Tuesday 31 October 2017

In spice-laden Kerala, a break from urban India

Younger Indians, flush with disposable income and a new found appreciation of the cultural riches within their own borders, have discovered Kerala. And for good reason, writes Kim Severson on the NYT. He saunters around Kerala's spice gardens, organic farms and tea estates. For him, Kerala is a 'cook's' own country. Read on: 

The skinny, 80-year-old Indian yogi was doing his best to suggest ways I might adjust my ample 55-year-old American body into a passable downward dog.

I admired his ambition. I’m an enthusiastic but generally bad practitioner of yoga. But here in the darkened yoga hut at Spice Village, a botanically focused resort on 14 organic acres in the middle of the Cardamom Hills of Kerala, on India’s southwestern coast, I thought I had found a kindred soul on the mat next to me. Her downward dog wasn’t looking so good, either. We smiled at each other in that awkward, supportive way tourists sometimes do.

After class, we chatted. I asked her where she was from. The 37-year-old mom told me she was from Mumbai and came to Kerala because she needed a break.

She and her husband, both born and raised in India, had left their young son with relatives for the weekend and headed south to this land of coconuts and clear air — the way a tired Manhattanite might take to the Hudson Valley or a Londoner to Brighton.

A tea plantation in Munnar, Kerala. Credit Evan Sung for The New York Times
I ran into more than one city-bound Indian tourist like her as I roamed through the spice plantations, tea estates and beaches in this slice of Southwest India. Younger Indians, flush with disposable income and a newfound appreciation of organic food, holistic living and the cultural riches within their own borders, have discovered Kerala.

“All of this has happened in the last six or seven years,” said Shelton Pinheiro, the executive creative director at Stark Communications, a tourism and marketing agency working with the region. “There has been a revival in local, regional things, especially among people who have traveled abroad and come home to discover what they have here is just as special.”

We were talking over lime sodas and spicy chunks of chicken, curry leaves and shallots fried crisp in coconut oil at the Marari Beach Resort, a seaside resort near the Malabar coastal village of Maraikulum, where city dwellers come to get Ayurvedic treatments and swim in the Arabian Sea.

The chef and cooking teacher Asha Gomez was sitting with us, taking a break from the intense, late-spring South Indian sun. The author of a well-received cookbook called “My Two Souths: Blending the Flavors of India Into a Southern Kitchen,” she is often the brightest light in a room. She has been pestering me to travel to Kerala almost from the day I met her a half dozen years ago at Cardamom Hill, the restaurant she used to run in Atlanta.

“Kim,” she would say, grabbing my hands, “you must come discover why we call it God’s own country.”

I finally took her up on it. After 14 hours in a plane that took us through Qatar and then to Kochi, the largest urban area in Kerala — its airport is the first in the world run completely on solar power — we found ourselves in this beach resort dissecting the new wave of Indian travel over fried chicken that was almost like the banana-leaf-wrapped version she used to eat as a child at street stalls called thattu kadaas.

Ms. Gomez grew up in Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala’s capital city on the Arabian Sea, about a four-hour drive south of the beach where we were eating. Many of the white beaches along the Kerala coast are rustic and inviting. A pleasant morning can be spent watching traditional wooden fishing boats come and go. Ms. Gomez swears that the sand is softer and the water is bluer as you get closer to India’s tip, where she grew up.

After her father died of a heart attack when she was 16, she and her mother moved to Michigan, where her older brothers were in college. She made her way to New York City before landing in Atlanta, where she has made a career out of blending the food of the Indian South with the American South, first at Cardamom Hill and now out of a private kitchen called The Third Space.

In an age where Korean taco trucks and poke bowl restaurants seem to be everywhere, the approach might seem another attempt to cash in on a rising American appetite for international culinary mash-ups. But the two styles of cooking work together beautifully.

The hot, vinegary sauce in a dish of pork vindaloo is not far from the one that moistens a whole-hog barbecue sandwich in Eastern North Carolina. The black pepper that grows everywhere here helps tame the innate sweetness in a Southern-style carrot cake. And for both American southerners and Indian southerners, eating fried chicken is deeply woven into the cultural fabric.

Young black pepper at Thomas Puttampurakkal’s organic spice farm in Thekkady.
Credit Evan Sung for The New York Times
“When I was younger no one from Madras or even Goa was thinking about going to Kerala to eat for vacation,” she said. “Traveling for pleasure was wasting money. Now anyone you talk to has either been or is planning to go.”

Travelers from the United States and Europe who might have a specific interest in tea or the vast nature preserves that hold tigers and elephants have long made their way to Kerala, starting and ending their trips in Kochi, a city of about 600,000 that is easier to navigate and less tradition-bound than New Delhi, Mumbai or Bangalore.

Even outside the city, Kerala is more distinctly laid-back than most of the other 36 states and union territories in India. It’s the most religiously diverse part of India, and the literacy rate among its 33 million residents is the country’s highest. In some parts of the state, American rock edges out Bollywood soundtracks as the preferred backdrop.

There are plenty of small resorts along its sub-tropical coastline, and a series of river communities called the backwater that feature wooden houseboats furnished with cooks and nice furniture that provide a base for family vacations. Kerala’s cooking is light and infused with chili and coconut; its dishes are built largely around rice and fish.

“Most of my friends say Kerala is the soft landing for India because then you are used to India and ready for all of its glorious chaos in other places,” Mr. Pinheiro said.

In Alappuzha. Credit Evan Sung for The New York Times

It is also religiously diverse — more than half of the people here practice Hinduism, but there are plenty of Muslims, a handful of Jewish neighborhoods and lots of Catholics — a fact that manifests itself through the region’s cuisine.

The Portuguese, who landed here in the 15th century and took up the spice trade, introduced Latin Catholicism. They also brought with them a love of pork and the chilies that would come to define a lot of Kerala’s food. It’s how Ms. Gomez’s family got its name and why she grew up a meat-eating Catholic in a land where vegetarianism is the predominant eating style.

It makes sense, then, that Kerala and its food is increasingly attractive to younger people from India’s huge, sprawling cities who, like travelers in many parts of the world, are increasingly using food as an organizing principle for their vacation.

“Growing up, we never took vacations to eat and at home we never ate out unless it was a super special occasion,” Mr. Pinheiro said. “Now once or twice a week we eat out.”

In Kochi, millennial eaters are rejecting the American-style fast food restaurants they grew up on in favor of authentic experiences that offer new twists on classic South Indian dishes.

Tea harvesters picked and sorted tea leaves in Munnar. Credit Evan Sung for The New York Times
At places like Pai Brothers, crispy, paper-thin dosas might be filled with duck masala or chocolate and cashews. At Dhe Puttu, a small restaurant chain started by the popular Malayalam film stars Dileep and Nadirshah, puttus — traditionally a breakfast staple of soft cylindrical steamed dumplings made from ground rice and coconut — have been pushed into fanciful forms that can take on the flavors of Spanish paella, a biryani or even an ice cream sundae.

We ate our last meal there before heading out of the city toward the vast tea estates and spice gardens that lace the Cardamom Hills of Kerala.

To get there, we spent nearly five hours in a van grinding our way up the steep hills of the Western Ghats, stopping only for plates of vegetable curry and glasses of fresh pineapple juice. The road narrowed as we worked our way past wildlife sanctuaries and forests of sandalwood. The oppressive mugginess of the city had lifted, giving way to weather cool enough that I considered digging out the one light sweater I brought. Tea estates cascaded down the steep valleys, their tight, trimmed shrubs looking as manicured as a formal English garden.

Manoj Vasudevan, a photographer who teaches tourism in Kerala and who has been exploring the mountains here for decades, was our guide. That included explaining the finer points of mountain driving in India, which required faith, acceptance and a good horn.

The strips of pavement hugging the mountainside were often only wide enough to hold one vehicle, but sometimes three would try to navigate a stretch at once. Horns were essential to blast our gentle warnings on blind curves. Inevitable traffic knots that brought traffic to a stop were solved when a driver or a passenger would hop out and calmly direct cars and buses to back up or edge around each other. Everyone would then head on without a harsh word or even a friendly wave.

At Dhe Puttu in Kochi, a sweet and spicy take on puttu — traditionally a breakfast staple of soft cylindrical steamed dumplings made from ground rice and coconut. Credit Evan Sung for The New York Times
“We practice a kind of practical politeness,” he explained.

Many of the sprawling tea estates we passed are owned by Tata Global Beverages, which maintains 51 estates in India and Sri Lanka. We stopped for lunch at the Briar Tea Bungalow, a rambling, low-slung Colonial-style building northwest of Munnar that the British built on a mountain top surrounded by 2,500 acres of tea plants.

We waded out into hip-high tea bushes and hiked to where women armed with small hedge clippers spend the day trimming the very tips from the tea bushes. A day’s work brings in a little over $6, more if they can beat their daily quotas.

Soon, we were back on the road headed for the heart of spice country. Small spice gardens started to pop up the way “u-pick” apple orchards do in upstate New York. Some offer tours for a couple of hundred rupees, about $3. Others declare themselves to be organic, and have small shops where packets of vibrant ground turmeric, nutmeg and green cardamom pods can be had for prices that would make a cook used to prices at an American grocery store fall to her knees.

Touring spice gardens is a fairly new pursuit here, driven by an increasing appreciation of agriculture and cooking among tourists.

“Twenty years ago when I traveled this way there was not even a single place,” Mr. Vasudevan said. “Ten years ago there were maybe a few places. Now, they’re all over. Somebody started it then everyone started copying it because they saw that people were becoming curious to see how spices grow.”

Cacao fruit at Thomas Puttampurakkal’s spice farm in Thekkady.
Credit Evan Sung for The New York Times
And then there’s black pepper. From the time of the Roman Empire, people have been coming to Kerala for black pepper. Wars have been fought over it. The plants that produce the fruit are everywhere. Their thin green vines wrap around jackfruit, mango and coconut trees that grow with such abandon they don’t seem to need a bit of human effort to thrive.

Cardomom is a big money maker here, but black pepper remains the coin of the realm. Even though Indian pepper growers are fighting off cheaper production in countries like Vietnam, there are still plenty of wealthy owners who oversee vast plots of pepper plants. But in every village and small town, you can find someone who grows a little pepper and sells a few kilos when a bill comes due or there’s a wedding to fund. About 30 percent of the people who live here are involved in the spice trade, Mr. Vasudevan estimated.

Ms. Gomez and I found our way to a small, organic spice garden in Thekkady where Thomas Puttampurakkal, a retired Kerala police officer in his 80s, tends to pepper vines that twist around jackfruit and nutmeg trees growing in what seems to be an agricultural system with no real pattern or structure.

He uses only elephant dung for fertilizer. Pepper, he explained, is all about terroir. The best grows naturally here in the high elevations, the green berries protected by the shade until they ripen.

The green pepper berries become black pepper after they spend four or five days in the sun. Those same green berries can also produce white pepper, whose pungency is softened by a long soak in water before they are dried and their husks removed.

Diners at Dhe Puttu in Kochi. Credit Evan Sung for The New York Times
Ms. Gomez and I wandered through Mr. Puttampurakkal’s spice garden like kids in a toy store. We rubbed curry leaves between our fingers and dug up turmeric roots. We searched around the bottom of willowy cardamom stalks 12 feet tall, looking for green buds. We sucked the custardy pulp off the seeds inside cacao pods, smelled clove buds and peeled a bit of bark from a cinnamon tree.

We found a nutmeg tree and pulled down a round piece of fruit the size of my palm. Someone had a knife, so we sliced it open to reveal a glossy dark gem covered in a lacy red coat. The seed is nutmeg, the red covering mace.

In the little shop Mr. Puttampurakkal runs, I bought bags of the small, local black Malabar peppercorns locals call tribal pepper and another of the fat, fragrant peppercorns called Tellicherry, named after the famed growing region in Northern Kerala.

I bit into one. It tasted like citrus and flowers. In a split-second, heat overtook the flavor, like hot perfume in my mouth.

Ms. Gomez wandered in, her hands filled with nutmeg. “You have no idea how excited I am,” she said.

Rava dosa, a porous version with cashews, at Pai Brothers in Kochi. Credit Evan Sung for The New York Times
Mr. Puttampurakkal was laughing, probably at us. It was hard to tell. It didn’t matter.

I had made it to the Cardamom hills. Ms. Gomez was right. It was God’s own country. Or, at least, a cook’s.

If You Go
Kerala is always warm, but can get downright hot and muggy from March to May. December through February is reliably dry and cooler, and also more crowded. The monsoon season comes in May and can last until November. The mountains with their spice gardens and teas estates are always cooler than the coast. It’s relatively easy to rent a car or van with a driver, or take a small tour bus to the spice and tea regions. Car rentals are available, too.

Tea fans can visit the Briar Tea Bungalows (V-363, Kannan Devan Hills Village, Talliar post, Idukki; teabungalows.com/talayar-valley-bungalow-munnar/) in the Talayar Valley in Munnar, where you can pick your own tea onthe 2,500-acre estate.

For accommodations in spice country, try Spice Village (536, Kumily Thekkady Road, Thekkady, Kumily; cghearth.com/spice-village), which has an Ayurveda spa and whose stand-alone huts are well-appointed and named after spices.

At the shore, the Marari Beach Villas (North S.L Puram, Mararikulam, Mararikkulam, Alappuzha; mararibeachvillas.com) offer uncrowded beach access and a resort feel.

In the greater Kochi area, select from a dozen styles of dosa and watch them get made by fast-moving cooks at Pai Brothers (TD East Sannidhi Road, Shenoys, Ernakulam).

Dhe Puttu (NH Byepass, Edappally, Ernakulam, Kochi) specializes in an upscale, modern take on puttu, another classic South Indian dish.

Art and biology: Ernst Haeckel’s masterpieces

Ernst Haeckel, the turn-of-the-century biologist, naturalist, professor, and artist, was an ardent Darwinist, a denouncer of religious doctrine, and a writer of philosophical treatises. He coined terms still in common use today, such as phylum, stem cell, and ecology.

Haeckel discovered, described, and named thousands of new species, depicting them in sketches and watercolors as notable for their artistic mastery as they are for their celebration of nature’s symmetry and diversity. Of course, some of his theories have aged more poorly: his passionate Darwinism bled into the rising fascist doctrine in his native Germany, and he became a leading proponent of scientifically justified racism.

But, at a moment when the planet’s biodiversity is dwindling, The Paris Review focuses on the beauty of his images and the lasting legacy of his contributions to science. Here is a peek into Taschen’s forthcoming The Art and Science of Ernst Haeckel (out December, too big for a stocking but still perfect for the burgeoning biologist in your life):

Taschen’s forthcoming The Art and Science of Ernst Haeckel 

What is untranslatable? Ten translators from Indian languages list their candidates

Sometimes the languages are so far apart that translators end up creating entirely new works – a fact that a lot of us happily ignore. From auditory effects to cultural back stories, a range of things that translators find almost impossible to express in another language, writes Shashank Bhargava in the Scroll. Read on: 

Expressing an idea to someone in their own language can be hard enough, considering not just differences in connotations of words and phrases but also the different ways in which people relate to a language. So trying to liaison between a writer and a reader who come from two entirely different worlds and speak two different languages requires a whole other level of creativity and skill.

Sometimes the languages are so far apart that translators end up creating entirely new works – a fact that a lot of us happily ignore. Jay Rubin, famous for translating Haruki Murakami’s work, once said in an interview, “When you read Haruki Murakami, you’re reading me, at least ninety-five per cent of the time”.

It is a translator’s skilled manoeuvring through cultural contexts, dialects, direct speech, idioms and syntax that we are able to access ideas, not just from around the world (Ferrante, Dostoevsky, Camus) but also from different parts of our own country, exploring works by writers such as Dharamvir Bharati (Hindi), Mahashweta Devi (Bengali) and KR Meera (Malayalam).

In an effort to understand the struggles and the ingenuity that goes behind translating literature, we asked some of India’s best-known translators about the things they have found the hardest to translate.

Aruni Kashyap: Assamese
Recently, I translated Arunachali writer Yeshe Dorje Thongchi’s short story The Smell of Bamboo Blossoms to English, written in Assamese. I found the first line of the short story very hard to translate: Kameng noit enduror uzan uthise.

Now, “uzan uthise” in Assamese refers to a very specific phenomenon during the monsoon, when freshwater fish start to breed after the first showers. When this happens, mature fish swim up to the surface of the water bodies, making it very easy to catch them. People choose this time to catch fish with their nets because it ensures high yields.

This makes the phrase difficult to translate to English. Literally, it means the river/pond is swarming with fish because when they want to breed, they come to the surface, making them look voluminous. But “uzan uthise” means not just the swarming of a large number of fishes to the surface, but also their behaviour during breeding.

In this short story, Thongchi uses this phrase to describe the growth in the population of rats in Arunachal after consuming bamboo flowers. He wasn’t necessary referring to the activity of reproduction, but after consuming bamboo flowers the rats were reproducing in enormous numbers anyway, forcing them to cross the river in thousands in search of food and consume everything on their way. The opening sentence describes this phenomenon of rats crossing the river en masse.

V Ramaswamy: Bengali
Of course there are words or expressions in Bangla, including slang, that simply don’t have an English equivalent, and so one tries to convey the sense through other words. Like many south Asian languages, Bangla also uses onomatopoeia extensively, and so one has to convey that through particular adjectives and adverbs. All this can be challenging.

One can experience a feeling of great satisfaction when one translates a sculpted piece of text, a sentence even. It’s something like solving a difficult problem in algebra.

But for me, the biggest challenge – in the face of which a word becomes too trivial – or rather hapless surrender, is with dialect. In the original, the use of dialect makes the work polychromatic, while even the best translation only conveys a small part of the totality of the cognition that the original triggers.

Take Manik Bandopadhyay’s great novel Padma Nodir Majhi (The Boatman on the River Padma). For me the novel is the language, not the plot, which is merely a device through which the language is expressed. A little bit of the nature and quality of that language can be conveyed in translation but the auditory experience is entirely lost.

Similarly, in Bangla there are two registers of writing the language, shuddha or formal, and cholti or spoken. So when you have the two registers appearing next to each other, you can do this or that to render it in English, but the fact is that it achieves nothing. The nature of the act of reading this in the original can be explained, but it is not experienced in its details, with all its cognitive linkages.

Rita Kothari: Gujarati
When I look back, I stop at many junctures and remember feeling helpless, bereft of creativity. For instance in my early years as a translator, I had my first encounter with a philosophical situation underlying a ghazal in Gujarati. The poet was Ramesh Parekh and the ghazal was titled “Na thaya”, which means “It did not happen”.

So what did not happen? The poem goes on to describe an ironic and poignant predicament when “we” (in Gujarati, ame) were tantalisingly close to fulfilment, but “it did not happen”. Festivals at our home did not becomes ours, we dipped our hands in flowers but they did not become fragrant. And the last line: “Don’t say Ramesh it did not rain today, say, it must have, we did not get drenched.”

The passive construction, the collective we, the arrangement of opening and closing lines, and the philosophical view that we may try, but it may not be in our hands – all of this that came together in Gujarati was difficult to achieve in English. Who is to be blamed if we did not get drenched? The Indian philosophical mode is to say, well it did not happen, it wasn’t fated to. English is a language of agency and it was difficult to make English reconcile with the passive and philosophical stance of the poem.

Poonam Saxena: Hindi
Translation is always difficult and challenging, especially because often English seems too prosaic to handle certain sentences – passages about the internal conflicts of characters, for instance (as happened with me with Gunahon ka Devta by Dharamvir Bharati). It was also very difficult to translate certain words and phrases which may appear simple on the surface but are so culture-specific that it’s impossible to communicate the feelings they evoke in Hindi into English.

For example, the sentence “Tez purvaiya chal rahi thi.” You just cannot translate “purvaiya” in a word or couple of words. You would need a paragraph to explain what a “purvaiya” really is. Or take the phrase “Ekadashi ka chandrama”’ How do you communicate the poetic beauty of that phrase in English?”

For “tez purvaiya” I had to go with the very inadequate “strong easterly breeze” because otherwise I would have had to put in a paragraph explaining what exactly a purvaiya is, which obviously I couldn’t do. Or a footnote which is very annoying for a reader (I’m not a fan of footnotes in a translation, unless absolutely necessary). With this serviceable translation of purvaiya, the reader understands that there was a strong breeze. But they won’t be able to understand the cultural connotations of a purvaiya.

These are eternal problems. In Gunahon ka Devta, there is another such reference which Bharati actually explains to the reader: This is the word “dhurva”. He doesn’t just use the word, he also explains what it means – when the clouds are near, when the sound of raindrops falling some distance away permeates the air, that is referred to as “dhurva”. So even a Hindi writer had to explain to his Hindi readers what a term that was in currency in a part of the Hindi-speaking belt meant!

Pratibha Umashanker Nadiger: Kannada
I have recently translated Shikari, a Kannada masterpiece by Yashwant Chittal, with the English title Shikari The Hunt. Kannada is rich in onomatopoeic words, and Chittal uses them as auditory metaphors. These do not lend themselves well to translation in English. If I retained the words in the original, I would risk exoticising the language. For example, thall denotes the sound of glass breaking. There is no English equivalent to it. One can say, the shattering of glass. However, a non-auditory word does not carry the same impact as an auditory one. It was a tough choice. How can you translate the untranslatable?

J Devika: Malayalam
Capturing the colloquial language and accent in all its nuances, and transferring the rhetorical energy of poetry – these are the two hardest tasks in translation for me. Of these, the latter is thoroughly enjoyable, because poets often leave a clue for the translator.

For example, in Anitha Thampi’s beautiful poem Mojito Song, the mention that it is a song is a clue. So I followed it. (Read it on Kafila, I put it up as an anthem for kerala).

The former is very difficult usually. Sometimes, if you are lucky, the people who speak Malayalam in a certain colloquial variant may also have a certain way of speaking English – like there is not only a pala (a town in Kerala’s midlands, dominated by Syrian Christians) in Malayalam, there is also a Pala in English. But not always. Then you have to listen carefully to the language and note where vowels get dropped, consonants harden, etc., and craft an approximation in English.

Jerry Pinto: Marathi
There have been many challenges in translating Marathi into English, and then recently Hindi and Punjabi (which come together in Swadesh Deepak’s Maine Mandi Nahin Dekha which I have just finished translating). Sometimes it’s a grace note, like the tag “re” that is used in Marathi in a peculiar way to suggest affection, understanding and a tinge of displeasure (in some instances). This occurs in Cobalt Blue by Sachin Kundalkar.

At another level, there is the problem of poetry which would turn up in the middle of Baluta since Daya Pawar, its author, also wrote poetry. There you must shift your sensibility, change your gears and see whether you can take the much more fragile word-artefact that is the poem into another language, another sensibility, another register and another set of emotional temperatures within which poetry can live.

A final thought: In Maine Mandu Nahin Dekha, which is an account of Swadesh Deepak’s mental illness, one of the symptoms of the eruption of his symptoms was his use of English. Deepak was a teacher of English at the post-graduate level; it was his occupation and now it was a symptom. How does one now translate the whole of a book in which the English – often transcribed in Roman – stands out on the page in stark contrast to the Devnagari around it?

Aniruddhan Vasudevan: Tamil
Some of the hardest ones to translate are the direct speech. This is because often there is a difference between the surrounding authorial voice and the speeches of the character. The latter often have individualised speech styles, or they mark regional or class or caste speech variations or dialects – they often tell us what kind of people they are. It is difficult to bring that out in translation.

Also, the fascinating translation issues are not just those we immediately recognise as challenges. Sometimes it is the simple things. Here is an interesting example: among Perumal Murugan’s poems of exile in Songs of a Coward’ there are a few that work with the imagery of the sheep and the shepherd. In fact, in Tamil, he had used the word “aadu”, which could mean either sheep (semmari aadu) or goat (vellaadu). And for someone like me who grew up seeing more goats than sheep in Kumbakonam and then in Madras, aadu immediately conjures the image of a goat. So I had translated them as goats and goatherds.

But while combing through the drafts, I had some doubt about this, although it was not because I realised that for Perumal Murugan, in the landscape he comes from, aadu almost immediately meant semmari aadu or sheep. But I wanted to check with him because sheep and shepherd neatly summoned forth religious metaphors in my head, and I wanted to share that with him. And that’s when I found out it is sheep!

T Vijay Kumar, Telugu
Each translation attempt presents a different challenge. While translating an early 20th century classic, Gurazada’s Kanyasulkam, the most difficult (in fact, impossible) thing was to translate the linguistic variations – among regions, classes, and castes – of the original into English.

In the more recent case of a feminist work, Volga’s The Liberation of Sita, it was neither words nor lines, not even concepts. It was in fact a peculiar grammatical (sentence) structure in which a character muses about her situation and refers to herself in the third person! Imagine a situation where a character reflects upon her own situation and says: “What is to happen to her! What shall she do now!” In such a sentence, the subject and the object being the same person creates huge confusion. While such a structure is not unusual in the original language, it has no equivalent in English.

Rakhshanda Jalil, Urdu
In translating Urdu poetry, the difficulty has always been jigar, which literally refers to the liver but is used to mean the rough area around the heart – a mythical, imaginary space actually.

In Translating Urdu prose, I have learnt to let the word “yaar” stay instead of fumbling for English possibilities: buddy, bud, or pal sound impossibly American; mate, which is close, sounds terribly Australian; bro is too adolescent. So it seems best to let yaar stay without giving its meaning and let people figure it out, just like the exclamation arre, which increasingly I retain in English translation because I can’t think of an approximation that covers the gamut of expressions. Arre can convey surprise, wonder, bemusement, anger, and so on.

Raya Sarkar, law student behind list of academic predators, receives rape threats

The 24-year-old compiled a crowdsourced list of academicians from mostly Indian education system that she claims are routine sexual offenders.

A Facebook post by law student Raya Sarkar, naming and shaming professors accused of sexual predatory behaviour, has kicked up a storm in the Indian academia. And while many have applauded the courage displayed by Sarkar, she has allegedly been getting threatening messages on her social media accounts.

"I'm getting so much hate. From death threats to rape threats. I've stopped looking at my 'others' folder. Thanks leftists and savarna feminists. I have the receipts though. (In the others folder) this is why victims stay silent," wrote a furious and upset Sarkar, who is studying at the University of California.

The 24-year-old compiled a crowdsourced list of academicians from mostly Indian education system that she claims are routine sexual offenders. Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), Delhi University, Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) and private institutes such as Manipal University and Asian College of Journalism (ACJ) - Raya's exhaustive list has names from all these institutes.

As several Hollywood actresses opened up about their sexual abuse by film producer Harvey Weinstein, followed by a global #MeToo campaign where women came out with their stories of sexual exploitation, India too saw its share of revelations. This is when Sarkar compiled the list of 69 professors which she says is set to grow.

According to Sarkar, she faced harassment many times. "All of them are terrible, jarring accounts... It took a toll on me  reading all the complaints because I am a survivor of rape. The reason why I did not mention what they did is because, as expected, many alleged perpetrators are calling and harassing their victims. Or whoever shared or supported the list. They may easily recall who they did it to and then put defamation suits and other colonial laws that stifle free speech in India," she says.

Sarkar's actions have not enthused many avowed liberals and feminists in the country. Instead, a carefully crafted statement was issued signed by big names from the intelligentsia alleging that she hasn't followed the "due process".

"This manner of naming can delegitimise the long struggle against sexual harassment, and make our task as feminists more difficult. We appeal to those who are behind this initiative to withdraw it," the statement reads.

The women making the allegations against those on the list have not gone on the record, unlike Weinstein's accusers. Sarkar's supporters ask why are left-liberal-feminists that have been speaking for women's rights for years against a 24-year-old?

Sarkar said in her Facebook post on Friday: "Leftist feminist professors and their comrades gagging free speech and planning to file defamation suits against a student(s) for asking women and non men to be wary of sexual harassment. Wondering what their (signatories of the statement) response would have been if I compiled a similar list of alleged c***s within the Modi administration."

JNU professor Nivedita Menon, who was among those who put out a post asking Sarkar to withdraw the list, says: "I don't want to say anything apart from what is written in the statement. As for rape threats issued to her, I am appalled you are asking me this. No doubt it's reprehensible. But everyone from Gurmehar (Kaur) to the signatories of the statement was issued rape threats at some time."

According to a data collected by the University Grants Commission (UGC) between April 1, 2016 and March 31, 2017 a total of 103 female students said they were victimised. In June this year, a woman accused her professor in IIT Bhubaneswar of sexual harassment since 2012 and wrote to PM Narendra Modi for help. Not surprisingly, the registrar of the institute came out in defence of the accused professor.

In 2013, B Ramamoorthy, a professor of mechanical engineering, was suspended after a student accused him of sexual harassment. Allegations of such offences from Satyajit Ray Film and Television Institute (SRFTI) in Kolkata have also been pouring in for years. In fact, a former head of the department from the SRFTI has been named in Sarkar's list.

(Source: India Today)

What does a mole say about your personality?

A mole occurs when the cells in our skin grow in a cluster. Usually it is these cells that grow throughout the skin and gives it its natural color. According to Chinese astrology, the position of these mole on different body parts say a lot about your character.

Curious? Let's find out...

FOREHEAD: A mole on the forehead is considered a sign of prosperity. But, the exact location of the mole also changes its significance. For example, a mole in the middle of the forehead represents wisdom. This person has clear insights and is active and industrious. It also points towards a happy marriage.

Mole on the right side means the person will make a great partner be it in business or marriage. However, the left side mole denotes lack of luck in life.

CHIN: A mole on either side of the chin indicates that the person is affectionate and caring. Mole on the chin signifies adaptability, determination and stubbornness. Because of the movement of chin these people fall in love with the idea of travelling. Moles on the right side of the chin represent logical thinking and diplomatic nature whereas, moles on the left side represent a person who is straightforward, blunt and honest.

CHEEKS: A mole on either cheek represents a courageous, sincere and studious person. This person might not be interested in material pleasures of life and will be a gifted athlete. Moles on the right cheek denotes a sensitive and caring person who values family and the one on the left cheek represents a person who is an introvert and sort of arrogant as well.

NOSE: A mole on the nose says that the person has high self-respect, is a sincere friend, and a hard-working individual. Look out for the person who has a mole on the tip of their nose, as they are often quite short-tempered. A mole on the right side of the nose means the person is passionate and, seeks more sexual activity. Whereas, a mole on the left side of the nose represents struggle.

LIPS: The sexy beauty spot near the lips says that you always aspire to get ahead in life. If the mole is located on the right or left corner of the upper lip, it indicates you're a foodie and are in pursuit for finer things in life. If the mole is on the lips, the person should take care of their diet as they are prone to health issues.

GENITALS: This mole says much more about you than just your sex life. A person with moles on their genitals is considered to be generous and honest. When in a relationship, this person will be a true lover and would expect more than just sex . This also denotes a happy marriage and contentment with their financial situation. So sad, we can't check that on the first date. No wait, we (kind of) can. But don't, we insist.

BREASTS: Mole on the breasts says a lot about the kind of mother you'll be. It signifies the success of your children in their respective professions and throughout their lives in love, luck and wealth.A mole on the left breast denotes energy in life.

HAND: Mole on the hand denote that the person is hardworking and energetic. It also indicates that such people are talented and work their way to success.

FEET: Your mole represents a lot of travelling. It's a sign that the person will receive recognition for good deeds. If the mole is located on the right foot it represents good spouse and family life. But, the one on the left foot represents financial problems and issues with their spouse.

BELLY: Chinese astrology gives a lot of importance to the navel. The closer a mole is to the navel, the more auspicious it is considered. A mole on the right side of the stomach indicates good finances and a weakness of women but, mole on the left side represents jealousy. Ooo!

(Source: Cosmopolitan)

Monday 30 October 2017

Boko Haram strapped suicide bombs to them. Somehow these teenage girls survived.

The New York Times interviewed 18 girls who were captured by militants in Nigeria and sent into crowds to blow themselves up. Here are their stories: 

The girls didn’t want to kill anyone. They walked in silence for a while, the weight of the explosives around their waists pulling down on them as they fingered the detonators and tried to think of a way out.

“I don’t know how to get this thing off me,” Hadiza, 16, recalled saying as she headed out on her mission.

“What are you going to do with yours?” she asked the 12-year-old girl next to her, who was also wearing a bomb.

“I’m going to go off by myself and blow myself up,” the girl responded hopelessly.

It was all happening so fast. After being kidnapped by Boko Haram this year, Hadiza was confronted by a fighter in the camp where she was being held hostage. He wanted to “marry” her. She rejected him.

“You’ll regret this,” the fighter told her.

A few days later, she was brought before a Boko Haram leader. He told her she would be going to the happiest place she could imagine. Hadiza thought she was going home. He was talking about heaven.

They came for her at night, she said, grabbing a suicide belt and attaching it to her waist. The fighters then sent her and the 12-year-old girl out on foot, alone, telling them to detonate the bombs at a camp for Nigerian civilians who have fled the violence Boko Haram has inflicted on the region.

“I knew I would die and kill other people, too,” Hadiza recalled. “I didn’t want that.”

Northeastern Nigeria, now in its eighth year of war with Boko Haram, has become a place afraid of its own girls.

So far this year, militants have carried out more than twice as many suicide bombings than they did in all of 2016, and the attacks keep coming.

According to Unicef, more than 110 children have been used as suicide bombers since the start of the year – at least 76 of them girls. Most were under 15 years old. One girl blew herself up along with a baby strapped to her back.

Bombers here at the center of the battle against Boko Haram have struck mosques, marketplaces, checkpoints, camps for displaced civilians and anywhere else people gather, including a single polo field attacked multiple times. Trenches have been dug around the University of Maiduguri, a frequent bombing target, in hopes of slowing down attackers.

“I knew very well that bomb would kill me.”

The deployment of children has become so frighteningly common that officials in the areas where Boko Haram operates are warning citizens to be on the lookout for girl bombers. A huge billboard here in Maiduguri – the Nigerian city where Boko Haram was born – proclaims “Stop Terrorism” with the image of a scowling, wild-eyed girl with explosives on her chest, clutching a detonator.

Officials are publicly urging parents not to hand over their children to Boko Haram for use as bombers, while the military is circulating a video telling bombers they can surrender. It features an 11-year-old girl.

“Do not allow them to tie explosives on you,” says the girl in the video. “It is dangerous.”

The public service ad paints bombers and their families as Boko Haram collaborators who either support the militants’ campaign of terror, or were brainwashed or drugged into doing so.

But The New York Times tracked down and interviewed 18 girls in Nigeria who were sent on suicide missions by Boko Haram. Their accounts shatter the narrative often perpetuated by officials.

Far from having been willing participants, the girls described being kidnapped and held hostage, with family members killed during their capture.

All of the girls recounted how armed militants forcibly tied suicide belts to their waists, or thrust bombs into their hands, before pushing them toward crowds of people. Most were told that their religion compelled them to carry out the orders. And all of them resisted, preventing the attacks by begging ordinary citizens or the authorities to help them.

Aisha, 15, fled her home with her father and 10-year-old brother, but Boko Haram caught them. The fighters killed her father and, soon after, she watched them strap a bomb to her brother, squeeze him between two militants on a motorbike and speed away.

The two militants returned without him, cheering. Her little brother had blown up soldiers at a barracks, she learned. The militants told her not to cry for him. “He killed wicked people,” they told her.

Later, they tied a bomb on her, too, instructing her to head toward the same barracks.

Like some of the other girls, Aisha said she had considered walking off to an isolated spot and pressing the detonator, far from other people, to avoid hurting anyone else. Instead, she approached the soldiers and persuaded them to remove the explosives from her body, delicately.

“I told them, ‘My brother was here and killed some of your men,’” she said. “My brother wasn’t sensible enough to know he didn’t have to do it. He was only a small child.”

Other girls, whose full names are also being withheld out of concern for their security, had similar stories of terror and defiance.

Fall on your tummy, face down, the militants told Fatima A., 17. But when she approached soldiers, she put up her hands and yelled at the top of her voice: “Look! I’m innocent! I’m not part of them! They forced me!”

Amina, 16, was told to blow up worshipers at a mosque. But as she drew near the crowd, she spotted her uncle, who helped her to safety.

Wait until you find a big crowd of civilians, fighters told Hajja, 17. But if you spot just one or two soldiers first, press the button, they instructed her. Instead, when she came upon a soldier, she showed him her bomb. He guided her to an open field, where he gently removed it.

Fati, 14, was deployed along with nine other girls, each sent in different directions to hit separate targets. She walked into a police station to ask for help, holding the bag containing the bomb that militants had given her. The officers screamed and ran out, she said. But eventually they returned, telling her to leave the bag in a nearby field and walk away.

Maryam, 16, said she got help from an old man resting under a tree. The two hollered to one another from a safe distance, so that he could question her first and get some assurances that she didn’t plan to blow him up.

For these girls and others, even approaching the authorities to ask for help was exceedingly dangerous. Soldiers and civilians at checkpoints are on high alert for anyone suspicious – and usually that means any woman or girl, most of whom wear long head scarves and garments that could cover an explosive belt. In just the last three months of 2016, the United Nations says, 13 children from 11 to 17 years old were killed after they were wrongly thought to be suicide bombers.

Most of the girls interviewed said, like Hadiza, that they had been deployed as bombers after refusing to be married off to a fighter. For years Boko Haram fighters have forced girls into “marriage,” a euphemism for rape, sometimes impregnating them.

Many of the girls echoed Hadiza’s account, saying the militants had promised them paradise in exchange for pushing a red detonator button. The girls, nearly all involved in planned attacks within the past year, were dropped off along empty roads as gun-toting fighters stayed back at a distance to watch them walk toward their targets.

Maimuma, 14, whom militants told to bomb a group of soldiers, said she didn’t want to become like the dozens of other girls who have blown themselves up, taking bystanders with them. She knows that many people suspect she is a Boko Haram collaborator. But she argues that she and other girls like her should be praised for defying the militants.

“Some people see me as part of Boko Haram,” she said. “Some people see me as a hero.”

“I get afraid when I see women.”

In recent months, Nigeria’s gains in beating back Boko Haram – retaking territory and capturing militant hide-outs – have begun to recede. The group’s fighters have launched not only more suicide bombings but more tactical strikes against security forces as well.

In June, they attacked a convoy of soldiers and police officers, kidnapping several female police officers. The following month, militants fired on a military-escorted convoy of oil workers, killing more than 25 people and kidnapping geologists from the University of Maiduguri.

Western intelligence officials say the militants have been recapturing land that the Nigerian military took from them. The United States is preparing to sell half a billion dollars’ worth of attack planes and other material to Nigeria to aid the fight.

The humanitarian situation in the region is dire, with nearly two million people across four countries displaced by war and some living in famine-like conditions. Maiduguri is overwhelmed by families that have fled rural farms and fisheries with no means of making a living. Many live in decaying buildings and thatched huts, or along the banks of the shallow Ngadda River, where one small group survives on roasted scraps of cow hide discarded by local tanneries.

Now, aid groups are fighting an outbreak of thousands of cases of cholera, according to humanitarian workers.

The relentless string of bombings in recent months, mostly around Maiduguri and across the border in Cameroon, has cast a frightening shadow over life here. On Sunday alone, more than a dozen people were killed when bombers struck.

In the past six years, women have accounted for the majority of suicide bombings by Boko Haram in northeast Nigeria, Cameroon, Niger and Chad, according to a report released in August by the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point.

In fact, the report said, the group has deployed more female bombers than any other terrorist group in history.

And as Boko Haram increasingly turns to children to carry out its suicide attacks, it is four times more likely to deploy girl bombers than boys, the report found.

“There is an uneasiness – people often mention their fear of women and girls at checkpoints, in crowded areas, at the camps, at the university,” said Harriet Dwyer, a spokeswoman for Unicef in Maiduguri. “As we see these incidences happening with more frequency, the stigma and the suspicion become a very difficult thing to reconcile.”

The bombings are taking a psychological toll on Maiduguri, a city that by some estimates has doubled in population as families flee Boko Haram in the countryside.

Bombers strike repeatedly at busy marketplaces and camps for the displaced. Residents suspect that the university has been a frequent target because of Boko Haram’s hatred of Western education, one of its founding principles. At least eight attacks on the university have occurred since the start of the year.

The suicide bombers usually operate in the early morning hours, predictably enough that many residents start their days later or avoid certain areas altogether. Worried about being shot by mistake, many women and girls squat before approaching checkpoints, hoping to convince nervous soldiers and civilian militia members that they aren’t wearing explosive belts or vests.

To avoid suspicion, some women say that they are careful to bathe and wash their clothes frequently. Most of the girls used in bombings have lived in harsh conditions in the bush and appear dirty and “haggard,” a word many residents use to describe them.

One Maiduguri resident, Fatima Seidu, 45, said that whenever she saw girls on the street, she crossed to avoid them.

“I get afraid of bombs, and afraid someone will see me and get afraid of me,” said Ms. Seidu, whose husband was killed by Boko Haram. “But hopefully they’ll look at my age and they’ll also see I’m wearing clean clothes.”

Hassan, a member of a local civilian militia, said that when women and girls approach his checkpoint, he tells them to drop what they’re carrying. Several months ago, he said, a woman refused to stop when he shouted at her. He watched as she raised her hand and pressed a detonator, setting off a bomb.

“I get afraid when I see women,” he said.

Hassan’s wife, Fatima G., 19, said she had been abducted by Boko Haram, held for about six months, and forced to marry a fighter. One day, militants gathered a group of women hostages and told them to parade before them as they barked orders. It seemed to be some kind of test for obedience, she said.

Not long after, she said, a fighter put her on the back of a motorbike and sped toward Maiduguri. On the way, he told her she was going on a suicide mission. But they came upon a firefight between militants and soldiers instead. In the chaos, she escaped.

Now, in her daily life in Maiduguri, she is fearful of women. “It’s not like anyone is wearing identification,” she said. “There’s no way to know who is who.”

The girls who were sent on suicide missions now try to blend into teenage life in Maiduguri. Most had painted nails, tiny rhinestone studs in their noses and curls of henna on their feet. Their long headscarves covered patterned or sparkly dresses and braided hair.

Nearly all had their schooling interrupted by the war. They are eager to return. They dream of becoming teachers, doctors or lawyers.

They value their religion and say they were unconvinced by Boko Haram’s insistence that Islam supports suicide bombings. Some worry that God would have punished them had they accidentally set off the bombs attached to them.

In most cases, the girls told no one about their missions, other than the security forces who helped them. Some girls did not even tell their parents, frightened of being rejected. Those who did were told not to repeat their stories, for fear they would be labeled Boko Haram sympathizers.

The militants sometimes tried to trick the girls, hoping to convince them they would not be harmed in the attacks. Maimuma was told that the moment she hit the detonator, the bomb would leap from her body and land in the crowd. She didn’t believe it, especially after militants prepared her hair in a traditional burial style.

“I knew very well that bomb would kill me,” she said.

But there was little she could do. They tied an explosive belt around her waist and dropped her along a road. Follow it to where the soldiers are, they told her. Act like a woman, they said. Look attractive. Wait until you’re very close to them. Then press the button.

She tried to keep her composure until she was out of sight. The explosives were heavy and the detonator – a device that looked like a small radio – was hot against her waist, she recalled. She wanted to remove the belt, but was terrified of accidentally setting it off.

She began to cry. Some passers-by spotted her sobbing on the road and approached. She told them Boko Haram had tied a bomb under her gown. They sprinted away. Others approached, but they too fled when she told them her problem.

“They came one after another,” she said, almost laughing at the grim absurdity of the scene. “I tried to run after them and they told me they would kill me if I kept coming.”

After a few minutes, a group of soldiers arrived, telling her to keep her distance and put her hands in the air. A soldier came over to gingerly remove the device. It seemed to take forever. Her arms grew tired as she held them overhead. Finally, the belt was off.

Initially, Maimuma hid the episode from her family and friends, and she worried about being jailed if people found out. “Then I thought to myself, ‘Why should I be arrested for being forced to carry a bomb?’” she said. “I decided I was going tell everyone.”

When Maimuma hears about girls who set off bombs she is frustrated. There’s no question in her mind that they had no loyalty to Boko Haram. She thinks they were naïve, terrified and ultimately foolish for not realizing they had the option of surrendering to security officials, she said.

But that is risky, too. When Hadiza and the 12-year-old girl approached a checkpoint, she was scared of what the soldiers might do. Hadiza told the younger girl to wait by a tree in the distance while she explained their predicament to the soldiers. She knew the girl would raise suspicion because she was too young to be walking in the bush without a parent.

“She was such a small girl,” Hadiza said.

The soldiers believed her and helped the girls take off their explosives belts before splitting them up for questioning. Hadiza was eventually taken to a camp for displaced people. She still doesn’t know where her mother is, or if she is even alive. But her father showed up at the camp a few weeks after she did. When she told him what happened, he cried, both horrified and relieved.

“He would never reject me,” she said. “He was so happy I survived.”

If you can’t find a spouse who supports your career, stay single

Professionally ambitious women really only have two options when it comes to their personal partners — a super-supportive partner or no partner at all. Anything in between ends up being a morale- and career-sapping morass, writes Avivah Wittenberg-Cox, CEO of 20-first, one of the world’s leading gender consulting firms, and author of Seven Steps to Leading a Gender-Balanced Business, on Harvard Business Review. Read on: 

I was at a dinner with eight highly successful professional women recently, ranging in age from 35 to 74. Their stories were typical of research I have been conducting on dual-career couples. One had just been given a huge promotion opportunity in another country, but had struggled for several months to get her spouse to agree to join her. Another had decided that to save her marriage, she would take a yearlong sabbatical and go back to school, giving the family some balance and a breather from two high-powered jobs. A third had tried to work part-time for her law firm but quickly realized she was being professionally sidelined. She opted for a doctorate instead. Her husband continued his career.

This experience underlines the conclusion I’ve drawn from years of research and experience: Professionally ambitious women really only have two options when it comes to their personal partners — a super-supportive partner or no partner at all. Anything in between ends up being a morale- and career-sapping morass.

This is the reality of the half-baked transition we are in when it comes to women in the workplace. The 20th century saw the rise of women. The 21st century will see the adaptation (or not) of men to the consequences of that rise. The reality is that the transition is not smooth and the backlashes will be regular, but the benefits are potentially huge.

So far, a small minority of men and companies are at the forefront of the shift. As Melinda Gates recently wrote, we are still “sending our daughters into companies designed for our dads.” And into marriages billed as equal, as long as the man’s career isn’t disturbed by his wife’s success. (While I’ve occasionally heard stories of career-stifling spouses from same-sex couples, the vast majority I’ve heard are from heterosexual couples, and it’s almost always the woman whose career comes second.)

It’s not that these husbands aren’t progressive, supportive spouses. They certainly see themselves that way — as do many of the CEOs and leaders of companies I work with. But they are often caught out by trade-offs they were not expecting. They are happy to have successful, high-earning wives. They applaud and support them — until it starts to interfere with their own careers. A study by Pamela Stone and Meg Lovejoy found that husbands were a key factor in two-thirds of women’s decisions to quit the workforce, often because the wives had to fill a so-called parenting vacuum. “While the women almost unanimously described their husbands as supportive,” writes Joan Williams of the study, “they also told how those husbands refused to alter their own work schedule or increase their participation in caregiving.” As one woman put it, “He has always said to me, ‘You can do whatever you want to do.’ But he’s not there to pick up any load.”

The women are left shocked and surprised. They had thought the rules of engagement were clear, that well-educated couples would be mutually supportive and take turns, helping each other become all they can be. A survey of Harvard Business School graduates emphasizes the disconnect: More than half the men expected their careers to take precedence over their wives’ careers, while most women expected egalitarian marriages. (Almost no women expected their own careers to come first.) Millennial men are often portrayed as more enlightened, but data complicates this picture: Surveys have shown that younger men may be even less committed to equality than their elders.

Even for couples who are committed to equality, it takes two exceptional people to navigate tricky dual-career waters. It’s easier to opt for the path of least resistance — the historical norm of a career-focused man and a family-focused woman. Especially if, as is often the case, the man is a few years older, has a career head start, and so earns a higher salary. This leads to a cycle that’s hard to break: Men get more opportunities to earn more, and it gets harder and harder for women to catch up.

The disillusionment is deep — and lasting. The result is a delayed reaction, as I found in researching a book on the increasing divorce and marriage rates in the 1950s and 1960s: Talented women, forced by their husband’s attitudes to downgrade their aspirations, bide their time. After their children leave, often so do the wives. About 60% of late-life divorces are initiated by women, often to focus their energies on flourishing careers post-50.

Now it’s the husband’s turn to be shocked. They had worked so hard, provided so well — that was what they had understood their role to be! But that isn’t what modern couplehood is about in a more gender-balanced century. The dual-earner couple has huge advantages in turbulent economic times, as Eli Finkel of Northwestern University has written in his book The All-or-Nothing Marriage. The best marriages have never been happier, more balanced, or more mutually fulfilling. Gender balance at home has created far more resilient couples. But it takes mutual support and balance across the decades. Ignore your partner’s dreams at your peril.

“I didn’t know,” many of the men I interviewed told me after their wives left. To me, this sounds a lot like what corporate leaders tell me after their most senior female executives quit. They hadn’t expected them to leave, hadn’t quite understood how upset they were by the attitudes, the lack of recognition, or the promotion of the less competent man down the hall.

But in the end, underneath it all, it isn’t true that they didn’t know. The reality is they didn’t care. They didn’t listen — because they didn’t think they had to. They nodded absently and ignored the rambling in their ear because they thought it didn’t matter and wouldn’t directly affect them. Several men admitted to me that they just thought their wives’ frustrations were due to menopause and all they had to do was wait it out. It’s this kind of minimizing and discounting that drives women to distraction — before it drives them out the door. Much to the surprise, and subsequent grief, of their husbands.

A lot of the things people learn about leadership and team building at work is directly transferable to managing better balance at home. Some of the strategies I outline in my upcoming book include:

Vision. Discuss long-term personal and professional goals early, and revise regularly. Lack of alignment and mutual support between couples can derail entire life strategies. Be clear about what support will be required and expected to achieve these goals and where it will come from.

Active listening. The most common complaint from women is that they don’t feel heard; from men, that they don’t feel appreciated. For the first, introduce regular sit-down listening sessions (monthly is good, quarterly a minimum). Dedicated, face-to-face, concentrated, unspeaking, listening to everything your partner needs to say. Then repeat back what you heard. Adjust as necessary. Then switch. Sound awkward? Only until it becomes relationship-saving.

Feedback (aka flattery). Everyone appreciates feedback, but it is increasingly rare, both at home and at work. The rule usually recommended is 5 to 1: Five positive comments for every “constructive” one. Turns out humans love to be admired, especially by their intimate partners. So dial up the volume and tell your spouse how gorgeous, brilliant, caring, and supportive they are. Reward the positive and watch it grow. Sound artificial? Only until you see the light ignite in their eyes.

If your partner is not willing to engage, uninterested in “leaning in,” and resistant to seeking help, you should ask yourself why. Just like at work, it is interesting first to work on yourself. Understand your own issues, the impact you have on others, the degree to which you are creating the reaction you are struggling with. Consider working with a therapist or coach. In the end, after you’ve figured yourself out, if the relationship hasn’t improved, the question remains: What is keeping you in this team? Are you staying out of love or fear?

Until recently, women had more fear than finances; a lack of love was bad, but not as bad as poverty. For many women, greater financial independence means they can hold their relationships to a higher standard. Women want love and recognition and support, at work and at home. Companies that don’t offer it find they struggle with retention of women — many of whom will start their own companies. Couples that don’t offer it struggle with the same thing: Women leave.

Retaining women, at home and at work, takes skill and self-awareness. It takes attention and an intentional readjustment of yesterday’s rules to today’s realities. At work, it means adapting company cultures and systems. At home, it requires an equally strategic focus on enhancing both partners’ potential, with a long-term family vision across lengthening lives, tons of attentive listening, and regular flattery for the journey. Anything less is so yesterday.

Hand-made bread at Ahmed Ali Bakery is Kolkata’s best-kept secret

Neither Flury's nor Nahoum's take a slice of this hand-made bread from Ahmed Ali's bakery in Kolkata. It's the best, writes Chandni Doulatramani in the Quint. Read on: 

While the city is still asleep, Mohammed Tafazzul and a few other breadwallahs pack the tin-boxes attached to their bicycles with fresh, warm bread, and set out to deliver it to a few households in south Kolkata.

One of the house they deliver to is ours.

Since 30 years, my mother has been using this bread to make French toasts, keema sandwiches, cheese-rolls, and our favourite Seyal bread. Sometimes, we eat it straight out of the box.

This bread is so good, it can be just eaten straight out of the box.(Photo: Chandni Doulatramani)

The pound bread from Ahmed Ali Bakery has slowly but surely seeped into our lives as not just a food item, but a cultural experience. Although fluffy and soft, it does not crumble. One side of the loaf is left uncovered while baking, giving it its toasty flavour.

The late Ahmed Ali from Muzaffarpur, Bihar, has left behind a long, dedicated family of bakers who make, what is possibly, the best bread in town. His descendants became breadwallahs to keep Ali’s legacy alive. Besides, their ancestors had had an unsuccessful stint at being farmers.

As she chomps on her breakfast, a sizeable omelette made of two brown eggs and three slices of buttered bread, my mother wonders aloud for the millionth time, “How do they make this beauty?”

And, jokingly, I suggest that we go find out.

That morning, when Tafazzul came to our society for a second round of delivery, I asked him where their bakery is.

“Lal masjid ke paas, Beck Bagan mein,” he answers. And so my mother and I decide to visit it in the afternoon.

Beck Bagan (possibly a corrupted version of Beg Bagan), not particularly famous for bakeries, is dotted with meat shops. Apart from the superior mutton and beef, people also come here to buy vegetables and flowers. A mosque is under construction and the main street is buzzing with cars and hurrying pedestrians.

The run-down Ahmed Ali Bakery at Beck Bagan.(Photo: Chandni Doulatramani)
In a corner of the neighbourhood, dark alleys lead to a run-down den. Inside, rugged walls, wooden tables, and a red fire-extinguisher are smothered with a layer of white flour. The scent is warm and tender.

The harsh bright dazzle from white tubelights has replaced the dim glow of lanterns from the 1950s.

Above the bakery is where some of the 35 workers, aged anywhere between mid-20s to the early-60s, stay, while the rest live in the neighbouring slum. The machaan cannot accommodate all at once, and so they take turns. While one batch gets ready for bed, the other wakes up to work. There are at least 12 people always toiling. Ahmed Ali Bakery is open and functional 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

A worker at the bakery smiles as he starts his chores.(Photo: Chandni Doulatramani)
All self-sufficient, the breadwallahs or karigars (artisans/craftsmen), don’t depend on each other – everyone is an expert at every item and they treat each other as equals.

It’s 4 pm, and they are waking up from their siesta and sipping on cha. In Kolkata, nothing great ever happens without an afternoon nap and a good cup of tea.

Inside, an enormous oven, as big as a closet, is built into a wall. Mohammed Ali Hussain, the oldest and most experienced of the artisans, handles it. At 60, he is determined to keep the quality intact and take forward the legacy of the man who created this delicacy.

Mohammed Ali Hussain gets the fire burning.(Photo: Chandni Doulatramani)

There isn’t enough room for my mother and me, so we squeeze into a small corner and watch. Ali Hussain shoves large logs of wood into the oven and lights them up. Meanwhile, the others prepare the dough that will eventually be doused with asli ghee and delivered to homes.

The low-key, no-frills establishment prides itself on not being mainstream. Few know about the breadwallahs and they are happy to be on the periphery. Word of mouth, in the form of customer recommendations to friends and family, is the only advertisement they depend on.
The story of the bakery is as simple as its appearance.

Tired of the pittance he was making through farming, Ahmed Ali decided to learn baking from his cousin in Ranchi and moved to Kolkata. Since there weren’t too many bakeries in the neighbourhood, he decided to start one.

“The recipe is the same and there is no change in the flavour,” Mohammed Khurshid, the 35-year-old grandson of Ahmed Ali, tells me. “We have only experimented to make the bread last longer.”

I spot a packet of branded multigrain bread – a “sample from customers” the artisans have to taste and imitate with their hands.

My mother tells them packaged bread tastes raw, like paper, and sticks to the roof of her mouth. “Aadat ho gayi hai aapke bread ki,” she tells them as she looks on enthusiastically.

Workers mix a combination of flour, salt, water, yeast, sugar and oil in this tub.(Photo: Chandni Doulatramani)
Nearly 160 kg of flour is tipped into an enormous aluminium bowl that looks more like a bathtub. Proportionate amounts of salt, water, yeast, sugar, oil, and calcium propionate are added. After mixing lightly, the ingredients are swept aside, leaving a cavity of water in the centre. This water, which contains small quantities of all the ingredients, is set aside for tomorrow’s bread, much like the way a small amount of curd is kept aside to make more curd. Ali Hussain tells me it’s what gives the bread its flavour.

But another worker, whom everyone fondly calls Gabbar, tells me it’s the magic in their hands. “This isn’t Britannia where everything is made with machines. We do everything with the strength of our fingers, hands, and arms. From blending to the final slicing, this is our craft.”

I look around and there isn’t a single mechanical instrument in sight.

Four men surround the bathtub and sink their hands into the soft, loose mixture. They stir and pound it with their arms, now elbow-deep in the tub, until it acquires the consistency of quicksand.

As I take pictures, they get conscious and ask me how they look while working. “Bahut behtar, janaab (very good, sir),” I tell them, and they smile. Ali Hussain walks over to take a look at himself on my phone and says, “Arre, hum toh Modi lag rahe hain (Oh! I look like (Prime Minister) Modi)!” Everyone bursts into fits of laughter and ‘Modi saab’ becomes Ali Hussain’s name for the day.

The well kneaded dough.(Photo: Chandni Doulatramani)
After two hours of pounding and kneading, the off-white dough is spread on huge wooden tables, looking and feeling like a large mound of chewing gum because of the yeast. It’s so soft that it keeps sagging – like the loose skin on my grandmother’s arm. The workers have to constantly cut the drooping chunks before they fall to the floor and put them back on the table.

Pound bread, sandwich bread, garlic bread, brown bread, burger buns, pizza base, and soup sticks are all made from the same dough, proportionately cut and weighed. For the bread, smooth round balls are moulded into cylindrical forms to fit aluminium trays. They are then set aside for the dough to rise.

At 9 pm, Ali Hussain puts out the fire in the oven and clears the ashes with an iron rod. The bread bakes for 35 minutes using the residual heat, after Ali Hussain meticulously places each tray inside with a wooden spatula.

The bakery, redolent with the smell of comfort, is now full of fluffy pound bread. The loaves are taken out of their moulds and drenched in ghee, ready for delivery.

The bakery smells of freshly baked fluffy pound bread.(Photo: Chandni Doulatramani)
The establishment doesn’t serve more than 400 households, nor does it sell goods commercially. Breads are priced between Rs 20 and Rs 35 per loaf.

While mainstream bakeries such as Flury’s and Nahoum’s have enriched the patisserie experience for Kolkattans, Ahmed Ali Bakery is perhaps Kolkata’s best-kept secret.

It isn’t just the quality, it is also about the process of receiving precisely sliced homemade loaf every morning, right at your doorstep. It is one of the many traditions that places the city in history and gives Kolkata its cultural, nostalgic charm.

The number of orders hardly ever fluctuates. There are barely any new customers and the old ones are faithful. An order has to be placed a day in advance, as only fresh bread is delivered, leaving no scope for extra orders.

The karigars proudly tell me that not a morsel is wasted in the process. And the crumbs that are invariably left behind are packed in large jute sacks and used as fodder.

It’s nearly midnight by the time they conclude their stories. Gabbar graciously serves me my seventeenth, and last, cup of tea before saying goodbye. In the machaan, sleepy heads are getting ready, and those below are calling it a day.

With strong memories of the tender aroma of pound loaves, at night I lie on my bed, which feels a lot like the soft creamy batter I have seen and touched all day.

I wake up when I hear the doorbell in the morning. Tafazzul is excited to see me, and his bread… it has never tasted better.

Chennai man who traced his roots to The Great Tea Robbery of the British from China

James Ajoo, a man who grew up in Chennai, realised that his grandfather was a pawn in one of the greatest heists of the 19th century - the Great Tea Robbery.

When James Ajoo, a Chennai-based English professor, was growing up, he often wondered why his surname was so different from that of his classmates. It was not a typical South Indian name - for that matter, it didn’t even sound Indian. When he asked his paternal grandmother, her answer was so unexpected that it set him off on a quest to trace his roots.

His grandmother told him that his ancestor was one of the six Chinese tea manufacturers that Robert Fortune smuggled into India to help the English manufacture tea, harvested from their newly planted tea estates. Some of these estates are in what is now The Nilgiris in Tamil Nadu. His grandfather was a primary player, albeit a pawn, in one of the greatest heists of the 19th century - the Great Tea Robbery pulled off by Robert Fortune, a botanist and plant hunter who stole tea from Imperial China.

Canton, Kwangtung province, China. Photograph by John Thomson, 1867. Image: Wellcome Images

In modern day terms, there are three serious violations: Geographical Indications (GIs), bio-piracy and the theft of a process.

James questioned other older members of his family, but none of them knew anything more. The information he had gathered was inadequate. Several years later, when James went to the US to study, he found the time and resources to further research his ancestor, the mysterious John Ajoo.

European interest in China
Since the Ajoo family story in India is tied up with that of Robert Fortune and the nascent tea industry in India, let’s start with the Scottish botanist. What made him a hero in the times he lived in and a villain thereafter? Robert Fortune was best known for stealing tea plants from China, the only country where tea was grown at that time. Tea growing and manufacture in China was a closely guarded secret.
James Ajoo
Trade with China was much sought after by the European trading powers of that time, primarily the English, Americans and the Dutch. Trade with China grew and flourished right through the 18th century, when the English East India Company traded woolens and Indian cottons for Chinese tea, silk and porcelain.

However, with the widespread popularity of tea in England, tea soon became the single largest export item out of China, while the imports declined. The Chinese made things more difficult by insisting that tea has to be paid for in silver. Soon, there was a shortage of silver and the English were forced to look for other commodities to offset the balance of trade.

This is when they introduced opium grown in India to China, which proved to be a profitable business.

The tea robber
After the Treaty of Nanking in 1848, Fortune was sent by the Royal Horticultural Society to collect exotic plants from China, tea primarily. The latter was to be replanted in parts of India which was considered to be congenial to tea and thus break China’s monopoly of global trade.

“The task required a plant hunter, a gardener, a thief, a spy,” writes Sarah Rose, in her award-winning book ‘For All the Tea in China’, which charts Fortune’s great British Tea Robbery. Though some of the saplings perished, the tea seeds brought back by Fortune were instrumental in starting the tea industry in India and breaking Chinese monopoly on tea.

Fukien province, China: Women tea plantation workers. Photograph by John Thomson, 1871.
Image: Wellcome Images

In 1849, Fortune disguised as a wealthy Chinese trader travelled to the remote tea growing areas in China and witnessed both green and black tea being processed. He realized that manufacturing tea was a complex and intricate process and experienced tea manufacturers would be required. So, he recruited a team of experienced tea farmers and manufacturers from Hawgchow, present day Huizhou in the Anhui province of China, with help of Chinese contractors called Wang tih Poon and Hoo. Fortune and this small band of Chinese set sail for India from Shanghai.

John Ajoo enters India
James Ajoo, now in his 30s, is of the opinion that his ancestor took the name John when he arrived in India, because he had been secretly converted to Christianity by the Jesuits who had been active in China since 1582. The name Ajoo, he says, could be the phonetic pronunciation of a Chinese surname.
Rober Fortune. Source: Wiki Commons
James started his research by digging deep into the available material on the internet. After months of searching, he finally got lucky when he found a log entry made on February 15, 1851 which mentions that the Chinese tea manufacturers are to be paid from that date and the order was to be executed by the Chinese contractor Wang tih Poon.

Ajoo was clutching at straws but persisted in his search; he combed through endless maritime lists and passenger arrivals lists and then finally, struck gold when he found an old notice of passenger arrivals into Calcutta port on November 27, 1851, when the streamer Lady Mary Wood docked in Calcutta with six Chinese on board. (Most records show that there were eight Chinese – six tea manufacturers and two pewterers, whose sole job was preparing lead casings to the tea chests).

When Ajoo came to Nilgiris
James Ajoo followed the progress of the Chinese tea manufacturers who were sent to work in the tea gardens of the North-West Province. It was hard work, (for James Ajoo) for there was but a scant mention here or there. In May 1862, the Chinese left government service and entered private employment for higher wages.

The next year, a report on the tea plantations in East Indies made to the House of Commons mentioned that Dr HFC Cleghorn, Conservator of Forests of the Madras Presidency, had asked the government for Chinese tea manufacturers to help tea growers in the Neilgherries (as Nilgiris was spelt those days). This report also states that there were no Chinese tea manufacturers available for the Nilgiris planters, and instead “native” tea manufacturers were offered.

However, may be because of continued pressure from the Nilgiris planters, two Chinese tea manufacturers were sent to the hills in 1864, one of them being John Ajoo. It is interesting to note that these two were not the only Chinese in the Nilgiris at the time.

Did Chinese PoWs teach Indians how to manufacture tea?
Between 1856 and 1860, the British brought in Chinese Prisoners of War (PoWs) captured during the second Anglo Chinese war, also known as the Opium Wars, which involved British trade in opium to China and China’s sovereignty. Chinese prisoners were also brought to the Nilgiris from the Straits Settlements of Singapore, Malacca, Dinding and Penang. They were initially sent to the Nilgiris because of the overcrowding in the Madras jails, but later, when it was discovered the Chinese were good workmen, they were put to work in the newly opened tea and cinchona plantations.

Many senior Nilgiri planters have poofed the idea that the Chinese PoWs taught the pioneer planters how to plant and manufacture tea, mainly because the PoWs were mostly seafaring men with no experience in tea farming or manufacture. Sir Percival Griffiths, a British civil servant and tea historian is one who dismissed claims that Chinese PoWs instructed planters how to plant and manufacture tea. But records indicate that at this time, Miss Cockburn, (pronounced Coburn) daughter of the Collector of Salem and pioneer tea and coffee planter, had one Chinese man help on the tea estate near Kotagiri, while Thaishola Estate, where many PoWs were housed, has anecdotal evidence that the Chinese planted tea and has a Jail Thottam (garden) even today.

An 1850 depiction of the tea cultivation process in Assam.
By Joseph Lionel Williams after Thomas Brown, via Wiki Commons
Chinaman’s field
James Ajoo at this point, reiterates that his ancestor, John Ajoo, a free man, worked with some planters in the Nilgiris for a short while and was then lured away to work with a tea planter called AW Turner, who founded the North Travancore Land Planting Agricultural Society in Munnar.

S Muthiah, the Chennai based historian, in his book “A Planting Century” which records the history of South India’s plantations has made a mention of John Ajoo, a Chinaman who planted 13 acres of tea in Munnar, and this plot of land was known popularly as the Chinaman’s Field.

Somewhere along the line, John Ajoo married a local woman, though there is no mention of that. (It would be pertinent to note that most of the Chinese PoWs who settled down in Nattuvattom, a small hamlet in the Nilgiris where the Government cinchona factory was located, married local women and lived the rest of their lives tending cattle and growing garden vegetables.)

The Chinaman’s son
John Ajoo’s son John Antony, referred to as the Chinaman’s son, was born in June 1869 and would become the owner of a small estate called Vialkadavu near Talliar Estate in which the Turner family had an interest.
A plac of John Antony
Now John Antony was quite a colorful character and had worked in a provision store owned by an Englishman in Munnar town. He taught himself English, joined the Anglican Church and endeared himself to the English planters in the area. He was a skilled tracker and shikari and in the course of time, became a favourite with the planters for the hunting jaunts; which lead him to be acquainted with the Sri Kerala Varma Valiya Koilthampuranan, who was married to Her Highness Bharani Thirunal Lakshmi Bayi, the adopted niece of the Maharajah of Travancore.

Anecdotal evidence within the family is that, the marriage of John Antony to Mariamma was brought about by none other than the Koilthampuranan himself. Mariamma, it is said, was a child widow of a member of royal family. Nothing more is known of the mysterious Mariamma (that may not even be her real name) as there is no documentary evidence to the marriage or her background.

John Antony died when he was 82 after establishing himself as a planter and with a large acreage under him. He was also a founder member of the Travancore Cardamom Planters Association in Madurai district. Subsequently, the Ajoos moved away from the plantations and turned to the Church with many of them becoming pastors.

James Ajoo has never visited the land of his ancestor but hopes to do so one day. But now he has a story to tell too, of John Ajoo’s long journey from the tea growing farms of his youth in China, to the High Ranges in the south of India. One wonders, did John Ajoo ever think of going back home?  We will never know.

(Source: TNM)