Tithi hotels

A new and fairly lucrative business has developed in Bangalore over the last 10-15 years or so. An uncle of mine likes to call them “tithi hotels”. They are basically institutions that undertake contracts to help you perform the annual death ceremonies of dead ancestors (according to Hindu tradition, you are supposed to remember the dead on their death anniversary every year by performing a set of ceremonies. In kannada it’s called “tithi”) .

So conducting a tithi is fairly painful business, but until these tithi hotels came up, it was all supposed to be done at home. One had to get cooks, for there are restrictions on what can and cannot be cooked for such ceremonies. And then, one has to find a priest, and two “brahmins” who are supposed to be fed. And it’s a fairly messy affair and dirties up the house, and to put it mildly, not very pleasant.

These tithi hotels offer all these services under one roof. They arrange for the priests and the “brahmins” and the food, which is prepared according to exacting standards. And they provide a venue for you to conduct the tithi, and they even arrange for crows and cows to whom you feed the “pinDa”.

While doing my father’s tithi earlier today, I noticed some stuff I hadn’t really noticed today. So the two “brahmins” I spoke about – one is supposed to represent god and the other represents your dead ancestors, if I get it right. The former is “worshipped” wearing the sacred thread the right way, with rice, and doing things clockwise whenever there is circular motion involved. To “worship” the latter you wear the sacred thread the wrong way (right shoulder to left waist), use black sesame seeds, and performing all circular motions anti-clockwise.

My cousin, who is married into a family of priests, reliably informs me that several of her relatives make a living out of being “brahmins” at such ceremonies, where they take on the role of “god” and someone’s ancestors interchangeably, and collect a nominal fee (I think the tithi hotel I go to pays the brahmins 250 bucks a sitting) and a lunch heavy enough to last them the day. In fact, at my mother’s tithi last year one of the brahmins was an auto-driver, and he had taken a break from his driving duties to play god and collect his fee and lunch.

This business of tithi hotels is only bound to grow, since the population is increasing, which also means that the population of dead immediate ancestors is increasing. And I think the rate of growth of population is faster than the rate of growth of various forms of atheism, so this seems like a good business to be in. Actually this business has undergone some changes in the last 20 odd years.

Earlier, there used to be some large-scale tithi hotels, where they would do several tithis on the same premises, with priests and brahmins jumping from one to other and multitasking to cater  to a large number of clients. As you would expect, these places knew little about concepts such as hygiene (I’ve been to and conducted tithis in places like these, and haven’t understood at all the “cleanliness” (maDi) that is supposed to be associated with religious brahmins). But they think commercial and exploit economies of scale to provide tithi services at a reasonable cost.

Of late, these have been supplemented by “standalone” tithi hotels, which do only one tithi per day, thus ensuring greater cleanliness (though tithis continue to be messy affairs) and privacy, and allows you to invite a larger number of relatives to the tithi. Oh, and the one that I go to (twice a year, once each for my father’s and mother’s tithis) does serve up a damn good lunch.

Oh, and I don’t get this, but every tithi hotel I’ve been to has been largely staffed with Gults. Wonder why.

Buffet Strategy

Skip the main course. I’ve come to this conclusion based on three buffet meals I’ve had in the recent and not-so-recent past – Khansama in UB city in early July, Barbecue Nation in JP Nagar last weekend and The Higher Taste at ISKCon tonight.

In all these meals, there has been significant variety in the starters. There have been various kinds of starters and salads (and anyways Barbecue Nation’s USP is the barbecues – which are starters). And significantly awesome desserts too – wtih a couple of Indian sweets, variety of cakes, fruit and ice cream.

The problem with main course in all these restaurants is that it’s too standard. There might be the odd innovation here or there but it is usually a close cousin of some standard item itself. The nature of North Indian main course meals (which is the main course of the main course in all these places) doesn’t lend itself to too much radical innovation and hence the main course ends up being not too much special.

So this is what you need to do at buffets – load up on the starters. They are usually the best part of the meal in these buffets. And if you combine all the starters judiciously, it should give enough nutrition (except maybe for calories). Maybe have a little bit of main course (something like rice) to fill up your stomach (density of food fundaes). And then thulpitmax on the desserts. I’m sure you’ll leave the meal feeling happy and contented and full.

Mahabharata at home

I was Parikshit. I was peacefully reclining on my bean bag and watching football when an ant that had been crawling on the floor decided to attack me. Like its cousin Takshak, it bit my foot so hard that that I was screaming in pain. Unlike Parikshit, though, I didn’t die. I instead turned into Janamejaya.

For this vile act of this one ant, I decided to put an end to the entire ant race. Unlike Janamejaya, I didn’t bother with trivialities such as conducting a yagna, feeding mongooses, reciting the Mahabharata and stuff. I immediately swung into action, with a Mortein Gold bottle in hand. I sprayed the liquid liberally on the line of ants that was walking across my living room, on the carpet, on the kitchen shelf even. I sprayed Mortein with a vengeance, in an attempt to put an end to the ant race. Massacre did happen.

That night I couldn’t sleep so well. I still can’t yet decide if it was because of the pain of the ant bite, or because of the sin I committed by murdering so many innocent ants. Maybe reading the Mahabharata once again will help me get rid of this sin.

Telling Known Stories

I’ve always been skeptical when people have told me that they are telling known stories in their play. Whenever someone tells me something like that, I start wondering what the big deal about it is. About why anyone would want to watch a play that tells a story that they already know. A story where everyone expects the next move that the actors make, the next thing the actors say. I wonder what thrill the actors get when they know that they are contributing little to the audience in terms of story value.

But then, after watching a mindblowing rendition of the Ramayana by kids of Navkis Educational Centre (I was there at the invitation of a friend whose cousin studies in the school and played a major role in the production) last weekend, I must confess that I had been wrong. I must admit that there does exist tremendous value in telling known stories. In fact, from a pure artistic perspective, it is preferable to tell a known story.

There are two parts to every production – the story and the way the story is told. And unless the story is something absolutely mindblowing, or has enough twists and turns and thrills to keep the viewers always on the edge of their seats, it is the latter part that makes or breaks a production. Yeah, of course you need a reasonable plot, a good storyline, but if you look at all the great movies, books or stage production, the best part has been the way that the stories have been told.

So when you are telling a known story, it gives you more scope to experiment in terms of the way that the story is told. You get more freedom to do your own thing, knowing fully well that the viewers know what is happening. You can twist and turn the dialogues, or even dispense with them (as the Navkis kids did). You can leave things unsaid, knowing that the audience will fill in the gaps. In short, you can just freak out with the production, in a way you never can if the audience doesn’t know the story.

Of course it is a double edged sword. Because you are not adding any value in terms of the story itself, the way you present the story can make or break the production. So unless you are confident that you are telling the story in a unique way, you risk tomatoes.

Another thing I was thinking about during the performance on Saturday was about the commercial viability of productions such as this. It was a truly amazing performance by the kids, and for a school play you don’t need commercial success. The thrill of being involved (and each one of the 500+ students of the school was involved in the production) is enough incentive for the players to do a good job. The question is about scalability, replicability and commercialization. I don’t have any answers yet. If you can think of something, let me know.

Food Review: Silver Thali at Maiya’s

The new Maiya’s restaurant has recently started a concept called the “silver thali”. Served on the third floor, it is advertised as “fine dining”. And the high point of the meal was supposed to be the “40 items”. Despite the steep price tag of Rs. 350, I wanted to try it out, and hence chose this place when I had to treat my cousin and cousin-in-law last night.

It is an extremely small place, the hall where the “silver thali” is served, on the third floor. Mindful of the 40 items that were to follow, we decided to take the stairs. We were made to wait for a brief while while they set up our table, and in we went. The dinner began with a speech by the owner of the restaurant explaining the “concept” of the 40-course meal and advising us to just “have a taste” of each of the items in the meal, and we could then revisit the items we liked if we still had stomach capacity. The freaky part of his speech was that he asked us to recommend his meal to friends and relatives – it wouldv’e been ok if it were after the meal, but I don’t know what the guy was doing telling us this before we’d been served.

The most freaky part of the meal was the waiter. Given that it was positioned as “fine dining”, it was fair on the restaurant’s part to recruit someone who spoke English. Unfortunately the guy couldn’t speak Kannada. So here we were – three Kannadigas (ok – two; cousin-in-law is technically marathi) eating proper Kannadiga food, and not able to discuss it with the waiter. Also, the waiter had some complicated fundaes about the direction from which to serve, and he kept coming behind us and between my cousin and me in order to serve me. Was very freaky. And the number of times he told me “and for you, sir” suggested he was a steward in his previous job.

We enthusiastically counted the items as they arrived. We lost count midway through the meal, but I think there were 40 items – counting each variety of papad separately, and the chips, and the beeDa. Most of the items were of better-than-decent quality. They also had some “exotic” items such as the tambULi, the lime rasam, “gojju-amboDe”, etc. Surprising thing was there was just one big sweet – and then there was paayasa made of hesarbELe (this is the paayasa usually made at death ceremonies) and some grapes “gojju” which  tasted like chyawanprash.

The worst part of the meal, though, was the rice, which was hard – and this made it very difficult for me to enjoy any of the rice-accompanist items (majjige huLi (similar to the north indian kadhi) , sambar, rasam, tambULi, etc). Thing is they cook rice once for all the people dining in the fine dining area, and so it would’ve become slightly cold by the time you are served, especially if you’ve gone late. The grains were too big and didn’t gel well with the accompanying items – which were too watery to gel with this kind of rice. In fact it was similar to the rice they make at Shiok, but that kind of rice is perfect for Thai stuff, not for Indian stuff.

The rest of the items were ok, but I still wouldn’t recommend this thali. There are too many items, and the service is a bit freaky, and it is overpriced. They don’t seem to know how to do the fine dining stuff. They make excellent food though, which is why I recommend you to visit the Restaurant. However, I advise you to go to the first or the second floor and have the normal thali (priced at Rs. 125). Excellent food. Significantly better service. Better “experience”.

Silver Thali at Maiya’s, 30th Cross, 4th Block, Jayanagar, Bangalore:

Cuisine: South Indian vegetarian

Meal for three: Rs. 1050 (alcohol not served)

3 stars;

Menu (whatever I can remember):

  1. Choice of grape and ginger juice
  2. Tomato soup
  3. fruit chaat
  4. Kosambri
  5. lady’s finger dry curry
  6. cabbage and chickpeas dry curry
  7. vegetable saagu
  8. onion-and-potato saagu
  9. poori (oh, there was no chutney; #fail)
  10. gojju-AmboDe
  11. some yellow bengali sweet
  12. onion pakoda
  13. bisi bele bhath
  14. aloo dum pulav
  15. raita
  16. potato chips
  17. plain rice
  18. tambULi
  19. mixed vegetable majjige huLi
  20. sambar
  21. tomato rasam
  22. lime rasam
  23. normal papad
  24. small papad
  25. fryums
  26. baaLka mensinkai (fried salted chillies)
  27. hesrbELe (moong dal) paayasa
  28. pickle
  29. curd
  30. buttermilk
  31. grapes gojju (the thing that tasted like chyawanprash)
  32. choice between hot chocolate fudge and fruit salad with ice cream
  33. beeda
  34. water

On Religion

Last Thursday there  was a function at home, of the religious type. An aunt and an uncle had come home and sang a large number of hymns. I was told that the hymns were part of a series, called the narayaneeyam, and all in praise of Lord Krishna. There were a few activities also planned along with the chanting of hymns, and occasionally people in the audience (a few other relatives) were asked to do a “namaskaara” to the deity. I mostly put ‘well left’ to these additional stuff, and watched the proceedings dispassionately, sunk into my bean bag with my laptop on my lap.

One of the guests at that function was a two-year old cousin, and he seemed to be full of enthu. He is of the religious sorts – his mom is hyper-religious, I’m told. And he did all the namaskaaras and other activities with full enthu. Later on, my mother was to admonish me saying how even the two year old would respect religion, while I just looked on. She complained about how I’ve been spoilt, and fallen under the wrong influences. I muttered something about the cousin being too innocent to know what was going on around him because of which he sincerely obeyed.

When I read Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion about six months back, I didn’t feel anything special. I’m told that the book has a lasting impact on its readers – one way or another – and that a lot of people consider it to be life-changing. I felt nothing of the sort. I just read it from start to finish, agreeing with most of its contents, and using some of its sub-plots to enhance the Studs and Fighters Theory. The only ‘impact’ it had on me was about not being a quiet atheist, and to get into arguments about existence of god, etc.

I have an interesting background in these matters. My mother and her immediate family are all ultra-religious, and I happened to grow up mostly in my maternal grandfather’s place (since both parents worked). My late father, on the other hand, was a rationalist, though he stopped short of calling himself an atheist and would passively approve of my mom’s various religious indulgences. He would quietly drive my mother and my family to the Sai Baba ashram in Whitefield, and then wait patiently outside while the rest of the people went in for their “darshan”. I would usually go in and make noises about exposing the Baba.

I don’t know how, but till recently (when I read Dawkins’s book), I would never realize when people were talking about religious stuff. For example, whenever my mom said “it’s due to god’s grace that you escaped the accident unhurt”, I’d just think that she was being rhetorical. At least, that (and swearing) are the only cases in which I take god’s name. It’s only recently, and after reading Dawkins’s book, that I realize that my mother wasn’t being rhetorical after all, and that she actually believes that it was the strength of her daily prayers that ensured I escaped those accidents unhurt.

It is also intersting to note the selection bias. My mother, and her ultra-religious sisters, and their ultra-religious relatives, selectively pick on favourable events and attribute them to god’s grace. Earlier, before reading Dawkins’s book, I would shut up, but now I’m a bit more vocal about these things, and ask them why their prayers didn’t prevent the unfavourable events from occurring. Then, they start looking for the silver lining in the cloud and attribute that to their prayers. Never mind the cloud.

So what about my religion? Some people find it contradictory that my political views are right-leaning (socially) even though I don’t believe in God. I say that I’m ‘culturally hindu’, and that Hinduism/Hindutva is not a religion but a way of life. And if you scrap away all the rituals and other beliefs, what remains in hinduism is the religion that I follow. I like to describe myself as “athiest but culturally hindu”.

I believe that poojas are just an excuse to throw feasts. I believe in rituals such as marriage ceremonies as no-questions-asked-processes which “have to be done” but I don’t believe that they are a necessary condition for any benefit, or against something bad.

Two years back, when my father died, I found the post-death ceremonies quite depressing and decided I’m not going to do them. So an uncle came up to me and asked me why I didn’t want to do the rituals. I told him I didn’t believe in them. He replied saying there was no question of belief but it was my duty to do the rituals. I told him that I didn’t believe that it was my duty to do them.

Problem with defeating elders in logical arguments is that they tend to take it personally, and then decide to attack you rather than attacking your argument. I finally ended up doing all those rituals. But I happened to fight with the shastris during each and every ceremony.

In hindsight, I realized that my fighting with the shastris, though ugly, had managed to send a “don’t mess with me” message to my relatives.