Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Book Review : National Geographic Series - Holidays Around the World: Celebrating Diwali and Ramadan

Author Deborah Heiligman has embarked on an ambitious "Holidays Around the World Series" with National Geographic

Aimed at 6-9 year old children the series is rich in photographs from around the world and lower on textual explanations, letting the pictures speak for themselves.

Celebrate Ramadan & Eid Al-Fitr with Praying, Fasting and Charity and Celebrate Diwali with Sweets, Lights, and Fireworks are the first 2 titles in the series.

Deborah has collaborated with a Consultant for each book who personally celebrates the festival being discussed.

I'm not sure what the scope of these consultants was though, because I spied a couple of technical errors in the book on Diwali. For example the Taj Mahal is called a mosque, Lord Ganesh is said to symbolise prosperity, the meanings of deepa and vali have been interchanged. The Consultants could have been limited to just writing the afterword instead of proofing the text of the whole book.

I'm not too sure about the exact technicalities in the book on Ramadan because whatever I have viewed has been as an outsider looking in. Although, I have been able to observe it in greater detail here in Cairo, where the sahour's and iftars are celebrated even in 5 star hotels. The entire city fasts, the timings turn topsy turvy. Offices close earlier. Unlike India where most praying and fasting happens inside closed doors of houses and mosques, in Cairo the sheer numbers forces them onto the street even during the regular Friday noon prayers.

The pictures are amazing and well laid out. For someone who celebrates either of these festivals, the pictures will seem incomplete because Diwali there are so many more aspects than can be represented in a 32 page book. But for someone who has no idea about Diwali, Ramadan, Islam and Hinduism, this is a very good introduction. I would have loved to compare these 2 books with the books on Hannukah or the Passover which I do not know about as well as these 2.

I especially loved the satellite pictures of India on Diwali and 6 days later showing the difference in intensity of light between these days. The pictures in both books represent an excellent geographic spread.

There is a recipe in each book that a 6-9 year old can easily help an adult assemble. Children who see these books will be instantly attracted and it could be a great way to initiate dialogues into cultural differences.

The books are an excellent buy for someone who is trying to introduce children to an alternative culture and festival. Priced at $15.95 per hard cover version, the entire series will be a wonderful addition to any Children's or School Library.
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M T R Foods Sold for $100 Million

MTR Foods has taken a Scandinavian turn. It's not US spice king McCormick that will buy MTR Foods as speculated earlier, but the Norwegian foods-to-metals group Orkla.

Shock/dismay/sadness/happiness.... a series of feelings ran through me when I read these headlines in Finance Asia & the Times of India.

Shock since I did not have any idea that MTR was up for sale, being in this faraway land. Dismay & sadness that a Scandinavian Company has taken over at the helm of MTR. What do Scandinavians know about Kannadiga cuisine? Happiness that MTR as a brand was worth 450crore, three times its current turnover. But mostly I feel sad. What Orkla will do with the brand & the product compositions remains to be seen. But things can never be the same.

Why am I writing on business news which I normally just read & never write about ? Because I have a deep personal connection with MTR. To me, MTR is like the khansama from an ancestral kitchen who keeps giving me treats, tips and tricks to turn out better food in my own kitchen.

My love affair with MTR began when I moved to Bangalore in 1999 & was introduced to the Mavalli Tiffin Rooms in Lalbagh. The institution is over 80 years old and produces some of the best, most authentic South Indian Vegetarian cuisine ever. There is always a long line of people waiting to get in. Right from 6:30 in the morning when it opens. Fluffly idlis, crisp dosas, the rava idlis that they popularized. Words cannot do justice to their piping hot sambhars and other yummy food.

Three floors were not enough to house their customers, and they later branched out into a fast food principle based "Namma MTR" in Bangalore & Dubai to keep up with the demand.

MTR pickles found pride of place in my kitchen right next to the pickles that my mother and grandmother sent me. MTR spice powders and masala mixes were the number 1 choice if I did not have the time to make my own.

When I left for the US, half my luggage was MTR instant Bisibele Baath mix on request from several colleagues who were missing the "taste of home".

By the time I returned they had vastly increased their range and had also introduced the "Ready to Eat" line. Heat and eat, even simpler than the "Instant Mix" and much less oily than a lot of other brands prevalent in the Indian market.

When we moved to Cairo, a large part of our shipment consisted of MTR instant mixes - rava idli, dosa, upma, gulab jamun among others. From Soups to Ready mixes, to Papads to Chips to Ice Cream mixes to Pickles to Ready to eat and Frozen Foods - MTR prepares and sells them all to their hungry customer base.

Their forays into North Indian food and Malayali food can be forgiven since they seemed to manage a pretty admirable job with those items too.

The restaurant and the packaged food business were separate entities. As of now there isn't much clarity on whether the restaurants will also belong to Orkla.

I hope Orkla does not tamper with the product compositions because they have been perfected with a lot of care. I pray they do not destroy the brand completely like other MNC's have tried to do with Indian Acquisitions. And I wish they will start exporting to Egypt.

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