Sunday, 4 December, 2016

Best places to eat in Sydney

My latest on NDTV is a snapshot of some of the amazing food I ate in Sydney. Read the feature by clicking here.

Caution: Side effects may include drooling and intense cravings.

Thursday, 24 November, 2016

Demonetization or Demonization of Modi?

Disclaimer: I am not an economist. These are my personal opinions, as a citizen of the country, a logical one at that (or so I think). 

The recent demonetization announcement of Rs.500 and Rs.1000 notes in India has thrown the public and the media into a tizzy. I have spent this time absorbing what has happened, talking to people in the food industry as well as common people standing in queues, driving cars and others. I have read strong opinions supporting both sides of the coin and I have heard heated discussions, both on social media and over dinner tables.

And here is my opinion.

Somewhere, opinions regarding the move are divided solely into two - Modi supporters and Modi haters. And that is where opinions become biased and illogical. So, I have attempted to keep the prime minister outside the picture and look at the policy solely as a standalone issue.

The word on the street, atleast in the sample set that I spoke to, is positive. Yes, people have to stand in line to withdraw puny sums of their own money. Yes, it is extremely inconvenient. Yes, industries and trade are being affected, for example the street food vendors or sabzi mandis. But when I spoke to people from these groups, each believed that this was for a greater good. People are ready to go through a little inconvenience for the larger picture.

So what is the larger picture? I urge you not to use corruption and black money interchangeably. This is a move to target black money and make the economy more compliant. How will that happen, you ask? My mother always told me that if I was doing something that I couldn't tell anyone about, there was a good chance it was something I shouldn't be doing. Large amounts of cash lying with people at home or in lockers got there through unscrupulous ways. I am not talking about amounts upto say 1 lakh, which a normal household may keep for a rainy day. I am talking about the people with sofas full of cash, people who take bribes full of suitcases, people who do transactions half in cash and half in cheque, so as to save tax repercussions. Suddenly all that cash lying with them has become paper.

How will that stop people from taking bribes in the future or doing cash transactions when the money situation eases up, you ask. No, just this won't. But a move like this will put the fear of god in them. Modi said, and I do believe, that more such measures will be put into place in the near future, which will make it difficult to use or invest unaccounted-for money. All the loopholes that we have been using in the system are slowly being plugged in the backend (I have seen a lot of tightening in the Income Tax processes, for example) and all these will play a role in increasing penalization.

What about all the black money in Swiss banks and others, you ask? Yes, this is only a trickle and a large amount of black money lies invested in gold, offshore accounts and others. But the noose seems to be tightening for them as well, with Swiss banks being slowly forced to release names of account holders (in the news only yesterday) and other such measures.

Here are 4 things I find commendable about this move:

1) Forced digitization: Dhaabas have Paytm barcodes, home delivery services are now coming home with card machines and even sabzi walas are going cashless. Each of these is a step towards a progressive nation. I just got back from Australia where I managed with spending exactly $80 in cash over two weeks and the rest everything on card. That is the benefit of digitization and this situation seems to be forcing small vendors and businesses to do so.

2) Increase in bank account openings: Many, many people don't have bank accounts. Household help, manual labour, and even housewives. Some stay away to evade tax and some don't because they can get away without one. This parallel cash economy costs the government in terms of taxation. With more bank accounts opening and money flowing into the system, the Indian economy can see a widening of the tax base.

3) Increase in compliance: For my article on demonetization and it's effect on the food industry in India (read it here), I spoke to many restaurateurs. AD Singh, one of India's most respected restaurateur with names like Olive, SodaBottleOpenerWala and Fatty Bao from his stable, spoke about how he welcomes this move to bring a level playing field into the industry. Many businesses run on cash, evade tax and thus are able to offer unreasonable discounts which compliant businesses can't. This makes it difficult to run an honest business and also results in tax loss for the country. A move from currency to digital payments forces businesses to get more compliant. Yes, this may be true only in the current situation and things may flow back into the earlier ways, with the new currency notes. But perhaps future measures to discourage cash payments will help this cause.

4) Real estate woes: There is buzz that Rs.2000 notes will be limited in number and the currency will move towards lower denominations. This will make high value cash transactions difficult. In today's India, buying a second-sale property involves atleast 30-40% black money. With cash drying up or becoming more difficult to access, people will be forced to sell and buy with white money, hopefully stabilizing an inflated real estate market, making it a level playing field for professionals and businessmen.

The point is not that Modi has a magic wand, he doesn't. This move is not going to solve all of our black money issues or eradicate corruption. Many other measures are required for that to happen. But this is a step in that direction. Yes, it is extremely inconvenient and I myself have stood in lines to withdraw (my own) money. But everyone in that line seems to understand and empathize with this inconvenience. The line moves smoothly, almost as if we're all in this together.

I hated the odd-even campaign. It was inconvenient. Yet, I supported it for the greater picture of it decreasing air pollution. No, it did not do that, but we tried. It did give me fabulous traffic-free roads though. I am happy to look at the vision behind this move, and pray for even 10% good to come out of it, instead of looking at all the woes and holding my breath for it to fail. There are plenty of issues with the implementation strategy, but it is so easy to point fingers, so difficult to actually do something.

As I said, this is not about Modi. This is about India. And they are two separate things. I am happy to be a part of the change. And if this doesn't work, I will be happy to support the next initiative. We curse India for being dirty yet pee on walls, think the air is terrible but still burst crackers, lament corruption but try to bribe cops instead of paying chalaans. If you want India to change my friend, I suggest you suck it up and applaud anyone who does even a little thing to help it do so. This is our country...where we take it is really up to each one of us.

Tuesday, 22 November, 2016

Pardes vs Desh - Must it Be a Battle?

I just got back from Australia after a much-needed break. A wonderful trip in many ways...but this post is not about that. It is about that inexplicable feeling of belonging that I felt, when I reached home.

Growing up, it was always an occasion when relatives from abroad came visiting, with suitcases full of gifts. 'America' and all western countries were 'the blessed land' and we looked towards them with starry eyes, atleast I did.

And then I grew up. In India. Started earning and establishing myself in my career. Got married. And we started travelling outside the country. The first time I used my passport was when I went to Bali for my honeymoon and that was just the starting point. 10 years and 13 countries later, my perspective has slightly changed.

Over these years, many of my closest people, family and friends, chose to move abroad and settle there. Each did so for their own reasons, each seems happy with their decision. As I am with mine.

Yet somehow, I find mine questioned time and again.

I chose to stay in India. I still choose to do the same. I love travelling, within my country and outside it. I love exploring, experiencing new things, seeing new cultures and tasting different food. But I also love my life here. I'm not sure at what point it became unfashionable to do so. I find myself defending my decision to live in India more and more often. Which is ironic, considering it really is my default setting. I might choose otherwise somewhere in the future, or I may not.

I am not going to launch into a list of reasons why I love India, that would defeat the purpose of this post. The point is, I do. I think it is a chaotic, crazy, mad but wondrous country. It is dirty, corrupt, polluted, but it is mine. Yes, there are many things I'd like to change in it. But I'm part of the change. And I like that.

I think it is possible to appreciate a place without comparing it constantly to another. For one to look good, the other doesn't necessarily have to be proven bad. Every country that I travel to has its nuances, some are expensive, some inconvenient and some racist; some are polluted, some have language issues; work culture is terrible in some and others are a stagnant economy. Each is wonderful in its own way. It would be such a shame to constantly compare them with India or pit them against each other. Like people, it takes all kinds to make this world. We should celebrate our differences rather than highlight each others flaws. With the world being almost border-less now, it would be so much nicer to do so, don't you think? 

Thursday, 29 September, 2016

Sonam Kapoor Busts the Myth About Actresses Looking Naturally Beautiful

        Source: Instagram

Sonam Kapoor is known for her fashion style and ability to carry herself with aplomb. Her acting skills may have critics, but you will rarely find a person who doesn’t believe that she looks like a Diva. But as Spiderman said, “With great powers, comes great responsibility.”

How many times have you caught yourself staring at a magazine cover, wondering how a certain celebrity looks so incredibly stunning. Have you stood in front of your mirror, critically evaluating your body from every angle? Ever left that bikini in the closet and packed yourself a one-piece swimsuit, just because there is no way you can possibly look good in a bikini (‘good’ defined by the image we have of Alia Bhatt or Katrina Kaif in a bikini). Body shaming is when somebody else points fingers at your natural self, but what about when we are our own biggest critics? When we forget how to love our own bodies?

In a recent article for Buzzfeed, Sonam Kapoor makes some powerful statements. She shatters the myth that actresses wake up looking pretty, “Please know that nobody wakes up like this. Not me. Not any other actress. (Not even BeyoncĂ©. I swear.)” Further, Sonam offers a sneak peek of what goes into making a celebrity look so good – “Before each public appearance, I spend 90 minutes in a makeup chair. Three to six people work on my hair and makeup, while a professional touches up my nails. My eyebrows are tweezed and threaded every week. There’s concealer on parts of my body that I could never have predicted would need concealing. I’m up at 6am every day and at the gym by 7:30. I exercise for 90 minutes and, some evenings, again before bed. It’s someone’s full-time job to decide what I can and cannot eat. There are more ingredients in my face packs than in my food.”

The concept of beauty has stopped being subjective. More and more young girls are looking at celebrities, models and actresses in awe and then at their reflection in the mirror with disdain. Instead of celebrating their own body and trying to look the ‘best they can’, they try to ape these stars and end up with complexes and issues. And these complexes are not particular only to regular people like you and me. Sonam confesses that actresses are under tremendous pressure to look ‘flawless’ and end up stuck in a spiral of bad diet choices and an unhealthy view of themselves. What you see, may not necessarily be the reality. Critics argue that Sonam’s statements are hypocritical, she herself having lost 33 kg for her first film, and now a brand ambassador for beauty brands that promote ‘flawlessness’. But credit must be given where it is due and a celebrity coming out and busting the myth that all models/ actresses look effortlessly gorgeous, is commendable.  

Perhaps it is important to remember that the concept of beauty is relative and that it changes with times. Marilyn Monroe, still regarded as one of the sexiest women who ever lived, had curves and a soft belly, not washboard abs. As did Indian actresses like Parvin Babi and Zeenat Aman.

As Sonam says “The ball is in the media’s court to celebrate fit bodies rather than thin ones, and to know the difference.” At some juncture down the line, thin became synonymous with fit and healthy became another term for plump. Instead of focussing on celebrities and their supposed ‘flawless’ bodies, it is important for us to eat healthy, exercise regularly and be the best version of ourselves. Only when you truly believe that you’re beautiful, will your inner radiance shine through.

Monday, 19 September, 2016

Pink - Movie Review

I was silent as I walked out of the cinema hall yesterday, after watching Pink. The din around me seemed muted, as if I was insulated in a bubble of my own thoughts. Thoughts which were interrupted by my cousin who chirpily asked - So, how did you like it? How do I answer that, I thought. How can I put all these emotions into words. Instead, I just turned to her and nodded with a smile, and said - I liked it. 

The ride home was quiet too. The husband, concerned about my pensiveness. It was only when we got home and spoke about the movie for almost an hour, could I make sense of what I felt about the film. 

So, to put it in words, it left me unnerved. With an uncomfortable feeling. Unsettled. Perhaps these words can help you understand how the movie - Pink, made me feel. 

The movie itself is fairly well made. Good acting by the young cast, Amitabh Bachchan and all other actors also played their roles well. Great direction. Gripping, never sluggish.

But this movie is not one that needs to be seen for its cinematography or special effects. What stayed with me when I left the hall yesterday, was just how real the story was. And how easily believable. We've all done stupid things growing up. Things, which in retrospect seem so terribly risky. Never quite understanding how quickly things can spiral out of control.

The film also questions a lot of preconceived notions we have. I come from a very progressive family and have been married into one equally so. Even then, there are subtle perceptions that worm their way into the basic way we think, without us realising it. And that, to me, was what the movie was about. How a girl is perceived in certain situations, vis-a-vis a boy, only because she is a girl. How even in well-to-do homes, we still have an understated way of differentiating between our girls and boys. Different rules for both genders. Timings, freedom to live apart, relationships, parties, clothes... As Bachchan says in the film, a girl's character is tied to the clock..what time she comes home. The feminist in me (and many of my close ones) will rage at the above statement. There is no difference, they will insist. But we can not turn from it. 

Why do we not let the men in the house clear the table after a meal? Or sweep the floor if the maid is on holiday? We give our boys so much importance that their ego can not handle it when they are refused something when they grow up. Why is it that when a 20 something boy goes out with his friends to a pub, it's ok, but when a girl does the same, parents feel uncomfortable. Security is only one part of it. When you dig deeper, you realise it is also their innate belief that it is not 'nice' for girls to be seen out drinking so late. 

Why is it, that when we see a young woman drinking, we assume that she is approachable and you have a greater chance of 'scoring' vis a vis one who doesn't visit pubs. The basic premise of this perception is utter rubbish. Girls in B-towns or lower middle class families are also intimate with men...the only difference being that they will not be open about it. 

Why are girls from the North East considered 'easy'? Because they wear more revealing clothes? Has it maybe occurred to you that they come from matriarchal societies where the women are more empowered...are safer. Thus, they don't have to hide behind 'what will people think'. 

Two dialogues in the movie touched a chord with me. One was when Amitabh Bachchan says that maybe we have been raising our children all wrong. Instead of teaching our girls to be careful and compromising, maybe we should focus on raising our sons right. Teach them respect, boundaries. Our daughters will automatically be safe. 

Lastly, but importantly, the crux of the movie. No means no. It does not mean maybe. It does not mean I'm considering it and you can keep trying. It means no. And when someone says no, whether it is a girl or a boy, you need to stop. She could be a stranger, your girl friend, a sex worker or even your wife. No means no. You need to stop. 

Pink - a movie that makes you think.      

Tuesday, 13 September, 2016

Mud Fort Kuchesar: An Idyllic Weekend in Rustic Surroundings

Things have been a bit crazy in my family for the past 7 months and thus my writing and my travel were both impacted. I can't really say that things have settled down now, but perhaps we are all trying to find a way to live this new 'normal' better. As a consequence, the travel has started again, albeit in short bursts and much closer to home.

Last weekend, we drove down to this lovely property called Mud Fort Kuchesar. Set amongst green fields and basically nothing else, the Mud Fort is merely 2 hours from Noida by road. This is a blessing, especially when you do not want to spend half your day in transit. The fort itself is 200 years old and belongs to the royal family of Bharatpur. It's quite a wonder that it is not more popular.

With a massive moat surrounding it, the fort has been divided into two, only half being used as a hotel. Our room overlooked the central dining courtyard and had a lovely shared verandah outside, where a drink or two kept me company as the baby slept. The room was large and airy, much like the high-ceiling(ed) rooms in my erstwhile ancestral house in Ludhiana. The AC provided welcome respite from the humidity and heat that is typical of UP.

Now let me put a disclaimer. If you like activities and amenities, you may be better off at a five star property elsewhere. This is a heritage hotel, in the middle of a village. And thus, to fully enjoy it, you need to be open to new experiences. I rediscovered the fact that I could ride a cycle (I haven't ridden one for 25 years, since getting grievously injured from one). What could be more exciting than riding along well maintained roads with green fields on both sides and the only traffic, a stray fellow-cyclist? We did pottery with a local potter, and made some not-so-perfect diyas for Diwali too.

Another great adventure was the bullock cart ride. Done in style, the cart had mattresses for our comfort and took us deep into the owner's lands towards mango orchards. The baby learnt how to climb trees and breakfast was picnic-style on a khatia. Post breakfast indulgence? We climbed atop the tube well and dipped our feet in the freezing cold water, watching leaves float by like sail boats!

The service deserves special mention. Nothing was too much to ask for. The baby always had 2 people running around her, trying to get her to cycle or play carom or just catch peacocks (did I mention the gazillion peacocks who live there?). The food was exceptional and homely. I only wish they did a few local dishes too, and a couple of chutneys to take it a notch up.

The weekend was idyllic and perfect. But perfection is relative. If the good ol' country life excites you too (and yet you like your comfort), Mud Fort Kuchesar makes for a great weekend break.

And for me, a reminder of how I really need to move away from the city :)   

Wednesday, 25 May, 2016

One year at NDTV Food

I just completed one year at my current job. A year back, I moved from Bombay to Delhi, a bit like opening a door blindfolded and walking in, with no idea of what lay on the other side. From a stable and extremely enjoyable freelance career as a food and travel writer, I was going back to an office job, something I had voluntarily walked away from. 

But my concerns were unfounded. The biggest thing I feared then, was how constricted I would feel with a routine, an office to go to. I didn't. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that my job is fairly flexible, allowing me to manage my life. Maybe its because the nature of the job is so exciting, being a food editor is exhilarating stuff, I can never get bored of it. Or maybe it is just the amazing bunch of people I work with. 

I usually take a bit of time to get to know people, and allow people to get to know me. But these girls, my incredible team, are each so amazing, that I could not help but fall in love with them. They are talented, quick on the take and work brilliantly together. I needn't have worried a year back. I was in safe hands. And yes, the most important part, they love food as much as I do. So office is usually one big party! 

Life remains as unpredictable as always. But maybe it is me who has stopped evaluating it so often. I don't plan beyond 2 months now, live pretty much in the moment. One year down the line, from the day when I walked into the doors of NDTV, I can look back and pat myself on the back for having the courage to do so. For moving cities, shifting back to an office job and for doing work that I can look back and be proud of. 

Happy anniversary to me :)  

Wednesday, 27 April, 2016

The Fine Art of Dining Alone in a Restaurant

Some articles are so much fun to write. Like this one...about dining alone in restaurants..

Have you ever done it?

Here's how to dine solo like a pro - Click Here 

Sunday, 27 March, 2016

A day well lived

Yes, it has been a very long time since I have blogged. What was second nature to me, became the one thing I ignored. I could partly blame it on my 9-5 job which provides an outlet to my need to write and express. But the truth is also that either I learnt the art of letting an experience remain just that without feeling a desire to share it with the world, or more realistically, found it within myself to share my thoughts with those I love and have slowly allowed myself to trust.

But today, after many many months, I felt a burning desire to write. Not the mundane traffic-directed writing many of us are relegated to, after a point. But the kind of writing that urged me to change my career, 6 years back. 

Mountains do that to me. Somehow, they always urge me, to find the voice of my soul, the voice that cities so well suppress. Every time I travel, I feel more alive. And it is not hectic city travel that I am biased towards. It is that where there is nothing but me and silence. This moment, for example. I am sitting here, in the patio of a stunning cottage in the hills above Bhimtal. There is no sound, but that of birds chirping, crickets making a racket and an occasional axe cutting a log of wood somewhere far away. I may love dancing and house parties and restaurants that have a ‘vibe’. But if you want to know the me that I hide, you will find her here. The girl who can sit on this chair and read a book for hours, or she who loves waking up early and going for a walk along the jungle-trails that villagers frequent. You will find her at peace. Unquestioning, content and with no plan in place. And if the thought of this girl doesn’t bore you, she may allow you to glimpse the thoughts that run through her head, or the feelings that she hides well in the crevices of her heart.

But I digress. What urged me to write was a perfect day today. I started the day today doing something that would normally freak me out – jumping off a cliff! I went paragliding. I’m not a very ‘adventurous’ person in the context of such things. But when I was wondering yesterday if I should try paragliding or not, I surprisingly found no fear in my heart. What is the worst that could happen? That is what I ask myself when there is terrible turbulence in flights these days. And when I think of the worst, it doesn’t scare me anymore. 

If you haven’t tried paragliding yet, I suggest you head here the next weekend you can spare, and give it a go. The joy of flying through the air is inexplicable. You feel alive. Real. There is nothing else in that moment but you and the wind that steers you. Many people I know have discovered a similar joy in deep sea diving or snorkeling. For me, it will always be flying through the air.

And when I thought nothing could compete with a morning like that, our cottage’s caretaker arranged for us to visit his home in the nearby village on my request. We trekked down, children in tow and found ourselves welcomed with open arms by the women in the village. 

They had laid out a plastic table for us, with a gorgeous red flower set in the center. I found myself wandering into the kitchen in the hut. Mud walls and a spic and span mud floor, covered by a slanting roof. Usha, the eldest, placed a low stool next to the choolah for me to sit on as she and her sister prepared food for us. And the food. What do I tell you about the food. Delicious, honest flavours, which did not need to hide behind garam masalas and chilies. The saag was perhaps the best I have ever had, with tempering of onion and ghee and the rajmah different from the version popular in Punjab or even Kashmir. They grew their own produce, palak and garlic, wheat and onion, amongst other things. Organic produce, that we city folk like to switch to. The good ol’ ways that people have been living by, the healthier way to eat.

A morning of soaring among the clouds and birds. An afternoon marked by smiles and acceptance. Such was my day today. A day unlike many others.