Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Paterno's Statue: Once a Monument to a Man, Now a Reminder of a Society's Failing

A brilliant column by Ta-Nehisi Coates in the New York Times today argues for not removing Paterno's statue from the prominent place it now occupies at Penn State:
Arguing for the statue’s removal, the legendary coach Bobby Bowden said he wouldn’t want Sandusky’s crimes “brought up every time I walked out on the field.” That’s the point. Sandusky’s crimes should never be forgotten, nor should the crimes of the broader community. It is shameful to deify men who put nationalist ritual before children. But it is more shameful to pretend that this elevation was achieved by Joe Paterno’s singular hand.
Removing the Paterno statue allows Happy Valley to forget its own compliance in a national crime, to expunge its own culpability in its ruthless pursuit of glory. The statue should remain, and beneath it there should be a full explanation of Sandusky’s crimes, Paterno’s role and some warning to all of us who would turn a pastime into a god and elect a mortal man as its avatar.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Summer Reading Program for Children in Hyderabad (India)

Check out this interesting summer reading workshop for kids (infants to 15 years old) in Hyderabad called TreasureHouse. The workshop will be run by Utbt, the blogger at Under the Banyan Tree.

Tuesday, April 03, 2012

An Easy Indian Recipe for Wheat Berries

A few days ago while on the hunt for some vegan dishes, I stopped at, my new go-to site for healthy, delicious and novel recipes. A recipe for Zesty Wheat Berry-Black Bean Chili caught my eye. The ingredient list was chock-full of the good stuff and foretold of a hearty, flavorful meal. One ingredient, though, gave me pause - two cups cooked wheat berry. Wheat berry? I'd never come across it before this fruity sounding thing before. So off to Whole Foods I went in search of the wheat berry. The guy in the produce section helpfully walked me to the small silos of a variety of grains and pointed me to the red wheat berry.

By now you've probably guessed, right? The wheat berry was not some exotic hybrid fruit-grain from Latin America. It was good old whole wheat grain in all its pristine glory, the very same one I've seen all my life growing up in India, in its avatar before it got roasted and ground into wheat flour.

This episode recalled the time years ago when my brother and I decided we would make something out of a cookbook on our own. Firni it was. We sent my mom off to the bedroom to read a book and relax. And then called out to her every couple of minutes for this or that ingredient. At the end of a chaotic hour, what we had on our hands was....ganji! That self-same easily digestible gruel mom made every time one of us got sick. My mom had a good laugh at our expense and now, anytime we tell her we're making some quaint sounding dish, she tells us to make sure it's not ganji first.

But back to the wheat berry. I brought home some of the grain along with the other ingredients and made the chili. It was delicious to say the least! The blend of flavors complemented the crunchy bite of the wheat very well. The chili was a complete meal in itself. Most importantly, the friends for whom I made it enjoyed it immensely and were delighted to expand their vegan repertoire by one.

I was left with about two cups of wheat berry. So this morning, craving for something zesty and spicy for breakfast and having tired of the mainstays of Uppittu and avalakki dishes, I decided to make a Sundal (Usli in Kannada). Although Uslis are usually made with legumes, cooked wheat berry lends itself very well to this dish because it maintains its shape even when cooked. And it was everything I hoped for. Made for a fantastic breakfast.

Wheat Berry Usli:

2 tbps oil;
1/2 tsp mustard seeds;
1/2 tsp turmeric;
1/2 tsp urad dal;
1/2 tsp channa dal;
1/2 tsp cumin;
A dash of asafetida;
4 green chillies, slit down the middle;
1 sprig curry leaves;
1 large onion coarsely chopped;
2 cups cooked wheat berry (;
Salt, to taste
Juice of one lemon;
A handful of cilantro, chopped.

Heat the oil in a medium sized pan until shimmering. Add the mustard seeds, urad dal and channa dal. Once the mustard seeds start crackling, add the turmeric, cumin and asafetida. After about 30 seconds add, the curry leaves and green chillies and roast for about a minute. Add the onions and let roast until translucent, stirring frequently. Take care not to burn the onions, lowering the flame if necessary. Add the wheat berries and salt, and stir to blend all the ingredients well. Lower the flame to the low setting, cover and let cook for about five minutes. Turn off the flame and add the lemon juice. Mix well, garnish with cilantro and serve.

The Usli is great even when cold. Serve with a dollop of plain yogurt.

Recipe for Zesty Wheat Berry-Black Bean Chili

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Children and The Hunger Games

If you have been even the slightest bit plugged into the news these past few days, it is a safe bet that you've heard of The Hunger Games, the ticket sales juggernaut that swept across multiplexes this past weekend. The first in the trilogy was published in late 2009 and the last one late last year. The books are classified as Young Adult Fiction (typically targeted at readers between the ages of 12 and 18).

Discussions surrounding the movie and the books have branched off into hundreds of little tentacles on the Internet and among friends. Everything from whether Jennifer Lawrence is too big to portray Katniss Everdeen, the heroine, to the appropriateness of the casting of the other parts, to how the movie differed from the books, and a lively discussion on the New York Times website about whether adults should be reading novels written for their children.

Among some parents (the ones who are not fighting for the books with their children, that is) there is also a general unease about whether the books are appropriate for children at the lower end of the age range targeted by Young Adult novelists. The books make no bones about the violence contained within their pages. The back flap to the first in the series reads, "Winning means fame and fortune. Losing means certain death. The Hunger Games have begun..." And no matter how you slice it, between 12 and 18 lies a huge difference not only in terms of physical growth but also in terms of emotional growth, social maturity, willingness to process and understand goings on in the world around us, and general ability to engage with more than self, family and friends.

There is no shortage of mature matter tackled in The Hunger Games. There is war, a rebellion of the states against their Capitol; there is deprivation and there are deeds of cruelty perpetrated by a government against its own citizens, young, old, sick and dying; there is torture and there are biological weapons; there is the harsh life of mining communities accompanied by the inevitable accidents leading to death and mayhem; there is bullying and peer pressure; there are absent fathers (because they are dead) and disengaged mothers; there are children who have had to grow up and take on adult responsibilities because there is no one else around who will take care of them (this characteristic is the premise of most novels in the Young Adult genre); then there is the hunger and the promise of riches and unending food supply if only you, a child yourself, would fight 23 other kids to the death; and the ignominy of having to do engage in the games for the pleasure and enjoyment of people of the Capitol who have not known a day's hardship in their lives.

Every page brings home the realization that in Panem, life is hard and life is unfair and unfair not in the way life is to a vain teenager when a zit makes an unwelcome appearance before a party.

But for anyone who has doubts if their fourth or fifth grader should be reading these books, I say The Hunger Games is but a reflection of what they see around them in newspapers, on television and radio, and unfortunately, to some extent in their own schools every day. The books represent an amazing opportunity to think about those issues beyond the headlines.

You know your child best of course and their capacity to process highly evocative material, but if he or she follows the goings on in the world, it will not take long for them to draw parallels between what they are reading in the books and the ticker on the bottom of their television screens - the Arab uprisings and the brutal quelling, the peer pressure children face in school, the emotional toll of cliques, the wars and divorces that have taken fathers and mothers away from their children, the crushing poverty not only in large parts of the world, but in America too, and the harsh lives of child soldiers of Africa and Latin America who kill each other for the promise of food and a better life for their families.

The bone-chilling truth is that while we debate about whether our children should read such stories and try to protect them from this knowledge, there are human beings all over the world who are living the lives of abject poverty so richly detailed in The Hunger Games series.

The Hunger Games also offers a rather long and eye-opening peek behind the scenes of reality television shows.

It was a long time ago, but I still clearly remember the first time I learned that advertising firms used mashed potatoes as a stand-in for ice cream in ads. It was as if a veil had come off and I could clearly see that things were not as they appeared. And just as a word that you've newly learned suddenly seems to pop up everywhere, so too did evidence of gimmickry and sleight-of-hand in all sorts of advertisements.

These days, mashed potatoes that can withstand the glare of flood lights is the least of gimmickry that kids (and their parents) have to worry about. From teen magazines choosing to air brush away the slightest hint of baby fat to kids being constantly bombarded with messages about branding, food and self-image (such as kids being sold sugary foods while being held up to an impossible thinness standard), fact and fiction lead an uneasy co-existence in children's lives.

The games in the book series are organized as reality television and the machinations the producers resort to just to keep the ratings up and keep audience interest from flagging are painfully obvious. It can only help to educate kids in all the ways in which companies seek to manipulate them and hold their interest for gain.

So go ahead, let your tween read the books. But their understanding of the ideas will be infinitely richer if you read them as well and spare the time to discuss the various issues that I am sure will come up. In our household at least, both my son and I have been talking about the books and the movie giddily for the last few days.

Also read: Suzanne Collins's interview with the New York Times. It offers a revealing look at the forces in her own life that shaped the plot in The Hunger Games.

Monday, February 20, 2012

In Honor of Mardi Gras, A Little Slice of New Orleans

In just a few hours, Mardi Gras will get underway in New Orleans, one of my favorite cities in all the world. Over Christmas break, with the Sugar Bowl, a Saints game and New Year's parties all happening around that time, the city was buzzing with excitement and energy.

But what's a good party without food, eh? Each meal was an event in itself, as we tried to get our fill of the delicious Creole cuisine. And one memory that will stick around for a long time is that of biting into a piping hot, sugary beignet.

Not really knowing what to expect, we ordered one plate for the table, for two adults and two kids. One bite in, the consensus was to order two more plates. The chicory-rich coffee made for a heavenly accompaniment. We peppered our 20 year-old waiter with questions about the restaurant and the hugely popular dish (the lines went out the door for at least a block on all the days we were there). He invited us to take a peek into the part of the kitchen where the beignets were being made.

They must get the request a lot. Through huge glass windows that looked out onto a walkway at the back of the restaurant, we saw two men working silently and continuously, feeding the dough into a machine that sliced it and took it along a belt.

Starting from one end of the belt, the men would pick up the individual pieces, prime them in their hands and fling them across the air into the huge vats of boiling oil.

Each plate came with three or four beignets. Snowy mountains of powdered sugar rose precariously on top. Towards the end of the meal, that we had paid a visit to Cafe du Monde for the express purpose of devouring beignets was obvious. Our clothes, bags, and even parts of our hair bore the tell tale evidence.

And as always in New Orleans, music was never far away. Just outside the railing the separated the eating area from the sidewalk, this young man played the trumpet.


Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Profiting from Social Media

Sree Sreenivasan, a professor of digital media and dean of student affairs at Columbia Journalism School, has a new blog on CNET. His first post is on profiting from social media.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Jabberwock's Review of Katherine Boo's Behind the Beautiful Forevers

I recently heard an interview with Katherine Boo on radio and want to get her book, Behind the Beautiful Forevers, about life in Annawadi, a slum in Mumbai. This Jabberwock review seals the deal. And here's an interesting profile of the author in The New York Times.

Tuesday, February 07, 2012

Swimming Lessons in Bangalore at the Nisha Millet Swimming Academy

Olympian Nisha Millet runs the Nisha Millet Swimming Academy at various locations in Bangalore for many age groups and skill levels - from five year-olds to 70 year-olds, from beginners to competitive swimmers. Check out her Facebook page for more details. From first hand experience, I can say that she has a firm but gentle approach with the kids and gets them to love the water, which as many parents will tell you is first biggest hurdle on the road to learning to be a good swimmer. Happy swimming!

Monday, January 23, 2012

Theater Review: Adventure Theatre's A Snowy Day

There are few things more delightful than an afternoon spent surrounded by a gaggle of giggling five and six year-olds. And there was plenty of opportunity for that at a showing of Adventure Theatre's new musical production, The Snowy Day. Based on Ezra Jack Keats' Caldecott Medal winning children's book of the same name, the antics of the four main characters in the play provide plenty of action, adventure and food for thought for audiences young and and not-so-young.

Keats' The Snowy Day is the tale of a young boy, Peter, who wakes up one day to find snow blanketing his neighborhood. As young children are wont to do, he puts on his snow suit and dashes outside to make snowmen and snow angels and snow balls. The plot line is endearing in its simplicity and in the way it evokes the familiar pleasures of staying home from school to have fun in the snow, to stomp through it, to draw lines in it and knock snow off of trees to make your own instant, on-demand snowfall. The book is a stand-out for two reasons - for its art, and for the fact that it was the first children's book in which the main character was black.

In Adventure Theatre's production, Playwright David Emerson Toney and Musician & Lyricist Darius Smith have adapted Keats' book and expanded each occurrence in it to include more characters and sub-plots. We meet Harold the snowman, Roberta the crow, Peter's mother, two neighbors, a fairy, a pirate and a hawker who sells snow flakes in a very warm and sunny place.

Peter has never seen snow before, and he is full of wonder at this white, crunchy stuff that has covered everything as far as he can see. The snowy day is packed with promise as he heads out in his bright red snow suit. There are hills to climb, slopes to slide down and snow pirates to vanquish. He marvels at the possibilities and pretends he's Peter the Great. Peter's mother has nourished his body and soul and Peter has no problem letting his imagination run wild. He wants someone to play with and in Harold and Roberta, he finds playmates but they also need his help to get where they need to go.

Without giving away too much of the plot, suffice to say that the music and lyrics had the children swaying, and the dialogue had them nodding in complete understanding of the boundaries imposed by mothers everywhere.

As a parent, the most revealing aspect of the production was the fact that the children in the audience absorbed the story within the context of a play. The sets, the props, the fact that there was no actual snow on the ground or that Peter's role was portrayed by someone obviously much older than a six year-old - none of these seemed to matter to the little ones. The children seemed to respond to the characters, to their fears and their joys, much as they would in a realistic movie or in a real-life situation.

Adventure Theatre's production of The Snowy Day brings to life a popular children's book (it's a staple in elementary school libraries) and is a marvelous introduction to musical theater for young kids. I have it on good authority: my five year-old declared it was "the best play" she had ever seen.

Children younger than three might find the proximity of the action a bit overwhelming. The stage is intimate and the action is up close (which is fantastic for the older pre-schoolers and the younger elementary school-age children).

The Snowy Day is playing at the Adventure Theatre in Glen Echo, Maryland from January 20, 2012 through February 12, 2012. Tickets may be purchased at Adventure Theatre's website. More information about the play is available here and about the cast and production crew, here.

Updated January 26, 2102 to include a note from Adventure Theatre:

Due to the demand for Snowy Day tickets, Adventure Theatre has added the following performances:

Sunday, January 29th at 4:30pm
Friday, February 3rd at 7:00pm
Sunday, February 5th at 4:30pm
Friday, February 10th at 7:00pm
Sunday, February 12th at 4:30pm

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Forbes Article on D.C. Pedicabs

The nose wheel makes an acute turn and plants itself in the six-foot-wide gap between two cars idling at a traffic light on 14thStreet. Before we have time to analyse just how our driver would steer the rest of the 10-foot-long ‘pedicab’ into that space, we’re straddling another lane line a few feet down the road between a big, red tourist bus and a truck. A few more zigs and zags later, we are in front of a bank of vehicles at least 30 cars deep, clear of all the exhaust. Our driver looks back at us and declares triumphantly, “Like I said, this is not my first day on the job!”

For the past two years, Will Visbeck has been honing his skills as a driver of a pedicab – known to the rest of the world variously as cycle rickshaw, cyclo, becak or trishaw – on the streets of Washington, D.C. It has no roof, doors, seatbelts, airbags, rear-view mirrors or stereo systems (though headlight, taillight and turn signals are in evidence) but we do get to make leisurely circles around statues and monuments as our driver keeps up his commentary of the sights.

Originally published in ForbesLife India. A link to the pdf version is here.