That’s not burnt! It’s Blackened Cajun…

…and other helpful excuses in the kitchen!

The trick to making soft and delicious Gulab Jamuns is the butter that you drizzle into the Bisquick and Carnation milk powder while mixing and kneading into little balls! This little tip was not in the recipe that I copied from Cedar Rapids public library. I am proud to say that it’s something that I came up with!  This was just one of many gastronomic techniques that I had developed during my bachelor days in Iowa!

More science than art!

Like every other Indian  grad student in the US, I learned cooking from those that came before us. Every student’s pantry had the requisite cans of Garbanzo beans (for Chhole) and Red Kidney beans (for Rajma). Starting with the easy staples of Chhole , Rajma, scrambled eggs and V8 sambars we eventually graduated to pizzas made from scratch as well as more complicated sounding Indian non veg items. Every desi grad student was self-taught and, by the end of the first semester, could easily whip up a meal for the roommates as well as for weekend parties. The new comers just watched and learned. It was no big deal .. a little bit of this and little bit of that and then go crazy with the spices and cook the hell out of the whole mess and voila..  in no time you are a genius in the kitchen (at least in your mind)!

When I started living by myself as a working bachelor, I did try and bring some finesse to the cooking style and even consulted some recipe books to expand my repertoire! I owe a huge debt of gratitude to Saranya Mandava – a copy of whose popular recipe book was acquired from a friend. This was the first recipe book that had all the traditional Indian (and Andhra) dishes suitable for the US market! During those bachelor days in Iowa, I had the patience, time and aptitude to experiment in the kitchen – and more importantly, there was no one to throw cold water on my enthusiasm. Even if the end result was an inedible horrible mess, (not that it ever was),  didn’t Thomas Edison fail multiple times before he hit on that perfect element for the light bulb? I certainly was no less of a scientist in the kitchen!

Back in those Cedar Rapids days, when I was craving for Idlis (South Indian breakfast/brunch item) — I used an Idli mix packet (imported from an Indian store in Chicago) to make one large idli as shown – using the inverted lid of a rice cooker for pouring the batter and steaming it, in a 5 qt dutch oven (since I didn’t own the requisite “Idli Plates”). It was perfect! Who cares what its shape was as long as it tasted authentic! This was also the first time I had made the traditional Idli chutney with Peanuts+Coconut+Tamarind+Chilli peppers!

Big_Idli

One Big Idli!!

Another time, when I felt like having proper whole wheat chapatis and not the store bought tortillas, I started with whole wheat flour and improvised with a 2 liter bottle of coke (as a substitute for a rolling pin)! Ahh.. how can I forget those early days when the smoke alarm used to trip quite often (or the time when the apartment supervisor showed up in panic), just because I ended up with blackened Cajun Chapatis (quite unintended, of course)!!

Queen of her domain!

By the time Uma arrived on the scene, I was already an expert at cooking and more importantly,  I enjoyed cooking! When Uma was in college, her mom had told her – “Once you learn cooking, you will be cooking for  the rest of your life.. so there’s no rush , you can learn later”. So she had never stepped in a kitchen till she came to the US! Which is no big deal, as that was the case with me as well! Uma came to the US armed with a few written recipes from her mom and a recipe booklet! I was her first cooking guru. I taught her the basics and the rest is an amalgam of recipes, phone consultation with me (while I was at work) and hours and hours of phone consultation with her mom (AT&T did send us a thank-you note  that year for helping them meet their revenue goals)! As far as cooking is concerned we are polar opposites – She doesn’t really enjoy cooking, but does an excellent job of it when she does cook and is very particular about starting and ending with a clean kitchen. I, on the other hand, love to experiment in the kitchen, and have been told that I “leave a mess behind” (of course, that’s debatable, in my opinion). ūüôā

recipe_book_2

In 1989 Uma came to the US armed with these recipe notes

Uma is a strict traditionalist in her style of cooking. She will not mix two ingredients or spices unless her original notes or her mom says it’s OK to do that! She still hates cooking – but whatever she cooks is tasty and traditional! (I am required to mention this per the legal contract!). ūüôā  She rules over the kitchen and says that I make a mess and create extra work for her when I do cook! She gets upset that I don’t follow a recipe or that I do not name the item till it’s all done (really, who knows what it will turn out to be anyway). I have  essentially been kicked out of the kitchen for all practical purposes and only invited to take  care of a few selected items which are my signature items, such as the aforementioned Idli chutney,  Avial (which morphed into Vegetable Korma – after some key ingredients were subtracted by family members) and Masala chai (which I have been told is too strong, sometimes)!

Today, I am happy to report that after all these years, a little bit of me has rubbed off on Uma and vice versa. She is in the mood for experimenting with different spice blends as well as some combinations of vegetables which were a taboo earlier. As for me, I have been more careful to not make a mess (“an ounce of prevention…”) while cooking.  She has picked up newer recipes from VahReVah.com and also added her own twists to some of the recipes to come up with awesome results! She makes a mean Hyderabadi biryani and authentic Paalak Paneer!

On one winter weekend morning, the kids wanted pancakes or waffles for breakfast but Uma and I were not quite in the mood for a sweet breakfast. So, I experimented with topping the waffle with chopped onion, chilli pepper and some Andhra style gun powder! The delectable result was thoroughly appreciated by 2 out of the 4 in the family. The other 2 screamed – “Sacrilege”!

Mysore_Masala_Waffle

Belgian Waffle —>> Mysore Masala Waffle

There was another time when we bought Paani Puri shells from store and got very creative with the filling – different salsas, Adobo, Cajun and Creole seasonings instead of  the usual ‘Pani’. The kids used to turn out delicious Naanzas (Naan + Pizza) for a quick meal – improvising different toppings based on whatever was available in the house! So, all in all the inventive streak does run in the family.. and we have fun with it!

Chicken Biryani (Paprika waala)! 

In those early days in Allentown, when we were hosting a party, I was making chicken curry and as usual, I wanted to experiment with some new spices (I was always a scientist in the kitchen!), so I decided to add paprika in addition to chilli powder. The end result looked very impressive, till I tasted it and realized that it was extremely bitter! We panicked briefly… and then, with guests arriving in less than an hour, I jumped into the the Mr Fix-it mode! I quickly washed every single piece of chicken under running water and then turned it all into chicken biryani! The guests thoroughly enjoyed the dinner and especially loved the biryani. When they asked for the recipe, we gave it to them – every single step including the first pass with paprika and washing the pieces in the sink!  I am not sure if they remember this, but after 27 years, we still remember this (and chuckle) like it happened yesterday! ūüôā

As Ramya and Vidya get ready to try out Indian cooking on their own,  I decided to create a cheat sheet of sorts for them as well as all others who like Indian food but are generally intimidated  by the seemingly complicated steps involved in preparing it.

Indian cooking for dummies

Intro to Indian Cooking (Click on the link below for enlarged view)

Indian cooking for dummies

Analyze that!

Most likely, because of my experience and interest in cooking,  I am too analytical (when it comes to food) for my own good. Whenever we emerge from a restaurant, I immediately deconstruct every item we had for lunch/dinner down to its nuts and bolts to minimize the chef’s efforts  (and to ruin the experience for the family)! ):

“Looks like they went crazy with the Aamchoor in that Chhole!”

“$7.99 for that Double-Ka-MeeTa?? I can make that in 20 mins with toasted bread, milk and nuts!”

“That biriyani reminds me of our  twice cooked paprika chicken biriyani.. wonder how they got hold of our family recipe?”

“Hmm that Gulab Jamun seems to have the stamp of approval from the American Dental Association!!”

Sweet Tooth?

Back in Iowa, where it all started, when word spread among my friends in and around Cedar Rapids/Iowa City that I was a Gulab Jamun expert, I started getting requests to make and bring some for parties. One particular party stands out in my mind after all these years (for reasons that will become apparent soon)! It was a big gathering in Iowa City for someone’s farewell dinner (I think). They asked me to come over and make my world famous Gulab Jamun. I was, of course, more than happy to oblige. I followed the recipe word to word, including the trick about butter in the Bisquick and Carnation milk powder. I must have made almost 100 of these balls! Some of the ladies at the event suggested that I should start my own catering business! I pushed any such suggestions aside with a modest/sheepish smile.  When it was all said and done, just before arranging the food, I tasted one of the syrupy balls and I almost chipped a tooth! It was as hard as a marble. I could not believe that my tried and true formula failed me  in such a massive, humiliating way! Someone said “Don’t worry, they are  not too hard.” to console me!.. One good thing that came out of that disaster – No one dared to ask me to come over and cook ANYTHING after that!

Who or what, is or was… ?

(This story is certified 100% Organic and  95% non-fiction!)

We were on fire! It must have been our lucky day- we were breezing through all the questions…

“Who is Lot’s wife?”

“What is Mahayana?”

“What is Hejira”

“Who is Odin?”

There – we demolished the Religion and Mythology category on Jeopardy and high five’ed each other as the show went to a break before “Final Jeopardy”.

It was winter break for Vidya and this was our daily routine as soon as I came home from work. ¬†We¬†would sit down with unhealthy munchies ¬†in front of the TV waiting for Jeopardy to start. We would answer (or “question” in ¬†this case -as Jeopardy has an “Answer & Question” format and not the other way around) along with the contestants. We had our favorite categories – Vidya’s were Pop & Rock Music, Mythologies, Geography & Current affairs. I was generally good at Religion, 70s, 80s, 90s Pop culture & TV shows, Movies and Current Affairs. It turns out that, under pressure, we were pretty good at making intelligent guesses. We were both pretty good that day! Barring categories like Sports, British Monarchy, American History, etc., I was generally good at Jeopardy, as long as I was in my pajamas in my family room and in front of my TV!¬†I would probably fail miserably if I had to do that in the studio! In fact I may not even make it past the qualifier rounds!

 

Nothing Trivial about this Pursuit

Early in our¬†freshmen year of Engineering (1978 in Hyderabad, India), my buddies Sitaram, Ravi and I discovered that we had something in common – all three of us loved digging up and storing obscure & generally “useless” information! I was¬†thrilled to find this niche that we were good at! We used to show off to each other and others around us, at every possible opportunity…

“What is Karen Lunel famous for?”

“Who wrote the script for the English version of Dev Anand and Waheeda Rehman starrer ‘Guide’?”

“In a Vintner’s world – who or what is a punt?”

Remember – this was all before internet, Google, mobile phones, etc… heck, forget about a¬†mobile phone.. we did not have any ¬†phone in the house. It was¬†before quizzing was made popular by “Quiz Time” (the TV Show by Siddhartha Basu)!

Sitaram had prior experience with the quizzing circuit of Hyderabad and was plugged into what competitions were scheduled and how we could get in. He was the de facto leader of the team and was an expert on current affairs (world & Indian) and overall general knowledge.  He had friends and acquaintances in the circuit. He would point out the strengths and weaknesses of the regulars to Ravi and me.  As we went to a few of these, even Ravi and I started recognizing the regulars among the contestants as well as the Quiz masters. There were teams from all the prestigious schools/colleges of Hyderabad.

The regulars included teams from Hyderabad Public School (HPS), Nizam College, Osmania Engineering, VV College, Little Flowers, etc. There were a ¬†whole range of characters among the participants – from the snobs of¬†HPS to the ¬†shy ones from “Madapati Hanumanth Rao High School”! Our team managed to surprise everyone (including ¬†ourselves) by ¬†consistently placing among the top 5 in the city.¬†Among quiz masters, I clearly remember ¬†Satya Prasad (of K-Circle) ¬†and Y.Prabhakar who were quite popular in the Hyderabadi quizzing circles for their unique¬†styles.

Bala the wunderkind

Those days, you couldn’t miss Bala at any of the city quizzing events! ¬†He stood out at every one of these competitions for¬†the genius that he was. He was probably in 10th or 11th grade and his depth and breadth of knowledge was jaw-dropping! ¬†He would go one up on the quiz masters by giving them more than the necessary answers, on questions which were considered extremely obscure to start with! ¬†“What’s the name of the character from Homer’s Odyssey, which means ‘burner of ships’?” ¬†Bala comes back with “Nausicaa… and her parents were King Alcinous and Queen Arete of Phaeacia”!! ¬†We were sure that he had memorized all the volumes of Encyclopedia Britannica. I wouldn’t doubt it – as I saw him in action!¬†He was proficient in every conceivable area. In the audio-visual portion he could¬†identify the 5th of Beethoven as easily as Charukesi Raga!¬†All the girls were in awe of Bala (so it seemed from the jealous corner that we were sitting in, anyway)!

Ravi covered Western, Rock, Pop music areas as well as mythologies. As for myself – somehow pop culture became¬†my thing and then I sharpened this by going through certain magazines that were popular in those days – India Today, Illustrated Weekly of India and Bombay Magazine – from which I culled obscure, useless (for everyone else) details like – “Who is ¬†Alyque Padamsee’s wife who acted in the Movie KhaTTa MeeTha. For a bonus point – What was her religion?”¬†I remember once, in the audio/visual section, they played the signature tune of “All India Radio”, and then asked – ¬†“This signature tune of AIR was based on Raga Shivaranjani. Who composed it?”. After the first few guys went for the obvious guesses of “Ravi Shankar” or “Hari Prasad Chaurasia”, Bala jumped in with “Walter Kauffman, in 1936, a Jewish refugee, originally from Czechoslovakia, who was then the¬†Director at AIR!”

 

K-Circle was the preeminent quiz club of Hyderabad in 1978, when we got on the scene. They attracted top quizzing minds of the twin cities and we had run into K-Circle members at various citywide competitions as well as their own grand annual competitions. Just being a part of their event and making it past several elimination rounds (including separate audio-visual rounds) was an amazing experience. We’ve finished in 3rd or 4th place a couple of times and I¬†will cherish the memories from those events forever! At our Engineering college Annual Quiz, we were the champions for all 4 years! In addition to the fond memories of these quizzing events, I am also carrying the certificates from them ¬†in case I ever needed to show proof of the hobbies I listed¬†in my resume! ūüôā Hey, you never know! ūüôā

Quiz_Certs.jpg

Certified!!

Our own Quiz club?

It turned out that Bala actually lived not too far from my house. As we kept running into each other at various competitions, we became friends and decided that the city was big enough to accommodate another Quiz Club Рso we started one! We named it Quizzibisa (a take-off on the name of the British Afro Pop band  РOsibisa)! It was a very small group that met in the Community Hall across from my house.  As far as I can remember now, there was Bala, Ravi, I, and a few other friends from my colony. We took turns being the quiz master and running through the standard quiz routine. We started the club with a lot of enthusiasm, but could not sustain it past a couple of months Рas real life interfered in the form of crucial exams!

yash_jntu_days.jpg

Sure.. This could happen!

On a typical Hyderabadi summer day I was¬†¬†standing at the bus stop with my signature cloth bag and this beautiful girl walked up and said – “Weren’t you the one that ¬†won¬†the quiz competition ¬†at our college yesterday?!!”. I figured she was from Osmania Medical College, as she had that white coat and stethoscope on her arm. “You guys were amazing! I especially loved how you answered the question about AIR signature tune! By the way – is that tune really in Shivaranjani Raga? I used to think that ¬†it was Mohana Raga!”. Looks like she mistook me for one of the guys who actually won the competition! Oh well… no need to clarify these minor details! She was going on and on about specific questions from the other day… “It’s amazing how¬†¬†you guys knew that a grand piano has 16 fewer black keys than white ones!”. “Do you take this bus to go home everyday?” “Wow, really? Me too!”… etc, etc…

That, dear Ramya and Vidya, is how I met your mother! ūüėČ

 

 

Popcorn for Breakfast!

We drive by “309 Cinema” all the time and never pay any special attention to it. As the name implies, it is a multiplex (quite old.. compared to other multiplexes around here) on Route 309, not far from where we live. ¬†We’ve often wondered how it is still in business competing with ¬†all the state-of -the-art theaters with fully reclining seats and some that even serve food and drinks inside the hall! Yesterday when Vidya and I walked up to the ticket counter at 9:40 AM and bought a couple of tickets – it evoked waves of nostalgia for me! Continue reading

Best Supporting (Actor?) Audience Member!!

Identifying Krishna was easy! Obviously he was the one with the blue body and trademark gold crown with peacock feathers. By association, we assumed that it was Arjuna standing next to Krishna. They were both dressed in their mythological finery with gold crowns, assorted jewelry, silk costumes and gaudy, garish makeup! ¬†I was about 10 years old and this incredible (and indelible) scene played out near my house in SVR Colony in Hyderabad.¬† It was part of the Rama Navami celebrations in our colony ‚Äď which used to be celebrated with much pomp and ceremony, on a grand scale, over several days! There was a huge Shamiana (tent) and a stage setup on our street in front of Sriram Murthy Uncle‚Äôs house.¬† Earlier in the day there were elaborate poojas and other traditional rituals (Seeta-Rama Kalyanam) on that stage, ¬†which was ¬†beautifully decorated with garlands of chrysanthemum¬† and jasmine as well as mango leaf¬† ‚Äėthoranams‚Äô. The rituals ended with the distribution of yummy Prasadam, which was always the highlight of my day! Each night, there were wonderful cultural programs on the stage that regaled us late into the night. The highlight for that particular evening was a mythological drama ‚Äď an episode from Mahabharata. While everyone was waiting patiently for the drama to start, a few of us sneaked ‚Äúback stage‚ÄĚ ‚Äď which was really the road in front of Chandraiah uncle‚Äôs house! We just stood there wide eyed ‚Äď gawking at these larger than life actors! When I saw the ‚ÄúArjuna‚ÄĚ actor take a couple of puffs on a cigarette – it just blew me away! That image has been burned into the 10 year old‚Äôs memory forever! Before we could recover, a couple of aunties from the colony stopped by to do ‚ÄúhArathi‚ÄĚ for the actors. They spotted us and yelled at us to go back and sit with the rest of the audience.

That night‚Äôs performance was my first significant exposure to actors and acting and it made quite an impression on me (along with the incongruous¬†‚ÄėSmoking Arjuna‚Äô, of course)! Those guys did a superb job of conveying the story through songs and powerful dialog. It did not matter that they had minimal set decoration or musical accompaniment (just a Harmonium) to work with! I was totally mesmerized and transported to a different world altogether! Such was the power of their acting and storytelling! Right then and there I decided that I wanted to be an actor!

This should be Child’s play.. right?

I got my first shot at acting the following year on that same stage ‚Äď thanks to Smt. Ganga Bhavani ‚Äď who used to run the colony‚Äôs Baalananda Sangham. She was a kind-hearted and patient lady. She probably saw something in me (or it was a case of affirmative action ‚Äď and mediocre kids needed to be represented as well)! I was given a role with a grand total of 2 lines. I was extremely thrilled. I practiced these lines over and over again. The play was called ‚ÄúInTi mandhu sOnTi kashaayam‚ÄĚ. ¬†On the D-day, when it was my big moment – I clearly remember taking one look at the audience and panicking! I totally froze and barely whispered the lines! Luckily for the play and the rest of the cast, it turned out that my lines were inconsequential anyway!

Radio Times..

In spite of my less than stellar debut, Ganga Bhavani garu did not give up on me! She gave me yet another acting role ‚Äď in fact several of them ‚Äď in a serial Radio Drama that our Baalananda Sangham performed on the Baalanandam program (with Nyayapati Raghava Rao and Nyayapati Kameshwari as Radio Annayya and Akkayya) at All India Radio, Hyderabad!¬† This drama aired on several Sundays and I went around boasting to everyone that I was a star on the Radio. It didn‚Äôt matter that I was only playing bit roles ‚Äď as a servant of the side-kick or part of crowd scenes! That‚Äôs how all big stars got their start anyway‚Ķ right?

Theater Junkie!

During school days, final exam time meant three things ‚Äď scheduled power cuts, Rama Navami celebrations in the colony and drama competitions at Dad’s office (AG‚Äôs office). Telugu Nataka Samithi was the cultural organization at AG‚Äôs office and they had their annual drama competitions almost always in April. I was so addicted to these that even during exams, I would walk all the way to the office (2-3 kms), watch every single drama and then walk back home late at night ¬†(even if no one from the family came along). I have fond memories of many wonderful performances that I experienced in that open air auditorium. I got a chance to watch amateur thespians as well as seasoned veterans perform on that stage. Paruchuri Venkateshwara Rao ‚Äď who went on to make his mark as a writer in the movie industry was from AG’s office and was a regular at these competitions. I saw multiple performances by Rallapalli, before he became a successful movie actor. I saw gripping and hilarious performances of ‚ÄúKanyasulkam‚ÄĚ by J.V.Ramanamurthy (as Gireesham) and J.V.Somayajulu (before his successful crossover into the movie industry via ‚ÄúSankarabharanam‚ÄĚ) twice in that year – once at AG‚Äôs office auditorium and again at Ravindra Bharati. I was so obsessed with this performance that I used to go around repeating the funny dialogs from Kanayasulkam for weeks!

Breaking a leg (again)!

When I was in 8th¬†grade or so, I found out¬†that¬†they were looking for actors for the school play! I jumped at the opportunity! Once again, I got a role with barely a few lines.¬†I guess my notoriety of excelling at such minimal roles had spread far and wide by then! This Hindi play called¬†“Mrityu Mantri”¬†was to be performed at¬†the¬†school Annual day function. It was an off campus¬†event¬†‚Äď at Indira Priyadarshini Auditorium in Public Gardens. Back then it was the 2nd¬†most impressive stage in Hyderabad (after Ravindra Bharati)! So, as you can imagine, it was a fairly big deal! During rehearsals, I received compliments from our Hindi teacher (who was the director of the play).

Mrityu_Mantri

Dying on stage! Hindi play ‚ÄúMrityu Mantri‚ÄĚ for School Annual Day

Obviously he had high expectations ‚Äď because he had heard (mostly from me) about my amazing performance on the Radio Drama! On the day of the performance my entire extended family was there to show support! Some of them helped me with my makeup!¬† From backstage, I could hear the bursts of laughter from the audience! Finally it was my turn to make a grand entrance ‚Äď for which I got a couple of laughs (as expected)!¬† When I turned to face the audience to deliver my precious dialog – my knees started shaking! I froze and just mumbled my lines. The other guy on stage had to repeat my lines! ¬†Luckily, it was publicized beforehand that this was a rip-roaring comedy! So, the audience thought all this – including my incoherent mumbling was part of the play!!

I was beginning to see a pattern. Maybe acting wasn‚Äôt really my forte! While I loved being a theater junkie ‚Äď I had decided that I should look elsewhere for better career (and even hobby) options!

My Regards to Broadway!

My first exposure to Broadway style performances was when I saw the “Radio City Christmas Spectacular” in New York. It was a mind blowing experience! The scale of the performance – the number of performers involved, the amazing split-second set changes from a street scene to ornate palace to an ice skating rink was nothing short of miraculous. The entire live orchestra (pit band) of about 30 performers moves from below the stage to the stage level and then is moved 6 feet above the stage level – all while continuing to perform (without missing a beat)! ¬†A few years later, we experienced the magic of musical theater – when we saw “Thoroughly Modern Millie” – a Tony award winning musical on Broadway! ¬†I wish, if at all possible, that everyone who is in the vicinity could experience at least one Broadway show! It will be an experience that you will never forget!

If you are in the US, there is an easier and cheaper way to experience ‚Äėalmost‚Äô Broadway ‚Äď by checking out your local high school performances! Our local high school, where both of my daughters graduated from, has a wonderful theater program and they put on amazing plays, twice a year. They spend months planning these shows. There are a couple of rounds of auditions to pick the entire cast. Other than the guiding theater staff ‚Äď the entire show is by the students ‚Äď including set decoration, costumes, music, choreography etc. ¬†I had the opportunity to experience the following amazing performances over the past few years ‚Äď Music Man, Sound of Music, Beauty and the Beast, Crucible, Children of Eden and Brigadoon. ¬†For $10 you get to sample almost Broadway like shows, which in NY would end up costing you ~$200 and up!

Aida

North Penn High School‚Äôs production of the Broadway musical ‚ÄúAida‚ÄĚ

While a career in the performing arts did not work out for me, I am still crazy about the theater and do hold stage performers in very high regard! Each year, I sit down with chips, salsa and other assorted unhealthy appetizers to enjoy the Tony awards show on TV, the way most people do for Super Bowl!¬† When I watch those amazing live performances, after I applaud and admire the actors – I always end up with self-pity ‚Äď ‚Äúif it weren’t for the crippling stage fright, lack of any discernible talent or a face which was meant for Radio – that could easily have been me on that stage!!‚ÄĚ

(This article was published in the “TANA 20th Conference Souvenir” in July 2015)

Always Fair and Almost Handsome!!

I have opened several bank accounts online in the US in under 10¬†minutes without the bank folks¬†knowing what I look like! I tried doing the same in India and they wanted photos done a certain way and left¬†thumb impressions as well as my¬†entire family tree¬†listed (along with all sorts of identifying birth marks!) on the application form. Since I¬†¬†needed a few passport sized photos¬†for¬†these types of applications as well as some kind of¬†Power of Attorney documents, I popped into one of the many photo studios that was in the neighborhood. I had done this at CVS or other corner drugstores in the US countless times. You just walk¬†in and get the picture taken with a small point and shoot digital camera and they print out a sheet of 6 or 8 photos and you walk out with the photos in less than 10 minutes. This photo studio in Hyderabad was just a couple of ¬†doors down from my in-laws house. It was a small room with several canvas backdrops and fairly sophisticated camera setup. There was the photographer and his assistant. They seemed to be working on the closeup of some lady’s neck (on the computer). After I explained the purpose of my visit, they had me sit down in front of a blue backdrop. Then he ¬†clicked away. I am almost certain that¬†I blinked and/or grimaced for most of the shots. These¬†were¬†photos that I would be putting on some routine and ¬†boring official forms and you couldn’t blame me for not being excited about the “model photo shoot” that these¬†guys were¬†making me go through!! I took out a wad of cash and asked ¬†him how much it was for the photos. He said¬†that¬†I could pay him when I come back to collect the photos! What?? I don’t get the photos now? ¬†“Come back in half an hour saar”, “Oh … OK” I went back in 45 mins and stuck my head in to inquire if he was done. He said “No current saar… Come back at 2 o’clock”. Fair enough. There were¬†regular, scheduled power cuts twice a day. It was the way of¬†life there and most people took this in stride. Most businesses managed with generators. Looks like this guy was not quite there. When¬†I stopped by at 2:30pm, the guy and his assistant were both laboring on their computer. He ¬†said “take a seat saar” “we will be done soon” What is there to be done.. I wondered aloud. ¬†He pointed to the monitor and said, “final touch-ups saar”. I couldn’t believe my eyes – these guys were busy Photoshopping my passport photo like it was gonna go on the cover of Vogue!! I was barely recognizable. They wiped out all wrinkles, spots, etc and gave me a complexion that can only be called beige! Looks like my left eyebrow became a victim of some sort of¬†an¬†aggressive Photoshopping maneuver! ¬† The photographer¬†turned to me and said “Can I¬†take¬†another good one..!!” I did not have the heart to yell at him. He seemed quite sincere!! ¬†I tried to calm him down with a “It’s not you … it’s me” line. He didn’t see the humor in that! Who knew that photo studio guys took these things so seriously! That would have been the perfect time for Shahrukh Khan to appear out of nowhere, look at the camera and say “Fair and Handsome.. for when the task is beyond the abilities of Photoshop!”. In fact, every photo studio could also be selling boxes of “Fair and Handsome” on the side.. ‘cos we all look forward to a society that is at least “Fair”, right? I told him that this is just for some official forms and there is no need to redo them. I asked him to go ahead and print these out. Meanwhile one lady stopped by on a scooter, parked it in front ¬†of the store, peeked in and said that she needed a “Pelli Choopulu” photo (photo for matrimonial purposes) and wanted to know what kind of clothes would look good. He said “It does not matter… Anything is fine!” Of course.. it doesn’t matter because he will ¬†Photoshop it all! ¬†No matter what the would-be bride looks like, these guys will turn her into a Katrina Kaif!

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Before: Extremely Wheat Complexioned (plus warts and all..)!

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After: Approaching “Rice Complexioned”. These two photos were taken only 2 days apart!!

The 100 Rupees that I paid for the studio guys has paid itself off many times over in non-stop peals of laughter for the entire family! This photo would be perfect for my Shaadi.com profile!! Sure.. everyone in India is wheat complexioned and 6 ft tall, but only I can bring the unique combination of ¬†“almost rice complexioned” and a partial left eyebrow to the table! I’ll just have to wait for the deluge of women that will want to line up for this! Next up… an App¬†that I am working on, which¬†will¬†identify all my imperfections and ¬†suggest fixes for them. I’ll call it¬†WifesApp!

Don’t go see this Bollywood movie (“PK”) …

That’s right.. Don’t go see this movie..

-If you feel that religion and entertainment should not be mixed and that you do not want to get the religious (or anti-religious) message from liberal/secular actors who are out to shake your faith.

-If your view of religion (specifically Hinduism) is so skin-deep that it could be hurt by anyone asking innocent questions.

-if you think that your particular¬†guru, swami, baba or spiritual leader can’t stand up to questioning.

-If your view of the message is always colored by who the messenger is. Would you have a different opinion if the movie was from Abhishek Bacchan or Hrithik Roshan or some other generic Hindu sounding actors (instead of Aamir Khan)?

-If you strongly believe that the movie was funded by some Muslim organization or country that is out to malign Hinduism.

-If you are afraid that by seeing the movie, your deeply held beliefs could be altered. I personally am under no illusion that people‚Äôs minds will be changed by merely watching a movie (that too… on the topic of deep rooted faith)!

-If you feel that for all the time spent in the movie, on Hindu rituals and fake gurus, an equal amount of time should be spent on similar aspects of Christianity and Islam (money grubbing televangelists, molesting catholic priests, Taliban and Boko Haram should be given equal time?)

-If you are offended by male actors showing off their well-toned bodies (almost) in the buff. Remember, they never show Aamir Khan totally naked. There is always a branch or a Boom box that is strategically placed. So, maybe it’s the allusion to male nudity that is the problem for some folks. Meanwhile, there are several such portrayals of women which are usually met with whistles of approval. ¬†There are routine and gratuitous displays of blood and gore and disemboweled bodies in movies as well as TV news, magazines and newspapers. This seems quite acceptable. No one is worried about the negative impact of these on¬†impressionable young ones.

If you fall into any of the above categories, please DO NOT go see this movie! It will ruin your day for sure!!

¬†The movie is not attacking Hinduism. It is not even attacking all gurus, babas or spiritual teachers. It is highlighting some specific kind of babas and religious practices. Why not assume that your particular baba is the “good kind”? One who is merely preaching love for all, universal brotherhood, peace, tolerance ¬†etc. Not that kind who is always trying¬†to¬†relieve you of your material burdens¬†(e.g., cash or jewelry). In fact, I understand that some of the sayings and ideas used in the movie are from popular religious teachers.

This whole “alien from another star/planet” stopping by, is a very clever vehicle¬†for the director/writer to ask some “innocent” questions about religion, faith etc., which, if asked in any other context would get you thrown out (maybe even get you beat up, just to underscore that we are ‚Äúpeaceful and non-violent” people). Religion generally requires that you suspend critical thinking and curiosity. ¬†The PK character does exactly the¬†opposite in the movie.

I thought that the overall treatment of the topic was fairly even handed by the writer and the director. They did not go off and question the existence of a creator. They just questioned some intermediaries (agents) between the creator and the created.

If the worst thing that can happen from watching this movie is that we start questioning instead of blindly following, not just in matters of faith, but in all aspects of our life, then we will be a much more enlightened and tolerant society.

Sure, that whole affair with Sarfaraz in the beginning and the melodrama at the end with the conference call with Pakistani consulate staff seemed too sappy and formulaic! But, hey.. this is still a Bollywood movie and you just have to take certain aspects of it on blind faith (in the director’s abilities to satisfy box-office appeal). Couple of the song and dance sequences looked¬†good on the big screen but none of them so catchy that I would remember after a day.

All in all, it was a thoroughly enjoyable and funny movie. A perfect dessert after a sumptuous New Year’s lunch! Compared to Aamir’s earlier movies, I would rank this slightly below “Taare Zamin Par” and “3 Idiots.”

As we walked out, we heard the conversation of couple of older white ladies who were in the theater with us… “Wow! What a wonderful movie”, “What a great way to start the¬†New Year!”, ‚ÄúI wonder why it only got 87% on the Rotten Tomatoes website?” One of them even asked me as we exited the theater, “How did you hear about this movie?”, before we could ask them that same question!!

If you have not seen the movie and if you are currently blasting the movie (and/or vandalizing movie theaters in India) for its negative portrayal of your particular religion (based on inciting views from others), then please DO NOT go see this movie, as it could sap the energy out of your righteous indignation!!

Oh my Goddess!!

What perfume would you recommend for a Goddess?

No‚Ķ this is not some clever¬†way of soliciting gift ideas for my wife (Uma’devi’)!! ¬†Please read on‚Ķ

Yesterday, I was just about to wrap up my breakfast ritual of soggy cereal and chai and leave for work while Uma was wrapping up a phone call with my aunt in India.

She had this expression of shocked disbelief as she hung-up the phone!

“What happened? Everything Ok at home?”

“Oh my God! ¬†You won’t believe what I just heard.”

“Tell me what happened‚Ķ and don’t call me god!”

“Your aunt wants me to send a large bottle of ‘scentu’!!”

Sure… it is not often that aunt asks for anything to be sent from the US, but is it really THAT shocking?

“Absolutely… let’s send a good perfume”, I said.

“You don’t understand…¬†your¬†aunt asked for this perfume for the goddess!”

“What?? Ok… let me sit down”

Some background would be in order here…

Aunt¬†lives in the village with my uncle.¬†It’s a typical small village, in Andhra Pradesh (India) inhabited by middle class farming families. The main road that leads into the village is a muddy/slushy one that winds past thatched houses and some pucca (brick and mortar) houses as well. It also goes past multiple temples and a small lake – which¬†stopped being¬†the source of drinking water a few decades ago. Now the villagers buy potable water from the neighboring village. A¬†typical small village in AP!

My aunt is a very religious person. She wakes up at 4:30AM and does an elaborate puja. Twice a week she fasts and does additional pujas. Unlike most of the village folk, she is literate enough to actually read through and chant the mantras in a sing song way. She has personally taken it upon herself to support the local Ramaalayam (Rama Temple). She has donated her time and money to support it. She has on occasion sought donations from us and others for specific temple needs (financial support for the pujari for e.g.). She is a loving and affectionate mother and a grandmother and is very close to us.

Now… back to the jaw-dropping phone conversation¬†that Uma had with my aunt. It seems that the pujari (priest) of one of the temples in the village told aunt that¬†after he ritualistically bathes the idol of the goddess and wraps her with the saree and adorns the idol with jewelry, he felt it would be good to spray some “Scentu” (perfume)¬†on the idol. I am not sure exactly what prompted him to awaken to the realization that this was missing from the routine ritual.

I have seen some elaborate rituals in India (mostly on TV). The ritualistic bathing of the huge statue of Bahubali in Shravanabelagola in 1981 which I saw on TV was a very memorable one and the images are indelible in my mind!  So, I am not new to such religious rituals. It is possible that this ritual with the perfume may also be a similar one. It is just that neither Uma nor I had heard about this before.

My first reaction was¬†to ask the pujari’s wife¬†as to what would be a suitable perfume for the “goddess” <wink> <wink>. Uma said that my skeptical imagination was running wild!

I also consulted with that god of eternal knowledge – “Google”, about this question and mostly came up with links such as this: ‚ÄúGoddessLine‚Ä̬†, which seem to be targeting gullible¬†folks with perfumes named after assorted ¬†exotic sounding goddesses.

I wonder if the pujari¬†was considering the perfume as an alternative to the more traditional agarbathhi (incense)! If not,¬†he¬†certainly hasn’t thought¬†through the olfactory¬†overload caused by an¬†unholy blend of “Chanel#5” & agarbatthi in the same room! ¬†I loved the fact that the subtle smell of agarbatthi could transport (even) me ¬†– like a Pavlovian dog, to the Poojas and rituals that we all grew up with and I would start salivating at the thought of yummy Prasadam that was sure to follow!

If this perfuming ritual catches on¬†in the temples, ¬†then in a few years, ¬†when I walk into a Macy’s department store and the overly made-up blonde dressed in a lab coat (like Madam Curie) sprays Calvin Klein’s Obsession sample in my face (without¬†asking for my¬†permission) – it will spontaneously bring back¬†visions of temple rituals and mouthwatering prasadam¬†in my head!! Not a bad visual eh?