Month 7 Journal – Dealing with questions


Back to October 2020 when I quit a corporately regimented life to become my own boss, its been anything but easy to deal with questions people ask. Also to deal with what they don’t ask.

Oh so you quit big 4? But you would have made partner now isn’t it? Or were they not making you one?’ Yes I could have made it in the next possible cycle given the effects of Covid aftermath on the global economy, Brexit post-effects on the European economy and US presidential election results on the Indian economy. Couldn’t wait for all that to pan out as my body and mind were done with two decades of robotic functioning and begged for some free living.

But of course you must be joining industry then? I was so much in love with my job you know? And if I am leaving that so loved job it could probably mean I just don’t want to take up anything else – just experimenting for a few years if you get that?

Well then what are you going to do? I am going to wake up without an alarm, go to the gym, write and read every single day, make my own food, grow my own greens, travel to the mountains every three months, learn portraits which I suck at, look for a way to teach underprivileged women some skill which they can monetize. And yes maybe learn to watch some unfettered Netflix without guilt pangs.

But what is the skill you know that you are going to teach these women? I don’t know OK! – I need to think about it you see. (which by the way, clearly they don’t see).

Then I did a program with IIM-B for women entrepreneurs, revived some brain cells in my head that are capable of doing some B-school thinking and came up with a list of ideas for the enterprise, of which I zeroed in on plant-based home cleaners. Why? A because they were easy to make and dabble in by trying out various combinations B with instant outcomes they were easy for me to try out as the first consumer  C I am a very anti-chemical, anti-plastic-landfill, anti-senseless-urban-waste disposal kind of person.

And that was it.

But will you use your CA skills in all this? In core business – no, as it mostly involves dealing with citrus peels, jaggery, yeast, soapnuts and essential oils. In costing and pricing models yes. In how to run a sane business – oh yes. I will use all my CA and more importantly consulting experience as they say once a consultant, always a consultant for life.

NGO? Oh there is a lot of money in NGOs – In hindsight I don’t remember why I was even talking to this person.

Will you go for funding and all then – Huh? Isnt it like a bit too early to talk about that?

You can’t call it a not-for-profit. It has to earn profit to be sustainable for its own objectives – Very valid point. This set me thinking and I decided that the enterprise albeit not for profit, would wobble, crawl, walk or run – all on its own feet. Not be dependent on any whimsical grants or donations. The enterprise currently being incorporated as Hands Together Foundation as I write this, would get into an economic activity to sell the Clever Nut brand of plant based home cleaners to start with. Produced by the underprivileged women currently being trained.

So I set about with the kitchen as my laboratory and vastly the internet as my teacher – learning, experimenting, failing and repeating. I perfected the potions one by one and tried it mostly with me, my spouse, my maid and my plants as the first set of guinea pigs. I found good Samaritans in fruit juice vendors in and around Kharadi and Viman Nagar in Pune who were willing to load up empty gunny bags with precious orange skin peels which could be ground in the only Chakki in Pune that literally grinds all kinds of stuff. I trekked through the by lanes of old Pet-Pune scourging for recycled glass bottle vendors and soapnut wholesalers. And then –

Hey when are your launching your enterprise? Timelines? – My dear friend – I moved out of my past life mainly so that I could live life on my own terms. So the main idea is to not be chained by clocks and calendars. (I now block people who are timeline-fanatics). Some important lessons in the journey of last few months has been that people whom I deal with do things at their own pace. Whether it is the lab testing the products or the firm working on the brand registration, I have had to constantly remind myself that they don’t work at the pace of Big 4 consulting.

Are you going to focus only on underprivileged women? Why not children? Why not rural population? – Women because they are the most powerful beings in any home. Because they or their husbands or both are job-challenged due to the pandemic. Because they are super enterprising even in the face of turmoil. A month ago, I began to get a call from my boutique tailor’s employee every week without fail asking me to give her something to do as the tailor shop has been shut down for two months now. I gave her some stuff to alter, and well sometimes there is only so much alteration one can do to fit in. So I tried telling her that there was officially no occasion to wear office clothes even for people who still hold a corporate job (Aah) and technically therefore I really don’t need so many new clothes now. She persisted without hyperventilating. Her husband is a contract labourer who doesn’t go out to work anymore. She nailed it and has bagged the contract for stitching cloth pouches for the soap nut pouch product of the enterprise. Empower the women and you empower the family and the whole next generation. Why urban women first? Because I am an urban rat. For now.

Why is your product packaged in glass and not plastic? The cost of recycling plastic has been proven to be less expensive than that of glass. I hold a different view. When you look at the lifecycle of the plastic container in totality, the operationalization of whether it will make its way to a dumpyard or a recycling yard is severely uncontrollable. Its more easy with glass which lends itself beautifully to the potential of sterilization and reuse. The shipping and handling costs are going to be high, but we shall start with the concept of returnable glass bottles and see how it goes. I met this eco-store over the weekend and he liked the glass bottle concept but he said its going to be tough for him or any shop to deliver bottles around Pune without a carton. So a recycled paper carton is in too.

Why are you doing so many things now at the same time? Like sketching and writing and publishing your book and working on this enterprise? Did you not quit to relax and take things slower? Why don’t you focus on one thing? Because it sharpens my senses. Cross pollination – the biological activity in plants is essential for their survival. Similarly for a writer, the book is long and publishers hardly respond. Keeping the mind fertile by watching or reading something ‘outside your gene pool’ or even a simple task of sketching a portrait with all of its gruesome detailing can help the mind focus, take it off the original plot you were writing or meant to write and give you a whole new bunch of fresh ideas. I often take such breaks when I hit a dead end in my words and they all start sounding the same – I sandpaper my paper mache objects, do mundane things like clearing my phone space or go back to finish the hyper realistic beard of this old man’s portrait I am learning to sketch. It stabilizes my errant mind and calms it down. I read Suzanne Collin’s interview where she said she’d read the Greek myth of Theseus and the Minotaur when she was eight and it had stuck with her. And then, she was lying in bed one night, channel surfing between reality TV programs and actual war coverage. On one channel, there was a group of young people competing for something; and on the other, there was a group of young people fighting in an actual war. She was tired, and the lines between these stories started to blur in a very unsettling way. That’s the moment when Katniss’s story and The Hunger Games came to her. Collins had already taken in Greek myths. Her fertile mind then absorbed a story of children in war (journalism) and a story of children in a competition (reality TV): those diverse elements came together to create a piece of work that was bizarrely wonderful and a resounding success.

And of course as someone experimenting in plant-based cleaners, you obviously need to let the yeast do its job and let it sit for two months while the bio-enzyme is getting itself into a stable mode.

Cross-pollination seems to be the exact reverse of multi-tasking. You shift between things not because you’re forced to, but with purpose and conscious slow-down that provides this clear yet not-so-clear delineation between the areas and concepts you move about. It provides immense breadth to apply the mind. To tax and then to slow it down. To run and then to pause and look back at the road covered.

But I guess I went too far with stretching the creative boundaries. I finished doing up the logo for the enterprise and just when I was about to work on the product posters I got an earful from my well-meaning spouse to separate out the core from the non-core business activities. I am now looking for a freelancer to work on the videos and posters. Feel free to ping me if you know someone!


Back to the garden city 😇😇😇 fourteenth anniversary gift – #milestonepost

Here is where we started our journey fourteen years back, from Pai Viceroy marriage hall in Jayanagar. We finally landed up at the same place couple of weeks ago on our fourteenth anniversary. We are back to the garden city again, this time with S. Looking forward to the dense rain trees, the fabulous weather and tons of things to do. We move end of this month. Until then. Good bye Pune you have been kind. Nammuru Bengaluru coming soon!!

Caravanning through the forties

Every turn of decade is special. The twenties make you financially upbeat and the thirties elevate you up the ladder while plunging you into career goals and personal responsibilities (Kudos if you escaped that). The sane forties make you realize the importance of balance. In your life. Career. Financials. And in your exercise regimen – phew! And for those of us who have gone through the oscillating peaks and troughs of relationships and stock markets, nothing can shock the forties. Not even the jolting thought that your soul was all this while a trapeze artist trapped in the body of an investment banker. You are finally ready to break the mould you had cast yourself into. The forties give you the luxury of a corpus to do that. Your EMIs are probably tuning down or you have got your SWPs sorted to take care of them every month. Your children, if you have any, are probably in middle school and need lesser of your waking hours. You can bid adieu to your bosses now that you are done with corporate drudgery. Be your own one, for forbidden fruit is downright fun. When the whole world is out there minting money and adding villas to penthouses, doing something that a lot of people deem ‘unproductive’ that yields total bliss and next-to-nothing finances is obscenely gratifying. You need to go through it to get that heady feeling. It gets even more heady when your bank balance is slashed down to a tenth of what it used to be. No more card-swiping without so much as a single glance at the bill amount. No more ten-day five-star hotel stays. Call it a goodbye to all that glamour and glitz. You learn to compare prices. Work out the value of money. Open your mind to experiences rather than material wants. Because you’re worth it. That’s what the forties is all about. It pushes you to explore what you really want from life. Money? Fame? Bike trips? Own startup? Peace? Balance? Travel? Pets? Plants? Yoga? Buddhism? You name it and take off from there.

This is also the phase of life when you get mind blowing epiphanies. Things you’ve been breaking your head over for the last two decades hit you now like a ton of bricks. Did airline seatbelts mock you to readjust them every single time, never seeming enough for your waist? You now know that they are reset to their minimum after every trip. Simplicity takes the cake. You have it figured out by now that keeping mosquitoes at bay is best done the old-fashioned way; welcome back mosquito nets. No overengineering with evil potion-spewing-machines and sprays that repel both man and beast. Going back to basics was never this hep. You appreciate white lights in the kitchen when you want to get some serious cooking done, finally accepting that mood lighting is just a gimmick. You actually begin to enjoy cleaning the fridge in summers as sticking your head inside is really energizing. Half of the corporate world has shrunk its space and you may get permission only twice a week to relax in a chilled workspace. You no longer recklessly slip tees on – you begin to check back-labels on them before wearing to figure out the right-side front. Getting it right first time is key, for there is not much patience for meaningless rework. Ditto with relationships. You know who is right up there in your scale. There is no need to peel layers off personalities. You have utmost clarity on the kind of friends you could hang out with. The kind of house you could live in. The spouse or parent you don’t want to be. The type of funds you would invest in.

Loud pubs are passe. Conversations are welcome. Silence even more. You learn to get your point across with frugality. What earlier used to take twenty words can now be accomplished now with ten. Flowery language and Valentine Days can come and go. Wedding anniversaries and the birthdays of children and pets now matter more. They are, after all, a wise reminder of the number of years the ship has sailed on seas both choppy and smooth.

And that’s how you realize that the things that you thought mattered to you, apparently didn’t. And those for which you didn’t bat an eyelid are the ones that truly matter.  Maybe plucking a sprig of mint from your backyard moves you beyond measure. Or camping at the feet of a lighthouse throwing glowing shards into the ocean elevates you to another plane. The things money can’t buy. The joy of weightlessness. The unbridled freedom of time to do as you please. Or do nothing if you so please.

Welcome to the club.

Journal: One year – Bring on the festivities!

And just like that the needle moved to a year since I quit my regimented-working-living-and-breathing-for-others life. I kept up a monthly journal for the better part of the year till some highly unwarranted COVID 19 vaccine side-effect struck. Life, nevertheless, kept happening in the foreground as it always does. And I sat down to reflect on the past year that was filled with notable treasures like a motley of preciously quirky curios on an interestingly messy shelf.

Exactly a year into my resignation came the incorporation certificate of the Hands Together-Hearts Together Foundation, the baby I had birthed after years of brushing it under various carpets of my mind. There was no chain of cluttery welcome emails from HR bearing joining formalities, no sing-song for a Director designation. No one to tom-tom it and play it up, and thankfully none to play it down either. It was clear this was to be a solitary journey for at least some time to come. A journey that would be devoid of strings that mercilessly tag along on every step of the corporate ladder. No aimless meetings and conference calls and endless conversations that ebb out your energy even before you can call it half of a day. A welcome into the world of a lone soldier. The under-rated luxury of working from a café or the kitchen. The sense of satisfaction that comes with outcome achieved at the end of a hard day. Outcome that is your own sweat, unblemished by other forces over which you have zilch control. Outcome made sweeter through the pleasure of reflection, difficult in my yester-world that teemed with due-yesterday-deadlines and some always-on-fire-people-issue.

The next gift I received to mark the year was the privilege of holding the hard copy of my first book ‘Lockdown stories’. The joke in the family goes that I learnt to read before I learnt to run or cycle, and the only sport I could play for ten minutes flat was carrom. Given that reading was pretty much the only thing I did most of my growing-up years, this was priceless. And of course there were the other silent milestones which together made up the year for what it was – I learnt to get my hands dirty with clay and make meaning of it after having dismissed it for years. Sculpted my own Ganesha and Devi maa this time. Gave back the visarjan water to plants. Learnt paper-mache from a Kashmiri artisan whose last generation is at work in this art. Hosted dinner gatherings without any disposable cutlery. Holidayed for the first time with spouse minus of child. Smelt a humongous spread of red chillies laid out to dry – the reddest I have seen in my life. Watched the oh-so-many movies on my eternal to-watch list including the Dead Poets Society. Learnt to travel without booking the return ticket. Mastered how to break a coconut into two smooth edged workable halves. Discovered an urban sketching group in Pune and met a fellow sketcher in the Western Ghats sketching the elephant head rock. Made almost-perfect modaks. Planned a phone-less vacay. Went vegan (Yes.)

Amidst the current string of festivals, I am reminded quite often about how the place I grew up in has influenced the what I cook, wear and celebrate. I wonder how my sensibilities would have shaped up had I not grown up in the Gujju dominated Mumbai suburb of Mulund and instead grown up in my native Chennai, say chaste Mylapore or the more contemporary Besant Nagar. Or even in Madras-like parts of Mumbai like Matunga or Chembur with their trademark Giri Traders and Mani‘s Lunch Home. As third generation Tamilians based in Bombay, our ilk was usually caught in an interesting tug of war between whether to use our mind space learning to wear the Madisar (traditional Tamilian nine yard saree) or the more glamorous front pleated saree in Gujju style. Whether to stuff ourselves with Amma’s Pongal or Kulkarni aunty’s Til-gul. Whether to spend more time in the Golu or dance out Dandiya nights with the apartment’s bevy of girls. Whether to learn the pristine Maa Kolam or the colourful Rangoli. To immerse oneself in the divine sahasranamams of MS or the soulful Ashtavinayak Geete by the Mangeshkar sisters.

The likes of our tribe effortlessly jostled in Mumbai local trains, comfortably abusing in Marathi if survival demanded it. We spoke to our cousins in Bambaiyya slang Hindi, while our parents rolled their eyes. Phulkas were an everyday staple embraced by our Tam Brahm families for their convenience and interesting sabzi accompaniment options as against the drudge of three rice-based meals in a day. We used to go ballistic on spotting a drumstick tree or a curry leaf plant in space-crunched Bombay. Annual trips to Chennai using the typical leave fare concession of banker parents were punctuated with loading annual sackfulls of Tamil treasures – pure Vibhuti (holy ash), skin safe Gopuram Kumkumam, and sumptuous vadaams, karudaams, vathals, appalams, pappadams, mor molagas – fryables all – salted, soaked and dried in the tirelessly blazing Tamil Nadu sun. Disappointingly though, there were things you couldn’t parcel for the whole year – like the ‘melt-in-the-mouth’ ice-cream flavoured Rasthali bananas…or exotic fruits like the unique rose-flavoured black grapes – panneer drakshai. These we stuffed our tummies with until we could eat no more of them for a year.

Education, work and life took us around the world. We met Tamilians who had grown up in their native and moved to the ‘States’ for studies or for work. We also met those who were second or third generation NRIs. Perfectly surprisingly, and largely to my dismay – the one big thing that was common between both these groups who had had completely different growing up experiences was that both seemed to wear their culture on their sleeves, sundals and sandhyavandanams. They could effortlessly break into a pious ‘Sita Kalyanam’[1] or a ‘Pushpanjali[2] performance at the drop of a hat. And we were in-betweeners in the sense that we neither could stack up a mean mor koozhu[3] that the Madras-bred whipped up. Nor did we fall upon ourselves to become adept at how to celebrate Aadi masam[4] – which the NRIs were wicked experts at. Their alacrity and expertise at festivals probably stemmed from a perceived deprivation of Indianness, and their consequent effort to ace everything Tamil. We, the ones on the fence, however, had never felt a dearth of Indian cheer. We soaked in everything that came our way. Our inability to get even the banal filter kaapi brew right often invoked cheap looks from our parents or grandparents who would gloat about how our Chicago-based cousin A had mastered the Kumbakonam coffee from scratch – from methodically researching and buying the right beans online and grinding them up to the perfectly sized granule in a fancy machine – and it tasted – ‘Ahaa’ – like Uma Paati’s very own. How I hated cousin A.

But I got my perks of course. I can tell a Gondhoraj lemon from a normal one. Wield my way through a thepla and techa as well as I can through an adai. And this one takes the cake – like anyone who grew up in my kind of world, can understand/ speak a minimum of six to seven languages and enjoy a really wide array of movies without subtitles!

So to those of you who grew up in the mega Indian cauldron – Does your Aapam come out as cushiony as that of a native Malayali? Can you rattle out your Didima’s Pui shak recipe as good as your cousin growing up in London who has painstakingly journalled the recipe? Does your Paako stitch come out neat and perfect like your Baa’s? Can you teach your child the rules of the Chowka bara game you played with your Ajja?

The writer has grown up in Gujju dominated Mulund – so much dominated so that she is married to a Gujarati. These days, she is trying hard to get her home-made Molagapodi taste exactly like her Uma Paati’s. Write to her at


[1] A Carnatic composition on Goddess Sita’s wedding usually sung in weddings or other auspicious ceremonies

[2] Typically the first dance in a Bharatanatyam performance to salute Nataraja, the Lord of Dance

[3] A traditional Tamilian porridge-like dish made of rice flour and whole chillies

[4] The fourth month of the Tamil calendar commemorating the rising of water levels with the onset of monsoon. A number of days in this month are earmarked with various rituals and celebrations to seek the blessings of Goddess Durga.

Two states

We could not be more different from each other in school. My worst nightmare was to lose the first place and come second in the class while he kneeled outside the staff room quite often usually with a few of his ilk for company.

The only thing we had in common was love for dogs, a home in the same lane (garden galli, so called as it had a municipal garden) and fathers who were friends. Life hurtled ahead – I was busy doing my chartered accountancy that took up all days and night and he taught computers at an institute. We both had moved away from garden galli by then and hardly figured in each others’ lives or thoughts. But we came back in touch three years before this photograph was taken and I’ll always thank my best friend for that.

As we considered marriage my biggest concern was whether my parents would be fine with it as we had never had a mixed marriage before in the Iyer family. The other serious concerns for me were many – what would we cook, what would the children speak? How would we both manage our careers? How would we stay in Mumbai which I had grown out of? Or in Bengaluru which he so hated? Will we ever watch Tamil movies together? How will we climb the mountains together for it is neither my interest nor my capability? How would I get along with his friends, only twenty of them (!) – mostly backbenchers and college bunkers.

Sixteen years later and thirteen into wedded life – we stay in Pune. The daughter speaks Hindi, our primary language of communication. She can understand and speak a smattering of Tamil and Gujarati as well. Usually I am the one dragged by him to watch Mal and Tam movies. The dearth of friends in my life is more than compensated by his gang. We do methi thepla with coconut chutney. Puran Poli with mango thokku. Kozhakkattai with Lata Mangeshkar’s Ashtavinayak Geet in the background. Navratri golu with Jai AdhyaShakti Aarti. We have new years thrice over – Jan 1, April 14 and do the Gujarati saal mubarak during Diwali. And the festive months pass. For the rest of the year there is Himalayas to the rescue where he treks and I motor to, and read my book under a resonably shady tree with a good grass coverlet.

Love and life will find a way.

Month 5 & 6 – Kashmir is a feeling

Kashmir always seemed out of reach and we had only made it so far as Leh Ladakh in 2014. I was planning for Banaras – the holy abode and Madhya Pradesh the heart of India as options, but then when Kashmir was suggested everything else was shelved. The poetry I had read on the Chinar, the folk tales of the region, the movies about the place – everything had left me intrigued about the land that was as conflicted as beautiful. And like they say you can only do Vaishnodevi when the bulava comes from Mataji herself. I had gifted my parents a trip to this heavenly destination few years back for Dad’s sixtieth, but the place eluded me. I have tried to put together a photo journal of the experiences over the eight days. Advance warning – The photographs here do no justice to the beauty of the landscape. You are advised to rely on your eye and brain for the captures and the retention. Every frame is a postcard and every moment a memory.

The first thing that struck me when we landed in Srinagar was that the landscape was very different from the rocky barrenness of Ladakh. It was full of trees in blossom – Apples, peaches and pears. Naashpati is Hindi for pear 🙂 I was most curious about the people – many of them said that two years just went by one in the removal of article 370 and one in lockdown. Kashmiris have seen it all. They were excellent hosts and genuine people trying their best to live a normal life. The children were all rosy cheeked. Apparently Kashmir has three faces – summer, autumn and winter. We saw the winter-summer face.

Day 1 – Arrive in Delhi, fly to Srinagar and take off to Pahalgam by road.

Srinagar airport has mandatory rapid antigen tests for COVID – queues are not that long and results are instant. Dont unnecessarily waste your time and money getting a report from your place of origin like we did – it doesnt count!

The Himalayas beckon from the flight
A tradional juicer for making fresh apple juice – a staple in all the apple farms you will find around srinagar – this was enroute Srinagar to Pahalgam

Day 2 – Pahalgam. This is one place that should definitely be on any itinerary to Kashmir. It is a pretty moderate-weather town on the foothills with the Lidder river flowing through it. We didnt have snow here in March end, but the views of the gushing river with the resort against the backdrop of the mighty snow-capped mountains are a sight to take in. The best part of Pahalgam? – the soothing sound of flowing river water that keeps following you in every corner of the town.

Snowy Himalayas in the moonlight – if you are a philouran – this view of moonlight and the stars will enthrall you. We did Aru valley and Chandanwadi both breathtaking with snowy views

Day 3 – Gulmarg.

One of the reasons for this trip was to show the children the wonder called snow and Gulmarg was planned with a glimmer of hope that we would be lucky enough to see a snowfall. One of our group mates kept checking the weather everyday, multiple times even, from a fortnight before we travelled till we reached Gulmarg. We went by road from Pahalgam to Gulmarg and on the way there are reasonable government emporium shops to pick up good quality saffron and other handicrafts. We also had some good Almond infused kahwa. The place we went to explained to us the intricacies of carpet weaving, how to identify a hand knotted vs machine made carpet and the significance of knots in a carpet. We spent quite some time and some of us picked one up.

Handloom which is used for carpet weaving. This emporium didnt stock any machine made/ mechanically woven carpets. The more the knots in a carpet the more intricate the design. Some easy tips to verify if the carpet is handwoven – slight irregularities, and the design on the reverse side will be blurred not clear unlike machine woven ones. It is an experience to see the various patterns and colours. Especially antique ones with a story to tell like this one of Shirin-Farhad
The robe these Kashmiris are wearing is the typical dress. It is called ‘pheran’, made of cotton in summers and of wool in winters. Women’s pherans are usually embroidered while men’s are generally plain.There is also a unique portable heater called Kangri which is a basket-like fire-pot that keeps Kashmiris warm in the harsh cold. The Kangri is carried inside the pheran and it is interesting to see smoke emanating from the robes!
A traditional samavar or samovar – used to brew Kahwa. The term is of Russian and Turkish origin, this intricately carved urn is made of copper or brass. The Kahwa with almond slivers was espeically tasty – see the slivers in a box by the side

Chunky lovely Kashmiri jewelry…it can be heavy though 🙂
When in Kashmir dont miss a walk in the mustard fields. Endless rows of bright yellow flowers will make your day and your picture as perfect as can be.

The route from Pahalgam to Gulmarg – the last 45 minutes of it after crossing Tanmarg is mesmerizing with deodar tree forests carpeted by clear snow on both sides. Whatever snow we had seen until now was muddy and brown snow 🙂 It was quite dark and the moon gleamed through the trees when we started this climb but I’d suggest you try and reach here when there is still light.

Day 4 – Gulmarg

We set out for a gondola ride next morning – the kids were all excited to play in the clean thick snow. At this time of the year phase 1 of the gondola zone itself has enough snow to keep you cold

Well snow can be fun only till it gets into your boots!! With feet frozen, two of the kids cried and had to be carried away to warmth, a cozy blanket and some hot chocolate, while the third one had tons of fun sledging!!

Day 5- Gulmarg

Look at the snow crystals glistening in the light of the morning sun
Clear snow carpets
Snow child !! She was up early for a walk with us 🙂
Sweet glacier streams and brooklets underneath the snow
Pick any spot in Gulmarg – and its paintworthy!

A playful dog tugged at my cap i was carrying in my hand…and played with it for quite a long time! I lost a cap for the second time on the trip – but we got a good show. The mountain dog was a meat lover and refused to eat biscuits.

Although snowfall can be expected at this time its very rare. And we were blessed one lovely afternoon which was the highlight of our trip!!!

Snow biking – a unique adventure to try

Day 6 – Gulmarg to Srinagar

We reached Srinagar around late afternoon and had picked the Nigin lake for our houseboat. Nigin lake is less crowded and noisy. It is sad to see the amount of environmental damage tourists have contributed to and it shows in the lakes. Its on each of us to leave zero or atleast minimal footprints.

Day 7 – Srinagar – Dal Lake and tulip garden

Day 8 – Shopping!!

We had the fortune of being escorted around Srinagar by a colleague’s relative who took us to all the hidden riches. One such place was this paper mache artisan’s 150 year old mud house which had rich treasures. We also got a quick demo of the process involved in making this fragile beauties and are now working with the artisan Ajaz to enable him to teach the art to others – he said his is the last generation in this art.

Day 9 – Return

Our last night in Srinagar also gave us a chance to see beautiful decoration – subtle and elegant for a wedding at the hotel we were staying. The wedding was in the night around 2 or 3 am, and no there was zero sound and none of us woke up. Imagine getting married amongst pear blossoms and twinkling fairy lights and the best part completely noiselessly and leaving no traces of an Indian wedding!! Simply impressed and amazed.

The gang of girls!!
Synchronized – in body, mind and spirit – this was our first zero alcohol trip by the way and everyone was in their senses!!
Our quintessential group FACES pic after every trip – cant wait for the next long vacay with this crazy group!!

Month 4 – January – the city I live in

January began with me looking for the best place to source soap nuts and other organic supplies for my enterprise, and a friend made a kind offer to take me around old Pune and show me the antiquated shops where you could get these at a bargain. We took a rickshaw to the Peth areas that made up the heart and soul of Pune – each named after a day of the week. Luckily our trip did not stop at soap nuts – the friend decided to enlighten me with everything she knew of Pune, and I must add here that she knew quite a lot – like for starters she did not use Google maps and constantly goaded the Ola auto driver to take simpler, shorter routes which apparently neither Google maps nor the driver had heard of. After this trip that was meant to be for a couple of hours, but extended languorously into a day-long one, I suddenly knew where fresh Oondhiyo vegetables could be found in the city. Where to lay your hands on the best Biryani masala. Where to find economical yet good quality berries that could be turned into compote for the whole year.

For a long time I was stuck between which city to refer to as mine. I was born in Madras, perhaps only for the sake of being born, grew up in Bombay as a third generation migrant and worked in Bangalore and Pune. Most of my unerasable memories of the impressionable growing up years were created in the city that was not yet Mumbai and I thought of Bombay as my city for very long. When I moved to the idyllic crossover between a town and a city that was 2000’s Bangalore (much against my wishes), I was initially aghast to surrender my life to the whimsical idiosyncrasies of a place that woke up at 10 and slept at 1, woke up at 4 and slept again at 8. It was as if the shops and establishments were doing you a favor by remaining open in those few select hours. But over a period of time, me and Bangalore made amends. The city stayed awake a bit more, and I fell in love with its sleep-lulling weather and slept a bit more. And that’s how we bridged our gap and met somewhere mid-way and I remained smitten by Bangalore for a full decade. Its luxury of space teased the space-starved-450-squarefeet-Bombay-flat-me, its always-a-chill-in the-air weather was a balm for the years we had let ourselves be tortured by hot-humid coastal weather, and it hadn’t earned the name of garden city for nothing. Bangalore was full of interesting watering holes, quaint cafes with books – a precious combination where you could put your feet up to read, write or gaze at total strangers unabashedly for hours together. I had gotten over my love for Bombay.

I got my spouse to try the city I was infatuated with, and he hated Bangalore for weirdly the same reason I loved it for – its lazy weather. Add to that its annoyingly long distance from Mumbai and never-ending traffic woes that had just started making their presence felt. This single major non-compatibility on cities between me and my spouse has led me to a strong belief that a couple, before doing their marriage vows, should, at any cost, come to an agreement on the shortlist of cities they would make their home in. This issue cost us 7 homes in 6 years of marriage and even today the sight of a mover and packer truck gives me light panic attacks. After the spouse’s indelible and heart-breaking refusal to continue in Bangalore, I decided to give Mumbai a second attempt. By now it was fully Mumbai and the traces of Bombay had almost faded away. Nursing my broken heart with a Bangalore shaped hole, I came back to my first love, willing to compromise. We moved into a slightly larger apartment than the one I grew up in – 700 square feet this time and it felt strangely liberating and Zen-like to let go of possessions and keep only the bare essentials. I once again welcomed foldable dining tables, pull out beds and lending library books into my life. But I could not relate the city to the Bombay I had grown up in. It was as if the decade I missed had robbed the city of its steadily intense rains that used to whiplash for most of July-Aug-Sep, its pleasantly chilly winter nights, its sweet Aapus-smelling summers – when the oppressive heat that hung over your head could be whittled away easily with a spray of cool water. Traveling by local trains now needed a change of clothes so you wouldn’t look haggard when you stepped into office. Air-conditioning in homes – something that I was so unused to, was utterly common. Coming from artsy-fartsy Bangalore drenched in Rangashankara plays, endless art exhibitions, pottery teaching studios and the newly begun Just Books that had changed the face of libraries in India, the culturally rich places of Mumbai seemed more farther from the suburbs than ever before, thanks to the continued stress on public transport by the ever-swelling population. My suburb side of the city seemed decadent and vacuous and I tried to compensate for the abject 4-hour-travel weekdays by calligraphing Tibetan alphabets and reading the Mint Lounge on weekends. It took us all of five months to decide the this wasn’t the city for us. The sheer distance between places was overwhelming and I racked my brains, struggling to understand why the city had seemed smaller, cooler and greener when I grew up. My longing for Bangalore amplified, but by now, that too was collapsing under the pressures of wannabe-Silicon Valley, climbing to covet the world’s worst traffic jams city title and nightmarish stories made the rounds of how people navigating Bangalore’s roads spent endless hours on it, mostly at the same spot. A recent TomTom traffic index report points out that in the time an average Bangalore traveler spent in above-average traffic jams, he/she could have planted 244 trees, solved 49 jigsaw puzzles, watched 215 episodes of Game of Thrones or 139 football matches. The Bangalore shaped hole in my heart only became bigger.

In a get together to ring in 2012, one of our couple friends who stayed in underrated Pune nonchalantly mentioned how they gymmed in the evenings on the days they couldn’t do mornings, and we were instantly hooked by this wild desire to explore how people in consuming corporate jobs could not only get back home, but also to the gym at a time that was called evening. Pune was a place that raked up our childhood memories of Lonavala, Deccan Queen and delicious groundnut chikki. It was the Oxford of the East where our engineer cousins would usually flock to study and work, perennially green due to its vast army and air force pockets. From our memories of Marathi letter-writing exercises in school, the city was made up of seven Peth areas, although I frankly don’t remember who we wrote all those letters to. The city, all through our growing up, had unassumingly stayed under the shadow of the more glamorous, more suave and more successful big sibling Mumbai. Pune was not as fast, not as developed, and not as rich, and that meant no insane traffic, no transfiguration by concrete and no intimidating local trains. Or perhaps less of them. It did not have a stable transport system and fell in a rain shadow region, but it boasted of large houses with even larger balconies (planted smartly on alternate floors) and quirkily rude nameboards that reeked of a fetish for afternoon naps, slow living, and dedication of time to carefully groom and nurture a snobbish attitude. The weather was dry and hot in the day, and cheekily turned into pleasant and chilly at nights, like a sane working professional who lets his hair down and transforms beyond recognition after a few drinks. We waited for the right opportunity to raise its head in that city, and once it did, we relocated before any of us could have a change of heart.

And so we lived in Pune, and have been around in one house for the last 6 years which is an achievement in itself. Given that most of my life in the city until now was spent working, my knowledge about the city was limited mostly to Koregaon Park – with its wonderful eat-out places where I took my teams and Osho Park which is a carefully tucked away secret and a respite from anything one wants to escape. I was the frog in that well. With the exploring of the city I have done in the last few months, I now notice shades I never knew it had. The Puneri attitude is just a cover – scratch on it with genuine warmth and you will find some of the most generous hearts. I came across people who give up trying to explain directions and walk with you to the destination. Neighbors as good as gold. Tree hugging quinquagenarians who invest their time in endless meetings with the local municipality to turn waste land into an oasis of forested trees. Bird watchers who religiously chronicle and photograph the flying gems of the city. Parents with time on their hands holding story read-out days for children. Traditional old-time restaurants that coax you to finish your plate by doling out a discount for fully empty plates. In some ways, the attitude reminds me of Bangalore – the way Vidyarthi Bhavan or other cult darshinis impudently omit sambar from their menu or give you a look of contempt when you ask for those copious extra dollops of chutney you can’t get enough of. 

I can now tell you about the libraries that have re-opened after the pandemic. And the ones that do coffee along with books. Where to find the most flavorful dabeli. The mandi stocking the waxy less-starch Talegaon potato ideal for making chips. The right place to get cut mangoes for pickling. The closest to the original Indori poha. The only chakki in the city that has a dedicated machine to grind all natural soap supplies – peels and nuts. The freshest herbs – right from Brahmi to betelnut leaves. The guy who can repair any electronic device on the planet. The cobbler who stitched up my cork bag so expertly no one can tell it was ever torn. And finally – hold your breath – where to find the almost extinct desi bhutta.

And I feel like I have finally arrived in Pune.

December – Picking the ‘write’ spot!

Deciding to end this special year on a high, I planned to spend the last month of the year in the mountains. They say once you have lived with the mountains, they are always incongruously present somewhere in you. You become a part of them. I have always realized that I tend to be a lot more clear-headed around mountains. They gave me the courage to make 2020 a life changing year for me, helping me realize what my dreams and choices were. They stood by me silently sentinel-like while, gazing at them, I had those I am-moving-on conversations with my work mates. This month was also about macrame. An interesting spin between crochet and knitting, macrame is all about knotting the right way. I am so not a crochet or knit person. I can be miserable around balls of wool and needles. However, when I saw my anti-crochet mother macrameing like there was no tomorrow and churning out wispy, bohemian pieces of art, I had to try it. And I was surprised I didn’t suck at it. If you are also one of those who cannot crochet for the sake of their lives, give this a shot. You will be surprised. Taken aback. Anything but disappointed. Macrame is a balance-advocating Zen guru, posture-correcting Bharatanatyam teacher and a free-spirited art professor – all rolled into one. It teaches you to be still and only move where you need to. To move your knuckles. Wrists. Fingertips. It requires you to move only those specific body parts deftly and with dexterity, while keeping the rest of yourself calm and relaxed. It teaches you the ultimate lesson of balance by inducing a mild shoulder-back pain if you keep at it for hours. Simply put – it teaches you not to overdo things. You are forced to do only few rows at a time, holding yourself gracefully – by learning and perfecting the right posture for your neck and shoulders.

On the natural cleaner social enterprise front, one of my most important customers with a planet friendly mind and a bluntly honest tongue – my mother – used my dishwash detergent. And loved it. She thought it was a little too coarse and my father, as usual, came to my rescue with yet another one of his gadgets, a Brayden coffee cum spice grinder that effortlessly turned the detergent to fine powder. I enlisted my friends who were serious about the trials. This month saw me going one step beyond the floor cleaner, multipurpose cleaner, dishwash detergent and laundry liquid. In my vow to live and make live a chemical-free life, the dishwasher, with all its convenience, was a boulder in my way that wouldn’t budge. I didn’t want to put a brand new appliance out of tune by ruthlessly experimenting with it, neither was I comfortable in the toxic-loaded way of life it offered. I had to take the plunge somewhere. I took advantage of the husband being away on a boys vacay for few days and quietly ushered the dishwasher into my experimentation lab. I used my dishwash liquid on it and achieved 80 percent success rate. It gave me the much-needed prod that I was on the right track. And needed to improvise.

This month also had a surprising twist to the way I would work – while the whole world worked and studied seamlessly from home, I realized I couldn’t. Part of it was due to the fact that I was no longer in a surface-skimming, do-it-as-a-job-and-earn-your-living kind of work life. I was a writer. I needed my creative space. Now – before you roll your eyes, yes – I have read about innumerable famous writers who wrote in the middle of changing bawling babies’ nappies. Who wrote amidst screaming children and squabbling family in the living room. Amidst saucepans bubbling with broth and a kitchen resembling a perennial war field. But I just wasn’t that kind of writer. Not by me, at least. I need quiet. I can’t write with familiar faces around. So I set up my room as a writers room. I got a sturdy folding table from Ikea. Just big enough to accommodate my laptop, water bottle and my reading statuette made by my mother. I purposefully designed it to be only as much big so that it wouldn’t hold any other distractions like the Kindle or the myriad books dotting my bedside. When I started writing here on the first day, I left no stone unturned to make it the perfect writing abode. I drew the curtains to their perfect angle so the room would be illuminated with just the right amount of natural light. I avoided sitting on the bed as it would lure me to a siesta post lunch.

I instructed my family not to disturb me during my stipulated work hours. Armed with a new laptop and the newly found liberating freedom of time, off I raced into my room to conquer the world with my words. I was so wrong and highly interrupted. The maid came to do the sweeping-swabbing. I moved my room in the priority list to be cleaned first. Now, that was sorted I thought. She came for chore instructions. I decided to solve all her queries before I entered my sanctum sanctorum. The maid intervention seemed to be taken care of now. The child came with her zoom connectivity issues. Laptop booting issues. Unable-to-finish-lunch-sabji-too-spicy issues. I had had enough. I redirected her to the spouse for all class, connectivity and laptop matters. I instructed her to cover left over food and store it in the fridge in case she couldn’t finish it all. I explained some tricks of how she could tone down a spicy side dish. I taught her to clean up after having her lunch. And thought this was done. Seems it was not. The phone turned out to the biggest villain. Despite being in non-notification mode for the last few months, it teased me into checking social media. The supermarket guy called to confirm details of my order. Amazon sent messages that they were delivering some of my natural cleaning raw materials in advance. That got me kicked and I religiously tracked shipments. All new releases happened on OTT and suddenly I had a good enough list of movies to catch up on. Few days of guilty phone-indulging and I decided to leave it in the living room before entering my abode. I might have as well left it in the hands of my daughter, and she would have meticulously ensured the phone never reached me till I went looking for it. I must add that Kindle was by far the most well-behaved. It didn’t bleat, it didn’t prompt. It lay silently, waiting for me to sift through its abode of books. Post lunch was especially difficult with a treasure trove of books and an incorrigible reading eye. The magic of dozing off while into your favorite book is one of the most underrated pleasures in the world.

All these left me with a few realizations. When you are seen as not working in a corporate job, you lose cover. The walls around you suddenly become porous and invisible. You are suddenly seen as the messiah of all ills – curer of all things painful. People begin to notice the new you with time on a hand and a willing ear. You become the new gadget guru, colour chooser, recipe finder, book recommender, Amazon product reviewer and a zillion more things on the block. You suddenly have many close friends in your life. Well it happened to me. I was never a friends person and today here I am with lot more good company. You are suddenly as social as social can get in the age of the pandemic.

You probably take it hard on yourself too. If you are someone into creative freelancing, without a boxing corporate job, you are in a reasonably flexible lifestyle, and full of eyes for everything that is happening around you. You start noticing unkempt corners of your home, corners, that in the past you never even knew existed. I noticed myself doing that. I then got what a corporate job does to you and to the people around you. It gives you a break-proof bubble. A bubble that is translucent – you know things are going wrong around you, but you can choose to ignore it. The courier guy is at the door, but of course you are on a call. You have a review meeting. Your boss is on the line. You can, without, of course a trace of guilt shut the door on someone who seeks to approach you. Aaah. The pleasure of it. I have done that so many times. Not being in a corporate life makes you more human and vulnerable. Distractions abound. They sense you and you attract them. Which is why it’s definitely important to carve your schedule of those few hours you want to put into writing every day. Writing is not like cycling or swimming or car driving – you get those once and they stick on to you. Writing can go rusty if you don’t tinker with it. And it has a huge ego. If you pityingly ignore it for days on end, it can swell upto its full size and glare down at you asking you to justify why you even deserve a chance at it. And if you are someone who very badly wants to be a writer, you will sense the restlessness that eats into you on the days when you don’t write. A writer’s pen (or keyboard) will eventually take over the distractions. There are ideas lying buried in your phone notes that need to be given life and shape. The words that sometimes zap like electric currents in your mind that need to be reined to paper. Contests which need to be applied to. Call for stories that need to be met.

I am someone who is midway between the two extremes – a strong believer that a writer needs to set aside that precious few hours everyday of his or her own without a being in sight. But that pocket of time should have enough blank spaces to gaze wistfully at a leaf dappling in the sunlight. Or to glance at a neighbour’s terrace taking glimpses and ideas for the next story. Well, these make the creative juices flow for me.

This was the month when I ironically realized I possibly cannot write in my well-planned writer’s room. After finishing my chore list, I set off today with my laptop bag explaining to my family I was going OUT to write. Probably to a public space, or a café. Not decided. But no, not at home. There is a corner of my apartment complex I cherish. It’s a gazebo hugged by orange and purple flowering creepers. I positioned myself in there, in a spot with a good view of the creepers. I unpacked my water bottle, laptop and a small picnic spread cloth I had got to sit on. A perfect, cloudy cool Pune winter morning helped. The cleaning staff who were moving about wondered what I was doing in the gazebo with a mini office set up. A cat who occasionally checks on me while I am walking, casually pranced about to see what I was up to now.

And I got my writing done! In the company of cats, sunbirds and laughing doves. I am going to pack a backrest pillow, folding recliner chair, some lemonade and insect repelling citronella cream tomorrow.

Life lessons from Pachinko

Recently, a rust coloured spot in the mountain ranges outside my window has been catching my attention. Further attempts to examine it through the telescope revealed a fir tree the colour of autumn leaves, surrounded by other trees in the forest in various shades of green-gray. I have been trying to photograph this tree but it has stubbornly refused to lend itself even to a reasonably powerful camera lens.

This tree is a metaphor for hope in non-conformity. Each one of us is different, yet desperate to be acceptable. Surviving, managing and thriving on non-conformity resonates with a powerful book that moved me deeply. Pachinko, by Min Jin Lee glows with accolades. It beautifully blends history, powerful story telling and craft and offers a number of precious lessons. Before I get into that, here is a quick summary of the plot – spoilers ahead. The first novel written on the conflict between Japan and Korea, Pachinko is set between the years 1910 and 1989, during the Japanese occupation of Korea and World War II. It sweeps through four generations of an ethnic Korean family. Sunja, the only surviving child of her parents, transforms their lives. After her father’s death, her mother single-handedly brings up Sunja, and together, they run the family home as a boarding house. Teenaged Sunja falls in love with a prominent businessman, whom she later finds out is married with a family in Japan. She carries his child and finds an escape through a local pastor Isak who offers to bail her out through marriage. She moves with Isak from her tiny Korean fishing village, immigrating to his brother’s house in an ethnic Korean neighbourhood in Osaka, Japan. Life is a struggle for these impoverished Koreans. Isak is arrested for preaching Christianity and succumbs to prison conditions. With the war and partition of Korea, it becomes impossible for Sunja to return to her homeland. After the war, Pachinko parlours start popping up all over Japan. Pachinko, a popular Japanese recreational game, is a cross between a slot machine and pinball. Sunja’s sons find work in Pachinko parlors which are often run by Korean Japanese. Sunja and Isak’s son Mozasu thrives in this business. But her elder son, Noa, never comes to terms with his identity and life.

Zainichi (long term Korean residents of Japan) were required to re-apply for alien registration cards every three years even if they were born in Japan. They were rarely granted passports, making overseas travel nearly impossible. For this discriminated community, pachinko parlors were the primary mode of finding work and accumulating wealth. Although primarily woven around the treatment of Koreans in Japan, Pachinko goes beyond and can be related to the life of all those alienated and struggling to fit into an unwelcoming society or edifice. The book is written in a stark and naked style, stripping it of any embellishments and judgements, narrating the story in a very matter-of-fact way, yet moving mountains while doing so.

Life lessons from the book –

Making it one’s life-mission to conform to the norms of those in power can set one up for disaster.

Mozasu, Sunja’s second son is unwavered by the taunts he gets from his Japanese classmates – he ignores them at times and beats them up when it gets beyond him. He emerges more adaptable to life’s travails and a diamond from the dirt. On the other hand, Noa the elder son of Sunja who wants to emulate the Japanese and be respectable, is obedient and desperate to just belong. He is unable to come to terms with his Zainichi identity, keeps it hidden from his wife and children, rebuilding his world from scratch with a fake Japanese identity. Sunja, who eventually manages to trace him after more than fifteen years, comes looking for him. Noa ends his life after this forced meeting when he realizes he can no longer handle the duality of his existence.

The resilience of women – Empower and have faith in them, and they can bail you out of any situation. Sometimes it takes a catastrophe to figure out the amount of sheer strength and utter resolve they possess. Miracles happen when women team up and decide to support each other.

Isak is wrongly alleged and jailed. Money is scarce, there are growing children to feed. Her sister in law Kyunghee can make excellent Kimchi (a staple Korean side-dish), but her husband Yoseb is against her making a business out of it. Sunja and Kyunghee decide to team up with what they are best at. They make the Kimchi with Kyunghee’s perfect recipe, and Sunja peddles it on the streets, leaving her children with Kyunghee. Sunja sets up a shack outside the train station and does not go home until she can see the bottom of the Kimchi jar everyday. Likewise, Yumi, Mozasu’s wife is a workaholic seamstress and spends endless hours on her machine. She attends part-time college, is a bright English student and her biggest dream is to start a new life in America. She tries to uplift herself and her family through the most difficult times.

Wars change life beyond measure – they not only destabilize countries, economies, governments and leaders, they destabilize the human in us and our general belief in good. Wars affect the relationships we believe are impervious, like that between a parent and child.

When Noa vanishes, Sunja looks for peace in her memories with him. She can still feel Noa’s small hand in hers and remembered that he had always tried his best. “How wonderful it would be if one didn’t have to think of war or hunger and only love their children”, she reflects. One of the heart wrenching moments in the book is when Isak is finally cleared of the false charges and returns home after more than two years, Noa is unable to take his eyes off his father for fear that he would disappear.

Nature vs nurture – The story leads us to believe that nurture and upbringing can replace nature.

Noa, who is adopted by Isak, tries to emulate him and live by his ideals of simplicity and honesty through his childhood and growing up years. His biological father Koh Hansu tracks him down and offers to pay for his education at Tokyo’s prestigious Waseda University, under the guise of championing and uplifting the upcoming Zainichi generation. When Noa gets to know that Hansu, a Yakuza (member of an organized crime association in Japan), is his biological father, he drops out of the university he struggled so hard to get into. He refuses to use the blood money as a stepping stone to an academically uplifted life he had always wanted. 

Education or academics do not maketh a man successful – adaptability and resilience matter more.

Noa is academically brilliant, a model student, appears as Japanese as he can and spends years trying to get into what is considered as the second most difficult university in Japan. His brother Mozasu, street smart, hates school and books, but has lofty life goals. Mozasu drops out of school and starts working for a Pachinko parlour. He makes a fortune and then becomes the owner of a string of parlours with his energy, passion, and his sheer adaptability to what life throws at him. Noa breaks down, drops out of university and all he then desires is an oblivious, forgotten existence working for a small town Pachinko parlour.

Not everyone is meant to stay in our life forever. Sometimes they are only there long enough to teach us the lessons we need to learn. The ‘forever’ then, is not the person, but what we learn from them.

Isak Baek makes a very brief appearance in the lives of his wife and children but leaves behind ideals, whom each of them attempt to follow in their own way.He is a model father for Noa and Mozasu. Isak, to them, is conjured up by his ethics, rather than their memories with him. It is true that sometimes you feel closer to a loved one when they are dead. When they live you are too caught up in detangling the daily rigmarole of life to reflect on the person you are closest to. When they are no more, you can dwell on your entwined lives dispassionately. Sunja seems to get to know Isak better when she visits him in his resting place. It appears as though Isak is more with his family in his unbeing rather than perhaps in his being.

And finally it’s hope that keeps us all alive. In Min Jin Lee’s words – ‘A game of Pachinko is as rigged as life itself is. But you just keep playing it in the hope of winning somewhere, some day. There could only be a few winners, and a lot of losers. And yet we played on, because we had hope that we might be the lucky ones.’

November – Being gentle on the planet

I read an article here on how the dining table has taken center stage at our homes during the pandemic. It is the kitchen that doubles up as my work room these days. November was dedicated to natural household cleaner composition trials and at any point of time, the kitchen brimmed with soapnuts soaking in a vessel or bubbling in pots along with neem and lemon. The bio enzyme jar lay under the sink with yeast added in. I filtered the first batch of bio-enzyme towards the end of this month. It took a month with the yeast, and the only way I could tell it was ready was by the elapsed time, and by the fact that the lemon peels were submerged into the brownish liquid while they had earlier kept up their heads. Videos like this helped me to make two kinds of bio-enzymes – one highly viscous and pulpy and the other light and clear. I discovered that bio-enzyme has quite a strong smell and I would advise anyone who is allergic to pungent smells to have a mask on them before they proceed to handle this sweet-sharp smelling guy. Post trials and errors using different substance combinations, I arrived at a version 1 working formula for five products – dishwashing liquid, multipurpose cleaner, dishwash powder, fabric detergent and floor cleaner. I tried to be bluntly minimalist in my approach, frugally sticking with as few ingredients as possible. The idea was to make it affordable and effective, while at the same time completely planet friendly, a balance which I am still working on perfecting. I am in awe of people who democratize knowledge in their respective fields. In the two spheres that I extensively deal with these days, the Himalayan Writing Retreat (HWR) democratizes information in the field of publishing. The writing group transparently shares a treasure trove of information on navigating the secret labyrinths of publishing – finding a writing agent, methods and options to publish and the whole lot.  Likewise, in the field of natural and planet friendly living, the enormous number of people who have freely shared their ideas helped me come up with formulae. I read about borax, washing soda, baking soda, lye, vinegar and such, and understood which of them are natural and biodegradable. I embraced the ancient Indian soaping agent used from aeons – the soapnut – in all forms. The soapnut is a tough nut to track – literally and figuratively. My attempts to make it germinate have been in vain so far. It takes nine years for a soapnut tree to start yielding nuts. Through experiments, I figured out that citrus peels and bio-enzymes work well with the nut.

Once the working formula was ready, the next challenge was to replace the traditional chemical ridden products on our shelves and get everyone in the house to start using the natural products. I remembered the crux of James Clear’s book ‘Atomic habits’ that stuck with me. I am yet to finish this atrociously simple gem of a book that talks about the four laws of behaviour change for building better habits – 1. Make it obvious 2. Make it attractive 3. Make it easy and 4. Make it satisfying. I filled up the plastic bottles saved up from the last few months with the produce and labelled them with handwritten messages – ‘Use me without diluting’ or ‘Scrub me on greasy grub’ and displayed them on full view. They almost reminded me of the mysteriously infamous ‘Eat me’ and ‘Drink me’ bottles of Alice in Wonderland. I begged S to lend me an elegant sprayer and filled the multipurpose liquid in it. The old plastic bottles would probably have to do until I figure out a more eco-friendly alternative on the biodegradable packaging front. Atomic habits also talks about the reverse for doing away with bad habits – 1. Make it invisible 2. Make it unattractive 3. Make it difficult 4. Make it unsatisying. On cue, I hid the Vim liquids, Surf detergents, Colins, Harpics, Pitambaris and Lizols away in the uppermost shelf of the tallest cabinet I could find, that would require anyone to lug in the ladder to access. I am still working on replacing the dishwasher detergent, taking slow chances with the new machine.

My maid started cleaning the floor with the liquid and she loved it when I told her its natural and good for her hands. She loved the smell too, that was thanks to the few drops of essential oil I had put in to mask the overly citrus smell of the enzyme. The spouse started using the liquid and powder for the vessels that don’t go into the dishwasher. My first big validation came from the fact that he was happy with it. ‘Liquid for the normal ones and the powder for the greasy-messy ones’, I continued to sing-song for a couple of days until it was became part of the system. Of course this switch has not been easy. The chemical induced magical foam that we are addicted to had to get out of our heads. The natural products don’t foam much so there’s no knowing whether they are doing their business. One needs to purely rely on the sense of touch and smell. If you could just glide through the vessel with a scrubber using a traditional dishwashing liquid, there is definitely more scrubbing needed here. I am dead sure it is burning away our calories. At the end of it all, the feeling that you can feed the water from washing dishes or clothes directly to your plants is priceless. Or that you can reuse the water to clean your washroom. Or the fact that the water that goes down your drain is good on the rivers. Gives you a completely new lens.

I moved ahead to the point where citrus peels were now needed in bulk to make samples to be distributed to friends who had opted for trials. We approached a local fruit juice guy who does brisk business even in the times of the pandemic. When asked if we can have the peels to make something, he immediately smiled and asked ‘Aap sabun banate ho na’? We nodded and collected the peels from him at shop-closing hour. He has offered that we can come anytime to pick up peels, and to just leave a bag with him a day in advance.

Another important marker this month of holistic clean living was starting off composting. I used the simplest method of natural composting – basically just three earthern pots placed atop each other. They sit in a corner of my balcony making it beautiful. Oh yes, and fruit flies abound, and can be reduced a bit by putting a handful of cocopeat on top of the wet waste. It is liberating to give dry waste only once in a few days to the person who comes around to collect garbage in the apartment. She became more and more wide-eyed when we did not give her any wet waste for almost a week, and then we had to tell her we were composting. To me, the best part of this is not using the black garbage bags.

I started hydroponic cultivation of coriander, driven by the desire to save the time cleaning greens interspersed with mud. I wanted to grow my own, but without mud, so this seemed a better option. Hydroponic cultivation is slow and teaches you Zen like patience to moisten, wait and watch. The pluses apart from my primary objective – it doesn’t need real estate to grow or periodic watering. All it demands is a little bit of attention and some fertilizer in the hosting water below.

The month ended with a beautiful surprise – the doorbell rang and it was my neighbour who came in to drop a bag full of citrus peels. And I guess its time to make the next batch of produce 🙂