Random Indian thoughts – I

I have been away from my home country for around ten years now and I have gone back for visits almost eight times in this period of time. The tickets are expensive – you work hard year round just to make enough money to cover the tickets and other spending during the stay. When you are back to work, you start over from scratch again. But I have not regretted any of the trips we made so far.

When you look at it from a North American perspective, you save all your vacation days and use them for your India trip. Your North American friends are jealous that you get one month of Vacation to the exotic land of India! Many of my Indian friends feel that they are stressed when they are in India and it is not actually a vacation. I do agree to this thought and it is true for most of the times I visited home. When my friends come back from one of these trips they swear that they are not going back for say, another 5 years.

Most of the time, average IT Indian families plan their trips around some event that is happening back home – like brother’s wedding, dad’s Birthday, sister having a baby. On some unlucky situations, they go back home because one of the family members is seriously ill or someone passed away. When you combine these events with visits to relatives houses etc. you do not have much room to build in your own agenda of a trip to your favorite hill resort. How can you consider this a vacation if your agenda is dictated like this?

There is a lot of complaining after coming back – oh, we didnt get to do all the things that we wanted to, it was too hot, the relatives were whiny and bad to me, India has changed so much, it is too crowded, all the shops do not take credit cards…..it goes on. What I have found out in all these years is that, even though you do not get to plan your time off, and there are a million other things that you do not enjoy there, there is an undeniably STRONG relationship between you and your homeland. It just cannot be explained in words. You go back so that you can be YOURSELF.

The feeling of belonging and being ones own self is something we forget very easily and conveniently. The last time I went, I had a very stressful trip owing to the fact that it was my children’s first visit and they got sick way too often. But that does not stop me from thinking about my next trip and I am already looking forward to my next one in August. Again, this time it is my Dad’s 60th birthday event that is dictating the dates and places, but hey, I would still take it.

Do let me know how your visits to your home land are like, when is your next visit and what you are looking forward to do in that trip, your thoughts on  my musings………..

Oh, by the way it is not like I never complained anything about my trips and vacations to India. I did do that when I was younger, naive and did not have the big perspective on life and dwelled on immediate pleasures and rewards of life. I have learnt to think of the big picture of life through my own experiences as well as from others.

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What if G.C is “the G.C”?

I had to do it – there was no other way to save my family. I had to take the plunge for I couldnt rely on anybody else to keep my enemies away. They were attacking my husband’s health and also trying to lure him for higer stakes. I have to be in my husband’s blind spot to watch out for any incoming attacks just in case he forgets the shoulder check.

Let me tell you why I feel that our lives are being targeted. My husband (Vee) and PB has a lot of common ground under their feet. This made Vee an easy target for them. It was a great opportunity to introduce Vee to this underworld when he mentioned to PB his new business idea. Since then Vee has been hooked. They started writing on the walls and exchanging coded messages.

They have even targeted Vee’s health and mind – got him addicted to the “dark brown” things. They lured him by offering him the “dark” things in many different shapes – round, squares, sunny shaped and even bunny shaped special ones over Easter. PB recently started thinking like Vee……..mind blowing……

PB introduced Vee to GC recently. GC and PB think Vee is a cool guy and can easily be trapped. They dont know that I am watching out for him. What if G.C is “the G.C.?” Everyone knows that this guy doesnt care about his life. He has been going around telling everyone that he wouldnt mind if he got hit by a truck tomorrow.  I also know that he recently tried to get a young and newly married couple killed.

I tried telling Vee to stay away from this gang. But he is hooked to the high stakes games they keep talking about and the “dark thingy”. He cannot stop writing on the walls. And he thinks it is cool to hang around with G.C.

Well, now you see why I had to what I had to do. I registered myself in the online community to spy on my husband and also enjoy the conversations. They are not sharing the “dark brown things” with me and I had to get back at them somehow. I am sure you would agree that George Clooney is indeed a sexy guy and I wanna be friends with him too!

Curry – Dish or blend of spices?

Whenever I talk to my North American friends about Indian food, they ask me whether I make curry. Of course, not only I make curry but I cook a variety of curries. Curry is not just one dish that Indians make which seems to be the general notion. Curry is a blend of spices which we add to our dishes to make it tasty.

Curry is known as Garam Masala in India. Garam means ‘hot’ and Masala means ‘mixture’. A variety of spices are ground and blended depending on the dish to which it will be added. Generally, garam masalas have cinnamon, ginger, cloves, cardamom, coriander, cumin, black peppercorn and bay leaf in them. Turmeric, cumin, asafoetida, cardamom are some of the unheard and rare spices that are used in the Indian recipes. These spices are used for their color, fragrance and taste.

Turmeric is the root of the plant and it belongs to the ginger family. It grows in lush tropical regions. It is said to have many medicinal values including uses as antiseptic. Many researches are being conducted to find other medicinal properties of this spice. The root is dried and ground to be stored as turmeric powder. It is yellow in color and very fragrant. Women of India apply turmeric paste to their body to enhance the beauty of the skin. Turmeric is also considered very sacred in Hindu culture. It is extensively used in Indian dishes.

CardamomCardamom is another rare spice that is used extensively in India. Anyone who has had Indian Chai from an Indian restaurant has had it. It is one of the major components of the spiced tea. Cardamom is considered the Queen of spices due to its exotic nature. It is the fruit of a perennial tree that grows in humid climates. The special cultivation techniques make this spice unique in aroma, flavour, size and color. The dried fruit is pale green color and has to be peeled to get at the seeds. The peels are also very aromatic and can be added to your tea canister to lend the flavour to your tea bags. The black seeds can be ground easily and can be added where the recipe calls for it. This spice is mostly used in Indian sweets like the Gulab jamun, drinks like Kheer, other desserts like custard. When cardamom is added, it sure gives the dish a festive feel to it.

Cumin is dried seeds from the cumin plant. Cumin seeds are small and shaped like long grain rice. They are always confused with fennel seeds and coriander seeds. They are very fragrant and are darker in color than the fennel seeds. These seeds are extensively used in Indian, Mexican and Thai dishes. Cumin is believed to provide relief from gastro-intestinal problems of your body. In India, cumin seeds are added to boiling water which lends a pale yellow color and taste to the water. Cumin seeds are either used as such in dishes or dry roasted and powdered form in other dishes.

Asafoetida also known as Devils dung is the resin or gum extracted from the sap of a perennial tree. It has an aroma which some people classify as disgusting and others as fragrant. Either way, its aroma and flavour are very strong. If your recipe calls for it, add the ingredient sparingly. It is available in stores as a block or in cans in its powdered form. The block when ground fresh will have stronger flavour than the powder. Due to its nature it should be stored in air tight containers. When cooked the flavour becomes mild and adds to the taste of your dish. It is known by the name ‘Hing’ in India and mostly it is used in the recipes of Hindus and Jains. Hing is added in mild quantities to the dishes owing to the digestive properties of the spice.

Spice ContainerThe spice jars used to store the spices is as interesting as the spices itself. It is a round box with inner jars. They come in a variety of sizes and may or may not come with individual lids for the smaller jars. There is a small plate above the jars which is used to store red chillies and there is a lid to the base container.

Happy Cooking!

Vani Viswanathan

All you wanted to know about the Sari

Sari is the traditional garment of Indian women. The women of India have been wearing this for hundreds of years. It is an unstitched piece of cloth and its length varies from five yards to nine yards. Sari is draped around the body and it can be worn in many different styles. Generally, the sari is draped around the waist with some pleats and the other end is draped around one of the shoulders. The part that is worn around shoulders usually will have elaborate artwork. It is called the pallu of the sari. The length of the sari will have borders on one side or both sides. The main body of the sari which is draped around the waist will have some print work or embroidery to enhance the looks.

Red SariIt is quite an art to drape the sari in such a fashion so that the main feature of the garment is highlighted. Moving around gracefully wearing a sari can be quite challenging without the pleats falling off from your waist and the pallu sliding off of your blouse revealing the contours. Think about how women perform dances wearing these! It is no secret that the ladies of today’s world use quite a number of accessories to hold up their saris. Safety pins are a girl’s best friend who is going to wear a sari to school for the first time. Sari is considered to be one of the most graceful dresses of the world.

In the olden days, the sari is draped around and nothing else was worn – the women bare their upper body. Blouses were introduced to make the garment a more modest one. The blouse that is worn is from shoulder to midriff baring the belly button. An underskirt is worn to hold the pleats in place and also give the garment a fluffiness. Usually, the blouse matches or contrasts the shade of the sari and can be stitched in a variety of patterns. In modern days, women have revolutionized the blouse with making it sleeveless, open back, windows and ties in the front and back.

Indian women wear saris during festivals and for all traditional occasions. The type of sari worn will vary widely and will also be based on the gathering. Expensive saris made with golden thread artworks (known as zari) are worn for weddings. Daily wear saris can be simple and elegant and easy to drape and maintain.

Saris are made with a variety of fabrics all over the world. Saris can come in a variety of patterns including vegetable dyed, block printed, embroidered, embedded with metals, pearls or expensive stones. The various fabrics used can be cotton, silk, polyester, nylon or rayon. Some of the expensive saris need high maintenance, while the cotton saris may need starching to bring out their beauty.

Sari is also worn in many other countries of Asia including Sri Lanka and Pakistan. Westernised dresses are fast replacing the sari shelves of the youngsters. Today’s generation will prefer wearing jeans and a shirt for more convenience any given day. But when they think about the wedding costume, they prefer wearing the traditional sari. 

Whichever style you wear, inexpensive or expensive, pure hand woven silk or polyester women clad in saris are a delight to watch!

Vani Viswanathan

Music of India

Indian music is one of the oldest traditions of the world. The music industry of India is vibrant and multi-faceted. The style, language and presentation vary as one travels from east to west or north to south. In general, music of India can be classified into Carnatic classical, Hindustani classical, folk music,film music, and pop music. Any piece of Indian music you hear can be largely accommodated into one of these cultures.

Pandit RavishankarCarnatic classical is the traditional music followed by South Indian music associates whereas Hindustani is the classical style adapted in Northern parts of India. Hindustani music has gained international popularity whereas Carnatic music is still heard only in large North American cities where there is a good sized Indian population. Pandit Ravishankar who plays the Sitar and Zakir hussain who plays the Tabla follow the Hindustani traditions. The basics remaining the same in both Hindustani and Carnatic styles, musicians have been able to perform fusion music rendering in their own styles and improvising onstage. Carnatic music compositions are mostly made in the languages of Sanskrit, Tamil, Telugu and Kannada whereas Hindustani compositions are either Hindi or Urdu.

Folk music is highly region based and is slowly fading into the past. Folk songs were largely a part of daily routine in the early days and hence they carry the rhythm of life with it. It could either be sung by the workers in the fields during harvest when they were working their way in the scorching sun or the calming lullabies sung by mothers at night when they were rocking their babies with the cool breeze. There have been some movements to revive this genre of music and it probably will gain more popularity in the coming years.

Film music in India is a huge industry with revenues in millions. Songs are a big part of the movies of Bollywood and any given movie could have one to five songs in it. In the movie, the actors and actresses synchronize their lip movement with the song. Professional playback singers lend their voice to the tunes. The music is set to fit the storyline of the movie, the character and the situation of the scenes. Occasionally, actors sing the songs themselves too to the horror of the audience. Ilayaraja, a prominent South Indian music composer has scored music for more than 4000 songs and has performed many Symphonies within short time spans. He is the first Asian whose symphony was performed by RPO (Royal Philharmonic Orchestra). Film music has the most ardent followers and admirers among the Indian population.

The movie industry in India follows many traditional protocols and rarely steps out of winning formulas to give opportunities to new comers. This opened the way for the youngsters to look for other avenues to present their talent. Pop music albums were easy to produce and there were lesser financial risks. The young talent turned to this area and came up with many creative albums. Most of the Indian pop albums revolve around the subjects of romance, patriotism, spirituality and festivals. Pop albums are looking up to the western music industry and more modern themes are being used lately.

T N Krishnan and RajamIndian music has integrated many musical features from other cultures. Violin which was originally a western instrument is the main accompaniment to a Carnatic music concert. Carnatic vocalists perform sitting down cross-legged and hence the violinist also has to sit down and balance the violin between his shoulders and feet. Many musicians have recorded fusion music integrating Indian music with Western artists. George Harrison of Beatles fame has played the Sitar in one of his songs which he learned from Pandit Ravishankar.