From me to you: musings on food

If there’s anything that you want
If there’s anything I can do
Just call on me and I’ll send it along
With love, from me to you

The Beatles : From Me To You : Lennon-McCartney : 1963

I don’t think it’s possible to grow up in Calcutta without becoming an inveterate foodie. Food and drink were essential punctuation marks in the conversations and get-togethers, the addas that were (and still are) defining characteristics of the city. Much of the food was vegetarian; much of the drink was nonalcoholic; the venue was often the street; it was a classless, reservation-free, standing-up, affordable part of everyday life.


My memories of Calcutta are interlaced with feelings of being spoilt for choice when it came to street food. The puchka has a special place in my heart, because it was the only street food I can remember that was served dealer-style. It was like being in a casino playing blackjack. You had your slot at the table. You waited your turn as the dealer went from hand to hand.

And, unlike at the casino, you won every time. A good thing.

There was something else. While I salivated over my bhel poori and my jhal moori, while I mowed down mountains for my kati roll, there was something different about the puchka. Something that built a relationship between the maker and the eater. It was a simple something: the puchkawala didn’t just serve you, he served you multiple times in a single session, rapid-fire. He memorised the particular spec you wanted your puchka made to (how much filling, how much spiced water, how much “heat”, even the level of fragility) and then delivered it to you custom-made, perfect, time after time.

With love. From me. To you.

It’s one of those things that I will never stop appreciating about food. It is so inherently social. It is so part of what makes us human. When you eat, there are multiple relationships that blossom, all at the same time. You have the bond of eating together, eating family-style, common, even de rigueur, in cultures ranging from Italian to Iranian to Indian and everything in between, and a few places beyond. You have the bond between the eater and the eaten, the one that can take you from gourmet to gourmand all the way to glutton if you’re not careful. And you have the bond between the cook and the guest.

Food is essentially and intrinsically cultural. Which is why I found Jonathan Safran Foer’s 2009 book, Eating Animals, utterly compelling and occasionally unnerving.

I was born a vegetarian, in a vegetarian household. Many of my relatives have never eaten meat.

I’m coming to the realisation that it’s only a matter of time before I become a vegetarian again.

While there are many reasons for this, the catalyst was reading Eating Animals. If I were to write an elevator pitch for the book, I’d say something like this: “I want to be a selective sustainable omnivore. But there’s a problem. I can’t be a selective sustainable omnivore in society, because there’s no simple way for me to communicate what that means to society. So it’s better for me to say I’m a vegetarian or a vegan: that way, people will be able to understand what I’m saying. So even though it’s not perfect, that’s what I’m going to do.

This is a hard thing.

My path away from vegetarianism was an easy accident. I had vegetable samosas at a friend’s birthday party. Loved them. Asked for the recipe. Turned out they weren’t vegetarian after all. Oops.

So I became an omnivore. And loved it. I’ve eaten most things, pretty much everything bar long pig.

I’m still an omnivore. I still relish a masala dosai or a matsutake dobin mushi the same way I would relish tournedos Rossini or a Chateaubriand (with béarnaise sauce of course).

But now I know I need to be a selective omnivore. I can’t eat meat as much as I would like to. My reasons aren’t religious; my beliefs allow me to eat whatever I want, in moderation. They aren’t “medical” either; no doctor has asked me to ease off anything, although that may still happen if my cholesterol or blood sugar went doolaly. [An unlikely occurrence, especially since I’ve been reducing my meat intake, have no alcohol or nicotine or coffee, and am learning to watch my weight]. They aren’t financial; I’m blessed to be able to afford whatever I want to eat.

So why do I want to be a selective omnivore? Why do I want to put myself into a position where I tell people I’m a vegetarian to all intents and purposes?

It’s simple. We can’t all be meat-eaters. Not seven or eight billion of us. The natural-resource cost of providing meat as a staple to everyone will bankrupt this earth rapidly. When I say rapidly I mean “in our lifetime”. Soon.

Simply put, when we look at the energy and water costs of food production, the meat-eaters amongst us are being heavily subsidised by the vegetarians and the vegans. Heavily.

That was fine in the past. It’s not fine now. We have serious issues to deal with when it comes to energy, and even more serious ones when it comes to water.

In the end it comes down to renewable resources, the cycle time those resources take to be replenished, the other resources they draw on in that cycle. No different from any other conversation about renewable resources.

As human beings, we’re at a time in our evolution where the opportunity to get better information about the causes and effects of what we do is increasing. That’s a good thing, because we’re only just beginning to understand just how interconnected everything is.

As we build and develop and evolve more sensors we’re going to have better information and feedback loops. Take for example the number of trees we have on earth. Turns out there are three trillion of them. Seven times the number we had estimated previously. Seven times.

As we get better information, as we learn more about the root causes, we’re going to make better decisions. Decisions about climate change and energy and water and nutrition and wellness will turn out to be high on the agenda. I can be sure of that. Because the alternative scenarios are peppered with terms like death and extinction.

Man is intrinsically social. Food is part of the machinery we use to be social. The earth we live in is all we’ve got, all that exists in the known part of the universes around us that is capable of sustaining life as we know it.

I’ve got to do my part. And so I’m going to continue on my path to becoming a selective sustainable omnivore.

Some of you will find yourself on that same path. For the same reasons. And when I meet you there, I look forward to enjoying some puchkas with you.

With love. From me. To you.

There are places I remember



I’d never ever left the Indian subcontinent until November 1980, a few weeks after my 23rd birthday. [Technically I’d ventured across the border into Bangladesh, and into Nepal via Naxalbari as well, but these were deliciously illicit and very very brief, all part of being a teenager in Calcutta at that time].

When I did leave, it was a convoluted process. CCU DEL FRA LHR LPL. Walking out of Speke airport (as it was known then) I took my first real steps on land that wasn’t part of the Indian subcontinent. That was late November 1980.

I was like a child, intensely curious, observing everything around me with raking eyes. I’d never seen trees without leaves, nor a sky that stayed grey all day, without the faintest smidgen of sun. I’d never considered the possibility of walking down a street with no one else in sight in what passed for broad daylight; of hearing the postman enter our road, ten houses away; of watching strange bug-eyed objects making even stranger noises as they slowly traversed the street at dawn. [My strange object turned out to be a milk float.]

That was my state of mind as I walked down St Anthony’s Road, Blundellsands, on the 9th of December 1980, to get my morning paper from the newsagent. Within a minute I realised something was different. There were other people around. They weren’t just around, they were almost frozen in time. Standing. Sitting on the pavement. Leaning against the fences they’d been passing. Huddled  at the bus stop. More people than I’d ever seen on that stretch before.

And they were silent. Crying, but silent. And I didn’t know why.

[This was before Twitter, before mobile phones, before 24 hour news on TV and cable. This was a time when people went to bed and went to sleep. When the morning radio and the morning paper actually carried stories about things that you’d been completely unaware of earlier.

I walked into the newsagent, picked up my paper. Started reading the headlines. And sat down on the pavement and cried. Now I knew why.

John Lennon had been killed.

Like millions of others of my generation, he, and the Beatles, were an integral part of my life. The effect of that tragedy was amplified because I was living in Liverpool at the time; although I treated my arrival in the city as the beginning of a pilgrimage, I hadn’t even had time to visit Penny Lane or Strawberry Field as yet; the Cavern Club had already been demolished and was yet to be rebuilt.

Those memories came flooding back these past few days as a series of disconnected events nudged me towards remembering. Today would have been the 64th birthday of one of the finest musicians I’ve ever had the privilege of knowing, my cousin Jay’s husband, Gyan Singh. Sadly he’s no longer with us. But when I saw her post this morning, a part of my brain went “Vera, Chuck and Dave.”

A day earlier, erstwhile colleague and friend Charlie Isaacs retweeted another friend Vala Afshar’s tweet about “the greatest photo bomb ever”, and I was transported to an earlier time, standing at that iconic crossing with friends who lived in the adjacent apartment block, air-drumming to the tune of Come Together. Even today, I get goosebumps when I play that song, on vinyl, nice and loud.

The day before that, I was standing near the entrance to the Albert Hall, waiting to meet someone. And a part of my brain was going “Four thousand holes in Blackburn, Lancashire”. That happens every time I pass by there.

The last time I was at the Albert Hall for a concert, it was with a friend who’s also a music nut and a Beatles nut. It was a Clapton concert. And we were reminiscing about Pattie Boyd and how one person could have had three blockbuster songs written about her: Something; Wonderful Tonight; and Layla.

I’m not just an avid concert goer but a music history buff to boot. I’ve done my pilgrimage to Pere-Lachaise cemetery, eaten at Croce’s and at Threadgill’s, downed a pint or three opposite Eel Pie Island, visited the site of Max yasgur’s farm, mooched around Haight-Ashbury, walked down Bleecker St, investigated all I could about the Laurel Canyon phenomenon, posed in the right spot at Heddon St, even stood on Preston Platform. I’ve had the chance to meet and speak one-to-one to many of my heroes, ranging from Neil Young and Elliot Roberts through Donovan all the way to Pete Townshend. They all mean a lot to me. But they haven’t permeated me in the same way as the Beatles have done. A Hard Day’s Night was the first album I can remember hearing. The Beatles’ Oldies But Goldies was the first album I can remember buying “with my own money”.

I’ve been thinking about all this ever since I saw a post by Hilary Saunders on “the 50 best Beatles songs”, published a week or so ago.

I tried, and actually found it hard, to compress my own list down to 50. Ridiculous. But true. I found myself thinking “Who else do I listen to where I’d have a similar problem?”. CSNY? Not that hard, as long as I could pick their solo songs and Buffalo Springfield and Stills-Young Band and Hollies separately. Traffic? Grateful Dead? Croce? The Who? The Band? Pink Floyd? Jethro Tull? Don McLean? The Rolling Stones? Peter, Paul and Mary? Elvis? Neil Diamond? The list went on and on, but there were rare exceptions.

Bob Dylan. Yup, I could find it hard to choose 50. Simon and Garfunkel? A little easier, but close. Leonard Cohen? Possibly, but I could do it. Joni Mitchell? Gordon Lightfoot? Cat Stevens? Joan Baez? Same story, possible, but I know I can do it, I know I can get my favourites down to 50 or less easily.

The hardest one remained The Beatles. It says something about them. Fifty shades of great. In decades to come, in generations to come, I wonder how many more artists or bands will pose a similar problem.

There are places I remember
All my life, though some have changed
Some forever not for better
Some have gone and some remain

All these places had their moments
With lovers and friends
I still can recall
Some are dead and some are living
In my life I’ve loved them all

The Beatles: In My Life




musing, a little fearfully, about beautiful mornings

I was brought up in a family where we loved to listen to music. Now, half a century later, that love of music remains rampant and unchecked.

The music we listened to came from a limited number of sources: the radio; my father’s original record collection (78rpm lacquer platters, 33rpm 10″ vinyl and 33rpm 12″  LPs); the albums and cassette tapes we acquired as children and teenagers. I didn’t buy my first album till 1972; I was 14 then. It was this one:



A collection of Beatles oldies. That album summed up many things about the context I grew up in. It related to something English in origin, no longer in existence, packaged for Americans, manufactured locally, by what was then the Gramophone Company of India, in Dumdum of bullet and airport fame.

My father’s tastes were eclectic and so we grew up listening to Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Lionel Hampton, Jelly Roll Morton; we learnt to love Perry Como and Pat Boone; we savoured great orchestral works by Bach, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky. There were a few “modern” albums: A Hard Day’s Night, With the Beatles, Time Out, In the Wind. A few oddballs like Burl Ives and Edmundo Ros.

And a bunch of musicals. My Fair Lady. South Pacific. Carousel. Paint Your Wagon.

And Oklahoma.

For years, whenever I heard that name, my brain, my heart, my memories would all be in this song:

Oh What a Beautiful Mornin’. I still get goose pimples when I hear the song belted out nice and loud, the way it should be heard.

As I grew older, as I read more, as I began to travel (I’d never left India until after my 23rd birthday), I learnt more about Oklahoma. The Sooner State. An edge of the Dust Bowl. Part of Route 66. Cimarron County. The bombing of the Alfred P Murrah building. And the capital of fracking.

Many years ago, I remember reading about the response of the state to the phenomena that created the Dust Bowl, the way those that ran the state took steps to ensure it wouldn’t happen again. Extensive soil and irrigation and conservation strategies. A programme that included building 200 manmade lakes.


More recently, I read in the New Yorker about fracking and Oklahoma. How manmade earthquakes were becoming exceedingly common. The article referred to some data from the USGS:

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I’m not a geologist.

What the New Yorker wrote, what the USGS had to say, did make me think that such phenomena would make it harder for people to be able to sing “Oh What a Beautiful Mornin'”

I hope I’m wrong. If it walks like a duck and it talks like a duck.

I hope I’m wrong.


“certainly we’re going to see it next week”

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The current weather forecast for Thursday at St Andrews

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The weather forecast for Friday to Sunday next week at St Andrews

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Jordan Spieth’s PGA Tour putting stats this year

Yesterday Jordan Spieth carded a 61 that could have been a 55 if you count his near misses. In doing so he went into the lead at the John Deere Classic, after languishing in 102nd place at the end of the first round. A video of his comments after the 61 is available on the pgatour web site.

It should send a chill down the rest of the field at the Open next week, as he expresses his happiness at staying out and practising in tough conditions as the officials grappled with on-off suspension of play. His thoughts are already on how that could help him at St Andrews.

This, from a man who’s already won the first two Majors of the year. This, from a man who’s shown he can putt and putt well. This, from a man who’s shown he can play links courses well. This, from a man who tends to sharpen his form just as a Major approaches. His three tournament finishes before the Masters were Valspar win via playoff, Valero 2nd, Shell Houston lose in playoff. His preparation for the US Open? Tied 2nd at Crowne Plaza, T30 at Byron Nelson and T3 at the Memorial. Ominous that he goes into round 4 today in the lead.

I was very impressed with Spieth at the Masters last year, how he dealt with losing, how he played in tournaments after that, particularly in the last few months of the year. I had the privilege of following him “live” at the Ryder Cup in September, and it was an experience I’ll never forget. By December my fascination with the man and what he stood for could not be contained, at which point I went public:

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As you would expect, I repeated it before and during the Masters and before and during the US Open. But this post is not about my predictive skills, they’re nothing to write home about.

This is about Jordan Spieth. He may win today, and he may not. I think and hope he will, as do millions of others. He may win the Open this coming week, and he may not. Winning three majors in a row is a hard thing. A very hard thing. But I think and hope he can do it.

Why does it matter so much to me?

It’s for an odd reason. But an important one.

For many years I’ve been told that “nice people don’t win”. That you have to have a really mean streak, a fatal flaw, in order to lead the world at anything. That genius is essentially evil.

Examples abound. Much of the time, in business, in sport, in politics, in show business, in every walk of life, we’re shown how our idols have feet of clay.

And before you know it, feet of clay become not just expected but demanded.

But I’m an idealist, and I keep looking for exceptions to the feet-of-clay rule. I treasure having met and shaken hands with Pele. I treasure having been able to watch Tendulkar in his heyday.

And I treasure watching Jordan Spieth go about his business:

His easy camaraderie with his fellow golfers: yesterday, his playing group passed by Danny Lee’s group, and he went to say hello, warmly, to the man most likely to make it hard for him to win today.

His humble relationship with his caddy, the deep friendship that shows there: after each of his Major triumphs, he quite clearly used words like “we won, we did this, we thought this”. He brought the “we” into singles golf in a way I have never seen before, making the caddy an integral component of his success. The Michael Greller story is in itself a wonderful story, and I hope to learn more.

The way he comports himself on the course, how he interacts with the people around him: so many high fives, so many fingertip touches, that easy smile. This is a young man who’s tasted success and failure and not let either get to him.

The incredible focus he has on what he does on the course: his muttered conversations with Michael as “they” misread a putt, and how quickly he annotates the books with that learning. His aim, almost an expectation, that every putt he hits should go in. The level of concentration he brings in to play. His utter joy when he succeeds, his somewhat calmer acceptance when he doesn’t.

As a child, I was very taken with Gundappa Viswanath, the cricketer. A man known to play each ball on its merits, whose attitude and equanimity on the field was amazing. Legend has it that after a great run of form, Vishy was, surprisingly, out first ball in a match. When asked why, he’s reputed to have replied “The ball deserved it”.

This world needs role models. Examples of people who can succeed without becoming unlivable-with in the process. Jordan Spieth is showing some real potential in this respect.

And that’s why I care so much about Jordan Spieth. Even if he loses today. Even if he never wins another Major.

Who he is, how he acts, what he stands for, matters, in a world of fallen idols.

Go Jordan Spieth!


Hingis wins … BBC loses. [Updated]




There was a Women’s Doubles match at Wimbledon yesterday.

And Martina Hingis won it.




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All by herself. No one else involved. So the BBC would have you believe. And it’s true. She did it on her own. As you can see from the photographs above and below.





Martina Hingis did win. Just not on her own. Which she makes abundantly clear in every part of her attitude in matches she plays with her doubles partner.

Maybe I’m being unfair on the BBC. After all, Hingis is the world number two ranked women’s doubles player.

Except for one thing. The world’s number one ranked women’s doubles player was her partner. The one they left out of the tweet and the headline.

Maybe I’m being unfair on the BBC. After all, this was the first Wimbledon win by Hingis in 17 years, and deserved special treatment.

Except for one thing. This was the first grand slam women’s double win by any Indian, not just in 17 years, but since tennis began.

Hingis won, and deserves every credit. Go Martina! Hingis won with her partner, Sania Mirza, who also deserves every credit. Go Sania! A fairytale partnership. Everybody wins.

Except for the BBC.

Maybe I’m being unfair on the BBC. After all, there’s a mixed doubles final this afternoon at Wimbledon, involving Martina Hingis. And her Indian partner Leander Paes. What will the headline be? Will it be Hingis wins again? Or Hingis loses?

Talking about Indian partners, there’s a third Indian in a doubles final at Wimbledon this year. Sumit Nagal. Playing with Nam Loang Lie of Vietnam. Maybe it’s best that the BBC don’t report on that game at all.

There was a time when the BBC World Service stood for truth. I lived in India from 1957 to 1980, and whenever I wanted to know what really happened I would listen to the BBC. No propaganda, no spin, just truth. There was the occasional mistake: when I was at university, the World Service reported the death of Jayaprakash Narayan. A stalwart freedom fighter and social reformer, I was named after him. [I am told I met him, that he was a friend of my grandfather’s, that he was some sort of godfather to me, but I have neither memory nor proof of any of that].

JP hadn’t died. Not that time anyway. But the World Service had an excuse for being wrong. They were reporting what the Indian intelligence services had said, something the Indian Prime Minister of the time apparently then made public. There are still debates about who first made the news public in March 1979. JP did die, but only later that year, in October.

Curation is important when it comes to news on the web. A global perspective is also important.

Hingis won. Mirza won. But this time around, the BBC lost.

Update: Here’s what the BBC has done since:

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A sincere correction. No defence of the past, no attempt to give excuses or to brush under the carpet. A good thing.

Update 2: Martina Hingis and Leander Paes did win their final. As did Sumit Nagal and Nam Loang Ly. So we had *three* Indians as part of winning doubles teams at Wimbledon this year, women’s doubles, mixed doubles and boys’ doubles. Here’s the Times of India coverage of the Hingis/Paes win: