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Memories of Jewish India in Israel’s cassava crops

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Image source: www.haartez.com

Meir Eliahu opens the gates leading to the numerous hothouses in the fields of Moshav Shahar. To the right of the path is a field of turmeric plants with big shiny leaves; to the left, young ginger is growing; Indian okra and Thai black-eyed peas wind around poles between the furrows. Hanging from the green vines covering the hothouse ceiling beams are bitter gourds, resembling large cucumbers covered in tiny lumps, like a flock of exotic yellow-and-green birds. The plants have all been neatly set out by the diligent farmer, but as tropical plants are wont to do, they insist on transcending their boundaries, lending the place a somewhat wild and most beautiful air.
We keep going until we reach one of the cassava plots. Eliahu, who is not very tall, nearly disappears amid the high shrubs. The cassava roots will shortly reach their peak – the brown outer peel, covered with clumps of dirt, conceals another, delicate pink peel – and will be pulled from the earth. “It was a common food back in India,” says Eliahu, recalling his childhood there. “Even rice was too expensive sometimes, so we ate cassava twice a day – usually boiled into a mush with coconut milk and bananas.”
The tropical plant (also known as manioc or yuca) originated in South America, and the starch-rich root has been consumed by humans since prehistoric times. For thousands of years, it was a key dietary component in South and Central America, and by the 17th century, after European explorers came to the New World, it also found its way to Southeast Asia and India. Tapioca is about the only cassava root product that made its way into Western cuisines (tapioca beads are made from the liquid starch that remains after the cassava root is rinsed before being pounded and ground into flour), but in Asia and South America, it is used in many other ways as well.
Meir’s wife Esther, who was also born in India, is eager to demonstrate to visitors nearly all the ways in which cassava root can be adapted and cooked. The breakfast table in the couple’s modest home is soon piled with heaping platters of cassava chips, made from paper-thin slices of cassava deep-fried to perfection (these are totally addictive); fried cassava and vegetable patties; cassava with curry and mustard leaves; delectable cassava-flour crepes with various vegetarian fillings; and sautéed slivered cassava served with coconut milk and a variety of sweet fruits. As we dine, the couple speaks of fond memories of the Jewish community of Cochin. We drink 
delicious turmeric tea – Meir’s fingertips are stained yellow from the fresh root – and talk about the culinary culture of the old country.

The last optimist

 

Meir Eliahu was born in 1943 in Parur, a small town north of Cochin in southern India. His parents and their ancestors before them were farmers who cultivated rice, coconuts and bananas. Eliahu, the second of six children, came to Israel on his own in the mid-1950s. At first he lived in a school run by the Youth Aliya program, and when his family later made aliya, he joined them on Kibbutz Na’an. The family later moved to Moshav Shahar in the Lachish region.

“In the beginning, my parents worked at menial jobs 
offered by the Jewish Agency,” says Eliahu. “Later, they and other families from Cochin who came to the moshav were able to purchase, with the Jewish Agency’s assistance, 20-dunam plots. They grew cucumbers, tomatoes and green beans. There wasn’t such a big variety as there is today. Then they said there was a crop we could grow – gladioli. The moshav saw it was profitable, and almost all the families switched to growing flowers for the local market. When the price of gladioli fell, they said there was another new thing that would be profitable – growing roses for export. We had a month-long training course and then we started growing roses. That lasted for nine or 10 years, and when that business collapsed we switched to growing house plants.”
In the old days, farming know-how was passed down from father to son. In the modern world of sharp fluctuations in local and global markets, farmers in Israel and around the world have to change their specialty every few years. Eliahu: “The house plants lasted for almost 14 years, and then the Ministry of Agriculture came to us with a new proposal – go back to roses. Ten families on the moshav built big hothouses at a huge investment, and it was a tremendous disaster. Everybody else stopped doing it when the big crisis hit, and I was the last one left, until I finally gave in too.”
Michal chimes in: “My 
father was always the last optimist.” She is one of the Eliahu’s four daughters, and is now trying to help her parents sell their produce directly to restaurants and home consumers.
In one of the big hothouses that were built for growing 
roses, one of the other local farmers now grows edible orchids. Meir Eliahu has switched to growing ornamental plants. “It was going well until about two years ago, but then it fell apart due to the worldwide currency crisis and the entry of farmers from Africa into the field. I had to find something else in order to survive.”

Like many families of Indian background, the Eliahu family had always grown some of the herbs and vegetables from the old country in their home garden. Now they’re trying to make Asian vegetables – which have become more commonly known in Israel over the last few years – into their main source of income. “Five years ago, I started growing cassava, which I knew from India, on a small scale, along with other Asian vegetables and herbs. I prepare the saplings myself and acclimate the crops. It’s not always easy, because some of the tropical plants need a lot of water and aren’t originally suited to growing in Israel.” (“He’s a farmer in his soul,” says Michal, gazing lovingly at her father, who is no longer a young man but still goes out to work in the fields every morning).
The eight-dunam cassava plot will very soon yield its first commercial-scale crop. “South Americans and Indians know this plant, but the general public isn’t so familiar with it and doesn’t know what to do with it. I hope they’ll learn,” says Meir. When cassava season is over, the finger-like ginger and turmeric roots will come up out of the earth. Most of the ginger and turmeric sold in Israel is imported. Regulations require that these imported plants be dipped in chlorine to speed the preservation process, but over time, the roots naturally shrivel and lose some of their initial juiciness. There are some local growers, but on a tiny scale, and Eliahu also has just a couple of dunams for now – but if you are ever fortunate enough to taste the fresh roots, you’ll be on cloud nine. Eliahu has planted a few rows of other experimental crops, including colorful Asian and Indian black-eyed-peas, Thai eggplants, melons, soy broad beans and various herbs.

Credits: haaretz.com

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Atal Bihari Vajpayee: A Peace Visionary and a Man Who Believed in India’s Destiny and was Ready To Fight For It

It was precisely this persona of Vajpayee -- one merged in Hindutva ideology yet seemingly not wholly willing to bow to it -- that won him admirers cutting across the political spectrum.

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Atal Bihari Vajpayee,
Atal Bihari Vajpayee, India's peace visionary. Image: Flickr

Atal Bihari Vajpayee was a man of moderation in a fraternity of jingoistic nationalists; a peace visionary in a region riven by religious animosity; and a man who believed in India’s destiny and was ready to fight for it.

Former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee (93), who died on Thursday, will go down in history as a person who tried to end years of hostility with Pakistan and put development on the front burner of the country’s political agenda. He was also the first non-Congress Prime Minister to complete a full five-year term.

Even though he lived the last 13 years of his life in virtual isolation, dogged by debilitating illnesses and bedridden, he has left an enduring legacy for the nation and the region where he was much loved and respected across the political spectrum and national boundaries, including in Pakistan.

Vajpayee, former Indian Prime Minister
Vajpayee stunned the world by making India a declared nuclear state. Image: Wikimedia Commons

In the tumultuous period he presided over the destiny of the world’s largest democracy, Vajpayee stunned the world by making India a declared nuclear state and then almost went to war with Pakistan before making peace with it in the most dramatic fashion.
In the process, his popularity came to match that of Indira Gandhi, a woman he admired for her guts even as he hated her politics.

He also became the best-known national leader after Indira Gandhi and her father Jawaharlal Nehru.

After despairing for years that he would never become Prime Minister and was destined to remain an opposition leader all his life, he achieved his goal, but only for 13 days, from May 16-28, 1996, after his deputy, L.K. Advani, chose not to contest elections that year.
His second term came on March 19, 1998, and lasted 13 months, a period during which India stunned the world by undertaking a series of nuclear tests that invited global reproach.

Although his tenure again proved short-lived, his and his government’s enhanced stature following the world-defying blasts enabled him to return as Prime Minister for the third time on October 13, 1999, a tenure that lasted a full five-year term.

When finally he stepped down in May 2004, after an election that he was given to believe he would win, it marked the end of a long and eventful political career spanning six decades.

Vajpayee had gone into these elections riding a personality cult that projected him as a man who had brought glory to the nation in unprecedented ways. The BJP’s election strategy rested on seeking a renewed mandate over three broad pillars of achievement that the government claimed — political stability in spite of the pulls and pressures of running a multi-party coalition; a “shining” economy that saw a dizzying 10.4 percent growth in the last quarter of the previous year; and peace with Pakistan that changed the way the two countries looked at each other for over 50 years.

The results of the elections could not have come as a greater shock to a man who was hailed for his achievements and who was named by Time magazine as one of the 100 influential men of the decade.

Success didn’t come easily to the charismatic politician, who was born on Christmas Day in 1924 in Gwalior, Madhya Pradesh, into a family of moderate means. His father was a school teacher and Vajpayee would later recall his early brush with poverty.

He did his Masters in Political Science, studying at the Victoria College in Gwalior and at the DAV College in Kanpur, Uttar Pradesh, where he first contested, and lost, elections. He began his professional career as a journalist, working with Rashtradharma, a Hindi monthly, Panchjanya, a Hindi weekly, and two Hindi dailies, Swadesh and Veer Arjun. By then he had firmly embraced the ideals of the Hindu nationalist Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS).
But even as he struggled to win electoral battles, his command over Hindi, the lingua franca of the North Indian masses, his conciliatory politics and his riveting oratory brought him into public limelight.

His first entry into Parliament was in 1962 through the Rajya Sabha, the upper house. It was only in 1971 that he won a Lok Sabha election. He was elected to the lower house seven times and to the Rajya Sabha twice.

Vajpayee
Vajpayee spent months in prison when Indira Gandhi imposed Emergency rule in June 1975. Image: Wikimedia Commons

Vajpayee spent months in prison when Indira Gandhi imposed Emergency rule in June 1975 and put her political opponents in jail. When the Janata Party took office in 1977, dethroning the Congress for the first time, he became the foreign minister.

The lowest point in his career came when he lost the 1984 Lok Sabha polls, that too from his birthplace Gwalior, after Rajiv Gandhi won an overwhelming majority following his mother Indira Gandhi’s assassination. And the BJP he led ended up with just two seats in
the 545-member Lok Sabha, in what looked like the end of the road for the right-wing party.

In no time, Vajpayee was replaced and “eclipsed” by his long-time friend L.K. Advani.
Although they were the best of friends publicly, Vajpayee never fully agreed with Advani’s and the assorted Hindu nationalist groups’ strident advocacy of Hindutva, an ideology ranged against the idea of secular India.

Often described as the right man in the wrong party, there were also those who belittled him as a moderate “mask” to a hardline Hindu nationalist ideology. Often he found his convictions and value systems at odds with the party, but the bachelor-politician never went against it.

It was precisely this persona of Vajpayee — one merged in Hindutva ideology yet seemingly not wholly willing to bow to it — that won him admirers cutting across the political spectrum. It was this trait that made him the Prime Minister when the BJP’s allies concluded they needed a moderate to steer a hardliner, pro-Hindu party.

He brought into governance measures that created for India a distinct international status on the diplomatic and economic fronts. In his third prime ministerial stint, Vajpayee launched a widely acclaimed diplomatic initiative by starting a bus service between New Delhi and Pakistan’s Lahore city.

Its inaugural run in February 1999 carried Vajpayee and was welcomed on the border by his Pakistan counterpart Nawaz Sharif. It was suspended only after the 2001 terror attack on the Indian Parliament that nearly led to a war between the two nuclear-armed neighbours.

The freeze between the two countries, including an eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation on the border for nearly a year, was finally cracked in the spring of 2003 when Vajpayee, while in Kashmir, extended a “hand of friendship” to Pakistan. That led to the historic summit in January 2004 with then President Pervez Musharraf in Islamabad — a remarkable U-turn after the failed summit in Agra of 2001. Despite the two men being so far apart in every way, Musharraf developed a strong liking for the Indian leader.

His unfinished task, one that he would probably rue, would be the peace process with Pakistan that he had vowed to pursue to its logical conclusion and a resolution of the Kashmir dispute.

He was not known as “Atal-Ji”, a name that translates into firmness, for nothing. He could go against the grain of his party if he saw it deviate from its path. When Hindu hardliners celebrated the destruction of the 16th century Babri Mosque at Ayodhya, he was full of personal remorse for the apocalyptic action and called it — in a landmark interview to IANS — the “worst miscalculation” and a “misadventure”. He even despaired that “moderates have no place — who is going to listen to the voice of sanity?”

In his full five-year term, he successively carried forward India’s economic reforms programme with initiatives to improve infrastructure, including flagging off a massive national highway project that has become associated with his vision, went for massive privatisation of unviable state undertakings despite opposition from even within his own party.

While his personal image remained unsullied despite his long innings in the murky politics of this country, his judgment was found wanting when his government was rocked by an arms bribery scandal that sought to expose alleged payoffs to some senior members of his cabinet. His failure to speak up when members of his party and its sister organisations, who are accused of killing more than 1,000 Muslims in Gujarat, was questioned by the liberal fraternity who wondered aloud about his secular proclamations. He wanted then Chief Minister — now Prime Minister, Narendra Modi — to take responsibility for the riots and quit but was prevailed upon by others not to press his decision.

A day before his party lost power, Vajpayee was quoted as saying in a television interview that if and when he stepped down he would like to devote his time to writing and poetry. But fate ruled otherwise. The man who once rued that “I have waited too long to be Prime Minister” found his last days in a world far removed from the adulation and attention — though across the nation people prayed for his well-being — surrounded only by care-givers and close family whom he even failed to recognize. (IANS)