Cloud atlas

Time Out visits the world’s happiest country and returns with its share of bliss

When travelling to Bhutan by air, we have one piece of advice – check in early to ensure you get a window seat. According to Druk Air, the country’s national carrier, Bhutan’s international airport is nestled in a valley that stands 7,300ft above sea level and is surrounded by hills as high as 16,000ft. As the plane swoops down, it leaves the plump white clouds behind to reveal lush mountains, dotted with traditional Bhutanese houses. The landing approach, the airline’s website reveals, is carried out entirely by visual flight rules. A wing dips and the aircraft weaves deftly around the mountains, like a graceful dancer, before finally touching down in the valley of Paro.

Bhutan is often referred to as the Last Shangri La, a nod to it being akin to a mystical Himalayan utopian land. Locals call it the Land of the Thunder Dragon, while most visitors know it for its alternative development metric, the Gross National Happiness. Sandwiched between India and Tibet, it is a land-locked country. Thimphu, the capital, is an hour away from Paro and the journey is scenic – our van vended its way through winding roads, which were fenced by gently rolling mountains, with the river Paro Chhu gurgling at the foothills and stout apple trees and giant rose bushes nodding at every corner.

Centre stage

Our destination was Taj Tashi, a five star hotel situated in the heart of Thimphu market. Offering panoramic mountain views, the hotel amalgamates the dzong architecture of Bhutan with modern amenities. The Thimphu market is a bustling one with furry mountain dogs lounging on the pavement, baskets full of bright green asparagus and chillies and Bhutanese people dressed in traditional threads – men wear the gho, a knee-length kimono-style robe, while women wear an ankle-length blouse and skirt called the kira. Its many shops offer everything from local SIM cards and pizzas to ATM machines and handloom souvenirs.

Adjoining the hotel is the newly opened Crafts Bazaar – a row of bamboo huts that display and sell traditional arts and crafts at mostly reasonable prices. We took a leisurely stroll in the evening, stopping to watch artistes weave colourful belts on handlooms, and ended up buying reams of soft handmade Bhutanese paper, wooden wares and a scroll that had a painting of the tiger, the lion, the thunder dragon and Garuda the eagle, who are believed to watch over the land.

The next morning, our gracious guide Sonam Pelden took us to the Buddha Dordenma statue which is located on a hill in the Kuensel Phodrang National Park. Pelden works with the Tourism Council of Bhutan and told us that at 169ft, this is probably the tallest bronze, gold-gilded statue of Buddha in the world. It is omnipresent in Thimphu and you can see it from most places in the city. Construction started in 2004, and continues so far – when completed the meditation hall will have 100,000 Buddha statues.

Local flavours

A visit to the capital, we discovered, is incomplete without a trip to the Folk Heritage Museum, which was started in 2001 by Kesang Choeden, a former police officer. The highlight for us was the traditional Bhutanese lunch served at the restaurant there. The meal started with hot Bhutanese butter tea and then a wooden bowl was filled with ara, a traditional fermented rice drink. “I don’t keep a menu,” said Choeden, “The menu is decided on what local and seasonal produce is available.” The table groaned as bowl after bowl of steaming hot food came from the kitchen – we tucked into buckwheat pancakes; eggplant sautéed with Schezwan peppers; sautéed asparagus; cucumber and carrot salad with nigella seeds; potato and cheese stew; ema datshi (a chilli and cheese stew) and curries of beef and chicken with cauliflower. Dessert was ripe purple plums plucked from their orchard and they were teamed with bowls of home-brewed smoky mistletoe tea. “I have always been interested in food,” said Choeden. “I would get upset about the feedback that I got on Bhutanese cuisine – a lot of people said that it lacked variety and originality. I wanted to prove them wrong and show that Bhutanese food has a lot of range and variety.”

Sacred sights

The next day, we headed west to Punakha. The drive was one of the most spectacular so far, cutting through lush valleys and gushing rivers on cloud-wrapped paths cut into the mountains. Punakha is home to the Punakha Dzongkhag, Bhutan’s oldest and second largest dzong (a kind of fortress unique to Bhutan and Tibet). Pelden told us that Punakha is known as the place where the Pho Chhu, a male river meets the Mo Chhu, a female. The magnificent structure with its white-washed walls and ornate architecture stands against a backdrop of yellow laburnum trees and a busy river. The dzong is historically significant as well – it used to be the state capital from 1637 to 1907, it’s where the first national assembly took place in 1953 and in 2011 the king of Bhutan got married here. The Punakha Dzongkhag also contains archives and the Ranjung Karsapani, the spine of the monk Tsangpa Gyarey, which is considered to be a sacred relic.

Near Punakha lies the Chimi Lhakhang monastery which was built as a tribute to the tantric Buddhist master Lama Drukpa Kunley who lived sometime between the 15th and16th centuries. The monastery is replete with traditional symbols of a phallus – the priests even bless you with one, along with a bow and arrow – which is meant to keep away the evil eye. It’s also considered a fertility temple where couples come from all corners of the country to seek blessings for a child.

It was time to head back to Paro, but only after a quick pit stop at the Druk Wangyal chortens, where 108 chortens (a kind of stupa) are built on a mountain pass. On clear days, this pass offers a panoramic view of the Himalayas, but since we were visiting in the summer, which is characterised by heavy rains and clouds, what we instead saw were tall Himalayan cypress (Bhutan’s national tree) swathed in clouds giving us an illusion of having stepped into another Narnia-like world.

Indeed, most of Bhutan is ethereal – its forest cover extends to 72 percent of the country. Its people are focussed on an alternative model of development which doesn’t look at merely economic growth, and beauty lurks in every nook and corner.

When to go
Plan your visit during the summer months, between March and September.

Getting there
Flights are available from Mumbai, Delhi, Kolkata and Guwahati. Bhutan’s international airport is located at Paro, while Druk Air and Bhutan Airlines are the two main carriers.

Getting around
All visitors must employ the services of a certified Bhutanese tour operator to book their travel and accommodation. Visa clearance must be obtained prior to landing, but Indian, Bangladeshi and Maldivian nationals are entitled to receive a visa upon arrival.

Tourist information

By Bijal Vachharajani on September 01 2014
Photos by Avikgenxt |, Steve Allen |

Proceed to play

Jumpstart is back with lots of fun plans up its sleeve

This fortnight, if you find your city invaded by a host of writers, storytellers, artists and illustrators, all of them in a seri­ously playful mood, it’s because of Jumpstart, an annual congress of children’s content creators organ­ised by the German Book Office. This year’s edition of Jumpstart is back with a new theme of “Let’s play” and has expanded to include Bangalore as a venue.

“Through experts from the field of writing, illustrations, pedagogy, theatre, games, animation, storytelling and publishing, we wish to talk and experience the ways in which creators in general can play in the process of creating con­tent for children,” said Prashasti Rastogi, director of the GBO, New Delhi, over email. “Whether it be writing a book, illustrating, animat­ing or creating a game, we hope to explore play in all its polysemy – the gaming of play – domestic, public and virtual spaces of sport and leisure and the embodiment and practice of play.”

In Delhi, the programme will be held across two days, with the second day being a master class by the Jumpstart programme team – Anita Roy, director at Young Zubaan; Manasi Subramaniam, commissioning editor at Harper­Collins India; and Samina Mishra, writer and former Time Out Delhi kids editor. “We look at play as any activity that engages, stimulates and motivates,” said Subrama­niam. “Even the act of reading and imagining is a way of playing. We are simply bringing the focus back to good old-fashioned fun.”

The first day will see a series of talks and discussions in collabo­ration with partners Scholastic, Goethe Institut and Embassy of France. Authors Nury Vittachi, Asha Nehemiah and Sophie Benini Pietromarchi will talk about the idea of playing with books in a conversa­tion moderated by Roy. The discus­sion will focus on play and its con­nection to creative work for writers and illustrators. Hong Kong-based journalist Vittachi, who wrote the richly imaginative children’s book The Day it Rained Letters, pointed out, “It is often said that playing is how children learn. That’s certainly true, but I also think playing is how adults learn.”

Benini Pietromarchi is the author of The Book Book and The Colour Book, beautifully illustrated books that get children to explore the world of stories and colours. “My position in my books is not in front of them as a teacher but rather I try to stay side by side to the children,” said the Franco-Italian artist and teacher. “It is as if we were playing a game together where everyone follows the same rules before starting to play. At Jumpstart, I will also explore the different games that you can find in my books. The element that fascinates me in the exploration of play is the ‘new’. Every time you play you are in front of a space and a time that are new, all the possibilities are open. I will also explore the concept that writing for children is not at all to make things simpler to them, but to under­stand deeply the situation or the theme and go to the essential.”

Mishra will moderate a discus­sion on play in pedagogy with educators Amukta Mahapatra, EK Shaji and Sujata Noronha, who runs Bookworm, a Goa-based organisa­tion that offers opportunities for kids to love books. “We’re looking at play and pedagogy where experts tell us how critical it is to keep the element of play in a learning envi­ronment and show us how they do it,” said Mishra. Mahapatra, who was the founder and principal of Abacus School, Chennai, and is currently a member of a commit­tee that is reviewing activity based learning in seven states, including Karnataka, shared her plans for Jumpstart. “Often the word ‘play’ is used patronisingly by adults to describe children’s activity. Children play seriously, even if it is with a bit of a twig or a piece of paper or a math material. There is no clear demarcation of play and work as they learn and live. Work is described as ‘when an effort is put in to produce something’ or when our faculties are being used. Don’t children use all of themselves when they play? Don’t they put in an effort? Don’t they produce some­thing, even if it is intangible? Can we observe, listen and take them forward in their quest to learn and play with the world and the universe that they inhabit?”

Appadurai A from Hewlett-Packard India, one of the festival sponsors along with the Federal Foreign Office of Germany, will talk about augmented reality and innovations in print, while author and game designer Anshumani Ruddra will focus on the nuances of developing a game book. The day will wrap up with a session on transmedia storytelling across books, movies, games and apps with Rastogi; Jiggy George, CEO of Dream Theatre, a brand man­agement and licensing agency that creates and manages iconic brands such as Angry Birds and Warner Bros in India and South Asia; Ralph Möllers, who runs a book and software house, Sys­thema, in Germany; and Shilpa Ranade, who teaches animation at the Industrial Design Centre at IIT Bombay.

In Bangalore, the festival will be held for one day. “Since 2009, Jumpstart has been a platform for authors, illustrators, publish­ers, editors, translators, librarians, educationists to ideate and col­laborate on a relevant theme,” said Rastogi. “All year round we receive mails from people asking us to bring Jumpstart to other cities and we chose Bangalore as the most buzzing creative base with a highly receptive and energetic audience.”

By Bijal Vachharajani on August 15 2014

Pure & Special – Gourmet Indian Vegetarian Cuisine

(Courtesy: Pure & Special)

Being part of a family of Gujaratis who lived in Delhi for years meant that we soon ditched the sugar in our sabzis to embrace pindi chole, rajma and khasta roti with gusto. Even after we moved away from Delhi to Mumbai, my mother would soak sabut urad dal a day before guests were to arrive. That’s because her dal makhni was always a favourite with family members and guests. The black gram slow cooked with cream, tomatoes and chillis had a special taste for all of us. It has now become a family ritual, given that our family is all scattered, every time we unite, my mother makes it a point to make some house favourites – kheer, puranpoli, and of course dal makhni.

I confess that most of my dal cooking is limited to boiling lentils (and if I am feeling a little more energetic, I throw in a clove of garlic) and give it a quick vaghaar or tempering. And dal makhni honestly takes a lot of effort and the amount of cream that is poured in is quite heart-stopping. But when I got Vidhu Mittal’s book Pure & Special – Gourmet Indian Vegetarian Cuisine, I came across the recipe for black velvet lentil/makhmali dal makhni and I knew it was time to make my own, well actually Mittal’s version of the dal.

What really lured me into cooking this dal was the easy-to-follow explanation that the author offered, along with step-by-step photographs and little tips, such as “The secret to this dish is patience. As described in this recipe, these lentils need to be simmered for a long time to achieve their signature velvet texture” and that using “unrefined mustard oil brings out the flavour of the black gram”. That’s pretty much the vein of the entire cookbook – simple steps to make interesting Indian food.

Mittal has been conducting cooking classes in Bangalore for over 15 years now and had authored a bestselling book called Pure & Simple: Homemade Indian Vegetarian Cuisine. In her new book, she introduces novices to Indian cooking to spices such as haldi and khus khus, as well as vegetables, nuts, fruits, and lentils. It serves as a good primer – ever tried to shop for dal and tried to distinguish tur from chana? The back of the book also offers basic instructions for boiling raw bananas, potatoes, lotus stems and making different gravies. She then gets down to the business of recipes and there’s a whole range – Drinks, Soups & Salads which includes the refreshing-sounding piquant pear/raseeli nashpati, where pears are stewed with cinnamon and water and then blended and a lotus stem pasta salad; Snacks & Appetisers in which she again works with regional foods such as shingara (water chestnuts) and shows you how to jazz up the humble dalia.

In Main Courses, there’s different sorts of gravy and dry vegetables, some with paneer and methi and others are more exotic such as the Zesty Zucchini Lentil where she mixes up the vegetable with moong dal. Mittal’s Rice & Breads section is equally interesting where she offers recipes for rumali roti and jackfruit rice. And what’s an Indian cook book without recipes for chutneys, which can be found in the Accompaniments section. The Desserts section is lean but comes with an interesting twist, such as saffron kheer with makhanas and a fluffy cheesecake that doesn’t need fancy cheese to make it.

Cookbook perused, it was time to try the dal makhani. It was a lengthy, but not a laborious process. The pre-soaked black gram dal was first boiled in a pressure cooker along with ghee, salt, cinnamon, bay leaves, black cardamom, hing and ginger. Once boiled, I discarded the whole spices and let the dal simmer before adding yoghurt and cream. Half an hour later, my kitchen was fragrant with the smell of cinnamon, bay leaves and cream mingling with the ghee-laced dal. Another half-an-hour later, I added sautéed tomato puree and then a last vaghaar of ginger and chilli powder. The result was a luscious dal that was sheer velvet and laden with spices. Patience was indeed the main ingredient in this dal.

The dal went perfectly with the layered crispy bread/lachchedaar tandoori paratha, a recommendation from Mittal again. The paratha dough was a mixture of wheat flour, baking powder and milk and needed to be proved for an hour before shaping it into balls, rolling it out into a small disc and then pleating it to a cylinder shape. The pleated cylinder was then twisted to form a circle and rolled again, causing several layers to form. Here, the photographs really helped understand the rolling process. Mittal recommends using the inside of a pressure cooker to replicate a tandoor. It didn’t work very well for us, but we used the tava method to roast the parathas. The hot crispy, flaky paratha and the dal makhani left us happy and, when I told my mother, she beamed with approval.

Vidhu Mittal Roli Books, 1,295

By Bijal Vachharajani on July 04 2014

Tree’s company

Time Out talks to Pradip Krishen about his new book on the jungle trees of Central India

For all the people who live in and depend upon forests” is the dedication in Pradip Krishen’s latest book, Jungle Trees of Central India – A Field Guide for Tree Spotters. The coffee-table book is a lavish tribute to them and to the forests of Central India. Hailing from Delhi, Krishen was a filmmaker and then dedicated himself to studying trees. In 2006, he published Trees of Delhi, which sold a landmark 20,000 copies.

His new book takes him back to his roots in Central India. He writes fondly, reverentially and knowledgeably about his muse. “I like trees. Especially wild ones,” the author writes in the preface. “I feel a deep empathy in their company. I touch them and delight in their tints and perfumes. There’s nothing else I’d prefer to have in my field of vision, except, perhaps, other trees or plants. But getting to know them, to the extent I am capable, lies at the core of my relationship with trees… getting to know them is like a rich weave of stories with more than its share of mystery.”

Krishen combines beautiful prose with scientific and cultural knowledge to acquaint readers with the geography of Central India, the different types of forest it has, forestry in colonial and independent India and of course the trees – from the intoxicating mahua to the girchi tree with its yellow oblong fruits. Readers will learn about the handsome baranga tree with its white flowers, and the palash or flame of the forest and how it thrives on poorly drained soil where other trees would falter. There are lovely nuggets of information. For instance, the girchi fruit is “pounded and dropped into dammed streams as a means to stun and possibly poison fish”. In an email interview with Time Out, Krishen spoke about his fascination with trees and tree-spotting.

How did your fascination with the world of trees begin? Was it challenging not having a science background?
It began when I was building a small cottage at the edge of the jungle in Pachmarhi (in southern Madhya Pradesh), and my architect friend and I would go walking in the forest every day, sometimes for several hours. We had a forester neighbour who started pointing out trees and teaching us names and it just became something we became more and more fascinated with.

The science wasn’t challenging because we were not really interested or even trying to understand the science at the time. We were what you might call “tree-spotters”, like bird-watchers. It’s when we tried to go a little deeper into identifying and differentiating trees that the arcane language of botany started to pose a challenge. But then one learns to read a glossary of terms and puzzle it all out. That too became part of the fun, like an elaborate detective game!

After a book on Delhi trees, what made you decide to focus on the monsoon forest trees of Central India?
Central India is where the whole adventure started out for me. So it was joyful going back to where I had started, to have fun with wild trees. But it was also very liberating, in a sense, to get away from all the messy exotics in a city and to concentrate instead on natural forests, native trees, and to learn to puzzle out relationships between ecology and soils and where trees grow.

Tell us about this book, and the kind of research and time that went into it.
I call the book “a field guide for treespotters” and at one level it’s just that. It’s aimed at people who may have no acquaintance at all with trees or botany in any form. It aims at switching them on, getting them to enjoy this “game” of spotting trees in the wild, becoming tree detectives. It can be great fun and takes one’s enjoyment of wild places to another level. At the same time, I needed to be as sure as I could that I was writing a book that could stand up to scientific scrutiny. And because modern botanists in our country tend to write so poorly, I wanted my book to fill this gaping hole in the way plant books are written and photographed in India today.

I don’t know how to tell you what kind of research went into the book. There’s not a lot written about the area. Some 19th-century books of forestry, Capt Forsyth’s account of his journey, some really tawdry compilations of herbarium specimens from the BSI [Botanical Survey of India]. I probably learnt most from just footslogging in the wilderness and though that sounds really hard, the truth is it made for some of the most enjoyable times of my life. I spent about three and a half years travelling nearly every month for 10-15 days, clocking 3,500 to 4,000km in an area the size of France. Doesn’t that say it all?

Field guides can become quite academic, but you manage to bridge the gap between academics and enthusiasts. Please tell us about that.
I guess it helps that I’m not an academic forester or a trained botanist. That would have probably cramped my style and turned me into an automaton who wrote like all his peers. But the fact that I came from left field, that I started out by doing this for fun, wanting to share this with other people – that’s probably what sets the style and tone of my book.

There’s a strong vein of conservation that runs through your book. Do you feel that books like this play a vital role in making people think about trees and their larger environment?
I don’t know about “vital” and I’m really not at all sure what kind of an impact a book like this has. Obviously it seeks and probably makes some new recruits to tree-spotting and sensitises people to what’s beautiful and enjoyable in wild places. I am trying – subtly, I hope – to influence the way people think about and regard what’s left of our wilderness but I have no illusions at all about the extent to which we, as a nation or a culture, are becoming nature-conscious or conservationminded. It’s not a rosy picture at all.

Tell us a little bit about yourself.
I started working in Jodhpur nearly nine years ago when I was invited by the Trust [Mehrangarh Museum Trust], which runs Mehrangarh Fort to green a large rocky tract adjacent to the magnificent fort. It was a wonderful opportunity to “rewild” a fairly large area of 70 hectares in the middle of a bustling city and I said yes immediately, without quite weighing the difficulties of eradicating invasive trees that were already well established. Besides, it was a tract of hard, volcanic rock, so it wasn’t at all easy. But we’ve managed to create a park of plants native to rocky parts of the Thar desert and, though it’s taken us all this while, we’re beginning to see wonderful results. It’s slow out there in the desert. Our growing season is only about six or seven weeks long. So it’s a real slog that requires immense patience. But I’ve had terrific support from the Trust and it’s been a truly wonderful journey.

Once I finished the book, which had kept me preoccupied for the last five years or so, I began to look around for an opportunity to do some more rewilding. I’ve always loved the western Himalaya, and by a series of happy accidents I got in touch with an NGO called Chirag that operates in Kumaon around Mukteshwar. We talked about it, and it seemed just right that we should begin right away, so we’ve roped in a Van Panchayat in the area, because the aim ultimately is to hand over the project to a Van Panchayat in three or four years. The idea, basically, is to create a wildflower trail at about 6,000 ft up in the mountains. Why a trail? Because then we don’t take land away from pasture or anything else. And all we need to do is to plant up a fairly narrow strip on either side of an existing pagdandi [path]!

We’ve only just begun. I’ve gone in with Vijay Dhasmana, who’s as mad as I am about wild plants, and we’re still getting to know and collect an exciting flora that’s as different as can be from the Marwar desert. Let’s see how it goes!

Jungle Trees of Central India – A Field Guide for Tree-Spotters, Penguin,R1499.

By Bijal Vachharajani on June 20 2014

Trunk call

Time Out reads Discover Avenue Trees: A Pocket Guide, which prompts us to go on a tree walk

The months of February and March were pleasant ones for Time Out staffers. When we went to get a cup of coffee, we would pass by Ulsoor Lake. Our walk was made colourful by a line of trees ablaze with pink flowers. As we ambled along the broken pavement, coffee in hand, soft blossoms would rain upon us, and carpet our path with a sheen of fragile pink. It was only when reading Discover Avenue Trees: A Pocket Guide by Karthikeyan S that we figured that these beautiful trees are the pink poui, or Tabebuia rosea – which provide ample shade when in bloom and are native to Mexico, Venezuela and Ecuador.

We met another pink tree at Cubbon Park – the Java cassia – when Karthikeyan was telling us about his book. The cassia, he told us, is from Java and Sumatra and blooms in April and May. Another nugget to be found in his book Discover Avenue Trees is a handy pocket guide which is a great starting point for anyone who is interested in urban flora. Fifty flowering trees find mention in the book, from the purple jacaranda to the golden-yellow Indian laburnum and the cannonball tree which though native to South America is sacred in India, as the flower is likened to a Shiva linga. Each double spread is dedicated to a tree, and describes its leaves, its seed pods and whether the tree is home to birds, butterflies and/or bats. “I want people to appreciate trees in the flowering and non-flowering season,” said Karthikeyan. “You have to have patience to follow a tree, understand its leaves, its seeds, its flowers. I hope this book is a starting point for that.”

Karthikeyan, who is the chief naturalist at Jungle Lodges and Resorts, said this book wasn’t something he had planned. He has previously authored The Fauna of Bangalore: The Vertebrates and Butterflies of Bangalore – A Checklist, which was published by WWF-India. “I had simply put together some information on flowering trees and posted in on our e-group Bngbirds,” recalled the author. “When new subscribers joined, I reposted the information on request. This was in 2008 or 2009. I then put up the information about some 25 species on my blog [] as a downloadable pdf. My friend Anush Shetty helped me with that.” But enthusiasts pointed out that it was cumbersome carrying about printouts, and this year Karthikeyan collaborated with EcoEdu to publish the book.

Bangalore has always been known for its flowering avenue trees, many of which were planted by the British. “When the city was planned, the trees were planted in such a way that Bangalore was never bereft of colours,” said Karthikeyan. “But the city grew in an unexpected way, trees were cut. Earlier trees were planted thoughtfully, where you’d know the tree, its shape etc.” Karthikeyan illustrated his point with an example of the gulmohur tree, which is a weak tree. Ideally, it shouldn’t be planted on main roads, but with its flame-red flowers, it’s a perfect garden tree.

As we walked around Cubbon Park, Karthikeyan stopped to pick up a core of the mahogany seeds. The seeds were brown and looked like flat wings. The seeds were neatly arranged around the woody core. Karthikeyan took a seed and flung it in the air, where it whirled like the blades of a helicopter. “That’s seed dispersal,” he smiled, pointing out that it’s fun for children and helps explain the principles of aerodynamics. “And people say trees don’t move. Then what is this?” We spent the next few minutes tossing and watching the seeds twirl around the park. Our tree discovery journey had begun.

Discover Avenue Trees: A Pocket Guide, EcoEdu, `149. Visit to order.

By Bijal Vachharajani on June 20 201

First Agro farm visit

Walking through the 45-acre First Agro Farm is like eating your way through a fresh, crunchy salad. Naveen MV and Nameet M, who co-founded this zero pesticide commercial grower company with KN Prasad in 2010, encouraged us to pluck vegetables and crunch them – we took in the sweet aroma of sage, picked a glistening leaf of purple basil and admired its heady taste and sampled wild rocket. The heart of the salad bowl were the heir­loom tomatoes – vines were laden with the world’s smallest pea cherry tomato, the larger cherry one, the grape-shaped one, a teardrop one, a snow-white and a purple version.

We were 110 kilometers outside Bangalore, in Cauvery Valley, speaking to the promoters of First Agro, which grows zero pesticide produce complying with the FAO/WHO’s Codex Alimentarius food safety standards. Naveen, who is the CEO, said, “What is important in this business is to have a deep understanding of entomology [the scientific study of insects] and Olericulture [the science of vegetable growing] so that you know how to use natural methods and bio-solutions to manage pests.” Nameet is the chief production head, who learnt all about growing vegetables and keeping pests at bay with natural methods from horticultural growers in Canada, where he was a commercial pilot. COO Prasad has managed family farms in Karnataka for over a decade.

Nameet worked on an integrated pest and disease management system where he uses a “combination of neem oil, beneficial insects, beneficial microbes, garlic-chili spray, pheromone insect traps and companion plants”. “We are able to manage about 90 per cent of the common pest issues in agriculture,” he said. The farm also uses the drip-irrigated method to provide water to their fields.

Being commercial growers, the three brothers have expand­ed their business to the retail and hospitality sectors. First Agro supplies to restaurants such as The Glass House and Caperberry and hotels such as The Ritz-Carlton, The Oberoi and JW Marriott. In retail, their produce is available with, HyperCity and FoodHall, among others.

Their biggest challenge has been to get Bangaloreans to think about food safety. “When we do promotional campaigns in malls, people tell us that they had no clue about these issues,” said Naveen. “We tell them how food is grown using pesticide or what GMOs are. Slowly, awareness is seeping in.”

By Bijal Vachharajani on June 06 

photo: Pradeep KS

Book review: Wave

“‘Oh my God, the sea’s coming in.’ That’s what she said. I looked behind me. It didn’t seem that remarkable. Or alarming. It was only the white curl of a big wave,” thought Sonali Deraniyagala while on holiday in Yala, a national park on the southeastern coast of Sri Lanka on December 26, 2004. Deraniyagala, an economist who studied in Cambridge and Oxford, was with her husband Steve, her two boys Vikram (8) and Malli (5) and her parents. The wave that Deraniyagala was talking about was 30-feet high in Yala, it moved through land at 25 miles an hour, charged inland for over two miles, claiming and wrecking lives, before it returned into the ocean.

The author survived, but lost her entire family in the tsunami of 2004, when an earthquake under the sea near Indonesia triggered a tidal wave.

Most people remember being riveted in horror to their television sets as news of the tsunami sent reverberations across the world. Until then most of us, including Deraniyagala, hadn’t even heard of this tidal wave phenomena. As the author grapples with her unimaginable loss, she writes about her grief, in a raw manner that’s gut-wrenching to read. The memoir is devoid of statistics, you don’t find out how many people died, instead you realise who were some of the people who perished in the tsunami.

After the tsunami, instead of returning to her London home. Friends and family rally around her but she collapses – endlessly tracing back events, evoking memories and only resurfacing with a strong wish to die as well. She is numb with grief, alternating between fits of fury and suicidal thoughts, which she acts upon by slashing herself with a butter knife, burning cigarette butts into her skin and stashing sleeping pills. Her days get obliterated into a vodka and Ambien pill haze, she even hounds the Dutch family that moves into her parents’ house in Colombo. “I am in the unthinkable situation that people cannot bear to contemplate,” she writes at one time poignantly.

At another point, she realises that she is now frightened of Sun­days as that was the day “the wave came to us”. Guilt surfaces. At other times, a feeling of doom, as she writes, “When I had them, they were my pride, and now that I’ve lost them, I am full of shame. I was doomed all along”. Deraniyagala visits Yala again and again, scouring among the debris for fragments of the belongings of her family.

Her father-in-law accompanies her on the first trip – “He’d stood in that wind and spoken a few words into the air to Steve and the boys. That’s when something fluttered by his foot”. It turns out to be the back cover of a research report that Steve had co-written. These are moments that makeWave so compelling on the whole.

As Deraniyagala writes about the horrific event, it’s as if her thoughts are spilling onto the pages in short, almost staccato sentences, recalling the mind-numbing sorrow and the void in her life. Her words begin to uncoil slowly as she returns to London, after three years and eight months. She loses herself, and in some way reclaims herself, in those warm, happy memories of their life there: “I clasped a sea­shell in my fist… one of those cowrie shells I found in the house before it was rented. On its shiny surface still, Malli’s fingertips”. She finds her husband’s eyelash, marks from coloured pens on the kitchen table, the place where Steve and the boys would feed spiders in the garden, cling­ing to a familiarity that slowly begins to soothe her.

Wave is a haunting, difficult read about the nightmare of the tsunami and the wreckage it left behind. But it’s also a personal memoir about the beauty of relationships and their fragility. You can’t help but read it until the end, with short bursts of painful breaths, admiring the excruciating exquisiteness of her words. Wave will linger in your mind long after you’ve put it back on the bookshelf.

Sonali Deraniyagala Hachette, R399

By Bijal Vachharajani on June 06 2014


When we first heard the news that Delhi-based Mexican chain Sancho’s was coming to namma city, it was still February. We had to wait for the restaurant to open in April to get our dose of the spicy Mexican and Tex-Mex fare. Nestled in the food court of UB City, Sancho’s has an al fresco dining area and an air-conditioned seating place.

We invited our house guest from Connecticut, who had recently vacationed in Mexico, to join us for the meal. We started with a melon berry mint slush, an icy blend of cantaloupe, strawberry crush and mint leaves. Our friend said: “Given a choice, I would marry this drink.”

We also ordered chips with mango salsa, guacamole and fish taquitos. Those small beer-battered fish tortillas never arrived and so we ultimately cancelled them closer to dessert time. The chips were the crunchy corn ones and went well with the chopped avocado guacamole. The mango salsa tasted like a slightly spicy aamras.

Our veg enchiladas were corn semi-fried tortillas stuffed and soaked with salsa ranchero and topped with shredded lettuce, melted cheese, onions, Mexican rice and refried beans. We wished the enchiladas had been spicier and made with wheat instead of the cornflour that gave it a grainy texture.

Our companion’s prawns burrito came stuffed with beans, Mexican rice, guacamole and pico de gallo salsa. She pronounced them authentic enough and nodded approvingly at the right balance in the dish. Since our companion wasn’t keen on dairy products, we skipped the flan and tres leche cake for an air buñuelos for dessert. These Mexican fritters are supposedly as light as air. Our rosette-shaped fried buñuelos came dusted with cinnamon sugar and accompanied by a bowl of dark chocolate sauce. We gleefully abandoned table manners to break the crisp fritters into bite-sized pieces, and covering ourselves in cinnamon sugar.

Although the food wasn’t as fiery as we thought Mexican food should be, our companion was quite thrilled at having found a slice of Mexico in Bangalore.  204, UB City, 1, Vittal Mallya Road (4167-4151). Daily 11.30am-11.30pm. All major cards.

By Bijal Vachharajani on May 09 2014 7.52am

Half Bad

Half Bad

Sally Green, Penguin, R299. Ages 14+.

Sally Green’s debut young adult novel, Half Bad, is already slated to be published in 36 countries with a signed film deal. Half Bad is set in a world where witches co-exist with humans (they are called whets) secretly. The story revolves around Nathan, a witch who is half-black and half-white; his mother (the White Witch) killed herself, and his father is the wicked Black Witch who has been absent forever and is on a happygo- killing spree. Nathan grows up with his grandmother and stepsiblings and is closely governed by the White Council, which is forever thrusting new notifications onto Half Codes.

At 17, Nathan will get three gifts to turn into a proper witch. That’s when his own Gift will be revealed and he will find out whether he is White or Black. Things get tense when Nathan’s thrust into a cage and watched over by another witch. There’s a quest thrown in towards the end of the first instalment as well as a love interest, who is, of course a White Witch.

The story may be new, but the threads in the narrative aren’t. There are shades of Twilight – the witches have to drink blood while getting their three gifts – and Harry Potter in it, as well as Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea series. Nathan’s father sounds quite like Voldemort and Nathan keeps wondering if he’s Black or White, much like Potter’s dilemma about belonging to Gryffindor or Slytherin. There is a prophecy as well, and all that talk about purity of blood.

But Half Bad works because it is fast-paced and a thrilling read. Green writes lucidly, and keeps the story gripping at all times. There’s plenty of gore in the book, but it doesn’t come across as all dark and dreary. She also manages to put together a well-rounded slew of characters – there’s even a gay character (no, we won’t play spoiler). Between all that Black and White business, Green manages to shed enough doubt about the grey areas of life, reminding her young readers that life isn’t neatly divided into monochromes. The sequel is slated to come out next year and is called Half Wild.
Bijal Vachharajani

The Big Book of Treats

Book Review: The Big Book of Treats

The lavishly-produced dessert book is splashed with mouth-watering photos of Dhingra’s goodies

A few years ago, a close friend’s birthday was fast approaching and as usual, we were stumped for gifting ideas. Finally we zoned on to the fact that the friend was a shopaholic. That’s when I called Pooja Dhingra, the founder and owner of Le 15 pâtisserie in Mumbai. After a careful discussion with Dhingra, we settled on a dozen shopping themed cupcakes. Two days later, I went to pick up the cupcakes and was delighted by the frosted pink delicacies that came with a quirky but tasteful icing in the shape of a bag, a stiletto and clothes. My friend of course was delighted and almost refused to eat the cupcakes. When she did eat them, we realised that unlike most cupcakes these weren’t dry and the frosting wasn’t overpoweringly sweet.

So, I was understandably excited when I got Dhingra’s baking book The Big Book of Treats. The lavishly-produced dessert book is splashed with mouth-watering photos of Dhingra’s goodies including peanut butter brownie cups, Nutella squares, white chocolate and rose sponge cake and of course her delicately-flavoured macarons which she’s best known for. The book starts with a Baking 101 guide which takes readers through commonly used ingredients, essential equipment and techniques and tips. Some of them are really useful, like the distinction between baking soda and powder and the handy conversion table.

The rest of the book is divided into Cookies, Bars, Brownies; Cakes, Tea Time goodies, Tarts, Cupcakes, Frostings, Truffles, Desserts and Macarons. Dhingra offers a range of recipes from basic ones such as chocolate chip cookies and vanilla cupcakes to the fancier ones like chai cupcakes and green chilly truffles. Each recipe comes with a little note where Dhingra talks about her work at Le 15, her team, shares personal anecdotes and sometimes recommends variations as well. For instance, in the eggless passion fruit truffles recipe, Dhingra suggests that if you can’t find passion fruit, which isn’t easily available in the Indian market, you can substitute it with any fruit purée such as mango, strawberry, or apple.

We decided to give Dhingra’s recipes a whirl in our oven. We started with the dark chocolate fudge bar, which tastes like a brownie-like fudge. We first melted dark chocolate with butter, following Dhingra’s Baking 101 tips. While that mixture cooled, we whisked together free-range eggs, castor sugar and vanilla. The chocolate mixture was folded in and our kitchen was as fragrant as a real-life bakery with the cocoa, butter and vanilla doing its magic. Flour, baking soda and almonds were added. The recipe called for white chocolate chips, but we decided to experiment and tossed in some butterscotch chips instead. Dhingra recommends roasting the almonds before adding them to the batter, a tip that made sense as it improves the flavour immensely. Twenty minutes later, the batter had doubled in size and the butterscotch was smelling heavenly.

We impatiently waited for the loaf to cool before cutting it into mini bars. We found the recipe easy to follow, and the conversion chart ensured that it was an effortless switch between grams and cups while measuring the ingredients. The bars were not too sweet, they were crispy on the outside and gooey but chewy inside, a perfect snack for that 4pm craving. The almonds added a subtle crunch while the butterscotch chips melted in our mouths. And best of all, it took us less than an hour to get this dish together, and that’s including baking time. Next, we plan to try the mango tart, and then we hope to roll up our sleeve and dedicate a few hours to mastering the macaron.

Pooja Dhingra Penguin, R699

By Bijal Vachharajani