Goats and beans

Now, I hadn’t the slightest clue about something called Argan oil till I stumbled on this fascinating photo of goats climbing this tree in Morocco, to eat the berries from the Argan tree. The photo came in last weeks Life magazine, accompanying the LA times. It did not say much except for a bit of what you can read on the pic.

Well, a bit of research with Google’s help helped me find
this site that provided details.

The place where goats climb trees is called Tamri
Tamri goats climb trees to eat these berries because they are the best food they can find.
It is a tourist attraction and these goats are much photographed
The goats leave behind dung full of undigested kernels of the Aragn berries
The kernels are collected by local women, hopefully washed, and pressed for Argan oil, which is pretty famous.
Apparently it tastes delicious and is very good for the skin
You can also get non-goat Argan oil, but I don’t know how one ensures that.
This site provides all the
details for those interested, and here, you can see a video of the same – Also, another interesting picture

Now where else did these goats take me? To Kopi Luwak…sounds intriguing?

Kopi Luwak or Luwak coffee (Kapi) or Civet coffee is the world’s most
expensive coffee, available from SE Asia, mainly Indonesia. Well, like the oil above, the coffee berry is eaten by the Civak, a cat like animal, the excreted kernels when ground, make the exotic Luwak coffee, which costs $600 per lb. In Australia, a cup of this coffee can cost $50/-

A couple of interesting articles on the
taste of this coffee

Not for me though, I prefer my
South Indian filter coffee, from the decoction….

Emden and Pillai

While I was writing this, I wondered for long – How would Hitler have addressed Champakaraman Pillai? Well, he obviously did as he gave Pillai an apology of sorts for his demeaning comments about Indians in Mein Kempf (they are people incapable of governing themselves, he said). Food for thought, I guess – Herr Schampak maybe?

And the following lines that Ganesan (he learnt it in his kid days) once used, repeatedly spun around in my mind "Emden vitta gundu, adhil erindha tank rendu.."

All this started as I was musing about my days in Madras in the early 80’s, the walk to Marina beach up the Pycroft’s road and the Presidency College on the shore. And then I remembered the shell on the High court wall and Emden, the German ship. I thought I would research a bit more of that story and it was thus that this amazing tale came to light, I had not the slightest clue until then, no history book or patriotism class had taken me there, but first a bit about the ship…

Even today people in North Kerala call dark stout guys ‘Yumunden’ without knowing that the origin of the name was the hulking WW1 German frigate SMS Emden. SMS Emden’s story is well covered on Wikipedia. But we will focus on the day it steamed into Madras Harbour.

Late at night on September 22, 1914, Emden quietly approached the city of Madras on the east side of the Indian peninsula. Once in range Emden opened fire on many large Burmah Shell fuel oil tanks that the British kept near the city. After firing 130 shells the oil tanks were burning and the city was in a panic. Although the raid did little damage, it was a severe blow to British morale and thousands of people fled Madras, thinking that Emden might be planning another attack. Emden then sailed southwards down the east coast of Ceylon (Sri Lanka), causing panic among the British .Sri Lankan mothers frightened their children with the Emden bogeyman, and to this day a particularly obnoxious person is referred to as an Emden. Emden supplied new words to many South Indian Languages. Malayalam word Emandan meaning 'a big and powerful thing' or 'as big as Emden' derived from Emden following its successful attack on Madras Port.

Emden’s story is a classic war adventure, there are many a book written on it. In the end seventy-eight (some say 60) British ships were required to run her down. The adventures of the ship are chronicled in the book Last Corsair.

I thought the story ended there, but it did not….

Incredible as it may seem, the Emden had a very strong Malayali/Tamil connection. I was amazed when I stumbled upon this, well, to sum it up in a simple line; this anti imperialist attack was apparently directed by the Ship’s engineer Champakaraman Pillai, assisting the captain Helmut Von Mueller. (But I have add after some research, this was quite a bit of fiction, Pillai was not involved)

S Muthaiah states - Fanciful legends abound of his (Pillai) being Mueller's second-in-command, of his directing the firing on specific targets in and around Madras Harbour, and of his rowing ashore at Cochin to greet his family and admirers! Authentic records of the voyage of the Emden do not corroborate any of this, but they do speak of his work aboard the cruiser and his post-War attempts to gather in Germany an anti-British group of Indians, a forerunner to the Indian National Army. His volunteer force, another legend has it, was the inspiration for Netaji Subash Chandra Bose's Indian National Army.

Pillai was among those who first gave the slogan of "Jai Hind" to the people of India and to the many Indians abroad who were struggling for the cause of Indian Independence. He had the privilege of being the Prime Minister of the Provisional Government of India set up in Afghanistan in December 1915, with Raja Mahendra Pratap Singh of Kabul as President. However, the defeat of the Germans in the war shattered the hopes of the revolutionaries

Dr. Chembakaraman Pillai died in Germany in 1934 (poisoned or tortured to death by Nazi’s) and, after his death, his wife Lakshmibai, a Manipuri, who is said to have suffered at the hands of the Nazis herself, returned to India and lived in Bombay till her death in 1972. The most intriguing part of the Chembakaraman story is the mystery of his missing papers. J. V. Swamy, a nephew of the doctor, claims that shortly before Lakshmibai's death, the Bombay Police visited her flat and took away 17 boxes containing her husband's papers…

The story does not end here too. After many a success, Emden had to be destroyed, the ships crew were well aware that their time was up, they were finally chased & cornered by as many as 60-80 Allied ships --------The ship was finally sunk (Von mueller’s report is interesting reading).

But Von Müller’s landing party at the Cocos Islands managed to steal the 97-ton copra schooner ‘Ayesha’ and sailed to Penang. From here they made their way to Istanbul, which I believe, is another fascinating story. They survived numerous threats to make it to the Arabian Peninsula, where they travel by camel caravan and survive an attack by Bedouin tribesman before reaching safe haven in Istanbul.

So much behind that Emden attack on Madras, a luminary called Chebakaraman Pillai, Hitler, Imperialism, the ship SMS Emden and the British…What a story!!

A note On pillai’s last days

RKN has written a short story ‘Emden’ in his collection of short stories ‘Old & New’

In lighter vein, there’s a movie called Emden mahan (re-titled Em mahan)in Tamil

A couple of stories about the ship and the voyage

Courtesy – Hyperlinks above, for the pictures

Tsunami - the boy who found his home

Keshavan Nair belonged to the Perumpana Tharavad. I used to wonder why and how that family got such a name, but then strange were the ways of our elders in the times when time was aplenty and when all people did was wait for gods good grace to be bestowed on them or for great monsoons to arrive. Probably Nair’s house had a huge palm tree, who knows?

For that matter, the palm trees in hilly parts of Palakkad are quite massive, towering into the sky – and climbing them was no mean task even for the one who succeeded!! And of course, what the palm tree gave as fruits of labor, in return, be it toddy or the silky jelly-ish palm fruit (panam-nongu) tasted heavenly…

Musings later, but let us see what K Nair is upto today, well; I can see him walking up and down the stretch of cleared land in front of his house, situated in the Vadakke thara of Pallavur. He is waiting for the boy to get back from school, I guess, in order to start off for his evening walk towards Koorma malai.

Not many know of our village though, so let me add some words to the uninitiated, Pallavur did have its brief fling with fame when the great brothers ruled the Chenda and percussion music world – the marar brothers Manian, Appu and Kunjukuttan. It became famous when the Pallavur temple elephant (frankly, I forgot his name) ruled at the Guruvayur and Trichur pooram ulsavams. And it was in the limelight when the movie Pallavur Devanarayanan was released, a lousy movie loosely (purportedly) spun around Appu marar’s life..

But today, Pallavur is quite popular due to the Chinmaya School, teeming with young children wearing the distinctive brown and cream uniforms. A school which I understand, has created many a successful alumni. We are all proud of it; we donated the land for the school and helped supervise the building and setting up of the school in the mid 80’s.

Pallavur is still an undistinguished village situated on one side of the road that goes from Kunissery to Pallasena. The North side of the road is all paddy fields stretching to the hills, the most prominent hill being the Swami Mala that had a small temple atop it, a hill that people climbed when they wanted the god to bestow a special favor for them or when young lovers wanted peace and solitude. Sometimes the bolder teenagers who wanted to have a leisurely drink away from the eyes of prying elders took the walk up the black granite hill, with a surface smooth from eons of massage by heat, rain and wind…The families who lived here were mainly farming families, though only the older people remained in the village, the children and grandchildren making their wealth and fame in the great Indian cities far away. During the Navaratri festival, they all came down in droves, hiring taxis and vans for a fortnight from Olavakkot or the airports at Cochin or Calicut…

The biggest building in Pallavur is the Trippalavurappan temple, a Siva temple with its satellite temple the Krishnan Kovil just outside the 10ft high walls. Around the temple were the two agrahara - thekke gramam and the vadakke gramam. Years ago, here lived the Brahmin class that worked in the temple, as priests, cooks, assistants and so on…in those years & times when the temple and the village were affluent. Today those Iyers have moved on to Mumbai and Chennai, a few to Bangalore even… few sold off their houses though, preferring instead to rent them out to teachers or parents connected to the local Chinmaya school. Some that got sold were promptly demolished and gaudy modern houses took their place, now bright eye sores amidst old moss encrusted houses that blend with the scenery.

The temple is on the banks of a big pond - Ambalakulam, which always echoes with playful noises of kids swimming & fooling around. On one side of it was the enclosed bath house and on the other the kadavu were womenfolk bathed. As always there were the older teens peeping and prying near the kulam waiting to see a flash of the female body – a thigh or if very lucky a falling towel exposing a mammary, eager eyes, peering with their hormones on an overdrive, as with teens anywhere…

Keshavan Nair was 80 something, still lithe and trim, walking ramrod stiff, a handlebar moustache and hair slicked back. The ex army man had a lot of clout in the village and when he walked by, he demanded respect. He would even walk by and look frankly at the womenfolk bathing. Known for his candor, Nair would look down at a comely girl and say, ‘edi Nani, nee angu valarnallo, brassiere okke ittu thudangi alle’ raising good natured laughter from the others at the kadavu and a crimson colored blush from Nani. Some were terrified of Nair, it was said that he was still a virile chap, very active at nights. Rumor has it that he was caught red handed, sampling a new field worker, only the other day.

But Nair was after all, an important guy and his presence was needed to settle many a quarrel and fight in the village. Nair the army man was the one who would regale evenings at the local toddy shop or on month beginnings at his own house when his ration rum arrived. Nair led the festival singing and he did have a loud, overbearing and sometimes sonorous voice. His wife Dakshayani Amma had him and the home, mostly in control but then, his son Raman Kutty left the house at first given chance to escape his overbearing father – He was working in Bombay as a welder or something, from what I last heard, never coming home for vacations or holidays. Nair, naturally was devastated by this.

Once Dakshayani Amma had invited us home for a lime juice while we kids were passing by, I still recall running around the house trying to spot the rifle that Nair was supposed to have at home. I never saw one!!

Now, this story is set before the Balan death episode, so K Nair was the guy who was still in control, the well respected ex-serviceman, who had ‘apparently’ killed many a Pakistani and Chinese enemy, though not awarded any major medals or ‘Chakras’ (I was still of the opinion that he was a cook, though, and I say this since I have heard Nair barking expert commands to ‘Ambi’ cooks who came to cook for Sadya’s and other occasions at our house. Only a guy who really knew cooking could give such expert commands – but well who listened to this gangly kid - then or now?)

Winters in Pallavur were not very nice, though cool, the days were frequented by the Padinjare kattu, a biting cold breeze that chafed lips and dried up one’s skin. People remained indoors in the evenings, gone was the summer camaraderie when people sat on canal varambu’s or on the warm tar roads & conducting impromptu meetings - discussing the ailing world and the Indian community in perspective.

It was on one such evening that the boy appeared at the temple. He had a nice enough face, and was the quiet kind. How he strayed into this village, nobody knows, but he sat there mute at the door of the sanctum sanctorum, and looked on with a sad face. The poojari tried asking him questions, no answers. Others who passed by tried various languages (you really think they knew more than a few words of those languages? Most definitely not, but it was a chance for them to ‘shine’), but of no avail. As was his custom, K Nair finished his evening wash at the temple pond, passed snide comments at some of the girls bathing and walked into the temple, with his booming question to the Poojari if the Naivedya Payasam was ready. His eyes then chanced on the boy and sensing the disquiet around, took charge. You know how it is, Nair had to make his mark, he walked up to the cowering little ruffian and with his trademark scowl, bellowed, who are you? Whose son are you? and the such. The boy was petrified and close to tears. Nair just lifted him up by his ears and took him out of the temple to continue with his objectionable line of questioning. A group formed around them. Not getting any answers was not a situation Nair usually faced, but here it was the case. Eventually Nair gave the boy a few tight slaps hoping to get something out, and well, it did.. the boy howled his head off and cried out in some terribly accented Tamil (fisher folk Tamil I thought)that he was from Chennai, he had lost everybody of his family in the Tsunami and had found his way to our village after a couple of months of wandering about & ticket less travel on the southbound trains.

Nair’s features immediately softened, and he was quickly contrite. He asked him in Tamil (as an army man, Nair had full command over at least 5-6 languages including English) if he had eaten anything, yes, he had - the boy had got a plantain from the Kizhekettara tea shop some hours ago.

That was how Tsunami (as everybody called him since that fateful day) met Keshavan Nair. I think his real name was Velu or something like that, but he was always Tsunami. From that day he moved into Nair’s house, one must agree, whatever bad qualities this man had, he had a softer side too. He took good care of Tsunami. Tsunami became Nair’s chief assistant. He would be seen doing odd jobs around Nair’s house, milking the cow and taking the milk early mornings to the milk society, buying provisions for villagers when he was sent to the Kunissery market and all kinds of errands. He soon became a popular fixture of the village, mastering our own special Malayalam dialect. His voice perked up, his body filled up and soon, his confidence grew, Nair style, he started passing comments on events & occasions…The boy grew up and became a member of the Nair household, Dakshayani Amma was also very happy with the whole arrangement. I am sure that in time; this boy will follow Nair’s footsteps and become a splitting image of Nair.

Nair became quite attached to the boy, his own son had absconded from home, and now he finally found company. Soon Tsunami was admitted to the local school and Nair was heard saying that once he reached a higher class, Nair would ensure that he studied in Chinmaya. Many even found parallels with the movie that Mammooty had got an award for, the boy from Lattur – Kazcha. But Tsunami knew his family was all lost and dead, unlike the movie, he had no desire to get back to that cruel world near the ocean. He settled down in our village.

Tsunami had many chances to repay Nair for his kindness, he did repay Nair and each of them is well known to the people of the village. Once Nair had a fall on the road, I think he blacked out, and Tsunami was the one who ran all the way to the post office in record time, found somebody and taxied Nair to Palakkad General Hospital. Once at the Chittur Kongan pada, a ruffian pick pocketed Nair and Tsunami spotted it in time to raise alarm. You should have seen how Nair skinned that thief; he flayed the thief’s buttocks raw with his leather belt till it was all ripped and bloody.

And this is how Tsunami came to Pallavur.

You can still see them on some evenings, Nair and Tsunami, coming back after a long walk to the Kurmamala.. Nair with bag in hand, probably some provisions, Tsunami with his thin arms swinging, enjoying the placid & contended life after the disaster, both singing some folk song, tonelessly and with gay abandon… It makes you remember Mowgli and Baloo the Bear in ‘Jungle book’ singing ‘bear necessities…’

Strange, how people’s lives intertwine in the funniest of ways, creating the tightest of knots. Look at the relationship between Chevudan Balan and Nair; look at the one between Tsunami and Nair…both crafted by life’s cruelty.
PallavurThrippallavurappan temple – extract from Wikipedia. The giant walls of this temple are at least 1 1/2 times taller than an elephant, built of stones unbelievable in size…….. These stones are laid one on top of another without any sealing in between. They have been standing like that for centuries just on gravity.

Here is a
satellite image of the temple and the Ambala Kulam and the rest of Pallavur for those interested. I can even see the top of our house in this image!!

P.S - The place is real, the characters are not...

The Brit and his curry

No I am not talking about the electronics superstore in UK called Curry’s or the popular English surname Curry, but about the curry that you have with rice, Naan… Curry is that one 'food family' which has taken this whole nation hostage

Defined by David Smith as follows in his
website -

"A dish made with dried and fresh spices cooked in oil with a sauce made from pureed onions, garlic and ginger. The variety of spices used can be extensive but the commonest are chilli, cumin, coriander and turmeric. Other common ingredients are yoghurt, cream and ground nuts."

It has displaced Fish and chips as the UK national dish. Having lived in the UK, I can attest to the following fact, without a curry ‘take out’ every week, the average Brit is lost. So much so that we were in a Chinese restaurant the other day at Jacksonville USA and my Brit boss (he left England 20 years ago and lives in Canada) was asking the waiter if he knew what lemon pickle was, since he wanted to add some to his food for taste. When the American waiter expressed total surprise, he went on to explain how a proper hamburger should be eaten, take out the ‘rubbish’ lettuce and tomato, leave the onion there, add a dollop of good Pathak’s or Rajah ‘extra hot’ lime (not lemon) pickle. Munch into the burger and you will be transported to heaven- My man….… well was I taken aback! I know, my Pattar friends used to spread pickle over the bland ‘pizza hut pizza’ for taste, but this was another dimension.

We Indians hated the curry in England though, they had no variety, go to any curry place, you will have vegetables, chicken, mutton or fish added to four to five standard pastes that they buy in bulk (from one or two main suppliers in UK) the Tikka masala paste, the Korma paste, the vindaloo masala paste, jalfrezi/Pasanda or the madras curry masala pastes. It was never made fresh off the ingredients. Well of course they had Indian lager in those places, typically Kingfisher….but ask a Brit, this is the right curry wherever he goes, even if he were in New Delhi, he would prefer curry from back home in the Blighty made by the Bangladeshi cooks (?) who have taken over the whole curry scene in UK.

Imagine going to the average British pub, look into the menu or be at the bar – you see IPA the main draft off the tap…Indian pale ale…look into the food menu, you will see curries and stuff like that. The best sandwiches that vanish off the shelves of a Marks & Spencers? Chicken tikka sandwich!!!(those are good, man, I can attest to them)

Looking at the
history of curry, you can see that the word comes from Tamil. The first taster who re corded it in a travelogue is a Dutch guy who came to India in 1598, calling it Kariel. The British always had a problem with the R, so they termed it Khadi, in the 1600’s….Now talking of the English staple, it is the CTM or Chicken tikka masala. How that came about is interesting. M&S sell 18 tones a week, can you believe that? There are books written about Curry and the UK, but well, you can’t beat the fact that the CTM is now being exported from UK to India….

Chicken Tikka Masala was most certainly invented in Britain, probably by a Bangaldeshi chef, and is so popular it is even being served in some hotel restaurants in India and Bangladesh. Another Brit specialty is the Balti dish – quite local to Birmingham.

‘Curry’ has not looked back since and was recently named the British National dish after a major opinion poll by Gallup. It is interesting to note that the Portuguese, Dutch and even the French were in India long before or concurrently with the English and yet it was Britain that readily adopted curry, not the others..

“Ninety nine per cent of Indians do not have a tandoor and so neither Tandoori Chicken nor Naan are part of India’s middle class cuisine. This is even so in the Punjab, although some villages have communal tandoors where rotis can be baked. Ninety five per cent of Indians don’t know what a vindaloo, jhal farezi or, for that matter, a Madras curry is”.

And the English make it a point to visit the various ‘curry miles’ as they call it in the UK. There are the curry miles in Birmingham, Eastham London, Manchester Rusholme, and of course many a mile in the Bradford area. They even have
curry courses to revive the original art.

Like I said, the Brits love their curry. Some get it airlifted while on vacation in
Portugal, some airlift it all the way across the Atlantic to the USA, prepared of course in the UK, not India, each spending a few thousand pounds for a meal. Or there is the guy who blamed the curry for his 105 mph drive down the motorway, which the judge did not take kindly to..But nothing to beat this Brit who wanted UK Curry while at New Delhi and had it flown in!!!

This one link will tell you how much the Brit loves his curry,
he even wants his toothpaste (not just chips& biscuits) with Curry flavor, well well!! I guess it will only become more popular now that the Chilli, Cumin & Turmeric are supposed to help one live longer and help avoid colon & many other cancers.

7th of November is the ‘National curry day’ in UK…A reporter states - The cold chill of autumn is now upon us and the nights are drawing in, but take heart, a yearly event to warm us all up is just around the corner. Tuesday 7th November is Kingfisher National Curry Day, when Brits across the land have a great excuse to eat Vindaloos, Tikas and Jalfrezis to their hearts content, as well as raising vital money for charity…

And, you know you've been in UK too long when... After a big night out you find yourself looking for a Curry house, not a 24 hour McDonalds or you keep your red curry paste recipe under lock and key...but have no clue how to roast a chicken.

The best name for a take out joint, I have come across – Curry in a Hurry

Long live the Curry…..The Queen recently knighted the Curry King, Ghulam Noon for his efforts.