Saturday, September 28, 2013

India's first female coffee taster Sunalini Menon: A Profile in OPEN this week

What was not to love about this story? It involved meeting a delightful lady whose passion has been coffee all her life. Her lab smells of coffee. I wanted to be able to go everyday and sit outside for a bit taking in those smells. Knowing her, I am sure she wouldn't mind. She gave us a bag each of coffee powder, pure, she said I ought to try it that way. That coffee is, but of course, fantastic.

Read the story below or see it on the OPEN magazine website here. The photograph is by Vivek Muthuramalingam.

A Life Aromatic

All that seems missing when Sunalini Menon begins her story is some classical Carnatic music in the background, if real life came with soundtracks. Some raga and thala would fit in perfectly with her memory of growing up in a traditional household where mornings always started with the smell of freshly brewed coffee. 

Her grandmother would walk down a long street to a mill where the man would powder the coffee beans using an old grinder. A heady fragrance would waft out of the grinder and dissolve in the room before it could be packed along with the coffee powder. It didn’t matter though. Menon’s grandmother would then make a tall jug of coffee and pour it into a silver samovar-like vessel which would then stand by the table when she and her sister woke up and came down at 6 am. Not that they were allowed coffee; growing up children had to have milk. 

This smell, taste and the forbidden feel of coffee was what Sunalini Menon, the first woman coffee taster in Asia, grew up with. That childhood love for good old South Indian filter coffee and life’s other little quirks has today made her a bit of a celebrity in the coffee industry.

My eyes keep darting to a gorgeous collection of silver bangles she has stacked upon on her wrist. Menon is telling me of how it all happened, how she did all that she has done, pausing just a while to say that after she married someone from Kerala, she also began drinking tea.

She had studied to be a food technologist and wanted to get into dietetics; she got herself a seat in an American university. “I happened to see an ad in the papers about an opening in the Coffee Board and applied, because I figured I would at least learn what it was like to give an interview,” she says. In that very typical government set up, in those days of the early 1970s, she was bluntly told that she wouldn’t get the job because women usually resigned after getting married, and the Board didn’t want to train her before she did just that, resign. One person in the interview panel stood by her and some tough decisions about the US versus home turf later, Menon joined the Coffee Board.

She dismisses the drama that ensued with a laugh, of how her employment turned into a Karnataka versus Tamil Nadu state feud among the staff – no one wanted to take orders from a girl and they didn’t see why someone from the erstwhile Madras had to be brought in to fill a post in Bangalore. But Menon remembers crying every day once she got home from work and says it was a hard journey. “I decided that I would spend time in each department. That way, I got to know everyone and everyone taught me what I needed to know. I learnt how to deal with people,” she recollects. 

The next of the hurdles was when her boss retired, just when she had finished training. Menon was 21 years old. It took another two years but by the time she was 23, she was heading the quality control department at Coffee Board of India. Predictably, that was a whole different battle, she says.

Good timing has followed Menon’s career. By the time she had put in two decades of central government service, the market was also getting liberalized. The whole quality department that she was heading was disintegrated. “We gave ourselves a farewell party,” she grins, “there was no one else to throw us a party.”

In a long distance marriage throughout, she was all set to use the downtime to be with her family when coffee growers in the state insisted she stay back. “That was how Coffeelab began, with just five others, two of them from my old department at Coffee Board. People laughed at me at first, because coffee prices were high and quality wasn’t much high on anyone’s mind. We couldn’t balance our books at first but things came around slowly,” she says. 

Today, Coffeelab Private Limited, based in Bangalore, is the only independent lab in the country that does purely lab work. Samples come in from all over the world. There are so many kinds of coffee beans that coffee powder is often dispensed off to friends, visitors, even passer-bys. Every visitor gets to sit in a very interestingly decorated front room of the house that serves as her lab and sip predictably delicious coffee. The lab is also a coffee museum of sorts, there are coffee mugs from all over the world, the tightly lined shelves groan under bags of beans, vintage brass coffee filters, antique grinders from Turkey and Russia and other paraphernalia. The air smells of coffee and the coffee addict in me lets out a silent whoop. “Our clothes, our hair smell of coffee by the end of a work day,” Menon says, though clearly she doesn’t look like she minds.

Coffeelab holds training programs and coffee appreciating workshops as well, once in a while. The team goes to rural places to test and evaluate coffee. “We carry almost the entire lab with us because we never know what we will get on the field. Over the years, even the cab driver we always go with has learnt about coffee tasting and tells the farmers what they should be doing!” she quips. Between promoting Indian coffee and creating blends for coffee chains and managing the activities of the lab, she also teaches as a “full professor” at the Universita del Caffe, illy Trieste, Italy. Every now and then, she slows her narrative to linger upon memories of people: a professor in Switzerland, who spoke only Swiss German and who, at age 70, took evening English classes for a year to be able to teach her, his talking parrot Coco, mentors, family, friends, farmers.

What does it take to be a good coffee taster? “You have to have the ability to describe what the coffee tastes like. It is all about establishing credibility, so you can’t get away fabricating notes,” Menon says, explaining how the vocabulary to define notes of coffee is borrowed from that of wine. She was amongst the first few women in the world to be professionally cupping, or tasting, coffee. That herd is still small but the industry is more open these days. “There aren’t any rules to follow, but you need to preserve your palette, and that means no smoking, no drinking, no late nights if you have to taste early in the morning. You never know what to expect, every coffee offers something new every day,” she says.

With her exacting standards, it must be hard to get a good cup of coffee elsewhere, I say. Menon grins and admits that she tries not to drink coffee outside. To her, Ethiopian coffee is the “most beautiful”, for its lasting finish in your mouth, for its inherent notes of jasmine with lemon grass. A good coffee, when you ask her, is something that leaves a lingering note on your palette. Ideally, without milk, without sugar. “But then it depends how you take yours,” she smiles. I mentally raise a cup to that.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

In New Addictions: Pushing Limits

Someone I met two days ago and instantly took a liking to told me this, "It is all in the mind, you should decide to challenge yourself and push your limits." The mind's limits, my body's limits. I have heard it said before, by others, in other contexts. In some 15 years of practicing Yoga, on and off, in over a decade of climbing hills and mountains, now and then, these words are what draw me, like the translucent wings of the dragonfly burning at the edges of a yellow flame. It burns, it hurts till you want to cry, yet that pain is beautiful. It is the pain of your body pushing itself, of the mind winning. Science has an answer to why humans punish their bodies thus, something about that attractive thing called adrenaline. But I prefer a prosaic answer. I prefer to see it as something essential for the soul.

This Tuesday morning, when I was trying to stay on my feet and kick up in the air, higher and higher, I wasn't thinking of limits or anything at all. I was just kicking, in front, to the sides, in a circle. It is only an hour and a half later when I hobble down three floors that I attempt to wonder why I do this to myself. I don't feel my legs anymore, my stomach feels like...oh the words don't take shape, it all hurts so much. Later in the day, even my neck will start hurting, every muscle, every nerve will. I will ask myself why I do this, but I will not wait for an answer.

The pain is mighty addictive. I know I do this because despite all the pain, there is the joy of looking down the mountain you have just climbed. The view is fabulous, the air fresh and the soul is alive and smiling. That is why I do this. After the first class of Kalaripayattu this Tuesday morning, even my brain hurts to think and form better words here, but my soul and I, we are smiling wide. That is why I do it.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

On a Menucard in Braille: In OPEN magazine this week

This made it to page one inside the magazine :)
Read the heavily edited version of the story here or see below.

Photo: Vivek Muthuramalingam for OPEN magazine

In the upmarket Bangalore neighbourhood of Koramangala, restaurants have to reinvent themselves to keep people interested. There always are cheaper or cooler places to go to. But at Om, a vegetarian restaurant popular with the office crowd for its thalis, it isn’t about hipness. It’s about being convenient even for the differently-abled. Om has menu cards in Braille for the visually challenged and in large fonts for those with low vision.

A chance conversation and proximity to EnAble India, an NGO that works with the differently-abled, set things in motion. The EnAble India office is close to the shopping complex which houses Om restaurant and its employees and volunteers often eat lunch there. Among other things, the NGO has programs for the visually challenged. These groups too frequent the restaurant, holding each other’s hands, their white sticks tapping against the concrete floor. One afternoon, Bhavna Jain, the owner of Om, met Gangamma, a 21-year old visually-challenged Bharatanatyam dancer who had just returned after performing in the US. When it was time to order, the girl asked a waiter to read out the menu to her. “That’s when it struck me how unfair it was that someone who could travel the world had to depend on someone else for something as mundane as ordering her lunch,” says Jain.

Gayathri Iyer, Sharath H N and a team of a few others from EnAble India, all visually challenged themselves, volunteered to design the menu card in Braille. On Ugadi festival this year in April, Om Restaurant made it possible for the visually challenged to be a little more independent. “We complain about such small things when we go out, but we don’t realize what the visually challenged have to contend with. In countries abroad there are many facilities for them, not so in India,” says Jain.

Sharath, who is visually-challenged and was part of the group that designed the menu card, says, “It (the menu card) was one of our employability projects, which also include money pouches to identify currency notes, taking print outs, etc. There was another restaurant which also printed their menu card in Braille, but never used it. Om is the only one which does.”

Om restaurant has a dozen menu cards in all, two of which are in Braille and use large fonts. For now, EnAble India has kept one with them. Apart from thali, the restaurant serves a few other meals. “It isn’t an extensive menu. Though our visually challenged patrons know what’s on the menu, they still ask for the card,” says Jain. She says that the patronage from the visually challenged has increased after the Braille menu card was introduced.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Also, to the one man who always has and always will love me more than anyone else, to the man who has always let me do the stupidest things in life, however grudgingly, to the man who told me to go make my mistakes and learn my own lessons, to the man who manages to drive me crazy sometimes, like all parents do, to the man who is one third of my support system, happy birthday Appa!

On Jyoti Dogra's 'Notes on Chai': In OPEN magazine this Week

This week's issue of OPEN magazine carries a piece I wrote on a brilliant performance by artist Jyoti Dogra, called Notes on Chai. Back in the days when I was in IFA, I saw this work in progress and was blown away by it. As expected, the finished work in Bangalore last week was fantastic.

Read it here on the OPEN website or see below.

Solace in a Routine: Jyoti Dogra's brilliantly crafted performance piece, Notes on Chai, discovers the universal in the ordinary

Asking of yourself questions for which there aren’t any straight, easy, candyfloss answers isn’t a pleasant exercise. It stirs up on an otherwise good enough Friday evening and comes in the way of other mundanities—drinks, dinners, emails, sounds—that you have planned for the weekend. That those unsought questions and unavailable answers happen to be about mundane things does nothing to slow down the thoughts express.

That is what Jyoti Dogra’s brilliantly crafted performance piece Notes on Chai does. It makes you melancholic, it makes you reflect on things you would rather keep brushed under the carpet and it makes you laugh at yourself and at memories and anecdotes of caricatures that are instantly recognisable.

Just before the performance in Bangalore last week, over sips of chai from a kulhad, you read from a note that terms the piece devised by Dogra as ‘a collection of snippets of everyday conversations interwoven with abstract sound explorations that attempt to relocate our relationship with the quotidian’. Even divided across geographies, linguistics, economic status and other parameters, there is much that is similar amongst people everywhere. If we haven’t chanced upon these familiar characters as we go about a routine day, then we are them, at least in parts.

Notes on Chai looks at the everyday, the ‘attempt is to create, through a series of portrayals, a collective sense of the everyday, which resonates with a universal sense of the ordinary across cultures and hopefully across different socio-economic strata’. Interspersed with these portrayals are abstract, guttural sounds inspired by Tibetan chanting techniques, western harmonics and extended vocal techniques. What they seek to do perhaps is to stretch the limits of spoken language, while also facilitating a near seamless travel from one snippet to the next.

Dogra begins with the autobiographical; while going over the tape of her day’s rehearsals, she is constantly interrupted by thoughts of how fat she looks, of having to clean the mess in her bedroom, of ‘why hasn’t he emailed still’, periodically berating herself for being this distracted. She is next a Punjabi wife, the kind who would feature in a K-soap, talking of her morning chai ritual, how she would rather have a cuppa alone in the balcony rather than share that time with her husband. The communicable word chai morphs into a chant, Dogra’s throat throbs furiously as she borrows from Jerzy Grotowski’s theatre style to represent the tea pot, the tea cup, the act of drinking tea with her hands, her body.

Dogra is also an old Punjabi woman from Lahore who, in her raspy, weather-worn voice, dismisses coffee; she likes her chai thick, with the milk undiluted, without sugar, for she has the sugar disease from 1992. Her slurps from the chai cup lead to abstract sounds lead to a woman with weight issues lead to ‘happy birthday’ in barely recognisable sounds. And then a government clerk who recites the same thing over and over again, never missing a rehearsed line, even stopping mid-sentence because it is chai break. A society lady enslaved by her appointments diary, her social calendar full of yoga for inner peace and green tea from Malaysia with the right flavour, the crotch-scratching man who wants to make ‘fraandship’ with the English girl he gives directions to, a typical middle-class man, a woman who wants to escape it all…there isn’t a character who isn’t recognisable.

Through her characters, Dogra forces you to relook at the mundane that crowds each of our lives. A struggle to escape from the routine is familiar, always sought after, rarely achieved. We find happiness, or something resembling it, in spite of the mundane. Routines are repeated, resumed, started again, it is a cycle. Notes on Chai presents a segue of such meditations, sounds and movements, leaving in its wake a realisation that no matter how different we all are, we all are also pretty much the same.