Mahadevan's Monologues

If we had the vision and feeling of ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence. – George Eliot

Monday, March 26, 2007


Jhangiri (its crudest form is Jalabi in the north) is the King of sweets in South. Though Halwa poses a tough challenge, as it has different varieties and tolerant limits, Jhangiri reigns supreme. Daughters-in-law, young mothers and even mothers –in-law in the making look at it with awe. Only well matured mothers-in-law and well experienced cooks alone have the temerity to go a little beyond tasting it. Its preparation needs a reading of Tom Peters treatise on Excellence. In their attempts to prepare Jhangiri, lesser mortals were often left to lament.

Jhangiri enjoys a social status in the south. For the man who is adept at preparing Jhangiri, Mysore Pak or Laddu is too primitive, like a club player to a World Cup wonder. As Jhangiri is generally served on arrival of the bridegroom’s party at the marriage hall on the eve of the marriage in Tamilian marriages, its quality can make or mar a marriage. What more, mere absence of Jhangiri in a marriage, mellows down the merriment. If the Jhangiri is a little pliable, the groom’s granny in her nineties would start grumbling. If it is too crisp, his young aunt would resort to her taunts. If it is too sweet, the diabetic brigade ( I am an humble soldier in this brigade) would start its diatribe and if the level of sugar is low, it would be relegated to the last serve – to the servants, the uninitiated, the uninvited and those who have lost the power of the palate.

Late Shri V.K.Krishna Menon once said that ‘a genius is one who simplifies complex issues and a mediocre man complicates simple ones.’ If preparing a high quality Jhangiri is a complex process, Sankara Iyer was certainly a genius, in that he excelled in simplifying the preparation of Jhangiri, without compromising on quality. ‘An acceptable Jhangiri should not be too crispy like Chakkili nor too pliable like Halwa; neither too reddish nor too yellowish; should have been well soaked in frying media, and yet should not ooze with them; must have absorbed enough jeera mix; sweet enough to be classified as such with a shelf life of about a week to ten days’- these are Sankara Iyer’s prescriptions for perfection in the preparation of Jhangiri.

Sankara Iyer’s wife would constantly grind soaked ulud dal in the traditional stone grinder and ensure uninterrupted supply of the dough when Sankara Iyer would concentrate on the other processes. In Sankara Iyer’s opinion, a good quality oil/vanaspati alone provides the platform for frying Jhangiri as ghee would add rubberish elasticity and reduce shelf life. A very onerous task is soaking in the Jeerah mix; in fact this would decide as to whether the label Jhangiri is rightly fitting or not. Many an experienced hands cannot cross this hurdle and go beyond. A failed Jhangiri has no salvage value nor can it serve as a raw material for another sweet and hence one has to be extra careful in preparing Jhangiri.

The secret of Sankara Iyer’s success was that he was obsessed with quality whether for home consumption or otherwise. His mixing the ingredients was immaculate. He was perfect, like a Tendulkar stroke ( of yester years) in timing. You allow it to fry a little longer, Jhangiri can jeopardise your career in cooking. If Jeerah mix is juxtaposed, a jail term would be a milder punishment. If the grinding of ulud dal is not constant, one can forget Jhangiri in the same instant.

To have prepared Jhangiri for Diwali is certainly a milestone for any married woman. But it needs rigors of training and artistic skill to come out successful. Sankara Iyer spent years of training in hotels of every description and interacted with experts of every degree and experimented with combinations of every kind. But even Sankara Iyer’s children could become only the connoisseurs of culinary art and impassioned critics. They failed to become a creative artist like their genius father.

One may sound a little chaunistic, if one calls the Jalebi of the north, as the poor country cousin of the Jhangiri. Jalebi is gaudi in colour, garish in appearance and in comparison to Jhangiri, unrefined in taste. It is too crispy and cannot even play second fiddle to Jhangiri. Whereas pride of place is given to Jhangiri in the south, Jhalebi is a commoner, as one can smell Jalebi, when being fried in street corners and everybody has access to it even when being dressed up. Jhangiri, like a traditional housewife, retains her grace, never crosses the threshold and street corner is certainly a taboo.

If the maker of an excellent Jhangiri is a creative genius, an impassioned critic is no less artistic. It requires almost all the artistic skills of a Sankara Iyer to rate the quality of a Jhangiri and rank it appropriately, or relegate it to the piles of glorified Jalebis.

And finally, Jhangiri is majestic, and enjoys a pride of place and social grace. Men like Sankara Iyer has taken it to dizzy heights – an esoteric sweet maker indeed.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007


Having spent four years at Pune between 1997 to 2001, I try to relive those memorable years and recollect what I saw around me.
Sunil Gavaskar once said that he always preferred to be a vice -captain rather than the captain. Vice captain can share almost all the glories minus the responsibilities of the captain. Pune City is like a vice -captain. It basks in the glory, yet, is bereft of responsibilities of the capital. It is almost touching the distant suburbs of Mumbai and enjoys its modern facilities and yet is far away from its high speed and almost indifferent, if not irreverent attitude towards life. Pune is not swarmed with the busy bees of Mantralaya nor does it cater to the whims of the Netas, save the local ones. Quintessential pursuit of excellence and not court intrigues permeates its atmosphere.

Pune has a panoramic appeal. Once a city of cycles, now its roads are full of automated two wheelers, leaving no room for pedestrians to move about. In Chennai, if one tries to cross the road, in a little reverie, not looking at the speeding vehicles, auto rickshaw drivers will hurl choicest epithets in a strange language ( though they claim it to be Tamil) forcing one to put down his head in penitence, as if he/she has been sent to gallows for a grave offence. Not in Pune. One could cross wherever and whenever one chooses to; speeding drivers would slow down and manoeuvre their way, may be with a little smile, admiring the offender’s alacrity and audacity. Puneites have regulated aspirations. From bicycle to Bajaj Kawasaki or Kinetic Honda, and then to the local Telco made Indica with a Maruti for a change and the descendants of Peshwas’s life ambitions are fulfilled.

One starts the day with a brisk morning walk in the University campus for an hour, amidst thick trees, listening to the enthralling music of chirping birds, meeting Army colonels, in their shorts and canes, Professors mentally preparing the day’s lectures, Narlikars in the making recollecting the attributes of the nocturnal Nakshatras and the Pole Star in the North, software techies dreaming to become Dr. Narayana Murthy, who chased his sweet heart in the by lanes of Jungli Maharaj Road, before making it big at Bangalore and obese ladies oozing out sweat, on the way. Even in the hottest summer, the Sun would not go above 20 degrees in the morning, though it would be an oppressive 40 plus in the midday.

Shivajinagar is the citadel of upper class Maharashtrian culture. Bhaves and Barves would brush shoulders with Phadkes and Aptes. Equally at ease in Sanskrit and Mathematics, there is no wonder every street corner boasts of producing a Bhandarkar, Tilak or Wrangler Paranjpe. A leisurely walk in the evening at Fergusson College Road among Book stalls, British Council, Udipi Restaurants and the Majestic Fergusson College itself would inject fresh spirit to any sagging morale and one would start counting his Blessings. In contrast, the narrow Peths in the old city with dilapidated houses, congested streets, cacophonous sounds and disorderly scenes, though robe Pune with rich history they rob it off its spaciousness and freshness. Yet, Pune without its Peths, is like Mumbai without its chawls – the soul that provide them sustenance and significance.

East Street in Pune has an instant appeal to any visitor and the locals. Kayani Restaurant with its freshly baked cakes and Shrewsbury Biscuits would tantalise us and one could see, at times, a serpentine queue to pick and carry home a pack from Kayanis and spread the message in gossip sessions. Unlike Pizza Hut and Kentucky Fried Chicken, who woo their customers before winning over them, Kayanis draw the crowd into their den. If Punaikars perform Satyanarayan Puja in every street corner for spiritual solace, it is Lakshminarayan chivda for munching in ‘spirited parties’. When Mumbaikars are mesmerized by Mama Kane, the progenies of Peshwas in Pune are swirled and swayed by Chitale Bandhu, who bond them with their Bakarwadis.

Being the head quarters of the armed forces, Pune is littered with Cantonments – at Dehu Road, Kirkee and in the eastern parts of the city. The orderliness of the Cantonments fails to appeal to one, brought up in civilian chaos. Pune can boast of more number of retired ‘Services” Officers than any other city. After all the Mavlas had all the military might. If NDA provides promising Services Officers, the AFMC has supplies aplenty of Medical Corps.

The number of educational institutions and the University itself make Pune the Oxford of the East. One could bump into Mashalkars in the making in the vicinity of National Chemical Laboratories, or a Narlikar type Astro Physicist at the gates of Chandrasekhar Auditorium in the University campus or a potential Mahamahobadhyaya poring over ancient and almost brittle texts in the Bhandarkar Institute. Aspiring artists, with Amitabh Bacchan as their role model, do penance and find solace in the Film Institute, failing which, do research in the Film Archives, opposite. If Pune is prima donna in quality education, it does not lag behind in selling seats for cents. If in July-August it is monsoon in Mumbai, it rains currency notes for college seats in Pune Streets.

Hinjewadi is gradually becoming the Silicon Valley of Deccan. Soon a Bill Gate would emerge from ‘Swargate’. When others add to their calories by eating ‘gharam pakoras, ’ Pune ennobles and embellishes itself with "Param”. A long walk in the camp area amidst shopping arcades, while reminding one of Champ De Elyssy, would also make Brigade Road of Bangalore blush and pink with envy.

If Puneites pride themselves on the Pune-Mumbai regular Deccan Queen, Mumbai in turn flaunts Indrani and Intercity Express. The regular travellers spend a major part of their life outside business in these trains and hence the travel tells stories of passengers. Over cups of tea, strangers would exchange notes on topics from the efficacy of yogic exercises to the size of the spoon for turmeric powder. If the young ones would exchange glances, parents would try to match the horoscopes and grandmas would trace the maiden names of their third cousins.

If Mumbaikars are lavish in their life style, thrift is the treading path for Puneites. Though one occasionally encounters vulgar display of wealth, Puneites are puritanical in their approach. Yet, during Ganesh Puja festival, groups vie with one another to display their resources. Though some of the Peshwas led a prodigal life, their descendants, well matured, lead a refined life following Wordsworth’s ‘Simple living and High Thinking’.

As in Mumbai one gets only a glimpse of the coastal Konkan life, for an encompassing view of Maharashtra, Pune alone provides the platform. Barring Vidarbha, which is in yonder horizon, any corner of Maharashtra is drivable distance from Pune.

Pleasant climate, pleasanter people with prospects of high quality life, Panoramic Pune would always beckon one to be beside her for a soothing carass and stress free life.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007


Bhagyam Ramaswamy is a Tamil writer, who writes regularly in Kumudam. Appuswamy and Seetha Patti were the centre characters, and incidents involving Appuswamy's "Asattuthanams" provided the main theme for the stories. Here is one imagined by me, with Appuswamy as usual, playing a significant role. This piece was written about 5 years back.

"Appuswamy had always been harboring a small, unambitious desire – to operate an ATM machine using his wife Seetha’s card and count the crisp currency notes. Seetha knew it for certain that Appuswamy, in his early seventies, was unfit even to gently tap an electric switch and drive away the darkness and an ATM machine for him would be as unintelligible as Aero Dynamics. To keep Appuswamy’s attempts at bay, Seetha always carried a small pouch and the ATM card inside it and like Mary’s lamb, it remained inseparable from her.

Appuswamy sent signals to Seetha, seeking the ATM card, deputed emissaries, recalled how even Rasagundu, his friend in distress and delight, claimed that he could rally his fingers to touch the buttons and enjoy the thrill. Appuswamy’s appeals were turned down with indignation and indifference. Reference to Rasagundu failed to be a remedy. ‘I shall end Seetha’s surreptitious affairs with ATM and Pentium’, Appuswamy avowed. ‘Trained terrorists should torpedo the machine’ he planned. ‘I shall empty her bank account through ATM, Appuswamy thought to himself, as he lacked the courage to communicate.

Summons to Rasagundu were sent and secret parleys held. ‘First you need the plastic ATM Card and four digit Code’, Rasagundu reported, what he had experienced. Appuswamy knew only ration card and ATM card was anathema to him. The only Code he knew was postal code having been asked to run errand for Seetha for post office priorities. When Seetha was not around, Appuswamy summoned courage and ransacked her hand bag and looked for the plastic card, but could lay his hand only on a post card, preserved by her for participating in an impromptu competition. Appuswamy started loosing heart as Seetha proved to be smart. Old wretch! She is sixty seven and thinks that she is Sheetal Malhar, he started hurling abuses. Rasagundu’s fingers, which carassed the ATM buttons, looked like relics.

Appuswamy suddenly remembered the small pouch in Seetha’s hands. To snatch it away by force, meant, summarily being sent out seeking alms in street corner. Flattery would be of no use, on this female, he realised. P.C.Sircar type magic would work perhaps, he considered his options. He waited for her patiently, plotting a plan, which his limited intelligence permitted, in a Sircar canvas. Seetha returned home hours later, after attending the women’s council meeting. Appuswamy’s eyes were riveted only on her hand and was waiting for her to relax her attention a little. The destined moment came and instantly the Plastic Card was in Appuswamy’s pocket and an old business card of his friend Bangaru, found solace in the pouch. As his trips outside were restricted as a cost control measure, Appuswamy had to devise an ingenious means to sneak out and seek shelter in the ATM Machine. He offered to bring vegetables, unsolicited, in the company of Rasagundu and did’nt wait for her response.

Appuswamy was eagerly looking at the ATM machine, as two others were standing at the queue ahead of him. Appuswamy looked intently at their movements, summoning all his intelligence and waited for his turn. His earlier experience was only dropping an one rupee coin in the telephone booth and railway weighing machine and when his turn came at the ATM Machine, he dropped his card at the slot, recalling his experience. As the screen remained blank and he did not get his card back, he almost breathed his last, tormented by images of Seetha’s fierce looking eyes. Appuswamy started saying his Prayers. Bewildered, he looked for a rescue measure. “Ask and it shall be given”, Appuswamy repeated the Biblical words. When he looked around, he saw an old familiar face. Appuswamy scratched his head and realised that Rasagundu’s distant uncle was readying himself to help him. Feeling relieved, Appuswamy narrated his tale of woe and the Divine Messenger being an official of the Bank, soon Seetha’s card was restored. And Appuswamy was in the eighth Heaven. He promised the Lord that he would break hundred and eight coconuts, in front of the street corner temple, to be bought from the ATM money, should he succeed.

Appuswamy attempted again. This time he was asked by the machine to give his Code number and he realised his folly. The mere thought of approaching Seetha for the four digit code drove him to despair. ‘Seventy years and yet no turn around in a tight situation’, Appuswamy cursed himself. “When sorrow comes, it comes not in single spies, but in battalions’, he remembered Seetha quoting Shakespeare. Helpless, he allowed his imagination to run riot. He suddenly recalled Seetha asking his birth date a fortnight back. Elementary school arithematics now came to his rescue. To Seetha’s birth date he added his own and arrived at the four digit code. Staking his chance, he soft-touched the buttons with the four -digit code. Appuswamy was thrilled when the Machine asked him, Cash or envelop payment? Appuswamy started soaring high, like Shelley's Skylark, ‘singing as he soared’. “Cash”, he enthusiastically pressed the button and was asked the amount, a question which Seetha never asked him in fifty years. This time, his arithematic failed him. Whether a thousand has four zeros or five zeros, he asked himself. ‘Rasagundu would be of no avail, in such situations, given his limitations’, he mumbled, resigning to his fate. Appuswamy started scratching his head with the edge of the ATM Card, when an apparition snatched away the softening instrument. Appuswamy rubbed his eyes and looked nonplussed as his Sahadharmini Seetha was around, with a menacing Mahishasura Mardhini look and it almost froze him to death. A timely, mobile call from Madhar Sangam ( women’s club) reminded Seetha about her appointment with the minister for demanding ATM facilities for all pensioners and a training camp for teaching them and in her hurry to aid the pensioners, the one at hand, Appuswamy, was brushed aside to give way, leaving him to nurse his injuries and ignominy and feel remorse for his impudence. Appuswamy started cursing his mate and fate, and looking at the sky for his next rendezvous. In the distant dingy and dilapidated hotel, the cinema song blared – “Chinna Chinna Asai (Chotisi Asa).

( With an apology to Bhagyam Ramaswamy, the original creator of the characters
Appuswamy, Seetha and Rasagundu ).

Wednesday, March 07, 2007


Ramakrishna was Rao to everybody. Short, stocky, paunchy, extremely fair, curly hair and a smiling face, slightly bowed legs, yet a majestic gait, handsome in every respect, Rao was certainly the Prince Charming of the Circle.

Though Varsity education was way ahead of him, undoubtedly Rao was versatility writ at large. With the help of a spanner and player, he could stop leaking pipes of their tears by replacing the washer or the pipe itself if the thread had given way. Creaking chairs observed sedative silence by his mere touch and shaking stools would stand straight if he brings them under his firm grip. If somebody wanted a cosmetic stand on the wall, Rao would be ready with a hammer and screws to support the glass plate. Fans, which refused to move, would rotate at such high speed as if the wings were chased by wild dogs, when Rao look at them with an intend to regulate.

If repairing and remedying the recalcitrant regaled him, Rao was equally at ease in running errand. He would go even in the midday in May to the Sindhi Colony for Masala Papad and roast them at home. Tiles for the toilets and floors and tamarind to store would be ready for the asking. The triumvirates – Ply, Sun mica and Fevicol for furniture or even charcoal for fuel would be arranged, relieving you of tedium and tension. Mundane affairs in Municipality or cash credit in cooperative banks he would take care of with equal enthusiasm and would pursue them till one is satisfied with the results. Pant pieces and shirt pieces he could arrange with payment facilities. Those who did not care about Brand, he would arrange to stitch in his own hand machine in time, saving nine. For marriages, he was equally adept in selecting Vadhyars and vegetables.

Rao had an uncontrollable weakness – high quality food in unrestricted quantity. He would swallow scores of softest idlies soaked in bucketful of Sambar and chutney and like Oliver Twist, would ‘ask for more’, unabashedly. He propagated the value addition of pickles on our dinner tables, by elevating them from the mediocre role of aiding from the sides to the status of a course leader, like Sambar and Rasam. Pickles alone could be mingled with rice in any plate and tasted, instead of playing second fiddle to Dahi bath, he demonstrated. Varieties of tiffins in various combinations were his vaulting ambition.

Rao had many discoveries to his credit. Adai (a salted pancake made of cereals) and curd would get all your diseases cured, he would argue. Steam-boiled rice dressed up in ghee would have virtues galore, he vouchsafed everywhere. If Sambar or Rasam fall short of prescribed quality, papadams in plenty would be the palliative, he propagated. ‘Omappodi” (sev made out of Chana dal), in ‘Mixture’ would make or mar it, he maintained. ‘Never rate the quality of a Restaurant without relishing its sweet- a Rao mandate. Pot-full of Pal Payasam (a milk based keer), is the panacea for all palate related problems – a Rao rhapsody. A glassful of Rabadi would be as effective as playing Kabbadi and a mug of masala milk would be as mirthful as any good massage, Rao would pronounce, while relishing his mugful. His genial nature permitted him to be a welcome guest everywhere and hence he had easy access to any kitchen.

Though his versatility and willingness to help were a great boon to those around him, Rao himself had a miserable life. He married twice and both the wives died during their pregnancies, leaving him alone. Rao dedicated his life for the well being of his sisters and their children. His nieces and nephews are in good position now and they are greatly indebted to him. He was invaluable to his friends’ circle and he always reverberates in their memories. Rao had a premature death, when he was just 51, succumbing to cardiac arrest. .

Bowed legs and matching gait, permitting sweets of every description to be his bait, willingness to help with commensurate capacity, Ramkrishna Rao’s spirit lives with us, though his mundane body is no more.