Monthly Archives: September 2012

Frankincense – the Offering to the Gods, from Ancient Times

Update for week ended 28 September 2012

The street had been cordoned off for vehicular traffic. It was the Elephant God Festival (Ganesha Festival) week and the temple was thronging with devotees. I had parked my car a distance away from the temple as usual, and was walking down the street to the temple entrance. What caught my attention was the smell of fresh frankincense. It was not common for the street vendors of flowers, garlands, sweetmeats to burn frankincense – at best they would lit an incense stick or joss sticks. And my roving eyes found the source of the smoky intense fragrance of the offering to Gods known from ancient times. It was a thin wiry man with a white skull cap. His shiny upper garment was embroidered around the collar and the shoulder and he was wearing a green (shiny again) wraparound (lungi). He had a sling bag slung over his left shoulder and his arm was stretched out towards the flower sellers’ stall as he offered the smoky “blessings” to the stall. The stall owner was a plump matron with green bangles and a large red spot on her forehead (bindi), a colourful sari and with flowers arranged around her neat hair bun. She picked up a few coins from her purse and dropped them into the plate on which the frankincense bowl was smoking. It was perhaps her gratitude to the blessings from the sufi mendicant. I was intrigued by this cross-cultural and cross-religious interplay. A green wraparound wearing Muslim man was offering blessings to a flower stall owners goods which largely comprised white lilies strung with green grass (Durva grass) and jewelled with red hibiscus that would be bought by a devotee to finally land up around the neck of the Hindu God – Ganesha.

The D Street Boyz were also intrigued by the mix of red and green in their territorial D Street. The Ganesha Festival had pervaded into their work life as well, as the street was festooned with marigold and mango leaves. The red hibiscus was present on every garland and many had some grass as well. The D Boyz were aware that there was always some symbolism in their offerings, so while they spent the beginning of the week offering little bouquets of hibiscus tied to the deity, their SENSEX also seemed to take on the crimson hue form the flower offerings. And so on Friday, when they offered the 18 foot long durva grass garland to the deity before its departure, they were sure that they would be blessed with green tidings and their wish was fulfilled. The weak and red SENSEX of the week turned green and returned 10 times stronger than the 18 foot long grass garland to end the week …..

Legend has it that the green durva grass is sacred to Ganesha and if a devotee offered a tied bunch of even 8 shoots of the grass, their prosperity is assured. Pluck a blade of grass and it sprouts back, and this attribute makes it a powerful symbol of regeneration, renewal, rebirth, fertility, and hence prosperity. There are various other legends associated with this grass, but it is strange that though this grass is native to East Africa, Asia, Australia and Southern Europe, it is commonly referred to in English as Bermuda Grass.

The farewell to the Elephant Headed God, Ganesha, has been said, and his statues have been submerged in ponds, lakes, rivers and the sea. And just like the resilience of the Durva grass to regenerate, so will Ganesha whose return next year will be eagerly awaited.

Cheers … and Have a great week ahead


The Return of the Spinach (Palak)

Update for week ended 14 Sep 2012

Monsoons in India usually bring about a change in diets. This is considered the season to also “cool” the digestive system almost like the cooling of the parched earth after that long Indian Summer.And the diets get softer, lighter and at times vegetarian. It is also the season that has the maximum “fasts”, but that part I have already covered before in my post on Fasting – the Hindu Way in April 2011. And the greens of spinach and amaranth are usually shunned for the browns of dried pulses and dried pulsed pulses. But there are some greens that still find pride of place on many tables on these rainy, muggy days. And one of them is the drumstick tree leaf. These are compound leaves and get a fresh lease of life in the rains. The tender ones are carefully picked out of the branch-lets and mixed into dals or added to a vegetable or in some cases even mixed with rice batter to make thick but crispy rice pancakes (adais). And then the rains flood the marshes and this is very conducive for marsh plants like the colocasia (arbi in Hindi), and the leaves grow large like elephant ears (incidentally this is another name for this plant) and these large leaves find their way into homes of the Western coastal people. So Keralites cut them into long strips and tie them into bundles to toss them into a boiling pot of tangy tamarind broth, while the Konkan coast people boil the leaves, mash them up with split gram (chana dal) and toss a few spices, a handful of peanuts and a generous dose of tamarind juice. And further north, the Gujaratis make a savoury snack of this leaf, smothered with gramflour, rolled up like a swissroll and steamed, before being sliced and served up with tea. The season is also one that gets therapeutic, so dillweed get served up with light ridge gourd or the humble brinjal. The aromatic herb not only rekindles an appetite, but also soothes a disturbed tummy.

The D Street Boyz had a monsoon week, as they saw green every day. So if it was light and sprinkly till mid-week, things got darker towards the end of the week, and the favourite SENSEX got greener and greener as it scaled adult heights of over 18000….. to end the week at a 14 month high of 18464.

And maybe this is premonition, because when I got home after work on Monday last, i was surprised to be greeted by a casserole bowl full of Spinach and Cottage Cheese Curry (Palak Paneer) and  I welcomed the spinach back on the table after a long absence this monsoon. So maybe I did in some way foresee the future of the week on D Street, perhaps!!

So take care this weekend, and enjoy the next week with greens that will welcome the Elephant God in many homes and lanes and streets. And incidentally there are leaves that flavour the food of the God – the turmeric leaf on which a sweet dumpling is steamed. Enjoy some of them for me too!


The Indian Night Queen and Jasmine Vine – don’t bloom sometimes

It was on gloomy, rainy days like Monday that Smita fought the greys with her colourful cooking. She woke up to grey clouds and lightning and mild rumbling thunder. She expected a wet day and as she prepared her morning coffee, she also soaked some split Bengal gram and checked her pantry for jaggery and coconut milk. She had the milk, but no jaggery, so she would improvise with demerera sugar. She was going to bake something that her neighbor in Poona, Swatitai, taught her, a baked gram cake, Ninaava. Although Smita was a novice at cooking when she entered the Athavale household as a 19 year old bride, she was quite sharp at quickly picking up techniques and adding to her repertoire. She mastered everything she learnt and her skill lay in improvising, where she could replace rice with white corn meal in an idli, or even the black gram (urad dal) in the same idli, morphing it from a south Indian preparation to a quasi Mexican or Latin American steamed dish. She had felt a load off her heart after the chat she had with her son the previous evening.
She had picked up the phone and dialed 0011 – 91 – 20 – ………, and after just ring it was answered. “Hello, aai”, was the familiar voice from the other side. Smita’s voice choked, as she spluttered, “Shekhar”. There was sniffing on both sides of the line, but Smita composed herself and started in Marathi, “How are you? How is everything at home?” But Shekhar did not want to converse the banalities, he wanted to know the truth, of why she left her family. Smita was not sure if she should tell all, but she convinced herself that by talking about it, she would not only reduce her burden that had got her into some depression, as well as help her family to recollect their broken lives. Madhav was the insensitive husband that she had devoted her life to. She had not much of formal education, but was content leading the life of a homemaker, raising her smart children and meeting the demands of her family especially the husband. Her culinary skills were a rage in the housing colony (though the possessive Madhav did not approve) and she was often called for lecture/demonstration sessions. She would do it in the afternoons and she enjoyed it. One day, Madhav returned early from office and found her missing, and when she returned, he forbade her from entering the house. This was not the first time she was abused. She pleaded and the Godboles from the next door looked through their grilled front door with pity and nothing more. She cried at the door for about an hour, till Shekhar returned from college. He escorted his mother into their home, and when she entered the kitchen, she was shocked with what she found. The expensive baking dishes were shattered. The microwave door had been smashed and the wires plied out. Her pots and pans were banged out, out of shape. He had not even spared the pressure cooker, he had poured a cup of sugar into it and broiled it to a charred black. The kitchen, her home, her heaven looked like a scene from a war movie – smoke, destruction, dust. That night, the family called for takeaway food from a nearby restaurant, but Smita was left out. She spent the night on the terrace with her Night Queen and Jasmine, except that they did not flower that night, almost like they too were either in sorrow like her or worse, they had spurned their love towards her. The next morning, she tried to make some tea, thanks to help from Shekhar and the other 2 sons, but Madhav did not touch the cup. He left for office in a huff. He called from there to tell his sons that they should not let their mother cook at home as she was interested in cooking for the neighbourhood. Shekhar tried to reason with his father, but he did not listen. That night, Smita’s bag was packed with all her belongings, and Madhav took it out after the kids had settled down to study or sleep. He loaded them on a taxi and asked the driver to wait for the “madam” and went back. No-one had noticed, but a silently weeping Smita was nudged out of her house into the waiting taxi and sent off to her maternal home in Nasik. She pleaded as she was dragged out of her house, and at times, Madhav had gagged her mouth and almost shoved her down the stairs. She was bruised but she did not care for her physical self, but what about her home, her children? Madhav did not listen and the taxi left.
Smita sniffed and stayed silent for a long time. Till Shekhar spoke up – “Aai, you could have told us while you were in Nasik. We could have found a mid-way to resolve this domestic dispute. It was a distance we could have traversed. In fact we could have walked all up the way to Nasik, but Australia was physically so far away”. Smita stopped him, “don’t you see the meaning in all this – the divide is so large now, it is separated by the vast oceans and distances. We are no longer at a stage where rapprochement is possible. The seas will remain between us, but just as time has allowed for communication over long distances, I am available for you as I have nothing against you. I never wanted to leave it all. Your father forced me to.”

The D Boyz woke up to a grey and cloudy week. The monsoon clouds were one thing, but the dust kicked up by the coal scams was another. The coal dust had greyed the atmosphere and the D Boyz were feeling depressed. And during days of depression, they sometimes resorted to trading on their SENSEX. Unfortunately like their minds, their SENSEX also weighed down and lost some of its monsoon green colour to reveal shades of red. But on Friday, the mood changed. The coal dust had blackened every possible part of the functioning “rulers”, and it felt like it was time for some of them to be banished from their homes in the parliament (and many D Boyz are actually looking forward to it). And then on Friday, when the news from foreign lands across the seven seas and oceans came, it was like a breath of fresh air, as the mood on D street felt uplifted, also lifting the SENSEX up to end extended at 17750.

And then I needed something to get me out of the depression and you know how cooking is so therapeutic for me. I participated in a cook-off with international participants at the vineyards near Nasik. I won the India round and here I am in Australia. Ron was part of the team that organized the event, and in him I see a person who is sensitive and he was my guide who also goaded me to push my limits and be what I am today. I love Ron, but he is not my lover. He is my guru in this reborn life. He is about 10 years older to you, but he has been instrumental in getting me out of my previous life. And why did I not call you earlier to explain? Shekhar – Ron says time is a healer, and just as it is healing me, I know it will heal you as well”. Please keep in touch, and I will talk to your brothers soon. With that she put the phone down. She did not realize that she was crying, though she did not feel depressed any longer. She got up from her seat and went to her computer and browsed her way to her blog. She had a new subscription request that she had to approve. It was from shekhar.athavale@…….. She smiled and accepted the request.

I know that there are many people out there wanting to do what their hearts want, but end up doing what they are expected to do. So just get up and follow your heart!

Have a great week ahead.