Wednesday, July 28, 2010

An Artist and a Wedding Cake

This evening I made a cake (Joy of Cooking 4 Egg Special) and while I was frosting it, I thought about the one I watched my niece create for her mother's wedding two months ago tomorrow. Erinlea is an artist in real life, so it wasn't really surprising that the cake she created was a work of art too. (And it doesn't hurt that she and her husband own a bakery.)

I was as busy as she was (with more mundane tasks like carrying chairs and sweeping verandahs) while the cake was being lovingly and painstakingly designed, so I may have missed an essential step or two, but I think I got the main stuff down.

This here is the cake. "It's a mix," Erinlea admits with disarming simplicity. "Mixes are so good these days I don't bother making them from scratch."

A key step in cake decorating, particularly if it's a chocolate cake with a light color frosting, is the step known as "Crumb-Coating."

This is a very thin layer of frosting which is applied and then allowed to dry. I never knew this. What a revelation. ALL my chocolate cakes have been frosted with chocolate frosting simply because I never knew how to deal with those pesky crumbs which would have definitely shown through any white or yellow or pale green frosting. Well, now I know.

After the crumb-coat, things get more lavish. Another key point. Don't skimp on the frosting. Erinlea arrived with an enormous bowl full of frosting - more than I have ever seen in one place. It's important not to be miserly here, especially if it's a wedding cake. Most of my cake frosting anxiety can be traced to the fact that I always make too little.

Ah! Now for the details. Here's Erinlea doing something mysterious. Oh, dear. I don't quite know what it is. Let me get back to you on this one. I'm sure it's important.

See how things are progressing! The beautiful waterfall of flowers! But she isn't satisfied to just put it on the cake and leave it at that. What is she up to? She's got a little piece of a paper towel (Viva is the one she uses) and she is actually patting it around the entire cake to make a smooth surface.

There she is doing it again. It's a meticulous process.

And there is the cake in all its glory. (There were a few steps I missed - like that sweet piping at the bottom, yellow on yellow, amazing! or when she inserted the support rods - I'd do anything to see that in action).

And because there was a dog on the scene, the box was an essential feature.

And here's the happy couple, the ones who inspired the whole production.

And the proud Mama, gazing at the artist daughter . . .

and the couple again, demonstrating that gorgeous creations can taste good too.

Though that is never necessary at any wedding, any time. There are ALWAYS children there to prove it resoundingly.

Monday, July 26, 2010

The Cottage: A Jewel In Jeolikote

I had to do some work in the funny little town of Kathgodam on Saturday. Kathgodam is like Dehradun in that it's at a bit of a height, but not much, and has a view of the mountains but the feel of a grimy city. I spent six hours with my friend Preeti visiting the organisation we had come to assess and then she returned to Dehradun and I drove on up into the hills to a place I have always wanted to visit: Jeolikote.

I think it's a good policy to go to new places prepared to fall in love. I was determined in advance that I was going to adore this place and I was right.

I found the little guest house where I stayed on the net and it couldn't have been sweeter. The rooms were beautiful:

and furnished for comfort as well as visual appeal.

The house is a treasure trove of the most exquisite carvings, paintings and artistic details,

including bathrooms painted bright orange, bright yellow and bright pink, with freehand golden birds sailing across the walls, just reminding you of all the real ones sailing across the sky right outside the window:

And the views! Spectacular, and in all directions:


with beautiful flowers and local people thrown in as extras:

But I think the nicest part of this holiday (one day! too short!) was the charming and impeccable staff at the guest house. An amazing group of lovely people who knew just when to do what.

Dauwadji (and I'm pretty sure I didn't get that spelling correct) was the man in charge and he couldn't have been more graceful or more elegant in his quiet courtesy and gentle concern for each guest's comfort.

Bhuvan Kumari runs the place with elan and panache and it's worth the trip just to meet her. Do yourself a favor and make the effort.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Entrepreneurs or: How to Sell Jo Auntie The Brooklyn Bridge

A few days ago, Moy and I were out for our usual evening stroll when we met these two young scamps. You could see the gleam in both their eyes a mile off.

"Auntie!" They called eagerly. "We've opened a shop! Come and see."

Their "shop" was a table set up in their garden. They had a bowl of soapy water and a stack of papers on it. On the lawn beside that, they had a bucket and a drum, both filled with the same soapy water. They explained that they had invented a new game in which participants rolled the pieces of paper into tubes and used them to blow bubbles in the soap solution. As this was their first item for sale, they had named the shop in its honor: Bubbly Station.

They were selling tiny bottles of the solution along with a supply of the papers for five rupees each. How could I refuse?

Except, since we were just out for a walk and not going shopping, I had no money on me. I promised to return in the evening and pick up my purchase. Of course, I promptly forgot.

The next afternoon - a Sunday, just as I was about to take a little snooze - who should appear at my gate but the two young businessmen. When I apologized for not having come back, they were all affability and charm. "No problem, Auntie! We have free home delivery."

And they had come prepared, with my bill already written up. I found to my surprise that I was being charged for TWO of the tiny bottles because of the 10 rupee minimum charge for home delivery. And somehow, as you can see from the bill below, I ended up paying 15 rupees in all.

Ah, the ways of business. Perhaps it was a tax.

But they weren't through with me yet. Recognizing a sitting duck when they saw one, they brought out their latest offering:

Hmmm, I said doubtfully. What is it?

Shocked at my ignorance, they explained that this was Bubbly Station's latest innovation: a bubbly floral showpiece, meant to be poured into a glass bowl (because I couldn't keep the bottle) and   displayed on the coffee table in the living room. Cost? Only 25 rupees. Inquiries about the exact composition of the solution were met with further shocked expressions. Trade secrets, Auntie.

When I declined politely, they had an even better offer: original art work!

And here was a truly amazing angle. On the back of the picture of Dubai (which has the tallest building in the "houl" world) it was written: Was Rs 15/Now Rs 20.  The other one, which the artist claimed had been extremely time-consuming to make, was straight up Rs 20.

Both signed by the artists, limited editions! Value increasing in front of my eyes! Again, how could I refuse? But getting a bit warier now, I bargained and managed to bring them down to Rs 30 for both.

The next evening, out on our walk again, they swooped up to us on their bicycles, all smiles. Auntie! We were just coming to meet you! Look what we have!

What they had was a paper cup filled with mossy green pebbles. 2 rupees for each one.

"OK, guys," I said.  "I think it's time for your school to re-open."

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Traffic Jam in the Three Vehicle Family's Driveway

It's a complicated life when you use wheelchairs to get around. Just ask Moy.

She uses the one in the front for her in-house mobility. It matches the living room furniture and has padded footrests for extra comfort. But it's heavy and it doesn't fold.

So then there's the red and black one: waterproof, light-weight and portable. She uses that to sit in when she takes a bath and then asks me to put it in the sun to dry so that it's available in case we want to pop it in the car for a trip to church, a restaurant or a friend's place which is too far to walk to.

And for those walking excursions, the  blue one is our favorite. That's the sports car in our lineup and where would we be without it? Moy Masi gave it to her niece over ten years ago. It's been through three cover changes and two sets of tires. It's all-terrain, comfortable and secure even without seatbelts and lets us march all over Vasant Vihar, FRI and Indira Nagar with ease.

Over the top? Perhaps. But at least they are all clean, green, and eco-friendly! And they keep Moy right in the center of the universe, where she belongs.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

The Dancing COO

We knew he was special right from the start.

Deepak left a lucrative job with IBM to come and work with the Foundation - the drop he took in salary was so staggering it might be called a plummet - but he seemed not to give that even a second thought.

For his interview, I asked Ravi to join me because I wanted a second opinion. After Deepak left, Ravi said: "Grab him. You aren't going to find another person like this."

We were both impressed with his degree of professionalism and the extent to which he had prepared in advance. He seemed to have memorized our website - he knew every project inside and out and had even looked through the balance sheets from our previous years. He came ready with suggestions for how to streamline systems and ideas for how to more efficiently manage the Foundation.

We were dazzled.

And over the next year, he not only didn't disappoint, he continued to shine. Management and financial skills, of course, we expected. That's what he was trained in and what he had promised to deliver. But where he surprised us was with his insight into people, his constant ability to find the positive in almost any situation and his gift - with humor and charm - for encouraging all of us to do more.

He sets the example. Since I live next door to our office, I am aware of everyone's comings and goings - Deepak could give even VANDANA a run for her money (and we all know how devoted Vandana is). Many nights, I see his light on after ten. One night, he slept in the office because it got so late he didn't want to disturb his whole family by ringing the bell at home.

So it seemed like we had all we could wish for in this Chief Operating Officer (did I mention he can also write beautifully?).

But this week, at our staff retreat, we discovered there was more.

Deepak can dance.

Bharatnatyam, Kathak, Bhangra. OK, a little unusual to have all three, but they are his national heritage, after all.

He stunned us, however, by further demonstrating the steps for the foxtrot, the salsa, the waltz and the tango! . . .

. . . leaving us, in the words of my favorite fictional character, Stephen Maturin, "all to seek."

Truly a marvel. I am waiting eagerly for the next surprise. A Waltzing COO. What could possibly be next?

Friday, July 2, 2010

Turn By Turn

With 73 children, two pools and very few staff or kids who know how to swim,  we have to be very careful on our annual Latika Vihar picnic. We are constantly vigilant when the kids are in the pool and rigid about maintaining our "schedule:" boys swim for half an hour, then the girls; little ones in the baby pool, older ones in the big one.

Except at staff swim. Then it's all caution to the winds.

At first the children thought it was entertaining to watch their teachers cavort and splash.

It was a whole new way of looking at them - those serious adults, playing and shouting just as if they were kids themselves.

But after awhile, it started to get a bit wearisome. There we were, in the water, having fun, and there THEY were, standing on the side, getting hotter and hotter.

They began talking amongst themselves. And then began to countdown: FIVE, FOUR, THREE, TWO, ONE!

Until finally, we had to concede defeat and give the pool back to them. 

We were good sports, too. Not that we had much choice . . .

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Dream Based Assessments

Today our own Dr Sebastian described for us his new approach to assessing children at Karuna Vihar. In addition to all the usual things he has always looked at, he's added one special twist: he asks parents what their dreams are for their child. What are they planning? What do they hope for? How do they see that child in ten years?

It's radical in so many ways.

It helps parents begin to see the need to think long-term, to plan realistically, to accept in concrete ways the special needs their child will always have. But it also helps us as we work with families to achieve those dreams. If part of a child's file contains "Parents dream he will one day manage a corner shop" or "Parents believe she can be a chef's assistant," we, too, work differently.

We've got a goal. We may need to adjust it as we go, as the child him or herself grows up and begins expressing his/her own dreams, or as reality points out the flaws in our planning, but at least we've got something to work toward.

At the Latika Vihar picnic yesterday, I was struck, as I so often am, by the vibrancy of our children, by their curiosity and wonder and eagerness to live, to learn, to grow and achieve. And as I listened to Dr Sebastian this afternoon, I thought about those children and their dreams. Is anyone asking them what they want, what they hope for, what they aspire to?

This child captures it all for me. I have watched her change from a shy, worried little "old soul," burdened beyond her years with responsibilities and limits, to the glorious free spirit pictured here - chiefly because of Latika Vihar and the freedom and opportunities she has experienced here. But what does her future hold? What are her dreams and can we really help her fulfill them when everything - the family she was born into, the school she attends, the system she is growing up in - says she has no right to those dreams?

I look at this glorious child, alive with promise and possibility, with everything before her and no earthly reason to fail, and I wonder what in in the name of all that is holy we are doing to her and to her friends.

And I wonder what answer we will give when we have to explain ourselves to her Creator, when we have to make excuses for trampling on her dreams . . .