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Baking a Bread

One day, quite recently…
Me: “I am going to bake a bread”
Family: “Bake a – WHAT?”

The entire household was practically paused for well over a few minutes.
In total disbelief.

“Why bother making something you can easily get for BHD 0.100?”*
“Bread? One can NEVER bake a bread at home!”
“Baking a bread needs special equipment. Forget it!”
“Hmmmm…. you’ve found another way to waste money, time and effort…
But
The above comments could not dissuade the baker from chasing, and later achieving, his dream.

*BHD 1 = USD 2.57 appx.

Let me take you back to another day, many many years ago…

The idea of baking a bread at home was toyed since childhood.
The inspiration was the small local bakery near the place of domicile.

Around mid-afternoon, the heavenly aroma of the nearby baker baking his loaves will find its way to our home. Giving the baker a few more minutes to finish his work, a fresh loaf will be at home soon. The family gathers around, being a Sunday, marvelling the freshness and softness of the bread. Baker refuses to slice the bread as he maintains it is too early to slice a bread straight from the oven. There were many times when the bread was enjoyed without being sliced. The experience was always worthy of repeating a million times. That is when the idea of baking bread at home was born.

During those years, my Mother used to cook many dishes. Most of them could be categorised as nothing short of “complicated”. List of ingredients, the processes included in preparation and cooking, adjustment of heat by adding or removing firewood from the stove (those were pre-LPG days) were some reasons for the complexity. Delicious sweets which require hours on fire were made only during festive seasons: Easter or Christmas. Whole family chips in and the house maids also join to support but the main cook was always Mother.

Yet another day, couple of years back…

The childhood idea was put to action quite recently. May be a couple of years back when the first bread was baked in-house. Only few super markets carried bread flour. The recipe said bread flour specifically. Some of them mentioned using all-purpose flour but the fear of failure in first attempt prompted the would-be baker to travel to the edge of the world to find the perfect bread flour. He found it in a super market in the Amwaj Island.

Other ingredients were a fairly easy to come through: yeast, egg, milk, honey, salt. The 10-year old Italian-made oven with an external temperature gauge were the major components towards the first bake. Stove-top cooking was for every day but the oven was rarely used.

All the ingredients were mixed with yeast added in to the traditional well in the centre. The mixture was far from promising. Sticky, without any form or shape.

Baking a bread is all about proving. First the yeast has to prove itself. Then the dough. Then the dough in loaf-tin, again. But the real proof is in the pudding which is the proof of the baker himself. Yeast was over-energetic. It was excited to thrive in the 114 degree Fahrenheit water mixed with honey. In less than 10 minutes, the yeast-proofing was done.

Slowly, the dough began to transform itself as if by a magic spell. The mix was then kneaded by hand. Five or ten minutes, I do not remember. But the kneading stopped only when the dough felt pliable and soft. Time for the dough to prove itself. Well oiled glass bowl, the recipe did not specify which oil, was used to store the dough “for an hour or until it doubles in size in a warm, dark place”.

Slowly lifted the tea-towel that covered the dough-bowl. Could not believe own eyes. The dough had proved itself!

Followed the recipe to the t and inflated the dough after a bit of hesitation. Baker is still not confident. Is it not the first attempt to bake a bread? Pardoned.

Left the dough in a loaf tin this time in the warm dark place to prove again. The dough took the challenge well and overflew the standard bread tin thus ensuring the classic champagne-cork shape.

Meanwhile, in another part of the kitchen…
Pre-heating the oven was meticulously done. Temperature was monitored to the degree. The risen-dough went straight into the oven. Half-way into the baking process, the rich, heavenly aroma of the bread began to fill the apartment. The crust was light brown. There was no way to test the doneness of bread without opening the oven door. Door was open, crust was knocked for that reassuring hollow “thud” sound.

A home-made bread was born.

Family, who were nearby since the aroma started filling the air, now gathered around the bread.

Some suggested butter. Others jam. How about chicken curry? Plain bread taste as good, came in another revelation. Olive oil and salt. Creativity is beginning to cross boundaries now.

Five minutes later, I thanked the heavens for the family leaving the loaf tin alone.

A question came up… when are you going to bake the next bread?

Soon, the baker said, and smiled to himself.

A few weeks back, a Challah was baked.


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Blue Crabs

Anticipation grows in the shores of Hidd fishing port, north-east of Bahrain.
But the air is kept light with smiles and laughs.
Amazing to see how the human spirits could soar so high on a long, hot summer day.
Weather-beaten faces perfectly blending with the day’s hard work.

And then someone sees the boat approaching from the seas.
Somehow they know it was a good catch indeed.
Blue Swimming Crabs are wild caught from seas around Bahrain by using traps.

A boat carries 6 to 8 crates of freshly netted Blue Crabs.
After a quick rinse, the crates are brought ashore.
Experienced eyes picks few bad ones and promptly removes them.
Dilip and his team effortlessly moves in sync as a well-rehearsed drill.

Rest are chilled with crushed iced, ready to be transported to the factory in refrigerated trucks.
The cluster portion of the crab with claw and legs untrimmed is the final product that carries a shelf-life of up to 2 years.


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Extremely Useful Emptinesses

“We shape clay into a pot,
but it is the emptiness inside
that holds whatever we want.”
– Lao Tzu

The Potter, a man in his forties,
sat there on the wooden, tall stool
by a table
with a shapeless lump of clay.
Smiling.

He had a few kids and their parents as his audience.
Wide-eyed kids.
I’ve-seen-it-all-eyed parents.
Deep inside,
the parents wanted to mould the clay as much as their kids.

But
being elder to the kids, they appeared to show more restraint
and even scolded the kids for their impatience.
Potter smiled.

While his fingers and palm
moved around the wet clay,
and the people thought of how relaxed the man was,
his legs were tirelessly working.

Pushing the heavy flywheel
under the table
that held the platform
that rotated
the clay…

I wondered
how many kids must have seen the hard work
of the legs
that is needed for a clay pot?

Potter continued to smile.
Perhaps he could listen to everyone’s thoughts…


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Casual Skewers

Grilling must be the most healthiest way to cook meat.

Most fun comes from the charcoal grill outdoors.
Once in a while, it can be emulated indoors.
Family love it. Friends love it.
Above all, the chef loves it.

It all begins with pre-soaking the bamboo skewers in water.
And the grill pan scrubbed and washed with no soap.
Then comes the marinade.
Finally, the preparation of meats.

Tandoor-prawns.
Tandoori Masala could be brought from the store.
But only a few would dare to make their own Tandoori mix from scratch.
And that’s what happened.

Chicken thighs were chosen over breast.
A sharpest boning knife made the job of separating the meat from the bone enjoyable.
In grilling, the marinade is most crucial for the taste.
In this case, both the prawns and the chicken were marinated for between 4-5 hours in the refrigerator.

Mildly flavoured meat (could be sea-food) threaded in soaked bamboo skewers.
Seasoned cast-iron grill pan heated to over 420 deg F on a stove-top.
Quote If it does not sizzle, then you are not grilling unquote.
Thrill of the sizzle awaits.

Time spent on seasoning the grill pan paid off well.
No sticking.
No panic.
Grilling was never been so easy.

There is a secret
to grilling: oil.
Sparingly use oil to smear the grilling pan surface,
occasionally.

Another secret…
is to let the meat char a little.
This must be done extra-carefully
as the chances of meat getting dry is high.

Prawns were the most tricky.
So much easier to turn them into rubber-washers (from the chef’s own experience)
than to get them just-succulent-right.
But for someone who got an innate ability to cook, all comes naturally.

Skewers were all arranged in the plate.
The sight was indeed impressive.
In our house, the food does not last till plating process.
Skewers were all emptied in a blink.

Grilling indoors is tiring.
But when you see the food vanish at the speed of lightning,
that magic itself is enough to make you go through the hardships again,
and again.

Cooking is rewarding.


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John Dory, Baked.

What’s for dinner?
As in whats|for|dinn|er|
Typical question on a weekend.
Mostly the dinner is cooked by me at home during the weekend.
Therefore it is not surprising that the family awaits dinnertime, on a weekend.
(Ed: Well, that may seem like a tall statement but then you have not tasted my cooking, have you?).
Apart from cooking being a passion, the time spend in creating a dish based solely on a recipe distracts one from most other complexities of life. Someone’s passion could well be another’s chore.

First question.
Meat? Lamb? Chicken? Fish?
Answer: Fish.
Which fish?
Silence.
Yes, the family sometimes think too.

White-meat fishes are often mild in their flavour.
Sole is a good example.
Local favourite Hamour-e Khaldar-e Qahvei (or simply, Hamour: the Brown-spotted Reef Cod) is another.
But John Dory is what got caught in the net.
So the choice of fish was settled.
A Dory doesn’t have a strong fishy smell.

Note: Some photographs follow the write-up.

Next question…
Grilling? Poaching? Baking? Pan-fry?
Grilling would be harsh on a Dory.
Poaching would be too subtle.
Pan-fry would be good to try.
Finally, settled for Baking.

Now for the recipe.
Salt & Pepper Fish was the first choice.
The simplicity of the recipe was in fact a deterrent to me.
Less room to play around.

Looked for more options.
Did not have to go far.
Limón!
Lemon always gave that great tasting result with white-meat fishes.
Added Lemon and fresh, flat-leaf Parsley to the list.

Accompaniment to Dory?
Mashed Potatoes was the unanimous favourite of the family.
A silence fell when the discussion moved on to the greens.
Vegetables, I mean.
No movement.
No enthusiasm.
Quite understandable.
Had to choose it myself.
Mangetouts.
How about some Mushrooms?
Yesss….
Some movement there.
People love mushrooms for their own reasons.

Thus the dinner menu was agreed upon.

John Dory baked with Lemon and Parsley in extra virgin Olive oil
seasoned with sea-salt and ground black pepper.
Sautéed Mushrooms and Mangetouts
served with mildly creamed silk-smooth Mashed Potatoes.

Little extra virgin Olive oil. Lemon juice. Sea-salt and ground black Pepper. Sprinkle once-chopped fresh flat-leaf Parsley. Bake for 20 minutes in an oven heated to 170C. Check for flaking with a fork.

Combined taste of slightly salty Mashed Potatoes and Dory was exquisite. Sautéed Mangetouts were so crunchy that the dining room reverberated with the sound. Mushrooms with a dash of dark soy-sauce added a different dimension to its flavour. A fillet of Dory was pan-fried indeed.

Dinner was served.
Few minutes into the ritual,
some asked for more potatoes.
Others, Dory.
Mushrooms disappeared in no time.
Only a few Mangetouts were left in their bowl.

All the dinner plates got emptied quick.
What else an ordinary cook like me could possibly ask for?


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Pièce de Résistance

Geographically, the beautiful island of Bahrain may be small. But the cultural and artistic events happening within its confines hosted by the Bahrain Authority for Culture and Antiquities – BACA – and other organisations, are many.

BACA itself organises several events throughout the year. Festivals and Annual Activities includes Bahrain Annual Fine Arts Exhibition, where space, colours, imagination and boundaries merge; Bahrain Summer, the journey of musical to theatrical; Ta’a Al Shabab, a month-long event involving youth in culture; Bahrain International Music Festival, an expression of musical talent from home and abroad; Spring of Culture, an opportunity to exchange ideas and experiences and learn about the intellectual underpinnings of different nations and Heritage Festival, taking the people from now to then.

Though the various events fall in the same time of the year, the themes keep changing. This year’s Food is Culture event had Bahrain National Museum as the venue. Confluence of the minds of Chefs and Artists was the theme. MyRefractions visited one such event during the month of January 2017.

Meeting with Chef Brian and Chef Pierre was the highlight. The chocolate palm tree was the pièce de résistance of the evening.

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Date palms represented Middle-Eastern culture around the world. A drive through the palm-laned road leading towards the magnificent Ritz-Carlton hotel in itself is a memorable experience. Imagine a date palm that snaps at your touch, made with the most delicious, just-sweet, nutty, creamy and melt-in-mouth dark chocolate with real Dates. That was the experience presented by the Executive Chef Brian of re Asian Cuisine and Head Chef at Wolfgang Puck’s restaurant “CUT” both at the Four Seasons Hotel Bahrain whose culinary inspiration began in his grandmother’s kitchen, and Pierre, professional Pastry Chef at Wolfgang Puck’s “CUT” restaurant at the Four Seasons Hotel Bahrain, whose love of pastries comes as an artistic medium which fuels his passionate creations and the Artist Somaya Abdulghani who is specialised in photography, collage and mixed media, seeking to promote Islam’s enlightening nature by creating rhythmic and organic patterns that combine forms of Islamic art.

In a higher conceptual level, one would find it hard to separate the space of cooking and that of art.

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The passionate audience had a casual enjoyable time interacting with the Chefs and the Artist. They also relished the chocolate palm tree and made it vanish into thin air within minutes much to the delight of the Chefs and the Artist who created it.

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The event brought to surface the complexities within the intermingling of the two seemingly different worlds… and a treat for the palate and the mind of the discerning intellect.

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Farmers’ Market

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Highway leading to Budaiya, the venue of Farmers’ Market 2017, got slower from almost a mile away. Typical of any event. Almost all the vehicles carried families with children. After finding a parking nearby, the place was a short walk away. It was a sunny and pleasant Saturday in January. Mild breeze among the many date palms lining the tiled walkways carried smell of vegetables. The botanical gardens in Budaiya, maintained by the Agriculture Ministry, hosted the Farmers’ Market as it did for past several years. Photographs were shot randomly while walking around the market…

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A mild climate conducive of growing vegetables in Bahrain starts from October typically. However, the summer lingered on till late November in 2016 and the weather turned mild towards mid- to end-December. Christmas really felt like that in Brisbane; warm. Farmers’ Market in Bahrain usually started in early December and lasts till the first few months of the following year. All Saturdays of the month, from 8 AM till 12 noon, Budaiya gets some extra action.

Breakfast Corner (actually it is an open space) visit was top on the list. Not that we three were hungry. The idea of tasting some authentic Bahraini food always appealed to us. Fresh vegetables were so appealing that from the moment we saw the first stall, the shutter was relentlessly moving up and down (or was it sideways? Should have paid more attention during the many photography workshops attended.) Tomatoes, Cauliflowers, Pumpkins, Chillies, Zucchinis, Cucumbers, all those leafy vegetables – that the family doctor always reminded to consume more, Beetroots, Bell Peppers, to name more than a few. Mint led the list of herbs. Those on sale were so fresh and untouched so unlike what is sold by the regular stores that it seemed to have made just for decoration and not for cooking.

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Flowering plants were on sale. Hyacinths and Pansies were more popular. Geraniums were rare. Bougainvilleas scattered themselves among others. As we walked forward, the air began to smell of waffles. Waffles would have been a complete misfit in such an atmosphere. We followed the waffles that led us to a stall where several people – women and children mostly – patiently waited for their turn to collect their favourite snack: pan-baked bread. Thin, crunchy, mildly sweet made up of batter.

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The best part of the Farmers’ Market was not the display of the local produce. It is about the people and the smile on their face. Met several families that included expatriates and the local ones. Business was casual with occasional bargaining (well, no one ever bargained in a super market) and tasting of the fresh produces.

Stall owners found time to chat about their farms in different parts of Bahrain. 17 years of stay made it almost possible to locate many. Children played as the sun rose while other wide-eyed ones kept wondering about the many colours of vegetables. From red, green, yellow and purple that is grown in their own Bahrain.

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Reason for Everything

Visited local stores for the best ingredients.
Shortage of mixed peel was unusual this year.
Not a single store carried them.
So
went and bought fresh Navel oranges; scoured and peeled and sliced the peels 1/4″.
Boiled them peels, rinsed and repeated thrice.

Candy thermometer. Sugar solution.
Latter tricky without the former.
Orange peels, again.
Got them candied, got them dried.
End result: better than store-brought ones.

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More photos follow…

Meanwhile, elsewhere in the kitchen.
A clean glass bowl.
Sultanas, Raisins, Black Currants, Glacé Cherries (washed, dried and halved) in St. Remy brandy.
Set aside after securing with cling film.
Mixed every other day and added more Remy if needed.

Mise en place seems to be the word, to begin with, from this point.
Everything in place before starting.
Preparing the baking tin to preheating the oven.
Glass bowl of dried fruits made succulent by the St. Remy for weeks.

Unsalted butter with lesser water content at room temperature.
One would do well if the stand mixer with balloon whisk attached is avoided for this preparation.
Hand mixer with whisker attachment is more suited.

All-purpose flour.
Mixed spice. Cinnamon.
Whole Nutmeg. Grater.
Pinch of ground, coarse, sea-salt.

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Zest of Oranges and Lemon.
Freshly squeezed juice of one orange.
Dark brown sugar. (Tried Muscovado?)
Treacle.
Five fresh, brown, medium-large eggs.

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Bowl #2 readied.
Measuring cups, spoons.
Wooden spoon. Wooden spatula.
Silicon spatula.
Parchment paper.
Walnuts Brazil nuts Almonds
Most chopped and some slivered.

1. Cream butter.
Kids will be around for a bit of taste.
Dark Brown Sugar and Black Treacle are also in great demand.
2. Whisk in eggs kept at room temparature, one at a time.
3. Spoon in flour, a spoon at a time.
4. Maintain 150˚C in the oven.

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Mixture looks curdled.
Keep paddling…
Gentle on the mixture, please.
Gluten, unwelcome.

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5. Scoop the cake mixture into the prepared bake-tin.
6. In goes the tin to the pre-heated oven for 3-4 hours.
7. At 2 1/2 hours, kids will start to visit the kitchen as the aroma arises and begins to fill the home.
8. First time the heated oven is open once the batter is in is after 2 1/2 hours.
9. Skewer comes out clean or not?

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Anticipation builds from the day the dry fruits are soaked in brandy.
(Are we there yet? Are we there yet? Are we there yet?)
That day would be almost a month before Christmas.
Day the cake is baked, hopes are high.
Who will eat what and how much and who gets to keep the decor-berry and ivy for the new year.
Thankful that the cake did not carry fancy, pastel pink roses and cloud-white, Royal icing.
(Editor: The kids’ Mama baked one with all the above accessories almost bringing the house down).

Mittens… where are the mittens?
(So much for the mise en place).
Cake out of oven on to a cooling rack.
Not so lovely as once thought.
Wait, kids, tomorrow we decorate the cake.
Excitement builds up again.

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Dusted confectioner’s sugar hoping to get a it-just-snowed effect.
Berry-ivy-leaf decor, one. Picked that from the local M & S.
Is that all? Kids asketh in chorus.
Yes, that’s all. Pâtissier replieth, solo.

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Tiny plates.
Knife, the sharpest.
Shouldn’t it cut through the nuts and dry fruits?
Serving time…

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Note: The orange peels, lemon zest and treacle make the cake a bit bitter. And the dark brown sugar and the mildly sweet sultanas and raisins brings in some sweetness. Nutmeg and cinnamon tries their best to add in the spiciness. A bitter-sweet-spicy cake? Yes, I would say. But you know it’s much more complex-er than that.

Now comes the best part…
Sharing the cake with others.
The cake is carefully sliced, wrapped carefully in parchment paper, tied carefully with strings and now ready to be shared.

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Spiritual part
The spirit of Christmas in the air filled with hope, felt by everyone around is perhaps the greatest gift of the season. Sharing the bounty of blessings showered on each one of us by the Almighty is the next best. Bondage between simple human mortals based on unconditional love comes a close third.

Change the order – hope share bond love
if you may,
but that is what
Christmas is all about.

Rest everything is just a reason.

Let us carry the remnants of Christmas spirit all through the New Year.

Wishing you a Bright & Happy New Year!


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Someday

Cars always had thrilled people; young and old alike.
Muscle cars, more so.
From a gurgling Camaro to a roaring Mustang,
cars symbolises many things to many people.
Motor Shows displaying powerful and vintage cars often draw a good crowd.
Few could afford not to dream of owning one someday.

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Saint-Germain

Finding a parking always proves tricky in any city. More so in Paris.

For someone who memorises the local street maps and drives with a staunch dependency on the GPS, it is not quite difficult to locate proper car parks; paid or free. However, being able to park closer to the point of destination gives a strange feeling of achievement.

In this case the destination turned out to be Saint-Germain. Intention was to walk the alleys in a completely lost manner and to do some window shopping. A soft drizzle added to the depth of the situation. Hooded jacket came handy. In any case an umbrella would be the remotest option with a camera fitted with extra-battery compartment and a heavy glass. Drizzling made the already crowded restaurants more tightly packed. No one could enjoy the life drifting by from the wicker chairs on the pavement, casually covered with deep coloured awnings, thanks to the rain.

Missed out on the reflected lights on rain-drenched cobblestones the city is famously known for, this time. There will always be a next…

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Stranger to stranger, with kindness

Alleys of the village
may not have the flourish of sophistication
urban-dwellers often take for granted.

Instead
all you get would be a smiling face
of a complete stranger.

An invite to a cup of tea.
And more than a few helpings of kind words.

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Playful kids
that follow a wandering photographer
with an amusement
lacing their merry laughter.

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Babies that coo for no reason whatsoever
and jump to reach for the camera lens,
often with their lavishly-salivated tiny fingers,
wondering what on earth is going on
in a world so new to them.

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From one stranger
to the other.

Everyone, same-same
and
miles and miles away from their homes.
Homes, they call their home.


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Friends

Friends are friends…
anytime.
anywhere.
Friendship is being together.

But
how about being with oneself?

Me: Hi!
Myself: Hi!!
Me: How are you today?
(pause)
Myself: Not bad… you?
(long pause)

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Honest

During a photo workshop, she was a model.

No pretence.
No masquerade.
No façade.

And when requested for a pose next to her own portrait, she obliged, smilingly.

Few could ever attempt to achieve that smile…

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The Mall and the Shamal wind

Come evening and the multi-storied car parks of the mall becomes full.
The rows of cars approaching the mall never seem to end till late into the night.
From the car park heated by the summer sun and idling engines to the coolness that embraces you stealthily from all sides.
Walk into the mall with soft and bright lights…

Food courts overflow with long queue of families waiting for a seat in their favourite restaurants.
Movie theatres run in full capacity.
Boutiques with up to 70% sale got no space for another potential customer.
Children play in the designated space seen with their Nannies in pale blue or pink uniforms.

Paper-bags, huge ones, with thin rope-like handles, find it difficult to accommodate themselves in the hands of shoppers.
Occasional lost kids calling “baba, baba” looking for their Daddy, almost in the verge of a tear short of bursting out. Mall securities nearby with their crackling Motorola handsets.
Sales professionals getting busier by the minute at their kiosks of perfumes, white gold and silver jewellery, mobile accessories, spa promotions, teen watches and many more.

Credit cards rake up unpaid debts shaming the speed of light.
Notion of happiness is thus for the chosen few.
Who is sleepy?
It’s only 3AM.

Meanwhile, in another part of the city.

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No malls.
No car parks.
No sale on-going.
No small, rectangular, plastic cards with or without a cute chip.

Just plain talks and laughter, when someone makes a remark, mostly funny.
Laughter even when one opens his mouth to say something.
And then the beverages are served from a nearby tea shop.
A small break from roasted sunflower seeds.

No malls could ever give that feeling being with friends out in the open with the Shamal winds.
Or could they?


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Songs & Prayers

Be not that far from me,
for trouble is near;
haste Thee to help me.

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A scene from the famous church of St. Mary (Marthamariam Cathedral) in Manarcaud, a place close to Kottayam, Kerala, India. The ancient practice of 8 day fast and the Feast of Virgin Mary’s Birth are celebrated between September 1st and 8th of every year at the cathedral.


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Iconic

Shrouded in the misty rain
the tower looked imposing
even from a distance.

view from near Sacre Coeur…

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Buyer’s Dilemma

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Baker

Succulant Chicken Tikka.
Freshly grilled Riyash (Lamb Rib Chops).
Tabouleh, the great salad made of Flat Parsley, Mint, Tomato, soaked Burgul wheat and Lemon.
Hummous, the chick peas and garlic dip with olive oil.
Kubooz from the Tandoor (a brick-and-mud oven) completes the list.

Kubooz bakeries comes alive as the sun sets.
The baker remembers who came first and what he had ordered.
No notepads and paper slips.
Everyone is served.

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