CHENNAI: November 24-December 10, 2011
For those of you who haven’t tried rasam, it must be tried. I wish I could share it with you through words. You know, like how wine label tasting notes describe oak, molasses, raspberry, walnut, a hint of licorice. And bold, crispy, delicate or ripe. But still, you can’t possibly taste the words.
The rasams we drank (because we’ll drink it from a cup rather than mix it with rice) were full, layered, strong, acidic but also soft on the tongue. Really complex. It was mind-boggling how tamarind, black pepper and tomato can produce such flavor. I’m going to miss the rasams.
And if you do try rasam, don’t use packaged powder. Make it properly, from a recipe from scratch. Make it on crisp fall days and cold winter nights, although in Southern India it’s a part of meals on any ol’ hot day.
Flooded Streets? C’EST La Vie!
During the first few days we were in Chennai, it rained constantly. Here’s a few videos of what it was like to be out and about in the rain and flooded streets:
My husband asked the autorickshaw driver in the videos above if it was hard to drive in the rain. The driver said, “it’s hard when it rains, it’s hard when it doesn’t rain.”
Here we ventured out later that night with my sister-in-law driving:
At the end of our apartment’s street in T Nagar is Kerala Chips. So close, too close! Because you know you can’t eat just one chip.
You can get potato chips, of course. They’re super-thin and freshly fried. They’re not all perfect-looking as we like our chips in the U.S. It doesn’t matter. They all taste much better than anything from Frito-Lay, even with their cosmetic flaws. Maybe because of their cosmetic flaws. Their flaws haven’t been bred out of them to look good but taste like nothing.
You can get jackfruit chips. You can get chips made from many roots, vegetables and fruits. You can get banana chips and you’ll get them warm because they’re made right out front, by this guy here:
Tonight we dined in style with my sister-in-law, niece and nephew. We went to Tuscana which is near the Taj Coromandel. We keep winding up in this neighborhood. Now three days in a row — we were here yesterday when I discovered Man Mandir and we will return tomorrow as I hit some final stops before leaving India.
To introduce Chennai family to vegetarian Italian foods, we chose basic favorites: bruschetta, insalata caprese, ravioli formaggio, fettucine alfredo (so bad it’s good!), pizza margherita. We ate family style, everyone trying a bit of everything.
Every flavor burst with richness and freshness! The tomatoes, oh!! The pizza was wood fired with the thinnest crust that bubbled to perfection.
For dessert, we all dove into dishes that oozed warm dark chocolate. A meal to be remembered.
The meal was extravagant for my in-laws, and Chennai restaurant review websites rate the restaurant as “expensive,” but for all the dishes we ordered for five people, the total bill was only $60 US, very affordable for those of us visiting from overseas.
Here’s me and our nephew — he’s now taller than me!
SILK MARK eXPO
I must confess. In my Chicago home, there are 26 boxes filled with textiles. I do not need any more fabric. This is so that you understand why I walked out of Chennai’s Silk Mark Expo empty-handed.
OK, that, and the fact that I had brought only the iPhone in my hand, and my husband had the credit card. And I hadn’t figured out how to fish it out of his pocket unnoticed. :)
The Silk Mark Expo was astounding. A whole exhibition hall filled with silk textiles! Silks from all regions of India. Wonderful quality. As we strolled each booth, I could see the differences in technique and style. We had only a short time at night before the expo closed, and I’m yearning to visit again on my last day in India. Perhaps I’ll be lucky with the credit card that day. Just one piece … just one … and I do know exactly which one … yes, yes that one right there, for curtains in the master bedroom of the India pied-a-terre … oh please, please …
You can’t see it well in the photo, but it has gold, silver and copper threads woven along with the biscuit (as my niece and sister-in-law call the color), white and black. So beautiful.
Festival of Lights
Diwali (or Divali or Deepavali) is becoming more commonly known around the world. It’s the Indian Festival of Lights holiday that occurs in October or November. What’s less known is that the celebration can last a month. One of my last days in Chennai was on the last day of this month of celebration. As we walked the neighborhood streets, fireworks exploded, children danced with sparklers, women drew rangoli designs (also called kolam) in front of their main doors, and rows of lamps were lit everywhere. People were festive. Women were walking past us in their best saris, some with glittering mirrors reflecting the fireworks and diya lamp flames.
Epidemiology of Mosquito Bites in a House on 1st Street
The one room where I’m safe from mosquito bites is the room where everyone thinks I’m being bitten! When I retreat in this room for relief, they say I’m causing the problem by going there.
I wish I could teach a crash course on the epidemiology of the location of kosu bites in this house. I’d have to plot the data, of course. I could write on my arms and legs the location where eat bite was acquired. The true pattern would emerge. The study may not be up to par for publication in the American Journal of Public Health, but I’m positive it would communicate and illuminate!
One effective method of prevention is to spray the air but you must stay out of the room for one hour after spraying. Needless to say, I cannot use this prevention method in the common rooms of the house. Because no one believes that’s where I’m mostly being bitten. And no one wants to leave that room alone for an hour — all daily living is done there.
So I continue to quietly spray in my safe room and close the door. For the mid-day nap that the rigors of Chennai seem to make a necessity (I never need a nap at home, indeed I’m at work all day at home), I retreat to the safe room, cover from chin to toe in a sheet like a mummy for extra insurance, and turn the ceiling fan on super-high.
The spray cans can be interesting. Our nephew returned with a “Kill Malaria” brand name last evening, and the selling point is that “Malaria kills opportunities. By buying this pack, you are securing your opportunities.”
“Cute? YOU SHOULD SHOOT THEM.”
Yes, them. That cute baby goat and its momma (or poppa?) there.
Maybe the sentiment isn’t much different than gardeners who live with deer, like many of the gardeners in our suburban Chicago neighborhood (including myself) when the deer turn your garden into an expensive dinner.
Here in Chennai, if you don’t close the gates and if you have delicious foliage, your garden may look quite different after it has been visited by the goats. As happened to the garden here earlier this week when someone forgot to latch the gate. Some mornings you will find the goats laying right against the gate, hoping for it to open. They know what lies beyond.
As I puttered around the plants today, I found that crabgrass is a global scourge. I yanked it all out of the garden, opened the gates, took a few steps, and fed the crabgrass to the goat laying there.
I saw them from the street below. Lengths of silk tussah beckoning with the gradual color changes of ombre. And embroidery over this, designed heavier on the bottom and fading out toward the top. They were saris, but I saw them as curtains. Curtains in the India pied-a-terre.
Man Mandir. Oh, mannnnnnnn. I’m sorry for Nalli, as I have found a new best friend sari shop. Words cannot represent the saris to be had here, so use your imagination to dream up silk jewels of oranges and reds and purples and blues. Inky silk blacks and browns too, if you favor those. With the finest embroidery that looks as good on the back as it does on the front. With twinkling reflections from the tiniest stitched mirrors sprinkled across the fabric.
The staff sit on cushioned platforms and spread yards of glorious saris before you. If you want one, you better claim it fast, or it may be pulled away and you’ll turn around to find it draped on someone else’s body as she admires herself in the mirror. Ask how I know.
Man Mandir, I will be back next time.
The shop is in Nungambakkam, across from the Taj Coromandel. Here’s a pic of a Man Mandir billboard ad – oh to have this sari!
Pondy Bazaar fun
Finally for the first time ever I let my hands be henna’d. We saw a woman getting a beautiful design applied to her hands at Pondy Bazaar, and I decided to go for it. As you can see, it’s still a conservative design, on my palm and fingertips only and not visible from the back. And I washed it off before it got very dark. It’s a surprise to reveal or hide as I choose.
As we walked along the Pondy Bazaar street vendors, I found an armful of jingly silver/gold/black bangles, a big chunky red tribal bangle, bejeweled bindis, and sequined sandals. It was a sparkly jingly evening.
EGGLESS OVEN RECIPES
The kitchen in our Chennai apartment has an oven. I really had to advocate for this oven. We could go to bakeries for cakes and other baked goods, but if we did not provision for an oven while designing the kitchen, we would always have to go somewhere else for any baked goods, or else tear up part of the kitchen later to retrofit an oven.
Tonight we shopped at Pondy Bazaar. And there on top of a pile of books was Nita Mehta’s Eggless Oven Recipes. Because many in my in-laws’ family do not eat eggs, this book was a good find.
And to help us achieve our “One Pizza” goal before we return to the U.S., it includes a recipe for Homemade Crusty Pizza Base!
Other must-try recipes: Calzone, Eggplant Parmagiana, Cannelloni with two choices of sauces, Glazed Mocha Cake and Cumin Cookies.
Our local travels have many times taken us past a plant shop: Harith Tharang. Today I went in. Bamboo, orchids, aralia, “Christmas trees” and many of the indoor plants commonly found in the U.S. They support organic growing.
I bought a plant with orange leaves — many amazing shades of orange in each leaf. Because these pots in the garage area look too empty, don’t they?
Amma wants her bougainvillea vines back, thick and colorful, clambering and spilling over the top of the compound walls around the apartment building. Bursting with a shock of bright pink flowers. I can see it even though it’s not there now. Someday it will happen. See, before this building was built, there was a beautiful garden in front of the old house. You walked through roses and holy basil and jasmine and bougainvillea to reach the main door. Now the building is constructed, it’s time to build a garden again.
YOUR FLOWERS SMELL LIKE LETTUCE
Amma saw them and said “why did you buy those?”
Um, they are flowers? And this lady was selling them? Now … I’m not sure?
I thought they were jasmine. They’re white, they’re tubular, they were being strung on string. I saw them and thought I knew what to do. We hung them with my ponytail.
Only when we got home and the purchase was questioned did I realize there were no wafts of jasmine fragrance as I walked around earlier that evening. We took the flowers off and sniffed them. Cabbage. Lettuce. Not jasmine.
Each day the electricity is off for an hour. Each room can have one light and one ceiling fan running during the outage, and there is a separate electrical switch for this. The outage was from 5-6 p.m. but now it changed to 10-11 a.m. This morning my husband had a meeting and his parents were out of town, so I was sitting there by myself, having finished eating breakfast and just ready to log on online to research Pondicherry travel.
Then the power went out (I found out later in the day that the time has changed).
I was in the only room in my in-laws’ house with A/C, with the door closed and curtains drawn to preserve the coolness. So now I was in the dark. Oh well. I laid down and took a nap.
In our own apartment upstairs, we’re installing a battery back-up system to keep some power during electrical outages, planned and unplanned.
NAIL IN THE TIRE
On the way to the Cochin airport, our driver pulled off the road towards some guys who seemed to recognize him — they were all motioning at each other.
“Five minutes,” the driver said. I thought he needed a drink.
Instead suddenly the car is being jacked up.
A nail got in the tire. They removed the nail and inserted a rubber plug. My husband got out to watch because the guys had opened the trunk where our luggage including laptop computers was stored.
Right there on the side of the road with large buses passing by within inches, they fixed the tire good as new.
At least, we hoped so. We still had a ways to go to the airport.
And of course it took more than five minutes — things always take more than five minutes here.
One sign that you’re comfortable with travel is when you board a plane to fly to the opposite side of the planet, without solid plans of where you’re going to sleep.
We kinda-sorta had plans. Because our apartment is in no condition to sleep in yet, we knew we’d have to sleep in my in-laws’ apartment. But there was nothing available to sleep on.
At least, nothing soft.
A nice mattress was supposed to have been delivered already. But it wasn’t. And now it would take ten days to arrive. So we went to a mattress store in Pondy Bazaar. Because you can buy anything and everything in Pondy Bazaar.
Two hours later, a queen size mattress was delivered. By bicycle.
BIG BRIGHT WINDOW IN THE SKY
I knew that just down the street there are people living on the sidewalks, only centimeters from vehicle filth and exhaust fumes, under thatched roofs and bits of corrugated metal they piece together. I had passed their huts on previous trips here.
On the opposite side of my in-laws’ property is the home of a very wealthy man who sold Rolex and other luxury brand watches in stores throughout India (the biggest neighborhood gossip is that he was recently killed by a train). Mostly when we go places, we pass in this direction. I’ve seen two men who guard a BMW when it is parked in the street here.
Such as it is here in India. Enormous disparity within breathing distance of each other.
We are somewhere in between these two extremes. But one night I felt guilty and closer to the Rolex guy for my indulgences.
We wanted a curved arch between the kitchen and the living/dining area. Something to soften all the straight lines. We had already had the carpenter recreate the arch twice, moving it forward a bit, then removing wood veneer. But the arch still wasn’t quite right. I didn’t know what to do to fix it. These are the choices and problems of lucky people, really. When I met our architect a few days ago, he was pondering the arch too, without having yet heard that it didn’t sit well with us either. So something was definitely off. He recommended bringing it much lower. This would obscure the ceiling and better frame the kitchen cabinets. It will hide the eventual ceiling fan in the kitchen. It will give the dining table chandelier a nice solid backdrop. We could see his vision. We nodded our heads vigorously and agreed: It shall be done. And so, it was.
One night workers were in the apartment after dark, so it was all lit up. We were returning from my trip to the spa to fix my face. The autorickshaw passed by the thatched roof homes. As we passed this squalor on the sidewalk, I looked up, my eyes drawn to a big bright window. I gasped. It was our window. I could see the arch in the window. I could see it from where these other people have to live. These people can step into the street with only three steps from where they sleep. And right there, inevitably their eyes will be drawn to this big window in the sky and what lies beyond it. I don’t even know what else to say.
We work hard for what we have and are able to do. But we’re also recipients of the lucky card of the draw too.
THANK YOU GOOGLE FOR SAVING MY FACE
Google executives have said Google should make life easier for people. It certainly made life easier for me today. Google led me to VCare MedSpa when I searched “acne” “facial” “spa” “T Nagar.” I had a luxurious three-hour treatment to alleviate acne caused by the environment. A few spots are tolerable, but I was alarmed to find numerous new acne spots rising all over my face; seemingly more than all the cumulative acne I’ve gotten in a lifetime including the teenage years. I decided to take immediate action. Two hours after Googling, I was lying in a bright clean white room, ready to be fixed.
I think I had a peel among other things. It’s hard to tell. A lot can be done in three hours! I left with clean fragrant essential oil products to keep combatting the acne.
The spa is in a building next to The Residency hotel in Chennai.
UPDATE: By the next day there was noticeable improvement and within three days a clear complexion was restored. Whew. I will return next week for treatments with more fun purpose than acne.
MANGY DOG HAS A GIRLFRIEND
Last night when we passed the mangy street dog, he was getting some loving in the middle of the street from a girlfriend.
His neck was stretched forward and his eyes were closed. He was having a delightful time. Another dog was licking the side of his face and his neck. Doing a really diligent job cleaning him.
It must instinctively know he must be cleansed of the mites. And the licking might help the itchiness. Of course in doing this, it might catch the mites too.
At least somebody loves this little guy with the big floppy ears. I have a huge grassy backyard back home, where I can see his ears flopping all over and his repaired fur ruffling in the winds as he chases balls and frisbees and maybe a rabbit if he’s lucky.
But perhaps he belongs here with his friends.
The Itching Hour
Every night about 3 a.m. I’m awakened by dozens of the mosquito bites. Without fail, every night. Itching insanely. As long as I don’t hear any buzzing and there are no more new bites, there’s solace that this will eventually end.
There are always visitors. Aunts, uncles, cousins, neighbors.
They make a special trip when they hear you are here. And hear they will. Because it’s a priority to keep up on what people are doing, keep up on what’s happening.
They invite you over too. “Come home,” they say. They will cook a meal. They ask what food is your favorite. Buttermilk sambar, I will usually say. Because we’ve never been able to make it at home as good as it is here.
Here are sisters, matriarchs of their families. Sharing, as there always seems to be so much for people to talk about with each other. Behind me, more sisters are sharing (there are many sisters). And brothers, cousins, wives and husbands too.
Today two generations gathered for a reminder of what’s now the complete loss of the generation preceding us all. The sisters — the matriarchs — all remain knitted together in the same city. But their children — the generation of my husband and I — are scattered around the planet. Which makes visiting very important when someone from afar is in Chennai.
They See Me and the Price Doubles
I’m on the balcony videotaping all the workers in the apartment. Ma’am! … Ma’am! … MA’AM! … MA’AM!!! I’m finally aware someone’s calling for me. Below is a smiling man on the street with an armful of colorful fuzzy things on sticks. What the??? Do I want this? What is it? I call my husband over.
He doesn’t know what it is either.
Turns out they’re brooms. His mom already has one. “Why does each apartment need its own broom?” she asks. Indeed all three apartments are serviced by the same mother-and-daughter maid team. But I’ve never seen them use this broom.
The man has a “three piece deal.” A long fluffy thing, a short fluffy thing and a bristly thing. My husband and his mom are negotiating price and I try to fade into the background capturing the photogenic brooms on camera. Because when people see me, the price doubles.
Price negotiations falter. My husband walks away. But his mom lingers. We’re now proud owners of a colorful fluffy thing which cost twice what Amma paid for hers.
FASTEST NALLI SHOPPING TRIP EVER
Tomorrow is the first anniversary of patti’s death, my husband’s grandma. There will be a ceremony and we are invited. I wasn’t expecting to be included. And I hadn’t packed any saris. Great excuse to visit Nalli, my favorite sari store in T Nagar. Uncertain if there were expectations of the sari for tomorrow, we chose a traditional/conservative sari. It’s purple and navy and simple. I have beautiful bracelets to wear with it.
I’ve never been to Nalli and not proceeded past the first section where the cash counters are. But I have a weakness for textiles. I cannot leave a beautiful textile behind. Indeed after choosing my sari, at the opposite counter I found a chiffon gold-beaded sari, discarded in a bunch on the counter after someone else inspected it. How could someone leave this behind? It’s painfully gorgeous. But believe me, I own enough textiles, collected only because they’re beautiful. How many more does one human being need? One more. This one. But … I cannot have every one.
I decided to not be tempted by the seductions of Nalli’s silks and cottons and gold zari embroidery and gold woven threads. The cash counters were the next counters to visit.
And the Day Goes Astray
The day began very productively. Workers began showing up at 9 a.m. at the apartment. There are wall smoothers, carpenters, electricians, and a plumber. Billows of dust. Crumbled bits all over the floors. Ear-blasting noise. But it’s all good — stuff is getting done.
We escaped to a quiet ground floor apartment to choose a kitchen cabinet finish from some samples, and get a list from the plumber of final things to get so he can start working.
During this, someone called in response to an ad. I got the iPhone 4S and we’re selling our old 3G. It will go for far more here than in the U.S. Our plumber’s eyes lit up. He made a phone call. He wants the iPhone. Negotiations ensued. He bought it for far less than we would have sold it to a stranger. But isn’t that the way things should be. I’m sure he’ll have fun with it.
But we were supposed to go to the stores with him to get the plumbing supplies. He has left to run home for money. And now I wait … and wait … and wait … two hours have gone by …
Now the carpenter has run out of glue. We have to go get more glue. And we have to get glass for two kitchen cabinets. And we have to get more granite for the balcony railings. We have to keep everyone working upstairs. Because we’re from the U.S. and this is how we’re used to working. Drive everyone like a jockey driving a horse. I’m not saying that’s good. But that’s how it is. And we have a goal: “One Pizza, One Shower” by December 9.
We just can’t shake how we are about productivity. We can’t wait any longer. We called the driver to come for us.
Slightly Ivory, A Little Bit Ivory, Somewhat Ivory, A LITTLE BIT MORE Ivory
If a paint company offers sample sizes, then they’re there to use. Right? So we walk up to the counter of an Asian Paints dealer on North Usman Road in T Nagar in Chennai. I dig piece of paper out of my purse. Four colors of ivory, pearl, beige, cream etc. are written on it. And four colors of paprika. And two colors of dark gray. The man at the counter asks “which one do you want?” Ummm. I can’t remember which is which. Can’t I just have them all? I ask “how much?” Samples are about $2US. What the heck, “all of them.” I say. Then he points to the paprika colors. “Which one?” “All of them.” I get a raised eyebrow. Then he points to the two dark gray colors. Why bother asking at this point. “Which one?” “Both.” I get a look. He turns and gives the order to the paint mixer guy.
My husband, standing there, says “He’s probably never seen someone ask for four colors of ivory! People are just trying to survive here.” Turning around from the counter that’s exposed to the street, you can see this clearly. A few steps away, two tiny children are playing in the street. They’re next to the curb, but they play only a few feet from where buses fly by. A few cars worth over $50K US pass by us and the tiny children as we watch the traffic. Which is a lot in the U.S. and it’s even more here. The disparities can be breathtaking.
I walk past the tiny children in the street as we leave. I may not be passing by in an expensive car but my ten paint samples aren’t much different.
ONE PIZZA, ONE SHOWER
Within 48 hours of arrival my goals for this trip to finish the India apartment became simple: one pizza, one shower.
And that’s it. By December 9 we’d like to have the kitchen completed enough to cook one pizza in the oven with our niece and nephew, and we’d like one bathroom completed enough to take one shower.
I may get some of the painting done that I had planned. But I’ll have to return home with some visions still unrealized, aching for the next trip so they can be finished.
So what happened to downgrade expectations so much?
It’s been raining for a week and rain is forecast for 5 more days at minimum. We happened to walk into the master bedroom after a long day of heavy rains. A puddle lay in the middle of the floor. We looked up. Nothing on the ceiling. We followed the trail of water, which ran along tile grout lines. The trail led to several electrical outlet boxes in a lower corner. Everything in the electrical boxes was wet! The wall around them was wet. Looking higher on the wall, we see more wet circles. It got worse and as the rainy days wore on, the room reeked of wet plaster.
It’s fixable. We’ve had a team of the electrician, our current architect and the original builder over to inspect and solve the problem. However the workers cannot come yet — apparently some workers live near a lake that overflowed and their homes are flooded, so they couldn’t come here to work. The plumber is not even answering his phone today. Our carpenter never showed up today. Obviously others have far worse problems than ours.
On the first night my legs, lying exposed below an open window, were the feasting grounds of beasts. They left behind hundreds of blood-spattered wounds during a war I stupidly started: I had opened the window for cool nighttime breezes. But riding along those breezes were kosu.
An army of kosu, sharp swords held in their mouths, ready to slice for sweet blood. They’re dangerously good at their game.
Here, it’s a battle of one survival or another. Always trade-offs. Tomorrow the wounds will heal with no new bites, but I will sleep in heat as a trade-off. Remember, one thing or another.
Why my husband did not get any bites? None! Versus my hundreds! Maybe my legs were bright and shining for the mosquitoes in the dark, a bunch of us joked tonight. We laughed (because now all you can do is laugh at the state of my legs) that tonight the mosquitoes will return for more. They’ll be on the other side of the window with their beady eyes, hungry, knocking to get in. Well they ain’t gettin’ in.
I’ve declared war back on kosu. I’ve been on a homicidal rampage with an electrified table tennis paddle thing that zaps them like fireworks. I’ve sprayed so they rain to the floor legs up. I kill them with my bare hands too. It’s very satisfying.
We scooped and gulped tamarind rice from the Parthasarathy Temple in Chennai. Rumba nalla irruku.
People were discreetly watching to see how fast I can eat it with my hands. Very fast. It’s tamarind rice.
Tangy. And yellow. Deeply pore-boring yellow. I scrubbed my nails but it won’t all wash out. It’s OK. It’s a reminder of one of my favorite foods: temple tamarind rice.
An Aries’ Underdog
He has kind and soft eyes. Stereotypical doe eyes. The eyes should be hard and cold with the life this dog faces, living just off busy exhaust-filled North Usman Road, curling up on a pile of coal for a bed. The ribs are showing. The mange is taking over. All over.
I see this dog every time we walk by. Our eyes meet. I want to take care of it. It’s been defeated. (I understand defeat here; it’s a too-common affliction.) But unlike my future, this dog has no hope, whether it knows it or not. Somehow I sense it’s in this dog’s nature to be optimistic. It’s in the eyes.
So I Google “treating mange.” My husband says a vet won’t care to treat a street dog. I say they will if we have U.S. dollars to treat the street dog.
I am an Aries after all, and we watch out for the underdogs.
The stick-on bindi sweated right off my forehead. At one point it was hanging off my left eyebrow and my husband repositioned it. I am not graceful in tropical heat.
A common phrase heard in my in-laws’ house is “useless fellow.” Yeah, we’ve met a few more useless fellows than we’d like during the construction of this building and our apartment. But I wouldn’t expect to hear my mother-in-law, who speaks primarily Tamil and who I didn’t think knew much American slang, to say “useless bugger.” But she did! And I burst into laughter. And my husband had just taken a sip of coffee which burst out his mouth with his laughter. Then everybody was laughing.