24 November 2010

Prasada by post

It’s that time of year again when men in black can be spotted at traffic intersections all over the city. This past weekend, while waiting at a red light, one of these bearded, barefoot and black-clad men tapped on the car window and made a short speech of which I only understood two words: “Sabarimala” and “Ayyappa”. He held out something shaped like a coconut in which he was collecting donations. I’ve always been intrigued by this annual pilgrimage so I was happy to make a small contribution towards his journey to Lord Ayyappa’s abode in Sabarimala in Kerala.

I have written about the Sabarimala pilgrimage before here. This is a popular pilgrimage undertaken only by men (pre-pubescent girls and post-menopausal women are also ‘allowed’ to take part). For weeks before embarking on the journey, pilgrims must (among many other things) walk barefoot, not shave or cut their hair, eat only vegetarian food, sleep without a pillow and “have no connection with wife” (this is how someone explained this to me!).

My landlord told me that he would go to Sabarimala every year. But he finds the pilgrimage too strenuous now at his age. Pilgrims have to walk for a long time, barefoot, uphill, on difficult terrain. He also said that this pilgrimage has become increasingly popular in the past ten years and that it’s become difficult to negotiate the huge crowds.

But today I learned that Mohammed doesn’t need to go to the mountain, the mountain can come to him. When I logged onto the website of a courier company this morning to check the status of a shipment, an interesting advertisement popped up announcing the ‘Holy Prasada Express Home Delivery Service’. DTDC Courier and Cargo has launched a “holy venture to distribute the prasada of Lord Ayyappa.” Thanks to DTDC, there’s no need to submit to 41 days of austerity and walk for kilometres through thick forests all the way up to Sabarimala to receive Ayyappa’s blessings. Instead, you can easily pop into your neighbourhood DTDC branch and place your order for prasada (holy food blessed by the god). The company guarantees quick service: “the holy prasada will reach your door step within 10 days from date of booking.” For the more technologically-inclined, on-line booking will soon be available.

Intrigued and almost tempted by this ‘holy venture’, I did a bit of research on the prasada offered by Lord Ayyappa in Sabarimala:

- Called ‘avavana prasadam’, it’s made of rice, jaggery, sugar, raisins, cardamom, cumin, ghee and coconut.
- Between 120,000 - 160,000 250ml cans are sold on average each day during the two-month pilgrimage period.
- Around 100,000 cans are produced daily. (Not surprisingly demand surpasses supply and shortages are common!)
- The shelf life of a can of ‘avavana prasadam’ is one year.
- To make 100,000 cans, 38kg of rice, 200kg of jaggery, 3.6kg of ‘sugar candy’, 1.8kg of raisins, 0.720gm of cardamom, 0.360gm of cumin powder, 10 litres of ghee and 16 coconuts are needed.

Photos: Wikimedia Commons.

12 November 2010

Change illa

The most valuable Indian currency note is the ten-rupee bill. Why? Because it’s so handy… You can use it to pay bus and auto-rickshaw fares, tips, cups of tea… It’s also essential to have lots of ten-rupee notes in your wallet at all times because no one has change.

Auto-drivers will always say “Change illa!” even if they do have change because they hope you’ll be forced to round off the fare in a way that’s favourable to them. If I play his game and insist I don’t have change either he sometimes suddenly remembers he has a few bills in his shirt pocket. Or I’m forced to surrender some of my precious brown-coloured bills.

At the supermarket I always pay with 100 or 500 rupee notes in the hope of getting some change back from the cashier. But invariably he or she will always ask: “Do you have change?”. I will say no, because I cannot part with my precious 10-rupee notes and I know that the cashier most likely has change but (like me) is trying to hoard as many of those brown bills as possible! In the eternal quest for the 10-rupee note, this is the game of deception played by all!

Bus conductors have plenty of ten rupee notes (they tuck them, folded lengthwise in thick wads, in-between their fingers) but they don’t have coins. Once you hand over your ten-rupee note to him, he will write down the amount he owes you on the back of the ticket and hand it to you. Then he will promptly forget and ignore you for the rest of your bus journey. I slyly observe him collecting fares from other passengers and wait to hear the clink of coins as he puts them into the leather purse he carries slung across his shoulder. Aha! The next time he passes me (in a hurry and looking the other way), I thrust him my ticket. He stops and nonchalantly digs around in his purse for my change.

ATMs add an additional challenge to this quest for change. They seem to only dispense 100 or 1000 rupee notes. Once I had to make a payment of 25,000 rupees in cash. I went to the ATM. It would only issue 5000 rupees at a time, in 100 rupee notes! By the time I finished making five withdrawals, I had a huge stack of bills which filled up my purse. I went into the bank to see if I could exchange this gigantic stack for some (more discreet) 1000 rupee notes. The clerk watched as I piled the stacks of bills on the counter in front of him. “Where did you get this?” he asked, eyeing me suspiciously. I explained my battle with the ATM. Having established that I was not a robber of banks or dealer in some kind of shady business, he slipped my bundle of notes into the counting machine and then counted out 25 crisp 1000-rupee notes.

Of course when I need a significantly smaller amount from the ATM, the machine inevitably spits out only 1000-rupee notes. Then I’m in the very unfavourable situation of needing change! After some reflection I have figured out how to proceed. I go to the usual shopkeepers I patronize and since I’m a familiar customer, they’re happy to give me change. Suddenly everyone has change! The man at the photocopy stall has lots of small change if I need coins. The man in the shop where I recharge my mobile phone has lots of 100s. The pharmacist is another person likely to have change. He also has lots of torn or ripped bills which he has tried to pass off on me in the past but he now knows this doesn’t work with me. I carefully examine each bill and if there are any tears, I promptly return them because I know they won’t be accepted. He takes them back without a shrug. He’ll try again later with another less attentive customer!

03 November 2010

Getting ready for Diwali

Diwali - or Deepavalli - is just around the corner and there's a feeling of anticipation in the air. Everyone seems to be getting ready for India's biggest and most important festival. Shops are decked out with everything needed for this festive occasion, including colourful paper lanterns and decorations.

Diyas or clay lamps are for sale on every street corner in all shapes and sizes.

And in every colour too! These will be filled with oil and lit for this festival of light.

Starting tomorrow night, Diwali will be celebrated for five nights...

Diwali also means fireworks. These are also for sale everywhere. (This is the part of Diwali I don't like because of the incredible noise and air pollution!)

This is also a time to buy new clothes and gifts. Shops are offering special Diwali discounts.

A very Happy Diwali to all my readers!