Saturday, August 28, 2010

Food for thought

I have been following Jamie Oliver's food revolution for a while now. For those of you who haven't heard of him read here. He is also the recipient of the 2010 TED prize. His Food Revolution is a campaign that is run in the U.K. and the U.S., to understand how kids (and their parents) think about the process of making and consuming everyday meals. In his TED talk, he talks about how most deaths in the developed (and in the affluent parts of the developing) world are totally preventable.
It also shows little videos where Jamie goes to schools with a bag of vegetables and none of the kids can correctly name what he is holding up. I was following him on television too, where he went into high school kitchens and asked the cooks why the meals in the cafeteria were mostly pizza and french fries. The answer was that it is cheap and easy to cook and THAT IS WHAT THEY ARE BEING TOLD TO DO.
He interviewed some obese teenagers and asked them what they eat. The answers were shocking and so were their confessions about how they feel about being obese. I think being overweight/obese in your teenage years leaves much more than just weight to deal with for the rest of your life. It is a situation that has to be dealt with great care, love and a lot of positive thinking from the parents' side. Obesity does not get as much "sympathy" as malnourishment, mostly because it is a result of excess consumption, which is often related to indulgence and lack of self-restraint. Ellen Gustafson describes obesity and hunger as two sides of the same coin. Although her perspective is different, I think if hunger denotes the complete lack of food, obesity denotes lack of understanding about food. In that respect, Jamie has indeed done us all a big favor by being so blunt and outspoken about what is going on in our society.
Cooking a healthy meal is not that difficult. It needs a bit of creativity and patience. I was watching Jamie Oliver on one of his culinary adventures in Istambul. He went to the bazaar and bought an earthen pot. As he walked browsing through the market, he kept adding ingredients to his pot. Carrots, beans, pumpkin, okra, tomatoes, stock, lean meat etc. In the end he stopped at a spice shop and seasoned the contents with the spices that appealed to him. He put his earthen pot straight on to the fire. It was like coming home from the supermarket and putting your shopping bags in the oven!
Cooking also keeps you mentally healthy. The planning and execution that goes into it brings you out of your everyday stress. It is a healthy distraction if you are one of those work-obsessed people. From my own personal experience, cooking and exercise are the most frequently done activities that take me away from my computer. I consider the times that I am not using a computer very important times of my day. This is where cooking and exercise become a part of my emotional well being too. Growing up around parents who constantly experimented with food in all possible ways, it was inspiring to see how much of a change in attitude a mere change in diet brings about. One of the noteworthy experiences was when my mom was going through a detox diet that did not allow her to eat anything solid for four days. She became particularly toxic at work that week. :)
My dad's experiments with his blood sugar levels by controlling variables like diet, insulin doses, water intake, exercise etc., made me aware of all the chemical reactions that go on behind our skins. The dejection that baba faced at his failures, his dedication in going as far as plotting excel charts for his blood sugar levels and on his "25 years with diabetes" anniversary, calling the disease his best friend made me aware that very few things can be taken for granted when it comes to the chemicals in your body.
Life should not be all about food. Investing a little time in cooking everyday does not mean turning into a gourmand with epicurean tastes. However, taking that balanced time out and planning a meal for yourself, even if it is just for yourself, is equally important. It is not just food for the body, it is also food for thought. :)

Friday, August 13, 2010

The Art of Choosing

I am currently reading this book by Sheena Iyengar. This talk prompted the purchase and since it is relatively new, I could not buy it second hand - an obsession I have acquired recently. I decided to write a review before I finish it because these days, my creative writing is at the mercy of the little breaks between my experiments and thesis writing. The reading actually takes place on the train and half an hour before I go to bed.
This book is a collection of psychological experiments and their balanced interpretation on how human beings or even laboratory animals choose their circumstances. Sheena did her PhD in social psychology from Stanford University. Her thesis titled 'Choice and its Discontents' won the Best Dissertation Award from the Society of Social Experimental Psychology in 1998. However, more than the award and the topic of study, what inspires me the most about her is that she has achieved this in spite of suffering from a rare form of visual impairment called 'retinitis pigmentosa'. In this book, she clearly mentions why she was driven to get a PhD in choice. Coming from a family of conservative Sikh immigrants, she had a limited choice of aspirations at home. However, she was meant to live an inevitable double life in the U.S., where free choice is at the center of the American Dream. One more constraint was added when at the tender age of thirteen she lost almost ninety percent of her vision, being able to perceive only the difference between darkness and light. In this book, she does full justice to that ability.
She has included cross-cultural experiments between societies that are rated highly individualistic and highly collective. In countries like China, India and Japan individual decisions are often influenced by a 'greater good' or a 'collective motive'. She explains this beautifully by using the rationale behind an Indian arranged marriage, which seems ridiculous in a Western society. On the other hand, in a Western, or individualistic society, kids are taught to exercise their own choice as soon as they start talking. In today's highly globalized world, where cultures are mixing, these basic differences in attitudes pose a lot of challenges in work places.
Rather than taking a 'black and white' approach to how one should choose, this book takes a balanced empirical stand on the exercise of choice across the world. I find it quite relevant to today's society that is being driven by instant gratification and very powerful, yet inadequately used technology. How we choose to utilize the technological power we are being given can reshape the new world. However, it is equally possible that we just drown ourselves into an incoherent noise.
She gives a voice to many thoughts that I used to have in my mind as an immigrant living in a highly individualistic society (Geert Hofstede ranks Australia at 90/100 in his comprehensive ranking for individualistic nations; India being 50/100). Even though I realize the futility of pleasing people by my individual decisions, I cannot bring myself to program my thoughts accordingly. I can process my thoughts to be more individualistic later, but I cannot, naturally, think that I have no constraints in choosing my 'destiny'. This schism sets me apart from my Western friends to a certain degree that is perhaps only obvious to me. Although, the idea of 'me first' sounds very appealing in theory, I am also equally intrigued by the actions of the 'passive (s)heroes' I have seen growing up. Even though having more money, more space and more time to think entirely for yourself is the mantra of self-development, the character that is built in close knit families, where people have little choice as to what will happen to them adds another important dimension to the human mind.
Hence when I see people who, quite reasonably, equate 'collective societies' to 'primitive societies', I sense that they are victims of a situation where they have studied only one side carefully. This book, brings together an in depth analysis of both sides. That is why, I had to write a review even before I finished it. :)

Wednesday, August 04, 2010


In the past few weeks, I have had to wash my sheets three times. Our new cat Tom-Tom (we gave him this politically correct name after we were ridiculed for calling him G-string, and also after discovering one day, that he was a boy, contrary to our assumption) invaded my bedroom one day and declared it as his recreational toilet. He is toilet trained (Western people! Sheesh!) and also goes out in the bush like a real man (oops! labels Saee, labels!!). Somehow, for some unfathomable reason, he also likes to pee in my bed, whenever he gets the opportunity. Some of these Western habits of turning pets into humans astound me. Like, cat food. Every time I open a packet of Whiskas for Tom-Tom, I turn into a cynical, mocking Indian auntie. Why would you go fishing for cats, turn their fish into a disgusting paste, add all possible vitamins to it and sell it to people who own cats? Then, because they should have something harder to chew on, they make pellets of bone meal. Isn't all this processing and packaging in two different brands essentially serving the purpose of a whole mouse with its bones and flesh intact? This, the cat would find on its own, if it is treated like a cat and given freedom to roam around.
The fact that my bedroom has two doors, one that opens on the deck, and another that opens into the lounge makes it much harder. So there is a new, "have-I-forgotten-something" feeling in the already long list that I usually go through on the bus stop, sometimes making me return to check if I have both the doors closed. There is nothing like coming home to a smelly present in your bed. The last time I discovered cat urine on my sheets, I had just put a bunch of fragrant lilies in my room. So now, that fragrance has been tagged forever in my memory, with cat pee, like an unwanted, ugly picture on Facebook (yes, it is time that bloggers incorporate new similes in their writing).
So now, there is a cold war going on in the house. Between me and Tom-Tom. Initially, I was really concerned about it. Having lived with a compassionate flatmate, I think I have caught some of her cat-psychology bugs. So I started wondering what it means when a cat pees in your bed. I even went on to discuss this with friends who have cats. The general opinion seemed to indicate that the cat was jealous of me. He was apparently being territorial on me, maybe because he felt that I was getting more attention from my flatmate than him. I was foolish enough to try and analyze it further until I realized that it was just an experiment in anthropomorphizing animals. So I gave up on uncovering his psychological issues and decided to use combat instead.
First experiment was spraying my room with black pepper. Cats have really fleshy, tender paws. So I decided to deter him from entering my room by burning his ever-so-innocent-pink paws with pepper. It worked well. Every time Tom-Tom walked in, he used to start lifting his paws out of tune like a horse with an obsessive compulsive disorder. It worked so well, that I even thought of replacing pepper with chili flakes. Until that night, when I sneezed about a hundred times. In my sneeze induced high, I even remember hallucinating that my lungs were waving at me from outside my body. Second experiment, involved a spray bottle and some eucalyptus oil. Every time Tom-Tom walked in, I used to spray him with a five percent solution of aqueous eucalyptus. That did deter him but it also turned me into a maniac who would never want to leave her room, just so that she could spray the cat.
Over time, I realized that not forgetting to shut the door was the only practical solution. However, I also made two little gaps for Tom-Tom to step in and out of the house without having to depend on us to open the door. This seems to have alleviated his anger at my bed. The cold war is still on. It is more like a game now.
A little bit of retrospection also led me to believe in the power of Karma. As a kid, throwing cats off my grandma's balcony was perhaps my most favorite hobby. I cunningly categorize it as an educational experience now and with due respect to all the compassionate animal lovers, I think it IS an essential growing up experience to watch a cat fall off a balcony. In the first few seconds, you could see sheer panic in the cat's eyes. Half way through the fall, the cat somehow fluidized its body and always landed on all fours. It is a source of great inspiration in my unnecessarily romanticized metaphorical falls. I think this cat is taking revenge on behalf of his Indian brethren from a long time ago. Shame I cannot remember how many times I threw them off the balcony. I was also cruel enough to put about four kittens under a cardboard box and watch them go rudderless in panic. Can't remember how many times I did that either.
These episodes of Tom-Tom leaking in my bed have not in the least aroused any kind of kind forgiveness inside me, if that is what the Universal plan is. They have given me many more ways to get back at the feline species. Like clapping loudly around his ears when he sleeps too much, picking him up upside down with two paws in each hand, pretending to roast him on a spit, dangling a rag puppet around him until he gets exhausted trying to chase it, closing the cupboard when he gets in with his Sherlock Holmes whiskers, not stopping him if he dips into a wine glass that is still half full and hoping ,that he somehow drinks it. If all these descriptions have started getting him reader sympathy, let me also describe what he does in retaliation.
Climbing the big mango tree in the yard when I go out to get him in, leaving dirty paw marks on a freshly cleaned table, lying belly up at seven in the morning in my way to work to remind me of the luxuries he gets, emerging suspiciously from my room (without peeing) and making me abandon everything at hand in panic, using me to cuddle with when no one else is available and then ignoring me when his favorite girl is around.
I never really actively observe them in order to write about them. But if there is a creature that makes me philosophical, it is a cat. They will always awe me. I think, I will always have a love-hate relationship with the feline species. The only psycho-analysis I can do with this feeling is that both of us like to be the center of attention, in a craftily manipulated underplay. :)