Five Snapshots of India

Sadhu in Rajasthan
1 . This photo was taken on my birthday, 16 January 2011. At the time I was living in Delhi and for a birthday treat was taken to an old fort in Rajasthan. We were wandering around the local village where for a few rupees we were offered a ride on an old camel  drawn cart. We were taken away from the daily bustle of the small village into the hills and on up to a small hilltop Hindu temple where we were invited by these local men for chai and prasad (tea and sweet). These men were sitting smoking ganja, sipping chai and whileing  the time away chatting with the Sadhu’s.  Two women, one white and one NRI Indian was an unusual and welcome break in their day. 
Mathadi; Daily Wage Worker, Uttar Pradesh
2. Noida; the ever-growing city. Everyday in Noida, the city in Uttar Pradesh that knocks on the door of the affluent South Delhi suburbs grows a little. Brick by brick  the city is built entirely by hand by the thousands of workers from across UP and other poor states who come with their families and build makeshift huts alongside or within the buildings they are working on. Everyone works, everyone contributes to the daily wage living, building high rises, malls, shops, schools and parks they will never be allowed to use. Labour is cheap and plentiful so young and old, men and women with bare hands and the simplest of tools the city grows day by day. About 85% of India’s working population, around 400 million people are Mathadi’s or informal daily wage workers.
Boy in Mysore
Boy getting Tonsure in Mysore 
3. This photo was taken in Mysore, Karnataka near a Hindu Temple. He was getting his head shaved in preparation for a religious ceremony.
Daily wage woman in Uttar Pradesh
4. Another of the tens of thousands of labourers that are building the modern India each day. Approximately 120 million women are Mathadi or daily wage earners in rural India, most earning only half of what is paid to a man for the same job. This woman was cooking her family an early morning meal over a small fire using old tins instead of pots and sticks in lieu of cooking utensils. The meal each morning consisted of dry roti’s and a hot drink, probably chai. Behind her is the shack built from bricks and tin that her family sleep in whilst building the house, the foundations of which are starting on her right. Out of sight are the luxury bungalow houses already built and occupied on the rest of the street.
Paper DosaPaper Dosa; Kanyakumari, Tamil Nadu, India.
5. Paper Dosa. I love South Indian breakfasts. Growing up with cereal and toast did not prepare me for the amazing taste and visual sensation that is breakfast in the southern states of India. Idli, vada, sambhar, uttapam or dosa along with various chutneys and steaming hot, freshly prepared south Indian coffee seem to be the mainstay among  the breakfast choices. This is a paper dosa, the largest and showiest version of the dosa, always attracting attention if ordered as if it is showing the culinary skills of the udipi’s dosa maker and large enough to indulge the family with the crisp rice loveliness of it all.

Baby Elephant, Sri Lanka

Roti Chai

Today I visited Roti Chai, a not so small cafe / restaurant not far from Selfridges behind Oxford st.  Roti Chai, sells a cross section of Indian street style food, small tasty morsels of popular fast food from across India and as the name suggests Chai, or sweet Indian Tea made with milk and infused with spices.

I like going to Roti Chai. The place has plenty of natural light, seems friendly and the decor is reminiscent of the murals and truck art that is seen widely through India. It reminds of me my time in India. The food is tasty and reasonably authentic in a hygienic British way and comparably not bad value for money in the middle of the tourist belt of Oxford St. I even drink the chai there considering I hate tea. I have never really liked tea even though my parents drank gallons of the stuff when I was growing up. I got introduced to the hot sweet, spicy chai in India and loved to drink it steaming hot by the roadside out of tiny terracotta or glass cups. Watching chai being prepared by a chai walla is an experience in itself.

Back in the west I am not so fussed, but a few months back I had a chai at Roti Chai that I enjoyed and now look forward to that unique taste served in the traditional chai glasses whenever I am in that part of town. The bhel puri and vegetable samosa with chutney is also hard to resist. Until today that is; today I got served warm, thin, weak chai, which of course we sent back, only to see the chai walla insert the milk frothing wand on the espresso machine into each glass to heat it up. We got back the same chai, still weak and thin but at least piping hot. Gone was my vision of the chai being cooked slowly in a pot, giving it time for the spices to infuse and the taste to develop before being strained and served steaming hot and fresh.

Maybe I will return here, maybe I won’t, but I will certainly never order chai again. Maybe the chai walla was new, maybe he was having a bad day, but it doesn’t really matter I don’t want to visit there anymore and I won’t take my friends there for chai anymore.

One of the hardest things for an independent restaurant to obtain is continuity with its food. Unlike the large chains whose food is processed and managed from some central food manufacturing plant down to the last crystal of salt, the last puff of flour to ensure that it looks and tastes exactly like the same no matter what day or where you buy it; independent eateries are usually born of a vision from the owner to create a unique taste and experience, whilst been freshly prepared and cooked on the premises.

The visions from this would be restaurateurs or chefs coming either from a new vision, idea or the desire to recreate the home cooked food from their home, their childhood memories, often from a land far from where the restaurant of today is. The recipe, the love and ambience in the way that it is prepared and served is usually just as envisioned during the early days but once the popularity grows and the visionary has to start to rely on other people to keep preparing and serving the food day after day, this is usually when the cracks start appearing.

Visiting an independent restaurant, I do expect some variations of the same dish on different day. Slight variations of seasonal differences and the flair of different chefs even though cooking from the same recipe.  I do however; expect that the standard of taste, presentation and quantity remain constant. What annoys me is that when I find a place that I enjoy visiting regularly I find suddenly that the one thing I enjoy is now substandard, disappointing and no longer exciting or value for money.

First of the first

2014 –  another first of the first. This time in London UK. Woke up late to cold and the type of miserable rain that makes one want to close the curtains and snuggle further under the duvet. I have experienced  the first of January in many countries – New Zealand, India, Thailand, London, Manchester and Edinburgh.

New Zealand is full of childhood memories. New Year on the beach, waking up to the warmth, holidays and exciting times ahead.  Rain for me was always disappointing; chilling the air, making playing outside uncomfortable. It was usually a welcome break to the long hot summer days, but not being a farmer or relying on rain for my well being, I considered it a nuisance and a reminder of the cold bleak winter days that would always follow.

Asia changed my perception of rain. My first summer rain was in Cambodia, a very brief shower, warm, skin tingling and it seemed to freshen and brighten the whole countryside. Since then I have experienced many Asian rains, from the torrential monsoons in Mumbai, flash flooding in New Delhi, sudden downpours in Thailand and the more gentle misty rain in Sri Lanka. For some reason these Asian rains seemed more uplifting, warmer and were welcome as a cleanser and cooler for the dust and heat baked countryside. The sign of cooler times ahead always was welcomed rather than dreaded.  The rain was always more comfortable, less cold albeit it often flooded,the damp and mould always evident in tropical cities. Maybe its the fact that rain in Asia is usually confined to the monsoon season, a sign of the break of the relentless heat, the upcoming cool season and once over it won’t come back for months .

Back to the first of the first. As I grow older and travel more I look for more firsts. I grew up believing what I saw  and what I was told to be true and for many of my formative years it was. Christmas came every year, the New Year was always on the 1st of January, summer followed spring which came after winter which was preceded by autumn, rain was always cold. Simple things, simple beliefs until I started meeting people that had never celebrated Christmas, whose New Year was on a different day and who had never experienced cold rain. Simple things but so different.

Now I look for the differences, actively seek them out, questioning my own beliefs, looking for first of the firsts and not just on the first of January. Any day can be a first, in fact it is. Every morning a new morning, every rain is different, whether it be warm or cold, every person is different moulded by their own upbringing’s, their own experiences.

Today is the 1st of January 2014, the rain outside is cold but I am grateful that I have a warm duvet and someone I love to snuggle into. I have many resolutions, the usual suspects around, eating habits and fitness but more and more I am looking both within as well as outside for those simple experiences I don’t even know exist yet, like the joy in warm rain.

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