickie dosas comes - once again - from coastal Karnataka.

Neer dosa
Beautifully thin and soft with lacey edges, this is a diva among dosas, because though the batter is easy to prepare, it is difficult to make. You see, “neer” means water in Kannada and Tulu and the reason why it is so christened is because unlike most dosa batters, this batter is very thin, almost water like in consistency, achieved by grinding the rice very, very fine and adding plenty of water to it. Therefore, to make this dosa, you cannot place a dollop of the batter in the centre of the tava and spread it outwards in circular motions as you would for other dosas – the “wateriness” of the batter doesn’t permit it. Instead you have to pour the batter around the edge of the tava and allow it to run down evenly to the centre to form a dosa. But to achieve that ‘makhmali’ thinness that is the hallmark of a good neer dosa, the tava has to be just the right temperature, the batter just the right consistency and you have to pour at just the right speed! But if you get all these elements right, the result is magic – a delicate, exquisitely soft, almost translucent white dosa that would put any roomali roti to shame! (Incidentally, this dosa doesn’t need a drop of oil for cooking, just a well-greased tava.)

I could go on because the list is long even though I know only of the dosas that came out of my maternal grandmother’s kitchen. But my point is - there are dosas and dosas. Made out of almost anything that is willing to allow itself to become a dosa. Some fried to a crisp, golden brown-ness (the Kannada term is “gari-gari”, a wonderfully onomatopic term, don’t you think?), others gently steamed to a soft, fluffy whiteness. Some thin as paper (and as fragile), some thick as quilts (and as soft). Some slightly tart, others slightly sweet and still other tarted up with everything from chopped onions and tomatoes to cheese. (One version of the appam has an egg broken on top of it as it cooks – a fabulous Indian interpretation to “sunny-side up”.) Some are stuffed (one famous Mumbai street-food version is stuffed with Chinese fried noodles!), some lined with fiery chutneys and powders and some others prefer to go plain, but accompanied by anything from the ubiquitous coconut chutney to chicken curry. But whatever the denomination of the dosa, there is one thing that all of them have in common.
The chemistry explanation is that any kind of batter - including the non-fermented kind - has a certain amount of air incorporated into it as a result of the grinding and the mixing actions. So, when the dosa batter is spread on a hot tava, the heat causes this air in the batter to expand and escape, leaving behind little holes all over the dosa.
But that’s the boring “science-y” explanation.
In Karnataka, we have a different take on these holes and a very deeply philosophical one at that. You see, we’ve figured that the holes have been put there to remind us that however much it may seem otherwise, nobody’s life (and figure) is perfect. Not even Bill Gates. Or Aishwarya Rai. It’s a reminder that keeps envy at bay and makes it a little easier to put up with those dratted Jones. So, the next time we hear about how the rich-bungalow-in-Beverly-Hills-NRI-aunt’s daughter ran away with the Korean cook and how Sambumurthy mama’s perfect son-in-law was caught with his hand in the till, we nod happily, cluck our tongues and crow to each other, “Yellaru mane dosey toothave”.
Literal translation – the dosa in everyone’s house has holes in it.
Figurative translation – Nobody life is perfect.

Teflon Ka Baap

It was an indispensable – and I would go so far as to say sacrosanct - part of the South Indian kitchen (and still is in many places) till the new-fangled non-stick cookware usurped its place. The dosa tava. (In Kannada, it is called the “dosey kallu”, “kallu” meaning stone and probably referring to the fact that traditionally, dosas were also cooked on stoneware.)
On the face of it, it looks like any iron tava, except that the surface feels like lightly greased silk to the touch. But this is no ordinary tava. Reserved exclusively for making dosas, the surface of this tava has non-stick properties that modern teflon-types would kill for. And that is achieved by what I call dosa-tapasya - years and years of using the same tava to make dosas and not washing the tava surface afterwards with a detergent or a scouring powder. The result is that the tava surface gets slowly coated by layer upon thinnest layer of oil and becomes like the politician’s hide – you can make nothing stick on it!

Monday, October 11, 2010

Mysore Dasara - The Flower Show

View the rest of the pics at

Thursday, October 07, 2010

Mandara flower

Originally uploaded by ratnarajaiah

premonsoon sky

Originally uploaded by ratnarajaiah

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Happy Birthday, Lataji!

"When I was barely eight, my father, who was also my guru, had told me, 'Fear only your own self. Ask yourself whether what you are doing is right and if the answer is yes, then move ahead without a second thought'. I have followed his mantra to this day." - Lata Mangeshkar
“To praise Lata Mangeshkar is like holding a lamp to the sun.” Kishore Kumar
The year 1929 is of momentous significance not just for the Hindi film industry but for all of India. In the little town of Khandwa in Madhya Pradesh, on August 13th , a baby boy was born, the youngest of 3 sons. He would be known to the world as Kishore Kumar Ganguly. Just 41 days later, on September 28th and only a few hundred miles in Indore, a baby girl was born, the oldest of what would be four sisters and a brother. She would be known to the world as Lata Mangeshkar. Today, this little girl completed 82 years of what began that day and a huge ocean of adoring fans celebrated the birth anniversary of what to millions of Indians has become the voice of India.
It’s not easy to write a tribute to Lata Mangeshkar. Because there is so much to say and with each passing year, as a fresh rash of grateful, gushing biographies and tributes are piled at her feet, there is therefore so little left unsaid. And also because, to write something other than the length of a book that would do justice to a musician, a performer and a talent so prodigious and a body of work so astonishing both in its virtuosity and in its size is almost an impossibility.
But, side stepping this yearly avalanche of adoration, if we stand and quietly gaze into this extraordinary life, there is a side of Lata Mangeshkar not just forgotten by some, but perhaps not even known to many others. That of a pioneer, a fearless fighter without whom playback singers would have remained just be nameless voices known only by the name of the actor that they sang for or worse still, the character that he or she played in the film. Imagine then, that Alka Yagnik and Udit Narayan would be to us nothing more than the “voices” of “Rahul” and “Anjali” that warbled to each other, “Kya karoon hai, kuch kuch hota hai”!  
The year was1942. Almost 3 decades had already passed since the first screening of “Raja Harischandra”. The silent had become the talkies and with it, India’s great love and tradition of music had started to soak the movies with its magic. The first generation of stars of Hindi film music were already in place. Of the 6 or 7 star female singers  – only 2 were truly playback singers. Shamshad Begum and Zohrabai. All the others like Noor Jahan and Suraiya sang for themselves and all, including Shamshad Begum and Zohrabai, had rich, deep-throated, robust voices. Into this scenario stepped a thin wisp of girl, just 13 years old, looking for work to feed a destitute family of six with her only qualifications - her voice and the training that her father, a classical singer of the Gwalior school had given her before dying bankrupt.
Lata Mangeshkar had come to sing for India….
You’d think a voice that today evokes such worldwide, often fanatical adoration would have blazed its debut like an incandescent star, demanding and getting instant success, fame and money. What happened was very different.  By 1948, a full 6 years later, all that Lata had was a pile of rejections. Her singing debut in the Marathi film Kiti Hasaal resulted in the song being edited out and her first Hindi film song “Pa Lagoon Kar Jori” in Aap ke Sewa Main (1947) sunk without a trace.
But Lata persisted. Perhaps because the only other option was starvation. But also perhaps because Lata was a fighter; not one who gave up easily. Fortunately for her, her sole mentor, the great music director Ghulam Haider, was as persistent. But even he found few takers for this voice in which he saw so much but the rest of his fraternity virtually wrote off. Haider insisted on Lata singing for his film “Shaheed” (1948), but when the producer of the film, Shashadhar Mukherjee, brother of Subodh Mukherjee of Bombay talkies, heard the song, he had it removed because he felt Lata’s voice was too thin. But Haider wouldn’t give up, nor did his little slip of a protégé. And there was one other who shared his faith in this young girl. Music director Naushad, who when he heard Lata song in Haider’s “Padmini”, recommended that Lata sing in his next film. The hero of that film, Dilip Kumar, by then already a super star, disapproved of the choice, doubting openly the Marathi speaking girl’s ability to correctly pronounce Urdu.
Instead of being disheartened by such criticism from none other than the great Dilip Kumar (of whom Lata, like so many other young girls was a fan!), this only spurred Lata on. She found herself a tutor to teach her Urdu diction. When “Andaz” was released in 1949, one of its biggest hit numbers was “Uthaye ja unke sitam” The singer? Lata Mangeshkar, who rendered the song in flawless Urdu. Dilip Kumar was forced to take back his words, which he gallantly did and 60 years later, the song remains an evergreen favourite.
Along with “Andaz”, 5 other films were released in the same year. “Mahal”, “Dulari”, “Ek Thi ladki”, “Badi Behan” and “Barsaat”. All box office bonanzas, both cinematically and musically. And in each of these films, at least one of the hit songs was sung by Lata, of which the one that instantly captured the hearts of millions of Indians was the haunting “Ayega Aanewala” (Mahal). The heroine of “Badi Behan” was Suriaya, so naturally all the songs in the film were sung by her for herself. Except for two, which Lata sang for Geeta Bali. “Chup chup Khadi ho” and “Chale jaana nahin”. They became two of the most memorable songs of the film. 
Naturally, by now, Lata Mangeshkar was a household name. Or shall we say she should have been but reality was very different. The then practice in the recording industry was to put the name of the actor and the name of the character played by that actor in the film on the record label. The playback singer’s name was never mentioned. So, when “Ayega Aanewala” was played on All India Radio, the station was inundated with fan mail wanting to know the name of the singer who sang so exquisitely. It was only when AIR got the name from the makers of the film and announced it, that India heard of Lata Mangeshkar. (On the original records of “Mahal”, the name of the singer for this song figures as “Kamini“, referring to the name of the film’s heroine.)
For Lata, this was the turning point and the beginning of a battle that lasted almost the next 2 decades. That the singer remained nameless rankled anyway, but she also realized how critical a role the playback singer played in creating the magic of a character, a story, even a film and therefore in making the film a success. So, she began the fight to get playback singers their due. A fight which at the time must have seemed as audacious, daring, even foolhardy if we remember that Lata was a lone woman, a virtual nobody, fighting an industry that was completely male dominated. Her obstinate stance could have cost her her career. But that never stopped her.
First, she insisted that the records should carry the name of the singer and not the actor or the character – a stance that almost lost her the opportunity to sing in Raj Kapoor’s Barsaat, because Kapoor initially was not willing to agree to Lata’s demands. (When Lata finally sang for the film, it was not just Nargis, but also Nimmi. Of the six songs that she sang, the most famous is “Hawa mein udta jaaye”, but other songs like “Jeeya bekrarar hai”, “Barsaat mein humse mile tum” and “O mujhe kisise pyar ho gaya” also become very popular.)
That done, she moved on to the next battleground – the Filmfare awards. In 1956, Shanker-Jaikishen were awarded the Filmfare Award for Best Song. At the time, this was the only Filmfare award given to a film’s music. The song was “Rasik Balma”, sung by Lata for the film “Chori Chori”. When the music director duo requested Lata to sing the song for the awards function, she refused, as a protest to the fact that the award recognized only the music director, whereas both the singers and the lyricist had as much of a role to play in the song’s success. No amount of pleading would get her to relent and Sudha Malhotra finally sang the song at the show!
Two years later in 1958, Filmfare instituted the Best Female Playback singer award which Lata won for “Aa ja re pardesi” (Madhumati.) It was a measure not just of the sway in which Lata held the film industry, but also of how she leveraged that clout to fight for the recognition that she felt she rightly deserved. And this should have been where Lata should have put down the gauntlet, happy that she had got what was her due. In any case, by now she was such a big singing star that whenever Madhubala signed a film, she insisted that it be written into her contract that only Lata Mangeshkar would be her “voice”.

But Lata had a few more battles still to fight. And win. And this time, it was not for herself…
Because the male singers remained unrecognized. So, in 1959, once more on Lata’s insistence, Filmfare created the award for Best Male Playback singer. Won that year by her beloved “Mukesh bhaiyya” for the song “Sab Kuch Seekha Maine” for Raj Kapoor’s “Anari”. And a few years later, Lata plunged into another face-off, this time with Mohd. Rafi. By now, the treasure house of Hindi film music had already stockpiled very high – almost two decades of work from some of India’s greatest singers, music directors and lyricists was already in the kitty. The music companies realizing this had begun to cash in, releasing various permutations and combinations of hit film songs.  The era of compilations had begun! (Even today, compilations of old Hindi film music remain the one sure-fire and often the only moneymaking section of an Indian music company’s repertoire!) Lata insisted that every time such a compilation is released, royalties should be paid out to all concerned, including the singers. Rafi refused to join this fight and the resulting rift between the two meant that they did not sing together for 10 years.  (They finally reconciled in 1965, singing together again for S. D. Burman in the song “Dil pukaare” for “Guide”.)
So it wouldn’t be unfair to say that much of the fame and wealth that a successful playback singer takes for granted would have not existed if it wasn’t for Lata’s unflagging and mostly lonely crusade. There are many measures of Lata Mangeshkar’s towering presence. The plethora of awards, the accolades, the firsts and the “only” ”, like the diamonds in a queen's too many to enumerate and measurable now only by weight, not by number. That generations of singers regard her singing as that final peak of musical excellence that they must reach. That not only that she has sung over 40,000 songs – for when did quantity ever define quality - but that of these 40,000, if one were to compile three lists, one each of her most popular songs, the most memorable ones and of her own personal favourites, there would be almost no overlap. And each of those 30 songs would be amongst India’s most loved, listened to and sung music, many of them having endured for over 6 decades.
But amongst this glittering array of achievements, standing there in a quiet corner, are perhaps two of Lata Mangeshkar’s most enduring legacies. The lessons of self-worth and perseverance. Without which almost nothing is possible and with which the impossible is almost always certainty. How else would a young girl, with nothing to her name but her music and her dead father’s diksha, have made that hard, lonely, punishing journey to become India’s Nightingale? 

(With grateful thanks to Sanjeev Kohli)

When The Customer is a SCREWBALL! (Which is almost always!)


Okay that’s it. I’ve had it. I’m done with calling “customer care” numbers”.
Why?!! Did you dare to ask me “why”? Because my teeth have begun to grow backwards, my hair has turned into earthworms, my blood pressure is 5078-654 and I have begun to walk in my sleep stark naked. Backwards and singing dirty ditties. That’s why.
And that’s only a small measure of what calling these numbers can do to you.
(More on that in another post.)
Instead what I have decided is to start my own “customer care” hotline .

Kustomer KilliBilli.

Ma-in-law trouble? Call me.

Libido starting problem? Call me

Clogged pores? Call me. (But don’t call for clogged anything-else. I’ll give you another kustomerkillibilli number for that.)

Hubby’s-girlfriend-has-thinner-thighs blues?  Call me

Garlic-farting-beer-burping frog that refuses to turn into a prince no matter how much you French-kiss him? Call me

Constipated pooch? Sister-in-law with verbal diarrhoea? Jelly won’t set? False teeth don’t fit? Saggy-boobs-wife-underwear-sofa?
You get my drift.

Call me.

And when you call, in the hallowed tradition of “customercare”, etched on the walls of the KilliBilli Caves somewhere in the icy wasteland of Outer Catatonia 567,9123 years ago, you will first hear this recorded message…

Thank you for calling Kustomer Killibilli.
If you are an existing user – SUCKER!
Now, that we’ve got you by the short-‘n-curly, press 1
If you are a new user (and obviously want to become an “existing user” or why would you calling u)s – BIGGER SUCKER! And press 2 to know why.

If you press 1, you will hear another recorded message…..

Please enter your 90125-digit number-that-we-tattooed-in-lining-of-your-rectum-while-you-were-sleeping.

That number is incorrect because it has only 90124 digits.
Please enter the 90125-digit number-that-we-tattooed-in-lining-of-your-rectum-while-you-were-sleeping. (If you need help finding your rectum, please dial the 78423-digit number that we tattooed on your other rectum.
You have only one rectum? We’re so sorry, you deformed single-anus cripple. But we’ll help you anyway. Please enter the 90125-digit number-that-we-tattooed-in-lining-of-your-rectum-while-you-were-sleeping)

That number, though it has 90125 digits, is the number of combination lock on our boss’ wife’s chastity belt. (Or so all the 567 boys in the call centre are hoping it is.)
Please enter your 90125-digit number-that-we-tattooed-in-lining-of-your-rectum-while-you-were-sleeping.

That was the number that would have got you automatically turned into the stock of rotting doggy-n-human-poo that Suresh Kalmadi is saving up in case nothing else goes wrong during the CWG but we saved you.

Please enter your 90125-digit number-that-we-tattooed-in-lining-of-your-rectum-while-you-were-sleeping

Bingo. You finally got it right, you dickhead!

Er, what we really mean to say is –
Thank you – We’re happy to know that you finally found at least one of your rectums but all our kustomer-killibilli-excutives are busy, mostly trying to break into the boss’s wife’s chastity belt..
So, we realise your finger is now worn down to the second knuckle, but please wait.

(Why the four-letter-wor-that-begins-with-an-f-ends-with-a-kand-has-u-and-c-in-the-middle-should-I-wait, you’re screammmmmmmmmmmming.)

Please don’t scream. (We know that in spite of the fact that this is a recorded message because everybody starts to scream at this point. And/or jumps off the balcony, yanking out their intestines on the way.)
Your call is important to us because after all, a numbskull-loser-sucker like you is only born one every 1/236768th of a second.
So please wait. We will be with you in about 23.93 years or after your eyeballs shrivel up and fall out of their sockets and become miso soup.

(After 23.93 years AND after your eyeballs have indeed turned to soup….)


“Ahumafraidican’thelpunbecauseialreadysaidsoyoubleedingsod&alsobecausethedumbcallcentrecreeposwhoputmeheretoansweryourstupidcallsdidn’ttellmetheanswertoyourdumbassedquestion. So, pleejgobacktothemainmenu….”

How do I do that?