Category Archives: India Unveiled

a tiny and tantalizing glimpse into the cultures and traditions of my homeland.

Calcutta for the Soul

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It’s said that memories fade with time, which is probably a good thing, because some of us would find it impossible to go on. But there are certain reminiscences that cannot afford to be forgotten. They are like precious keepsakes that need to be extracted from the dusty realms of time. They have to be caressed and fondled with affection, reinforced and perhaps refurbished, before being tucked away securely again.

One such memory that I’ve guarded fiercely is that of my trip to Calcutta. Over the years it has been revisited a million times and imbued with subtle nuances so to add color and character.

I was perhaps ten or twelve (my mother stresses on the latter and she is probably right as I’m pathetically poor with specifics). The trip would never have come about hadn’t it been for my father, who after one of his numerous travels brought back an exquisite Bengal handloom sari of olive green and cream. It became my favorite. My mother looked lovely in it. He also spoke of a land rich in culture that had produced the likes of Rabindranath Tagore, Vivekananda, Satyajit Ray and of course the indomitable Kishore Da. Armed with a miniscule amount of information and barely suppressed curiosity, I embarked on my sole journey to the east, with my tiny family in tow.

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We boarded the Coromandel Express which I believe covered the distance from Chennai to Howrah in little more than a day. My very first recollection of the place that endeared it to me forever is the memory of delicious, melt-in-your-mouth, spongy roshogollas in clay handis (pots) that I relished with gusto right on the railway platform. I swear, I haven’t had anything more delectable in my life!

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We stayed in a cosy guest house favored by the bank my father worked for. It was winter time; I know because I could see my breath in front of my face and the owners’ little white Pomeranian had a sweater on. There were pleasant smiles everywhere and though I didn’t have a clue about what was being spoken, I didn’t mind listening because the words floated in the air like the melodious strains of Lord Krishna’s flute.

On our first day out, I recall seeing trams loaded with commuters, coursing on tracks right in the middle of the street. Having never come across anything similar before, either in Delhi or Chennai, I of course wanted a ride.

We did the usual touristy things. I remember gawking awestruck at the magnificent Dakshineshwar temple glistening in the morning light on the banks of the Hooghly; then trying to battle through the mad melee at Kalighat which had my mother utterly riled up and me dumbfounded and overwhelmed.

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The Victoria Memorial came as a welcome respite; more so the calm serenity of the Botanical Gardens that also touts the world’s largest Banyan tree.

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I remember the distinct tang of mustard oil in the air and spending a lazy afternoon strolling the lanes of New Market absorbing the banter of many tongues, the fragrance of fresh flowers, resisting the lure of jewelry and garments, and the calls of hawkers and shopkeepers selling anything and everything from furniture to fish.

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The city pulsed with life, from am to night- an eclectic and intoxicating blend of culture, beauty, intellect, relationships and raw emotions. I left feeling thoroughly confused but lastingly intrigued.
So here are my experiences; trivial they may seem but to me they are dearly cherished because they are what I remember my father by– simple, adventurous and carefree.

The Beautiful Art of Kolam

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Kolam is an age old tradition in Southern India. These are temporary geometric designs consisting of curved loops drawn around a grid of dots employing rice flour/chalk/chalk flour or oher types of white or colored powders. Female members of Hindu families draw Kolams in the front of their houses. These are also known as Rangolee in Maharastra, Hase in Karnataka, Muggulu in Andhra Pradesh and Golam in Kerala.

While living in Chennai, I have watched with fascination my mother along with several other women on our street, drawing a fresh new Kolam every morning. This would be done after cleaning the floor with a broom and then with water. They would draw what appeared to be very complex designs in a jiffy, sometimes without lifting their hands off the floor. During the day the Kolams would get eroded by people’s feet, and the wind. But not to worry. A new one replaced it the following morning.

As always these Kolums are not just decorative. They have a cultural sginificance. They are meant to bring prosperity to the house and are symbols of welcome as well. There are many other purposes, but the following is what I found particularly endearing and is probably also true. In days of yore rice flour Kolams were drawn so the ants did not have to travel too far for food. They also attracted small birds and likewise other small creatures, hence welcoming other forms of life into the home and everyday life symbolizing harmony and peaceful coexistance with nature.

Below are a few Kolam designs drawn by my cousin and her friends 🙂

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Happy Republic Day!

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On January 26th, 1950, India adopted its own constitution and officially became an independent republic. Today, when our most fundamental right of Freedom is being threatened, let us all get together, not just Indians but global citizens of the world, and celebrate this very important day and determine to fight against all those forces who wish to snatch away what we hold most precious from us.

HAPPY REPUBLIC DAY! 

ind_constitution_premble_orgThe preamble of The Constitution of India

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First Republic Day Parade in 1950

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The Indian Tricolor setting the skies ablaze.

 

You are invited to The Wedding of The Year!

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Yes! You are invited to the wedding of Mili Bharadwaj and Ahaan Kapoor! 

Please join me as they prepare for their life together in my 3rd book—

MILAN (A Wedding Story)

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Milan meaning in Hindi ‘a coming together’—a beautiful story of a traditional arranged marriage that transforms into a real life fairytale, set in the quaint hilltown of Coonoor in the lush Nilgiris (blue hills) in South India.

You will also learn about Hindu marriage rituals, the many colorful traditions as well as sample India’s sumptuous cuisine. Come join me as I embark on this journey. You will not be disappointed. 🙂

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‘Homesick’ Excerpt from ‘Inconvenient Relations’

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Excerpt

Standing in front of the large bathroom mirror, Ruhi combed her long thick hair. Should I leave it loose or braid it? Should I put on makeup or go bare? Should I wear all my bangles or just a couple of them? So many questions! Why don’t all men come with a user guide.

She braided her hair, glossed her lips, chose a pair of gold bangles for each side, and figured she was done. Then she offered a silent prayer, thanking God for the absence of her mother-in-law.

Tea and breakfast.

What? Herbal raspberry tea bags and Cheerios! And this man expects me to eat? Her spirits taking a dive, she put her head down on the table and mournfully longed for a piping hot refreshing cup of masala chai with cauliflower stuffed paratha on the side…Mama!

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“Still off in neverland?”

She sat up, startled, to gaze dolefully at him while he smiled cheerfully at her, looking handsome and crisp in casual white shirt and jeans. Why was she always at a disadvantage?

“Care for some hot pizza?” He swept a large colorful cardboard box in front of her nose. “Authentic Neapolitan from our very own Tony’s. My favorite!”

She didn’t care for it, too cheesy.

He frowned at her while she pursed her lips together feeling helpless.

“This is crazy! If you don’t eat, you will disappear in no time. Then there wouldn’t be anything left to send back home!”

She glared at him acutely hurt. They had just reached here, and he was already thinking of sending her back home? What did he take her for?

“I guess I’m homesick.”

“Ah! I see. How stupid of me! Your parents must be terribly worried!”

Getting up immediately, he dialed her home; and yes, they were in a state of panic.Hearing their voices, she nearly broke down…wanting to reach out and touch the loose end of her mother’s sari.

Accha. All right, I shall hang up now,” she said and handed him the phone, just as a tear threatened to roll down her cheek. She rushed to the window—the purple flowers had taken on a silver hue.

***

Imagine how much a new Indian bride has to deal with—

A husband who is practically a stranger, in-laws—and if she is accompanying him to a foreign land; new living conditions, new culture, and a new way of life.

As someone who has been through a similar experience I can tell you the task is not easy. These are the times when memories of home hurt the most.

In my book ‘Inconvenient Relations’ I have through my protagonist Ruhi tried to elaborate on what it is like to be a new bride in a foreign land.

You can find out more about my books here. 

Glossary

Masala Chai: Spiced Indian tea. The spice usually consists of cinnamon, cardamon, ginger, black pepper, star anise and cloves.

Paratha: popular Indian flatbread prepared fresh from whole wheat dough, and served either plain or stuffed with a variety of vegetables like radish, cauliflower, potato, methi (fenugreek leaves) or paneer (fresh Indian cheese.)

Mommy Dearest!

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Moments to capture

Memories to treasure

Beautiful mother

Lady, I bow down to your amazingness!

Anna Jarvis, a devoted daughter, created Mother’s Day in 1908 in West Virginia, United States. Anna’s intent was to honor her recently deceased mother, and mothers everywhere, for their love and dedication to their family and community. The new holiday was envisioned as a time to continue the good work of one’s mother.

The holiday was enthusiastically accepted all over the United States and in places across the globe.  However, the intention of the celebration quickly evolved to be a day to show one’s love and affection to our mother.  Typically showering our mothers with cards, flowers, and or a lovely meal prepared in her honor.

Only recently, in the last decade, has the celebration Mother’s Day become popular in India.  “In the presence of umpteenth number of existing festivals, it is a remarkable achievement for a foreign festival to make its presence felt in the vast and culturally diverse country like India,” according to the Society for the Confluence of Festivals in India.

In India, the already innate and powerful qualities of motherhood are deepened by strong, fixed social customs that mold its society.   It’s no wonder that this holiday is being embraced all across this country steeped in richness of culture.

Take for example the close bond that is created between mother and child by constant physical contact throughout infancy and childhood.  Children share the mother’s bed, may receive a daily oil massage, and may be breastfed until two or three years of age.  When old enough to eat solid food, the child is fed from the mother’s hand.  Even when children are older, mothers make sure that on special occasions, such as a birthday, cake and other special foods come from her hand.  Mothers in India go to all extremes to ensure the vitality of their children, even if it means sacrificing her own nutrition in order to provide food for her family.

How will I honor my own mother on Mother’s Day?  In the truest sense of the holiday, I will ponder the causes that are closest to my mother’s heart and put forth an act of beneficial goodness towards that cause. I couldn’t emulate my mother no matter how hard I tried because of the kind of person she is—compassionate, soft spoken, unbelievably kind and unselfish, self-sacrificing, supportive, resourceful, astute, smart as a whip and endowed with an astounding degree of fortitude. She has always been a role model for me and she is the one I turn to for inspiration whenever I fall short. So I try, not just on this day, but whenever I get the opportunity to do something that pleases her.

As we often say in my culture—we reap the fruits of our past karma. So I must have done something very good in my previous life to have been blessed by a mother like mine. Thank you Ammy! I am what I am because of you. I love you so very, very much!

Sensual Spices and an Excerpt from ‘The Accidental Wife’

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It is one thing to prepare food for ourselves because we need to eat. It’s mealtime, we’re hungry, what do we have in the cupboard? But it is a whole different thing to cook a special dish or an entire feast because we want to shower someone we love with a caring gesture. It is a gift of indulgence that nurtures the soul, as well as the body. A home cooked meal that has been specially prepared for us, by someone else, can be one of the ultimate expressions of love.

How do we choose the perfect culinary delight to prepare when cooking for others? We might choose to cook our own favorite recipe or we might choose a selection of our guest’s favorite foods. A shopping trip to pick out fresh, vibrant ingredients is part of the delight. In India the menu might include pakora (a warm fritter), curry, tandoori, naan, or just a simple upma (porridge).

India’s aromatic spices are sprinkled into dishes according to taste, added carefully to lend a personal touch. They have been passed down generations and are known not just to add flavor but also nutritive value to food. Cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, coriander, cumin, and ginger are a few of the earthy spices, and perhaps most sensual in the world, that are found in India. Spices are also available already blended together for ease of cooking (for those cooks who might want to achieve a well-known flavor) such as Garam Masala or Curry.

The fragrant smell of Indian cuisine, with hints of exotic herbs and spices promise to stir emotions deep in our hearts. Pakora and upma are two of the dishes enjoyed in The Accidental Wife.

Want to learn more about Indian Spices? Visit Spices Board India http://www.indianspices.com

 Accidental Wife Book Cover

Excerpt from The Accidental Wife:

“Oh My God! I suddenly remembered I am hungry! Have you had breakfast?” she asked, suddenly looking annoyed.

“Breakfast? No. But I don’t have any time.” He peeked at his watch again.

“Please!? Not a speck of grain has entered my stomach since yesterday morning. I will die of hunger, then I won’t be of any use to you at all.” She smiled again before heading toward what Rihaan assumed was the kitchen.

“I can make phataphat upma in just ten minutes!” she said peering at him through the open door frame. “Meanwhile you can relate your troubles to me. C’mon spill it. Don’t be shy!”

Rihaan stepped into the tiny kitchen to find it dwarfed by his lanky frame. Folding wiry arms across his chest, he leaned gingerly against the wall and watched as she went about her task in a haphazard fashion. Her attempts at putting on a show of neatness and method were failing hopelessly.

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‘Indian Elephants and an Excerpt from ‘The Accidental Wife’

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“A king who always cares for the elephants like his own sons is always victorious & will enjoy the friendship of the celestial world after death.” Kautiliya, scholar of Buddhism in India.

Whether it is a colorful figurine, a carved miniature, or a real live titan of an animal, the elephant is revered by many in the Indian culture. Said to be a gentle giant (the largest land mammal on earth), the elephant possesses attributes that humans strive to cultivate in themselves: intelligence, sensitivity, empathy, and self-awareness.

Indian mythology states that the devas (gods) and the asuras (demons) churned the oceans in a search for the elixir of life—amrit (nectar)—in hopes of becoming immortal. Through the churning of the ocean, navratnas (the nine jewels) surfaced, one of which was the elephant.

Reverence for the elephant has also been born from stories of the elephant being chosen as the carriage for Indra (the god of all gods) and visions of white elephants foretelling the birth of Gautam Buddha, in his mother’s dreams before his birth. Ganesha the elephant faced deity and son of Lord Shiva, is the god of wisdom and learning and the remover of obstacles. He is perhaps the most well known symbols of Hindu divinity all across the world.

The Asian elephant, the species that resides in India, has seen its numbers dwindle drastically in the past 15 years. At the turn of the century, nearly 200,000 animals roamed wild; now only 35,000 to 40,000 remain. Elephants are herbivores and eat up to 300 pounds of food a day. Preservation of habitat and eliminating ivory trade are vital aspects to keeping the elephant from extinction.

Elephant mothers are the ultimate example of a nurturing parent: carrying their babies for a gestation period of 22 months, giving birth to 200-pound baby, nursing for two years, then caring for and protecting the young elephant for the next sixteen years.

With so many endearing qualities and a history of cultural significance, the elephant is well deserving of its place of honor in the hearts of many Indians.

http://wwf.panda.org/what_we_do/endangered_species/elephants/asian_elephants/indian_elephant/

http://animals.nationalgeographic.com/animals/mammals/asian-elephant/?source=A-to-Z

 Accidental Wife Book Cover

Excerpt from The Accidental Wife:

Inside it, she found some clothes just like the oversized ones hanging in the closet. They were of no interest to her. What caught her eye was a beautiful silk sari, tie-dyed in a rainbow of colors with decorated elephants marching along the borders and tiny shiny mirrors that caught the light and sparkled like diamonds. She flung it around her neck like a shawl and felt deeply comforted by the strong fragrance of sandalwood.

Underneath was a finely inlaid wooden box, inside which on a bed of tissue, lay several glass bangles in red, green and orange tied together with a string. Slipping them over her hands, she wondered if they were a gift from Rihaan. Instinct told her they were, thus filling her with a warm glow.

Trembling with excitement she dug deeper, and at the very bottom, found a large album. She flipped the pages over, only to find random black and white shots, of people and children on the streets. Nothing else. No blissful wedding pictures, in particular no family portraits, as if she’d severed all ties before coming here.

Feeling utterly wretched and frustrated, she tore the bangles from her hands and sank sobbing to the floor.

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The Allure of the Sari and an excerpt from ‘The Accidental Wife’

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A sampling from my mother’s closet

The image of a woman wearing a sari conjures up both the remarkable beauty of women and the exquisite artistry of textile and embroidery. The sari is a garment created from a single piece of fabric five to nine yards long. Its ingenious design allows for wrapping around a woman’s body in different ways. This allows for a variety of effects: stunning traditional gown, alluring evening wear, or simple utilitarian work attire.

The thought of wearing a loosely draped strip of fabric might seem somewhat awkward to westerners. But consider the heat of a tropical climate and one realizes that this airy soft garment is a brilliant idea. No wonder 75% of women in India still wear the sari as a key element of their wardrobe.

The beauty of a woman in an Indian sari is breathtaking. How luscious life could be with a wardrobe filled with saris of vibrant colors and various fabrics adorned with embroidery. If you do a quick search on the internet of “sari images” you’ll see for yourself. One for example features fabrics of the richest jewel tone colors—turquoise blue set against fuchsia, green, royal blue—and embellished with flowers of gold.

While sometimes thought of as traditional attire, the sari has the power to transform a woman into a beguiling apsara (celestial nymph). Rihaan (our hero), in The Accidental Wife, has the opportunity to discover this for himself.

 Accidental Wife Book Cover

 Excerpt from The Accidental Wife 

But what Rihaan saw there brought an immediate diversion to his purpose—the image of his beautiful wife wrapped in a traditional sari. It was a simple yet clever garment worn with a dual purpose in mind—to please her in-laws by presenting them a vision of ideal domestic harmony, while simultaneously promising her husband never-ending conjugal bliss. The lure of the unstitched garment was such that it transformed his already beautiful wife into a beguiling apsara causing his nerve endings to release some kind of erotic pleasure juice thus making him slowly yet inexorably lose control over all his senses.

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Stop! Take your Shoes Off!

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Photo courtesy- franandwally.blogspot.com

The above scene isn’t uncommon in India or for that matter elsewhere in the world especially if you happen to drop by an Indian home. Why, you may ask do I have to remove my footwear before I enter your house?

Well, the explanation is simple. For us Indians, our house or home is a sacred place and to contaminate it by bringing dirt from outside is not just disrespectful, it is almost akin to sacrilege. And, if you happen to visit a temple you will be often expected to not just remove your footwear but also wash your feet before entering.

This is not necessarily a religious tradition. It is practiced across most communities in India and  as I discovered,  in many other countries of the world, including Asia, Hawaii, Pacific Islands, as well as some corners of Europe.

So the next time you happen to spy footwear outside a residence, you may want to remove yours too 🙂

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This tradition is mentioned in the PROLOGUE my book ‘INCONVENIENT RELATIONS‘ 

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