Sunday, June 02, 2019

Unusual Occupations - The Reptilian calling

The Reptilian Calling

It is the voice of a grown up man and he is frantically crying out in panic. Even when the phone is not on a speaker mode, we can hear his frantic panic driven voice. Vava Suresh – our host answers him on his mobile patiently without letting any of that panic get to him. We are in a car along with Vava Suresh and are being driven to the house of the caller. This is possibly his fifth call in the last fifteen minutes that Vava Suresh has received.

Apart from the two of us, Vava Suresh and his driver there are seven other co-passengers in our car. We are slightly uncomfortable, but not because there is no place for us to sit. In fact, it is very comfortable at the rear seat But because all our other co-passengers are merrily occupying the boot space in the car.

The last one, we picked up from the backyard of a small corner shop where Suresh had been summoned. On a normal day, Suresh could be catching about a dozen snakes ranging from wall snakes, rat snakes, Russel Vipers, python and even a King Cobra from all over Kerala when he is summoned by people who have spotted the reptiles in their backyard or in their wardrobes.

We have been with Vava Suresh for over five hours today. Our co-passengers are safely tucked into plastic containers, poked with holes through a screwdriver and safely closed with a lid. The driver who incidentally is Suresh’s childhood buddy is now used to this task day in and day out. He pokes a few holes on the sides of the container to ensure there is breathing space for our co-passengers and they do not feel claustrophobic.

Our next call is from a palatial house about 30 kilometers from where we are currently. Apparently, they had spotted a huge snake in their backyard. It is well after sunset and there is no sun light to figure out where the snake could be. Undeterred we are now headed to their place.

Vava picks up his torch light and clears the way for me to accompany him till a safe distance. Here too there is a crowd that has gathered to witness their local celebrity in action. Effortlessly Vava uses the torch and a stick and flashes it on the snake. He tells us after he has had an up and close look that it is a Python and indeed, it is. When Vava deftly pick it up and brings it along to the well-lit front yard of the house the women in the house shriek out of shock. The men gathered around are amazed at the sight of a huge python.

But what he does next comes totally out of the blue and leaves everyone including me awestruck. He asks for a pen or a small stick. Someone hands him a pen. With that, he opens the mouth of the python to show us its fangs. The saliva – transparent yellow in colour is the venom that it spews out when it goes about killing its prey. [I1] The wide-open mouth now has saliva dripping over the pen.
Vava picks the dripping venomous saliva and holds it upon his own mouth. About two to three drops fall into his mouth from the pen and he swallows it. He asks the hosts to give him a glass of water because he does not want the after taste of the venom to linger on. It is these small drops of venom that build the immunity in his body to withstand occasional snakebites.

There is a scared little girl who peeps out of the window of the living room to see all the action. Vava notices the little girl, puts the python over his neck, approaches her and strikes a conversation with her. He asks her which class she studies in, which school she goes to and what her name was. The little girl has now warmed up to him and slowly comes out to have a full look at the Python. Unbeknownst to the little girl we now know that Vava is investing in the mindset of the future generation.
Like in all our previous places where he would catch the snake in about couple of minutes and then spend the next fifteen minutes to display his catch to a crowd from a prominent place where the crowd would gather to see the snake man.

He is a celebrity in Kerala, has been featured in many television channels and is a household name.
Young boys take selfies with him, touch the snake, some strike conversation with him to understand the features and most of all they just want to share their excitement in the happening of all things. After all, here is a fearless man, whose bravery every young boy and man would like to emulate.

In all this Vava ensures that the young boys and girls get comfortable with the reptile and in holding it effortlessly, his actions speak louder than the words.
All he wants to convey is that the snakes and human beings can co-exist together as long as we do not do any harm to them.  Killing snakes is  more often than not an unnecessary cruelty meted out by human kind out of their own fear and misconceptions. Not all snakes are venomous and the ones that are, do not look to harm human beings, unless they are themselves in any form of danger.    
It is almost ten in the night and the past seven hours of being with the snake catcher in action seem so surreal to us. Our next call is from a place that is about 75 kilometers from where we are. It would soon be bedtime for us but Vava Suresh and his driver are fresh as a flower and are raring to go. His driver had resumed his duty this afternoon. Even by those standards, this is more than a nine hour job for him.
Apparently, everyday is like that for Vava Suresh, Kerala’s most popular snake catcher. Two drivers take turns to drive him around, and his job is a 24/7 job for which he hardly takes any money. Those who can afford give him whatever he can. The snakes do not look at the economic status of the people in whose house they stray to take refuge. And so, if it is a poor man’s hut where he has been summoned or like in this case a small corner shop, Vava Suresh would just refuse to take any money. Mostly the rich give him a few hundred rupees every time he has rescued a snake from their place. We do our math. The cost of fuel alone would be more than the occasional donations that he would get from catching the snakes on a 24/7 job. It does not make economic sense.
We ask him how he manages to make ends meet. If he really wanted to, he could quote his price and people would happily pay to have a snake out from their backyard or front yard. He never asks for any money and lives on whatever donations come to him from people in whose houses he has gone and rescued the snakes.
His home is filled with pets. Dogs, cats, parakeets and of course snakes co-exist with each other. The roof is still the old-fashioned one made of dried palm and coconut fronds. At the entrance verandah is a display of the collection of all his awards by various associations. Prominent among them is his meeting with Prince Charles who on his visit to Kerala on a wild life conservation mission caught up with Vava Suresh.  
His mother dressed in an old cotton lungi and covered over with a white cotton towel passes by with a bunch of dried wood which she possibly has collected over the day and smiles at us without an element of curiosity. She is clearly used to fans, interviewers and visitors constantly dropping by to see her celebrity son.
Vava’ in Malayalam, the native language in Kerala means baby, and a prefix like that does not do justice to Suresh’s personality. But that is how his mother called him when he was young and the name and the prefix stuck. When he was a small boy of about 9 years, she caught him rearing a cobra in his room. Petrified, she smacked him hard and ensured that no such thing comes into the house. At that time, she was oblivious to her son’s calling of rescuing snakes and other animals. She says with a sense of resignation that while she still does not approve of what he does for a living, she has now resigned to the fact that this is what his life would be like.
He is rarely at home. Sometimes for days together, he would be traveling at the behest of frantic callers who would summon him to catch the snake they have just spotted in their home or backyard.

Elusive as he is to his own family members, his sister recalls an incident when once they frantically called him. There was a panic situation at home. The cobra eggs that Vava Suresh had collected and stored in the backyard had hatched and the baby cobras were slithering all over the backyard and into the house.
Vava Suresh was in Alleppey, a good four hour drive from Sreekaryam where his family lived. When the call came over his mobile, he in a matter of factly manner told her that it would take him at least five hours to drive down after finishing his job over there.

They spent a sleepless night in their own house till he came along the next day and put the baby cobras back to where they would belong.

Once every two weeks he would take his collection and release them into the Neyyar forest reserve area where he has been given permission in the interest of ensuring the safe survival and procreation of the many species of snakes that he collects when they are spotted after they stray into the ever-expanding human habitat.
It is a fair bit that he does for the preservation of many reptile species that could otherwise go extinct due to human callousness.  

Friday, May 10, 2019

Idiappam @ Burmah Idiappa Kadai - Madurai

In the early 1900’s Ethnic Indians and  second generations Burmese Indians made up about 70% of Burma’s population.  Through the 1940’s, 50’s and 60’s the military unrest lead to the exodus of Ethnic Indians from Burma back to India.

Many of Amitav Ghosh’s books have touched upon the rich Burmese culture and the vast immigrant population that migrated from India throughout the nineteenth century and made a fortune in Burma.

Those who made it crossed the borders and escaped to India amidst war, rough terrains, disease, filth and squalor.  Many riches to rags stories have been told and retold about Indians who lost everything including property, jewellery and loved ones during the process of fleeing Burma during the Military insurgency. 

Many of them were enterprising business men and women who, despite losing everything else did not lose their spirit of enterprise and were determined to start from the scratch all over again back home.

 Padma and Devika’s grandmother was one of those refugees with an undaunted spirit. She fled Burma in 1960 with children and found her way to Madurai, the temple town in South India.  

They stayed in what was initially set up as a refugee shelter camp for those who fled Burma and later transformed to become an up and coming neighbourhood called the Burma colony.  

In the early 1960’s, after having found the roof above their head, the spirited lady decided to give the foodies of Madurai a sample of the Burmese cuisine.

She set up a small shack outside the Christian mission hospital in Madurai, where she made rice noodles with hand pound rice and served it with a tangy and spicy Burmese chutney. The sweeter version of the dish came with freshly extracted coconut milk and sugar soaked in the rice noodles.   

The shack sold no other dish, but just idiyappam (rice noodles) with coconut milk and Burmese chutney, a spicy version made among many other things with seeds of  ripened Bittergourd.   

Thus was born the Burmah (Burma with a H) Idiyappa kadai outside the gates of Christian mission hospital in Madurai.

The word spread about this new Burmese dish and people came flocking from all over the town to taste the delicacy.  And for those of us who thought Idiyappam was a traditional South Indian breakfast dish, this is a revelation.  It was an import from Burma in the last 50 years that has found its way into the south Indian cuisine.  Before the 1960’s a traditional Madurai Snack would be a ‘kuzhi paniyaram’ in its savory and sweet varieties or the Appam with coconut milk. 

Idiyappam probably got its name because rice had to be pounded (pounding in Tamil means idi) and the rice balls boiled and then set into noodles like structures over a mechanical equipment called Nazhi. It certainly is a labor-intensive process, but the hard work is worth the effort for those savoring the delicacy.

As the years passed by the Burmah idiyappam kadai near the Christian mission hospital in Madurai grew and prospered. 

Today there are two branches of the same Burmah Idiyappa kadai run by Padma and Devika at around the same place where their grandmother had established the small shack from where she sold her idiyappam and made a living that put a roof under their head and brought food to the table.

Burmah Idiappa kadai finds mention in Trip advisor and a must see / must have place in the street food list for visitors to Madurai. 

They operate from six in the evening till late until midnight.  ( Hence the photos of the shop in night mode)  

Despite all the word of mouth publicity and the huge customer base that the brand has amassed there are absolutely no trappings of riches, or an aspiration to move up the value chain of fine dining in either of the sisters.

A Hole in the wall is probably an apt description to describe their shops. Well lit, neat and clean, their one room shops are situated on opposite sides of the road.  One adjoining the rear entrance of Christian mission hospital, the gate which is no longer in use and the other on the opposite side of the road.      

Padma and Devika personally supervise and run their respective eateries that open at 6 pm and close well after midnight at around 1.00 am.  

There is a steady stream of customers to both the shops. It is more a take away joint than a place to eat. There are no chairs but Padma offers you a steel plate covered with a banana leaf where she serves you the Idiyappam, freshly steamed and laid out on a huge plate that can accommodate about a hundred idiyappams. 

It is covered with a wet cloth and laid out in the open. Beside the plate is a huge aluminum cooker where more idiyappams are getting steamed.  

While Padma dishes out the takeaway parcels a family member is busy pressing the rice balls into the nazhi and squeezing the rice noodles out of them. They would be laid out over a wet cotton cloth and steamed in the large vessel before being filled out in the huge plate from where the idiyappams get emptied out, thanks to the steady flow of customers who take home at least a dozen each along with some Burmese chutney and coconut milk for which they have brought along a stainless-steel container. The idiyappams are all packed in banana leaf and covered with newspaper wrappings with a cotton thread that ties it all up neatly. 

All ecofriendly in the good old traditional style of takeaway joints.

All for a pittance, which explains why they sell volumes and also why they get sold out so quickly.
Health conscious customers prefer the Ragi variety of idiyappams compared to the rice variety.  

Padma says that off late more of the brown ragi variety gets sold faster compared to the rice variety
The family owned Branches of Burmah Idiappa kadai have over the last three generations maintained a non-negotiable standard of quality and purity in their recipes.  

According to them, they are unable to expand because they are skeptical that the quality of their dish could get diluted and the hygiene factor could get compromised if they allow people outside the family to run the shops. 

One of her sons works in the IT Technology Parks in Bangalore.  Inspired by the demand for eateries in the newly developing metropolis, they decided to employ and send a couple of boys from the small town of Madurai to assist her son and run the shop. 

Padma says it did not work out because the boys found greener pastures in the big city and they did not want to employ unknown people to do the work as that would dilute the quality and hygiene that stands for the Burmah idiyappa kadai brand.  The equipment still lies in Bangalore, but the shop has since been shut.   

Padma and Devika, the sisters who have set up shop on the opposite sides of the same road have their own loyal clientele and there is a mild sense of co-operative competition between them. On a busy evening when one runs out of stock, it is not unusual to buy or borrow from the other’s shop in order to serve their loyal customers takeaway needs.

They have no aspirations to be a McDonald a pizza hut or for that matter the Udupi outlets that dot the restaurant segment all over south India.

A stubborn commitment to quality and hygiene, reasonable pricing and personal supervision is what they believe is the secret to their success as an iconic brand in Madurai sought after by backpackers and locals alike.  

There are many more idiyappam shops that have sprung up in the town of Madurai in the last couple of decades, but none pose any competition to them, Padma reckons. 

A very matronly attitude, pleasant demeanor customer friendly poise that makes anyone warm up to her is what keeps the loyal customers coming back to her shop for an evening snack or a healthy late-night dessert.   

Friday, May 03, 2019

Life on the slow track - Filter Kaapi in Kumbakonam

When in search of a perfect filter kaapi that the town of kumbakonam is famous for, many a localite will direct you to Sri Venkataramana mess which is where arguably the most authentic filter kaapi is served.  
If you happen to be on one of those whirlwind weekend Navagraha temple pilgrimage with no time to spare and the fear of missing out on filter coffee is gripping you, be forewarned. 
Sri Venkataramana Mess is closed on Sundays.
It does not matter to them that Sundays could be the day when the business is at its peak, what with those tourists from the cities coming down to Kumbakonam.  But Sri Venkataraman Mess
has been in business for a long time now to worry about loss of potential market share. Instead they are known for their employee friendly policies.
Legend has it that when their chief Chef who prepares their legendary Ulundu Vada was recovering after a long illness, he was not asked to take on the rigours of relentless work in the kitchen.  Instead when he resumed work, he took up a black board and pursued his hobby of sketching.  He began sketching the days menu with colorful chalk pieces sketching something different everyday.  During the music season when musicians congregated in kumbakonam for the Thyagaraja Aradhana he drew a chalk sketch of the three doyens of Carnatic music :  Muthuswany Dikshithar, Syama Sastry and Saint Thyagaraja on the black board along with the special menu for the day. 
An intrigued press reporter found this very unique and special and wrote about it in The Hindu, South India’s staple newspaper best savoured with a tumbler of Filter kaapi every morning, made to the exacting proportions as prescribed in Kumbakonam.
Sri Venkatamana mess became an instant hit on the world wide web. Since then filter coffee fanatics and tourists have toured kumbakonam sometimes solely in search of that authentic cup of Kumbakonam filter kaapi.  
Sri Venkatramana mess is no fine dining restaurant. If anything it is a busy no-nonsense eatery where you go for a quick breakfast, lunch or dinner. The service is quick, usually served on a banana leaf, by efficient, no-nonsense waiters who have no time for a small talk.
Talking about their signature Filter kaapi, you need to specify that you are there for the degree kaapi lest you should be disappointed.   Because there are two types of coffee served here. The ordinary coffee and the Degree (Filter) Kaapi. The ordinary coffee is served in stainless steel tumblers and Dabara.  Whereas the Degree kaapi is served in brass tumbler, deftly placed in a Dabara. A Brass tumbler holds up the heat longer, while you savour your Vada, Pongal or Dosai, sub consciously whipping up your taste buds to savour the hot filter coffee from the Brass tumbler at the very end. 
Serving degree coffee in a Brass Dabara Tumbler is a tradition that has been followed ever since it was instituted says the proprietor of Sri Venkatramana mess.  The milk and the coffee decoction that is used to prepare the degree kaapi have an exacting specification. In the earlier days there was the Pasumpaal (cow’s milk) coffee club that structured and perfected the taste and recipe of the iconic kumbakonam degree kaapi.  Fresh cow’s milk was boiled and added to the Degree kaapi decoction.
There are varying degrees of degree kaapi. To begin with, the roasted Arabica and Robusta coffee seeds are roasted, coarsely ground and 10% Chicory powder is added to it.  Some say the origin of the word Degree is a corruption of the Tamil pronunciation of Chicory as Tikory. 
Anyway let us not digress. Getting back to the point of degree Kaapi, the freshly ground coffee powder is put into a brass filter and pressed with a presser. Boiling water is added on top of this simple mechanical device.  You wait for the decoction to drip down from the filter into a vessel fitted at the bottom of the filter.  The first decoction that has dripped down the coffee filter is called the first degree.  This one gives the aroma to the degree Kaapi. The second degree is prepared when more boiling water is poured down the press. It filters down and drips into a decoction that gives the taste to the degree Kaapi. 
The art of making a perfect filter kaapi is not complete until this concoction is mixed well by pouring it back and forth using the Dabara (the South Indian version of a saucer) and the tumbler (the South Indian version of the cup).
The filter coffee in lesser households and restaurants perhaps use the 3rd degree and 4th degree of decoction as well that drips from the filter.  But that is not the case at Sri Venkataramana mess, says  M Balachandran, its current proprietor.    Sri Venkataramana Mess has existed for more than seventy years now. Panjami Iyer was its original founder who started something called the pasumpaal (cow’s milk) coffee club (PCC) in Kumbakonam, then a small sleepy town serving as the satellite town for its bigger twin Thanjavur.  With a Cow shed behind the restaurant where they could milk fresh milk off the cows, the now not so secret ingredient of degree filter coffee was perfected in this place which was then called the Lakshmi Vilas hotel.
The rise of Pasteurised milk and non-availability of space in this busy town has made fresh cow’s milk very rare.  However Cow’s milk is procured from dairy farms around Kumbakonam that arrives by 4 am in the morning is now used to prepare the Degree Kaapi at the Sri Venkataramana’s mess.
Balachandran’s family took over this restaurant in 1983 almost 40 years since its existence. Before the Balachandran family bought over Sri Venkataramana mess, it was owned by Aiyyasamy Iyer and before him was Narayana Iyer, who actually named this place as Sri Venkataramana Mess.    They source their coffee powder from Mohan Coffee works who prepare the coffee powder with Arabica and Robusta seeds procured from coffee plantations of Chikmagalur in Karnataka, the state adjacent to Tamilnadu, not very far away from where the River Kaveri originates and flows down through Kumbakonam.
The exacting proportions of coffee powder, chicory and milk with which a degree kaapi is made of permeates the taste buds across many generations of Tamil Brahmins from Kumbakonam who have later migrated to other parts of India and the world.  A strong expresso or a cappuccino freshly brewed   from Starbucks does not come anywhere close to ‘Namma ooru Filter kaapi’ quips a staunch kumbakonam Tamil brahmin, trying to draw comfort with his morning cup of coffee at a Starbucks outlet in Central London.      
No wonder someone said …
Coffee is a beverage, Kaapi is an emotion.

Filter Coffee photo courtesy :

Friday, April 26, 2019

Life on the slow track - ‘Chaha’ at an Amruttulya

Chaha’ at an Amruttulya 
Tulshi baug, in Pune has been a Waada (neighbourhood) with a recorded history and inhabited since the 1700’s if not earlier. In the earlier centuries it was far from the overcrowded, chaotic, busy market place that it is today. 
Naro Appaji Khire Tulshibaugwale (1700-1775), the Subedar of Pune during the Peshwa rule built an ornately sculpted Ram temple in his sprawling estate which was completed in 1795, in this neighbourhood which would later be known as Tulshibaug.  Over the next 200 years civilization would thrive  nurturing trade, arts and culture in what would later be ascribed as the Puneri culture, from the times of the Peshwas. 
In those times the neighbouring metropolis of Mumbai was still an amalgamation of islands reclaimed from the sea and its dockyard was yet to become the thriving trade center that it would become in the following century. It would take a couple of days via horse drawn carts to traverse the hills and forests of the western Ghats past the forts to reach the islands of Mumbai.  

It was Pune and not Mumbai that was the power center from where the Peshwas and the Maratha’s ruled.  The British loved its ‘almost European’ weather which was a great relief from the humidity of the sea shores of Mumbai’s islands. They set their base in the cantonment area in Pune.   Up until the 1980’s one could spot raspberry trees perhaps brought in from England and planted and nurtured by the memsahibs who lived in and around what is the 509 - Airforce area in today's Pune.     
In the early 1900s, Pune was a Marathi heartland with a minority population of Iranis, Parsis and Gujaratis who migrated to set up small businesses in the city.  By the middle of the century, after India’s independence it became the hub of automobile manufacturing industries.  The TELCO now known as Tata Motors set up its automobile manufacturing plant and gave rise to many other ancillary auto industries. It was not until the late nineties and early 2000’s that the information technology industry discovered the potential in Pune and set up shops housing the back-office operations and software development of companies based out of the west.  
Until then Marathi was the predominantly spoken language in Pune. Hindi, arguably the national language of India was still a foreign language to many Punekars.
Despite the influx of migrants into the newer areas of Pune, there are some neighbourhoods that still retain the Maharashtrian and old Pune charm.  The Peth’s and Wada’s of Pune are a reminder of a good times when this place thrived and which held its own identity and nurtured its own culture. They had their own distinct style in architecture, music, dance, theatre, performing arts and that mouth watering, subtly flavored distinct Maharashtrian cuisine.
For atleast the last three generations if not more, Tulshi baug, in old Pune has been a paradise for female shoppers of all ages and times. Unlike now when you will need to park your car somewhere far away in available parking spaces and take an autorickshaw that will take you to the periphery of Tulshibaug, you could walk it up to visit the famous Dagdu Sheth Ganpati temple and then meander into the by-lanes of Tulshibaug to shop for your trinkets, kitchen accessories,  wool to knit the next sweater for the nippy Pune winters or to weave a delicate crochet that transformed into ornate table cloths and wall hangings, much of which unleashed the creativity of the housewives of a generation gone by.   
In Tulshibaug nothing much has changed in all these years.  As you alight the autorickshaw at any of the approach roads to Tulshibaug and enter the narrow alleyways you will be bombarded into the same small shops that sell everything from trinkets, beads, woolen material, knitting needles, traditional woven sarees to modern dress materials.  The trends and fashion keep changing and coming back.  But the bric a brac in Tulshi baug caters to all the variety and times and therefore remains evergreen.
It is a bargaining haven and you will be pleased to have struck a deal for something that could cost you a bomb elsewhere in an upmarket boutique.  Only to discover the next shop offering you a bigger discount on the same earring or dress material that you bargained and bought a while ago.  On the road side hawkers set up their shops of freshly harvested vegetables from the nearby villages. Although the villages have now moved far away, with all that advent of steel and glass structures that house the offices of information technology development centers and back office shops of the world. They were the erstwhile villages and farm lands that grew vegetables and reared the cattle and poultry to cater to Pune city’s population.  
It is early afternoon and somewhere amidst the chaos and the crowds, rings the bells of Tulshi baug Ganpati.  Shoppers and hawkers suspend their activity and congregate towards the Tulshi baug Ganpati.  Situated right in the middle of the crowded shopping area is the Tulshi Baug Ganpati, one among the finest gems in Pune’s historical treasures.  Tulshi Baug Ganpati has been in existence long before Lokmanya Gangadhar Tilak, made the festival of Ganpati a public festival, to rally people to fight for social causes.  Established by the local traders in 1901, it is a display of faith within diversity among the Maharashtrian, Marwari, Gujarati, Muslim and Parsi traders of Tulshi Baug.  The idol is an imposing 15 feet in height, made of fiber glass and is on display throughout the year and not just during the eleven-day Ganeshotsav when all important neighbourhoods garner resources and manpower to erect their own pandal and install an idol that is a show of wealth, prosperity and solidarity of the neighbourhood.  
In Tulshi Baug every year a new idol is sculpted by the renowned sculptor D S Khataokar.
Khataokar has been responsible for sculpting as well as decorating the Tulshi Baug Ganesh idol for more than a couple of decades now.

Pious devotees and passersby  take turns to hold the brass lamp and circumambulate the lamp for a few minutes as a part of the ‘Arati ritual’ before handing over to the next person. It is a ten-minute ritual in which Traders, hawkers and the passersby alike, stop-by and participate.  
An ostentatious display of about 80 kilograms of silver along with fruit and flower garlands that are refreshed every day, the Tulshibaug Ganpati stands in a small 20 feet by 20 feet space in a crowded and busy marketplace as a pillar of prosperity for its inhabitants and visitors alike.
Around the corner is the famous Ganpati temple built by Dagdu Sheth Halwai, a local trader that has celebrated its 125th year of establishment. About 40 kilograms of gold ornaments adorn two idols of elephant god and are insured for 10 million (one crore) rupees.
Despite being situated in a maze which you can only reach through narrow alleyways, its construction is so minimalistic that you can view the idol from the main road as you pass by the temple on Laxmi road, the main thoroughfare surrounding the Dagdu Sheth Ganpati Mandir. 
Legend has it that Dagdu Sheth Gadve a trader who migrated to Pune in the 1800’s had set up a sweets shop (and hence the surname Halwai) in this place.  Bad times fell upon him and he lost his son to a plague epidemic and went into deep depression. This in turn led to a downfall in his business.  His spiritual mentor advised him to build a temple for Lord Ganesh to overcome the bad times. 
Apparently after he built the temple, his fortunes turned and the entire place attracted wealth and prosperity for him as well as the other traders around the area. It was here that the idea of celebrating public Ganesh festival struck Lokmanya Bal Gangadhar Tilak. It proved to be an epoch-making event in Indian history as Ganeshotsav’s in the early 1900’s slowly rallied support against the British and culminated in the freedom movement leading to India’s independence from the British rule. 
Dagdu Sheth Ganpati Mandir trust is the richest trust in the state of Maharashtra and is known for the many celebrities who flock the temple during the annual eleven-day Ganeshotsav.
The vibes of the Pune of yester years is strong and vibrant around these places, and is a stark contrast to the sprawling concrete jungle of its more cosmopolitan suburbs.  A visit to Pune’s Peth areas is not complete without visiting an ‘Amruttulya’ outlet. Translated in English it could mean ‘Comparable to Nectar’, it is a great hit among those who have that cultivated taste for ‘Chaha’ the Puneri way.
At an Amruttulya outlet tea is not brewed but boiled. Buffalo’s milk, water, sugar, crushed ginger and cardamom along with tea leaves are boiled and continuously stirred in a brass vessel. The older the brass vessel, the more distinct is the flavor of the tea boiled from it. 
Often situated as a corner shop in busy intersections of crowded marketplaces, an Amruttulya outlet is a small hole in the wall with a corner that serves as the kitchen.  A shining brass kettle perched up a kerosene stove always has some tea boiling in it with crushed ginger, cardamom, tea leaves, milk and sugar.  It is poured out in a cup and a bashi (saucer) and served to the customer.  A true Puneri way of having your tea is to pour out hot tea from the cup, into the saucer, watch it cool and noisily sip it from the saucer. Noisier the better.
When at an Amruttulya outlet in Pune, do not judge someone’s etiquette by how their sip their ‘Chaha’. For the ‘Chaha’ is best sipped from the Bashi and not from cup.  

A middle-aged man dressed in an impeccable white kurta, pyjama and a white cotton Gandhi cap, after some routine haggling buys a bunch of lemon grass and ginger wrapped in a newspaper for ten rupees from the old woman clad in a nine yards saree who has set up her wares by to road side
outside the Amruttulya outlet. Like in most Maharashtrian households, his day would begin with a Gavati Chaha - strong tea, boiled and strongly flavoured with cuttings of lemon grass and crushed ginger along with a bowlful of Kanda poha seasoned with freshly grated coconut and finely chopped coriander leaves while reading the ‘Sakal’ newspaper.   Somewhere in the background Pune’s own Bhimsen Joshi would croon away a Vithal Bhajan that would set the atmosphere just right to begin yet another day in one of the few waadas left in old Pune. 

References :

Friday, April 19, 2019

Life on the slow track - BANANA BUNS IN UDUPI


It is about 1.30 in the afternoon and the town of Kollur is in a siesta.  A soothing silence and peace has engulfed this little town. Dark clouds that threaten a downpour anytime pass by peacefully as though they too are on an afternoon siesta. The temple around which the entire economy of this little town in built is closed until evening. The shopkeepers too are on a siesta.

 As you walk up to the Kollur bus station and sit inside the only bus that leaves for all places outside of kollur, including Udupi, you realize the driver is also having a siesta on the long front seat. The conductor is the only man on duty and he is out smoking a cigarette.  He is happy for the lone passenger to board his bus and quickly goes out to solicit more of them. Unfortunately, he does not find any.
It is a lovely window seat from where you get to view the lush green mountains and feel the slight nip in the moist air of Kollur.  

As the bus takes off you take in the hazy experience of watching the landscape. In about three to four hours the landscape drastically changes from the greenery of the mountains to the barrenness of the plains especially when the bus takes the fast route on that freshly built NH44.    
The freshly felled trees are an indication of the newly built National highway that pierces through this place would be expanded into an eight-lane highway.  On the yet to be expanded national highway are huge billboards advertising gold and diamond jewelry showrooms, newly found educational institutions guaranteeing 100% job placements and infertility clinics with 99.8% success rate of producing children for barren couples.

The traffic gets dense as the long vehicles from the Mangalore port, the trucks, the tourist buses and the plush cars whiz past at dizzying speeds.

 Travelling from Kollur by a bus, it is amazing to see the landscape of these coastal towns change rapidly as you move towards the plains.
As you close in to Udupi, the weather gets warm and humid. There is a saline tinge in the air. Your arrival into the town is evident as the traffic gets denser and the central part of Udupi town emerges. It is a noisy and busy bus station, quite a contrast to its quiet and quaint railway station.

The bus conductor calls out for passengers alighting at Udupi to hurry up. As you alight, the noise, the crowd, the chaos, the huge billboards of this not so small town hit you hard.  
Udupi Lord Krishna on whom many a composition has been composed and sung by Carnatic musicians is the reigning deity of this town. 

Udupi Sri Krishna temple around whom the entire town grew over the years is about ten minutes’ drive away from the bus station by an autorickshaw. The streets surrounding the temple are cordoned off for vehicular traffic.  

At the center of squarely built streets stands the Udupi Sri Krishna temple with an imposing but petite architecture.  Surrounding the temple on the wide pavemented streets are, various institutions run by various ‘Mutt’s who are headquartered in Udupi, one of the five important Krishna temples in India. 
The aesthetically appealing architecture, grandly lit facades and delicately designed wood work make these ‘Mutts’ stand out and should loud to say that once upon a time these institutions thrived in this temple town. This place is also a prestigious platform for performing artistes to showcase their art.   

In the olden days these mutt’s would offer shelter and food to devotees who travelled from afar. Before the roads were built and rail roads were laid, undertaking a travel must have been an arduous affair. Travel must have been more for pilgrimage purposes than as a family outing or a youthful adventure.
Depending upon your affiliation in your home town, you checked into a mutt that had its branch in Udupi.

Times have changed. The Mutt’s let out these rooms for a small amount. But not before checking your antecedents and affiliations of caste, sub-caste and religion. It is not a commercial affair and no one solicits business here. You get referred by someone who has been there or someone you knew from your home town.

One such mutt is the Uttaradi Mutt. An institution that has perhaps seen better days in the past.
A ‘China Bazaar’ shop selling cheap plastic items and fake Puma track suits for 200 rupees camouflages the entrance to the Uttaradi mutt.     However, as you enter the Mutt, a different aura engulfs you.  The front yard is decorated with  a Tulsi alcove. (Basil – shrub considered to be Sri Krishna’s consort). A woman renunciate, a Krishna devotee is arranging the flowers and the copper vessels at an unhurried pace perhaps getting it ready for the evening pooja ritual to the Tulsi Alcove.   Time seems to flow slowly and peacefully inside the Mutt.

Inside the Mutt is a big hall and on the altar is a huge brass sculpture of Sri Krishna, very tastefully decorated. On the first floor from where you can oversee the happening in the hall are the rooms available for rent. In the room you get freshly laundered bedsheets and pillows on the double bed and a spotlessly clean bathroom.  No frills like air conditioning, bottled mineral water or room service.  It is a place for devotee and pilgrims coming from faraway places to refresh and move on.
As you step out of Uttaradi Mutt, you witness that Opulence is in the air.  This is ‘Krishna’ land. A ‘darshan’ of the richly decorated idol of Udupi Shri Krishna is relayed to devotees through LED Televisions all around the temple as well as at the entrances on all four sides of the temple.   There are rituals performed six times during the day.

At the temple auditorium a young girl with two accompanying artistes, one on the harmonium and another on a tabla is performing a dance drama known as the Hari Katha. The Chairs in the auditorium are all taken and people are sitting and standing across the stone walls of the temple mesmerized by the performance.

Sraddha is probably in her late teens, hails from Kasargode another coastal town not far from Udupi. Her performance is awe-inspiring.  She wears absolutely no makeup, sans her bindi.  Her hair is nicely oiled and plaited into a single braid. Dressed in a blue long skirt (Lehenga) and red silk blouse, she is standing at the middle of the stage reciting the ‘Srinivasa kalyanam’.  The marriage of ‘Tirupati Venkatesha’ to his consort ‘Padmavati’ .  While the format traverses through the various avatars of Sri Vishnu, Rama and Krishna being two among them, the story telling is interspersed with teachings from the Bhagavata Puranam.   

Her recital is in Kannada, the local language and the compositions are by Purandaradasa, an eighteenth-century composer believed to be the earliest founder of Carnatic music. The story is that of Vishnu Avatar’s and Bhagavata Puranam.  
As she bursts into songs, stories and anecdotes while reciting the story her expressions, her tone and her demeanor change. On her right hand in a cymbal that she plays in order to keep the rhythm and add music to her recitals, she is accompanied by two men, much older to her, one on the harmonium and the other on a tabla. As the evening progresses, she intersperses her songs with recitals and adds a modern-day contemporary touch to it.  When she bursts into ‘Venkata chala Nilayam … vaikunta pura vasam’, the composition by Sri Purandaradasa describing, Sri Vishnu’s abode in ‘Vaikunta’, the audience is spell bound and the applause across the auditorium reaches high decibels. 
And yet she is an unknown, unsung artiste of an art form that has few takers at the wider level. As the performance draws to a close, the father of the young artiste is introduced.  The audience, mesmerized by her performance, put together their hands for a huge applause for nurturing this young talent.

A very shy and introverted Sraddha thanks the audience who have walked upto her for the compliment and moves closer to her father, while busying herself packing her backpack with her belongings as they wrap up the show.
Neither Sraddha, nor her father have plans for her to pursue this art form as a full-time career.  At that point in time they are just thankful for the Temple authorities to have given her a chance to perform at the Udupi Sri Krishna temple.

There must be many like Sraddha in small towns like Kasargode and beyond, whose talents will sadly never be recognized by the wider world. But it opens your eyes to the depth of talent and devotion to a less known art form that lies hidden in the hinterlands of India where a rich and ancient culture thrived and promoted story telling as an art form for many centuries over.

Udupi in the contemporary time is known for its iconic brand of restaurants all over India that symbolize the typical ‘south Indian’ food.  They do not exactly operate like a restaurant chain or franchise, but are eateries across all segments run by families who have their roots in the coastal Karnataka region ranging from Mangalore, Gokarna and Udupi.

Their unfailingly standardized recipes that originate from this region have come about to signify your typical South Indian cuisine in the far-flung regions of India.  Although the South Indian cuisine is much more than the standard fare of ‘Udupi’ Masala dosa and Ghee roast dished out with a slightly sweet sambar and coconut chutney.

Much lesser known among the Costal Karnataka delicacies is the Banana bun also known as the Mangalore Bun. It is a bun that is not baked but fried and makes for lovely snack. Slightly sweet in taste, it is made with overripe mashed banana, mixed with dough that has been fermented overnight. The Dough balls are then flattened and fried in oil. This slightly sweet snack is best savoured hot with a splattering of coconut chutney. 

Sunday, April 14, 2019

Raise that finger and show it to ‘em

It is that time when the citizen is the king.  When democracy comes alive and the mighty and powerful come down kneeling to ask to be voted to power.

Thanks to Election commission (and perhaps demonetization) , this year’s run-up to the elections is devoid of the massive fanfare that it used to be in the yesteryears.
Absence of those massive cut outs,  mid night political rallies, cash and spirits flowing like water in exchange of promised votes gives us some hope that sanity will prevail in this democracy atleast in the future.
Perhaps I am  being na├»ve... 
Perhaps there is a lot going on behind the screens or underground. 
Perhaps our politicians have evolved and have devised other jugaadu ways to hood wink the election commission…

But the change on the ground is visible.   

More than the rallying from the political parties, it is the rally from the election commission and the citizens urging everyone to go and cast their vote, that is worth taking note of.

For if we do not do our bit, we are equally responsible for the mess that our politicians create when voted to power.      

While Bangalore’s immigrant population has been vociferous about their missing votes, there are celebrities that are urging their fans to go out and cast their vote on twitter and facebook.   

Here is one such plea urging citizens to go and vote that was painted on the walls of a government primary school building in a village on the banks of Narmada river near Khandwa in Madhya Pradesh that had me in splits as I clicked ... 

Pehle vote daalne jaana...
Baad mey apni Bhains lagaana...

(Literal translation : The first thing on voting day – go cast your vote.  You can then take your buffaloes out to graze)

Hilarious as it sounded at first, on second thoughts I thought it had a universal appeal.

We all have our buffaloes that we need to take out to graze .  Metaphorically speaking.

It may not be the rural hinterlands on the banks of Narmada, but in the air-conditioned cubicles and cabins of those tall glass buildings that some of us take our buffaloes to graze’. 

But vote we must.  

And for that it is OK to take time off.

So without much ado… Go out there and vote

Raise that (index) finger and show it to ‘em

Friday, April 12, 2019

Life on the slow track - Appam and Stew aboard NH49

The grey overcast sky from the early morning has given way and with the advent of sunshine, the day looks bright and clear.  It is humid but not hot at this time of the day.
When on a road trip it is best to go with your instinct and eat at places that you have never heard of before. 

Aboard the NH49, is this mid-sized bill board hanging out by the road side which says ‘MDM … stew and palappam Rs. 5.’  

As you slow down, you see a small shop on the opposite side of the road that is trying hard to cater to a cross section of customers by advertising chinees (sic), north Indian, South Indian snacks.   

However, at that time in the morning, the man behind the oven is busy preparing the dough for the Malabar parotta (as different as chalk and cheese in genre, species and characteristics from the north Indian understanding of paratha).

All they have available at that time of the day is Appam and stew unless you are prepared to wait for about twenty minutes, says a woman’s voice from the kitchen.     

A slightly wobbly yellow plastic table surrounded by blue plastic chairs does not make for a great ambience, but the not so busy NH-49 cutting across the coconut groves and the fresh rays of early morning sunlight piercing through the dense greenery on the opposite side of the road is soothing for the eyes. Besides it is a good place to stretch your legs, breathe some cool fresh air before the day gets humid and have a leisurely breakfast.
The lady lays out a lemony yellow plastic plate and serves a fluffy white appam with bare hands. Along comes a hot bowl of stew and the fragrance of freshly culled out coconut milk spiced up with cloves, cinnamon and cardamom ensures you have made the right stop at the right time.  The spotlessly white appam is soft in the middle, which comes from mixing the dough with freshly fermented coconut milk.  

There are some dishes that cannot be mass manufactured in the restaurants with heavy foot fall.  This is one of them,

Served fresh and hot they taste as authentic as they can and come with what is called the ‘homely touch’.

MDM restaurant supplies its palappam and stew to the nearby hotels who stock it up in their buffet breakfast menu.  This road side kitchen survives on its bulk orders of Appam and stew from the nearby hotels claiming to serve ‘authentic local food’. That was the reason they had Appam and stew available in the early hours, ready to the shipped to the hotels in time for the display in the buffet breakfast menu.  

Light on the palate, slightly sweetened in taste by the coconut milk and mildly spiced up, vegetable stew is an authentic local dish of the Malabar coast line. 

‘Stew’ as the name of the recipe was perhaps was an inheritance from the British, who were familiar with the other stewed versions like the apple stew, lamb and lentil stew from Europe. 

The localized version is the ‘Ishtu’ as it is called by the locals. Its ingredients and recipe are certainly as local as it can get.  Cloves, cardamom, cashew and seasonal vegetables or mutton pieces slowly stewed (not cooked) in freshly extracted coconut milk. It was probably christened as the Malabar stew by the British almost a century ago.  The locals have adapted the nomenclature and pronounce it ‘ishtu’.
When you look around and search for the origins of this recipe, you can trace it down among the Srilankans and Tamils settled in the coastal district in Tuticorin and Nagapattinam.   In its Srilankan Sinhalese version the stew is known as ‘Sodhi’. This dish perhaps   originated from Sri lanka which has a similar terrain and flora like the Malabar coast. A vast coast line, abundant coconut trees, spices and locally grown vegetables and livestock evolved and mutated into a recipe that was adapted by the locals and the colonial rulers alike. 

In its Malabar version, it is best served with fluffy appam’s that are prepared with fermented lentils and rice dough mixed with tender coconut water and coconut milk extract. Best served hot and eaten in a traditional Kerala home or at a non-descript road side eatery along the national highways dotted across the Malabar coast.

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