Much Ado About “Bhindi”

It’s one of the few vegetables that my siblings and I did not dramatically resist eating in our childhood. In fact, to my delight I was to learn the many different ways in which this green queen of Indian vegetables – Lady Finger as it has been christened in the English language, could be cooked and eaten. The dry, fried, uncut version was always my favorite.

My cousin, a devout foodie and very particular about the way he likes his food cooked would insist upon the “Judi Hui Bhindi.” (The uncut version) My husband, however is a staunch fan of the traditional cut style.

Having admittedly never really cooked anything but pasta and Maggi noodles before marriage, my novel adventure down this path of Indian cooking commenced with this very vegetable. My husband’s work moved us many miles overseas to Germany where while the sausages were delicious, our Indian khaana called out every so often. It became clear that I would have to get on board this train sooner rather than later. And so out came the YouTube videos and before we knew it, we had declared Bhindi easy to cook. After the first burnt attempt, of course.

We now live in the UAE where the luxury of part time cooks comes as easy as the ‘desi’ population. So it happened that Mr. Singh ( ‘Maharaj Ji’) as my elderly Rajasthani cook is reverentially called began to grace our kitchen once a week.

We had soon grown attuned to each other’s ways and I would promptly do my grocery shopping in time for his weekly Sunday visit. One day, he called me to the kitchen. Ninety percent of the Bhindi I had purchased had been placed in a plastic bag and placed prominently in one corner. The remaining frugal amount was on the chopping board which he was staring at with a pensive frown.

On seeing me, he let his frustration loose verbally.  Apparently I had purchased Bhindi incorrectly. My mouth fell open as he proceeded to curtly reprimand me on the faulty Bhindi that in his opinion was now a waste and was going to make its way to the trash. Using his index finger he animatedly began to explain to me how I had not tested the tip of each Bhindi adequately enough.

My insistence that I had indeed, tested the Bhindi was met with an expression of visible disbelief.

And so it transpired that after another similar chiding session and having to witness another ruthless “trashing” of my hard-bought Bhindi, I decided to hand over the stressful task to the great Maharaj himself. He was now to buy the Bhindi on his way each time we wanted to eat it.

Just when I was crossing off this line item of domestic stress from my list, content in the knowledge that this was no longer my problem, he called me promptly one day from Carrefour, one of the larger grocery store chains to announce that from the mountainous heap of Bhindi that Carrefour generously offered its patrons, not one piece merited a purchase.

Perplexed, I dared to ask, “Are you sure? Not even one?” and I almost bit my tongue when I was berated once again on the importance of buying “the best” Bhindi and how any compromise on this topic was unacceptable.

We ate Gobhi instead of Bhindi that day.

Bhindi continues to be a staple in our meals. And the great ‘Maharaj’ continues to be a staple in my life once a week. At least the Lady and all her Fingers are being vetted by the Lord himself!

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Punjabi and Proud

(Published in The Tribune , India)

I was on a flight back from London to Delhi a few years ago, on my way home to Chandigarh. Not one for idle chit chat on long flights, I settled in with my book and the excitement of going home for the holidays. (I was a postgraduate student at the time in the UK).

As our readiness for departure was announced and I was giving myself a mental fist-bump for being the proud owner of an empty seat next to me, an ample-bodied, turban-clad ‘paaji’ came and perched himself on the empty seat. With a sinking feeling, I silently prayed that my neighbor shared my fondness for a silent, peaceful journey.

Alas, no such luck. ‘Paaji’ presently introduced himself and that was the end of my reading. Dan Brown would just have to wait a little longer to reveal to me what buried secret Robert Langdon had just unearthed.

“Tussi Kithon?” he enquired after my home-town.

“Chandigarh”, I replied. “Tussi kithon?” I decided to humor him. After all, there was no escaping the Punjabi prowess of persistent small talk.

“Ludhiana. Oye, Chandigarh!” His face lit up and before I knew what was happening, he had called out to “Jassi and Pinky” seated at the front of the cabin, across from us, evidently forgetting that it was a public space. In a frenzied diarrhea of words, he relayed to the family that a fellow Punjabi had been found and the hoots of applause followed suit.

But I couldn’t help smiling. You can take a Punjabi out of Punjab but you can’t take Punjab out of a Punjabi. Even on a 7-hour long Virgin Atlantic flight from London. Under the mask of embarrassment, I was proud.

Some more animated chit chat ensued that revealed that the enormous Paaji family were residents of Canada and were on their way home for some “sarso da saag te makki di roti” time.

I suppose that was another thing we had in common. Punjabi food was irreplaceable.

By the time the captain announced our descent towards Delhi I had been showered with a generous helping of laddoos and an invitation to their house in Ludhiana. I thanked them profusely and proceeded to reciprocate their hospitable invitation. I felt like I was home already.

We talked some more and he asked me about my plans after my studies. I reluctantly conveyed my desire to get a job in London, though it was laced with a confusion of what it was I really wanted to do. He said everyone figures it out eventually and it would come to me too.

Paaji, in a revelatory mood, confided that Canada may have been home for many years but Ludhiana was where his heart was.  As I reflected on this, I realized that we were no different in this – he and I.

I have been living away from home for many years too. I have met some wonderful people and been acquainted with myriad cultures and traditions but nowhere in the world can one match the hospitality of a Punjabi family.

If you are a fellow Punjabi, you qualify for a free laddoo and a heart-warming story. As I de-boarded and bid Paaji and his family adieu, he handed me a slip of paper.

“God bless you”, he whispered in Punjabi.

With a full heart and a lingering smile I walked away and glanced at the slip of paper.

In a penciled hand, Paaji had written his address in Ludhiana and at the bottom, three words:

“Sada Safal raho.” (May you be successful always.)

An Ode to the City that will always be Home

It was just another Saturday. At least, it started out that way.
After a lazy afternoon of beers and banter at the magnificent St. Regis Hotel that faced Saadiyat island’s inviting sandy beach, accentuating the stunning blue of the ocean, some down time on my couch seemed like the perfect next step.
While I headed home to snuggle into my couch in front of the TV for a while, the boys (my husband and his friend) decided to keep the beers coming and make their way to another bar. I decided to catch up with them a little later.
After a much-needed siesta and recharged for a night out, I got dressed and left for Coopers later in the evening, a popular weekend bar in the city. As the taxi began making its way, weaving through Saturday night traffic, that familiar nostalgia swept over me again and I let my thoughts wander to the city that had been home for the last two years and the friends that had become family. Night outs without our motley group would never be the same.
Munich had been our home for the last two years before we moved to Abu Dhabi early this year. We adjusted to our new reality with new dreams in our eyes but heavy hearts yearning for the old friends who had been left behind. A large gang of impressively mixed and diverse nationalities, each with their own unique traits, backgrounds and lifestyles, stories and struggles, wit and wisecracks that defined each one of us, and yet all miraculously fit together like pieces of a large, global puzzle. One big happy multi-national family. The thread that bound us together had the same name in every country, religion and culture. It is called Friendship.
Love and friendship – words that are being trampled on today by hate, violence, murder and blood baths – an escalating satanic epidemic that seems to literally be sweeping across the world city by city and in a spate of horrific acts, felling men, women and children faster than the fall of dominoes.
It has already become hard to open one’s twitter account or news site without noticing that the number one trending item almost every morning is a city that had just been attacked. The body counts are going up and the fabric of humanity seems to be withering away, one gunshot or stab-wound at a time.
The taxi pulled up with a sudden stop outside Coopers and pulled me out of my reverie.
I could hear the din of the music from inside the bar. It sounded great and my spirits lifted a little. A little song, dance and liquid courage was just what I needed.

As I entered the bar and made my way through the crowd, the DJ blasted a familiar tune with ample bass and the bar had transformed into a club, packed to capacity. I found my husband and our friend who was visiting from Munich at the bar and joined them. Ready for a great night and having ordered a cocktail I flippantly picked up my phone to browse through it quickly for any important messages before I retired it in my handbag.

That’s when I saw it. And I felt my heart stop.
“Shooting in Munich shopping mall, 7 dead”
A teenager had shot and killed 7 people in Olympia Park shopping center and wounded several others. The shopping center was just a few kilometers away from where we had lived. I had a lump in my throat the size of a peach. It was suddenly hard to breathe.
I looked up at my husband who had just read the same piece of news and was staring disbelievingly at his phone. We were still shaking our heads in shock when the second shoe dropped a few minutes later.
“Firing heard at Marienplatz metro station in Munich”
Even in that crowded bar with piercingly loud music and swarms of people around us, the three of us were suddenly alone and grappling with the weight of this news. The city that gave us its all, the city that unflinchingly opened its doors and its hearts to the thousands of migrants and refugees that flooded its streets, and was going to be ‘home’ for us for far longer than it really was, had become today’s victim in the on-going game of violence and terror. We didn’t want to believe it was true.
The three of us sat at that bar sipping our drinks in silence and at a complete loss of words while the world around us danced to the DJ’s tunes. We couldn’t join them and we couldn’t leave. The tears came to me without warning as the body count increased to nine and as I wiped them away, we raised our glasses to the city that taught us the value of love and friendship, surpassing countries, cultures and color of skin. The city that gave without expecting anything back and brought countries together by knitting their people together as one family.
As I watched the people around me having the time of their lives, so many people together in one big room, ushered in by their love for music, friendship and each other, I wondered about those who converge together around the world in a similar way, with the common deep-rooted desire of spreading hatred and death. Perhaps their DJ, their song and dance is a different one.

Just before we finally decided to call it a night, we raised another glass – to the families of those who had lost their lives – for their loss may be insurmountable but the city of Munich will mend their broken hearts and help them to learn to love again – within its borders and beyond.

The game of thumbs with gadgets

(Published in The Hindu: http://m.thehindu.com/opinion/open-page/the-game-of-thumbs-with-gadgets/article8326407.ece )

It’s the double-edged sword in our lives today. While technology has surged us ahead in every way, it has also pulled us an equal distance away from human interactions.

Often do I find myself guilty of the crime of obliviousness. My husband will call out for me four or five times before I have been jolted out of the WhatsApp conversation I am engrossed in, my thumbs operating at lightning speed and my mind articulating even faster.

Eyes transfixed on screens of various sizes, fingers clicking away exploring every feature and length and breadth of all things digital, we are letting our physical senses of sight, smell, hearing and feeling atrophy. We fail to experience the real features of the world around us.

Not to be left behind in the rat-race, we clamber laboriously to obtain that new app that will make another aspect of our already simplified lives (through technology) a degree closer from our grasp. In doing so, ostensibly we are standing by the argument of ‘it makes our lives easier, so why not’. But what it also does is that it makes us lazier, unsociable and verbally uncommunicative.

Many grapple with maintaining the balance and few manage to balance the scales so as not to let technology weigh in heavier than life itself. The myriad social networking platforms have allowed us to do everything from letting the world know what we ate for breakfast to what we wore at that party to who our secret crush is, all without having to utter a word. The thumbs have taken over.

My sister, being in another country, now communicates with me through Snapchat messages. We may go days without a phone call but thanks to the wonders of Snapchat, WhatsApp and even Voxies (video/audio features on the selfie cameras now), the effort of a phone call is becoming redundant.

I spend a lot of time on my own these days owing to a recent country move and being unemployed currently while my husband goes to work. My only window to the outside world and what brings me up to speed with current events, friends and family are the different gadgets in my possession. But I now consciously make the effort to engage in physical activity that involves physically meeting other people and gadget-free soirees to ensure thumbs don’t have the upper hand.

Now with educational institutions also incorporating iPads and computer-based educational curricula, the newer generations are married to their devices almost as soon as they are born — something we were lucky enough to have escaped. We were pushed to play outdoors: those home-grown games that became household names like ‘Stapoo’, ‘Musical Chairs’, ‘Hide and Seek’. They were the lifelines of many a birthday party and school lunch break, now just joyful memories fading away. What a shame it would be to lose more such wonderful memories and not be able to pass them on to future generations.

When Dry Skin Isn’t Just a ‘Winter’ Problem: Here are 6 Remedies

(Published in The Quint: http://www.thequint.com/life/2016/03/12/when-dry-skin-isnt-just-a-winter-problem-here-are-6-remedies )

If your skin is anything like mine, you have surrounded yourself with hydrating cosmetics of all kinds. From your hand bag to your bedside table to even your gym bag, it’s that ubiquitous item in your possession that you just can’t do without.

The kind of skin we have depends on the level of sebum (natural oil) our skin can retain. The driest skin type retains the least amount of sebum, hence leaving the skin flaky and tight.

Being one of those cream-obsessed individuals (so much so that even my college roommates remember me with a perpetual bottle of cream in my hand), I have discovered a few things from my own experiences that people with dry, irritable skin can try, to somewhat ease their dry skin woes.

1. A New ‘Something’ Called Moroccan Argan Oil

It has taken the cosmetic world by storm. The benefits of this oil extracted from the kernels of the Argan tree endemic to Morocco, are jumping out at us from news articles, magazines, organic offerings and even doctors.

One ‘benefit’ in particular caught my eye: ‘Argan oil is great for dry skin.’ My interest piqued and I decided to try it out.

(Joyous with the results, I ventured to purchase Vatika’s Argan Hair oil and shampoo that have rejuvenated my dry scalp too!)

2. Remember Your Grandma’s Nivea?

I noticed years ago that my skin had developed an alarming resistance to the application of ‘designer’ brands of creams or sunscreens. I would break out into rashes or burning, irritable skin – just seconds after applying a new exotic product.

So I went back to the basics – the evergreen Pond’s, Dove, Nivea and Vaseline. I strongly recommend Dove’s Shea Butter Body lotion which is a permanent fixture in my life. With their combination of moisture-locking cream oil and hydrating shea butter, aloe vera and other natural ingredients, these age-old timers are the only moisturising magicians that can tame dry skin into quiet submission.

3. Make Up Woes? Not Any More

Are you constantly rushing to put on your ‘game face’ for the world? We don’t blame you, make-up can be a pretty great thing.

But it’s more than a little distressing if you have naturally dry skin. Have you noticed it getting even flakier after you remove your make-up at the end of the day? I have – and completely advocate a vigorous moisturising regime before the warpaint comes on. Beauty professionals swear by moisturisers and you can make a best friend out of any pre-make up cream of your choice: Vaseline lotion, Clean & Clear’s Dual Action lotion and Neutrogena’s oil free Moisture lotion.

These help keep the moisture locked in and thwart cracked and flaky skin.

4. You’ll Have to Skip the Steaming Hot Showers

There’s nothing like a good, hot, steaming shower at the beginning or end of a long day. We feel you.

But if you have dry skin, it’s best to keep these to a minimum. Hot water makes skin even dryer – so if you must up the temperature, make sure the water’s lukewarm and you’re using natural, gentle soaps.

5. Sunscreen’s Your Best Friend

Growing up, my skin didn’t exactly have its finest hour in the sun. Pun intended. The worst instances of acne and rashes can impinge upon dry skin on a day when you’re wearing no sunscreen and experience direct sun exposure. Leslie Baumann, MD, Director of the Cosmetic Research at the University of Miami has stressed on the need for dry-skinned people to reach for broader spectrum sunscreens that protect from both UVA and UVB rays.

You’ll also need to constantly reapply EVERY 2-3 hours.

6. The Right Diet’s a Clincher

Keep in mind that the food you eat also influences hydration. Fish like salmon, mackerel, anchovies contain omega-3 fats that protect skin from sun damage and cells from cancer. Avocados are rich in vitamins C and E and lock in moisture.

You’d also be better advised to sauté or roast veggies than to cook them.

For dry skinned individuals, orange and yellow vegetables like carrots, pumpkins, sweet potatoes, mangoes and apricots need to be a part of your diet immediately!

‘No matter if you’re black or white’

(Published in The Times of India: http://blogs.timesofindia.indiatimes.com/shaira-mohan-blog/no-matter-if-youre-black-or-white/ )

In the literary masterpiece, To Kill a Mockingbird, Scout Finch asks her father if he is, in fact, a lover of the dark-skinned people.

“I certainly am. I do my best to love everybody… I’m hard put, sometimes—baby, it’s never an insult to be called what somebody thinks is a bad name. It just shows you how poor that person is, it doesn’t hurt you.” (11.107-109)

With this book, the recently deceased Harper Lee left us with a legacy that will remain unparalleled for generations to come . The above is an excerpt from the book where Atticus Finch, the audacious lawyer defending a black man in the America of the 1930s during the Great Depression is giving his impressionable daughter Scout Finch a lesson in racism. The lesson, however, echoed far  beyond the book into the classrooms and consciences of the world wide audience.

But did it really?

Today, nearly a century past the Civil Rights movement spearheaded by the likes of Martin Luther King, Andrew Goodman and many others who lost their lives in the struggle for freedom and equality, the predicament of many of our colored folks the world over remains unchanged and ‘un-fair’. (Pun intended.)

Its sad that the obssession with fair skin in countries like even our own has muted our abilities to look beyond the exterior and appreciate the person herself. Be it the corporate world, domestic help, supermarkets, or even airports, unabashed discrimination and segregation is still rife in many parts of the world and sometimes shockingly blatant. The intelligent African-American candidate will be overlooked for the fair-skinned but less skilled one. Help will be easily given to the fair-skinned passenger at an airport whereas the darker skinned one may have to fend for herself.

I have just moved into a building in Abu Dhabi where one of the receptionists at the lobby is a pleasant, friendly and helpful black gentleman who is unflinchingly polite and goes the extra mile to assist you in any way he can. His diverse group of colleagues are equally agreeable but Ali stands out – not for the colour of his skin but for the fact that by doing his job exceptionally every moment of ever day, he crushes the ugliness of the stereotype he is tied to and in doing so, shines a bright light on the darkness that a racist mind lives in.

The hideousness of racism, be it economic, social or cultural is particularly conspicuous in poverty-stricken sections of society, owing to this deadly twosome of racism and poverty operating in a vicious circle. But the impact sweeps along all classes and strata of society, further strengthening the lines of racial divides and widening the gaps between rich and poor, light and dark skinned.

The ripple effect in play is as a consequence, flowing in the wrong direction. The direction of regression and closed mind sets instead of progressive and humanitarian dispositions. Failing to look beyond the petty and peripheral has deterred our ability to judge the good and the bad by letting us base our final judgements on the superficial.

My young cousin recently asked me for advice on which book she should read for an essay assignment for school. On her request, I rattled off some of my favorites by Indian authors but I ended my message by insisting that if she hasnt yet read To Kill a Mockingbird, she must leave all else and pick up a copy immediately. I did that not just because I have read it thrice myself and it is one of my all time favorites, but because I think it is very important for us to encourage the younger generations to be aware of racial discrimination from an early age and not let them fall in to the colour trap. So that from their formative school years they know and accept children of all colours and all walks of life as ‘people’ and not ‘black’ or ‘white’ or ‘brown’ people.

It may just be a drop in the ocean but as the saying goes, every drop counts. Atticus Finch doesn’t have to be just a protaganist of a novel. We need to raise an Atticus Finch in every home and reverse the ripple effect.

Mallya’s escape will brew an unwanted storm in our own backyards

(Published in Times of India: http://blogs.timesofindia.indiatimes.com/shaira-mohan-blog/mallyas-escape-will-brew-an-unwanted-storm-in-our-own-backyards/ )

It’s just another grenade waiting to explode. The repercussions will be felt the most among our debt-stricken sections who are already raising the vociferous war-cry of hypocrisy.

The kingpin of a large liquor empire in debt of nearly a billion dollars owed to the banks flees the country despite instructions to airports to prevent him from doing so, while a farmer in a remote district of Tamil Nadu is mercilessly beaten by the police for failing to repay a loan of 1.3 lakhs to the bank to purchase a tractor.

It’s the great income divide in all its glory. But more than that, it’s yet another addition to the tall pile of wealthy or powerful defaulters in our country who play the ‘jugaad’ card because they can while the poor and helpless in similar situations bear the brunt of punishment. The figures might be lesser in comparison but to these hard-working farmers whose only source of livelihood are the lands they till and crop they grow, these figures are no less than Mallya’s billions.

The farmer in question, G Balan has already paid back a large percentage of the owed amount whereas Vijay Mallya who is being chased by virtually every institution one can think of – banks, regulators, airports, airline staff to name a few continues to irk his creditors by flaunting his wealth even in this precarious state and managing a hall pass out of the country.

If this isn’t rubbing handfuls of salt on  the wounds of an entire component of society that already faces an ignominous fate at the hands of the weather gods and ‘dandas’ of our esteemed police force then I don’t know what is.

The King of ‘Good Times’ has only stirred up a string of ‘bad times’ for himself and subsequently his shareholders and lenders even as he was hard-pressed to approach lenders a second time and they voted to risk it again and give him the time of day. A decision they must be hopping mad about now. The implications of his mistakes owing to his own bad decisions for an airline empire that never gained profits in eight years have far-reaching tremors whereas G Balan’s ‘crime’ was a consequence of natural factors out of his control – the weather that damaged his crop. Instead of hearing his pleas and promises that he would in fact be paying up the rest of the owed money, the cops turned a deaf ear and savagely caned him. This injustice when thousands of others like Mallya have far bigger debts owed and far lesser to lose.

It’s just another example of the blatant gundagardi that has plagued our country as the new law of the land. Don’t like it? Beat it up. Kill it or drive it to suicide. G Balan was beaten up in front of the entire village. He was given no notice or no contact prior to this charade and on voicing this, he was beaten up more. But Mallya probably sipped his champagne on his flight to ‘get away’ from it all.

Mallya needs to be brought back and brought to book immediately, not just because he is a man who deserves nothing less than facing up to the consequences of his own doing, but because allowing him to gain some wriggle-room to strategise his next steps by defying legal decrees and fleeing, (even momentarily) further tarnishes the already stained image of our country and its endemically biased legal and governmental systems.