Friday, August 20, 2004

Idlis on the Beach

It all started with a email sent to a friend of mine. I hadnt met him in ages and pretty soon it was decided that we would meet on a weekend and go to the beach.

Despite the fact that I love the beach, I hadnt been to one all this year. With the summer quickly drawing to a close I was getting desperate. My previous beach trip in this country had been something of a dampener with one friend deciding that he would enjoy the beach sleeping in the car and another rolling up in a blanket and reading a book, leaving me to play in the waves all by myself.

I drove up to Jersey City with two kayaks, my Mongoose, trusty companion of many a trip and a borrowed Ocean Kayak Frenzy. We had decided to go to Sandy Hook National Park in New Jersey. The idea was to try the Frenzy on the waves and then take out both kayaks on the Bay.

Well, the appointed day started kind of cloudy and cool. Exactly not the beach kind of day :-) Undaunted, we all set out for the beach. My friend and his family (wife, brother, and his parents) and I.

One of the cool thing about having parents along is that good food is ensured. This time, it was chutney sandwiches and idlies. A little note on the idlies first. These were not just idlies. These were nicely coated with molagapodi and nallennai(gingelly oil). This has to be the absolute apex of idlies. Mouthwatering spicy stuff.

Anyway, we went to the beach and promptly launched the Frenzy. As the 'senior' kayaker, I got the privilege of giving it the first shot :-). The waves were really gentle and the sun was playing hide-and-seek with the clouds. I took the kayak out for a little bit and returned, thereby convincing the assembled populace that the kayak was safe :-)

We played around for a bit in the water and discovered that while the water was not too cold, the cool wind made it a little uncomfortable after leaving the water.

Paddling in the sea was a new experience for me, though I didnt venture too far from the shore. The waves were gentle and it was more a bobbing sensation as opposed to the kind of working over that the rapids on a whitewater river give. Even only a short distance from the shore, the only sounds you can hear are the waves (and the occasional motorboat). When I went a little further out to sea, I could see the New York City skyline and the Verrazano Narrows Bridge. All very picturesque especially when the sun came out of the clouds. I even got to go and 'rescue' a little kid's beach toy which had been blown offshore by the winds :-). The last time I went out, there was a wind blowing from the shore. I 'rode' that wind out to get the furthest I ever did from the shore. I noticed that the wind was getting a bit stronger and the sea a little more choppy. Getting back was interesting, since the wind was still there, but not really hard.

After a while more friends from Boston showed up and with vegetable puffs from Hot Breads. We all had another 'go' on the kayak, desultorily played some soccer and decided to head back.

As a bonus we all went to the beach again the next day, in Manasquan this time. The waves were a little bigger and gave us a little more of a working-over :-)

In all, my first beach trip of the year was really good. Hopefully, I should get to do a little more of this before winter

Sunday, August 15, 2004

Vande Mataram - by Bankim Chandra Chatterjee

Happy Independence Day, Fellow Indians
This was the part of a play called Anand Math written by Bankim Chandra Chatterjee(1838-1894). The sanskrit song is in italics.

The version of this song I like the best is the Revival from A.R.Rehman's Vande Mataram album.

Vande Mataram

Sujalam Suphalam
richly-watered, richly-fruited
Malayaja sheetalam
cool with the winds of the south,
dark with the crops of the harvests,
The Mother!

Shubhrajyothsna pulakitayaminim
Her nights rejoicing in the glory of the moonlight
Phullakusumita dramadala shobinim
her lands clothed beautifully with her trees in flowering bloom
Suhasinim sumadhura bhashinim
sweet of laughter, sweet of speech
Sukhadam varadam mataram
giver of bliss, giver of boons, the Mother
Vande mataram
I bow to thee, Mother.

Friday, August 13, 2004

an ode to idlis

This is an essay I got by email ages ago.
It is basically a love letter to idlis.

What makes this essay so cool is that the idli is really common-place. It's probably the most common breakfast in a Tamil home. It is only after I went off to college that I realised how rare and precious a good idli is. Many restaurants really screw up their idlis. Once you start travelling towards the North of India, idlies start becoming scarce or are these really hard white rocks you can throw at passing mongrels.

I have no idea who the author is or where it is from. But whoever he or she is, my kudos!

The Ultimate Guide to Idli Heaven
I refer not to the restaurant two-per-head felt cut-outs, stranded on a steel plate next to a puddle of chutney. I'm talking about the genuine home-made product.

Here it comes, with the expert flick of the wrist scooped from the mould, toppling like a tipsy full moon onto the waiting banana leaf where it quivers, puffing out little spurts of steam after its exertions. Here comes one more, and another. Quick! While it is still within its gauzy wrap of steam, the idli must be anointed. Leave to the kaffirs such blunders as ghee. The only true unguent is the oil of the sesame seed - clear, red gold, aromatic and just a soupcon of it, drizzled while the idli is still breathless so that it seeps in, leaving no trace on the palpitant skin. There are still some pleasures to be savoured before you bite into the idli. Inhale. The first hot rush of steam has left the air vaporous with the aroma of rice, subtle, yet substantial. This is not the avid rush of Basmati that cavorts over all other flavours. It is an odour, simple, pristine, on par with that of water cooled in earthenware. Breathe it, it is the grain of life.

At the first lungful you will detect the sharp, sweet, festive aroma of sesame. If you don't, that oil is no good. Sesame oil is to the flavour of rice what butter is to bread - it enhances, but never dominates. Heretics who anoint their idlis with ghee will smell only ghee. These subtleties are lost on them. The oil of sesame must be used with great reticence, not sloshed about like olive oil, soaking the idli like a post-office sponge. (The purist will not acknowledge sesame: gingelly oil is what it should be called). At the second whiff you will discover a green aftertang of banana leaf. The leaf's first protest was lost in steam. This is the merest whimper of green, but it lingers into the first mouthful.

Those idlis are still very hot. Test them. Touch them. Naturally, with your fingers. Good food must be caressed, not impaled. And before you touch, look. The perfect idli is white, biconvex and stippled with tiny pores still breathing steam. If it slithers and collapses on the leaf, it is a failed idli: it will be sticky, dense and unleavened.
The other sort is just as bad. The rampant idli stands solid and spherical, with a predisposition to roll. It has not pores, but pits and craters. It doesn't have an aroma. It simply smells sour. It has the consistency of wet cottonwool when hot and that of a loofah when cold. If it must be eaten, do it quickly, and use a fork. It is probably a restaurant idli and deserves to be impaled.
The first mouthful must be hot, but not so hot as to blister the tongue. Coffee will accomplish that later. The first idli is never tasted. Before you have time to think, it's gone. Halfway through the second, judgement returns. The tongue feels the teasing fizz of the idlis's delicate pores before it yields to its softness. The teeth hang around, de trop.
Which brings me to accompaniments. Chutneys, all 10 ghastly restaurant varieties, ought to be anathema in the kitchen, but they've sneaked in somehow. I'm no chutney connoisseur, so let me pass on to "milagai podi," a spicy, aromatic, crunchy gravel of chillies, roast dals and a hint of asafetida. Build a little volcano of this next to your idli. With your little finger, dent its peak. Now fill the crater with sesame oil, dab the idli in it, and bite. Your tongue will be lava, and you can now model for Dali's Exploding Head, even if you're no angel. Of course, tamer versions abound.
On restaurant menus, idli-sambar is a compound word. Here is a warning - not just any sambar should do. The only sambar fit for the idli is made with onions, and not any old bulb, either - only baby onions, tiny pearls, their sweetness almost liquid within their ammoniacal hearts will do. The gravy must be smooth, never slimy, tart, but not sour, and just fiery enough to be grateful for the exploding sweetness of onions against the teeth. Sesame oil loses out with onion sambar. Nothing but ghee will do here, the home-made stuff, of course, dabbed on before the sambar engulfs the idli.
I wonder if there is anybody anywhere in this country who has never tasted an idli. Idlis are ubiquitous, easily masticated, digested and absorbed, nutritious, addictive and have practically no side effects. Toddlers and patients rejoice in them. Hostelites thrive on them. Office goers welcome them as relief from the many varieties of deep fried protozoa that conspire against leave encashment. For though chutney and sambar are often guilty, the idli can seldom be indicted.
Idlis have a sense of occasion. There is the Deepavali idli of childhood eaten at 6am, when the stomach cringes. You have been up since 4am. Now the oil bath, the sulphurous fog of crackers, the stiff new clothes, all combine to make the eye-lids droop and the head ache. The Deepavali idli tastes different because of all these things and because of its proximity to Mysore paak and mixture and other goodies that the heart craves, but the stomach rebels against at this hour. Only the idli will do.

Wedding breakfasts these days are austere. In my childhood they were orgies of gluttony. Idli was still the entree, big flying saucers awash with chutney or sambar. But they were crowded out by a steaming mound of pongal and avial, crisp vadais, rava kesari or badam halva, jilebi, and a glass of badam kheer. The timid gulped coffee, gobbled their idlis and fled before the pongal came on. Breakfast had barely cleared the gullet before you were hauled back for lunch.
There are idlis and idlis. My father remembers from his childhood in Chdambaram, 60 years ago, tiny idlis the size of a quarter anna coin. With two annas in hand, he would be sent out for this holiday treat to a homely little shack called Chaitanya Hotel. He would stagger home clutching a banana leaf bolster that held at least 50 of these tiny idlis. To this day, my father insists they had a flavour all their own.
The idli is a true cosmopolite. It is only in Chennai that there is a curfew on idlis after 10 am. Idlis are breakfast, you are severely told. But other, more frivolous sorts can be had, any time. My mother recalls her first sight of Kanjivaram idli, brought home as prasadam from the temple. To the five-year-old it looked exactly like the full moon, the size of a dinner plate and misty with ghee, speckled with crunchy golden cashewnuts and crisp peppercorns. The secular version is less fulsome, but still rich, textured, indigestible, and not the easiest of things to cook. You can eat prasadam-sized wedges, that's all.
Then there are the bye-blows, and we must be kind to them - rava idli and semiya idli. Rice has refused to acknowledge these, semolina and vermicelli have blundered in. They are both worthy, I'm sure, but they are not idlis.
Finally, there is the ultimate picnic meal - the stuffed idli. It's one up on the masala dosai because it doesn't wilt. It's easy to eat, no accompaniments are necessary, it's delicious when cold, and leaves no litter. Simply bite into one and find out.
Bon appetit!

Thursday, August 12, 2004

The Fiery Fledgeling - A poem by Subrahmanya Bharathi

Bharathiyar was born Subrahmanian in December 11, 1882. He proved a child prodigy and
was given the title Bharathi (another name for Saraswati, the Goddess of learning). He fulfilled his early promise. He was a prolific poet and a firebrand. He quite naturally joined the freedom movement and was the editor of many nationalist magazines. He wrote many poems that exude a strong nationalist sense. Quite unfortunately for India and Tamilnadu, he died young after an accident with a temple elephant.Here is a link with the details of his life.

He was a firebrand with strong opinions on freedom from the British, social equality and women's equality. He was also a keen observer of the human condition and many of his poems mocked the mores of the day. One of his poems states 'People swoon over romantic love in stories but stamp out the same kind of love in their own homes.'.

He covered a wide range in his poems. The themes covered include nationalism, Tamil, religion, history, love, social conditions, women's rights and nature. He was a very proud man, proud of his country and proud of his language. This feeling comes through in his poems. In one of his poems, he says 'Bharatha naadu paarkellam thilakam/ neer athan puthalvar, in-ninaivagatraatheer' (India is the jewel of the world/ You are its children, never forget!'). In another he says 'Senthamizh naadenum pothinile/inba then vanthu paayuthu kaathinile' ('When someone mentions TamilNadu, it is as honey to my ears').

He wanted to inspire Indians to stand up for themselves and realise their potential. In this respect, he reminds me greatly of Swami Vivekananda. I think it is a great loss that he died when he did.

I find his poetry to be beautiful and inspirational. Many of his songs have been adopted for movies. Manathiluruthi vendum from Sindhu Bhairavi and Kaakkai Siraginile from Ezhaavathu Manithan are two examples of beautiful songs nicely adapted for movies.

The poem that I have translated here is a little offbeat poem.


Akkini kunjondru kanden
Athai angoru kaattilor ponthidai vaithen
Venthu thaninthathu kaadu!
Thazhal veerathil kunjendrum moopendrum undo?
Thatharikita Thatharikita Thithom

The Fiery Fledgeling

I found a fiery fledgeling
I placed it in a forest hollow
The forest burned to ashes!
Is age a factor in fieriness?
Thatharikita Thatharikita Thithom

It is simple poem. The phrase akkini-kunju brings to mind a fledgeling that is made of fire. The poet found a fiery fledgeling, tried to protect it by placing it in a tree hollow. However, the fledgeling burnt the forest down :-)

I wonder what was the inspiration for the poem. Is he referring to unintended consequences? He tried to protect something that needed no protection and ended up burning an entire forest down. Is it an admonition not to underestimate anyone? Is he telling us not to nurture things that might destroy us? Had he just heard about the myth of the Phoenix which is born from its own ashes? I suppose we will never know.

To me, it is a slightly enigmatic and humorous poem.

Friday, August 06, 2004

Thiruvilayadal Redux

This is a recent email exchange on a mailing list with my college buddies. To really enjoy this, ofcourse, you need to have watched Thiruvilayadal. Thiruvilayadal was a very famous Tamil movie in our childhood days when Sivaji ruled the roost. Thiruvilayadal literally means divine play. It consists of many episodes where Shiva comes to TN and mixes it up with the local folk. It used to be shown quite often on TV. The days when Doordarshan was the only game in town.

Basically, in the episode that is being referenced inthe email exchange, the pandyan king gets a doubt. So,he announces 'Does women's hair have a natural fragrance or is it a result of revlon shampoo? 1000 gold coins to anyone who can tell me'. Clearly Pandyan kings of the sangam age had too much time (and money) on theirhands.

A poor poet called Darumi, played by Nagesh, wants the money. This is probably one of Nagesh's best comic turns. He displays the pathos of being apoor poet with such humor.. Anyway, Nagesh is a poet of limited talent and goes and cries his frustrations out loud in the temple. Lord Shiva (Sivaji plays this role with his usual aplomb, overacting, rolling eyes,twirling moustache etc), comes to him in form of a poet and gives him a poem which says something to the effect that 'yeah, of course, women's hair has natural fragrance.'

The chief poet of the pandyan court, called Nakkeeran says 'dude, that is so wrong, did you write thatcrap?' at which point Darumi goes back to the templeand cries. Shiva comes to the court to argue his case and as the ultimate rebuttal says 'agree with me or be burned'. Nakkeeran says 'Smoke me if you will, but mistake's amistake'. All very dramatic, much is lost in the translation. You can see where Tamils' tendency towards stubborn argument reaches back intothe mists of history. Apparently, they dont think too much of going against gods on a matter of principle.

Anyway, Shiva burns him without much ado. Later, after much prayer by the Pandyan king Shiva says 'ha ha, just kidding, Nakkeeran was right afterall' and restores him to mint condition.
This retelling doesnt include all the overacting, pure tamil and special effects that went into the movie.

Nor does this email exchange. Basically, this all started after a typical evening conversation at a friends place 'Macha, why dont Tamil movies have Tamil women in them?'. This rapidly escalated into a email question posted to our entire group.

Does this seem terribly inane? If so, just dont bother and move on. This is *my* blog after all :-)

To: ****** From: "M" <>
Subject: [thattiko] yen? kyon? why?
Don't disregard this message. If you do then your DVD players might never work, your cable TV will flicker all the time and your PS2 player might just spontaneously combust.
Folks, this is a crucial time when all Tamil countrymen and women need to rethink where Tamil cinema isgoing. In particular R and I had a discussion (in the presence of GVK and S)about why Tamil movies don't cast tamilian females instead go with naarthies (north of Madras anyway).
I first thought... hmm color. Tamilians are usuallydarker than naarthies. We are color obsessed people.Our matrimonial section usually says something like"Want a **fair**, God fearing, rich (optional, can be compensated by extremely fair complexion and vice-versa) traditional, professional girl.". Evenwhen we go to a marriage, mamis say "Ponnu chekkachevernu mahalakshmi maadiri irukka". (Where people see Mahalakshmi is still a mystery to me).
But then the two tamil babes that I know of (Simran and Sneha) don't have a very fair complexion.

I don't think figure is important. All our babes are fat or moderately fat.

The only reason I can think of is the mystery surrounding non-native people. Take for example ourfavorite hero James Bond. He usually has a Russian chick or a spanish babe ... He hardly sleeps with a babe who speaks British English. But I don'tunderstand that completely either. The way hip people speak in Madras (you know those people who feel embarassed to call it Chennai) talk, they could befrom Mars!
Anyway, enadu sandehathai theerpavarukku aayiram porkaasu vazhangappadum.
From: K<> Date:
Subject: Re: [thattiko] yen? kyon? why?

To:******* From: "R" <>
Re: [thattiko] yen? kyon? why?
With apologies to Nagesh and Thiruvilayadal..
> Anyway, enadu sandehathai theerpavarukku aayiram porkaasu vazhangappadum.

Scene : Madurai, but this looks suspiciously like Mass Ave, Arlington Heights, MA..
Big Fat dude, beating a drum from the first floor and announcing 'Naattu Makkalukkor Narcheithi. Madurai Pandiyaarasanin santhegathai theerthuvaippavargalukku aayiramporkaasugal!'
We see a small lean guy screaming at the big dude fromthe bottom. This is Darumi, an impoverished local progr^h^h^h^h poet. He has been wandering around sight-adichufying when he came upon this announcement.
'Aayiram porkaasugala? Enna pa kelvi ithu? Antha Arasanukku appadi enna santhegamam?'
(At this point, it is better to kick in the English dubbing. Sangam era Tamil is hard to understand. Thedubbing techniques arent advanced enough at thispoint, so at some points, the lip movements might notsynch with what is being said. Occasionally, the system fails completely, and we slip back to the vernacular.We apologize for the inconvenience.. Now, getting backto the story..)
Darumi : 'Dude, so, what does the king want to know?'
BFD: 'He wants to know why Tamil movies seldom use Tamil actresses. If you know the answer, you can tell him and get your 1000 bucks..'
Darumi : 'Do you know the answer?'
BFD: 'Macha, if I knew the answer, do you think Iwould be shouting myself hoarse?'
Darumi 'Ayyo, Ayyo, Aayiram dollarache, Aayriamdollarache. Ayyo, I could buy a laptop on ebay, Icould get myself a canon digital SLR, I could maybework up the confidence to ask that cool chinese babeout for a date. illa illa, enakku illa enakku illa'..

Darumi goes to the temple.Cries out his desperation and frustration. 'Kadavule, Only you can help me'.

God shows up in form of a uber-geek. slightly torn blue jeans pants, kurta, glasses etc. He has this really condescending grin plastered on his face. Just one look and you want to haul off at him. This particular avtar went to IIT so, well, if you did beat him up, it would be a good thing.. However, Darumi is a pacifist.
Darumi : Nee yaru man?
Uber-Geek : Me, I am just a wandering film afficiando.Why, only yesterday, I was watching this cool movie called Italian for Beginners, you must watch it sometime.
Darumi : Watha. Vanthuttan. En man, you also listened to that announcement and are here to pick up that 1000 bucks that the Pandian king is offering,right? My thalaiezhuthu.
UG : 'So, what does your king want to know'

Darumi's ego is pricked by this newcomer's presumption. He never liked IIT dudes anyway. He decides to test his knowledge.
Darumi : 'What always goes together?'
UG : 'Aiswarya Rai and Beauty'
Darumi : 'What is never together?'
UG : 'Abhishek Bacchan and a hit movie'
and so on and so forth, touching upon various things, Does Madhuri Dixit dance better than Ash (yes)? Is Preity's smile made better by the dimple in her cheek(of course)? Is Rajini the coolest hero ever(yes)?

At long last, Darumi is convinced that the Geek can answer his question. And he puts it to him 'So, tellme kind sir, why do Tamil movies predominantly use non-Tamil actresses?'
UG meditated for a while and told him, 'dude, I can tell you, but you wont like it. Back in the day, when acting actually mattered, Tamil babes ruled the roost at home and even assaulted bollywood.But alas, those days are far gone. These days, the only role that the actreses have is to look good.Their acting just doesnt matter anymore.
So, working back from this, one must reach the inevitable conclusion that Tamil women just dont look as good on average and that is the reason why women from other states are able to take over Kollywood heroine roles. I mean, you went to college, right? Tell me, how many of the acknowldged 'babes' in your college were Tamil? Not many right? QED'
'Now, if you run back to your king and tell him this,you are going to get your head chopped off for your pains. So, you'd be better off asking that chinese babe out for a date. Better watch a couple of chinese movies before you go, and it will give you soemthingto talk about. '
Darumi heeded his advice, watched 'Spring, Summer,Autumn' took the girl out for a date and everyone lived happily ever after.
To: ********* From: "M" <>
Subject: [thattiko] porchuvaiyila porutchuvayila?

That was funny! Here is the continuation in the Raja'scourt.
Darumi: par vende emmai paar vende
King: Alright ... go on...
Darumi: Tamilnaatin selviyar are boring
Tamil makkal are very daring
Thats why other state's babes are fairing
Also ikkarai** akkarai** better feeling

Chief Poet Nakeeran: Inda paatil kurai irukkiradu ...
And then ultimately the God in the form of a nerd comes to the court.
Nakeeran: Your song is screwed up dude!
God: In the syntax or in the semantics?
Nakeeran: If its in the syntax it can be forgiven. The problem is with the semantics. The college you went was Manipal. First of all the number of women is very small and the test of tamil babes in Manipal is a statistically insignificant test.
God: Oooohhhh ... aaahhhh (anger)... You are accusing the person who wrote the compiler and the OS. How dare you judge me (Oops Hollywood crept in). May you always suffer with Windows and never move to Linux or anyother OS.
Now the whole court is stunned and asks the God for mercy. God smiles and says he does this to all frustrated Windows users and pardons(!) everyone.

Finally Darumi gets a free upgrade on his OS (fromWindows 98 to Windows 98 service pack 2) and goes homehappy.