Monday, 27 July 2015

Structo

On Saturday, I got this beautiful issue of Structo, with my fiction on its pages. I read an excerpt of the story at The Society Club in London where the issue was launched, and met some of the other wonderful writers. There were softly lit lamps, good people and Hemingway Daiquiri. All things right.

To everyone who's asked, the issue is for sale from August 1, and you can pre-order your copy here (they ship worldwide, and you'll be supporting a wonderful, not-for-profit effort to produce good literature): http://structomagazine.co.uk/store/

You can also pick up, or order, a copy from select shops in the UK. Or from shops in New York, Paris, Berlin and Amsterdam. The list of shops/stockists are here: http://structomagazine.co.uk/store/stockists/

If you're oceans away and the shipping costs seem too much, or you'd rather not make a purchase now (and that's perfectly reasonable), please wait a while - the online version will be available after three months, and is then free to read. I will post a link to my story here when that happens.



Thank you, always, for supporting, and reading, and following my work! I really appreciate it, you know.

Love, P xx

Tuesday, 21 July 2015

A year older


 

Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy's Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota
James Wright

Over my head, I see the bronze butterfly,
Asleep on the black trunk,
Blowing like a leaf in green shadow.
Down the ravine behind the empty house,
The cowbells follow one another
Into the distances of the afternoon.
To my right,
In a field of sunlight between two pines,
The droppings of last year's horses
Blaze up into golden stones.
I lean back, as the evening darkens and comes on.
A chicken hawk floats over, looking for home.
I have wasted my life.


There's been much said about what James Wright meant by the last line. For some, it means what it says - a wasted life, a regret. But in my mind, there's never been any doubt that he meant quite the opposite. I can see him, lying in the hammock, his proverbial tongue in his proverbial cheek, gently laughing at those who rush and run. Laughing at those who think lying in a hammock at William Duffy's farm is a waste of time. Because James knew, even then, that they were all wrong. That life was in watching a bronze butterfly sleep, listening to cowbells, and seeing the chicken hawk float home. And so he laughed and changed not a damn thing; just swung on his hammock as day turned to dusk. 


When I was young, I would stare at the clouds for hours with my school textbooks open in front of me; Ma Baba kept the curtains drawn before an exam. And now, as I get on with this business of being an adult, I still find time to waste time. 

It's midnight now. July 22, 00:00 hours, the laptop tells me. Which means I've just turned a year older. Two sleepy voices, one big and one little, will sing me Happy Birthday in a few minutes. And there's one thing I know for certain: I've wasted my life well. 




If you're in London, and fancy joining me for a spot of time wasting, please drop by The Society Club in Soho on July 25 - I'll be there for the launch of Structo Magazine's new issue, and I'd love to meet you! Structo publishes a fantastic anthology of fiction and poetry, and I'm very proud to have my work in its new issue. I'll be doing a reading from my story 'Dancing in the Drawing Room', which is part of the anthology (available online and in bookstores post July 25).

Details for the launch and reading, here, if you can make it!

Have a happy, wasted week, everyone!


 

Tuesday, 7 July 2015

I can change my mind

I haven't written another post on Provence. I sat down to write it, not because I wanted to write it, because I told you I would. But my heart was not in my fingers, they hovered above the keyboard; seagulls over dry land. And then I remembered something I often forget: I can change my mind.


I can change my mind.

It's strange how we're wired to not see that option. How years of conditioning teaches us to plough on, keep our word, see things through, finish every bit of food on the plate. Of course, there's a fear that creates, and arches over, that absolutism. The fear that if we gave our children the freedom to change their mind, we would turn them into fickle creatures, quitters and drifters. We would teach them how to give up too easily. They could grow up wasting their time looking for utopia and other silliness, instead of setting up the tent called Real Life, which of course stands on a few 'essential' pegs - a career, a spouse, a child (ideally two), a house of one's own, and money in the bank.

A departure from those essentials puts parents in a difficult position. Of having to present the anomalous lives of their adult children to the rest of the world. They fumble if one or more of the essential pegs are missing: if a daughter is successful but single, if a forty-five-year-old son lives in a rented apartment, if their children decide to travel the world on odd jobs instead of a steady one, if their healthy, fertile, married daughter decides not to have children. Or, god help them, if their child decides that they're attracted to people of their own sex. The poor parents' post-retirement plan is sorted - to spend their days explaining these inconsistencies to friends and neighbours the best they can. And that, is the fear. That these drifters could be products of a freedom, which gave them the license to change their mind.


Why then do I always tell Chotto-ma that her mind is hers to change?

Because, you see, the other side of the coin is far scarier to me. That she might spend endless days doing something her heart is not into. That she might not listen to the voice that comes from her belly. That she would be too proud or worried or scared to say 'I was wrong, and I'd like to change my mind.' I've seen people waste years studying for the wrong degree and then working in the wrong job, because changing their mind would seem like giving up. I've seen people who knew a year into their marriage that they'd made the wrong choice, but stayed on for another decade, because once you've told your family you've found the love of your life, you don't change your mind.

Now, what if you drifted for a while? A physical drifting can actually tether you in wonderful ways. And what if you didn't take the pegs and put up that tent? What if you walked off the road and explored and got a little lost and found your way again? Feeling settled inside has nothing to do with being settled on the outside, of that I'm sure. Finding that still point in yourself - where you know you're in the right place, with the right people, in the right skin - has little to do with being still on the outside, having a permanent residence and a planned life. The older I get, the less time I spend doing things that don't feel right. Time feels precious - something to be reserved for people who matter, doing things that add to my day. I change my mind as soon as my belly asks me to, for rarely has that voice in my gut led me astray.


When I start writing a blog post, I never know where I'm going to go. The only way I seem to be able to write is by drifting. Drifting is the way I've found most good things; or the way they've found me.

This post was supposed to be a travel guide around Provence, and I couldn't have strayed farther away on the map. I also had no plans of sharing a recipe today, but I changed my mind.


Peach, Mozzarella & Black-Eyed Bean Salad

I wrote the post over this salad lunch. And the salad was very good, so I made another plate just to take pictures and share it with you. It tastes like summer.

Ingredients

2 peaches, sweet and ripe
100 gms fresh mozzarella
1/2 cup black-eyed beans, soaked overnight
Fresh basil
1tsp whole black peppercorns, coarsely crushed
Handful of cashew nuts, roasted in a pan till lightly browned (or almonds if you prefer)
Extra virgin olive oil
Sea salt




First, boil the beans with salt till soft. Keep aside to cool. (I usually have some boiled and stored in the fridge.)
The rest is all about assembly:

Slice the peach and lay it out on a plate. Tear chunks of mozzarella and dot them around. Next goes the basil. Sprinkle this layer with salt (optional) and the coarse pepper. Scatter in the beans. Top everything with the cashew nuts. Drizzle with olive oil. And voila!



Monday, 15 June 2015

Provence: Driving into the Absurd



Provence turns anticlockwise, like the untwisting of a bottle cap. Like turning down the volume so you can hear the wind, or the nothing. It unwinds you; you have no choice in the matter. It laughs in the face of your plans and pending emails, it shames you with fields of crimson poppies. It pulls out a chair under a trellis of vines, pours you a glass of rosé and says, there, now spell 'schedule', define 'purpose'. You can't remember what those words look like; the sky is far too blue, everything is absurdly beautiful. You shrug, your mouth makes the little fart-like sound that's French for 'Who knows?'. You sit back and let the dappled sunshine untangle the muscles in your shoulder and try not to hum that John Denver song.

Life is better when it isn't chased. People in these little villages in the Luberon - the hilly middle of Provence - get that. The locals look like tourists even as they go about the business of making a living, earning their bread and butter. Well, baguette and sea-salted Normandy butter, in this case. All the villages in the Luberon, seem to tumble slowly down hillsides onto newly sown rows of lavender, which will all be purple come July. We spend our days sitting on stone walls that drop many feet to the hills below. Sometimes, we take our little red, rented Fiat and drive through winding roads, exploring sleepy villages, stopping for no reason. We follow miles of dirt road to hidden restaurants set in acres of wild countryside singing with cicadas. And come home to a tiny apartment that stands near the local boulangerie in the most beautiful village in Provence, where I sit and write this post.


We're in Lourmarin. A village of blue shuttered windows fringed with roses, shiny cobbled streets, pavement cafes and women in loose linens. Everyone has a dog, everyone knows everyone else, the dogs know each other. Bonjjouurrr, they sing. After the first week, everyone knows us too. They always stop to chat as we walk to the boulangerie for croissants in the morning - broken English meet broken French amidst hand gestures and big smiles. They all have a wicker basket on one arm filled with the day's groceries, and tucked under the other arm, three fresh baguettes. Always three.


The village is scattered with old fountains swimming with fish. Chotto-ma talks to the fish as we sit in the village square with our morning coffee. She comes back and tells us their names, she tells us that each fish has a distinct personality. When she's not talking to fish, she is following the little creek that runs down the alleys between the houses. We follow her, she leads us nowhere, we have nowhere to get to. When the sun gets too hot, we stop for a beer.


Albert Camus lived in Lourmarin, his house still stands in the village. When I was sixteen, I read 'The Fall' and my day shifted on its axis. His work shuts out the world with thick stone walls, it isolates you. At sixteen, isolation was the one thing I craved often. I read him and reread him for two years, till the need to read him left me as suddenly as it had come, much like Camus' own life - a short, intense burst followed by sudden death. If someone had told me then, as I read his books in my humid Calcutta afternoon, that I'd rent an apartment in his village someday, stroll by his house and the grave where he lies, I'd have laughed. Absurd, I might've said. A word Camus would no doubt have approved of.



"At any street corner the feeling of absurdity can strike any man in the face."




PS: I'll try to put together a photo-list of our favourite villages and restaurants in Provence next. Till then!

Thursday, 14 May 2015

Ginseng Tea by the Window

I'm drinking tea
that tastes of black pepper,
old pages, mountains
in the monsoon.

I'm in a cafe in
Cambridge. I'm on a
road in India,
curving around
Coonoor,
back in a car
with Ma and Baba,
my brother
and everything is green,
green.

I take another
sip, another,
and mountain walls well up. 
Deep green, like thoughts.
A mossy wall of thoughts
left behind
by weary travellers,
happy travellers, travellers
throwing up from bus-windows
at hairpin bends,
sleepy travellers, heads
nodding down down,
jerking up.

Those thoughts, here
in my cup of hot water
and Ginseng flower. Tepid
now, but brewing great distances.

...






I don't know where that came from today; I haven't written in verse in years. I'll leave that with you as we pack our bags to go were the cicadas sing. To a little village in Provence. We've always wanted to do a road-trip in the south of France, without a map, without an itinerary. And here it is now.

I hope my tea took you somewhere too.


...


Friday, 8 May 2015

Eating like a bad Hindu

“Now look who’s being a bad Hindu!” my colleague chortles. He’s white, British, in his early seventies. He’s lovely. He’s also from a generation that often feels a kinship to India (and, in this case, to me as an extension); with a father or a grandfather who served in the British Indian Army, an older sister who was born in India before the family was shipped back to England. Leaving the life they had settled into like well-worn mojris, leaving the mango trees, the sun-soaked porches with red chillies drying on yards of muslin, the brown-skinned servants hovering with trays of tea.

I’m confused. Bad Hindu, what are you talking about? My brows furrow, I smile. I like his glee at having ‘caught me’; I don’t know at what. I’m curious about my crime.
He points to my lunch. “You’re eating lamb, you naughty girl! Not very vegetarian, is it?”
Ah! My smile turns into a laugh. We swap roles. He’s the confused one now.
“Haven’t you heard: what you know to be true of India, is also not true of India?” I say. I take another bite of my lamb chop. I’m enjoying this.
“So you’re not vegetarian?”
“Nah.”
“But you're a Hindu.”
“The last time I checked,” I nod.


I can’t blame him for thinking I’d lost my religion over lunch. I know most in his place would think the same. I went to a dumpling restaurant with my husband and daughter recently where the Chinese waiter, without being asked, informed us that they didn’t do vegetarian dumplings. “Only phork, chickin!” he said, withholding the menu, expecting us to leave. On a different day, an order for a slice of quiche at a cafe was met with, “Just so you know…that has ham in it.” We’ve also grown accustomed to our European friends being taken aback by our non-vegetarian table at home.

I tell my colleague about the many Indias in India. The many ways of being Hindu. The many ways of being part of an -ism that dances as wildly as Shiva, open to interpretation, encompassing everything and nothing, the orthodox, the free-spirited, the undecided.

I open Google Maps on my phone and zoom into the subcontinent. I point to parts where meat-eating Hindus roam free. Punjab, Rajasthan, Delhi in the north. Bengal in the east; where I come from. The beautiful, undulating states of the north-east. Kerala in the south. Goa in the west. Bits in between.

Christians pray for their daily bread, the Bengali Hindus pray for their daily fish and weekly mutton, I tell him. Meat is a part of religious festivals like Kali Puja. Choosing a vegetarian dish from a restaurant menu (which I often do) would bring clucks of concern from my Bengali friends and family back in Kolkata. Am I ill? Is it cholesterol (a fond topic)? Have I been warned by a doctor with dire consequences?

Vegetarianism here is a reminder of austerity. Meals for the ailing. Meals of the mourning. There are still parts and pockets of India where Hindu widows, young or old, are expected to turn vegetarian to honour the husband who has passed away. The more unspoken reason, of course, is that non-vegetarian food would fire their blood with wild aphrodisiacs, and turn them into wanton widows. And that would never do!

And so my colleague sits, listening to me, reconfiguring in his mind an -ism from a country of confusions, and no doubt, silently reconfiguring me. He holds out a little paper bag. “Try some of this sausage roll, it’s fantastic,” he says with a wry grin. I take a bite. It’s good.

“Speaking of sausage,” he says “isn’t this what got the bloody British into all the trouble they deserved?” He bashes the British as regularly as he wears his pale, British skin.
“You mean the Sepoy Mutiny?” I ask.
“Yes, yes. Pandey and the pork fat. Served us right, messing with the Motherland!”
He loves that word. He never says India. Always Motherland.
“Pia,” he hollered, the day after the Elections in India. “Come, sit. Let’s talk about Modi and the Motherland!”

Sometimes, I don’t know who’s more Indian. I love our conversations. This camaraderie hinging on one country, seen from different points in time. His from a colonial time-warp; mine more current, but often dipped in a nostalgia that makes me short-sighted. Both versions a little removed from the truth.
“Pandey and the pork fat, yes.” I can’t help grinning. We’re in 1857 like it was yesterday. I clear my lunch leftovers into the bin. “Some mess, that.”



[This post has also appeared on Huffington Post]
   
   

Friday, 17 April 2015

On repeat

When I like something, I like it and like it and like it till I can't bear to look at it. Or listen to it. Or eat it. My brother could tell you how many times I can listen to the same song. In a row, in constant repeat. We grew up sharing a bedroom and Simon and Garfunkel must haunt him still.

My taste in music changed. House changed, climate changed. But that old habit, I kept.

When D and I were dating, we used to go to a hole-in-the-wall Tibetan momo place in Calcutta. It had light bulbs so dim you could barely see the food, or indeed, each other. These dim bulbs were red, they bathed everything in an eerie red light. No matter what food you ordered, it came with a red glow. Red momos, red noodles, red faces, red teeth. The food was served on red plastic plates. (This wasn't the light; the plates were really red). There was also a red chilli paste on the side, which you couldn't tell since it was the same shade as the plate. This little momo joint was next to a government hospital in front of which metal stretchers clanged constantly, wheeling in a steady stream of ailing. The road was divided into two smells: momo and medicine.

We loved the momos. We ate it obsessively for months. Every other day. Sometimes, every day. Till the thought of momos started making me feel slightly nauseous. Then we stopped. A few years later, a friend dragged me there, and the sweet man who used to serve us enquired about D. 'Dada? Bhalo?' he asked gingerly. Is Dada well? He shuffled, unsure if our relationship had survived those torrid months of red-hued momo lunches. Steamed, deep-fried and pan-fried, with a side of clear soup. It had, I assured him.


You're thinking I'm headed towards a momo recipe, aren't you? She's going to ask us to make a momo any minute now, you fear. But no. I'm headed nowhere near a momo. I'm going left. I'm going off the road, down the dirt-track. I'm going to Rhubarb.

Rhubarb is where it's at right now. I'm repeating rhubarb like it's going out of season. Oh, hang on - it is going out of season. But before it does, do me a favour, do you a favour, and get your hands on some rrrrhubarb. I sang that, yes. I'm writing to music. (I'll tell you about that too in a minute)

So, get the rhubarb, the ru-ru-rhubarb, because I made the most sensational rhubarb pickle a few days ago that you cannot not make. It's not pickled rhubarb, mind you. It's an achaar, a very Indian pickle; tangy, garlicky, spiced with turmeric and mustard seeds, kicked by chillies, screaming good. It also has the most un-Indian ways: I've smeared it in a ciabatta stuffed with avocado and bacon, piled it on polenta, stirred it into mayonnaise for a magnificent dip. I can't sell it any more - just go get some rhubarb!

And listen to some Mulatu Astatke while you're at it; that's the music I'm writing to. Ethiopian jazz, terribly good. Listen to this, and listen to this. Mulatu's my man, and he's on repeat like rhubarb. He goes well with this pickle too; neither pulls any punches.



Indian Rhubarb Pickle

This was Ma's idea. We were talking about rhubarb, and my rhubarb soup, and it's green-mango-like tanginess, when she said: Ah, achaar! And there you have it.



Ingredients

2 rhubarb stalks, trimmed of leaves, cut in small pieces
4 cloves of garlic, peeled, sliced thin
1 tsp black mustard seeds
1/2 tsp fenugreek seeds
1 level tsp turmeric
1 level tsp paprika
1/2 tsp asafoedita (optional)
1-2 red chillies, sliced
3 tbsp vegetable oil
1 quarter of a lemon
Salt
Sugar



Heat oil. Lower the heat and add the asafoedita (if using) and the mustard seeds. As soon as the mustard start spluttering, add the fenugreek seeds.
Add the rhubarb, then the garlic. Sprinkle in the turmeric, paprika and a very generous amount of salt. Add three tsp of sugar. Stir. Cover and cook for 2-3 minutes.




Open lid, it should be a nice saucy-mushy consistency now, with bits of rhubarb smothered in.
Add the chillies, squeeze in the lemon. Stir well. Taste; add more salt and sugar as required.
Cook for another minute to get the right pickle-consistency if needed.
Take it off the heat, and let it cool completely.
Transfer to a clean, dry jar. Store in the fridge.