Meeting Pratham

I can thank food poisoning for how I came to know Pratham. I was in Doha, Qatar, in 2012, covering an education conference for The New York Times, writing about the World Innovation Summit for Education, or WiSE, founded by Sheika Moza bint Nasser, wife of the emir of Qatar.

I barely got through the conference. I had an early morning departure for the quick flight from Dubai to Doha, and my digestive system had already made it clear it disagreed with the chicken schwarma sandwich I had consumed for dinner the night before. I managed to work the day with a few bathroom breaks, but toward the end of the day, I was starting to feel feverish. I asked staff in the media room how best to get a cab to get back to my hotel. (In an effort to ensure attendees were able to make the conference on time in construction-filled and traffic-snarled Doha, WISE had arranged bus and car pickup to and from the conference.)

Long story short, there were no cabs available and the media buses weren’t scheduled to pick us up for a few more hours. I told them I couldn’t wait and after some discussion, they decided that I could hitch a ride with one of the VIP cars that run on a much more flexible schedule.

Mom and Dad attend Pratham’s Houston gala in May 2018. More than $2.8 mlllion was raised.

The VIP in that car was Madhav Chavan, Pratham’s co-founder and the recipient of the WISE Prize, the organization’s highest honor. I didn’t know all that when I first stepped into the car, a little green and anxious to get back to my hotel. I thanked him for letting me hitch along and we made introductions, telling each other why we were at the conference. He told me that he had founded an education organization called Pratham that worked in India, and that he was here to accept a prize.

(I realized only later how large Pratham is — it was founded 22 years, has served millions of underprivileged kids, and has chapters across the globe — and that the prize that he was accepting is akin to a Nobel for education. Not a journalist’s finest hour, I’ll concede. In my defense, I got the assignment pretty late and my editor was only interested in a story about Sheikha Moza.)

The timing of the meeting was fortuitous as I was winding down my Dubai tenure and headed to Gujarat, India, for three months before I returned to the US and resumed regular life. I got in touch with Chavan, whose office connected me with the local Pratham chapter in Ahmedabad.

One afternoon I went with the local Pratham administrators to a Learning Center in Allahnagar, a Muslim community in the Behrampura neighborhood in Ahmedabad. This was back in March 2013 and, as it was summer in India, the class only contained five girls and six boys in the tiny two-room classroom. The kids are between 7- and 9-years-old and can read but are still dependent on visual clues to help them remember words and build vocabularies. Everyone in Allahnagar is very poor. There are no iPads or Wi-Fi here. The hope is to keep these kids in school until the 5th grade. For girls, economic and cultural pressures are especially strong to give up their educations and get married.

It’s been five years since I visited that learning center. I sat on the floor with them and joined in some of their exercises. Yes, this 7-year-old (see photo, left) and I are basically on the same level when it comes to reading Gujarati!

I have no idea how many of these kids made it to the fifth grade or what their lives are like now. But I’m fairly certain that exposure to programs like Pratham not only give these kids practical skills that will help them navigate daily life, they also give them an opportunity to envision themselves in a world beyond just the immediate experiences of the people that surround them.

 

Mom’s Cooking School: Doodhi na debra (Indian squash flatbread.)

When I was a child, my parents had planted and maintained two vegetable gardens in our backyard in Texas City. One of them was devoted solely to Indian squash. And, under the tutelage of my Mom’s very green thumb, the squash (doodhi in Gujarati) grew like wildfire.

I have to admit, I was not a fan. Whenever I saw the long light-green gourd sitting on the kitchen counter — and given how well they grew, it was often — I unhappily realized what we were eating for dinner.

An while I’m still not a fan of eating the vegetable, typically chopped up into a daal dish, Indian squash is a great addition to bread. Simple, hearty, satisfying. This Indian flatbread — which is not baked but made on a stove — has the added tastiness of grated ginger and chilies and squash. Doodhi na debra comes with its own portion of vegetables.

Eat it alone or with some yogurt and/or chutney as a great light meal or snack. I could also see using the debra as a tortilla-substitute and filling it with some eggs or shredded chicken.

Peel squash and then grated. About one cup. Can use regular squash from an American grocery if you don’t have access to Indian squash.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Add grated ginger and chopped jalapeños.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Whole wheat flour, about 1 1/2 cups. (It’s best to source this flour from an Indian grocery: it’s milled differently than the ones in American stores. I don’t know the reason for the difference.) Add in small amounts of flax seed, soy, oat, and barley flours.

 

 

 

 

 

Add spices: cayenne, turmeric, coriander, cumin seeds, salt.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Add sesame seeds.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mix and add a little canola oil to bind the flours and spices.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Add squash mixture to flour. (You’ll want to squeeze out as must moisture from the squash as you can.) Knead the dough. There will still be some water in the squash so mix first and if you need additional moisture, add water sparingly.)

 

 

 

 

 

Add a touch of yogurt.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

How the dough looks like when it’s ready for cooking. Pinch out small pieces, about an inch in diameter. Smooth into a ball in your palm. Flatten ball on flat surface area and roll out into a thin circle.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Cook on cast iron skillet on medium heat.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

How each side should look when done.

Mom’s Cooking School: Roasted Eggplant, or Baigan Bharta — With a Surprising Tex-Mex twist!

Eggplant was not high on my list of foods growing up. Slimy and tasteless, I didn’t understand why anyone would want to eat it. My brother and dad were not fans either  So mom would make some for herself and make another vegetable for us.

Eggplants ready for the oven.

But, thankfully, we and our taste buds grow up. Eggplant is smokey, spicy, and hearty enough to be the main part of the meal. And, apparently, the eggplant is actually an Indian vegetable in origin. Hindustan Times journalist Vir Sanghvi writes that, while parts of India’s cuisines are borrowed from other cultures courtesy of trade with the rest of Asia and the Arab world over the millennia, the eggplant is actually indigenous to the subcontinent — dating as far back as the ninth century BC.

“We gave it to the rest of the world,” Sanghvi writes. Even while the Turks, Italians, Arabs, and others have well known eggplant dishes — baba gnoush, anyone? — he says that eggplant is actually indigenous to India. “It appears in all our ancient texts — even our epics — and we have had the first ever name for it: the Sanskrit vrantakam from which the Hindi baingan came. As for the Arabic name of which so much is made, well it looks like Badinjan is derived from the Sanskrit vrantakam.”

What you’ll need:

  • 3 smallish eggplants, about 8 to 9 inches long
  • 1 medium white onion, chopped (about 4 to 5 ounces)
  • slivered garlic cloves to taste
  • 2 cloves of diced garlic
  • 1/4 cup vegetable oil
  • 1 teaspoon mustard seeds
  • 1 dried red pepper
  • 1 teaspoon cayenne
  • 1 teaspoon turmeric
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon grated fresh ginger
  • 1 pinch asafoetida
  • 1 teaspoon dhana jeeru (a mix of ground coriander and cumin seeds)
  • 1 teaspoon jeeru (cumin seeds)
  • 1 teaspoon garam masala*
  • 1/4 teaspoon aamchur powder (mango powder)
  • 1 cup of Ro-Tel (or, if you live in a Ro-Tel deficient area, 1 teaspoon finely chopped jalapenos and about 1/2 cup tomatoes)
  • Chopped cilantro to garnish

*Garam masala typically consists of cumin, cloves cinnamon, cardamom, nutmeg, and peppercorns. The exact mix of spices depends on the tradition of each house, and is typically passed on from mother to daughter, something I will write about for a future blog post. You can buy it in Central Market or Whole Foods but it will be cheaper in an Indian grocery store. Garam masala is not spicy; it’s meant to give food a deep warming flavor.

Cooking instructions:

Lightly oil the eggplants. Cut slits into the skin and insert garlic slivers to taste. Set eggplants on a cooking rack that fits on a baking tray (line tray with foil for easier clean up) and broil on high for about an hour. Rotate the eggplants halfway. At the end of the hour, the skin should look and feel crackly. Take the eggplant out of the oven — and once you can touch them easily — peel off the skin and take as many of the seeds out. The remainder of the eggplant will have the consistency of thick applesauce. Set aside.

For the masala, heat up the vegetable oil, and add jeeru and asafoetida on medium-to-low heat, until jeeru becomes brown-reddish. Add 1/2 medium white onion and saute. Add the shredded ginger. Add Ro-Tel (or Ro-Tel substitute) and reduce heat to a low simmer; allow liquid to burn off.

Add salt, turmeric powder, dhana jeeru, aamchur powder, and cayenne. (Spice levels can be adjusted, so taste as you go, to see if you want more salt or spice.) Add tomato paste. Then simmer until you see the oil separating, about 20 to 25 minutes. Fold in eggplant mixture. Top dish with cilantro and serve.

I usually eat this vegetable dish with Indian breads, thin rotlis or more toothsome naan, but I can see this vegetable topping rice or even a grain like quinoa. Scoop it into lettuce wraps for a vegetarian, masala-style taco that’s topped with finely chopped radish and parsley. Or, what about using it as the filling for a different take on verde enchiladas?

Divine Dwarka

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Dwarka sits on the far western tip of Gujarat, of India itself. In the evenings, the sunset bathes the shore and Arabian Sea along Gomti Ghat in deep orange light. As the home to the ancient kingdom of Krishna, Dwarka is one of the four holiest pilgrimage sites for Hindus. Dwarka, along with the island of Beyt Dwarka just offshore, is dotted with temples including the Jagat Mandhir, or Temple of the World, which was supposedly built by Krishna’s grandson more than 2,500 years ago.

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The swastika

I’m cross-posting my recent blog entry in Journey to Gujarat here on Parallel Universe. Please sign up for updates to my travels there as soon as they are posted!

Many of the pictures that I’ve posted on my travels to India include an image that might have surprised some of you.

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This photo is of the place where Mahatma Gandhi’s mother gave birth to him. The house is now a museum/shrine and my father and I visited it in Gandhi’s hometown of Porbandar last month. My post on our trip prompted a response from my friend K.S. back in Dallas who wrote: “Again I have learned something new and interesting from you. I only knew the Swastika as a Nazi symbol so was surprised to see it in your photos. I now know that it dates back to ancient India and literally means ‘to be good’ and is considered a sacred symbol in Hinduism and Buddhism. What a shame the Natzi Party bastardized it.”

For more than a decade now, India and being Indian has been a little more cool; Westerners are more familiar with our culture(s) and our cultural idiosyncracies. A few years ago, there was even a show on network TV set in an Indian call center. People have heard about Bollywood and there’s “Lie of Pi” and “Slumdog Millionaire.”

But, still, for most people in the West, the swastika is first associated with Nazis, not Hinduism – even though the symbol has been used as a good luck emblem not only by us but by Buddhists and Jains as well. Swastikas have appeared on petroglyphs in Armenia, a gold necklace in ancient Iran and on Greco-Roman coins.

K.S.’s remark reminded me of a story from my childhood. We had just moved to Texas and my Dad’s nurse was visiting our home for the first time. It was our family’s first stand-alone house, brand-new and seemingly huge, with a big backyard and enough bedrooms to give my brother and me our own rooms. It was also the first house that either of my parents could call their own. Neither of their families had the means to own their own homes in India, and eight years after arriving in America with very little money, they had now built and owned their own home. Looking back now, I realize just how, justifiably, proud my parents must have been – proud to show it to visitors, proud to raise their young family in it.

Anyway, the nurse, whose name was Helen, was a kind person and she was a gracious guest. She just had one piece of advice on the house: Get rid of the swastikas.

I’m sure she didn’t say it quite that way. My parents had hung up Indian tapestries on the walls, which pictured pastoral scenes in the classical style. And in various places there were swastikas. This was 1979 or 1980 in Texas City, Texas. And Helen basically said that it would probably be best if we didn’t have these sorts of things displayed.

This was before I had learned anything about World War II or Nazi Germany. I just understood that, for some reason, the swastika was bad and that we shouldn’t have them around or people would think bad of us. Texas City didn’t have a big Indian community where we could find safety in numbers, or with whom we could “expose” our cultural icons without being judged.

The tapestries came off the walls. And, as I’m only beginning to understand lately, with them began a process of “hiding” my Indian-ness. Not deliberately and not out of shame, but as part of a process of wanting to fit in, normal for any new kid-turned-typical teenager. I’m Indian, certainly, just take a look at me. But I didn’t have to emphasize that. Back then, being Indian was definitely not considered cool. It just made you seem weird. And I wanted to fit in. We settled in small-town Texas, my parents raised their children and we focused on being an “American” family.

Journey to Gujarat: Junagadh & Porbandar

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IMG_2483Porbandar, a port town located on Gujarat’s western coast, is known for being the home of Mahatma Gandhi and his family home is now a shrine/museum to his life. The home’s rooms are quite small. Climbing between flights along claustrophobic staircases reminded me of my visit to Anne Frank’s house in Amsterdam. A swastik marks the floor in the room where Gandhi’s mother gave birth to him. We also visited Sudama Temple, named after a childhood friend of Krishna, and I walked through a swastika-shaped maze on the temple grounds. Traversing the maze is supposed to wash you of your sins. The day we were there, a Friday, was also the Birthday of the Prophet Mohammed, and a celebratory parade wound through the city streets. Considering Gandhi’s message of religious tolerance, I thought the timing brought a nice addition to our visit.

I also write about our visit to Junagadh, at the base of Mount Girnar, another pilgrimage site. The city has a 15th-century “upper town,” Uparkot, which is only open during the day and shuts down at 7 p.m. I also enjoyed exploring the Mahabat Maqbara. Built by Bahadur Kanji as a tomb for his predecessor, Mahabat Khan, it is a surprisingly well-kept example of Indo-Islamic architecture.

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A day in Diu

I’m cross-posting my recent blog entry in Journey to Gujarat here on Parallel Universe. Please sign up for updates to my travels there as soon as they are posted!

DSC_9445Out of the rural marshes of southern Gujarat sits a national police checkpoint. This marks the entry to the island city of Diu, a former Portugese colony that like, Daman and Goa, were acquired by the Indian government in 1961. The three are union territories and are not governed by the states’ governments in which they lie.

Today, Diu is a popular beach resort and, along with Daman, the only place to buy alcohol in Gujarat, which is a dry state. The Portugese mark can still be seen in the city at Diu Fort, St. Paul’s Church and Makata Lane, where many Portugese merchants had built their mansions.

For more about Diu and photos from our visit, please click here.

Off the grid in Gopnath

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Our itinerary read “Gopnath Beach,” a place not found in my guidebook or on any map I had. “Gopnath beach is known for its scenic beauty, limestone cliffs, natural surroundings and fascinating flora and fauna.”Image

We drove up to windswept cliff over the Gulf of Khambat and the driver stopped in front of a faded Dreamsicle-colored one-story building. No one came out to greet us. There was no sign, no lobby of any sort, nothing to suggest that this is rest-stop for travelers and, yet, the driver said this is “Gopnath Bungalows,” where we were to stay. I wondered if we were being dropped off at someone’s house, a friend of the travel agent who wanted to make some money off of  gullible clients.

Dad and I exchanged “where are we?” looks and after, a few minutes, a man came out to the car. He looked sleepy, like we had woken him from an afternoon nap. He and the driver exchanged greetings and they both began to unpack our belongings from the car. Ramesh, that was the sleepy man’s name, we found out, sat on a plastic chair behind a desk on the sun-filled porch. He opened a cracked “guest register” – the spine had been taped over to keep the book together – and he wrote down “Kiran Shah.”

For more about our stay in Gopnath, please click here.

Ferris wheel mania

How did the Ferris wheel become the must-have municipal toy? I was amused to read in the Times of India over the weekend that apparently Ahmedabad is the latest city to be infected with this mania: “It was during one of the Vibrant Gujarat summits that the company Saloria Chartered Architects of London, one of the top 100 architect firms of UK and right holders of equipment technology, had proposed a viewing wheel and recreation zone modeled on London Eye, or Millennium Wheel. The finer details of the agreement between the construction company and Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation (AMC) are taking shape with talks on revenue model, space sharing and ticketing. The site for the project will be the Sabarmati riverfront, claimed a senior AMC official.”

To be sure, converting talk out of Vibrant Gujarat into action has been somewhat shy of 100 percent. So perhaps birds-eye views of Ahmedabad from the banks of the Sabramati are not imminent.

The timing is interesting as Dubai also unveiled plans last week to build the Dubai Eye. Unlike Ahmedabad’s still-unnamed ride which would just be a replica of the 135-meter London Eye, Dubai developers plan to construct the world’s largest ferris wheel at 210 meters. Natch.

The proposal as unveiled is to build – you guessed it – a luxury mixed-use shopping/entertainment/hotel complex on what was the only open beachfront in New Dubai. (Because, really, there’s no need for a public park in Dubai. We must remedy the dearth Dior and Jimmy Choo boutiques. More sheisha cafes and Cinnabon outlets for everyone!)

We all know how I feel about Dubai’s addiction to the shiny-object economic development model, so I leave the last word on this to Alexander McNabb over at Fake Plastic Souks, who has already written a great post of Dubai’s Ferris-wheel courtship.

Gujarat’s princely states

I’m cross-posting my recent blog entry in Journey to Gujarat here on Parallel Universe. Please sign up for updates to my travels there as soon as they are posted!

Raja of old
Raja of old

British rule over Gujarat was not whole. They only controlled about a fifth of the state, largely confined to the larger metropolitan areas such as Ahmedabad and Surat. The remainder of Gujarat was Saurashtra, and its “100 kingdoms” – it was actually about 200 – was ruled by individual royal families, albeit in cooperation with their Raj neighbors. In fact, these kingdoms were generally supportive of the British; they had signed pacts of cooperation with the British East India Co. in the early 1800s. Indian independence leaders’ activities excluded Saurashtra and the Congress party did not decide to formally include the region in its struggle until 1938, just nine years before the British quit.

Click here for photos and more about our visit to Bhavnagar, Palitana and Jamnagar.