Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Musings on astrology and relationships - I - Parallels with inorganic chemistry

Many people pooh-pooh astrology as a pseudo-science, as a superstition that has been handed down the ages. I don't know how accurate astrology is when it comes to predicting the future or when it comes to even analyzing relationships. However, I must say it has introduced me to the areas of psychology, compatibility and the concept of astronomical transits affecting each individual differently.

I frequent the following sites -,, and the website of British astrologer, Jonathan Cainer. The latter offers philosophical advice which I find very interesting to ponder on.

I've learnt the following from my brief foray into this field:

Each individual chart contains the Sun, the Moon and the other planets in a certain sign at a certain degree. Based on the time and location of birth, one also has the houses in the various signs at their respective degrees. Thus, two people with the same sun sign may not have the same ascendant or the same moon sign.
Each individual chart is thus unique though I am not sure if there are people born in different years who may, by an accident of fate, have the exact same chart with all the signs and their respective degrees.

I have been fascinated by synastry and relationship astrology. There is something called the composite chart that is the product of merging two individual charts. The relationship itself is supposed to be a separate entity other than the individuals themselves. This makes perfect sense.

I often think of astrology and relationships in parallel with inorganic chemistry.  Each individual, with unique DNA, is like the atom of an element in the periodic table. We all have something in common as human beings, just like all elemental atoms have protons and electrons. However, although human beings all have the same number of chromosomes unlike elements that have different numbers of protons and electrons, each of us has a different combination of genes in our DNA codes.

Each of us has a distinct personality, our reactions to circumstances are different and more importantly, we ourselves cannot predict whether our beliefs and choices will remain the same over a period of many years. Added to that are various external factors such as the influence of religion, culture and socio-economics.

When we form relationships, we create a compound - a molecule comprising of two distinct individual entities. Just as all compounds don't get oxidized at the same rate or disintegrate when stressed by the external environment, so, too, all relationships will not end up having the same outcome when subjected to the harsh stresses of life.

Some elements are extremely volatile. Some people find it really hard to stay in a relationship whereas some find it harder to let go.

Astrology is more a tool of self-analysis for me. How do I feel when I am reading a particular horoscope about my career or relationships? Am I thrilled? Sad? Do I really want things to work out in a certain way?

The limitations of astrology personally for me, have been getting biased about people or events in advance and forming a preconceived idea about the person based on their sun sign and other characteristics. Also, an astrological portrait, even if one assumes that it is accurate, does not take into account the most defining characteristics of a person - namely, his or her ancestry (parents) and upbringing.
It is nevertheless a fascinating subject.

I have something to say about the treatment of relationships by modern psychology and astrology but that's a whole different subject for another post which will follow soon.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Two amazing blogs and a life lesson from the kitchen

I have become more adventurous in the kitchen recently and just tried out a chili recipe with beer this week, inspired by this amazing food blogger on  This has been one of my best blog discoveries of 2011 and I've shared it with friends and family.
I tweaked the recipe, as I had only black-eyed peas instead of kidney and pinto beans and a large squash instead of the prescribed sugar pumpkin and no paprika in my spice cabinet. I also ended up using whole cumin instead of ground cumin as it was already late for dinner and plain old laziness kicked in a bit but found the enthusiasm to add some chopped cilantro for garnishing and my staple Indian spice - turmeric powder.
The result was absolutely delightful both for the eyes and the tastebuds. The flavor was something very unique yet tangy and delicious.

The other blog that is on my list of great blogs discovered in 2011 is Do check out her recent post on life lessons from a surfboard.

The kitchen offered me a life lesson - serendipity. Some of the greatest scientific discoveries were the product of serendipity. How many times does one go looking for something in the house and ends up finding a long lost item?

A little less than two years ago (gosh, has it been that long?), I started preparing 'paayaasam' (note, the 'aa' is pronounced as in 'arm'), also commonly spelled as 'payasam', which is a sweet South Indian dish made of milk, jaggery and cooked rice.
Here is some background information on this dish for those of you who do not hail from India and have probably never heard of it.
Jaggery is the raw, unprocessed form of sugar usually sold in lumps at Indian stores. It has some nutrients and is much better than refined sugar though diabetics should still be careful. 'Paayaasam' is also made using other ingredients such as vermicelli, semolina or 'daal' (pulses, similar to lentils) and refined sugar with some nuts and raisins roasted in ghee (clarified butter). 
The occasion was Tamil New Year on April 13. Most Indian states have their own traditional calendars and New Year occasions as they speak different languages. Of course, in daily life, India does follow the international Gregorian calendar and we do celebrate the 1st of January just like other denizens of this planet.
However, the milk that I used had already either crossed its expiry date or had started to curdle and I did not notice before pouring it in. As it started to break apart instead of mixing in nicely with the other ingredients, I was struck by remorse as to why I hadn't bothered to check the state of the milk.
After some time, I decided to taste it anyway before tossing it into the sink if it was truly horrible. Lo and behold/taste, it was yummy! It had a flavor and consistency similar to that of condensed milk. My roommate loved it, too.
My father later told me that such 'paayaasam' dishes with curdled milk are pretty tasty. Why hadn't I thought of the famous Bengali sweets, 'rosgolla' and 'rasmalaai' both made from milk cheese before berating myself?
Sometimes, when things do not turn out the way you planned, you may be in for a pleasant surprise and have a new experience that will enrich and reward you which you would perhaps have never sought out deliberately.

The second experience was more recent, just a few days or weeks ago. I was about to plug in my rice cooker to make a nice pot of 'basmati' rice. A tiny spider suddenly crawled out from the crevice of the rice cooker under the heating plate. Although I cleaned the area, I did not feel like loading the cooker for fear of incinerating the tiny creature. [Note: This may not sound very logical to many of you.]

I started cooking it in a pressure cooker open-pot style and knowing that it would probably be a little mushy, changed my plans and started to prepare cilantro 'pongal'. This is because the key to cooking rice with a certain consistency is the amount of water and I usually add a little more water in the case of a pressure cooker just to be safe.
A common form of 'pongal' is a mushy dish made of rice and 'moong daal' (split mung bean lentils), seasoned with ghee, turmeric, curry leaves, salt and lots of black pepper. It is commonly served as 'prasaad' (the 'd' is pronounced as the 'th' in 'they') in the Vishnu (Perumaal) temples of Tamil Nadu in southern India and is one of the most comforting nutritious foods on a cold winter morning or evening. 'Prasaad' is an offering made to God which is later distributed to devotees.
My version of the 'pongal' had chopped cilantro leaves and black pepper and if I remember correctly, sesame oil instead of ghee and no daal, turmeric or curry leaves. It was a resounding hit and a suitable accompaniment to my other dishes of the day, much better than plain rice cooked in a rice cooker.

In this instance, too, I was inspired to take a different route than what I had initially planned and the outcome was better than the one envisioned originally.

The most mundane experiences of every day life have the potential to teach us some profound life lessons.

Tuesday, January 03, 2012

The new year fitness craze and playing for fun

A couple of years ago, I was reading some random news on the Internet and came across an interesting and inspiring snippet - a lady's New Year resolution to do just one push-up every day.

Most of us make resolutions to eat healthy, get fit, lose weight, find a mate, find a new job, etc. only to slide off course in a couple of months. Instead of that, taking baby steps goes a long way.

A post by a blogger I have recently discovered through No Meat Athlete talks about forming habits instead of vague resolutions. I've become a fan of that blog - and check it out pretty often.

Let me tell you a personal story about my inspiration to exercise.

When I was a child, I suddenly developed a craze for gymnastics. The India of my early and middle childhood years had no private television channels but the state run Doordarshan regularly telecast events such as the Olympics and the Asian and Commonwealth Games as well as Wimbledon and the other Grand Slams among many other competitions.
 For me, the Olympics and other summer games held a special appeal because of the wide array of sports and the sheer feeling of an international atmosphere that they create. Gymnasts and divers held the highest position of honor in my mind because they performed twirls and jumps that were out of this world and frankly very dangerous.
Around the time I was twelve years old, Doordarshan ran a weekly four part series titled, "Nadia", based on the early life and achievements of Nadia Comaneci, the golden girl of gymnastics, the first female to net a perfect 10 in the Olympics. I was mesmerized. My mother had to put up with my wailing as to why she had not enrolled me in the sport when I was still a tender, flexible child under five.  However, I fully knew that I was an extremely timid and sedentary child who could not even hoist herself up on the handlebars in the playground or climb trees like other kids effortlessly did.

On top of that, my school did not have a gymnastics program. In fact, the sport was hardly ever taught or practiced. An opportunity to train came through a program that was probably out-of-school but I was too old by then. I had heard stories of Romanian toddlers as young as two years of age being initiated into training. Twelve is considered too old to start especially for competitive gymnastics though I am not sure if someone else has succeeded in such an endeavor. See, you don't have to be 30 or 40 to feel old, age is a relative thing.

However, I still believed I would manage some of those feats. I scrawled pictures of a female gymnast with a pony tail in various somersaults and poses on blank pieces of paper.

Learning karate during the time I was around 10 helped, too. I still go gaga over Jackie Chan stunts and esoteric Asian masters of martial arts who whack a dozen bad guys like they are swatting a fly.

During school summer breaks, I diligently exercised every morning to improve my flexibility. Those were the times when the model-Miss India-Miss Universe craze had still not caught on and the talk of the town did not revolve around dress sizes, waistlines and weight. My motivation to exercise came from my childhood heroes and heroines and was about achieving something.
In fact, whatever flexibility I still have left after years of plodding away in front of a computer are because of my diligence in my childhood. I was a sincere student, too, and did not slack off during Physical Training classes in school.

Then, there were the tennis stars. Steffi Graf captured my heart like none has ever done since. I watched every Grand Slam semi-final and final I possibly could, especially the women's events. Wimbledon and the French Open were the ones that were aired at a civilized time though.  I cried when Graf once lost to Monica Seles and felt bad that Monica Seles was hurt by a crazed Steffi Graf fan because it took away from a fair playing field and somehow, Steffi's subsequent victories were twinged with a "What if Seles were still in her peak form and not stopped unfairly in her tracks?" 
Today, I do feel bad for Monica Seles, too. She was definitely capable of scaling much greater heights in her career.
By the way, both these players have their own websites - check out Steffi Graf's here and Monica Seles's here.

My parents were avid watchers of tennis, especially Wimbledon and they would rave about the epic Bjorn Borg-John McEnroe duels and Chris Evert-Martina Navratilova rivalry.
I dreamed of becoming a Grand Slam champion, too, and vaguely remember adding my name to the list of future champions in either gymnastics or tennis (I can't remember which one).

I still remember the day my father got home a sports magazine that featured Soviet gymnastics champions  - Svetlana Boginskaya and Irina Strunnikova (if I remember this name correctly). I went ballistic, jumping up and down and promptly received a scolding from my father who preferred quietness. My study cupboard had a huge poster of Steffi Graf with Stefan Edberg taken during Wimbledon.

There was absolutely no public lawn tennis court that was accessible to me. In fact, I had not laid eyes on a real tennis court or racket until I came to the United States. However, we played badminton in our neighborhood and we would imagine that we were would-be champions playing tennis.

Then, when I was in my teens and twenties, the Miss World-Miss Universe era had arrived in India with Indian beauty queens such as Sushmita Sen, Aishwarya Rai, Diana Hayden, Yukta Mookhey, Lara Dutta and Priyanka Chopra to name a few and I was inspired to enter the Miss India pageant, too. I began a daily regimen of sit-ups, full Hindi squats and spot jogging for half an hour every morning along with watching my diet and whittled down to my slimmest that I could ever remember. I ditched my Miss India plans later but continued the exercises on and off. 

Today, what one sees and hears day in and day out is about toning and tightening the butt and abs, losing twenty pounds and 'Before' and 'After' photos. Heck, even Reader's Digest now features some version of "Lose x pounds" on its cover.
Somewhere along the way, we have forgotten our childhood tendency to play for play's sake. Exercise can be fun and should be. That's what the author of says in this post, too.

I've recently started to learn yoga and as I try to perform the Padmasana (cross legged lotus pose with feet on top of your thighs) and the bridge pose, I try to envision the child who believed she could be a gymnast some day. Maybe I will get more flexible with regular practice, maybe I won't get very far but the very fact that I am doing something is an achievement by itself.

As one of my teachers had signed in my autograph book as I left school (I don't remember the exact words but definitely the gist),
"Ideals are like the stars
We may never reach them but 
they will guide our way."

My sports and fitness idols guide my path and as my yoga instructor and virtually every Zen master would say, "It is the journey that is important".