Saturday, November 19, 2011

Hobby as a First Love

The other day when I returned home from work, I saw my wife standing in front of one of the few hundred potted plants we have around our independent house in Chennai. She looked very upset.

I asked her what had happened. Pointing to a dead flowering plant, she said, ‘This jasmine plant is dead, in spite of my best efforts it did not survive’. Even personal tragedies do not bring tears to her eyes – but when the plants that she lovingly nurtures die, she gets very upset.

Her passion for gardening as a hobby is legendary in our family circles. I always tease her that her first love is gardening – everything else is secondary.

Over the last 30 years that we have been living in our own house, she has managed to grow hundreds of flowering plants, and other green plants. We have over six varieties of jasmine (Malli) :-Nithya Malli, Pavala Malli, Mullai, Jadi malli, adukku malli, & gundu malli, and over forty varieties of crotons and scores of colorful Hibiscus, Exora and Arali plants; flowering plants with no fragrance.

We even have fruit bearing trees – Sapota (chikku), Guava, Lemon sized Japanese oranges (called Kungfat) besides a coconut tree, banana tree, mango tree and even a drumstick tree!

In the absence of a regular gardener, my wife tends to each plant herself. Every morning she goes around the compound checking, trimming, weeding, cleaning and generally looking after the plants. Spending nearly 60 to 90 minutes on this particular activity.

Though we have a (ubiquitous) Velaikari’ (part time maid servant) who is supposed to water the plants, you can see my wife herself watering the plants if the velaikari does not turn up or if she is not satisfied with the job done by the maid. Whenever we travel she constantly worries whether the maid has watered the plants or not. Almost akin to how pet owners worry about their pet dogs or cats when they are away on tour.

As soon as we return from any tour, the first thing she will do is to go round inspecting the plants as if saying “Hey Guys, I am back to look after you!” There is a perceptible difference in the appearance of the plants as well; those drooping suddenly seem to perk up! I wonder if there is any truth in the belief that plants can also communicate with their patrons.

In the morning she has to pluck flowers for Puja, and in the evening she is kept busy collecting Nithya malli (jasmine) flower growing on our terrace. Come rain or sunshine she spends about 60 minutes every day plucking these fragrant flowers (nature`s aphrodisiac) and spends another 30 minutes tying them on a string to make a nice ‘maala’ for her hair or for use in the Puja room the next day.

I remember the year 1988 when my wife and I had gone on a holiday to USA and Canada. While shopping in a Mall in New York, she insisted that we buy a long hose pipe fitted with ‘start’ & ‘stop’ control mechanism, to avoid wastage of water, since such a device was not available in India. On our return journey one of the check-in bags contained only the ‘hose pipe’!

Like all women who are crazy about gardening, when we visit friends and if she finds a garden around the host`s house, she will go on an inspection tour of the garden before she has even said ‘hello’ to the host! Invariably, the host pleased with the guest`s interest in his/her hobby, will gift away a few plants which she would then promptly place in a pot and nurture carefully until it catches on. But when she tries to pluck saplings from plants in public gardens, where plucking of flowers and saplings is prohibited, I feel embarrassed. Invariably, I also find that she is not alone in this act. There are other equally gardening crazy women stealthily plucking and hiding the items in the folds of their Saris!!

After having fulfilled her responsibilities as a grandmother and helping her daughters during their `deliveries’, nowadays, my better half is comparatively free. So she indulges herself with a vengeance in her hobbies. In addition to gardening, she also finds time for reading,, music and writing. Time permitting, she looks after a retired husband who spends more time idling and grumbling about real and imaginary health problems.
My wife knows that an `Idle mind is a devil`s workshop and her hobbies help keep her mind and body active!

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Grand Sweets

Grand Sweets! The well known Sweet and Savory shop in Chennai has split. Instead of a unique, single point meeting ground for thousands of people, this landmark in Adyar, Chennai has now split into two units with same name, at the original venue. This is a result of a split between the two daughters of the founder of Grand Sweets (bagapirivinai!). Now branches of these two split units (both in the name of Grand Sweets) are appearing all over the city and I understand are likely to spread to other parts of Tamilnadu.

It is common in the world of popular eateries and restaurants to open branches to exploit the huge potential that a good brand name offers. It happened with McDonalds, Pizza Hut, Kentucky Fried Chicken (KCF), Starbuck Coffee House, etc. all of which started in USA and spread all over the world. It is happening in our country with brands like Coffee Day, Barrista, Saravanas, Sangeetha & Adyar Ananda Bhavan. The last one is known by the same name not only in Adyar but other places in Chennai, different parts of Tamilnadu and Karnataka!

But the way it has happened with Grand Sweets has broken my heart. I have no objection to the family opening any number of branches, anywhere in the world. But it pains me to see the venerable institution split into two with a separation wall (like the one in the Ambuja Cement TV commercial) at the place of origin! Though a branch of Grand Sweets has come up very close to where I live, I still like to go to the original venue located on II Main Road in Gandhi Nagar, Adyar, as the staff at the branch are not as friendly and nor are they aware of some of the famous items of GS. Like my favorite U/ K Mavu (Urundai Kuzhambu Powder) with which one can make the delicious Urundai More (Buttermilk) Kuzhambu or even Paruppu Usili!

Shri (Late) Natarajan Chettiar started Grand Sweets at his spacious residence in 1982 with a vision to supply top quality sweets and savouries to the neighbourhood. Over the years it had grown by leaps and bounds to become a “must visit” shopping point for any visitor to Chennai (within the country or even from abroad). For the Kai Murukku, Thenghuzhal or a host of other crunchy savouries and delcious sweets that GS offered. All made with fresh refined oil and pure desi ghee by very experienced `Mamis` and `Mamas`. Providing consistently excellent quality and taste, justifying the little extra one paid for every item.

People within the city visited Grand Sweets also for their very tasty (and free) prasadam that was distributed to all visitors in the morning and in the evening; every day without fail! On Mondays it was Melagorai (Pepper rice), Tuesdays – Rava Kesari, Wednesdays – Bisibele (Samabar Rice), Thursdays – Venn Pongal (Lentil Rice), Friday – Chakkara Pongal (Sweet Rice), Saturdays –Puliyodaraai (Tamarind Rice) and Sundays the ubiquitous Thayir Sadam ( Curd rice).

I have been a customer of GS since the time it started. I would invariably visit Grand Sweets around the prasadam time only to discover that I was not alone. One would find well known personalities of Chennai, waiting near the prasadam counter to literally grab the dhonnai (cup made of leaves) from the tray of prasadam placed at the counter. Some of them would feel very embarrassed to find themselves caught red handed in the act. But who cared? The delicious prasadam, which was not for sale, justified the little extra effort required to grab them!

I have bumped into long lost friends at Grand Sweets. Many of them NRIs or parents of NRI children, who had come in to buy several packets of rice mixes, pickles and savouries to be taken abroad. I used to take half a suitcase full of these goodies for my son and his friends when he was living in the US.

In spite of the hot and humid atmosphere (because of the asbestos roofing), there would always be a crowd at the Grand Sweets right from 8a.m; when they opened for business. The crowd began to grow during afternoons when they started serving tiffin items like ‘Kuzhi Paniyaram’ and ‘Adai Aviyal’. This part of the business had grown so big that almost every Grand Sweets branch now has a `make shift` restaurant serving a variety of tiffin items with some branches even serving mini meals during lunch time. But I have already started hearing murmurs about the declining quality of savouries from old and loyal customers, which does not augur well for the institution.

No wonder that the main venue does not have much crowd these days. Even the air-conditioned branches are attracting much lesser crowd than what a famous brand like GS should attract. So have the calculations of the family members; that by dividing the property and increasing the number of branches; they can multiply their profits have gone horribly wrong? Some experts should advise them that unless the quality and service is the same in every branch, the brand is bound to suffer .

Will the disputing family consider breaking the dividing wall and restore the GS to the original venue as it was before the partition? They should not be surprised if the crowds start teeming back to the place from all over Chennai and even from abroad, for the sheer joy of not only shopping at GS, but also for the possibility of meeting old friends; and of course for the delectable prasadams offered every day!

I hope it is not just a wishful thinking of an old loyal customer of GS!