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.

Journey to Gujarat: Junagadh & Porbandar

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!

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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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.

Saurashtra road trip

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!

Two days after Dad landed here, we set off on a road trip. Our plan was to explore Saurashtra, or 1,000 kingdoms, which before Indian independence was a region made up of many princely states. From Ahmedabad, we headed south and hugged the Gujarat coastline – except for an excursion inland to Junagadh – all the way to Dwarka, the state’s most western point.

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The tour company I hired had put together an itinerary for us for nine days of travel (see map above) but it was the sight-seeing in between was no less note-worthy. Along this route there were none of the New India’s multi-lane, modern toll roads. We traversed the state largely along state highways, the surfaces of which varied from fairly decent asphalt to jaw-jarring gravel.

Along the way, we encountered humans using every kind of transport method available: walking,  bullock and camel cart, bicycle, scooter,chhakada, trucks, in addition to passenger vehicles like our own. This being India, the rules of the road are flexible. You overtake from which ever position is the safest and if you need to, driving in the opposite lane is acceptable as long as you are beeping your horn as warning to oncoming traffic.

Click here for more about our road trip and pictures of the people and sites along the way.

 

Looking toward the skies

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!

 

I was 10 years old, on a family trip to India, when I first learned about Kite Day. Imagine, a holiday just for flying kites. Everyone was out on their rooftops flinging thinner-than-paper-thin kites into the air. The sky was littered with pastel diamonds, bobbing in the breeze. It was a day of simple joy, enjoying the mild Indian winter, out in the sunshine with family and friends, flying – and cutting – kites.

The festivities relate to Makara Sankaranti, or the transition of the Sun from Dhanu rashi (Sagittarius) to Makara rashi (Capricorn) and takes place around 21 days after the tropical winter solstice … Read more and view a slideshow here.

A new journey

Four years ago today, I landed in Abu Dhabi amid the furor of celebrations for the U.A.E.’s 37th National Day. Now, I’m preparing for the next step in the adventure I started that day.

I’m crossing the Arabian Sea to India — the state of Gujarat, where my family is from. They say you can’t go home again, but can you just go home? I’ve started a new blog called “Journey to Gujarat” to chronicle the answers I find to this question. I hope you’ll subscribe and come along with me on this next adventure.

About six months ago, I was thinking about my time in the Gulf, how much I’d learned about this part of the world, a place that I had never expected to call home. And I was a little wistful that I couldn’t do the same in India, in the western state of Gujarat, a place where I have strong personal ties. But then I thought, why can’t I?

So, that’s what I’m doing. Starting in January, I’m migrating across the Arabian Sea, traveling through Gujarat’s varied regions and speaking to writers and playwrights, tribal textile workers and wildlife tour guides, CEOs and teachers. I want to immerse myself in the place that my family calls home and maybe bridge the inevitable gap formed when immigrants leave one country to make a home in another. I hope you’ll come along with me on this journey.

Crumbling Kolkata

I’ve always felt a kinship to West Bengal and its capital Kolkata. Whereas my family’s home state of Gujarat is more known for its business, industrial and agricultural prowess, Bengalis count among their number some of India’s greatest writers, filmmakers and designers. In Kolkata, a bookstore is listed among must-see tourist destinations.

Once the colonial capital for British India, Kolkata has fallen into disrepair since its heyday as you can see in these photos from my trip last December. Still, you can imagine its former beauty as you sometimes can in the face of a now-aged debutante.

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The Gulf and the ‘New Silk Road’

 

 

A Modern Silk Road Between Asia and the Middle East

By ANGELA SHAH and STANLEY REED

DUBAI — When Christy Lee, a South Korean investment banker, was dispatched to the Gulf four years ago to drum up business, her friends in Seoul had a hard time taking the assignment seriously. “They would say, Did you enjoy riding the camels?” she recalled.

Then the Gulf states’ oil earnings led to orders worth tens of billions of dollars for South Korean companies: The most noteworthy so far has been the deal for South Korea Electric Power Corp. to build four nuclear plants in Abu Dhabi, worth as much as $30 billion.

Now, when Ms. Lee talks about the Gulf, people listen. She has started her own firm, Daewon Advisory Services, with offices in Seoul and Abu Dhabi. In the past year she has brought 120 executives and leaders from the United Arab Emirates and other Gulf countries to South Korea, eager to figure out how it made its big economic strides. She expects these visits to bring in more deals.

Ms. Lee is one of a growing number of entrepreneurs and other people who have carved out roles as intermediaries between Asia and the Gulf, reviving in modern form — real estate projects, joint ventures, and investment deals — the centuries-old link between the Middle East and Asia known as the Silk Road.

Continue reading “The Gulf and the ‘New Silk Road’”