Sunday, January 12, 2020

Dr Tutun Mukherjee - The teacher who ignited my passion for research and communication

“Are you sure you want to opt for History and Political Science along with English Literature, you can still change your subjects”, she said as if to re-confirm if I was making a sound choice. She was a part of the Admission Committee for B.A in the Osmania University College for Women, popularly known as Kothi Women’s College, Hyderabad. “Yes, ma’am I want to take this combination”, I said.  “Why don’t you go for Psychology and Sociology, since your name is in the merit list, she suggested, " are you planning to write Civil Services exams?”, she asked, apparently looking at my clarity of what I wanted to study. “No, not civil services, I just want to study History and Political Science but my main focus is English Literature”…. The conversation went something like that, decades ago, but it is still as fresh as if it happened yesterday. 
Dr Tutun Mukherjee (Picture credit: Facebook)

Later I found out the names of the professors who interviewed me. The one who asked me those questions was Ms. Tutun Mukherjee (then, she hadn’t completed her Doctorate). I took an instant liking to this wonderfully energetic person, she was so vibrant and her English was so good! I had just completed my Intermediate (Class 12) and I was intimated by the huge campus and new professors and was yet to make friends.
However, the regal splendour of the Durbar Hall, where we had many of our English classes and of course occasionally meeting Mukherjee ma'am made me feel at home!

My passion for English Literature made me choose the college as it had the best faculty. And, I waited for classes to begin. When I didn’t find Mukherjee ma’am’s name for any of the first year classes, neither General English nor Literature, I was disappointed. Then, I came to know from my seniors that she would teach us in the second and final year. 

In the second year, I loved her classes, I loved her style of teaching, her command on the subject and of course her taste for elegant cotton sarees, so graceful she was! Major Barbara by George Bernard Shaw, Mathew Arnold’s poems and in the final year, Literary Criticism, Samuel Johnson and few other essays… she wouldn’t just lecture, she would make it an engaging session, often asking questions, giving us tasks, not just to make sure that we are attentive, but to make us think and apply ourselves (literary activities, writing, assignments). That’s how I started learning many things from her. The art of questioning, going deeper in the subject, research and analysis, interpreting stories, poems, plays, contemporizing them and so on.

As I write this note, I am reminded of the days when plays, poems and prose were identified by the teacher who taught us - so much of involvement and immersion - left us with lifetime memories of Literature classes.

I owe few traits of mine to this amiable professor who was friendly, empathetic and cared for me. My passion for English language and literature grew more and more and I continued with M.A and later, doctoral research. When I qualified for UGC-JRF in Communicative English, she had given me good advice to follow my interest in higher education. Years later,  it was nice to see her active on Facebook. Occasionally sharing a ‘like’ or a ‘comment’ she was in touch with most of her students and I was happy to see her radiant personality, actively contributing to the field of Language and Literature. 

I was deeply anguished to learn about her passing away on 7th January. The academia has lost an ever enthusiastic and cheerful intellectual who was a friend and guide to many, besides a passionate teacher and a powerful orator. I was lucky to have her in my life at the most impressionable age!

Monday, April 08, 2019

Mission Idli accomplished!

Remember the scene from the movie English Vinglish when Sridevi brings Idlis for Rama Murthy and his incredible expression when he sees a lunch box full of fresh Idlis…that’s exactly how much I’ve been craving for homemade idlis. Sometimes, not being able to make my own breakfast due to work pressure and sometimes unable to resist the comfort and convenience of ordering food, I somehow lost the good habit of making things from scratch, particularly Idli and Dosa. With ready-to-eat culture invading my otherwise disciplined way of cooking, Muesli, Cornflakes and Bread made life easier with an occasional Poha or Upma during the weekends. 

Idli and Dosa - my two all time favourites would never taste the same as homemade with the readymade batter, no matter how authentic, organic or fresh it claimed to be. I often missed the pure taste of fresh white idlis, and the entire process of making the batter, fermenting it and steaming it in the cooker - something I grew up watching my mother that she can't do now with her advanced age.

The ubiquitous Idli, in fact, is not as easy to make as it seems to be, though it has simple ingredients. There is no perfect recipe since it the final taste mostly depends on the climate; the temperature needs to be ambient for right fermentation. The Idli in Madurai is different from the Idli in Munnar and the same with Chennai or Coimbatore. I always felt the humidity makes a lot of difference in the taste and texture to get the right fluffiness and a wee bit of sourness - just enough to tickle the tastebuds. And, you start drooling at the sight of a plateful that can taste heavenly with light drizzle of ghee and just a simple coconut or peanut chutney. Sambar and accompanying powders, for me, are secondary.

I am not a fan of Idlis made with rava. I've always found them dry and brittle, leaving a strong taste of something un-idly-like. So, raw rice is my choice and this time I tried Idly rice. I decided to make it using proper ingredients, proper timing for soaking, grinding etc,  taking few tips from my mother.  And I was hell-bent not to give in to other options like readymade stuff, not even go to the good restaurants, to satisfy my craving for ideal Idlis.

And it worked! Mission Idli was successful! My determination to follow the process, be patient, adjust my other pressing deadlines (which is always there) and just enjoy the natural soaking-grinding-waiting involved in making this wondrously healthy and appetising dish. I was overjoyed to see the Idlis puff up with right kind of sponginess. The taste and aroma both matched the good old Idlis I was used to, at home.

For a moment I wondered, why do we give in so easily to convenience in the name of calling our age-old processes cumbersome, time-consuming and compromise on quality and taste. I am happy to rediscover the joy of making things from scratch and would love to do so as long and as often as possible. My resolve for simple and soulful or arduous but authentic cooking continues...

Saturday, June 09, 2018

Orange flowers

Orange flowers
I don’t know your actual name
Nor do I need to know
For, what is in a name?
A flower is a flower by any name

Like many flowers, you bring joy
You cheer me up
And inspire me to be
As bright and spirited as you

But you are seasonal
And hence special
I wait for you to bloom
To wipe away every sign of gloom
That is likely to loom
From things I assume
Or, during a lull and a vaccum

You bring glory to my balcony
Those little birds love you
And the breeze sways you
Gently, rythmically
When water refreshes you
You can hardly hide your ecstasy
As you blush all shades
between red and yellow

Dear orange flowers
Will you be there for me always?
For, a true nature lover like me
Will be incomplete with you.

Sunday, May 27, 2018

'Bharat Ane Nenu' and 'Mahanati': Can blockbuster movies also deliver on responsible entertainment?

Two Telugu movies, two different experiences, and mindboggling response from the audience - are we in for responsible entertainment within the template of popular blockbusters? I loved watching them and didn't really bother about the duration of the movie or the digressions and the discrepancies in the script; there was absolute pindrop silence in the theatre, with hardly any signs of distraction like people checking their mobile phones, except a cry or two from the toddlers who could not be controlled by the parents. Bharat Ane Nenu and Mahanati, both have captured popular imagination in their own ways among audience of all ages. Good thing about Mahanati was the English subtitles; it would attract many for whom language has been a barrier to watch good cinema. 

Unlike earlier when we used to classify movies into popular and art/socially conscious movies, today, such dichotomies don’t work or make sense, since the popular could also be social...we saw in Hindi movies like PadMan and others. With barriers between genres breaking and blending and impactful storytelling, there is good scope to move towards what I imagine as responsible entertainment that can drive positive action. Movies that make us think, act, inspire, imbibe and feel good about we can improve our lives.

Bharat Ane Nenu and Mahanati

Bharat Ane Nenu was more like a sequel to Srimanthudu - with larger role for the protagonist, more powers, or rather superhero powers, relatable political drama, relevant themes and so on…wondering if Koratala Siva is on a trilogy spree with the hero Mahesh Babu. And, Mahanati with all the retro theme was simply genuine. Remember, biopics always brought in controversies, for none can do justice to the complex lives of the successful and famous people who become the subject of such movies.

Good old Telugu classics

Mahanati, the period drama, brought back many memories of Black and White TV /Doordarshan days, watching movies with family and friends in our own drawing rooms with a generous helping of home made snacks, gossip and bonhomie. Watching Mahanati, I missed my father when there was a reference to the movie, Doctor Chakravarthy and when the song ‘Neevu leka veena…’ played on the screen - he loved the movie and its songs.  It brought back many memories of Telugu movies with good story, humour and music. And of course, the casting in Mahanati was the icing on the cake - top performances from Keerthy Suresh and Dulquer Salmaan !

Often Telugu movies have given a tough fight to movies in other languages in terms of content, story, scale, special effects, vision and variety. The success of Bollywood remakes of Telugu movies speaks for itself. 

Some thoughts and questions on how movies catalyse new thinking and inspire collective action for the good of many:

After we saw Mahesh Babu in his signature style delivering strong messages about ‘adopting a village and giving back to society’ in Srimanthudu and ‘local governance, role of bureaucracy, responsibility, accountability etc in Bharat…’ - what does it take to leverage the power of movies to strong action plans for grassroots level betterment? Or, do people just forget about the movie after they get back their money, appreciate the actors, story and disconnect the movie from reality.

Should larger-than-life heroes always fight the baddies and have romantic angle to establish their heroism and ‘leadership’ as it were, following the traditional formula? Why can’t they be just like you and me. It would be nice to see heroes and heroines from real life taking centerstage with a nuanced portrayal of their rich and complex stories.

Biopics like Mahanati, are not only difficult to make, but they also spell huge risk at the box office. But we need many such movies. Sincere adaptation of a biography and a well-researched script of many Indians who have done us proud can become real movie-material. The potential of movies is immense and people with passion for making a change may find their match in a passionately narrated story that talks about positive change and sustainable development.

Sunday, May 20, 2018

'Currying Flavours' - So what if the curry was made in a hurry?

“So, what’s Sunday special lunch at home today?” This used to be one common query from friends and neighbours in growing up years. And I didn’t have anything ‘special’ to say since, like in many vegetarian families, most Sundays would be like any other day, with rice, dal or sambar, curry etc and occasionally a dessert like Kheer, Halwa or Gulab Jamun. On some Sundays, there would be a Pulav or a special rice accompanied by a gravy curry or a special dish with truly seasonal vegetables.

The definition of special lunch began to change as I began to explore recipe books and get recipe ideas from friends to try out new things, especially curries. Slowly, items like Paneer, Mushroom, Soya chunks, Baby corn, Makhana (puffed lotus seed) etc became a part of my special items and I desperately wanted to try restaurant-style cuisine for that special feeling. The tips and hacks on the Web were a great help! And when the dish came out well and was liked by everyone, I would feel triumphant, as if I unravelled the mysterious and secret ingredients that were used by chefs and master chefs. Whether it was the cashew paste or the tomato puree or the full cream or the Kasuri Methi, I mastered the art of making special curries. I used to wallow in the compliments when someone said my dishes look and taste professional and perfect!

But, gradually the culinary scene at home changed - cooking for just two or three people, after my siblings got married, somehow brought in a big change in me and definitely not a desirable one at that! With very little time to spend in the kitchen, I compromised on the variety and the details of the dishes that were dear to me. Though I loved simple food, it got much simpler and I was fine if could be made in a jiffy ignoring the actual process. A wonderful interest turned into something mundane and got reduced to a daily chore.

The stickler for authentic taste and perfection in me did not mind ordering food once in a while and scoop out the not-so-tasty curry from the plastic container or unwrap the soggy Roti or a Paratha from that aluminium foil. But, knowing myself well, I could never get tempted or accustomed to the convenience of outside food. Not so much for health reasons, but more for the conscientious cook in me that constantly made me feel guilty about how I neglected honing my culinary skill and how I considered the kitchen as a studio for creating gastronomic delights and how the palette could be filled with colourful ingredients like spices, legumes and vegetables.  Many pots, pans and ladles meant for making my kind of special dishes remained unused in the kitchen drawers. Life was going on at God-knows-what kind-of-speed and food started to seem like a survival need. I was conscious of this change and I badly wanted to get back to the days when I would experiment with ingredients, assortments of vegetables to create something special.

And one wintery Sunday, I was determined to get back my special curries, nevertheless always in a hurry unable to cope with the work pressure. The hacks were back, this time more to look for permutations and combinations with those one or two vegetables that get left in the fridge, after you’ve used most most of the pack in a main dish. That one long brinjal could find a perfect balance with a Ridge Gourd or a piece of Bottle Gourd could gel perfectly with Soya Chunks. The gravies found their place back - it did not matter if I could not make the spices from scratch like I used to earlier. In fact it was more fun, mixing and matching store-bought, packaged ingredients with some home made ones. I was back to my experiments with curries that would end us in different shades of red or yellow. For a special look, a dash of cream or along with conventional coriander was all I needed. It didn't matter how I cut the process short, what mattered was the final dish - the curry that could accompany a bowl of rice or rotis or even bread or 'paav'.

Thanks to so many ways to make videos, today, there’s no dearth of cooking tutorials on the internet. And a bigger thanks to Artificial Intelligence and Data Analytics, social media keeps pushing the recipes literally on your face, knowing our personal choices, tastes and online behaviour. In the midst of all these, somewhere I always felt a seasoned cook should develop one's own signature dishes, through trial and error and not follow the tried and tested recipes. And there I was adding boiled peanuts to a drumstick and potato curry or a sprinkling roasted Makhana to a paneer gravy and presenting my dishes with most imaginative names like "Lotus seed and cottage cheese in a creamy tomato-cashew gravy" or similar sounding exotic names just like how they translate the names of traditional Indian dishes on the menus of fine dining restaurants:)

Sunday, May 13, 2018

My mother's newspaper habit

Most mornings, we have our tea together. I am invariably busy on my laptop or mobile phone, often unmindful of the tea that is getting cold. She gets restless, without the newspaper, tries to finish her tea fast and check why the newspaper is delayed.  

“The newspaper is never delivered on time. I don’t know of what use it is when people get it after leaving their home for work…” she complains. “Can’t you be little patient, I know people in our apartment hardly care for newspaper, so nobody bothers when it comes” I reason it out for her reminding her of how things have changed with our digital and online lives.

I tell her not to make such a fuss for a mundane thing like a newspaper but she gets more irritated if the ‘paper’ is still not at the doorstep by 8.00AM. She calls the security at the gate to check if the newspaper boy has come and apparently missed dropping a copy at our door or if there’s any other issue. Depending on the response, she calls the newspaper agent to find out want went wrong and gives him a piece of her mind to be regular.

For my soon-to-be-eighty- homemaker mother, newspaper is not just a morning ritual; it’s a real window to the world.  She scans through all the pages patiently, often commenting on the happenings and sympathizing or condemning or feeling happy as per the news. She doesn’t watch news on TV, nor do I – for that’s not a practice at our home. Rarely, if we really need to watch any important news it has to be on Doordarshan. 

For her newspaper is not just a paper; I have often seen her telling the delivery boy why he should not throw it in the corridor disrespectfully and how it is equal to education and learning. She finds it amusing that I get to know about many things even before  she reads about them in the morning, thanks to the alerts and updates on my phone. 

The newspaper habit

While I feel happy she is religiously continuing the ‘newspaper habit’ that my father used to tell us all to develop; I hardly ‘find time’ to flip through it unlike the growing up years where we used to pull out pages of our interest and literally wait for the Sunday Edition. While I remain indifferent, she continues the habit – quickly giving me updates on some important things. 

It could be anything on earth: the curious case of an overgrown pumpkin or a fruit that looks like lord Ganesha, the plight of people in Syria, the death of a film star or cricket match results or the drying lakes in the city or some titbits about food and travel. Politics doesn’t interest her, often she wonders why everyone has to fight so much and why can’t there be amicable ties between politicians, as she voices many such naïve thoughts. 

Her first priority is to get weather updates and prepare for the day as it were - temperature, likelihood of rain etc. When there’s an interesting story connected with a festival or something rare and interesting,  she never forgets to share it with our help, Bujjamma. It’s fun to watch them both discuss the event; sometimes Bujjamma adds more life to it telling us how it was reported in local news channels on TV. 

Food is another topic my mother loves to read and talk about.  It could be the jackfruit dishes that are trending or some new vegetables and fruits that she gets to learn about.  But her excitement doesn’t last long for she knows, it is beyond her fitness level to try new dishes now, and she quickly tells me to do it if I have some free time.

What amazes me is her way of reading the news. She is not constrained by her limited knowledge of English. Sometimes she quickly asks me when she doesn’t understand a word or gets confused with acronyms like PTI. I might have laughed when she asked me if PTI is a typo for PTO (Page Turn Over) but I admire her keen sense of observation that can challenge even a seasoned editor. Over the years, she has developed a knack of not missing any relevant news. She has her own way of remembering the headings and columns and getting all the minute details.

I may have access to the latest news through mobile alerts and other digital sources and I may choose to read or ignore.  I have given up my newspaper habit ages ago for want of positive news. But, for my mother, the newspaper remains much more than just a hard copy or a print version of what I get to browse. It helps her connect and engage with life and things beyond the confines of her home.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Stay relevant, Stay cool: The Big B Way

As the most-loved, admired and respected host of the popular game/quiz show Kaun Banega Crorepati (KBC) and many other appearances on the television, Amitabh sir has been redefining and reinventing the art of staying relevant. His life has many lessons for all of us who strive hard, everyday, to keep away from all-pervading negativism, cynicism and pessimism that can easily distract us from focusing on our purpose and goals. I've always looked upon him for inspiration and strength in times of turbulences, holding on to the seat belt as it were, as the flight of my life saw many forms of aggressive and unruly weathers.

He is my favourite host and my idol who never ceases to motivate and ignite to just-do-it and be-at-it! He has set an example for generations to reinvent oneself, adapt the art and craft with time, connect with people, be resilient and so on. And his cool quotient is simply unmatchable!

I wonder, isn’t it tough to be so active, so buoyant and so very interested and empathetic with every single participant on a game show - so very consistently in each episode? 

I sit and admire the myriad expressions and listen intently to the emotionally modulated baritone of this amazingly powerful person! I learn something new each time I see him on screen. Whether it’s an ad for Polio eradication or Swachh Bharat Campaign or whether it’s a commercial done for a consumer brand or any snippet of interview or a speech delievered at an event.

With age, with that unmatched grace, he weaves magic on my TV screen and love the way he engages with people - the real people. I love the way he elicits their stories, making them feel comfortable and very naturally and spontaneously throws in humorous tidbits from his personal anecdotes. Even today, this star attracts the same attention as he used to when we were kids and he ruled the Hindi cinema! True, it’s got something to do with his name - Amitabh - meaning, one with limitless splendour.

Growing up, as a Bollywood hero we saw him in many roles, we watched him fight the baddies, we watched him romance the most graceful ladies, sing soulful songs and his immortal dialogues became a part of the cultural repertoire. His life had its ups and downs and we saw him through. He redefined entertainment on TV, or rather edutainment in some ways with the first season of KBC in 2000. Till then not many movie stars would venture into TV shows and risk their larger than life image. And in turn, KBC resurrected a waning star who had so many more years to shine for the younger generations.

Truly splendid Amitabh sir, you continue to be my guiding star; I have learnt a lot from your life about how to keep performing and doing what you can do best, learning from your struggles and survival. Your professionalism and discipline is something I try hard to imbibe. Your all pervasive grace on screen is so magnetic that I tend to forget all my other distractions and worries and watch and listen to every word you say. And your eyes say so much without you being aware of how much of your wisdom gets passed on through them.

As an ardent admirer of yours, I’m already a member of your extended family; today, on the occasion of your 75th birthday, I wish you a long and healthy life with more and more years of active presence on the all the screens.