Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Love it or hate it? The karela and its avatars!

I was walking through the sabzi mandi at Kotla Mubarakpur, when I spotted this man reaching deep into a damp sack. From under a layer of packing he brought out these small perfect-sized karelas.  

He was stacking them up in an attractive circular display in his basket. What a great photo op!! They were fresh and tender, the ideal sort of karela to buy.

The karela or the bittergourd is not everyone's idea of fun. If you visit someone for dinner, this is the one vegetable that your host will hesitate to put on the table, unless they know you really well.

But me, I'm a big fan. I love the bitterness of the vegetable and how it combines with spices to create a complicated, sophisticated taste. Many karela dishes also have sugar or jaggery, adding a sweet kick as well.

And it looks like there are a lot of karela fans out there, just like me. When I googled for karela recipes, an amazing variety of photos came up, from different parts of India. Some recipes were simple dry versions of karela sauteed with spices, to be eaten with dal-rice or rasam-rice. Others were recipes for moist vegetable curries that you could eat with roti. There were also recipes for stuffed karela of many types, karela pickles, karela chips and karela chutneys.

In fact, the more I saw how cleverly people were cooking karela all over India, the more I realised that this ridiculously bitter vegetable actually highlights the very finest aspects of Indian vegetarian cuisine!

If you've not cooked karela so far, then the first thing to master is a set of techniques to reduce the bitterness of the vegetable.

The most popular technique is to slice the vegetable, smear it with salt and set it aside to marinate for an hour, so that it can "give out" its bitterness. Later, you squeeze the vegetable and throw away the salt water (and along with that, most of the bitterness). In some recipes, you also smear a little bit of lemon juice along with the salt. The trouble with this approach is that along with the salt water, you are also probably tossing away all the anti-diabetic properties of the karela.

A second technique is to scrape off the ridged outer skin, which is bitter. These scrapings are usually not thrown away - they are sauteed into a spice mixture which is then used to flavour the dish.

A third method to reduce bitterness is to keep the skin but throw away the seeds inside. Bigger karelas have hard bitter dry seeds which stick in your throat and are often inedible. If you buy small, tender ones, like the one the man has got in his basket above, then you can keep the seeds if you wish.

Recently, I was introduced to karele-ka-achaar from Uttar Pradesh. It was the most amazing thing I had ever tasted. The karela was cut into small wedges, and there was lots of masala. It was exactly the same masala that you use in the typical stuffed red chilli achar. But in the karela achaar, the slight bitterness took this achaar to a completely different dimension. I ate it with a hot fluffy aromatic basmatic rice pulao, and it was incredible.

In many south Indian recipes, the karela is cooked in tamarind to kill the bitterness. A lot of jaggery is also added. My mum's recipe for parikya-pulikachal (a sweet-spicy-pickle with karela) involves sauteing green chillies, ginger and karela in a tempering of mustard, curry leaves and chana dal. Tamarind extract is added to this and cooked. A little later, jaggery is added to the mixture and cooked further. It tastes heavenly with curd-rice.

My maid, who used to work for a Gujarati home, adds raisins and ghee-fried cashewnuts to her karela-fry dish. It is a startlingly exciting taste, full of contrasts - the plump sweetness of the raisins, the bitterness of the karela, the fieriness of red chili powder and the nutty richness of the cashew. When she makes this dish, I eat it with a simple dal-rice, so that it doesn't interfere with the flavours. Anything else would be an affront to the dish :)

About 4-5 years ago, I had an absolutely delicious Punjabi karela-sabzi at my friend Pooja Sharma's house in Mayur Vihar. Her mother made it in a jiffy and I remember wolfing it down with hot rotis. When I asked her "What is your magic ingredient, aunty?", she said to me, "Nothing complicated, beta, this dish just has salt, red chilli powder and turmeric". I couldn't believe it, and kept trying to replicate it, but I think it takes Mrs. Sharma's special touch to get it perfect. I should just angle for another invitation! :) :)

If you have not tasted karela before, the easiest thing to start with is karela chips. They are popular in many parts of the country, but I have seen them more often in Western and Southern India. They are sliced really thin, coated with a thick batter of gramflour and spices, and deep fried until crisp. The spicy slightly bitter taste is a perfect match for an ice-cold beer. Try it sometime and tell me what you think!

Saturday, December 1, 2012

The garland makers of a Delhi slum

It's quite startling when you come across the beauty of fresh flowers in a slum. 

There are more than 30 families here in this shanty town near the Sai Mandir.
It is a cottage industry, where people work with flowers.
Look closely at the street behind this lady. It has semi-permanent ramshackle structures. The houses are made of bricks, with asbestos for roofs. There is a man sleeping on a really narrow make-shift bench on the right.

A blue tarpaulin strung between the house and the street wall
provides shade and protection from rain.
A lot of things that more prosperous Dilliwallahs throw away are recycled by the slums. In the photo below, note the door which is made of recycled wood. Two pieces of waste plywood have been nailed together using other waste wood scrap pieces, to make one big door. Water is stored in buckets and recycled cans. There is a gunny-bag hanging on the left which once used to hold cement, but now is used as a container.
In the slum, recyling is a necessity, not a virtue.
The white floorboard which covers the gaping hole in the road
is probably an extra tile from a construction site.
And yet, despite the poverty, the people who work here have regular incomes not just for their basic needs, but also to go to the cinema, or to send children to school. One of the primary reasons is that there are multiple earning members in the  family, many of whom are women. 
Where the women earn money, the earnings go directly towards the
welfare of the family (instead of being squandered on drink).

In the Indian cultural context, the easiest way to prosperity is
if women can work in cottage industries, where they have more 
control over how to balance their work and family needs.
Finished product, ready for sale at the temple.
Marigolds are the most popular flowers in India used for prayer as well as decoration.

Here is a street view of the "main road" of this slum. It is twice the width of the side lanes. There are shops here, selling provisions and small daily needs items like tea, biscuits, soap and shampoo sachets. The branded FMCG companies have all learnt the importance of having small sachet sizes, starting at 5 rupees. Cycles and motor-cyles are parked here.

Electricity is probably being siphoned off from the electric pole you see in the far background. 
There are many dangling overhead cables, probably for  television and cable TV. 
Television is the main source of entertainment and information in almost all slums
One of the shops on this main street is a tailor. You can see the illegal wires that provide electricity for this shop. The tailor has an assistant, so it's not just a one-man show. Maybe they take jobs not just for the local slum, but also sub-jobs from other places.

Life in this part of Delhi is not easy, but to the people who live here, it is still better
than the conditions they have left behind in their villages when they migrated
to Delhi. Here at least, they can work and earn and hope for a better future.
Nobody really knows the size of Delhi's slum population. I wrote an article about it here, in case you want to read about the various types of slums in the city. Of the total population of about 20 million (National Capital Region), there's one scary estimate that says 52% live in slums. Another estimate says that Delhi's slum population is growing at a rate which is 4.5 times that of its non-slum population. 

Since I don't see these trends changing, I have come to the obvious conclusion: Slums are a fact of life in Indian cities, they are here to stay. A slum-dweller is not a beggar scrounging for dole; he or she is most often a migrant who has a job of some sort and is hoping for a better life in the city. We cannot wish away  migration. We are therefore faced with the problem of how to keep providing for all the new entrants who pour in every day. So far, the answer has been a less than satisfactory response from the planning authorities with haphazard "resettlement colonies". That isn't really working. Time for Delhi to think up some better answers.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Elephants everywhere!

Until recently, I didn't realize how you can see elephants everywhere in India. In fact, they are so much a part of art and architecture and religion that you almost stop noticing them. But once you stop to take a look, you find that they're all around you!

At the President's house in Delhi, elephants guard the gate:

In the Mughal gardens, an elephant makes for a pretty topiary.

In Udaipur gaily caparisoned elephants welcome you as you go boating in the lake:

In Ranakpur, there is a magnificent marble elephant:

The Elephant God is everywhere, of course. Anointed with vermillion, garlanded with flowers, India's favourite Ganesha guards all thresholds and offers auspicious beginnings to all ventures.

Whether you go east, west, south or north, the elephant is everywhere in India. I started looking for historical traces of India's relationship with the elephant, and found out that it goes back a long, long time. 

The first place I looked at was Bhimbetka. These prehistoric cave paintings are among the earliest evidences of human art in India, starting from nearly 12,000 years ago. Sure enough, I found elephants carved into the walls of the rock shelters at Bhimbetka. This carving on one of the walls shows a human together with an elephant, indicating interactions with the animal. A hunting scene perhaps? 
See the rest of the paintings here:
And there is a wonderful travelogue with photos here:
Other later carvings from the same Bhimbetka area show humans riding elephants into battle. After Bhimbetka, I looked at the ancient Indus Valley Civilization (there was a recent news item that this civilization is now thought now to date from 7380 BC onwards). I found this really adorable terracotta elephant  figurine. 
Tiny figurine, 4.8 cm height, 5.4 cm width, 4.6 cm breadth
Currently at the Harappa site museum, Pakistan
This steatite (soapstone) seal from the Indus Valley civilization has a rope or cloth draped on the elephant's back, indicating domestication:
From the 3rd century BC onwards, we have an unbroken legacy of elephants in art and architecture. They are too numerous to list, but among the earliest is this one below from Dhauli (Bhubaneswar, Orissa). 

This is where at the end of the Kalinga massacre (261 BC), the Emperor Ashoka renounced war and carved an Edict instructing his governors to rule wisely. After reading the Edict, this has now become my favourite elephant statue in India :) :)
Elephant carving at Dhauli, 3rd century BC.
On the north face of this rock Emperor Ashoka says:
"All men are my children. What I desire for my own children,
and I desire their welfare and happiness both in
this world and the next, that I desire for all men.
Photo: http://justswarna.blogspot.in/2011/03/dhauli.html

May our politicians learn a few things from Ashoka!! 

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Delhi's Bengal connection

Everyone in Delhi knows that if you want to look for the city's Bengalis, you should head to the fish market at Chittaranjan Park. Bhattacharyas, Basus, Dasguptas, and Sens - they can all be found looking for the freshwater fish that are so dear to the Bengali heart. 
The 2011 Census figures place Delhi's Bengali-speaking population at 208,000. Although most of these have arrived in Delhi in the last 200 years, the city's connection with Bengal is actually very old. To look for its origins, we must turn to ancient history, to the Grand Trunk Road that connects eastern and western India.

Known as "Uttara-patha" or the Northern Road, this highway has existed from the time of the Mauryan Empire (322 BC to 185 BC). At the time, it extended from Tamluk, a port on the mouth of the Ganges in Bengal to Taxila (now in Pakistan) on the West. Trade flowed along this road, across this broad swathe of India, bringing the people of Bengal into contact with ideas and goods from far and wide.

In the 15th Century, the Afghan Sher Shah Suri, who ruled from Delhi, widened and repaired the Grand Trunk road, and it became the key to administering the Suri empire. In the map below you can see the area that the Sur dynasty ruled, and how the Grand Trunk Road must have helped them manage their dominions. When the Mughals defeated Sher Shah, they inherited this road. They also maintained it, by building inns (serais), stationing garrisons, and setting up milestones (kos minars).

Sher Shah's Empire:
Bengal was important to the Mughals, even though Mughal officers stationed there detested the humid climate (and scoffed at the rice and fish diet!). According to this book, by the late 16th century, Bengal was producing so much surplus rice that not only did it supply the needs of the Mughal empire, but also for the first time, rice emerged as an important export crop of the Empire. Even in distant Central Asia, fine muslin cloth was called Dhaka, highlighting the importance of Bengal as a centre for textile production. Bengal also supplied the Imperial court's voracious appetite for luxury goods like raw silk. Bengal’s agricultural and manufacturing boom coincided not only with the consolidation of Mughal power in the province but also with the growth in overland and maritime trade that linked Bengal ever more tightly to the world economy.
Woman wearing fine Dhaka muslin, Francesco Renaldi, late 1700's
It was but natural that the East India Company should seek a base in Bengal. With the decline in the Mughal empire, the Company increasingly grew more powerful, until it replaced Mughal rule completely. While Delhi or Agra had been the political capital of the Mughals, Bengal's commercial importance meant that Calcutta became the capital city from where the East India Company traded and ruled.

With the setting up of the East India Rail, closer links emerged between Calcutta and Delhi and made trade and commerce easier. Between 1882 to 1866, the East India Rail (which originally connected Calcutta to Varanasi) was extended up to Delhi and Agra.

I found this interesting map of the East India Rail, and how it progressed from Calcutta to Delhi, via Varanasi (the rail station in Varanasi is called Mughal-serai, and it was one of the many points along the Grand Trunk Road where the Mughals has built inns).

And here is a photo of the very first train that ran on the East India Railway.

Although the rail link made it easier to come from Bengal to Delhi, the first big wave of Bengali settlers only came in 1919, when the British shifted the capital of India from Calcutta to Delhi. The new arrivals were mostly government employees, from the postal department, the railways, the tax collection department, etc. They settled in Timarpur in North Delhi, and near Gole Market, and they eventually went to work in the many government buildings of Delhi.
Gole Market:
The next wave of Bengalis came with the partition of Bengal in 1947. When India became independent, Hindu Bengalis from East Bengal (which became part of Pakistan) arrived in Delhi. The migration was a time of sorrow and despair, as people left behind everything that was dear to them. Government employees were given a chance to swap their posts between India and Pakistan. Others - mostly educated and well-to-do Hindu Bengalis with family and connections in India, also migrated. Most went to Calcutta, but some came to Delhi. 

Some 2000 plots of land were allotted to these families in Chittaranjan Park, which then became the biggest settlement of Bengalis in Delhi. If you read this article on the Bangiya Samaj, you'll see how the Bengali community in Delhi banded together, and how they kept their culture and interests alive. I found it endearing, to read about the attempts to set up a library, organise festivals and meeting places, play indoor games, stage plays and keep the community spirit alive.

Today, the Bengalis are very much a visible part of Delhi. The Kali Bari temple at Chittaranjan Park has expanded to become a major cultural centre. 

Kali Bari, Chittaranjan Park
The market at Chittarajan Park sells not only fish, but also little things that bring a slice of Bengal into Delhi.

Palmyra fans and old-style wooden cutting boards
 And of course, what Bengali market is complete without a sweet shop?  :) :)
A Bengali and his sweets can never be parted!

Sunday, September 30, 2012

The cyclerickshaw-wallahs of Delhi

The cycle rickshaw is really the only sensible way to negotiate Old Delhi's narrow lanes. Especially if you have some distance to cover and don't fancy getting pushed around in the crowd.

Typical Old Delhi street, just wide enough for two rickshaws

Cycle rickshaws first appeared in Delhi in the 1940's. Before that, there were only hand-pulled rickshaws, as well as "ekka-gadis" (single horse tangas). The cycle rickshaw was considered a technical improvement over the previous hand-pulled version, where the rickshaw-wallah "ran" with his passengers and used the soles of his feet as brakes!  

Today, there are more than 700,000 cycle rickshaws in the Delhi region (according to a government study). Most are passenger rickshaws, and they have two types of seating, which you can see in the photos below:

The regular variety that seats 2 people
Rickshaws with extra seats at the back. Can take 4 people
There are also rickshaws that ferry goods rather than people. There are far fewer of these around, but you can still spot them in wholesale market areas.

Wedding cards being delivered by goods rickshaw at Chawri Bazaar
A lot of people just use the regular passenger rickshaws to carry goods.
If you can balance it all, this will work just fine!
Rickshaw pullers are typically migrants from other states - usually they are agricultural labourers or marginal farmers who can't make a living in the village. Or they are craftsmen and tradespeople whose traditional occupations no longer sustain them. They usually leave their families behind and come to the city. 

Rickshaw-pulling is an attractive option for new entrants to the city, mainly because it needs no investment. Very few rickshaw-wallahs own their rickshaws. Instead, what they do is rent them for the day from owners.  Rentals range from Rs 25 to Rs 50 per rickshaw per day. Typically, a rickshaw-wallah earns Rs 200 to Rs 250 per day, out of which rent must be paid to the owner. The owner is usually responsible for maintenance of the vehicle. To become a rickshaw-wallah, all you need is an introduction (usually by another rickshaw puller) to the owner. Deposits are not required.

My estimate of monthly earnings for a rickshaw-wallah is around Rs 5000 (about $100). After taking into account living expenses in Delhi, he probably saves Rs 1500 or Rs 2000 a month, which is usually sent to the village. 

Rickshaws are not expensive to buy. A second-hand rickshaw costs only about Rs 2000 or so. So I initially found it surprising that so very few rickshaw-wallahs own their rickshaws. When I did some reading, I found the real reason - there's a nice little extortion racket going on. The Muncipal Corporation of Delhi has issued only 90,000 rickshaw-puller licenses. So - more than 600,000 rickshaw-wallahs you see are actually illegal and are not supposed to be driving rickshaws. If they are caught, their rickshaws can be confiscated and destroyed any time. This means the only guys that can afford to own rickshaws are those who have the ability to pay off and "manage" the cops routinely. Having 600,000 unlicensed rickshaw-wallahs suits the authorities very well...a nice steady source of income! 

This also explains why the rickshaw rentals are so high, Rs 25 per day means Rs 750 per month, a very crazily high rent for something so cheap. It's because the excess rental is going into paying off the cops and to get back impounded rickshaws. What a crazy situation! 

If you want to read more about the rickshaw-wallahs and the cops and their daily struggle, you should head over to the Manushi page. Lots of stuff there, and some of it very positive. In April this year, the Supreme Court lifted the ceiling on rickshaw-wallah licenses and further ruled that rickshaws could not be impounded or destroyed. Let's wait and see if that actually improves anything.  Meanwhile, the next time you sit in a rickshaw, think about the hard life they have and tip a little extra!
Elderly rickshaw-wallah, Kinari Bazaar 

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Deepa's Guide to Delhi's Bazaars

Shopping in Delhi can be fun, but it can also be a little bewildering.

So here are my picks for what to buy from Delhi's dazzlingly diverse bazaars!

I'm updating it every couple of days, so you can either follow it on Pinterest, or you can bookmark the page and check every now and then.

Enjoy :) :)


Sunday, September 2, 2012

Day trip to the Taj Mahal (by the new Yamuna expressway)

Article Updated: 20-Sep-2015

A lot of folks are asking me about the new Yamuna expressway to Agra. Here's a post with a map and timings for how to organise your visit:

Yamuna Expressway Map - Delhi to Agra marked

In the map you can see the expressway marked in blue. The yellow line with the number 2 is the National Highway 2, which used to be used earlier for this trip, running via Faridabad.

If your hotel is in Gurgaon, you can go by the old highway, but the new expressway makes for an easier trip these days.

Assuming you are staying in Delhi, then the road trip is best done like this:

If you want to see only Taj Mahal and Agra Fort:
Depart Delhi 7:30 a.m. after breakfast (By expressway)
Taj Mahal tour 11:30 to 1:30 p.m.
Lunch 1:30 to 2:30 p.m.
2:30 to 3:30 Agra Fort
Return to Delhi by 7:00 p.m. approximately (by expressway)

The Taj Mahal (look at the tiny people!)

Hall of Audience - Agra Fort

If you want to see Taj Mahal, Agra Fort and Fatehpur Sikri
Depart Delhi 5:30 a.m. by new expressway
Arrive Agra in 4hrs, can have breakfast in Agra or bring packed breakfast
Taj Mahal and Agra Fort tour 10:00 to 2:00 p.m.
Quick Lunch 2:00 to 2:30 p.m.
2:30 to 3:30 drive to Fatehpur Sikri
3:30 to 4:30 tour of Fatehpur Sikri
Return to Delhi by 10:00 p.m. approximately (you can return by the Old highway because of how Sikri is located, but the expressway is better)
Fatehpur Sikri

If you want to go to Agra by train rather than road
This tour depends on train tickets availability. See erail.in for train tickets status.
Leave the hotel Delhi at 5:00 a.m. (or earlier, depending on the location of the hotel) and transfer to the railway station
Express train to Agra departing at 6:00 a.m.
Pick up at Agra station at 8:06 a.m. and tour of Taj, Agra Fort (8:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.)
Relaxed Lunch from 1:00 to 2:30 p.m.
2:30 to 3:30 p.m. drive to Fatehpur Sikri, 3:30 to 4:30 p.m. tour of Fatehpur Sikri, 4:30 to 5:30 p.m. drive back to Agra
The express train back to Delhi departs at 9:15 p.m., so you have a 3-4 hour wait time in Agra. You can visit shops or go to a café / restaurant until 7:00 p.m., then be dropped at Agra railway station by 7:30 p.m. Or you can go to see the sunset view of the Taj from Mehtab Bagh before returning to the train station.
Arrive Delhi railway station at 11:30 hr and transfer to the hotel by 12:15 or 12:30 p.m.
2016 Update - there is also now another express train, the Gatiman Express. Departs Delhi 8:10 am arrives Agra 9:50 am. Departs from Agra at 5:50 pm and reaches Delhi by 7:30 pm. Please write to deepa@delhimagic.com if you want to make a trip by this train. 

If you want to stay overnight in Agra, then:
Day 1 - Leave Delhi after a relaxed breakfast, drive 4hrs to Agra, check in and have lunch. Around 4 p.m. visit Agra Fort and drive to the other side of the river for sunset views of the Taj Mahal from across the river. Overnight Agra
Day 2 - Visit Taj Mahal at sunrise, return to hotel for breakfast. Check out and drive 1hr to Fatehpur Sikri. Return to Delhi via the old expressway.

It is pointless to go by train if you want to stay overnight in Agra.

Here is the sunset view of the Taj Mahal from the other side of the river:
The Taj Mahal as seen from Mehtab Bagh across the Yamuna River

To book a tour to Agra with us: Please see http://www.delhimagic.com.

Article Updated: 20-Sep-2015

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Art chat for Delhi's teenagers

If you're between 13 to 16 years old, here's a great way to get the inside dope on contemporary Indian art.

Saffron Art is conducting a Walkthrough on Art, explaining the basics of modern Indian art and its context. You'll also get an up-close look at works by some of the biggest names in the art world.

Sounds good, yeah?

Date: September 1st, 2012
Venue: Saffronart Gallery, The Oberoi Hotel, Dr.Zakir Hussain Marg, New Delhi- 110003
Time: 11 am to 12 pm
Session led by: Yamini Telkar, Head Saffronart Gallery, Delhi

The painting alongside, by the way is Tyeb Mehta's "Falling Figure with Bird". It is one of the paintings on display during the session.

Tyeb Mehta witnessed communal brutality on the streets of Mumbai in the aftermath of the Partition of India. His paintings are filled with images of violent separation, falling figures and fractured forms, reflecting the death and dislocation that he saw. 

You'll find more information about Tyeb Mehta and his work here, on the Saffronart website.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

The quirky side of dentistry

Among the many businesses in Old Delhi, there is a thriving wholesale business in dental equipment. Just near Jama Masjid is a shop called Dental Depot where I spotted this blissful open-mouthed mannequin. 

On your next dentist visit, here's wishing you the same bliss :)

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Mystery Shop in Ballimaran

Some one please tell me what this shop in Old Delhi is actually selling? And to whom?
Ballimaran, I am told, originally used to be the mohalla where boatmen lived. They rowed boats on the Yamuna. 

Today, only a few things are known widely about this area - a lot of people know that Ghalib's haveli (where he died) is here in Ballimaran. Rickshaw-wallahs will gladly take you there. The jooti-market is here, selling colourful leather mojdis and shoes. Then there are lots of shops selling spectacles and sunglasses; apparently this is a wholesale centre for opticals. The varq-makers live here, tapping out thin silver foil to decorate traditional sweets. And there are lots of small eateries, offering Mughlai and Afghani food. 

But the shop above - it doesn't fit into any of these, and I can't quite figure out what these various wooden rings and beads and what not are. Some of it looks like metal, some like plastic. Help!

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Delicious Nankhatai biscuits in Old Delhi

No blog on Delhi is complete without a mention of these wonderful treats - light, crispy, flaky, nankhatais! I spotted this stall when I was walking along Dariba in Old Delhi, after a day of shopping for silver.

You know the best thing about these nankhatais? They're warm when you eat them! They are made hot and fresh on old-fashioned coal ovens, and when you bite into them, you get this warm crumbly deliciousness. It's difficult to stop with just one!

I love the browner ones, what about you? Store-bought nankhatais are a boring white colour, but these street stall ones usually have a lovely brown colouring. I think it's because they are stored right inside the coal oven, which keeps them warm and makes them browner. The baker usually rotates the trays, to evenly balance the heat from the coals. 

Another thing is that store-bought nankhatais are all the same size and shape, because they are cut using machines. But these ones, they are made by hand, and they have a pleasing lack of uniformity.

Try it at home. Nankhatais are downright easy to bake; you can be an utter kitchen-klutz and still turn out pretty decent nankhatais. I've made them many times, all by trial-and-error, but they always taste delicious and they always get polished off by the family in no time.

There are many variations of nankhatais, from plain to dry-fruit to chocolate flavoured. I like the plain ones best. There's a very good video here, which shows you how to make these at home: do try it! If I can do it, so can you :)

Friday, August 3, 2012

Visiting GOONJ - an absolute must-do in Delhi

If you live in Delhi, or are planning to visit Delhi, I highly recommend you make time for a visit to GOONJ.

Over the last ten years GOONJ has grown into a mass movement among both urban and rural people. What do they do? They have been successfully mobilizing cloth (primarily from affluent urban areas) and re-positioning it as an important development resource for the poor or disadvantaged, rather than "waste". They are bringing about social change through recycling waste, and it is an absolutely inspiring thing to see.

A central feature of Goonj's model is that Goonj improves and adds value to what is thrown away, making it actually usable. This value-add is critical. Their knowledge of "on the ground" realities  in rural India sets them apart from other places, allowing them to finely assess what will make sense and to whom. What is also unique about Goonj is that they are bringing large scale into the operations, dreaming big, and achieving it too!! I admire their model enormously, and think it offers one of India's best learning experiences.

The Goonj centre at Sarita Vihar. Our group just hangs around...it seems like just another ordinary looking place...until the material begins to arrive from their network of collection centres across the city.

The first step in making the material useful is washing, cleaning and drying. It then goes to the sorting centre, where it is made more useful. When you give ready-to-use clothes to Goonj, they sort by gender and size, they remove unusable things, add strings to pajamas, make colour-coded sets, and despatch material sensitively (salwar kameezes to north Indian women, gowns to Bengali countryside etc based on what is worn where). They have a Cloth for Work program where people can do social service projects in their villages in exchange for clothing. This allows recipients of charity the dignity of working and earning what they need.

One of the major problems women from poor backgrounds face is the lack of sanitary napkins. This is a basic need, and when it is not met, it deprives women of basic dignity and freedom. Goonj is meeting this need using waste cloth. Cloth is washed, cleaned, cut into the right size, and packed in used newspaper for distribution. See what I mean by "Goonj understands ground realities"? This is just one of many examples - and you will hear many, many such sensitively designed ideas when you visit them.

Apart from cloth, they also repair, recycle and redistribute a wide range of things, from toys, water-bottles, schoolbags, stationery. There is a repair unit which works hard to make things reusable, they do everything from mending to attaching buttons, hooks, straps and so on to convert waste into something useful.

At Goonj you can see many things that have been made from waste materials - satchels, bags, cloth of different forms.. it's inspirational to see the kind of work they do, employing simple skills, but great care and "on the ground" understanding of what exactly is needed. This is what sets them apart from other do-good organisations that go around collecting stuff. Goonj understands that you can't take stuff and just go dump it on people just because it is charity! You have to give people what they really need and find useful. This is especially true in disaster-relief operations (Goonj has been doing fantastic work in this area).

If you are an overseas visitor coming to Delhi, please bring a suitcase full of things you don't need, Delhi Magic will take them from you, and send it over to Goonj. If you would like to visit them, let me know and I will help arrange it. This is a truly inspirational place to visit and I would like everyone to see their marvellous work. You can donate cash too, it will go towards the enormous relief work that Goonj is undertaking in flood and other disaster-hit areas.

What you can and cannot give to Goonj:
If you have trouble reading this image, head over to the Goonj website and there is a detailed list there.