Facebook Badge

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Lifetime's Experience

A Posh Flight to the USS Nimitz

Early one Tuesday morning, I found myself sitting in the naval terminal at INS Hansa in Dabholim, Goa. A young officer from the American navy strode to the front of the reception area and began to brief the assembly about the flight we were about to take to the USS Nimitz, a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier that was sailing 300 miles west off the Goa coast. The officer, who was also the pilot on board the C2A Greyhound turboprop, said things about safety gear, water-landing and whatnot. He made it sound fairly normal. So we geared up with helmet, goggles and flotation device and walked out to the aircraft.

It was a posh aircraft. No, there were no nubile flight attendants, 18-channel entertainment system or anything of the sort that is generally associated with the word “posh.” It was a no-frills aircraft with not much beyond 14 regulation-issue seats facing backwards and two portholes for windows; no sound-proofing, no second skin, a couple of lights and that’s pretty much it. You had to wear your earphones else you risked deafness. But it was posh, in the sense that passengers faced away from the pilot. “Port Out, Starboard Home,” the British called it, referring to the cabins on the port side of the ship as it sailed to India and those on the starboard side as the ship sailed back to England. The idea was to catch the last and first glimpse of “my own, my native land.” In this instance, we faced the shoreline of India, a comforting factor for a white-knuckle passenger like me confronting what they call an “arrested landing” and saw the back of the Nimitz as we were catapulted into the sky in the take-off back to Goa.

As we took off from Dabholim airport towards the Nimitz, everything seemed normal just like the dozens of flights I have taken out of Goa. In flight, the plane settled into a vibration mode that lulled me to sleep until I heard the pilot through the headphones, saying, “We’re three-quarters of a mile away from the ship.” Awakened, I sluggishly tried to peer out the port-hole, hoping to see the ship. Suddenly, I saw two crew members, who were sitting directly in front, waving their arms frantically. Then there was a roar, the plane’s throttle opened up to full speed, a thud and a few seconds of eternity as the COD (carry onboard delivery) plane came to a screeching halt.

Later, standing on the flight deck, as I saw a series of F-18 fighter jets land, I saw a hook being lowered as the plane came in to land. The hook grabbed one of four cables stretched across the width of the four-and-a-half-acre deck and made what they call an “arrested landing.” I began to understand why I thought the few seconds to it took our plane to go from over 120 miles an hour to a full stop in just 30 yards seemed like an eternity. At that point, it’s between the skill of the pilot and the Maker: split-second timing rather than fancy high technology made the difference between an “arrested landing” that enabled me to have lunch with the commander of the ship and a “crash landing” that might have set me in front of the Maker, worrying about all the stuff I may or may not have done in my life that He might question.

The hours on the ship zipped by and its dimensions—18-storey height, 97000 tons, 1000 feet in length, 4.5 acres landing deck, 5000 sailors, 110 planes—are gargantuan. Pretty soon, I found myself in the posh plane as it taxied to line up on the steam-powered catapult that would launch the plane into the wild blue yonder at 120 miles per hour on a runway that was just 30 yards long. Despite the restraints, the top part of my body bent over involuntarily to where my head touched my knees and then snapped back as the catapult released the plane in a whoosh of nuclear-powered steam. By the time the plane straightened out and set course for shore, I experienced eternity again.

The entire trip to the Nimitz lasted close to six hours. It occurred to me that we had seen the full majesty of American power. What struck me the most about our landing and takeoff was that it is based less on high technology—think about the “arrested landing” and the “catapulted take-off”—than on relentless training and the bravery of the men and women, who do this as part of their daily routine. In the end, I concluded that these brave and well-trained twenty-somethings should try driving on the streets of any Indian city. We do it daily. It is far scarier.

from daily news and analysis october 10 2007

Thursday, August 21, 2008

The Karmayogi Hall of Fame

An Obituary for My Mother

It is four months to the day my mother died. I miss her comforting presence. What strikes me is life goes on as if nothing happened. Hello World, I often say to myself, my Mom’s gone; show a little concern, some respect, and some grief. Relentlessly though, things grind on and she is consigned to be a fading memory in the minds of those who knew and loved her. How easily we are reconciled to the passing of a loved one!

My Mom was difficult to love; she had a way with guilt. Whenever she came with my Dad to visit us in Chicago or in Delhi, she always made me feel I did not spend enough time with her. In some way, her complaint was legitimate because we lead busy lives: long hours at work, many social engagements and many friends to visit and to entertain. I refused to take her guilt trip, which made her angry. Within days of landing in our house, she would start up about going back to her home in Ahmedabad. My Dad was always the fall guy, coming into my study with wads of banknotes, asking me to book their tickets back.

Four months ago, when she died holding hands with me, I felt bereft. I didn’t cry or anything but just felt a deep gash in my heart. For some reason, we believe mothers are immortal and they will always be there to remind you of your checkered youth and then, after they have layered you with guilt, to comfort you. When you come to think of it, they are immortal because everyday of your life something happens to remind you of your mother. In many ways, grief is important; it helps you come to terms with the loss.

My problem is my 88-year old Dad, who suffers from Alzheimer’s. A few days after my Mom’s death, he came to me, looking distraught. “You know, I feel helpless. My mother just died and I did not have enough money to give her the best medical care,” he said to me. It is true that his mother also died of cancer in 1966 and he may have felt as an upright government official that he could not provide the care she needed. I was devastated. I realized then that the major outlet of my grief, to share the loss with my father, was denied to me.

Sadly thus, my grief has remained bottled up in some obscure corner of my mind. I could become a psycho like Anthony Perkins in the Hitchcock movie of the same name and end up as a mass murderer or a suicide bomber. No, let me hasten to add, it’s not about to happen. The point is it’s important to express grief and while I have a hugely supportive family, I have no way to commiserate with my Dad. As such, we are the principals and yet we can’t share the emotions of the loss.

Apart from the dementia, my Dad is a fairly healthy fellow with no aches and pains and a zest for life. When he turned 75, he told my daughters he still had at least 25 years to go. Amazingly, he’s more than half the way there. He just needs 12 more for his century. Even today, in a state of dementia, he tells us he did well at school, was highly respected in his job and exercised relentlessly, so there’s no reason why he should not live to be a hundred.

Though it is difficult to get through to his Alzheimer’s blocked mind, I can say with pride and confidence that he is the progenitor of my sunny worldview. Many friends say that I am wildly optimistic in a righteous sort of way. I consider it a compliment and have only now learned to attribute it to my father. His memory is compromised but he has the heart and soul of a 40-year old; he frequently says that. And he will live to be a hundred or even more.

He now lives with us. He is doubly troubled: dementia as well as a the dysfunction of a displaced person. We brought him with my mother from their home in Ahmedabad in March this year. My mother died and he has no way to go back to his comfortable life in the house he's lived in since the 1960s. He is unsettled and still lives out of a suitcase. We just have to deal with it and can only hope he stays independently fit.

I’ve never been big on yoga and Hinduism. But if ever there was a Karmayogi contest, please welcome my Dad to the Hall of Fame.

copyright rajiv desai 2008

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Magical Mystery Tour

Magnificent Monsoon in Goa

High up on a cliff that overlooks the confluence of the Tiracol River with the Arabian Sea, five friends sat on a parapet of the Tiracol Fort, stupefied by the tableau on view from Goa’s northernmost outpost. The river defines the border with Maharashtra. As genius naval strategists, the Portuguese occupied this fort in 1746 to complete the battery of defenses they set up at the mouth of all of Goa’s major rivers, especially in the northern part.

They had the southern Malabar Coast covered and with the capture of Tiracol, they had an early-warning vantage point on the Konkan Coast. They need not have bothered because the Maratha and other kingdoms on the West Coast did not have much of a navy. As such they had clear sailing all the way up to Daman, just north of Bombay and Diu, much further north on the coastline of Saurashtra.

The five friends, Gautam and Rita, Yogi (of the Motwane family whose historic public address systems, Chicago Radio, broadcast the nationalist message of Gandhi and other leaders of the freedom movement), Estelle and your Goa-besotted correspondent, sat on the battlement sipping beer. We were not that concerned about Portuguese naval strategy. We just sat transfixed at the Monsoon magic on display. We watched the giant whitecaps of the choppy brown sea attack the shores of the Casuarina-lined Querim Beach across the river and gaped at the black buildup of storm clouds as they drifted threateningly ashore from the storm-tossed sea.

Then, as the rain came pelting down and clouds of mystery poured confusion on the ground, we watched the beach and the river disappear from sight; a curtain of water descended to obscure our vision.

It was like a performance by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra raised exponentially to the nth degree. Our ears were filled with the wail of the whistling wind, the staccato rhythm of the falling rain, the crash of the waves and the tympani of raindrops falling on our heads; our eyes were blinded with sheets of monstrous rain and jags of lightning in the sky. Behold, I thought to myself, the menacing majesty of Nature!

Our experience at Tiracol was a stunning counterpoint to an afternoon we spent on the island of Divar, just a 15-minute drive and a five-minute ferry ride from Panjim, Goa’s capital. The island is a haven with less than 3000 inhabitants, within eyesight of the capital. For those who have been on Martha’s Vineyard, off the coast of Massachusetts in the US, it will appear familiar, if poorer.

It is a huge island with mangroves and swamps and lush paddy fields. The only link it has to the mainland and therefore to the world is a ferry that operates all day until midnight. With impressive villas and pretty cottages, the island is a dream. You can walk or bicycle around the place with no care for traffic.

The jewel in Divar’s crown is the hilltop church, which is being restored to its pristine grandeur and offers from its balconies and its foreground, sweeping views of the Mandovi River and the villages that line its banks and the hills in the distance.

The story goes that the church once had a bell donated by the master of a sinking ship that sailed up the Mandovi and made it to Divar. He survived and in thanksgiving presented his ship’s bell to the island's church. The bell sadly was too loud and shattered the windows of the church and nearby houses. So it was moved to the Se Cathedral in Old Goa, across from the famous Bom Jesus Church that houses the remains of St Francis Xavier.

As we wandered the island, we came upon the Devaaya Resort that occupies nearly five acres on its northeastern tip. We thought we might stop there to have a drink and refresh ourselves but were refused entry. When we asked why, no explanation was forthcoming. This led us to conclude it was a shady place built by outsiders in league with Goa’s famously corrupt politicians.

No wonder that Goans are up in arms against outsiders and their development projects in their haven. Clearly, the developers of this resort had the clout to override any objections the local people of Divar may have had. Its secretive exclusivity is a blot on the bucolic island. Many questions need to be asked about the place.

Aside of that glitch, our sojourn in Goa was hugely satisfying. At Cavala, a resort on Baga Beach, we rocked to music of the 1960s and 1970s. They serve superb food and the two nights we were there, it was standing room only. In the midst of a thunderous monsoon, Cavala had more people than most restaurants anywhere in India. And they were local as well as from Bombay, Delhi and foreign shores. The band played the Beatles, The Stones, Clapton, Jethro Tull, Chuck Berry and on and on. We thought we were in heaven.

Goa rocks in the Monsoon.

copyright rajiv desai 2008

Thursday, August 7, 2008

The Existential Pleasure of 'Dal Dhokli'

A Monsoon Lunch in Benaulim

So I land in Goa on a wet Monday afternoon. The landscape is lush with the soothing green of paddy fields, the mysterious green of bushes and undergrowth and the dark, foreboding green canopies formed by trees. I make a beeline to the home of Aasif and Gita in Benaulim, a 30-minute drive south of Dabholim airport. Both have been our friends as far back as we can remember. The warmth is a given but Gita knows about my fondness for this Gujarati specialty called ‘dal dhokli.’ We eat Gujarati food every now and then in Delhi but never, for some reason, this wonderful concoction.

In Goa, as we wolf down fish and all manner of creepy crawlies, Gita’s house is like a port in a storm. She serves the tastiest meat and fish dishes including fresh Bombay Duck, flaky and hugely satisfying. Whenever I’m there though, she adds to her table the above-mentioned dish, much to my delight.

‘Dal dhokli’ is pasta served in a lentil sauce. You put a dollop of ghee on it and the world is at your feet. It is one of the few bland dishes in the repertoire of Gujarati cuisine. As a child, I can remember eating it in my grandmother’s house in a steel thali that was raised on one side by a burning coal. This was ostensibly to keep the contents hot. Some spice it up with ‘methi masala’ that is used to make the famous Gujarati ‘methia keri’ (spicy mango) pickle. I never find the need to do that because the bland dal and pasta are good enough for me.

When my friend Vir Sanghvi wrote about Gujarati food in his excellent “Rude Food” feature in Brunch, the Sunday magazine of The Hindustan Times, he either had never eaten ‘dal dhokli’ before (knowing Vir, I doubt that) or ignored it; most likely, he just forgot about this unique dish. It is unique because Gujarati cuisine makes a fetish about sugar and spice. To be sure, there is a sprinkle of sugar in the dal; never mind that, ‘dal dhokli’ does not even have the traditional garnish of cilantro, called ‘kothmir,’ a green sprig that is superior to parsley or mint. This dish is the closest Gujarati food comes to Western cuisine.

I can see eyes rolling at that sentence. “Aha! You poor sod with a colonized mind! You like everything Western, even their food,” a critic might say. Well, actually Western food is great. But I liked ‘dal dhokli’ even as a child, long before I ate my first morsel of Western food. Growing up in a Gujarati household, I drew sustenance from the legions of sweet and spicy dishes that are paraded on every menu. 'Dal dhokli' was the only bland legionnaire in the march past on my table every day. Like the pauses of silence in a great drum solo, the dish is a subtle counterpoint to the Gujarati taste for spicy food, with a little sugar or jaggery added for good measure. Aimed at your heart, kidney, stomach…we have all the shock and awe ingredients in our recipes to, well, shock and awe you. ‘Dal dhokli’ is the respite, a pause from the recurring assault of hot, sweet and sour.

Oh, so now people from the hinterland are shaking their heads. “Our menu too features spices and we reserve sugar for our desserts," a friend might say. Well, of course it does. But you poor dears, your use of spices is just too recent to compare with those of us who hail from coastal India. We facilitated the global trade in spices when you were still eating roots, berries and dairy products with a side order of grilled chicken and mutton. We were global spice traders and the foreigners we dealt with brought with them a cornucopia of foods from the New World such as potatoes, tomatoes and chili peppers. The foreigners you dealt with came bearing swords of conquest and spears of subjugation.

What can I say? Your garam masala and your sauces are like McDonald’s fast food: just throw stuff together. It’s like a store-bought mango pickle compared to my grandmother’s offering: a labor of love and expertise undertaken annually in the summer, the making of ‘methia keri.’ The right amount of methi mixed with the powder of red chili peppers dried in the sun and ground, sometimes to accompaniment of tuneless singing; with intuitive amounts of haldi (turmeric) and hing (asafetida). The composite powder is stuffed into specially picked green mangoes, cut on the quarters and then steeped in oil. To eat the first flush of the pickle, when the mango is still a bit green is to taste nature after it has been to culinary finishing school.

Coming back to ‘dal dhokli,’ its very blandness adds variety to Gujarati cuisine. It is a distant relative of Rajasthani ‘dal baati’ except that ‘baati,’ the flour component, ain’t exactly ‘dhokli.’ It is a dumpling where ‘dhokli’ is pasta. They too add ghee, lots more of it. It is very tasty but the quality we seek is being ethereal. Forced to choose between the two, I would unhesitatingly plump for the Gujarati dish. And no, that’s not a provincial statement…it is an honest choice.

So here I am back in Goa, the land of spices and New World produce. Between the various curries and the chili fries, meat, fowl and fish, I get my fill. The crispy bite of batter fried calamari, the sensuous swallow of hot and sour shrimp curry mixed into coarse red rice and the sumptuous crunch of rava fried fish are enough to make humble table wines taste good. I am suffused with the exciting taste of Goan food and sated by excellent desserts that include jaggery and coconut stuffed pancakes, seductive coconut cakes and honest and upright custard. I can't get enough of the feast. Nevertheless, a couple of bowls of ‘dal dhokli’ in Benaulim add to the enjoyment of fish curry, chicken caffreal, beef chili fry, fried shrimp, calamari, mussels and teesriyos. To my mind, Gita's ‘dal dhokli’ is an added and growing attraction of this lush green enclave on the west coast that serves for us as an escape from the uncivil catastrophe that the rest of India has become.

copyright rajiv desai 2008