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Sunday, December 30, 2007


I often bristle when people in the West criticize the Arabs for 'forcing' their women to dress in burkhas. And I imagine that the West, no less than male-dominated Arab society, wants less the freedom of the women, than control of how they choose to dress themselves.

In Kerala, the chatta and mundu had long ago, given way to the sari in my mother's generation, just as the sari has yielded to the churidhar kurta or salwaar kameez in my generation, and kurtas and kameezes to the universal jeans, mini skirts, and probably tailored business suits in the call-centers and software consulting companies of today. And while each old Oommamma (or Ammoomma) who rebelled against her chatta wearing chedathis thought she was on the leading edge of change and revolution, little did she realize that all she was doing was forsaking her unique mores and customs in favor of a more uniform, homogenized way of living; one that could be reduced to small, medium, large sizes of kurtas and skirts and slip easily out of those chinese sewing machines outsourced by those fashion czars sitting in Madison Avenue or Malabar Hills.

We get kolhapuri look-alikes made in china (not Kolhapur) from Payless shoes for $10, and chickan cutwork skirts made in china (not Kutch, Gujarat) from Kohl's for $25 -

Perhaps the problem is me? I am happy for the kohlapuri look-alikes sitting in DC - anything for resurrecting my nostalgic past, remembering frantic shopping trips to Bandra, or Gandhi Market hunting in that sweltering heat, or rain, or whatever weather for the exact size and shape and feel of a rugged looking kohlapuri...

I am reminded of something I once read, of how sometimes we are the particle and sometimes the wave! We think our needs, wants, behavior is unique and won't matter in the larger scheme of things, but a 1,000 of us collectively needing, wanting, behaving the same way marks a trend that for good or for ill, could become irreversible.

Another thing I am constantly surprised by is how vast and diverse the US marketplace seems - when all the items sold revolve around the same exact three specs whether they be shoes, or bed frames, or overcoats, or computer briefcases - small, medium, large. Ever bought a Queen sized fitted sheet that did not fit a Queen sized mattress whether bought from Macy's, or Hecht's or Strawbridge's or a discount Mattress store? All made in that same little Chinese city but branded by Macy's, Hecht's or whatever, I suppose. The scary thing is, the chinese probably know that! No, not through datamining or fancy business intelligence that keeps US businesses busy - just sharing family jokes during the village and family get-togethers...Hey Lao Zhao, no need to print those Strawbridge's labels this year, they've gone bankrupt, just double the Macy's labels they've gone and bought out May's and Hecht's.. then dust your hands and go back to making those mattresses..

Personal Space

A few weeks back in the DC metro (subway), I saw a guy, suited-booted, office-type, sitting, meditating with eyes closed and hands in a controlled open-palm, yoga posture - no, he wasn't sitting cross-legged. I'd be embarrassed to be caught doing something like that, then, and there. But it got me thinking about personal spaces, physical (and now virtual) and how we construct them, command them, or cede them and establish boundaries. I thought of how some people commandeer a wide radius of space around them (no, not wide stances). In fact it was in this country (the US) that I came across the expression "he was in my personal space" as in standing too close for comfort. In India, riding trains, waiting in line, and in other public areas, one was used to being squished like sardines with strangers, yet there was a discrete distance one kept between people one knew well. In fact, in India, the distance publicly kept between people is probably, in inverse proportion to the intimacy between them!

Quite the converse in the US, where you would be hard-pressed not to find couples sitting in public, or even in another's living room in intimate conversations with each other, in public displays of affection (or what teens call PDA), instead of chatting with their hosts; proving what? their relationship with their partner is still on fire (and not on the rocks)? 'I am such good friends with you, the host, that su casa is mi casa and...'? - while the hosts,(especially if they're Indians), look unseeingly through the PDA! It reminds me of the Namesake scene when Kal Penn's character gives his white girlfriend a 101 on Indian etiquette - no holding hands or kissing in front of the folks.

I used to attribute the appropriation of public spaces to the Western idea of individualism extending to control and dominance, - 'I am free to do what I can wherever I can'.But then I contrast this with scenes that flit through my mind

  • of the poor Indian slum dweller who is 'allowed' to carry out their most personal activities in public - I don't suppose the slum dweller has much of a choice there.
  • the hurried US office worker using the metro-ride to conducting their toiletry in elaborate detail from clipping nails, tweezing eyebrows, donning foundation creams, rouge, mascara and lipstick... so very like that slum-dweller.
  • of the harried Indian housewife who chops her Bhindi (okra), splits her peas from the pods in the Womens' first class on Churchgate-Dadar express - at least they used to many years back - with packaged and frozen foods on the rise, they're probably now playing poker like the men in Men's compartment used to then!

Except for the slum-dweller's case, there's seems to be a weird spillage on the space-time continuum here - when one runs out of time, you begin to push outward occupying spaces you might not otherwise have occupied; can't fit your make-up chores into your time at home, use the public space to do it in. Whether the converse is true - for people who live out their lives constantly in the public space, is a topic for another time.

Insourcing Bollywood!

All last week long NPR had been running a series on the potential in India's entertainment industry.

First of course there's the fledgling animation industries and the traditional outsourcing role they have taken to playing for Hollywood's media moguls - cheap animator labor reducing costs for the inexhaustible American marketplace (did you see any drop in your ticket prices for Spiderman 3? No? perhaps the labor cost savings went into the pockets of the studio owners who are right now fighting on another front trying to protect their bulging pockets from those thieving starving writers - see,8599,1674063,00.html ).

But then there's the reverse trend:

  • Sony tries to muscle its way into the lucrative Bollywood market with Saawariya - what's to lose? the cinema market in India is lush and cultivated - the holy trinity of 1 billion film addicts, the ever more magnificent movie theater multi-plexes that are strewn across big metropolises and small suburban areas, and the robust bollywood industry of actors, cameramen, directors and musicians, consumers, distributors and producers all ready and waiting for Sony to come and skim its share of the proceeds -WHY? Because it can! (
  • Virgin Comics - Richard Branson in another alliance with Deepak Chopra's son turns India's folklore into gold for the Englishman's coffers - (First they patented the garlic and turmeric into private intellectual property, now the stories that our grandparents told us.)

India is no longer merely a cheap source of labor, but maybe a cheap source of ideas and cheap source of big, fat, juicy sales revenue!

We've seen this film before, haven't we? - it was called "East India Company"!!

Vacation I

Growing up in India, vacations were the same every year – summers visiting our parents’ ‘native place’, Kerala, a trek our parents took to all that was familiar and known to them, which ironically became for us an adventure into the unknown or at least the semi-known. Ironically again, we were to mimic our parent’s roles in similar inter-generational treks reserved for us in the future with our children on transatlantic visits 'home' to India. The difference, of course, was that 'home' was redefined as the entire subcontinent, rather than just my parent's birthplace, Kerala.

The trips to Kerala began and ended with a bone-crushing two-day train journey in the sweltering pre-monsoon heat on the Indian Railway’s Cochin Express pulled by steam-powered locomotives, puffing outbound from Bombay (now Mumbai) at the intricately carved, cavernous VT Station (the initials, which then stood for Victoria Terminus should rightfully have changed to CST, for the station apparently was rechristened as Chhatrapathi Sivaji Terminus in 1996, but the thoughtful public steadfastly cling to VT! which I must thank them for - can you imagine being stranded in Mumbai, bad enough that we have to call it that, and then having to ask for directions to VT and drawing a blank from the cabbie?). The trip usually in May at the height of the summer heat, then seemed tedious, draining every ounce of energy from all of us, but is now laden with memories so dear! The train would wind its way through Pune, Lonavla, the Western Mountain Ranges or ‘the Ghats’, the highlands and green forest jungles of Kerala’s Malabar Coast at the end of which we would emerge with faces blackened like chimney sweeps, coal dust in our hair, teeth, armpits and every exposed crevice and pore of our bodies. As my father’s fortunes rose we graduated to first class and then air-conditioned-first, which unfortunately resulted in sealing us off from contact with real life. Train travel in India in those days was nothing if not a contact sport - loud blustering arguments between coolies and customers, the jostling of co-passengers scavenging for more than their fair share of space, the explosion of aromas as an assortment of spices from home-cooked parathas, thayiru saadams, sambars, and railway canteen puri-bhajis assaulted all our senses, the trading pit frenzy of the station vendors’ pakoras and samosas competing for our attention and purse – all denied to us in the cool, silent, insulated comfort of the Indian Railways air-conditioned first-class left us feeling that we were at the losing end of the bargain. The mixed pleasure of that chaos and clamor were, as is usually the case, felt only in their absence and we continued our annual pilgrimage home in decorum, ease and respectability while cut off from all that raw life.

Little wonder then, that, much to my family’s consternation, on my very first attempt at independent travel over thirty years ago, I instinctively headed for the hills of Ootacamund (Ooty), to test the toy trains and view the hills and tea and coffee plantations of South India. To this day, that trip is rarely mentioned by me or others in the family - not quite as if I had eloped, had a child out of wedlock or committed some other equally grave social faux pas - but near enough! I had a fair idea as to what, about that trip, might have seemed irksome: for one thing there was the traveling at 25, and then the travelling as an unmarried woman, and then again the travelling unaccompanied, and, the nail on the coffin, so to speak, the travelling on a trip having nothing to do with work or visiting family! No, it wasn’t a visit to the ‘native’ place!

That was decades before the internet. All I did by way of trip planning was to get an airplane ticket and schedule to the nearest airport, Coimbatore. On landing, a short trip by cycle rickshaw to the interstate bus depot got me on my way to a two hour unreserved bus trip to Ooty, through some of the most picturesque landscapes I’d ever seen, between one bustling village after another. I don’t quite remember how I landed up at Hotel Dasaprakash, but it was clean, comfortable and well within my budget. I walked around exploring the neighborhoods in and around the hotel the first couple of days, before embarking on a tour of the mountains. And, at Dodabetta Peak in the Nilgiris, came upon one of the most stunning lookouts that I had ever seen, which I suppose, was not saying very much for me, at that time. But many, many years later I was to come upon another lookout, almost identical, almost half the world over, and I had a sense of indescribable déjà vu - but let me not get ahead of my story.

The valley that the Dodabetta Peak looked out at was misty with the cold air and oils from the magnificent eucalyptus trees that Ooty is known for. In the briskness of the mountain air I tugged hard at my thin shawl which I found wanting, having carried it more for show than substance. Some of my companions on the tour bus that took us to the mountain tops took pictures, but neophyte traveler that I was at that time, I hadn’t armed myself with the, now obligatory travelling appendage, a camera! I suppose my memory of those hills and trees and brisk mountain air has weathered the passing of these thirty years, but I search google for pictures of Ooty that might match the view from that lookout in my memory’s eye, and incredibly, I find none! Was it all a figment of my fevered imagination? Or did I once stand up there at the top of the Nilgiris on Dodabetta Peak?

[Crossposted at and to be continued...]

A Desi Mac 'n' cheese

How do you identify with the word “international” here in the US? do you like me consider it always a synonym for multi-lingual and cultural mixing South American with African or Asian (and of course Indian, Malayali, anything that relates to the various parts of you that you left behind)? And so, would you, like me get a little disappointed when the typical mainstream American squanders the word in contexts where ‘European’ or ‘Western’ would as well suit the bill? like using a 1-gallon container for a thimbleful of milk, or even half a cup of milk?

I guess that was my reaction to the Yahoo Food blog ( ), The Magical Melting Pot's story of Mac 'n' Cheese 4 Ways, where she added "you can also easily create international versions of mac 'n' cheese by adding locally popular cheeses and proteins such as salami, ham, or shrimp and local flavors such as dill or chili peppers. " (emphasis mine) and then followed that with Italian, Mexican, Swiss and Danish versions of America's beloved Mac 'n' cheese! I suppose the inclusion of the 'Mexican' version half justified that international claim!

But where is the Indian version I cried!

Oh! didn't you know either that there is an Indian version? I suppose it's not widely known - it was just a little adaptation that a friend shared with me long, long ago, before I'd even crossed the border! So I'll pass it along [I know, I know, I'd said that this wasn't going to be a cooking blog - but I'd filed this as something I wanted to comment on when I saw that Yahoo story a few days back, so look at it as a bonus :)]

Here's how you do it:

Materials for 4 servings: A cup of macaroni, half an onion diced, a couple of green chillies chopped, a cube of ginger chopped (or a teaspoon of ginger paste), an egg beaten (optionally substitute with a tablespoon of maida or self-raising flour and half a mug of milk), pinch of salt, 1 tomato diced, chopped coriander leaves, half a mug of peas (optional) AND HALF A TIN OF AMUL CHEESE grated!!! {Back in those days there was only 1 flavor - cheddar - and it came in a small half pound (I think) tin container; it may be quite different today! but this will work only with AMUL CHEDDAR - if not you may as well abandon the project :) }

Set the oven to 350 degrees.

Cook the macaroni per directions (9-10 minutes in boiling water), adding the onions, chillies, salt, ginger, peas, tomatoes half-way through.

Drain macaroni completely.

Add beaten egg (heat milk, sprinkle maida/self-raising flour and mix in heated milk), 3/4 of grated cheese.

Top with remaining cheese and garnish with coriander leaves.

Bake at 350 degrees for 30 minutes.


PS. I will try and add a picture later when I cook this next.

Why a Desi Blog, and Why Now?

Let’s first put away these questions if they’re vexing your mind at all.

You will agree, I’m sure, that there’s nothing more that a Mallu would like than his or her own soap box, so blog envy probably runs rampant in every Mallu heart. And it’s been no different for me. Now while I’ve nursed these feelings for sometime, what pushed me over the edge, was a simply delightful Andhra blog ( ) that I came across while doing a little research on Kerala recipes in preparation for our upcoming Christmas dinner – wholesome, transparent, focused, imaginative… the adjectives came rushing out of my mouth on browsing through Mahanandi. Both blogger and bloggees seemed equally worthy subjects for the desi equivalent of a Norman Rockwell painting! Consider the post and comments on Mahanandi:

Understandably, that got my competitive juices going and I thought surely one can find a Malayali blog to match? When I searched for “Malayali cooking", I was simply shocked at what Google threw me up! Both in number and kind! almost 364,000 matches, or so it said, almost all of them selling cook books and tour packages in Quillon, or Alleppey! Nothing with the taste and personality of Mahanandi. When I changed my search to "Malayali blogs" the spectrum widened to now include matrimonials and real estate in Quillon or Alleppey!

I did come across one that seemed to offer something refreshingly different ( and a couple of sites that ostensibly tracked all the Kerala blogs the worldover ( and, all of which deserves a post of its own.

Browsing through Keralatips was, I must say an exercise in pure nostalgia but on reading one particular exchange of comments my hopes for finding something wholesome and clean ( a la Biden’s Obama) were, as they say, dashed!

Here’s one fiercesome exchange between two of the Keralatips readers - I'll leave the names out...

"Reader 1: ___is just another, wannabe phirangi, white judeo-christian nationalist aka western look at Kerala.. ___, As if we dont have enough to deal with.. ....

Reader 2: Your character sketch of ____leaves me to believe that not only are you ignorant, you are also illiterate. I would assume that anyone with a passion for writing drivel the way you do, would at least take the time to know more about what you are spewing venom against. But alas, in the true tradition of all your worthless influences, from our beloved state, you choose to leave nuggets of your ill-researched bullshit.

Here’s a quick analysis of you…from me…your country cousin.You were a sub standard student through school, had the popularity of a cholera outbreak throughout your life, a career that doesnt amount to much, ..........

You wish you were capable enough to pump gas!!


What is it about Malayalis that gets them into fisticuffs with one and all, I asked my husband when I had picked myself off the floor from reading that exchange.

“Malayalis are intellectuals!” he explained in a self-serving way.

Well, intellectual or not, let’s say, I perceive a distinct market opportunity – and so I’m here to offer something tasteful and contemporary, while representing the Mallu diaspora with distinction without of course getting into a blogfight with my peers at Malayali blogs elsewhere; I will yield the realm of cooking and crafts to my admirable Andhra blogger counterparts, and will try to compensate for that lack by other contributions yet to be outlined – for now it's all vapor-ware being offered, so you will just have to be patient, and I will do my best to make the wait worth the while.

[UPDATE: I must say that I might have to eat my words about Malayali blogs - I happened to stumble upon what seems to be the meta-blog of Kerala blogs called "Kerala Blog Roll" at . That illustrious effort displays a vast diversity amongst Kerala Bloggers - guess we are a talkative bunch - who number over 700 it looks like! And while I haven't had the time to take a look at more than a couple, the ones that I did look at, seemed informed, contemporary, and very, very entertaining! I may have misspoke - I now think, the malayali blog is alive and well! Wonderful! Now please make a little room for me :) ]


Pais & Peas