Thursday, May 14, 2015

Veggie Delight

To tell you a fact, my favourite dinosaur has always been the Brontosaurus. Like me, it must have also known what it feels like to be a vegetarian wandering amongst the world of carnivores.
Last month, a Norwegian friend, turned towards me during a dinner in Vienna and asked with a twinkle in his eyes, “So why are you vegetarian?”. As always, I began my oft repeated explanation - I was born in a family where everyone was vegetarian, so I too started as one and now I truly believe in vegetarianism etc etc   . And then I continued, “Some people do not eat non-veg due to religious reasons in India, some now converting for health reasons”. He calmly listened and then shrugged carelessly, “In Norway, the only reason we eat is -because we are hungry”. I sighed. 

It is difficult to explain others, why you have a particular dietary habit. More so, if you are Indian. In India, we have so many varieties of vegetarians that to expect anyone else to comprehend our habits and the reason behind them, is expecting too much. We have people who do not eat non-vegetarian food on some particular days/ meals , people who do not eat particular kind of meats , people who do not cook non-veg food at home but would eat otherwise  and then you have “pure” vegetarians  like me who irrespective of days, meals or location remain true to vegetables, fruits and grains   . I respect individual choice in matters of food, religion and dress. I do not question or ridicule it and expect the same from others. But then, we vegetarians, while being accused of being food snobs, are also butt of numerous jokes and taunts because of our food habits. But, believe me, life at the dinner table is not always fun, if you are a vegetarian, foodie and a frequent traveller.

My own experiments with globetrotting on veg diet are nothing less than hilarious. And the fact that far from going extinct like poor Brontosauruses I am plump and happy, proves that I managed the journey so far pretty well.

The year was 2008. We were on our first ‘real’ foreign visit to China. In a group of 10 , we were 4 vegetarians . Our Chinese hosts left no effort wanting in treating the group in best possible eateries. Yet we four vegetarians came out with only fruits and juices in our stomach even from the best of places. For us even the cooking oil was non-veg, which ruled out any chance of any cooked food. So while our other colleagues were savouring all kinds of Chinese soups, dishes and desserts, we were desperate to find “anything” to eat. The worst came in a formal sit down dinner when our hosts decided to treat us with ‘mock meat’. Even though we knew it was not meat, the look and the smell was so meat-like that we daren’t touch it and since we were scared of causing a diplomatic fiasco with our hosts, we pretended to like the meal . After the 11 course ‘hearty’ meal, four of us, famished and tired of pretending to eat, rushed to our rooms for emergency supplies of food brought from home. 

I was fearing a similar fate even in Africa, but there for the first time I realised power of one billion plus. Both Uganda and Kenya have a sizable Indian population and eateries there knew about the finicky Indian vegetarians. More so because the communities settled there are traditionally vegetarian communities ( Marwaris , Gujaratis and Jains ) . So not only we got our Indian roti and curry but also all favourite Gujarati snacks and delicacies neatly arranged in a “thali” . In many cases the best eateries were owned by Indians or had Indian chef.   Then on many trips to various other countries, I did not face much trouble with food. Both Italy and Austria were very kind to vegetarians with lots of variety and options. South Korea proved to be tough but still manageable as, by then I was a veteran traveller and knew how to find my kind of food in alien lands.
In my search for Veg food abroad, I found some pretty unusual places too. E.g. in Seoul , I found temple restaurants run by monks and nuns serving outstanding vegan food . The place I visited was “Balwoo Gongyang”, specializing in traditional temple food, where you can taste the carefully prepared dishes, handmade by Buddhist practitioners. It was an amazing experience to eat that food. 

Like places, in my veg-food pursuits, I often had very unusual partners. E.g. in South Korea I found many Arabs joining my Veggie gang as they were not sure of getting halal meat. In Bhutan my entire team from Kolkata office, otherwise hearty meat –eaters, turned vegetarian when they did not like the dry meat being served there. To my credit, I usually try to find vegetarian local food also and mostly get it. I have tasted vegan Bibimbap and vegetarian Kimchi in Korea, eggless Sachar Torte in Vienna and even yummy vegetarian Arabian food in Dubai. In Uganda my hosts treated me with delicious pumpkin soup, roots and salads prepared specifically for me in veg- versions. 

But then there were also occasions when the buffet breakfast at the hotel was my only meal in a day as I could not find much to eat at Lunch or Dinner. Luckily, the foodie in me is always ready to research and find out local options beyond Subway sandwiches (which by the way are lifesavers).

Now on my present work charge, I see many Indians travelling abroad with full preparation to cook their meals themselves. Some do it to save money, others because they can’t do without their familiar food and most others  to avoid hassle of searching options abroad. As for me, my learning from my travels is that I will invariably find something to eat with my dietary restrictions and with some effort will be able to find some local food too. For many this may be a hassle in an unknown city, but to me finding suitable food and the joy of tasting something new is part of knowing the place, and I would not like to miss out on that. Poor hubby keeps on hoping that I might return bit slim after my tours abroad for lack of food. Alas, he hopes in vain- I remain pleasantly plump with my hearty diet of Falafels, fruits, juices, salads and cheese and worse, every time I come back from a trip I add new food items in my list of must-eats . 

Monday, March 9, 2015

Leaving Mumbai............

Even when I said Goodbye to Delhi last year, I knew that we will meet again  but not even in my wildest imagination I had thought it will be so soon. For someone who takes time to adjust to places, people and situations, who is slow in learning and making friends, frequent movements is like a tasting menu of a restaurant - It gives you of a taste of what you will miss but does not satiate your hunger . Not a happy situation. I distinctly remember such feeling of not-being-done-with when I left Jaipur or Rome or even hometown Lucknow. And now I add Mumbai to the list.

I realise I am a person of contradictions. I have my gypsy streaks, which make me uneasy, if I stay at a place for too long and then I have incurable inertia.  When it comes to leave a place ...I panic. When you suffer inertia as bad as I do , oftentimes you find yourself in very peculiar situations. Situations when you dislike leaving a place without even ticking off essential things to see and do. Situations when you wake in the middle of a night and find yourself itching to go back in time. Situations when you dislike your new office and colleagues for first few days , irrespective of how kind and generous they are with you and your bad mood .  The dichotomy is that while on one hand you are looking forward to new experiences, new sights, smells and desist leaving behind the now-familiar surroundings , people, places .

Leaving Mumbai was even more frustrating as I was  just about getting the grasp of work and looking forward to some really tempting assignments . The situation was made worse by the fact that this came as a surprise. I am not too good with surprises but I played my part with as much courage as I could muster. All those “congratulations” sounded hurtful to my heart which was in part very sad to leave and in part scared to join the big assignment at the big office . But then after all those trepidations, anxieties and  blue moods, I am back . Back to Delhi, back to same good old campus with familiar faces, sights and smells  and yet the tinge of sadness refuses to go away . I will be lying , if I say I am not happy- I truly am delighted about  my new charge  but like a greedy child I want both goodies without getting to choose and settle for one. My mind consoles me that I should be happy on both personal and professional levels   but the heart stubbornly reminds me of what I had to leave behind . As a good friend of mine told me after hearing this news that it is meant to make me grow up- stop imagining the world in black and white and acknowledge the role of destiny and the fifty-shades-of-grey in life.  Something like what  Nida fazli very aptly puts –

"अपनी मर्ज़ी से कहाँ अपने सफर के हम हैं 
रुख हवाओं का जिधर का है उधर के हम हैं 
वक़्त के साथ है मिटटी का सफर सदियों से 
किसको मालूम कहाँ के हैं किधर  के हम हैं 
चलते रहते हैं की चलना है मुसाफिर का नसीब 
सोचते रहते हैं किस रहगुज़र के हम हैं "

( When do we choose our own paths/ it is the winds of life that decide our ways
The dust has a lifelong bond with time / Who knows where from we come and go?
I keep on moving as that is a traveler’s destiny / But I wonder which road  do I belong)  

Just before leaving Mumbai , I thought  about things I loved and things I didn’t ...of the unfinished list of things to do and why I would like to go back there again.  To begin with , I am happy to be away from the nerve wrecking noises of traffic- incessant honking, mostly unnecessary is such a irritant on Mumbai roads. I would also accept that coming from small towns, for me the maximum city with its too much urbanisation was at times killing. I could never like the life from building blocks like apartments and the ugly sights of clothes drying on the window bars   .

Yet there were sights with which I fell in love . The magnificent clouds of monsoon gathering up over deep blue sea, the  colourful fishing boats, the seagulls chasing those boats full of fish , sun setting behind Haji Ali , R.K. Laxman's Aam aadmi standing at Worli sea face  and the variety of people always seen at Marine drive. Initially I laughed at those lovebirds cosying  up at Marine drive , even found those sights awkward , but then I realised the necessity of it. The total lack of privacy in those smaller than pigeonhole flats , the Indian compulsions of big families / joint families and relatives flocking in due to economic reasons leave no scope for young and even not-so-young couples in this maximum city. After a while, I admit , I started  finding such sights very endearing , even  beautiful. The  selfie queens smiling at the mobile screens , wide-mouthed  tourists from rural India  and rather confused looking foreigners  - some of the most common sights on Marine drive and sea-face,  made me smile every single day . It was also amusing to find  overweight  elites turning fitness freaks on weekends and landing at these places   in their expensive sports gear . Middle aged men and women gossiping about neighbours , celebrities  and remembering stories of the past. If you hear them, you realise that they did not start where they are today. Some of them came to city with very humble beginnings and while now they might be living in marble floored big apartments with many servants and luxuries, they still remember and even long for their old simple lives . During morning and evening walks I also met some who like me came to Mumbai as strangers and then decided to stay on.  They love everything about the city- even the noise, dirt  and chaos. 

People with extraordinary talent in music, art , business and varied traits – who chose this city over many others to be their home, not out of compulsion but mostly love  and fascination . It was amazing to my small-town-heart , how there are no too-late-to-go-out hours in Mumbai. While in Delhi I would not dream of stepping out alone in late evenings, in Mumbai it was mostly safe for women and girls . Its a pity that I could get just a glimpse of the cultural scene of this vibrant city. While I am glad I could go to Prithwi theatre, NCPA and Kala Ghoda festival , there was so much more to do in the city which never sleeps .

The most heartbreaking (surprisingly ) was leaving my Mumbai workplace . Contrary to my expectations, I found the work very much to my liking. For someone who had no idea about what is upstream and downstream petroleum , who had no interest in aeroplanes even as child – it was amazing that now in newspaper, my eyes go first at news on Petroleum and Aviation. I can’t climb a plane without noting its make, model and tail number  . I know my education of these sectors is still incomplete but the credit of making me even this aware goes to my colleagues and boss. Never ever, I have seen or worked with such a dedicated bunch of people. People who despite very big personal worries will be ever ready to give their best to work . People who do not put petty egos before the interest of work and who are ever helpful and willing to teach novice like me . I know it is my loss to have such a short period to work with them .
Every time , such things happen to me, I tell myself, I  will not plan for future, I will not say what I will do later, make wishlists for times to come   . So I will not end wishing that I get another chance with Mumbai. But let me just end by confessing that for last 5 days in a row, on my way back from office, when I see the sun setting behind the uneven, shabby irregular colonies on Delhi- Noida highway  , my heart long for a beautiful sun setting gracefully in Arabian sea a few hundred miles away in Mumbai. I am sure, I would consider myself lucky if I get to see that mesmerising sight ever again in life.