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Look! There’s a huge snake, up on the tree!!

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When it comes to reptiles, especially the slithery snake, I belong with the vast majority that reacts first with fear before being able to switch on any other impulse in the brain engulfed by panic instinctively. The mere sight of a snake, spells ‘Danger’ for me like a flashing red beacon, ordering every part of me to act defensively to protect my own life and all those I care for. This natural reflex doesn’t follow a real-life encounter involving a venomous species, in my case. I think my extreme caution comes simply from being hard-wired to react that way. It’s probably an innate tendency reinforced by conditioning. The reason why I’m writing about snakes today is because of this rather rare sighting over the weekend at my brother’s farm.

Rat snake wrapped around acacia tree on our farm in Thally, Tamil Nadu, India

Rat snake wrapped around acacia tree on our farm in Thally, Tamil Nadu, India

This incredibly long rat snake resting on an acacia tree was photographed by one of my brothers, during their fortnightly visit last Sunday. I hadn’t accompanied my brothers, but my son, was with them. I have to say, this is the longest snake I have ever seen. It’s hard to tell just how long it might be, from the way it seems to casually spread its body rather languorously around the thorny branches of this tree. An Indian rat snake can apparently grow as long as 11 ft. From the looks of it, this is probably a healthy adult living up to its potential, and perhaps some more!

Looks like it went up to catch something- maybe a squirrel or to visit a bird nest for food, and then decided to sun itself because the weather’s been somewhat wet lately. I got to see the images only hours later in the evening, when everyone returned from the farm, but my first reaction was a jaw-dropping ‘Oh My God’!

For all my fear, I was still struck by the sheer magnificence of the creature. Its massive size seems to suggest an environment that must be rather conducive to its well-being. Lots of food- mostly mice, rats, bandicoots, squirrels, birds, eggs etc I suppose. I wonder what I might’ve done if I ever got up-close and personal with this snake. Given its huge body, it might have taken the snake a while to slither away, but I’m sure I’d have bolted out of there in a real hurry!

   

I’ll admit that I did not grow up with the kind of people who think of reptiles as being ‘beautiful’ in the way we tend to admire and dote over puppies and kittens. I have always been surrounded by animals, mostly dogs and cats, apart from the occasional bird or rabbit. I love nature and all things natural, but snakes… well, not really. I wonder if I’d have reacted differently, if I had been ‘trained’ to, in a sense. These days, there are lots of places you can go to where experts will help you overcome your fear of snakes through ice-breaking sessions where you get to know them better, in controlled situations. Once you find the nerve to touch them, you can actually learn to hold and handle them with guidance. Be that as it may, I doubt I can ever shake off my instinctive revulsion for snakes at my age. But regardless of how I feel, I don’t let the ‘fear’ dictate a violent reaction. There are many for whom the only good snake is a dead one. But I’d rather not get down to carnage. I realise that snakes are just as scared of humans and if you simply let them be, they’ll mind their own business and wander off. It’s not as if they’re on an aggressive mission to get you, just to get even for all the snakes humans wantonly kill or hunt for trophy. Snakes are not social creatures. They don’t seek association or approval from humans like domestic animals and they’re better off wild in their habitat.

I quite like how my little 6 yr old managed to stand alongside his uncle, a retired Army officer and a graduate in Environmental Science, as he patiently filmed the snake-on-the-tree episode. In the background commentary picked up during the recording, my son asks to know about every move the snake makes- from the flick of the forked tongue, to the turnabout it makes, wondering if the snake is stuck. “Lets get out of here before it comes down” he says before checking whether the snake can see and hear him, whether it will come down the tree and make a charge at him, and if there’s a chance snakes are “afraid of sticks”, because he has one. 

While he seems to cover a lot of ground, most of his comments are interspersed with genuine, heart-felt pleas to beat the hastiest retreat possible! The boy can’t for the life of him understand, why his uncle would put himself in harm’s way, along with his little nephew, just for a few pictures!! So, he tries repeatedly to draw the attention of his older uncle, in the hope that at least he might be a little more ‘sensible’ in the face of what he seems to perceive as an ‘imminent threat’. “I’m afraid of snakes…A lot” he can be heard saying. “I’ve never seen a snake this huge,” he goes on to say, before admitting outright, “holy crap! It’s so scary!!”.

When I posted these pictures on Facebook, I received a range of responses. Some found the snake “beautiful”, even “magnificent”, others went “eeeks!” I suppose, that pretty much describes the general spectrum of perceptions. Some are plain averse to the slithery snake, others find themselves “drawn” to them and are “fascinated” by them.

Turns out, a third of adult humans, actually suffer from a phobia of snakes. This makes ‘herpetophobia’ or the fear of reptile, and/ amphibians one of the most common reported phobias ever. There’s also ‘Ophidiophobia’, a more specific type of abnormal fear of snakes. In extreme cases people might even fear thinking about snakes and react adversely to pictures in a book or even on TV. No wonder so many films have been made around that theme- the fear of snakes. You might want to watch this incredible video showing the unedited display of fear by celebrities including Hollywood actress Salma Hayek a few years ago, when a snake suddenly appears on the location of a live TV show that she’s on.

Research suggests that humans are not born afraid of spiders and snakes, but that we can learn these fears very quickly. One theory about why we fear spiders and snakes is because so many are poisonous; natural selection may have favoured people who stayed away from these dangerous creatures. So, the fear of the ‘creepy-crawlies’ has been explained as an evolutionary bias that predisposes us to fear things that have posed a threat throughout human history.

Interestingly, researches have been able to prove a consistent gender difference in the incidence of snake and spider phobias. Women are apparently four times more likely than men to have fears and phobias for these, but not other stimuli like injections, heights or flying.

David Rakison of Carnegie Mellon University conducted an experiment with 11-month-old infants. He showed them a series of pictures- a snake, a spider, a flower, and a mushroom, paired with either a happy face or a frightened face. Baby girls quickly associated the snake and the spider with the frightened face, while baby boys did not. Amongst the explanations offered, one possibility is that social transmission of fears and phobias is more common or promoted among women than men. Alternatively, women’s fear mechanism may be more sensitive to snakes and spiders than males’ fear mechanism because they were more exposed to them over evolutionary time (e.g., during child-care, while foraging and gathering food). It has also been suggested that a fear of snakes and spiders was particularly important in women because it protects both their child and themselves. In other words, the fitness costs of being bitten by a snake or spider would have been greater for women than for men because infants and young children, historically, rarely survived a mother’s death. Finally, because of the higher reproductive variance for men, evolution would have selected against males with overly powerful fears because it could have inhibited risk taking involved in, for example, large game hunting.

I’m not trying to find scientific evidence to justify the way I feel and respond to snakes, but the empirical proof appears to explain my reaction to a great extent. I don’t know what kind of person you are- the kind that could bring home a snake as a pet, or the type that might wet their pants at the first sight of a reptile. Whichever it is, I hope you can find the calm and wisdom in your heart to teach your children that all snakes are not dangerous. Some, like the huge rat snake being discussed here are actually non-venomous, and will be glad to just hide someplace, doing its own thing, rather than get in your way and create trouble. Also that snakes are crucial to maintaining the delicate balance in the ecosystem.

Their presence or removal from an area can directly impact the environment. As a natural form of pest control, snakes are actually good for you. They tend to control rodent populations in particular. As predators, they feed on a variety of creatures. Small snakes feed on many harmful bugs and insects. Larger ones eat mice, rats, and other small mammals that can destroy crops or damage personal property. In the food chain, they serve as the link going higher up- becoming the food source for larger predators such as hawks, owls, herons, and carnivorous mammals. Mindlessly removing snakes from the equation can cause a crash, we can ill-afford. So, like them, or hate them, we sure as hell need the slithery snake in the backyard.   

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Fancy some Frittata?

Here’s a quick fix for leftover spaghetti- the Italian frittata. I made a huge portion of spaghetti al pomodoro or tomato pasta for dinner, and there was some left unfinished. So, I did what I learnt to do in Napoli years ago- saved it up, to reinvent it the next day. All it takes is a tangy egg-batter with all the spices and additional ingredients you think will go with the basic pasta sauce already in the spaghetti, then you stir it in to coat all of the pasta well, and cook up a great open spaghetti omelette, for breakfast or brunch. It turned out quite yummy. Crispy on the outside, softer inside, ready to pack for my son to take to school. Its the done thing in Italy, with all kinds of pasta, not just spaghetti. But it has to be said that spaghetti works best because it sets well and doesn’t fall apart when you want to cut out individual slices of the cake shaped omelette. Other kinds of pasta could pop out in pieces and get messy, unless, you choose to bake the omelette in the oven with extra egg to bind it all together.

The possibilities are endless for combinations of sauces to make your pasta with, and then again for the ingredients you choose to add to the egg-batter to make the frittata. What I have done here is to pick the most basic combinations. The tomato-basil sauce with garlic in extra-virgin olive oil is the standard thing to go with. Its like the other most famous export of Napoli- the Margherita pizza. The way it is made in wood-fired pizzerias across Napoli is the finger-licking best. The best pizza crusts ever, and the most delicious toppings- tomato, basil, extra-virgin olive oil, and of course mozzarella! This is a pizza you have to fall in love with. Tweaking this standard combination would be no less than a sin for the discerning. So too, with the pasta al pomodoro. You don’t add anything, or take away, if you want it to taste the way it’s meant to. But where you get to be creative is with your frittata, when using up the leftovers. The frittata lends itself beautifully to the way in which we tend to ‘Indianise’ most of our recipes. So I get to add as much chilli, pepper, olives, capers, anything I feel like. The frittata has of course been adapted by many, to serve a range of palates. Here’s what went into my frittata:

I’d have to start with the primary sauce of the main course pasta had for dinner first, which uses the classic Italian recipe. Fry plenty of garlic, peeled and cut length-wise (cut or crushed any other way will burn the garlic) I used a little more than one pod, because I cooked a kilo of spaghetti and used about a kilo and a half of fresh tomatoes for the sauce. This was mostly because we had a lot of farm-fresh tomatoes to go, and because I like really tomotoey pasta. You could change the ratio to suit your taste. I dice the tomatoes up and blend them in the mixer to avoid big chunks or rolled up skins that are harder for children to digest. I didn’t do this in Italy, because the vine-ripe tomatoes there were ideal for pasta sauces and would breakdown nice and even when cooked. I’m using local tomatoes in India, which are quite different in taste and texture, so I find the mixer helps. Its best to have all your ingredients on hand before you start cooking, so you’ll need a generous bunch of basil leaves too. I often use a mix of Italian basil and tulsi (holy basil) because I have so much of it growing at home and it feels like a shame to not use it, given its many medicinal properties. I also use chilli flakes and a bit of pepper in my sauce, although in Napoli it was only a few chilli flakes added towards the end.

Heat extra virgin olive oil in a large and open hard-bottomed pan (you’ll need one with a lid), add the garlic and fry till golden brown, you can add some basil now to infuse the oil with the flavour, and then the pureed tomato/ or chopped pieces if you prefer. Stir the mix immediately to stop the popping when the tomatoes hit the hot oil and cover it for a bit till it settles down. Then open cook it, stirring frequently, because you want all the water to evaporate and the sauce to thicken. Add salt to quicken the cooking and more basil, coarsely broken with your fingers. Around now, you could start to heat the water to cook your pasta as well. Choose a longish vessel to fit in the length of the spaghetti. 

Spaghetti

Spaghetti

Time taken for the sauce to cook through and thicken will depend on the quantity. You need to leave the pan uncovered until the water evaporates. As the sauce starts to dry out, it will start to pop a lot, and you’ll need to cover it with a lid, but still need to stir it often to prevent sticking and burning. Turn down the heat. When the oil separates from the tomatoes, the sauce will have reduced considerably, will start to glisten and be ready. Taste it to see if you need to add more salt or chilli flakes and or pepper. Turn off the heat on the sauce and set aside, getting the water for the pasta to boil. Add a good quantity of sea salt to the water once it boils (don’t add earlier, because that will delay reaching boiling point), stir it in, and into this salt water add all the pasta you intend to cook. Set the timer according to the time needed to cook indicated on the packing. Stir the pasta often, remove excess water into another vessel, if it tends to boil over and add it back later when the water reduces. Adding a bit of oil to the water keeps the pasta from sticking together. Check the pasta when the timer goes off. The way to actually have it is al dente, which is firm to the bite. But most Indians prefer it almost squishy and overdone. According to your preference, turn off the heat when done and drain the pasta using a colander. Don’t run cold water over the pasta at this stage, like we do with noodles or you’ll wash off the salt. Mix the pasta immediately into the sauce and serve with a generous sprinkling of grated parmesan cheese for authentic flavour.

Spaghetti-al-sugo

Set the leftovers aside and let it cool. You can even refrigerate it, well covered. But if your main purpose is to make a frittata with your pasta straightaway, then just let it all cool down completely. If you add eggs to the hot pasta, they’ll cook immediately and it won’t help. While it cools, crack up some eggs. Again depending on the thickness of your frittata, you could vary the quantity of eggs. I only had a little pasta left, so I used two eggs. To the eggs, I added chopped up olives- back and green, capers, salt and pepper, some leftover pizza seasoning combining oregano, chilli flakes, basil and thyme. You could see what else you have left over in the fridge to add to this. Beat up the mix vigorously, so its fluffy and airy, and then pour over the pasta. Mix it all up well. Heat up a nonstick skillet with a good handle, and of a size that you can flip comfortably. Its width will decide the height of your frittata too. Heat up some extra-virgin olive oil, and then pour the spaghetti-egg mixture into the pan. Open cook it on medium heat till the bottom is crisp and browned evenly. Then flip it either using the lid of the pan for help or a suitable ladle that can lift the weight of the frittata. Cook the other side the same way. Don’t cover the frittata while its being cooked or it will become soggy with the steam. Once done, transfer the frittata to a dry plate using something to prop it up a bit till it cools down- this is to prevent it from sweating under and getting soggy. It tastes best when its crisp on both sides and cooked through but softer inside. You could have this by itself, or with a dip, or serve it with a nice fresh green salad on the side. Frittata’s were often made and carried to the beach during lazy summer afternoons, or had as breakfast or even brunch in Naples. But in India, the same frittatas have mostly become quick breakfast/ lunch options for my son as he goes to school, though they remain popular with the grown ups too.    

If you fancy the basic concept, you may want to check out some of these interesting recipes:

http://www.finecooking.com/recipes/spinach-tomato-ricotta-frittata.aspx

http://www.finecooking.com/recipes/artichoke-leek-taleggio-frittata.aspx

http://www.finecooking.com/recipes/spaghetti-frittata-arugula-fresh-herbs.aspx

http://bakingbites.com/2008/09/frittata-di-spaghetti/

http://tasteofsorrento.sorrentoinfo.com/ricette/spaghetti_omellete.asp

http://www.taste.com.au/recipes/22116/leftover+spaghetti+frittata

         

It’s a world full of Yogis!

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VIEWS ON NEWS: Hey Radhe Maa!

My thoughts on why it appears popular to reject India’s latest ‘godwoman’

Here’s the thing…the day before India launched its historic Mars Mission in 2013, the Chairman of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), Dr K Radhakrishnan placed a replica of the Mars Orbiter Mission at the Lord Venkateshwara temple in Tirupati and performed a special pooja. He was seeking blessings to ensure the mission would be a success. His predecessor G Madhavan Nair also did the same thing before the Chadrayaan mission (Lunar Exploration Programme). While loud protestations came from the rationalists, most of India could see where the two ‘men of science’, were coming from. I mean, isn’t it most commonplace to crack open a coconut, and crush lemons under the wheels of your vehicle to ward-off the ‘evil-eye’? Don’t most Indians, even the ‘rational’ ones, drive around with a string of lemons and chillies hanging from the bumper of their car, for good luck? Well, Of course. This is just who we are. We believe, and we surrender- to unknown ‘higher powers’ who we presume, run the show. How else can most of us explain the deep mystery of how a nation like India carries on, in the immense chaos which is our everyday reality? This is why I’m a bit curious about the overwhelming reaction to the latest ‘godwoman’ to grab our attention- 50 year old Sukhvinder Kaur from Gurdaspur in Punjab, who now calls herself ‘Radhe Maa’, and an incarnation of goddess Durga. I’m curious not because she made it to prime-time news, but because of the logic that seemed to drive the TV debates. Most anchors argued from the point that it would be ‘unscientific’ to place self-appointed ‘godwomen’ such as ‘Radhe Maa’ on a pedestal. What makes me curious is why the same logic hasn’t been extended equally to question every other ‘unscientific’ ‘godman’ and ‘godwoman’. In fact all kinds of bizarre claims have been made about the supposed strides made by ancient India in fields ranging from plastic surgery and genetics to aviation technology.  These assertions blurring the differences between myth and reality have come from the highest offices of power but have mostly been dismissed with a snigger by cynics, not quite attracting the same degree of rejection we now see. So how come nobody has a problem panning ‘Radhe Maa’? One reason could be that she seems a soft target, an easy prey perhaps, one yet to find powerful patrons.

Don’t get me wrong- I’m not saying characters like ‘Radhe Maa’ should be welcomed and celebrated. All I’m saying is, maybe we need to keep an open mind and be consistent in maintaining our ‘scientific temper’. She certainly isn’t the first of India’s legion of ‘godwomen’. She’s the latest to gain publicity and has her fair share of ‘devotees’ too. The charges levelled against her, in a dowry related complaint  seem almost benign when compared to allegations made against several other of India’s  controversial Godmen– that range from fraud to murder and rape.

The charges against Radhe Maa also include ‘obscenity’. She has been photographed in a mini-skirt. That’s certainly a first for a so-called ‘godwoman’, but do we honestly consider wearing mini-skirts obscene in general? Radhe Maa has been shown on TV being physically carried by her ‘devotees’- both male and female. Its hard to see the point of this, but oddly, these sort of things are not new. In ‘Gods and Godmen of India’, the late Khushwant Singh spoke about the late Anandamayee Ma (Mother of Bliss). He wrote that Anandamayee Ma, who died in 1982 referred to herself as “the doll” or “the body” and that “She allows her devotees to bathe and dress her. She does not eat with her own hands; her female devotees take turns to place food in her mouth.”

A lot has been said and written about the peculiar phenomenon of self-styled ‘godmen/women’ in India and why they seem to flourish extraordinarily well here. I’d agree with Dipankar Gupta’s view that India’s godmen/women have their fingers in several pies- both religious and political, when he says “People everywhere are prone to mystics, but what makes our godmen seem so powerful is that our politicians use them as baits to catch votes.”

Given the symbiotic nature of relations between India’s so-called ‘holy’ figures and politicians, their patronage appears to be a thing of mutual advantage. Whether Radhe Maa’s stock rises or diminishes, could then well depend on the powers and influence wielded by her benefactors. The latest politician to come to Radhe Maa’s rescue is Union minister of state for social justice and empowerment, Vijay Sampla. After  pictures of the minister with the godwoman became public, he has claimed that all allegations against her are baseless. 

India’s fascination for human incarnations of gods, is a complex matter. There’s a reason why India is known globally as a land of mystics and mysticism. Prone as we are to accepting and believing in invisible forces, we also open the door for that faith to be abused by the smarter amongst a growing breed of self-styled ‘spiritual leaders’. 

Article 51A(h) of the Indian Constitution that makes it the duty of every citizen to develop a scientific temper and the spirit of inquiry and reform, is hardly an insurance against our proclivity to go in the opposite direction. Besides, science in India is not synonymous with atheism. In the complex plurality that is India, everybody and everything coexist. Of course, which forces thrive from time to time depend on the factors that nourish them. ‘Radhe Maa’ might just ride out the storm on her trident. She has already declared that she is “pure and pious” and said she’s prepared to endure the pyre if allegations of amassing wealth illegally are proven against her.

Of course, at the end of the day, it is to each his own, and who am I to say whom or what anyone else should or not worship? But in the unfolding circus, it might be nice if the discerning saw all the players equally, instead of letting the bigger fish get away.

Black Kite- Bird of Prey

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A first hand account of my battle for territory with the visiting Black Kite and its brood!

This gorgeous creature is no stranger to me. In fact, we’re engaged in a bit of a tango. This juvenile Black Kite, like the rest of its family and friends seems convinced, the house we live in, is actually its own! It isn’t that our house has invaded an area which may have been the traditional habitat of this bird. It’s just that we’ve kept our surroundings greener than the neighbours, which gives them plenty of perches from where to survey the lie of the land as it were and to add to that our home happens to have a large terrace with one section raised higher, with a water tank atop it. This area has been conveniently appropriated by the Kites, leading them to wonder if ‘we’ might be the unfriendly intruders in ‘their’ territory.

So much so, these otherwise magnificent birds have really pushed me to the edge, forcing me to test my resolve about cohabitation. To hell with the idea of ‘live and let live’, I have caught myself saying a lot lately. Of course I enjoy their presence. This display of comfort from them as they sit wings outstretched to the sun, perched on the eucalyptus tree outside our front gates, the morning after a night of rain is proof that they don’t mind me pointing the camera at them to shoot. But we both know we’ve had our fair share of encounters. Till a couple of months ago, I used the terrace as my open-air gym. I’d spread my mat, carry my weights and other equipment there and park myself in the shade each morning till done. But I was shocked when one day, these birds decided to turn aggressive. One unguarded moment and I’d have one of these huge things fly straight at me. They’d swoop down from behind when I least expected, strike me on the head and disappear. Not a friendly hello, I can assure you! One after another, they’d come for me, always striking the top of my head and mostly from behind. Their deadly talons would leave tell-tale signs. Once I ended up with a cut on my forehead and another time a scratch on my head. It got so unpleasant, I started to carry a long stick with me to scare them off. A running, screaming, freaked-out scare crow of sorts!

I knew they had a huge nest up in one of the tall eucalyptus trees nearby. I noticed that when the attacks became more frenzied, there were more of them rushing off to the nest, taking turns. I guess they had little hatchlings at the time and were feeling particularly vulnerable with a potential predator my size, at an elevation, on their beloved terrace. This was them working overtime and going overboard to protect their young.

By then, I had become quite paranoid about them. I wouldn’t even step out of the main gate on the ground floor without stick in hand, because they would attack all and sundry without warning. But I was also feeling somewhat belligerent and unwilling to cede space to them. So, I’d go up to the terrace each day and waste half the time meant for my workout, fending off these fiendish dragons in the air. I suppose what I lost in terms of exercise, I gained in honing my sixth sense, learning to read the bird’s shadow to predict where the next strike was coming from, developing what I thought was a third eye… well, I guess I was preparing for a full-blown battle for habitat. If it’s going to be about me or you, it’ll be me, I said. But I wasn’t all that methodical, precise or successful. I’ll admit I was simply no match for them. The truth is, I could hear myself screaming at random birds in the air daily, challenging them to come get a piece of me!! I think I nearly lost it 🙂

Then, in self-interest, I decided to become a bit more reasonable. Turning into a screaming banshee was plain foolish. Thank goodness no one was around taking pictures of me in action! I made a tactical retreat from the battle-terrace. I wondered secretly if there was some way I could get my hands on an air gun perhaps. Taxidermy crossed my mind too. I felt somewhat like a character from Alfred Hitchcock’s horror film, ‘The Birds’.

But that was then. Several months down the line, I’m back to liking the ‘Birds’ again. More recently, this juvenile Black Kite landed on our grape canopy. It sat there quite a while posing for pictures etc before taking wing. Must’ve made its peace too!

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It’s a good thing, I don’t need to fight for the terrace with my winged visitors anymore. I’ve moved to Yoga, which only needs me to find enough space to lay my mat, and I’m quite comfortable indoors. Quite likely, this was one the juveniles that was being protected all this while, because now that its out and about, the birds have all calmed down. For all you know, this is only a temporary truce… until the next breeding season!

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A Hospital for Dolls In Inimitable Napoli

 

If you had an inconsolable child, because his/her toy was broken accidentally- torn up in a fight with a sibling or chomped off by a hyperactive pet, now missing a limb or an eye, what would you do? Most times children are so attached to one particular favourite toy- their best friend, confidante, protector from the dark, that they insist on having it at their bedside at all times. You go shopping and the toy/ doll goes along in the car/ pram. You travel, the toy goes too. But should something happen to this irreplaceable ‘friend’, what if you could dial-in emergency care and drive down to get specialised ‘medical’ attention? Well, that’s exactly what the Ospedale delle Bambole or Doll Hospital in Napoli, Italy does. A unique place tucked into one of the characteristic narrow streets of the Spaccanapoli area, this ‘Hospital’ is in the heart of the old city, not far from the San Gregorio Armeno street known for its Nativity scene figurines. The doll ‘doctors’ at the Ospedale delle Bambole have been repairing toys since it was set up by Luigi Grassi, a set designer from the San Carlo opera house, around 1895. The legacy was carried forward by his son, Michael, who added his own special touch. He started to dress like a ‘real’ medical doctor in white lab coats, to treat the dolls, as if they were real people too. More than a century later, the ancient tradition of ‘restoring’ broken toys thrives under the guidance of his descendent Tiziana Grassi, who with great passion and dedication still heals the “patients” from around the world.

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The story goes that once upon a time, a desperate mother walked-in with her daughter’s broken doll and requested Luigi Grassi to fix it. When he actually ‘healed’ the doll within a few days, the relieved mother pronounced Mr Grassi a ‘doctor’ and a ‘magician’. The story understandably spread like wild-fire and many more mothers were soon bringing in toys and dolls to be ‘treated’. A passer-by supposedly said, “I think this is the hospital of dolls”, and the name stuck. Luigi Grassi hung a board outside his workshop, that read ‘Ospedale delle Bambole’ in red letters. He added the symbol of a cross, just like that of real hospitals, and there it was- the one and only Doll Hospital of Napoli.

The street the Ospedale is on, is quaintly named after bookmakers (‘Librai’) who worked their trade here centuries ago. I remember being quite struck by what I saw there- shelves cluttered with broken dolls. Some missing a limb or an eye. Masses of little bodies and body parts collected in a corner, a whole lot of eyes staring blankly, yet others still able to wink and manage a smile. They all needed some TLC. Not just denting and painting, but some specialised personal attention to restore them to their former selves- the inseparable companion of a child somewhere. That’s when I learnt that this is where people from around Italy and beyond send in their broken dolls and random doll parts. The Doll Hospital apparently has a resident doll ‘surgeon’ who tries to nurse most toys to health. But often they also create new and unusual ‘bambole’.

Back in 2006, I didn’t know anything about the Doll Hospital even though I was on the street where it was located. It was my second visit to the coastal city in Southern Italy. It was December and very cold. But what kept me from feeling the weather outside was the warmth of the large-hearted Neapolitan family I had almost become a part of. I had fallen quite hopelessly in love and the man in question had taken me home to meet his folks- a seriously large extended family- complete with at least three generations, all of whom I got acquainted with over several very large meals, spread luxuriously over several decadent hours, and many days- before, during and after Christmas. When we were not eating or talking about eating, we hit the streets. The city was alive and buzzing at all times during the festive season. There was always so much to see, and in my case, so much to live and take in! Of course, there’s nothing like being taken on a guided tour of a city on an unfamiliar continent by a local. Alfredo, whom I married five months later was the quintessential local. Born and brought up in Napoli. He loved his city dearly and lamented the fact that despite its unique history, gastronomical tradition, topography and scenic panorama, located as it was by the sea, Napoli wasn’t the tourist hot-spot it should have been, like so many other Italian cities. Tourists almost always used Napoli as a transit point to move on to other more ‘touristy’ locations like Capri. But I had stopped by and fortunately didn’t miss out on the many gifts Napoli had to offer. Of all the amazing places I visited, things I saw and experienced, the quaint Ospedale delle Bambole has somehow stuck in my head.

I quite like the motto of the Doll Hospital. In our consumerist age, the philosophy of the institution is to “use less toys to safeguard our planet”. Most children, especially in the developed world have so much of everything that the ‘use and throw’ culture applies to toys too. By providing an outlet to restore what we already possess, it encourages the culture of holding on to things, to cherish them for longer. The Hospital also actively encourages the idea of recycling and reusing by creating new toys out of broken ones.

Over the years, Napoli’s unique Doll Hospital has come to be promoted as a tourist attraction. Visitors accompanied by little children can book a tour of the ‘clinic’, equipped with a real hospital ward, with lots of sun beds, gowns and cookbooks. Small groups of upto 5 children can actually walk-in with their own toys if they wish, don a white lab coat and stethoscope and play doctor. The Ospedale delle Bambole even treats visiting children to a “doll pizza”!

Even though I visited the Ospedale delle Bambole some nine years ago and only incidentally, this is one place I’d like to revisit with my son. Even though children these days graduate quickly to the virtual world to ‘play’, the charm of real toys is not really lost on them. My big boy, is still small enough at six-and-a-half to sleep with a set of his favourite soft toys. In fact, these toys really come handy when I have to wake him up in time for school everyday. Any imaginary story or made-up song involving them is guaranteed to get him out of bed, smiling.

It’s odd, he doesn’t remember his obsession with a stuffed Winnie-the-pooh soft toy. For almost three years, between the ages of 1 to 3, ‘Winnie’ had to go everywhere he did. The affinity probably began when while transitioning from crawling to taking his first steps, I would place Winnie at a distance as his target to reach. He would happily grab his destination with his plump sausage-like fingers and send Winnie’s nose straight into his mouth to ease his teething-problems as his own reward. From there on, he and Winnie were inseparable. He would often wake up thirsty at night, but then start searching for Winnie to go back to sleep. Winnie was his shield against a stranger, his go-to in any new and awkward situation like the hair salon, and his comfort-zone whenever I was upset with him. Terrified of the prospect that I might lose the toy by accident, I tried to replace his Winnie with at least two other identical Winnie dolls. Both were promptly rejected. It had to always be the same old Winnie for him- frayed, faded, nibbled.  

David and Winnie

In my son’s case, I doubt the Doll Hospital might have been of any help. He didn’t want a repaired Winnie, much less a replacement. His Winnie was just as he wanted it to be. And after all those years of deep attachment, its hard to believe that he now laughs when I try to remind him about his Winnie-days! The missing Winnie memories go alongside his inability to recall anything about his early days from birth onwards in Italy. I’m his surviving link to his place of birth- Napoli, his Neapolitan origins, the sun, sea, sand, the Vesuvius, and his father, in heaven. Hopefully, one day I’ll be able to take him to the Ospedale delle Bambole, as his ‘local’ travel guide to a forgotten land, and perhaps he will enjoy, even remember it as fondly as I do.