Vantage point

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Careers360 article on IIPM

Almost everyone I know has been emailing me that article, so let me state for the record that yes, I am aware of it. Here's the link for those who still don't know about it. Very well done article, and I hope more MSM outlets would do something like this.

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Saturday, June 27, 2009

My Favorite Scene from My Cousin Vinny

This innocuous scene, which I finally located on youtube, is my absolute favorite from the movie My Cousin Vinny.

Vinny, i.e. Joe Pescie, is woken up in the middle of the night for the umpteenth time in Alabama, this time by the screeching of an owl. So he, very understandably, grabs a gun, runs out, and lets out a few shots in the darkness to quell the infernal sound. The owl making the actual sound however, is ever so slightly startled after his latest screech, calmly turns his head back to see Vinny fire off a few gunshots, turn back around, and lets off another screech, very calmly.

As amazing as the whole movie is, this scene always makes me literally roll on the floor laughing. The surprised and then unconcerned expression on the owl's face is just priceless!!!


Four Michaels, down to Three

Growing up in a predominantly Maharashtrian suburbs in the 90s and late 80s, I initially wasn't exposed to as much non-Indian popular culture as you would think. The big names for us back then were all Indian - Amitabh Bachchan, Kapil Dev, Sachin Tendulkar, Ramesh Krishnan, Geet Sethi, P.T.Usha, Aamir Khan, and so on.

Then cable TV came to India, exposing us to the Western world. Remember those really early days when there was only 1 channel - simply Star TV? For a few hours, they would show MTV, then sports, then American TV shows, some news, and then MTV again? And considering the big names or icons we got exposed to in different fields, you could be forgiven for thinking that you could not become famous in the West unless you had the name Michael. There were four Michaels who dominated the scene in their respective fields.

Michael Jordan was at his peak, inspiring us to rush to hitherto ignored basketball courts on the playgrounds. Mike Tyson was on the wane, but still the biggest name in boxing, his knock-out wins being replayed all the time. Michael Schumacher was the man who turned "oh just a boring sport with cars going in circles" into the exciting and addictive world of Formula 1 racing. And the fourth one was of course Michael Dukakis who made us all want to get into a tank and ride it around.

Obviously, I kid. The fourth Michael was the biggest of them all - Michael Jackson. Everyone, everywhere, knew him. Even in the tiniest of second tier towns, you might not have heard of anyone from the world of "Western music", but you knew Michael Jackson. He was the most universally well-known person in every corner of the globe ever.... until the current American President whose fame is probably greater.

Ever since Jacko died, two music videos are ubiquitous on television - Billie Jean and Thriller. But for people from my generation (born in and around 1980), the two songs that spring to mind at once when his name is mentioned are Bad and Black or White, in that order. I was still being potty-trained when Thriller came out. So Bad was the album that was all the rage when I started understanding things enough to remember them. I can not even count the number of times some kid my age dressed in black would pop a cassette (remember those?) into a "tape recorder", hit play and then start dancing, mouthing the words I'm bad, I'm bad, you know it. The song was performed at school gatherings, Ganapati festival shows, New Years celebrations, and also in living rooms in front of guests when parents would go "Our son dances exactly like Michael Jackson!"

Then came cable TV and his album Dangerous. The video Black or White is the first music video I have a clear recollection of watching and liking. It was a perfect crossover hit for Indian kids. It featured then child superstar Macaulay Culkin. It had amazing visuals and never-seen-before "oooh so cool!" seamless morphing of faces into one another. And of course, it had a desi chick doing a classical dance.

After that, every few months, a new music video from Dangerous was released, and the progression of the content in the videos almost perfectly mirrored the rapidly changing phases of life that I was going through at that age. The Jam video had another Michael, Jordan, playing basketball, right around the time I was discovering the sport. Remember the Time was imaginative and exciting, featuring Egyptian royalty, and came out around the time I was enraptured by books by the nutcase Erich Von Daniken. And of course, watching a skimpily clad Naomi Campbell dancing seductively in In the Closet was heartily appreciated by my then exploding hormones.

From the age of 9 to about 14, Michael Jackson really was King and God for us. Then the scandals started. And a couple of forgettable albums came out. And of course, I discovered other artists and bands that were a bit more "eclectic" and listening to Jacko's music suddenly became very uncool and "country-chhaap". Then he came to India and we were exposed to him through interviews and other appearances.... and the dude just seemed bizarre. Gradually, he went from being a pop icon to a weirdo has been, whom I paid attention to only when some new salacious news item about him came out.

And now he is suddenly dead. Bringing back memories of those childhood years when he was something larger than life. A legend. I don't think I really feel his "loss" as such, because I know that music-wise he didn't have much more to offer me. But it does feel like it'll take a little getting used to the idea of living in a world without Michael Jackson.


Thursday, June 25, 2009

Emotional Just Achaar

This post is dedicated to Vikram Doctor, the best food writer in the world, because it was email exchanges with him that spurred me to write it.

A repeated instance of cognitive dissonance I face even after being in the US for almost 3 years is calling that soggy slice of cucumber a "pickle". Whenever I am ordering a hamburger and they ask me "Would you like pickle on that?", I say "Yes", when I actually want to say "I really would like to try some sort of a pickle in the burger, but since you don't have that, yes, vinegary cucumber slices will do."

Pickles in the US, for the uninitiated, are cucumber slices soaked in vinegar or brine, and left to ferment. But for an Indian, pickle, or the hindi achaar, or the marathi loNchey is just so fundamentally different. Yes, it has a core ingredient like the cucumber for Americans.... most Indian pickles use raw mangoes. But the juice is what makes the pickle such a rich and diverse cultural experience. It has your basics - lots of oil, lots of salt and chilli powder. It is the mixing and matching of other ingredients - whole mustard seeds, split mustard seeds, ginger pieces, ginger paste, sesame, poppy, and anything else that blends in, that makes Indian pickles such a treatise-worthy concoction. But at the end of the day, it is the core ingredient, i.e. whatever is being pickled - vegetable, fruit or meat, that gives the pickle its true character. And just like the definitive Indian fruit remains the mango, the definitive pickling object remains its younger version - the raw mango.

Growing up in Pune, I didn't really develop a taste for pickles until I was in my teens. But I was intimately involved in the world of pickling way before. For as long as I can remember, whenever the month of April rolled around, my dad would go to the market and get a big bag of raw mangoes. We'd rent a big version of the typically marathi slicing device (that I'd love to have in the US) called विळी which is basically this. Dad, being the strongest, would slice the mangoes. I was in charge of separating the mango seeds, and peeling off the plasticky layer from the inside of the seed cover. And my younger sister, armed with a white cloth, would wipe them dry. Mom would prepare the gravy/juice/marinade, whatever you call it. And once it was done, she would take the mango pieces we worked on, and immerse them.

Later on, some roles changed. In my teens, I started chopping the mangoes, and Dad would share the cleaning and drying duties with my sister. What remained common through all those years was, that pickle-making remained an annual summer ritual our happy nuclear family indulged in for over a decade. Other people barbecue, fly-fish, hunt, camp, trek, hike, or even garden. Us Sabnises? We pickled!

Now, the family pickle we made, stored in huge porcelain jars to be used until the next year, went through several phases of its own. Through the summer and the monsoons, the mangoes retained their crunchiness, making them appropriate to eat by themselves or with chappatis. You needed to either press down hard with a spoon to cut off a smaller piece, or then place it between your teeth and bite.

By the time winter came around however, they were soggy. The slightest of pressure from your fingers would separate a piece. And that is the state most commercially available Indian pickles are in. Nothing wrong with that of course. The juice has completely permeated the mango, imbuing it with those strong and heady flavors. Divine to eat with dal-and-rice, or anything else with rice, or even just by itself. But if you limit yourself to store-bought pickles, you are missing out on the crunchy new-pickle taste.

The variation in the juices is mind-boggling too, not just across the country or within a state, but even within a city! Only a Punekar can truly appreciate the differences between mango pickles made from Bedekar masala, Pravin masala, Kay-Pra masala, and your mom/grandmom's made-from-scratch masala. And then there are variations from Konkan, South Maharashtra (Kolhapur-Miraj-Sangli...Hi Pushkar!), Khandesh, Marathwada and Vidarbha. I am not fully aware of the ingredient differences between them. So obviously, I'd have to do sooooo much more research to talk about how pickles from the rest of India are.

But one non-Marathi pickle that remains a favorite is the avakai from Andhra. Again, perhaps due to the family ritual. Our family spent 1986-87 in a small town called Rajahmundry on the banks of the Godavari. So that year, my mom decided to make the pickle local Andhra style - Avakai. And I have to say, it's the best pickle she has ever made. She got help and inputs from local aunty, so she could never replicate the success after we moved to Pune. But even now, when I spot a jar that says Avakai in Jersey or Pittsburgh, I lunge for it.

That's enough of the mango pickles though. As I grew up, I realized that other things could be pickled too. Amlas (gooseberrys), carrots, onions, and yummmm...prawns/shrimp. Prawns pickles were my first foray into the world of non-veg pickles. And they were just so divinely different from how prawns tasted in the usual curry or fried form. Even today, I have a jar of prawns pickled in my kitchen that I eat as an accompaniment with my malvani tilapia or bass curry (maybe I should send the recipe to the world-famous-among-marathi-gluttons Nupur) and rice.

But later I was introduced to the world of fish, beef, pork, chicken giblet, chicken breast, boiled egg pickles, all done in the Indian fashion. I still remember the first time I tasted a fish pickle. A Bengali friend in IIML had brought to the mess with him a jar of fish (I think hilsa) pickle, and I was digging into it so frequently, he finally had to wrest it from my fingers and hide it so there would be some left for him.

Since then, I have savored and enjoyed pickles involving all sorts of animals and seafood. I have often contemplated pickling something non-vegetarian myself, but have been too lazy to do it so far. Maybe this summer?

But I have to say, as awesome as those prawns, pork, egg, chicken pickles are, the undisputed KING of pickles in my mind remains the raw mango. There is something just fundamentally satisfying about using your fingers to prepare a morsel of simple daal and steamed basmati rice, mixing with it a piece of the mango slice that you have broken off using your nail, and a healthy portion of the spicy juice, and putting it in your mouth. Your tongue can't help but have a small orgasm of its own as it tastes the blend of all those tastes.

So this is my Independence day July 4th resolution - to try and locate raw mangoes in the North-Easterm United states and pickle them. And also pickle some shrimp, sliced beef and chicken giblets. Want to come over and taste them?


Self of the self is indeed the Self!

In the latest Republican scandal, South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford admitted he was cheating on his wife. The events leading up to the revealation were hilarious - first they said he was missing with neither his staff nor security guys nor wife and sons knowing where he was. Then it was revealed he was just taking a break hiking the Appalachian trails. Then it turned out he was seen in Atlanta, which is nowhere close to the Appalachians. And then it was revealed he was in Atlanta because he was flying back from Argentina. And then, in a bizarre press conference, he revealed that he had a lady friend in Buenos Aires and he had been unfaithful to his wife.

Which is all very amusing. But not as hilarious as this deconstruction by Rachel Maddow of some of the more WTF parts of what he said, one of them being "self of the self is indeed the self".

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Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Hoping it's Pakistan's turn!

Over the last decade and a half, almost every good team has won a world-level tournament. Australia has won all the World Cups and finally won the Champions Trophy. South Africa has a Champion's Trophy too, their only non-choker time. Perennial underdogs New Zealand and West Indies also took home the Champion's Trophy once each. India and Sri Lanka have one and half titles each, winning the 2007 World T20 and the 1996 World Cup respectively, and sharing a Champion's Trophy due to rained off finals.

That leaves Pakistan. Well actually, England too, but come on, seriously, England? England? Hah! They haven't even made it to any finals. Which leaves us with Pakistan. They choked in the 99 World Cup finals, and suffered a heartbreaking loss in the 2007 T20 finals against us. This time, their team looks balanced, strong and inspired, and the whole whiny fake ball-tampering rerun initiated by the bad loser Vettori is likely to have pumped them up. And I don't know, it just feels in my gut as if it is Pakistan's turn. I sure hope so. Here's wishing for a Pakistan triumph.

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Friday, June 12, 2009

A Year On and I Still Miss Him!!!

Last year on this day in the evening, I got back from an short out-of-town trip and watched, mouth agape in horror, the news of Tim Russert's passing. I wrote about what a great loss this was on my blog.

A year on, I am sad to say, the vacuum he left still remains unfilled. Come back, Tim!