Another Spiritual Journey

Recently visited Mumbai in India after a few years. Every visit to India is quite an experience and this time was no different. After living in a small town in the US for many years I myself now have to follow the advice I give to folks from here who are traveling to India for the first time: Be prepared for the sight and sounds and go with an open mind just to soak in the atmosphere. The sight of so many people and the sound of traffic can be intimidating for the first time visitor as it is even for someone like me born and raised there. Like other great, major cities of the world Mumbai is always buzzing with activity and change is the only constant. Where once a 10-storey building might have towered like a giant a decade ago the same building might look like a runt of the litter now. And I am talking about distant suburbs on the outskirts of the city and towns outside the city limits! The pace of change is so rapid I could hardly recognize surroundings that I was once familiar with. In a land once known for mystics and spiritualism today capitalism is well and truly alive and kicking 🙂

It was good to catch up with folks old and new. Folks from earlier generation appeared to have grown much older (I am sure they felt the same about me 😀 ). Met batchmates from school and college and it was good to see everyone doing well in their professions. Visited my alma mater and even there old is making way for new as school is being redeveloped for a newer and bigger version to meet the need of changing times. It was good to see neighbors drop by and offer help to parents, respect for elders is very much present. Some even insisted on being given opportunity to help. One main difference between West and East is the individualized culture of the West compared to the community culture of the East. Not to say one is better than the other but it is just a different way of living. Vertical expansion has led to many high rise buildings all over the city and beyond. Which brings its own good and bad. Taller structures have led to green spaces within the community. To cater to the high end buyers businesses have also set shop nearby which obviates the need to go downtown or midtown for shopping or entertainment. Flip side is additional demand on resources which the existing infrastructure is not geared to handle and lot of traffic increasing local travel time. Multiple road projects going on simultaneously also adding to commuter woes. Real estate prices have gone through the roof too. Always amazed and thankful for the time friends make to meet for anyone visiting from outside though. The spirit of the city lives on though in citizens who put up with a lot and still find it in them to care and share.

Yours truly likes to go for walks occasionally. The experience of walking, be it in a wooded area or in anonymity in a crowded street, is spiritual. One either takes in the beauty of surroundings or just learns to stay unaffected by the crowd or noise and be a dispassionate observer. Which helps in developing into a non-judgmental observer and taking everything in one’s stride. In one such walk I got lost. 😀 For the ride back home I hired an auto rickshaw. The driver was from different part of town, not familiar with the area I was in. He asked me to show the direction and I ended up seeing half the town as we tried to make it to my place asking folks along the way for directions couple of times 😀 Did not have time to try more such adventures. All in all the whole visit was quite a ride with some new connections made, some old connections severed and a few connections revived. Which is what life is about: making new memories, erasing some and remembering some old memorable memories. On my return it was great to see my wife receive me at the airport and be back in surroundings that are more familiar now. It was good to be there and it’s good be back. Life is a journey generating a ton of memories along the way to last a lifetime!

I want to eat a good peda!

Another trip down memory lane 🙂 Grew up in a home that was located centrally in the suburb we lived in and easily accessible by public transport or within walking distance for many people. We had many visitors drop by just to say hello or for other specific reasons. Living in a big, crowded city that meant steady stream of visitors on a regular basis. Dad worked as an officer for Indian Government and he was also active as a committee member of local school trying to do his bit of volunteering to give back to society in his own small way. Got to meet an interesting and eclectic group of people, some of them strangers too, as they visited our home. Some folks used to come for a chat about their personal situation and probably just wanted someone to hear them out. If you are patient listener there is always a sob story waiting to be heard 🙂

One group of people were retired Government servants. They would come seeking assistance if their file got stuck in some Government office and needed help in getting the files moving. Dad would speak to the relevant department employee/s to help the folks get the pension due to them. Others looked for help in understanding arcane rules or changes that would affect their pension. They were grateful for whatever help or guidance they got.

Another group of people were those seeking admission to school. Some of them needed admission for their kids because they got transferred in their jobs in the middle of the school year and a word or recommendation could speed up things and/or make the transition smoother. Then there were others who would seek admission after trying in other schools first. It was interesting to hear them say this was their dream school and spin other tales to make their case 😀

The third group of people are the ones I remember the most. Dad was a gazetted officer (similar to a notary in the US) and this position allowed him to certify some documents and photocopies of marksheets. I think this was one level of security to prevent forgery by having an authorized person check the original and certify that the information was correct. I was dad’s trusted lieutenant always enthusiastically whipping out the official stamp and ink pad ready for dad to do the needful. There were some interesting experiences. Dad being interested in education would show me marksheet (result card) of students that had done extremely well and it was very inspiring to see the outstanding results in those pristine marksheets. I recollect one instance when dad refused to certify something that a person wanted. I was kind of surprised and thought why is dad playing so hard and refusing to do his duty of certifying. To my simple mind if anyone came seeking help they had to be helped. After that person had gone I asked my dad the reason. He explained to me that the person wanted certification of low income for some scholarship and it would be wrong to do that without any supporting evidence. Ah, for a moment I forgot that I inherited the desire to help from the way my parents had raised me.

People would show their appreciation for the help received. Once we got a box of milk chocolates from a person who was grateful for a truckload of documents he got certified. I made quick work of those chocolates 😀 My most abiding memory though is of people distributing pedas ( to celebrate their kid’s graduation. While some of them were of high quality there were quite a few that were sugary concoctions that were bad imitations of the good stuff. Just as a high quality ice cream has more cream and less ice a good quality peda should have more khoa (dried whole milk or milk thickened by heating) and less sugar. For a while wiping off memories of those bad pedas became a bit of life mission for me 😀 After I started working I used to buy high quality pedas every now and then till those bad memories were consigned to the dustbin of history 😉

Moral of the story: Did you say I like good pedas? True and close 😀 but that’s not the response I was looking for. Being in a position to help is a blessing and helping others in need without expecting anything in return is the best thing anyone can do! Thanks dad (and mom) for teaching the virtues of helping. It’s the greatest gift anyone can get!

Mumbai roadside eats series: # 2 – Zanzanit Batata Vada

The language of food is universal. Tempted me to write about another favorite food of the Mumbaikars: Batata Vada/Vada Pav. The dish itself is simple. Boil potatoes, mash them, add some spices to the mashed potatoes (ginger, garlic, chili powder etc.), roll into a ball shape, dip into a batter made of chick peas flour, fry it and voila! You have that spicy little snack you can’t wait to literally sink your teeth into 🙂 Want to add some flavor? Have it with dry ‘lasoon’ chutney. You can bet Kaimal teacher wouldn’t want to have anything to do with lasoon chutney because of its ‘pungent, irritating odor’ 😉 Need to up the spice quotient? Throw in some green chillies, fried or raw. If you want it to be more filling, stuff the batata vada into a fresh, soft pav with some chutney and onion thrown in and the taste is simply divine! Wait, where are you going? Let me guess. Just thinking about the humble batata vada tickled your palate so much you are either getting up to make some or go out and grab them from a nearby roadside vendor 😉 Remember to eat it hot, that’s when it tastes best !
Batata vada is so popular it has its own entry in Wikipedia:

Mumbai roadside eats #1: Sandwich

This piece is for all folks who like to eat roadside stuff and all those who are missing out on the fun.
Mumbai offers plenty of choice for people who like to eat out. The great thing is that available options range from the affordable roadside eats to very expensive, exotic stuff in high end restaurants. I will focus on the roadside stuff. My love affair with roadside eats started in my early teens and continues to this day. Let’s start with the humble sandwich. Earliest recollection is of a vendor selling sandwich is one near Canara Bank in Mulund West. Technically he was not a roadside vendor as he used to do business inside a compound. What were the choices on offer? Well, at the beginning there were just 2 choices: The premium Amul butter version and the cheaper margarine version. The main ingredients for both versions were the same: Bread, butter/margarine, green chutney, cucumber, tomato, boiled potato, beet root and onion with an option to have it with tomato sauce/ketchup. For the Amul version the bread would be slightly bigger. Doesn’t sound interesting yet, right? Don’t worry let’s dive into the makings of a great sandwich. Half the fun is watching the master at work. It all starts with couple of bread slices. Out comes the knife next. Is it to just cut the vegetables? No, the bread has to be prepped first. The knife itself would be long and slender like an artist’s fingers. With four deft strokes the harder crusts on the side of the breads would be lopped off leaving the soft center ready for the sandwich creation to begin. Would the crusts be thrown away? No, the vendor would carefully collect them in a container. At the end of the day I believe they would end up as food for the dogs. The next step is spreading the butter or margarine on the bread. This would be followed by spreading spicy green chutney on the bread slices. The amount of chutney would depend on the eater’s spice quotient. The first vegetable would be cucumber. Generally the vegetables would be sliced and ready. But if you were lucky enough you would be witness to skin peeling and slicing of the vegetables. The speed and the evenness of the slices were a sight to behold. When the master was at it the sound made by the knife when it came in contact with the cutting board was like music to the ears. After the cucumber a generous sprinkling of salt and pepper would follow. Next in the line would be potato slices followed by onions, tomatoes and beets with each vegetable going over the other. After the vegetables the 2nd slice which has been waiting in anticipation would be placed over the vegetables, perfectly aligned with the other slice at the bottom. Are we ready to take a bite? No, the final act is not over yet. The magician would finally cut the sandwich into bite sized chunks. There were 2 amazing things about this final act. The first one was the fact that the resultant blocks would be perfectly intact with no unseemly tear of the bread or vegetables falling out. The 2nd amazing thing were the number of blocks itself. For the Amul version the bread would be slightly bigger and 9 bite sized blocks would be fashioned. That was like watching a feat of engineering, to watch them all nicely balanced.
Now we are ready to eat! Generally one block would be consumed at a time. The final block cannot be eaten like that. To make the taste linger you got to peel the pieces and have them individually one by one. The result: pure magic! There is also a Gujju way of eating the sandwich. The Gujju version would have the tomato sauce/ketchup splashed lavishly over the sandwich. And the Gujju bhai always managed to keep the vendor engaged in conversation while helping himself to a slice of cucumber or potato or other sundry items during the sandwich making process. After the sandwich was consumed the piece de resistance were the bonus sides: a piece of potato or cucumber with a little bit of butter and salt and pepper sprinkled over. That would complete the pleasure of eating the sandwich! One thing was certain, the eater would leave sated. Once hooked it was a certainty that you would return back again for more. Grilled versions of the sandwich were introduced later, they were a great success too! To appreciate the real worth of roadside sandwich all one had to do was go to a hotel and order a sandwich. Delivered product would be a skeletal version that would try to pass off as the real thing, with no bonus sides 😦 To a roadside eats buff the thought of germs never enters the mind, the true lover thinks that the germs would end up killing each other. For the paranoid I must say that their phobia will get to them before the germs get them 😀
Writing about the sandwich has made me hungry. I have to google and find if I can order an authentic Mumbai roadside version. I have to eat one right now 🙂

Words of the day: Bindaas, Jhakaas!

In a nod to the city I grew up in, Bombay (or Mumbai as it is officially known now) in India, the words of the day are: Bindaas, Jhakaas!

Meaning of the words:

Bindaas: independent and carefree; admirable, cool.

Jhakaas (not to be confused with jackass 😀 ): excellent

A bit of background helps. Bombay like other great cities is a melting pot. Everything is bigger compared to the smaller towns. Business, employment opportunities, commute times, real estate price, entertainment, hustle and bustle, getting to meet folks from different backgrounds etc. People from all over the country come to the city and enrich the cultural fabric with their own language, culture and traditions. The effect of which is spawning of a culture which is a bit of everything that is also uniquely Bombayish 🙂 The city’s version of national language Hindi is also influenced by locally spoken language, Marathi, further influenced by languages spoken by people from other parts of the country. Bombayites/Mumbaikars are proud of their own lingo: Bambaiya Hindi 🙂 The original Hindi speaking people may consider calling what is spoken as Hindi a sacrilege but who cares, language is just for communication, right? 😀
Inevitably some of the Bambaiya Hindi lingo has made its way to Bollywood movies too as Bombay is home to the very popular Bollywood entertainment industry. Bindaas and jhakaas have made it to Bollywood movies too! Bindaas is generally used in a positive way to suggest something fearless yet not reckless. Jhakaas is used to convey one’s extremely positive reaction about a place, event etc.

Usage of bindaas in sentence

Person 1: क्या मैं यह करून? (Shall I do it?)
Person 2: बिंदास करो (Do it bindaas!)

Usage of Jhakaas in sentence

Person 1: फिल्म कैसे थी? (How was the movie?)
Person 2: एकदम झकास (Absolutely excellent!)

Interestingly I see bindaas has made it to Oxford English dictionary! Wouldn’t be too long before jhakaas also makes it there. Strength in numbers certainly doesn’t hurt (roughly one in seven world citizen is an Indian or of Indian origin) 😀

The day I wish I wore diaper at school!

I am writing about the only time that I took part in an elocution competition. Hard as it may be to believe I don’t like to give speeches, especially scripted ones.
There are 2 reasons: I am not a natural public speaker and I am not good at memorizing things. If I try hard to memorize something I forget it, I can remember things that I never cared to memorize. Anyways, I digress.

In secondary/middle school, much against my own wishes and better judgment, I agreed to take part in an elocution competition. And almost regretted doing so the very next moment. I decide to give it my best shot.
Couple of weeks time to prepare for the competition. Not too bad!
My dad writing me the speech. Even better!
Next came the hard part: memorize and practice. After 10 days of struggle the speech starts sounding a little interesting too. Woo hoo! half the battle won!
Day of competition: Some bad speakers and some good speakers before me. Man, I was starting to have visions of winning a prize. Good confidence boost!
My turn comes. Time to talk the talk. Start a little jittery. Practicing alone and speaking in front of a crowd are two different things, I realize. Still I strive manfully. The first paragraph goes through relatively smooth. I sound better than I am because of the quality of my dad’s writing. Starting to relax a little bit. Wow, I am getting into the zone I think. Then disaster strikes, old failings emerge. I forget the text. Boom, the wind goes out of my sails 😦 I glance through the speech where I got stuck. Not a good sign. After couple more glances through the speech I stumble my way to the end of the speech hoping that the ground would swallow me. Was I going to get relief now? No, I had to hear the school topper speak next. The guy is simply amazing, he’s speaking as if he’s to the manor born. Makes me feel more miserable about myself. He was great but I was in no mood to hear and enjoy it. Was too worried about myself crapping out. Maybe if had a diaper on, it would have saved my day 😀

P.S. It’s ironical that my job today requires me to host calls and speak most of the time. Would rather prefer to think and solve problems myself rather than speak. But it is what it is and you do what it takes to get things done. At least I don’t have to memorize what I am going to say and I can use my twisted humor too!