My thoughts on experiences this far…
Saturday April 29th 2017

Poor civic sense in Indians…Zara Sochiye!

Zara Sochiye was a short TV program Doordarshan showed in my teenage years. It’d be mostly aired when a movie-break was due to finish and would be short enough to catch many eyeballs–certainly of children of the house who were done with their quick house chores of laying dinner tables and keeping school bags ready in some manner…

The program would show many situations on streets or homes that required changing. On roads, it’d be about throwing trash, spitting or crossing carelessly. At home it’d be about saving resources of various kinds–cooking gas, electricity, water flowing while washing clothes, brushing teeth etc. and even being a good neighbour. Being avid TV watchers and starved of watchable programs in pre-24/7 TV era, most children of the time lapped up anything Doordarshan offered.

Now, as an adult, I find that I’ve been wary of wasting natural resources. Or, obstructing anyone’s parked vehicle with mine. That it pains me no end to see people throwing trash out of car windows or cars being washed with hose pipes or people keeping their baskets in payment queues and continuing to pick up more wares in department stores…and so much more. It’s possible that as a kid I did stop and think about situations shown in Zara Sochiye and internalised some lessons. Or that my parents and school instilled some good sense in me that helps now. But then why are people of my generation lacking in such basic civic sense? Didn’t they watch Zara Sochiye? And, what do we do for them or youngsters who need this orientation? As we’ve advanced as a society, we’ve created more avenues for bad behaviour by people and that must be corrected or the future generations will find themselves in a rotten society… Can advertising firms and corporates be convinced to use some of their corporate social responsibility budget for films on making us a civilised society? I doubt it that people will learn any other way.

Tau Devi Lal Biodiversity Park, Gurgaon

Tau Devi Lal Biodiversity Park in Sector 52 Gurgaon is one of the few public parks in the city that gets some noticeable–albeit inadequate—attention from the city administration on its upkeep. A walk around this 2 acre park gives a clear impression of someone’s best intentions on its design and purpose but its poor upkeep and half-delivered efforts become apparent even on one’s first visit.

Park Entrance

The Good Things:

The park entrance is manned so ensures the space to be urchin-free. During regular hours there is a nominal entry charge but during early morning or late evening hours, its entry is free to encourage the use of its walking track. Areas immediately visible on entering the park are looked after by gardeners or contractors well enough. The presence of seasonal flowers in black plastic containers near the entrance confirms the interest in making the park look at least superficially maintained. Further up, a large patch of ground is devoted to roses in varying shades and attracts the maximum number of casual visitors for the mix of colours it shows.

Birding potential and areas: On the first look, the park seems right only for casual or brisk walking, and even shows walkers who may be using it regularly. To the discerning eye of a birder, however, it shows some parts that attract dryland and forest birds.

Stretch I: The ideal area for spotting birds starts from the left side upon entering the park. Between the entrance and a concrete temple, there is a tree grove that once showed us a Common Hawk Cuckoo—it took short flights but largely remained inside the park. Beyond the temple, walking on the periphery can be often gratifying. Several feet of the ground going towards the boundary wall seem to remain outside the greening or cleaning purview of gardeners or sweepers. But the unkempt and dry grass–and the presence of fallow land beyond the wall–seems to assure birds of undisturbed foraging so brings them there. Birds we’ve spotted close to the left side boundary wall have included Long-tailed Shrikes, Tree Pipits, Ashy and Plain Prinias, Pied Mynas, Common Starlings, Green Bee-eaters, Black Kites, Black Drongos and Common Hoopoes.

Stretch II: As one turns right along the edge and crosses a curious fiber-sheet dome, the area beyond the wall shows high mounds of earth and, further up, a hutment of casual labourers. On our walks, this stretch has shown us Indian Robins, Black Redstarts, Lesser Whitethroats and Common Tailorbirds with some certainty in winter months, Greater Coucals on some visits and a Spotted Owlet on a recent visit.

Stretch III: As one approaches an ancient (and deep) well, an eye on the area on one’s right is likely to show Yellow-wattled Lapwings and Eurasian Thick-knees during their nesting season. It’s fairly easy to spot 4-5 pairs of these birds then. Red-wattled Lapwings are also seen sporadically.

Stretch IV: As one keeps turning right beyond the in-house nursery, the experience of walking gets pleasant alongside apartment complexes on the Sector 56 road as the park vegetation looks well tended there. It shows palm groves and floral shrubs but unfortunately, birds get rare. Rufous Treepies and Rose-ringed Parakeets are the only birds we’ve seen around the start of this stretch, and Oriental White-eyes and Purple Sunbirds as one is nearing the exit.

Besides, the usual Red-vented Bulbuls, Common Mynas, House Crows, Rock Pigeons and Eurasian Collared Doves can be seen elsewhere in the park. Kishore has recently created an album in his online gallery for birds of this park, and together we look forward to seeing it fill up with newer species seen on visits in different seasons.

The Bad Things:

Sadly, the adverse conditions of the park spoil one’s experience of being there. By listing them here, I hope that they’ll catch someone’s attention and be addressed sooner rather than later:

Feral Dogs: There are too many dogs towards the far end of the park. The park caretakers express helplessness about them as a low boundary wall, and high mounds of earth beyond it, makes it easy for humans or dogs to hop inside. These dogs look adept in attacking birds that keep to the ground and they are a menace for humans walking that side.

Unswept and uncared for stretches: About 1/3rd of the park feels totally uncared for. Much of the stock of dry leaves swept off the clean parts is simply left at the far end of the park. That stops people from going there and gives dogs a free run of those stretches. Unfortunately, these are also the parts where many birds are spotted.

Lax watering: Water from pipes keeps flowing in some parts of the park but doesn’t reach many areas.

Huts of caretakers: On the right side of the entrance are some low height huts belonging to gardeners or sweepers of the park. These people live and cook there, and have their clothes strewn about, making that side look unsightly and out of place.

Open pits: Towards the far end are some open pits that may have been planned as fillers for dry leaves but they demand some care to avoid walking into them. One wonders why they haven’t been barricaded to prevent any accidents.

Directions to the Park: Also referred to as TDL Biodiversity and Botanical Garden, it appears on the Sector Road that has Gold Souk on its left side. From Huda City Centre, take the Sector Road with signs for Gold Souk/Sector 56, drive straight down, past traffic lights, till the Park entrance appears on left, just short of the left turn to Sector 56.

 

Paradise Lost

I’ve been a Gurgaon resident for close to 17 years. The first 7 years were spent in an apartment that we’d booked way back in our youth with dreams for a ‘clean and green life South of Delhi’ – our apartment builder’s catch phrase to attract young Delhites to this suburban city. The struggle of dealing with the builder’s monopolistic ways and living our lives in a city without public transport or common amenities is all too much to condense in a single post. Suffice it to say that we tried to find happiness in this city despite the odds.

At some point, we even summed up courage to look beyond our tiny 7th floor apartment and, after a year-long battle with property dealers/sellers and bank loan agencies, found ourselves in a low-rise residential complex built by another builder*—whose promise was to give its customers a township with no high-rise buildings and greenery all around. The complex had been in existence for over 2 years but had no tarred road outside or even one tea shop around it. Much as back-breaking it used to be to drive up to its non-existent entrance, once we got inside the complex, its wide and tree-lined roads, large landscaped parks and symmetrical houses helped heal our heads, hearts and backs. The next 7 years were blissful. We had a very cold house in winters and a furnace in summer, but we just had to walk up and down our lane on a cool morning, see birds up close, smell the flowers, take in the sight of our own tiny patch of green—even though balding in places–and we would feel insulated from the city’s troubles. We didn’t have any neighbours to speak of in our 5-house orderly lane. It offered plenty of area to walk and some more to refine our parking skills. Our nursery-going son easily overcame his fear of riding bicycles without training wheels, and we had little fear of him being run over by speeding vehicles. After facing temperamental lifts in the apartment complex as a toddler, he enjoyed the freedom of getting out on a flat road from the house door. He made new friends who started becoming his good friends over the next 7 years.

Those 7 years, we also saw 2 of the 5 houses being used by their owners for a couple of months in a year. That would lead to some disquiet in the atmosphere but before these unaccustomed sounds would start assailing our senses, it’d be time for the short-term occupants to return to their long-term abodes. The air would be calm again. We felt blessed to have found this unnoticed corner in Gurgaon.

Except that the area has been catching the attention of many home seekers in the last few years. So many, that the builder had already constructed a 2-floor housing complex adjacent to it—the spot that was meant to have a lake as per its initial sales pitch. Another set of builders has made vertical ‘society flats,’ not too far from the complex; and glass-exterior commercial buildings are springing up all around the complex–without the required parking space on their own premises. The drainage and sewerage of the area are poorly planned so small or medium sized ponds of muck are a common sight outside the complex and elsewhere in Gurgaon.

Inside our complex, new property owners have found the symmetry of houses too commonplace and size of houses too small for their use. They’ve started raising their houses vertically and painting them in distinctly different colours to give theirs a different personality from their neighbour’s. Organized public transport is still a distant dream, so new occupants have been coming with multiple vehicles—some with more in numbers than members in their families.

Our peaceful lane of 5 houses now bears this look after it’s neatened up. Two houses next to ours have been razed to the ground over the last 2 months to become one usable house. Another one in the lane is believed to be following suit. While our son–now preparing at home for his Xth board exam–is trying to make sense of what he’s reading amidst loud hammering, I worry about the vibrating common wall giving way or a film of dust settling on the still-drying clothes and everywhere else.

I work from home but inside the house has been noisier these 2 months than outside. During the day, I seal myself in my car with my gadgets and books, and try to find peace amidst the cacophony of labourers, tractors and hammering. The WiFi works there so I manage to filter the outside confusion for short spells.

Now waiting to see how it pans out through the year and whether my Paradise Lost** will ever be regained…

* Gurgaon, as most people know it, is full of small islands of habitats that are developed by private developers. These complexes may be picture-perfect on the inside, they continue to have poor infrastructure around them for years to come. Civic bodies have appeared unconcerned about how Gurgaonites should find their way home out of their glass-panelled offices or mushrooming Malls. Such a high degree of apathy isn’t just frustrating, it’s baffling to see in a democratic country where political leaders and policymakers are supposedly elected by its populace.

** Found the titles of Milton’s epic poems Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained relevant in the context of the change our lives are going through.

Birding as more than a passing interest

I started looking at birds closely about 14 years ago. I can estimate this time somewhat accurately as I still remember my first focused birding walk of that long ago. It was in Sultanpur Bird Sanctuary on a wintery morning when my son, Kabir was just over a year old and we were ill prepared for either spotting birds or staying warm at that hour. I didn’t own binoculars to see birds clearly or a book (field guide) to help identify them. What I had in plenty was my enthusiasm to know more about birds, and a determination to complete the 2 km walk using a single pair of binoculars that accompanying friends had carried. That pair was shared by 9 of us so you can well imagine the owners’ patience and everyone’s enthusiasm!

Kishore and I have covered some ground since then but still doubt it that we can call ourselves experts on birds. We’re learners in the area and remain interested in furthering our learning at a comfortable but consistent pace. Here’s my advice to those who wonder about birding and feel like figuring birds.

Yard birding: Start noticing birds in parks closest to your house or those visiting your balcony or garden. Watch their behavior, difference in the male and female of the same species and their feeding time or food preferences. To attract birds naturally to my garden, I’ve planted 2 fruit trees and a couple of shrubs to give them some food and the security of flying into the trees when they want. This is when I’ve a modest sized yard. I’ve placed 2 feeding trays, in addition, for different food in both to ensure a variety in visitors. Bajra and Jowar in one attract House Sparrows, Parakeets and Doves. Pieces of bread or roti in the other interest Red-vented Bulbuls, Rufous Treepies and more birds. Insects on the grass or trees pull in Common Tailorbirds, Ashy Prinias or Lesser Whitethroats. Flowering trees bring in Purple Sunbirds and Oriental White-eyes. A water bowl on the side is frequently used by birds and squirrels both.

Most essential gear: Two things that you must own to begin your bird based learning are: i) a pair of binoculars and ii) a bird field guide. This link provides blurbs on commonly used guides for India. I own No. 6 (among a few more) as my prime guide but I’ve found many faithful followers of R. Grimmet’s guide (5) too.

I’ve used a couple of binoculars in these years and found Nikon Monarch 10×48 fairly optimal in weight, magnification and the light they allow inside to view clearly. I wouldn’t mind more magnification in my binoculars but the stability and weight of the pair may not work to my advantage as the size increases. This primer on Kolkatabirds is helpful in understanding how binoculars work and which ones to buy for birding.

http://artanuk.atspace.com/
Image courtesy Artist Anna Gawrys

Using binoculars: Remember that they take getting used to. Initially, it’d take me long to focus on a spot but someone’s tip to bring the binoculars close to my eyes without moving my head as I’ve spotted a bird, has been helpful to bear in mind.

Use these online resources: Delhibird doesn’t have a complete website at the moment but it offers a valuable resource in the form of bird checklists for different regions of India. Save the relevant ones on your mobile devices to learn about species sighted in your region and those you visit.

Secondly, Oriental Bird Images is a comprehensive database of bird photographs that help zero in on birds you’ve sighted and want to see their clear pictures. This database gets updated regularly. To search for birds, you’d need to know their Common Name and then just view the species photographs.

Thirdly, you’d serve yourself well by reading through the beginners section at Kolkatabirds. The site also has useful trip reports that you must browse at a later date for your birding holidays when you reach that stage.

Know the jargon: There isn’t that much of it: Checklists are species lists; a Sighting record or checklist is what you would write down from a birding walk; a Lifer is a bird that you’ve seen for the first time; Passage Migrants are those birds that are passing by a certain region; ID is a short form of bird identity; Bird Races are events held by birding groups that encourage members to cover a pre-determined region to record the number of species seen during a day or specific hours of that day.

Join an online group: For those birding in the NCR, Delhibird’s yahoo group is a useful place to be. Kolkatabirds mentions other city groups and so do the India field guides.

Join birding walks: I’ve walked with seasoned birders a few times and my learning has taken a leap on those walks. Do that once in a while to figure the regions well. Delhibird members put up a notice on the group for a walk every Sunday and sometimes on Saturdays too.

Maintain a diary with sighting records: It may seem like a fussy activity but believe me, you’d be thrilled to remind yourself of places you’ve visited and how your identification skills have improved over the years. For my residential area, I maintain a single list but mention dates against any uncommon bird sightings.

Invest in a camera and a couple of lenses: I’ve come across many purists who must carry a pair of binoculars and a field guide and nothing else. They prove be great teachers as they aren’t concerned about heavy camera equipment or taking multiple shots on sighting a bird of interest. In my case though, I’m grateful that Kishore took to birding around the same time as I did and decided to make birds a subject of his photography. My learning about birds increased in pace when I started seeing them on the computer screen as I could ask for help with their identification and plough through the Oriental bird image database to match them with photos there.

Delhibird runs another group just for species identification. Your gmail account would get you entry into that. Of late, I’ve found Facebook’s Indian Birds a useful place as a response in that space takes just a few minutes.

Bird ethically: Birders realize the importance of forests, greenery and wetlands more than most people as these places give them much joy through their inhabitants. Other than keeping these places clean, please do be quiet on your walks, and don’t disturb birds unduly in your excitement to photograph them.

Dress up sensibly: Choose forest colours for your clothes to blend in. Wear shoes that aid walking in uneven terrains and keep a cap handy for sunny hours.

Go on birding accented holidays: Birding groups would inform you of other people’s visits to places known for fascinating birds and you’d be inclined to visit those places too. That’s just as well. Our own bird sightings have been tremendous in places known mostly for birds and little else. Google ‘Pangot’ or ‘Sattal’ with the keyword ‘bird’ and you’d know how valuable these little known parts of the country are.

Blog on your sighting experiences: Share what you know by teaching other newbies and by writing about your birding experiences. You’d be helping build user-oriented resources for others to benefit from.

Finally, a bonus. Kishore has shared this link that feels so apt for this post to describe various kinds of birders: http://greenhumour.blogspot.com I’ve met all 11 Types in the course of 14 years, and see myself as Type 5–enthusiastic but mixed up on names :)

Note: At the request of a commenter on Twitter, here’s a tip or two on bird friendly trees. Plant small sized, hardy fruit trees. Guava attracts all kinds of birds if squirrels leave any intact! Pomegranate is easy enough to grow and attracts Bulbuls, Sunbirds among more. I’ve also had success with a Peach tree. Its pink flowers look very pretty and the fruit is enjoyed equally by us and the birds…again, if squirrels spare them. A Chinese Orange shrub has been nice to have too. It’s fruit-laden through the year and attracts White-eyes and Sunbirds even more when it’s flowering. Gurgaon’s soil is termite-ridden and I’ve lost a Mulberry tree to termites. Then, I have a Karonda shrub but it fruits too infrequently to host birds. A neighbour has successfully grown a Kadam tree whose sour fruit attracts many species but its large canopy needs a lot of space.

Sindhi Porridge: Bhutt

Some food experiences have the ability to transport one back to one’s childhood. This porridge is one such preparation for me. Going by Kishore’s reaction to it, I can add that even if one hasn’t been connected to it for great many years, when had hot for breakfast on a wintery morning, it acts as a soul-comforting breakfast for many.

The original recipe calls for a tempering of whole peppercorns–I remember them causing me much trouble to pick out as a kid that as an adult, I’ve simply avoided them. Adding oats is another change I’ve made to the original recipe to add to its creaminess.

Ingredients (serves 2-3):

Daliya (broken wheat): 1 cup

White oats: 1 tablespoon

Jeera (cumin seeds): ½ teaspoon

Cardamom: 4-5 grains finely ground

Almonds: 5-6 broken in big pieces

Desi ghee (clarified butter): 2 teaspoons

Water: 1 cup

Milk: 3 cups

Sugar: 4 heaped teaspoons

Here’s the way to work these items:

Melt Desi ghee in a pressure cooker.

Add jeera to it and soon enough add Daliya (without letting the jeera cook too much).

Add oats and cardamom powder.

Give it all a mix.

Roast this Daliya on a medium flame by stirring it till it acquires a light brown colour. The house by now should be smelling of it pleasantly too.

Add water while keeping some distance from the cooker and keeping a low flame.

After a stir, add 1 cup of milk and sugar.

Shut the cooker. After the first whistle, let the daliya cook for 5 min on a low flame.

Switch off the flame and open the cooker once the pressure has released.

Add 2 cups of milk at this stage, mix it well with daliya (which would be mostly dry by then).

Add almonds and add more sugar only if needed.

Let the daliya cook on a low flame till it looks creamy (10 min). Pour in some more milk if it appears too thick.

Bhutt (pronounced with ‘u’ of ‘cut’) is ready to ladle into bowls as it cools a bit.

It’s had hot but not piping hot.

Spaghetti and Meat Sauce

This is an easy meal to put together but one that has required some tweaking over the years. Both Kishore and Kabir enjoy it equally so I keep its ingredients close at hand for those evenings when a non-fussy Italian meal is called for.

Over the years, I’ve successfully substituted chicken mince for lamb mince and still seen enough enthusiasm for the dish. But I do use lamb mince on occasions even now. One of the wonderful aspects of the dish is that it requires very little meat but still provides adequate sauce for a filling meal.

­Ingredients:

Chicken or lamb mince: 250 gm

Tomato puree tetrapacks: 2

Carrots: 2 or 3 grated finely

Cheese: ½ cup grated coarsely (Britannia or Amul block)

Garlic: 2 big cloves minced

Dried oregano: ½ teaspoon

Fresh basil: 4-5 leaves torn in small pieces

Tabasco: 1 full teaspoon

Black pepper: 1 teaspoon

Salt to taste

Sugar: 1 teaspoon (optional)

Any brand of dry spaghetti: about half a packet of Delmonte has proved to be enough for the 3 of us.

Salt and ¼ teaspoon of oregano for Spaghetti

Here’s the way to deal with it all:

Meat sauce:

In about 2 teaspoons of refined oil, fry minced garlic for a few seconds and before it gets even slightly brown, add grated carrots and oregano. Stir for a few seconds.

Pour in 2 cans of tomato puree and after a quick stir, add torn basil leaves.

After a minute of cooking on a high flame, add washed mince and mix it with the sauce on a medium flame.

Add salt, sugar and pepper and stir some more.

Add a cup of water to dilute the gravy and to buy time for the mince to cook. About half of this water has to be allowed to evaporate. Keep a medium to low flame.

In 2-3 min, add grated cheese after saving about a tablespoon.

Add Tabasco now.

Cook for 20 min or thereabouts on a low flame. The sauce should show cooked mince spread evenly and the melted cheese having lent a creamy look to the sauce. The consistency should be pourable so if the sauce appears too thick, 2-3 tablespoons of water would help lighten it. Give it another 2-3 min of cooking if you’ve added more water. Adjust the salt before turning off the flame.

Remove the sauce to a large serving bowl, sprinkle the remaining grated cheese on it and cover the bowl with a large plate to trap the steam and help this cheese melt somewhat. The dish is then ready to go to the table.

Spaghetti:

Around the time cheese was added during cooking of the sauce, the spaghetti can be put to boil. Bring water to a boil in a saucepan, add a teaspoon of salt to it, allow it to get mixed before adding spaghetti broken into two. After 10 min of cooking, spaghetti would be almost done. Take out a strand and taste it. I find the state of al dante about right for spaghetti but raw for penne so do figure out the texture you need.

Strain spaghetti in a colander. Remove to a large dish, sprinkle some oregano on it, and keep it covered till you’re ready with the meat sauce.

To eat, people can take some spaghetti onto their plates and ladle on enough sauce to make it juicy. Some grated parmesan on top won’t feel out of place.

Some of you may also enjoy a piece of warm garlic bread on the side!

Creamy Penne in a Cheese Sauce

This pasta is one of the quick dinners I fix for Kabir. I prefer to make it when Kishore and I are going out for dinner or when Kishore is outstation and I’m eating something simple fixed by the cook—the reason is the richness of this pasta that he can take in easily but it’d weigh us down significantly! It tastes lovely though.

Ingredients:

Boiled Penne – 1-1/2 cups

Grated pizza cheese – ½ cup

Milk – 1 large cup with a teaspoon of flour (maida) mixed in it

Cream from a tetrapack – 2 tablespoons

Bacon – 100 gms

Butter – 1 tablespoon

Garlic – minced to measure ½ teaspoon

Mixed dry herbs (or just thyme) – ½ teaspoon

Tabasco – ½ teaspoon

Salt – about ½ teaspoon or to taste (remember that cheese and bacon are already salty)

Here’s the way to deal with it :)

Penne is a forgiving pasta and can be over-boiled without causing it much harm. Boil it in salted water, strain it and keep it ready to use in a colander.

Fry bacon rashes in a dry non-stick pan for a minute or two both sides and keep them aside with their fat.

In a large non-stick pan, melt the butter and add minced garlic and herbs to it.

While stirring it all with a wooden spatula, get the pan off the fire and add the mix of milk and flour to it.

After a quick stir, while still off the flame, add the grated cheese and cream to the pan.

Add salt and Tabasco now itself. Mix it all up.

Get the pan on the fire but keep the fire low. A high flame is likely to split the milk.

Stir the sauce gently till the cheese has melted.

Slide in the bacon rashes with their fat.­ Keep a low fire and stir for a few seconds.

If the sauce has thickened too much, take the pan off the fire, pour in a bit more milk and get it back to the flame after the milk has mixed with the sauce.

Stir the sauce till the desired consistency on a low flame.

Now add the pasta and fold it in the sauce.

As the pasta has sort of evenly taken in the cheese sauce, switch off the flame. Some extra cheese sauce showing through is a good thing.

Transfer it to a serving plate and finish it by crushing pepper on it through a pepper mill.

Note: This sauce has a very low tolerance for waiting so the pasta must be eaten quickly to enjoy it!

Homemade Peanut Butter

I got to know about peanut butter as a food item only after meeting Kishore! He loves the stuff. In the early years of our marriage, I’d see bottles of peanut butter coming his way from the family: his Mom would make it by mixing Amul butter with crushed peanuts and cousins travelling to Musoorie would get him bottles of Sunrise peanut butter. Sisters would gift him bottles of Skippy. At some point, I figured that peanut butter needn’t have any butter, and any oil used for it also can be minimal. I suppose it’s called butter because it spreads like butter. Since then, I’ve made peanut butter at home following this simple process and the outcome is a healthy spread for toasts where the toasted flavor of peanuts or the creaminess of the spread can be easily varied.

The peanuts themselves should be shelled, skinned and unsalted, and simply bought that way. I prefer to use plain peanuts sold in small packets by Keralite or Goan shops as they are browner than other brands. In desperation though, I’ve also used Haldiram’s plain salted peanuts and simply rinsed them under running water to remove their salt, toasted them in the microwave to crispness and then followed the rest of the process.

Ingredients:

Plain shelled and skinned peanuts from a packet – 200 gms

Olive oil – 2-3 teaspoons

Honey – 1 tablespoon (optional)

The simple process:

Microwave peanuts to crispness (about 2-3 minutes). Toast just a handful out of them for another minute or two for that roasted taste and a browner look. When in a hurry, I brown this handful in a pan over fire.

Upon cooling, grind peanuts in a mixie grinder to the preferred consistency – powdery if the butter should be smooth and crunchy for the Snicker-chocolate kind of crunch.

Once the peanuts have reached the right level of grind, they would be somewhat moist with their natural oil.

Drizzle olive oil into the grinder for a paste-like consistency and run the grinder for a couple more seconds.

Add honey if you’d like the butter to be inherently sweet. I don’t add any sweetener unless making it only for Kabir’s use as a spread of jam or some sugar sprinkled on the toast can bring the needed sweetness.

Remove it into a wide mouth bottle and finish it within 2 weeks.

Note: Almond or cashew butter can be made the same way.

Performance review = A continuous feedback and development process

In the last three years that I’ve managed performance evaluations of support engineers for an IT consulting firm, I’ve been wary of assuming a judgmental stance – either directly or through the feedback process I’ve helped manage. Performance reviews are known to be tedious exercises for all concerned so my objectives for them have been to seek and provide feedback, identify development goals and, at the end, ensure an inspired bunch.

The forms I’ve designed have meant to act as the firm’s listening tools extended to an employee’s varied stakeholders…to i) peers to know the colleague’s collegial quotient; ii) managers on behaviors exhibited and the level of support provided; iii) vendors on clarity of communication and extent of follow-up experienced; iv) any juniors on the candidate’s openness to develop them; and, importantly v) the employee on good and bad processes he experienced, the learning he’s had, and the goals he plans for the ensuing period.

The firm is small and proactively customizes its IT solutions to its clients’ business practices and goals—whether a profit-oriented company or a philanthropy extending support on health research, an engineer placed there has been encouraged to know the organization’s programs and become a part of their work culture. This has necessitated openness to adapting to a client team’s specific IT requirements as also remaining learners of new technologies so they do not stagnate in their careers as a result of narrowly defined roles. Engineers are continually advised to be self-starters but also follow a reporting mechanism that keeps their stakeholders in the loop on the day’s critical incidents. This requires an engineer to be appreciative of documenting and reporting, and yet working independently. The review process provides for frequent coaching discussions to help get young engineers close to these role expectations.

The Performance review framework is guided by the following philosophies:

360 degree feedback. The manager is only one of the stakeholders in a candidate’s performance. If he’s the only person heard, the feedback sought will be only of one kind—say, with a bias towards the service tickets opened and closed. His colleagues, juniors, outside customers interact with him more frequently and are impacted by his other competencies so would provide pertinent inputs on his overall performance.

Self-appraisal. Although considered unnecessary by some HR pros, I see it as a motivation tool. It provides a clear opportunity to an individual to summarize his achievements of the period, highlight the support he needs, and chart out a course for future learning.

Two-way communication. The process aims to seek and provide feedback to a candidate on his performance. For an engaged and productive employee, it’s critical for the firm to listen to his experience of working with his external and internal customers as also suggest any changes in processes.

Avoid a Recency Effect. The combination of 360 degree and self-feedback helps guard against any recent high or low performance events coloring the whole period’s output. Besides, for a team as small as this firm, it’s been possible to record critical incidents on a candidate’s performance and include them in successive review discussions.

Continual coaching and development. Instead of scheduling one-on-one coaching sessions only around a review discussion, an engineer is coached regularly—in person and by sharing links to podcasts or resources via email. Recently, when two engineers recorded their interest in learning the use of open source tools to secure networks, their manager had a former engineer conduct a workshop which he also attended and acted as the presenter’s resource. This was inspiring for engineers and hopefully gave them a better idea of the trajectory they would follow. Or, not follow.

Manager as a role model. A manager’s own method of analyzing a hardware or software glitch and going through a checklist of possible solutions is imbibed by his engineers. So are his other attitudinal traits so it’s been important for the senior manager to regularly–not daily though– visit the client sites and be aware of his influence.

Less control, more development. The emphasis has been on empowering engineers to act and take decisions while keeping all stakeholders in the know. I’m glad to see that a conventional method of management-by-walking-around or ensuring a head glued to a screen have found no place in the firm’s approach towards developing its engineers.

Benefits only a cog in the wheel of feedback. Where performance reviews are annual exercises, they’re closely tied in with a compulsory annual raise so treated more as a procedural compliance feature of one’s work life. Here, benefits are discussed as an annual event so they cease to appear continually into an employee’s periodic development discussions.

Keep it simple. It’d be tempting to make impressive 4-pagers as tools to seek feedback but they would also continue to daunt people to fill or analyze the inputs. In consultation with the lead manager, I tweak the checklist of essential areas of focus for the period, and develop a questionnaire to cover them. The attempt has also been to ask brief questions but hope for a detailed feedback.

Is there anything else I should be including in this framework? I’d be interested to know about your experience with performance reviews and whether you’re looking forward to your next review discussion :)

Sindhi Kadhi

Over the years, I’ve heard many generalizations made about Sindhis: that they have ‘aani’ surnames, that they are overly cautious with money, that they look and speak in a certain way and that their Sindhi Kadhi tastes good! Let’s see how much of that applies in my own case: my maiden name was Puri–a simplified version of the actual name Shahdadpuri (so non-aani); I’d give myself 6/10 on money management (so nothing fantastic); I’m often told that I look South Indian; and well, on the last one I tend to agree that Sindhi Kadhi does taste great–especially, when someone else makes it for me! Either way, I’m sharing the recipe of Kadhi the way my mother makes it. This Kadhi takes many vegetables so it’s no surprise that it’s served simply with plain rice and roasted paaper. In some Sindhi families, I’ve seen sweet boondhi offered on the side but my mother hasn’t ever put the two things together, and I haven’t dared either.

Here’s what you’d need for it (to make it for 4-5 people):

Besan – 2 large tablespoon

Oil – 3 large tablespoon

Methi dana – ½ teaspoon

Jeera – 1 teaspoon

Kookam* – 7-8 pieces

Whole dry amchoor**– 7-8 pieces

Salt, haldi and red chilli powder

Some curry leaves

Some chopped coriander

Essential vegetables:

2 medium-sized potatoes peeled and cut in quarters; 2 drumsticks peeled and cut in 3” long pieces; 1 kamal kakri (lotus stem) chopped on the slant roughly in the size of quartered potatoes, 10-12 whole bhindis (ladyfingers) cut vertically in 2 pieces; 2 large tomatoes quartered; 4 green chillies with a small slit in them

Optional vegetables:

8-10 cluster beans (gavar phali) cut in pieces smaller than drumsticks; 1 thin long brinjal cut in 2″ long pieces

Here’s the way to deal with it all:

In a big pressure cooker, heat the oil and let methi dana and jeera splutter slightly.

Add besan and stir it on a medium to slow flame till it looks nicely roasted (about 8-10 min) – my mother’s tip is that the whole house should smell of roasted besan to treat it as ready for the next step.

Add about a litre of water and a cup or two more. Maintain some distance as the water tends to jump about as it touches the hot cooker base.

From all the vegetables to be put in the kadhi, at this stage add only Kamal kakri, potatoes and drum sticks to ensure they get cooked well.

Shut the cooker and let the pressure build till just about 1 whistle. Then switch off the gas.

As the pressure is released, open and revel in the sight of well-mixed besan in water. Earlier, you may have noticed some small lumps of besan but hopefully none after pressure-cooking.

Add salt/haldi/red chilli powder and start boiling the kadhi.

Add the remaining vegetables except bhindi.

In 2-3 minutes, add kookam and amchoor and let it all boil on a medium to high flame.

All the vegetables should be fairly cooked  in the next 10-15 min but let the boiling continue.

Taste the kadhi for sourness, salt and chilli. If Kookam and Amchoor haven’t made the kadhi sambhar-like sour, add 2-3 teaspoons of tamarind water. Add more salt and red chilli powder, if necessary. The besan and sourness moderate the effect of chilli powder so go ahead and put some more. The kadhi should keep boiling through various stages of tasting and checking.

The consistency of well-cooked Sindhi kadhi is slightly thinner than honey but not watery thin.

Somewhere in between, fry bhindi halves in 3-4 teaspoon oil in a pan.

As the kadhi looks nearly done, add fried bhindi to it and give it a quick boil before switching off the flame.

For that professional and glazed look, give it a tempering of 10-12 fried curry leaves. Finish the look by sprinkling 1 tablespoon of chopped coriander leaves.

Kadhi is then ready to be placed in a large serving bowl beside plain white rice in another large bowl.

People can take some rice in large soup bowls and ladle kadhi on to the rice till the latter is somewhat submerged.

Kadhi-chawal is then ready to savour by bowl-fulls.

* Kookam is dark brown in colour and is the peel of a sour walnut-sized fruit. It isn’t seen commonly but conventional grocery shops stock the dried peel. It’s available in abundance as fresh fruit, dried peel, sherbat and even vinegar in Goa.

** Dried whole (sabut) Amchoor isn’t easy to find either. It’s worth hunting old grocery shops for as softened Amchoor in the kadhi tastes lovely.

Basic               13,000.00
House Rent Allowance    6,000.00
Conveyance Allowance    1,000.00
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