Thursday, 22 January 2015

Into my bones

We returned from Morocco days ago, but while we were there, the sun seeped into my bones and made me slow to return to daily things.  It felt good to be away from routine, packed lunches, and the internet. I need this - to be on my metaphorical island - with just D and Chotto-ma every once in a while. To cut-off of from everything, focus on nothing. Morocco, or Maroc, could be a metaphor for many things.



I wanted to give D a surprise for his birthday, so Chotto-ma and I crept around our crafty piece of planning for weeks. Choosing the place, booking tickets, looking for a place to stay, and impossibly, keeping mum. Finally, we had Morocco.

Of all the gin joints in the world, I had to choose the one that would be saddest to leave.



For anyone from India, Morocco, especially it's cities, would feel instantly familiar. But look a little closer, and you see the little things that make it its very own person. It's a country where you need to peer past cliches. As a local told us with a sad shake of his head - Marrakech is more famous than Morocco.



Yes, Morocco could be all about Marrakech's souks and snake charmers, but if you stray away for a while, drive down emptier roads, the rewards are even richer. Hunker down for a conversation in a little village, talk to local women as they prepare lunch, or turn the other way and walk around the modern, residential areas of its cities where urban life unfolds in wide, leafy avenues.

The country then begins to piece together into a more complex, layered whole. Where the old and new change lanes seamlessly, crisscrossing each other without a crash. Much like the traffic on its street. Much like the way in which the locals shift smoothly from Arabic to French to English, switching tongue without thought.


We travelled from Marrakech to the valleys beyond. To villages that had been at the mercy of a ten-year drought, useless bridges arching over rivers that had dried into roads. When the rains finally fell, it grew from a trickle to a gush so great that the dry riverbeds filled up and bulged out, crashing through houses on its way, breaking walls, homes. On these roads, steep and sharp, rising through Berber villages and into the Atlas, life is hard. Physical and spartan, amidst the beauty of its red earth. But this is also where you find the resilience, and rosy-cheeked children, and an optimism that can curve mouths into wide smiles.



And as one day ended and another began, and we went from losing ourselves in the apricot-coloured alleyways of Marrakech, to wounding our way around mountains, to walking through miles of beautiful moonscaped valleys, we found something that made this journey stretch and linger: good people. They were everywhere we went - on empty red roads, little villages, and in the crazy circus of Marrakech's Jemaa-el-Fna. They were there with kind smiles, big hugs and many kisses for Chotto-ma's forehead. We've brought those back with us, along with bowls and tagines and bags of spices.



Apart from the people, there were some things that stood out, things that made our time in Morocco soar above every expectation we had had of it. Amongst them: The riad where we stayed; a home of such beauty it made us stand still. A hike that had me sore in places I didn't know I had. And a few meals that I will never forget. I'll leave those for my next post. Do come back.


Monday, 29 December 2014

It's always 11:26


I remember the first time I really understood the length of a year. I was six; as old as Chotto-ma is now. And I remember thinking how impossibly long one year was, and how it shouldn't be called 'one' anything. It was trickery. A way of misleading children into thinking that it would pass as quickly as something with a 'one' before it should. But this wasn't like the one that came after zero. One year had three hundred and sixty five days hidden in it. Oh, just a year, grown-ups always say. But when you're six, it's three hundred and sixty five whole days. That's 525,600 minutes. Have you ever asked a child how long a minute is? It's very long.


And there I was yesterday, thinking like the grown-ups I didn't understand when I was six. I was thinking how fast this year has passed. And it made me think of how formless, how unquantifiable time is. How it shrinks with age, and stretches with youth. How the quantity of time depends on its quality - a good year rushes by, a difficult year drags without end.


It's a wily thing, a personal thing - time. The length of your minute is different from mine. Your hour, your year is only as long as you perceive it to be, not me, nor the clock or the calender. Have I told you about the clock in our house that doesn't tell time? It's on the wall next to our dining table. It's large, round. In fact, it's the main clock in our living room. It's always 11:26 on this clock; could be am or pm. I don't remember when it stopped, it's been a couple of years. It inadvertently tells the right time twice a day. I could pop a couple of batteries in, and the hands would tick to order. But I don't. I like it this way. I like that in this little corner, time doesn't exist.



Happy 2015, everyone. No matter what the length of our new year, I hope it has 525,600 good minutes. Minutes that live, breathe and count.

Much love.









Sunday, 14 December 2014

Once upon a time


A few weeks ago, I found Once Upon A Time.

It was in my secondhand bookshop locked in a glass cabinet unlike the other books, which stood on open shelves bare to a stranger's browse. It seemed appropriate that something called Once Upon A Time should be locked up - by an evil queen no doubt - waiting to be rescued.


I rescued it with a few pounds that afternoon. Its pages felt like the loose skin on the underside of my grandmother's arms - soft, thin, giving. It's a magazine that was born in the late sixties; a weekly for children.



There is something more personal, more generous, about print productions from the pre-digital age. Like homemade cookies, they had a pureness of intent. You can imagine people stooped over, setting type by hand, the page layouts tweaked slowly, manually. The publication of Once Upon A Time ceased years ago, but its beauty still breathes. In its large pages, inked with abandon. Brimming with childhood.



It reminded me of the magazines Ma used to collect when I was young, and which I would spend hours leafing through in my teens. Old issues of LIFE, large in size and in content, and with the same wise smell to its yellow pages. I remember The Illustrated Weekly of India - the cartoons by RK Laxman and Mario Miranda. And the old Indian comic books, filled with stories of small-town India, and of kings and simpletons and wily pranksters.


Somehow, when I think of me pouring over those copies of LIFE, the memory is always set in winter. Sitting on the long, low settee in our the living room where the sun fell after lunch. It would've been the Christmas holidays. I remember the nip.


December in Calcutta is a lovely time. The air is cool, people calm. They've passed the humid clamminess of summer and the torrents of the monsoons. During Christmas, we would always go out to see the lights on Park Street. Ma would have fresh flowers in every room. 'Boro Deen' - that is what Christmas is called in Bengali. 'The big day'.


Between Christmas and New Year, our house would be filled with parties. Some with family. Some with Ma-Baba's friends. The table heavy with food. The drinks flowing. Laughter, conversations, evenings that didn't end. Baba would be at his best, armed with his anecdotes, humour and stories from history. Ma would cook up the most perfect dishes; creative; recipes no one had ever tried before (not even Ma) - baked, steamed, stirred. Mixes and mash and combinations that would work beautifully. My brother and I would wait for these evenings. For the excited throb that took over the house, but mainly for the food.


One of Ma's appetizers - which became so popular that it was always on our party-table by popular demand - was a simple aubergine dish. A dish that I now make for my guests. It's a thing to pass down. And like most of Ma's recipes, and mine, it's very quick and low-fuss. I've never made it without having to tell guests the recipe.

I'm going to share it with you today. And then, I'm going to find some pretty paper and wrap up Once Upon A Time and put it under the Christmas tree for Chotto-ma. She decorated the tree this week, and now it stands by the doorway dressed for Christmas Day. Different from my Boro Deen in Calcutta, but just as big. Years later, these Decembers are what will be Chotto-ma's 'once upon a time'.



Merry Christmas. Happy Hanukkah. Happy Whatever-lights-up-your-winter.
Happy holidays, everyone! xx


 ***




Ma's Pan-fried Aubergine with Yogurt and Red Onion Topping



Ingredients

1 large aubergine, cut into inch-thick slices
1 cup strained yogurt (hang yogurt in cloth to strain it)
Half a red onion, finely chopped
Fresh coriander leaves, finely chopped
1 green chilli, de-seeded and chopped (optional)
Paprika powder
Salt
Sugar
Oil



For the topping: mix yogurt, onion, coriander leaves and green chilli. Add salt and sugar to taste (I like mine salted with a nice sweet edge). Beat till smooth and keep it in the fridge.



Brush the aubergine slices with oil on both sides.
Heat a flat pan with 1 tsp oil, and add the aubergine.
On medium heat, pan fry till cooked and both sides of the slices are nicely browned.



Place on serving dish and spoon on the topping. It should be a nice combination of hot and cold. (Though even all-cold tastes lovely).
Sprinkle with paprika for a slash of colour, and a tiny bit more onion if you like, and serve.



PS: When I have guests, I keep the topping ready in the fridge. I pan-fry the aubergine early on, and line them up on a baking tray. When guests arrive, I just heat it in the oven on high for a few minutes, spoon the topping and serve.


Have the most wonderfully festive holiday!


Tuesday, 25 November 2014

Love


That's my kitchen table this morning. There's the apple cake I baked yesterday. My coffee. A yam I don't know what to do with. A bowl of oranges. And linen embroidered by my grandmother long before I was born.


I just noticed how many round things I've put together there. Circle on circle. Spheres and orbits. I hadn't realised I'd done that. I have a terrible cold - stayed up the night coughing - so I don't know what I'm doing anyway, but there might be some subliminal therapy in circular things. Tai chi. Yin yang. Cake.

There's something else circling around in my head. A poem Chotto-ma wrote yesterday. She's been writing a lot. Suddenly, fiercely. Writing, writing, writing. Stories, poems, and a movie script called 'The Blues' where two lonely girls born with blue hair find each other and becomes friends.

This is her first poem, complete with her spellings. It made my cold better.



LOVE 
by Chotto-ma


Love is our 
own naicher.
Love is our
life.
Love is evrything.
Love is what
we like.




[Glossary: naicher = nature. We like to keep our spellings nacheral.]




Monday, 17 November 2014

All gone





We woke up on Sunday and looked out of the windows to find all the houses and trees gone. The parked cars, the pavements, gone. The church across the street gone, its moorish spires stolen by diaphanous djinns. The sky no more, sucked up into itself.

Outside our windows, the world was whipped cream. Thick, white. You could dip a finger in. Or, if like us you were walkers of a less sane mind, you could put your shoes on. At 7.40 am on a winter morning, you could put your shoes on.




You could walk through familiar streets as if for the first time; fog makes a first time of everything. It makes everything seem as secretive as half-told stories. Houses whisper, people in them sleep and dream strange dreams. Nothing stirs expect the hours.




We walked for a long time; I don't know how long. By the time we decided to head back home, the fog had begun to lift. Headlights passed. A tree appeared in autumn leaves like a girl in gold lamé returning home from her Saturday night. We could see the church now, its neon sign reminding people to be saved on Sundays. The djinns had returned its spires before the people at Sunday Mass noticed anything amiss. A man stood by the park in a clown costume drinking coffee.




When we climbed the stairs home, the world was returning, sharpening. There would be other fogs, other out-of-focus fairytales. For now, there was coffee as dark as the outside was white. And pear cake with cream. Thick, white.



Pear & Yoghurt Cake with Orange Sour Cream Icing

This is a throw-everything-in-a-bowl kind of cake, so the recipe that follows is unconventional. As in, it may seem suspiciously whimsical and simple for a cake, but hang in there. It will rise to the occasion. It's the best cake I've baked in a while, and certainly my favourite icing by far.







Ingredients

For the cake:
2 pears, not too soft, nor at its firmest; peeled
2 cups of plain flour
2 tsps baking powder
2 eggs
1 1/2 cups plain set yogurt (not Greek)
3/4 cup coarse brown sugar
2 heaped tbsps butter at room temperature
1/2 cup vegetable oil
1 tsp vanilla essence

For the icing:
600 ml sour cream (that's usually 2 small tubs)
1/2 - 3/4 cup white castor sugar (adjust to taste)
Grated zest of 1 small orange






First the icing:
Hang the sour cream in a clean cloth to strain the water out. This should take an hour.
In a bowl, add sour cream, sugar and half of your orange zest. Give it a good mix till smooth. Taste and add more sugar if needed. Keep aside.






Now the cake:
Pre-heat your oven to 170 degree C (350 degree F).
In a large, deep bowl sieve the flour and baking powder together. Throw in the sugar.
Crack two eggs in the middle. Add the butter. Pour in the oil and the vanilla essence.
Now, with your hands, or a wooden spoon, give it a mix in a nice clockwise motion.





Into this tight batter, add yogurt. Mix till it's a lovely smooth consistency.
Hold the pears above the bowl and with a knife scoop slivers of it into the cake batter. Let the juices drizzle in. Gently fold the pear into the batter.
Grease a medium (9-inch) cake tin with butter, and pour the batter in. Bake for about 40-45 minutes.



Cool completely. Then slather the icing on top, and sprinkle with remaining zest.
Refrigerate for about an hour before serving. Enjoy!