Saturday, May 26, 2007

Gandhi on women

I always love taking visitors to Mani Bhavan, Gandhi's Mumbai home. It is on a quiet leafy lane near Chowpatty. On the top floor there are a series of tableaus, depicting the story of his life. Several tableaus illustrate his non-violent protest against injustice, and the last few tableaus tell the story of his assassination and funeral.

The violence of Gandhi's death comes as a shock. That this frail saint, this icon of peace, should die so violently, is hard to accept. In today's context, where the news is full of violent global wars, you begin to despair of a solution.

When you walk back downstairs, you notice a set of posters on the wall, each framed like a painting. In one of them, Gandhi talks about non-violence, and the role of women. Here's what he says:

The last sentence made me stop and think. Is it true, that women are somehow, essentially, more non-violent? And that women hold out hope for a non-violent future for all of mankind? Or is Gandhi merely propagating the myth of the long-suffering, all-sacrificing Indian woman?

Speaking to a group of women in Italy, Gandhi apparently said "The beauty of non-violent war is that women can play the same part in it as men. In a violent war women have no such privilege." That was true, of course, in India's struggle for independence. Indian women played a large role in Gandhi's fight for freedom, there were many women in all his campaigns. It was a non-violent movement, that made it easier for women to participate equally, and walk shoulder-to-shoulder with their male counterparts. You had to be brave, to face the lathis and batons, but you did not need the muscles to hit back.

In a meeting in Paris, he said "I have no doubt that (women) can do infinitely more than men against war. Answer for yourselves what your great soldiers and generals would do, if their wives and daughters and mothers refused to countenance their participation in militarism in any shape or form." His statement was based on his observation of his wife Kasturba. It was Kasturba's passive resistance to some of Gandhi's unreasonable demands that made him change himself, from a domineering traditional husband to a more considerate one.

I'm a little confused about this stuff. On the one hand, I believe in equality of opportunity in all spheres, including the armed forces. Today, we have more and more Indian women entering the armed forces and the police. On the other hand, here is Gandhi, asking women to stand up for non-violence.

So what do you think? Do you agree with Gandhi? Is his view of women as essentially peace-loving creatures correct? Is passive resistance the way to go, or is it just an old fashioned idea? If women took a stronger stance against wars, will there be fewer wars?

No matter what your views, Mani Bhavan is worth visiting. It is inspiring, thought-provoking and definitely a must-see place on your itinerary.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Fish, Forts and Pirates

Walking in the Worli fishing village is a bit surreal, especially under the hot afternoon sun.

The sky is the deepest blue, the sea dizzyingly shiny. The flags fluttering on the boats make me want to paint (not that I have any skills in that department).

How different it is, from my week in Greece by the sea!

The beach at Greece is dotted with umbrellas, beckoning tourists. The catch is arranged attractively in waterfront tavernas, where hundreds of tourists walk around. In fact, large parts of Crete seem to be designed specifically for tourists. Come holiday here, says Crete! We have the sun! We have the sea!

In contrast, here in Mumbai, living by the sea is gritty and real. The boats are small, almost defiantly colourful. The day's catch is dried on terraces blazing in the sun. Or it is loaded in simple baskets, and the women carry it to market. There are no visiting hordes, clicking away with cameras.

It is even more surreal to see the old British Worli Fort, sitting incongruously among the shanties.

The Worli Fort is more than 300 years old, and it is on top of a little hill. It was built by the British in 1675, overlooking Mahim Bay. It was used as a lookout for enemy ships and pirates. And if you look at this map of Bombay, you can see how strategically the fort is positioned, and why the British picked this spot.

For the British, the threat from "pirates" was real - and the most feared of them all was the dashing Kanhoji Angre.

The growth of the Maratha power under Shivaji in 1674 was accompanied by the formation of a formidable naval fleet which controlled the coast of the Konkan. In 1698 Kanhoji Angre succeeded to the command of the Maratha navy. With his strong navy, Kanhoji became the undisputed master of the whole Western coast, from Bombay to Vingorla.

He sought to protect Maratha interests against the British, Dutch and Portuguese, and inflicted heavy damage on their ships. He captured several trading vessels of the East India company, held hostages, and received hefty sums in ransom. Several expeditions were mounted against him, to no avail. He remained, until his death in 1729, the uncrowned king of the western coast.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Elephant God Magic

Visiting Siddhivinayak is like going to a fair.

The way is lined with little pavement stalls. Sadhus and fakirs stand at corners, selling amulets and charms. There are crowds of people from all parts of India, queueing up, drawn by the magic pull of the Elephant God.
Five rupees can get you this sacred thread
You can buy garlands and offerings on this street inside the temple complex.
At other stalls you can buy colourful images - but none of them are
carved in the likeness of the idol inside, with the trunk curved to the right.
Sweet shops sell modak - Ganesha's favourite food

And where's the rule that says you can't look pretty while you go
see the Lord? Flowers for the hair, very popular with visitors.

Siddhivinayak temple is more than two hundred years old, although it has been renovated and remodelled recently. It was originally built by Deubai Patil, a lady from Matunga, who belonged to the Agris, one of the oldest communities of Mumbai. In designing the idol, i read somewhere that she was inspired by a calendar hanging on her wall - the calendar had a photo of the Ganesh idol at Banganga, which is 500 years old. Whatever the inspiration, there is no doubt that today, Siddhi Vinayak is Bombay's favourite god.

What I like about the temple is its open-door policy.

People of all faiths and religions come to Siddhivinayak.
Unlike some other Hindu temples, no one is turned away. I called the temple office to check if I could bring foreigners. Yes, they said. Everyone can come right inside. And when I checked the temple website, I found that the makhar - the sanctum housing the deity - was built by a Muslim artisan family, known for the intricacy of their work. I wish we had more temples like this!

Inside view of the temple sanctum, with the makhar
Here is what he looks like: black stone idol, coated with red lead (shendur).

Thursday, May 10, 2007

The Taadgola Man

Ever since I posted about the Bhandaris and their affinity for toddy palm trees, I've wanted to find a taadgola seller. The taadgola is the fruit of the toddy palm tree, and is a great heat buster.

I finally found a taadgola man, sitting on the roadside, near the entrance to Siddhi Vinayak temple. He was busy slicing open taadgolas for visitors to the temple.

If you haven't eaten a taadgola before, imagine the soft flesh of a tender coconut, but slightly firmer, with a transparent sweetish liquid inside it. You bite into the flesh and the liquid squirts and squelches into your mouth.

It's perfect for Mumbai's hot summer. And if you want to transform it into high cuisine, try this really easy recipe:
Cut the fruit into small cubes. Sprinkle sugar and cardamom powder. Chill. Bring out fancy little dessert bowls, and serve it at a summer party. I bet your guests will love it!

Bazaar Walks - Discovering Unani

Arq Musaffi sold here! says the advert on this shop in the Bhendi Bazaar area. 'Oh look', I said to my friend Freni. 'It's a Unani medicine store'.

I looked up Unani a bit, and I was intrigued when I found out that Unani as a formal medicine has been practiced for more than 2000 years. So I went searching for its roots.

The first thing I found is that the word 'Unani' is Arabic for Ionian, which means Greek. So, in case you thought Unani was a 'Muslim' medicine, sorry - it's Greek!

You see, Unani was originally developed by the Greek physician Hippocrates (40 - 370 B.C.) from the medicine and traditions of the ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia. But the most famous proponent of Unani is the Persian physician Ibn Sina (Avicenna) who wrote about Unani in his medical classic al-Qanun.

So how did Unani come to Bhendi Bazaar, a Muslim locality of Mumbai?
The Mongols, that's how! When the Mongols invaded Persia and Central Asia, many scholars and physicians of Unani fled to India, where they popularised it. During the British rule in India, Unani medicine lost government patronage, but continued to be practiced in Mumbai because of its overwhelming popularity. Today, Unani is widely practiced among the Muslims of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka.

In India, Unani practitioners (hakims) are legally allowed to practice as qualified doctors.

I was curious about this shop, so I peeped in to see if the hakim was in. He had just stepped into the room at the back (where he lived). I saw rows and rows of bottles with exotic looking oils, neatly stacked. There was a little brass weighing scale, there were powders and herbs, and there were certificates hanging on the wall.

There were no patients in the clinic just then, it was a sleepy afternoon. But if a patient did walk in, then the first thing the hakim would do is check the pulse. The pulse or the nabz is the primary diagnosis tool in Unani. Urine and stool tests are also used these days, but for an experienced hakim, the pulse says it all.

So is there a science behind Unani?
Firstly, Unani is rooted in the understanding that spiritual peace is essential for good health. I'll buy that idea, scientific or not.

Second, Unani is based on the Hippocratic theory that a perfect balance of three things - elements, humours and temperament - helps in keeping the body and mind healthy. Is that scientific? You decide. It certainly sounds like a neat theory!

These are the basics of Unani:

  • The elements (arkan) in the human body are fire, water, earth and air.
  • The humours (akhlat) in the human body are blood, phlegm, yellow bile and black bile.
  • The temperament (mizaj) of a person is expressed by the preponderance of a particular humor, so your temperament could be sanguine, bilious, phlegmatic or melancholic, depending on which humour predominates.

Sounds a lot like Ayurveda, right? I can't seem to trace the connections between these two streams of medicine, one clearly dominated by Hindus, and the other by Muslims. But obviously there is something there. Material for another post perhaps!

Oh, and if you're wondering what the shop was advertising - Arq Musaffi is a blood purifier and a cure for boils and warts!

Monday, May 07, 2007

You know this flower, right?

Yeah yeah, this is a hibiscus flower, at its stunning best. You'll see it all over India, wherever you go. But did you know:
That hibiscus is traditionally burnt in ghee to form a black dye for eyebrows?

That in Bengal, it is the favourite flower of the Goddess Kali?

That the women of Kerala have traditionally used the hibiscus to make a soapy shampoo?

And if you knew all that, then - aha - I bet you didnt know these things:
That Polynesian women use the bark of the hibiscus to make grass skirts?

That karkade, or hibiscus tea is said to have been a favourite drink of the Pharaohs?

That hibiscus is called "shoe flower" because it was used to polish shoes in Jamaica?
God, I love wikipedia.

Sunday, May 06, 2007

A day well spent

Mum and I went shopping in Matunga (sarees, what else, he he he). Two hours into shopping, we realised we were broke - and hungry. Both purses were examined thoroughly. Coins were collected. Old worn notes were smoothed out. Yes! We did have some money - a hundred rupees in fact! So we set off to Ramanayak at Kings Circle, to try the Udupi thali.

'The owner eats here' said a large sign-board inside the shop. I grinned to myself. Ah well, if it was good enough for them...We asked for the menu. Hmm... 35 rupees for the thali. Mum and I looked at each other in relief - we could afford this.

Here's what we got for our money (anti-clockwise, starting with the glass):
  • Glass of buttermilk, flavoured with ginger, coriander, green chili and salt
  • Cupful of semia-kheer, noodles in sweetened milk
  • Sour and Spicy Red Rasam, with tamarind and red chili powder
  • Bright Yellow Udupi-gravy-thingy-with-coconut
  • Light Yellow Dal seasoned with mustard, tomato and green chili
  • Beans sauteed with tomatoes and red chili
  • A really yummy potato dish, seasoned with cumin
  • Shredded cabbage salad
  • Green coconut and coriander chutney
  • Mango pickle
  • Piping hot puris, heaped in the centre of the plate
  • Rice and yoghurt, which they brought later
The food was simple, not very spicy. The buttermilk was sensational, and of course, nothing quite satisfies the Tamil soul as much as rice and yoghurt, eaten with mango pickle. I was hungry, and polished it all off satisfactorily. And then, loaded with sarees and a full stomach, we staggered to the car, and went home to sleep it off. All in all, a good afternoon.