Wednesday, July 13, 2011

The golden peppercorns

Khichdi is a very Desi phenomenon. We Indians love our food. But sometimes, it is very useful to be able to conjure up a quick meal that is wholesome and nutritious at the same time. Specially, during a busy day, with back to back meetings. And wailing kids. A day with not many groceries at home and incessant rain outside. On such days, it is quite a relief to fall back on the Desi supplies in the Desi pantry -- rice and lentils. Then, throw in a few vegetables, if you have any, blend in some salt and turmeric,  and let it cook. And, out comes the original Indian meal, one, that millions can swear by. I have never ever seen an unsatisfied Desi guy or gal, after a hearty meal of Khichdi.

And so,  recently, I was delighted to see Khichdi on the menu, in the cafeteria at work. I grabbed a plate, and joined some of my friends for lunch. Since I was ravenously hungry, I didn't tune in to their discussion till I wolfed down a few tablespoons of the delicious stuff. And then, I sensed an explosion in my mouth. I had completely forgotten that one of the popular ingredients of Khichdi, is whole black peppercorn. That stuff, is normally quite harmless, and adds a unique flavor. But, bite on it, and you light a fire on your tongue, as I have realized quite a few times. So, I stopped eating, and started picking the peppercorn out, and piling it on the side of my plate.

"You know, you should show some more respect to the peppercorn. That stuff, is literally worth its weight in gold," remarked one of my friends at the table.

That's when I realized what they were talking about. If you live in India, and read the news, I can confidently say that by now, you have heard about the Padmanabhaswamy temple in Kerala. And, its vaults full of gold.

In case you haven't been tuning in, an eighth century temple in the southern Indian state of Kerala, recently opened is vaults, while obeying a supreme court directive. And, they discovered gold and precious stones, which, according to some estimates, add up to twenty two billion US dollars. And that is without taking the antique value of most of the items into account. 

Exactly how much is twenty two billion dollars? A little less than half of the net worth of Bill Gates. Or, if you like corporations, about a quarter of all the assets of Microsoft Corporation, one of the richest companies on the planet.

When I first read the news, I remembered shaking my head in disbelief, since we Indians have somewhat of a penchant for the hyperbole. But then, I know that religious shrines in India are traditionally very rich. Because, pretty much everyone who visits a temple, gives something to it. And usually, many people donate gold, which tends to hold its value over centuries. So, once I realized that this could be true, I thought about the implications. And, like many Indians, I tuned in to the ongoing debate. On how to make use of these newly discovered riches.

I discovered the rather strange fact that in India, although the law ensures a separation of "church" and "state", the state can actually grab the private wealth of a temple and use it for other purposes. So, although the devotees could have donated the money for the upkeep of the temple, or the maintenance of the institutions of their faith, the money could technically be used by the government for "secular" purposes. Apparently, the richest religious institutions in India are managed by the government, and provide a significant revenue stream to the government.

And so, people started talking about how best to use this money. Perhaps, we could build bridges across rivers that have dried up, and make some bureaucrats and ministers rich. Perhaps, we can pay back the loans of farmers who are killing themselves. Or perhaps,  we can now host the Olympics in India, and let the same set of people organize it, who were responsible for the commonwealth games. After all, the Indian government is perhaps the best in the world, as far as the management of public assets go.

A few of my friends made a point that this gold belongs to a museum, for all Indians to cherish. I am not very sure if under the current security situation, you could keep twenty-two billions dollars worth of stuff in museums, in full public glare, and be sure that it will be secure.

The best suggestion that I heard so far, was to bury the stash in a secret location. The reason I like that suggestion is that that has traditionally been the best way to deal with gold. You spend great amounts of money to acquire the gold, and then, even greater amounts of money to dig pits, and bury it. 

There is one thing for sure. It will be interesting to see how all of this pans out. Perhaps, we will see lots of litigation, and lots of very rich lawyers. Perhaps, some of these lawyers will convert their wealth to gold. And bury it in their backyard. Perhaps, some of them will visit their nearest temple, and as an acknowledgment of their faith in the divine, donate some gold. And that gold, might end up in a new vault.

But, what does all of this have to do with the peppercorn in my Khichdi?

Apparently, the temple in Kerala had so much wealth because its members were engaged in the pepper trade. They literally made boatloads of money by exporting peppercorn to the Europeans. In those days, it used to be a much coveted spice.

So. What did I do with the peppercorn in my Khichdi that I was picking out and keeping on the side? After I heard the story, I took a spoon full of it and put it in my mouth. This time, it was a big explosion. And, I saw a variety of colors. Mostly red and orange.

And a few hazy shades of gold.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

The fifty buck divide

A large fraction of the world's population lives on less than a dollar a day. Recently, the "dollar-metric" has been revised to be 1.25 dollars a day. And so, economists deal with the "poverty line" very frequently, when they make decisions involving income patterns around the globe. Karl Marx, the father of communism, was one of the first intellectuals to define a line between the "haves" and the "have-nots". In the last few decades, we have come up with so many new lines, that divide one group of people from another, primarily, on economic terms. For example, there is the "light-bulb divide", that divides people who have access to electricity from those who don't. There is the "flush-toilet divide", the "washing machine divide" and very recently, economists have come up with the "digital divide", which separates the people who have laptop computers and cellphones from those who don't. I was wondering if modern economic theory was all about coming up with lines that divide people who have something from those who don't.

"Sa'ab, shall I pull over to the side?"

I was woken up from my reverie by the driver. We were headed to the airport to pick up my wife. It was a late night flight, and we had timed our drive in such a way, that we wouldn't have to wait long at the airport. In front of the entrance to the huge and shining airport complex, we could see a long line of cars. Pulled over, with engines and lights turned off. And waiting. The idea was to save on the parking charges. If you entered the airport complex, you would have to park. And, if you parked, you had to pay. The minimum amount was about fifty rupees, or approximately, 1.25 Dollars, the new global poverty line.

"Of course not!" I said rather vehemently. "Do you know what a big safety hazard this is?. All these people are trying to do, is to save fifty bucks, and so, they are parked on the side of fast moving traffic. In the dark, with the lights turned off. Never, ever, do anything like this." I warned the driver. I love preaching to the poor fellow on road safety and traffic rules, whenever I get a chance to do that.

So, we continued on. Through the new and shining four lane highway, that connects the city to the airport. I could see more cars parked on the side, and waiting for their passengers to arrive. I spied a couple of Toyota Innovas, which have now become the rich man's SUV in India. Obviously, someone was trying to skimp on money, but I was definitely not one of them. 

I remembered a conversation I had a few days ago, with a friend of mine. It was a hypothetical question on being mugged in a dark alley. "What would be the amount of money in your wallet, for which, you would put up a resistance?" My friend had asked.

"It would have to be a very high amount, since nothing is worth more than life."

"But, what would be the amount of money that would make you flinch? You know, wake up the next day and kick yourself for giving it up so easily. A thousand bucks? May be five hundred?"

I didn't have an answer, but my friend had two. He said, that the amount would be somewhere between the lowest denomination you could withdraw from an ATM (which is a hundred rupees in India), and the price of four cups of tea, that you could buy from a decent street-side vendor. The second number is hard to arrive at, but my friend did put a number on it. Forty bucks.

And so, after much deliberation, we arrived at yet another economic figure of merit. The line, which separates the people who lost fifty bucks to mugging and felt sad, from the people, who didn't.

The fifty buck divide.

My cellphone was ringing. My wife was calling from the baggage claim area. She was going to walk out in about ten minutes. We were about three minutes from the pickup area. I told the driver. He moved to the side and slowed down. That was the only way, we could pick her up without having to park. A few taxis and a few BMWs, whizzed by. The taxis had to get there in time, and the BMWs obviously didn't care. It was only fifty bucks.  

But now that we were so close to saving my fifty, why would we not? That was my driver's argument. And, I did see the validity of his point. After all, fifty bucks were half of what you could withdraw from an ATM, and you could definitely get four to five nice cups of tea with that kind of money. True, our slowing down in the left lane was somewhat of a hazard. But, we were definitely better than those irresponsible people parked on the roadside. In the dark, with their lights turned off.

In a few minutes, I was sitting smugly on the back seat. My wife was making a few hurried phone calls as our car was racing back to the city. I had saved fifty bucks, by just slowing the car down. I was not one of them, but, I still did it!

As we made a turn and drove out of the airport complex, I noticed the long line of cars waiting in the dark. They were definitely on the other side of the fifty buck divide.

And which side was I on? The happy side.

Friday, July 1, 2011

The east wind

I have vivid memories of visiting Kashi as a child.

We would stay with my mother's sister, during the months of the summer vacation. My mausi had a small home in the middle of a very busy part of the ancient city. With its characteristic narrow streets, teeming with rickety old bulls. And, street-side halwais stirring their kadahis full of hot milk and sugar. The fragrance of a thousand different kinds of burning incense would make us feel that God indeed lived in Kashi, which was perhaps the holiest of the holy, to the Hindus. We would be told the same story over and over again, about how Ma Annapurna (The Goddess of plenty) convinced Baba Vishwanath (Lord Shiva) to settle down in Kashi, after she fed him a hearty meal. And Kashi became the new home of Baba Vishwanath. Forever.

The summer afternoons would be hot, and while the rest of the family would be snoring downstairs, taking a  respite from the heat, I would be on the rooftop, watching the monkeys. They would come and go in troops, with many of the mothers jumping around with infants clinging to their bellies. One such afternoon, with the monsoon right around the corner, the sky got very dark at about three in the afternoon. A strong wind was making the triangular red flags on the rooftops flutter vigorously, and the bamboo poles they were being flown on, were swaying to and fro. An old lady, who lived next door, was collecting her drying clothes from the rooftop. The clothes were held down by clips that looked sturdy. Since there was no sign of rain, I asked her why she was so afraid of the wind. I didn't think her laundry could fly away so easily.

She smiled at me and said, "Babu, purvaiya ke aagey, chale na koi zor". (Babu, nothing can hold its own before the east wind). And then, she collected her laundry, and left.

That was my first introduction to the word Purvaiya. After the hot and sultry months of May and June, the people in India eagerly look forward to the Monsoons. For most states in North India, the rains are brought by the easterly winds. Those strong winds, known as the Purvaiya, have a special place in the hearts of the people of North India.  For centuries, romantic poets have written ballads in the dialects of Braj and Awadhi, describing the dark clouds (ghan ghor ghata), the thundering rain (garaj-baras), and the easterly wind (purvaiya). These words make up the vocabulary of monsoon, and, they are quite unique to India. The romantic month of Sawan, which brings about this yearly spectacle of nature, has a special place in Indian literature. And the arts.

Thousands of poems and songs have been written using the vocabulary of monsoon. And the word purvaiya, features in many of them. My favorite song, which includes many of these monsoon words, involves a boat-ride on a river, and a rustic song on Sawan, sung by Mukesh and Lata Mangeshkar. I don't think you will find many fans of Bollywood songs, who haven't heard this beautiful one. At least once.

Now that the Monsoon is here, I hope that some of you are enjoying the east wind. And the moist feel of the rain on your faces,  that comes free with it. Some of you are probably watching the pouring rains from your verandahs or window sills, and those of you, who are brave enough, are probably getting the first voluntary drench of the season. With your family.

Over the last few years, I have seen the tug of the monsoon waning for the people of India. We don't seem to be delighted by this wonderful spectacle of nature any more. Nowadays, we seem to notice the arrival of the monsoon, when the traffic slows down due to water logging. Newspaper headlines do not scream the arrival of the monsoon like they used to. Why would they, when the met-office, with all its supercomputers, can now plot a detailed trajectory of the rainclouds? Down to the hour.

Perhaps, this is the inevitable consequence of progress, and the urbanization of India. The force of the changing times is a very strong one to resist. Like the east wind, progress, is quite resolute in its intention of changing things for us. Perhaps, the old lady, and that handsome Bollywood couple on the boat, were right.

Nothing can hold its own -- before the east wind.