Saturday, 20 September 2014

Mirrors and grey days

Chotto-ma took this photo of us while we napped in the afternoon today. I woke up, and found it on the camera. It was a very grey day, and it would've passed like another grey day, and I'd never have known us in sleep. This little girl, she holds a mirror to us in so many ways. Shows us what we look like when we aren't looking. And sometimes by being a mirror herself.

Wednesday, 10 September 2014

Stew you for supper

"Who are you, little girl?"
"Have you lost your mummy?"
"Tumi aamar ma" (You're my Ma.)
"What's that strange language you're speaking?"
"Eta strange na. Eta Bangla; Bengali." (It's not strange; it's Bengali.)
"Bhengawli? Well, I don't understand a word of it! Greek to me."
"Oh, stop calling me that! Go home, little girl. Stop following me."

This is Chotto-ma's absolutelyfavouritest game, staged daily on the walk back from school. I started it, little knowing what I was in for. She loved it so much, it has begged repetition ever since. And every day if possible.

There's me in my best ill-humoured-Edwardian-lady accent, and a little brown girl straggling behind. Ne'er has a play seen a more unsuitable cast. But apparently, it's "hu-normous" fun.

Some days, though, when I pick her up from school, I feel like I haven't seen her forever; which means I need to squish her too much to play the game. I squish her and I carry her as far as I can these days, slobbering her face with very noisy kisses - which doesn't quite set the mood for Le Pathétique. On days like that, there is Option B.

In Option B, I play myself (thank god). But. I seem to be very confused about our way home from school. I drag her to all the wrong doors, try to take all the wrong turns, but Chotto-ma knows better, of course. So she rolls her eyes and pulls me in the right direction. She points to our house from a distance. Look Ma, there's our house. No-no, I say, that's Miss Havisham's, an old lady who's allergic to little girls. Nah, she says, that's ours. Big mistake, I say - Miss Havisham's going to stew you for supper.

And so we climb the stairs; me mumbling caveats about trespassers and dour old ladies, and Chotto-ma with her worldly calm, shaking her worldly head. When she reaches the door, she takes the key from me. She slips it into the keyhole. I'm aghast that our key fits Miss Havisham's house. She turns the key and the door opens! She pulls me in, and I nearly pass out from the shock of it all  - for it is indeed our house.

And so happy and relieved are we to find Miss Havisham missing that we flick off our shoes, throw off our jackets, and dive into the kitchen to bake a cake that would befit the fussiest Edwardian dowager.


Fig & Pecan Buttermilk Cake


3 large figs (1 quartered lengthwise; the other 2 cubed into 8 pieces each)
A handful of pecan, broken into pieces
1 1/2 cups flour
1 1/2 tsp baking powder
2 eggs
3/4 cups brown, granulated sugar
3/4 cup melted butter
3/4 cup buttermilk
1/2 tsp sea salt
1/2 tsp vanilla extract

Pre-heat oven: 160°C.
In a large bowl, mix the flour, baking powder, sugar and salt together with a wooden spoon.
Make a well in the middle, crack in the eggs, pour in the butter and vanilla extract. Stir it all in.
Add in the buttermilk a little add at time. Stir, add, stir - till the buttermilk is all gone and you have a nice, smooth batter.
Now, add the cubed figs and the pecan, and fold them in.

Pour the batter into a greased loaf tin.
Tuck in the other fig slices on top.

Bake for about 50 minutes, or till a knife inserted in the middle of the cake comes out clean.
Let it cool for a while before slicing.
Serve with a drizzle of cream.

Thursday, 21 August 2014

Secondhand stories

There's a secondhand bookshop that sits opposite the school where I teach a few hours of English every day. This is the shop I go to when I have some spare time, and spare change. £2.99 will usually fetch you a good book.

A few days ago, I found a ZZ Packer that I'd wanted to find for a while. It also had the right cover; for no matter what they say, covers matter. Every once in a while, when I'm reading a book, I crook a finger in from the top and close its pages. My finger curves like a comma, pausing the book as I mull over a sentence, a paragraph, a thought. At that time, I like to see a cover that doesn't tell me much. A cover that doesn't drag my thoughts to closure.

This cover didn't try too hard. It just slanted it's font in gentle enquiry, and left it at that. It didn't try to show me a picture of Elsewhere. It left Elsewhere to me. I liked that. I also liked its blue; it looked like it didn't fit in.

But I'll tell you what I liked most of all. When I came back home and took the book out of my bag, something slipped out of its pages. It was a photograph of a little boy, with a date on the back. Just a date, and a summer month. No year. Not a hint of a year. As if the person who wrote the date liked to live in the present, in the now. The yearless date of a mind not weighed down by eventualities. Carefree. It's summer after all, and the sand is warm and the sea blue.

My first reaction on seeing the photograph was one of sadness; someone had lost a precious photo of their boy. I not only had their book, but also a bit of their memory. But then, I thought of how things are meant to be. And the beauty of stories that travel; of a photo shared not on social media but passed down in a good book. I also thought of how strangers' stories always find their way to my house, like our dining table - remember the initials on its underside? Only this time, the story had slipped out of a book of stories and landed softly on my carpet.

And so the sweet boy sits, in the August of an unknown year. And here we are, in the midst of another August. He could be five now, or he could be in University. He might live on the same street, or in a different hemisphere. Somewhere in my Elsewhere.

I want to know. I love not knowing.

Sunday, 10 August 2014

Step back

It was eight o'clock in the evening. Chotto-ma was still up - it being a weekend. D and I had poured ourselves some wine and Chet Baker was wafting around the house. That's when I noticed the light. From the window, the outside looked liked a giant Monet. The sun was sinking; its last pink light was bouncing off the river like shoals of salmon.

We took the bottle of wine, our glasses, the bowl of olives, put everything into a brown paper bag and went down to the river; Chotto-ma in her pyjamas. We cut across the Common, past the the cows, the tall grass licking our ankles, sticking to my jeans, and found a bench next to a boat called Susie Q. Everything was a pinkish-bronze: people on cycles, the Labrador chasing his ball, my toes, the tips of the grass. Dying embers of a day's end. This hallowed light makes such innocents of us all.

Last week, I decided to step back from the virtual a little; I closed my Facebook account. It felt like the right time. I needed to disconnect. If you followed me on Facebook, and suddenly found me gone, I'm sorry. But if you read and know this blog, I feel you'll understand the why. The whim. 

Now, before you rush headlong into your week, I'll leave you with a little more whimsy. With this music. Chet Baker, and cocktail clouds.

Have a wonderful week x

Thursday, 31 July 2014

Making sense with sunflowers

I turned a year older last week. But that is of little consequence. There are people who won't, there were people who didn't, turn a year older this year. There are lives, half-lives and still-breaths under skies riddled with missiles. The same blue skies from which planes fall and smash into bits of DNA. Snakes and ladders; that's all it seems to be sometimes. If you can dodge a bad dice, you might be lucky enough not to be at the wrong place at the wrong time - born on that cursed strip in Gaza, seated on that plane flying over Ukraine, or walking down an empty road filled with daily dangers. And then, and then - you get to have a birthday.

So I look at sunflowers. When things don't make much sense, when the news is a constant flow of abject misery, I look at sunflowers. Sunflowers make sense. Their orbs are filled with positive, yellow purpose; you can see why the world would need them. And you can see why a man who cut off his own ear, and later shot himself dead, needed to paint them. Sunflowers are made of hope.

As I look at them now, I can see three layers of petals around that dark brown centre. The petals are smooth and shiny like the insides of my wrist. They're artlessly innocent in their brightness. The dark brown centre, however, is not so innocent. The dark brown centre is spiky, more deliberate. Textured for attention, for touch. Together, they make magic.

Each yellow whorl of my sunflowers sits slightly skewed, like a pile of mismatched china plates, so the rim underneath can show through. An artsy disarray; just the right amount of messiness. I can imagine nature putting the first sunflower together like an installation art, working to a haphazard jazz riff, whilst blowing smoke circles into dusk light.

Sometimes, you need the uncomplicatedness of cliches. And you need evolution to create flowers that clone the sun. So that whenever there is an eclipse of human nature, you'd have sunflowers to look at. In a white vase, in a safe room, where most things make sense most of the time.

If you're lucky, you'd also have good food on the table, and family around it. Food that is familiar, comfortable, and as uncomplicated as strong stalks of sunflowers in clean water.

Today, everyday, I'm grateful for that.

Coconut & Garlic Chicken Broth

This is a simple recipe that I first cooked up many years ago in Calcutta; one of my kitchen experiments. It was an experiment that stuck. I have cooked it many times since, and it's always as good as it was all those years ago. If you love coconut and garlic, you will love this as much as I do. You can, of course, replace the chicken with fish or vegetables, as I often do.


1 kg chicken
1.5 cups of freshly grated or dessicated coconut
1 white onion, thickly sliced
1 tomato, chopped
7 cloves of garlic, minced
2 green or red chillies, chopped
A bunch of fresh coriander leaves, chopped
1 tsp black peppercorns
2 dry red chillies
2 tbs vegetable/sunflower oil

Boil the chicken in water with salt and 2 mashed cloves of garlic.
In a pan, heat 2 tbs of oil. Add the peppercorns and dry red chillies.
When the peppercorns start to sputter, add the onions. Stir for 2 minutes, then add the tomatoes. Give it one stir and take pan off the heat.
In a blender, whizz the coconut and remaining garlic into a paste with a sprinkle of water and 1 tsp salt.
Take the boiled chicken off the heat, and put it in a serving bowl.
Into the chicken broth, spoon in the coconut paste, the onion and tomato mix, coriander leaves, and chopped chillies as needed.
Stir it all in. Serve with steamed rice, or on its own.



Monday, 14 July 2014

D and a Bullet

When we lived in Calcutta, D used to own a Royal Enfield Bullet. It was famously good-looking in a solid, black, unfussy kind of way; and as heavy as a house. But more than anything, it was a motorbike made of muscle and mind. A temperamental thing that could purr to a start on the first kick, or refuse to budge on the nineteenth. It suited us perfectly.

D had bought it a few months before we started dating, so his friends concluded that Bullets came with a steady girlfriend; a few boys in his neighbourhood offered to buy it from him. The Bullet also came with something else - a Voice. You could hear it long before it came into view. Dhhig-dhhig-dhhig. Slow, steady, loud. Like a good heart. For me, that sound came to mean many things, because it was the sound of D arriving, returning. The end of a small waiting.

One evening - a few months into our relationship, much before we were married - I was at home watching TV with Baba, when my ears picked up the sound of a Bullet entering our building complex; we lived on the fourth floor. The sound made me sit up straight, heartbeat up a notch. But then, remembering Baba next to me, I quickly feigned a relaxed posture. I stretched, and slowly got up, muttering something about fresh air. I made my way towards the balcony, adopting what I thought was a splendidly purposeless walk. I'd taken no more than five steps when--
"It's not him," Baba said, without taking his eyes off the telly.

My Baba - as sharp as the edge of a new page. There's not much you could ever sneak past him. Later that day, I learnt that someone else in the building had bought a Bullet. Damn, I thought, I didn't need the confusion. In a few days though, my ears had worked out the difference in sounds, and came to the unbiased conclusion that the sound of D's Bullet was far sweeter.

So, that's how it always was - D, me and the Bullet. It's the way our old friends remember us. Seated on it, D and I got to know each other better, we talked and laughed, argued and made up,  planned things, escaped for a few hours. D would pick me up from college after classes - that famed 'lobby' of Jadavpur University - and off we would go, without a plan. Years later, after we were married, he'd be there waiting with the Bullet next to my office to pick me up from work.

When we left Calcutta, we had to sell the Bullet. I don't have a single photograph of it - of us riding it, standing by it, near it. Not one. We didn't take many photographs in those days. I wish we had one though, just to show Chotto-ma.

Even though our Bullet found a new home, just like we did, there are a few things which haven't changed. The sound of D arriving, returning, still makes me sit up like it used to. Only now, it's not the dhhig-dhhig-dhhig of a bullet, but the slam of a car door, footsteps up the stairs. And we still find ways to escape for a few hours.

Every once in a while, we both take the day off work, drop Chotto-ma at school, and keep the day for ourselves. We did that last week. Took the day off, took a long walk, sat by the river, talked. Discovered a new street, narrow and crammed with gardens. Stopped at a pub for a drink. Ate a perfectly cooked Thai meal. We browsed our favourite bookshop. Picked a fern for Chotto-ma. Then, sat at a cafe, till it was time to pick her up from school. D read the newspaper. I wrote a little poem on a magnetic poetry board, which, having lost most of its words, stood by the cafe window gathering dust.


I also did something else last weekend. I came up with a sublime little dessert. 'Sublime', because there is no other word for it. We had friends over, and I wanted something quick, simple. I also wanted something seasonal and cold. But: nearly no work.

I had a few ingredients at home - a pot of mascarpone, coconut milk, one lone apple and a bowl of cherries. Together, they sang. It was the stuff of sonatas, I tell you.


Stewed Apples & Cherries in a Mascarpone-Coconut Cocktail


2 apples, cut into small cubes
10  large cherries, pit removed and quartered
3-4 tbs mascarpone
1 1/2 cup coconut milk
1 star anise
Castor sugar
Cashew or pecan nut to top (or a sprig of mint)

Add apples, cherries, coconut milk, star anise and 1 tbsp sugar in a pan and put to heat.
Simmer gently for a minute, and fish out the star anise.
Continue to simmer till the coconut milk is all gone and the fruit is tender. It'll all be a lovely cherry colour.
Take it off the heat. Add 3 to 4 tbs-dollops of mascarpone into the warm, stewed fruit.
Add sugar to taste. Stir it all in.
Spoon it into cocktail glasses, top with a nut or a sprig of mint and refrigerate for 40 minutes to set.
Take it out 10 minutes before serving.