The survival of human-made objects from the past holds a certain magic. A piece of jewelry, a cup, a sword, or a sandal that has survived the passage of time has the ability to bridge the gap between us and our ancestors, bringing us closer to the world of ancient civilizations. A collection of such artifacts can provide a glimpse into a lost civilization, its daily life, art, culture, and beliefs. They can show us how people made war and conducted trade, and give us a glimpse into their rituals and beliefs.
Imagine standing in a museum gallery, surrounded by objects that you can barely make out in the dim lighting. As you look closer, you begin to recognize shapes: a basket, an arrow, a beautifully decorated carving, a shield. Some of the objects are unfamiliar to you. Imagine if these objects could speak. What stories would they tell about themselves? How were they used? Where did they come from? How did they end up in this museum? Who do they belong to?
I’ve been thinking of resurrecting our series on Culinary Experiences, in case you remember the existence of such a series : ) Since there are a lot of new readers reading me, let me put here once more. ‘Culinary Experiences’ is a series of visual stories that we started on our website for journaling some of our best ambrosial culinary experiences, be it the finest cordon bleu delights of a master chef or a cheesy experimental simmer at our little kitchen. We are trying to scribe it humbly here. This is not intended to be a recipe archive or a cookery show in case if you wondered. We’re only sharing the experience. Recently, we prepared a dum biriyani at home for the first time.
For my non-Indian readers, Dum is a loose translation of a Persian word for breathing. Dum Biriyani is basically blending aromatic spices, flavors, and herbs into a one-dish pot and slowly cooking the ingredients in a sealed heavy bottomed vessel usually for hours. In some culinary cultures, they are sometimes mildly heated overnight as well.
For a slice of history, from what I’ve read, the ancient dum cooking tradition is generally identified with Mughlai cuisine and is also assumed to have derived from Persian or Central Asian cuisine. There are many stories about its origin but the most popular one connects it with Nawab Asaf-ud-Daulah, who was Oudh / Awadh’s wazir or ruler in the late 1700s. In 1784, during a huge famine, the Nawab presented a beneficent activity for his kin with a nourishment for-work program. He needed to develop a Moghul design wonder – the Bara Imambara, which was one among the numerous structures that the Nawab wanted to work in the city. Many individuals chipped in for the activity, and to take care of the majority through day and night, the cooks utilized the technique for dum pukht, wherein meat, vegetables, rice, and flavors were assembled in enormous vessels or handis, fixed with batter and left to slow cook for a considerable length of time.
This arrangement of cooking ended up being the most advantageous strategy to give dinners to the huge number of laborers just as to make for them a flavorsome feast without utilizing excessive flavors, which were hard to come by at that point due to the famine situation.
It was on one such day when a pot was left to slow cook that the delighting aroma and flavor from the dish found the Nawab’s attention and he immediately requested his shahi cooks to make a similar dish in the royal kitchen. The ace gourmet specialists utilized a similar procedure of dum pukht alongside royal artfulness and accordingly began an entirely different sort of readiness, which before long turned out to be monstrously famous in the courts and among the high society as more refinements were presented. It was later embraced by imperial kitchens in Hyderabad, Kashmir, Bhopal, and different districts also back in India at that time.
“Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently. They’re not fond of rules. And they have no respect for the status quo. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them. About the only thing you can’t do is ignore them. Because they change things. They push the human race forward. And while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.”
These are the famous words from a rebranding slogan “Think Different” which Apple ran in 1997. I have read that, more than for the public, the ad was basically intended to its employees to inspire them. This was written by Rob Siltanen, chairman and chief creative officer at Siltanen & Partners. After Steve Jobs passed away, someone dug up an old video from archives in which Steve Jobs personally spoke the words of the same ad in his own voice. I saw this many years back, but its timeless theme still strikes a chime.
All of us who have traveled through the wider Middle East in all probability would have stumbled across one of these beautiful lights. These are Turkish mosaic lamps. Turkish lamps have a long history, the technique of producing these lamps started 5,000 years ago in its earlier forms. They had their early debut during the Ottoman era. Until the 19th century, candles and oil lamps were predominantly used for illuminating palaces and mansions. Before the spread of electric lamps, these lights were important symbols of rich heritage and civilization. Oil lamps were produced in the form of glass bottles or cup-shaped jars suspended from a chain. Bathhouses, mosques, and arenas of Istanbul were lit with these oil lamps. Over time, colored glass panes were used artistically with these lamps and they turned out to be even more beautiful. These are usually handmade and are an important element of Turkish and Anatolian roots and culture. We’d find variants of these types in other cultures as well. It’s an art and a skill to prepare hand blown glass which is cut from large sheets of different sizes and colors. A transparent, permanent but slow drying adhesive is applied to a small section of the base with a noticeable pattern through the adhesive to direct the artisan’s hand and there are several other steps to completion. Each one carefully crafted is a piece of art and expertise. I picked one from a journey to Istanbul in 2014.
After recently seeing a South Indian flick revolving around the story of an army man and his valiant death in the service of the nation, I’ve been thinking of Major Sandeep Unnikrishnan (15 March 1977 – 28 November 2008). He was an officer in the Indian Army serving in the elite Special Action Group of the National Security Guards. He was martyred in action during the November 2008 Mumbai attacks. He was consequently awarded the Ashoka Chakra, India’s highest peacetime gallantry award, on 26 January 2009. He was the only son of retired ISRO officer K. Unnikrishnan and Dhanalakshmi Unnikrishnan.
It’s been almost 10 years since his passing and I was looking at the narrations and thoughts of his proud mother. She gets a new T-shirt for her son on the day of his birthday. Recently actor Tovino Thomas visited their home after she expressed an interest to meet him after he starred in an army movie. She gifted him one of those T-shirts and cooked for him appam and stew, her son’s favorite dish. Probably because I was in the mood after watching the flick, but I’m deeply moved and ardently melted by these gestures and the strength of their family.
Over these 10 years, Major Sandeep Unnikrishnan’s parents have grown used to spending a large part of their time travelling to events or meeting people. A few months ago, they were in Kerala to speak at a school, despite Dhanalakshmi’s nagging backache. “I will go and speak as long as my health permits,” she says. She has so much to share with people about her son. “After he has gone, we have only him to talk about.”
Upstairs in their two-storey home is a gallery, a labour of love for their son. “He would keep his things very carefully. So we were wondering what to do with them. And that’s how we created this,” she says. There’s an astonishing collection of personal articles and memories, painstakingly put together four years ago. A harmonica, a nursery-class gift from his father which Sandeep treasured; the first cup he won in a school sports tournament and several other accolades that followed; his clothes and shoes, all neatly pressed and polished, in a glass wardrobe; the Ashok Chakra medal and citation; the bag with a change of clothes that he carried into Operation Black Tornado and his entire kit; the dirt from the spot he fell, at the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel, which the family visits every anniversary (a sofa from the room is now at the NSG’s headquarters in Manesar); the Indian flag his body was wreathed in.
On another side of the room, a glimpse of the personal side of a man dedicated to his profession—His 1999-model music system, an old point-and-shoot camera, his small collection of movies, among them Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai. He had told mom to keep the CDs safe, and so she did. There are other mementos: the towel she wrapped her four-month-old baby in when the family moved to Bangalore in 1977; a T-shirt the one-year-old had worn. It is still work in progress, she says. There are so many more articles to add.
Every year on Sandeep’s birthday on March 15, his best friend from school brings a bouquet which his mother keeps alongside his photo until the next birthday. His military colleagues stay in touch and schoolmates, many abroad now, drop in with their kids. “Frankly, if you ask me, why was he so popular? I would say he deserved it,” says Unnikrishnan, who is in his mid-seventies. “Sandeep is living in many minds.” The family lives by the ideals that Sandeep set for himself. “We have learnt a lot from him,” says Unnikrishnan. “I always make sure I dress well,” his wife adds. “That’s how Sandeep liked it.”
Sandeep’s Ashok Chakra, the country’s highest peacetime gallantry award was received her mother and the citation in it reads:
“Major Sandeep Unnikrishnan led the commando operation launched on 27 November 2008 to flush out terrorists from Hotel Taj Mahal, Mumbai in which he rescued fourteen hostages. During the operation, his team came under intense hostile fire, in which one of his team members got grievously injured. Major Sandeep pinned down the terrorists with accurate fire and rescued the injured commando to safety. In the process, he was shot in his right arm. Despite his injuries, he continued to fight the terrorists till his last breath. Major Sandeep Unnikrishnan displayed most conspicuous bravery besides camaraderie and leadership of the highest order and made the supreme sacrifice for the nation.”