why burlesque matters.

as most of my dear readers know, i spent much of the last year in india, in a tiny town in a big country, where women are second-class citizens at best. now, returned and exhausted, i find myself again in a tiny town in a big country. and women here, though worlds above those in bihar in terms of rights, are still not on equal footing with our male counterparts. our own country contains unequal pay strategies, blatant sexism both in the workplace and out, objectification of women, and stereotypes that feed distorted body images to a deadly degree. as a girl, as a teenager, as a professional woman, and throughout these stages as a dancer, i have experienced all of these issues first-hand, and they have guided me to my work with victims of sex-trafficking and prostitution.

two days after returning to america, i threw myself back into my ‘other’ job: running a small burlesque troupe based in mendocino county. from anti-sex-trafficking activism to burlesque may seem an odd transition, and it is one for which people on both continents, in both of ‘my’ big countries, have criticized me. but i believe, deeply, that they are at heart the same cause. that my work in one arena strengthens my work in the other. that they are symbiotic, even, despite being distinct to their locales. at their heart they are the same issue, with the same goals: self-empowerment for women and girls, ownership of sexuality, and love and respect for the bodies into which we were born.

many people ask me how i can claim burlesque to be empowering rather than exploitive, how the act of removing one’s clothes in front of an audience can be anything other than degrading. the answer lies in the intention behind it: we do it because WE love it – not because the audience does. we perform not for a customer, nor even for a loved one, but rather because we love and are proud of ourselves and each other. we, the women on stage in little more than sequins, love our bodies and our sexualities so much, and are so comfortable in our own skins, that we invite others to witness our joy. that is a gift one gives to oneself: being able to say ‘this is my vessel, and it ROCKS.’ and if we believe that our bodies are things of beauty, capable of the extraordinary (not least of which is the ability to make people smile, laugh, and whoop-it-up for an evening), then sharing that with our communities becomes a gift not only to ourselves but to our towns, our friends, our families. that is what my brand of burlesque is about: self-love, and the physical, comedic, blissful, and beautiful ways we choose to express it. provocation is not the end goal, though it is often a ‘side effect.’ and what is titillating about burlesque is only partially the skin; most of the allure comes from the slightly scandalous feeling one gets from watching women have way too much fun with themselves and with each other. the promise of nudity helps to draw the crowd, undoubtedly, but the ebullient, infectious enjoyment we get from dancing around in our underwear is what keeps the crowd in their seats. bodies are only entertaining for so long; true entertainment comes from within.

this self-love was what sustained my work in bihar; or rather, seeing the effect it had on ‘my girls’ was the sustaining drive. to watch pooja, with cigarette burns on her shoulders, find a well of joy inside herself while practicing isolations on the ‘dance floor’ (read: concrete room) was an unbelievable high, and one that i experienced again and again as my beautiful students used dance to reclaim their bodies and sexualities as their own. dance is a powerful medium, one which i use to introduce girls and women to their powerful, sexually self-aware selves. for bihari girls, owning their private selves and sexualities and their own bodies leads to the ability to say ‘no’ to pimps, johns, parents, husbands… and in american women it leads to the ability to recognize the beauty of the female form and embrace it wholeheartedly; the REAL one, not the objectified, air-brushed, and artificial one.  there is a grand tradition of ‘noms de burlesque,’ with their puns sexual double-entendres, and i’m terribly proud of mine:  simone de boudoir, after that grand dame of french feminism and empowerment, simone de beauvoir, she who said once, ‘one is not born, but rather becomes a woman.’  she would have liked my burlesque troupe, i’m sure of it…

and so i find myself preparing for another run of shows; polishing off my pasties and twirling my tassels, and feeling worlds removed from the squalor of bihar. i remember when my students in the red light district saw a picture on my laptop – one of me and my best friend, in ruffles and little else, posing backstage at last year’s show. ‘so pretty!’ kalpana squealed in hindi…’like a goddess!’ like a goddess indeed… strong, powerful, beautiful, and naked.

promotional postscript: Polaris Dance Troupe’s burlesque show, Les Filles Rouges, is currently in its summer run of shows. we perform in and around northern california to delighted audiences. a portion of the show’s proceeds, as well as all merchandise sales, goes to my educational fund for my bihari students. thus, burlesque empowers women at home and girls abroad. and it’s CRIMINAL how much fun we have doing good in the world!

for booking enquiries, photos, tour information, and a general good time, check out our facebook page (new website forthcoming…)





arriving at kasturba knowing you’ll have to leave again is like falling asleep knowing you are going to have a nightmare; you resist it but eventually it happens anyway, the sweet of sleep and the agony of the dream.

as i arrive this particular day, ten girls are practicing karate in the courtyard. their karate teacher left last year so they are led by sabhina and nisha, two older girls who have taken over the shouting of the numbers as the girls punch the air and kick the heat. their beautiful faces are sweaty, focused, concentrated on their own strength. my eyes well with tears as I sit in the school listening to their energetic voices through the hideous pink curtains. there is a bag of used hospital gowns on the desk; white with blue squares, that have been donated to be used as karate robes. somehow this saddens me deeply; that girls who push themselves practice in the merciless heat without instructor or class should be reduced to wearing the discarded gowns of the dead and dying.

i have asked each girl to tell me their story; their kahaani. i want to have their words tucked into my soul so i can see them when i’m home and missing the bright eyes and poignant optimism of these children whom fortune has frowned upon. some of them have already written them down in hindi as an exercise by the school, but i want their voices, their smiles, their beauty. i haven’t told them that i am leaving again; that i don’t know when i’ll be back. i don’t know if it will hurt them, but i know it will break me.

at dance class last week i learned to let go. my father has been reminding me of the buddhist mentality of action without attachment to outcome. i have been trying to practice this, but it’s difficult. i want to make their lives better, but all i can do is come sit in a circle with them as we roll our shoulders backwards and reach up to pluck imaginary stars from the sky. anyway, last week i came to teach class and i soon realized it was impossible. the air crackled with energy and distraction. several other staff members were at kasturba conducting various business, and the girls could barely sit still, let alone concentrate on isolations and rhythms. but, as we dispersed after a failed attempt at order, two girls, takkaluma and soni, came up to me and said in their barely-there english, ‘disco dancing, didi?’ and they made an attempt at what they think ‘american’ dancing looks like (imagine john travolta had he been born in bollywood). inspired, i ran to my ipod (blessedly there was power at the moment) and put on ‘this is your night’ – a rollicking disco-style song, compliments of the ‘night at the roxbury’ soundtrack. ‘this is your night, dancing free into the morning light, together forever, for this is your night, and everything’s gonna be alri-ee-ai-ee-ight…’ and there in the cement room, we danced. it wasn’t class, it wasn’t technique, it wasn’t ordered or organized or structured. but forty girls and i flung ourselves around the room in pairs and trios, tossing our hair, jumping wildly, grinning ear to ear and bubbling with pure, unadulterated bliss. it was joy; sweaty, barefoot, filthy joy, set to the unlikely soundtrack of a will ferrell movie.

they are coming in now, the girls, done with the afternoon’s karate. their faces are flushed and they splash themselves with water from the hand pump. they glow, each and every one. my heart aches with protective love. i would stay here forever, just to prove my love, how it aches in my belly and behind my eyelids. but i can’t. i have my own family, my own life, my own home. how i wish i could take them with me. in one of the stories in front of me ruhi writes, ‘for me, kasturba is a place where i can laugh, sing, dance, and study.’ i run my fingers over her words. she has the best smile, ruhi. it lights up the room.

i am already planning my farewell speech; telling them that i will respond to every letter, that i will be back in a year or two, that i love them all dearly. i feel like it isn’t enough, but i know it’s all i have. these months have flown by too quickly, with too few classes and too few quiet evenings spent braiding hair and drinking chai. but i’ve stockpiled hugs, sweet looks, and heads rested trustingly on my shoulder in embraces. i remember these moments, so tender and safe and loving, and i close my eyes.

parting is such sweet sorrow. was it shakespeare? it’s a lie, a bitter lie. it’s not sweet at all. it’s just sorrow. bihar is a long, long way from california. when i am here and my life is on the shores of the pacific, i can reach it with tenuous, fragile fingers: the questionable bihari internet, postcards dripping with watercolours, phone calls at $3/minute. but without these advantages, of money and technological logistics, the distance is tenfold. bihar is a long, long way from california.

i am coming back; i know this. maybe next year, maybe the year after. with my boyfriend, sam, or my girlfriend, erika. i would like to bring my parents but every note home that i write that involves ‘six kinds of shit’ ‘187 mosquito bites’ and ‘food poisoning with a squat toilet on a train’ makes that less likely. but who knows if my return will be in time – in time to see ‘my’ girls before they leave. in time to wish them well. more are leaving every year – off to their lives; their schooling (hopefully) and marriages and children, and, too often, prostitution.

my beautiful students, goodbye for now. you will probably never know how much i love you; translation only goes so far. but your stories are flying out into the world to make it better and safer and brighter and more colourful. and you are my angels, every one.

an afternoon…

i was going to kasturba to say goodbye to my beautiful students. i promised them yesterday, as they begged me with love and tears in their eyes, that i would return today for hugs. i wanted to take the morning train, at 11, but unfortunately i missed it by a few minutes; odd since it’s usually woefully late. the next train left from forbesganj at 12;58 (in theory) and at 12;50 i went to buy my ticket. the ticket seller was agitated and swatted me away, refusing to sell me one. confused, i headed to the platform, where the plethora of colours and cries meant that the train was yet to come. i found a free corner of a bench and began to read. 12;58 came and went. at 12;15 a goat wandered by. she’s a local gal – a familiar face and a kind one. she’s black and white, but mostly black. she’s particularly recognizable because her horns curl backwards tightly against her head; her right curves over and behind her nubian-esque ear, but her left comes around and presses against her cheek. and her left teat is forked, like a snake’s tongue, with two tiny ducts.

she was scavenging for scraps on the platform (although demonstrably not starving) but it pained me to see her nibbling at dusty dirty bits of who knows what. i dug into my bag and found that i had a handful of crumbled, dried neem leaves that i had picked in kolkata by the lake and taken home. i rummaged around and then fed them to her, one at a time, slowly. her lips were fuzzy and her breath warm and goat-like; comforting. she was grateful to have something green to eat. you’ve seen my car, so you’ll not find it hard to believe that i found several bedraggled cauliflower leaves in my purse as well, and these she ate appreciatively. when i had nothing left to feed her i began to scratch her chin. she hesitated at first, pulling away, but soon she relaxed into my hand and so evidently was in bliss that it brought tears to my eyes. her head rested in my palm, her eyes closed, and she uttered several soft guttural goat sounds of pleasure. animals here, though treated ‘well’ by third world standards, are never pets, and since she clearly was a vagrant, she’d had little affection in her life. watching her eyelids droop and her head tilt and her ears flop was such a beautiful demonstration of happiness, for both her and for me. my fingers were soon blackened with goat grime, and i felt scabs and dirt against her cheek and chin, but for 15 minutes of a hot day on a crowded platform of a filthy station, a girl and a goat were both calm and content.

after the lady trotted away i struck up conversation with the nepali man next to me (‘animals is best friend,’ he said, and i couldn’t have said it better) and discovered that the earlier train, the one i’d meant to catch, had struck a tractor loaded with bricks on the tracks and several passengers had died. that was why there was no train. that was why i got to spend time with a black and white goat.

and, yet again, i experienced the particular peace that comes with being in the right place at the right time. with the right ruminant.


twilight is my favourite time of day in india. at home it is morning – early, quiet morning, but here the mornings are loud and, to an uncaffeinated mind, vaguely hostile, full of bustle and sound and intrusion.

but twilight… twilight is magical, safe, and elusive.

as i was coming back from kasturba, in nearby simraha, twilight was that magical hour when everyone turns home, myself included. along the road old men walked with their buffalo, pointed towards town. in the fields children herded goats and cows, driving them towards their shacks of bamboo and mud. there is a magical tree here; green in the fall, bare in the winter, and then, for one week which i blessedly was here for, they burst into flames of bright red, enormous flowers. no foliage… just bare branches with crimson blossoms balanced on them. they look like magic took root and grew in the savannah. their red is the same red of the women’s sindoor, dark and rich.

the girls at kasturba have been amazing lately. in class last week karishma reached her arms overhead and swirled her hands in the sky and the look on her face was almost ritualistic, so deeply felt were the movements. it brought tears to my own eyes, as she closed hers in half-bliss, swaying to her own music. spring is infectious here, and though the days are each one hotter than the last, the girls are full of life. nisha (remember nisha?) is like the red-blossomed trees; she glows now with internal light, when only 4 months ago she was threatening suicide and had no spark in her eyes. this is what safety has given nisha; not being home, not being prostituted. she looks alive now, when before only her body walked and talked, with nothing behind it, no glow, no spirit. i am awed to see this resilience, but not all are blessed with it. kajal puts on a brave face, but her hurt is evident, like a deep-wound that has healed over but scarred permanently. she says it is because she trusted her family all the way up until the point when she realized they had betrayed that trust, when her virginity was sold for a night to a man older than her father. now her smile is tempered, and though she laughs, it is not the carefree laugh that a thirteen year old’s should be. but still she tries; she plays and runs and gossips and when i came today she borrowed my sunglasses and mugged for the camera, striking model poses. these moments you can almost see the safe child within… almost, but not quite. i hope desperately that resilience is contagious; that nisha’s strength to re-find herself and her joy spreads to her friends.

twilight is magical at kasturba, too, because it brings everyone together. when the power goes out, as it always does and the fading daylight doesn’t make it into the concrete rooms, the only light in the compound is the dim, yellow glow of the solar panel’s wan bulb. this is in the center, in the courtyard, by the water pump, and so when the darkness comes we all gather there, coming from the room where we dance, or the rooms where they sleep 16 to a room on plywood beds, or the kitchen where they squat and chop vegetables. we all gather in the courtyard to wait out the night, or the light. we sing, trading songs, one from me in english (all my songs are melancholy, so they beg me, ‘happy song, didi! happy song, no sad!’) and then one from them in hindi. we sing back and forth, we play with each other’s hair. one or two of them will drape themselves over my shoulders and chest and let themselves be cradled and safe for the moment, holding me tightly and letting me hold them back. i try to visualize my heart opening like a trap door, pouring light and love from my body into theirs in the dimness of twilight in bihar as the goats bleat from the field on their homeward way.

it isn’t much, but it’s what i have. goodness knows the light and love of these 52 girls fills my life with brightness, no matter the darkness around me, as i walk past the flameflower trees and the cows lowing softly to their calves, on my way home.

cocktails of the world


i had two memorable cocktails once, in paris. i was in the bar hemingway of the ritz; a small room with dark wood and leather, decorated with books, guns, and telephones belonging to papa hemingway himself. there were only a few exclusive tables, and i felt the presence of my french alter-ego, simone: dressed to the nines and raising my eyebrow in sophistication, one of the elite, a true parisienne. the waiters wore white coats and gloves. i ordered a drink i’d read about years prior, that had long since disappeared from the cocktail menu, but which they readily made for me. it involved fresh strawberry puree, a whole passion fruit, and house-infused mango vodka. it arrived in a martini glass, bright orange and red, and on top of the drink sat a huge, perfect white orchid. it cost 37 Euro… about $50 at the time. i had two. what can i say? it was sublime, and i wasn’t footing the bill. you would have had two, too.

i had two memorable cocktails again, in bihar. i was in a concrete apartment up a concrete flight of stairs under a pink mosquito net. it was holi, and my housemate’s husband had arrived for a visit. since women here can’t buy alcohol, he had purchased a bottle of White Mischief Vodka (For Sale in Bihar Only). i was slightly nervous because last month a number of people died in neighbouring west bengal due to bad locally produced booze, but i cast my fears aside and agreed to drink it up for the holiday. my face, neck, upper back, and hands were all stained semi-permanently by the dyes villagers had smeared upon me. even now, despite washing with face wash, body scrub, soap, and dish soap, my face is rimmed with hot pink and neon green. i figured a drink or two would help. i submit to you now the cocktail recipes, for your imbibing pleasure should you wish to recreate an authentic bihari beverage experience. i recommend drinking them in the order below.

bihari bloody mary:

in a small glass mix equal parts vodka and spicy ketchup.
add one green chili, whole, and top with water.
serve room-temperature without ice in a salt-rimmed glass.

bihari white russian:

in a small saucepan boil water. to this add:
one scoop nescafe instant coffee powder
one scoop raw sugar
one scoop Instant Infant Formula
pour into a glass, top with vodka, and serve hot.

and there you have it. happy hour in bihar.

somebody get me back to paris…



pictures from the weekend…

a fifteen-year old mother of a toddler, who came alive during a recent dance class which was part of a monthly Self Empowerment Group run by Apne Aap. she glowed as she held her child on her hip and swayed to her own music.

the adorable baby who, shortly after this photo was taken, blessed me by spitting up all down the front of my salwar.

mother and child, forbesganj outskirts.

this is my favourite image from all my months here – this woman danced as though no one was watching…

the small center where one of the self-empowerment groups (SEGs) is held.

me and my beautiful students/friends.

a forbesganj doorway on the main drag.

it could be worse…

well, it’s never as easy as you think it will be, especially when ‘it’ is ‘getting from point a to point b in a timely manner in india.’
after much german deliberation, i bit the bullet and bought a plane ticket from delhi to bagdogra, in west bengal. i was going to take the train, but last minute scheduling snafus conspired against me, and in the end it seemed kinder to myself to pay the extra hundred bucks and not have to get a taxi/hotel at midnight after 24 hours without sleep, and then spend 2 solid days on a train that has no food. so… flying seemed like the ‘easy’ answer. but of course it never is. in almost an exact replay of my last delhi-to-bagdogra experience, the security officer at the delhi airport who inspected my ticket said, ‘to where is it in india that you are going?’ not ever having heard of bagdogra. sigh.
after my 3rd night spent trying to ‘sleep’ on a chair in the airport lounge, i made it to my flight to bagdogra running, having paused to take pictures of the beautiful life-size statues depicting surya namaskar (yoga’s sun salutations) in the domestic departures hall. it figures that indian punctuality would kick in the ONE time it was inconvenient for me… which means i had to run like a leopard (a leopard with two carry-on bags weighing it down) to the gate.
the flight was pleasant enough, until we approached bagdogra, at which point we were informed that the visibility was too low to allow planes to land. keep in mind, this is an airport the size of gualala’s grocery store (literally) that only takes one plane at a time. so it’s not like there was a risk of colliding with another plane. but apparently it was risky enough to keep us circling the airport for 2 hours, hot and muggy. blessedly, i slept, and was glad of the excuse.
when we landed i looked around for subhan-ji, the kindly driver employed by apne aap who was supposed to pick me up. but he was nowhere to be found. since i myself was already over two hours late, this was disconcerting. borrowing a local’s phone, i discovered that there is a strike in all of west bengal due to some corrupt minister (surprise surprise), and it’s affecting transportation workers (apparently the airline didn’t get the memo). and so now here i sit, outside the bagdogra airport, with a handful of indians, swatting at mosquitos and dogs, waiting for my driver, who is apparently going to be about another hour in getting here. already a throng of men has come by, chanting and marching and carrying indian flags, the air force (which owns the airport and has a huge base next door) is flying unbelievably loud warning flights overhead, and i have been interviewed by a minuscule tv crew for siliguri’s nightly news about how the strike is affecting me and how i like india and so forth.
an hour later, and a slightly skeezy looking driver has arrived for me (subhan-ji couldn’t come because of the strike, so a taxi had to be sent) and we drove 100 meters out of the airport ‘parking’ before he pulled over to the side of the road and demanded 50 rupees for his lunch. this i declined to supply. firmly. several times. so i’ve not high expectations for a smooth or pleasant drive, since it’s begun with me sitting in the car while he eats at the roadside ‘hotel’ (two brick walls, one wire fence, corrugated roofing, two tables, 4 chairs, and a hand pump.) and i’m expecting the normally 4 hour unpleasant drive to be significantly longer and more unpleasant than usual. but once you’ve bitten the bullet you’ve got to keep on chewing, i guess.
and so here i am, near the bihari border. a papaya tree grows dustily beside me, and the rear window of the car is entirely obscured by a giant stuffed dog that is vaguely uncomfortable. i have the familiar feeling of unrest in my stomach, that i know will dissipate with time, but is sad and scary nonetheless. here i am. back to bihar…

back to bihar…

‘and then you leave again.’

i went home. or i came home. either way, i was in the redwoods by the ocean for three months. i’m not sure which word to use – ‘went’ or ‘came’; whether i am based in india and traveling to california, or vice verse. i feel in flux and constantly confused.

being home was beautiful, as only home can be. i soaked up my family, my friends, my boyfriend; my trees and beaches and storms; my bunnies. for the first time in 15 years, i was unemployed… a strange and terrifying phenomenon that helped me to better understand the plight of so many. i had a home to fall back on, parents to feed and shelter me, a luxury that put me in the minority. being afraid of money (or its lack thereof) is a hard thing.

whilst home i put on a number of fundraisers for ‘my girls’ in bihar… screenings of The Tibetan Photo Project’s beautiful film ‘India 101,’ silent auctions with scores of stunning items donated by my amazingly generous community, food and drink prepared by friends eager to lend a hand, a live dance performance, etc. they were beautiful evenings that showcased my beautiful community: people came out in the cold of a california january to talk, to bid, to buy, to donate, to inquire, to empathize, and to show that they cared about the fates of a handful of girls they have never met, in a town on the other side of the planet. i was awestruck; stunned with gratitude and love.

these fundraisers raised over $5000 (almost 250,000 rupees) – a substantial amount of money in india that will make a huge difference to my students’ lives. it was overwhelming, and i am grateful beyond description. i cannot wait to see their faces when i tell them they can stay in school instead of returning to the red light district.

and then i left again.

i write now from my friend elise’s kitchen table, in berlin, germany. it is my european home-away-from-home, and serves not only as a beautiful and friend-filled european excursion before the anti-luxuries of bihar, but a place to adjust my body to the time difference (i found that breaking the 12.5 hour time change into two legs was a huge help in not feeling like the walking dead for your first week in india). and, most importantly, germany makes THE BEST lice remedy known to man. why america can’t figure out how to make a non-toxic one-time lice solution is beyond me, but the germans did it, and i love them for it. though i did get an odd look from the pharmacist at the apotheke when elise explained to her that i needed not one, but TWO bottles… i am fairly certain she was on the verge of declaring me a bio-hazard. (of course, two bottles of said remedy set me back about $50, so… maybe that’s why it’s not in the states…). anyway, i will travel much better knowing that when i inevitably start to itch after a week in forbesganj, i have help.

i have noticed my hindi trying to return, as i struggle with my limited german… my inclination when spoken to is to respond in hindi, which is a change from the past when french was my go-to language when my brain didn’t know how to process the language being spoken. given that i still harbour dreams of a summer cottage in provence, (and have no such fantasies about a summer shack in delhi…) i am hoping that the relocation isn’t permanent. my body and brain know i’m returning; the language shifts, my stomach is unsettled, my manner begins to soften ever-so-slightly in preparation for attempting to blend in to forbesganj again.

in all actuality, i probably didn’t have to go back to bihar. all the administrative work to institute the scholarships could have been done by email with the delhi office. but i promised the girls i would be back. i swore to them. i told them that i would return before the mehndi had grown out of my fingernails. when i left forbesganj three months ago my nails were stained dark with henna. now only the tips are coloured- a strange orange french-manicure look that is hardly flattering and looks vaguely fungal. but i am keeping my promise. i will not be one who shows up in their lives and then never returns.

and so, at 4 in the morning on monday, i will be riding the U Bahn through berlin, bound for the airport, to paris, and then to delhi. i haven’t arranged my in-country travel yet, so i’m a bit nervous about that, but with any luck on wednesday next i’ll either be in bihar proper, or on a train bound for it. either way, i’ll be back.

i can’t thank you all enough for your love and support… truly. your thoughts and prayers and words of wisdom and guidance keep me afloat when i fear sinking, and i am eternally grateful and humbled. love and blessings from She Who is Clean for the Last Time…

the love of my life: or, how to make pani puri.

Pani puri [literally water bread] is high on my list of Most Delicious
Things in the Universe, up there with croissants, raspberries, goat
cheese, and dark chocolate. (None of these things, however,
exists in Bihar. Much to my chagrin. This is the chief reason I will
not be moving there permanently. Rats, malaria, and hole-in-the-ground
toilets I can deal with, but the lack of good chocolate? No can do. Note to self: Next time, move to France, not India. Hmm.)

I had my first experience with pani puri when my co-worker and I were wandering the
streets one evening, having waited for the sun to set (and thus the
temperatures to lessen) before leaving the shade for a
stroll. ‘This,’ she warned me, ‘is very delicious, but very
unhygienic.’ And so it was – best not to watch the wallah prepare it
for you, as the cleanliness of his hands, ingredients, and utensils are all in question. Pani puri consists of tiny
crispy balloons, filled with spiced potato mixture, and then drenched
in the pani… a spicy brown liquid that is surely the water in which
Shiva bathes. I ate pani puri as often as possible whilst in
Forbesganj (my high scoring round was consuming 18… while standing with
friends Soumya and Pratheek over a gutter, scarfing them down as
fast as the wallah could fill them. Soumya beat me, consuming 26
[she’s Indian so I figure she has an advantage] while Pratheek left us
in the dust, eating 38.) in part because of its deliciousness, and in part because it was a meal for about 20 rupees… or about forty cents. Not a bad deal.

But after being back in the States for a few
weeks I began to feel the pani puri void gaping (my tiny town, it turns out, has no place to get good Indian chaat). So I set out to
recreate my favourite snack. What follows is my make-shift recipe, which is a pretty
good approximation of Bihari chaat, if I do say so myself.

Make the pani the day before, and the puris too, if you like, but it’s all very easy and not as scary as it sounds! My
measurements are all approximate, and yours can be as well, though remember, to be authentically Bihari, it should make you breathe fire and see spots… or something.

In a small cast iron skillet, toast about a tablespoon of cumin seeds,
a teaspoon each of fenugreek and black mustard seeds, some coriander
seeds, and some black peppercorns. When they are toasted and have
cooled, grind them in a spice grinder or mortar and pestle.

In a mortar and pestle or in a small food processor, combine the
spices with a few cloves of garlic, a few slices of fresh ginger, a
handful each of cilantro and mint, and a few
tablespoons of tamarind paste (which you can get at Corners of the
Mouth in Mendocino, or you can soak tamarind pods overnight in warm
water until they soften). Squeeze in a lemon, throw in a hot chili or
two (jalapenos or serranos) and a goodly amount of salt.
Pulverize this into a nice paste. If you have asafetida (hing), put
in a pinch. If not, don’t worry. The mixture should be a spicy, salty, dark
brown kind of gross-looking goop. If it looks inedible: good job. To test it, put a bit in
a cup and add water until it is the colour of weak coffee, then taste.
It will probably need more salt, but it should be delicious and spicy and sweet.

Refrigerate this water overnight and make sure no one throws it out on account of it looking like something that’s sat in the fridge about two months too long.

Mix 3/4 cup semolina with 1/4 cup all-purpose flour. Add a pinch of salt and one of baking soda. Add water until it forms a stiff dough. Knead it around for awhile until it is nice and smooth. Wrap it in a damp dishcloth and let sit for an hour or so. Put an inch or so of high-heat oil in a wok and begin to heat. Roll out the dough very thinly, and use a small biscuit cutter to cut rounds. Keep the dough covered in the damp cloth as much as possible so the discs don’t dry out. When the oil is hot (350-390 degrees Fahrenheit) add the discs one or two at a time. They should puff quickly into round balloons. Turn them over once or twice, and when they are golden brown lift them out and let them drain on newspaper or paper towels. (Or, for that Authentic Touch, drain them on old rags that used to be men’s shirts and haven’t been washed in months.) These can be made days ahead and kept in an airtight bag – to refresh, just pop them in the oven or a toaster oven for a few moments.

Boil some potatoes (I used about 6 medium-sized reds). Drain, cool, and remove their jackets. Smoosh the potatoes up in a bowl and to them add the following: a few shallots, finely diced, cilantro leaves, chopped, and liberal dashes of ground coriander, cumin, cayenne, black pepper, and salt. This should taste like Mashed Potatoes that went on a pilgrimage to the Sub-Continent and found Nirvana.

To eat:
Take a crisped puri, use your thumb to punch a hole in it, and into this cavity put some of the potato mixture. Then, if you are feeling authentic, plunge your puri (and, therefore, your hand), into the pani. If you’d like to make less of a mess, simply spoon or pour the liquid over the snack. Maneuver yourself so that your mouth is as close to your hand as possible, and remember to share. Besides, it’s really fun to watch your dining companions dribbling brown water down their fronts…

And invite me over. Because I really, really miss pani puri...

come out, come out…

dear friends~
please join me at the Arena Theatre in Point Arena, California, on January 8th at 1 pm, for a beautiful afternoon of film and discussion and fundraising. Local filmmaker Joe Mickey will be premiering his film ‘India 101,’ and i will be reading from my Indian writings, talking about my work and my students, and showing pictures. there will also be a silent auction and delicious steaming-hot chai to warm your hands with. i am so blessed to live in a community that supports me and my work… now come on out and support in person so i can give you all hugs! blessings and thanks,