Organic Numero Uno

Today we celebrated a happy one year anniversary – one year of our fantastic Sunday Organic Market. After a few rounds of discussions last July we flagged off with Living Farms, our inspiring friends, and of course, our heros, organic farmers of Bc and Ch blocks. We slowly go to know them, their names, the villages and communities they come from. The kinds of veggies they grow. Suresan, who would bring something new every week, ferns, flowers, roots. And who’s dad would answer the many questions we came up with. Indro, who drives all the way from P on his little moped. Banamali and Ramesh who hosted our visit to their farms and made us flavoured ragi-tea! And of course, the gang from K and a few of our alumni. Amosh has now joined Rayagada college, following in his brothers footsteps.

So for the last year, every Sunday we have woken up to a feast of colour and freshness. “Poison-free” food is what they call it. Dramatic but true! They grow only local vegetable, from which the seeds can be saved for next year. And we’ve managed just fine without capsicum or cauliflower or carrots. We’ve learnt about the seasonality of our food – jhudungo (cow pea) which is planted on the slopes.   Luscious red tomatoes in winter. Green leafy veggies of all kinds. Round roots and tubular tubers. Cinderella-sized pumpkins which can be dried and stored for a rainy day. Corn on the cob, yellow hiding in a green shell. Stringy beans, broad beans, gourds, light greens, bright greens, royal purples. And of course the omnipresent brinjals, big, small, long, fat, bitter, sweet, green and stripy, aubergine purple.

Today we meet to celebrate before getting down to business. Speaking of business, no we are not a sustainable market in the capitalist sense. And we are not likely to be in future either. J and A currently subside a big chunk of produce which goes up to the school or patient kitchens. The farmers travel miles on bumpy or non-existant roads by bicycle or motorbike to get to us. They are dwarfed by their big sacks of vegetables. Our people sometimes forget to bring their shopping bags, so we keep running home to bring  bags or boxes. Friendly (and endangered) snakes sometimes take up residence in the big blue tarp that is stored under the stairs. We have to keep bartering for change, especially thanks to demonetisation. We’ve had our share of ups and downs.

But we made it so far. 27 farmers and about the same number of staff families. More if you count the hostels kitchens. All eating some portion of healthy, fresh, locally grown produce. Crossing the artificial boundaries of class, occupation, language, educational status. Building relationships with love and respect. And a lot of yummy food! Numero Uno on my list of achievements today!

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A few months ago, in a fit of creativeness, I ordered a block of ‘melt and pour’ soap. Soapy Twists is a company that makes and sells in India and the glycerine M&P soap arrived promptly by post. Sadly, the creative dust got buried under the carpet of work and routine.

But yesterday, I visited K, where our friends farm organically, live sustainably and save thousands of paddy seeds in beautiful mud pots. So this week, making soap is my small contribution to sustainablity – I was inspired to melt and pour!
M&P is also known as the lazy way to making soap. The ‘real’ way would be the Hot or Cold Process, which combines a base with a fat in the process of saponification. Some faint bell rings in memories from chemistry classes in high school. Not that I made the connections between classroom science and the multinational FMCG companies making profits peddling smaller and ‘cheaper’ bars of soap. Fortunately, I’ve been blessed to know fantastic groups in South India, local women’s groups, who make handmade soap with coconut oil. I still swear by them, but M&P is proving to be a fun supplement!

Today I chose oatmeal-honey and mint-aloe vera from the garden. Not having rubbing alocohol or silicone moulds wasn’t too much of an obstacle. I reused Amul buttermilk cartons, 200 ml tetrapacks, with a little tape over the hole for the straw. Here are the results!

Last week at G’s farewell dinner, I was put in charge of making his favourite chocolate cake. Since I had spent most of the day worrying about value added and works contract and goods and services and other such taxes, and how they would affect my project here, I decided to play it safe and go with an easy, never-fail recipe.  From the scribbles at the back of her well used recipe book, here’s Mercy’s Moist Mochalate Cake.

Dry Ingredients:

2 cups flour (atta works well too)

2  cups sugar (this is not a recipe for the faint hearted!)

3/4 cup cocoa powder

2 tsp baking soda

1 tsp baking powder

1 big pinch of salt

Wet ingredients:

1 cup oil

1 cup hot black coffee

1 cup milk

2 eggs

1 tsp vanilla essence (which as usual I didn’t have)

Mix the dry ingredients together well. Add the wet ingredients, eggs last, and mix well till smooth. The batter is thin and runny. Bake at 180 degrees C for 20-30 minutes. It rises a bit so use 2 cake tins if needed.

Ice with cream cheese frosting. Or my Indian version with hung curd and powdered sugar.

Easy Peasy. I iced only one of the two cakes and tried to save the second for A and the kids from K high school. But no such luck. It all disappeared too quickly, so I made another quick batch later! Stay well     G, drive safe and come back soon!

Islands in the sun

Ringing out the end of 2016 was made extra special by a family holiday to the Andaman and Nicobar islands. When I say family, I mean only 18 of us, ranging from little R at six months to her great grandmother at 87 years!! This time our excuse/ reason was my uncles 60th birthday. The last family holiday I went on was over a decade ago, so I was really looking forward to this one. The family has been all over India, to Kashmir, Darjeeling, Goa, Kodaikanal, Manali, Yercaud, Pondicherry to name a few places and Bhutan. My wonderful aunt and uncle were the movers, shakers and organisers of this trip. A big advantage of having a generation of retired folk in the family now, we were able to make our bookings six months in advance.

A short flight from Kolkata got us (and our 19 bags, pram, wheelchair and baby mosquito net) to Port Blair. After the Cholas, Marathas and Danes, Archibald Blair, a British naval officer, visited the islands in 1788 and the British began to use them as a colony for convicts. The adivasi populations were decimated in the “battle of Aberdeen”, where the British used guns against indigenous bows and arrows. The islands are home to both negrito and mongolid tribes, the Sentilenese, Ang (Jarawa), Onge, Andamanese, Shompan. Now their dwindling populations are over run by settlers from the mainland, from Bengal, Tamilnadu, and of course the defence forces.

We checked in to the Sea Princess at Wandoor, 14 km from the Port Blair airport, and were met with stunning views of the aquamarine ocean. The white coral sands were unbelievably soft, and we floated in the calm, lake-like, crystal clear ocean. The coconut trees and sea Mahua swayed gently in the breeze. The estuary and mangroves were beautiful too, but we stayed clear of them after we saw the signs saying beware of crocodiles! That evening we drove back into town to see the cellular jail. Rather depressing, if well preserved, the jail reminds us of the depths to which the human race can fall. The sound and light show was interesting, though a little long, and Om Puri’s voice booms out as the gentle old  peepal tree.

The next day, we took the ferry from Wandoor Jetty into the Mahatma Gandhi Marine National Park. Only 2 of 15 islands are open to the public and we headed to Jolly Bouy. Grub island and Snob island sounded interesting too! We were guided by Murugan (originally from Madurai) who showed us the sights and sounds as we floated down between the islands to Jolly Bouy. Second only to the Great Barrier Reef, the corals and marine life here are stunning. We took a glass bottomed boat ride and saw a national geographic feast of fish, coral and underwater life. Irridiscent blue and red finger coral, sea lilies, anemones with clown fish peeking out, brain corals, star fish, purple lipped clams buried in the rocks, shoals of tiger and butterfly fish. Deeper out, we saw long blue fish with yellow tails and less coral since no sunlight penetrates the deep. After this brief introduction to the coral ecosystem, Murugan took us snorkelling. Absolutely delightful to see the corals close up, touch the sticky sea anemone and paddle around in the float. Murugan dragged us non-expert swimmers around and took us to see a necklace starfish. The forest department strictly keeps plastic out – you can hire water bottles (Milton and cello coolers like kids carry to school). So thankfully we get a glimpse of underwater paradise. And hopefully since humans are kept out of the other islands, the corals might have a chance of survival. It’s horrifying to think of the military activity around the Great Barrier Reef some years ago. Let’s hope we are more sensible here !! The marine interpretation centre, with model dugong and leather back turtles, is also worth a quick visit.

We celebrated the baby of the family turning 60 and watched the most stunning sunsets on the beach.

 Next morning we took ourselves with our IDs to the Port Blair jetty and were safely ferried across to Havelock Island. We stayed at the  government run Dolphin Resorts, right on the picturesque Vijaynagar beach. The rooms, the food, the wifi at the reception and the eating joints down the road kept us busy when we were not at the beach or swinging on the hammocks! The sunrises were stunning and had us out at 530am. The tides ebbed and rose, leaving us with a gentle lake of crystal clear water. The next celebration was a 38th wedding anniversary and we spiced up the hotel buffet with bamboo chicken and cognac soaked Christmas pudding!

We also spent an evening at the world famous Radhanagar beach and for the first time met waves. They swept us off our feet and crashed into the receding waves behind us. The dense green forested hills on one side and the setting sun on the other made it picture postcard perfect. We left a note on the beach for A who will be visiting next week! Hope the waves will carry it to him and the good weather will hold.

We took the ferry back to Port Blair, past Neil Island and spent a relaxed evening at the Sea Shell Hotel and new light house restaurant. Slipped in a little shopping at the government run Sagarika for shells, cowries, coconut shells, mother of pearl earrings etc and snuck into the Anthropological museum. It was interesting but could have been much better, with more info and their tourist publication gave a many laughs  with their descriptions of coral “reeps”!!

We flew out of the island, our hearts filled with memories of the beautiful ocean and our bags a little heavier with sand from the beaches! This is somewhere I will definitely visit again, inshallah!

Tangled up in…Orange

For the last couple of weeks, our Sunday organic farmers market green has been brightened up with splashes of orange pumpkins. So it’s been pumpkin cake, pumpkin curry, pumpkin soup, pumpkin pasta and even pumpkin spice latte!   We’ve been completely tangled up in orange (apologies to Jokerman and his prize)

My current favourite is an easy recipe from natashaskitchen. A’s mom has a very similar recipe with more egg and less oil. Either way you can’t go wrong. The cake is moist, sweet and pumpkin-y. The spices smell heavenly, taste divine. And since getting cream cheese or butter takes an extra herculean effort, a simple powered sugar dusting tops it off perfectly. So, Mr Tambourine man, play a song for me, I’m not sleepy and I’m eating pumpkin cake…

Mix dry ingredients :

2 cups atta

1and1/2 cups sugar or powdered jaggery

2 tsp baking powder

1 tsp baking soda

1 tsp powdered spices (cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg are my favourites)

A pinch of salt

Mix wet ingredients :

3 eggs

3/4 cup oil

1/4 cup curd or buttermilk

2 cups of pumpkin purée

Mix well. Combine the dry and wet ingredients. Fold together gently, do not over mix.

Bake at 180 C for 30 mins or till the top is golden amber and a knife inserted into the middle comes out cleanly.

Ice with cream cheese frosting or dust lightly with powdered sugar.

Honey, Iron and Conscience

Imagine not eating for 16 years. Sounds like an impossible crazy idea. But this is what one woman did in protest against state sponsored violence. The “Iron Lady” of Manipur started her fast against the Armed Forces Special Powers Act in November 2000, when the Assam rifles gunned down 10 civilians at a bustand in Malom, Imphal. Decades after independence, we still have the armed forces controlling various parts of the country. So much for the world’s largest democracy and power to the people. 

Yesterday, after 16 years of non-violent protest to repeal the AFSPA, Irom Sharmila ended her fast. The Iron Lady symbolically had a taste of honey. The repealing of the act will be a sweeter victory. 

Some years ago I watched theatre artist Ojas SV’s beautiful performance of Irom Sharmila’s story. A prisoner.  Of Conscience. A young girl launching a non-violent protest. In this day and age of patriotic fervour and nationalistic jingoism, a quiet, almost odd thing to do. And now, her move to stand for elections and continue to protest against violence is a tribute to her courage. To fight peacefully. As oxymoronic as fasting for 16 years? 

Irom Sharmila, carry on the good fight! 

The Great Red Spot

Today is Menstrual Hygiene Day, so no, I don’t mean the huge storm on Jupiter, light years away, that gives the planet its beautiful colour and wavy designs. I mean the once-a-month, for 45 years of a woman’s life great red spot. Period, crimson wave, red moon rising, leak week and another 5000 slang words and euphemisms we use to describe menstruation. MHD_fullcolor

Over the last two years, I’ve become intensely aware of issues surrounding menstruation. Perhaps I should rephrase that, I’ve been forced to look at these issues because they’ve come too close to home. Literally. The Nursing School on our campus built a new school building, on the site that was the garbage dump. So the dump shifted to the next available free space. Right next to our house! So suddenly, 200+ girls in the hostel, houses, and not to mention the many many female patients and their relatives in a 200 bedded hospital were chucking all their waste into a gaping hole next door. Ouch!

Fortunately, M got into action. Clean paper and plastics are being collected and sold, and a sanitary pad incinerator was installed in the hostel. I breathed a tiny sign of relief. Except for the nagging thought that burning plastic pads surely could not be a viable solution? So, thanks to the great www and Google, I stumbled upon wonderful alternatives to the disposable plastic sanitary pads that are being offered ‘modern’ young women as a one-stop solution. And today seems the ideal time to share my favourite ones : Menstrual Cups and Cloth Reusable Pads. Enlightened souls who already use these, do spread the word. Everyone else, get comfortable under a Bodhi tree, and read on.

Menstrual Cups are bell-shaped and flexible, made of medical grade silicone and inserted into the vagina to catch menstural flow. Once the cup is full, you empty it, wash and re-insert. So a single cup lasts up to ten years! There are different sizes to choose from depending on your cycle and flow. The SheCup is made in India and costs about Rs1,000/- Menstrual cups are a fantastic product, and I can’t believe I hadn’t heard about them before. They were patented in the USA in 1937 by a midwifery group. Obviously they didn’t have as much capital to spend on advertising and packaging as the plastic pad makers. Incidentally, the plastic sanitary pad market share in India is worth thousands of crores of rupees.

The menstrual cup takes getting used to the first time, especially learning to insert and remove. But there are lots of great people who  will help you along. Again my favourites : dirtydiaperlaundry and PSP. And once you pluck up your courage, get rid of your ick-factor and try it out, you’ll be hooked for life. I sure am! They have no health risks, no leaks if you wear it right, no landfills or mountains of waste, no burning, no dioxins. They are very comfy and you learn more about your body and your flow!! If you’re thinking about trying one out, watch a couple of videos and go for it girl!

And next, Reusable or washable cloth pads. Cloth is what you or your mom or your grandmom used. In the Stone Age. We modern women don’t want to use rags of cotton – unhygienic, inconvenient and unhealthy. But sto and think again, modern lady. The cloth pad has been re-invented in stylish, convenient, leakproof and ecofriendly ways. Check out EcoFemme and Goonj’s Not Just a Piece of Cloth, to name a few in India. They need to be soaked in cold water (not hot), gently washed and dried in the sun. Of which we have plenty all year round – we’re currently toasting in the 40s! Ecofemme’s foldable model, or what we call ‘rumal’ or handkerchief here is perfect for places where drying is not easy or in the monsoons. They are soft and comfy. The wings are great. And they are handmade by cooperative groups. They can last from 3-5 years. So you need about 6-7 pads to see you through a cycle. They cost between Rs150-300/- per pad. And there are various programme to get them in bulk or subsidies rates, for women who can’t afford it. We’re doing a pilot trial of Ecofemme pads on our campus and so far everyone loves them!!

So next time the Great Red Spot comes visiting, thank your stars coz your reproductive system is in good shape, and try on your cup or washable pad. Do it for your body, and for the body of the earth. Because we’re worth it!

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