Diwali Food for BA

My editor from British Airways magazine emailed with this commission.

We’re after a piece on how different regions/cities in the country celebrate Diwali with food – this could be anything from street food in a big city like Delhi or Bombay to regions that might be influenced by other cultures (e.g French influence in Pondicherry).

The tone should speak very much to a local audience as opposed to someone, say, living in the UK.”

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What shocked me was how little I knew about foods in other regions.  Not the broad “Bengalis love fish” type thing but details.  Phone calls to friends/chefs, etc.  The result is here.

Train Diary 3

Man, I love trains!!

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Making memories

Why do so few people talk to their fellow travellers on planes and why do some many talk to their neighbours on trains? I think it is because we view planes as mobile offices while train travel is time away from work; more like a vacation; a time to exhale and take stock; a time for diffused thought rather than focus; a time to relax.  Planes produce the opposite effect.  With no interruptions from colleagues or relatives, we pull out our computers and phones and get work done.  Why is this? What is it about trains that promote community and conversation and what is it about planes that doesn’t?

I think it is the physical space and its design.  Seats face each other on trains, engendering conversation.  In planes, we are crammed like in a school bus, all facing the stewardesses in front, who point their hands left and right to demonstrate what could well be theorems or equations. Train compartments are ecosystems that force you to engage with your neighbours.  Babies—and bananas– get passed around.  Health tips are freely dispensed along with roti-sabzi or idli-chutney.  Information and opinions are shared.  People get drawn into conversation.  Here’s how it happens.

I am returning from Kumbakonam to Bangalore– tapping away at my computer and listening desultorily to the conversation around me.  The elderly gent sitting beside me is chatting with the elderly couple across us.  The lady has a round face and a pleasant smile.  Her husband is aquiline and thoughtful. They carry a blue Estee Lauder canvas bag that their niece has brought “from foreign.”  The man beside me is travelling alone to visit grandchildren in Bangalore. They have been talking for an hour.  I hear random phrases as I type.

“I had an angiogram last year.  Lost 10 kgs.”  Trains are like group therapy.  You offer details of your life to perfect strangers with impunity.  You take comfort from the knowledge that you’ll never see them again.  Until you do and become friends.

Some time later: “What is the point of building canals if there is no water? No wonder farmers are committing suicide.”

Mostly, the two men talk.  The woman smiles and nods.  She looks maternal and comforting.  The toddler with jingling anklets gravitates towards her.  She is wearing a pink sari and has flowers in her hair but no bindi.  She reminds me of my childhood doctor, Almas Rasheed, who had “white skin and black, black hair,” as my grandmother said.  Indian women of the previous generation exude a certain contentment; a lack of bitterness certainly; an acceptance of life.  They have their priorities right.  They may not comment on world affairs but they know how to make a toddler smile.

The irony, I think.  Here I am writing about community and conversation, and behaving exactly as I would in a plane.  I am retreating behind a computer screen.

Suddenly the gent beside me asks, “What is the purpose of cursive, Madam?”  He looks to be about sixty.  “My grandson is in first standard and they are torturing him with cursive.”

“Heh?” I blink.  The elderly couple sitting opposite us smile gently.  They have been exchanging notes about grandchildren and await my answer.  “Cursive?” I repeat stupidly.

“In my day, there was capital letters and small letters,” continues the man who asked the question.  “Nowadays, the school says to write in cursive.  What is cursive?” He knows what cursive writing is, of course.  His fingers draw cursive letters in the air.  His question is rhetorical so I don’t answer it.

“I know,” I agree.  “Too much homework for little kids these days.  Too much competition.”

“Tooooo much competition,” he agrees, drawing out the “ooo” for emphasis.

We complain congenially about how difficult schools are these days; and how many books children have to carry; and how their grandchildren have to go from tuition to tuition; and how there is no time for play.  We close the topic with no resolution because more immediate concerns take over: specifically, our stomachs.  It is 7:30 and dinner is discussed.  They have both brought their dinner.

“I bought it from Ganesh Bhavan in Thanjavur station,” says the man beside me.

“That has become very expensive.  You should stick to Krishna Bhavan,” says the man opposite us.  “Our son is bringing us dinner at Trichy station.  Call Rukhsana and tell her the train is running late,” he instructs his wife.

She calls her daughter-in-law.  They advise me to buy biriyani packets in Trichy.  The train stops.  We all get out.  Rukhsana is wearing a red salwar kameez. There is hugging and smiles. This time, it is the mother-in-law who talks, leaning forward animatedly.  Devoid of discussions about world affairs, her husband stands there smiling and nodding—just as she had done in the train.

The family spots me staring at them from the door of the compartment.  They wave.  I wave back and return to my seat.  Soon, the grandfather comes in with his grandsons.  One is called Aatish and is at “Alpha School in Class 2 Section B.”  His elder brother is Ahmed.  They stare with frank curiosity at my vegetable biriyani.  I offer some.  They shake their head.  They offer me idlis and garlic chutney, neatly packed by the daughter-in-law in a stainless steel tiffin box.  I accept the chutney, which smells of mint and garlic.  The horn sounds.  They all rush out of the train.  The grandparents peer out of the window, smiling and waving.  The train gains speed.  Half an hour passes.

Memories of train journeys are made through granular interactions such as this.  Spend 36 hours on a train with someone as you travel from Kanyakumari to Kathgodam and you might as well marry into their family.  After all, you have broken bread together; met their relatives at various stations; and have displayed the products and goods that make up your home—that have now been transformed into water bottles, food containers, and paan-daanis or paan holders.  What else do good relationships need?

Shoba Narayan carries saunf (fennel) in sample-sized containers of Crème de la Mer.

KRSMA and Champ de Reves

My policy towards free stuff pretty much echoes my editors.  As far as travel goes, some magazines allow me to take free travel. The Taj group for instance, will email and say, let us send you here “just to experience.”  Of course, there is no free lunch and the assumption is that you will write about it for someone. I hate these golden handcuffs.  These days, I only take free trips if an editor assigns an article on the destination.  Otherwise, it is a waste of time.

Same with wine.  Indian wine-makers like to send free cases to whoever they believe will help influence.  The thing is that it is not THAT expensive to buy a bottle, so then I think, “Do I want to be beholden to these people?” and usually it is not worth it.

So it was with KRSMA.  Their marketing person, Sneha, emailed me saying that they wanted me to taste their wine.  Since I had already bought and tasted their wines, I didn’t reply.  Then, the founder, Krishna Prasad Chigurupati wrote.  Now, this is a guy, who has run marathons in every continent (along with his wife, Uma).  So I am sorta in awe of them.  I have never met them or spoken to them by phone even.  But Mint Lounge did a story about them, which is how I know about the marathon thing.  To combine wine, a pharmaceutical business, and marathons takes some doing and these guys are “punting at a high level,” as someone I know (NR) would say, so I didn’t know what to do.  Take my wine, says this guy Krishna.  I’ll buy it, says I.  Please send us your address, says he.  I don’t reply for ages.  Bottom line: I got this wine for free and I am sort of upset about it because it reflects all the issues I have about the food and beverage industry on so many levels: about objectivity in reviewing when the publication doesn’t have the money to review; and whether reviews actually work in terms of what they are supposed to do.

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So I got a few KRSMA wines some months ago, and I have been trying them. Here is the good stuff. I believe that KRSMA is in it for the long haul and I believe that they have the means, the passion, and the know-how to make good wine. By that I mean that this couple has travelled and tasted the best; they have high standards; and while it is a commercial venture, they are after the glory as well. They are a class act and they won’t skimp or nickle and dime. Here is a photo of the founders.

Are their wines good? Comme ci comme ça. I haven’t had a good sauvignon blanc in ages, and I liked theirs. I think part of the trick with wines is figuring out what you like. I like karela and grapefruit and so I like bitter stuff: Gruner Veltliner is a favorite wine. KRSMA’s sauvignon blanc had that tinge of karela/grapefruit complexity with a hint of bitterness that I like. I also don’t like oaked chardonnays and theirs is unoaked. I don’t like high alcohol wines and all their wines are under 14% alcohol even the reds. I don’t like their reds as much as I do their whites, but that is an India problem. In my view, it is hard to make decent reds in India.

I had a great red recently. I got it in DC with an autograph from the winemaker. It wasn’t that expensive: under $100, but man, the aroma. Better than the last Burgundy pinot I tried. The bottle had an autograph from “Eric,” and I am keeping it.

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Kashmir

This one’s for you, Mahen-uncle and Vina-aunty.

Can paradise be regained by arresting development in Kashmir?

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I left Kashmir on September 1st after attending a 75th birthday celebration in Srinagar. The event was held near the Dal Lake and the famed Chinar trees (Platanus Orietalis) were resplendent. Kashmiris clad in saris and pashmina shawls gathered to reminisce about the land that they called home. It was raining as my plane took off from Srinagar. I remember worrying about whether that would cause flight delays. The rain continued the next day. At that time, I told my friend that when good events happen, the rain Gods would send their benevolent blessing with a shower. In the Carnatic music tradition, which I belong to, there is a raga called Amritavarshini that brings rain to parched tropical earth when sung. It was this that I had in mind when I made the comment about auspicious rain. I didn’t realize then that this was no gentle shower. The heavens were unleashing their fury; and this, combined with the global warming that caused surface temperatures to rise by a degree and glaciers to break out into water, would result in an apocalyptic flood, the likes of which the Kashmir valley had not seen in over a century.

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Two weeks hence, the floods are slowly receding but the numbers keep growing. The Indian government has to spend an estimated 6000-crore for rebuilding efforts in Kashmir. Thanks to the speed with which this natural catastrophe overtook the state, there has been no concerted coordination of international relief and response to the disaster. Instead, there are terrific grassroots efforts by organizations such as JKfloodrelief.org, run by volunteers; Uber, the global taxi service that uses its cars to pick up medicines and other relief material from Delhi; Goonj, an NGO that collects and distributes vaccines, blankets, and other rehabilitation materials; Uday Foundation and several others. The state government, which was overwhelmed at the scale of the disaster, is now limping back into action. And questions are being asked. Why did the floods happen? Who is to blame? How can this be prevented?

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One of the reasons is staring at Kashmiris quite literally in the face: the Himalayan mountains. Thanks to climate change, Himalayan glaciers are shattering and spooling downwards into the valley, causing its rivers to overflow. Combine this with poor urban planning and a disregard for the environment, and the Kashmir floods, as some experts say, were a “disaster waiting to happen.” Rains proved to be the tipping point and rampant construction was the chief culprit. Comparisons to our neighbor across the border didn’t help either.

In India, it is fashionable to say that we have to focus on growth above all. China is viewed as the model when it comes to infrastructure and growth. Environmental sustainability is seen as old fashioned and slow. Some builders dismiss talk of sustainability as a “rich country’s problem that India must only tackle after we have provided a roof over every citizen’s head.” As the Kashmir and Uttarakhand floods have shown, this approach is short-sighted and economically unviable.

Part of the reason why over 500,000 people were left stranded without homes was because of rampant construction in river embankments, bed, and flood zones. Massive deforestation on the mountains increased the flow of water down to the valley. Kashmir’s countless lakes that were once catchment areas for water are now choked with human waste and filth. Nature, normally an ally against natural disasters was dismissed and run roughshod over. This week, the government stated that the construction on river beds would be under scrutiny. This is an important first step in moving Kashmir to the paradise that it once was.

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Kashmir occupies a conflicted yet sacred place in the Indian imagination. Much of Indian philosophy came from the Hindu scholars who populated Kashmir from the 8th to the 12th centuries. This beauteous land inspired numerous Mughal emperors, including Jahangir who called it paradise on earth. Even today, the land inspires fierce loyalty. My friend’s father flew thousands of miles to spend his 75th birthday in the land that nurtured him. Had he known how much the floods would ravage his beloved land, I imagine that he and his wife would never had left Srinagar.

Shoba Narayan is the author of “Return to India: a memoir.”

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Train Diary 2

Train Diary 2: Easy, artless conversations

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Train travel has both a created ecosystem and inflection points.  The first inflection point is when you walk down the corridor to your compartment for the first time, wondering who your fellow travellers are.  They are the people who will share your space for the next six or 36 hours.  Their temperament is critical to your well-being.

Mine, on this overnight train journey from Bangalore to Kumbakonam, happens to be a nun, an elderly couple and two men.  Sister Mary teaches biology at a college in Trichy.  She is good looking, with clear brown skin and shiny black eyes.  Her habit reminds me of the sisters who taught at St. Antony’s where I studied.  The couple is travelling to visit their daughter.  She wears a pink cotton sari and jasmine flowers in her braided hair.  No bindi though.  He wears a “bush-shirt” and khaki pants.

Train travel is artless and easygoing.  Nobody is trying to impress anyone, which is what we do in planes.  We dress well, carry nice wheelies, and speak in posh accents so that the stewardesses don’t think we are country bumpkins and skimp on the wine.  My train-mates have no such pretenses. The elderly gent sitting beside me reads Dinamalar, a Tamil paper.  He opens a “Rasi Silks” plastic bag.  It has a few green bananas, which he offers to us.  The bananas are delicious and compete with the “jadi-malli” jasmine that the Aunty-ji is wearing.  Someone offers Brittania biscuits.  An empty bottle of “777 Kashmiri syrup” is used to carry water.  A lady in the next compartment is talking loudly on her mobile phone.  “Fry the onions nicely before you grind them into a chutney, okay?  Don’t forget to put the curds into the frig.  Tomorrow, put out two milk coupons for coffee.”  Is she a mother-in-law instructing a daughter-in-law? Or a mistress talking to a maid? Maybe she is speaking to her husband. Hard to say without putting a face to the words: her tone of voice could apply to all of the above.  The compartment behind me has a mother teaching her baby.  “Thamarai (lotus),” she enunciates.  “Say it.  Tha-ma-rai.  Chollu/Bhol (say it).”  A lilting voice repeats hesitantly, “Tha-ma-rai.”  There is clapping: an entire compartment clapping for a toddler who says her first words.

The train is moving.  I am in Third AC, which means that there are three berths per compartment.  I love the middle berth.  It is high enough for privacy but low enough to peer out of the window.  The moving train makes us relax.  Our luggage is stowed below the seat and we haven’t forgotten anything.  As a child, my father was famous for asking questions like, “Have we locked Teddy (our dog) inside the house?” or “Have you turned off the gas?” after the train started.  It left us in a lurch for the rest of the trip.  We used to visit cousins in Bombay and didn’t travel by AC coach.

I don’t like travelling by AC coaches, even though I almost always do so these days.  I am getting soft, I guess.  The windows are darkened and I cannot see anything outside, which irritates me.  I peer and see my own shadow.  Watching the world go by is the best part of train travel.  Non-AC coaches afford companionship and porousness between the outside and the inside.  Even the windows in Sleeper class are designed so that you can peer out: the metal lattices curve out.  You can pour out water and watch it arch as the train speeds.  You can spit out watermelon seeds and imagine entire orchards rising up in your wake.  You can watch desperate passengers make a spirited run to catch the train as it pulls out.  You can hear the click-clack of the train.  None of this is possible in AC coaches.

I have travelled in unreserved compartments and refuse to do so again if I can help it.  The worst part of unreserved coaches is the latent aggression in everyone.  People don’t travel unreserved by choice.  They either are last minute travellers—for death ceremonies, births or weddings—or cannot afford it.  At every station, you steel yourself for more invaders into your space; and you cannot say no.  They have as much right as you do.  So you puff yourself out like a hostile porcupine, hoping that through glares and elbows, you can put off fellow passengers from occupying the space beside you.  As children, my brother and I would climb up on the berth to avoid the crowds but there was no escape there too.  The funny thing is how little of that discomfort I remember now.  I certainly don’t feel mad or bitter about it, which is good to know about life in general.  S+*^ happens, but you mostly forget it later.

One constant in train travel—then and now—is the bathrooms.  They stink.  I don’t see a solution though, other than fitting them with fragrant diffusers or Odonil packets.  I know people who stop drinking water before overnight train journeys because they refuse to use the, ahem, facilities.  They tell me that I am romanticizing train travel and perhaps I am.

The nun who shares my compartment is fast asleep.  I look for my trusted green hold-all but am left instead with crisp white sheets that my fellow-travellers have spread out into beds.  I hope they have been washed well by the dhobis. I climb on the top berth.  The horn toots in the darkness.  It is as comforting as a grandmother’s story.  My eyes close.

Shoba Narayan still doesn’t know what “shunting” does to trains.

Childhood food cravings

Wrote this piece on a transatlantic flight.  I guess having bad airline food helped kindle taste memories.

The best cuisines are those that have the flavours of home

Shoba Narayan

September 14, 2014 Updated: September 14, 2014 04:59 PM

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How many days can you go before you crave the foods of your childhood? I can last a two weeks, tops, and only if I am stuck in the middle of the Australian outback without access to turmeric or some decent curry powder.   

When it comes down to it, most of us are fairly narrow in terms of our food preferences. 

We may have cultivated a taste for sushi and noodles, but scratch the surface and we each have our own versions of shepherd’s pie, cheeseburger and fries or, in my case, rasam and dosa. Some clever restaurateurs try to use this love of traditional foods in the marketing of their dishes.  

A restaurant in England, described hummus as “chickpea mash”. I love hummus, but I wouldn’t eat chickpea mash if you gave me a year’s supply of Crème de la Mer, which, as it happens, is a wrinkle cream and not something that is churned from the sea. The restaurateur, however, told me that it was his most popular dish because the English associated it with bangers and mash.

Food is intimately tied with identity, home, memory and well-being. We may each have acquired global preferences in other parts of our lives, but take food away and you have the skeletal remains of the global sophisticates that we’ve all become. 

There will be variations. Indians who live their entire lives in temperate countries cannot eat the same level of spiciness that their parents did. Indians who grew up in Africa

incorporate local spices into their spice mixes. Indians who spend a lifetime in Scandinavia get used to local dishes but add a dash of lemon pickle to perk things up. But in each case, the essential component

remains underneath the new culinary layers that they’ve added on. 

Some part of it is habit. A north Indian or a Pakistani will finish a meal with a flavourful and fragrant biriani, because he says that rice will rest his stomach after the parade of meats. For a south Indian, it will be curd rice – something to eat at the end of the evening just because it settles your stomach.  

A Japanese chef once told me that after an evening creating the most wonderful dishes for his patrons, he goes home and eats boiled rice. These are the things that we grew up with, the proverbial chicken soup that nourishes our soul, in this life.

When you become an expatriate, you reach back your old country for three culinary things: comfort, essence and personal preferences. Curd rice isn’t particularly flavourful if you eat it for the first time, but it is comfort food for a south Indian.  

Being south Indian myself, I can tell you that I didn’t reach back for all the dishes I grew up with when I lived abroad. I had personal preferences veering towards the north. I loved paneer dishes; I liked their buttery dals instead of our watery ones. I liked milk-based Bengali sweets instead of sugar-based south Indian ones. Beyond the comfort foods and the personal preferences, there is that elusive element of the essence of India, which in my view, are its spices. After a two weeks away from them, I need a spice mix for a fix. It all boils down to that. It is my version of a hot dog, chicken soup, kebab, satay, sushi, or whatever your comfort food might be. I don’t question it. I just need it.

Shoba Narayan is the author of -Return to India: a memoir

Train Diary 1

Train diary No.1: We’re all in it together Trains, along with cricket, Bollywood and food, are cultural touchstones. They are part of our collective subconscious and define us as Indians

Shoba Narayan

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I am on the Mysore-Mayiladuthurai Express, a long and rather wonderful royal-blue train that cuts through interior Karnataka and Tamilnadu.  Mysore, where it originates, is like the humanities department of a great university, churning out stalwarts in multiple areas: R.K. Narayan the writer; R.K. Laxman the cartoonist; T.S. Satyan the photographer; Thirumalai Krishnamacharya, Pattabhi Jois, and B.K.S. Iyengar the yoga masters; the Mysore school of musicians including Mysore Vasudevachar and Veena Doraiswamy Iyenger among others.  What is it about that gentle city that churns out such creativity? Is it the pace of life or some additive in the water?

The final destination is Mayiladu-thurai, which means the “place/port in which peacocks dance.”  I am getting off in Kumbakonam however, because it is the gateway to the great Chola temples of Tamilnadu.

There is no easy way to get to Kumbakonam from Bangalore.  Red Bus is the best option but my parents are dead against me travelling overnight by bus.  They don’t bother much when I travel by planes except to get broad date of travel and return.  Trains and buses, they understand.  So they’ve jumped in and pulled me back to the time I was a 16-year-old.   The waitlist clears on the train and the advice pours out.  “If you get a side berth, make friends with the T.T. and shift to an inside berth,” says my mother.  “Upper berth is better than lower.”  “Don’t wear jewelry.”  “Take a metal chain and bolt your bag to the berth.”  “Lock your bag.”  I inhale deeply and try to enjoy the parental concern.

Trains, along with cricket, Bollywood and food are cultural touchstones.  They are part of our collective unconscious and define us as Indians.  The farther we go, the more we long for the trains of our childhood.  I know an executive who works at Louis Vuitton.  He wants to take his children on trains “third class or unreserved, just like we used to as kids.”  What is it about trains that produces this yearning?

Perhaps it is the commonality of experience.  Perhaps it is memories of childhood trips with parents who are relaxed and expectant about joys to come.  Perhaps it is memories of quarrelling for a seat in the unreserved compartment to get to a marriage of people you didn’t like and spending a sleepless night stuffed beside strangers who turned out to be not so bad after all.  Or perhaps it is simply the comforting chug of the engine, the toot of the horn into the night sky, and the rhythmic click-clack of the wheels.  No other mode of transport save trains can duplicate an experience that offers the best and worst of travel.  Planes in contrast are anemic, sanitized and soul-less.  Take my own trip on this ordinary train, no different from those plying Punjab and stopping at Bhatinda; or those in Rajasthan between Jodhpur and Dungarpur.  Trains connect India.  Want to go to Ujjain in Madhya Pradesh from Kakinada in Andhra Pradesh? No better way than to catch a train.  Want to get to nearby Kumbakonam from Bangalore? Train it is.

The rituals surrounding train travel are both universal and specific.  You buy your Patrika, Dainik Jagran, or Dinamalar newspaper from the railway stall; throw in a bottle of water and maybe a zarda-paan or two.  Depending on the station, vendors will walk by with regional specialties: hot milk in Erode station; matka dahi or curds; chikki; samosa or packaged idlis.  You buy your tiffin, lunch or dinner in case you haven’t brought it from home and await the train.  The chugging in is always a thrilling sight.  I think it has to do with perspective and proportion.  Train engines are designed for the human eye: not as large or ungainly as an airplane.  The rectangular blue box that is the engine appears in the distance, usually rounding a curve.  Then it pulls in and everyone rushes to board—bag, baggage or suitcase in hand.  In the old days, my family travelled with a magnificent contraption that we called a “hold-all.”  It held some razais or dhurries to cushion us on the metal berths in second-class; and held clothes, towels, shoes and assorted travel accouterments.  Today, everyone pulls along a wheelie and the red-uniformed porters stare at their waning business bereft.

Indians react to train departures like no other nation.  We stand around, holding hands across the window and passing food.  We are a culture of prolonged goodbyes.  Our boundaries are porous, whether it is between people (no concept of ‘personal space’ in India); or spaces (inside and the outside merge in our psyche).  We pass food and drink to relatives through train windows.  My friend, Shelja Rathore, still does this in Jodhpur, arriving at the station at all hours of day and night to hand over homemade kachoris or rotis to travelling relatives as a token of love and concern.  We ask routine questions: are you okay, how was the journey, pass on my inquiries to bhaiyya/bhabhi/nana/chachi/insert honorific.  Perhaps that is all we need to connect: food and a porous train window.

Nothing matches the high drama of a train departure.  Where else can you run beside the train, holding on to hand, finger, then little finger, then scarf, before letting go and waving till the train disappears.  You certainly cannot run after an airline; and you’d bump into the passing cow if you tried this stunt in inter-city buses.  Trains are designed for our sort of goodbye. Everyone is running, sobbing, yelling out instructions, and then frantically waving goodbyes and asking the traveller to call the moment the train reaches destination.

Shoba Narayan runs besides trains and buys banana leaf packets of hot steaming idlis at every possible station.

Serendipity

There are times when churning out a column a week is torture; when you just want to throw in the towel and switch to an accounting job or something.  This column was written under such circumstance.  Very bad, as my young friend, Idanth would say.

 
The rare pleasures of serendipity

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It was at Atta Galatta that I discovered the pleasures of serendipity. Atta Galatta is Bangalore’s best bookstore, not because of the number and variety of books it sells—Blossom Book House on Church Street has more, but because of the ethos it creates.

The best among independent book stores foster an atmosphere that attracts book lovers and nurtures them in an environment that is civilized and urbane. Atta Galatta is one such place. The books here are chosen with a point of view—with an emphasis on vernacular and children’s books; independent and literary authors. I walked in one day and discovered naturalist M. Krishnan’s book, Of Birds And Birdsong.

How do you find books that you didn’t know you wanted? How do you find objects that you didn’t know you wanted? Online stores spend crores of rupees trying to solve this problem. They suggest objects based on your last purchases; they suggest books based on the “people who bought this book also bought” hypothesis. But no online retailer can match the serendipity that brick-and-mortar book stores engender.

The word serendipity comes from Serendip, or Sarandip, the Persian name for Sri Lanka; which itself came from Tamil (Cheran-theevu or Cheran-island); or Sanskrit (Sinhala-dvipa, or the island where the lions dwell). Horace Walpole, an English politician, came up with the word serendipity after listening to a Persian fairy tale, The Three Princes Of Serendip, based on Amir Khusro’s poem, Hasht Bihisht. It is a wonderful old-fashioned mystery in which the three princes solve the theft of a missing camel through a variety of clues that they happen upon. These heroes, in other words, were making discoveries, “by accident and sagacity, of things they were not in quest of”, according to the Oxford English dictionary.

As a concept, serendipity, or the notion of finding things that you aren’t looking for, is hugely seductive. Entire movie scripts hinge upon this idea of happenstance; chance; tumbling into love; finding a soulmate. It is as if the universe is conspiring to hand you something that you aren’t looking for; that you didn’t But is there a way you can engineer serendipity? I would even know you wanted. suggest that visiting a particular type of café or book store is one: where you meet people or find objects that will give you pleasure you aren’t searching for.

When I walked into Atta Galatta last week, I was looking for children’s books. It was amid a group of picture books that somebody had piled up on the counter that I found this book on birds. Although I’m interested in nature I rarely go into the naturalist section of any book store. In other words, I wouldn’t have found Krishnan’s marvellous book except for the serendipity of its presence atop a counter full of children’s books. It is this sort of thing that makes a compelling case for the presence and patronage of independent book stores.

When I visited, there were a group of Tamil poets arguing heatedly about the merits of Kalki Krishnamurthy’s books. At the next table were a group of artsy types (going by their attire), discussing a project while looking at slides on a laptop. Coffee and brownies appeared on order. Upstairs, a children’s book was being released. A short while later, a storytelling and poetry reading session commenced. Local poets gathered and spoke about their craft.

In shrinking urban spaces, there are a few locations that bring together intellectuals and ideas on a daily basis. In Bangalore, Koshy’s, the much loved coffee shop, is one such location. Cobalt Blue, a new shared-office space, aspires to be another. Part of the reason you visit these spaces is because you don’t know whom you will meet or what you will encounter. Of course, some of these encounters can be unnerving—the classic one being when you run into your ex at a location that was special to you. In such situations, the only thing to do is to fake amnesia or duck into the bathroom. The worst thing is that in most such locations that foster serendipity, the bathroom is usually “For Staff Only”, and needs to be accessed with a key.

I know someone who carries a bar of chocolate for what she calls “serendipitous encounters which have the potential of going horribly wrong”.` She simply hands a bar of chocolate and ends all conversation with that one gesture. “Fancy seeing you here,” she drawls. “Here, have some Ghirardelli chocolate. It’s their new line. Very artisanal.” And so on.

 

Shoba Narayan is reading M. Krishnan’s Of Birds And Birdsong, with a big box of Ghirardelli chocolates by her side. She cannot tell which is better. Write to her at the goodlife@livemint.com

 

 

Pittsburgh

Some American cities are hidden jewels.  Pittsburgh is one.  

Steeling a march in Pittsburgh

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We’re walking through the Carnegie Museum of Natural History. My 12-year-old daughter, Malu, has discovered a dinosaur with cancer. It’s a bone, really, in a glass case, with a tumour that’s 150 million years old. “Wow,” I think. It certainly lends perspective to my anaemic arthritic complaints. What’s the cliché? The only certainties are death and ­taxes? And now, it seems, ­tumours.

The museum, named after Andrew Carnegie, the Scottish steel baron whose mark is left all over this city of 446 bridges, is among the reasons why Pittsburgh was recently named America’s most liveable city by a number of publications, including Forbes magazine and The Economist. The Andy Warhol Museum is another crowd-pleaser. To see Warhol’s paintings drenched in celebrities of the time (Marilyn, Jackie, Elvis) is to understand why he said: “In the future, everybody will be world-famous for 15 minutes.” This was prescient in an age before Twitter and Facebook. Warhol, like the authors Gertrude Stein and Rachel Carson, was born here.

My favourite visit is to the Mattress Factory, a museum of contemporary art with room-sized installations (or “environments”) created by artists in residence: Yayoi Kusama’s explosion of polka dots through one room – floor, ceiling and walls – is eye-popping. When we come out, the world seems tame by comparison.

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Autumn is a good time to visit Pittsburgh. The humid summer gives way to brisk, cool air that snowballs, quite literally, into winter. Banners welcome incoming students who populate its concentration of universities and teaching hospitals: Carnegie Mellon University (CMU), one of the country’s finest engineering schools; University of Pittsburgh, with its large research programme; Duquesne, with its famous Tamburitzans, the country’s longest-running multicultural folk dance company; women’s colleges Chatham and Carlow; and, unusually, the Pittsburgh Institute of Mortuary Science. Pittsburgh is a college town, but one that’s not overwhelmed by them. Its roots go back to working-class America and manufacturing. For a long time, it was called Steel City. Indeed, when Carnegie decided to build a university, he designed long corridors that sloped downwards, to hedge his bets. If the university didn’t take off, he figured, he would convert the building into manufacturing plants with assembly lines. Today, CMU’s orientation includes a walk down long corridors reminiscent of the steel plants that once populated Pittsburgh.

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As an admirer of Carnegie, I’m ­eager to walk in his footsteps. ­Beginning as a telegrapher, he sold his Carnegie Steel company for US$480 million, the equivalent of about $14 billion (Dh51.42bn) in today’s dollars. He spent the last half of his life in philanthropy, ­endowing a slew of museums and institutions in Pittsburgh and elsewhere, the most famous of which is Carnegie Hall, New York. In Pittsburgh, his name adorns the museums of art, natural history and science. “Man does not live by bread alone,” said Carnegie famously. “My aspirations take a higher flight. Mine be it to have contributed to the enlightenment and the joys of the mind, to the things of the spirit, to all that tends to bring into the lives of the toilers of Pittsburgh sweetness and light. I hold this the noblest possible use of wealth.” With these sentiments, Carnegie changed the course of his adopted city from one that was beholden to steel for its economy into one that has risen above it.

Geographically, Pittsburgh is located at the confluence of the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers, which meet to form the Ohio River. The tri-river convergence happens at Point State Park, marked by a fountain. Indians have long believed that the convergence of rivers happens in sacred places called “prayag” in Sanskrit. The Native Americans perhaps believed the same thing, for the Shawnee and other tribes were drawn to the area centuries ago. Today, a 144-year-old cable car takes visitors up the Monongahela Incline for a stunning view atop Mount Washington. The other cable car with a historic flavour is the Duquesne Incline. Most visitors go up one, walk around Mount Washington for the views, grab a bit to eat and come down the other ­incline.

The beauteous hilly landscape attracted immigrants – Polish, Jewish, German, Italian, African-American and Croatian – all of whom occupy distinct neighbourhoods in the city even today, giving Pittsburgh an attractive ethnic flavour. They came to work in the steel factories, manning assembly lines and manufacturing units.

When the steel industry went bust, Pittsburgh was forced to reinvent itself. It turned to technology, robotics, biomedical engineering and software – Google has a growing presence in the city – to grow.

Google’s office is round the corner from SpringHill Suites, a Marriott hotel where we’re staying. Guests have access to the fitness centre next door. Panera Bread, at the base of the building, provides quick sandwich lunches, and Coffee Tree Roasters, across the street, gives us a morning shot of espresso in an environment that is more distinctive than a Starbucks. Bakery Square, where the hotel is situated, is also where Social, one of Pittsburgh’s popular resto-bars, is located. At 5pm one evening, the place is packed with locals drinking and dining on homestyle chicken and meat dishes.

Pittsburgh has the dubious distinction of having the largest number of bars per capita in the United States. Its restaurants aren’t to be sniffed at either. Some are local legends. Primanti Brothers, a chain of sandwich shops, is a favourite among students for its low-key vibe and large portions. Pamela’s Diner, where Barack Obama enjoyed pancakes during a campaign stop, reminds us of an old-fashioned Jewish diner in New York. The recently reopened Fuel & Fuddle is famous for its hanger steaks, Buffalo wings and pizza. One evening, we enjoy ravioli and salads at Legume, a stylish restaurant with local art and friendly waiters in the Oakland neighbourhood. Over the course of four days, we try homemade ice cream at Dave & Andy’s; Sushi Fuku; Everyday Noodles; and the atmospheric Spice Island Tea House. Ethnic grocery stores – Indian, Mexican, Chinese – abound. Restaurants in Pittsburgh aren’t fancy and, indeed, locals use the word almost as an accusation. People value humility and discretion in this Pennsylvanian city on the brink of the Midwest. Molecular gastronomy, sculptural desserts, drinks as chemistry – all the things that can seem normal in a New York restaurant – are viewed as over the top and pretentious here.

Where Pittsburgh goes to de-stress is at Heinz Field, home of the Steelers, its National Football League team. The city also has the Pirates for Major League Baseball and the Penguins in the National Hockey League. Locals have fierce loyalties towards these teams and tickets for games have long waiting lists. The golf legend Arnold Palmer learnt his game on Pittsburgh’s courses and the three rivers foster a vibrant water community in clement weather, with rowing, kayaking and the annual Three Rivers Regatta.

Equally vibrant is the artistic community. Carnegie Mellon’s School of Drama is among the best in the country (the actor Gabriel Macht, who plays Harvey Specter in the television series Suits, is an alumnus). During the annual Tony Awards for theatre, CMU ran an advert featuring all the illustrious screenwriters, actors and directors who walked the portals of its school. Perhaps because of this connection, hundreds of films, including The Dark Knight Rises, The Avengers, The Fault in Our Stars, Jack Reacher and the upcoming American Pastoral were fully or partially filmed in the city. On tour buses, it’s fun to spot the movie locations, all of which are enthusiastically pointed out by locals.

We assumed that the Phipps Conservatory would be just another botanical garden. What makes it exciting is the toy trains, which children are allowed to touch. Narrow aisles take us through a stunning array of plants, orchids and flowers. The cafe inside has a number of vegetarian options, while we spot academics talking to each other about esoteric subjects as they walk through the conservatory.

For those inclined, Pittsburgh has a number of cultural offerings, including a symphony, dozens of theatres and a thriving jazz and bluegrass music scene. The National Negro Opera Company, the country’s first, was founded in the city. The Benedum theatre, built in 1928, seats about 3,000 people and hosts movies, Broadway shows and music. Across the street is the Proper Brick Oven & Tap Room, serving amazing pizza and locally brewed drinks on tap.

Fancier still is the art deco Heinz Hall, dripping with chandeliers and red carpets. Here too, however, Pittsburgh doesn’t take itself too seriously. Along with the city’s symphony orchestra and George Gershwin’s music, Heinz Hall has hosted Bugs Bunny at the Symphony. Think animated Bugs Bunny goofiness with a live orchestra playing Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro or Rossini’s The Barber of Seville.

On our last day in Pittsburgh, we do something that only a Hindu Indian family would do: we go to the Hindu temple to see Lord Balaji, who occupies India’s richest temple atop a hill in Tirupati. After eating tamarind rice at the Balaji temple, we board our flight for the long journey home.

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