210 Mothers Died in Mumbai

   In Mumbai city, in 2010, over 200 women died during childbirth. Not in the far flung corners, but in the heart of the financial capital.  Find that hard to believe? Visit Govandi, a half hour train ride from posh Colaba, and it becomes apparent why.
    One of Mumbai’s new upcoming suburbs, Govandi is where much of the new construction boom is happening. It’s filled with glittering malls and swanky residential complexes called Bay View and Greenfield acres. Never mind that there is not a single water body in sight for miles. Or meadows.
   In the midst of these glittering glass structures, are two of the city’s biggest slum colonies, Rafiq Nagar and Shivaji Nagar, where nearly 5 lakh people live. They make their living sorting garbage in the local dump yard, a short distance from their shanties.
    Here I met 25 year old Shakira. A few months ago, she nearly died giving birth to her son. She had registered to deliver at the local civic hospital, but stopped going there for checkups after the third month because she could not afford the auto fare. The hospital is located nearly an hour away, and every trip back and forth costs close to Rs 200. Something families earn here in a good week.  So she turned to the local Dai or midwife, and nearly haemorrhaged to death.
   It’s a story you hear across these slums. There is not a single health post or maternity centre here which means people have to spend the better part of their day and savings getting to a civic facility.  When they do get there, they are told to buy the medicines outside. Even those meant to be given free. Why would these women spend their money on folic acid, iron and calcium – essential when you are pregnant – when they can’t be sure of three square meals a day?
  Stung by the figures Mumbai municipal authorities have ordered civic hospitals to maintain records of maternal deaths and hold an internal inquiry into why they are happening. An utterly pointless exercise given that most of these deaths are happening inside homes.  

Rediscovering Soul Food

   One of the nicest things that happened in 2010 was meeting up again with a cousin after nearly 10 years.  She is the youngest among 6 cousins from my paternal side, and I have always looked upon her like the baby of the family. Now she has a 2 year old of her own, and a baby on the way, and I am getting to know her in a whole new different way. I have to admit that I have to consciously resist the urge to still treat her like a kid though!   A few months ago while I was hanging about in her kitchen, waiting to inhale yet another cup of filter coffee, I stumbled upon this cookbook “Samayal: The Pleasures of South Indian Vegetarian Cooking” by someone called Viji Varadarajan. And a whole lot of old memories tastes and sounds came flooding back. Inside those pages I found recipes to dishes cooked by my grandmothers, aunts and mom. Food I had grown up eating but have lost totally lost touch with after I moved out of home.

Viji Vardarajan

    So in a rather greedy desperate fashion, I borrowed the book and spent the next few days feverishly writing down recipes to dishes like Mor Keerai (spinach cooked in buttermilk, a preparation my paternal grandmother was an ace at), ‘Paaraka Pitlai” (one of the few bitter gourd dishes I like), Paruppu Usili (French beans and crumbled dal) and ways to make the many podis or powders which go into the various types of rasams and sambaars.  Even the technique for the perfect mulgapodi or gunpowder. MTR and Madras Café can go take a walk now!

    I first took a shot at making paruppu usili and I have to say it was pretty good. It’s a simple, traditional Tam dish and goes great with any dish.  I just had to share it here.
    Soak tur dal and red chillies in half cup water for about 20 minutes.  Drain the water and grind this with with a pinch of asafoetida till it becomes a crumbly consistency. Steam this mixture for about 15 minutes. Cool this and break into into small pieces.
   Top and tail French beans and chop into small pieces. Then put into boiling water. I like it a bit crunchy so I don’t cook it for too long.
   Take a bit of oil; splutter a teaspoon of mustard seeds. Add urad dal and brown. Then mix the beans, the dal mixture and the seeds.
  The paaraka pitlai though was not such a success. My husband said it was a bit heavy on the tamarind. Maybe some dishes are best left to mothers!

  Thanks to a friend, I have a copy of another book by Viji on Tamil cooking called Cooking with Yoghurt. Sounds even more exciting!