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I’m currently on a culinary pilgrimage, and a darn fascinating one at that. Here’s Part 1 of my quest.

Without further ado, here’s the recipe to the world’s oldest curry. I extrapolated it from this video and adjusted it slightly to my own taste. That’s the best thing about Indian cuisine in all its regional variations: with a little imagination, it’s easy and fun to customize recipes to your liking.

Ingredients:Ingredients-1

  1. Small purple eggplants (the smaller the better for taste), slit: 7
  2. Unripe mango, peeled and flesh chopped into small pieces: 1
  3. Ginger: an inch-sized cube, peeled and grated
  4. Sesame oil: 2 tbsp
  5. Cumin: 1 tsp
  6. Turmeric: 1 tsp
  7. Sugar (used instead of sugarcane powder): 1 tbsp
  8. Salt: to taste

Process:

  1. Add oil to a heated pan, then add ginger, cumin and turmeric to it. Let simmer for a minute, or until the spices give out their aroma.Cooking-Curry
  2. Add the eggplants and turn them over every few minutes until they’re roasted on all sides.
  3. Add the chopped mango, sugar and salt. At this point, you might need to add about ¼ cup of water to help the eggplants cook. Cover the pan with a lid so the steam can do its magic.
  4. Within about 10 minutes or so, your curry is ready.

The recipe is rather simple, as prototypes tend to be, but it’s unbelievably delicious. No wonder it has sustained over the millennia without major upgrades or changes—it bears the hallmarks of a basic preparation from an average Indian home of today:

  • Locally grown/procured vegetables
  • Vegetables in season
  • Basic spices, each chosen with care for not only taste but their beneficial effects on health
  • Cooked with minimal fuss with the most scrumptious and healthy results

Anything else added to this recipe (like chillies, curry leaves, sliced onions etc., which are later discoveries or imports to India) is an embellishment to bring out an appealing variation. There’s no harm in this, because where’s progress without experimentation, right?

I would’ve loved to make the curry in a copper or earthenware pot for authenticity, but because I didn’t have either handy, I chose to go with a cast iron pan (although iron wasn’t available during the Indus period).

Depending on their socio-economic status, sections of the Harappan society would’ve probably used copper cooking utensils, while those who couldn’t afford copper would’ve gone with baked earthenware pots.Rice&Curry

I also cooked brown rice to be served with the curry as Harappans would’ve done. Okay, there are two schools of experts when it comes to domesticated rice and Indus Valley. One school believes that the people of the Indus Valley cultivated rice as a staple food grain and the other (the minority) doesn’t think so. Given this situation, I did what any self-respecting enthusiast does: aligned myself with the school that complies with my own beliefs. (I mean, how can I imagine an Indian subcontinent without rice as a staple?) The alternative carbs at a Harappan home would’ve been wheat/millet flatbread or barley porridge.

So, there you have it, my journey to the heart of an Indus home: its kitchen.

Wouldn’t you like to give this recipe a try? I’d love to hear about your experience, if you do.

For a different take on this curry and its history, read Ambika Sambasivan’s Cooking Up a 4,000-year-old Curry. While there, be sure to check out and support Yali Books’s commendable efforts at bringing to life books that highlight South Asian cultures.

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I wrote this article a few years ago, when I first embarked on my writing journey. When I re-read it a few days ago, having just resurfaced from a fabulous writers conference (another topic for another post!), I realized it applies perfectly even today. So, here goes….

Posted originally on March 28, 2011

The other day, I was watching “Chopped Champions” on Food Network. (“Chopped” is a show where four chefs compete against each other; one chef is let go–or chopped–per round of cooking, based on the criteria of judging they have.) In the episode I was watching, four winners from previous rounds came back to butt heads with each other for bigger stakes.

As the kitchen in the show grew hotter, I began to realize the uncanny similarities between cooking and writing. I took away some basic lessons from that one episode–lessons that are not new, but ones we tend to take for granted.

  • Take time to prep your ingredients: The judges tasted grit in the dish one of the contestants had prepared. The chef had neglected to clean the main ingredient–sea urchin–thoroughly. Instead of impressing the judges, her dish turned them off. She was “chopped” instantly.
    • Lesson: It is important to sweat the basic stuff. When writing a new novel/story, research the period and place as much as you can. This will add authenticity to your world-setting and your characters will feel real.
  • Depend on your dish: One contestant got promoted to the second round even though his dish did not meet the judges’ approval. This happened only because one of the other chefs had left dirt in her main ingredient. However, in the very next round, that guy got chopped because he didn’t season his dish very well.
    • Lesson: Do not depend upon others’ failure/success to give you a boost. It only goes so far. When it comes to writing, do not concentrate on the existing trends or non-trends in the industry. By the time you finish writing your book those same trends may be out of fashion or more likely would have jaded the readers. Write about a subject you are passionate about, that you believe would make a fascinating read.
  • Seasoning is important: The chef who got chopped in the second round had forgotten to season his chicken. From what I deduced by then, this chef was not bad to begin with (he had to be good to have been titled “champion” in a previous tussle), but then he had probably begun to coast along rather than letting his passion for cooking to come through in his dishes. This apathy had cost him his advancement to the next round.
    • Lesson: However good a writer you are, if your story is missing the seasoning–a heart–then it won’t go anywhere. You, the writer, has to believe in the story before the reader will.
  • Your previous dish won’t speak for you: The lady who was let go because she left dirt in her food entered this competition as a favorite. I could tell that the judges were almost reluctant to let her go, but the mistake she made was not a simple one to overlook. 
    • Lesson: You are only as good as your latest product. Even a successful writer can rest on his/her laurels for only so long.
  • Cook to the best of your ability and then stand back: The chef who won in that episode was the least experienced of the lot. However, he cooked passionately and to the best of his abilities. This finally proved to be the best strategy.
    • Lesson: It is better to be constantly improving and growing in your trade than to be a flash in the pan. Don’t aim to be a one-book wonder. It’s important to realize and accept the fact that not all writers are created equal. However, one doesn’t need to be über-talented to be a good writer. Keep up your passion for writing and your work will shine as a result.
  • Concentrate on showcasing your best dishes: Two of the contestants kept getting worked up by peeking at others’ prep work during the cooking rounds. The third one kept his nose to the grindstone, so to speak, and concentrated only on creating his best dish every single time with the given ingredients. He won.
    • Lesson: Don’t let others’ success or talent intimidate you. Everyone has their own slot in every field. Keep on the lookout and you’ll find your groove.
  • Use the ingredients you know to the best effect: In one round, as I already mentioned, the contestants were given sea urchins as the main ingredient. One of the chefs had never worked with it before, and he was nervous about it. In the end, though, he took the best route possible: among the rest of the ingredients he had, he chose the ones he knew best and paired them with the sea urchin and created a sauce. He was basically faking it. It worked. That sauce blew away the judges.
    • Lesson: If you have to fake it, then do it confidently. It is good, even paramount, to do a lot of research before you embark on a new novel or story. However, sometimes, no amount of research will seem to be enough. For example, if your story takes place in the next millennium, chances are high that your imagination goes the extra mile than real, hard research. In such a case, remember you are the one with the most expertise when it comes to the world you are building.

What lessons (about life, writing, painting, sewing or anything at all) would you like to share with the rest of us today?

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Originally posted on October 20, 2010

Pictograph. Bar Graph. Line Graph. Epigraph. If you’re thinking this is going to be a lesson in math, rest assured — it’s not!  :-)

Even though there is a concept of ‘epigraph’ in math, today I’m using this word very much in the context of writing.

Merriam Webster online defines an epigraph as:

            A quotation set at the beginning of a literary work or one of its divisions to suggest its theme.

Epigraphs are quotations, or phrases or poems, you find in some books at the beginning of each chapter. They are usually related to the theme of either that chapter or that of the whole book. They can be extracted from any number of sources: excerpts from a well-known book, folk sayings, or quotes of famous personalities, to name a few.

(I’m not sure why whoever coined this term couldn’t make up a more writerly-sounding word for it. You know what I mean?)

Here’s one excerpt topping chapter six of the book Rueful Death from Susan Albert Wittig’s China Bayles Mystery series. China is an ex-criminal lawyer, who has hung up her coat in favor of retiring to a small town in Texas where she owns and runs a small herb store and a tea shop. On the side, she keeps habitually happening upon dead bodies and solving the mysteries surrounding them, thus getting the necessary fix for her analytical side.

If gun-flints are wiped with rue and vervain, the shot must surely reach the intended victim, regardless of the shooter’s aim.

                            — C.M.Skinner

                             Myths and Legends of Flowers, Trees, Fruits, and Plants

On my part, as a reader, such quotations make way for delicious meanderings such as:

— Does the verb rue (which is known to have been first used in the 12th century) as in to regret have its origin in the herb of the same name?

— Were the qualities of various herbs as legendary in the East as they were in the West?

And, whenever I come across any tidbit about the different medicinal plants, I begin to crave the latest book of the series. Isn’t that one of the better and innovative ways to make a series more memorable?

Another good example for an epigraph is from chapter ten of the fascinating O Jerusalem by Laurie King. (It is one of the books from her series: Novels of suspense featuring Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes. If you enjoy reading Sir Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes Mysteries, then this series is a must for you.)

              The human body floats without exertion on the surface, and can be submerged only with difficulty; but swimming is unpleasant, as the feet have too great a tendency to rise to the surface.

                            BAEDEKER’s Palestine and Syria,

                                                             1912 Edition

Before you shudder, the passage above is merely talking about taking a dip in the Dead Sea (or Salt Sea), which the heroine, Mary Russell, proceeds to do in the chapter crowned by the words above.

Doesn’t the phrase — delivered in a most earnest and no-nonsense manner — make you want to get your hands immediately on that edition of Baedeker’s travel guide?

Another excerpt from Laurie King’s ‘O Jerusalem’

Epigraphs, for me, are:

  • A (fun) way to get readers to think about what may or may not happen in the chapter they’re about to read.
  • One means to bring out the subplot(s), obscured by the main plot line, a reader may not stumble upon otherwise.
  • An inkling of the playfulness of the author.
  • Tiny windows into the thought-process of the author and how he/she views the book in question. How a reader perceives a book is not always similar to how the author has envisioned it. Epigraphs help close the distance between the two.

Have you run into any good epigraphs you’d like to share?

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We all know that the same word when taken out of context or even juxtaposed within a slightly different context takes on a different connotation. But recent developments in America have made me appreciate something even more subtle when it comes to words and their usage. flying-letters1

A word is considered offensive when a person belonging to one race uses it, but the same word can be seen as harmless when used by a person of a different race. And what’s more, it’s used in the same context in both the cases.

What am I referring to? Yes, the word thug. This word has made serious headlines in recent weeks.

Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines thug as:

Thug

noun \ˈthəg\ : a violent criminal

 Full Definition of THUG

:  a brutal ruffian or assassin :  GANGSTER, TOUGH

Seems like a straightforward definition, on the face of it.

However, the word “thug” used by Caucasians (like Maryland’s governor and others) and perhaps by people in power like President Obama  and Baltimore’s mayor—who are both African American, incidentally—to describe the rioters in Baltimore incited anger and hurt in the black community. So much so that the word had to be retracted in some cases with apology. However, when the same word is used by someone within the black community, it isn’t considered objectionable. In fact, it might even take on a slightly positive and affectionate patina.

Here’s an interview on NPR if you would like to dig some more into the history of how the word got to be this racially charged. The Racially Charged Meaning Behind the Word ‘Thug’.

(An interesting aside: this word originated in India. In Hindi, the word thag means swindler or deceiver. It snuck into the English language as thug during the British-Raj time in India.)

Isn’t it fascinating, how the use or misuse of a single word—which might be harmless when it stands by itself—can muddy our perceived intentions?

Now, go to your bookshelf and pick up your favorite book. An average 300-page novel contains 75,000 to 80,000 words. Consider the care and caution that the writer has put into each one of those words so as to string them all together to get her point across to you, the reader. Don’t you love the book that much more now? I thought you would. :)

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I grew up in India immersing myself in the English language almost as much as I did my mother tongue. Although English was termed my second language in school, and later when I came to the US I was told I was a non-native speaker of English, the language never felt secondary or alien to me.

I’ve been told several times in the past two decades here in the US that I have a lilting cadence to my English speech that makes it exotic. I never heard my accent nor noticed the variations in the way I modulated certain sounds and syllables. I was too busy learning the American idioms and adding new vocabulary to my repertoire.

Until recently, that is. A few months ago, I observed a certain shift to my listening. It suddenly dawned on me why I say some words differently than a native English speaker in the US. It doesn’t have anything to do with the fact that I learned speaking English in India, which although retains few traces of the British English after all these years, still favors the British turn of phrase and pronunciation.

It has everything to do with the fact that my mother tongue, Telugu, is a non-phonetic language. That means, unlike in English, what you see written on the page is exactly how you pronounce the words. There are no two ways of saying the same word. Telugu has over 50+ letters in its alphabet, so there’s no chance for confusion. The same is true with most Indian languages.

In an Indian language, not all words have emphatic syllables in them. If you need a particular syllable in a word to be stressed harder, then you write it a certain way that leaves no doubt of the pronunciation. Not so in English.

Each and every word in English has at least one syllable that is emphasized in speech, even if it’s a one-syllable word like “a.” The syllable you choose to emphasize, the way you articulate it, the inflection you place on the sound… all these figure into your accent.

I realized that, as a native speaker of Indian languages, I sometimes neglect to enunciate a certain syllable in an English word because I don’t see the stress highlighted in the written word. For instance, take the word banana. The middle syllable na is stressed harder and stretched longer than the rest but it looks in writing as do the rest of the syllables. The word is not spelled bannaana to focus the stress. No book or teacher can teach this; it’s a matter of listening and emulating.

After this epiphany, I’m listening to spoken English with keener ears. Words and sounds that were mundane before reveal new personalities and interesting facets to me at every turn.  My ears perk up at once-familiar words that now tease me with a host of possibilities.

Does this mean I’m going to work at losing my “accent?” No, because that modulation is part of who I am. Will I stop confusing the heck out of my children by pronouncing “year” as “ear” because I forget to accentuate the beginning “ya” sound? Probably not.

I am, however, very much looking forward to this phase of my relationship with the English language. A phase where I get to acquaint myself with it all over again.

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Another year has slid past and here we are in the brand new year of 2015. As each year draws to a close, we see several programs on TV and radio recounting what major events have taken place in the world in the past 12 months.

In keeping with this sentiment, I wondered … how would I like to look back at the last year? I wanted it to be a positive glance back. Then I got it. Through books, of course!My-year-in-books-1

The past year has been a gold mine for me in terms of the books I have read. They ranged from a true story of a war survivor to light-hearted mysteries to gut-twisting historicals to books on writing.

I present here the five books that most influenced my worldview, as a reader and a writer, the past 12 months.

  1. The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd. This book, which has women’s rights and abolition movements at its heart, is set in the early-nineteenth-century Charleston, NC. It follows the remarkable lives of its two protagonists—a slave named Handful and her owner, Sarah. The following two snippets from different parts of the book sum up the impetus behind the story:

    “You think there’s no detriment in a slave learning to read? There are sad truths in our world, and one is that slaves who read are a threat.”

    “The truth”, she said, “is that every girl must have ambition knocked out of her for own good.”

  1. Burial Rites by Hannah Kent. Set in the remote farmlands of northern Iceland of the early 1800s, this is one of the most atmospheric novels I’ve ever read. The protagonist, Agnes, is charged with murdering two men and is sent to an isolated farm to await execution. The book explores Agnes’s inner turmoil and how the relationships among the inhabitants of the farm change when they are forced to share the confined quarters of their croft with a convicted murderer. The author conveys much subtext and tension in the little ways the characters interact and the things they choose to share (or not) with each other. The author switches between several POVs (first-person for the protagonist and limited third for everyone else) and present and past tenses. Rather than detract from the story, this experiment seems to add to its stark narrative. What a feat! Here’s one powerful sentence from the book:

    The dream reminded me of what will happen, of how fast the days are passing me by, and now, lying awake in a room full of strangers, gazing at the patterns of sticks and peat in the ceiling, I feel my heart turn over and over and over until I feel twisted in my gut.
  1. Writing 21st Century Fiction by Donald Maass. This book is a must-read for anyone who’s trying to get published in the current market. Maass, an author and head of a successful literary agency, explains in simple terms the pulse of the current publishing industry and gives writers the tools necessary to write fiction that is bold and grabs the attention of the 21st century reader. Here’s an example:

    Find a quiet emotional moment. Is it artfully written, delicate, subtle, nuanced, and precise? Congrats. Make it enormous: a tidal wave, an attack, a life-altering earthquake.

  1. Once Upon a River by Bonnie Jo Campbell. This detailed odyssey of survival and self-preservation alternately made my heart swell with pride and ache from sadness for its sixteen-year-old protagonist Margo Crane. True, all that attention to guns, rifles and vivid—and at times superfluous—hunting scenes made me flinch in certain portions of the book, but I won’t forget the reticent but tenacious Margo Crane in a hurry.

    As July melted into August, Margo listened to gangs of newly fledged robins picking at the underbrush in such numbers that the woods floor seemed alive. She watched nuthatches spiral down trees headfirst to the ground and back up again. … And Margo still did not see police boats searching the river for her.

  1. Rivet Your Readers with Deep Point of View by Jill Nelson Elizabeth. While struggling to decide between a first-person POV and a limited third-person for my current manuscript, I happened upon this book. Although at times too simplistic in its view and explanations, it helped me tremendously in going “deep” into my characters’ perspectives. The author says:

    Deep POV renders “telling” nearly impossible, because that annoying, invisible narrator has been given the boot!

From what angle would you like to look at your year past? Please share with us!

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I recently read, back to back, two works of fiction that are based on one historical figure’s life. I didn’t expect them to be overly similar, but I wasn’t prepared for them to be so different either.

What made them so dissimilar was the point of view of each of the authors. And by that I don’t mean the first person or the limited/omniscient third person view they used to narrate the tale, but the perspective and understanding of the authors about the life and times of the subject matter.

The books are Shadow Princess by Indu Sundaresan and Beneath a Marble Sky by John Shors. Both the books examine the life of Mughal princess Jahanara, the eldest daughter of Emperor Shah Jahan and Empress Mumtaz Mahal (yes, the Mumtaz Mahal of the Taj Mahal fame). The stories are set in an India of the 1600s that is thrown into turmoil by the constant bickering of the various invading forces like the Mughals, the British, the Portuguese and other opportunists.

Shadow Princess is the last of a set of three books called the Taj Mahal trilogy. Sundaresan sets the stage beautifully for Jahanara and narrates her story (in alluring poetic prose that enhances the ambiance) with the right mix of awe and slight disdain that Mughal lives tend to evoke in most Indians’ hearts. Sundaresan’s Jahanara is bold and decisive, but tempered by subtlety and decorum. When suddenly burdened with the responsibility of a mourning father and confused siblings upon her mother’s death, teenager Jahanara steps into the role with aplomb. Over time, she learns to protect her own interests with the requisite cunning that is inevitable in her position.

Shors’s Jahanara, on the other hand, is outspoken and in-the-face courageous. So much so that she rides astride a horse in broad daylight, walks around the city unveiled and openly disobeys her husband. In short, she could pass for a twenty-first century (almost American) teenager, if you didn’t know any better.

Having grown up in India and read its history, I know that Mughal women were rarely allowed outside their palaces and certainly never without purdah. If it were a princess, then her life was even more circumscribed owing to the intrigues surrounding her as the candidate for a powerful political alliance.

I feel Sundaresan, being an Indian and a woman, handles the subject with better insight into the traditions and restrictions Jahanara possibly faced during her lifetime and how those same constraints shaped her into the strong and influential figure she grew into.

Shors deals with the situation head-on and makes a formidable heroine of Jahanara. I didn’t dislike the book. In fact, after I managed to swallow my irritation (even if it took me several trials and dozens of pages into the book to get there) at how modern Jahanara and the other characters and their interactions with each other sound, the book grew on me. I loved the gumption and resourcefulness of Shor’s Jahanara.

This exercise brought home to me forcefully once more that a book, be it fiction or non-fiction, is colored by the past and present life experiences of the author among many other things. When we open a book, we’re stepping for the duration of the story into the author’s private chamber upon their invitation. And what each of us takes out of that visit, again, depends upon our own point of view as a reader.

Have you read two or more books by different authors but based on the same personality or incident? Please share with us your experiences from the activity!

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