It was a scheduled flight from Bombay to Rome, Paris and somewhere beyond. In the aisle seat in front of me was a petite woman in the familiar white and blue garb of the missionary order. In preparation for the weather in Europe, she wore a cream woolen coat over the loosely draped sari. A young man was travelling with her – possibly taking her to a donor’s meeting or a forum that she was due to address.

Before the mid-night flight took off, almost all of the flight crew came to her seat. Some bent low with folded hands; others knelt down. All of them asked for her blessings. On the first leg of the journey the flight touched down at New Delhi.  As the aircraft took off from the capital, there was a ‘bird hit’ and the jumbo returned to the airport. All the passengers filed out with their hand baggage. She did the same, but instead of staying in the hotel near the airport possibly went to join her sisters at work somewhere in the city.

Several hours later and after the usual manoeuvres of dismounting the bird-hit engine, waiting for another and remounting the new one, the aircraft was ready for take off. A fresh crew came on board and the passengers piled back anxious now to get to their various destinations. She was in the same seat in front of me.

Once again the crew came to seek her blessings. They belonged to different faiths but perhaps had the inner grace that enabled them to recognise basic goodliness in another.

I sat still in my seat behind her unable to do what the crew was doing. Visions of all the nuns who had supervised my very breathing in the early years of life flashed before me. Was this frail nun of the same tribe or was she different?

As the captain apologised for the delay and prepared for take off, I felt an urge to touch her. I leaned forward and through the gap between the seats touched her right hand. It was warm. Very warm. She felt my hand and turned slightly to acknowledge the touch. She pressed my fingers and then said: “Today, I have learnt another lesson. I feel amazed that this small bird that hit the plane has made such a difference to our lives. We all had to get down, we have all been delayed; it only shows that the most insignificant of God’s creatures can also make a difference to the world.”

That was Mother Teresa. And that was thirty years ago. I often wonder whether I should have also knelt down to get her blessing.  There are no regrets. The memory of her warm touch still lingers and the few words she spoke continue to inspire – “The most insignificant of God’s creatures can also make a difference to the world.” Those simple words now take on a whole new dimension!

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A morning in Goa begins with reports of the road accidents of the previous day. A mother and child run over, an elderly gentleman the victim of a ‘hit-and-run’ and a variety of accidents that causes both loss of life and property. There have been several studies to check the state of the roads, the behaviour of drivers and other statistics that would help initiate remedial action. Every day a new speed breaker or pedestrian crossing is added somewhere in the State. These measures have done little for the safety of people on the road.

The rules of the road in Goa broadly reflect what is prevalent in other states in India. Roads in Goa are at different elevations and drivers have to content with both uphill and downhill driving. It is a universal rule that traffic going downhill must always give right of way to uphill traffic. This elementary principle has not been part of the driver training or testing. Both two and four-wheeler vehicles speed down a slope making it difficult for an uphill driver to stay on the road.

Another global rule is that vehicles joining a main road from a feeder or service road or lane must come to a stop at the point of entry into the main road. They need to look right and left and then proceed to join the traffic. This rule has been wrongly communicated to the drivers. People excel in speeding on to the main road from every lane – it is a frightening experience to watch two wheelers and bullish car drivers join the main stream as a birthright! Those on the main road are traumatised! There are no STOP signs at the head of any main road in Goa!

Every two-wheeler driver dreads having to put his foot down on the ground. It breaks the speed and momentum and upsets the fine balance. Putting the foot down on a slope is a manoeuvre that is more dangerous. It impacts everything, and disturbs the equanimity of both the driver and the team of four on the pillion. It is even more perilous when he may be carrying a ladder, a full-grown pig, a gas cylinder or a 50- kilo bag of rice. Two wheelers are today both salon cars and goods vehicles rolled into one and that calls for special road rules. Can two wheelers overtake from both right and left?

What makes it more difficult for a two wheeler to stop and proceed is the state of the road after a hot mix treatment. Each hot mix treatment raises the elevation of the road by a few centimetres and creates a sheer drop at the edge of a road – no one is bothered about the effects the hot mix treatment has on the safety of drivers and the difference in height between the main road and the shoulder. Differences in road and shoulder level of roads are fraught with serious danger.

Drivers have no respect for a pedestrian crossing – it’s time to brainstorm and see how this can be inculcated specially in front of schools, colleges and hospitals when pedestrians are on the crossing.

Drivers also experience confusion at some junctions and at roundabouts. A simple white circle in the middle of the road will make all the difference to a confused driver. The rules of the roundabout are not clear to many drivers. Roads in Goa could also do with more ‘Keep Left’ signs.

It is perhaps time to re-train the trainers and also get to know what they are communicating to students of driving. Training of new drivers needs to be more safety-oriented and testing more stringent.

There’s a lot more – texting or phoning and driving, speeding, driving under the influence of alcohol, stopping without signaling and the unbearable high beam at night!

One hopes that the country has a book of standards for both national and state roads. It is time to make these standards public so that citizens can understand what they have and monitor where standards have been compromised.

A planned approach and Goa can be a safe state even before being a smart one!

 

Conversations about Mother’s Cooking surface anywhere and all the time. It’s always trending when after hours of toil in the kitchen, hosts place food on the table for their guests. A summary survey of the fare and guests take off one by one on how their mothers used to make the very same dishes – the lamb rogan josh, the pork vin d’alho and the what-ever-else that is on the table.

The evening then becomes an extempore elocution competition. Guests go into overdrive about how their mothers used to make the classics – hand-pound the rice for the appams, place the biriyani on a charcoal stove under the tamarind tree, or bake seven layers of bibinca while attending to five children and nursing the sixth on the side.

These are priceless conversations. They unveil undocumented details for making the dish and touch on the high notes of taste that ensured that the offspring recalls the preparation even decades after mother put it on the table. The devotees at the shrine of mother’s cooking would linger over the quality and quantity of ingredients like ghee, almonds and saffron that went into the dish. In those days, these were rare items and within reach of just the high-net-worth families.

At some conversations you can be only a listener. My mother never cooked, was never taught or coaxed to cook, never enjoyed cooking and never felt it was necessary for a woman to perfect a cheese soufflé or make feijoada. She had no complexes about her lack of skills and no hesitation in sitting down to a meal that had been prepared with no cutting or grinding contributions from her side. As a consequence, she never grumbled when the food was burnt or when the okras were gooey and unpalatable. She understood weights and measures; she knew that ginger was a rhizome, that cloves were aromatic flower buds and that nutmeg was the seed of a tree. But her skills decidedly lay in realms beyond chick-peas and mung. She focused on preparing young women to stand on their own feet both inside and outside the kitchen and devoted her entire life to the mission.

And so it was that she came to live with us and at Christmas filled my stocking with the cookery world’s best seller of the year.  She enjoyed the gift too and flipped through the pages that showed everything from a complete wedding breakfast to illustrations on how to truss a turkey. She spent hours with the book but her contributions in our kitchen remained limited to boiling drinking water for the family. There was no blanching and stir-frying involved, but it did keep all of us free of typhoid and all other water-borne diseases.

As age slowed her pace, she was keen to contribute more to her life with us especially in the kitchen. She cared for her two granddaughters but she was keen to make a mark that would one day empower me to talk of “mother’s cooking.” She sure tried!

One night while we were out at a party, she put our children to bed and came into the kitchen to boil water. She turned on the gas, placed the vessel with water on the fire and went back to complete the last few words in the daily crossword. Sometime later, when we entered the house and passed the kitchen door there was a bright glowing object on the gas burner – the water had boiled, evaporated and the steel vessel stood out like an object from out of space!

There were no damages and we never spoke about the object from out of space ever again. Life continued as before. As our girls grew up, she took them to school, read to them from the Panchatantra, taught them Sanskrit slokas and did everything grandmothers love to do. Every now and then between stories or homework she paused to ask if they could see what in her mind was the bigger picture.  Did they know what they wanted to be when they grew up?

That was my mother’s cooking – She believed that women can dream of a life beyond cinnamon and cassia, outsource cooking when necessary and focus on standing on their own two legs. She knew her granddaughters were still too young to take a call but that was reason enough to work hard to prepare the ground and opt for early sowing.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Apolonia Humelina Fonseca of Alto Porvorim, Goa, the former Portuguese colony in India died two days ago and her notice of death appeared in a local newspaper. Apolonia was the daughter of Anunciacao Candida Desa and the relict (an old usage meaning widow) of Jose Joaquim Fonseca who worked in Basra and Abu Dhabi.  Notices of death that appear in the local papers are columns from history. They narrate stories of Goan family life, starting with portraits of the family, their migrations, changes in lifestyle and finally the people they leave behind to carry on the family traditions. One noticeable lifestyle change that is apparent in these notices is that Goan Christians are dropping their traditional names and opting for new ones. There seems to be a move away from four and five and syllable names like Apolonia, Tiburcio and Constancio to two syllable names and in some cases names…

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Nurse Meenakshiamma was a midwife in our neighbourhood in the years before the advent of diagnostic sonography and cord blood banking. As a midwife, she was trained to help women in childbirth and when that was successfully done she invariably lingered on to help the mother cope with the tasks of caring for the new addition. She was a much-loved member of the community.

And so it was that when it was time for my aunt to deliver, someone ran all the way to Nurse Meenakshiamma’s house to summon her. She came as quickly as her legs could carry her portly frame and then stayed till the first cries were heard and she opened the door to announce the sex of the new born. If all of this happened at night she was escorted to and fro with a hurricane lantern and an umbrella during the many months of rain.

As children we were instructed to stay away from where Meenakshiamma was at work monitoring the cervical dilatation and presentation. When my aunt took hours to move from four centimetres to eight, it was only Meenakshiamma who stayed with her and soothed both her pain and anxiety. As for the rest of the house, the elders lazed on the easy chairs, the children slept and the men were never expected to be around.

In retrospect, Meenakshiamma must have had special access to a powerful deity who she relied on every time she clocked the contractions.  In those days there were no easy solutions for a breech presentation or any complication that put the life of the mother or child in jeopardy. There were no call taxis; the local rickshaw and the kuthiravandy[1] were totally inappropriate to rush a woman in labour to the hospital. Without a telephone, it would have taken a couple of hours to run around and organise transport to take the patient to the District Hospital.

As children, our encounters with Nurse Meenakshiamma began after the baby was born when she walked in mid-morning to bathe my aunt and the infant. Like visitors to a circus, we packed into the bedroom, perched at vantage points and watched in awe as she put the newest addition of the family to what we imagined must have been a most traumatic cleansing ritual.

Before the bath began she arranged everything like a magician about to begin a performance. She tested the water in the white enamel basin with her elbow and adjusted the temperature with more of the hot or cold. She placed the various bottles and containers within easy reach and kept the baby’s clothes away from the basin. She sat on the floor with her legs stretched before her and held up the baby with one hand. We watched spellbound as she stripped the two-day old of everything except the remnants of the umbilical cord which hung precariously from what would later become the belly button.

The baby howled each time she rubbed virgin coconut oil into the skinny body and each time she dipped the infant into the water. The howling upset us all and we often wondered why both our aunt and our grandmother had given her such a free hand with the baby. We were terrified that the cord would fall off and we would all have to leave the room to allow her to set it right.

All through the ritual she carried on a Q&A session for our benefit – she answered most of our questions but smiled when she found us moving into areas of curious overdrive. When the rubbing, dipping and drying had finished she dressed the baby and handed the bundle over to our aunt for a feed. That was the signal that the day’s programme was over; it was time for us to pick up our marbles, tops and comics and head right out of the room.

When her brief was over, Nurse Meenakshiamma’s returned to the house as a guest on the 28th day when the new born was given a name. She took a proprietary look at the baby, sat down to eat the sadya[2] and left. Her brief was over. She then returned to the house only when it was time for another baby to join the family.

[1] A horse carriage

[2] Festive meal

We grew up in Calicut, a town in Malabar that enjoyed special status in the expenditure budget of the erstwhile Madras Presidency. In the days leading up to Indian Independence, the town had a cosmopolitan profile, well known centres of learning and one train that connected the  town with the rest of the country.

 Our locality which was a little distance from the town was really a village where everyone knew everyone else.  Everyone also knew your grandparents and their parents and how you came to be living in the house to the right of the temple, or the house with a view of the community bathing tank. Information of this type was never ‘mined’ maliciously or used commercially; it was simply a part of local lore. There was little to exploit – people lived on food made with coconuts – for breakfast lunch and dinner; and on their income from sale of coconuts. 

 In those days there were no full service caterers, fancy wedding halls or event managers. But everyone knew what to do when there was a wedding in the family with a guest list that would touch four figures. The elders in the family appointed a local Brahmin to prepare the food for all the festivities connected with the marriage. The festive menu was traditional and non-negotiable but the cook had the last word on the shopping list and where to buy everything from yam to fenugreek. The cook also knew which of the houses in the locality had the cooking vessels that were large enough to meet all his requirements. 

 The elders would then go to these houses and request for a loan of the vessels for the period of the festivities. Every house was happy to open the store and take out the vessels that were in any case seldom used. My grandmother owned a set of vessels that were made of different metals and were right size for cooking meals for over a thousand people.  There were bell metal urulis, charake, cauldrons of copper alloys and giant cheenachattis (Chinese woks) Some of the urulis and charake were over a metre in diameter and the cauldrons were deeper than the classic bathtub.  They were kept in excellent condition and had their own set of accessories. There were wooden and metal spatulas that were taller than the cook and metal ear rings that weighed a few kilos. The ear rings were put on the vessel, wooden poles were passed through them and then the vessel was lifted off the fire. It took two men on either side to lift a vessel full of food.

 The children were in charge of making an inventory of all the things that were being taken on loan to the wedding house. We added our own instructions about the care of the vessels before they were placed on the hand cart. We also made sure that everything was well balanced and secured with ropes. Everybody who ate at the wedding knew from where the vessels had been borrowed and everybody tucked away the information just-in-case.

 The vessels were brought back from the wedding house after the festivities had ended all clean and ready for another wedding in the community. Some families would see that the vessels were ‘tinned’ and others would just clean them as best as possible. Whatever they did, the return of the vessels was a time of great anticipation for us children. We hung around while the urulis and chinachattis were untied and unloaded from the hand cart and carried back into the store room. Most families sent a whole bunch of bananas by way of a thank you note. Others added a basket of sweetmeats or banana chips possibly made for the wedding festivities. Sometimes the bananas were too green to eat and had to be hung in the store room to ripen.  We took great care to see that the handcart was out of the gate before gorging on the goodies.

 After grandmother’s death, the house was sold and the vessels were divided among grandmother’s four children.  The new houses into which they moved barely had room for their families and it was impossible to consider housing the giant cooking cauldrons as well. The urulis and charake gradually found their way to metal dealers in the market and were lost forever. The community in the meantime welcomed turnkey caterers who did not have to go around looking for woks and cauldrons. Their menus were negotiable and that was from when the neighbourhood began to serve Cauliflower Manchurian.

 

Congratulations to the couple who are celebrating their 60th wedding anniversary

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The Comrade’s Wedding

 Our boarding mistress was the person who first introduced me to the topic of communism. It was somewhere after Josef Stalin died and Nikita Khrushchev succeeded him in the Soviet Union. She told us horror stories of all that Stalin had done and all that his successor would continue to do as a communist leader. At age eleven, it was difficult to figure out how it would affect me and how an evil communist would scale the high walls of the convent and come to persecute the boarders.

 Then one day not long after that, there was much excitement in my granduncle’s house – his granddaughter, my cousin was about to get married and she was going to marry a man who was a communist. My granduncle was thrilled but others in the household (like our boarding mistress) had their own intangible concerns. In those days…

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