Thursday, February 26, 2009

Rubbed The Wrong Way

It started with a twinge in my shoulder.

Within a few weeks, I was getting regular sensations of tingling and numbness down my right arm and first two fingers. A couple of years ago, I had a bad fall and landed squarely with all my weight on my right shoulder. For several months, I was in a lot of pain, but for the last few months it seemed like it was mostly back to normal. Then this started, and frankly, it was a little worrisome. Laurel, also known as "The Goddess of Google", quickly determined that I was suffering from an impinged radial nerve. Recommendations for treatment on the site were vague, however. It was time to be proactive. I am in India. The home of Ayurveda. Ayurvedic massage might help! There is an Ayurvedic hospital just down the road. I decided to walk the 10 minutes to the hospital and take the plunge.

Having no clue as to how to proceed, I just barged in the front door. About thirty empty chairs were set up in a large room serviced by a one squeaky ceiling fan. All the lights were off, leaving the empty room in semi-darkness. It almost had the vibe of a 1930's film noir set. The reception desk was empty, but someone soon came up to ask what it was that I needed, as I must have looked a bit confused. I briefly described my symptoms, and she summoned the doctor, who soon ushered me into a smaller office. He moved my arm around a bit, and I could hear the "" as the damaged joint moved up and down. He prescribed a certain oil to be applied daily, and a cream to be applied at night. "Also", he said, "You will come back tomorrow for massage". Soft lights. Soothing music. The healing touch of an attractive attendant. Woo hoo...

3 PM rolled around the next day, and I headed for the hospital, a little uncertain as to what was about to unfold. On arrival, I sat alone for about 10 minutes in the strangely unoccupied entranceway before a woman came up and asked me what I was doing there. "I have a 3 PM massage appointment", I replied. A knowing head wiggle, and she departed to locate the doctor. The doctor showed me to a side door off of the entranceway, and indicated that I should go in. The room was about 10x15, and all the walls and floor were covered in tile. A faucet stuck out of one wall. The center of the room was dominated by an ancient looking slab of wood that had a small canal chiseled into its perimeter. The weathered board, which looked like it had been stolen from an ancient temple door in a drunken prank, was tilted on a slight angle. On the low end, a hole in the chiseled canal allowed fluids to drop out into a receptacle. It looked for all the world like an autopsy was about to be performed. On me.

I was instructed to remove my shirt. Then my shorts. One of the two mustachioed attendants produced an item that I was then supposed to put on. It consisted of a narrow strip of papery cloth, about 4 inches wide, and about two feet long. Two strands came out from each side of the strip, and one of the gents tied it around my waist. This left the long strip hanging in front of my nether regions and grazing the floor. Before I could protest that my nether regions did not actually touch the floor, and did not require a strip of cloth quite that long, buddy reaches down and pulls it up past the crack of my bum, and affixes it to the drawstrings around my waist. Looking for all the world like a low budget sumo wrestler that had been recently released from Guantanamo Bay, I had little choice but to stand there stunned, awaiting further instructions. They came via gesture. I was instructed to climb up onto the vintage autopsy table, and lay down on my back. This I did. I thought of England.

One of the gentlemen produced a large pot of warm oil, and both of them grabbed a handful and began to lubricate my legs and feet liberally. Then, with a degree of synchronization that can only come from years of practice, they did long sweeping rubbing motions from the bottom of my legs to my waist. It was pretty vigorous, and it actually felt pretty good, despite the fact that I was keenly aware of the fact that I was on a vintage autopsy table with my paper clad junk getting a little more ventilation than I was used to. Onto my side. More lubrication. Onto the other side. More lubrication. Then came the order to lie on my front. They did the lower body first. By this time, almost a liter of oil had been used on me, and their rubbing motions caused me to slide around on the wooden table like a side of bloody pork on a butcher's block. I found it difficult to relax, as the constant threat of genital splinters aside, it was hard to shake the sudden realization that I had just paid two strange men to cover me with oil and rub my ass.

The work was done. I got up off the table, and as I was standing there being toweled down, the doctor casually strolled in to check on my progress. A bit too casually, actually. When he opened the door, both me and my wedding tackle were exposed to the whole waiting room, which was thankfully reasonably empty. "How do you feel?", he asked. "Violated", I was tempted to reply, but only managed to croak out a weak "good". One of the masseurs smiled at me and asked "Coming back tomorrow?". "No", I replied, uncertain as to the subtext. I put my clothes back on, went out and paid the 450 Rs for a 50 minute vigorous oil massage. Walking home, I felt a little looser, but a bit dazed. My shoulder was still hurting a bit, and my fingertips were still numb.

Why did I leave a 50 rupee tip?

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

The Magnificent Mixie

I'm a slut for hardware.

Sexy sleek black electronic devices. Power tools of every description. A beautifully restored vintage car. All these things make me just a little weak in the knees. Freshly released testosterone courses through the veins, racing to stimulate the pleasure centers labeled "Apple", "Sony", and "DeWalt" in my crudely wired reptilian brain. No device, however, has brought the kind of joy that I have received from the purchase of a genuine Indian mixie. The mixie has rocked my world. I now walk through the markets secure in the knowledge that I could pretty much blend any damn thing I see into a base for a fine curry.

I decided to put the new hardware to work the morning after purchase. It was about 8:30 AM, and as I was contemplating what to make for the evening meal, my mobile phone rang. It was my friend Rajesh. "What are your plans for the market today?", he politely enquired. Before I could respond at length, he said "We are going Vypeen to get some crabs. Do you want to come?" Duh... Laurel had some work to do, so I grabbed Emma, Miles, Isaac, and my green plastic crab bucket, and we walked the half a block to Rajesh's house, where he was waiting with his daughter and three nieces and nephews. As we were piling into the car, his business partner Gee pulled up on a beautiful Royal Enfield motorbike, with his two daughters hanging off the back. It's very common to see entire families of four or five riding on the same motorcycle. Our little convoy headed for Vypeen Island in search of crustaceans. Quest for crab!

Rajesh and Gee knew several little hole in the wall shops that sold live crabs, but our first five stops yielded nothing but directions to the next shop. After about 40 minutes of driving and searching, we finally struck gold. In a little unmarked shop well off the main road, several wicker baskets were laid out on the floor. A rusty balance beam scale occupied a beat up old wooden table. The biggest crabs are called "mud crabs", and they go for about 750 Rs. per kilo. They are monsters, and can weigh 2.5 kilos easily. The next size down goes for about 200 Rs. per kilo. I prefer these ones, as they are a little sweeter, and they are not so huge as to require a hammer to break up the claws. It took about 9 or 10 crabs to make up my 3 kg order, and I whistled a very happy tune on the way back to the car. All told, we bought about 2,000 Rs worth of crab between the three of us.

Once home, I hatched a plan that would bring together several of the techniques I had learned over the last few months. I would make a coconut crab curry! After dropping off a kilo of crabs as a gift for my landlord, Stanley, who lives next door, I set to work immediately. First, I boiled up a bunch of salt water and cooked the crabs in two batches for about 8 or ten minutes. Then I let them cool. I grabbed a coconut (a gift from Gee's farm), peeled off the tuft at the end, and bonked it open with a rolling pin. Then things got pretty old school. I sat on the floor and grated all the coconut onto a plate using our manual shredder. This yielded about a cup and a half of fresh, shredded coconut. By the time I was done, the crabs were cooled enough to clean. I popped the shell off of each one, and discarded the greyish gills. I was careful to reserve all the liquid inside the shells, as well as the purplish and orange fatty head innards and any dense red roe that I could find. This gets added to the curry later, and makes for huge flavour. Chop the little bodies in half, discard the teeny legs, and the crabs were prepped.

Next came the inaugural use of the mixie. You could use a blender for this, or even a food processor, but a mixie is made for curry. I tossed in:

all the grated coconut
4 small chopped red onions (1 1/2 cups or so), (Indian red onions are smaller than North American ones, and look like a very large shallot)
8 small shallots,
2 inch piece of ginger chopped up,
3 green chilies, chopped,
3 tsp red chili powder
1 tsp turmeric,
1 tsp coriander powder,
1 tsp ground black pepper,
1 tsp cumin seeds
1 stalk of curry leaves,
6 cloves of garlic,
1 tsp salt
1/4 cup water

Grind this to a nice smooth paste, adding a little water if necessary.

Next, grab a walnut sized piece of tamarind, and soak it in about a cup or so of warm water. Squeeze it a few times to break it up, and after a few minutes, you should be able to remove any seeds or twigs that are contained within. Nearly every curry has some sort of "souring agent", such as yoghurt, lime juice, tamarind, or "kokum (fish tamarind)". Getting the balance of hot, sweet, salty, and sour flavours just right in a curry takes a little practice, but it's an art worth mastering!

In a pan large enough to hold all the crab pieces, add a few tablespoons of coconut oil or vegetable oil. Coconut oil is best. When the oil has heated up, add 1 tbsp of black mustard seeds. When they start to pop, add 10 or 12 fresh curry leaves and stir. Add the ground paste and fry it over medium heat until the spices are aromatic and the oil runs clear. Toss in the crab pieces and stir to cover the crab in the sauce. Add the tamarind water and pulp. Add the reserved crab juice and roe. Gently stir to combine, adding a little water if needed to smooth out the sauce. Taste and correct for salt. Let the mixture simmer for a couple of minutes over low heat.

You should be rewarded with pretty much the best damn curry you've every tasted. We were pretty pleased. After dinner, I was so pleased that I bundled a little bit of crab and sauce into a dish and marched next door to Stanley's house. He answered the door clad in his lunghi and beaded with sweat. He too, was in the middle of a crab feast. He ushered me in and sat me down at the table. He did a little sniff test, then a lick, and finally tucked into a claw. "Good!" he grunted, looking very pleased. A plate of crab appeared before me. It was his wife's version, and it would have been rude to say no, so I took one for the team and chowed down, despite being already filled with enough crab to start my own aquarium. It was pretty good, although I have to say that I preferred ours! Shameless egotism. Gigi surprised me by tasting the sauce I made and rattling off every ingredient in my curry! She said that it was good, but fell just short of being "traditional". This is an attitude that we have encountered here before. If it's not exactly how your mom made it, it's not exactly right! I was undeterred. Stanley's enthusiastic slurps and grunts, combined with the fact that Emma was still at the table searching bits of shell for the last bit of crabmeat and sauce was enough to convince me of the success of this particular recipe!

I love my hardware. Batteries not included.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Everything Is Just Ducky

My thunder has been stolen.

Journalistic thunder that is. After I was about half finished writing up a post about the notorious "Poop" milk, Laurel announced that her new blog post was finished. "Can I have the picture you downloaded from the camera that has the Poop on it?", she asked. I vehemently protested. "But I'm almost done writing about it!". With irrefutable logic, she replied "Well, I took the picture, and my post is finished". Grudgingly, I looked over her post, searching in vain for obvious flaws that would render mine the superior candidate for publication. To my profound chagrin, I had to admit that hers was better than mine. I had to let it go. I logged onto her laptop from mine and copied the picture over. "It's yours", I said. "Go. Be free...". I will console myself with another observation of questionable signage. The store at the top of our street specializes in toilet fixtures of the seating variety. The company name proudly proclaimed on the front of the building? "Hindware".

Recently we started to film a series of kitchen escapades with our friend Chitra. She generously had us into her home with all our camera and audio gear for nearly four hours while she demonstrated a wee bit of Keralan kitchen magic for us. Chitra showed us how to extract coconut milk from freshly shredded coconut (from their own farm, no less), make the wonderful pidi dumplings from rice flour and cumin, and lastly, how to make her amazing duck dish, which is a variation on a traditional Kerala chicken roast. She's a great cook, and is imbued with a ton of traditional knowledge. She is highly unusual in that she herself only eats pure vegetarian cuisine, but cooks all manner of meat and fish dishes for her family. This she accomplishes without tasting the dishes that she is making, which is quite a feat. She's developed an intuitive way of working in the kitchen that's quite astonishing. Imagine Stevie Wonder making a living as a photographer, and you begin to get an idea of the degree of difficulty....

First off there was the coconut milk. A lot of Keralan dishes have coconut milk, because we're in "the land of coconuts" after all. We had heard vague rumblings in some of the more authentic cookbooks about "first", "second", and "third" extractions of milk, but had never actually been walked through the procedure. She started off by cracking a coconut, and using the manual shredder to extract all the meat. The shredded coconut goes into a special blender called a "mixie". This is worth talking about a bit. A mixie is absolutely integral if you're going seriously pursue Indian cooking. It's a hybrid of a blender, food processor, and coffee grinder, and it allows you to grind both wet or dry things with ease. It's essential for making coconut milk, chutneys, masala spice mixes, gravies, and so on. Chitra added some water to the coconut, spun it for a bit in the mixie, and then strained it to get the thick and rich "first" extraction. This is usually added to dishes later in the cooking. Then back into the mixie with more water for the second extraction, and so on. The last extraction is very watery compared to the first. You could do this at home with a blender, but the mixie rules! We have a small mixie at home in Vancouver, but it was at this point that we resolved to go out and get one for the duration of our stay in India. Having one dramatically increases your options when it comes to food prep!

Next came the making of the pidi, which were rolled from a simple dough made with coconut milk, rice flour, cumin and salt. While the dough is still warm, you just pinch of a little bit, and roll it between your palms to yield a small football shaped dumpling. These are then gently simmered for a time in the thin coconut milk. Then it was on to the duck! Marinated overnight in coriander and red chili (amongst other things), the duck is then sauteed until it is browned. Onions and shallots are fried, and then blended in the mixie to make a fabulously rich and spicy gravy with the coconut milk. I'm leaving out a few things here, because it is Chitra's secret recipe after all! A short time of pressure cooking to tenderize the duck to a state of falling off the bone, and there it is. Chitra served it with the pidi in its own bowl, and the duck and gravy in another, so you can mix and match as you like. She also served up a fabulous fresh green mango pickle that was just green mangoes, salt, and that funky smelling but essential seasoning, asafoetida. After three hours of holding a camera, and checking sound and light levels, I was really ready to tuck in and eat . How do I put this across in mere words? It was really, really good! Thanks for a great day, Chitra! Hopefully the first of many.

And as for my wife.... all is forgiven.

Friday, February 20, 2009

When smug gets in your eyes

Milk here comes in handy 500 ml plastic bags that look like little square pillows. The usual brand we see is called Milma and the milk is advertised as "double-toned"- we've yet to figure out what that means. The milk here is a mere Rs10 per 500 ml, or .50¢ a litre! Curd (yogurt) also comes in the same useful little packs. 

Between our house and KK Road are 3 "corner" stores. They are handy little attachments to someone's house that open on the street side to provide a sales counter. They carry some basic items like milk, flour, salt and small amounts of fruit and veg. If you are missing just an item or two for a meal, these little shops can save you the 45 minute round-trip up to the main drag.

Miles, almost 8, has started taking trips, by himself, to one of these corner stores to purchase bottled water and milk for us. He has learned, as we all had to, that although the words "milk" and "curd" are used here (as well as their Malayalam equivalents, paalu and thairu, respectively) and are even written in English on the packets, pronunciation is all important. You must ask for milk-e or curd-e (an extra vowel sound on the end that makes the same vowel sound as in book) to be understood. So Miles walks himself up to the store, tiptoes so he can be seen on the other side of the counter and asks for " 2 milk-e" and deals with the rupees and change all on his own. Pretty impressive.

So one day about a week ago, Miles comes home with a different brand of milk and pops it in the fridge. I am the one who usually decants the milk and curd into the pitcher and plastic tub that we keep in the fridge. I pulled the milk out of the fridge and cut off one corner to pour it into the pitcher. The logo stopped me in my tracks. Miles has just purchased "POOP" milk! Rob was out, Emma was in the shower and the boys were deeply engrossed in a game on their computer. Having no-one to share the humour with, I pulled out the camera and took a photo of the remaining unopened packet for proof. One must always have proof. Later that evening, I related the story to Rob and we pulled out the camera to have a look at the photo. We had a good chuckle over the could-not-be-more-inappropriate branding of the milk. Poop milk, a classic bit of Indoglish. For days afterwards we would look at each other and mouth "poop!". We were smugly superior in our ability to see such an obvious error in nomenclature judgment.

A couple of days ago we were at Chitra's filming the making of the awesome duck and pidi dishes (more on that coming up in a later post) and as she opened the fridge, I noticed that she too had Poop milk. Rob and I, chuckling away to ourselves again, attempted to relay the humour of this name to Chitra. I thought we were coming up against some kind of untranslatable humour-barrier because although Chitra is very smart and has an excellent command of English, she had a confused look on her face. We tried to explain in more detail. You know. 'Poop', as in... She set us straight. She knew what we meant by 'poop'. She shook her head, opened the door of the fridge and pulled out the packet. And lo and behold, there it was before us, what we were unable to see clearly before. The brand PDDP. No wonder Chitra was baffled by our mirth! But, overflowing with the PDDP of human kindness, she let it pass. I felt like such an adolescent. A not very bright one at that.

A little crow with that duck?

Monday, February 16, 2009

The Day Breaks Open Wide

The bells of the Immanuel Cathedral chime 5 times. The fan whirs overhead in the half light of early morning. 5 am.

The call to prayer sounds from a nearby minaret, and another day in Cochin begins. The call reaches out to the Muslims of the city - a call to community, to duty and to surrender. Facing the Kaaba, they begin their morning prayers.

Hindus are placing kumkum on foreheads and offering fresh jasmine blossoms to their gods in puja for the day that lies ahead. Each day a struggle, and a blessing.

Pictures of the Sacred Heart in flashy flourescent painted on the back a truck. The words "Baby Jesus" emblassoned on the front in a cursive flourish. A Christian truck driver lights a stick of incense, places it on the dashboard shrine and offers up a quick prayer for the trip ahead. The truck horn loud and long warns smaller vehicles of its approach.

This is how Cochin begins its day. Every day. How many of us are so grateful to wake each morning?

Sunday, February 15, 2009

A Rare Sighting

If I had not seen it with my own eyes, I would not have believed it. It has long been considered extinct by experts, yet there was the evidence before me. Irrefutable.

It lives.

I should backtrack a little. Yesterday, we were invited to film our friend Chitra participating in a local cooking competition. Chitra was going to make her favourite duck dish, and having previously sampled its ducky majesty, I was convinced that her triumphant victory was a given, the recording of which was a mere formality. The scene was very interesting. At least 50 women were gathered in a large room in a local Christian center to battle it out. At stake were prizes valued at around 5000 Rs, but I suspect that although it was never said out loud, bragging rights played a significant role in the participation of these ladies. "Yo! That's MY dosa! Eat it. EAT IT!!!. You in my house now!".

The contest was sponsored by a local radio station, the promotion manager of which granted Laurel and me permission to film the whole thing, even the super-secret judging. Over 50 tables were laid out in this big crumbly fluorescent-lit room. Every table was covered in an identical gingham tablecloth that looked like something that had been recently peeled off of Mary Ann from Gilligan's Island. (She was much hotter than Ginger, but I digress...) All the women had about an hour and a half to assemble their goodies, which had been pre-cooked at home. There were marks to be awarded for both taste and presentation, and judging from some of the elaborate presentations, deep within the mysterious folds of many of the saris beat the heart of a budding structural engineer.

A wide range of dishes were presented, ranging from faithful takes on Kerala classics to interesting hybrid "fusion" efforts, in which existing classics are deconstructed, reworked, and rebuilt from the ground up, often with mixed results. After the ladies had assembled their creations, they were whisked out out of the hall, and the judging began in earnest. The team consisted of an executive chef from a prominent hotel, and a delightfully imperious lady whom I believe was an esteemed food critic/author. Rounding out the team was the winner of last year's contest. I followed the three judges around as they moved from table to table. They probed, prodded, sniffed, and tasted, and made copious notes on nearly 55 items.

Chitra's dish was first off. A fabulous spicy coconutty duck gravy served with pidi, which is a really tasty coconut and rice flour dumpling thing that kind of resembles gnocchi. They have a great taste on their own, but they are an ideal counterpoint to a spicy gravy dish. It's good. Real good. A town without pidi is not a place I want to live.

On the judges went, bravely munching their way through offering after offering with complete poker faces. If they had any bias, it was pretty hard to detect. Then suddenly.... I saw it. I had seen only grainy black and white pictures of it in history books, and I had to look twice to make sure that what I was seeing was no illusion, but there it was, right in front of me. Without a doubt, it had up and migrated the Aleutian Land Bridge during the last Ice Age and evolved into the specimen before me.

The dreaded church potluck hard boiled eggs.

Black olives of questionable pedigree, only recently liberated from lengthy confinement in a can, are carefully placed atop sliced hard boiled eggs, one olive per slice, and these slices in turn are placed on a bed of what appeared to be macaroni slathered in a whitish concoction of unknown origin. A true weapon of ass destruction. No doubt the fine folks at Monsanto had some hand in the ingredient list. If had been carrying a geiger counter, the readings would have been off the charts. The accompanying sign, which was in no way meant to be ironic, said "Special Salad". This was undoubtedly the low point of the competition. The judges remained stoic. If they were appalled at this entry, they were professional enough not to show it.

The other entries were quite varied, and there were some truly stunning examples of home cookery. Everything from simple but good idli and sambar, to ornately sculptured creations filled with prawns, chicken, and other bits of yumminess. It was agonizing following the judges around with a camera, constantly watching them eat bits of all this amazing stuff while fighting the urge to say "Uuuuhhhh... can I try that?". Interestingly, when the judges encountered something that was "fusiony", they did not appear to be as happy as they were when they were presented with something more in the realm of "classic". At around table 45, the judging slowed down considerably, and one of them confided to me "I'm so stuffed!". I could have sworn that one of the judges just looked at the very last entry, waved her hand, and went "Meh...".

With the judging done, the women filed back into the hall to see how they had fared. It was really a beautiful gathering. A vibrant mix of Hindu and Muslim women, all smiling at each other with genuine affection, and seeming to get real pleasure out of both an opportunity to shine outside of the house, and getting some recognition for their artistry and the hard work that they do. For us, it was a huge opportunity to gauge what kind of food was being made in the homes of Kerala. The winners were announced to a smattering of golf applause, and then the real business of eating got underway. The noise level ramped up considerably as the contestants roved from table to table, happily sampling each other's wares. Laurel and I sat in plastic deck chairs as enthusiastic cooks brought us little tastes of the things that they had made. I passed on the hard boiled eggs, but the coconut chutney sculpted into a Pokemon character was one of my faves... All in all, a great day of filming, and it reinforced our suspicion that the best food in India comes from home kitchens, and not from restaurants.

Chitra's entry should have won, and frankly, I think that the judges may have been bribed by the Special Salad lady. I have no evidence.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Odds and Sods

An otherwise quiet dinner was suddenly punctuated by an anguished cry. "I swallowed my tooth!!!"

Our son Miles is possessed of a tremendous appetite. This is the first time, however, that he has seen fit to actually remove and swallow a piece of his own anatomy. There were many tears, which only ceased after Laurel and I convinced him that we had both done the same thing when we were younger, and that he was now a member of a very select club. The look of horror on his face was absolutely priceless when I asked him if he was going to collect it tomorrow, otherwise the Tooth Guru may not make an appearance. His nickname of "Fang" is even more apropos now, as he is missing a tooth on either side of a massive adult incisor. The Tooth Guru was generous, and in lieu of actually being able to find the tooth, included and extra ten rupees for cleaning.

We have a developing theme, as I realized this morning. At Christmas we were visited by John Scott and family. And now for Easter we will be visited by John The Scot. My old friend John Dyck is coming from Scotland to rent the upstairs of our house for a few weeks in April. He's coming with his daughter, who is a year younger than Miles. John is a superb studio installer, and has done all the audio and video wiring installations for countless high end studios, including work for EA and the BBC. Once again, it's going to be a lot of fun watching someone encounter this amazing place for the first time!

A couple of days go, we had an awesome day of filming with our friend Chitra, who is married to our friend Gee (mentioned in a few earlier posts). I can attest to the fact that Chitra is an amazing cook, as I've been fortunate to eat at their home on several occasions. She has the uncanny ability to pull a 9 course meal seemingly out of thin air, and everything is perfect. I think that it's unusual that as a Brahmin, she eats only pure veg, but she makes all kinds of duck, pork, fish, and beef dishes for her family, all without even tasting them! Chitra is a beautiful and very charming woman who has agreed to let us into her kitchen on a regular basis to film her teaching us several of her dishes.

Chitra took us to the main market in Ernakulam. It's a sprawling labyrinth of startling visuals and smells. The seafood selection was a bit broader than our market in Kaloor, featuring iridescent local green mussels, squid, crab, innumerable fish varieties, and even one fellow selling stingrays. I would imagine stingray to be something like skate, although I've never tried it. It strikes me as being a mere vehicle for sauce. Then there are the mutton (goat is also known as mutton here), beef, and chicken stalls. These are not for the faint of heart, although should something happen to your heart, the beef vendor will be glad to sell you another one, as he had plenty on display. Installation extra. To those of us who have been hunting or grew up on a farm, seeing recently dispatched critters before they have had a chance to be installed in neat styrofoam and wrapped in plastic is not a big deal. There's something wonderfully primal about it actually. To the uninitiated, however, the urge to become a vegetarian can hit with a surprising vengeance in a place like this.

After the market run with Chitra, she took us to another place very close to her home where there is a small mill that grinds rice, wheat, and spices. This mill also has a vintage press where they fresh squeeze coconut oil. This oil is absolutely essential to Keralan cooking. If you don't use it, the dish will not taste authentic. The press itself looked like 1920's tech, with big coarse belts driving rusty gear wheels from a noisy vintage electric motor. The coconut meat is dried in strips, and the fed through the press at least three times to get all the oil out if it. It smelled amazing. Perhaps the only room in all of India that smells like a warm macaroon on Easter Sunday. We were told that some California restaurants get spices custom ground here in 15 or 20 kilo lots in order to make there own garam masala. Just a great day of filming with Chitra, and we're looking forward to filming several episodes in her kitchen starting on Monday.

Yesterday, I was walking along to the Margin Free store to buy a few essentials, when my mobile rang. It was my friend Rajesh. He said "you must come to the office right now. We will show you something special. Something of a spiritual nature". Thinking that what he said was actually code for a cold beer, I walked the 2 km to his office, my thirst building with each passing block. Upon arriving and climbing the stairs to the office, I walked into the oddest scene. Rajesh, Gee, and a few others were in the room with a very calm looking Hindu gentleman who was holding up 2 "wands", each bent at a 90 degree angle. I understood him to be a practitioner of "Vastu", which can be loosely described as Indian Feng Shui. Gee insisted that I sit down in a chair in front of this man while he used his two bent rods to probe the magnetic field, or subtle emanations coming from my body. The wands seemed to move from one side to another of their own accord. Sometimes, they moved equally in opposite directions, sometimes they both veered sharply in the same direction. I was intrigued, but still not totally buying in. I kept thinking of Scientology probes with an e-meter. There was no way old L. Ron was going to get me to sign up for anything beyond the "free personality test". Then he got to my right leg, wherein I had pulled a thigh muscle a couple of days ago playing soccer. The wands jumped, and he said something to Gee in Malayalam. Gee asked me "Are you having pain in your right leg just above the knee?" "Yes!", I answered, somewhat taken aback. He gently ran his hand down my thigh towards my knee a few times. Not a massage, but like he was re-arranging an invisible layer of whipped egg whites on my leg. I was very surprised to find that my leg pain had been substantially reduced! Not back to 100%, but noticeably better.

Then came the kicker. For the last month or so, I've had some numbness in my right arm, stretching from my shoulder, which I injured over a year ago, and has never been quite right, down to my fingertips. At various time during the day, it feels like most of my arm is just waking up after being "asleep". Aside from Laurel, I've mentioned this to no one. As soon as those metal rods got to my shoulder, they twitched a little, and he shook his head and stopped. He traced a line from my shoulder all the way down to my right hand, and as he was squeezing each one of my fingers, he said something else to Gee. Gee then asked me "Have you been experiencing tingling all up and down your right arm and some numbness in your fingers?" I picked my jaw up off the floor and managed a quiet "yes...". This too was massaged a bit, and I was told to get a certain ayurvedic oil to apply for a couple of weeks, along with some hot towels once a day. In two weeks I should be fine.

Finally, I was informed that my heart resides in Saturn, astrologically speaking, and that when the moon is in Saturn, it's not uncommon for someone like me to suffer mild upsets of the nervous system. This heart news I found unusual, as previously I had only been told by friends up to this point that "your head is firmly lodged up Uranus". Furthermore, I was judged to be of otherwise sound health, and the recipient of some very good karma in recent years. I was advised that I should go to a shrine of Saint Thomas every Tuesday morning at 6:15 AM for the next three weeks to light a candle in order to give thanks for blessings received and to smooth the way for more to come. I didn't have the heart to tell him I wasn't a Catholic. I'm not even a Protestant, although Laurel tells me that she thinks I doth protest too much.

All I know is this. On Tuesday I'm getting up early. I'm lighting those damned candles!

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Blessed By An Elephant

Who knew an elephant could be so holy?

A few days ago (Isaac's birthday, one he shares with Alice Cooper...), our dear friend Gopal called us up with a tempting offer. It was the last morning of our visit to Coimbatore and Ooty, and he offered to take us to a temple before we caught the train at 1 PM back to Cochin. He picked us up in his teeny sedan around nine AM. The six of inhaled deeply and piled in for the 20 minute drive. Our destination was Aruligu Patteeswaraswamy Temple in Perur, on the outskirts of Coimbatore. This is a Shiva temple, and parts of it are over 2000 years old. There was a major expansion about 400 years ago. It is being constantly worked on and renovated, painted, and cleaned. Laurel and I are both suckers for ancient temples of all sorts. She does have her Masters in Religious Studies with a major in Hinduism after all! However, I was unprepared for the depth of beauty I was about to experience.

The exterior of the temple was completely covered in scaffolding and tarps, in much the same manner as a leaky condo gets wrapped while the workers repair the water damage and the owners try to track down the construction company to serve papers to. This was no leaky condo. All the sculpture on the exterior was being meticulously cleaned and repainted in an effort to reclaim its original ancient splendour. The entrance to the temple is made via 2 huge ornately carved wooden doors, each about 20 feet high. Signs immediately warned us that there was to be no photography under any circumstances.

After walking through the entrance hall, one is immediately confronted by the temple elephant. A temple elephant is apparently pretty standard issue in Hindu temples in the South of India. They are used to move the heavy carts laden with various idols on auspicious holy days throughout the year, and also to bless visitors and collect money. This was the first one I had ever seen in a temple, and it was a pretty awe-inspiring sight.

The elephant's forehead was smeared with sandalwood paste. Three horizontal lines that I believe are symbolic of Shiva's trident were painted on, indicating that the elephant was in fact a bona fide devotee of Shiva. The elephant stood on a rectangular bed of sand (for obvious reasons...), with it's handler by it's side. The elephant rocked back and forth, shifting it's weight from left to right constantly, looking for all the world like Bill Gates appearing before a Senate subcommittee. Gopal gently suggested that we make a small donation, either a rupee coin or ten rupee note, and in turn, we would be blessed by the elephant. Sounded good to me! I stood about 5 feet in front of the swinging trunk, and fished about in my coin purse. The elephant must have gotten a bit excited at the prospect of another donation, because it cleared its trunk in anticipation of my donation. As a result, I am now intimately familiar with the sensation of flying elephant snot as it settles on your skin.

After much fiddling, I found a 5 rupee coin and stepped towards the beast. It saw me coming. It reached out its trunk, and curved the end up so as to resemble an upturned palm. I placed my coin there, and instantly the trunk swung back to pass the coin to the elephant's handler. Assured that the donation had reached its destination, the mighty trunk swung back and stopped just over my head. Then, ever so gently, the trunk came down and rested momentarily on my head. I was blessed! Our normally outgoing boys were quite intimidated by the elephant, and declined the opportunity to get blessed in a similar fashion. Actually, it was all we could do to stop them from running away.

Gopal rejoined us after a brief disappearance and said that he had had a word with the temple authorities, and we had been granted the rare permission to take photos, as long as we did not take pictures of the sacred deities themselves. Wandering through the halls of the temple, I was struck by the construction and engineering of it all. 2000 years ago, 14 foot long chunks of rock were turned into ornately carved pillars, depicting events from the lives of the gods. These pillars were all lined up perfectly symmetrically, and were joined by more ornately carved stone joists, creating a ceiling structure that was perfectly level and square. The stones fit so tightly, that a knife blade would not fit between the joints. And that's after 2,000 years. Unbelievable engineering and craftsmanship. The other thing that struck me about this was just the vibe. I've been to Mayan temples, and the feeling was very different. These temples were not constructed by by a priest class using slave labour that was to be eventually sacrificed, they were built as acts of devotion. That feeling of joy and devotion here was palpable.

At the end of one of the halls, there was an inner sanctum that was chained off to the public. This room contained the main Shiva deity, as well as the statue of his consort Parvati. It was guarded by a priest, clad only in a lunghi and smeared with the same markings as those on the elephant. He blessed us by putting a little sandalwood paste on our foreheads. He asked Gopal where we were from, and Gopal explained. The priest's gaze softened. "Come", he said, and held up the chain for us to walk underneath. Surprisingly, we were led up the steps and into the inner sanctum of Shiva itself. He walked us slowly around the altar, pausing to show us how the the four columns holding the roof structure in the room had been carved with the top of each column leaning visibly and tilting towards the altar. It seems that even the building itself bows to Shiva out of respect. Later, Gopal told us that we had been the recipients of a very rare honour. "Good things happen to good people", he said. Surely, he wasn't talking about us....

There were hugs and many words of thanks to Gopal and his family as we departed for Cochin. The depth of Indian hospitality is unlike anything else I have ever experienced, and to us, Gopal is it's principal exponent. We left with promises to see each other soon, and we offered that his family was more than welcome to stay with us if they somehow managed to come to Canada for a visit. How fortunate we are to have found people this friendly and giving of their time. I think that the elephant blessing worked.

Now if only I can get this elephant snot stain out of my clothes...

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Let Them Eat Cake

My mother is amazing. Not only is she wickedly smart, curious and adventurous, she makes a mean birthday cake. For my entire life, all of our birthdays have been graced with beautiful homemade cakes. A week or so before your birthday, my mother asks the soon-to-be-feted (as opposed to fetid) what kind of birthday cake they would like. I usually answer in the theme of chocolate: chocolate hazelnut, chocolate almond, chocolate strawberry, etc. If it is the twin brothers' birthday, there are always two different cakes. My father usually opted for my mother's fabulous poppyseed cake with raspberry jam between the layers and billows of whipped cream to frost. I thought this was normal. There were a lot of things about my family that I thought were pretty ABnormal, but birthdays seemed pretty safe - I mean, everyone had cake, right? Apparently not like us.

But this is not an ode to my mother Ellen, it's actually a nod to the tradition she continues to uphold. One that I think is important. A cake "from scratch" can take as little time as one from a mix but it is a process, a creation, an act of love. Of course, a homemade cake can take hours or days, if you like that sort of thing, but a simple cake really isn't difficult and I've never understood why people are daunted by it.

That being said, this year I was a little daunted. Since having kids, I too make a birthday cake every year for Rob, Miles and Isaac. I too take "requests". Rob has a soft spot for cheesecakes (I think last year was the chocolate, salted caramel and pecan cheesecake). Miles has been very adventurous - one year I made a Tomato Spice cake for him - last year his cake was decorated like a basketball. Isaac likes Orange and Lemon for his cakes, although last year's was a chocolate Treasure Chest with edible booty spilling over the edges. I have no shortage of experience with cakes. I've been baking cakes since I was seven years old (and we have photos to prove it). But here we are in the tropics, without an oven, a mixer, a blender or even a whisk. For the last month I have been racking my brains for a way to make a cake for Feb 4th - Isaac's 5th birthday. At one point Rob suggested I just purchase a cake from one of the local bakeries. Has he learned nothing in the 10 years we've been together?! But that's another topic all together.

So I did what I do well - I Googled. I searched far and wide for a solution. DId you know that apparently you can bake a cake in a pressure cooker? Most Indians have pressure cookers. We don't. I checked out ice cream cakes - just not possible with the teeny freezer we have and no electronic kitchen gadgetry. And then I stumbled upon the creation that is known variously as: Gateau de/aux Crêpe, Crepe Cake, Mille Crêpe, etc. A perfect solution to my ovenless dilemma! There are chocolate Crepe Cakes but I have been underwhelmed by Indian chocolate (too sweet for my tastes), ones layered with whipped cream (no desire to beat cream by hand with a fork for 2 hours), and some that are soaked in lots of liqueur (difficult to procure and not really suitable for a 5 year old's birthday). So I borrowed and I tweaked and I developed one especially for our situation. Spiced pastry cream and fruit curd layered between silky saffron crêpes. Piled high and just oozing filling! I had originally planned to make a mango curd for between the layers but the mangoes just aren't ripe right now. So we adapt. Isaac loves bananas, so banana curd it is. It turned out beautifully and Isaac was thrilled even if there was no writing on the cake.

Happy Birthday Isaac! And thank you Mom. Some traditions are definitely worth holding on to.

So, if you ever find yourself in the tropics without an oven on a loved-one's birthday, you too can spread the love and Let Them Eat (real) Cake!

Over the top No-oven Birthday Cake for the Tropics
(or Saffron Crêpe cake with Banana Curd and Ginger Pastry Cream)

Banana Curd
8 small (or 4 North American sized) bananas, peeled and smooshed
125g butter
1 c sugar
3 small limes (or 1 North American sized), juiced & strained
3 medium eggs

Melt the butter over low heat in a small, heavy pan. Add smooshed bananas, sugar and lime juice. Cook, stirring, for about 10 minutes until glossy and translucent. Beat eggs in a bowl. Temper the eggs by slowly adding a few tablespoons of hot banana mixture to them while whisking constantly. Add the egg/banana mix back to the pot in a steady stream while whisking constantly. Cook for a few moments until the curd thickens enough to coat the back of a spoon. Cool and refrigerate.

Ginger Pastry Cream
1 1/2 c milk
2" knob of ginger, peeled and roughly grated
4 egg yolks
1/3 c sugar
3 1/2 T corn starch

In a small heavy-bottomed pot, bring the milk and the grated ginger to a boil. Take off the heat and let steep for about 10 minutes. In another pot, whisk together egg yolks, sugar and cornstarch until smooth. Slowly add the hot gingered milk to the egg yolk mixture, whisking constantly. Place over medium high heat and bring to a boil, whisking steadily until the mixture thickens. Pour mixture through a sieve. Cool and refrigerate.

Ginger syrup:
1/2 c water
1/2 c sugar
2" knob of ginger, peeled and roughly grated
Bring all ingredients to a boil in a small heavy-bottomed pot. Reduce heat and simmer until all the sugar is dissolved and the mixture thickens a bit. Cool and strain. Store in the fridge.

Saffron Crêpes
85g butter
3 c milk
large pinch saffron threads

6 medium sized eggs
1/3 c sugar
1 2/3 c unbleached flour
pinch salt

Brown the butter in a small pan until it smells nutty - don't let it burn. Heat the milk with the saffron threads until bubbles appear around the edges of the pan. Allow both butter and milk to cool for about 10 minutes. Beat together the eggs, sugar, flour and salt until smooth. Slowly add the hot milk and the brown butter. Cool and refrigerate until ready to use. Storing in a pitcher is ideal for making crepes.
At this point everything, above, can be made the day before and kept in the fridge.

When ready to make the cake, bring the crêpe batter to room temperature. Heat a non-stick crêpe pan (or tava) over medium heat. Pour a scant 1/4 c batter onto the pan and tilt to create a thin film covering the entire surface of the pan. Cook until just beginning to brown, then flip and briefly cook the other side. Slide off the pan on to a plate and repeat until all the batter is used.

Building the cake: Place a crêpe on a serving plate and spread with a thin layer of banana curd, placing slightly less in the middle (or you end up with a strange dome shaped cake). Place another crêpe on top of the curd and spread with a thin layer of ginger pastry cream. Continue alternating until you have only one crêpe left (you could also add a layer or two of fresh fruit in the middle). Place the last crêpe on top and gently press down, to adhere the layers and even the cake out. Chill. Drizzle with ginger syrup. Sprinkle with freshly shaved coconut (or desiccated, in a pinch) and serve in oozy wedges.

The Beauty of Ooty

All this leisure is exhausting. We've earned a break.

With our friend Gopal's able assistance, we hired a car and driver to drive us to Ooty for a couple of days of R&R. Ooty is a hill station less than 100k from Coimbatore in the province of Tamil Nadu. Hill stations were built in several locations in India as refuge for the English from the heat of summer. The most famous of these is Simla in the north. Every year the English would move their entire government from Delhi to the relative cool of Simla during the hot season. The winding road to Udagamandalam , or as it is more commonly known, Ooty, is about as nausea inducing as it gets, with more than 30 hairpin turns as it rises to nearly 2200 meters above sea level.

As we left the foothills and got into the Western Ghat mountains proper, the boys were delighted to have their first wild monkey sighting. These little buggers look incredibly cute, especially the mothers with small babies clinging to them, but their appearance belies a nasty streak a mile wide. Look. Don't touch. The steep climb levels out around the 2000 meter mark, and there Ooty is spread out before us. Many tea plantations form well manicured geometric patterns of lush green that cover the undulating hills. It's quite pretty, and refreshingly cool.

Ooty is also a resort town, and where there is a resort, there is cheese. Lots of it. Not the yummy reggiano kind of cheese that I've been craving, but the tacky "only exists for the tourists" cheese. Our driver, bless his misguided soul, erroneously assumed that due to the fact that we were of the caucasian persuasion, we wanted to stop at every tourist trap that the town had to offer, and subsequently divest ourselves of every last rupee in the quest for ultimate cheese. Fortunately, there was no giant fiberglass "World's Largest Idli", or anything like that, but the places he chose to deposit us were not far off that degree of fromage. After a frantic search for a suitable place for lunch, at least a place our driver thought suitable for Westerners, we were summarily deposited at a place called "Shogun". This was a truly dreadful place, swathed in tacky decorations that were more faux Chinese than the Japanese name suggested. Lunch was not great but not truly awful. Just about triple the price it should have been at the locals only places just down the street. If I sound grumpy, it's because I was. At least there was no attempt to serve sushi. Sigh...

Our friend Gopal generously fixed us up with a couple of deluxe rooms at a resort that he owns a holiday time-share at, but rarely has time to visit. It's a huge and sprawling complex with over 100 suites, and it somehow manages the peculiarly Indian feat of appearing both brand new and run-down at the same time. Our suites were fabulous though, with cooking facilities (unused) and hot water showers, however brief. We were virtually the only people there, and if you've ever seen that old British TV series, "The Prisoner", you'll get a small sense of the vibe. I half expected that giant white blancmange to come chasing after us when we attempted to finally check out. Be seeing you!

We took a drive to the Botanical Gardens, a Raj-era holdover that had definitely seen some better days. It was nice to walk amongst some greenery though, despite being stopped by strangers every 30 seconds to pose for photos with them. A few guys in their late teens/early twenties with boozy cigarette breath were perhaps a little more enthusiastic than was was comfortable when they posed with their arms around Emma and Laurel. Grrrrr..... Then it was off to the Boathouse, a man-made lake also dating back to the Raj era. Here, we actually broke down and rented two decrepit fibreglass pedal boats. Each boat displayed a two foot high Disney character on it's bow, and I'm pretty sure old Walt and Company will be waiting a long time before receiving those licensing royalties. At one end of the lake was a sorry no-man's land containing several retired pedalboats in various stages of sinking. This is a theme that is repeated throughout the India we have seen. There is this odd combination of enthusiastic beginnings combined with subsequent systematic neglect and decay. A children's park will have a huge expensive granite plaque proudly announcing the persons present at its dedication, yet all the playground equipment is rusty and broken. Elaborate concrete fountains are built in the middle of roundabouts, yet they contain only weeds within their cracked concrete walls. Did they ever function? Ooty has a full size horse racing track, yet its covered entirely with weeds and the structures are crumbling. Monkeys patrol the broken fountains in the Botanical Gardens, where water hasn't flowed for thirty years.

The sun was going down, and we felt the sudden need to actually dress up in long pants, sweaters and hoodies, which was pretty unusual for India. We headed off for dinner, this time swearing to do the exact opposite of whatever the driver recommended. Our obstinance was rewarded with a decent Northern Indian meal at a local workingman's hotel. You may have noticed that there is not much written here about the food in Tamil Nadu. Speaking for myself, the food is not as varied or interesting as it is in Cochin and some other parts of the state of Kerala. Gopal did show us a couple of new things, such as Sevai, which is a really good kind of rice noodle. The Poori, or deep fried puffy bread, were quite good here. However, fish and other seafoods are pretty much off the menu, and instead there is an endless parade of idli, dosa, and sambar. If there are any other regional specialties that stand out, it may just be that we were not visiting long enough to sniff them out.

The next morning, we checked out very early and thus managed to escape the clutches of the prisoner retrieval blancmange, although I'm sure I caught a glimpse of it in the rear view mirror as we left. It was Isaac's 5th birthday the next day, and we were determined to show him an elephant as a special treat. We drove down the backside of the mountain through another 30 plus hairpins until we leveled out onto the plains of the tiger reserve. Just before we hit the plain, the driver shouted "Elephant!", and sure enough right by the side of the road, ambling through the dense brush was a wild elephant about 10 feet away from the car. Pretty exciting stuff.

Driving through the reserve, we stopped to take pictures of a troop of monkeys. The driver had his window open, and suddenly there was a commotion of excited voices in the car. A large female monkey (I could tell, as she bore an uncanny resemblance to a topless Cher), obviously the recipient of extensive Ninja training, leapt up and perched on the driver's door, and attempted to climb in the car through the open window. The driver reached for the nearest weapon, in this case a wooden brush, and wildly thrashed away at the monkey until she finally was finally convinced to leave the vehicle, unharmed. There was much laughter after the shock subsided. We also saw several peacocks, axis deer, more monkeys, a mongoose (tasty!), and several more elephants in the reserve before we turned around and hightailed it back up the mountain, and then back down the mountain to head straight back to Coimbatore.

We owe a big thank you to Gopal for showing us the depth of Indian hospitality. That night our excitement mounted. One more sleep and we could return to our house in Cochin and gorge on seafood! We are but simple people...

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

The Sacred And The Profane

All you need is love. And cash. Oh yes... Cash helps.

We were thrilled to receive an invitation to Coimbatore from our friend Gopal, in order to attend the two day long birthday festivities for his guru, Shree Harsha Matha. We booked our tickets on India Rail, which is always an interesting process. They do have a web site, although it's main purpose seems to be the vexation of potential clients. We have learned through trial and error that a much better alternative is to hoof it down to the railway station, whereupon one stands in line for a "journey cum reservation ticket". This little document needs to be filled out in excruciating detail. It requires the name, gender and age of all seats booked, as well as train numbers, station acronyms, departure "timings", and so on. I'm sure there was a box in there asking for my favourite colour, but a good chunk of it was in Hindi script, so I left some items blank. After filling out the form, you move to another queue, and after what can be a substantial wait in a sweltering room serviced only by a few rickety 1930's era ceiling fans, you have the privilege of getting to the ticket booth itself and suffering the disdain of the person who processes your ticket, which is invariably filled out incorrectly and requires substantial modification by the unamused clerk. To add an extra bit of drama, there is always the risk of building ingress from roving livestock.

After 4 hours or so on the train, we arrived in Coimbatore, where we were greeted on the platform by Gopal's son. We were summarily loaded into a taxi and whisked to the hotel that Gopal had kindly booked for us. At around 6 o'clock, we finally got to met Gopal face to face, after more than 4 months of email dialogue. If there is a kinder, more generous man in all of India, I would be hard pressed to believe it. We drove in Gopal's little van to the guru's spanking new temple, as Gopal had arranged a private evening audience for us. A great honour.

Now this is something I've always wanted to do: have a real live meeting with a genuine guru. The romantic in me fantasized about being recognized as a long lost disciple from a previous life, reunited with the all-knowing master at last, collapsing at the feet of this enlightened being, unashamedly weeping tears of bliss as scenes of past lives reeled past my newly awakened third eye. The experience fell a little short of that mark. Harsha Mata spoke no English, and after we were ushered into her private A/C sanctum, she gave a discourse on her accomplishments "more in 60 years than most could do in 200", the coming age of destruction, and her ongoing mission to lead her followers to godliness. As I watched her giving this discourse, I could not move myself out of the doubtful Western mindset that made me question everything that was said. All around, people treated her with deference and ultimate respect that bordered on worship. Actually, it was worship. I was trying to have an open mind, but this kind of thing always sets off alarm bells with me. I came up sorely lacking in the cultural framework that enables the machinery of instant devotion. Inwardly, I wondered if my divinity doubts would be addressed in the form of some dramatic spiritual epiphany. You know, something along the lines of Mathaji materializing in my hotel room later with secret words of love and knowledge. Then the phone rang. She picked it up and had an animated conversation and if I didn't know better, she actually sounded a little... cranky. I wondered again if all gurus fielded their own phone calls. "For karmic advice, press one. All gurus are busy right now. Your call is important to us! Please... stay on the line".

The next morning we headed back to the temple for the first day of the birthday celebrations. The temple is only two years old, and it's quite beautiful. It was built on land donated by a wealthy couple from Dubai who are ardent devotees of Mathaji. From 6AM, a group of priests sat in a circle, performing rites of offering and chanting into microphones, which were then piped through a pretty respectable PA system spread all around the grounds. On one of the pillars of the temple was a sign saying that the use of cell phones was prohibited. This was the source of great amusement for Laurel and me, as we watched more than one of the priests, naked from the waist up and body parts smeared with markings of sandalwood paste, field phone calls while in the chanting circle. The sacred and the profane. More and more devotees arrived, and the celebrations began in earnest. Mathaji came out to receive the adulation of her followers, and in return, she blessed them profusely. It was quite touching to see how emotional the response was of some of the devotees to her blessings. Tears coming down cheeks, they would touch her feet as a sign of love and respect. At one point, a brand new Honda sedan was driven into the compound, and everyone crowded around it. It seems that for the second year in a row, Mathaji was presented with a brand new car from a devotee. She climbed in the driver's seat to check it out as the donor beamed a huge smile.

Mathaji also singled out Emma as suitable marriage match for the son of the wealthy couple from Dubai. Emma was whisked away and photographed. A friend of the Dubai matron interviewed Emma, inquiring about her family, education, and so on. This was in turn relayed to the Dubai lady, and favourably received. From her end, it was a "go". She was very pleased that Mathaji had divined that Emma was perfect for her son, as Mathaji had arranged the successful marriage of her first son. Fortunately for Emma, she does get the final say on all of this. I'm not sure if spending her adulthood clad in a bourka stirring lentils in some steaming secure compound in Dubai is really in her future plans.

Adjoining the temple is a massive covered area that seats about three hundred people at a time, and that's where we headed for lunch. This is where things began to make a lot more sense for me. There is no real "welfare system" in India, and temples such as this one systematically feed countless poor people a free meal each day. The food and labour is donated by devotees, whose actions earn blessings and karmic currency. Its sort of a "win-win" situation. The donors get a spiritual benefit, and the recipients get food, which may otherwise prove elusive. Mathaji is the conduit through which all this flows. The system makes a lot of sense, and its replicated in similar microcosms all around the country. While the nice simple vegetarian meal was being served, one woman, who was dripping with diamonds, implored me to videotape her as she spooned rice onto the banana-leaf plates of the disenfranchised. Ignoring the person she was serving, she flashed a gold-toothy smile and stared into the camera, as if to say "Look at me! I'm ****ing rich and I'm feeding the poor!". I didn't have the heart to point out to her that there is much more spiritual benefit in selfless anonymous acts. Still, despite the grandstanding of the wealthy, the temple served over 1200 meals this day.

Returning back to the hotel, I noticed an odd change in myself. The previous night, Gopal had given me a nice new blue cotton shirt, which I decided to wear to the temple that day. Upon removing it, I noticed that from the waist up, including my hands and arms, I had turned a uniform shade of blue. This made me look like a low budget Krishna, not quite the transformational moment I had hoped for. However, my desire for a mystical visit came true later in the night, although once again, not quite in the form I had hoped for. After more than two months of superb health, and as if to expressly punish my doubts, I spent the bulk of the night fending off the the attack of the dreaded "Delhi Belly". Unsuccessfully. For the next 24 hours, I stayed in the hotel room performing porcelain penance rituals of my own, the details of which are not for the eyes or ears of the uninitiated.