Monday, January 31, 2011

I should have been in my seventies now !
-- [Guest post by Yashoda Joshi]

Sometimes I wish I were born in the 1930s. Why such a stupid wish, one might ask. Given that there were no cell phones, no computers, no Internet, no television and not even enough cinema halls, coffee shops, or bars around. Well perhaps those might well be some of the reasons for an anachronistic wish like that. But the main reason would be the people, the people who made up the social structure in those days.

Society was more liberal. Men and women were more confident in their own skin. And it was a free society. I know at this point you are staring at me, and thinking that this woman is MAD. But think again. We were not influenced by so-called Western culture. We were colonised and the same colonisation led to freethinking and the need of freedom. People could say / write / perform anything they wanted and not have this constant fear of what anyone might say or do to them.

There was no Shiv Sena, no Ram Sena, no RSS, no Islamic fundamentalism. People were sensible in the way that they were both liberal and conservative. Education was the most important thing. People aspired to be sensitive; sensitive towards the country, their surroundings, their neighbours, and in general, the environment. They were more tolerant and generous. It was easier to be vocal; through cinema, through newspapers, through painting, sculpture, and art. (Small caveat: The British, of course, arrested those who spoke against British Rule; but people lived without being scared.)

The photograph below tells the story of a few people who lived life on their own terms without paying heed to the stigmas of society and culture.

Mudholkar Family in 1937. Vatsala Aaji is standing to the extreme right.

My grandmother, Vatsala Aaji, had seven sisters and three brothers. She was the fifth child in the family. Her father Srikrishna married Aaji’s mother a year after his first wife passed away. This was in late 1927. Vatsala Aaji was born on 5th June 1928. Aaji’s family believed in education and the independence of every family member.

Aaji was the most beautiful, independent, and strong-willed woman I have ever seen or known. She was a great singer, and appreciated and encouraged a lot of young musicians. She inculcated a love for music and life in all her children, grandchildren, brothers, sisters, nephews, and nieces. A very enthusiastic woman, she loved travelling; collecting and wearing beautiful sarees was her passion. At the age of fourteen, she started singing on radio. She used to travel alone to Hyderabad (Nizam state in those days) to perform at radio concerts. She met my grandfather, Ajoba, for the first time, when she was 14 or 15. They fell in love, but since Ajoba’s family opposed their union, they could not be together. In 1949, Ajoba returned to Pune for work. He and Aaji met again and were now working in a Kannada play. By this time Ajoba was already married. But both Aaji and Ajoba had such great passion and love for music that they could not but be in each other’s company. In May 1951, my grandparents got married. Aaji did not care about what people would say. She chose to be with a person who was already married and had a family because of love and a common passion. Ajoba and Aaji settled in Pune and lived together for 56 years till Aaji passed away in 2005.

For me this is the most adventurous story ever. Living a full life without any social and cultural fears. And yet both my grandparents were religious, not in a ritualistic way but in a more spiritual way.

Am I trying to make any anthropological / sociological statement with this story? Of course not. I just wish that I could have been born in India in the 1930s, when being your own person was more important than being scared of what others might say or do. I still dream of being in the company of such people, some of who walked on this very land, which now is inhabited by hypocrisy and intolerance.

Vatsala Aaji with my father Jayant in Darjeeling around 1957. Photographed by Ajoba.

[Yashoda Joshi pontificates loudly as she tries to discover the ways of the world. She is an architect, a teacher, a brisk walker, and always knows what to say, even if it won't make you happy. In her own words, she is "an awesome person". Read more here...]

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Nightmare Therapy

This morning I jolted myself out of three nightmares. Not one-one, not two-two, but three-three. While I won't go into the details of all, the last was particularly enlightening since it involved a talk I am going to deliver this Wednesday and in my dream, it was a spectacular failure. The audience kept asking strange questions, and I was making my slides during the talk. Yes, blame the anxiety, and in turn, blame the middle-class roots, and oh wait, let's not forget the TamBrahm upbringing, not to mention, neuroses.

Amazing how detailed our nightly travels can get. Besides, dreaming in technicolour always makes my dreams that much more uncannily real. But this post is not about my dreams. Instead, it is about what I did all morning to will away the bad vibes of the night. I baked.

Now, please remember, I do not bake. I cannot bake. I haven't ever baked. So, what possessed me, you wish to gently ask? Gay abandon my friend. I figured that if this week is going to be about spectacular failure, then might as well add to the pile. I mean really, how will it hurt to pillory myself a few more times? Or wait, perhaps I'm even sticking it to the man. Hah. I mean surely if I can bake a muffin, I can give a talk. Or rather, if I can bake, then why bother with work?

My roommate C baked these last week, and they came out great. Besides the point that C bakes beautifully. But it seemed like if I were to scurry around in my half-rambling, half-grumpy, morning sleepwalk state, I might get over my trepidation at not knowing the difference between whisking and folding. So there I was, pajama-ed and bright-eyed (maybe not so much), trying not to spill batter all over the kitchen floor. It's amazing how much baking is like a scientific experiment. A pipette here, a test-tube there, six drops of something, 500 ml of something else. Whew. Horribly tiring. And most difficult to perform when clumsy, like I. Or un-scientific, also like moi. And imprecise; following the plot yet?

Lemon Cranberry Muffins

I followed this recipe from a magazine called "Eating Well".

Pretty darn good. I even added a cup of slivered, blanched, almonds. In case you were asking about poetic licence. Ye of little faith.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Time and Space -- Two Stories

Debris is an object. The past is a country. And while we now live through categories such as nations and states, all around us lie the living artifacts of the past.

Basilica Cistern/ Yerebatan Sarayi: Istanbul - 5th century AD

Photograph of the Basilica Cistern/ Yerebatan Sarayi: Istanbul - 2006 AD

Monte Albán, Oaxaca, Mexico - 500 BC

Photograph of Monte Albán, Oaxaca, Mexico - 2010

Friday, January 28, 2011

This perhaps is my conceit then, that if it weren't for the mechanics of life distracting the soul, I would be free to be a genius.
Instead, I am merely corrupt. And indigent. And restless. And bored.
Now I have bills to pay. And places to go. And a body to feed.
Once every seven days, come a few unguarded moments; sans hunger, pain, body, or breath, I am magnificent.
And then life comes crowding back in.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Seeing and Flux

Gerhard Richter
German, born 1932

Woman Descending the Staircase (Frau die Treppe herabgehend), 1965
Oil on canvas
198 x 128 cm (79 x 51 in.)
Art Institute of Chicago
Roy J. and Frances R. Friedman Endowment; gift of Lannan Foundation, 1997.176
© Gerhard Richter

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

The Things the Movies Do

I watched this film yesterday. Tilda Swinton is magnificent. And uncanny.

It's been a while since I have been so taken in by beautiful images and benign dissatisfaction. You know? The kind that lurks in all of us, in our daily lives? That we stem with ritual, and form, and pretty clothes, and a social life? Of course, the life of the Recchis, the Italian family around which the tale of the movie is spun, is far from what you or I might think to be daily life. Old Milanese industrial elite, the Recchis and their wealth seem to signify order, propriety, and the its attendant silences. And yet, such order is, I must confess, rather pretty. The visual style is what The New York Times, in this rather nicely written review, calls "postclassical Hollywood baroque". It is a carefully crafted cinematic ethnography of the haute-bourgeoisie. Whose entire world is ordered. And exotic. And beautiful. And we like such patterning.

And yet, in the most predictable, yet satisfying manner, love (or perhaps even the ardent desire for love that then masquerades as such) interrupts order.

Without saying anything else, let me just add here that perhaps what one goes to the movies for, is a dose of madness. The kind of soaring, righteous, rightful madness that most of us are denied in our sensible, reasonable, rational lives. Simplistic, I know. Yet, there seems to be some divine providence to the possibility of a true passion, a hidden path that will make itself manifest in a burst of abandon. Perhaps.

I am simulatenously reading Siri Hustvedt's "What I Loved" and as I watched the movie, some parts of it came back to mind.

"While I was lying on the floor in the studio, " she wrote in the fourth letter, "I watched while you painted me. I looked at your arms and your shoulders and especially your hands while you worked on the canvas. I wanted you to turn around and walk over to me and rub my skin the way you rubbed the painting. I wanted you to press hard on me with your thumb the way you pressed on the picture, and I thought that if you didn't, I would go crazy, but I didn't go crazy, and you never touched me then, not once. You didn't even shake my hand." (Pg.3-4)

It's true. We don't go crazy. Instead, we go to the movies.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Where We Live

The factors, and in most cases, the constraints that determine where we live are varied and diverse. Yesterday, Tejumola Olaniyan spoke at the Institute for Research in the Humanities at The University of WIsconsin, Madison, about imagining a cultural biography of the African postcolonial nation-state through "the cultural forms that help people cope with a bewildering modernity".

One of the things he paid attention to was what he terms "urban garrison architecture"'; the aesthetics and politics of the ways in which the upper classes in Africa sequester themselves from crime, class difference, and the elements. High walls with shards of glass, endless ringlets of barbed wire, spikes and stones, all together seem to form an aesthetic of both separation and sequestration that testify to both the failures of the state, and the consumptive tendencies of an individualist, and capitalist hypermodernity. The condition of Africa, as many later suggested is not unique. Urbanity world over is tending to a similarity of form.

From a BBC documentary on South Africa's security islands

The entrance to Cottonwood, a small private estate in Johannesburg’s northern suburbs, close to Dainfern.

Barbed wire in Johannesburg

From the website Inspiring Cities, a post titled "Walls of Incompetence"; as the author Hans Karssenberg states, "No need for urban regeneration, build a wall instead".

Gated community in Plano, Texas near Dallas; photo by Dean Terry

Favela de Paraisopolis and the gated communities of Morumbi, photo Tuca Vieira, courtesy Urban Age, London School of Economics

The list is endless and the favorite set of cities in here is generally some combination of Johanessburg, Sao Paolo, Mumbai, Shanghai, Tokyo, Los Angeles, Mexico City, and some. They are often held up as the sharp, large, and monstrous indicators of the central forms of "lack" that distinguish urban society; lack of security, lack of order, lack of equality, lack of statehood, but most of all, the lack of civility underlying what Olaniyan called these "fortresses in the middle of the city".

I am not going to belabor the point, but I do have a question. If most of the world's urbanity lives in conditions of segregation running the spectrum from marginalization to outright segregation, what is the imaginary, ideal, city against which we hold up this lack? What forms of imagination other than social justice can we employ to imagine a different city?

(On an aside, how lovingly have these photographs been taken! I am, despite my vociferous dislike for gated communities, almost seduced by the pictures. Also, feminist science-fiction work is particularly fond of this setting; see Octavia Butler's "Parable of the Sower" and Margaret Atwood's "Oryx and Crake").

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Sunday Soup: Avocado

(Some of you who have been kind and frequent visitors will remember that I began a series of posts titled the "Cavalier Cook" in the last week of 2009 as a response to star food-blogger Nupur's invitation to a cooking marathon. Suffice to say, I've been huffing and puffing ever since. So taking account of (a) busy lives (hah!), and (b) laziness (that's more like it), this is now a weekly column. )

Winter demands soup. And warmth, and comfort, and ease. And cooking that one can wrap up in fifteen minutes. Such is today's fare.

For four servings of avocado soup, you will need
(a) 4 medium-sized ripe avocados (yes I know; you knew that already Einstein)
(b) A handful of cilantro/ coriander leaves/ dhaniya patta (My Turkish friends are cringing in some part of the world right now; they hate cilantro as much as they love parsley)
(c) A cup of lime/lemon juice
(d) A tbs of cream
(e) Vegetable/ Chicken broth
(f) Salt and pepper

* Halve the avocados like so;

* Scoop out the flesh and mash into a thick paste
* Blend together the cilantro and lime and add to this paste

* Warm your broth of choice (mine has switched to chicken broth ever since falling ill and drinking gallons of it) and add to the soup. *NEVER* warm the soup directly on the stove. Add warm broth every time you need to re-serve.
* Season with salt and pepper, add a dollop of cream.
* Voila
* We had this with mozzarella, pesto and tomato sandwiches. Most fulfilling.

This wonderfully simple recipe is courtesy a day-long Oaxacan cooking lesson I had when visiting my dear friends Susy and Mauricio. This is the dinner I will owe them when they come visit:). If ever in Oaxaca, do go learn from Oscar at Casa Crespo.

On other fronts, I have to go scrape ice off my car, so hasta mañana. What are you guys cooking today?

Friday, January 21, 2011

21.1.2011: And so it begins...

Here we go then. This blog has now officially been revamped. Stop shaking your head, you'll see. More details coming up here, but here's what one might call the net-net. I will post everyday. Each day's post will conform to a different loosely titled theme. Many more will write along with me, and I will post their bios as they write.

Why this change? Well firstly, in the manner of every product, brand, web-page, person, dog, and kitten, I need something new. So in other words, just. Secondly, I am surrounded by a community of incredibly talented, versatile, funny, engaged, involved, and interesting people. So I invited them to write too. Am hoping they do.

So this is what we are doing every day of the week for the next year.

Sunday - The "Cavalier Cook" returns; just food -- recipes, restaurant reviews, gustatory thoughts.
Monday - "Square Peg";or rather, anything that doesn't fit within the rest of the week.
Tuesday - "Blue Turban"; unlike the man who predicts the proverbial end of the world, we won't. Instead we get political.
Wednesday - "Reels and Parchment"; reviews, thoughts, or just random musings on books and films.
Thursday - "Muse"; pretty pictures and what we think about such prettiness.
Friday - "Story-time"; this one's mine.
Saturday - "Peregrination", travel writing.

Over the next few days, I will bulk up the other sections of this blog and update information. The official writing kicks of as it should, with food, come Sunday. Do come visit. We'd love to have you tell us what you think.

Until then, enjoy the weekend. It's cold here in Madison; the temperature was at a minus twenty six degrees celsius yesterday as I walked back from school. My hands threatened to fall off as did my face.

It's beautiful though. And the cardinals are out.

Saturday, January 01, 2011

Wake up

In the words of the rabbit, I'm late!!! It's almost the end of the first day of 2011 and I'm late! I've been awake all of last night and cannot muster up either the energy or the focus required to string wisdom of any magnitude together, so I give you instead my resolutions for the year.

(a) A little tenderness. Towards small things. Flowers, food, animals, beetles.
(b) Loads of selfishness. The courage to insist on things that are important.
(c) Tantrums. Channeled bundles of energy towards bringing about one thing in a week that can bring some joy.

(a) A language. Spanish?
(b) A skill. Knitting?
(c) A plan. Ulan Bator?

(a) A nosepin
(b) A sentence a day
(c) A book proposal

I am not sure if this qualifies as the superbly erudite post I dreamt of posting all day long. But there is more coming up. This year, I will write. Watch this space. And happy new year my lovely peepers. You are all wonderful to come by. And I hope you will tell me about all your wonderful resolutions. Big, medium, and small.