The best cake of Christmas- my piece de resistance!

‘C’ is for the Christ child born on Christmas Day. ‘C’ is also for all the cakes baked for Christmas Day.

From watching my mother bakes varieties of cakes, to baking them myself, to now watching my daughter successfully try her hand at all sorts of cakes at Christmas; this is one festive tradition that seems well set to last.

Certain things have changed along the way- my father used to patiently sit with a bowl of egg-whites and a fork and beat them till they were stiff, whereas I’d avoid recipes that required separated egg-whites beaten till they formed peaks, but my daughter goes about  separating egg yolks from the whites with an enviable insouciance and whirrs them up with our trusty hand- mixer.

My mother would collect recipes by carefully cutting them out from different magazines, I’d jot them down hastily on whatever scraps of paper were at hand and my daughter saves links and videos!

I may be outclassed in the kitchen at baking time during Christmas but one thing that I still get to make is the Christmas Cake- aka the plum cake or the rum cake without which our cake platter would be incomplete. That’s a privilege I haven’t yet surrendered to the next generation.

In this era of Buzzfeed videos and dozens of their ilk, all showing us how to whip up the most complicated recipes in a matter of minutes, it’s very reassuring to know that I can still do something my way and have it turn out well.

When I see the glistening brown crystals of the demerara sugar sprinkled over the yellow cubes of butter, waiting to be whizzed into a fluffy mixture, it makes me feel like I’m in my comfort zone.


Next step: to make the caramel, which at one time used to be intimidating but is now actually fun! As the spoon glides through the thick, glossy paste, I breathe in the aroma of burnt sugar and all I want is to pour it into the batter and watch how it magically turns the creamy yellow into golden brown.



The best part of making this cake is when the fruits go in. They have been soaking in rum for a month, along with cinnamon and other spices which makes for a heady mix of scents and taste.



The flour has to be sieved and clouds of the cocoa powder mixed with it waft around and add to the mess that is a part of the festive baking tradition. Nothing matters because…it’s Christmas!


Everyone hovers around as the final mixture goes into the cake tin which is then gingerly placed into the over. Which is followed by taking turns to peer anxiously through the glass as the batter follows its’s gradual process to turn from a gooey mix to a rich dark brown beauty. Meanwhile the entire house is beginning to smell a lot like Christmas!

DSC_1172 A perfectly turned out cake does much to inspire confidence in one’s culinary abilities. Christmas is over and I will have to wait another year to make this. But I will always have the memories of the cakes of Christmases past to know that- I can do it. Every time!






It’s not fair!

Visiting another country can be an enriching experience. Being visited by people from another country can be just as enriching. It compels you to look at things from an entirely different perspective. You are struck by the realisation that whatever is familiar to you is completely unfamiliar to your visitor. From the sights in the street to the smells in your kitchen- it’s all different.

And when they ask questions about things that you take for granted, you begin to review your own thoughts and beliefs. Try explaining the concept of an arranged marriage to a foreigner! It needs to be simplified, broken up into smaller components and then put back together as the commonplace procedure it is.

How do you make rotis? You mix the dough, roll out a ball, slap it on the ‘tawa’, cook both sides and flip it on the flame. Big deal.… What about the consistency of the dough? How much does it have to be kneaded? How do you get to make them completely round (me, I just wing it and hope for the best!). How do you know when to flip it? And so on. That’s a lot of thinking happening right there.

Thanks to an Exchange Program arranged by the school where I work, we recently played host to a group of teenagers from France (mostly girls and this is important, more about that later) and their teachers. Taking them around the city and showing them the sights was an experience in itself. Just like watching them try to eat a ‘masala dosa’ for the first time! it was like- what goes where? and how? in what order?

What was unpleasant about this experience was when we took our ‘fair’ visitors to crowded places. That’s when I saw that the Indian (especially that of  the male) fascination for fair skin is alive and kicking. And it made me feel embarrassed and deeply ashamed for my country. The group was ogled, leered at and stalked by men who were either brazenly obvious or creepily stealthy. We noticed comments and sniggers accompanied by lewd grins. Some tried to get near us and take pictures of them. Others preferred to just lurk around and stare in a manner that made me cringe. We fielded requests from random men who wanted their pictures taken with our guests. We tried to shield them from being gazed at and included in selfies being taken without their knowledge. At one site, we were trailed by a man who seemed so blinded by their fairness that he didn’t even seem to realise what he was doing. Our guide said with resignation that it was something that happened all the time.

This group of women who wanted a picture with our visitors because the little girl with them was insisting, the father who just plonked his child into the lady’s arms to take a picture, the duo on a motorbike who kept driving around where we were standing, it was one stress filled cringe-fest all the way.

There were two men who very politely asked us if they could get a picture with the group. When I refused they stepped back immediately. It was such a relief that I actually thanked them for being polite enough to ask and for not insisting when we said ‘No’

I don’t know whether this detestable, deeply-rooted mindset is psychological, sociological, historical or any other -cal. I don’t even care if it is or isn’t worse in other countries because that doesn’t diminish the fact that it happens here. And when we reveal its existence, we demean ourselves.  There can be no justification for this kind of thinking. IT’S. NOT. FAIR.

On a cheerier note- a group of girls from one of the schools in the old city was clearly fascinated by our visitors (I like to think it was the novelty of seeing foreigners in the ‘peth’ and not just their colouring)  and also wanted to take pictures with them. They all posed happily together and then the girls left amidst a chorus of obedient ‘thank you’s waving good-bye and chattering among themselves. I hope that they will become bright, smart women who will take pride in themselves  for what they are and not for what their skin colour may be. Regardless of what society thinks.

A matter of perception

A visit to the magnificent Ellora caves was illuminating in several ways, most of which were unexpected. We did however, follow one sensible course of action- we decided not to venture into the caves by ourselves, but in the company of someone who could enlighten us about their history.

We were privileged to have the services of a guide who seemed almost as old as the caves themselves. He spoke slowly and softly, ignored interruptions and answered questions at his own pace. The only time he raised his voice was to shout at tourists who; ignoring all requests and notices; clambered over the ruins of the statues. He was also a teensy bit patronizing, but we put that down to his venerable age and the fact that we were a group of 5, out of which four were females.

Condescension and age notwithstanding, there can be no denying that the grey-haired one knew the caves like the back of his gnarled and wrinkled hand. He showed us vantage points from where we could observe the carvings better.With the help of a small flashlight, he pointed out aspects of the statues which would have otherwise gone unnoticed.


For instance, this couple is enjoying a relaxed moment of togetherness- see how the man has his arm around her shoulder? The smiles on their faces?


Here he is asking her to give him another chance after having done something to annoy her, explained the venerable one with a twinkle in his eye. To me it seemed more like the guy was admonishing the woman for having flouted some archaic notion of patriarchy, but- whatever!



And so it continued. What seemed like an incomprehensible form in stone took on a different meaning just because he showed us where to look and what it meant. A lot of what he said could have been interpreted differently. It all depended on what one looked for. But we followed him obediently, content to accept his version of what the carvings stood for.

Another thing I learned from the venerable one was that to truly appreciate a sculpture, one has to stand some distance away and look at it from a certain angle. The closer you get, the less you see.


Isn’t that what life also teaches us? To step back and observe? To calm the monkey mind and just soak up what the universe is trying to tell us. There is beauty all around if we only opened our minds to it.

In the tumult of the usual selfie-crazed hordes, the chattering, disinterested crowds whose only aim was to pose hideously in front of the enduring grace and beauty of those stone sculpted images, our venerable guide gave us a glimpse into the thoughts and beliefs of the people that created them hundreds of years ago.





The First Time is for ever.

Facebook has this habit of throwing up memories in your face every morning- this day last year or five years back; whatever. Most of the times I dismiss them with a shrug but the one that popped up today was something truly special.

It was on this day last year that I arrived in Paris for the first time. The trip was a dream come true, a dream that I had folded carefully and tucked away deep somewhere in the corner of my mind, telling it to rest in peace.

On this date last year I walked the streets of Paris, gazed in awe at the majestic Louvre, offered heartfelt prayers of thanks at the Sunday mass in Sacre-Coeur, wandered through the picturesque and fascinating little shops in the by lanes of Montmartre and took an elevator to the dizzying heights of the Eiffel Tower. I remember telling myself repeatedly- this is me… this is Paris… this is really me in Paris!

It was a trip that I will remember for the rest of my life. I don’t know if I’ll ever visit Paris again and it doesn’t even matter. Because nothing will ever be like the first time I saw Paris.


This trip to France was special in many other ways too. Not just because of the places I saw but also because of the people I met. And the most special of them was Anne. She welcomed me into her lovely home with a warmth that defied the blustery cold winds of her town- Boulogne. She is proof that God does answer prayers and He really does move in mysterious ways his wonders to perform. I treasure the moments spent chatting with her and her absolutely delightful parents. Aline, her adorable doll-like daughter (she was reason Anne entered my life) and Adrien, her teenage son who gave up his room to me (very last-minute and with no warning whatsoever) with the utmost good grace and cheer…these are memories that I brought back with me from France more carefully than all the chocolates and cheeses that were presented to me by Anne and her family.


I don’t know if I’ll ever meet them again. I don’t even know if we’ll continue to remain in touch in the years ahead. But it doesn’t matter. Because I’ll have my memories. I’ll fold them carefully and tuck them away deep somewhere in the corner of my mind. Next to all those other dreams that may come true after all.

But until then, there’s always Facebook!

People and Places

travel quotes and trips

Travel is not just about going to new places or revisiting an old favourite one. It’s also about the people that one meets along the way. It’s not about forming  lasting friendships but about ships that pass, bump into one another; nod, chat a while or simply move on.

One thing I’ve noticed is that foreigners usually smile and say ‘hello’ when they cross other tourists and Indians don’t. Maybe it’s a cultural thing or maybe there are just too many of us to go around saying ‘hello’ to.

When it concerns tourists, I make no secret of my dislike for the noisy, litterbug variety. The very sight of  those large buses, bursting at the seams with my fellow humans makes me shudder. The buses then proceed to disgorge these chattering hordes at a site, where they swarm all over the place, frenziedly clicking pictures, taking selfies (# 1 on my hate-list), talking loudly and gesturing all the while.  After some time, at a secret signal, they all trot back to the bus and head for another site to do the same thing all over again.

Contrast this with the elderly Bengali couple we saw at one of the temples at Hampi, sightseeing by themselves, at at their own pace. They walked in a leisurely manner, stopping wherever they liked, the wife waited patiently for her husband to finish his coconut water before they continued on their way. They seemed perfectly content to be on their own and not ticking off places from a checklist.

Or the family of four staying at the same hotel as ours. The father seemed to be the one in-charge of the two sons. We crossed them at various sites, it was father and sons striking out together, while the mother followed, more relaxed and unruffled. At one spot, when the menfolk rushed ahead, down a rocky path to the river bank to check out the monuments there, she didn’t even quicken her steps. She merely strolled along, probably enjoying some precious ‘me-time.’

We also struck up a conversation with a couple of  cheerful and friendly youngsters from Germany. They were students, travelling after the completion of their courses. Apparently, once they started working, they would never get such an opportunity so they were making the most of the break, and had an exhaustive list of places all lined up- from Mumbai to Hampi to Varanasi, Kolkatta and then off to Thailand and Vietnam. We envied their carefree joie de vivre and they asked us whether we too did the typical Indian nod/shake of the head. We didn’t. Or did we? Hmm…

Two interesting revelations (for us) came up in the course of our conversation. I asked them why they had selected India as a place to visit, when there was so much to see in all of Europe. They replied that:

  • Firstly, India was cheaper, more budget-friendly and they were students on a budget.
  • Secondly, and I quote “After a while, everything in Europe starts to look the same, but here it is all completely different.”

Which got me thinking- we live in a land of such amazing diversity  that even when we cross from one state to another; the landscape, language, food and lifestyle, all change to some extent. Case in point- we were there during the five days of Diwali and heard fire-crackers only ONCE. The only way we knew that it was Diwali was because the fronts of all the houses in the village were freshly laid with cow dung and decorated with ‘rangoli’

Now, I would dearly love to travel through Europe and discover for myself whether it all looks the same (although I have my doubts, we humans are notorious for not appreciating what we have), but it would be a waste if I didn’t do the same in my own country as well. Where most states are the size of a small European nation anyway!

The fascinating part about travel is how striking cultural differences and similarities can be. It’s up to us to accept what is different and appreciate that which is is not.


And if in India, about other states too!

Bucket list, here I come…

Heritage of Hampi- carved in stone

The world heritage site of UNESCO informs us that

“Hampi’s spectacular setting is dominated by river Tungabhadra, craggy hill ranges and open plains, with widespread physical remains. The sophistication of the varied urban, royal and sacred systems is evident from the more than 1600 surviving remains that include forts, riverside features, royal and sacred complexes, temples, shrines, pillared halls, Mandapas memorial structures, gateways, defence check posts, stables, water structures, etc.”



To visit the 1600 remains is a daunting task that cannot be accomplished in the couple of days that we spent there. But we did manage to take in some of the most spectacular ones. Our minds were filled with visions of how life must have been in those times and  we wandered past the intricately carved pillars and walls trying to imagine the people who created these marvels. What had they been thinking, those craftsmen as they went about their life’s work? Do their souls reside here still? Or do they visit and look over our shoulders; smiling with pleasure as we admire their efforts?

And do they sigh in despair when vandals carve ugly graffiti alongside what could only have been a labour of love for them?

How heart-wrenching it must have been for them, when their city was desecrated and destroyed by invaders. When they had to abandon their homes and flee for their lives, never to return.

The centuries passed, children played among the boulders of Hampi, dived off ruined monuments and pillars to splash in the waters of the Tungabhadra. The locals lived their lives among what remained of those marvelous structures. It was nearly 500 years later, in the 1980s that excavations began in an attempt to rediscover the glories of this forgotten kingdom.

The Vijaynagar empire is lost forever. But it has left behind a wealth of history and beauty that we can visit again and again. It’s a fascinating link to our heritage, our past.





Heritage of Hampi- in the Bazaars of Vijaynagar

My stern in-house critic has commented disparagingly on the brevity of my blog posts. My protests that I wanted the focus to be the pictures not words, were dismissed with a shrug. So, this post will have more of words, though not all will be mine; I’ve used some by Sarojini Naidu as well.

As my friend and I  wandered from one monument to the next, we noticed long rows of structures outside the main temples, divided into smaller sections by stone pillars. Nothing fancy, no carvings, just the basic structure. These were the markets of Hampi.


Our knowledgeable guide informed us that there used to be sections of the market for different goods on different days. Quite similar to the ‘mandis’ of today that exist in the older parts of the cities. Like in Pune we have the peths; each named for the day of the week when the bazaar was held in that particular area.

It’s well-established that the Vijaynagar empire was one of the richest in the world. There was flourishing inland, coastal and overseas trade which was an important source of general prosperity. Which meant that the people of Vijaynagar could splurge on ‘foreign’ goods even back then! And precious stones were sold in open markets, like onions-potatoes-tomatoes are sold in the ‘mandis’ today. My imagination boggled at the thought of buying diamonds and rubies by the handful. Did the women pick and sort through the heaps of precious stones, checking for size, shape and appearance? Like we buy our vegetables?


Imports and exports reached far across the world. The rulers wanted only the best Arab horses in their kingdom. And they got what they wanted. One of the temple carvings showed how these horses were trained by and bought from the Mongol traders.


We talked about how a visit to the temple in those days must have been quite an outing. There would be the usual prayer and worship first, followed by a hearty meal (each temple had a large cooking area and resting places for travellers) and would end in a stroll through the bazaars to pick up some spices, grains, perfumes and silks. Maybe a few emeralds or pearls depending on the mood. Or the weather. Hmm…


I was reminded of Sarojini Naidu’s well-known poem on the bazaars of Hyderabad. Replace Hyderabad with Hampi and this is how shopping would have been during the Vijaynagar empire.

What do you sell O ye merchants ?
Richly your wares are displayed.
Turbans of crimson and silver,
Tunics of purple brocade,
Mirrors with panels of amber,
Daggers with handles of jade.

What do you weigh, O ye vendors?
Saffron and lentil and rice.
What do you grind, O ye maidens?
Sandalwood, henna, and spice.
What do you call , O ye pedlars?
Chessmen and ivory dice.

What do you make,O ye goldsmiths?
Wristlet and anklet and ring,
Bells for the feet of blue pigeons
Frail as a dragon-fly’s wing,
Girdles of gold for dancers,
Scabbards of gold for the king.

(an excerpt)

Oh for a time-machine to take me back to those days! But till then, I have my imagination.

Heritage of Hampi- Live life King (elephant) size!

There’s a lot to see in Hampi and much to marvel at, the monuments are a photographer’s delight and the panorama of huge boulders among green trees, fields and lawns; dotted with ruins of the Vijaynagar empire, stretches as far as the eye can see. It’s a visual treat.

But what I really, really wanted to see was the Elephant Stable. The Lonely Planet gave it a cursory one line mention, which I thought was very unfair, because any lodging for such a magnificent creature has to be grand too. And these stables were built for the royal elephants, so they ought to be even grander. Well, like Donkey in the Shrek movie who kept asking “Are we there yet?”; I repeatedly asked our guide when we were going to visit the Elephant Stable.

Built in the Indo-Islamic style of architecture, these stables have 11 enclosures, meant for the best of the 10,000 elephants owned by the king.


The enclosure at the centre is typical of the Vijaynagar style and is the largest and most elaborate. I could imagine the most impressive of those 11 elephants residing here and lording it over the rest.


Elephant’s eye view! (from within one of the enclosures)


The enclosures are interconnected by small arched openings at the rear,  for the mahouts to pass through.


The difference in the size of the arches meant for the elephant and the mahout is striking!

There is another structure next to the stable which was perhaps the residence of the mahouts.


We sat on the lawns and reflected- life must have been damn good for a royal elephant of the Vijaynagar empire!

Oops and Wows


Taking off on a trip is not as easy or as hassle-free as all those travel channels make it out to be. It requires meticulous planning and attention to detail. Unless of course, one is prepared to wing it, rough it and take things as they come. (Where I’m concerned; the 1st and 3rd, yes, the 2nd- heck NO!)

In the course of winging it, one has to expect the unexpected. This can go either way, especially when a couple of big-city dwellers arrive in a small town completely unfamiliar to them.

Here are some of the moments of our trip that made us exclaim Oops! or Wow! I’ll leave it to you, gentle reader, to figure out which moment deserves what!

-When we spent 600 rupees to drive into town for a meal that cost us only 200/-
– When the date on our return ticket didn’t match the date of our check-out from the hotel.
– When we entered the Mango Tree restaurant for the third consecutive day and on seeing us the server immediately called out an order for the lemon ginger juice that we had guzzled in large quantities on our previous visits. And this even before we had sat down!
– When the salesperson at the emporium where we shopped advised us not to swipe our card and offered to drive one of us to a nearby ATM to withdraw cash instead. On his motorbike!
-When we decided to take an auto to the ATM and get the cash, he insisted that we take our packages with us (we had spent quite a bundle) and pay the bill when we returned.
– When we realised half-way along an unfamiliar road, that the cab-driver who was taking us to a spot 80 kms away didn’t know the way either.
– When the dosa that we ordered at a dingy restaurant in a dusty, nondescript town on the highway tasted far better than the one we had later that day at a Kamat hotel in Hubli.
– When our train glided into the station…on time!
– When we refused to buy large juicy pineapples from a seller on the road @ 100/- each, because it was too expensive. And because we were sure of getting a better deal ahead. We didn’t see another pineapple seller all the way from Hampi to Hubli.

And finally, the best for the last.
-When we were waiting at Hubli railway station, the WiFi there connected immediately!!!

Heritage of Hampi: some high-lights

Monuments and their ruins are fascinating places. The grandeur and the stunning, intricate architecture is expected, but what fascinates me more is the unexpected. The little surprises tucked away in nooks and crannies, the play of light and shadow from certain angles, a tiny carving in a corner that has so many details but is overlooked because we don’t know where to look.

As we wandered the dim corridors of the Veerupaksha temple, the guide drew our attention to a nondescript vent in the ceiling from where the light streamed in and ended in a small, bright spot on the floor. But when we stood on the spot and held up our hands, the light splashed right into our palms and then spilled over. It was divine light!

We moved ahead to another mysterious display of light and shadow. In one dark corner of the temple passage was a wall with a inverted triangle sort of inscription on it. Which was not an inscription at all but the inverted shadow of the temple ‘gopuram’ Which, as we had earlier been informed, was the highest ‘gopuram’ of all the temples in Hampi. That shadow is visible through the day. The mystery is the planning and construction of the walls in a way that allows the shadow to form.

So, there you have it- a teaching aid for maths, physics and architecture. And history and archaeology as well.

Now that’s integrated learning!