Gypsy dreams and jackal curry

Ayako Iwatani is heading home — to the gypsies.

Her biological family may be in Japan, where she’s an associate professor at the Graduate School of Social Sciences, Hiroshima University. But right now she’s bouncing with excitement about visiting the people she lived, and bonded, with for one and a half years in Trichy while doing research for her doctorate on the ‘dream narratives’ of the Narikuruva (alternatively known as the Vaghizi) people.

 “I came to Chennai first in 1996 to meet them. I’ve been fascinated by the gypsies almost all my life,” says Ayako, now thirty eight years old and fluent in Tamil as well as the Narikuruva dialect. “Though they’re always seen as vagabonds and criminals, they’re also so attractive and mysterious. I was curious about how they see themselves.”

When she finished school, Ayako made a journey that would influence the rest of her life. “I went to the South of France to meet the Gitan gypsies… you know, the ones who do flamenco…” (Once of Europe’s most prominent gypsy groups, the Gitans, who spent many years in Spain before settling in France, are stereotypically colourful, with dusky skin, rousing music and theatrical dancing.) “I stayed with them for a long time; living in camping sites… we became friends.”

Discussing how India is the original home of the gypsies, she explains how their travels around the world are shrouded in mystery. “They began from North West India sometime between the 2nd and 9th century. Today, because of politics they’re forced to settle down. But even if they are not nomadic their lifestyles are very fluid. They change jobs constantly, and do work that’s inherently unstable, like picking scraps, selling antiques, gardening…” She adds, “Because they were always the last to come, they’re perpetual outsiders.”

She chose to travel to Chennai because she was curious how little information there was available about the gypsies of South India. “I went to Madras University and asked about the Vaghizi. They live in the streets, in Triplicane, by the beach…”

Although her first visit was brief she was so fascinated she vowed to return. “I decided to do a Doctorate on them, and this time I wanted to live with them. Otherwise I can never understand how they live and what they feel.”

Since Trichy has the biggest population of Vaghizi, she decided to go there. “No local research assistant would come with me. I was told they’re dirty, dangerous…” So she went alone, and stayed for one and a half years. “For the first 4 or five months it was very hard. Five of us shared one room. Men, women and children all sleeping together. There was no electricity at first, but I got it connected, put in a fan. Also a phone.”

“After a while it got easier. I even went on a business travels with them. We took buses to Goa, Sabrimala to sell beads…” While they have no written records, stories and names are passed down through generations. “One man I met in Trichy could recite his ancestors’ names for 17 generations. They also pass on a folded cloth that represents their goddess.”

The food was wildly varied, cooked on wood fires. “Narikutti Curry… I think that’s jackal – or is it a fox – from the forest. I’ve eaten cat once,” Ayako says blithely, adding “Also pigeons, rabbits… local vegetables. It’s good food. I love the rasam, Same spices but made in a different way. So good.”

Her PhD on their ‘Dream Narrative’ was based on early morning conversations, when everyone discussed their dreams. “For them dreams are important. In their dreams they are goddesses.” Like the Gypsies of Europe who celebrate ‘Black Sarah’ their patron saint (also called Sara-la-Kali and Black Madonna), the Vaghizi believe in a female higher power.

Mesmersized by her new family, she kept extending her stay. “I finally left because I had to go back and write the thesis. It’s tough to keep in touch. They are out of the house a lot of the time… and even when they are home often the phone is cut,” she sighs, adding “Although I submitted my research, I’ve come back every year.”

Ayako’s current trip’s dedicated to the street performers in Gujarat, also of gypsy origin. “I’m here for just one month this time.” Right now however, she’s is a hurry to get to Trichy. “I’m staying a week… and looking forward to going home!”


Inside a male fantasy in Bangkok


Raising the bar in Bangkok. Take 1.

Shoot in session at The Witches Tavern


I’m in the centre of a male fantasy. And I’m not quite sure about the appropriate etiquette. Hah. Grabbed your attention, haven’t I? Now, let’s start at the beginning.
Bangkok. But of course. It’s the perfect place to play out the wild and wicked, right? The day starts at the Renaissance Bangkok Ratchaprasong Hotel, where we free fall into theatrical decadence. The lobby, covered in mirrors and crystal, is outfitted with fur couches and velvet sofas so brazenly funky you could be forgiven for assuming they recently escaped from Lady Gaga’s boudoir. Very MTV.
Which could explain why the channel, which brought us here, chose this as our base.
The MTV girls, in hip gladiator sandals and shorts, join us for dim sum in the coffee shop to bring us up to speed on the issue of male fantasies. For, there’s serious work afoot amid all the talk of partying in Pattaya and shooters in Patpong. MTV India is introducing the country to a whole new genre of reality programming: Fantasy reality TV. And we’re here to watch it unfold.
A few hours later we’re in the ‘Eristoff MTV Male Fantasy 101Villa,’ which makes even our flashy hotel look tame. Sprawling between a rolling emerald golf course and serene artificial lake, this souped up party pad has everything MTV assumes a man could possibly want.
We walk into the living room, equipped with a bar, snooker table and – yes – PSP (that’s a play station for the non-gamers among us.) There’s an indoor basket ball court. And one huge room features a pool, flanked by a swing on which three pretty young things sit applying mascara. Beside the pool, inexplicably, there’s a bathtub.
No pretty frills, lace curtains or dainty vases. Instead there are giant speakers, flat screen TVs and martini glasses everywhere. This is clearly a villa designed by a man. Which brings me back to my original dilemma. What’s a woman to do in a masculine dream villa, tended to by 4 sizzling hot women playing chauffer, gardener, cook and maid. I try some snooker, some bar stool swivelling, some paddling in the pool.
Then it’s time to meet Aditya Swamy, Senior Vice President, MTV India. He sits cross-legged on a gigantic leather couch while explaining the concept of the show over Diet cokes. “Its heightened reality crossing over into fantasy: super models, fast cars, super bikes…” The show’s targeted at India’s young ‘gimme more’ generation, intent on being cutting edge. “Four buddies coming and living together in a pad like this – you’ll have a good time. We also looked for people who embody the spirit of young India.”
More dignified than your typical reality show, fests of obsessive back-biting, grotesque bitching and petty fights, MF 101 is more about allowing viewers to live vicariously than appealing to their inner soap opera demons.
“Typically reality shows are all about who gets out – here there’s no elimination, no tasks, no fighting. We’re moving away from the mainstay of reality TV, which is conflict,” says Aditya.
Instead there are challenges. “You want to date a supermodel? Go ahead. But can you really handle a high maintenance woman? Can you really ride a souped up bike? You want to throw a big ass bash – can you take a night club and make it the most rocking?”
We meet the four lucky men at the Witches’ Tavern, a bustling pub dominated by a large rectangular bar, which is, predictably enough, seething with skimpily clad women. They turn out to be grounded,
articulate and charming, a relief given the fact that most reality TV
contestants can be outmanoeuvred by an orangutan. They also keep trying to distract us with tequila shots. Fortunately, we’re too bust with our bright pink cocktails, stirred with miniature brooms, to get sidetracked.
So here’s the dope on them. Chatty Ankit Vengurlekar’s an anchor on a popular news channel. Harpreet Baweja is an outspoken, ambitious entrepreneur who already heads a chain of spas. There’s a model, Sahil Salathia, who’s disarmingly friendly as he tells us about his secret weapon – a software degree. Rohan Sapra, the shyest, ironically has the most rock star lifestyle, since he’s a DJ in a trendy Delhi club.
When asked to define the best part of the experience, they’re unanimous – it’s the camaraderie. And the super bikes. We gasp. Not the women? “They’re just a part of the picture,” says Sahil. But what about your sexy staff? They nod, “Yeah yeah, they’re there. But man –
you should have seen those bikes… They were awesome.”
Adrenalin junkie Harpreet, adds, “I did an incredible flat out drag race against a professional Thai racer. I hit 185. It was exhilarating.” Over the month they’ve also partied on a yacht. Relaxed on a deserted Island. Dived into the warm blue sea in the middle of nowhere and raced each other to shore. Taken over a nightclub to run it for one evening.
“Each time all four of us are taken on a journey. That’s what I like about the show. It’s Entourage, not Desperate Housewives,” grins Harpreet. “And at the end of the show we can all party,” laughs Rohan.
A dream job? Well. Apparently, it’s not always easy. “Dating a diva was tough,” says Ankit, rolling his eyes. “Here I am trying to talk to her and she’s reading Vogue. Then I suggested a boat ride? And she was like ‘Dude, I’m wearing a dress!’”
What they really enjoy, they say, is the ability to try everything. “These are experiences that you can’t have in normal life,” says Sahil. Ankit adds, “Yeah, reality will feel very bland after 30 days of such high notes.” Harpreet adds, “Waking up each morning there is a sense of adventure…”
“This is living life king size,” says Rohan. “To chill out, enjoy… do
whatever you want, try whatever you want — every single day.”
(Eristoff MTV Male Fantasy 101 airs on MTV India every Saturday at 10 p.m.)

Spurrier’s tryst with California

Paris in the mid-1970s. All wine was old world, and all labels that mattered were French. Then an Englishman came along and changed all the rules.

“I was a square peg in a round hole,” says Steven Spurrier, discussing how he became one of the wine-world’s most influential voices. Spurrier is best known for ‘The Judgment of Paris’ in 1976. At a time when French wine was considered supreme, he got the country’s most respected palates to blind-taste Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon wines from France and California.

The Californian wines won in every category. “It was a huge surprise. In several cases, shock. One judge was very upset and wanted her notes back!” he chuckles, adding that he offered to make her copies instead. The French judges – secure in the superiority of their wine – had just naturally assumed they had picked the French wines. After all, they didn’t even consider the upstart new world wines contendors.

Even London, where Spurrier started his career, “was about old world wine: French, German, Italian…” It was the mid-1960s, Spurrier was straight out of college and enamoured with the business. “To be a wine merchant was a very respectable profession. When I told my father that’s what I wanted to do, all he said was, ‘Well, if you’re sure you won’t drink too much’.” Spurrier adds thoughtfully, “If I had said I wanted to be a bar tender on the hand, he probably wouldn’t have been okay with that!”

However, after learning the ropes for a year, he ended up getting married and abandoning the wine business for a stab at Hollywood style romance. He and his wife bough a crumbling mansion in the South of France “We were up in the Hills of Var. From there we could see the mountains. We could see the sea.” Over here they worked on restoring the house, and dabbling in antiques. “I had inherited a lot of money from my grandfather. I could do what I want. I was a rich kid! And I liked to do romantic things…”

However, by the mid-1970s, they realised they wanted more out of life. So Spurrier and his wife gave up on the house and moved to Paris, where he intended to get back into the wine trade.

“I bought a wine shop on Rue Royale. It was a perfect location, in the centre of everything,” smiles Spurrier. he began by catering to the local expatriate population. “I put an advertisement in the Herald Tribune saying ‘Your winemaker speaks English’.”

It worked.

“I was in the forefront, and I was lucky enough to be young, energetic,” he smiles. “I was made out to be a mover and shaker. I had long hair, flared trousers and a moustache when the wine makers in Paris wore berets and jeans. I became known as ‘The Englishman who has the wine shop.’

The wine shop inspired a wine school, which is turn became a lively meeting place for tourists and wine sellers. The Californian wine makers came by with their bottles, impressing Spurrier with teh quality of their wine. Then his partner went to California and returned raving about the wine there. Hence the blind tasting.

Spurrier says all he wanted out it was to demonstrate Californian wines had potential. “I would have liked them to come in second or fourth. It didn’t even occur to me that they could win.” He adds: “That was the first crack in the wall of French supremacy. It wasn’t what I was after. And, it didn’t please me at all. I had set out to make a statement — but this was an exaggeration of what I was trying to do.”

It certainly didn’t help with fitting in. “The French were understandably very upset,” he says. Of course, the Americans were ecstatic. “In California I had become a cult hero. They should have named streets after me!”

Spurrier adds thoughtfully, “In hindsight I’m very happy it turned out the way it did.” In 1950, there were 40 wineries in California. Now, there are 4,000. “It opened the world to new-world wines.”

Thanks to this vote of confidence “from the most trusted French palates in Paris” new world wines got an incredible boost. This marked the change of the old wine industry. The Australians got into the game, making wine fruity, fun and – sacre bleu – even frivolous, with a range of quirky labels, from ‘Aussie Jeans Rock,’ a red from Margaret river, to ‘Pink,’ a chic bubbly by Yellow Glen.

How much have things changed? Even the French are making allowances for hip labels, which appeal to the young. (As well as wine newbies.), despite the fact that they blow the lid off the mystery of wine. ‘Fat Bastard’ for instance is one of the best selling wines in the USA.

And Spurrier? He became famous, inspiring the movie “Bottle Shock”, which he says is more fiction than fact and “very Hollywood”. Now, the makers of a movie titled, “Judgment Of Paris”, have asked for his approval. “So I told them, ‘I want my role played by a British actor’. They suggested Hugh Grant. But, I said, ‘He’s far too old’. Then, they said, ‘Jude Law?’ And, I said, ‘He’s far too beautiful’.”

Fudge Cake Among The Karma Chameleons

Irresistible? The Brad Pitt of the salad world.

We stumble down by torchlight.

Past wobbly wooden fences enclosing whispering gardens bright with lettuce, lemons and pumpkins. It’s windy at night by the glacial Ganga. So finally inside the cosy thatched ‘ theatre,’ featuring a stage strung with fading bed sheets, we’re intensely grateful for the offer of steaming honey-lemon-ginger tea.

This is Rishikesh’s most charming secret. An endearingly earnest attempt at ‘Supper Theatre’ by Ramana’s Garden, an orphanage run by expatriate turned India-insider Dr. Prabhavati Dwaba.

Ramana’s draws support from Rishikesh’s unique blend of international tourist truth seekers, karmic collectors and almost-worryingly bendy yogis by reeling them in with a crafty mix of inspiring eco-warrior theatre, soul-satisfying organic brown rice and wicked amounts of fudge cake. The play, a fiery treatise on how big dams suffocate ‘Ma Ganga’ is irresistibly inspiring thanks to its stars, a bevy of feisty kids unapologetically hamming it up. The orphanage uses the inevitable donations this play prompts to hire lawyers and file PILs against dam construction every year.

Then, it’s time for dinner, a triumph of vegetables so vibrant they taste of sunshine, at Ramana’s Garden Gallery Cafe. We file in, soaking up the atmosphere — low wooden tables, haphazard strings of tiny lights, warm brick walls.

Glowing with a combination of salad, fresh air and crafty lighting!

Our meal opens with the Picassos of the salad world: crinkled lettuce, deep green argula piled with delicate carrot sticks and juicy piles of grated beetroot. It’s all topped with a generous dollop of creamy avocado. The sophisticated blend of flavours, texture and colour is fascinating. Especially given the fact that it’s been dreamt up in an unpretentious kitchen, worlds away from the influence of five star chefs, fancy equipment and edgy culinary schools.

Local, vegetarian and planet-friendly, this food bursts with equal amounts of colour, virtue and nutrition. “The menu changes everyday based on what is in the garden,” says Dwaba, adding, “It tastes so good because everything you are eating was growing an hour ago.”

When Dwaba first came to India 30 years ago (seeking enlightenment in a time-honoured tradition) she says her “guru” told her to live in silence “in a cave for a year”. That’s when she noticed the malnutrition among children. “It was outrageous. It made no sense. If you drop a seed here, you get a vegetable. If you tend it you get ten,” she says, explaining why she began this project. Meanwhile we’re working our way through thick wedges of lasagne, stuffed with lush pumpkin, zucchini and mushrooms, surrounded by buttery tagliatelle and oozing with creamy cheese.

There’s also nutty brown rice, punctuated by spurts of broccoli. “We started the cafe four years ago to feed the kids,” says Dwaba, “because sometimes we’re so financially strapped we have trouble. With this restaurant we make money everyday.”

Tonight Ramana’s Café is buzzing, thanks to a flood of guests from the International Yoga Festival at Parmath Ashram. Dwaba adds with a grin, “From tonight we hope to eat for a week!” Her project includes a mountain retreat, where a lot of their produce is grown both for the orphanage and the restaurant. Apples for instance, which can be eaten fresh, in pies or in their popular apple-ginger jam.

The seasonal menu incorporates a range of English vegetables, unusual varieties (our salad for instance includes four kind of lettuce) and innovative ideas, though the food is unfailingly simple. Over the year, guests get to try stinging nettle soup, walnut-cashew pizza and plump momos, besides home-baked croissants, cakes and cookies.

Which brings us to dessert. A fudgy chocolate cake, bursting with cocoa and good intentions. The little boys who staged the play are wandering around, posing for photographs.

Our Indiana-Jones styled scientist seems to be hitting it off with the startlingly cute Germs (who dressed in evil sequins and Bwa Ha Ha-ed through the play). In an unusual twist one of the Germs offers to cut my slice for me, sawing it into mush in his enthusiasm. I’m proudly handed a pile of unsteady crumbs, accompanied by an unwieldy old spoon and a big toothy grin. Best food presentation I’ve seen so far!

(For more information look up check
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Ian Rankin’s Trysts With Evil

Honestly? I stopped reading crime and detective fiction after the usual Famous Five, Nancy Drew and Agatha Christie rites of passage in school. But Rankin’s a wonderful speaker, fascinating whether you’re a fan of his genre or not. My story for the newspaper was necessarily short because of space constraints. But he was so interesting I just had to tell the whole story here. Ah, the pleasure of not having a word count! 🙂

Crime Writer Ian Rankin delves into evil with gleeful enthusiasm. Which could explain how he found himself in Rome, getting exorcised by no less the Chief Exorcist Of The Vatican. “I was interviewing him, and I asked him exactly how he does an exorcism.” Apparently, the exorcist suddenly produced a bag and busily started delving into it, after saying something to Ian in Italian. “I looked at the translator, and he said, “He says he’ll show you.” It turned out alright. “Once they got me off the ceiling and scraped the green bile from my mouth, I was fine,” Rankin says wryly, taking a sip of beer. He adds with a shrug, “I told them, for me, that’s an average evening.”
Appropriately enough Rankin — creator of the much-loved perpetually rebellious Inspector Rebus — is in conversation with Prateep V Philip, Inspector General of police. Bestselling author Rankin’s the recipient of four Crime Writers’ Association Dagger Awards, with books are translated into 22 languages. Philip’s the pioneer of the internationally acclaimed Friends of Police movement.
“It’s first time in my career that I’ve been interviewed by a cop – where I’ve not been a suspect,” grins Rankin, going to talk about why he’s so fascinated by crime writing in a world where happy endings aren’t always a given. “There are readers who come to crime novels for a closure they didn’t get in real life.” While early crime fiction was all about retribution, he says people seem more realistic now. “Readers are much more open to the fact that maybe the bad guy gets away with it.”
This could explain why he’s so fascinated by the idea of one individual have so much potential for good, as well as evil. When Philip points out that he’s seems to follow a template set by Robert Louis Stevenson, best known for Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Rankin states he was a huge influence on his writing. Stevenson in turn, he says, was inspired by Deacon Brody, a respectable tradesman and pillar of the community by day and a burglar by night.
“Frustratingly Stevenson set the novel in London. I really wanted to explore this human possibility for good, and also for evil, in Edinburgh.” Ian talks of how tourists only see a magnificent Edinburgh of cathedrals, monuments and history. “But there’s a living, breathing city just below which absolutely nobody is talking about.” He’s interested in this dichotomy, so similar to human nature: “A cultured Edinburgh and the chaos within.”
It manifests itself constantly, as far as Rankins’ concerned. “I think if you’re a writer you’re a schizophrenic personality,” he deadpans, talking of how writing is cathartic. “I’d be dangerous if I didn’t write everything down.”
Despite the writing, he seems to be having quite an effect on his neighbourhood, Writers Block, also inhabited by JK Rowling and Alexander McCall Smith. “Soon after I moved in, there was a phone call from a reporter. He said, there’s been a murder just around the corner, do you have a comment.” Rankin continues mournfully, “Next, there’s a knock on my door. It’s Professor McCall Smith and he says, ‘Mr Rankin, you’ve really brought the tone of the neighbourhood down. You just moved in and there’s been a murder within a week.”
Most of Rankin’s stories tend to include murder. “It’s the only crime where something is taken that cannot be replaced.” As crime becomes more devious, Philip asks if writers find it difficult to keep up, adding with a laugh. “You know what they say: The criminal’s the artist and the cop’s merely the critic.” Rankin agrees, “Crime writers have to be pretty savvy these days. We have to even keep up with technology.”
Besides readers expect more of crime-solving characters these days. “Now we don’t belive that amateurs can just stumble on a crime scene and the police say, ‘It’s ok to let Miss Marple in.’ It just doesn’t happen,” says Rankin, adding, “As readers we want our characters to be complex. It helps if they work alone.” A lot like his Inspector Rebus actually.
Talking of how Rebus is quite true to life, Rankin says, “A lot of the cops I met early in my career became enthralled by their job. It took over their life… seperations, divorce, heavy drinking — that was the culture of the 80s. Rebus is the last breed of detective that used to be the norm.” He adds thoughtfully, “But his heart is true, he’s on the side of the angels.”
One of the features that makes Rebus far more multidimensional than stock detective characters is his love for music. “It’s a good way of delineating character. The Beatles were nice boys you could take home to your mom, the Rolling Stones were rebellious. Rebus is anarchic, he like The Stones.
As for Rankin? He likes The Who. “I mentioned The Who in one of my books and I got an e-mail from the lead singer, Roger Deltrey. It was a protected address, so I couldn’t reply,” he says, adding “I mentioned it again in my next book, and he wrote to me again. So now I mention The Who in every book – it’s the only way I get an e-mail from Deltrey!”
Meanwhile Rankin’s writing lyrics for a band called ‘St Jude’s Infirmary’ “When I was 19 I was in a very unsuccesful band, where I wrote the lyrics. Suddenly 30 years later I find myself writing lyrics again,” he says, adding wryly, “Like most middle-aged crime writers, I’d rather be a rock star than an author.”

(The event was organised as part of The British Council’s Lit Sutra Festival, supported by Landmark, at the Taj Connemara Hotel.)

Eating Flowers In Kashmir

I’ve been fascinated with Kashmiri food ever since i went to Srinagar earlier this year. After three days of elaborate wedding food, cooked by aged experienced traditional cooks, however, i was convinced it would be next to impossible to replicate. Till i was given Koshur Saal to review. Not only was it a fascinating book, but it actually made me feel like i may be able to recreate some of the food i got addicted to in Srinagar.
First on the list, is creamy Mutton yakhni made with curd and intricately laced with spices in that signature Kashmiri way.

Kashmiri food is alluringly unfamiliar. Kashmiri food is comfortingly familiar. This contradiction is Koshur Saal’s greatest advantage.
Written by Chandramukhi Ganju – yet another Non Resident Indian cookbook author – Koshur Saal’s a resolute, practical and authoritative attempt to record the culinary culture of her community.
Perhaps the reason so many NRIs write recipe books is because distance brings the necessary perspective to really understand nuances and record processes. After all, the food your mother and grandmother cook might seem ordinary, even boring, as long as you are at home eating it every day. It’s only when you try recreating it in a completely different set-up that you appreciate the techniques, skills and measures necessary for every recipe.
The advantage of having someone like Ganju – who now lives in California – hand-hold you through this book is that she’s familiar with the challenges of creating a reasonably authentic meal in a situation that’s a world away from the recipes’ origins. More importantly, thanks to her popular Koshur Saal website, which draws Kashmiris hankering for a taste of home from across the world, Ganju’s used to explaining processes to amateur as well as seasoned cooks. The book’s precise instructions, therefore, are accompanied by all kinds of tables, photographs and charts, listing everything from the customary glossary of translations (with meanings in Kashmiri, Hindi and English) as well as step-by-step picture guides to help deal with vegetables like the unusual Kohlrabi (vaguely similar to a turnip). You can choose how much, or how little, information you want to use.
For the many Kashmiris who live all over the world, and dream incessantly of creamy Yakhean mutton curry, or pulav interspersed with juicy morel mushrooms, or simple rice bread paired with Kahwa tea fragrant with cinnamon, this a realistic guide, empowering them to make these meals almost anywhere. Ranging from basic omelettes (with chilli, ginger powder and fresh cilantro) to the ever-popular chicken Rogan josh, with its intricate web of aromatic spice, the recipes are fairly simple.
There are alternatives suggested for ingredients that are rare or unique to Kashmir. Such as leafy mallow which can be substituted with spinach. Since this book is geared chiefly towards American NRIs it suggests ingredients easily found in their supermarkets or Korean/Chinese/Indian food stores, which aren’t always available to all Indian readers, which can be annoying. Take lotus root, shiitake mushrooms or Granny Smith apples. Or the directive to replace pacchin, a Kashmiri flying bird, with ‘Cornish hen’. Its high time NRI writers take into account the Indian situation, when they write on Indian food. After all, this is a huge and profitable market.
You really don’t need to be Kashmiri to use and enjoy this book. Its most charming feature is how unwittingly exotic it’s turned out to be. Unlike the many authors who take advantage of ‘exotic India’s’ marketability, Ganju’s relatively naïve approach is refreshingly unstudied.
Of course this has its disadvantages. For instance, she’s helpfully added an entire section on other Indian food, which dilutes the book’s novelty. Pictures are amateur, often unimaginative and sometimes downright unappealing.
Yet, these pictures are functional. Often they’re also endearingly helpful, pointing out what each vegetable looks like and even how some of them should be cleaned.
Clearly, Koshur Saal simply wants to share information, which is why it’s direct, unfussy and unpretentious. No glossy pages, chic layouts or fancy prose. Yet, it’s a compelling read because it’s so unique.
Though this cuisine is known world-over, thanks to the Kashmiri Diaspora, very few people actually know its specifics. There are surprisingly few books available, especially when compared to other popular Indian cuisines. Amazon, for instance has more than a 100 book on Punjabi food, but only lists a handful on this cooking.
The food uses a host of colourful ingredients available in Kashmir. Like green almonds, used to make fish. Also mallow, green cardamom and leafy wupal haak from the forests. Ganju also has recipes using dried vegetables, like brinjal and green squash, which were made in Kashmiri households to tide them through winter.
These ingredients might be next-to-impossible to source, but the recipes certainly make for an interesting read – especially when they’re accompanied by her explanations on their cultural significance.
After all, who can resist vicariously enjoying the image of Pumpkin flower fritters, made with cheery orange petals covered in a crisp golden batter?

Paradise Lost. Paradise Regained?

I’ve been to Sri Lanka once – wandering excitedly between Colombo, breathless with tales of war, and Kandy, heavy with an almost eerie silence punctuated only by prayers from the stunning Temple Of The Tooth. Now, with the promise of peace ahead, i’m looking forward to a story that’s completely different from the following, which was written and published in April 2004. Will things change?

BEING mistaken for a terrorist can be rather disconcerting. Especially when the distinctly jumpy man accusing you of plotting to kill thousands looks like he’s going to drop all his possessions and run for his life if you do so much as glance at him sternly. “You can’t trust anyone here,” he says, fidgeting with his beer in a quietly smoky bar. “There’s too much at stake.”

Call him what you want: a conspiracy theorist, a melodramatic worrier, even a kook. Then, take a good look at his country — its past, its present and the projections for its future — and you’ll understand why he, and many other Sri Lankans, think the way they do. The troubled island has seen two decades of gut-wrenching ethnic conflict, after all. Two decades that have crippled its people, both financially and emotionally, with scars that will require more than just economic resurgence for healing. And even today, in spite of two years of apprehensive peace, thanks to a cease-fire agreement between the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and the Sri Lankan Government, things are still far from “normal” in the island, ironically shaped like a just-shed tear.

Colombo by night gives every indication of being a troubled city in spite of its well-advertised glitzy casinos, raucous karaoke bars and swinging nightclubs. As darkness falls, the city’s veins are cordoned off and buses sinisterly parked across them to supplement rows of barricades. Well-armed policemen patrol these quiet and largely deserted roads on the lookout for trouble. “If they see you doing anything suspicious, they take you to the Fourth Floor,” says a Sri Lankan woman, whose cousin was taken there for questioning because he was caught taking touristy photographs of the harbour. The “dreaded Fourth Floor”, of the country’s police headquarters houses its investigation wing and apparently terrifies Colombo because, as one Sri Lankan says, “a number of people taken in for questioning there never come out”.

On a drive through the city, citizens casually point out sites of recent bomb blasts like they are a part of the scenery — along with the majestic line up of luxurious, largely under-occupied hotels along the Galle Face Road; the vulnerable, bustling market areas and the places of worship, crammed with fervently praying Sri Lankans watched over by beatific images of the Buddha.

In small-town Kandy, famous for its heavily-guarded Temple of the Tooth — one of the holiest Buddhist shrines in the country (attacked by the LTTE in 1998) — the days are crammed with noisily appreciative floods of blonde tourists. But the nights are similar to Colombo’s: Silent roads, occasional nervous pedestrians, an expectant lull in the air. Almost as though the entire city is expecting bad news. “Tourists who come here say it’s like a cemetery,” shrugs one of the town’s many tour guides.

It’s in Kandy that Kelum Chamara Warnakulasuriya, owner of Loco Lanka Tours, admits that Sri Lankans don’t like being asked too many questions — once he’s sure that no one in the Royal Pub, attached to the beautifully restored more-than-a-century-old Queens’ Hotel, is a well-disguised spy for the LTTE.

“You ask a Sri Lankan about our past, he’ll tell you. But if you ask him about the present, he’ll just keep leading you away from the truth. We have many secrets that we have to keep,” he says, adding, “I live in a village where there are two lakes, which supply Kandy with its drinking water. If someone puts cyanide in the water, boom. there’ll be hundreds of people dead.” Kelum adds. “We don’t trust you because we can’t trust anyone. Your guides won’t tell you much. To tourists, we narrate history, but keep the present to ourselves. There are many places not shown. Many stories not told.”

There are also many potential destinations not seen. The north of Sri Lanka, which is largely controlled by the LTTE, is unsafe and difficult to access. The only flights within Sri Lanka operate between LTTE controlled Jaffna and Colombo, and are both expensive and vulnerable. (In 1998 a flight to Colombo “mysteriously disappeared” — reportedly shot down.) The trains are unreliable, according to one tour operator, since the LTTE has “removed large parts of the railway lines to build barracks”. And the road to Jaffna has four check points — two controlled by the military and two by the LTTE.

However, some of the most beautiful parts of Sri Lanka are in these almost-impossible-to-access areas. “There’s tremendous potential in the country,” says P.K. Mohan Kumar, Chief Operating Office, Oriental Hotel Limited, and former General Manager of the Taj Samudra in Colombo. Mohan Kumar was a part of Sri Lanka’s Tourism Advisory Committee, made up of prominent hoteliers and businessmen and set up in 2000 by Ranil Wickremesinghe soon after he was elected Prime Minister, to promote tourism.

“The East coast is beautiful. It has a series of lagoons and one of world’s last stretches of virgin rain forest. That part of the island is also home to the world’s two largest mammals — the elephant and the whale,” he says, adding, “It could pose a huge challenge to the Maldives …. However, since the 1980s the island has been left unexplored.”

M. Shariq, Deputy CEO, Lanka Travel Operators, takes a similar view. “Sri Lanka has variety,” he says, “unlike the Maldives. We have beaches, wildlife sanctuaries and historical monuments for tourists, and places of religious importance for pilgrims.”

“Many tourists travel within the country,” says Kelum. “Kandy, Colombo … then, they go down South, where it’s safe — Gaulle, Hambantota, Matara.” He adds that European tourists go to Sri Lanka’s many languidly pristine beaches to swim, surf, go on underwater safaris, or just marinate in the deliciously warm sun and sand. “We also have tea plantations in Nuwara Eliya: waterfalls and Buddhist temples in Ella; an elephant orphanage at Pinnewala, near Kandy. At Tissamaharama, tourists can go on safaris, and at Yala there’s a national park.”

Sri Lanka undeniably has plenty to offer tourists, even if they’re cash strapped back packers, although the island was originally targeted at upmarket dollar flaunting, Louis Vuitton-toting visitors. “It was a high-end tourist destination until the 1980s and was expected to become the next Singapore, or Thailand,” says Mohan Kumar, adding that all the big hotels chains — the Taj, Inter Continental, Hilton, Ramada — moved in at that time.

Then, in the early 1980s, the ethnic disturbance broke out and everything changed. Occupancy rates plummeted, flights emptied and the economy began to groan. “Tourism is the third largest source of foreign exchange in the country, after repatriates and garments,” says Mohan Kumar. “But, it’s a very fragile industry. It’s security sensitive and image sensitive — especially if your market is in the developed world. And the traditional Sri Lankan market has always been the United Kingdom and Germany.”

“No foreign tourist has ever been injured, or killed, in Sri Lanka,” claims Kelum. “But when the embassy gives warnings to people, saying `don’t travel to the country’ — like they are doing now for elections — they stop coming. (A travel advisory means that medical insurance is automatically cancelled for any tourist who ignores it, so it affects/stems tourism from the developed world.”)

“Between 1984 and 2000, Sri Lanka was reeling under pressure. The tourism industry was on its knees,” says Mohan Kumar. Today, although Sri Lanka is picking up the pieces and starting over, the job markets’ still depressingly bleak. “Nobody in Colombo has jobs. They’re all sitting at home,” says Sharath, a trishaw driver. “Everyone wants to get out of here. Even if children are clever and complete schooling, there’s no way to make money. The only way out is to get away.”

A guide for foreign tourists at the Temple of the Tooth agrees. “The boys here — we call them the beach boys. Their only aim is to catch a lady, catch a man. And go to Europe, Italy, England. Everyone wants to escape. There’s nothing left.”

If Sri Lanka achieves peace, and stability, however, the country has tremendous potential with its numerous natural advantages: a warm climate, irresistible food and people, a line up of beautiful hotels housed in glamorous heritage buildings, and a range of exotic getaways set in the mountains, forests, valleys and beaches.

Now that the Sri Lankans have had a taste of peace, they’re hungering for it more than ever before — although the more cautious among them counsel against “peace at any cost”. However, an agreement of some sort between the LTTE and the army, and now the LTTE and the LTTE is vital. Otherwise, everybody stands to lose.

“Peace will change our lives, and help allay the pain of our past,” says one well-educated young Sri Lankan, waiting at tables in an empty restaurant in Kandy. “We want peace. We need peace …. We need more jobs. We want a future.”

© Copyright 2000 – 2009 The Hindu

The Flavours Of Freedom

The road to jail is long and winding. And I don’t mean that in a metaphorical sense. Puzhal Jail, which is Chennai’s jail du jour, is in Red Hills, a good 45 minutes from the heart of the city.

From outside, it looks appropriately forbidding, with high gates, armed guards and soaring sentry towers. Inside, there are astonishingly pink flowers, ironically cheerful ‘Welcome’ signs and a handful of bewilderingly upbeat prisoners walking about in white shorts, shirts and sneakers, their traditional prison gear.

The enormous, sprawling Puzhal jail, holds about 500 ‘lifers’, who are prisoners condemned to life imprisonment (14 years) besides about 250 long and short term prisoners.

We’re here to meet an unusual bunch of bread-baking lifers. Under Chennai restaurateur M. Mahadevan and DGP (Prisons) R. Natraj, seven of them are being taught how to bake by 5 chefs from Hot Breads, overseen by the chain’s Corporate Chef Sundar K. The bread – about 500 loaves and 2000 buns – is distributed at places like The Banyan, Spastics Society of Tamil Nadu, Little Drops and Arunodayam.

With me is successful Californian Chef Craig Ponsford, who speicialises in artisan bread, and is here – on Mahadevan’s request –to study the bread making and then explore ways to enrich the loaves so that they provide a more complete nutritious meal for the many children and adults they feed. (See Box.)

Friendly jailors (there’s an oxymoron you don’t often see) A Anser Basha and K. Sounderaj walk us to the bakery, which is wrapped in the wonderful aroma of crusty, fresh bread. Inside, the lifers and Chefs are sociably gathered a round a big table, rapidly separating and shaping dough. The bakery is calm, spacious and flooded with natural sunlight. Windows are shielded with screens, every worker wears a cap and the entire set-up is spotless, if you discount the comforting veil of flour that continuously settles everywhere softly.

As they begin to stack loaf tins into the gargantuan oven, shimmering with heat, Craig explains why this project titled ‘Freedom’ is so important. “It’s mental freedom,” he states, adding, “Now, when they get out of jail they have a chance to work, to support themselves and stay free.” He adds, “They also know they’re feeding children, and that releases immense positive energy.”

Sunder talks of how reluctant his ‘boys’ were initially to teach the lifers, many of whom are in for murder and drug smuggling. “First they were scared, and reluctant to go. So we told them, just try working there for two days and then decide,” he says, “By the end of the first day they said they don’t want to work anywhere else. Now they all even live on the jail premises, since they are in the bakery for about eight hours everyday.”

Contrary to what you would expect, thanks to melodramatic movies, all prisoners aren’t aggressive, snarling, tattooed fiends in iron handcuffs. The baking lifers are shyly friendly, quietly enthusiastic and slightly bemused at all the attention. They line up excitedly for the photograph, when the jailors tell them – with what seems like fatherly pride – that their families will now see their pictures in ‘The Hindu.’

Basha proudly introduces us a young former heroin smuggler, who now uses his MCA degree to take computer classes in the prison. Then there’s the plumber convicted of murder who just attempted, but failed, his 8th Std exam. “But I’m going to try again,” he says, adding that he studies “after lock-up,” which is at 6 p.m.

They all tell us how many years they’ve been in Puzhal, a number that ranges from 5 to 10, and how many more years each of them has to complete. Pushparaj, who is aims to finish the 10th Std before he leaves says he’s got three more years. “He’s expecting to be released early for good conduct,” whispers Sounderaj, “But cannot be sure.”

While a number of the lifers initially applied for the bakery training just so they could have something to do, simultaneously earning money (prison wages range from Rs. 13 to Rs 18 a day depending on skill and labour) they eventually realised that these are skills they can put to use once they’re out too.

Unfortunately, although Puzhal Prison has the space they don’t yet have the facilities to engage all the prisoners in activities like this.

Travelling through the baking campus, profuse with vociferously bright flowers, in an ambulance open at the back so we get a good view, we pass a series of huge blocks: School, High Security, Condemned Prisoners Cell. Ironically the threatening ‘Gallows’ are followed by a “Meditation Hall/ Rehabilitation Centre’ complete with an area for yoga.

Inside, we bump into Selvaraj, a prisoner who teaches sculpture. His classroom is crawling with startlingly plump imitations of the Oscar statuette. “All over the world getting an Oscar is very difficult,” chuckles Sounderaj, “In jail we’ll give you one for free.” Though I’m gifted a cement Buddha instead. “A prison-made Buddha. So you’ll never forget us.”

It seems appropriate.

The flour and milk in the US are fortified with all sorts of things like multi-vitamins and iron, says Craig, discussing ways to enrich bread. “My guess is that the kids here need calcium. Also vitamins A and B – to help the brain and bones. They’re getting a decent diet, but I’m sure it’s not complete.”
In LA there’s an annual conference on Functional Food, where an entire section is dedicated to manufacturers who are trying to find ways of making food more powerful by adding things like Omega 3, vitamins or antioxidants. A lot of what they work with is natural– like ginseng, spirulina, taurine (which is what goes into Red Bull.) Craig’s new project is to find manufacturers who can enrich Freedom Bread, making this powerful symbol a complete food.

You Can’t Sink A Rainbow

There will come a time when the earth is sick and the animals and plants begin to die,

Then the Indians will regain their spirit… to gather people of all nations, colours and beliefs to join together in the fight to save the earth.

— `The Rainbow Warriors’, Native American legend.

The time of the warriors of the earth has come. And, in keeping with the prophecy, they have risen from every nation — leaving behind their nervous families and warm hearths, friendly cappuccino bars and swanky malls; waving goodbye to comfortable jobs in the corporate world to swab the deck and fight on the high seas, for the high seas.

Their mission? To save the world.

On board Greenpeace’s best-known and most flamboyant ship, the fiery Rainbow Warrior — which seems uncharacteristically demure, docked in the Chennai harbour — the boat mechanic, Mehdi Moujbani, from Tunisia, squints in the bright sunshine as he firmly says, “Our philosophy is bearing witness. To be the eyes and ears of everyone. After all, not everyone can go into the centre of the ocean, the middle of the Antarctic, the depths of the Amazon.”

The marine-based protest group, which has more than 20,000 activists in nearly 215 countries and gains supporters every day, has spent the past three decades working to save the seas they travel every day. “Because what happens everywhere concerns everyone.”

However, bearing witness comes at a cost.

In 1985, when the original Rainbow Warrior protested against French nuclear testing, French agents bombed her when she was in the harbour, sinking the ship and killing Greenpeace photographer Fernando Pereira. “After the first blast, the crew realised the ship was going down and abandoned it. And, while everyone else was running out, he went back down to get his camera,” says Moujbani.

But, as time and events have proved: You can’t sink a rainbow.

So, while the original warrior was buried at sea in the deep blue waters of the Pacific at Matauri Bay, New Zealand, with a full Maori ceremony, Greenpeace used the $8.159 million the French Government paid them in damages (after two years of international arbitration) to support its ships campaigning for a nuclear and pollution-free Pacific — and to buy a new Rainbow Warrior.

“This was originally a fishing vessel,” says Mehdi, heading towards the centre of the diminutive ship. “It was first expanded, then sails were added to save fossil fuels. However, to keep up with speeding polluting vessels, and document what they are doing — for example, a ship dumping toxic waste — we also need motors. Unfortunately.”

Documentation isn’t all they do. Greenpeace activists firmly believe in what they call `direct action’ or `creative confrontation,’ which means putting themselves out there and physically stopping environment-unfriendly activity. “It’s not just about confrontation. But, we aren’t going to simply turn into a report-producing organisation,” says Sanjiv Gopal, campaigner, Greenpeace India. “We do it to prevent another Bhopal and the thousand other Bhopals happening across the country.”

“Sometimes the rules should not stop you from expressing yourself… from making a difference,” adds Moujbani, recalling how he and the other eco-warriors “stopped a factory in Sweden from burning toxic waste by sleeping on the conveyer belt — with their masks on.”

“But before direct action we do lots of research. There’s learning, discussion, negotiation,” says Anant Padmanabhan, Executive Director of Greenpeace India. “Our reputation is the most important thing we have. We will stand up for our convictions, with all that we’ve got.”

At the helm of the Rainbow Warrior, a beautifully carved oak dolphin called `Dave’, the team’s mascot, looks out at the Indian sea of troubles. “It is human nature to protest… to respond to wanton, mindless destruction,” says Padmanabhan, leaning over the ship’s railing and pointing to pictures of dead marine life being put up at the Crocodile Bank stall at the port.

Their mission in India is to work as a platform to bring together conservationists, scientists, activists, fishermen and State representatives. Their targets this time? The proposed Sethu Samudram canal and the thermal power plant in Tuticorin, which are direct threats to the biologically rich Gulf of Mannar Biosphere reserve. They are also heading to Orissa to document the mass-nesting destination of the Olive Ridley Turtles, which are threatened by the new port at Dhamra, offshore drilling and illegal fishing.

Eco-warriors battle on

“This used to be the fish hold, now we call it the theatre,” laughs Moujbani, continuing his tour. “In Iceland, when we went to protest whaling, we weren’t allowed into port. So we brought all the journalists here by boat, and had the press conference here… Oh, and don’t touch anything or you’ll get grease all over you!”

The ship, which is almost five decades old, is creaky but compact with neatly packed and labelled sections holding everything a modern-day ecological warrior could possibly need: rows of bright neon jackets, fire equipment, lifting gear, bicycles, banners, tarps, eye shields, air tools, pliers, spanners, screwdrivers, twine and `ping pong stuff.’ “We also have a washing machine and drier because there are about 15 of us and (pause) sometimes, we need them,” grins Moujbani, leaning against a wall bearing a host of posters, including a picture of the earth with `Save it, don’t pave it,’ blazed across.

At the quietly dignified bridge, leaning against the Captain’s table, which is covered with a map of the Chennai harbour, pencils, glue sticks and three cheerful beady-eyed toy turtles, Helena, from Sydney, Australia, discusses her job. “I’m a deckhand and an activist. So I maintain the ship, cleaning in the morning, maintaining it, finding rust… It’s an old ship, so it needs a lot of maintenance… . It’s physical work, but because you care about it, it’s fun.”

The Warrior’s obviously been captivating imaginations from all over the world. The current crew has people from Holland, Russia, Spain, England, Germany, New Zealand, India, Australia, Argentina, Tunisia and Canada.

Oscar Macian Zorba, the ship’s Spanish First Mate, says he left the Merchant Navy to get on board. Leaning against the railing and looking out at the quietly restless waters of the harbour, he says he’s never been happier.

Taking on the heavyweights of the world, the governments and corporates with deep pockets might be a tough and sometimes intimidating battle, but, he says, “I’m happier trying than not. We DO change things. It’s slow, it’s difficult, but it happens… And if you believe in something, it’s not an effort.” And could he do this for the rest of his life? “This is what I want to do. I can’t say about the rest of my life, but for now… for sure.”

“Well, I suppose we will eventually go back to living our lives,” says Moujbani thoughtfully, “But other people will take our places. For, the war, the work… It must go on.”

Famous encounters

1978: Launches whaling campaigns against Iceland and Spain. Intercepts a British ship attempting to dump nuclear wastes. Prevents the massacre of 6,000 grey seals at Orkney Islands, Scotland.

1980: Blockades a ship disposing chemical waste in the North Sea. Continues its whale campaign in Spain. Authorities seize the ship and remove parts. Replacements are smuggled in, and the crew escapes.

1981: The seal campaign continues in Canada. Activists are arrested for spraying green dye on seal coats, making them useless for fur and, therefore, safe from hunters.

1985: The crew evacuates the Ronglep islanders after the island suffers from the nuclear fallout from French testing in the Pacific. During the campaign against the French nuclear testing, French secret agents bomb the ship. It sinks and a Greenpeace photographer dies.

1989: The Rainbow Warrior II is launched, specially fitted for campaigning, thanks to French government funds paid as compensation.

1995: When France ends a three-year moratorium on nuclear testing, the Rainbow Warrior races to Moruroa. As it enters the exclusion zone around the site, a French tug rams the ship, commandoes break in and the navy tows it away.

2003: When Iceland intends to resume commercial whaling, the Rainbow Warrior sails there to inform Icelanders about alternatives. Then, it heads to India to visit its toxic ship-breaking yards.

2004: Visits the tropical forests of Indonesia to document illegal logging. Heads to Chennai, from where it kicks off a mission to save the turtles and the Gulf of Mannar Biosphere reserve.

(Inputs from the Greenpeace Web site

Getting a Second Life

He wears Armani suits and linen shirts in one life; leather pants and biker jackets in the other. He has a sensible hair cut and stern glasses in one life; a shaved head and rude tattoos in the other. He’s a powerful vice-president of a respect ed company in one life; and a stylist for poodles in the other.

And there are more than 7,000,000 people like him in the world. Each living a regular everyday life, and then going online to live a Second Life. Operated by Linden Lab, based in San Francisco, Second Life — introduced to the public in 2003 — is a virtual 3D world offering a parallel existence.

However, unlike in the real world, in Second Life you can be whoever you want, and do whatever you dream up.

“It’s not a game. It’s a platform. A place where real people come and lead virtual lives,” says Sebastian D. Marcu, a young German who works with Worlds Unlimited, a Second Life development company based in Cologne. “I work on strategies and concepts for companies, showing them how to use virtual worlds, Web 2.0 and communities as a tool to improve their business,” he says. Online, he works and socialises as a virtual character, called an “avatar”, called Enrico Visconti, an Italian.

“It’s an immersive world,” says Sebastian, adding that it appeals to people because it’s “not information driven, but heart driven. It’s not about being informed, it’s about participating.” Ironically, Second Life might be the refuge of breakaways and secret rebels, but it still follows basic societal norms. To really enjoy it, you need to build relationships. And eventually, you need to make, and spend money.

On the bright side, you can accomplish both in ways you might never have dared to in the real world. Introverted Chinese teacher Ailin Graef, Second Life’s first millionaire, for instance, started out as Anshe Chung, a virtual stripper. She used the money she made to buy land online and develop cutting edge boutiques, which she rents out, and locations like a fantastical floating city she built above a desert.

In three years she became a virtual property baron and real life millionaire.

Although Linden Lab sets up computer servers and creates the land, it is then auctioned off to people like Anshe. Essentially everything inside the software, from the malls to the mountains — has been created by users, who can then make money from these creations.

Although entering Second Life is free (you’re issued a standard avatar body), you need to pay for the frills — whether they’re new shoes or sky diving classes — using Linden dollars. (About 270 Linden Dollars make a US Dollar, and they can be converted at one of the many thriving Linden Dollar exchanges online. Second Life currently supports millions of US dollars in monthly transactions.)

Just like in the real world, spending money becomes addictive, especially considering the products on offer: routine silks, scarves and gowns, as well as an “Orb of power to warp the fabric of space and cloak you in invisibility”, “The Petrify spell to turn people into stone statues” and a strap on “pregnancy tummy” for avatars who want to have virtual babies. (“With a timer that ticks along as your pregnancy progresses, each tummy is good for one baby and is not reusable.”)

“You end up spending 20 to 100 US dollars a month, depending on what your interests are,” grins Sebastian. “My friend spent US$150 and then thought, ‘Oh my god that’s real money!’ So he became a Second Life shoe designer and now makes US$50 a month.”

With all this healthy commerce, Sebastian says Linden Labs makes about one million US dollars every 24 hours. Its explosive growth, boundless scope for creativity and large numbers of active residents are what make Second Life so alluring.

There’s tremendous variety as residents come from over 100 countries. About 60 per cent of the avatars are male, and the people logging in are aged between 18 and 85. Of course, since the most attractive feature of Second Life is the fact that people can be whoever they want, all this information is only approximate. A Punjabi can be Parisian online. And an 85-year-old man in a nursing home can be a peroxide blonde at a rave party. (A number of men, in fact, have female avatars.)

As in real life, people tend to form relationships. “There are people with real life partners and also virtual partners,” says Sebastian. “What is a pixel lover? I don’t know. But there are weddings in Second Life. It’s a huge business. People will book a whole virtual island. Islands with special experiences… a castle flying in the sky for instance.” Is it infidelity? That’s a grey area, since a pixel wife isn’t likely to call home.

For now.