Monday, August 30, 2004

The Amazing Tiffin Box I: Save Our Stomach

My 5-year stint in advertising left me with one unfortunate legacy – IBS.

For the uninitiated, IBS is Irritable Bowel Syndrome (although in my case it was Infuriated Bowel Syndrome). I won't get into stomach turning details but it was like having ones innards skewered and roasted over flaming coals. Stress, late nights and irregular mealtimes stoked the conflagration. Hell wasn't a myth. It was the hollow below my ribs.

Remedies were aplenty but they were as effective as dousing a forest fire with a pail of water. Still, I grasped at every straw. I drank water until it gurgled out of my ears. I ate high fibre and low carb foods. I took double helpings of boiled lady finger. I dabbled in Ayurveda. One week I tried remedies for pitha dosha, the next week, for kapha dosha… I drove waiters batty by dithering over a simple menu… I become a hypochondriac, a chronic worrier which only encouraged the IBS.

And then one day, I chanced upon the tiffin box.

At lunchtime, my colleague pulled out a grey metal tiffin box. It looked like any of the millions of tiffins that are supplied to offices all around Mumbai. But when she spread out the four steel boxes, I was captivated.

I've a bit of experience with tiffin providers. What is expansively called 'Salad' is one slice each of wilted tomato, cucumber and onion. Only potatoes and chickpeas qualify as 'Vegetable'. And the curries are so explosive, they leave burn marks on your ears.

"Have a bite," offered my colleague as I gazed goggle-eyed at her tiffin.

There were two salads – one with crunchy greens, the other with healthy sprouts. Wisps of aromatic steam curled lazily from the rice. And the gravy wasn't flaming red but mild ochre. My long-suffering stomach rumbled in delight. I helped myself to the proffered bite and demanded, 'Give me the number!'

I called up immediately after lunch.

Me: Hi, I'd like to order your tiffin.

Voice (starchly): We do not run a tiffin service. *click*

I turned to my colleague indignantly.

She smacked her head and said, 'Oh, I'm sorry, I should have told you. She doesn't usually send you the tiffin until you go for the interview.'

My stomach problems were affecting my hearing, I was certain. Did she just say interview?

"Yes, interview," continued my colleague, 'she's into this nutrition thing and takes it all very seriously.'

I was intrigued. Somebody actually had the gumption to call oh-so-busy office goers for an interview - for a tiffin box! Most tiffin providers threw in a free trial as an incentive. The person who ran this health outfit was either plain dotty or else, was supremely confident about her work. And that's exactly what I needed – someone who had answers. For once, hope rose instead of bile… I called once more and made an appointment for the ‘interview’.

Part II - The Interview

Sunday, August 22, 2004

In search of Prabal Fort

Many years ago, when in College, I'd gone on a monsoon trek. And the resulting trauma almost put me off trekking for life. To begin with, it was a night trek, my shoes were all wrong, my bag wasn't waterproof and my dinner was a sodden mess. The spare clothes were also soaked. And to make the ignominy more thorough, we lost the trail.

Faint memories of that fiasco stirred in my mind when I signed up for the trek to Prabalgad on Independence Day. Of course, I was a more experienced trekker now, but one didn't take a trek rated 'Difficult in the monsoons' lightly. What added to my nervousness was that two of my friends, both first time trekkers, had also signed up. In convincing them that it would be fun, I hoped I didn't make it sound like an easy amble.

But when we reached the base village of Poinje, just a few kms. off Panvel, and saw the lofty slopes smothered with every hue of green, and not a soul in sight, all concerns fled. 'Let's GO!' said 15 pairs of itchy feet.

Crash! My friend, S, stepped on a mossy patch and found herself nose to the ground. We hadn't even left the village.

'Watch your step, don't fall,' cautioned someone, in what proved to be the most useless bit of advice in the whole day.

We crossed the little hamlet and headed out into a wide expanse of green. It was 11 a.m. but the scowling, low-hanging cumulonimbus, created an end-of-day feeling. The peak of Prabalgad, shrouded in mist, seemed unbelievably distant. 2318 feet, said the guidebook. Of the fort itself, not much was known save the fact that the Great Maratha Warrior had wrested it from the Mughals in 1658. I couldn't wait to see the view from the fort ruins. I couldn't wait to have my head in the clouds.

We squelched through the moisture-soaked earth. Initially, I tried to avoid getting my shoes wet by stepping nimbly over stones. I gave up when I realized that the only way to keep them dry would be to walk on my hands. We waded through streams and bent low as we hacked through overgrown thickets. Crabs dozing in little puddles, scuttled away as fast as they could.

The rain swooped down on us intermittently; unqualified windcheaters offering little resistance. I couldn't even remember the last time I drank the rainwater streaming down my face. It was unbelievably pleasurable.

We started the steep climb to the second plateau. Although we were alone, the woods were far from silent. Birds chirruped, brooks gurgled, mosquitoes hummed, we grunted. The trail was all but washed away at places. And after climbing a particularly steep and slippery patch, we scrambled onto a flat, green expanse of land.

The view on almost every side was heartbreakingly beautiful. Peaks rose and fell, rose and fell in wide sweeping arcs. Prabalgad, Irshalgad, Kalvantini durg… all so much closer now. I was transfixed by the sight of billowing clouds racing towards an immutable peak and getting torn to shreds. The swirling mists created an effect of 'smoking mountains'. What time was it? The gray clouds gave no clues.

Somehow I’d always thought of gray as gloomy. But it seemed to bring out the rich green hues of the surrounding foliage so stunningly that I didn’t want the sky to be any other colour.

And then the perfect picture got marred.

‘We’ve taken the wrong trail. It will be another 3 hours to the fort,’
said the trek leader. ‘We have two options – continue or head towards the village’.

Sanity would have chosen the latter, considering there were far too many first timers and the trail was almost non-existent. But we were the ‘let’s-give-it-a-shot’ kinds. We started climbing. Correction, we started scrambling on all fours, gingerly treading our way. And we slipped and tripped like sozzled barflies.

We’d almost gotten ¾ of the way to the top, when a decision was taken not to go any further. We stopped for lunch at a waterfall and then started the precarious descent. More slipping and tripping.

I was disappointed at not having reached the peak. But S & P were exultant. ‘I’ve never done anything like this before’, said P. ‘I’m so glad I came along’, marveled S. And my spirits lifted a bit. Prabalgad could be conquered another day.

Wednesday, August 11, 2004

What's worse?

An insight: People who carp and whine about life being full of problems have no real problems at all...

A couple of days ago, I visited my friend Ro. One of her twin boys, K, was just back from a week long stint in the ICU. In the last five months that they've been here, little K has been hospitalised almost every month for a variety of infections. During the last ICU spell, the hospital didn't permit parents to stay overnight. So when K was back home, he became a little insecure about being kept on the bed. He cried if he wasn't carried all the time. During the time I was there, his eyes were heavy with sleep, but he'd fight it off and keep an alert watch. He still had the remnants of a bad cold and his tiny frame heaved feebly as his lungs threw up copious amounts of phlegm.

'Poor boy is going through so much,' cooed Ro, stroking his curls. 'But you're going to get better, you're going to be a strrrrong boy,' she nodded and smiled at him. And K beamed in response, his eyes flashing.

She turned to me and said, 'We're so fortunate that he's mentally alert. At least we know he'll get better. We might have to do a couple of operation, but he'll be well for sure.'

I was astounded by her attitude as usual. And then she told me of the woman who's 3-year old son shared the ICU room with K. Chatting with her, Ro discovered that she had twin sons as well. But the child who was at home was stricken with cerebral palsy.

'I tried telling her that things would be ok,'
said Ro, 'but she shrugged and said that it was irreversible'.

'But would you believe it,' continued Ro animatedly, 'she was saying that she was fortunate that she lived in a joint family where everyone took turns to look after the palsy-afflicted boy. And then she started telling me of someone in a worse situation!'

Apparently this woman was expecting triplets. But the doctor's insistence on delivering the babies without a caesarean meant that one baby died at birth and both the surviving babies had cerebral palsy.

I wonder what this woman would have made of her situation. But I've reason to believe she would have considered herself fortunate because of someone who was worse...

An Insight (contd.): People who carp and whine about life being full of problems have no real problems at all. People with the real problems are busy counting their blessings.

Sunday, August 08, 2004

Do-it-yourself guide to card making

It took a handmade card from D to remind me of what I'd been missing.

I had griped some months ago about the vanishing tribe of greeting cards. Of how phone calls, emails, e-cards and sms had replaced the once-cherished cards. I had proclaimed loftily then that I would revive this almost extinct tradition. But sometime early this year, my resolution fell by the wayside. Birthdays came and went with guilty reminders, but I just couldn't summon the enthusiasm...

... until D's card arrived in the mail.

It reminded me of the cards I used to make - a picture from a magazine stuck on a square of card paper, a few words rendered in calligraphy and a little decoration. Considering D had made it a month ago and posted it early to ensure it reached me in time, it made me feel inordinately good. So when my birthday calendar reminded me of two very close girl friends' birthdays, I decided to get back into the act.

First, I pulled out the 'magic box' - a cardboard box crammed with cuttings from newspapers and magazines, culled over 12 years. Sifting through 3000 pictures can be a bit cumbersome, so pictures have been sorted under various heads - guys, girls, children, couples, abstract, toons and so on. I pulled out the 'girls' section, started thumbing through it and waited for the magic to begin...

I don't know how it happens, but it's never failed this far. I think about the person, tick off the dominant qualities (or quirks) and even as I sift casually, my mind is uncommonly alert. Hmmm.... ohhhkay.... maybe.... nevvah.... BINGO! There is always a picture that's a dead ringer, a perfect match. For instance, I had a friend from Delhi who jocularly referred to South Indians as 'nariyals' (coconuts), which irked me no end. Incredibly, she married a South Indian. My magic box threw up a picture of a coconut seller with a raised sickle, ostensibly to thwack a coconut but for some reason his gaze was fixed steadily on the neck of woman at his stall, who looked distinctly Northie! The Nariyals strike back, I wrote.

Coming up with ideas for ads is a struggle in comparison.

Back to the cards, I found the pictures I was looking for, and started tossing around words to accompany them. Meanwhile, I started on the next task - choosing the right paper. No tacky chart paper will do. Hand made cards need hand made paper. The thick roll from Chimanlal's tumbles out. And with it the age-old dilemma... Use it? Hoard it? I can't help getting rather attached to the blood red Moonrock and pink Pigskin, silk fibre cream and petal pressed ecru, ridged sunshine yellow and gold-flecked turquoise. I once had a sheet with coriander leaves pressed into it and it broke my heart to use it.

I selected the matching paper with a sigh and started cutting it up. The room looked like it had been hit by a hurricane, but my mind was still incredibly focussed.

Picture and paper selected, I headed for the stationery drawer. Here's where my true obsession reveals itself. Water colours, photo colours, brush markers, gel pens, blow pens, calligraphy nibs, chisel nib markers, oil paint crayons, water colour pencils, stencils - I run a mini-stationery store. Truth be told, I've been shortchanged in the drawing department. So to counter my meagre artistic skills, I muster up all kinds of stationery resources and a little calligraphy to make the cards presentable. It's worked this far.

A card is incomplete without an envelope. So out came the envelope box with recyclable envelopes of every shape, size and hue. If a card refuses to fit into any of the existing ones, a little snipping achieves the task, or else a new envelope is made. The little strips of leftover paper are used to add colour to old envelopes and cover up post marks.

Why don't you get into the greeting card business, friends and relatives have asked? I've considered that option but somehow it doesn't appeal. The thrill comes from creating a card that is an accurate reflection of the person. And for that, I need to know the person. 'One size fits all', just won't work.

Because the entire process is time consuming, cards have to planned and made well in advance. Quite often it doesn't happen, but when the muse knocks, ideas fly fast and thick. And everyone gets a card - the boss, colleagues, Alison, even the dentist.

Do the recipients hang on to the cards, I've often wondered wistfully, or is it just tossed away after the special day has passed. A chance conversation with Ro (another personalised card-maker) reassured me a bit. 'I have every single hand made card I've ever received', she said.

Coming back to the two cards I started out with, I found myself sealing 9 envelopes. I'd been oblivious to life around for 4 hours. My fingers were sticky and paint splattered, the room was in a mess, mum was in a tizzy... but there was a warm glow of satisfaction. And anticipation.

Monday, August 02, 2004

Last year...

- Trekked 17,500 feet in the Himalayas

- Did the bungee jump – 180 feet

- Ran the Half-Marathon - 21 kms

- Won an Indian advertising award

- Was nominated for an international advertising award

- Got the biggest raise ever

- Started a blog

- Made friends-for-life through blogging (some of who I haven’t met yet)

- Got 5 articles published

- Got written about in a newspaper (Page 3 ;-)

- Did Vipassana

- Found answers finally…

… 30, here I come!