Sunday, 21 July 2013

Book review: Bengali Belly Laughs - Sandeepa Mukherjee Datta's 'Bong Mom's Cookbook'

 Total disclosure, thrice over.  I am a cookbook addict. They spell perfect bedtime reading to me.   I do not cook Bengali food at home. Whenever I want some desperately, I drop in on friends who have Bengali mothers. Yes, Bong moms.  

Believe it or not, I have never read a cookbook that made me laugh out loud at midnight or into the wee hours. Till now.  For starters, sample this:

Question: What do Bongs eat?

Answer: Anything and everything, as long as it is followed by Gelusil, Pudin Hara, Jowaner Aarak or Nux Vom 30.
           Sandeepa Mukherjee Datta’s got the recipe just right. She’s a New Jersey-based engineer who set up her own blog, Bong Mom’s Cookbook, in October 2006. It gets 120,000 hits a month. In a new avatar, it is this delicious, authentic, LOL book for Bongs – and the larger world beyond.

Her heady mix? One part US-based nostalgia for Bangali  cookery or ranna. Two parts real-time motherly zest for Sukumar Ray and rooted-in-India culture. Garnished liberally with humorous anecdotes, starring an extended cast of family and friends, her husband (a.k.a. H-man), and her two twinkle-tongued little daughters. Her light touch ensures that the fare dished up works like magic. Via kitchen and blog, she busts the myth that Bengalis survive on a diet of fish and rosogollas.    

Sandeepa deftly adapts traditional fare to everyday American reality. For instance, tossing mushrooms into a poppyseed-paste aloo posto. Just as smoothly, she whips up an image beyond Spiderman on weekend TV during her childhood:  “Ma spent those mornings entirely in the kitchen, her cotton sari damp and turmeric-stained, smelling strongly of Sunday, of mutton curry.”  It makes you want to cook Mangsho’r Jhol at once.

A tech-savvy woman, Sandeepa  sketches in Excel sheet estimates of mutton/ per head in grams as she toils over a dinner menu for 60 to mark her little daughter’s birthday.  She evokes her cross-legged Baba packing her flight-to-the-west suitcase with a pressure cooker, mustard oil and Bela De’s cookbooks in Bangla. She recalls her widowed Choto Dida feeding her leftover ruti  (chappati) with the bati chorchori of potatoes that weaves through millions of Bengali childhoods. Her diary-like stories make time and place collapse in a trice, creating a notion of Bengaliness sans borders.

 My favourite anecdote recreates the melodious tinkling of red and green glass bangles on the wrists of Manu’r Ma, the household help, as sun-dipped colours dance on the floor. With the acuity of a word artist, she brings alive the grinding of posto on the pockmarked black stone sheel-nora .  As deftly, she conjures up memories potent enough for Sandeepa to recreate vegetarian Fridays, a la her Ma, in the US.    

Her recipes worked brilliantly, whenever I reluctantly took a break from her stories. I tried the Posto’r Bora (poppyseed fritters) and Dhone Pata Chicken that H-man wooed her with in Bangalore. Her pages occasionally reach beyond boundaries to include sharing Machha Besara (an Odia fish curry). For, to Sandeepa, food “is life wrapped in a soft egg roll with slices of crunchy onion and bites of feisty green chilli. It has something to tell. Always.”

To me, her family-centricity ripples through this laugh-riddled cookbook.  It is about how Sandeepa mastered Dhokar Dalna step-by-step from her Ma  in Kolkata over Skype, while the latter concentrated on her maid’s mastery of dust under the table. Or her Ma’s theories of why pizza-scoffing children are less intelligent than those on a diet of macher jhol- bhat.  

Sandeepa’s attention to detail seasons her pages. As do her jottings on a perfect onion paste for curry or the Bengali addiction to mustard. Tongue-in-cheek, she addresses questions like: Are Bengali Brahmins vegetarian? What do Bongs eat for breakfast? How come folks originally from East Bengal can eat hilsa on Saraswati Puja, while those from West Bengal cannot?

She brushes aside carping about her non-authentic cabbage sabji or the demerits of making bhapa-doi in the oven.  Denied the green chilli chicken at ‘Oh Calcutta!’ en route from Kolkata airport to her parent’s home, she recreates her own version.

Cook, eat, blog. That was the game plan when Sandeepa set out on this journey. Her authentic, slice-of-life sharings of Bengali life in a wired world win over both the reader and the cook. Take a bow, Bong Mom’s Cookbook, no matter the avatar.  

(Originally published in The Hindu Business Line on June 28, 2013)

Saturday, 9 March 2013

Art: Kochi-Muziris Biennale -- The spice of global art

Kochi: The Arabian Sea beyond the biennale locations

“I was imprisoned for eleven years. In my cell, I saw the moonlight but not the moon…  We aspire towards a freedom that will lead us towards creating an art without fetters. This unfettered art will be our moonlight.”
~ Zarganar, artist from Myanmar, 2012

It is early March. We are in Kerala as art aficionados. Pouring sweat, we walk through Jew Town to a background score of waves lashing the rocks. After three days across 3,00,000 sq. ft. of mainly site-specific art by 80-plus artists from 24 countries at the ongoing Kochi-Muziris Biennale (KMB), due to conclude on March 13, we need time out. 

Mandalay House: Type 'Justice'

Our encounters with art deconstructed, then reconstructed in terms of ideation and execution, have been soul-deep, even searing, at the first Indian biennale’s 14 locations across Kochi, Mattancherry, Ernakulam, and the legendary port of Muziris. At saturation point, mere sculptures and paintings seem almost passĂ©. Instinctively, we freeze – and almost turn away – when we chance upon KMB’s logo metres away from the 16th century Paradesi Synagogue.

But we emerge from Mandalay Hall in Jew Town electrified by a video loop of Zarganar, Myanmar’s most famous comedian, sharing his life behind bars. Close by, a taped note invites us to type ‘Justice’ on a rickety Corona typewriter. The result on paper reads: ‘O-u-t-r-a-g-e.’ We feel inextricably altered, connected to a global network of art, as protest, as politics.  

The biennale impacted individuals as deeply as the host city of Kochi, with its cosmopolitan, multicultural history as focus. From December 12, 2012, the mega-show redefined disused colonial warehouses and bungalows, never open to the public before, as sites of artistic exploration. Alongside, it celebrated current excavations at Muziris, the ancient port buried by a 14th century flood. Today, Kochi – declared a Biennale City by its mayor – is no longer a dot on the Spice Route, or the Indian gateway to Islam, Christianity, or Judaism. Galvanized by the KMB’s three lakh footfalls by February 28, the Kerala government has pledged to build 100 galleries in 100 panchayats. Is an art revolution underway?

Bose paints a Tata Nano to raise funds

Post 20-plus curatorial trips abroad and 124 studio visits, KMB’s artistic director/ co-curator Bose Krishnamachari points out, “Biennales democratize art, taking it from the confines of galleries, and mix it with people and places, removing the elitist tag… Recent studies have proved their soft power and economic contributions to the host city.”

The biennale venues throng with designers from Montreal and Chennai, artists from Vadodara and Bengaluru, curators from Mumbai and Kolkata, in addition to anthropologists from New Delhi. In Kochi, even idiappam vendors and fisherfolk refer to the KMB today. A middle-class family with adult children recently took a train to the biennale from south Kerala on the recommendation of their barber. Hotel bookings have soared by 80 per cent. Like us, most entered the biennale as sceptics, but left as converts.

Artist Riyas Komu, co-curator of the biennale, notes, “Anything that happens in Kerala gets discussed, equally by a professor or a barber. So, Kochi is the perfect venue for an Indian biennale.”

Subodh Gupta installation, Aspinwall

However, this artist-led initiative met major obstacles en route, raising troubling questions:  Why does India have an art market infrastructure, but inadequate museums? Why was the government-sponsored Triennale-India, founded in 1968, last held in 2005? 

The Kerala Government’s initial Rs. 5 crore allocation was mired in media mayhem. Local trade unions had to be mollified to unload artwork. Miffed local artists vandalized art, including installations by South African artist Clifford Charles.

But the Kochi Biennale Foundation trustees deftly transformed protest into pride. Through theatre sketches in rural Kerala. Through outreach programmes at schools. Through a campaign with shopkeepers, auto-rickshaw drivers, even pedestrians, each holding a poster in Malayalam: “It’s my Biennale.” Pushed to the wall, the foundation raised the requisite Rs. 13.5 crore through corporate donors, embassies, and the art community. 

The community includes feted Indian artist Subodh Gupta. His boatload of found objects at the 160,000 sq. ft. trading compound of Aspinwall House, reflects socio-economic transformations that mesh into Kochi’s stories. “For the artist, his boat is the universe that floats leisurely upon the waters of destruction to reach the land of regeneration,” writes Gupta on the wall.

Buoyantly afloat, the biennale leaves behind upgraded pan-Indian art-handling and shipping facilities, all shipshape for 2014. And a network of supportive mentor-curators including Sarat Maharaj (South Africa), Thierry Raspail (France), Adriano Pedrosa (Brazil) and Hans Ulrich Obrist (Serpentine Gallery, UK). Chris Dercon, director of the Tate Modern gallery, London, frames the KMB against the globe’s 150-plus similar expositions: “This is probably a biennale which is able to redefine and revaluate the life of biennials in general.” 

Atul Dodiya photo installation, Aspinwall

Was the compliment justified? We felt it was. For Bose and Riyas aligned art and locations impeccably, ensuring about 50 percent pan-Indian representation. For instance, Atul Dodiya’s photo-installation, ‘Celebration in the Laboratory,’ is spread out amidst peeling plaster, chipped tiles and random railways signs. His subjective portrait gallery embraces the who’s who of contemporary Indian art, including M F Husain, K G Subramanyan, and Nilima Sheikh, shoulder-to-shoulder with critics, curators and gallerists.  

Outdoors at Aspinwall, swaying palms smile as giggling, pigtailed schoolgirls in blue tunics clamber up gunny-bags to peer into Srinivasa Prasad’s outsize, suspended  ‘cocoon’ of thorny bamboo, binding wire and steel cable. As they whisper in wonder, demystified art becomes a desirable experience. For, to Prasad, Kochi was “the perfect template to create beautiful artwork.”

Carlos Garaicoa's tapestries, Durbar Hall

A ferry ride away, we gawk at Cuban artist Carlos Garaicoa’s tapestries at the renovated century-old Durban Hall, his videos melding the weaves with revolutionary squares in his faraway land. Within the black drapes at Rose Street Bungalow, we watch Chinese artist Ai Weiwei’s documentaries of dissent.

Seated on the wooden floor at Moidu’s Heritage Plaza, a former coir godown, we tune in to Australian artist Angelica Mesiti’s ‘Citizen’s Band,’ a four-channel video installation of extraordinary adaptations of traditional music to new environments. Such as Cameroon-born Lois Geraldine Zongo’s akutuk or water percussion in a Paris swimming pool. Or Mongolian Bukhu Ganburged playing his morin khur or horsehead fiddle while throat-singing in downtown Sydney. Over 21 minutes, geographies collapse. Transiting cultures sans visas, we are in tears.  

Mesiti with the water drummer on video, Moidu's

KMB’s spice-inspired olfactory work reaches its acme with Brazilian Ernesto Neto’s udder-like cotton installation at Moidu’s, overlooking the Arabian Sea. We can smell, touch and almost see aromatic turmeric, cumin and cloves through the yoking of the global and the local as he perfects the genius of simplicity. 

Ernesto Neto's spice installation, Moidu's

At Dutch-style Pepper House, Nairobi-born, Amsterdam-based Ibrahim Quraishi salutes the 1960s Fluxus anti-commerce movement with his installation of white ‘Islamic Violins.’  Crafted in Pakistan, perfected in the Netherlands, they are accompanied by video in Kochi.   

How does one gauge the impact of this Kochi Biennale? Perhaps by this story doing the rounds in Kerala. Of two children overheard at dusk at Edapally. One says to the other, ‘Let’s play now. I am Bose. You are Riyas Komu…”

As for Bose and Riyas, they are already immersed in a grand dream of a Rs. 72 crore edition in 2014. At Aspinwall, Bose frenetically paints a donated Tato Nano in his unmistakable style, to be auctioned at a fund-raiser. Coming up? Perhaps a commissioned borderless curator in tune with the cultural sensitivity of Kochi, which still hosts 13 communities. Perhaps 15 public sculptures on the road from the airport to Fort Kochi.

Post-biennale, the world views Kochi both as a historical mother-lode and a site of infinite possibilities. If, like Zarganar’s moonlit art, this mega-show does not define India as a global contemporary art port of call, nothing ever will. 

Ibrahim Quraishi's 'Islamic Violins', Pepper House

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My article was originally published in The Hindu Business Line on March 8, 2013:


Friday, 22 February 2013

Hobbies: Post a pick-me-up!


      Writing is a solitary vocation. Each day, I steel myself to sit still, to fill an unforgiving computer screen with words, characters and plots. My mobile is silent; my Internet is off. Sans deadlines or the buzz of a workplace, the experience can be soul-sapping. Or deeply energising — whenever the words pan out right.

       Stillness fuels my wanderlust. My mind migrates to faraway Bratislava or dinner with Inuits. Devouring dal-roti on my futon, I imagine lime-cured Peruvian ceviche on my tongue.

      In the 21st century, amidst nuclear families, single parents and growing isolation, we depend increasingly on sms, email and social networks for communication. Few inter-personal alternatives loomed until I chanced upon Postcrossing ( in July 2012, catching me off-guard. I wondered: Who writes letters in our wired age? 

      I found out since that over 384,347 Postcrossers from 217 countries do (all data pegged to February 14, 2013). The site tagline reads: ‘A postcards exchange project that invites everyone to send and receive postcards from random places in the world. For free!’ Post offices across the globe, verging on closure, took note. Especially when the project’s exchanges touched one million registered postcards in April 2008, then soared from 10 million postcards in January 2012 to (believe it or not) 15 million by December 31.

      Listed by The Washington Times in January 2013 among 11 ‘unusual and bizarre hobbies’, alongside guerrilla gardening, robot-building, and competitive dog grooming, how did Postcrossing begin? A nomadic geek of Portuguese origin, Paulo Magalhaes, 30, set it up in July 2005 while at university. Manned by volunteers, the project currently generates an average of 10 received postcards globally every minute. 

Paulo and his partner Ana pore over postcards

      Berlin-based Magalhaes responds over email about its impetus: “Email is a fantastic communication tool. I use it every day. However, email and social networks have become omnipresent. They are no longer special, but rather banal. They carry short-lived messages that are almost always quickly discarded.”

     The Postcrossing founder-manager stresses, “However, a postcard is very different. The sender handwrites a message specifically for you. Writes your address, stamps it, and posts it at their local post-office. Then it travels several hands, possibly over country borders until it reaches your mailbox, probably hand-delivered by your local postman. Receiving mail brightens the lives of thousands of people every day… Postcards are meaningful and tangible. In a day and age where digital ways of communicating are become more cold and distant, it is even more special to receive something you can put on your fridge door or take with you to work.”

     India’s 1,676 Postcrossers could not agree more. ‘Penpalkamran’ from Kalyan-Dombivili (Maharashtra) leads the desi pack with 2,195 sent cards. He was unavailable for comment. Pune-based Mukund Chiplunkar, 59, a chemical engineering consultant, is a close second. His 1,900-plus cards have traversed over 13 million km.

     He first heard of Postcrossing on BBC’s Click Online in 2006. Chiplunkar, an active participant on Facebook’s Postcrossing India page, shares his experiences at member-meets in Pune — as do other Postcrossers in Mumbai, Delhi and Bangalore. Over postcards and coffee at the GPO or a cafĂ©, members discuss life stories, first day covers, and geocaching, while they pen cards to pan-India fellow enthusiasts.

     How has Postcrossing impacted Chiplunkar? On email, he writes, “Most Indian Postcrossers practise this hobby alone, but with passion, within their immediate family. However, they don’t feel lonely. For Postcrossers, every day is a new story and every postcard is a new opportunity. It is up to him/ her to make the most of it. This keeps the Postcrosser going through mundane activities with eternal hope.”

     Personally, the first Postcrossing card I sent out arrived at the door of Willi in Germany in 11 days. He turned out to be the highest-ranked Postcrosser ever (10,012 sent cards over six years). My first incoming card, from Dresden, carried American poet James Baldwin’s philosophical lines, “Not everything that is faced can be changed. But nothing can be changed until it is faced.” Bingo! I am a Baldwin fan.

     Every Postcrossing encounter has changed me since July 2012. I now swap directly with an Italian retiree in Turin, the recipient of the 15-millionth postcard. He is a vital cog in my circle of communication, which currently embraces Portuguese and Chinese schoolgirls, an aspiring Russian writer, a Spanish nurse, even a Dutch grandmother. 

An Inge Look 'Granny' postcard

     As an art aficionado, I have celebrated aboriginal Dreamtime drawings from Australia and Monet’s ‘Water Lilies’ from France. But my major discovery was already a Postcrossing cult — the irresistible Granny postcards by Inge Look, the Finnish gardener-turned-artist ( I wear a wrap-around smile all day when I receive a Look.

     Chance encounters dot the route to postcard nirvana. The postman on our beat often stops his moped on the kerb to hand-deliver my bunch of cards from Slovenia, Antigua and Barbuda, and Russia. His colleagues at the local post-office giggle as they frank my outgoing cards, checking out the bright images.

     True to Magalhaes’ vision, Postcrossers today range from children learning English or geography at school to their grandparents — and every shade of person in between. Project statistics prove that, far from living in device-driven virtual space, the average Postcrosser is about 26!

     Numerically, Russia has 42,200 Postcrossers, followed by the US (41,492), China (35,561), and the Netherlands (25,992). At 770 postcards an hour, and 2,043,406 laps around the world, the few locations untouched by Postcrossing might justify a teetering off the map: American Samoa, Malvinas, the South Sandwich Islands, Tokelau and so on.

     The solitariness of writing daily no longer troubles me. All I need to recharge my creative spirit is a long-distance telecon with a dear friend or a postcard from Cyprus, Japan, or Finland. Reading between the lines, my blues vanish in a trice as I set off for unexplored destinations.

(This article originally appeared in The Hindu Business Line on February 22, 2013)