Sunday, 31 July 2011

A Good Book


We had to read a synopsis to understand the movie, despite being riveted to our seats watching Angelina Jolie execute dangerous stunts on high rises, down elevator shafts, and on trains and buses amongst other things. The write-up reported that she actually doubled up as her own stunt man – plucky girl.
The movie was ‘Salt’, and it won or, at the very least was nominated for, several Academy awards. We were totally confused as to which side of the Cold War she was batting for. I guess that testifies to the brilliance of the narrative, if not the brilliance of our little gray cells!
Today is one of those days when I want to watch a really good courtroom drama of the Perry Mason ilk, or a who-dun-it like Castle; but the idiot box is not in an obliging mood. Neither can the abundant multiplexes around satisfy this craving.
Or maybe a good book.
Can anyone recommend a good monsoon read seasoned with family drama, plots and sub-plots, twists and turns?
Would that my younger sibling , who claims to be suffering from writer’s block, hear my plea and write a saga to complement her cache of three books? She can delve into family history and unearth the skeletons of the black sheep that lie buried in the ancestral vaults – the charlatans, the buccaneers, the rou├ęs and cads of yore! Or were we always a morally highbrow family??

Thursday, 28 July 2011

Juno’s 1st birthday


Yet another day gone by with nary a word from our cook. I was free today, so I rolled up my sleeves and rustled up egg sandwiches for breakfast, liberally lashed with butter, mustard, pepper and cilantro. The simplest food gives the greatest joy – and here I allude not to the creation of the sandwich, but the eating of it!
Child of course wailed at being given an egg for the second day running, but I would have none of it. Methinks she single-handedly keeps Kellogg’s in business in India. The latest love is Chocos and she downs the cereal as breakfast and an all-day snack, with or without milk.
I rolled the sleeves even higher and set out to craft a gourmet lunch for the both of us, spouse having gone off on his travels to the south of the country. The last two days he has been treated to meals created by Joseph, originally chef of a senior tea executive’s bungalow in South India, whose family are very dear friends. The now retired planter’s wife gaped in disbelief when she heard my spouse speak of him (the chef, not the retired planter!) in a telephone call with her! Tears sprung to her eyes as she recounted his skills with the skillet and the ladle!
Tears spring to my eyes too, when I recall those days of 5 course meals outstandingly created by our cooks at home. Forgive me if I sound maudlin here. Press the ‘Back to the Beginning’ button on your computer and re read the first sentence of this blog...!
The microwave oven is an infallible companion on days like these, but I still prefer the good old fashioned gas stove and the roomy stand-alone convection oven any day. I spent countless afternoons, especially monsoon or overcast ones, creating confectionary extraordinaire for my appreciative first-born and his dog! Swiss rolls that actually scrolled, chocolate ├ęclairs, Viennese biscuits sandwiched with chocolate butter cream, quiches and tarts among other delectables rolled out with military precision in those younger days, quite untouched by new waves or microwaves! Having a full-time cook gives you the time to indulge in crafts and hobbies, and mine was baking – therapeutic!
I remember the 8th of February 1985. I had just extracted a freshly baked cake sans embellishments from the oven. My young son, just short of 3, laboriously punctured it with a brightly coloured candle. We carried it out into the lawn and had barely lit the candle when a beautiful yellow Labrador, all of one year old that day, leapt to claim what was rightly hers, lighted candle and all! One swoop and it was all gone, leaving us, human parents and brother, clapping and singing ‘Happy Birthday dear Juno’ while she continued searching for crumbs among the blades of grass! It's not hard to understand why no photographs exist of Juno's cake cutting ceremony!

Tuesday, 26 July 2011

Chirayath


I accessed the link recommended by a commentator on my last post. Thank you, Fishbowl! From your vantage position in a glass basin you get a 360 degree view of all aspects of life, as it were!
I am happy to inform you that the link was actually an eye-opener of sorts, very enlightening indeed. A will is so very necessary to ensure that your family members, progeny and dependents don’t spend the rest of their lives running in circles to inherit what is rightly theirs, while you blissfully R.I.P.!
The end of a long but eventually victorious chase to receive your just desserts, estates and family jewels does not actually induce you to pop champagne and release colourful helium balloons. Rather, it leaves a bitter taste in your mouth.
Bitter taste reminds me of the truly awful tasting ‘chirayath’ that I used to force myself to swallow in the acne-scarred days of youth. It was a minimalist looking twiggy plant that had to be procured from the local bazaar at an embarrassingly low price.
Our cook used to pick it up for me daily with the small change left over from his vegetable shopping.  I used to soak it overnight in a glassful of water, before padding off to bed.
A distressingly early Ante Meridian hour would see me padding dolefully back to the kitchen, straining the murky green stock into a fresh glass, clutching my nose with one hand and the glass with the other, and draining down the contents thereof.
I’ve never been tempted to treat myself to a snifter of urine like an erudite ex PM of yore, but I’m very sure that 'chirayath’ beats it hollow in the ‘ugh’ department.
But yes, for whoever’s interested, it worked like magic on the acne!

Monday, 25 July 2011

The Depth of Love


Conversation veered towards mortality at lunch yesterday as one amongst our tribe raised the subject of ‘pind-daan’, the visitation to Gaya by offspring whose parents have ceased to be.
These have now assumed the characteristics of a package tour, with travel, hotel, meals and a complete itinerary included. What is not included in the package is the amount one pays to the priest who serves as the conduit between you and the Almighty as you pray for the souls of your dearly departed.
That amount is arbitrary, and almost entirely dependent on how much you can be coerced to spend to ensure a divine resting place for your forebears.
Also arbitrary is the length of the puja. This can range from thirty minutes to an eight-hour sitting with the priest. A couple of ‘C’ notes ensure that the prayer is kept to the minimum without in any way compromising on its intensity!
Howzzat??
My children were all ears and very much avid participants in this conversation. They decided that while a fifteen minute puja would amply suffice for their ‘cool’ dad, they would invest no less than sixteen hours for me!
The reason proffered for this blatant discrimination twixt self and spouse lies apparently in the difference between our natures. A little over 24 hours ago I was informed that I was no ‘cool’ mom!
For example, they fear that if they don’t lay the table correctly or hang a picture askew on the wall, I could posthumously be propelled to set to rights their incorrigible wrongs by revisiting earth and doing it myself. Much as they love me, (they hastened to assure me) this would bring shivers down their spines! To that end, therefore, they intend to make doubly sure that I R.I.P.!

Thursday, 21 July 2011

The Monsoon


Rain of varying velocity has been pouring down upon the city since the past few days. A fine Scotch mist turns into a steady drizzle, then reverts to its Scottish origins before pelting cats and dogs upon the hapless populace. It’s the monsoon, so I can’t complain. Today I was very nearly drenched to the bone while waiting to catch a cab. I rather enjoyed it, I must admit! It reminded me of the carefree days of childhood, when one never concerned oneself with the list of ailments that could follow a good drenching.
When we were children, the smell of damp earth before a smart shower would draw us inexorably to the terrace where we would cavort gleefully, all eyes fixed skywards, to spot the first visible droplets of rain. That smell still stirs in me an atavistic hunger, an ache, an indefinable je ne sais quoi. If Dior, or any perfumier, could find a way to bottle that raw, earthy fragrance, he would have a winner on his hands.
The downside of a good monsoon, though, is the flooding that invariably accompanies any brisk shower in the city. It’s not so much the rainwater but what flows along with it that makes the bile rise. As a race, sadly, we are not known for our civic sense, most of our roads doubling up as spittoons and lavatories. Such droppings and debris may lap against your luckless ankles in the nether region, but the discomfort travels upwards at breakneck speed, manifesting itself as nausea in the jugular region of the torso.
To my memory, the monsoons were both an olfactory and visual treat viewed from the upstairs balcony of our bungalow in the Dooars.  The heady waft of scented soil and a vista of verdant earth, several shades of green, curtained by the mottled canopies of trees bearing newly burst leaf-buds soaking in the liquid haze pouring forth from the firmament as far as the eye could see.
 And another picture, a dearer one, of my little girl all kitted out in a pink raincoat, umbrella and gumboots, dancing and swirling waif-like with three gorgeous beasties, our now sainted Labradors, on the vast expanse of lawn under a swollen sky disgorging its molten angst.
That was heaven on earth for me!

Friday, 15 July 2011

Tenugui


There’s something new to learn everyday! This morning my very first Japanese student gifted me two tenuguis, one printed with various symbols associated with the Japanese culture – and the other vividly printed with plum blossoms, known as ‘Ume’ in Japanese. Tenugui is a union of two words – ‘te’, meaning ‘hands’, and ‘nugui’ which signifies the act of wiping
A tenugui is ostensibly a towel  in Japan, about 35x 90 cm in size, not so much in use now, but still popular as a traditional Japanese gift. It actually has many uses, I was told, as well as a lengthy history. It can be used as a wash cloth, dish cloth, tea towel, scarf, headband, as a souvenior, an advertising tool or for gift-wrapping.
A clay figurine from the Kofun Era (250 -538 AD), discovered with a tenugui wrapped around its head, testifies to its antiquity. It was apparently used in religious ceremonies in the past, and was woven out of silk or hemp, and subsequently became a mainstay for Samurai who wore it under their helmets to catch flows of perspiration.
It was several centuries later, during the Edo period, that it became the ‘towel’ for the masses, its use accelerated by the new concept of Public Baths that mushroomed in Japan around that time. The fabric turned to cotton, it began to be coloured and printed in myriad hues with scenes corresponding to the various seasons of Japan. Companies and establishments often gifted it to their clients, their logos and mercantile markings forming the print on the cloth.
My student wrapped it around her neck with a jaunty knot at the side to illustrate how it might be worn. Then, she delicately lifted the two loose ends and proceeded to mime the act of gently mopping her brow and drying her ears! It infused the rather mundane ritual with a dose of panache! Tomorrow I am going to knot a tenugui around my husband’s neck before he leaves for his morning constitutional. I am sure he will become a convert to its discreet mopping properties!

Thursday, 14 July 2011

Allium Cepa



Allium what? It’s the onion, I’m talking about – the original tear jerker when stabbed by a sharp edged knife on a chopping board. But an onion a tearjerker all dressed up in its jacket? Nah, you are likely to say – if you don’t live in India, that is.
These days the sight of an onion sets my mood regulator to ‘lachrymose’. Actually, the onion has had this impact on me since 1993 or 1994 when its price rose sharply from Rs.3 a kg to Rs.12, all in a day. Then it rose even higher, setting new benchmarks for itself with each rise of the bar.
And one day it plummeted to a new low which did not correspond even remotely with its original high. I wiped away my tears with the back of my hand, never pausing to rummage in the drawer for a handkerchief, and rushed to the nearest greengrocer to collect a month’s stock, in case the price escalated again. As I stacked them away in my larder, examining each pink globe in disbelief, I burst into the famous Hindi song, “Kaho na Pyaaz hai”. Seeing so many onions jostling for space on my shelves was a sight that proved too much for me, I guess. I had to pinch myself to believe it was true.
We need an army to mobilize action against the hoarders, middlemen and exporters of the allium. Such a force could be called “Hum Hai Rahi Pyaaz Ki”, and their theme song could be “Kya Yehi Pyaaz Hai?” – an oblique but telling allusion to a time when the onion would no longer be visible in humble Indian homes because of its caviar-like status. People would go around bleating mournfully, “De De Pyaaz De” and “Yeh Pyaaz ka Nagma hai” but to no avail, because nobody ever listens to vox populi , or don’t do anything about it if they do.
The onion was the first vegetable in our markets to crumble under the onslaught of the greedy merchant, but several others followed suit in quick succession.
Alea Iacta Est.
The cost of living continues to be unbearably high and die-hard non-vegetarians have perforce had to swallow the humble pie and turn to the relatively cheaper climbers and creepers to keep body and soul together. The inflation index is creeping upwards with staple food and dairy products rushing to imitate the destiny of the onion, and petrol prices have gone through the roof, compounding the misery of the hoi polloi.
It all began with the humble allium cepa.