tuque /tūk/ n Canadian English, var. toque [19th c. Canadian French, from the French toque, from the Basque tauka] 1 A close-fitting knitted cap, often with a long tapering end or tassel or pompom. 2 fig Something quintessentially Canadian.
souq /sūk/ n from the Arabic سوق var. souk 1 An open-air marketplace. 2 fig A central meeting place for the circulation of news and ideas.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

India Blog Roundup

Enough about me, for once! There are approximately sixty VSO volunteer workers here in various parts of India, and among them are a few savvy bloggers. So I present the first in a series of India Blog Roundups, a sampling of other good stories from the lives of vols in India.

Our dear friend Isabel, a Briton living in a small village in Rajasthan, writes in her Indian Bells blog about the newsworthy yet chronically underreported issue of child marriage in India. Also she posts a recipe for mango curry, not to be missed, and a day-in-the-life-of enduring India's heat.

Our buddy Paul, an Aussie with an Enfield, and who lives in Orissa's capital Bhubaneswar, blogs about the Red Ribbon Express, a roving HIV/AIDS-awareness train on a year-plus journey around India. He also writes about his twin loves, lassi and Varanasi.

Gina and Corey, a fun couple of Americans who co-author Sustainable Dignity, blog from the western Orissa town of Koraput about booze in India, with which I have familiarity. And believe it or not a County Fair came to their little hamlet, complete with ferris wheel and the Joker!

Susie, who lives in the tiny village of Bhawanipatna in western Orissa, writes about India's 2011 census, perhaps the largest human project in history. Take some time, too, to visit the photo galleries on her site; gal's been to a few places!

And Sheila, also in Orissa and blogging at Ashramblings, has a great piece on food, including the jahni, a courgette-like veggie that looked tasty enough when we saw it at the market, but which disagrees (let's say nicely) with the mouth!

Last but not least, my partner Ashley has started a blog, Strange News from another Star, where she writes about extraordinary traffic behavior in our town of Berhampur, and also about encounters with caste.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Quote-Unquote: Aravind Adiga

"Even the writer of the truth should not know the truth entirely. Every word, upon being written, is like the full moon, and daily it wanes, and then passes entirely into obscurity. That is the way of all things."
--Aravind Adiga, Between the Assassinations, 2009, p.136.

(Context: My current leisure reading. On a related note, the Quote-Unquote nook of this blog tips its hat to D.B. Scott at the Canadian Magazines blog. And with the National Magazine Awards coming up next week, this blogger misses Canadians and their magazines more than ever!)

Saturday, May 22, 2010

India Book Review: Midnight's Children, by Salman Rushdie

If my memory is to be trusted I don't recall ever in my near-thirty-four years of life in the fortunate company of some of the best people in the world any one them uttering hinting gesturing that Salman Rushdie is his-or-her favourite most-loved best writer.

Having reread what is unswervingly credited as his best novel, Midnight's Children, here in India after first pre-dieting on other, mostly non-fiction books of subcontinental history, I can without hesitation or surprise express an reborn affinity for the book and its (after considering all possible adjectives, I'll go with 'infectious') prose.

Even in spite (or because?) of Rushdie's grotesque disfigurement of international conventions on the use of the semi-colon; I willingly endured what I had previously admonished discarded vomited as knickknack illusionist storytelling combined with an ineluctable rhapsodical unquenchable urge to build my vocabulary. (I'm looking at you, The Moor's Last Sigh; Shame, you're forgiven because your imagery of Pakistani coup culture was enticingly tabloid-esque.)

What can I tell you? This time round his alluring chutnification of fictionalized autobiography with the history and wars and rulers of India really snorted me up and away into the nasal passages of the life times adventures of Saleem Sinai. No, next time you see me I won't be telling you that Rushdieji is my new bestest prose-wallah; only that the experience of reading his masterpiece while ensconced in India is unlike any other encounter with the author.

Deservingly the novel is one of the most celebrated of the 20th century; if you're spending a bunch of time (especially down-time) in India, add it to your reading list.

Midnight's Children
by Salman Rushdie
Vintage Paperback, 1995
463 pages

Monday, May 17, 2010

Sandlot Cricket [Part 2]

{Click here for Part 1}

The bowler uncorked the ball. In one instant I held dominion over all eyes, even (perhaps I exaggerate) those of the itinerant cows who come by the sandlot in the evening to graze.

I, cricket-batsman, wicket-protector, first-overall-draft-choice, swung.

Thwack!! Contact!

(Later in the evening, in the afterglow of a new experience which, like the sunset, is susceptible to abstraction, I reflected that upon the exact moment in which bat met ball, the sandlot became a microcosm of my entire state of being in India: cows, stray dogs, strewn garbage, honking horns, passing trains, oppressive heat, the curious and almost entranced eyes of onlookers; and I in the middle of it all, willing myself somehow to feel a natural part of it...)

But getting back to the actual point where the ball left my bat, it was a beautiful parabola in slow motion; the ball arched gracefully high above the field and returned to Earth with no less grace, caught effortlessly, barehanded, by a ten-year-old boy.

In baseball terms it was a pop-fly to the second baseman. The humiliating infield-fly rule would have been invoked; an easy out.

I turned around and shrugged knowingly at my teammates, while behind me the young lad who'd caught my meagre effort joyously jumped around holding the ball like the IPL trophy.

As it happened, my quick out boded ill for the rest of my team. Even with a back-to-back pair of fours by Sunil in the ninth over, at the end of our innings we'd put nineteen runs on the imaginary scoreboard. This was, I quickly learned, so dismal an effort that the team briefly considered conceding and begging a restart.

Roles swapped, my team took the field (does one 'take' the field in cricket?) and positioned me quite shallow to the right of the bowler, a position which, though I don't know its name, is by all evidence a critical one, and a busy one.

Off the bats of the opposing team's boys the ball careened in my direction again and again, skipping off the pitch with eye-popping zigs and zags as it changed direction with each pebble or tuft of grass or divot of dirt or morsel of rubbish that it felt along the way.

(I fared better when the ball came at me without touching the ground; not only was this a clean-and-simple out; not only did my act of catching even the most routine of fly balls endear me to my teammates; but making this play obviated the need for immediate subsequent brainwork.)

In the game of cricket, once the novice fielder, having corralled a hop-skip-and-jumping ground ball into his hands, raises his eyes to field level, he witnesses a scene of incomprehensible disarray: the man with the bat is running toward him; but wait, another man with a bat is running away from him!

Swift little feet--my teammates'--kick up dust as they move their bodies into new locations: beside wickets, behind wickets, in front of wickets, between wickets. Everyone is running, everyone is shouting, everyone is waving arms... everyone wants the ball, or at least wants me to release it!

Madness, I report from the field.

India seemed so orderly when I held the bat. Sure, I was the centre of countless wondering attentions, but the world was still; a man had his moment of clarity.

But when I hold the ball, India is utter chaos, a sandlot of rising dust and eye-blurring perpetual motion.

What does one do in this situation? One fixes his eyes on something, on any one thing, and moves toward it before he is run over by the uncontrollable mayhem. And so I underhanded the ball to the nearest standing-next-to-the-wickets teammate (doubtless he has an official title) who in a continuous motion redirected the ball into said wickets and made (wow!) an out.

But I digress. Lest I paint a distorted image of my team's stalwart defensive stand thanks to my sure-handed fielding, the opposing team in fact thrashed us.

I did have a chance to bowl an over: six balls thrown on target, mercifully only two of which were sent screaming over my and everyone's heads for a six. (A home run, as it were; and what happens to a baseball pitcher who surrenders two home runs in one inning? Again I digress).

In the end we lost by something like three runs with two overs and four wickets to spare (or they had them to spare; I'm not sure). That, in sandlot cricket, is a blowout.

Strangely, as this unfamiliar game ended, so did something completely familiar: English. I'd barely noticed it at the time, but for quite a lot of these children it seems the breadth of their vocabulary in my native language is comprised mainly of cricket calls: Good out, wide ball, good catch, no ball, single, double, four, six, over...

Over the course of this game so incomprehensible to me, we had (I say at the risk of my metaphor-cup finally running over) actually been speaking my language all along.

So until we meet again, sandlot, danyavad and suba ratri, thank you and goodnight.

The Sandlot at dusk
(Click all photos to enlarge)

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Sandlot Cricket [Part 1]

As a matter of inevitable fact, it was as certain as curry. It was as likely to happen as my stepping in cow dung while crossing the street. Sooner or later in India, it was fate that I'd become intimate with the sport of Cricket.

If only I could report that, once played, the vagaries of this insoluble game are now clear to me.

Each afternoon when the clouds and wind come by to mitigate the dreadful heat, the boys of summer--wickets and bats in hand--emerge from the innumerable nooks of the neighbourhood and descend upon the vacant field immediately next to our home.

There are about twenty-five of them, aged between nine and sixteen. Some I know by their proper names--Sunil, Puna, Gopinath, Rav--and some I know only by now-familiar faces, the ones who smile and wave and shout out "haalloo, meester reechard" every time I enter or exit our shared dirt road.

And others, I am learning, have only nicknames in the company of their mates; those few who know a bit of English dutifully translate them for me. There is Black-Boy, whose skin is darker; Fat-Boy, a rotund lad; Tooth-Boy, whose upper teeth are gapped and bend outward from his mouth; and the mysteriously nicknamed President, whose special executive authority is not yet clear to me.

Their game is sandlot cricket of no regular shape or form. I've invited myself to watch on several occasions, and been so well received as to unintentionally interrupt the game with my presence. They've practically demanded, on occasion, that I take a few practice swings, even while their game is in full flow.

But on this day, I arrive early enough to be chosen for a side; actually to play the game of cricket.

Those that know the game well please bear with me, for though I've lived a long, sporty life up to now, I've never been able to distinguish this particular sport's head from its tail. (By all means, hold me solely responsible for inaccuracies in my usage of technical terminology and my interpretations of events.)

Our sandlot cricket is, perhaps intrinsically, unorthodox. To speed up the match (so that several may be played subsequently), we are limited to ten overs and one innings per side, perhaps a variation of Twenty20 Cricket, of which there is a dizzyingly popular professional league here in India.

In plainspeak, if indeed I've understood the rudiments of the game, each of the ten-or-so players on one side has one turn at the bat, then the other side has an identical go, and whichever team has scored the most runs therein is declared the winner.

In proper sandlot form, two boys are designated captains, and they in alternation select their teams from the gathered lot until all belong to one side or the other. A flip of a bat, heads or tails, determines the picking order, and the team of the second captain receives the advantage, perhaps, of batting second.

For my inaugural game, it seems the universal logic of choosing players in an order based upon their proven ability to perform is elided; I am not chosen by so much as bestowed upon the first captain, and so advantageous--or auspicious--is my presence on the first team deemed to be that, as compensation, the second captain is allowed to pick the next two players.

Thus to me, the supposed honour of my mere presence is such that its immediate and only tangible effect is to handicap my own team by ensuring that the actual two best players are chosen for the other!

And indeed is that misbegotten honour extended when my team insists that I bat first. The game is underway when I step into the crease and stare down the bowler with my roughest-toughest, if wholly contrived, cricket face.

{To be continued...}

The Sandlot
(Click all photos to enlarge)

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Tikka Tacos

Sunday morning breakfast treat.

Tikka sauce (from the low-fat Indian cookbook):
1.5 tbsp each of ground coriander and cumin
1 tbsp each of garam masala and dried mint
1 tsp chilli powder (double it for real fire)
1/2 tsp each turmeric and salt
2 tbsp each garlic paste and ginger root paste (i.e. pureed in mixer, or minced if you ain't got a mixer)
1 cup water
2/3 cup vegetable (e.g. sunflower) oil

Mix dry spices with water to form a thin paste. Heat oil in a skillet or wok. Stir-fry the spice paste for 5-7 minutes until the water is mostly absorbed. Stir in garlic and ginger for another 2-3 minutes. Set aside.

Prepare your potatoes (1kg) however you like 'em. I wash and chop them, leaving the peel on, and pre-boil them 10-15 minutes (until just tender when forked) so they'll cook faster in the skillet. Drain and set aside.

In a large skillet or wok on medium heat, fry 1 cup chopped onion in 2 tbsp oil till golden. Add 1 cup peeled and chopped tomatoes. Stir in tikka sauce, then potatoes. Simmer covered 10-15 minutes, or longer on lower heat. Meanwhile, scramble all the eggs you can take with this massive feast.

At this point, you should already have your rotis made and ready, assuming of course you can't find tortillas. Prepare your tacos with tikka potatoes, eggs, and of course, the unimpeachable Lall's green chilli sauce.

Optional: Add bacon. Lots and lots of bacon. (Sigh.)

Thursday, May 6, 2010

India Book Review: Inhaling the Mahatma, by Christopher Kremmer

Nearly fifty years after the assassination of the Mahatma Gandhi, a copper urn containing part of his ashes--which were supposed to have been emptied into the Bay of Bengal in 1948--was found in a bank vault in the Oriyan city of Cuttack. Gandhi's great-grandson Tushar Gandhi won a custody battle for his ancestor's remains, and brought the urn to Allahabad--the city built at the confluence of the Ganges and Yamuna rivers--for a scattering ceremony.

Aussie journo Christopher Kremmer, a foreign correspondent from Sydney, attended the ceremony and found himself a prime vantage point for photography as Tushar, standing in the Ganges River, opened the urn to release the cloud of ashes. Wrote Kremmer:
"Clicking away with my camera, I didn't realise that the amorphous cloud was creeping close to me, pushed along by wayward zephyrs. The first thing I noticed was a strange, metallic taste in my mouth. Then, a peppery sensation infiltrated my nose, like that preceding a sneeze. Suddenly, shockingly, I realised that I was inhaling the Mahatma."
Kremmer covered Indian news for international media for much of the period between 1991-2004, and collected his professional memoirs in this excellent travelogue.

India's slow emergence, after the Cold War, as a burgeoning global power buoyed by a shift toward free-market capitalism and privatization parallels the latent development of contemporary identity politics in a country whose people and regions are almost as diverse as they are numerous. And Kremmer saw and wrote about much of it, from the assassination of Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 to the Gujurat riots of 2002.

In addition to inhaling the Mahatma, Kremmer was also caught smack in the middle of the Ayodhya affair--the destruction of the Babri Mosque by Hindu fundamentalists--perhaps the single most illustrative event of the new Indian era.

Along the way, Kremmer explored the softer sides of Hindu political, historical and cultural identity, in ashrams and ancient temples; he also married an Indian woman and established a life for himself as an expat wallah.

The book is an able companion to the traveller's discovery of modern India; an informed and compassionate catch-up on the last twenty years of Indian current events.

Inhaling the Mahatma
By Christopher Kremmer
HarperCollins, 2006
419 pages

Sunday, May 2, 2010

The Monkey Incident

There we were, man and monkey, separated only by a few strands of DNA and a few feet--or paws--of concrete balcony.

So lazily does the town of Gopalpur confide in the traveller its few splendors--the silhouettes of the fishermen in the orange dawning sun; the casual arrival of the cool sea breeze in afternoon; the frothy gathering of merry weekenders on the beach at dusk--that he finds himself spending much of his day lying in languorous wait.

Thus were we laying in bed, at about a quarter past six, the sunrise having recently greeted our bleary eyes, barely half awake, blissfully nothing to do, except secretly wish that the invigorating sea air flowing through the open windows and balcony door of our fourth-storey hotel room did not carry the awful decibels of those sonofabitch roosters.

Then, my partner: "Ohmygodtheresamonkeyintheroom! Monkey!"

There was, in fact, a monkey in the room. A large monkey. It came in, as though by standard arrangement, through the open balcony door, and reached for Ashley's (gasp!) anti-malarial medication, which comes in a shiny-foil, glinting-brightly-off-the-morning-sunlight wrapping.

We sprang up in bed and pressed against the wall. Monkey, startled, retreated to the balcony. There was a broom. I took the broom in hand and crept toward the balcony door. Broom-first, eyes-second, I peered around the corner of the door frame.

There were two plastic chairs on the balcony. Monkey was behind the second. In the next moment, Monkey picked up the chair, threw it violently to the ground, and leapt up, screeching, into the open window frame beside the door frame beside me. (Yes, all in one moment.)

Monkey=Victor. Champion of this unlikely field of battle. (After all, we're four storeys up, on the roof, without a treetop in sight, and we have no food in the room.)

The casualties: Ashley and I, refugees in the hallway of the hotel, having fled outside our own room, in our underwear, possibly now without our shiny package of anti-malarial drugs and who knows what else Monkey is helping itself too.

But Monkey left, having burgled nothing but several weeks' worth of our heartbeats. And we were left to wonder:

 If we were naked and Monkey wore underwear, would the battle have gone the other way?