Tuesday, March 17, 2015

An Alaskan Tale (groaner)

"We have to find the impostor as soon as possible, of course" said the Agency station chief, "but with the utmost discretion"
It was an unusual conversation for me. I am a specialist in the larger fauna of the Alaskan wild and in the course of my research, have spent many years living with the Unangan, as the Aleutian islanders call themselves. I speak their language and know their customs probably better than any non-Unangan would, but I had never had a stranger assignment than this one. I have studied bears and birds but now I found myself in a small research station interviewing locals.

"Would you be able to tell from just a conversation who the impostor is?" the chief asked

"I probably would. There are unique intonations of some words. But I'd like to use a small feather, if that is permitted. Just to confirm it"

"Feather?" asked the chief, a little incredulously. He seemed to suspect I'd been having a couple.


"Hmm. Ok, I guess"

Later in the evening, the chief and I sat in his office. He had opened a Jim Beam in celebration and was effusive in his gratitude.

"Thanks a million, Doc!" he said. "He cracked under the lights. He was a Russian plant, planning to open supply lines for them. But how did you know?"

"Oh there are some words which are unique to the Aleut language which require an intonation of the vowel sounds that comes naturally to them but are quite impossible for the rest of us. The confirmation with the feather was the clincher"

"You said something about the feather earlier. How does that work?"

"Oh, the Aleuts have a peculiarity of the facial nerve which results in their being tickled when a feather is brushed DOWN on their cheek, but not in the opposite direction. Quite unique, I assure you"

"And this one failed the test?"

"Yes! I knew right away he wasn't a real native. He was an up-tickle Aleutian"

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

On my father's completing 50 years of medical practice

Yesterday my father, who is a general practitioner, completed 50 years of being one. We had a little celebration in his clinic today, organized by my sister, who is a dentist and works with him. My sister and her staff decorated the place with ribbons and flowers and festoons and whatnot and got him to cut a cake. The celebrations lasted for about 15 minutes after which it was business as usual for him, with patients lining up with ailments, some real, some imagined.

He nearly didn't get this far. He had some pretty radical cancer surgery in 2001 and pulled through with as little fuss as you could possibly imagine and then, a couple of years ago, a pretty difficult angioplasty which had everyone worried, through which he sailed with complete calm. (I'm writing this post mostly for myself because I'm kind of overcome with a great deal of I don't know what and I want to preserve that as best as I can. So if I'm boring you, my apologies. I'll try and come up with something jollier in the next post.)

Coming back to the res, my father is the calmest person I have known. Calm in a quiet, unobtrusive way. Not in-your-face insouciant or a rebellious I-don't-care. He is simply calm. Some kind of inner peace keeps him going even when faced with situations that lesser people, such as I, would find impossible to countenance without substantial wailing and screaming.

I'll give you an example. When he was being assessed for the surgery, the doctor solemnly warned all of us - including him - that since it was a long and radical surgery and since he had angina, hypertension and diabetes, there was a fairly high risk that he, well, mightn't make it. We were understandably downcast and on the day we went to admit him to the hospital for the surgery, we were choked by the possibility that this might be his last journey from our house and similar dismal thoughts. And him? He said he would like to go to Modern Lunch Home, an eatery en route to the cancer hospital, specializing in sea food, because he mightn't get the chance again. We went, my mother, I and him. The food simply turned to ashes in my mother's mouth and in mine but he ate heartily with the enthusiasm of a teenager. I tell you, when MY time comes, as it surely will, (though hopefully not for several decades yet), I hope I will be able to face the prospect of my own death with even one hundredth of that equanimity. Actually I'm pretty sure I won't. I'm scared of dying. Nearly everyone I know is. Everyone, that is, with the exception of my dad.

But enough of this moroseness. His medical practice has been a tremendous success, if you count it in the number of people who see him as their saviour and cling to him for support. He has saved lives and given hope to literally thousands of his patients, many of whom acknowledge it in the most touching ways.

He continues to work. His patients come to him, often for medical advice, but just as often for advice on their lives in general. People with troubled marriages, problem children, domestic conflicts and what have you, troop in regularly in the hope that he will counsel something that will miraculously make the trouble go away. Incredibly, ever so often,  it does! Sometimes he will scold, at other times plead, but mostly, I think it is that wonderful inner calm of his that gets through to the most troubled soul, It seems to soothe the turbulent emotions that seem to be at the core of most interpersonal problems and I've seen it in action a few times. It's like magic!

So, congratulations, Pappa! Keep going!

Friday, January 23, 2015

The hazards of being a credit card customer AND a moron

Here's some nuanced advice guaranteed to bring you peace and prosperity, advice which no one else will probably give you.

Do not be a credit card customer AND a moron. You can be one or the other but not both.

There. I have got it off my chest. The world knows now and is already a better place. As you heave a sigh of relief, dear reader, you are probably wondering how I was enlightened. Well, here is the story

I am a customer of ICICI bank for their credit card. I have been a customer of ICICI bank for many things (including a demat account, a trading account, a savings bank account and a current account) and with great reluctance, have had to let go of each one of these because I would steadily find myself losing out to the sharp minds in that fine organization. With artistic flair and surgical precision, clauses, terms and conditions that they inserted into these relationships would quietly but surely ensure that they eventually got the better of me. If ICICI bank gets into a revolving door after you, and I mean this as a compliment, you can rest assured they will emerge ahead of you.

I sportingly admitted defeat. It was a fair fight after all. They with their IIM Mbas and NLS lawyers, me with my, well, wits about me. I let them go, one after the other. But I hung on to the credit card. What, I figured, could go wrong? First, I had had it for nearly a decade and second, all I had on it was my cell phone bill payments which, to tell you the truth, I had no clue how to change to another subscriber while discontinuing this one. I had visions of two companies now paying the same cell phone bill to Airtel, resulting, of course, in the latter getting fat and lazy and probably acquiring a drinking habit. I love airtel dearly, as I would a child reared on my own money (which it is, sort of) and I wouldn't want it going to seed. The credit card stayed.

So when one lovely December morning I got a call from some jolly old chaps purporting to be from the credit card department of the ICICI bank, I answered with nary a premonition of danger.

The jolly chaps were worried. My reward points were expiring, they told me, and the only way to salvage anything out of it would be to buy this gift hamper containing shoes, sunglasses, a watch and some tremendously valuable discount coupons from a company called Deal@Once. I did find the thing rummy - they were asking me far too many questions, for one - but the jolly chap sent me an authentication message or something which seemed to come from ICICI, my trusted friend for so many years, and I fell for it. One thing led to another and before I knew what was happening, I had agreed to receive their gift hamper in return for 6999 reward points which were going to expire anyway.

In the course of all this, I ended up giving them my credit card details and authorising the transaction  - because I am a moron - all the while thinking I was authorizing the deduction of 6999 reward points from my account. And got a mildly nasty shock when I found it charged in my credit card bill in the good name of Amtec Engineers of New Delhi.

I checked on the net and found that this scam has been going on for a good 6 or 8 months, if not more, and several of those victims were ICICI Bank customers. (To be fair, there are customers of other banks as well)

I called up ICICI cards and whined but the lady at the other end was stern and unsympathetic. She told me to file a police complaint at the nearest police complaint and go cry someplace else, because SHE wasn't giving me any money back.

So that is where the matter stands. I plan to go and file my police complaint. I was worried that the policeman might laugh so hard upon hearing my complaint that he might fall off his chair and hurt himself, making me liable to the charge of injuring a police officer on duty but a senior legal mind assures me that there is no law which will punish me for that, though he privately admitted that if more complaints like mine make it to local police stations, they might have to enact one.

So here things stand. It's not ICICI bank's fault of course that I am a moron but I wish their fine minds would try to actively go after these fraudsters - after all, this has been happening for months now - instead of having conferences, meetings and off-sites devoted to inserting clauses terms and conditions in to their account agreements. We ARE morons, we customers, but we are God's children too. Aren't we?

Here are some of the other sad stories

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

How I quit smoking and got a life

It will be ten years come July that I've been a non smoker. Ordinarily, I wouldn't have blogged about this sort of thing because like the time I had that big pimple inside my nostril or the time I sneezed nonstop for two hours, they are anecdotes that hold little interest for the rest of the world. People faced with choosing between listening to those and watching, say, an episode of KrishiDarshan, would probably pick the latter. But one of my best twitter buddies, @TheRestlessQuil, declared she was going to quit smoking and I chipped in with (mostly gratuitous) advice. Another friend, @saffrontrail, urged me, diplomatically perhaps, to write it down in a blog post, which I suppose is sound advice because dear old twitter, for all its worth, makes it difficult for a verbose old fogey like me to  express myself. So here goes

I used to smoke in engineering college and then I had sort of given it up. When I married that goddess in human shape, the apple of my eye, the fruit on which hangs the fruit of my life, the.. well, missus, I was mostly clean. I would occasionally bum a drag when with old friends but that was it. Slowly however, it started as a cigarette or two when I was drinking with friends, then a cigarette or two in the morning because the head felt heavy and in no time, I was smoking a pack a day.

The missus protested strongly. She told me that she hated my cigarette breath and she fretted over all those lung cancer ads. (at the time, I was very dismissive about the cigarette breath complaint. You women, you love to exaggerate, I remember telling her. But several years later, I happened to be seated next to a pretty young thing on a flight. Not as pretty as the missus, of course, but pretty nevertheless. Anyway, I looked forward to the pleasant prospect of chatting with the PYT, dazzling her with my wit and wisdom and whatnot, imagining her telling her children someday that while their father was a sound egg and a good person, they, the children, should have seen the distinguished elderly gent, (me, that is) who was with her on a flight once and so on, when she decided to open the conversation. And I had the shock of my life because her breath, which smelled of coffee and cigarettes, both consumed in copious quantities, was horrible. She spoke from a south easterly direction and I replied in staccato monosyllables in a north westerly direction till, after a couple of minutes, she gave up on me thinking I was some kind of crank. I realize now I wronged missus. Cigarette breath IS horrible)

So, as I was saying, missus complained buckets-full and I kept telling her that I would give it up. This new years, positive. Ok, after my birthday, hundred percent. Well, after YOUR birthday, guaranteed. It never happened, of course, and we gradually started growing more distant. I would leave home extra early in the morning on the pretext of having work to catch up with and come in as late as possible, all because missus wouldn't let me smoke at home.

Then one day, after an argument that was not particularly different from a hundred arguments we had had before that one, the missus ended up sobbing. Somehow, it stung me. I don't know why, it wasn't the first time she had shed tears over this topic of conversation, but I decided it was time to quit.

And I found that I couldn't. I didn't last twenty-four hours. I would stride out in the morning, grimly determined to last the entire day without a single drag and by lunch I would be a complete wreck with no thought on my mind other than to race out and buy a cigarette. Someone suggested nicotine chewing gum and I soon found out I was addicted to smoking AND nicotine chewing gum. Someone else suggested homeopathy and you, dear reader, will be staggered to know I tried even that! Despite being a card carrying skeptic and a homeopathy-basher all my life (slogan - "NOTHING is as good as homeopathy"), I actually went to a homeopath who asked me all kinds of mildly daft questions like which side do I lie on when I sleep (you moron, how am I supposed to know that if I'm sleeping? But I didn't say that) and whether I held the cigarette in my right hand or my left. He gave me two or three bottles full of sugar pills with very detailed instructions on how, when and how many to consume. Needless to say, didn't work. The only positive thing about homeopathy was that that I didn't get addicted to those sugar pills like I did to the nicotine chewing gum

Then one day, I met an old friend (whom I shall not name because he won't like it if I did) who had given up smoking, successfully, I might add, for he had not smoked a cigarette for seven years. He told me that smoking couldn't be given up by resisting the urge. I told him he was talking through his ruddy hat. Don't resist the urge it seems. Then what? Give in to it? No, he said. Just observe the feeling. It affects only your body, not you. I felt obliged to upbraid him again. Not me, only my body. Are they two different things? Dude, when I die, they're going to put up a photograph of my body, not me.

He smiled mystically and told me to just think about it. Not the smoking or the cessation thereof, but who I was. He suggested I sit in front of a mirror and stare at myself for as long as I could and I would sense it.

This held even less promise than homeopathy. If the missus caught me at it, I could forget about ever being taken seriously again. But I was desperate. I tried his silly little exercise, read up a lot about different kinds of meditation, psyched myself into determination mode and I don't remember what else.

Then one day, I suddenly saw. The chap was right. I was different from me.  I know what you're thinking. Old Naren has been having a couple. But I'm serious. I don't know what specifically set it off but I decided that day - I remember it was the 19th of July 2005 - the urge to smoke would not affect me. I began to observe it with distant curiosity, in the manner of a child looking at an exotic monkey in a zoo. My mouth would dry out. I could feel my temples throbbing. My eyeballs would hurt from the inside. A couple of deep breaths would make the feeling go away but it would return in a trice. I did not try to fight it.

I lasted the entire day. This was a first. The next day was pretty much the same. And the day after. I observed myself getting more irritable, but I had read that this was expected. Managed to hold it in control, though I found myself being uncharacteristically acerbic, especially in my interactions with the loved ones.

Days passed, then weeks and then months. I would go and sit with smokers, if I found myself in their company, and test myself (mildly Manu-Abha style, it now occurs to me). Sure enough, my mouth would water and I would occasionally feel my heart thudding away in extra-power mode but I could handle it.

It was years before it stopped beckoning but now, I can't even dream of smoking a cigarette. Missus was extremely happy of course. She gave me such melting looks of gratitude that I regretted not having kicked the habit earlier. Entirely worth it. And if a weak, vacillating character such as mine could do it, there is no reason YOU can't.

The question of course is why you should. Why indeed. There is no good reason. In my case, I did it only because it seemed to cause missus so much sorrow. But I am also glad to be rid of at least one master. It's freedom, however miniscule.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

The peacock in the mess

The talk on one of my whatsapp groups turned to peacocks. This is rare. Most of my whatsapp groups feature a very high level of forwarded wisdom. One does not simply walk into them and start telling anecdotes but here was an actual chance. Discussion had veered to peacocks and I had a genuine peacock anecdote up my sleeve.  I told it. People promptly shushed me - rightly so, because it was a pretty blade anecdote - and I slapped my forehead in delayed enlightenment. I should have posted my blade anecdote in the rightful place for blade anecdotes, namely my blog. So here goes, dear reader, hope you enjoy it.

This happened back in Manipal's fine engineering college, where I was doing my stretch in the eighties. Manipal was a pretty rural place back then. Little farms dotted the countryside and large swathes of it was still forest. There were hyenas there, and leopards, but the prudent engineering student avoids adventure and we were mostly content with excursions to our local watering hole, the Red Sun Bar, and the occasional field trip to the nearby Kasturba Medical College in the hope that some winsome lass would fall in love with us at first sight. This had never happened - female medical students, for some reason, do not find poorly dressed, gawping, unshaven and mostly broke engineering students in dire need of some deo, sexy - but we'd keep trying our luck just in case.

Coming back to the story, peacocks, porcupines and the odd spectacled cobra were the more commonly spotted species among the fauna. Cobras were sacred. No one harmed them though several hundred-meter sprint records had been broken there by diverse people following an unexpected cobra sighting. Our hostel warden was reported to have surpassed Bob Beamon's long jump without a run-up and in a lungi. Porcupines were eaten by the locals, though how they caught them was a mystery to me. Our warden, the same guy who had outdone Bob Beamon, would warn us. "The porcupine's prick is deadly" he would say, to the delight of students who, for some strange reason, would drag the conversation around to porcupines just to hear him say that. Bunch of juveniles!

But the peacocks were mostly left alone. They wandered into campus and rummaged about in the grounds behind the mess kitchens looking for food. One peacock was sort of adopted by the kitchen staff of the North Indian Non Vegetarian (NINV) Mess and would be seen sauntering around in the mess in the morning. It would get spooked as people started coming in, and take off into the forest but every now and then, early breakfasters would find it pottering about in the dining hall.

One day, one of our class mates, a lad who had been recklessly experimenting with substances, quite unexpectedly staggered into the mess at 7 am, the hour at which it opened. He would usually lie stoned somewhere till the gentle rays of the noon sun woke him up but today, somehow, was different. Bleary eyed, he sat with three or four of us regulars waiting for the pronthes and dahi to appear. As they did, our friend the peacock walked in. None of the regulars paid it much heed, everyone's attention being fixed on the pronthes which the cook stuffed with aloo and served with a generous helping of curd. Everyone's that is, except our substance abusing friend, who for some reason found the presence of the bird unusual and who found the complete lack of reaction from the rest of us even more freaky.

He tried to bring the conversation nonchalantly around to the subject of large birds and their unexpected sighting but no one showed the slightest reaction. After a  while, unable to contain himself, he asked the lad sitting next to him, "Boss, is there a large peacock here in the mess or am I seeing things?" As anyone who has spent time in an engineering college hostel will tell you, that is the wrong way to ask that question. Without batting an eyelid, the lad the question was addressed to, replied "Peacock? Here? Boss, didn't find anyone else or what, pulling my leg morning morning?" Our substance abusing friend laughed nervously and pretended he was cracking jokes but his confidence was shaken. He surreptitiously cast anxious glances at the rest of us in the mess  and his sinking suspicion was confirmed. The peacock was visible to no one else!

He ate whatever he could of the pronthe and fled. The ending is happy, though. The experience was enough to put him off drugs and he turned over a new leaf. Studied hard, went abroad and is now the head of some large software company in the US.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

More on the cow theme

In my previous post, I wrote about the unlikeliness of cows appearing in lectures on Electrical Engineering and the purity of the engineering student's soul being evidenced by his not knowing that. Today we shall examine the all pervading nature of that animal in an engineering student's academic life and how I bettered the Olympic 100m record because of cows.

One of my closest friends, a fellow Wodehouse fan named Deepak, lived in a section of the hostel called the K block which comprised of single seater rooms and was architecturally inspired by a cowshed. So faithfully had the architect recreated his inspiration that cows from far and wide would saunter into the K block and reside for varying lengths of time, feeling completely at home. Non bovine residents of the K block seemed to accept their presence with generous equanimity but occasional visitors such as myself were more xenophobic. "Why don't you shoo them away?" I asked Deepak one day. Apparently the reason was that if you attempted anything in the nature of violence, the bovine would deposit evidence of its visit in the form of a cowpat bang in front of the shooer's door, and languorously walk away, leaving the hapless inhabitant of the room with the choice of either picking it up and throwing it out or inhaling bouquet-de-cowpat for the next few days.

Deepak also had a bicycle. Back in the 80s, this was like owning a Mercedes 380- SL convertible which meant that Deepak was much sought after. Not by the women, ha ha, because we had just 40 girls in the college (there were 1200 of us manly guys), all of whom had very exacting standards of male beauty (Tom Cruise might have made it, and Salman Khan, but not Deepak or I). As I was saying, it was sought after by the likes of me who thought riding a bicycle in the hot Manipal sun was the fun thing to do. And it was, given the level of activity in Manipal on a summer's afternoon. Deepak was ever cautious, though. He would, in a manner reminiscent of how the UPA government gave out gubernatorial appointments, give his bicycle to only the most trusted of his friends, among whom, I am proud to say, I figured prominently. Also, I did not, like another hapless friend our ours, bang into a cow with the bicycle. Cows thus disturbed tended to poop or urinate on you (when you were lying concussed on the road after the collision) and Deepak was rightly concerned that some of it might fall on the bicycle.

But my most vivid memory of that splendid animal is the time when I was endeavoring to clear my fifth semester workshop exams. I was, how shall I put it, dexterity challenged and in order to make up for shabbiness of the workpiece I had made as part of the evaluation, I had put  my all into the written exam. I had drawn heart wrenching diagrams of whatever it was that we were doing that semester - I sort of recall it was foundry practice - and liberally quoted from Tennyson and Shakespeare. My plan was that after the examiner had seen the workpiece and recoiled in disgust, he would read the paper and realize, with tears welling up in his eyes, that here was a good man, a decent chap, deserving in all respects save the minor one of being incompetent, and would give me passing marks.

The plan was working when suddenly I realized that I had rashly left the paper - my masterpiece - near the window and a passing cow, doubtless attracted by the brilliance of its content,  had decided to snack on it. With a yelp, I rushed towards the window but the cow shrewdly withdrew its head and headed off in the opposite direction. Crisis brings out the best in me. I quickly marshaled my thoughts and lit out of the door, executed a sharp U turn and gained rapidly upon the cow. It tried to sprint away but it was, and you, dear reader, will forgive my humble-brag,  no match for my superior intellect and athleticism. Within seconds, I had caught up with it and snatched the paper from its mouth. Miraculously -perhaps it was the force of my personality that had startled it into doing so - it released the paper undamaged. Observers quickly calculated that I had done about 100 meters in 9.7 seconds, but since it wasn't an official event, the feat never entered the books.

I passed the exam.

Thursday, June 12, 2014


The talk on one of our whatsapp groups turned to cows. That is to say, someone forwarded something about cows. Whatsappers are great forwarders of things and many of the things people keep forwarding to me appear to have existed forever, rather like the universe. I know there is a school of thought that believes the universe began as a little dot of very densely packed matter (like some of our suitcases), and suddenly erupted to fill up everything in sight (like some of our suitcases) and by this logic, there must have been a time when all the whatsapp messages in the universe were tightly packed into a little dot. But this would probably be 11.6 billion years ago, and anyway, all this discussion is deeply in the realm of metaphysics which you, dear reader, would judiciously choose to give a miss.

Coming back to the cows, the said whatsapp message dealt with how different economic systems would treat the possession of two cows. Between you and me, the thing went right over my head but the word 'cows' appearing so many times reminded me of the jolly old age when I was studying engineering and the class was being taught Basic Electrical Machinery by Shri K. J. Singh.

Shri Singh was a splendid chap, from the rustic heartland of Bihar, and while he was a great engineering mind, his accent was a little different from ours. Very few people understood anything of what he said (but that was also in part because most of us were singularly daft). However, everyone sat solemn and attentive in his class - he had a great personality - and wrote down everything that he said which sounded important.

So in one such class, he kept using the word cows. Some of the sharper chaps did find it odd - after all, cows and electrical engineering have little to do with each other - but everyone wrote it down faithfully in their lecture notes.

It was only many lectures later that we realized that the good man was saying 'cause'

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Astrologers and their part in my downfall

I've never been much of a lad for the great science of astrology. It somehow does not inspire much confidence in me, given that its practitioners always tend to speak in very general, diffuse ways, some of which end up turning out right and suddenly, the astrologer in question is empanelled by the family to tell you what you should do next on the most personal level possible. Most officious, if you ask me.

And yet I get dragged, from time to time, to meetings with astrologers, for such is life, and this here is an account of one such experience.

It so happened, many summers ago, that a relative of the missus wanted a particular Bombay astrologer to be consulted for an answer to the question of when her son should marry. Since she, the relative, lived very far away, the missus and I were deputed to do the dirty work.

It was the first time in ages that I was going to see an astrologer. The last time I went was with an aunt of mine who took me to a chap who would tell you all by rolling a few cowrie shells on the floor. I remember being particularly impressed by how specific the chap was .

"Should my husband take the transfer?"

"No" replied the astrologer, who was a pretty august looking guy, with bhasma all over his forehead and his hair in a bad ass knot at the back of his head and continued with "He will get a promotion here only. For this, he should do a navagraha shanti and every friday go to a devi temple and pour milk" or words to that effect.

Both aunt and I were impressed. I couldn't help  wondering if he could reveal similar specific things in other subjects such as say mathematics.

"Auntie, can he tell me what the smallest number is that can be expressed as the sum of two cubes in two different ways?"

"Hush child! So astrologer, what are the prospects of this doctor boy whom we are planning to see for our daughter?"

"This doctor boy is a good boy but the Rahu in his Mangal is interfering with the Guru. If he is an anesthetist, he will put many people to sleep"

"Or if he has a teaching position at the hospital"

"Quiet!" hissed the aunt.

Whereupon the astrologer impressed the daylights out of me by looking at me sternly and saying, in a low, magisterial voice "Seventeen twenty nine".

But I digress. Getting back to the story, missus and I landed up at the astrologer's palatial flat. I rang the bell and we were let in by a minion into a room full of religious photographs and books. We had taken our younger son along, then a very adorable three year old, and missus was telling him which religious photograph was of what, with the lad listening with that wide eyed look of intense attention that makes the arduous task of bringing children up completely worth it.

Presently the big noise himself walked in and so intimidating was his personality that I stood up instinctively. He motioned me to sit down and, divining with his astrological faculties who the real power int the family was, addressed the missus

"So what brings you here, Amma?"

Missus explained the relative, her son, the question of when, if and to whom he should get married, and offered him the said son's horoscope.

Astrologer looked at it perfunctorily and kept it aside. He looked intently at the missus (actually he had a strabismus in one eye, so it was difficult to tell, but I guessed it was her that he was looking at, given that I am universally considered deficient in aesthetic appeal) and continued looking for a longish while. I could tell that missus was feeling a bit uncomfortable. Son had spied a cat in the house and gone off to make friends. So it was up to me to break the ice.

"So, do you give only horoscope based advice or do you also advise on numerolgy and palmistry" I asked, just to get some conversation going.

The astrologer continued looking at missus. An uncomfortable fifteen seconds of silence followed. Then the astrologer spoke.

"Amma, you are saakshaat devi. You are the mother goddess herself. You exude the aura of divinity, the like of which I have never seen before"

The missus looked a little puzzled.

"Amma, you are destined to have a child. A daughter will be born to you. A girl of such unsurpassed goodness and divinity that she will bring peace and prosperity to the world. A girl who will .."

"But what about this auntie's son?" interrupted missus.

"Oh, he'll get married. But you? You will change the world by giving birth to this daughter"

I laughed a little nervously and said "But we weren't planning to have any more children. We already have two, you see..."

"Planning? The laws of Karma have no room for planning, sir. Things that are destined will happen, regardless of what mere mortals like us plan"

He continued in this vein for a few more minutes and after a great deal of persistence, we managed to get his verdict on auntie's son. ("Will he get married?" "Yes" "When?" "In three years time" "To whom?" "A doctor girl" - For the record, only answer no. 1 was correct. Auntie's son married his girlfriend before the year was out. She works in an ad agency)

As we rose to leave, he reminded missus once again that what was destined would happen, regardless of what we planned. Missus shot through the door like a bolt of lightning.

For the record, we haven't had the daughter.


Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Roasting chicken on a wood fire!

The son was bored. He had just finished his class XII exams but had the IIT entrance looming over his head, and judging from the fact that he gnashed his teeth and furrowed his brow every time he was reminded of it, he wasn't particularly looking forward to the prospect. There are chaps who will excitedly jump up and clap their hands in childlike joy when told that the IIT entrance exam is just a month away and there are chaps who will not. Younger son was resolutely among the latter.

"Play your guitar" I suggested. But his heart was not in that either. Apparently he had heard the guitar playing of one Joe Bonamassa and he despaired that he would never play anywhere remotely as well as him. "Look at Annie", consoled missus. Does the fact that he can't sing deter him from believing that he will one day be mistaken for Mallikarjun Mansur?"

That perked up the lad a bit. Slanderous libel, of course. I sing very very well indeed. But mother and son had a laugh and the missus, going all "awww" at my evident inability to see the humor in that, said "Lets grill some chicken"

"On the Berkely  Darfur stove?" I piped up excitedly

"Why not?"

So we marinaded a kg and a half in one cup dahi, 6 tbsps chilli powder, 3 tbsps salt (it did turn out to be a tad salty so you can consider making that 2 tbsps) and let it rest for an hour.

That done, it was time to light up the stove. This is easier said than done for city slickers but I luckily found that missus has a decent amount of experience. After laughing impolitely at my very scientific approach at initiating combustion, she rounded up some dried leaves and wood shavings and lit it up in a few minutes
I remembered an article written by my friend Madhu Menon, in my opinion one of this country's finest chefs, in the Mint newspaper. Dug it out surreptitiously on the phone and using his principles, grilled the chicken first on a hot flame for about two minutes (the Berkeley Darfur stove's capacity to deliver a very hot flame came in handy here) and then the second side for about 6 minutes on a side of the grate where the flames were not that intense

The result was chicken nicely charred on the outside and beautifully moist inside. Missus and son both loved the beautiful wood-smoked flavour!
I grilled a few potatoes and onions as well, and some cherry tomatoes plucked fresh from mom's terrace garden. Oh, and some fresh oregano leaves as well!
 Cheers, and hope you had a great Holi too.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

In which we make Chicken a la Uday Velhe on the Berkeley Darfur Stove

Uday Velhe works with me. He is our press operator and is mostly a shy and retiring person. Like Blair Eggleston, Wodehouse's fearless novelist, Uday would, if he found himself ensconced in a boudoir with a scantily clad Russian princess, take the seat nearest the door and talk about the weather. But let him loose with a knife and some provisions and he can knock you off your feet with the awesomest chicken curry you ever ate!

Here he is, in action, with the famous Berkeley Darfur Stove, an energy efficient wood burning stove developed by UC Berkeley for refugees in Sudan's Darfur.

The recipe is elegantly simple, serves 15 and uses 3 kg of twigs on the Berkeley Darfur Stove!

In case you don't have Uday (not looking his best in this photo, alas, because when I clicked him, he was straining to break a largeish twig)

you will need 
2 chickens, dressed (about 2.2 kg)
1 kg chopped onions
250 gm grated coconut (preferably freshly grated coconut)
100 gm (or, if you're in Mumbai, 20 rupees worth) coriander (aka cilantro) leaves
0.75 kg tomatoes
100 gm garlic pods (shelled)
a 'small piece' (in Uday's words) of ginger
4 bay leaves
2 star anise
1 stick of cinnamon
2 tbsp Garam Masala
6 tbsp Chilli powder
1 tbsp 'Eastern' chicken masala (Rs. 5 only) though Uday says any chicken or mutton masala is good enough
Some oil, of course (Uday prefers Sundrop super refined sunflower oil, the healthy oil for healthy people)
Salt to taste


1. Light up your stove (DUH!)
2. Sautee the onions

3. When the onions are nicely caramelised, says Uday,and you will know this from the smell, which is rich enough to spurn wall street jobs which promise seven figure bonuses, remove them and keep them aside

4. Roast the grated coconut. No oil and all, just roast

5. Grind the above, (i.e., the sauteed onions, the grated coconut, 3/4th of the 20 rupee worth coriander leaves, half the garlic, half the tomatoes, the small piece of ginger and the spices, ie, the star anise, cinnamon, bay leaves save two), into a paste on the mixie

6. Heat some oil (lots of oil, actually. About 200 ml.)  and fry the rest of the garlic and the two bay leaves you saved from step 5 above, in it till it is nice and brown

7.Dump into this half the paste from step 5 above, the chilli powder, the garam masala and the Eastern Chicken Masala and fry it, till all the water in it is gone. You will know this, says Uday, by the fact that the oil begins now to float on top 

8.Then add the chicken
and fry it for about ten minutes

8. Add the rest of the paste, the rest of the tomatoes, the rest of the coriander leaves and about 1 liter of water and boil the bejesus out of it. Here, you have to add the 'salt to taste' which I measure out as about 8 tbsp. But I could be wrong (I was drinking beer by this time)

And Voila! You have Chicken a la Uday Velhe!  

Best had with Pao or Chapati