Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Curried Pumpkin Soup: A Perfect Meal


Here's a recipe for a pumpkin soup which I guarantee you will love. I have made it for over a hundred people and it has never yet failed to please.

  • 2 medium onions, finely chopped (2 cups)
  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • 4 large garlic cloves, minced
  • 3 1/2 tablespoons minced peeled fresh ginger
  • 2 teaspoons ground cumin
  • 1 teaspoon ground coriander
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons salt
  • black pepper to taste
  • 3/4 teaspoon dried hot red pepper flakes
  • 2 (15-oz) cans solid-pack pumpkin (3 1/2 cups; not pie filling) (here in India, we use fresh!)
  • 4 cups water
  • 1 1/2 cups vegetable stock (12 fl oz)
  • 1 (14-oz) can unsweetened coconut milk (not low-fat)
  • 2 Tbsp olive oil
  • 2 teaspoons black mustard seeds
  • fresh curry leaves
If you are using fresh pumpkin, peel it and cut it in chunks, then boil it till soft. Puree it in a blender or mash it with a fork till smooth. 

Cook the onions in the butter in a wide 6-quart heavy pot over low heat, stirring occasionally, until softened, 3 to 5 minutes. 

Add garlic and ginger and cook, stirring, 1 minute. 

Add cumin and coriander and cook, stirring, 1 minute. 

Stir in salt, black pepper, red pepper flakes, pumpkin, water, broth, and coconut milk and simmer, uncovered, stirring occasionally, 30 minutes. 

Heat oil in a small heavy skillet over moderately high heat until hot but not smoking, then add mustard seeds until they begin to pop, about 15 seconds. Add the curry leaves and cook 5 seconds, then pour this mixture into the soup. Stir until combined well and season soup with salt. Soup can be thinned if necessary with additional water. 

Serve with a good whole wheat bread, lashings of butter and a tossed salad. A perfect little feast.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Ain't Complaining

It's the Lenten homestretch. Today is Palm Sunday and tomorrow we move into Holy Week: Holy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday - Easter!

While the trend now is to do good things rather than give up good things, I find the old discipline helpful.

When I was a kid, I used to give up chocolate or desserts. For many years, I gave up butter. Once, in a special burst of piety, I gave up bread as well.

Why do we do it? I remember trying to explain it to an atheist friend in Mumbai a few years ago and sounding awkward and unconvincing (or maybe I was just embarrassed). One reason is because it's important to see what controls you. Remember the Janis Joplin song?: "Freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose . . ." Sometimes the things holding us back from freedom are so slight it's humiliating.We would like to think of ourselves as large and passionate with sins and passions to match, but in fact we're more likely to be done in by that desperate need for coffee or air conditioning or hot showers than by forbidden love or espionage or a chance to juggle the books at work for a cool million.

This Lent, I gave up wine and computer games. Both had developed into unhealthy and slightly obsessive pleasures . . . especially, oddly enough, the computer games. Or game. I was only playing one: a very silly one whose name I will not divulge for fear that you too will become addicted. For the first few days, I didn't know what to do with my hands. As soon as I went near my computer my hands - all by themselves - would automatically open the game and try to start playing. It was a conscious act of will not to let them. After three days, I had mastered the automatic pilot problem, but even now, there are times when I wander around aimlessly, not sure how to occupy myself. Instructive.

As for the wine-less evenings: very difficult! But the mornings after! No fuzzy, aching head, no metallic taste in my mouth, no trying to remember whether I had consumed two glasses or three . . . and the payoff in terms of productivity has been astonishing. I had had no idea how the edge gets dulled and blunted by too much to drink the night before.

I did cheat a few times (there is a traditional St Patrick's Day dispensation, and then one for those whose birthdays fall during Lent, etc. etc) but by and large I toed the line. As for the computer games - I didn't slip up even once.

But these concrete physical habits, while challenging, are easy compared to habits of the mind and heart. Physical habits can be corralled and observed more easily. You can guard against them by not having wine in the house or leaving the laptop at the office. Your choices are right there in front of you and most of the time you make them consciously.

My third discipline was to STOP COMPLAINING and to be honest, I can't even tell you how I've done. I've caught myself mid-whine so many times it's clear I must be doing it a lot more than I realize. It's all-pervasive! It's too hot, it's too cold, I wish he wouldn't do that, why does she have to call now, can't I ever eat in peace, there goes the phone again, why does he have to put it there, I'm always the one, that makes me sick, that makes me mad . . . as often as not, it's just a voice in my head and Lord, how it does go on! It can almost be funny it's so incessant.

But in fact, of course, it's not funny at all. It's boring and pointless and a damn nuisance. So I have enjoyed the chance this Lent has provided to become aware of it and begin to root it out. Stay tuned for sweetness and light and a totally positive new spin on everything.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Priyam Bhargava: Birthday Girl

My mentor and role-model Vina, soon to be 80, has a secret recipe for happiness: make young friends, she advises.

At 52, I am in that category for her and our friendship makes me feel good while it keeps her in touch with a whole world she might otherwise know nothing of.

But I am just one of many, and I watch with amazement as she cultivates the friendship of my own children, the young staff of the Foundation, her grandchildren and her great nieces and nephews. It's a gift and a lesson and I am honoring her by celebrating one of our own young ones: Priyam Bhagarva who turns 24 today and who is one of the bright lights in MY life.

Priyam joined the Foundation over a year ago and I am still in awe of her energy and devotion. She has a wealth of knowledge and understanding about marketing and fund-raising, yet she remains endlessly patient with my caution and nervousness. There is literally nothing she can't do where computers and design are concerned - all I have to do is send her the problem and she comes up with a solution. I am trying to imitate her. It's an attitude. She assumes that the world is her oyster, and that the answers, like pearls, lie within. Who am I to contradict her?

It is a joy to work with a person like Priyam. She reminds me every day of why I am here, of what is possible and what remains to be accomplished.

The other day I found a photo of Priyam as a child at Latika Vihar. In those days, she was one of our bright stars, one of the many, one whom I watched, knowing she was destined for a good life, with purpose and accomplishment. But never, back then, did I dream she would be one of my young colleagues, a member of our staff and a profound influence in the Foundation . . .

And so today, I join her friends and family in celebrating her birthday and her length of days, in giving thanks for such a vibrant and dedicated young woman and asking for her health and long life, that all the many things she wants to and can accomplish will come to pass, and that what she has to offer will be celebrated and renowned. How lucky we are to know her!

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Scoop: Quality Control

Moy Moy has been eating Ensure for five years now. She goes through two tins every week which makes 520 tins since she got the tube put in.

520 tins.

Each one comes with a little blue scoop as the standard measure and I always save the one from the previous tin because I am always nervous that it will be missing in the new one.

But hurrah for Ensure! It hasn't been missing even once. 520 times I have opened those tins and each time when I discover that familiar pale blue scoop buried yet again in that powdered food,  I say a little prayer of thanks to the combined forces of technology and business and medicine and simple old-fashioned day to day care which keep our darling girl fed. Aren't we lucky to be alive here and now, in this century with these solutions? And whoever those factory workers are who make sure a little scoop is included in each and every tin: I salute you!

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Sign Language

Sign language! What an amazing and expressive form of communication. In our organisation, I've noticed that the women who love to dance are also the most fluent signers . . .

At the recent RCI conference I attended in Delhi, I witnessed India's best sign language interpreter in full form.

Arun Rao is the founder and director of Deafway and his signing is simply a joy to watch. I don't know sign (though it's on my list of "must do's for the next decade), but Arun makes me feel as if I am not only proficient, but fluent.

He interprets with so much feeling and expression that it's almost impossible not to "get" what is being said. The other interpreters were also excellent, but Arun added a punch and a radiance and the sheer pleasure of the language to his interpretation. It made it so obvious that it is indeed a language and that some people are simply more articulate than others.

And of course, there was the added treat that he was interpreting for Akhil Paul, Director of Sense International, and a legend in his own right.

The first time I met Akhil was at a conference in Delhi many years ago. I kept noticing this fellow who seemed to be everywhere, particularly when there was any sort of a technical problem. Without being asked, he would leap to the rescue and sort things out quietly and without fanfare. We made friends then and I've been watching his work with great interest ever since.

The combination of an Akhil and an Arun was explosive. Deep calling unto Deep, indeed!

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Government Websites in India

Is there some rule that says the Government of India MUST make its websites as impenetrable, tedious and boring as humanly possible?

Here's a screen shot from the Ministry of Social Justice. I spent an hour wading through its nightmarish pages (6 point font size) trying to find the "scheme" I was looking for.

And here's one from the Rehabilitation Council of India:

which is entertaining and concisely written: "As the annual turnover of professional manpower trained through the regular institutions could hardly meet the demand of trained manpower in the area of special education and rehabilitation, the council envisaged its vision to render services to all people with disabilities in the country and providing them age and disability appropriate continuum of rehabilitation services, opted for the other mode of curriculum transaction, i.e., distance mode." 

With all the wonderful website designers who are looking for work in this country (I could give references for any number, right this minute), does the Government HAVE to go to H. N. Boring and Sons Pvt Ltd EVERY time???/


Monday, March 15, 2010

What's For Lunch?

One of the best parts of living in India is the way vegetables are delivered straight to our doorstep . . . either from our own garden (the green leafies at the bottom of the basket) or from our friendly neighborhood sabzi-walla who appears at the gate each morning with his fully laden cart.

We plan our menu for the day based on what he's got in stock.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Little Girls, Spotted Owls and Kids with Down Syndrome

Over 100 million baby girls are missing. Don't bother searching - they're gone forever. Victims of what The Economist magazine - in its March 6th cover story - calls gendercide, these babies were detected to be female while still in the womb and then selectively aborted because their parents preferred sons.

It is a hideous reality, particularly here in North India, where the sex ratio in some areas (Haryana, Punjab and Rajasthan are particularly bad) is 120 boys to 100 girls. And the long term social consequences of an abnormal number of unattached men is frightening to consider.

But I'm thinking a little more widely here - not just about the horror of targeting little girls, but the horror of targeting any baby, for any reason.

Sow the wind, reap the whirlwind.

Women have long been constrained by biology. We are the ones who get pregnant. And children, even when they are wanted and planned and eagerly anticipated, are still disruptive and demanding. For women with health issues, pregnancy can be life-threatening. For poor women, another child may tip the balance into misery and chaos. And for anyone with career ambitions, having a baby almost always means postponing them.

So legal, safe abortion seemed like an answer to prayer - the perfect solution to an unwanted pregnancy.  But many things are not what they seem, and many great ideas turn out, years later, to be not so great.

We can  seldom predict the long term ripple effect of our actions. Surely no feminist marching for the "right to choose" back in the 60's and 70's could ever have imagined that so many women would take that right and use it to kill their daughters. Surely no feminist could have imagined that the right to abortion would end up skewing the sex ratio to such an extent that even sociologists, economists and government bureaucrats are alarmed.

Because the killing was supposed to be random. Abortion was meant to be an equal opportunity destroyer. Any baby - black or brown or white, rich or poor, male or female - was supposed to have had as good a chance as any other of being targeted. The only criteria was supposed to be wantedness.

So what a shock it must have been for pro-choice activists to find that cutting across all categories - the rich, the poor, the black, brown and white, the male, the female - little girls weren't wanted. And in such large numbers that sex ratios -  a force of nature which even self-corrects for boys' greater susceptibility to infant disease - were massively affected.

You might be forgiven for thinking that pro-choice feminists would shake their heads and sigh and leave it at that. After all, the fight was never for abortion - it was for choice. And if women are choosing something I don't happen to like, well, that's their choice. Right?


Pro-choice activists and traditional feminists around the world are united in their fight against "gendercide"  and "the targeted destruction of baby girls." Here in India, there is a concerted effort to prevent ultrasound clinics from revealing the sex of the baby and every state has a well-orchestrated campaign against female feticide.

Because girls are key. Where would any of us be without them?

In ecological terms, girls are a keystone species: one whose presence is crucial to a particular ecosystem and whose destruction can damage it irreparably.

That's obvious. But keystone species are usually not obvious. At least, they're not the ones on the hit parade.  Lions, tigers and elephants are not on the list. Keystoners are more likely to be the spotted owl, the brine shrimp or the humble lichen. The kind of creatures you don’t notice until they’re gone.

That lichen, for example: it's a colonizing organism which can revitalize soil devastated by volcanic ash, fix its own nitrogen and even disintegrate rocks, and it may seem dispensable – it’s only a fungus, after all. But without it, the ecosystem of the Arctic region would suffer cataclysmically and the entire planet would be affected.

The furor and the outrage over gendercide fills me with hope. If even pro-choice activists can object to the targeted destruction of a specific group,  maybe babies with disability, long the completely acceptable target of amniocentesis detection and subsequent abortion, will be next on the endangered species list, right up there with the snail darter and the spotted owl. It may take a bit more imagination, but perhaps some Nobel Laureate will realize, for example, that a world without Down Syndrome kids  (the number of kids with Downs has plummeted in the West, far more precipitously than the decline of girls) would be a poor world indeed. That Nobel Laureate may even be able to figure out why.

We share the earth with a staggering array of life forms, each important in its own way. Saying we are all interconnected is not a platitude, it is a fact. While inclusion has been packaged as the path of virtue, it is really just plain common sense – even self-interest. We exclude at our peril.

But this utilitarian view of inclusion is a narrow and limited one. Beyond it is yet another: one which revels in the sheer variety the earth contains and celebrates life for its own sake, not for what it does for us. It’s a wonderful world, unpredictable and full of surprising twists and turns. Which sex you are, whether you have a brilliant mind or are physically independent are just a few illusory facts which could all change in the twinkling of an eye.

And the keystone species theory, while fun for the way it turns accepted wisdom on its head, is really just another more sophisticated form of exclusion: what about the poor old lion, now that the spotted owl is lord of the jungle?

Girls, owls and people with disabilities enrich our lives in ways we cannot begin to fathom and those of us lucky enough to be ecologists in these particular ecosystems can make grateful lists of rocks they have disintegrated and nitrogen they have created from thin air.

But that’s a bonus. Like the rest of us, they’re all here because God made them. There is no need for them to justify their existence. For just as “every cubic inch of space is a miracle”, so every single species is a keystone species.

PHOTO CREDITS: Two Girls, Hiding: Jo; Owlet: Nicola Tansley; Abhishek with Manju: Ken Carl

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Twenty Minutes Alone

It's a Sunday afternoon. Ravi is traveling. Moy Moy has gone for a nap and is actually asleep. Mummy and Masiji are also dozing. I sent Padma home early. I am "alone. "

This is the best I can do.

In the past 26 years, I have not been truly alone in my own house for more than 15 minutes at a stretch and that has happened, perhaps, five times.

Nowadays, with Mummy, Masiji and Moy Moy all housebound unless I orchestrate their trips out, being truly alone is impossible. In such situations, the only option is to change the definition.

Now "alone" means that everyone is out of sight, not making noises (coughing is included) and not likely to emerge for a predictable period of time. This kind of alone-ness is delicate. I tiptoe around the house nervously, alert for any sounds of life, always slightly on tenterhooks, knowing it's all about to end soon.

Don't get me wrong. I love everyone I live with. In fact, I love pretty much everyone I meet. But being alone! There are days when I long for it as one does for cold water or sunshine. To have the freedom to bask on the verandah with a book, or to sit silently, staring into space without having to answer anybody's questions . . . as comfortable as I am in India, this is one fundamental part of life here which I have yet to adapt to: the idea that one is always happiest surrounded by others, that being alone is to be avoided or endured but never embraced.

20 minutes is all I get. Mummy's 3 o'clock student is at the gate now and I must open the door and let him in. In a moment, he will be in her room and I will hear their voices in the familiar question - answer routine which goes on every day. Masiji will sigh and get up to escape it by coming into the kitchen where I sit perched on a stool typing. Any second now, Moy Moy will wake up and I will give her her milk and take her out for a walk.

Twenty minutes.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Shaila Faleiro: Special Educator, Special Mom

Visiting Shaila in Bangalore was, as my father would put it:
"Basic and fundamental and a little bit of heaven." This is the view from her verandah where I sat one morning all by myself, working on the talk I was giving later that afternoon and occasionally glancing up to admire the baskets and the trees and the fine, soft feel of the air.

But it wasn't the climate, or the incredible comforts of her beautiful home or the amazing food or the fact that she was willing to do anything for me.

Nope. It was Shaila herself.

There are some people who are simply a joy to be around. Shaila is one of them. She has this quality of rapt attention for her friends which makes each one feel they are the wittiest, most important and bewitching person there is.

This is great for grownups, but just imagine how wonderful it must be to be her child. So many of us seem to forget a good bit of the time how fascinating our children are, how complex their minds, how mysterious their inner lives. We get caught up in the tedium of getting them fed and bathed and off to school each day and neglect their hectic, vivid imaginations. Not Shaila.

Raoul, her adorable and yes - bewitching - son is the perfect advertisement for her skills as a mother. He is calm, curious, self-contained and a quirky little bundle of energy, observation and insight. And because his mother is so interested in him, he, in turn, is interested in everyone and everything around him.

Shaila was our first special educator at Karuna Vihar. She says that's where she learned how to be a good mother. She was just a kid when we hired her, but even then, she had the wisdom of the ages. We quoted her on our very first calendar: "At first," she said, "you see only the disability. But in an amazingly short time, you stop seeing the disability and see only the child."

As my surrogate daughter and a young special educator, she made me very proud then. But seeing her now as such a remarkable and radiant young mother - well, she makes me feel like dancing.