A Masala Story

I made a simple tomato curry to share with people at lunch. Trupti asked what was in it and I was scanning my brain for the ingredients…balsalmic vinegar, onion, chicken masala… “Chicken??” My table mates gawked at me in disbelief. I didn’t know what to do, all I could feel was a terrible sinking feeling in my stomach. I didn’t understand why a box of spice would have meat in it. You put it on the meat… They explained that there could be meat in it as part of the flavoring.

Having unknowingly poisoned my friends, I left lunch feeling guilty, ignorant and despondent for several reasons. Primarily, I am so thankful for how much people have done to make me feel included and welcome here and then I go and feed them meat. I felt very ignorant as I enjoy making food for others, and knowing the difference between vegetarian and non-vegetarian should be simple. And I try as hard as possible to be conscious and respectful of Indian cultural practices.

When I make mistakes that directly affect others it’s the worst. Opening the steam cooker on myself was just stupid, but at least no one else was damaged collaterally. A Titus Andronicus I was not prepared to be. (Look it up.) Then I went home and checked my spice jars. I only have two, chicken and garam masala. I realized I had used the spice I always use, my favorite jar of garam masala. All that strife had been for nothing! When I said chicken out loud unthinkingly, I then fully believed that that’s what had happened. Why did I say I had used chicken masala? Why had my memory failed me? I don’t know, but it is just one more example of how the workings of the mind are limited, at times faulty, and should not be relied on for everything.

The mistakes that we have committed…had to be…For all that happened was necessary…to lead us to something beyond what the mind imagines… It is not a question of being down-hearted or grieved or in despair if you have made a mistake, for every mistake can be corrected; from the moment you have found it is a mistake, there is an opportunity to work within you, to make progress and be very happy!”  -the Mother



A Blast

August 22, 2011

Every Saturday night, Kaushal organizes a movie screening for the society members. This week’s movie was called ‘I am Kalam,’ which was such a wonderful film. I highly, highly recommend it.

I’m not a huge movie person (movies are too long; life’s too short) but this one renewed my appreciate for them. It is one of those movies where you sit with a smile on your face the whole time, and leave feeling like you learned something.

After the movie I spent the night at Venus’ house. There was a brilliant storm that night. Venus and Aishu’s appartment has a wonderful rooftop terrace, with clotheslines for laundry. Venus had wet laundry to hang and so we climbed to the top, despite the wind telling us that it was about to rain. As we ascended in the dark stairwell, the sky flashed lightning. We hung clothes with, I felt a drop, drop, drop, and the sky opened up over Pondicherry. I love the rain here. It reminds me of home, but it is warm and thick, not the nine month gray drizzle of the northwest. The monsoons will be here soon, lasting from October to November.

We let the fat drops give the clothes a second washing. Venus is the only person I know that will hang up laundry during a rainstorm. To run through this rain is to be instantly soaked; it is inescapable. It drags you in, and the only thing visible are the sheets of broken light of the streetlamps below. Dancing through the warm puddles of the tiled rooftop, we celebrated the majestic union before us, where the sky has come to spend time with the sea.

The next morning we got up and went to the market, stopping on the street for a cup of hot chai and then iglis (steamed rice cakes) with spicy chutney. Sunday is shopping day.

We came back from the market and started to make kidney bean dahl, chutney and spiced potatoes for lunch. While Venus was in the bath, I had an interesting altercation in the kitchen. In India they use steam cookers to cook vegetables, rice, and dahl. Venus told me that the cooker would whistle about 5 t0 7 times. Not wanting it to burn, I tried to force the lid off the cooker. Since there was still quite a bit of steam pressure inside, the lid flew off, beans and chilies flying everywhere. I screamed and felt my face and neck on fire, burned by the steam. I ran to the freezer: no ice. Then I noticed a frozen bag of milk and grabbed it (In India milk is sold in plastic bags). Venus emerged from the bath to find dahl everywhere and me quietly sitting at the counter with a pack of old milk held to my face. While she made sure I was ok, we had a good laugh. “I knew I should have told you to not touch the cooker,” she exclaimed. “I didn’t know that you don’t have cookers in America!” With a dismayed giggle I replied, “I’m sorry Venus, I’m an alien, I don’t know how to do anything.” This is true. You get used to it after awhile, but sometimes you get burned.

I am fine now, more traumatized than anything. Ice for a few hours works wonders. Venus made me a sandalwood paste that I let dry on my face. More than 24 hours later, the burns are slightly visible but do not hurt at all.

Lunch was delicious, by the way.

Soothing sandalwood

  • Raw mango chutney with yogurt, chilies, and loads of fresh mint
  • Potatoes with turmeric, chili powder, coriander

Chapati and Masala

Two nights ago I biked home at the same time as Chandani and she asked if I wanted to cook something. Do I want to cook Indian food? How long have I been waiting for this day! It was great and I picked up some good tricks. I learned how to make chapati, which is the common Indian flatbread. It’s fast and easy to make, serves a crowd, and goes well with everything.

All it takes is whole wheat flour, a pinch of salt and enough water to make a soft dough. The dough is rolled out and cooked on a flat pan.

Chandani is really good at rolling them in perfect circles. It’s like she’s been doing this for a long time or something.

 She let me roll out and cook the last one.

I burnt it.

 Na’an, often served in Indian restaurants in the US, is made of fine white flour. Apparently no one eats na’an here, as it is only served in fancy hotels and such. Chapati is the bread of choice.  The south has thinner chapatti, while in North India they eat roti. North Indians eat more roti, and not as much rice.  South India grows only rice, but in the north it’s cool enough to grow rice and wheat, so all the wheat here is sent from the north.

We also made a potato curry. A bit of chopped onion and tomato and lots of spices. Spices, masala, are stored in the masala box, which allows you to mix and match spices depending on what you need. Pretty huh? You really can’t go wrong. This one has chili powder, cinnamon, turmeric, cumin, and chicken masala. The more spice the better.


The curry turned out great. With a bit of cool cucumber salad, I had my first delicious Indian meal that I helped cook.


Last night I also made my first cup of tea! Very exciting. I had bought milk and tea and sugar and everything but was waiting for some reason. Chandani was my test-taster. She said it was a bit strong, “not bad but not great.” I replied, “That’s ok with me, at least I didn’t burn anything.”

Eat, Dance, Beach!

I had a wonderful weekend.

Friday morning a violinist came to perform at the school and the village of SARVAM. Paul Peabody has performed the scores of many movies and hit songs, including Michael Jackson’s song “Smile.” Apparently he’s the violin solo in that one. It was fun to hear some jazz, bluegrass, and Mozart. Nice guy, he ate lunch with us at the ashram dining hall.

A giant man with a little fiddle

On Saturday I went to a dance program at the ashram school, where the young women performed some traditional dances. The audience sat on the lawn in the school courtyard. It had been raining on and off, but I was glad that the show went on. The dances were very intricate and beautiful.

On Sunday I biked to the beach, because I hadn’t been able to put as much as a toe in the water yet.  Packing some guavas and a mango for my breakfast I took off. I biked about 7 km out of town trying to find the beach at Auroville, but I never saw the sign to turn off. I ended up riding through a small but developed fishing village and spent a few morning hours there, swimming and reading. Despite my initial reservations, no one heckled me, only a few people came to talk to me and they were all very nice. As I was biking back through the village, women and children greeted the sun-hatted American with “hi, hi!”

The ocean was very refreshing, but the bike back home on the main highway was hot, sticky and hectic.  After I showered the sea off me and took a nap, I went to buy vegetables at the market. Sundays are the Big Shopping day. The huge street market is in full swing, only the mass amount of people makes M.S.Gandhi Boulevard impossible for cars or bikes to get through.

I also found Goubert Market, which is this magical market of vegetable and trinket stalls, hidden within an entire city block. I had heard about it before, but had never been able to find it. Suddenly, it found me. The second I saw a small gateway I knew what that was it. There are small entrances to it, but if you didn’t know where it was already you’d probably miss it. Once inside, it’s a half lit, bustling underworld of tomatoes and cucumbers and rice and jasmine.

I emerged with a bag of lovely vegetables that were better looking and about half the price of a grocery store. I got about ten tomatoes for 12 rupees, about 20 cents. Gah, I sound like an old biddy blogging about the price of produce. Ah well.

Hungry, I bought some vedas and tiny samosas from a food vendor. It hit the spot, but I was dying for some ketchup to slather them in. It’s the little things, you know?

A Sacred Mountain

Two days ago I was feeling a bit down. The last few weeks have been a rush of newness, exploration of sites, tastes, and sounds. But now I’m creating a routine, one in which I currently spend a lot of time By Myself.

When you are on your own, you have to create your purpose, as well as friendships out of the people in your proximity. Everything was exciting and safe and new at the beginning and now I’m on my own. Naturally I have to create a new life for myself. When I started at UO in the dorms I felt like this. After I had decorated my room I didn’t know what to do with myself. Last summer at the empty ASUO, too. Despondent, too much free time. And for someone who loves food, eating the same meal of yogurt, lentil soup, rice and bananas for breakfast, lunch, and dinner is a bit depressing. I’ve started sneaking in bits of tomato in plastic tupperware. I know my days will fill up eventually, with both activities and friends.

When I start to feel blue, I am training myself to revert to what I am grateful for. I asked Sampad, one of the society’s resident Sanskrit scholars, what thank you is in Sanskrit: Dhanyavadah. Nice word, one that I can actually say. I think I will use this to meditate on for awhile.

I have much to be thankful for. Yesterday was Sunday, our one day off. I went to a sacred mountain, with Venus and Bini, two cool women from the Media for Social Change team. The mountain is called Thiruvannamalai, two hours from Pondi on a crowded public bus. We hiked up the mountain and had a lovely picnic lunch at the ashram.

Bini and Venus

Venus loves mountains. But who doesn’t?

 green beans, chapati, tomato, guava

The four doors and towers of the temple face north, south, east and west. The ascending levels represent levels of consciousness to be attained.

Below in the city there is a large temple that is associated with fire, because of a centuries-long battle between Brahma and Vishnu about who was more powerful. Shiva, the god who is really supreme, decided to show them that he was in fact the most powerful. Below is the legend:

“To prove he was the most powerful, he took the form of fire which was very big and immense. This fire stood in front of the two and a voice was heard from the fire, which was Lord Shiva himself and told that “Among you two who will first approach the top and bottom of this dazzling fire will be said to be the most powerful forever.” Then Brahma, changed himself as a swan and flew up to the sky to reach the top of the Fire and kept flying for hundreds and hundreds of years. But could not reach the top on the other side, Lord Vishnu changed himself as a boar and starting digging down the Earth to find the bottom. Who also did the same thing over couple of years and could not ever find the bottom. Then both of them realized that Lord Shiva, he who is endless without the start nor an end was only the “Superior” among both of them. Their fight had got a conclusion. They came back to Earth and bowed in front of the Shiva, who was in the dazzling form of fire and requested to stay in the same form on this Earth and bless the devotees. Lord Shiva agreed to stay in the same form and transformed himself as a mountain. From then, every Karthikai Deepam Festival the column of dense fire comes to the sight on the top of mountain. At Thiruvannamalai this is done on the 10th day of this festival Karthikai Deepam.” (tiruvannamalai.co.in)

The best part of the trip was seeing the multitude of peacocks at the mountain base ashram, and then monkeys at the top! A whole family, big and small. It was my first time seeing wild monkeys in India. Very exciting.

Monkeys on the temple

I have been reading a lot of books, both spiritual and fiction. I met a lovely American couple, Cambria and Devin, who have been working at the society for the last five months. They left today, but Cambria left me a stack of wonderful books and some soap. The first one I read was The God of Small Things, by Arundhati Roy. It takes place close to Tamil Nadu in the state of Kerala. It’s about a twin brother and sister growing up in the caste system within a dying family. The book’s strength is the dense imagery; I couldn’t put it down. I think A Fine Balance is next.


Every day at the ashram at 3 o’clock sharp a lovely saried woman brings everyone chai ginger tea and a snack. Sometimes its cookies, or roasted garbanzo beans, but today it is savory rice mash. A tiny bit spicy. I love it here.

BTW, my India mailing address is:

Amelie Rousseau

C/o Shivakumar
Sri Aurobindo Society
No.11, Saint Martin Street
Puducherry – 605 001

Write to me! I will write back! Maybe even with a treat of incense or a pack of spices… Is that incentive enough? 🙂