A garden is a grand teacher ~ Gertrude Jekyll
A coconutty breakfast this week – straight from my garden to my breakfast table. I am lucky to have a garden, even if tiny, in this very polluted and congested city. We are even luckier that there are many fruits in this garden – coconut, guava, mango, a wild banana, rose apple, papaya, and jackfruit, that actually bear fruit!
So one morning I woke up to find a man climbing up the coconut tree outside my window at 6 am! Occasionally, when the tree can’t hold on to its load of coconuts, the management of the building hires a man from the village, who shins up the tree like a monkey in two minutes and cuts down the coconuts. We have to keep the ground clear because he just hurls them down. Then all of us in the building get a few coconuts each. This time they had 40 or so! I thought that was very productive for one tree, in a hostile urban climate!
I had a lovely breakfast: fresh coconut juice, chilled in a glass in the fridge (it has been 40°C and I like it that way), and the soft, white flesh, which is called shaans, usually of gelatinous consistency and very sweet, scooped out from the inside. Botanically the coconut is actually the embryo of the plant; the white flesh is the equivalent of the placenta, and the water, well, it is the amniotic fluid! I taught biology, and I used to love to see the expressions on my students faces when I explained the same with things they all ate, like tomatoes, cucumber and other fruits
Posted by Rita Banerji on May 10, 2013
Earlier this month David Nahoum, the owner of Calcutta’s last Jewish bakery, passed away. It’s a store that has many fond memories for the families that belong to this city.
For three generations, every Christmas, my family went to Nahoums & Sons to get their rich plum cake. I didn’t grow up in this city, like my mother and her mother did, but Nahoum’s cakes and pastries were a compulsory part of my vacations at my grandmother’s house here.
And when I moved here at 30, I continued the family tradition of making sure that we got at least one of their deep, rich plum cakes for Christmas!! I still maintain that it is one of the best I’ve tasted anywhere in the world! Two of my other favorites are in the glass case below: One is the almond tart, which is a tart stuffed with crushed almonds and with a strawberry jam center. And the other one is the chocolate rum ball, though the ‘rum’ effect is not as heady as I remember it when I was a child
With its dark wood interiors, and large glass cabinets, the set up and furniture of the store has an old-world charm about it, that probably is a part of its appeal. My mother says, that when she was a little girl in the 1960s and went to Nahoum’s with her mother to buy cakes and pastries, the store was exactly as it is now. I suppose when she goes in there it must be like going back in time for her!
Interestingly my mother also says, that when she was girl there were many more Jewish bakeries in town. This is largely because after World War II, unknown to many, there were a number of Jewish immigrants from Europe who fled to India for safety.
However that was not the first batch of Jewish immigrants to India. The Nahoum family for instance came from Baghdad and long before that and this bakery is a 110 years old! The first batch of Jewish immigrants came to India during the exodus in the late 1400s and early 1500s. There are in fact towns in western India, that were primarily composed of Jewish immigrants. One of them that still stands is “Jew Town” in Cochin.
In fact in this photo of a spice store in Jew Town to the left, the hoarding has a swastika if you notice that is really weird given the Nazi’s use of the swastika. But it’s also a reminder that this is a Hindu symbol–of the many for ‘god’, that means that’s which supreme, or that which is the best, referring to that ‘god’ of course. I’ve thought it is ironic that the Nazis who annihilated the Romas in Europe (who incidentally are of Indian origin) with the same zeal they did the Jews, borrowed this symbol from the race that they detested! Is this borrowing back, a return of this symbol to its original place and meaning, I wonder?
However, after the formation of Israel large number of people from the Indian Jewish communities left India and settled down there. In fact most of the Nahoum family is there now from what we hear.
But interestingly this isn’t the only community that has fled a genocide and sought refuge in India. There are the Armenians who fled the occupation and genocide inflicted on them by invading Turks. They had set up a sizable community in Calcutta, and even had their own school like the Jewish community did. Both schools are still functional. To the left is the gate of the Armenian school. And there are the Zoroatrians (known as Parsis in India) who fled persecution and genocide in Iran during the Arab invasions and sought refuge in India.
For me this is interesting in that many communities from around the world that faced genocides fled to India and found safety and respite here. Yet, India is responsible for one of the biggest, and ongoing genocides in human history: that of women in India. In 20 years, 20% of women will have been systematically targeted and exterminated, by being subject to every form of violence, for one reason only — because they were female. How do we understand this paradox? Where can women as a victimized group of this genocide go for safety?
Posted by Rita Banerji on April 14, 2013
Does the worship of goddesses in India have a feminist under-pinning? This is one of the questions I was looking at while researching for my book Sex and Power.
The answer to my question I found, was both ‘Yes’ and ‘No.’ I discovered that there were two main streams of religious thought that had completely different origins and were diametrically opposite in how they viewed women, feminine sexuality and power. One of them, based in the tradition of the Vedas, was extremely patriarchal in its leanings, and even though it had goddesses, like Sarawati for instance, it regarded them as passive, inert manifestations whose sole aim was to nurture and sustain the men.
The other stream of religious thought was that of the Shaktas. These were worshippers of ‘Shakti’ which is the female personification of power as a concept. Below is an excerpt from Sex and Power on the feminist underpinning of the Shakta philosophy.
At the very core of the Shakta philosophy lay the seeds of a feminist rebellion. The Shakta goddesses revolutionized the concept of the feminine in India, turning the [earlier] Vedic male version of it upside down. These goddesses… Read the full post »
Posted by Rita Banerji on March 6, 2013
Unknown to many, the festival of Holi is actually a celebration of India's ancient Valentine's Day!
It was called 'The Festival of The Love God,' and was celebrated to coincide with the arrival of Spring (symbolic of lust and life) just as the western Valentine's Day is!
Below is an excerpt from my book Sex and Power on this festival:
Posted by Rita Banerji on February 11, 2013
This week in Delhi an exhibition on nudity in art was forcibly shut down by Hindu fundamentalist groups who took offense! Paintings in another gallery in Bangalore were also forcibly removed because the same groups found the nude portrayals of goddesses objectionable!
It is exactly this sort of public response to nudity, sex and sexuality in India today that I question in my book…
Posted by Rita Banerji on February 10, 2013