Dec 28, 2019

2019 in review

Another year coming to an end and this time, it is also the end of a decade. 2010s will be very special to me - I became a mom, identified my passion and learned more about myself. If 2000s was the decade I ran the rat race and followed the crowd, 2010s was the decade when I slowed down and focused on my priorities. My previous annual reviews are a reflection of that shift. 2019 is no different.

Self-reflection is a powerful tool and in the current age of distractions, we hardly invest any time in just being with our thoughts. On one cool January evening, I made this list of topics I wanted to learn more about. As I look back, consciously or unconsciously, most of the books I had picked up this year are inspired by this list.

Here's the list of books I completed in 2019 and quite a few (not listed) are in progress. Though I had set a goal to finish 40 books, I'm glad I was able to at least cross the 50% mark.
  1. Notes for Healthy Kids by Rujuta Diwekar
  2. Heartfulness way by Kamlesh Patel
  3. Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport
  4. The Wellness Sense by Om Swami
  5. The last gambit by Om Swami
  6. The third curve by Mansoor Khan
  7. The one-straw revolution by Masanobu Fukouka
  8. Until the clouds roll by by Ruskin Bond
  9. The magic weight loss pill by Luke Coutinho
  10. Finding Audrey by Sophie Kinsella
  11. Rusty and the magic mountain by Ruskin Bond
  12. Atomic Habits by James Clear
  13. Indistractable by Nir Eyal
  14. Naan Nammazhvar pesugiren by Nammazhvar
  15. Feel the fear and do it anyway by Susan Jeffers
  16. Gut by Guilia Enders
  17. The Biology of Belief by Bruce Lipton
  18. Designing Destiny by Kamlesh Patel
  19. Satvic Food book by Subah Jain
  20. Reversing Diabetes in 21 days by Nandita Shah
On the learning front, I also participated in a couple of workshops.
  1. Jago investor workshop on retirement planning and financial health. 
  2. Rails workshop organized by Railsgirls. I couldn't follow through on this, as other priorities took over. But I know I can get started on Rails development when I put my mind to it.
Writing/Blogging continued steadily this year as well - 68 posts in total. Out of these, my personal favorites are these:

Review of packaged foods continued in 2019 but not at the same rigor as in the previous two years. I guess I have covered most of the popular packaged foods on my Master List. This is one area I have sort of deprioritized for 2020.

Apart from reading and writing, the other activity that I thoroughly enjoy is Public Speaking. The talk I gave at PayPal on packaged foods was a memorable one. Bhoomi College invited me again this year to give a talk on packaged foods as part of the food module in Sustainability and Holistic Education courses. It is always a pleasure to meet like-minded people at Bhoomi. 

Fear of failure/ridicule is something I seem to be not getting affected much off late. This has made me more open to try new experiments and experiences.

I tried something totally out of my comfort zone during the open mic event at my apartment - a 5 min standup comedy act focusing on packaged foods. The fact that there is humor/sarcasm in me came to light this year 🙂 On one bored summer morning in May, I thought I would try my hands at creating memes with the focus being food. I downloaded a meme creator app based on Tamil movies, created a few and uploaded them on Instagram. I thought people would dismiss them as mokkai (useless) but many wrote to me saying that they enjoyed my memes. Since then, I've been creating memes whenever inspiration strikes and I'm enjoying this process. I have created close to 100 memes this year and it's been such a fun experience.

As an experiment, I launched a 1-month program titled "Dejunk your diet" to help people eliminate packaged/junk foods from their diet using habits and behavioral changes. 6 people enrolled with me this year and I hope the program helped them to become aware of their eating habits and triggers. Due to logistic reasons and coordination efforts, I decided not to continue this program further.

I tried organizing a workshop in my apartment on the topic "How to read nutrition labels" targeted at children. Only one parent enrolled his daughter. It was such a disappointment and I remember calling my Insta friend one evening and polambifying (rambling) "What am I doing with my life" type questions. If you are reading this, thanks for listening, V!

Along the same lines, I organized a meetup in Chennai to discuss about the ingredients in packaged foods. 80 people voted on Instagram that they are interested but ONLY one person showed up. I'm thankful to her to have come all the way to meet me. Else, it would have been such a bummer.

A friend and I had also planned a workshop in Chennai, which we had to cancel due to few registrations. 

These experiences made me think a lot about my purpose and in the end, I arrived at the same conclusion that Gita taught us - "kadamayai sei, palanai edhir paarkaathey" (Do your duty, don't think about the results). 

On the professional work front, I did a small consulting project for a friend early this year. Around May/June, I decided to reapply for software projects and tried quite a bit looking through job opportunities. Most of them that came my way are full time, regular job openings. I was quite clear in my mind on the kind of opportunities that I want, based on my schedule. I almost decided that such flexible opportunities are no longer available. Call it serendipity - early this month, I found an interesting opportunity with a startup in a growing space that fits my requirements. I'm excited to learn more about the applications of Data Science and Machine Learning and this is going to be one of my core focus areas in 2020. That moment when I can use thalaivar's famous dialogue - "thirumba vandhuttennu sollu" ;-)

On self-improvement, I incorporated quite a few positive habits this year. 
I started doing weekly meal planning on a regular basis.
I started maintaining a habit tracker to track my daily habits.
After reading Digital Minimalism, I tried reducing my phone usage and set a specific time slot for using Instagram (the only social media where I tend to spend a lot of time)
I started maintaining a happiness journal to record moments of happiness in my daily life.

Though I followed through these habits for many weeks, I seemed to derail the moment my routine changes. I plan to be consistent with these habits in 2019.

On health and fitness, regular home-cooked food and Yoga practice continued this year as well. I cooked many new dishes though I didn't really keep track of them.

On the family front, we celebrated most of the festivals in traditional way. I want my daughter D to be aware of the traditions behind these festivals and it is my responsibility to ensure she has exposure to all of them. I enjoyed making various festival sweets and savories. This year, I conquered my fear of string consistency 😉 Gained good practice in making mysorepak and pori urundai.

Compared to 2018, we did travel quite a bit in 2019. We visited Chikmagalur, Vaikom (Kerala) and Yercaud. We did many one-day drives to places nearby Bangalore - Lepakshi, Antaragange, Nandi hills, Antaragange, Savandurga and Manchinabele dam. We also visited this place Indian Musical Experience in JP Nagar, which D loved it. For me, the most memorable one was the weekend trip to Gumalapura farm, organized by Bhoomi. And how can I miss the item that got checked off my bucket list - attending ARR's concert for the first time?

Overall, a memorable, balanced year for me. If I had to sum up in one line, "mysorepak podavum kathuppom, machine learning algorithms-um kathuppom".

Wish you all a very happy, healthy and bright New Year 2020!! May all your dreams and wishes come true!

Will do a separate post on my intentions and focus areas for 2020. Do take some time in the next few days to reflect back on the year gone by and plans for 2020. Having been doing this annual review exercise for years now, I can vouch for the positive effects it brings in.

Dec 25, 2019

Leading a disciplined life in 2020

Before I proceed further, let me state upfront that I'm quite far away from calling my life a disciplined one. But discipline is something that I constantly strive towards. This word "discipline" came into my life many years ago and I remember that evening sometime in Nov 1991. I was in 6th grade and I returned home with the progress report card of my second midterm exams. I had secured 2nd rank in class and my mom was furious. I was a 1st rank holder during the first midterm and Quarterly exams. I slipped to 2nd rank. In hindsight, this might all sound ridiculous, funny, does-it-even-matter etc. But let me tell you what my mom told me that day - "Discipline ee illa ippo ellaam. romba neram velayadikkittu irukke nee" (No discipline at all, playing a lot these days). My mom inculcated the competitive nature in me and her insistence towards 1st rank helped me in many ways during my childhood days. There are pros and cons to this parenting approach and I'm not going to discuss them here. 

She then motivated me to prepare a timetable for myself and allocate time for play, study, TV etc. For most of my school and college life, I continued this habit of maintaining a schedule. Though Dil Chahta Hai is one of my favorite movies, I don't like the scene where Sameer makes fun of Subodh (Pooja's boyfriend) for his rigid adherence to schedules. No, time tables are NOT boring.

Let's come back to the topic - Self Discipline. 
The dictionary definition states that Self Discipline is the ability to make yourself do things you know you should do even when you do not want to.

Warren Buffet says, "We don't have to be smarter than the rest. We have to be more disciplined than the rest."

I came across this beautiful proverb in Tamil -  Manidhanai maattri amaikkum vidhi avanadhu ozhukkame (The rule that propels man towards change is his discipline). 

Luke Coutinho emphasizes discipline and consistency as two important criteria for good health and well-being.

There is a strong correlation between self-discipline and success in all aspect of our lives - be it our career, health, relationships and our personal growth.

As we are ready to step into a new decade, I wanted to highlight a few new trends introduced in the 2010s that are coming in the way of leading a disciplined life.
  1. Proliferation of Smartphones - We are glued to our smartphones, right from the time we wake up till the time we hit the bed. Studies show that an average person accesses his smartphone 110 times a day. Any fleeting moment of boredom, we quickly reach for the comfort of our smartphones. There's hardly a minute of do-nothing in our lives. How did this habit got so ingrained in ourselves in just a matter of a few years? Let's look back at our lives at the dawn of this decade. For instance, in 2010, I had long commute times to work and I used to take BMTC/Volvo buses (shift 3-4 buses to travel one way) every single day. I used to either read a book, listen to music on my iPod or just look outside the window and be with my own thoughts.  Fast forward to 2019 - A few days back, I was on a BMTC Volvo bus and all I could see was everyone glued to their smartphones, engrossed in some form of visual stimulation.
  2. Digital streaming platforms (Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hotstar) - Given the low data costs, we now have access to so many movies and web series at the touch of a button. Terms like "binge-watching" and "binge-racing" have become common parlance. Gone are the days when we would patiently wait for the weekly episode of our favorite serial. These new streaming platforms provide such instant gratification and push us towards watching the subsequent episodes in a matter of 3-4 seconds. We might have started with an episode for 20 minutes and the next thing we know, we are seated on our comfy couch for 2 hours and have watched 6 episodes. How do we ensure we don't succumb to these addictive behaviors? The need for self-discipline and setting rules for ourselves is the only way to gain control of our lives.
  3. Availability of more processed foods - Although processed foods had started pervading our lives from the 1990s, they made inroads into common man's hands in the 2000s and 2010s. Most of these processed foods are designed to be addictive. Until and unless we set some ground rules for ourselves, we can easily get into the rabbit hole of getting addicted to packaged foods for the sake of convenience, taste and herd behavior. The fast-food chains have setup shop in every nook and corner of all cities and even Tier-II towns across the country. It has become so much easier to get a pizza than get a plate of paniyarams.
  4. Food delivery services - In the 2000s and early 2010s, pizza delivery was the ONLY kind of food delivery service that was available. Thanks to smartphone penetration, numerous food delivery services are accessible at the touch of an icon, well supported by the ample funding by VCs. The way we think of food is changing in many ways. We order food, just because we are bored. We order desserts at random times, just because we crave something sweet or because we are upset. The fact that these food items come in cheap plastic containers doesn't seem to be bothering most of us. Convenience seems to be the top priority for every single decision, especially those that are related to food.
  5. Shopping apps - The introduction of EMI and cash-on-delivery options on e-commerce websites, not to forget the SALE (with discounts galore) running throughout the year, we are constantly being tempted by offers and deals. We end up buying stuff that we don't actually need. Fast fashion with trends changing every 3-4 months and sale promotions emphasizing "refresh your wardrobe" / "update your wardrobe" ensure that our wardrobes are cluttered with clothes that we haven't worn more than 3-4 times. Clutter comes in the way of leading a disciplined life, causing stress and affecting our mental peace.

One might argue about the benefits these trends have brought in, but my main issue with these trends is how they can quickly derail our efforts into leading a disciplined life. I'm not blaming these technologies but it is our responsibility to be aware of our cognitive biases and behaviors.

If you believe in setting goals for the New Year, I would highly urge you to think about goals that can help you inculcate discipline, amidst all these distraction-causing trends.

A few ideas to get you started:
  1. I'd watch ONLY 1 episode per day of this series I'm watching
  2. I'd stop using all gadgets post 9PM
  3. I'd start using my smartphone ONLY after an hour of waking up
  4. I'd incorporate do-nothing minutes in my day
  5. I'd just stay in the moment and pass my waiting time (in a queue for eg) instead of mindless scrolling through my social media feed
  6. I'd schedule fixed time for social media and stick to it
  7. I'd place a max of 2 orders per month from food delivery services
  8. I'd pick up ONLY 1 pack of processed food during my weekly shopping
  9. I'd buy clothes ONLY once a year during Diwali/Christmas
Do feel free to customize these triggers according to your needs and context. A disciplined life helps us in many ways:
  1. Helps us to simplify our days
  2. Helps us to differentiate between our needs and wants
  3. Empowers us to focus on the essentials
  4. Supports us in reaching our goals
  5. Drives us towards mindfulness and being aware of ourselves
Do share your thoughts on how you are leading a disciplined life amidst these distractions.

Dec 4, 2019

Book Review: The Biology of Belief by Bruce Lipton

This year is turning out to be one of the best years, reading-wise. The books that I chose to read this year are such interesting, thought-provoking ones. As many of you might know, I'm a huge fan of Dr.Sivaraman. I love to listen to his talks on youtube. During one such talk, he mentioned about the book "The biology of belief" when he was briefly speaking about epigenetics. It is one of the areas that I wanted to learn about this year. 

The basic premise of Bruce Lipton's "The biology of belief" is that our beliefs/perceptions control our biology and that environmental factors play an important trigger in how our bodies react and respond. The author has taken an alternate viewpoint of the popular Darwinian thinking that our genes determine our life. 

He takes the reader on a fascinating journey in elaborating this alternate viewpoint and touches upon a wide range of topics, right from the cellular structure, genetics, environmental influence, signal transduction, quantum physics, the role of conscious vs subconscious minds, etc. The best part is that not once you feel overwhelmed by complex scientific terminologies. The author ensures that a layman reader can easily understand the whole point of view through the use of stories, metaphors and personal anecdotes. 

In the first two chapters, he explains the issues behind the widely accepted belief that we are subservient to the power of our genes. He writes,

"Genes are not destiny! Environmental influences, including nutrition, stress and emotions can modify those genes without changing their basic blueprint. And those modifications can be passed onto future generations as surely as DNA blueprints are passed on via the double helix"

The proteins inside our cell membranes sense the environmental signals and responds through cellular behavior.

"Receptor antennas can also read vibrational energy fields such as light, sound and radio frequencies. If an energy vibration in the environment resonates with a receptor's antenna, it will alter the protein's charge, causing the receptor to change shape."

He then correlates this understanding with the way how a computer chip works and the fact that similar to how computer chips are programmable, cells are programmable too. It was such an "aha" moment while reading about this inter-linkage. The "aha" moments continued to hit me as I progressed to chapter 4 on quantum physics. The author elaborates on the role of energy, good vs bad vibes that we feel and the effectiveness of energy-based healing treatments. The explanation of the role of histamine and the side effects of antihistamine drugs was just mind-blowing (Pg 76). 

The best chapter according to me is Chapter 5 that talks about mind over body, actions of the conscious vs subconscious minds and placebos vs nocebos. This one chapter is worth rereading multiple times, given the numerous insights. A few of my favorite lines below:

"The actions of the subconscious mind are reflexive in nature and are not governed by reason or thinking."

"Endowed with the ability to be self-reflective, the self-conscious mind is extremely powerful. It can observe any programmed behavior we are engaged in, evaluate the behavior and consciously decide to change the program...... The conscious mind's capacity to override the subconscious mind's preprogrammed behaviors is the foundation of free will."

"The human brain's ability to "learn" perceptions is so advanced that we can actually acquire perceptions indirectly from teachers. Once we accept the perceptions of others as truths, their perceptions become hardwired into our own brains, becoming our truths."

As a parent, I could totally relate to the final chapter - Conscious parenting. The beliefs we learned from our parents play an important role in our subconscious programming.  There are quite a few takeaways for new parents in this chapter.

"Let go of unfounded fears and take care not to implant unnecessary fears and limiting beliefs in your children's subconscious minds."

I cannot recommend this book enough. Such an eye-opener and a fascinating read!

Dec 3, 2019

Omega-3 fats and plant based sources of ALA

There has been an increased awareness of Omega-3 fats in the past few years. Media has been buzzing with multiple articles on Omega-3 fats, supplements and fortified foods. In this article, I have tried to summarize my understanding of this fat group.

Disclaimer: I'm not a medical professional. Do your due diligence before making any changes to your diet.

Omega-3 fats belong to the family of polyunsaturated fats (PUFA).

They are an integral part of cell membranes throughout the body and affect the function of the cell receptors in these membranes.  According to this source, Omega-3 fats lower blood pressure and heart rate, improve blood vessel function, and, at higher doses, lower triglycerides and may ease inflammation, which plays a role in the development of atherosclerosis.

The three main omega-3 fatty acids are 
  • short-chain alpha-linolenic acid (ALA)
  • long-chain eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA)
  • long-chain docosahexaenoic acid (DHA)
ALAs are essential fats i.e. our body cannot make them from scratch and so we need to consume through foods or supplements.  The RDA (Required Dietary Allowance) of ALA is as below:

I looked into IFCT-2017 (Indian Food Composition Tables) and prepared this list of food sources rich in ALA, along with their respective values.

Alpha Linolenic Acid (ALA)
(mg per 100 gms)
Wheat flour atta45
Amaranth seed (brown)43

Black gram whole601
Black gram dal566
Moth bean240
Cowpea brown207
Cowpea white203
Green gram whole180
Green gram dal157
Dry peas145
Bengal gram whole117
Bengal gram dal116

Green Leafy Veg
Drumstick leaves446
Curry leaves417
Methi leaves362
Colocasia leaves335
Mint leaves286
Amaranth leaves, green247
Mustard leaves240
Beet greens207
Coriander leaves169

Other veggies
Bean scarlet, tender (perumpayar)227
Zucchini green152
Field beans96
Knol kol71
Zucchini yellow71
French beans69
Cluster beans63

Wood apple636
Lemon juice83
Apricot, dried80

Condiments and Spices
Fenugreek seeds1082
Turmeric powder377
Pepper, black258
Cardamom, black197
Cardamom, green172

Nuts and Seeds
Linseeds (flaxseeds)12956
Garden cress seeds7484
Mustard seeds3341
Gingelly seeds120

Our body can convert ALA into EPA and DHA. This conversion happens in the liver. Research on Omega-3 fats is still ongoing and I couldn't find any conclusive proof on the conversion of ALA into EPA and DHA, as to how much of it gets converted. There are multiple factors that influence the ability of our body to convert ALA into EPA and DHA. 
  • The higher the Omega-6 fats consumption is or the higher the ratio of Omega-6 : Omega-3, the lower the conversion is. Omega-6 is found mainly in refined vegetable oils, which is extensively used in fried foods and processed foods. The acceptable ratio of Omega-6 : Omega-3 is between 2:1 and 4:1
  • Including foods rich in nutrients such as pyridoxine (Vitamin B6), biotin, magnesium and zinc help convert the parent omega-3 ALA into EPA and DHA

Fishes are a good source of EPA and DHA but they may contain mercury, heavy metals, PCBs, dioxins and other contaminants, thanks to severe degradation of the quality of our water sources.

The recommendation for vegetarians and vegans is to include algae-based EPA and DHA supplements. But my point of concern is the quality of these supplements, not to forget the high costs.

Being a vegetarian, I'm not planning to consume fish oil supplements. I don't plan to buy algae-based ones either. I plan to ensure my Omega-6 intake isn't too high. Using the above list of ALA-rich foods sources as a reference, I'll make sure my intake of ALA is good enough, and my body will take care of the conversion as per my need. This is my point of view.


Dec 2, 2019

The make or buy decision

After a long time, we (K, D and me) went out shopping on a Saturday afternoon. We had a clear intent of what we need to buy and we stuck to it (mostly!). It took a good 2.5 hours to shop for a few clothes and footwear for all of us. We didn't stop for our evening tea anywhere, instead, we chose to come home and I straight headed to the kitchen to make ourselves a strong cup of masala chai along with popcorn (made with dry corn, salt and oil). After 15 minutes, we were sipping tea and munching on hot popcorn.

This made me think about our decision-making process. How do we decide whether we want to make something ourselves or buy from a vendor? "Buy" doesn't necessarily mean products; it also includes services that we avail from a service provider.

There has been extensive research done on the "Build vs Buy" decision framework in the enterprise space. If a particular activity is closely tied to the "core" function of an organization, then organizations are better off building it themselves and taking complete ownership of it. If an activity is part of the "context" (activities that organizations need to do to stay in business), then they can choose to outsource to specialists/external parties.

I'm more interested to explore how these decisions are made by consumers. What factors determine whether to make it ourselves OR use the services of an external vendor? Is the "core vs context" model applicable for individual decisions? If so, shouldn't FOOD fall under the core category since it is a basic need? Why are we outsourcing/relying on food corporations to fulfill this basic need?

Now going back to my personal example. Let's take the case of tea:
Ever since we switched to using naattu sakkarai (country jaggery) for tea, both K and I don't seem to like tea made with white sugar. 
Making tea at home has become such a super easy task, given the years of practice I've had.
I can choose to add different spices that we like, and make it tastier.

In the case of popcorn, 
making homemade popcorn is so easy - the effort is literally less than a minute.
I can make it healthy by using less salt, cold pressed groundnut oil and good quality corn.
Also, it is super economical to make it at home. The multiplex cinemas are just plain ripping us off with their tub of popcorn priced at a whopping Rs.400 price point.

Let's take a moment to think about clothing. I have heard that people who knew how to stitch saree blouses always prefer to stitch their blouses themselves without seeking a tailor's assistance. They are clear about what fit suits them, the patterns, designs etc. 

I usually give my blouses to stitch to a tailor. Though she does a good job, her rates are extremely high - Rs.900 for a blouse (with lining). Sometimes, I take the material to Chennai and give it to a tailor there, where the rates are around Rs.450. I understand that the tailor invests her time, he/she has the required skill. Am I ready to invest my time to learn a new skill? How long would it take for me to learn?

I think the make or buy decision depends on the following criteria. We tend to make something ourselves IF most of these criteria are met:
  • It should be easy, quick and less time consuming
  • We should have the required skill and knowledge
  • We possess the tools/technologies involved in making it
  • We understand that the cost of making it ourselves is far less as compared to buying it from the marketplace
  • Last but not least, we have the right motivation and interest levels to pursue the task of making it

To validate these criteria, I'll use an example from my life:
I give my family's clothes for ironing (pressing) to a service provider. Every Sunday, he comes home, picks up the clothes to be ironed, presses them and delivers the clothes by the end of the day. Now I know many people who iron their clothes themselves at home. But somehow, I have never taken up this activity.
  1. I don't own an iron box at home
  2. Though I know how to iron clothes, I have never really attempted it regularly
  3. I have never done a cost-benefit analysis per se. I'm paying the service provider money to do this work, so I can use my time in other activities that I enjoy
  4. I find ironing clothes to be a tedious, boring activity. People who do it themselves might disagree with me on this
It is the same case with cooking which I find to be an interesting, therapeutic activity. Some of you reading this might not feel the same way. 

There are certain specialists who are experts in their own field. We have been trained to use their expertise whenever needed.

What if all of us are trained on certain essential life skills? If not at an expert level, we can at least raise to a state where we know our way around. Some of these essential skills are cooking, sewing, managing finances (taxes, investments), growing a vegetable garden, basic carpentry, handling electrical fixtures etc.

The whole idea of whether one should be a generalist or a specialist is such a fascinating area for me. I'm yet to conclude which one is better, but from my personality, I believe I love to be a generalist with multiple skills at a decent level THAN be a specialist with 1-2 skills at a mastery level.

This post is just a random collection of thoughts on various topics. I just wanted to dump it all, so I could get some clarity.

Nov 19, 2019

Farm visit at Gumalapura - my experience

Many years back, my husband K and I attended a 4-day "Art of Living" course. One of the phrases that the instructor mentioned is clearly etched in my memory - "Expectations reduce joy, Surprises increase joy". When I enrolled for the 2-day weekend farm visit organized by Bhoomi College in their Gumalapura organic farm, I absolutely had no expectations. All I wanted was a break from the usual weekend routine.

It was such a memorable experience for our whole family. If you love nature, farms, fresh air and interaction with good set of people, I'd highly recommend you enroll for this weekend programme. Yes, get surprised like us. It will be a unique experience for the kids as well as city-bred adults.

Don't read the finer details mentioned below. I'm jotting down here, so I can revisit the experience through my own words years later. Even if I go there again, I may or may not feel the same joy I felt while returning home on Sunday evening.

****Spoiler Alert******

We packed our bags on Friday night, started early on Saturday morning and reached Gumalapura around 9:30AM. The winding roads of the countryside, green fields and eucalyptus trees on either side were such a treat to the eyes. The rest of the group who had enrolled for the programme had already arrived. After a quick round of introductions, we headed for breakfast - fresh and piping hot pongal and coconut chutney. 

We then started for a walk around the farm. The farmer Mr.Ashok showed us fields of paddy, horsegram, ragi, groundnut etc. He also took us to a couple of caves that were around 500-600 years old. After walking around, we were served fresh lemon juice sweetened with jaggery. Felt so refreshing, sipping the drink standing near the fields. The weather was perfect that morning. 

The next activity was to make panchagavya as a team. The organizing team brought all the required ingredients - cow urine, cow poop, ghee, milk and curd (5 things from the cows). They also add bananas, honey, coconut water and jaggery. We had to mix all these 9 ingredients together. Though I was hesitant to touch the first two ingredients, there was an enthusiastic 10-year old girl who mixed the poop with ghee without a hint of disgust. Hats off to her. Mr.Ashok explained the proportions, how to dilute it and at what stage panchagavya needs to be sprayed on plants.

It was time for a homely vegetarian lunch - rice, veggie-loaded sambhar, beans palya and radish salad. The salad, in particular, was so tasty without the pungent flavor of radish. After lunch, we played a fun team activity of rolling a marble using broken pipes. Though it seemed like an easy activity, it required tremendous coordination as a team. 

We then headed again to the farm for a novel experience of riding a tractor. We all plowed a small plot of land and also got to drive a tractor, which was such a fun experience. We then manually tilled another small plot of land and planted dill and coriander seeds. We also got to understand how sprinklers need to be setup.

We were then taken to a beautiful spot, near a lake and a spectacular view of the valley. Mr.Ashok explained the history of Gumalapura village and the annual temple festival celebrated in praise of Goddess, sitting in front of a spooky cave whose length is around 11 kms and ends in another temple. Sitting on the rocks, inhaling plenty of fresh air, watching a brilliant view of the sunset and the vast expanse of the valley and hills, eating bhelpuri and sipping tea - such a magical evening it was!

We returned to our rooms, freshened up a bit, played badminton and football until it became dark. A bonfire was set up and we all sat around it, listening to music, admiring the remarkable night sky with plenty of stars - a rare sight for city dwellers like us. Dinner was again a fresh, homely meal - chapatis, bhindi sabzi, veg palya and curd rice. 

After dinner, we went to the terrace, lied down on the floor, watching the night sky and just staying quiet without talking. When we asked D what was your most memorable experience during the trip, she pointed to this very moment.

After a long day, we went back to our allotted rooms and slept. Being a new place, D couldn't sleep well and woke up multiple times as she is not used to the sounds of the night insects.

The next day, we woke up early and after a quick cup of tea, we headed for a trek into the forests. Climbing up the small hill in the tiny pathway and walking into the morning fog, we noticed a spot of fresh elephant poop. The guides who accompanied us asked us to wait as they went ahead to check for any wild elephants in the vicinity. After they came back and gave a go-ahead, we continued the trek and came to a nice spot with a magnificent view of the mountains. As we sat down at this peaceful place, we kept hearing loud music emanating from somewhere. The guide told us that such loud music is played in a resort near a place named Muthayalmaduvu. Loud music at 8AM on a Sunday morning. Imagine the noise on a Saturday night and how it would affect the animals in that area. 

Pathetic humans we are! Why spoil the peace and serenity of the jungle? 

Anyway, we all sat quietly and ate some oranges and groundnut chikkis. Some of us meditated for a little bit. As we were heading back, the guides spotted a herd of wild elephants in the distance. We were all thrilled to see them and how they walked together as a group. D was so happy to see the baby elephant. 

It was quite a trek, exploring the vast expanse of the jungle and we were told that the distance we would have covered would be around 3.5 kms. My first thought was "That's it? We walked so much and sweated quite a bit".

After a quick shower, we had a yum breakfast of Poha and chutney, followed by jaggery tea. The cooks here in this farm have some sort of magic in their hands - even the simplest of foods taste so good.

Next was farm work and we planted butter fruit saplings. This visit opened my eyes to the sheer amount of physical effort that is being invested by a farmer. I'm not exaggerating when I say that my respect for food, farmers and nature has increased multi-fold after this trip.

We were free for the rest of the morning. Had tea and bananas, casually chatting with other group members while children were busy learning to make fish and crab using coconut leaves from the cook anna, also got a feel of the kitchen as we all helped a bit in chopping up veggies. Sunday lunch was totally sumptuous - Karnataka style veg pulao, cucumber raitha, mixed veg salad, potato palya and the yummax millet payasam, which we all took 2-3 servings.

A couple of the group members asked me to talk to the kids about packaged foods. So we all sat down and had an impromptu discussion on ingredients of packaged foods. I felt so happy that D also pitched in and shared her thoughts about sugar and sodium in junk foods.

The kids were then given an activity to draw their farm on a chart paper. The 2 day exposure has given them enough sparks to think about what their farm would look like.

After a final wrap-up on how we felt about the whole experience, we had our last cup of tea along with some pakodas. We bought some fresh organic palak and amaranth greens. We also got home a couple of tomato saplings. It was time to bid goodbye and carry home a load of memorable experiences.

The organizers were brilliant. They had planned and orchestrated the whole event beautifully. We also got a chance to meet many like-minded people and have interesting conversations. 

Yes, I came home with such a happy, grateful smile. One of the best trips we have ever done with D.

And the best part was that I didn't feel the urge to check my phone in these 2 days. K took a few photos on his phone but we didn't click as many pics as we would have normally taken. 

What I learned about myself - Put me amidst a farm, fresh air, open spaces and a group of like-minded people, my energy levels are totally different.

Nov 14, 2019

Book Review: Gut by Giulia Enders

Nutrition-related books have become quite popular these days, as people are more curious to find out healthy options to eat and diets to follow for weight loss and preventive wellness. The saying - "It is not what you eat, it is what you absorb that makes a difference" has certainly a lot of merit to it. 

Earlier this year, I had made a list of topics I wanted to learn more about. Specifically, on nutrition, I wanted to learn more about the role of our gut. As I was looking for books related to this topic, a friend recommended me this particular book written by Giulia Enders.

What a fascinating and insightful read it is! The author has taken the complex process of our digestive system and explained it with so much wit and humor. If you had taken up Biology in your high school, the chapters related to different parts of the gut and their role in digestion would be a good revision. They took me back to my 12th grade and I surprisingly remembered every single detail. 

The role of saliva, tonsils, how food is absorbed in the small intestine from the perspective of carbohydrates and fats all form such a good foundation to unraveling how our complex digestive system works. The author also explains various digestion-related issues such as food allergies, food intolerances (lactose/fructose intolerance, gluten sensitivity etc). Though I really enjoyed reading these chapters, the one on the linkage between gut and brain was really the turning point for me. I was so engrossed and fascinated to read about how our gut influences our behavior.

"A gut that does not feel good might subtly affect our mood, and a healthy, well-nourished gut can discreetly improve our sense of wellbeing."

"Stress is thought to be among the most important stimuli discussed by the brain and the gut."

"Stress of any kind activates nerves that inhibit the digestive process, which means we not only extract less energy from our food, but we also take longer to digest it, putting the gut under unnecessary extra strain."

The following chapters on the importance of our gut's microbiome and their role in our immunity, synthesizing vitamins and minerals and much to my surprise, the way they can trigger weight gain were truly eye-opening. It has given me new areas to read up on.

For example, this particular passage gave me an "aha" moment

"Our satiety signal transmitters increase considerably when we eat the food that our bacteria prefer. And what our bacteria prefer is food that reaches the large intestine undigested, where they can then gobble it up."

What I could infer from this chapter is the importance of a balanced meal with a good amount of fiber, prebiotics and complex carbohydrates, from varied sources.

The author also talks about how various bad bacteria affect our health - salmonellae, helicobacter, toxoplasmata etc. 

Last but not the least, the author talks about how our obsession with hyper cleanliness is impacting our health in the form of allergies and autoimmune disorders. And increased use of antibiotics leading to resistant bacteria, a threat looming large.

The role of prebiotics and probiotics is briefly touched upon. I would have loved to see more in-depth coverage as there's quite a bit of hoopla around these two as external supplements.

If you are interested in food, nutrition and human physiology, I highly recommend this book. Unputdownable, if there's such a word!

Nov 11, 2019

Self-reliance in Food

One of the goals that I'm working towards is to become self-reliant as much as possible in different walks of my life. Given the uncertain situations related to climate change, environmental degradation and the various health-related issues, I believe that becoming self-reliant is the ONLY way to cope with the challenges of the future, for the sake of our's, our children's and our planet's well-being. The concept of self-reliance is not a novel idea - that's how most of our grandparents and our ancestors led their lives. Our generation (and to some extent, our parents' generation) completely moved away from this principle of self-reliance. We are dependent on market forces for every little thing to lead our day-to-day life - right from the toothpaste we use the first thing in the morning to the mobile app we use to track our food intake by the end of the day.

As these market forces are becoming more and more centralized, a few big corporations dictate what the general public should buy. From being a country with many small scale entrepreneurs, we have shifted away to a model where we allow ourselves to be dependent on these 4-5 big corporations for our every single need. 

Self-reliance concerning food is what I want to talk about in this post. Let's look at our relationship with food across different stages - food cultivation, food preservation, cooking and consumption. This is a random post of thoughts across different areas of food. As I gain more clarity, I should be able to articulate this whole concept of self-reliance in a refined manner. But I hope you get a general idea here.

As I make my grocery shopping list every time, I want to reduce the number of items I buy from the store as much as possible. As I don't own a farm, I'm dependent on an external vendor from whom I procure the regular staples like rice, millets, pulses, spices etc. As I don't own a press for extracting oils, I'm dependent on a vendor from whom I buy cold-pressed oils. 

For the value-added products, I prefer to DIY myself - spice powders, batters, pastes etc to name a few.  As I don't buy any ready-to-eat packaged foods, I make most snacks at home. I strongly believe that home cooking is the ONLY way to preserve our health.  The enormous VC funding that is being poured onto food delivery apps indicates that these brands want to grab our wallet share of the daily food budget, which is neither good for our health nor for our environment. 

Our reliance on external factors doesn't stop there. We continue to depend on apps to tell us what to eat, how much to eat, when to eat etc. The fact that users log their daily meals seems to be THE main criteria that boost the valuation of health and fitness tracker apps these days. Yes, food logging is a helpful activity as a post-facto to make us feel conscious and aware of the food we eat daily, which is very much possible using a simple notebook and a pen. If we listen to our stomach, we will automatically know whether we need to eat 2 idlis, 3 idlis or no idlis for breakfast today. Yet, we seem to outsource this simple task to a tracker app and make ourselves dependent on one more external factor. How our personal data is being misused and missold is something to be concerned about.

Let's take a moment and travel back in time - homemade snacks, homemade pickles, homemade spice powders, flours ground at a local mill, homemade pappad/vathal/vadagam etc, green leafy veggies grown in the backyard, some of our grandparents even had a few fruit trees in their home garden. 

If we cannot be self-reliant on some of these areas, let's at least take the help of our local community - 
buy greens from a local organic farm (instead of buying from a multi-chain supermarket), 
invest in a community farm and get a share of the produce grown locally (instead of buying imported produce), 
buy snacks/pickles/healthy homecooked food from a home chef (instead of ordering from Swiggy or loading the fridge/pantry with junk foods), 
patronize the flour mill in your neighborhood (instead of buying highly processed branded flours) 

These are just some of the ideas that I could think of right now. I'm sure there are more we could come up with. Such a model generates employment opportunities and enables REAL value creation. It is appalling to see so many business models generating pseudo-value and getting a ton of investment from VCs. Influencer marketing, being one such business model.

Anyway, from a personal standpoint, these are my goals in the near future towards attaining self-reliance in food:
  1. Learn about organic gardening and grow more greens and veggies in my balcony garden
  2. Find a good flour mill nearby and get the flours ground by myself (no more packaged flours)
  3. Learn the recipes of value-added products that I currently buy - sathumaavu kanji, kadala urundais (chikkis), papad, pickles.
What are your thoughts on self-reliance? If this is something that you are pursuing, let's connect and share ideas.

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