Fantastic Beasts shows muggles there’s no magic in a world without the wild

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Newt Artemis Fido Scamander reminds us that without animals, Earth isn’t a place called home.

Newton (“Newt”) Artemis Fido Scamander went down in wizarding history for many of his achievements, including writing the seminal Hogwarts textbook Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them and bringing about the ban on experimental breeding. But after the biopic on him, I think Scamander will, perhaps, be best remembered in the muggle and No-Maj world for his wildlife conservation beliefs.

In the movie Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, magizoologist Scamander (played by Eddie Redmayne) comes to New York in 1926 with a suitcase full of magical creatures. Things begin to unravel when some of these fantastic creatures escape into the city, plus there’s an inexplicable force wreaking havoc at the same time. Fantastic Beasts is a charming film, full of wondrous bits. It’s set in the familiar world of magic, but with a new narrative that also makes a strong case for conservation.

A suitcase packed with wild things

In the eponymous book that JK Rowling published as a Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry textbook in aid of Comic Relief UK in 2001, we first learned about Scamander who, at the age of seven, “spent hours in his bedroom dismembering Horklumps” and then went on to travel across dark jungles, marshy bogs, and bright desserts to learn more about the “curious habits of beasts”. I couldn’t help but imagine Scamander as a cross between David Attenborough and Gerald Durrell. More so, when we got to examine the contents of his suitcase in the movie.The suitcase (spoiler alert) is a world unto itself for magical creatures, and it’s reminiscent of the many animal rescue and rehabilitation centres around the world. Such as the Wild Animal Rescue and Rehabilitation Centre on the outskirts of Pune, managed by The Indian Herpetological Society (IHS) that offers specialised care for injured and orphaned animals, and helps rehabilitate wild animals back into their natural homes. Or Wildlife SOS’s Agra Bear Rescue Facility, a centre for rescued sloth bears. Like Frank – the thunderbird, many of these animals have been trafficked or chained up and some will be returned to their homes in the wild.

Unpacking speciesism in the Anthropocene

In his book, Scamander questions the wizarding world’s earlier attempts at designating non-human magical creatures as “beasts”, as compared to “beings”. “Being”, he says, is a creature worthy of legal rights and a voice in the governance of the magical world. A stark contrast to the idea of speciesism, an idea that humans have greater moral rights than animals.

These are concepts we should reflect upon – as the planet hurtles towards a warmer period that is hastening the loss of biodiversity, as the green light is given for forests (home to the muggle fantastic animals) to be cleared for “development” projects, and as we enter the Age of Extinction for many species. The destruction is apparent, as are its consequences. The year 2016 is set to be the warmest in temperature records since 1880; climate change may be the reason behind the extinction of the small mammal Bramble Cay melomys in the Great Barrier Reef; and in India, we are already looking at horrific pollution levels and unprecedented weather patterns.

In a paper titled “The New Noah’s Ark”, research scientist Ernie Small pointed out that “Most of the world’s species at risk of extinction are neither particularly attractive nor obviously useful, and consequently lack conservation support. In contrast, the public, politicians, scientists, the media and conservation organisations are extremely sympathetic to a select number of well-known and admired species, variously called flagship, charismatic, iconic, emblematic, marquee and poster species.” Another thing that we can take away from Fantastic Beasts.

A friend pointed out that she loved that not all that animals in the movie were cute or even attractive. “Because it sort of drove the point home that you don’t preserve animals just because they’re photogenic,” she said. Whether it’s the enormous erumpent, the luminescent ashwinder, or the fragile bowtruckle, they are all as important for Scamander, like the tree frog, the grey hornbill, and the royal Bengal tiger are for wildlife conservationists.

A case for conservation in the muggle world

In fact, as Scamander writes, “Imperfect understanding is often more dangerous than ignorance”, and that’s often what determines our interactions with nature. Superstitions about unlucky owls, myths of the potency of the rhino’s horn or the fallacy of speciesism has led to owls being injured by stones, birds being imprisoned in tiny cages, and rhinos being poached to near-extinction. When it comes to his fantastic creatures, Scamander says that he hopes to, “rescue, nurture and protect them”, and gently attempt to educate his fellow wizards about them. And let us hope, some Muggles along the way.

Which is what Fantastic Beasts really manages to do – remind us that without these animals, the world would be a much drearier place to live in. Scamander writes that magizoology matters because it ensures that “future generation of witches and wizards enjoy their [fantastic beings] strange beauty and powers as we have been privileged to do”.

Kind of like what Attenborough once said, “It seems to me that the natural world is the greatest source of excitement; the greatest source of visual beauty; the greatest source of intellectual interest. It is the greatest source of so much in life that makes life worth living.”

Our planet would be a poorer place without house sparrows taking a dust bath, a funnel web spider spinning her web with a funnel at its centre, or a mother elephant protecting her calf by gently pushing him behind her trunk. Without them, Earth isn’t a place called home.

 

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With ICSE introducing Harry Potter books, the possibilities are endless

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Students will not just learn wizardly literature but also topics of bullying, democracy, and inclusion.

A couple of weeks ago, I found myself at a hipster coffee joint, chatting with children’s books writers and publishers, and the subject inevitably veered towards children’s books.

Over cups of fragrantly-flavoured latte, we discussed how children’s books tackle a diverse range of subjects – in India and internationally – including themes of environment, gender, sexuality, war, prejudice, and politics. We also agreed that they would make for great classroom reading, and many teachers already use some of these books.

Which is why I was thrilled when I read that the Indian Certificate of Secondary Education (ICSE), an examination conducted by the Council for the Indian School Certificate Examinations, will now prescribe some of the more popular children’s books for the English Literature curriculum for the next 2017-18 session.

As an ICSE alumnus, I have fond memories of reading Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe and Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles.

When I visited The Anne Frank House in Amsterdam, I remembered snippets of classroom conversation about The Diary of A Young Girl.And in my final year, I found The Village by the Sea by Anita Desai compelling, especially as a relative newcomer to Mumbai. These stories have stayed with me over the years, over many other lessons (and it’s been quite a few years).

According to news reports, students will now be studying the Harry Potter series – really, I would have aced this class, got O for Outstanding, rather than T for Troll (that was almost my Math grade).

This means not only will they be reading wizardly literature, but also a narrative that a study, The Greatest Magic of Harry Potter: Reducing Prejudice has shown that children who read these books are more open-minded, and less prejudiced.

The Potter books, which have inspired a generation to take to reading with a gusto, also delve into topics of bullying, democracy, and inclusion. And let’s not forget, it helps to be studying about a boy, who may be The Chosen One, but doesn’t get straight Os or even EEs (Exceeds Expectations for the Muggles) in class always.

Another welcome change from the time when we were told that comics will “spoil your English” is the inclusion of comics such as Tintin, Asterix, Amar Chitra Katha and works by American cartoonist Art Spiegelman.

I hope that it will lead to deliberations about gender representation in comics, the different art styles in graphic novels and contemporary artists, the dominance of Hindu mythology in India, the politics of comics – oh, the possibilities are endless.Closer home, students will get a chance to read Satyajit Ray’s Feluda series, I Am Malala by Malala Yousafzai, and Wings of Fire by Dr APJ Kalam.

There’s now a wide range of Indian literature for children to choose from – whether it’s Simply Nanju by ZainabSulaiman about a differently-abled boy and his classmates, Talking of Muskaan by Himanjali Sankar that explores alternate sexuality, Weed  by ParoAnand on Kashmir, or Dear Mrs Naidu by Mathangi Subramanian that looks at privilege and the Right to Education Act. These are just a handful of examples; the shelves are brimming with choices for reading lists.

Sudeshna Shome Ghosh, a consultant editor with Red Turtle welcomed the decision. However, she also pointed out that it would be wonderful if these books weren’t all intended for testing, because if children are only preparing for exams, it can take away the joy of reading.

Perhaps, she added, it would lead to different kind of questions being asked – that are more critical and analytical, in nature.

Further, many of these books are expensive, which means that the administrators will need to figure out how to make them more accessible economically. But it’s a promising step.

Stories can be powerful learning tools – offering students a different way of interpreting the world around them, while keeping them engaged because of their timeless narrative. With more contemporary novels making their way into the curriculum, children will be able to better relate with the stories and their protagonists.

Given that many of these books have been made into movies, like The Hobbit by JRR Tolkien, it would also make for interesting classroom discussions about scriptwriting, critiques, and screen language.

There’s always a possibility that some students may just watch the movies, instead of reading the books for homework. But then again, what about all those plot points that the movies edit out?

Like, the entire storyline between Albus Dumbledore and Gellert Grindelwald in the Harry Potter books was missing from the movie. There just might be a term paper question on that.

 

New Harry Potter book is both fan fiction and ode to magical what-ifs

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JK Rowling’s ‘Cursed Child’ is really about the fathers and sons who struggle with the imperfections in their relationships.

Of course, it opens at the close.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows ended on a comforting, if somewhat pat, epilogue – nineteen years after the Battle of Hogwarts, The Boy Who Lived is untroubled by his scar.

Harry Potter is weaving his way through Platform Nine and Three-Quarters, along with wife Ginny Weasley and daughter Lily, to see his sons James and Albus on to the Hogwarts Express.

Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger’s daughter Rose is about to begin school at Hogwarts, along with Albus Severus Potter.

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child: Parts One and Two takes it from there.

Written by JK Rowling, John Tiffany, and Jack Thorne, the book is a Special Rehearsal Edition of the script of the play, which premiered in London on July 30.

Albus’ worst fears come true when the Potter boy finds himself sorted into Slytherin, not Gryffindor as expected.

Unlike his father, he doesn’t instantly love Hogwarts, but like him, Albus makes a fast, seemingly unusual, friendship with the amiable nerd-fighter Scorpius Malfoy. That’s right, the son of Draco Malfoy, who in turn has his own personal battles to fight.

While Albus is dogged by the burden of his surname, Harry is drowning in paperwork as the head of the Department of Magical Law Enforcement and confounded over the complicated relationship he shares with his younger son.

Scorpius and Albus, (slight plot spoiler alert in this para!) set off on a quest, with the aid of a recently-confiscated Time Turner. Things spiral out of control, with possibly disastrous consequences. But Cursed Childis not about this misguided mission.

It’s about an author playing around with the many “what-if” scenarios in her head, exploring the infinite alternative realities that are plausible because of small ripples in time.

Of course, it’s not Rowling’s story alone, perhaps that’s why it feels like reading a piece of well-written fan fiction at times.

Cursed Child is really about the fathers and sons who struggle with the imperfections in their relationships, and the fragility of it. In doing so, it reaffirms some of the values the Harry Potter books stand for – friendship and love.

Through it all, Hermione, who is now the Minister of Magic (raising our flagon of Butterbeer to toast the cleverest witch ever) and Ron who manages Weasley’s Wizard Wheezes, stand by their friend.

Hermione is still books and cleverness, but with tons of power to back her, and Ron definitely has some of the better jokes.

Disappointingly, Neville Longbottom doesn’t make much of an appearance, while Draco has made some unexpected life choices.

Professor McGonagall is now the Headmistress at Hogwarts and Professor Dumbledore is barely “paint and memory”, but it doesn’t stop him offering a few memorable turn of phrases. There’s more, but we will #KeepTheSecrets. But what’s with the regretful addition of Panju (you will have to read the book to figure out that one)!

Cursed Child is a play script, and unlike the books, it doesn’t have the vivid imagery of Rowling’s narrative. Of course, the book has its warm, fuzzy, and witty moments – you still get swept away on a tide of emotions. But what comes alive on stage splendidly doesn’t always translate to a script book.

For instance, you don’t know what Harry or Albus are feeling or thinking at all times, making it harder to stay with the characters (though Scorpius is such a dear).

A disconcerting fact for Potterheads, who are used to being in Harry’s mind, apart from Voldemort, of course.

But what’s exciting, as a friend pointed out, is that it will encourage children to read a script, understand the nuances of theatrical writing, and how it translates to performance.

Reading Cursed Child is like going to a school reunion, where after two decades, everyone is familiar but strange at the same time.

The first page of the special rehearsal edition script is a plunge into a pensieve of nostalgia for Potterheads across the globe.

Well-loved phrases leap out, and while they evoke a tug of pleasure for the reader, they are written to elicit happy sighs in the audience.

What Cursed Child does is to revisit the magic of Harry Potter, once again, after all these years.

And in doing so, it unites children and adults with the power of its words, as Dumbledore would say, our most inexhaustible source of magic.

With new Potter book, you have to finally let go of the child Harry

Even Hermione and Ron, the other two main characters, like many of us, have aged and are wiser.

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The tension in the air could have been cut with a wand. It was getting close to the magic hour, and we were waiting for the first copies of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child: Parts One and Two from Hachette.

I was the only journalist alongside book distributors and booksellers on July 31. Gangarams Book Bureau in Bangalore had pre-booking orders of 350, and was expecting to run out during the day.

A manager from Crossword Bookstore was eagerly awaiting the copies, as they had an event at 11.30am, when the books would be officially released in India. At India Books Distributors, the phone didn’t stop ringing, with anxious bookstore owners calling to enquire after their stock.

As we waited, most couldn’t understand the fuss around the new book. As one bookseller put it, “It’s all done, what’s left to say”.

We talked about Cursed Child, and how the script takes up the thread of the story, 19 years on, just where the epilogue of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows had left it.

Suddenly the room erupted into activity. The trucks had arrived, a little later than expected, possibly thanks to the bandh the day before.

People ran, some glued to their phone barking instructions. A big fat truck turned into the parking lot, along with two autorickshaws, all stacked with spanking new copies of Cursed Child.

Phones were whipped out, videos taken of the opening of the first box. A collective sigh of relief was let out.

I grabbed my copy, jumped into a cab and rushed to Lightroom Bookstore, giddy with the smell of a new book, and that too a Potter one.

I reverently touched the cover, bright as the golden Snitch. It was an exuberant feeling, like catching the Snitch during a match perhaps.

I wasn’t the only one. Writer Andaleeb Wajid later told me, “I also smelled it. Touched the cover with my cheek”.

I tremulously read the first page. “Act One, Scene One: King’s Cross”. I sat back, feeling all goose bumpy, the book indeed opened at the close.

That’s all I could read before I stepped into Lightroom, where we were slated to have a Potter party in a few hours

We dashed about setting up a Potions Lab, a Cupboard Under the Stairs corner, and marvelled at the Butterbeer Cupcakes and Pumpkin Spice cake.

The bookstore was transformed into Platform Nine and Three-Quarters on September 1 as children and adults dressed up as witches, wizards, and muggles milled about, got sorted, and shouted quiz answers.

They clutched the copies excitedly and with care – a new story, after all this time. If you could bottle that happiness, Felix Felicis, the liquid luck potion would have had some serious competition.

Later at night, as I curled up with my copy of the Cursed Child, I realised that what The Boy Who Lived has done is to bind children and adults together into a realm of magical words and a love for stories.

Distributors, booksellers, Potterheads, writers, artists, first-time readers had all been gripped by its imagination. It doesn’t matter if the Cursed Child has mixed reviews as a book, or that most muggles will not see the play in its first year, or pretty much ever.

Shinibali Mitra Saigal, who runs Kahani Karnival in Mumbai, pointed out – the three main characters, like many of us, have aged.

Characters, who were familiar as the back of our hands, are recast as they grow older – some wiser, others less changed with the touch of time.

Ron Weasley, we already know, has the beginning of a gut, while Harry and Hermione are entrenched in the daily grind of their jobs. What looked glamorous as a child has suddenly become work. Familiar stuff for most of us.

“It’s also a feeling of loss,” said Mitra Saigal. “Because you have to finally let go of Harry. He is no longer a boy, or a teen. He is now us.”

But nothing dampens the excitement that comes with a new Potter story. Because what matters is revisiting the magic one more time – walking the corridors of Hogwarts, climbing the moving staircases, and reading about the beloved characters again.

As Wajid said, “I’m just happy there was a Harry Potter story to read and I’m alive when it happened.”

Of course, all of this goes back to the creator, JK Rowling. Some claim that there’s too much of Potter out there. Perhaps.

Others may dismiss these spin-offs as hype or clever marketing strategies. But it’s a joy to see her beliefs, so inexorably weaved into her narratives, play out on social media.

When Professor Dumbledore says, “It is our choices Harry, which show what we truly are, far more than our abilities,” he’s only echoing what Rowling stands for.

As Albus and Scorpius turn the Time Turner, it can easily lead to a deliberation of our times as well. Our choices, even the minor ones, impact the events to come.

The prospect of a hideous world governed by dark forces, the cruelties we see around us, and our sinking sense of helplessness, is very much there. The Imperius and the Cruciatus curses reverberate in the muggle world as well, in horrifying ways.

Imperative to think of all of this in a year that has been plagued by Dementors – whether it is the impacts of the unequivocal warming of our planet, the refugee crisis, or the polarisation we are seeing across the world and in India.

Yet, people continue to stand up for their beliefs and their rights.Cursed Child, as writer Maegan Dobson Sippy pointed out, comes as a bright ray during these bleak times, a reminder of friendship, love, justice, and unity.

Magical values that perhaps need reaffirmation. Especially now, when our choices will determine the kind of world, wizard children such as Albus and Scorpius and muggle ones will inherit.

Simply Nanju is a poignant book to help children understand disability

Zainab Suleiman’s writing stems from her work with different NGOs and special schools.

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The motley crew of Nanju and his classmates have to be some of the most adorable characters in children’s literature in the recent past. Zainab Sulaiman’s Simply Nanju starts with the ten-year-old boy poking his head out of a bathroom stall, worried that someone will find out that he’s soiled his school shorts once again.

Nanju was born with a spinal defect and as a result, he is relentlessly teased about his crooked walk. Nanju, we discover, has pressing concerns that demand his immediate attention at his school, where other children are also differently abled. His classmates suspect him of stealing the topper’s books, there’s a bully to contend with, and on top of that, his father is constantly threatening to send him off to a hostel far away. What follows is a mystery and a school story rolled into one, with everyday heroes as protagonists.

Sulaiman first wrote a grain of the story at a Duckbill writing workshop. “Zainab was one of the participants in a Duckbill workshop in Chennai, where one of the group exercises she had done was a detective story set in a school for kids with special needs,” said Sayoni Basu, director and primary platypus at Duckbill Books. “Afterwards, discussing what she wanted to write, she said that she worked as a special educator and she wanted to write about some of the kids she worked with. Which we thought was a wonderful idea.”

Sulaiman’s book stems from her work – she has been teaching, fund-raising and volunteering with different NGOs and special schools. “I’d been working as a volunteer teacher at an integrated school and everyday I’d practically float out of there, high on the energy generated by a bunch of kids who lived life to the hilt in spite of many of them being severely disabled,” said Sulaiman.

“I began to scribble down things I’d heard, make notes on the hard life many of these kids lived without any display of complaint or self-pity, and mainly how it all made me feel: angry, sad, amazed, overwhelmed. And that’s when I realised I had to write about this world.”

Smply Nanju joins an array of books that help children understand disability. Tulika Books has also published a range of picture books – Why are You Afraid to Hold my Hand? by Sheila Dhar is about attitudes and how people react to someone who is differently-abled, Wings to Fly by Sowmya Rajendran and Arun Kumar where little Malathi finds that she can do a “much, much more” even though she’s wheelchair-bound, and in Tharini Viswanath and Nancy Raj’s tale Catch that Cat!, Nancy doesn’t let her being in a wheelchair stop her from helping a cat stranded on a tree.

Karadi Tales, with its audio book format, is often used as an educational tool for children with learning disabilities. Few years ago, Shaili Sathyu directed Barsoraam Dhadaake Se, a play that was an adaptation of Kalpana Swaminathan’s story, Bangles for Bansode. The cranky old landlord, Bansode, finds that his life changes for the better when a wheelchair-bound girl comes to live in the building.

Stories like these go a long way in creating inclusive spaces, making children comfortable with diversity, and accepting of the fact that everyone is different in their own way.

Sulaiman’s characters come in all shapes, sizes, and shades of blacks, whites, greys, reds, blues and all sorts of happy and gloomy colours. Nanju’s friend, Mahesh, for instance, is really intelligent and uses logic to solve problems. Nanju himself is not all angelic – he’s quick to judge and can be quite sharp at times.

Sulaiman paints a poignant childhood, full of that sense of inadequacy and that particular sinking feeling when you get poor marks. It’s a familiar world of favourite and not-so-favourite teachers, ever-shifting rivalries and fast friendships and shiny compass boxes and new backpacks. All of this in the backdrop of challenges of social inequality and abuse. Not an easy task.

“It was hard,” said Sulaiman. “I was torn between writing a really hard-hitting book which showed how relentless the double whammy of poverty and disability can be, and writing about how inspite of all their hardships, these children really live for the day and are determined to extract every last ounce of joy from it. I choose the latter as I thought it was important for people to realise that it’s us who need to change, and maybe we could change if we realised how much these kids are like us.”

Stories like these are distinctive in the sense of being representative and going beyond the upper middle-class protagonists often seen in children’s books. “Urban kids live largely in middle-class ghettos, where they have little interaction with anyone outside their immediate social group, in a world which regards the ‘other’ with suspicion,” said Basu. “It is, therefore, all the more important that they read about Indian kids who live very different lives, since it is through fiction that we develop empathy and understanding of worlds which are different from our daily experience.”

Duckbill, over the last few years, have definitely hopped (or do platypus’ waddle?) off the beaten path. Rather than the usual lineup of authors and mythological stories, their books have LGBT themes, swashbuckling historical heroines, and differently abled heroes. Their writing workshops have helped them find new and exciting writing as well.

“Our goal has always been to publish books that reflect the contemporary world that Indian children and young adults live in,” said Basu. “And ideally, the books should be funny and wacky.” Simply Nanju checks the boxes.

Middle class India gets a helping in Michael Pollan’s new food show Cooked

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In the second episode of Cooked, food writer and activist Michael Pollan’s docu-series, we meet Mumbai resident Lynett Dias. We see Dias prepare kori rotti chicken in her kitchen from scratch. As Dias makes fresh coconut milk, she explains that she learnt the process from her mother. Another scene is set in a Bohri community kitchen, where chicken nihari is being cooked as part of a subsidised meal, which will be distributed to houses in tiffins.

In sharp contrast, a family orders in from KFC after a long day at work; a regular three to four times a week affair for them. They are sheepishly conscious of the health problems the greasy burgers come with, but admit that it’s easier to order in when pressed for time. “Cultures that once held tight to their ways of eating are finding it difficult to spend time in the kitchen,” points out Pollan. “How did we get to this point, and what have we lost in the process?” “Water”, the second episode in the series sets out to answer this question.  

While Netflix is yet to live up to its potential in India, one of the few documentary films that is available for viewing is Cooked, in which filmmaker Alex Gibney teams up with Pollan to bring his 2013 book to the screen. Like the book, the Netflix documentary series is divided into four parts, basically the elements of cooking – Fire, Water, Air, and Earth.

“Water” explores pot cooking in different communities in India and the gradual transition from traditional home food to processed, instant food. Cooked doesn’t always stick to the stereotypes, instead it offers a slice of middle class India. Shots of housing colonies, streetscapes, and interviews with different communities come together to map the changing landscape of home cooking.

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Cooked, food writer and activist Michael Pollan’s docu-series on Netflix.

Meanwhile, Pollan is in his kitchen with the USA-based chef Samin Nosrat, cooking up pork braised with chiles for three and a half hours, while talking about the myriad flavours that come together in pot cooking.

Nosrat remininsces about the “grandma” style of cooking that puts together humble ingredients with skill and time. “Time,” said Pollan. “is the missing ingredient in our recipes and our lives. Most of us are moving too fast for slow cooking.”

In his book, Cooked, Pollan talks about, what he calls a curious paradox. “How is it that at the precise historical moment when Americans were abandoning the kitchen, handing over the preparation of most of our meals to the food industry, we began spending so much of our time thinking about food and watching other people cook it on television?” he asked.

The paradox is reflective of a section of urban India as well – we constantly Instagram our latest (or half-eaten) meals, review restaurants on apps, and gush about reality cooking shows, but spend lesser time in the kitchen. And it is hard to spend a lot of time by a stove after a long day at work.

Food industry market researcher Harry Balzer puts it succinctly that eating food and preparing it are not the same, because making food is work. He makes a pertinent point – when you eat food without spending time in getting it, you eat more of it. Example: French Fries or potato crisps. He suggests that you eat anything you want – pizza, apple pie, the works – but you make all of it. It makes sense that you would end up getting the best quality raw ingredients and eat better.

Cooked points to India’s rising fast food ecosystem, where food preparation is outsourced. An affluent middle class is eating out more and more because of rising and disposable incomes and the availability of fine dining options. Urban lifestyles, slick advertising, and social media chatter are influencing and moulding aspirations and choices about food, its economics, and its consumption.

At the same time, our relationship with food is more distant. We don’t know how our food is grown or cooked. Instead of eating locally and seasonally, the aesthetics of food plating and the quest for a wider palate has started to dominate our choices. Invariably, we end up incorporating unsustainable practices in our daily diets.

Yet, it’s not that hard to get fresh home-cooked food in India. Cooked refers to the dabbawallas as a “clever system for getting home cooked food at work”. In the documentary, a maushi fries up paneer, rolls out rotis and packs four dabbas for Yari Road. The ubiquitous dabbawalla picks up the tiffin carriers and cycles away. Of course, dabbawallas are unique to Mumbai and the system does not cover the entire country. Rather, urban centres are seeing a surge of apps that deliver restaurant food or pre-packaged meals and salads to your doorstep at the tap of a few buttons.

In many ways, “Water” is limited in its social and cultural depiction of India’s vast landscape. The narrative is mostly uni-dimensional, the complexities of food production, rituals, habits, and economics don’t always come through. Pollan talks about the history of food processing, feminism and cooking – a point he had been previously criticised about – but the episode doesn’t delve into the politics of food in the Indian context. It also doesn’t look into social dynamics, where a lot of the home cooking is done by a cook or a maharaj.

Instead, it concentrates on our gradual dependence on the food industry and its impact. Sunita Narain, the director general of the Centre for Science and Environment, explains on Cooked that urban India consumes some 10 per cent processed food in its daily diet, while rural India consumes five per cent. It’s not a small number given the size of the country. Most processed food is layered with salt, sugar, and fat, making it unhealthy and addictive.

The narrative moves to Nestlé India’s Research and Development Centre in Manesar, where chefs (some have worked at Michelin Star restaurants) and scientists are trying to crack the recipe for a Chicken Tikka Maggi noodles.

A study conducted by a German market researcher GfK revealed that people in India spend over 13 hours a week cooking, compared to the international average of less than six-and-a-half hours. But Nestlé is well aware that over the next two decades, Indians will have lesser time to cook food, and their lab work is preparing to be the food of the future.

With an increasingly fragmented audience and media that focuses on instant gratification, Cooked, despite its limitations, is a form of critical and reflective storytelling that questions our engagement, not only with food, but also media content. Pollan wraps up the episode by calling for a food renaissance and reminding viewers that the “industry doesn’t feed us. Nature feeds us. And that’s something that’s available to all of us.”

One of the most poignant takeaways from the episode comes from Nosrat. As she peels garlic, she describes these seemingly mundane tasks as mindful. “As a culture, we have just gotten so far away from these little tasks, it seems like it’s getting in the way of life,” she said. “But, actually, this is life.”

Harry Potter casts a new spell on the internet and how

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In its new format, Pottermore is more of a site that will keep Potterheads up to date with wondrous news of the wizarding world.pottermore

I have reclaimed my magical name and Hogwarts house – Ravenclaw in case you were wondering – and am pleased to report that I am back on the revamped Pottermore site.

Until now, it was a space where I would slink off during writing breaks to brew a potion (I was usually T for troll), cast a spell (was a little better at that) and unlock secrets from the Harry Potter stories.

But now in its new format, Pottermore is more of a site that will keep Potterheads up to date with news of the wizarding world of Harry Potter.

A voice message from JK Rowling welcomes fans to Pottermore, which she calls her “magical corner of the internet, a place where you can explore her writing, both familiar and new. And where you can read features, articles, and news from the Pottermore team”.

If you’re already a member, then you can retain your user name and house. I was quite tempted to sort myself again, but then I was a little scared that I would get Hufflepuff this time around. So I decided to let sleeping Hippogriffs lie and stayed with fellow house members, Cho Chang and Luna Lovegood.

At Pottermore, you can still revisit the books, along with JK Rowling’s thoughts about the characters, the plot or the setting.

The newest post by the author takes muggles into a previously forbidden world – an exploration of “11 long-established and prestigious wizarding schools worldwide”.

The jade palace of Mahoutokoro is an ancient Japanese school where robes change colour as the wizards grow wiser (or darker). Quite like karate’s many coloured belts, I imagine.

Then there’s Uagadou which is situated in the Mountains of the Moon in Africa. At this largest of all wizarding schools, spells are cast by hand gestures or pointing fingers.

The Brazilian Castelobruxo sounds quite intriguing with its golden rock edifice guarded by the Caipora spirit-beings. Apparently, Peeves is nothing compared to these feisty beings.

If you recall, Bill Weasley had got something nasty in post from a penfriend – turns out it was a Castelobruxo student who was disappointed that his friend couldn’t afford the trip to Brazil to visit him.

The fourth one, Ilvermorny from North America, is yet to be revealed but Rowling’s hinted that smart Potterheads will be able to figure this one out.

I have a few thoughts, but am currently trawling the internet for more ideas. So far we have learnt about seven wizarding schools – including Durmstrang and Beauxbatons – which means we can expect to hear more from Rowling in the future.

Browsing through Pottermore makes you feel like a beetle on a window pane – nudge, nudge Rita Skeeter – and getting a sneak peek into the very busy Potter world.

For instance, we sit far-away-from-London wishing that we had a portkey to see Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, the eighth story that unfurls 19 years later.

We read longingly about the casting of the play – good going there, and the creative process between Rowling, director John Tiffany, and writer Jack Thorne.

Thoughts threaten to overwhelm us, until we need a pensieve to mull over the many strands – how and when will we get to see the play which officially premieres in July, and will the production come to India.

Dementors hover over that thought, after all it’s not like Harry Potter: The Exhibition, the international travelling exhibition has come down here.

There are also updates on Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, a movie spin-off that will be out in cinemas in November 2016.

Set in 1926 in New York, this is the story of Magizoologist Newt Scamander, the author of the eponymous textbook on the wizarding world’s magical creatures.

Scamander, played by Eddie Redmayne, comes to New York with a suitcase full of magical creatures. And in what sounds like a Pandora twist, the creatures are let loose in New York by mistake.

A new behind-the-scenes preview has just been released and it reveals details about the casting.

Porpentina Goldstein, played by Katherine Waterston; her sister Queenie Goldstein, played by Alison Sudol; and muggle Jacob Kowalski, played by Dan Fogler, come together with Scamander to form an unlikely quartet in this film’s quest.

Colin Farrell plays a powerful MACUSA (Magical Congress of the United States of America) Auror, we are told. In the behind-the-scenes preview, Redmayne says, “This world, it’s been a wonder really.” Yes, we know that.

My favourite children’s books of 2015

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School books, quirky ghosts, funny superheroes- there’s a lot to choose from.

It’s been quite a year for children and young adult books in India. Here’s a look at some of my favourites this year.

School books ruled the roost

Greg Heffley of The Diary of Wimpy Kid fame had serious competition this year. When it comes to schools, the children’s publishing industry was busy with sequels. Samit Basu’s The Adventures of Stoob: A Difficult Stage is a whirlwind read. Stoob’s childhood is firmly behind him, after all he is now in Class 6 and wears full pants. When his classmates are not discussing relationships and icky stuff, they are auditioning for the school play.

Stoob is rip-roaringly funny, and Basu steps into the canvas shoes of a school student with ease. He also takes on certain television series meant for children and manages to make a point about today’s intelligent young audience.

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 The book is rip-roaringly funny, and Basu steps into the canvas shoes of a school student with ease.

Jane De Suza’s little superhero has his hands full in Super Zero and the Grumpy Ghosts. In the second installment of the series, Super Zero has to rid a mall of a motley crew of ghosts. De Suza keeps the reader laughing from the beginning to the end – Super Zero is full of mad-cap jokes and punch lines, with a fun story to match.

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 Super Zero is full of mad-cap jokes and punch lines, with a fun story to match.

Horrid High: Back to School by Payal Kapadia returns with another adventure. Horrid High is no longer the horrid school that it once was – Granny Grit is now principal and has a new fleet of teachers.

But when Granny Grit has to rush to the Amazon, 12-year-old Ferg and his friends are left to figure out the mysterious Grand Plan, dodge Cook Fracas’s food fights and attend classes with some weird teachers. A spirited read.

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 Horrid High: Back to School by Payal Kapadia returns with another adventure.

Showing their stripes 

Both Nayanika Mahatani’s Ambushed and Mitali Perkins’ Tiger Boyinvite young readers to the forest with their stories. In Ambushed,Gadget-addict Tara stumbles upon an international ring of poachers at a tiger reserve. Now it’s up to the ten-year-old girl and Satya, a tribal boy to save a tigress and her cubs. A wonderful read, Ambushed is a treasure trove of information about the striped cat and the need to save them.

Tiger Boy is the story of Sundarbans, its people and its wildlife. Neel and his sister get together to help a tiger cub who’s gone missing in the mangrove forest. Even though he has a scholarship to study for, Neel forgets everything in order to save the tiger.

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It is a story about the complex relationship between humans and animals.

Tiger Boy is a wonderful story about the complex relationship that humans and animals share – fragmented, ethnocentric, wondrous, and symbiotic.

Beautiful picture books

Illustrator Ruchi Shah renders Mahasweta Devi’s Our Incredible Cowinto a gorgeous picture book. Nyadosh, the cow goes about chewing everything in sight, while Shah reinterprets the story imaginatively, giving the cow different avatars of what she eats. Fabric, books, banana leaves, and even onion rings become part of innovative collages to form Nyadosh.

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 Ruchi Shah renders Mahasweta Devi’s Our Incredible Cow into a gorgeous picture book.

Roopa Pai and Archana Sreenivasan’s My Space, My Body takes on the subject of personal space and body awareness. Parents often find it hard to talk to their children about these topics, but now help is at hand in the form of siblings Taka and Dimi. Sreenivasan’s illustrations are lively as is Pai’s storytelling.

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 My Space, My Body feaures worksheets and fun activities like this.

8 Ways to Draw an Elephant is an art activity book that not only introduces children to natural history, but also to different Indian art forms. Children will love learning about Asian and African elephants and then tracing, patterning, and colouring the pachyderms in different folk and tribal styles.

Lots of history, some with mystery

Subhadra Sen Gupta’s A Children History of India is an omnibus of sorts. Children can step back into time to ancient and medieval India. Sen Gupta then takes young readers to the British period and then writes about growing up in a free India.

Sen Gupta not only talks about the empires that ruled India but also how the common people lived – the houses they lived in, their clothes, and what kids studied at school. It’s a wonderful way to learn about India and its people.

With the history-mystery series, no one’s ever going to accuse the subject of being dull. Razia and the Pesky Presents by Natasha Sharma is a delightful book about Razia Sultan.

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Razia and the Pesky Presents is a delightful book about Razia Sultan.

The Delhi ruler finds herself being sent some really pesky gifts with rude notes. It’s nice to get presents but not if they are challenging your right to rule as a woman. While the series is based on real historical characters, the stories have their own quirks and narratives.

The real super heroes

Written in the form of letters from 12-year-old Sarojini to freedom fighter Sarojini Naidu, Mathangi Subramanian’s Dear Mrs. Naidu is a powerful story about empowerment. Sarojini decides that her government school’s going to have to pull up its socks and do better under the Right to Education Act.

Help is on hand in the form of unlikely friends and a human rights lawyer who is also an evil genius. There are hurdles to face – from a headmaster who can’t be bothered to care, mothers who are busy with thousands of chores, and one of the best characters ever – a nightie-clad councilor tapping away on her phone and ignoring her constituency. Subramanian’s story feels very much real, but in that gritty reality she also finds hope and humour.

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It is in the form of letters from 12-year-old Sarojini to freedom fighter Sarojini Naidu.

Half the Field is Mine is a spunky tale about two friends whose dearest wish in the world is to play football. But the boys’ team does not want girls to play with them any longer, and the two girls set out on different journeys to question gender differences. Swati Sengupta comes up with interesting questions about sports and gender.

Another superhero is nine-year-old Nina in Shabnam Minwalla’s The Shy Supergirl. As the book starts, “But sometimes, just sometimes, they [superheroes] turn out to be small girls who weigh twenty-one kilos and hate Hindi homework.”

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 Shabnam Minwalla’s The Shy Supergirl.

Nina, we find out, has a superpower to see if people are nice or nasty, or “a messy mix of the two”. She wields it to solve a mystery in her building. Part of the hOle book series, The Shy Supergirl is about people, and what propels them to be nice or nasty, greedy or kind, sly or compassionate.

There’s a bit of magic in the illustrated Harry Potter series

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Jim Kay’s attention to detail is a fitting tribute to JK Rowling’s fabulous story.

Over the last few months, Potterheads have been getting email owls from Bloomsbury announcing the launch of an illustrated Harry Potter book series. It was reported that Jim Kay, who won the Kate Greenway Medal for his gothic illustrations of Patrick Ness’ A Monster Calls, has been commissioned to illustrate one of the most popular books of our times. In an interview to The Guardian, Kay said that he reacted to the news with an “explosion of delight, followed instantly by an implosion of brain-freezing terror”. An understandable reaction.

After all, every Potterhead in the Muggle universe has a distinct visceral idea of how the staircases in Hogwarts move, what the chaos on Platform 93/4 looks like on the day the Hogwarts Express leaves for the Best School Ever, and how the castle changes as autumn slips into winter. The world of Harry Potter which was created by JK Rowling some 18 years ago continues to exist in the collective imagination of Muggles across the world.

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Given that I own all the Potter books and the spin-offs, a handsome army of figurines, and bits and bobs such as the Elder Wand and the Gryffindor pen, I had told myself sternly that I did not need to buy this book. My imagination was good enough. Further, like all Potterheads, I had already had to contend with the film versions and my opinionated thoughts about the adaptation.

But merely hours after the book launched on October 6, I succumbed to temptation. A shiny copy of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone has been added to my considerable collection. And I don’t need Veritaserum to admit that I have no regrets. The new book is a coffee table tome (costs like one too), resplendent with colours and quirky characters. A word of warning: If you are planning to tote it around to show it off to your Muggle friends, think again. The book is Hagrid-size.

Also read: Five spells every Indian could learn from Harry Potter

As I opened the book reverently, it took me back to my childhood, to the eighties, when we read beautifully illustrated books from Russia, UK, and Europe. Those books were interspersed with dreamy water colour illustrations sandwiched between the stories. Kay’s book is reminiscent of those classic stories, but with his personal, quirky twists.

The good news is that The Boy Who Lived has green eyes, while Dumbledore has piercing blue eyes. On that happy note, let us reread the beloved tale. Each chapter starts with a detailed illustration which gives the reader an inkling of what’s about to come. In a YouTube video, Kay explains how he even made 3D models to understand how the light would fall before illustrating the final version.

And Merlin’s Beard! The details are what make the book a treat. For instance, he puts the hog in Hogwarts with boar gargoyles on the intricate castle of his imagination. Backgrounds are richly textured, as is the landscape.

The illustrations get richer as Harry steps into the wizarding world. Diagon Alley will make you gasp with delight. This is Harry’s (almost) first glimpse of the wizarding world, and true to Rowling’s prose, the illustration shows a cobbled street that twists and turns with shops piled high with strange wares. Draco Malfoy makes an appearance – pale, pointed face (check) with cold eyes. On his website Kay says that he achieved the slightly unsettling effect using a simple trick – “If you illustrate a person’s eyes perfectly symmetrical, there’s something creepy about their appearance”.

Also read: Why I feel Harry Potter made the world a better place

The Sorting Hat is a wonderful surprise. Rowling described it as patched and frayed, and Kay’s Hat is all of that. But it’s also bright and happy with textured, colourful patches – poles apart from the comparatively surly movie version. On his website, Kay describes the making of the Sorting Hat, “One of the fabrics is from a beautiful book of fabric samples I saw years ago in the Royal Museum, Edinburgh. Never know when you’ll find a use for the little notes you make.”

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It’s evident the Kay has drawn Hagrid with much affection. The bearded half-giant sports a skull and bones scarf and has little badges on his coat, an idea that Kay borrowed from his school caretaker. A lot of Kay’s inspiration comes from the world around him – whether it’s strangers he bumps into or people he knows well. Like Rowling, Kay seems to love metaphors and symbols. Dumbledore sits at his desk, choosing a Sherbet Lemon while a praying mantis sits close by. In an interview to Pottermore, Kay said that the mantis, which means prophet, depicts the headmaster’s honesty.

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Most of the characters only appear once or twice in the book, which is a bit of a disappointment. Like Oliver Twist, you can’t help but want more. But don’t get your wands into a knot – when you have majestic Norwegian Ridgeback dragons flying across the page and Mountain Trolls thumbing their snouts at you, there’s really not much room for complaint. Wait until you get to Quirrell/Voldemort, the tantalising peek will ensure impatience for the second book to come out soon.

At the back of the book, Rowling says that she was moved profoundly by Kay’s illustrations. The attention to detail, the masterful paintings, and the thoughtful deliberation on the characters, all of it is a fitting tribute to her fabulous story. The illustrated version is something that Madam Pince will guard fervently in her library, and as will us Potterheads.

We need to pass our love for nature to children

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World Wildlife Week starts on October 2, celebrate it by taking a walk in the park or having a picnic.

The tabby kitten was a quivering mass of fur and bones when my mother scooped her up from the roadside and brought her home. My sister, with her zoophobia, promptly locked herself inside the kitchen, making cooing noises from a safe distance. I was all of seven, and fascinated by the kitten’s round eyes and persistent mews. From the time I can remember, wayward kittens, injured rose-ringed parakeets, and heat-stressed munias found a foster home with my mother. Spiders weren’t whacked to death, instead they were gently carried out to the plants on our balcony. Lizards were pronounced cute, much to our collective horror. All cats as a rule were called Jinglu and Minglu, other animals got various names until they were well enough to go back into the big bad world of Delhi.

Years later, I picked up a copy of The Sense of Wonder by conservationist and author Rachel Carson and read this wonderful line – “If a child is to keep alive his inborn sense of wonder, he needs the companionship of at least one adult who can share it, rediscovering with him the joy, excitement, and mystery of the world we live in.”

Those words made perfect sense to me. Growing up, one of my most treasured memories is of my mother reminiscing about her childhood. My mother’s family lived on the outskirts of Bhuj in Gujarat, close to a forested area. She told us about a brown owl who would knock on their front door thrice – tap, tap, tap. He (perhaps she?) would uncannily mimic the knock that was the agreed signal for my grandfather to announce that he was home. My mother would open the door ready to greet her father, only to have the tiny owl quickly dash into the house or retreat to his favourite perch on the tree outside, staring at them solemnly with his big eyes.

There were stories of a cobra cooling off in their bathroom, and another of a fighting pair of snakes who borrowed the living room as an arena. On such occasions, a local snake catcher caught the snakes and released them back in the wild.

My mother inherited this compassionate streak from her father. Their brown-and-white cow would only go to bed after my grandfather had petted and talked to her. When my grandfather was transferred to Mumbai, the most heartbreaking part of the move was leaving their cow behind. My mother still remembers the cow mooing sadly, while the siblings sulked, unable to understand why the cow couldn’t accompany them to the city. Surely people in Mumbai drank milk.

Fascinated, I took to reading about these animals in books. I was enchanted by Enid Blyton, with her stories about children taking long walks in the moors, climbing sturdy oak trees in the woods, and meeting animals in the wild. Richard Louv, in his book, Last Child in the Woods, writes that “environmental educators and activists repeatedly mention nature books as important childhood influences”. Indeed, stories such as AA Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh or Gerald Durrell’sMy Family and Other Animals, have inspired generations of wildlife lovers. I yearned to have owls knocking on the door at our Defence Colony house, and comforted myself with fiction badgers, elephants, and Pooh bears instead.

My father, while evading my constant demands for a dog, took us to city gardens on weekends, while holidays were spent in forests and hill stations. We climbed trees, picnicked at Lodhi Gardens, and were constantly gifted books about animals. All these fuelled my sense of wonder for nature. It didn’t matter that we didn’t always know the name of the brightly-coloured birds, majestic raptors, or creepy crawlies we saw. It was enough to be able to observe them.

World Wildlife Week starts on October 2, and there’s no better way to celebrate it than by passing on your love for nature to children. Take them for a nature ramble or a hike, let them observe and learn about animals and their habitat, and share a story or two about wildlife. As Carson reminds us, “A child’s world is fresh and new and beautiful, full of wonder and excitement.” It’s up to us, the grown-ups, to keep it that way.

PS: No owls have come calling to my house, although I have helped rescue a few. Even now when I meet a tiny brown owl, such as the spotted owlet, in the wild, I wonder if it’s the same species as the one that used to knock on my mother’s door.