Marie Antoinette famously told her subjects, "If you can't buy bread eat cake." Little did she know of three fabulous bakeries, whose bread and cake are so good, they are truly interchangeable. No, this isn't any fancy Parisian patisserie, or over-priced 5-star hotel. These are 3 humble, Irani-owned bakeries in Pune, India. They are the stuff of legend. People come from far and wide to sample their fare, and often pack suitcases full of the stuff to take back home, where relatives, cousins and friends devour it.
The three bakeries are within walking distance from one another. On East Street is Kayani Bakery. The Kayanian dynasty was one of the most powerful royal ruling families of Iran in ancient times, and these guys, true to their name are still churning out stuff fit for kings. Their chocolate icing cake is famous. Its large, circular, and coated with the hardest, brownest layer of sugary chocolate, with white zig-zag lines and two pink roses with fluorescent green creamy leaves. Inside it is the soft sponge again, but with a generous sprinkling of red and green sweet little squishy things we like to call tutty-fruities. My family had nicknamed it 'Goo-cake', and it provided the ultimate sugar rush.
But the king and queen of Kayani Bakery are the Ginger and Shewsburry biscuits. The former is a brown round cookie, with a delicious gingery spiciness, which no one can replicate. The queen of Kayani, the Shewsburry, is the fairer cousin of the ginger. Off-white and just packed with oodles of butter, it melts in your mouth, as your heart also melts with pure love and goodness. A few find the butteriness too much, and prefer the kidney shaped hazelnut biscuit. This is probably one of the few times you can taste real hazelnuts. There are also the round coconut biscuits, with frilly edges. For those with a preference for salty goods, there are cheese biscuits, soup sticks, and other such delicacies. Most of the biscuits are made in the same moulds and have an imprint of a smiling baker with 'Kayani Bakery' written around his head like a halo.
And truly, their bakers are a gift from higher powers. Not at all angelic in appearance, some are big and burly, with arms like young tree trunks, perfect for rolling and punching the dough. Others are sullen, but their magic and angelicness is apparent in the kitchen. The bakery only cooks on wooden ovens, and despite some environmental concerns, once you taste any of their products, you are a slave to them, and ready to sacrifice any number of trees for their noble cause.
The bakery itself is large, but the front counter is always as crowded as a railway station. A series of challenges stands between you and your cakes. You have to first wrestle to get to the counter top, which is very high, and then peer over it. You then have to get the attention of one of the staff, no easy task, as each one would be already occupied with some other customer. And the staff is in no rush. By this time you better have two lists in mind, one of your first preference of items, and a second list of back-ups. Often items of your choice are over, or they are only baked in the morning or evening. The place is simple, and the only forms of interior decoration are a large picture of the Prophet Zoraster, and a large, plain calendar with red and blue digits.
The other bakery is Royal Bakery. Contrary to its name, it is a small, rustic joint, with pista green shutters. While Kayani Bakery has more expertise in biscuits, Royal Bakery is best in breads. These bakers look like they have just landed from the steppes of Iran. They have lined and weathered faces, with the mysterious light-eyed look of the Middle-Eastern nomad. It is impossible to guess their ages, but their grey hair is testimony to all their hard work, and do they work hard! One can see straight past the counter, just a few feet away, into the dark depths of their kitchen. There is a long table, and on either side are more weathered men wearing dirty vests, sweating, as they wrestle and cuddle huge masses of dough. One of Royal Bakeries legacies is the gutli pao. This is a large round bread, with an outer crust that is brown, thick and hard. Inside, it is soft, white, snowy bread, with a spongy, airy texture, that is like nothing on earth. It can be had with anything, dal, curry, jam, but it tastes best with lumps of hard butter. The bread symbolically resembles its creators, formidable to behold, but concealing pure goodness within.
Another legendary creation of Royal Bakery is their milk bread. Here they are one up on Kayani Bakery. If Marie Antoinette had tasted this bread, she would have said,"Dam the cake, just eat bread." And her subjects wouldn't have objected in the least. This bread comes wrapped in a smooth, creamy paper. On it is printed in red a smiling baker, and the very apt sentence "The bread that stays for a 100 days and keeps you fit for a 100 years."
A gorgeous creation from Royal is their batasa. These are little round crunchy biscuits, with a faint flavour of jeera. To truly appreciate their beauty, they need to be dunked in a cup of hot tea. The outer layers become soft, and melt in the mouth, while the centre stays crispy and crunchy.
Almost opposite Royal Bakery is the last, but not the least, City Bakery. All the bakeries have their share of crazy staff. One could never tell if they are joking or serious, and sometimes they are downright rude, but no one really cared. The Iranis are famous for their 'crazy streak' and City Bakery really takes the cake, or shall we say, the bread. This baker refers to everything in his shop in dollars. How much was the bread? Twenty dollars. The chocolate biscuits? Forty dollars. The total? Sixty dollars. He persists in this behavior with a perfectly straight face. A customer once complimented him on the quality of his stuff, saying such delicacies would not be available even in the best bakeries of Paris. He replied, "Madam, you obviously don't appear to have visited Paris." Of course, this just left the lady cackling with laughter as she carried off her bag of goodies. Their crowning glory is the Fan biscuit. Probably mastered from some Danish baker, this is a glorious creation, shaped like an elongated heart, delicately layered, and coated with crunchy sugar. It could melt the hardest heart.
These shops are as simple and unadorned as their owners. If there is a Nobel Prize in food, they have excellent chances of winning it. They belong to the rare species who bakes with pure love, and it is apparent in every bite. Their service to humanity is beyond measure. As you take a bite of any bread, biscuit or cake, its goodness and richness slowly spreads on your tongue, filling you with warm delight, and you finally know what it is to eat like a king.
Have you heard of the CNN-IBN initiative called The Greatest Indian? They are trying to find the greatest Indian since Gandhi. The very concept of this episode reflects on us, as a nation. We don't have any real heroes after Gandhi. If we have such a program , it means we are desperately in search of a new hero. This is no surprise. Most of our heroes are from cricket, or Bollywood, or politics, or cricket (did I mention cricket already?). And there is a real dearth of heroines. I mean real women, doing real work, not those cast in the 'fair and lovely' mold. It's not that they don't exist, it's just that the media is too busy showing us the Bollywood ones.
Some of you may ask, "What happened to Gandhi?" Well, a country can't keep harping about the one and the same great soul after more than half a century. While I personally admire Gandhi and his philosophy greatly, the 'simple living' he advocates is not popular among most middle and upper class Indians today. Who wants to consume less when there are so many mindless malls dotting our cities? Who is going to clean his or her own toilet (forget about the streets), when there are bais, a dime a dozen? Ironically, you can often see Gandhi's portrait in government offices and police stations, precisely the places where Gandhi's principles are shamelessly flouted, with large sums of money changing hands below (and even above) the table. Gandhi stoically looks upon all these transactions from his glass frame. He is still on many of our stamps. He has been reduced to just that, a half-inch chit of paper. If he saw the country he fought for, he would probably weep.
CNN-IBN has drawn up a list of 50 people, and 'we the people' can vote for the top 10, and then finally that one glorious soul as well. Of course, there is a panel of distinguished judges whose vote will count too . Now this is a tough one, because you can't really compare the achievements of a Birla with an M.S. Subbalaxshmi. While some are nation and institution builders, others are social workers, and still others are intellectual stalwarts, entrepreneurs, military heroes, or artists and musicians. It takes all kinds to make this world. R.K. Laxman has contributed something great to our country for over 60 years, so has Kurien or B.K.S. Iyengar. Not all achievements are concrete and tangible.
When we choose one of these great people, it is not a reflection on them, but rather, a reflection on us. Every person has a different definition of 'greatness'. There are countless ways to measure contributions to the nation. This is the list of 10 people.
The upside of this watching this program is that one learns a lot about these people, and I realized I was badly informed about many of them, such as M.S. Swaminathan. Definitely, each figure here is inspiring in his or her own way. To give any one of them the tag of ‘The Greatest Indian’ is a tough task. At the core of it, this whole quest is a bit senseless.
After mulling over the list, I realized that we don't have to look that far to find the greatest Indian. In today's India, the greatest Indian is the common woman and man of India. Because they haven't yet given up on their country (though some have). It's the 'bai' that works in your home, because she struggles daily against odds, to work, to earn, to eat, to keep her kids in a school. The greatest Indian is the laborer tarring the road in the heat of summer. He has come from some distant village. It's the farmer, planting rice day after day. It's the aged fruit seller round the corner, who comes daily and sits with papayas and oranges. The greatest Indians are everywhere – we just need the eyes to see them. These heroes are above votes.
Edited by Urmilla Chandran
After shifting to Pune a few months back, there has been lots of activity, which always comes with moving to a new place. Hence, no time to pay any serious attention to this blog. Blogs are like pets, they usually need constant attention ;-)
I had been trying to write more in detail about the process and experience of designing the NID First Day Cover. The project started in 2008 and finished around a year later. Hence, it required a little more of an effort to recall the entire experience. Just recently, Perch interviewed me electronically on the same topic, and the questions enabled me to give structure to my thoughts.
You can read the interview here.
Half of a Yellow Sun is gripping and award-winning book by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. It is about the civil war in Nigeria and the struggle to create a new country, Biafra, back in the sixties. It is told through the eyes of Ugwu, a loveable, young houseboy, who comes to work in the house of a revolutionary African professor, Odenigbo. Ugwu is from the village, and everything is strange and fasinating to him. His master is a kind man, who treats him as an equal. Later, the love of Odenigbo's life, Olanna, daughter of a rich Government servant, moves in with them. The book explores human relationships deeply, the relationships and dynamics between man and woman, servant and master, woman and child, man and mistress, people and their government, people and the rich, people and their oppressors, rulers and the ruled, blacks and whites. Local identity overrules the national identity, and also overules common sense and humanity, especially at times of war. War is the great leveller, making refugees out of an entire nation.
Ugwu, Odenigbo and Olanna struggle with the life that has been thrust upon them. Things get worse before they get better, and they undergo trying circumstances, with remarkable strength. This is especially true for Olanna, who grew up in luxury, never wanting anything, but adjusts to life without the basic necessities. They forgive each other, even when grievously wronged, and their very unique bond is the only thing that gets them through extremely hard times. As you read, you feel their pain, and find yourself praying that they get through this alive.
The author makes the reader experience the war raging outside, by narrating the war within each of them, and between them. In pain, people do strange things and hurt one another, and these are no exception. They come very close to losing all hope and sanity, but they are pulled back when they are at the brink, by a return to normalcy. Though a novel, it is based on real events, and very real emotions. A great author understands that you can't make people experience an actual event, you can only make them experience the emotions that make the event so real. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is one such author.
Through their dialogues, the book raises larger questions which plague countries that underwent colonial rule. The Nigerian struggle to be their own people, to stop bowing to all Western thought, the enforcing of a national identity, the love of one's country are all issues that any thinking Indian grapples with on a daily basis, even unconsciously. Worse than the economic and political oppression that a colonial power creates, is the loss of identity, the loss of the sense of self, and the hatred of one's fellow citizens, that are the real left-overs of colonial rule. These take generations to remedy. Odenigbo's hope and burning idealism to see a truly independent Nigeria, free of the colonial shadow, almost kills him internally, while the war kills everything externally.
A good weekend is one where you get to relax. A great weekend is one where you finish reading two juicy books! I finally finished The Fountainhead (very late in life). It is an epic, with a really strong dose of some pretty headstrong philosophy thrown in. This was the Centennial Edition, and at the end of it were notes, reviews, and edits by the author herself. These were more illuminating than the book itself, and give us a little peek into Ayn Rand's formidable brain. Books like this are pure hard work, sweat, blood and toil as the notes confirm. Not that she was complaining about the work. She was her own most stringent critic and heartless editor.
Rand started work on the characters of the book a few years before actually starting the book. Each character has been sketched out in detail, with descriptions of the physical, mental, emotional and spiritual aspects. Some of these characters are not used in the final book. Then there is her own first review of her first chapter. The notes read 'too many adjectives', and 'don't use words for the sake of it, use them only if really needed' and many more notes to that effect. Each chapter has its own review. More than the books, I would love to get my hands on the journals of Ayn Rand, and they do exist. She also interned at an architect's office for a year prior to writing the book, as part of her in-depth research. A monumental undertaking, this book must have been. It's one thing to have a strong, unique and original philosophy. Its quite another to build a fictional world around it, that is detailed to the nth degree. And it's the ultimate, if you have the sharp reasoning to cut, trash and re-write portions and pages of your work. She designed this book, and crafted every word, thought, and blink, down to the last comma.
One minute I was on the sidewalks of New York in the last century, with Roark challenging all existence, the next minute I was crossing medival Europe and stepping into ancient Iran. In Search of Zarathustra by Paul Kriwaczek is a non-fiction work about his own journey across countries, centuries, and gods. A Polish Jew and a dentist, he had a long-time fascination with Zoroastrianism, and its beginnings and influences. He believes Zoroastrianism has influenced Christianity, Judaism and Islam, infact many world religions much more than anything else. Its just that its never been documented. And since Zoroastrianism has been in the twilight zone for 1300 years, its even harder to get evidence of anything. But it does exist, as he takes us through his long journey through Europe and finally to Iran via Turkey and many other places. Some interesting points are that Avestan, the ancient language is surprisingly close to Old Sanskrit. In fact some prayers when translated, are almost exact.
The author, and some others believe that it was one band of people from Central Asia that separated into two branches. One settled on the river Indus, and the other on the river Oxus (now the Amu Darya). The custom of shaking hands, apparently can be traced to Zoroastrian culture, as it was not originally Christian, and definitely not Islamic. It is also shown in some Iranian sculptures. Zoroastrianism also strongly influenced ancient Egypt, a fact unknown to most of the world. This is probably because history is written by the winners of the last war. One fact that comes out glaringly in this book is how present day history is dominated by Roman/Greek history, and is strongly one-sided. The Zoroastrian empire at its height, stretched from Egypt to the Indus (Kushan) and from Rome to the Gulf. It was, by all accounts, the greatest civilization of the ancient world. It was the first time in recorded history that the rulers were 'civilsed' in the true sense, being tolerant, open-minded, and just. Many other religions were allowed and encouraged to flourish within the empire too. For instance, Cyrus gave the persecuted Jews a home, and let them flourish. Yet, all this never gets mentioned in history. The world started and ended with the Roman Empire. And films like 300 don't do anything to help this. Now I understood where the two-winged symbol so common in ancient Egypt came from.
The beginning of the book is a bit tedious, but later chapters are engrossing and deeply moving (for a Parsi reader). He explores Iran, and visits sites of the great civilization. There are still Zoroastrians living in Iran, and practicing the faith. He visits the ancient sites of Cyrus and Darius, analyses and links Iranian art and sculpture to other times, cultures and places. Even in ancient days, it is astonishing to know the amount of cross-cultural exchange that happened. Finally, someone enlightened me about the beginnings and significance of the festival of Noruz, still celebrated worldwide. In spite of centuries of Islamic rule, Noruz (Navroze) is celebrated in a very Zoroastrian way in Iran, as it has been since the beginning. Infact, Muslims in Iran are extremely proud of their pre-Islamic heritage, though they might not be very well-informed about it.
The author ponders on the beginnings of Zoroastrianism, which was in the Bronze Age. We can imagine what people were like in medieval times, but its hard to imagine life in that era. What was life like then? Did the same things move people? And what was the prophet Zarathushtra himself like? These are questions that will always remain unanswered. However his teachings, thoughts and philosophies are relevant even today. Externally life changes, but internally humans remain the same, and the same issues of ethics, morals, and meaning of life plague us since the beginning of time. The author set out to find this ancient and all-but-lost culture and religion. He was looking for signs, symbols, places and events, but in the end, he is led to Zarathustra's core teachings. That is the thread that lives on inside people, that is the thread that connects us to people of the Bronze Age, and connects us to Zarathustra himself.