Friday, June 1, 2012

The Power of Words

Looking back at the time when I was at SRIJAN, there is one lesson that keeps coming back to me. It is that words have power. When you explain something or are talking in a meeting, what you are saying is having an impact on someone in the group. And as professionals working in development, we have a responsibility for what we say.
I remember a clear example of this lesson when I was forming clusters of SHGs in Bundi, Rajasthan. I had organized a meeting of women from three different villages. They had some difficulty coming together and I had promised a very important message in the meeting. By that time, I had formed a couple of other clusters and had a set agenda for introducing the concept. I had a story that I would tell in the beginning of the meeting, about an event I had witnessed while visiting the federation in Duni, Rajasthan:
A large group of around 50 women had come together to go talk to a local dairy, who had bought milk from them but had not paid them in the full amount. Rather than going individually or even in their SHG groups, all of them from different villages had come together to go talk to him and settle their accounts. Seeing such a large group of women had frightened him and he had listened to them. However, these women would not have been able to organize this event if they had not met with each other regularly and discussed their problems.
I had told this story many times, stressing the importance of collective action and how there is power in numbers. The story had been important in convincing women to form clusters. Until that day, I knew that the story was powerful, but I did not realize just how powerful it was.
The next day, I got a phone call from Rakesh-ji, whose villages I had visited. The women from all the different villages had come together and realized they had a similar problem. While they had completed their work for NREGA, they had not received full payment for their work. They had talked after my meeting and concluded that they would get women from their villages to come together. All of them would go to the local government office in Nenwa to sort the problem.
It was then that I realized that my story had caused them to take action to solve a problem in their own lives. I also realized that I had a responsibility to work with them to solve the problem. If they were able to talk to the government officers and receive full payment for their work, they would be completely convinced of working together. They had the potential of forming a very strong cluster.
I told them to wait a few days, while we found out who they should talk to. I also told them that we would alert the local newspapers and come with them to make sure everything was successful. We eventually went with about 50 of the women and they talked to the government. Some of them were interviewed by the local newspapers. Perhaps most importantly, they realized that if something is wrong in their lives, they can come together as a group and take action to make it better. I realized that my words made them come to this realization. Ever since then, even if I repeat stories and go through a set agenda at meetings, I never underestimate the power of the words and stories I have to share.  

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Tomato cha Saar (Tomato Coconut Soup)

This is one of my favorite Marathi recipes. It’s a type of soup that you eat with rice. But it tastes delicious on its own. This is also one of the first things I learnt from my mom, since I knew I couldn’t live without it. Plus, with my mom’s shortcuts, it’s super easy to make.


1 can tomato soup

½ can of coconut milk

2 green chilies

Cumin seeds


Asafoetida powder





Cut the green chilies into small pieces. I like to leave them big enough that I can take them out as I drink it. You can also use more or less chilies depending on how spicy you like it. In a pot, heat about six tablespoons of oil on medium heat. When the oil is hot, add a quarter teaspoon each of asafoetida powder and turmeric and add one teaspoon of cumin seeds.

After the spices have mixed in with the oil, add the can of tomato soup (plus however much water the can says in needed for the soup) and the half can of coconut milk. Let the pot come to a boil. Then, add about a teaspoon of salt and a quarter teaspoon of sugar. Let the soup come to a boil again.

Serve hot with rice or on its own. Enjoy!

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Bhindi ki Sabzi – (Indian Style Okra)

So as some of you may know, the Kuber Report is about many different things that I think about and do. Recently, I have started cooking a lot. So I thought I should share some of my cooking experiments. While I do not want to make this a cooking blog, I do have some favorites that I would like to post.

This is my first time writing a recipe so please bear with me. I decided to share a very simple Indian dish that I make often. Bhindi ki Sabzi is one that is popular all over India. And I’m sure everyone has their own version of how their moms make it or how they make it; and here is mine (learnt from my mom, of course):


2 pounds okra

Sesame seeds

Cumin powder

Coriander powder

Turmeric (Haldi)

Asafoetida powder (Heeng)*

Red Chili powder

Mustard Seeds



*If you don’t have this or any other spice, you can skip it.

First, wash and dry the okra (make sure it is dry completely as this will reduce the sliminess of it as it cooks). Cut and discard both ends and chop into thin slices (about a quarter inch thick).

In a wide pan, heat about six tablespoons of oil on medium heat and add the half a teaspoon of mustard seeds. When the seeds will start to make a popping sound, add a quarter teaspoon each of asafoetida powder, turmeric and red chili powder.

(You can use more or less red chili powder depending on how spicy you like it. My version is about a mild level of heat)

When all the spices have mixed in with the oil, add the okra and stir, making sure all of it is covered in the oil and spices. After about two minutes, the okra will have changed color slightly. Then add one teaspoon each of coriander and cumin powders. Add two tablespoons of sesame seeds. Add half a teaspoon of salt.

(You can add more salt if necessary after it is cooked)

Stir to mix all the spices. Leave uncovered on medium heat, stirring occasionally. The okra will start to turn slimy. But as it cooks, the sliminess will decrease. The okra at the bottom of the pan will start to brown. Stir to make sure all the okra has browned. This should take around 10 minutes.

After it is done, serve hot with roti, naan or bread. Enjoy!

Next up: Mushroom Masala and Tomato cha Saar (Tomato and Coconut Soup)

Friday, January 20, 2012

A blow to literature and freedom of speech...

So, in an effort to start blogging more regularly, here is something that made me sad this morning, on many different levels:

After much debate, Salman Rushdie is not going to the largest literary festival in India, which began today. This started with protests in Uttar Pradesh by a cleric on allowing Rushdie into the country. The trip was cancelled because of an alleged plot to assassinate the author at the festival.

As someone who is a firm believer in freedom of speech and is proud of India for being a democracy which stands for that right (more or less), it makes me sad that an author, born in the country, is too afraid to come back. Now this is an author I “take credit” for, as being brilliant and from India. But instead, I’m having flashbacks to articles read about Chinese artists fleeing and/or not going back to their country for fear of their lives.

To make matters worse, this might not have happened in another time, since it happens to be close to elections in Uttar Pradesh. Politicians have succumbed to listening to people whose votes they want, which I know is not a new phenomenon. However, it does mean that the country doesn’t even stand firmly on one side of the “for/against freedom of speech” argument, but will flip flop depending on what is convenient. Now, which is worse?

While the argument can be made that no one, especially not the politicians, prevented him from coming to the festival. But, while rumors got to him that people from the underworld were hired to kill him, he clearly did not feel that adequate protection would be given to him if he did come. He did not obtain any voice of support from politicians in India either.

Positive Note: Rushdie is getting publicity out of this. For me, the worst opinion to have about someone is a lack of it. In that you don’t deem them important enough to have any kind of response. Yes, Rushdie wrote something a long time ago. But it doesn’t matter now and neither does he. That would hurt.

Irony: The people speaking out against Rushdie do not represent the majority opinion in the country. They are in fact, exercising their freedom of speech by expressing their opinion.

Disclaimer: Author is a biased, huge Rushdie fan! J

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Ladakh cont'd.

It’s obvious that Ladakh hasn’t been a tourist place for a long time. Even now, it’s not for someone who wants to lounge by the pool, go shopping, or enjoy the comforts provided by some of the more traditional tourist resorts in India. Our hotel (actually a set of cottages) was a good example. It was clean, with a bed, many blankets and a bathroom. It had a flat screen TV. But, hot water was only available from 6 to 9 in the mornings and 6 to 9 in the evenings. Not to mention there was no electricity during the day. It didn’t bother us too much because we were never home during that time.

The cottages were used by many travelers as places to stay in Leh in between excursions to nearby places. Therefore, on any given day while we were there, there were less than 5 guests. On the first day, the head waiter (Dev Kumar – DK) asked us what we would like for dinner, as it was just the two of us:

- Well, what do you have?

- We can make anything you’d like.

While the offer was generous, we realized that this was just the politeness that comes with hospitality training. In fact, there weren’t too many vegetables available in the area – potatoes, cauliflower, spinach, cabbage, etc. Kidney beans, rice and rotis were part of the stable diet of most people. Even with this, each day we got a different array of dishes. And each day we were amazed by how delicious even the simplest of dishes could taste. In the mornings we got omelets and toast, and of course chai. The food was nutritious, filling and pretty much incredible! But only because it was the kind of food we liked to eat, and we didn’t crave (or ask for) pizza or pasta.

DK told us that in order to serve food that isn’t grown in the area, it needs to be brought up from down below, making it expensive and not worth it, especially towards the end of the tourist season, which is when we went. A “restaurant” near Pangong Lake was a clear demonstration of this:

The sign outside said: Rice, Rajma, etc. The restaurant was a giant tent, split into the area where the customers sit and the “kitchen”. There were two waitresses, one of whom spoke no Hindi or English. After going inside we realized that they served three main dishes: Rice and Rajma, Roti and Potatoes, and Maggi. We first ordered one Roti/Potatoes and one Rice/Rajma. After finishing that we realized that we needed more food. Upon asking for more Roti/Potatoes, we were told that they were out. So we had more rice. A large group that came in after us got only Rice and Rajma. A couple who came in later was told there was only Maggi left. There were no apologizes. That was the only food available. Either eat it or go the next tent. Most people stayed. All I can say is: the rajma was awesome!

Other restaurants and the sites reflected the same type of services at the hotel. Every place had everything that you would need, but nothing that would be a luxury. I guess even these basic necessities were so much more than what most locals have so that even they are considered luxuries. I would recommend Ladakh as a place to get away from it all, but don’t go if you are also expecting to get it all.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Ladakh - The Landscape

As I looked through the plane window, I saw before me something I had never seen before. Every shade of brown, with bits of green and white, stretched out before me as far as the eye could see. It was as if someone had taken a piece of wrinkled cloth and spread it, without smoothening it out. I could almost imagine how centuries of earthquakes, volcanoes and plates shifting had formed this magnificent landscape.

Driving through the mountains and valleys, I stared at what I saw before me. It was beautiful. There wasn’t much there. In fact, there was nothing. Everywhere else we associate beauty with something natural or artificial or at least with living organisms (trees, birds, animals). But this was something rare. It was the beauty of nothing. Earth in its most raw form, shaped by the different forces of nature. Just rocks, dirt, gravel, sand. Nothing else. At one point, we got out of the car and looked all around us, mountains, everywhere. Not just mountains, but there was no horizon! Strangely enough, I didn’t feel small standing there, nor insignificant. It felt awesome, in the true sense of the word, the sense that isn’t used often nowadays. AWESOME. And soon, I was going to be a part of it. Soon, I was going to land on the highest civilian airport in the world, in Leh, Ladakh.

In certain areas of the mountains, we saw evidence of another element: Water. This evidence was most apparent climbing down a mountain. At the top there would be snow. And then as we entered small crevices in between two peaks, we would see a network of veins, spread across the skin of the mountains. Even the smallest of these would have bits of green lining it, moss or grass, the first signs of life. The major arteries of the area would have proper meadows, with goats grazing and yaks lounging in the sun.

Aside: An anomaly to my evolutionary view of climbing down a mountain is these gorgeous purple flowers. On the side of the mountain, surrounded by rocks, there are these bushes, each with bright purple flowers. My first question when I saw these: Where did you come from? Upon further inspection, there would be a SMALL water source nearby. True to my biologist roots, I marveled at the adaptations made by this plant:

Coming further down the mountain, near the Shyok river (in Nubra Valley or Valley of Flowers), we found fruit trees. Trees loaded with apricots and apples, easy to pick and eat. This was when we camped in a tent for a night. Living in the campsite, which had dining hall and a building for shower/bathrooms, I didn’t get a sense of encroaching on nature. It felt as if we were being allowed to live there by nature. In a sense, it was true. This was one of the few places nearby where human beings (particularly tourists) would be able to live – for at least couple months out of the year.

In fact, I got the same feeling after going to villages in the area (and now we’ve

reached the bottom of the valleys). There was never a sense of man conquering nature. Not even of man and nature living in harmony. But it was nature allowing man to access its most remote parts and make them habitable. Houses were built into the side of the mountains, wherever the ground was stable enough. Food was grown wherever the ground

was flat, irrespective of size or shape. And the roads were the best part. The roads were carved into the mountains, going for long periods of time in one direction, only to curve towards the opposite direction, as we slowly inched up the peaks. Nature made its decision loud and clear: I don’t care if the shortest distance between two points is a straight line. We go by my rules here.

Next up: Ladakh – The People

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Tulsi Baug

Ok, so this post was written before Eid/Ganesh Chaturthi. So its a little late...

In the heart of Pune’s Old City, about a minute’s walk from my grandmother’s house, is a mixed (open and closed air) market made up of two narrow lanes that cross each other: Tulsi Baug. It is one of my usual destinations for small trinkets, odds and ends as well as occasional clothes shopping.

During this trip, as my mom and I stood waiting for her purse to be mended (new straps put on to completely match the old ones), we decided to get some ice cream at the always-crowded store, Kawre Brothers. As I stood outside the shop and ate my butterscotch cone, I marveled at the uniqueness of the place I was in. There are not that many places (fewer still outside India) that can boast the diversity that Tulsi Baug has to offer.

I start with the numerous livelihoods of people who work at Tulsi Baug. At the top you have the larger stores (pakka – with four walls, some of which take credit cards). These are stores you can get all types of cosmetics, fake (and semi-real) jewelry, clothes, etc. Now the term jewelry in India encompasses infinite number of pieces, some of which I’m sure men wonder, where does this go again? You can get bits of shiny metal to adorn yourself from your head to your toes. Case in point: This time I bought to such shiny pieces to put in my hair bun (one that I wore at my engagement and one just for fun!). Moving on the cosmetics: while Tulsi Baug still sells henna and organic soaps and shikakai for hair, shopkeepers have kept up with the times. Alongside henna cones, you can buy Maybelline lipsticks and Cover Girl eye shadows (the fake kind and the authentic for at least twice as much). In a lesser number, there are stores that sell pots and pans, fake flowers for ALL your religious needs, bindis, random plastic items (soap dishes, etc.) and “western clothes”. There is even a store dedicated to: fake hair! So really, anything and everything you need can be found here. I unabashedly admit, if you need bangles… I know a guy.

And those are just the stores. Right outside the stores you have the stalls. These are slightly cheaper places where you can get hair clips, mobile phone covers, some cosmetics and jewelry and purses (D&G anyone? How about a Gucci?). For us, these stalls are primarily used for cheap hair clips as well as henna cones (yes they are cheaper than the stores and produce the same results). At the lowest level of the food chain are the street sellers who usually carry whatever they sell and wander up and down the lanes. Now people have an interesting relationship with these sellers. I find them irritating. They usually sell items that I have not yet found the need to buy (welcome mats, dish washing pads, moth balls and those glow in the dark stars that people put on their ceilings). I kid you not, these are the same items they have been selling for years. I would like to share with them new marketing techniques. They should analyze their consumers and approach ONLY them. However, they seem to approach everyone, including me. I’ll be walking purposefully to my bangle guy when out of the blue: Madam, door mats? No thanks. I believe door mats are something that you would put on your list before you left your house. They are hardly an item that you would randomly remember in the middle of shopping. But, I may be wrong. My brother on the other hand, appreciates the fact that they do not discriminate. However, for the last time, I don’t want eeeeshtars!

Another main reason for my forays into Tulsi Baug is to go to my tailor (for salwaar khameezs, not sari blouses – that’s a different guy). Now to get to this tailor, you have to look carefully between two stalls, there is this narrow one way traffic lane. For Harry Potter fans, I think of it as the Lane of Requirement, it only appears when you need it, because otherwise it’s invisible. At the end of the lane is a staircase – dark and damp. It is one of those staircases into which unintelligent females venture into in bad scary movies. Every time we go up it, my aunt (or mom) say: Don’t touch anything! I recommend not looking at or smelling anything either. On the first floor is a tiny room, with men who seem to be on sewing machines permanently. However odd the location, they really are the best tailors. And the clothes they are sewing are proof – they have the prettiest and most expensive looking blouses and salwaar khameezes hanging behind them.

While I ate my ice cream, I categorized the livelihoods Tulsi Baug had to offer into these three levels. I was amazed at the number of people employed in these two gallis (lanes). However, in those ten minutes, I also people-watched – something I’ve never done in Tulsi Baug. Because of the crowds, my previous expeditions have been of a search and retrieve nature. What I found was something that I absolutely LOVE about India. It is the week before Ganesh Chaturthi and Eid. Therefore, Tulsi Baug is ridiculously crowded. However, there are few places in the world (repeating myself but o so true) where you can see people of two huge religions mingling together. These are conservatives of both religions out to celebrate their different festivals. Women in all black, men in beards and skull caps haggled at prices of socks and handkerchiefs alongside women in saris (the Marathi kinds – pants style) and men in dhotis. A unknown fact about the world is that the universality of human beings is seen outside jewelry/cosmetic shops – men (holding shopping bags) standing outside looking bored while women crowd around the counters.

Now Old City Pune is just that, its conservative, OLD school, where I have gotten stopped on the road and chided (by random unknown lady) for wearing a skirt. However, in Tulsi Baug, you can find people from all different generations. You can find the pre-independence old people, going to the temple or to their usual stores and you can find college girls (yes sometimes wearing a skirt) giggling in large groups as they buy earrings. Likewise you can see the occasional foreigner, a little overwhelmed at the sights, smells and sounds, and you can see the whole family from a nearby village, making a day trip to Pune to buy everything they need for the next couple months.

So there is religious diversity, varying levels of modernity, rural vs. urban divide in Tulsi Baug. Additionally, there are literally every combination of human relations that are known to mankind. I saw whole families, young couples (married and not), old couples, really old couples, mothers with children, grown children with their old mothers, fathers alone with children (buying ice cream and balloons), siblings running errands, college friends (all female, all male, mixed), aunties shopping together, etc. If I’ve missed a combination, ask me about it and I’m sure you can find it at Tulsi Baug. With all the types of people in Tulsi Baug, I’d like to think of this as a miniature India.

I’m not sure if I’ve conveyed the true essence that is Tulsi Baug. But since it is an integral part of every trip of mine to Pune, I had to share it with those not fortunate enough to experience it themselves.