A series of confusing messages.

The scene begins on a street in Mumbai. A middle aged man pulls up at a traffic light. He is Kanha, the sutradhar of this particular piece. The Natya Shastra recommended one as a narrative device and he is usually bantering with gopis who are heading to the market or lake or home and flirts outrageously with them while pulling off some satirical punchlines and even dance moves. There is a group of gopis in shorts and tank tops, stylishly pouting at a cellphone and he

is trying to get their attention.

Kanha: Girls! Gopis!

The gopis look at him and go back to texting furiously on their phones.

Kanha: hello, ladies, gentlemen and all those who consider themselves human. I’m your sutradhar for this particular play and we are as you can see in Mumbai city, waiting for the red light to turn green. Now, I have just sent an online message to the gopis about an audition for a play, so you’ll get to see some banter soon enough.

Gopi 1: hey there, I’m rap chick rea and I just got a call for an audition for ***, the best beer in town.

Kanha: very nice! If this were a real audition you would be the next beer girl for all of 5 minutes.

Rap chick rea: five minutes? Too long, dude. These days time is in micro second parcels. BTW, what are we shooting here? I mean where’s the crew?

Kanha: no crew, just me and camera placed in that traffic signal. We are shooting a beer commercial as I told you and this is your stage.

Rap chick rea: no offense, bro, but this is a beat up jeep with huge ass Tyres. That is weird.

Kanha : just a sand blaster. You can drive with it on the beach.

Rasp chick rea: wait a micro second. Beach? No, no, no, you didn’t mention beach in the audition call. I can’t be at the beach without anti frizz hair serum and sunscreen. Not cool!

Kanha: chill, we are shooting right here. No beach, but we need more babes. So can you tweet up some friends?

Rap chick rea: that is going into my itemized bill, you know. It’s so unprofessional! Okay and now I must concentrate.

Kanha : sure, you have exactly two microseconds. (to the audience). For those of you who did not fall asleep during that bit of banter, I’m luring the gopis/bearers of various social media handles in with an audition call.

The scene is to be staged right here. At a traffic intersection in the midst of the Mumbai mid morning rush. Our play characters are, Terry, a lifestyle blogger, Anu, an elderly virgin, Benny, her gay BFF and Anu’s mom, though she only appears in texts. Thank God.

Rap chick rea: you’ll alienate the atheists and agnostics if you talk like that.

Kanha: really? Tell me the difference between them, I dare you.

Rap chick rea: why should I? Google it. So last century, asking questions and expecting human beings to answer them!

Kanha looks at audience quizzically. He snaps his finger and we are now in the cab Terry is traveling in. It is a special cab and is done up to resemble a lounge with all kinds of gizmos. Terry is being driven by a young woman, Sneha who moonlights as a dog groomer as well. She is in the process of setting up her catering company and specializes in starters. Terry begins to shoot her vlog in the back of the cab.

Terry: okay, so this week we are meeting millennials who are creating their own brand and supporting their enterprises with day jobs. Sneha here is a prime example. Sneha, can we speak for a bit?

Sneha: sure. This traffic jam won’t let up soon.

Terry: so when and how did you think of creating your starters only catering?

Sneha: guess all the buffets and banquets I ate at provided inspiration. You eventually ended up eating only the starters and the tastier they were, the better. The main course often got neglected. Besides, I think it’s so much better to experiment with a few ingredients and create the perfect little bite.

Terry: which is incidentally also the name of your startup, right? Now since Sneha is in setup mode, she is looking for investors and would love a chance to showcase her skills to you. So please do let her starters steal the show at your next party, gig or even a private bash. And remember you heard about her on Terry live. So, I

will call it a day now. Muaahhh!

Sneha : thanks, Terry. I’m going to get us out of here quickly so you can get to your shoot early.

Terry : great. The traffic is supposed to be moving fast and there doesn’t seem to be much of an issue. Oh no, what just happened?

Sneha :pile up. Someone seems to have stopped suddenly and caused the vehicles behind to crash into each other. I’m going to stay clear of this.

Terry text: hey, S, running late. Pile up on the highway.

S text: yes, someone just tweeted about it. Part of the road caved in.

Terry: Sneha, bad news, the road caved in.

Sutradhar : now, this is the age of instant news and instant action so no one was going to ignore such a message. A flurry of movement began and as you can see behind me the vehicles at the back have done a turnaround. Let’s ask my solo gopis her thoughts on this situation.

Gopi : are we shooting already? No, you just want my opinion about this? I think it’s outrageous how the taxpayer is taken for granted. I mean this is just not done!

Sutradhar (gently) : do you pay taxes, gopi?

Gopi: me? No! But my parents do and, you know I feel their burden.

Sutradhar: and yet you live at home with them. Sounds like you are aware of their burdens. Okay! Don’t glare at me.

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Welcome to zombieland.

I’m running in my dream, probably the only place where I still can. I am literally flying through the grass which is knee high, spring green and lush. My feet know this path as I’ve hurtled down this mountain many times before. I know I won’t trip or lose my balance on a chance loose stone or get bitten by any creature that lives in the grass. I just know this place and I know myself here.

The mountain begins a shallow descent and the grass gets sparser. It turns a faded green before going completely straw colored. By the time I reach the bottom to the even plain, the straw has given way to Rocky debris, sandy soil, and very sparse grass, if any. There is no way to tell that this is the lush grassland which once was seemingly never ending.

It’s not as if this journey hasn’t changed me physically. My heart which was as steady as a metronome, is beating an erratic, wildly out of tune tattoo. My lungs are working to their maximum and yet can’t keep up. My head is pounding and I can feel a nagging pain in my shoulders and back. My spine feels as if it’s being pulled down by gravity and my feet are suffering the weight of a corpus that is suddenly not too sure of its center of gravity.

I come to a halt at an enormous gate above which is the legend, welcome to zombieland. There are medicine bottles lying all around and medical bills flying all over the place. Blood pressure pills, diabetes pills, pills for thyroid, x rays, cat scans, MRIs, and so on.

Besides these, there are clothes for the elderly, oversize or plus couture, orthopedic shoes, adult diapers, wheelchairs, walking sticks.

Next up are the schemes for investing in health and pension plans. The documents fly thick and fast. Now my had is spinning although I am not running.

I breathe in deep and look back the top sof the mountain. I remember a time when I was 12 when food was fun, work was something to look forward to, walking and climbing mountains gave me real peace and bliss. I remember drawing artlessly and making friends without any hidden agendas.

I look back at the entry to zombieland. I lift up the bottle of pills at my feet and hurl it into the gate. It vanishes just as I could in a pharmaceutical induced haze. I turn around and retie my sneaker laces. I walk back up the mountain.

I’m heading to a time and place in my mind and body when I felt most like myself.

Zombieland can wait forever.

The shortest route to bliss.

“This is delicious, Teju. How? Were you paying attention?”

The young woman who asks me this with perfect inflection, arch humor and admirable timing is built like Juno and has the appeal of Sophia Loren. I am intrigued at once by this statement of hers, since cooking has always been based on instinct, mood and the circumstances around me. It’s never been planned or conscious or pre-mediated in any way. And therein, I believe is the problem.

No dish I ever make tastes the same the next time around. In fact, when I make a dish really well, I’m left with the sinking feeling that someone will love it and ask me to replicate it later, in which case I’ll be in trouble since I did not follow any particular recipe or standard set of measures.

I suppose that comes with the fact of being a home cook. Baking is a different story and once when I’d tried baking and been cavalier with ingredients and process, it pretty much was a flop, literally and metaphorically.

But when cooking something like sindhi kadi, for example, I can shut down my mind and just feel my way through the recipe. The ultimate comfort food, sindhi kadi is a one dish meal to be eaten with long grained jeera rice and papad and sliced onions with lime squeezed on it. You eat it during the rains, the dead of winter, or every day if you are in the mountains. Another thing to remember is, don’t drink water while eating or for an hour after the meal or the bloat will keep you from eating the next two days.

Now for the actual recipe. What do you put into a sindhi kadi? Well, my induction program in making it taught me to use yellow lentils and chickpea flour. There are other variations, using only tomato puree and chickpea flour. Once you are an expert, most sindhi kadi cooks can and do play around with the recipe.

So, the roux is made of chickpea flour, roasted a perfect biscuit brown. You have to be sure it is the colour of a Parle g biscuit, by the way.

The kadi has a load of veggies swimming around in it. These are in descending order potatoes, bottle gourd, okra and aubergines.

The potatoes will appear in almost every ladle full, that’s the idea. So you can add in about a kilo of them. Par boil them since they have to be soft, flaky and receptive to the kadi.

The bottle gourd is cut in long strips and par boiled too. Reserve the liquid or you can steam them too. The gourd must not have big ass seeds. That’s just unpleasant.

The okra is put in whole. You need to get about a dozen of them, the size and width of your index finger, lop off the top and bottom bit and fry the okra till cooked all through. But, and this is tricky, don’t let it go brown. It must be edible all through and still retain its green shade.

The aubergines are the long slim so called Japanese brinjals which are purple. Don’t buy the green ones, not for this dish anyway. Treat them the same way as the okra. Cook through but don’t lose the purple tint or the creamy inner colour.

Now since this is a recipe from before smartphones, at least for me, a few words of caution.

You are going to need both hands, so forget the coofie. (selfie while cooking).

Focus on the process as things can go wrong very quickly.

Get all ingredients together prior to the next step.

This would be mixing the roux and the yellow lentils together. Now as I said, you make the roux by roasting chickpea flour in oil till biscuit brown. This is key. You have to keep the flame medium and stir the roux constantly so it doesn’t take or stick to the bottom of the pan. Use generous amounts of the chickpea flour and oil. Usually the roux has two big ladles of chickpea flour. You need enough oil to coat all of it and turn it into the Kadhi base.

When it is ready, the roux is the exact shade of a Parle g biscuit. I know they are not considered human food anymore but you can keep the reference in mind.

While this is going on, you have already boiled the lentils, about a cup and half of it. Cook with enough water. Blend into a very fine puree with no lumps at all. Strain through a sieve and keep it slightly thin by adding extra water. Bring to a boil and keep on simmer. When the roux is ready add mustard seeds, cumin seeds, turmeric, asafoetida and fenugreek seeds. Just be sparing with the fenugreek seeds, it turns bitter very fast. A good pinch is enough. Let the tempering splutter in the cooked roux, and then add a bowl of water. Step back and lower the flame since the roux will go ballistic on you. Wait till it stops seething and then transfer this mix into the hot lentil soup and stir quickly but steadily.

When this is done, add salt, ginger juliennes made from a 2 inch thick ginger piece and 4 slit green chilies.

Once the kadi is boiling hard add the veggies, and let it simmer for an hour and a half. Keep adjusting salt, add red chilli powder and water to keep it at spoon coating consistency.

When it’s ready, the Kadhi is a silken mustard color soup and the vegetables are coated with it yet floating languidly. The potatoes are soft and flake at once and taste of kadhi.

The final touch is tamarind water, medium thick consistency with a good hearty sambar Masala mixed in. Let it boil once in the kadhi, turn off the gas and cover with a lid.

Now, you could and probably would eat all the kadhi alone, but that is just sad. With this cauldron of kadhi on your table, you can feed at least eight people. So do that, make it for family and friends and if anyone bails on you, go out and invite other folks just to help finish it.

Basically, kadhi is about community.

Inspired by all great home cooks, the beautiful kanwal k, and Jerry pinto’s article about making siyaal phulka, published in the last century.

A twist of tradition, bond of blood.

I walk into the house to a loud argument. For the past five years, that had been the rule rather than the exception. Invariably, it’s my mom in full battleship mode with someone, usually the folks she terms the help in her mind. She would never say it out loud, since she’s socially sophisticated enough to realize that word went out with buckram underskirts. Yet, it lingers in her mind.

So it started with the movers who broke her precious Noritake ceramic plate while transporting it, the cleaner who cleaned her new residence was hauled over the coals for not meeting her standards, the watchman was scolded for not sending up the courier with her bank documents and so on. I wonder what this day will bring as I consider her situation too.

In a reverse migration, my seventy plus mom moved from Pune to Mumbai. She gave up a sprawling 5 bedroom Bungalow to live in an apartment complex in a Mumbai suburb. She also gave up the rights to being a cranky punekar since those who know understand you can never make a Punekar happy. They are constantly searching to improve life while the Mumbaikar takes life as it comes and does not expect anything from anybody.

However, there are two things even the most staunch Mumbaikar is wary of and those are leakage and pests in the house. Termites, wood borers and silverfish are perhaps the biggest demons of the city and treated brutally to eradicate them.

It turns out my mom’s latest battle is with the exterminator. I wince at the loud arguments and can tell from the home grown accent of the exterminator that he is from the Maharashtra rural belt, and won’t take any prisoners while my mom always shoots first and then asks questions. This could take long.

To say that my generation has been oppressed by both our parents and our children is not an overstatement. However it’s not an excuse for spineless behavior. I get into the fray, ignoring the fact that their decibel level is way beyond normal or civilized and offer water or tea all around. I’m waved off impatiently. Somehow they both discover during their conversation that she has a dog living in the house and that changes the tone of the talk. They begin discussing ticks and add that onto the list of pests to be controlled.

It seems ticks are not to be squashed. You nuke them with chemicals. Squashing them releases their blood and they regenerate from it. I joke about mahishasur the demon who was also called raktbeej and the exterminator says, the demons got to stay on earth as the blood parasites.

Sobered by the thought that the gods have left the human domain but the demons stay behind, I now find that the brief truce has been called off. They are now haggling over price.

In the middle of a heated statement the exterminator stops and asks my mom, “who painted that?” my mom points to me. It’s a recreation of vermeer’s girl with a pearl earring and I painted it while my daughter was in her nappies and I wanted to feel like something other than a human udder.

While looking at the painting, they both agree on the price and the deal is done before tea is served.

Next, I help my mom rig up a temporary tray outside her window. The following day is the day she feeds her ancestors and her tray of food has every possible delicacy her dead relatives could want to munch on in heaven. Capsicum bhajji for my grandma, kheer for my grandpa, mung Dal for my aunt. And of course pumpkin and cluster beans for the priests who recommend the standard platter.

On the actual day, I know the family dog will bark and drive the crows away and my mom will fret that her ancestors are going to starve in heaven, hell or purgatory or wherever she has sent them. Crows are famously associated with death rites and every community stuffs their beaks on the all souls day.

The dog would love to help, but apparently you feed dogs to get friends who are loyal, not convey food to the departed. So we court the crows and wait till they are done before we attack the holy meal.

For every story and rumor I hear of seniors being left alone, mistreated, brutalized even, all I can say is only a wearer knows where a shoe pinches. We put up with a buttload of crap from our kids who are old souls, hoping for spiritual growth and other paybacks and attempt to please our infantile parents hoping to earn human and divine goodwill. But we seem to forget that the young and the old are willful and willing to battle the odds to get what they want. It is we the middle aged whose lives have sagged out of shape and want some peace.

Which will come eventually even in the midst of heated arguments and chaotic interludes. The key is to just enjoy the ride, I guess.

Dedicated to the very young and the very old. Though you all can be major pains, we love you to the moon and beyond.

Standard issue.

In a scene From Ankhon Dekhi, babu ji the protagonist of the movie decides he needs to know what it is like to hear a tiger roar. Consequently, he and his band of disciples land up in the zoo to experience the tiger roaring first hand. The tiger roars and babu ji pees his pants. Sometimes, our reaction to an experience can surprise us.

It is precisely that impulse of letting life and the world surprise him that sets off babu ji onto a very different tangent than the track his life has been so far. His life was pretty much standard issue for an Indian and a resident of New Delhi in particular where the lines between urban and rural are blurred and making it invariably involves beating, kicking and slapping down anyone who gets in the way. Add to that a crippling lack of privacy and social ridicule lurking everywhere, even one’s own home and you get the picture.

Which suddenly changed when babu ji decided to question all the givens in life, the assumptions that humans are smug about and decided to see if life, the world and relationships are truly what we imagine them to be or do we need to probe further and more crucially, does it offer us what we want?

The changes his attitude brings about change the order of his existence as it were. Apart from the upheaval in his family where his authority has so far been accepted, he now finds that he can’t take social norms for granted and begins to make decisions based on his knowledge and experience of situations.

As with all those who think for themselves and carve their own furrow in the fields of time, babu ji finds himself being called insane by some and a savant by others. He loses the support of significant people and finds supporters in the unlikliest places.

Human life is to be prized as per all the holy texts of every religion, since it’s the complete package and the most important perk it offers is free will. We are what we choose to be and our lives reflect those choices. That is the sobering takeaway for me from the film.

Dedicated to Sanjay Mishra, the leading man of Ankhon Dekhi, the stellar cast of the film who took their cues from director Rajit Kapur and a cinematic gem which hopefully will be remembered by the mostly discerning audience.

Hair like Diana Palmer.

I’m in a bakery waiting for my order to come up, when I notice 3 boys in the mirror above the display. One of the boys is looking intently at his reflection while teasing his hair into a millennial pompadour. I have seen that style on Gregory Peck and many leading men over the years, but the millennial version is very pronounced and bleached to subtle caramel hues and given the needed height with hair gum/wax. Neymar at Fifa 2018 is a fine example.

I actually get it. Getting hair to look a certain way is not a Gen Z thing. It’s timeless. I remember watching black and white Japanese films which had scenes of ladies getting their hair done in the traditional style which was de riguer when you wore a kimono. And to be honest, no other updo would do justice to the kimono’s stately yet feminine lines.

Later, I remember Christopher Reeve with his handsome man hair in the Superman film franchise. It somehow lived up to the perfect superhero look and since then every time I read the Superman comics, it was always with the image of Christopher Reeve in my mind.

Another enduring image was Diana Palmer from the Phantom comics. Now, Diana’s hair changed quite a bit over the years.in fact it evolved into something fabulous but that was later. To begin with it was a standard blunt cut with a fringe of black hair offset by generous and often too many blue highlights.

Later, it graduated into a medium length layered hairstyle with height at the forehead and volume at the lower layers. Pretty much the kind of hair a dream girl with a mind, heart and career would have. The blue tones were muted and elegant while the longer length flattered Diana’s mature beauty.

I spent years trying to get hairstylists to see my point. I waded through definitions of step cut, layer cut, graduated bobs with occasional hits and many misses till I met ching mai(not her real name). She was an elderly Chinese beautician working in a swanky parlor in Pune who listened to my long winded explanation and tersely asked, “what you want, cut or trim?” I meekly replied U cut. After 3 appointments which I saved up my lunch money for, I dared to ask for the step cut and finally had my hair done like Diana Palmer.

As with any good artist, ching Mai was moody, not open to questions and never going to sacrifice a haircut to a client ‘s boredom. She often sent me away with a softly spoken, “cut next month” and I had no choice but to concur. After all, you don’t get that elusive hair like Diana just about anywhere.

My fidelity to ching Mai lasted 5 years and ended with her immigration to Canada where she now works in nail art. I returned to Pune many times, and visited the parlor but it was now manned by the razor brigade, a regrettable outcome of Jennifer Aniston and her layered haircut.

At long last, I’m growing out my hair and waiting for it to grow into its natural self. It seems, the age of Diana hair is over for me, but I am sure I will find some hair artist who favors only scissor haircuts, not losing natural hair heft or volume and less use of conditioner or heat.

Note to the reader: dedicated to the lady bloggers who have eloquently shared the memories of their long locks online and spoken with love and longing of the times when they had moms and elder sisters to tend to them. I personally am not a fan of butt length hair but I was impressed by Jaya Bachchan and her same length hair which while very wavy was lustrous and voluminous, perfectly framing her gamine face and lotus eyes.

Love bytes with Booma and Nanmun : the people’s poet.

Booma: “Mahima uski bhi rahe, jiska naam Nazir.” (blessed be the one called Nazir, may his glory prevail.)

Nanmun:Who is Nazir? And why do you only sing this line and not the full song?

Booma: Because I don’t know the whole song and anyway it is not a song. It’s a poem by Nazir Akbarabadi written for a woman who used to roam the alleys of Agra Bazaar reciting snatches of his songs, poems, ballads and earning a living from it.

Nanmun: So, he was famous?

Booma : As a people’s poet. He lived bang in the middle of Agra Bazaar amidst the vendors, the courtesans, the beggars, householders, traders and just did his own thing. Write, live and think.

Nanmun: Speaking of writing, when will you get your book published?

Booma: I don’t have a book to publish.

Nanmun :Yes, you do. It’s in your head. Let it out on paper. Let it go out into the world.

Booma:It is not time to do that yet. I’ve got chores to do and life to live.

Nanmun: You have got a lot of excuses, is what you have.

Booma: Really? Well, what’s your excuse for not giving away all your primary school grade stuff?

Nanmun: Those things are dear to me.

Booma: And that’s going to keep me silent for another 2 years. I know what you mean.

Nanmun: So back to you and your book. What is holding you back?

Booma: When you get to my age you will…

Nanmun:… do what I want since that would make me an adult.

Booma:Good for you! It’s more like I have what makes me happy and what is dear to me in my life. I don’t seek an audience to validate me or pay my bills. I just need to create and send off my thoughts into the world and if someone likes them, they may appreciate them or not. Hence I blog.

Booma: Ah so, quite like Nazir Akbarabadi sending out his poems from his little window in his little room in Agra Bazaar.

Booma: Yep. For the people, of the people and by the people.

Note to reader: Nazir Akbarabadi wrote the Aadminama, which essentially talks about people and them being human, not divided by any other distinctions. Much like the bhakti movement.