tuque /tūk/ n Canadian English, var. toque [19th c. Canadian French, from the French toque, from the Basque tauka] 1 A close-fitting knitted cap, often with a long tapering end or tassel or pompom. 2 fig Something quintessentially Canadian.
souq /sūk/ n from the Arabic سوق var. souk 1 An open-air marketplace. 2 fig A central meeting place for the circulation of news and ideas.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010


Theory: Necessity is the mother of invention.
Corollary: An empty belly is the mother of all necessity.
Ergo: A rumbling tummy is the, er, grandmother of invention.

The other day my partner Ashley made a hearty, spicy dhal (split-lentil soup/sauce) for lunch. After spending the afternoon in the fridge, by suppertime the leftovers had congealed almost to the consistency of mashed potatoes or mashed garbanzos, at which point--my tummy rumbling--I concocted the following:

Dhalafel (alt.sp. Dalafel)
1 batch leftover dhal, congealed (liquid drained), formed into balls approximately two inches in diameter;
1 small bunch fresh coriander (cilantro), finely chopped;
Whole wheat flour;
Vegetable (e.g. sunflower) oil;
Salt and pepper to taste;
New Lall's green chilli sauce to garnish.

Spread flour on a plate. Season dhalafel balls with salt, pepper and coriander, then roll in the flour. (If using just a little oil in a wok, as I did, then flatten the balls a bit so they cook better; if deep frying, never mind.) Fry dhalafel balls in hot oil until golden and crispy on all sides (yet still deliciously mashy on the inside).

Serve on a platter, garnished with chopped coriander and green chilli sauce.

Option: make dhalafel sandwiches in roti, with fresh sliced tomato and onion, and a dash of fresh-squeezed lime juice.

Got other ideas for the mighty dhalafel, let me know.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Quote-Unquote: Salman Rushdie

"Family history, of course, has its proper dietary laws. One is supposed to swallow and digest only the permitted parts of it, the halal portions of the past, drained of their redness, their blood. Unfortunately, this makes the story less juicy; so I am about to become the first and only member of my family to flout the laws of halal. Letting no blood escape from the body of the tale, I arrive at the unspeakable part; and, undaunted, press on."
--Salman Rushdie, Midnight's Children, 1981, p. 59.

(Context: My current leisure reading; also, the subtle invoking of red meat makes my tummy long for the days of its ancestors!)

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Steamrolled by the Great Freight Train of Irony

Last week my very bubbly and energetic colleague KD invited me to accompany him on a field visit to the village of Chandragiri, where PREM was conducting a communications workshop with a few dozen of its fieldworkers.

I happily and excitedly agreed.

As we continued our mutually happy and excited discussion about my coming along, I slowly worked out that not only was I going to attend this workshop, but I was going to co-lead the workshop, and would I be so good as to formulate the official agenda and give a one-hour powerpoint presentation on best practices for effective communication in the field?

Oh? Um. Of... course. I'd be very happy to do this (on one day's notice, still knowing very little about the organization I'm working with, and not having created a powerpoint presentation since my final year of undergrad, twelve long years ago!).

KD's happiness index went from effervescent to Eyjafjallajökullian.

So the next day, off we went.

(I shall describe the beautiful village of Chandragiri--two and a half hours' drive from Berhampur up in the hills of the Gajapati district--in another post.)

The workshop was quite successful. Of thirty-five fieldworkers invited, about half were able to attend, despite the distance they must travel from their villages and the time they must take away from their families and work. (Though all fieldworkers are salaried by PREM, they also have other seasonal work, mainly agricultural in their villages.)

KD led the early morning session with some contextual information about the workshop and PREM's ongoing work. I led an energizer. After a couple of participatory exercises, it was my turn to plug in and talk about best practices for effective communication.

Then the power went out.

KD to the rescue; he ad-libbed a discussion on the critical importance of fieldworkers communicating effectively, since they represent the grassroots knowledge base of the entire organization.

When we got power, I was back in the spotlight. I'd budgeted only thirty minutes for my presentation, hoping to save the other half hour for group discussion (assuming, of course, that anyone found my presentation enlightening).

However, I'd neglected to take into account the need for KD to translate (and elaborate thence) every slide I presented in English into Oriya. Most of our fieldworkers read and write in English well enough, but understand very little, especially my accent. To stave off an hour of my speaking to blank, though politely nodding, faces, KD rescued me at each turn.

Occupying that unenviable time slot in the late morning just before the lunch break, and not speaking the local language, and being (by my presence as a foreigner, for some the first they've ever met) a general oddity in the room, by the end of my talk I was resigned to and content with the fact that my presentation on best practices for effective communication had been steamrolled by the great freight train of irony.

But somehow it seems my determined bullet-pointedness got through to a few of the group, who told me afterwards that they feel stronger about their ability to do their work well.

KD was beaming all through lunch. "Mr Richard," he said, glowing. "That was a great presentation. So great. Really great."

"Thank you," I replied humbly and somewhat disbelieving. But KD's wide eyes put me at ease. He is a very self-conscious young man; having worked his way up through PREM to become a field manager, he is ever cognizant of ways he can improve his work and be a more effective leader. He genuinely views me as someone from whom he can learn a lot, me and my rusty powerpoint skills. As we ate lunch, he looked like he wanted something more from me.

"Really, it was a great presentation. Um, do you have another?"

Photos in this post:
1-A ploughed field in Chandragiri village.
2-A sandalwood tree just outside the conference centre.
3-KD presenting to the workshop.
4-A mango tree on PREM's campus in Chandragiri.
(Click all photos to enlarge.)

Friday, April 23, 2010

The People's Rural Education Movement

Fight poverty through individual empowerment. Fight it with education. Fight it with rights-based collective action. Fight it while looking directly in its face.

If PREM had a mantra, this could be it.

The organization I now find myself working with began thirty years ago as a small group of determined social activists who identified an enormous gap in the social and political development--and the subsequent marginalization and poverty--of several rural communities here in Orissa:

The adivasi--the aboriginal people of India, the First Nations, in a sense--make up almost a quarter of Orissa's population and number over 80 million in all of India. There are 62 scheduled tribes here in Orissa numbering between 500 and one million in population. They are distinct from mainstream Hindu-dominant Indian society by language, by history, and very often by geography. They live in remote villages, often in the vast forestland and expansive hill country of central India. Rarely have they, by choice or by force, assimilated into the dominant culture, and therefore they remain marginalized and poor almost beyond description.

The dalits--erstwhile known as untouchables, or the lowest-caste sector of Indian socio-political hierarchy--make up nearly twenty per cent of Orissa's population. By rigid cultural design they live on the margins of society, unable to advance beyond the boundaries set by a vast system of social classification, even if modern democratic rights have prescribed otherwise. Many dalits have converted to Christianity (or in other areas of India, Buddhism or Sikhism) to transcend caste repression, and this in many cases has had the result of even further marginalization and repression.*

Until a generation ago, for dalits and adivasi in southern and western Orissa, terms like development and education and human rights were as foreign as the concept of a free, democratic India.

The tools these social activists began to apply to address this marginalization, this gap:

1) Education--starting with functional literacy and progressing to the kind of transformational, holistic, liberatory approach theorized by Paulo Freire and others;
2) Sustainable Development--agricultural and horticultural innovations, conservation, water management, food security, health awareness;
3) Community-Based Organizations (CBOs)--sustainable livelihood, village financial trusts, micro-financing initiatives, women's cooperatives, local schools and vocational training centres, an inclusive and consensus-based (rather than top-down and welfare-based) approach to all reaches of development;
4) Advocacy--social mobilization, government lobbying, demanding the implementation of democratic rights.

Today, PREM is a robust network of several dozen partner NGOs, thousands of village-level CBOs, and more than a million people working together, not as charity from have to have-not, but as a collective force against systemic poverty.

And here I am. My title is that of "Communications and Documentation Advisor" (not a lesser name for this rose!), but really I'm here as much to learn from this energetic and successful movement as I am to impart any skill or wisdom I may have accumulated.

* I have never read a Wikipedia entry more inaccurate or misleading than the entry for Dalit. For a better context, start with this article on the difference between a handful of successful dalits in Indian society and a few hundred million who remain impoverished by what is effectively an unending system of repression, despite recent political/legal acts to demarginalize them.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Quote-Unquote: Mahatma Gandhi

"A small body of determined spirits fired by an unquenchable faith in their mission can alter the course of history."
--Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, attributed.

(Context: Quoted in the introduction to PREM: The Heartbeat of a Movment, 2003.)

Friday, April 16, 2010

Oriya: Language of Imagination

Melting light bulbs. Dancing jellyfish. Stormtroopers making silly faces.

These are but a few ways of imagining the peculiar and extremely unique script of the Oriya language, the mother tongue of the state of Orissa.

Categorically speaking, Oriya is a relation of the Sanskritic subfamily of  Indo-Aryan languages (as compared to the Dravidian languages of southern India), along with Hindi and Bengali and others. But unlike the latter two languages which use Devanagari scripts, with their characteristic horizontal lines mounting each word, the Oriya script, derived from ancient Kalinga, is looped, and its letters stand alone.

Among the various scripts of the thirty-odd quasi-official languages of India, Oriya is perhaps the most striking. As your humble blogger learns to speak and understand the language he will certainly report. For an introduction, let your imagination run wild with the dreamy script of Oriya.

What do you see when you look at Oriya? (For the full alphabet, click here.)

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

India Book Review: A New History of India, by Stanley Wolpert

Reading UCLA historian Stanley Wolpert’s A New History of India (8th ed.) is your (and my) just punishment for not taking an Intro to India course at university.

And reading the dense volume passim in 35-minute intervals on the TTC* during a typically bleak Canadian February (as I did) might be the best way to approach the book (and might actually make winter look not too difficult by comparison).

To be fair, Wolpert’s history of India, now in its eighth edition (the academic equivalent of the best-seller list and the Oprah book club, combined), offers you infinitely more insight and considerably more depth than those forgettable history passages in Lonely Planet.

From the Vedic civilization’s economic development to agricultural innovation on the Deccan plateau; from Hindu philosophy to the Dutch East India Company; from Mughal ascendancy to English utilitarianism to the political context of the assassination of Gandhi—actually of several Gandhis—Wolpert has you covered with agonizingly precise historical minutiae of the sort that usually attracts only lonely history buffs and comatose hospital patients (the latter in book-on-tape form, obviously).

Still, it is patently irresponsible to attempt to travel India without some concept of its history, and although there are more enjoyable ways to devour it, there is no more complete way (possibly short of enrolling in Wolpert’s class). Read it before you travel but carry it along at your own risk; while it is a sure-footed reference guide, it is not a light book!

A New History of India (8th ed.)
By Stanley Wolpert
Oxford University Press, 2009
548 pages

* TTC equals Toronto Transit Commission, or more specifically the Dundas and Spadina streetcars for this blogger.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Quote-Unquote: Paulo Freire

"Education either functions as an instrument which is used to facilitate integration of the younger generation into the logic of the present system and bring about conformity, or it becomes the practice of freedom, the means by which men and women deal critically and creatively with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world."
--Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, 1969.

(Context: The philosophy of Paulo Freire forms a critical element of non-governmental education development in India, including the organization where I work, the People's Rural Education Movement, about which more is coming to this blog.)

Saturday, April 10, 2010

First night in the kitchen

Tomato Pulagobi (Tomato Cauliflower)

Ingredients that we found:
400g tomatoes, whole
1 cauliflower, chopped
200g paneer cheese, cubed
4 dried curry leaves
1 tsp red chili
1 tsp cumin
1.5 tsp coriander
1.5 tsp turmeric
1 tsp salt
2 tbsp vegetable oil

Ingredients that we didn't find:
2 medium onions, diced
4 cloves garlic, pureed
50g ginger root, pureed
1/4 tsp onion seed
Fresh coriander (cilantro) for garnish

Cook it:
Boil tomatoes in water 15-20 minutes until skins have peeled. Drain, remove skins, mash, and set aside. In a small bowl, stir together dry spices with 2-3 tbsp water to make paste. In a large saucepan or wok, heat oil on medium, fry curry leaves 5 minutes. [Add onion and sautee till golden; stir in garlic and ginger puree, if you got it.] Stir in spice paste and mix well; cook for 3-5 minutes stirring often. Stir in mashed tomatoes. Let simmer uncovered 5 minutes. Stir in cauliflower. Cover and simmer 12-15 minutes. Stir occasionally and ensure dish does not dry out. When cauliflower has reached desirable doneness, remove from heat, stir in paneer and leave covered 5 minutes before serving. [Garnish with chopped fresh coriander.]
Serves 2 as a complete meal or 4-6 as a side dish.

{More Photos of Indian Cooking}

Thursday, April 8, 2010

The only 5 Toilet Paper Rolls in Town...

... and they're all mine.*

There is no TP in this town, but we do have a "western" toilet (which, by wonderful happenstance, faces west).

Other than the absence of bum-wipers, here are some nuggets of info about life (or my first four days of it) here in the town of Berhampur, the Tuque Souq's home for the next year:

Water: There's plenty of it, but the only potable kind comes in litre-sized bottles bearing the Kinley brand, an imprint of The Coca-Cola Company, which even at 14 rupees (35 cents) a pop is hardly what one would call sustainable development. Let the boiling begin! 

At the hottest time of the day, the mercury is hovering around 35-38 degrees Celsius, on its way to 47 (or worse) by the end of May. Of course, the hottest time of day only lasts from 8am to 6pm. God(s) help me!

Urban legend once held that if John D. Rockefeller saw a $100-bill on the ground it was not worth his time to bend down to pick it up (because he earned more than that every 5 seconds or however long it took him to pick up a c-note). I'm starting to wonder if my lifting the bottle of water to take a gulp is worth the sweat I expend to do so!

Food: Rice is the staple; lentils the protein; veggies--tomato, cucumber, aubergine, okra, cauliflower, potato--the vitamins; curry the sauce; roti the belly-filler; puri and idli the breakfast treat; dosa the fast food; khiri the dessert; rasamalai the delicacy... and probably there is a lot more to explore. My current favourite namkeen (snack) is a fistful of jeera biscuits (small crackers toasted with cumin and masala).

Transportation: There's the auto-rickshaw; its fitter, sexier cousin the cycle rickshaw; the over-stuffed bus on (and on all sides of) which any space not already occupied by a human is considered an available "seat"; and one's own feet. Berhampur is not as compact a town as we'd imagined, so walking (given the aforementioned heat) is not always possible. At least I get picked up for work everyday in an air-conditioned jeep.
Neighbours: Many of our closest neighbours are pests, and not the kind that are invited over for chai and stay well past their welcome. No, these are the kind that bite, sting, buzz, creepy-crawl, slither, shriek, moo, and other things that we may not have discovered yet. The geckos are on our side, we've decided. Everything else is an intruder.

Our new apartment is very nice, very breezy, very secure from monkeys; the mosquito net is firmly in place around the two single cots hinged together to make a double bed. In the heat of the day, the critters are mostly in check. At dawn and dusk, here they come!

* Well, mine and my partner's. And between the time of writing and the time of publishing, we've lost at least half a role with no accountability. Thus the following system must prevail with respect to the dwindling TP supply: