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Mezze is widely served in the Greek and Middle eastern world. An assortment of little dishes and tasters which accompany a nice ouzo or a glass of wine. So when you read mezze moments you will have tasty snippets of life as I live it, India for four years and now Brisbane Australia, all served up with some Greek fervour and passion.

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Sunday, 31 January 2010

India's future is its people

It has been quite a week of celebrations in India full of pagentry, history, colour and contrast.
My own tribute is to the people of this country who are so remarkably inventive, stoical and resourceful.This country's strength is their sheer beauty and diversity and this blog entry celebrates them.

Saturday, 30 January 2010

Beating Retreat 2010

That is what troops did at sunset- they disengaged from battle, clocked off for the night, beat a retreat and so the tradition remains.

In India this is done against the backdrop of the north and south blocks of Lutyens famous Rajpath and in the distance the Rashtrapati Bhavan the presidential palace.

We sat at the bottom and looked up this splendid avenue and the magnificent buildings which were showing off their colours of red and yellow sandstone in the fading pink hue of dusk.

On the north and south blocks, the camels,standing on the ramparts, decorated and immobile as statues. In the cupolas, horsemen with stiff uniforms standing silently.

The programme- from 500pm to 600pm was a wonderful collection of marching bands, the Pipes and Drums bands, the Navy and the Air force Bands, the Military bands.

Pipes and Drums in yellows, greens, reds and blues. Coloured  turbans but also flowing capes reminiscent of Scottish traditional dress but with the unmistaken flair of India.

The navy and Air force with smart, sharp and dark uniforms. They played the “Nocturnal Cry” by Capt SA Anchees NM that moved all the participants.

The Massed Bands in formation at the end played “Abide with me” and the bugle calls coming from the north and south block were eerie and wonderful.

As the light faded and the Indian flag was lowered the north and south block and the Rashtrapati Bhavan are lit up and are a sight of true wonder and beauty.

Thursday, 28 January 2010

The President's tea party

Driving up to the Rashtrapati Bhavan is always a thrill when you see the star of India and then in the courtyard the wonderful pair of brass cobras curling upwards. Water flows from their mouths and sitting on the  head of one was a mynah bird dipping for drinks as we drove in. The Presidential palace is a very special building, built by Edward Lutyens, but this time we had a chance to enjoy the Mughal gardens, instead of the great state rooms.
The fountains and the water ways were all in perfect symmetry as they were planned, flowing freely their burbling drowned out on this occasion by the dignitaries and the sound of the bugles signalling the arrival of the President in the gardens.The gardens are at their best at the moment and you could close your eyes and picture the emperors and the viceroys enjoying their beauty. There are more than 250 rose varieties and 60 kinds of Bougainvillea. Lutyens wanted Indian varieties to suit the climate and so the gardens have the best and largest collection of Indian Marigold flowers with 13 different varieties. Dahlias of all colors such as shades of pink, mauve, golden rust, red, white, yellow and even red and white striped are blooming now.What was lovely though were the rows of neatly grown vegetables that were also planted in the gardens.

Dignitaries, the military,ambassadors and high ranking civil servants mingled, and snacks and tea were served.The President went on her walkabout and so did we, eager to explore this wonderful haven while we had the opportunity.  
PS Instructions accompanying invite :

Dress: Service Officers Winter Ceremonial Dress With Full medals,less sword !

Tuesday, 26 January 2010

Republic Day Delhi 26th Jan 2010

The Republic Day of India marks the anniversary of the adoption of the Constitution of India and the transition of India from a British Dominion to a republic on January 26, 1950.The main Republic Day Parade takes place at the Rajpath, in the national capital New Delhi, where the President views the parade but state capitals also have their own celebrations.
We were invited along to the Rajpath celebration. We were in our seats by 9.30 am and the fog was so dense it was not possible to see across Rajpath.

Then the announcer said:

"While the atmosphere may be a little foggy today,freedom flows freshly through the air".

That statement captured it all.In 2010 Indians come out to celebrate the day their country became a republic and I was among them.Perhaps it is our colonial past, perhaps our justified feelings of achievements in the democratic process but it is moments such as these where I am moved in a way that catches me by surprise. I hear and see the Indian air force flying in formation out of the mist and the thousands of people who have come out to greet them turn their faces to the skies and I feel their pride and share in their joy.

It was a magnificent parade which went off with the kind of military precision which had Anthony saying maybe they need more of the military in their daily life. I smiled and said look at Pakistan- they are never a good idea.

No cameras, no phones, no bags – nothing in fact- security was very tight and very efficient which means I have no pictures to share with you but want to describe the scenes that stayed with me.

The immense, and I mean immense tanks and warheads. Impressive and daunting for India’s neighbours but interestingly a measured amount of them on display.The biggest one was called Agni, like an aunt of mine.

The camel cavalry – if you can call camels that – splendidly decorated with neck sparklers and tassles. They were followed by the even more impressive Camel Band. Try playing the trumpet on top of a swaying camel.

The army contingents were all beautifully attired and in perfect synch.

The female cadets who seemed to be wearing mini kilts and berets.Fetching.

The mad motorcyclists, standing up on a machine that seemed to travel on its own, closely followed by one where the driver was facing backwards reading a newspaper !

From the cultural pagents, the two I liked best were Maharashtra's float of the Debbewala – literally meaning a person with a box. This is a highly specialized service that seems to have flourished in Mumbai and it delivers thousands of lunches to thousands of businessmen around the city, Approximately 200,000 lunch boxes are sent out, delivered and collected every day. Now that is enterprise for you.

The other one which took my fancy was the float of Indian music instruments. Having just come from Jaipur the number of specialized instruments which are still in use is truly impressive.
More on the presidents tea party tomorrow.

Monday, 25 January 2010

The Jaipur Literature Festival 2010

This is an entry that conceivably could take up many pages, there was so much on offer, so I have promised myself that I will try and convey as much as I can succinctly.

Energizing, egalitarian and exciting – that is what it was for me.

The marquee

Energizing because it was full of the great and the good and we were so privileged to have the chance to be inspired and energized by their presence and sometimes their humbling struggles to print their thoughts and their words. They spoke eloquently and movingly from the likes of Ayan Hirsi Ali "Infidel", to the honesty of Sister Jesme's account of the failures of the Catholic church, to OM PURI reciting passages from TUQLAQ.

The first Dalit writer to write a novel, Sivakami, spoke of the need to create a collective public conscience by Dalits to enable them to fight against the caste conscience. Steve Coll, author of the “Bin Ladens" and“Ghost Wars” for which he won a Pulitzer Prize  spoke of the impelling need he felt after 9/11 to try and explain why it happened and he was able to draw upon his experience as a foreign correspondent in Delhi and in other parts of Asia.

Steve Coll and William Dalrymple
Sadia Shephard a writer and documentary film maker paneled a discussion with Hanif Kureishi , “My beautiful Laundrette” and "The Buddha of Suburbia" and Tania James, with her debut novel “Atlas of the Unknowns” speaking of their mixed identities, which were an impetus for them to explore their roots and to understand them.

Ma Thide, a Burmese writer who movingly told her story of her imprisonment in a Burmese jail where she stuck to her principles and her convictions while near death which made even her jailers say that she was the free person as she was free in her thoughts but they were not.

Shazia Omar, Malashri Lal and Ma Thide
India's changing face was discussed by Lord Desai who was emboldened by the changes and Nayantara Saghai, related to Nehru, who was disheartened by the culture of getting rich quick and the absence of "wonder" for the young.
The compelling story of Lawrence Wright and the “Looming Towers” and how he set about to write the human story of the 9/11 tragedy. The life changing moment for Shazia Omar who also witnessed 9/11 that investment banking was not for her and which made her rethink her priorities and her convictions and her subsequent involvement and support of a group of recovering heroin addicts in Bangladesh which became the subject matter of her first novel “Like a diamond in the Sky.”

Lawrence Wright and Shazia Omar

Egalitarian because this must be the only place in India where it does not matter who you are and what you do. You are no different from the person next to you who walked in off the street. I found this hugely invigorating, democratic and a fantastic opportunity for all those participating to enjoy what was on offer for free. This was of course due to the many many sponsors who support the Literature festival and who deserve heartfelt thanks as do all the organizers.

The likes of Rahul Bose,Vikram Chandra, Shabana Azmi and Suresh Kohli mixed with Tina Brown, Wole Soyinka, Roddy Doyle and Christophe Jaffrelot and adoring fans and children from schools and universities in the area for whom such opportunities are far and few between. The venues were often crowded but it was first come first serve and if you were a celebrated author or an actor and there was no chair you sat on the grass like everyone else. How refreshing that was. I met a young man who was one such inquiring citizen, a young professional teaching engineering at one of the universities of the region who came to enjoy all this with everyone else. This is Gaurav.

Exciting because it was truly that –meeting so many impressive authors and poets, columnists, journalists and activists was such a treat and to hear them close up and enjoy their thoughts, readings and sheer wit. Exciting because you never knew who you might be sitting next to at lunch or dinner as you say "excuse me I am not sure I have met you before" and look sheepishly down at the badge to discover that you are talking to no less a mortal that Steve Coll the author of Ghost Wars or the ever delightful and prolific Alexander McCall Smith.Exciting because Niall Ferguson is as sexy a speaker as you will ever come across and his ability to make the history of money come alive on television was a phenomenal success. His "Ascent of Money" and a "Financial History of the world" were betsellers. 

There were so many amusing moments in the festival beginning with the liveliest of conversations between William Dalrymple and Alexander McCall Smith where the latter explained that he is also the creater of the RTO, the Really Terrible Orchestra which has gone on three successful tours already. He writes 3-4000 words a day and rarely revises his writing and even has a daily column in one of the Scottish newpapers weaving in and out of characters' lives and plots. He is of course very famous for the creation of the series "No I ladies Detective Agency" about a well appointed woman detective from Botswana a country that is dear to him.”Willie" and "Sandy" as they are known to their friends engaged in banter and jokes like a pair of naughty school boys and had the audience rolling around with laughter. Authors like Geoff Dyer, Isobel Hilton and Brigid Keenan captured their audiences with readings from their works which were riotously funny and poignant.

William Dalrymple and Alexander McCall Smith

It was not just about the written word. We listened to Ali Sethi singing in a tribute to the Pakistani Poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz and Darohar in the Rajastani Oral Tradition while Susheela Raman who is an acclaimed Tamil performer got the audience up and dancing to her beats. I loved the band Rajastan Roots who mix traditional instruments like the khamaicha and the algoza with the guitar and the saxophone. I absorbed the atmospheric readings of William Dalrymple from his excellent new book “Nine Lives” accompanied by the Bauls from Bengal . The Bauls according to the programme “venerate feminine energy, decry the caste system and the fanaticism of the mullahs". Kanai Das Baul and Debdas Baul are real characters from the book in the story of the Blind Minstrel.

The Blind Minstrel
The festival is lively and colourful, free and challenging,and I have covered only a small part of what was on offer each day.For all these reasons, now in its fifth year, it is becoming a victim of its own success. I have no idea of the number of people who attended all I can say is that they came in their thousands and they will keep on coming as this is a true celebration of all that is wonderfully uplifting and creative in the world of literature, music and tradition under a warm and welcoming Indian Rajastani sky.   

Wednesday, 20 January 2010

Indian seed pod

This is what I saw walking in my green haven today. More on that place in another blog but just to say I am off to Jaipur for a few days and who knows what that will germinate.

My magic carpet

It is not often that a shopping expedition can transport you away.
You usually come crashing to the ground when you hear the price but this morning was a beautiful exception as we were lead into the den of carpets that is the kingdom of the now world famous Mr A Saboor. “Saboor” to his friends and Justine Hardy is among them, while Hillary Clinton was also a guest, is the most engaging carpet seller in the whole of Delhi, perhaps the world.
Hillarys letter of thanksSaboors wall of fame

He looks at you with a glint in his eye, while adjusting his white cap on his head and says stroking his beard thoughtfully:

“Three things have to be the best in life
Your partner
Your house
Your carpets
Because you don’t want to have to go changing any of them do you?”

He showed us the difference between silk on silk and silk on rayon. He burnt threads and held them under our noses. He had the ability to make all of us adopt the most compromising positions as we counted the knots per square inch on these exquisite carpets and then showed us the difference between one of 24 knots compared to the world record of 87 knots per square inch.

He unfurled silk on silk and silk on cotton, wool on cotton and wool alone and we sat there transported to distant kingdoms and magic lands where they are painstakingly produced with the most exquisite colours and patterns, drinking Kashmiri tea which was like manna from heaven complete with petals, cardamons and almonds. Heavenly !

So were we brought back down to earth with a resounding thud I hear you ask?

Well frankly no we were all allowed to float and hover and hum and ha and work out the rupee, dollar, euro equivalent of it all and in all honesty I felt the man was able to make many a girl happy on this day. Need a little warmth and luxury underfoot? Visit Saboor, it is quite the way to start the week.

By appointment only saboor@ncerugs.com

Sunday, 17 January 2010

Winter blues turn them into Greek blues

It is tempting to sit in and cuddle a hot water bottle but beat the feeling and go out and do something stimulating and rewarding. Did you know there was a Indo-Hellenic Friendship League? Anyone can become a member and it costs Rupees 250.If you are interested in both cultures as I am then go for it as they have two interesting Greek Films at the Habitat Centre in Delhi.

January 22nd The Trojan Women 7:00pm
(English/1971/105mins) Dir. Mihalis Kakogiannis. Cast: Katherine Hepburn & Vanessa Redgrave. The story of enslavement of the women of Troy after the fall of their city.

January 25th Antigone 7:00pm
(Greek/1961/93mins) Dir. Yorgos Javellas. Cast: Irene Pappas. A cinematic adaptation of the classic Greek tragedy Antigone by Sophocles. King Creon decrees that Polynices, the traitor, is not to be buried, but his sister Antigone defies the order.

Saturday, 16 January 2010

Shoppers ready steady ....GO

I have received so many comments from people who have been to Shoppers Stop telling me about their positive experiences including one from the shop Manager that I said I will visit again and report back.Never judge a shop in one stop or is that step....

Friday, 15 January 2010

The greatest Religious gathering in the world is just beginning.

While I write sitting with a hot water bottle on my lap Indians are gathering for one of the greatest religious festivals. The Khumb  Mela is a three month festival beginning yesterday where pilgrims bathe in the cold but purifying waters of the Ganges.

It signifies the end of the winter months, and the beginning of the harvest festival. I will personally celebrate putting my hot water bottle away.Kumbha means pot and Mela means fair. This Khumb mela is the biggest religious festival in the world and the numbers of pilgrims, holy men and curious foreigners who go to this mela is staggering, more than the population of Switzerland for example. The figures are often put at 10 million people.

The historical side of this grand gathering talks about the battle between the devtas (Gods) and the assuras (Demons ) over a pot of nectar. The four drops that fell is where the festival is held every three years in a twelve year cycle. This year it is in Haridwar. The other places it is held are Nasik, Allahabad and Ujjian.

Haridwar is considered very holy, due to the fact that this is where the Ganga enters the plains from the Himalayas so it is possibly at its purest. The festival is visited by the most amazing holy men from all across India. The Naga Sadhus never wear any clothes and are smeared in ash. They have long matted hairs and are not at all affected by the extremes of heat and cold.

Bathing in the river Ganges helps to cleanse you of sins and leads you to “Moksha” which is described in a recent book I read “Indians, portrait of the People” as the attainment of salvation, the goal of human life and the ultimate reality.

While I would love to experience this festival from close, I will need the thermometer to climb significantly before I could even contemplate being away from my hot water bottle, let alone bathing in the Ganges but perhaps it is a goal I need to strive for while here.

Thursday, 14 January 2010

Shoppers Stop

I went to Shoppers’ Stop in Saket, MGF Mall today in search of something very specific. It is shiny and sleek and full of bright lights, great displays, no shoppers and loads of staff.

I found what I was looking for.Two items.

The girl wrote their codes on a handwritten receipt and asked me to go to the till.

Off I went.

At the till a young man looked at the receipt and tried to put the information into the till.

He was unable to do so. So he went to her and picked up the goods and tried to scan them into the till. The scanning did not work so he then tried to input the coding of the products into the till. This did not work either so he went and asked her for two other products and then finally inputed the information of the other products into the till.

Now why could I have not gone to the till and paid directly you just have to ask???

A bill finally.

I paid instantly and waited a little more.

A till receipt was issued and I went with that one and the handwritten one to the girl who looked at both, kept one and gave me the products.

I attempted to walk out but at the door I was stopped.

A security guard had to check the receipt in the bag against the products, which he failed to do and then stamp the receipt one final time. What should have taken 5 minutes took 25.

SHOPPERS STOP – you bet – Oh my,what an irony in the name!!

Tuesday, 12 January 2010

Memorable Moments - Goa part 3

Walking along miles and miles of empty beach in Varca and seeing this.

Eating Greek on the Goan coast
Going to a Greek restaurant perched on the Hilltop in Vagator called “Thalassa” and talking to the owner Mariaketti from Corfu who all those years ago travelled to India and has never looked back.

Seeing Indian women enjoying the water, not just the men for a change.

Eating the best Kebabs at Dhum Byriani

The boys enjoying the Sunburn Festival on Candolim beach

Going to Anjuna Flea market on Wednesday afternoon. Huge, never ending and so so mad. Well worth a visit and I defy anyone to go in the there and come out not having spent a rupee.

Visiting the Ocean of Milk waterfalls near the Karnataka border on the 31st of December.

Crossing the river beds in our beach buggy

Becoming bronzed from all the iron ore dust carried by lorries to and from the mine along the way and husband's mad Indian drive to get past them.

Saturday, 9 January 2010

Goa Part 2 The Beaches

Imagine one long stretch of beach punctuated by coves and rocky outposts and fishing villages. This is Goa.

We stayed in Anjuna which is quite north and we explored the beaches of Vagator and Aswem,Morjim and Chapora.

Anjuna and Vagator beaches were within walking distance from our hotel and they were pleasant with some lovely beach huts, plenty of places for refreshments and great meeting places. It is so easy to pick up a conversation with the person lounging next to you about what brought them to this place and where they hailed from.

Aswem was so IN- it has the beautiful La Plage restaurant at its entrance run by the lovely Francine and her husband serving Pomfret with almonds and tuna with wasabi mash, beef fillet and gratin dauphinoise. For us this was like manna from heaven. The beach there is sandy and long and full of lovely beach shacks and loungers. We enjoyed spending lazy days there reading, playing football and beach volleyball and then eating well and wowing another spectacular sunset.

Candolim, Calangute and Baga are further south and are more the charter belt territory. I have to confess we stayed away from them though the boys frequented the clubs there at night and of course the buzziest festival SUNBURN was held on Candolim beach in the last days of 2009 hosted by apparently the worlds best DJ . The stretch of road there is full of souvenir shops and restaurants catering to the tourists on a 24 hr basis. No pavements, as such and the road is always incredibly busy so walking there was not particularly pleasant though enough people did it.
When we drove further south we visited Fort Aguada where a big Taj Fort Aguada complex exists (reputed to be very pricey) and where the beach seemed limited. More rocky than sandy. However there were a lot of water sports on offer here. The Fort sits on top of a rocky headland and was built in the 16th Century to offer fresh water supplies to the passing ships. There is not a lot to see in the fort but the stunning views on both sides of the headland.

Driving further south, along reasonably good roads, we came across Varca beach. This is somewhere I wanted to visit and I was not disappointed. We got to the beach and on both sides stretched miles and miles of beautiful and empty beach. A big contrast to the more crowded and densely packed North. We has some long walks and watched the purple reef heron , the kentish plovers and the ringed plovers all happily in greater numbers than the tourists.We marveled the beautiful conch shells washed on to the beach, the little girl who did tight rope walking in front of us and the sheer beauty of the sand patterns as the tide pulls away.

There were few tourists and this part of Goa had a completely different feel to it. We loved it. Unfortunately we did not get to Palolem which is reputed to a paradise beach but we thought it would be nice to leave something for next time.

Tuesday, 5 January 2010

Goa Part 1

I have wanted to come up with the complete description of what Goa meant to me and I would say two words sum it up “Letting Go” but far better captured by this picture of a dog on the lawn of the Cathedral of St Catherine in Old Goa.

The weather was wonderfully warm and inviting though we did have some overcast days. The beaches are plentiful and varied, more on that later, and the place is such a wonderful bazaar of the bizarre. Reconstituted hippies, middle aged women looking for adventure, hip young things with petrified faces as they negotiate the narrow pot holed lanes on their scooters and motorbikes, stoned and drugged dreadlocked dudes doing their thing on and off the beach and plenty of young Indian men just wanting to be part of the action.

The state is small by Indian standards, but size was never important as we all know. It’s what you do with it. Goans do a lot.

Firstly the Xmas spirit so hugely absent in Delhi was alive and well in this state where Christians love their nativity displays and their fairy lights. Churches everywhere, big imposing ones like the ones in old Goa, the Basilica of Bom Jesus, which is a World Heritage Monument  where St Francis Xavier is kept in an ornate coffin. He is responsible for converting a large part of the population here in the 16th century, and then smaller churches all built in the Portuguese style bedecked with Xmas lights.

The state is one long strip of beautiful coastal beaches and villages with coconut trees and lush vegetation. Everywhere the distinctive architectural style of the porched house with the chairs built in to the house entrance. The ornate verandas and beautiful windows and shutters are individually crafted. A lot lie derelict and uncared for but are ripe for masterful makeovers which will attract the tourists from all over the world. Our hotel, Casa Anjuna,  was one such house beautifully laid out in gardens with rooms which were decorated with old pieces of furniture and four poster beds.

Sunday, 3 January 2010

The sweetest moment

I bought a pair of flip flops from a lovely old man in Goa who sat surrounded by hundreds of pairs. That night I wore them and on my way to the beach I stopped to show him. We both smiled but what made me just melt away was there in the middle of the wooden floor of the beach hut was an angelic baby, his grandchild, barely a few months old wearing a bobble cap and covered neatly with a grubby but lovingly arranged cloth.
The baby was lying on its back with its arms by its head and its little fingers all relaxed.

It was the vision of loveliness, of innocence and abandon, a baby Jesus.

On top of it, protecting it from all sides, a netted food cover.Priceless.

Friday, 1 January 2010

A New Year

To all my friends and family, my readers and my fellow bloggers the very best for the New Year. It is the year of the Tiger according to the Chinese calender and I cant help feeling this is a very positive omen given the fact that we are in India and we have spotted our first tiger. Such magnificent beings and rightly I think I should dedicate this posting to the Tiger we saw at Panna in Madhya Pradesh.

 More about the place in another posting but here she is in her full glory.On New Year's Day, people in certain countries gather on beaches and run into the water to celebrate. (We shall be doing exactly that in Goa.) These events are sometimes known as polar bear plunges, but we are hoping ours will not be polar bear temperatures !
In Britain an extra round of football fixtures is played (unless New Year's Day falls on a Thursday, Friday or Sunday).
n Pasadena, California, United States, the Tournament of Roses is held, with revellers viewing the parade from the streets and watching on television, followed by the Rose Bowl college football game.If you are in Vienna you should go to the New Year Concert
Hindus celebrate the new year by paying respects to their parents and other elders and seek their blessings. They also exchange tokens of Good Wishes for a healthy and prosperous year ahead.
The New Year's Day Parade is held in London. Performers include acts from each of the city's boroughs, as well as entertainment from around the world.

In Pennsylvania and Ohio, mostly in or near Pennsylvania "Dutch" (Deitch/German) areas, it is common to celebrate New Year's Day with a meal of pork, sauerkraut, and mashed potatoes. The practice comes from a Pennsylvania "Dutch" tradition that dictates these foods will bring good luck in the new year.That is one tradition I full heartedly adopt. How do you celebrate the arrival of your New Year ?