Oak Tree – Intrigues at Charbatia

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Only a few readers would have a decent idea about the CIA airbase in Orissa’s Charbatia, even though it has been talked about on occasion in the Indian press, and the details are at best murky except for a keen academician. As I got into studying the geopolitical involvements of the period during the short 1962 Sino India conflict, I found many an aspect relating to the base intriguing and interconnected, showing that there was so much more leading to it and many an aftermath.

The Flying Swami

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 Kuttan Nair, Swami Vishnudevananda – a.k.a. the Parakkum Swami 

Some years ago, I wrote about GP Nair who took off from a British airport in 1937 and met an untimely demise, but what was unique was that he was one of the first licensed (licensed in 1931), perhaps the very first Malayali pilot.  Murkoth Ramunni, an eminent pilot who flew for the RAF was licensed in 1941. But continuing with the topic of aviation, there was another, a Malayali yogi, who in the 60’s and 70’s took to making peace flights all over the globe, earning himself the title “The Flying Swami” and who was instrumental in propagating the concepts of Yoga to the peoples of the West.

The Hazratbal incident

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The Prophet’s Hair and its theft – Kashmir 1963-1964

Though I recall seeing a glass hemisphere with an embedded strand of the prophet’s beard at the Topkapi palace in Istanbul, I was not aware of the huge furor created in 1963 when a similar strand of hair stored and worshipped at the Hazratbal shrine in Srinagar, vanished. It was a case which hit the headlines of newspapers around the world and as you can imagine, faced intense world scrutiny, days of protests, riots and mass agitation as well as massive media coverage which followed. As one can imagine, it was the reason for a period of increasing anxiety in the mind of India’s Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru. It was a situation which required tact, diplomacy and the assistance of some good sleuthing to get to the root of the problem and find a solution. What did Nehru and his team do? A fascinating story, which not many will remember, so let me retell it.

Für Elise – and its enduring mysteries

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Many years ago, I picked up a little music box during our travels in Europe, I don’t recall where, and when the little contraption is wound, it plays the Für Elise tune. The tune was interesting and the mechanic in me has never tired of watching the little drum spin when wound up, the comb reeds hitting the bumps on the cylinder thus making music, as the governor fan spins away mysteriously (actually for speed control). Every now and then, as I pass our curio shelf, I would give it a windup and the magnificent tune created by Beethoven would tinkle away to remove any silence in the living room. It is still a part of our collection, even after so many home moves over continents.

Food for thought

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Puranadara Dasa, and Food in Carnatic music

Those who listen to Carnatic music are usually in awe of the creative genius of its Pitamaha (father) Puranadara Dasa, the Kannadiga poet from medieval times. A rich but miserly jeweler, fascinated with music, changes his materialistic outlook after a life-changing event, that was Dasaru or Dasarayya as he is popularly known then going on to lead a mendicant’s life, singing and eating morsels of food provided as alms by the occupants of homesteads he passed by. His purported repertoire of some 475,000 poems extolling Vittala (Lord Krishna) are a testament to his prolific output over a period of some 40 years, to stand foremost among the Bhakti movement poets.

Paddy’s bus – The Indiaman

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The Overlanders and the Hippie trail

A forward from across the seas, of an incredible bus journey, popped up the other day on my phone, promptly delivered by our ever-efficient news delivery man these days – the popular Whatsapp. More forwards came, together with requests to check out and detail the story behind it. The Indiaman was new to me and amusing, and so I got to work on it right away, having nothing better to do at the start of our long weekend. Usually, we would be out, traveling on this Independence Day weekend, but the virus had put paid to all those plans. The story morphed to much more than the bus as it turned out and well, I have to narrate it to you. So, my friends, hop on, strap on your seatbelts, and let’s go for a long ride!

In transition - Malayali Culinary habits

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A little about the food habits of yore

Early Malabar was quite cosmopolitan, especially around Cannanore, Calicut and Cochin, but we see hardly any permeation of foreign food habits into the Hindu food scene. While Moplah cooking was influenced by the Arabs, the Jews are all gone leaving behind just a few culinary memories. Portuguese and Syrian cooking styles permeated into the Christian community and still dominate their kitchens and we can see clearly the impact the Portuguese had in Malabar cooking. They influenced the recipes, utensils and implements, and a large variety of vegetables and meats entered the cooking scene. As time went by, the austere Malabar kitchen started getting spiced up, not only during festivities, but also in day to day life, as affluence and mobility increased. Let’s take a look.

Tea, Coffee or what?

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A debate through Munazara's

Americans simply cannot imagine a world without Starbucks and well, for that matter, a Tamilian cannot imagine life without his filter coffee, to start the day. But you should all know that before the medieval times, there was a happy and contended world without coffee. Slowly the new elixir permeated into the drinking habits of the middle easterners and soon became a world habit. But it created a furor whenever and wherever it was first introduced, being the subject of many debates and discussions, getting compared against all other popular drinks, alcoholic or nonalcoholic.

The Polish Gold Run

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80 tons of Polish gold and its amazing flight – WWII

With the Nazi’s knocking in the doors of Warsaw, the Bank of Poland had to make a difficult choice about their gold deposits. In the end they decided to move all of the 80 tons to neighboring Romania. A convoy of buses and cars, followed by a train would move the gold to the Romanian Coast. From there, it would travel to Turkey and onward to France. That was the plan, but in reality, it traveled even more. The desperate flight with that treasure was nothing less than harrowing as the Germans, the Brits, the Americans and the French tracked the gold. Events moved fast and the scales tipped tantalizingly from one side to the other, the Axis and the Allies, while the inert gold bars themselves rested eerily in silence. What would happen to the gold? Who would get their hands on it? This is a lovely story from the war, and one that will amaze you by the twists and turns it took. I will try to retell it, for your reading pleasure.

Anna Rajam Malhotra – A Luminary

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The first woman IAS officer in India

Calicut in the late 1930’s was quite different from what you see today. It was a sleepy colonial town, not any longer the great trading entrepôt it once was. The days when the Dutch, the Portuguese, the Arabs and so many other nationalities who came to trade there were long gone, for the arrival of the British had changed all that. It was some time in the 30’s that OA George arrived at this Calicut with his children and wife Anna Paul, in order to start up a little publishing outfit. Both of them were well educated graduates, something unique in those days. KC Menon’s CESC had just started to electrify the town. Traffic was sedate, with just bicycles and horse carriages plying the main roads and Calicut exhibited hardly any hustle and bustle. During weekends, some Europeans from the estates in Wynad drove in to party at the European Club and by Sunday they were also gone. But Calicut had two colleges, a few good schools and this was one of the main reasons why the couple chose the town.

As Madras trembled - 1942

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The Japanese Indian ocean raid and the Madras exodus..


Everybody talked about the Great War as the summer months seared the South. Even though there was an imminent fear of a Japanese invasion in India, the Mahatma and the Congress were quite upset with the British dragging India into what they essentially thought was a white man’s war and were focused on finding the right opportunity to push through with the Indian claims. The British government sent Sir Stafford Cripps on 22 March 1942, to talk terms with the Indian political parties and secure their support in Britain's war efforts. His weak offer was rebuffed with Gandhiji terming it ‘a postdated cheque on a crashing bank’.

What the Dickens?

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Charles Dickens, India and the life of Walter Dickens in Calcutta

Dickens has been so much a part of many Indian generations since the mid-19th century, we have read his works as part of school studies, and many others have read him for pleasure and enjoyed his works. We got to know his characters such as David Copperfield and Oliver Twist, we have clapped for his stand against social injustice, bureaucracy and oppression of the downtrodden. But what many of you may not know is that he had another side, a dark one.