Saroj is the cook who works in our house. In India, almost everyone has a cook and/or cleaning lady. Without these amazing people, we just wouldn’t be able to function. Days the ‘bai’ doesn’t come resemble the apocalypse. Dishes pile up, the floor looks dusty, everyone eats leftovers or pizza, and chaos reigns. Saroj is around thirty years old, and has three daughters. The eldest is fifteen years old. So yes, she got married well before eighteen. Conversations with Saroj reveal several bitter truths about Indian society, which the rest of us ‘privileged’ lot conveniently ignore.
Poverty forces most of these people into early employment (employment=menial tasks, labour, housework). Saroj is an intelligent, ambitious person. But she is the eldest of four siblings. Her own mother was married at twelve, in her village. Since her father was a useless drunk who took his wife’s income and beat her and the children, her mother decided it would be best to get her children married off at an early age. Though Saroj was keen on studying and making something of her life, she didn’t have a say in the matter.
After marriage, she had three children. Why? This is where it gets interesting. Like many, many Indians, she was hoping for a boy child. This terrible desire for a male child seems hard-wired in many Indians, despite the ruin it wrecks. It cuts across economic backgrounds, religions, and geographical areas. It’s one of the great levelers of Indian society. Fortunately, Saroj’s husband was sensible, and realised three was quite enough, thank you. He feels that a girl is as valuable as a boy.
But Saroj’s relatives, and even other maids in our building, talk to her with great pity. “Oh, you have three daughters?” Significant pause. “No sons?” They make it a point to ask this ‘no sons’ question, as if Saroj is inflicted with some incurable disease. Seen from their point of view, she is diseased, because she’s already worried about how she will get her daughters married and produce a dowry for each of them. Here’s one of the many conversations I have with her.
Armeen: Let your daughters study. They can get decent jobs later.
Saroj (smiling): Yes, I want them too. What I couldn’t achieve, they will.
A: Don’t get them married very young to just anyone. Many men ill-treat their wives. So be careful.
S: Yes. But didi, if they study too much. Then we won’t find boys for them. Our boys don’t study that much. Twelfth pass at the most. If the girls are graduates, then they won’t find husbands.
A (still trying): Ok. But let them study. They can still get married. Everyone has to change to make things better.
S: That’s why people like having boys. Girls are a big load. My sister-in-law has had three abortions when she got to know she was expecting girls. She has five daughters and they want a son.
A: Three abortions? That’s very dangerous for her health. It’s illegal for a doctor to disclose the sex of an unborn child.
S: Yes, it’s illegal. But there are doctors who do it. There’s a clinic in Surat which does just this. Many people go there, get tested and come back. It’s famous.
A: So many of your men beat their wives daily, abuse their children and make their lives hell. You complain about your own father and brother all the time. Why are you all so obsessed with having sons?
S. What to do, didi? That’s the way thing are in our community. I will have to look for grooms among my community people. If my daughters study too much, it will be a big problem. We can’t look in other communities. People think boys are a blessing. But often they are just a headache.
A: Look, now the world is changing. Girls are doing a lot, as much as boys. Let your girls become something. If they work they will be better off in life.
S: Yes, that’s true. But they can’t be better off than their husbands. That will be a problem.
A: If you want things to change for them, then you have to start changing.
S: Yes I know. But what’s the use. Only one person can’t change. Everyone has to change.
A: (gives up)
S (grinning with great pride): But my girls speak English. They will do something. I'm worried about their college. Boys will harass them in college, and on the bus.
A: We all faced that. They will learn to handle it. (Although these days the level of harassment has reached something else. But we can't all sit at home because some 'boys' will harass us, right?)
So that’s what it comes to. She doesn’t believe that changing her thinking or practices will have any positive affect. She’s waiting for the rest of her community to take the first step. And the rest of them are waiting for someone else to change. It’s very hard to alter mindsets. There's no easy solution to this. Her girls are the only hope. They’ve gone to school. The eldest will start college next year. Hopefully, they think different. However, that may not be enough. They will have to be supremely strong to put their foot down to go against the grain, if they want to work. They will have to disregard the enormous pressure on them to get married, and produce yet another boy.
Phew! It’s been a hot summer in more ways than one. Besides slurping mangoes and sweating buckets, we Indians actually came out in droves and voted.
We often feel that we are a divided country. We’re just too big, too populated, and too diverse to actually feel like one nation. But this time there was something common amongst all Indians, across the length and breadth of the land. We were all totally fed up with our last Government. Everyone unanimously felt that enough is enough. Now why we were so fed up is another story altogether (more than a story actually, it can form a series of books). But it was a new experience to see everyone throw their vote behind one man. Congress made desperate last-minute barbs by calling him ‘chaiwalla’, and referring to a 56 inch chest, but in the end they had to put their tail between their legs and run for cover, because the people of India gave them a good, solid, well-deserved kick. It feels great that they’ve been squashed (for the present at least), like that lazy, disgusting cockroach that lurks in the corner of your kitchen.
Because of all this polly-tickle tamasha, one watches a lot of news these days. You can’t see a minute of news without hearing the name ‘Modi’. It’s the most used word after the phrase ‘India needs an answer’. If someone actually did a statistical tally, the word ‘modi’ would be occurring at the frequency of one per minute at a bare minimum, and even going up to twenty-seven per minute on a good day. Because even when people are not talking about Modi, they are talking about Modi. You can’t discuss anything without his name popping up. Government, corruption, dhoklas, Gujarat, Hindus, Muslims, kurtas, puppies, and everything connects to Modi somehow. You’ve got to hand it to the guy for become Brand No. 1. During the last six months or so, family/friends get-togethers could not proceed as normal. The room would be firmly divided into pro-Modi and anti-Modi factions. Everyone would be shouting their opinion without hearing anothers’. Each camp is firmly entrenched in its belief, and it’s impossible to budge them either way. There are spouses, siblings, parents and kids who don’t see eye-to-eye on this.
But we forget an important thing. We have to thank the Congress party. Why? If they hadn’t put up a goofy like RaGa, who knows, they might have got a bigger majority, and would not be shaking in their shoes today. Imagine if they had a smart, shrewd, capable leader. It would be terrible, because they might continue in power for the next sixty years, reducing India to pulp. Their miserable governance actually united this country, which otherwise can’t agree on which MDH masala is best.
As citizens of this great nation, there are several cards that are essential to our existence. Yes, you heard right—cards. These harmless little laminated pieces of paper, generously stamped by the Government and decorated with illegible signatures are our lifeblood. You aren’t truly an Indian until you have a bunch of these cards, squirrelled away somewhere.
Take that grand old patriarch of cards, known as the ‘ration card’. This has been around for decades. Are you likely to buy rice or dal at subsidised rates? I thought not. This little booklet doubles up as a proof of residence and practically a proof of citizenship, for when you need to acquire other cards and add them to your ever-growing collection. It is nearly impossible to get your own ration card. I was told by a helpful tout that my name must exist on my parent’s card, and it could only be transferred from there to a new card. Like blue blood, ration cards move from one generation to the next. Unlike blue blood, the transfer would come at a cost, said aforementioned tout, eyeing me greedily.
Consider the humble driving license, another innocent looking thing. Traffic police threaten to confiscate it if you get caught. Friends double up laughing when they see your photograph on it. Thus, it provides power for some and entertainment for others. To attain a driver’s license you should know how to drive. That is the general assumption people make, and it is wrong. Is the ration card used for ration? No. In a similar manner, the license is not proof of your driving skills. Many people possessing driving licenses do not know how to park, and why should they, when the license has much more important functions? It acts as proof of your residence (again) and identity (inspite of the hilarious picture where you resemble a tomato) when you want to apply for Passport, PAN card, Election card, open a bank account, close a bank account, board a domestic flight, prove your identity to a train ticket collector, and so on.
So once I was the proud owner of a driving license I decided to put my license to better use. I would get my Voter ID card, or Election card, or whatever they call the blasted thing these days. This is a precious one. If you possess it, hang on to it. At this time of year everyone is turning his or her cupboard and wallet upside down hunting it down. First-time voters like myself are trudging miles in the heat trying to track down where their card is. This is the card that connects you and me, normal, unimportant people, to the Prime Minister himself (or herself). This card can change our future (or so we believe). This card will improve our lives (that’s what we tell ourselves). My spouse and I are running from pillar to post, but the card is a coy damsel, dodging us at every turn. Still, we have to thank it for getting us into shape with all that chasing, as well as developing our Buddha-like patience.
Let’s not hurt the sentiments of numerous other Indian cards by ignoring them. The PAN card is the easiest, friendliest one of the lot. The Gas Cylinder Card is again a very important creature in the card ecosystem. Housewives value it more than oxygen, and with good reason. For who even breathes real oxygen these days, with all the pollution around us? LPG gas is something we can’t live without, for our rozi roti depends on it. Have you seen a household without a gas cylinder? It’s usually falling apart in chaos. For a short while the Gas Card was hitched with that new kid on the block, the Aadhar Card. This made us all run around like headless chickens. But now that the two cards have got divorced, we’re all breathing easy again.
I hear you ask, why was I seeking a ration card to begin with? Well, let me explain. To provide proof of residence for my learner’s license, which would lead to the driver’s license, which could be used as proof to get an Election Card, which I could vote with to change the government which has created this system, and usher in a new government with their own new crazy system for us to adjust to all over again.
One of the greatest inventions of tropical countries is the afternoon nap, or siesta. The nap has always had a grand tradition in our own country, and with good reason. After a hot, humid morning in front of our computers, or at our desks, we desperately need some shut-eye, so we can spend the rest of the day once again staring at the computer screen. While the metropolises of Mumbai, Delhi and Bengaluru have forgotten this noble habit, the nap is still kept alive and kicking (or shall we say, snoring?) in the smaller cities and towns such as Pune, Mysore, Ahmedabad, Surat, and of course in the hill-stations as well. Here, the shop shutters come cranking down by 2 pm latest. The shop owner will gleefully inform you, “Madam, ab toh band hai. Panch baje khulega.” You may grimace, stamp your feet and curse but to little effect. The afternoon nap is as sacred as the morning puja.
Nowadays, there are extremely annoying nap-killers. The biggest one is the courier man. Once in a blue moon you get a free afternoon to yourself at home. It’s a lazy Saturday. A heavy lunch sits comfortably in your tummy. The bed beckons. You’ve just laid your head on the pillow, your eyelids drooping, your mind sliding into la-la land, your toes snug under the blanket, when TINGTONG! The bell will scream with mind-numbing shrillness, shattering your last shred of sanity. With utmost difficulty you crawl out of bed, drag yourself to the door on all fours, just about manage to stand, and open it. There stands a grinning beast, wide-awake at the unearthly hour of 3 pm, holding your envelope. He greets you with, “Sign please!” while you dream of greeting him with a heavy object over his head. You scrawl some illegible signature, write down any random phone number that enters your half-dead head, and crawl back into bed. But now, the moment has been soured. Sleep eludes you, and you realize you may as well make yourself a cup of tea.
There are other, smaller nap-killers as well. The street dogs, who come to life at precisely 3 pm and 3 am everyday. These creatures have an inbuilt alarm clock that lets out a volley of barks. Then there’s a neighbour’s wailing baby. And yet another neighbour’s ambition to drill walls, cut tiles and hammer nails only in the middle of the afternoon. There are the teenagers on the sixth floor who fancy themselves Aerosmith and practice the electric guitar with admirable dedication and alarming tone-deafness.
Another nap-killer is the modern Indian mall. These urban monsters spring up in every neighbourhood, and stay open morning to night, ruining age-old good habits like napping. People who would have been dreaming between the sheets are now marching around in circles staring at shops. What a waste of a perfectly good afternoon. Afternoon naps have been known to have real health benefits, increase productivity, and better the mood. These nap-killers have no sense of responsibility. Hopefully, the next political party that rules India will have afternoon-naps high on their agenda. It will be discussed in Parliament and the Nap Bill will be passed, that will ensure the protection and enforcement of the Humble Afternoon Nap.
Jaipur is one of India's most historic cities. Amer Fort is a fabulous place to visit, and the old Pink City is fascinating. There are so many forts and palaces of India that leave one speechless. One can imagine what a rich country India must have been, not just financially, but artistically. It's a pity most modern urban architecture has lost these artistic sensibilities, and also the very useful practice of using materials that work for the climate, instead of against it.
At Amer Fort one can walk, ride on an elephant, or drive up to the fort itself. I highly recommend walking, as it gives you a chance to truly admire the place. Watch out for elephants showering you with their sneezes!
Some interesting films came out of India, back in the day of one national TV channel. Whatever your age, you'll never grow tired of watching these. The last one, 'I Am 20', shows how much has changed, and at the same time, how little has changed.
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.