Wednesday, 8 April 2015

The Extended Family

The modern day upwardly mobile couples do live in smart condos and flats, and actually prefer urban living to country living.  However, it is not uncommon for people to live in an extended family under the same roof, often sharing the same kitchen.  So, traditionally, the elder of the household, and the supreme authority is the father-in-law i.e. the husband’s father, and the mother-in-law (saas) is the presiding woman in the family.  When a woman is married, traditionally i.e. a marriage arranged between two families, she moves into her husband’s home, and in every way, becomes the daughter of that home, considering her own parent’s home as very secondary.  Her own family including parents, would rarely visit her in her parent-in-law’s home as they would not like to be seen as imposing on their son-in-law’s home.  The bride/wife, would traditionally return to her parental home at the time of giving birth to her children, going back to her marital home after 40 days. 
The parents of the husband are regarded as the senior members of his home, and his other brothers, along with their wives and children would be sharing the same premises, albeit in separate living quarters.  A strict hierarchy does exist, with the eldest brother and his wife being the senior siblings, and so on down the line.  If a widow’s sons live separately, she has every right and expectation that she will live in the home of the eldest son, and distribute herself among all the other families by visiting them turn by turn for prolonged periods of time. 

Though each unit manages itself, and it’s own children, grand parents play an important role, and all the aunts and uncles, whose nomenclature clearly defines each relationship (they are not just ambiguous “aunts” and “uncles”, but very specific relatives), and the children of the house are fed and disciplined by all – more or less regardless of whose they are.  The kitchen and dining table is common, though each unit may have separate sub food arrangements, and very often the late evening meal is eaten all together by all members of the entire family.  Running the kitchen therefore becomes a team function of all the ladies of the house ---- all this is ofcourse, traditionally, but not necessarily the way it is today.

Most of our socializing is done among relatives, who thus also become our close friends.


Typical questions by readers of popular women’s magazines read as follows: 
“During Diwali, Holi and other major festivals, my husband always wants to visit his parents, siblings and their families, while I feel I would like to visit my own parents, sisters and brother’s families, and ofcourse mutual friends.  There is never enough time for both, and given the traffic and distances in a metro city, this is not too practical.  My parents-in-law, too, feel we should call on their immediate family.  What do we do, without offending anyone ofcourse?”

These are very real dilemmas, not to be taken lightly without causing considerable diplomatic offence to all concerned.  So festival socializing has to be sorted out very thoughtfully ensuring that all concerned are not offended, particularly not “samdhis” i.e. one’s children’s families-in-law.

Relatives should not be excluded from one’s toddlers birthday bashes.  Relatives must always be visited when they are ill or when they are bereaved.  And the entire range of relatives, residing in the country or outside, must be included in one’s family’s wedding invitation lists. 

In India, a visitor is an honoured guest, and is always respected as such.  He/she/they are immediately seated, and profusely greeted…every member of the family in the house is expected to come by to sit with him/her for atleast a short period of time.  The first offering within 5 minutes of arrival is a chilled glass of water, followed by a soft drink and some short eats – a display of atleast 3 varieties.  Alternatively, it could be tea and snacks.  To refuse, or to indicate that one has already eaten more than enough is not a good reason for the host/hostess to desist from laying out the paraphernalia, and good manners require that you do partake, atleast of a cup of tea.

Conversation proceeds on the lines of asking after all family members health – the wife and the kids, and ofcourse, the aged parents. 

Socialising at weddings includes introducing one’s entire family in detail to other families or relatives, explaining in detail how they are related.  It is also the forum to introduce young people to the parents of other young people in the hope of prospective matrimonial alliances. The perfectly acceptable gift is an envelope containing cash – crisp, clean notes, the denominations always ending in “one” i.e. Rupees One hundred and one, or Five hundred and one or Rs. 1001/-.  The envelopes are often very decorative, with that additional Rs. 1/- as part of the envelope.  This offering is called “shagun”, a good luck and good-will offering which is never refused as it is an essential element of blessings to the couple.

Party Protocol

In India, partying is not confined to week-ends.  Weekdays will do just as well, since household help is available to do the cooking, and many families still have home-makers who will market and supervise the details.

In metro cities such as Mumbai and Delhi, it is necessary to arrive “fashionably late” i.e. normally, half an hour after invitation time. Mumbai takes the cake in this regard where people often land up at 10 p.m. or later!  Not so at parties being hosted by anyone in the Indian Armed Forces when punctuality is correct protocol.  Otherwise, it is allright to come and go at almost any time.  The excuse could be the traffic, or that one had to/has to attend more than one event on the same evening. This is especially true during Diwali, when hopping from one card-party to another is quite the norm; and during the wedding season.  It is not done to hurt people’s feelings by not attending their “functions”, especially as entertainment is lavish with no holds barred in terms of extravagance.

 Often guests bring others in tow, hopefully having informed the host/hostess beforehand.  Unlike in the West, when an appertif  or two is had before the meal is served, in India, hard drinking is done before the meal is laid out, so for a party with an invite time at 8.30 p.m. dinner will usually be served between 10.30 – 11 p.m. And since most people are really hungry as they arrive, cocktail snacks are in great demand, the heavier, the better.  So chicken tikkas, sikh kebabs, paneer tikkas doing the rounds are literally devoured.   The other difference between socializing in the West and in India is that people, after they have eaten, will not wait to make after dinner conversation but KPK (“Khao, Piyo aur Khisko) – literally translated as, Eat, Drink and Move.  All the socializing is done before the main meal.  There are certain accepted patterns of socialising at a party, whether a business event, or otherwise.  When people are introduced, the men will shake hands with the men and say Namaste to the women.  The women will say Namaste to all.  The younger generation is comfortable with just a “Hi!”   Very often, the men will not make eye-contact with women at the time of introduction, if they have to shake hands with those women who do extend their hand.  “Sat-sri-Akal” is the standard greeting for Sikhs. You will often find younger people bending from the waist to token-touch their elders’feet – even today, a sign of respect for one’s elders, especially the –in-laws.  A teacher or guru is always shown this respect.  Often, just the phrase, “pehri-panna” is used to vocalize the intention of touching an elder’s feet as a sign of obeisance and respect.

 All the women sit together in a group discussing each other’s elegant clothes and the sourcing of these; discussing the difficulties of obtaining good domestic help these days; discussing the health problems of mutual friends; and talking about Bollywood films and TV soaps ; all this being regarded as  “gossiping”.  The men congregate around the bar or in all-male clusters talking cricket, perhaps politics, the stock market and ofcourse impolite jokes rule as the (alcoholic) drinks go down.  Ofcourse they gossip, but then it’s known as “management information systems”.

And now a word about imbibing alcohol.  At a cocktail party, you will find that hotel staff will pass around whiskey (most often good scotch) with mixers of sparkling soda water, plain water and ice, and also beer.  They will circulate among the men but rarely among groups of women, where the “soft” non-alcoholic drinks will be passed around.  It takes a brave woman to ask for whisky, or (these days) wine.  And it takes even more bravery for women to walk over to a group of men to join them for a drink, or for a man to leave his “cluster”of safe male companions to decide to join a ladies group, especially if it happens to be seated.  And seated it will be, since chairs are laid out in semi-circles, just so that women can be seated!

Men are not doing the party justice unless they down the first three scotch & sodas really fast, and then proceed at a regular pace.  Women are never expected to have more than one or two (alcoholic) drinks.  No wonder women are bored out of their minds while men are having ever such a good time!

The success of a  party is often rated (by guests) by the number of whiskies they had!

ÖK then,”or Äacha-ji”is quite the accepted way of saying “goodbye”in the north of India.

Social intercourse
The occasions: A marriage
                                    A business party, with or without spouses
                                    A death

The party sequence:    Not just week-end partying.
 Party hopping. 
Arriving late – often with children/elderly parents in tow.
Gifts – often money in decorative envelopes.
Women sit together, and men congregate together a distance away.
Women rarely drink while men imbibe! Smoking relatively rare,
especially among women, younger generation excepted.
Drinks first – whisky on an empty stomach, three before the main
meal.  Heavy snacks with drinks – chicken tikkas for non vegs.
And paneer tikkas for veggies. 
Heavy food, served late.
Immediate departure “ Khaye, piyae aur khiske!” (Eat, drink and move!)
Conversation:              Among women – domestic help, price of household stuff, health of
                                    self, in-laws and relatives, travel trips. Hindi movies.
                                    Among men – cricket, stock market, traffic, performance of their
                                    Cars, etc.,etc.
Typical self-introductions.  Hand shakes, eye-contact or the lack of it.  Hands in pockets stance. Brevity of cross gender talk. 
“OK then” or “Aacha ham chalet hai”( “we will be on our way”) is our way of saying “Good-bye”!

Sunday, 29 March 2015

Indian Street Markets

Indian Street Markets
Nothing is quite as picturesque as the Indian Street Market.  Street Markets are just about every where.  Every locality has it’s grocery shop which stocks pulses/lentils, flour, ground wheat, sugar, washing soaps and powders, spices, oils, toiletries, matches  – you name it and they probably have it!

Then there are the vegetable shops, and most probably the butcher for mutton and chicken; utensil shops, the local sweetmeat shop, more often than not called ‘Aggarwal Sweets.”  There are cartloads of fresh fruit bought daily from the wholesale fruit and vegetable market, interspersed with cartloads of spices in their small sacks.  There are plastic utensil shops and stainless steel utensil shops, paint and hardware shops, chemists, shoe shops, and ofcourse inevitably jewellery shops all crowded together on the same road, not to mention street food vendors.  Cloth shops (yardage) and clothes shops jostle with carts laden with glass bangles.  Traffic crawls through these narrow lanes, and brawls about the right of way.  Carts and cycle rickshaws, as well as scooters and bikes bully, push and inveigle themselves through the most intricate snarls.  Every single vehicle on the road is marked or dented in some way, or it’s lights have cracked glass.  That’s just the way it is – and no one is really bothered about the labyrinth effect!
Fresh vegetables are picked up by households from such local markets in the mornings around 11 a.m. – the best produce is available then.  In the afternoons gunny sacking is used to cover vegetable carts with liberal sprinklings of water wetting the gunny, while the vendors siesta nearby,  and in the evening after 6 p.m. is when m the market comes really alive with raucous calls announcing  prices of vegetables to passers by, soliciting business and steadily dropping prices as the evening progresses into early night and petromax lights come on – or strings of light bulbs stealing electricity from nearby electric poles.
And the varieties of fresh vegetables is incredible.  Potatoes, onions, tomatoes are the basics of any Indian cooking, combined with garlic and ginger, garnished with green chillies and coriander (right through the winter months, bouquets of these are put in free with  your bag of veggies.)  Lemons, and when in season, raw mangoes are ingredients for chutneys as are coconuts. Summer vegetables include every variety of gourd, ladies fingers, brinjal, and greens. Winter is bountiful with cauliflower, special (non-genetically improved) sweet, red carrots; radishes red & white, every variety of spinach and greens, wonder India produces the best and most imaginative vegetarian cuisine in the world!
india mango : Mango seller cart parked at a roadside in Jaipur, Rajasthan
Forgive me for sounding as effusive about the fruit too, in every season of the year.  Winter finds any amount of oranges, kinnos for orange juice, gooseberries and apples. Spring brings strawberries, mulberries, pineapples from the North East, and grapes for the Deccan plateau.  Chickoos (saprodilla) abound from Maharashtra and pomegranate from Rajasthan.   Summer finds a wealth of water melon and melons, the hotter and dryer the weather, the juicier this fruit.  Then come the mangoes.  Starting in May, there is a different variety as the season progresses – alfonsos from Mumbai to start with followed by bright mustard coloured safaidas,  parrot green and red totaiyas, green langras followed by chausas.  Little orange mangoes for sucking the juice out of; raw mangoes for making cooling drinks ,  pickles and even jams.  In June and July mangoes are supplemented by juicy lichees from Dehra Dun .  June and July see peaches, pears, cherries and any amount of plums and apricots flooding the country from the hilly areas of Himachal Pradesh in the Himalayas. August sees an influx of sharifas (custard apples) from Hyderabad. In the old days these used to be sent to the rest of the country by train, packed in straw in earthern “matkas”, porous round vessels used to store water to prevent them from getting bruised.  Monsoon time , August, sees  “jamuns” being vended   on the roadside in the plains – a fruit regarded as excellent for the  liver, and good for diabetics. And something called “Japani’  (persimmon) from Manali where every garden has a tree, just as every house in Bangalore has an avocado tree, and every house in Kolkatta has a “pomolo” (a red grapefruit with a green outer skin) and a guava tree; and ofcourse, the south of India has coconut trees.  September sees apples coming to the plains from the lower Himalayan ranges right through till November and December.  So there is never a dearth of fruit, which sometimes get to be cheaper  to eat than vegetables.

Winter sees carts laden with a variety of toffees made out of jiggery (molasses).  The jaggery is embedded with jewels of peanuts, or puffed rice; there are balls of molasses coccooning almonds or walnuts with trails of anise as the after-taste. Other carts have sacks of dry, roasted “channa”i.e. chick-peas, one of the healthiest possible snacks; roasted peanuts; starting July/August, sweet, tender corn-on-the cob roasted to perfection on live coals, rubbed with a tart lemon/salt combination.  There is “channa jor garam” – pounded gram, flattened into  chips dressed with hot, red chilli powder,salt and “gun-powder” (saltpetre – innocently called masala) , always sold in cones of newspaper, with the vendor ringing his bell and chanting or singing “channa jor gara” (gram very hot!) . Rich or poor, these delicacies are enjoyed by every Indian off the street, almost every day.  Children feast on plastic wrapped candy floss, called “buriya ka jhaata” literally translated as “old woman’s hair”. There are melt-in-your-mouth juicy “rasgoolas”, a Bengali concoction of cottage cheese  balls soaked in  sugar syrup, served absolutely chilled. 

There are any amount of juice stalls, freshly churning out juices from fruit of your choice, in combinations that you personally prefer i.e. sweet lime (mosambi) juice, orange juice, carrot juice – combined perhaps with pomagranite juice, fresh pineapple juice with no traces of sugar syrup, tomato juice , bhel juice – you name it, and voila, you have it!  Tell the vendor not to add ice, though, because all water borne disease bacteria nestle in the water used to make ice.

In winter, over-sweet sugar cane juice is vended at every street corner, and again, carts lined with red plastic cloth vend peeled and chopped sugar cane, so juicy, that it provides instant energy to the most weary labourer.  Who, however, has a naturally built-up immunity to the liberally sprinkled water-from-a-jerrycan that keeps these roundels so moist.

Then there is chaat to be had, every vendor easily recognizable for his wares by the type of gear he carries.  The “gol-gappa”man will set up his “adda”or station at a particular time in every locality, so every one knows where to go at a particular time.  He comes along from his own home base, with a relatively tall X shaped “moora” – a firm contraption made of dried reeds.  On his head is a round cloth pad on which to rest his box as he travels, the box containing the light puffs of deep fried hollow balls made either of white flour or wheat flour.  Separately he carries a concoction of boiled potatoes and white gram soaked overnight, various masalas, and the piece de resistance, irresistible to all teenaged girls – tamarind water laced with spices, the hotter the better.  He rings his brass bell when he has arrived and set himself up – the announcement that business has commenced.  Pretty soon he is surrounded by small groups, to whom he dispenses a plate made of a couple of dried leaves held together with a local type of toothpick.  He asks his customers who wants what i.e. the puffs made of flour or whole wheat, more chillies or less chillies, and what type of filling.  The crackling dry puffs are dispensed one at a time, with his thumb cracking a hole in the middle while his other hand puts in the filling, then dips it in a chutney, then the tamarind water, and puts it onto each customer’s leaf plate, who then opens his/her mouth wide and pops the whole concoction into it,  remaining total speechless while the delectable mouthful explodes on the tastebuds.  Only then can he find his speech to ask for any variation in the mix that is being handed out to him.

Similarly, chaat, at a chaat stall, can consist of a “papri pakori” chaat – cool, deep-fried flour disks combined with light balls of lentil batter which to have been previously fried, but which are immersed in (hot) water to squeeze out the residual oil from each.  This combination is dressed with yoghurt, topped with a sweet tamarind chutney, perhaps some fresh pomegranate seeds  and ofcourse masala combinations.  The presentation is laid out on a small dry-leaf platter, with another piece of dry leaf acting as a spoon (now ofcourse paper plates and ice-cream spoons have taken over).  This makes for an excellent evening snack on the way home from work.  Then there are “dahi barras”- larger lentil dumplings with similar dressings.  There is the “aloo-ki-tikki”or potato cutlets warmed over a large flat griddle, served with mint chutney.  The variety is endless.  There is “Kolkatta moori”, a dry puffed rice  concoction, garnished with a salad made of finely chopped onions, cucumber, tomatoes, grated coconut and coriander, dressed with virgin mustard oil the whiffs of which go straight up one nose, clearing up all sinuses!  The Mumbai version is “Bhel Puri”with additions of chick-pea straws and a sweet tamarind chutney, combined with chilly-mint chutney, all tossed in front of you, crisp and delicious to eat.   Mumbai also has a heavier semi-meal called “pau-bhajji” which I will translate as spiced vegetable stew mopped up with bread buns. The South of India (east coast) offers morning tiffins of idlis, vadas and dosas with coconut chutney , and a red chilly chutney – steamed preparations of soaked and pounded rice, or combinations of rice with lentils.  The North East offers momos – steamed dumplings of minced chicken or mutton, or pork, or of vegetables like cabbage combined with carrots. And never forget the hot samosas and delectable jalebis being made “hot, hot”(garam, garam”) all at live counters on cold north Indian winter days!
Indian street cuisine has an amazingly vast range, and variety.  The items listed here haven’t even touched the tip of the iceberg!
How could I have missed out the “paan”vendor throughout the country – the shop in every street corner which vends betel leaves (the best being from Benares) lathered with “choona” a white lime paste, topped with betel nut paste, stuffed with delectables of your choice – a sweet, sticky jam, a piece of green cardamom, cinnamon powder, a star of “laung”, some anise, and ofcourse betel nut chips,  all wrapped up, perhaps garnished with beaten silver paper – a great digestiff after a heavy meal, and also the stuff of which India’s famous spitting is renowned.  Chewing tobacco can be included or excluded from the combination.These days, pouches of “paan masala” are used as a substitute – cancerous, I believe.

Street food:                        Chaat                                    Sand roasted Peanuts
                                                Moori  -puffed rice            Cut fruit , veggies – best avoided.
                                                Corn on the cob                Charcoal roasted on hot coals, dressed with
                                                                                                Lemon juice, salt and chaat masala.
                                                Winter toffee carts
                                                The paan wallah and the paan stall.
                                                The fine art of eating with one’s hands without implements!

Vegetables to try:            In summer:Jack-fruit, bitter gourd (kerela), snake cucumber-Kakri.

Fruit not-to-miss:             Lychees in May
                                                Mangoes, mangoes, and more mangoes.  May, June, July, August – possibly September.
                                                Bhel – the juice.  
                                                Musumbi juice (sweet lime) possibly combined with anaar (pomogranate) …..tell the hawker to omit the ice…the water for making ice could be conti
                                                Jamuns (richly purple – excellent for diabetics)
                Sharifas in August (custard apples from Hyderabad….in the old days they were transported  by train in cool matkas  (terra cotta jars) packed in layers  of straw because they are so fragile.)

Sunday, 22 March 2015

An Indian Wedding

Wedding Festivities  (Mostly Reproduced from an explanatory booklet in Pooja and Karan’s Wedding Card, with small additions by the author).

Hindu Wedding Ceremonies are traditionally conducted in Sanskrit, but the language of the families is also used.  The Hindus attach a lot of importance to marriages and the ceremonies are very colourful and extended for several days.  The primary witness of a Hindu Marriage is the fire –deity (or the Sacred Fire) Agni, and by law and tradition, no Hindu Marriage is deemed complete unless in the presence of the Sacred Fire.

The sage of the below-mentioned Vedic Verse has emphasised that the basis of a happy and fulfilling married life is the sense of unity, intimacy and love between husband and wife.  Thus, marriage is not for self-indulgence, but rather should be considered a lifelong social and spiritual responsibility.  Married life is considered an opportunity for two people to grow from life partners into soul mates.

“We should be able to live a graceful life that is full of mutual love and warmth.  Our sentiments should be auspicious.  We should be able to see for a hundred years, live a healthy life of a hundred years and listen the music of spring for a hundred years.”

Marriage is a holy sacrament and a lifelong commitment of two individuals entering into an eternal partnership to realise the ideals of Satyam (Truth), Shivam (Goodness) and Sundaram (Beauty).

indian wedding

The Wedding is not only filled with serious rituals and customs but it is also full of several lively moments.  The Sangeet function is typically an evening of singing and dancing designed to make the emotional wedding affair somewhat light and amusing.
Sing and dance together and be joyous, but let each of  you also be alone, Even as the strings of the lute are alone, Though they quiver with the same music” Kahil Gibran.

It is an opportunity for relations of the bride to get together; to the sound of the dholak in Punjabi weddings, each relation of the bride (nowadays the groom’s family is also involved), is identified in song, then  identifies himself/herself by  dancing solo within a circle,   to the Bhangra beat. That’s the way he/she is recognised by the entire group.

Mehendi, internationally known as henna, is an age-old form of temporary skin decoration.
The occasion of Mehendi is one of the most important pre-wedding rituals during which henna is applied to the bride and other female guests.  Popular motifs of the bridal Mehendi are conch shell, flowers, kalash, peacock, and wedding patterns. There are many beliefs and myths associated with the Mehendi.  It is believed that the darker and deeper the henna stains, the more the mother-in-law will love her new daughter-in-law,  The ritual of Mehendi signifies the strength and power of love in a marriage so it is regarded as a good omen for the bride-to-be.

Image result for images mehndiImage result for images mehndiImage result for images mehndi


Baraat is the Bridegroom’s Wedding Procession.  Traditionally the groom arrives on a white mare accompanied by friends and family dancing to music. (Before his departure from his family home, the a Sehrabandi ceremony covers his face behind a light mask of flower strings.  All the men of the family are given matching turbans to identify them as relatives of the groom).  Lamps light his path and raucous dancing and singing on the road indicate to all, “give way to the wedding procession”.

Aarti (traditional Indian welcome ritual with a lamp or diya placed on a platter or thali) is performed by the bride’s mother to welcome the groom.

Milni is the meeting between the bride and groom’s family members to signify the union of the two families.  This is done by the bride’s family putting flower garlands on the groom’s family.  (All the male relatives of either side wear a turban of the same colour, so they can be identified easily by the other side).

Jaimala is the exchange of garlands between the bride and the groom.  The bride and groom garland each other as their initial commitment to one another.  After this the couple proceeds to the Vedi where the actual Wedding Ceremony is performed. 

The Wedding is solemnizd with four important rituals:  Kanyadaan, during which the bride’s father gives his daughter’s hand to the groom;  Saprapadi or seven steps in front of the sacred fire;  Sindoor when the groom applies vermilion to the girl’s hair partition and Mangalsutra Rasam the necklace of black beads in gold are placed around the bride’s neck.  When all these rituals are over, the couple is showered with flower petals, as a blessing from all present.  They then seek the blessings (Aashirvad)  from all the elder members of the family for a happily married life (by bending and touching their feet as a sign of respect and humility). 

This ritual marks the completion of the Marriage Ceremony and is one of the most emotional aspects of the Wedding festivities.  It is the formal departure of the bride from her parent’s home with her husband.  As the bride leaves, she throws five handfuls of rice over her head.  This signifies that the bride is paying back whatever her parents have given her and wishes for prosperity to always flourish in the house she grew up in.  She is then seated in a Doli, a traditional Indian palanquin, the customary way to depart from her parent’s home. 
“I seem to have loved  you in numberless forms, numberless times, in life after life, in age after age forever.” Rabindranath Tagore.

Blogger's Note:

When I was a small girl I vividly remember the excitement of travelling from Calcutta to Delhi for a young aunt’s wedding. Being fitted out with new, satiny salwar kameezes; ladies sitting out in the Delhi winter sun peeling peas by the “maund” and separating fenugreek leaves from their stems; men arguing about the arrangements of the shamianas (tents), the hammering, and the cooking for days on end!  Now, ofcourse, everything is “outsourced”and all one has to do is to agree on the price with the event manager!  Anyhow, it’s always THE BIG, FAT INDIAN WEDDING!