Friday, December 29, 2006

Hari Ke Samose!

You've got to eat these to believe a word of this story.
Original was prinited here.

Bishwadeep Moitra
Triangle River Tango
The aloo-less samosa of Hari Ki Namkeen is one of Loknath Gali's many splendours

You take the aloo out of the samosa, you take the heart out of the body. But you put the heart back in with a special mix of spices, and you have 'samosa for the soul'. That's what Mitthulal, a financier-broker gone bust, did about a century ago in Allahabad. And thus was born a mouth-watering marvel—the masala samosa. The great and good of the Indian National Congress, stalwarts of Hindi literature, professors and students, high court judges and local goondas—all had a special place in their hearts and mouths for this triangular treat.

Along with the food, Loknath Gali thrived on juicy gossip. The taller your tale, the more sought after you were.

And visiting dignitaries, having savoured Mitthulal's speciality, would pack some to take away in the shop's distinctive woven-leaf containers.

Winding up his failing finance business in Agra and cashing in on his acquaintance with Motilal Nehru—a flourishing
lawyer in Allahabad then—Mitthulal shifted base to set up his namkeen shop in Loknath Gali, a stone's throw from the senior Nehru's house in the city's Meerganj locality. Jawaharlal was born in this Meerganj house and the Nehrus continued to live here until they moved to the sprawling Anand Bhawan (much later, Meerganj would become Allahabad's red-light district). But to come back to Mitthulal and his aloo-less samosa story—he named the shop after his son Hari, and Hari Ki Namkeen in Loknath Gali soon became a local legend, catering at grand parties and weddings, including those of Vijayalakshmi Pandit and Indira Gandhi.

Towards the end of nineteenth century, the British had begun to develop Allahabad as a modern city on western lines. Until then it had been a sleepy, largely agrarian settlement that only came to life during the Kumbh Mela. Now, grand colonial structures began to come up—Allahabad University, Muir Hall, Public Library, Stone Church (aka paththar girja) and Alfred Park. The high court and the university attracted the upper-class gentry and educated professionals to the city, from whose ranks emerged literary luminaries, high court judges, celebrated lawyers, intellectuals and administrators. And since the Nehrus lived here, Allahabad also became the nerve-centre of the freedom movement.

The new Allahabad of the early 1900s was lined with wide avenues, sprawling bungalows and smart shops—this was the Civil Lines. But Chowk remained the traditional bazaar, with its crowded, lively and narrow lanes, and Loknath Gali was its heart as well as its stomach—it served as what would today be called a food court, for traders and shoppers. Here, the chatterati of Allahabad would congregate, to gossip and eat. A typical Loknath Gali evening would follow this course: you started from the northern end of the street—the city side—and sauntered to the end of the gali at the Baba Loknath Temple (the area was called Sarai Meer Khan before the temple was built), sampling the fare on offer along the way. The first course would be an assortment of chaat, followed by dahi jalebi or kulfi faluda. If you were counted among the shaukeens, you would stop by for bhang kulfi or bhang thandai. And as you waited for the kimam-khushbu paan at the end of the stroll, you ordered Hari namkeen's masala samosa to be packed for home.

The time one spent at Loknath Gali depended on one's tale-telling skills. If your masala-of-the-day was gossip involving a city celebrity, you not only had a captive audience, you ensured brisk sales at the eateries around your durbar. Loknath Gali still resounds with echoes of old scandals. One goes like this: one day Firaq Gorakpuri, the famous Urdu poet, pronounced that only two and a half people knew proper English in India. The first of course was Firaq himself. The second was Dr S. Radhakrishnan. And a certain Jawaharlal Nehru was the half in the august list.

But Firaq's detractors—and they were many—sneered at him for including Nehru at all. Dismissing Nehru's Harrow-and-Oxford education, they said that what got him onto Firaq's list was simply that the poet had a great weakness for pretty boys.

The other tale you hear is about a certain Sikh damsel who studied at the Allahabad University's English department in the late 30s. The beautiful young woman's name hadn't got suffixed with a Bachchan yet. At the campus, she was known as something of a rebel. Allahabad University prided itself as a place for the liberal-minded and welcomed people with radical ideas and lifestyles. Yet custodians of liberty at the university had to stretch their moral fabric a wee bit more to accommodate our lady's rights of expression. By wearing lipstick and a sleeveless blouse in the classroom, she set the moral police on her hunt. Her English professor—a venerable university stalwart—objected to this attire, and even threatened to resign. But the lady refused to budge and stood her ground. Such was her charm and aura, or so the legends of Loknath Gali maintain, that the vice-chancellor of the university intervened on her behalf and the poor professor had to back down.

Loknath Gali has not changed much since those days. You still hear the tallest tales there. If it was drizzling when you entered the gali, by the time you reach the Baba Loknath temple you would hear people talking about the hailstorm that has just lashed the town. The past exists in easy harmony with the present. In one of the many narrow lanes someone will point out a building that is falling apart—the Sanskrit Mahavidyalaya, set up by Pandit Madan Mohan Malviya, and still functioning.

This neighbourhood doesn't look like it will succumb to Allahabad's new builders, who are tearing down the fabulous bungalows to make group housing flats. A local wag avers the lanes here are too narrow for the builder to move in his bulldozers, so they are safe for now. And safe too is the statue of Pandit Kalyan Chand Mohiley, which stands stately at the Loknath Gali entrance. Mohiley who? you would ask. And why him in a city that has given India four PMs and a refusing-to-retire superstar? Well, Mohiley was four-time MLA from the area. That's attitude, Loknath Gali-style, for you. That deep-rooted self-assurance and unabashed local pride ensure that a Big Mac or even a dosa will never threaten the supremacy of Hari's samosas.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Merry Christmas!

Turn up the volume and enjoy!!

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Mumbai immigration deports NRI children

Another sad story..
Mumbai Airport immigration officials deported seven-year-old Viraj Shriwardhankar and his three-and-a-half-year-old brother Vrishabh two hours after they landed in India last week.
Their parents' plea for a transit or temporary visa was summarily denied.
The officials granted a two-day transit visa to a French national at the same time, their father Vijay Shriwardhankar wrote in an e-mail. 'The French national has white skin while Viraj and Vrishabh have brown skin.'
Vijay and his wife Vaishali Prabhu, both natives of Mumbai who have worked as IT professionals for nine years in Boston, said they 'cried' when they described their experience at Mumbai airport. Both Vijay and Vaishali are Indian citizens and have a Green Card. Their sons are born in the US and hence, American citizens.
The family left Boston on December 11 for a four-week vacation in India by Air France flight 337. 'The Air France agent verified our Green Cards along with our passports but did not ask about the Indian visa for our children who have US passports. At Paris the officials never verified our sons' visa but verified our Green Cards,' Shriwardhankar said.
When the family arrived in Mumbai they realised they had not brought the visas for the children with them.
Their elder son has a ten-year Indian visa in an old passport which the family did not carry with them. The younger son has a Person of Indian Origin card. That too the family did not have with them.
The family requested an immigration official for temporary or transit visas for the children.
They also told the official they could get the documents faxed from Boston.
'The official would not even look at us, let alone hear our pleas,' Vaishali said. 'I have never seen such inhuman behaviour.'
No one was bothered that the children had already traveled for about 24 hours. 'There was absolutely no humanity shown by the ACP (Assistant Commissioner of Police) Immigration or Air France officials,' Vijay said.
The official would grant the family only 45 minutes for the documents to be faxed to Mumbai. 'We requested a little more time. But he would not heed us,' Vaishali said.
'I requested my friend in Boston to go to my house and fax the visa papers immediately. She was already on her way to get those papers. I was begging the Immigration ACP and Air France officials to allow us to wait at the airport until officials received the fax but they didn't want to do anything about it and forced us to take the flight at 2:40,' Vijay said.
The officials received the fax 10 minutes after the flight departed, the couple discovered later.
'We asked to see a higher official, but it was not allowed saying the boss had already left. How can an airport function without a senior officer?' Vaishali asked.
After the stipulated 45 minutes, an official, Deepak Grover, gave the children a Notice of Refused to Land.
Two hours after their arrival in India, the family left Mumbai.
'I absolutely accept my big mistake of forgetting the visa. I am a human being and can make mistakes. I was trying to see an alternative so my kids did not have to travel 22 hours again,' Vijay said.
'I am sure the guys got a peaceful sleep that night. I have not met such cold persons in my life who don't understand or feel the sorrow of the kids. We left with my kids crying and my family members outside in a state of shock,' Vijay said.
'The worst part was that there was a Frenchman from the same flight sitting in the immigration office who forgot to even apply for an Indian visa. The immigration official gave him a two-day transit visa.'
'The immigration official said he would have sent us back even if I had a two-month-old baby. But for white skin laws will be different,' Vijay noted.
'The children are very upset. The elder son questions the behaviour of people in India,' Vaishali said.
The family plans to leave for India in a few days. 'I feel ashamed of being an Indian. The Frenchman told me, "I am surprised how immigration personnel are treating you even after you being an Indian." What kind of world are we living in? The officials could have checked the computer for details since the children had visited India many times earlier,' Vijay said.
'India is the only democratic country that doesn't allow a transit visa to any foreign national,' he said. 'Yet our politicians want to improve tourism in India.'
'I am writing this with great pain that my family had a terrible experience with the Mumbai immigration department and Air France. I would like to share that with you to see if anything can be done so that such things would not occur in the future,' Vijay wrote.
'I know no one can reimburse for the suffering and torture we went through. I would be highly obliged if action is taken in this matter.'

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Sad Story..

James Kim died of exposure and hypothermia while looking for help for his family that was stranded in the middle of an un-traveled road.
I am sure you have heard or read about it. If not, the sfchronical (and here) does a good job to describe what happened.

It reminds me of the beautiful, but obviously treacherous mountains and roads of the Southern Oregon/ Northern California forests.
We were in the same area in Oct 2004, though took a somewhat different route – drove down from Portland, OR, took 18 West to the 101 going south. The day was wet and dark.

We drove on the scenic 101 from Otis to Florence. By the time we reached Florence, it was pretty dark, and we did not find it practical or prudent to keep driving on the 101. We looked up the maps, saw this road cutting back to I-5 meeting it in Eugene (126 East) . Lucky for us, it was a state highway and not some forest route. The Kims took a chance and tried cutting it to the coast to Gold Beach from I-5 from Grants Pass. They took the Bear Camp Road. The Gold Beach Maps and Travel info site has this about the Bear Camp Road:

“Regarding Bear Camp Road (also known as Merlin-Galice Road, Forest Service Road 33); This is NOT a highway and is not a maintained thoroughfare! Although on some maps it may appear to be a more direct route to Gold Beach, it's not a highway in any sense. It's a forest service road, closed in winter, and is mostly one-lane with no fog lines, no guard rails, no shoulder, and plenty of wash-outs, mudslides and potholes. Cell phones don't work in much of that area and after you pass the Agness turnoff, there is nothing but wilderness until you get to the other side of the mountain range at I-5.”

We, on the other hand, drove to Eugene, found the I-5 and kept driving south. Our destination was Mount Shasta in North California. So it was still quiet a bit of drive from Eugene. The night was wild – to put it mildly. The rains lashed at the car mercilessly. When we reached up the mountains – I thought that it hailed as well. It was the most scary drive of my life. While on the highway, the 18 whealers flashed their headlights at us – I still could never figure out why!!

We reached our hotel at about 2 in the morning. It was probably the longest day for me on the road – and air (we flew into Portland from Raleigh – an 8-9 hours trip!!) The road trip was about another 7-8 hours.
Through dense forest that probably didn’t see sunlight in years, through rain, and fog, through hail and most probably through snow, we kept driving towards our destination.

The next was the most beautiful, sunny day I have ever seen. Even though the weather services predicted another soggy day, the sun shone at the top of its glory!!
Everybody we met that day had a smil on their face. They were all happy we made it to Mount Shasta safely.

James made the ultimate sacrifice for his family! I am sure that anyone of us will do exactly what he did. It was just a bad decision, one mistake. On his day he would have shrugged it off the next morning, but not that day.
R.I.P James.

The beautiful Oregon Coast. Oct, 2004.

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Sunday, December 03, 2006

Somini Sengupta asking the wrong questions.... again.


You are at it again.

You are no better than the Congress Party, or the Samajwadi Party or the BJP etc. Sensationalizing a story is an art you are good at. While “Whether India can deliver the fruits of economic progress to the many Muslims at the bottom of the ladder remains a crucial question” is a decent enough question to ask, the bigger question is, obviously, “Whether India can deliver the fruits of economic progress to the millions of INDIANS at the bottom of the ladder remains a crucial question”. You talk about roughly 8 to 10 percent of the population, while the bigger problem covers 60 - 70 percent. When people like you stop distinguishing INDIANS between Hindus and Muslims and Sikhs and Christians – only then can we move away from the dirty politics of vote and start the long process of nation building in the true sense.

When you write a news memo in the New York Times with the title “Report Shows Muslims Near Bottom of Social Ladder” (also available here), it is bound to be read by at least 5 people who will have policy making power in India and guess what they will think .. they will see this as nothing but an opportunity of getting votes.. they will rise up tomorrow morning and throw the idea of making reservations based on religion, a devastating idea that will further divide an already fractured country.

I hope you will make better use of your time and write about more important things – about how politicians use religion and caste as tools to woo voters. About how minority appeasement is so common in the country, about how the appeasement does not end up benefiting the involved minorities, but instead break India’s ethos and wreck any chance of any advancement of any religion or minority in any part of the country. Or start at something simple – how about how caste and religion plays an important part in the Great Indian Democracy. Come election time – the common man hears phrases like ‘ Vote your Caste’ or ‘He is of that releigion/caste’ etc.

So there you go– I hope you will ponder on these ideas and your next story will not stink of an agenda to wreak India.

You have the power of the pen – use it constructively.