Once upon a time during Corona (Chronicling COVID-19) – Part 2: Hopscotch along the sidewalks

As we step out for our walk everyday, we look forward some of the heart-warming, nostalgia-inducing scenes along the pavements that greet us with child-like enthusiasm.

It reminds me of my own childhood as I drew endless pictures and puzzles and hopscotches in our compound. We have a lovely pavement leading to a big square block that leads to the gate, back in our Mysore home. I remember drawing along every inch available with colourful chalks, as ma sat with her magazine and coffee sometimes asking me how I’d play that game. As my brother joined in, we divided the area into two or sometimes even made our combined game. We sadly, like several others, outgrew them. Or so, I thought.

But as we see these along the pavements, years later, now, I am overcome by a strong temptation to skippety skip and hoppety hop, and follow all those rules and when I cannot make it, even cheat a bit and plod on until I reach the star.

Is it strange that children and the child in the adult are playing outside more at a time where we are under house arrest?

This one’s my favourite – it asks the player to bounce 5 times!

To be fair, some children do play and cycle along the streets. I just had not seen these before. And it makes me wonder.

But I decide to not over think this. It is reassuring we have these games around. It is reassuring that children are around. They always always seem to find a solution to tricky challenges. It is reassuring that I retain my love for hopscotch and that I never outgrew it.

I have been reading..

Quite bluntly, I am no great reviewer of books (you will soon see that for yourself anyway). I think it is because I lack the patience to write a review before jumping onto another book wagon. But I do like a bit of reflection. And ever since Instagram has happened, I have been rather inconsistently microblogging (is that the word now?) and that quite worked out conveniently given how short my thoughts are, atleast when writing them out anyway. But I do want to document most of that here on the blog every now and then when I have a few books to talk about.

Ikigai – what a beautiful word, “a reason for being”, a purpose for living. I picked this book up at Blore airport. Having spent a few weeks with family after more than a year, I was ecstatic. I felt extremely energized and I picked this one up and read it in that enthusiasm. Naturally, I waited for a while to write this. Having read it in a happy frame of mind, I liked parts of it because they felt like summaries of concepts that map to a good healthy life – diet, exercise, community…. There is definitely bits to take away, ponder over AND most importantly, read more about. But to be objective, this book was a fair bit of a jumble drawing from schools of psychology to interviews with octogenarians in Okinawa to benefits of green tea? I felt there was so much to dig into and draw connections probably but it felt like a potpourri of good advice (a summary of concepts from Japanese culture) but never doing justice to something as deep as Ikigai. Most of it is through the authors’ lens as they experience the Japanese culture which makes it a a fair bit of “here are the takeaways”. Agreed, Ikigai itself is a topic so personal but the book left me wanting for a far richer narrative, more life stories (the interviews form such a small part of the book) and threads that connect our stories. I don’t know what that would exactly look like, but I wish this book had it.

I will admit that I sometimes start some books with a lot of hesitation. I do not enjoy pseudo-intellectual thinking and meandering for the sake of it that sometimes runs into pages and pages. And so, inspite of hearing amazing things about Kundera’s books, I started this with low expectations. It always helps to start something that way, doesn’t it? 
Kundera definitely goes deep into aspects of his characters. There are only 4 of them, none of them who seemed remarkable to me at first. But that is the joy of reading because you let the author and her/his words really tell you about them and get you inside their heads. I will give it to Kundera for his craftsmanship in the way he has presented little insights, hard-hitting, soul-crushing and poignant in parts. There are no endless paragraphs but when you reflect on the small chapters and some of those insights, the book feels impressive. One of the biggest dilemnas that the characters face is the one that haunts each of us at different points in our lives – the “what if” and maybe even the pursuit of perfection. But it is hard because, in Kundera’s words, “We can never know what we want, because, living only one life, we can neither compare it with our previous lives nor perfect it in our lives to come.” It is the irony of having a single life. For this very reason, one’s choices do not have a lot of weight in the grand scheme of things. The unbearable lightness of being. Somewhere along, different events occur that touch you and impact you in different ways and “relieve” you from this lightness. 
There are definitely parts in the book that I could not understand. I do not want to call it pretentious because after all I have only read this once so maybe a re-read would help, but I am not so strongly inclined to go back and read it again for the time being. The book definitely made me think, not in a life changing way but in a way that helps me appreciate the simplicity, complexity and beauty of abstraction and life.

I read this a while ago and I just cannot NOT share this here – please read this autobiographical memoir. I have tried to blink away my tears of joy and sadness and pride as I read this on my commute almost angry at myself for withholding from expressing what I felt so strongly about. It is incredibly hard for me to come close to describing the unparalleled joy that Kobayashi’s school Tomoe, a school set in railway carriages and nothing less, gives me. Totto-Chan (author Tetsuko Kuroyanagi herself) recounts the several little ways her Headmaster Kobayashi devised to make children feel special led by his strong belief in the innate goodness of children and his attention to them. The way the classes were organised, the farmer teacher, the sports day with specially created games resonated so deeply with me and while I am not ready or patient enough to speak of why this book is probably going to be one I will read and re-read for a long time to come, I promise to, someday. That a school like Tomoe with all its little stories of love, compassion, loss and rebirth, existed in Japan while the world was at war, with children blissfully unaware of the ongoings is heartbreaking and beautiful. The post-script is equally a joy to read and the students continue to have reunions every year on November 3, their Sports Day. Having worked in education, I know it is not easy to create a class or school, even the one that you strongly believe in. But Kobayashi was one of them who did. And to have it all taken away on a morning during the war angered and deeply saddened me. Wars have never done anyone or anything good. But I am happy Tomoe existed for those 7 years from 1937 – 1945 and that Tomoe’s story will live on in the hearts of the readers and inspire many even if only by mocking some of the systems we have. And this time, it was me by the window in a train reading about a little girl and her school set in railway carriages not so long ago. It really was a damn good school, you know.

I have a few more books to talk about but I think I will stop here for now and get to my little Prince 🙂

A 4 PM affair.

Vegetable puffs fresh from a local bakery. A 4 PM affair.

A trip down memory lane. A sense of timelessness. A happy ritual. A silent moment punctuated by the sound of crispy flakes. A yearning for more such moments. A feeling of contentment for the now.

A lack of words. An acknowledging silence.

A child-like glee.

This morning at Waterloo

Today, as I walked out of the Waterloo Station, I saw a slightly elderly man sitting at the intersection of the several crossings (that I cannot wrap my head around) when you exit the station. It was drizzling and he sat by the sidewalk with an umbrella and a small red blanket. The blanket covered him and as I walked closer, I saw a beautiful tricolour (black, white and tan) dog resting his/her head against his chest with a vacant stare. It broke my heart into a million pieces and I felt sick in my gut. I walked past hurriedly because I need to tear myself away in such circumstances. It is so hard for me to talk about such things that typing them here is the closest I can come to baring how deeply I get affected by certain moments and sights. But as I crossed the street, I wanted to go back. I wanted to go back and see the dog. It reminded me a lot of how Mili rests on us when she is being cuddled or when she is sleeping. She loves contact and somehow I keep thinking it was Mili there on him.

So I walked back.

I always like to help in anyway I can. It makes me a little less guilty and in my own selfish way, I feel a bit better though certain times, it takes me a few days to tuck it away in a corner of my mind.

I carry the whole world in my backpack, so I stopped under the roof near the station and took out a 5 pound bill. I did not know what else I could do. I walked upto him and handed it and told him to take care, very quickly trying to catch a glimpse of the dog but failing. I was too overcome to say more. I wanted to ask him to please buy a little something for the dog. But I could not bring myself to say it. Why would I want to say that? Here was a person who was holding an umbrella and covered the dog with his blanket. They had each other and kept each other warm this cold morning as everyone hurried with their tall and grande lattes and with their own challenges and tasks to conquer. He and his dog were a team. Who was I to tell him to care for his partner? He smiled with a clear, “God bless you and love you.” I remember nodding with a very tight lipped smile and walking away. I do not remember what he looked like when he said it, I do not recollect what I was looking at either. All I remember is I had crossed all the traffic lights and walked across the bridge before I even realised it.

Distant.

… turns out, I am not going to have much of a break.

The last few days have been transformational – things have come my way when I least expected them to and how! I am now caught in the several labyrinths of choices with each of them offering me a way to reach where I see myself.I am euphoric and thrilled and all that but the paradox of choice has never struck harder before.

Now that I know I have something coming up, I would not mind a reasonably long break. It is funny how this my mind works. I always prided myself on being cool about not having a certain place to go but I guess somethings change. As much as I am a homebody (I am that person who will proudly will tell you she cannot make it for a Saturday night out because she wants to stay home and do nothing), I love people. I love feeling connected and having an opportunity to care for others and be there. And going out, meeting people, hugging friends and then meeting some more makes me insanely happy when I feel like it. And the opportunities I have now will enable that, at least the way I see it.

Over the years I have come to view things and act on things in two ways: the first type is where I let go and just get into something with gay abandon, without so much as a care for the why, how and what ifs. These are times when my mind tells me, “go for it. I mean, why not?”. So every time I act on this impulse, I do not spend an iota of thought on it. The second type is where I really start thinking of why should I do something, how does it take me where I see myself, what purpose does it serve and how and why am I adding any value to what is out there already? How is my action making someone’s life better (mine included)? And I have a good mix of both these and being a Gemini has nothing to do with that (ask me tomorrow and my answer may change). I adopt these two approaches for equally important decisions so it is not a case of when I use what. Sometimes I just act on a whim even if it is something that can have big consequences. Without much overthinking, I view this as a strength. It lends a strange sense of balance and comfort to me knowing that there is no secret to figuring things out. Sometimes you just do what feels right to you then and really, things eventually work themselves out one way or the other. All the more reason why I have come to appreciate and value different approaches to living and learning. It has made me more tolerant, accepting and even appreciative of ‘to each her/his own’. It has made me less judgemental of how people approach challenges and made me less inclined to hastily suggest but rather be more empathetic and just listen even if I have nothing to say at all. Many a time, I have come away learning a bit more about myself when I have listened harder. I will even go so far as to say that learning to listen has made me like myself a bit more and be a little less critical and that includes listening to myself as I write this and the train of thoughts that emanate from something so distant.

Distant is the vision I have for myself. But I can see a path. It is really hazy and not without curves and tricky bends and straight paths I can tread with my eyes closed. I will have to make some choices. Sometimes I will just walk without a care and sometimes I may tread with caution. Maybe I will take a detour and try a different destination or a pitstop. I don’t know. I think I will never know. But that is the whole point. How is it fun otherwise? And why would you be excited for tomorrow and next week and the year after?

The dry-fruits box ritual

I wrote this on Medium sometime last year. But something in me stirred and I wanted to share it again. That is the thing with memories – they are so random. Randomly beautiful. Beautifully random.

For some reason today, I am again reminded of the little ritual of filling the boxes with dry fruits. Every month, Pa used to bring home 200 grams of anjeer, raisins, cashews, almonds, dates and pistachios from a local store at the fresh market. He’d announce his arrival with a “Tan-ta-daaa, look what I have got!” and we always knew. We always knew that this meant only one thing — filling up the boxes with dry fruits. After getting refreshed, we would all go to the kitchen, get the almost empty boxes of dry fruits and then carefully set them on the dining table. We’d huddle together around Pa. Meticulously he’d open the packet of anjeer, they always went in first, those rings stacked around a fibrous cord. This was followed by the raisins and every time he would take extra care while opening the packet of raisins always tsk-ing away at why they staple these packets and how one has to be very careful lest the pins get mixed with the raisins. And we’d chorus, “We will eat them one by one and not stuff them in our mouth at once,” because that was what we were always told and we knew when we had to give him that reassurance. It was a joy watching him struggle with pins because he had such short nails that it was impossible to say if he had ever had them any other way. Finally, he’d manage to get the pin out (always stubborn to use his fingers). The dates, almonds and cashews followed. What always excited us were the pistachios. Somehow they were the most enticing of nuts, the one that gaped through the gaps waiting for the shell to be broken. The pistachios were always eaten 6 at a time. We did not want to finish them soon. It did not really matter a lot if we did, but somehow that was how we wanted to pace ourselves always. Once the boxes were all filled, we helped Pa carry them to the kitchen and place them on the rack — the second row from the top, just about the right height for us to reach for it if I tip-toed or stood on one of the chairs at the dining table.

For some reason, I thought of this and it made me smile and also sad at the same time. I miss the predictability that still always had an element of undiluted happiness year after year. I visualize Pa’s smile as he filled each jar with a small announcement and it was and is easily one of the happiest moments we have had together.

Haryana Dal Maharani – India through dal

Last year, I splurged on a new genre of books – books on food! Not just the ones that share a recipe but rather food memoirs. I absolutely adore stories of childhood that takes the reader through the food and memories around them, of mango trees climbed, that secret recipe for that kheer, that festive meal with loved ones, of favourites dishes at cousin’s place and bottled pickles that you hoarded back from a visit to grandma. I could go on. A dish means more when I know a story behind it, the person who made it or some memory associated with it. While food stories and food history has always been fascinating, I am now in a phase where I am really enjoying cooking and learning little tips and tricks from different people and creating my own memories and evoking a bit of my own childhood. This also helps me appreciate food outside and I feel inspired to come back and try to recreate a dish or add my own twist to it. And trust me, this is not who I was a few years ago. And I am loving this side to myself where I cook to evoke memories and to create some.

And that is why, I think it is time, time to start the dal series. I have been sharing a couple on my instagram already but I do want to document them here, ofcourse.  First on the list is this adaptation of Haryana Dal Maharani by Krishna Dutta. This is one of the books from my stash which is not really a food memoir but an account where the author talks of dal from different parts of India. This book has also been a big inspiration behind my series. There are definitely some overlaps between the regions but it is super interesting to see how dal as a dish has undergone so much influence and personalisation over the years and across India so much that, we are unaware of how many varieties of the humble toor or masoor dal are made everyday. This book may have just scratched the surface and I do plan to write about it in detail once I have tried a fair share of recipes so I will keep this short for now.

When I came across this recipe, I was quite tickled because I have not found any recipe on the internet that shares a recipe similar to this as a Haryanvi recipe. I decided to give it a go on one of the weekends. I did make a make a couple of minor twists to the original recipe. Even though the recipe uses exact proportions, I’d like to believe that cooking is  intuitive and one that really reflects what the cook fancies in that instant so I will keep the ingredient portions pretty open but rather just share the technique/ procedure.Feel free to tweak and play with it as your heart desires. After all, what is cooking if not impulsive?

Dal/ lentil type:  Toor dal, masoor dal (whole).

I used:

Toor dal + masoor dal (about 2 cups); ginger and garlic finely minced or pound (you can use a paste), tomatoes, onions, asafoetida/hing, chilli powder, turmeric powder, about 2 tbsp yoghurt mixed with a pinch of brown sugar/ jaggery (you can skip it if sweetness isn’t your thing), slit green and/or whole dried red chillies, cumin, butter/ghee and salt to taste.

I did:

  • Cooked the dal in a deep saucepan, removed the froth/ scum that rose to the surface.
  • Reduced the heat, covered and simmered until it cooked.
  • Meanwhile I melted some butter/ghee, spluttered cumin, sautéed half of minced ginger-garlic, a couple of slit green chillies, added onions and fried until light brown. I then added asafoetida and gave it a mix.
  • Added the rest of ginger-garlic mince and mixed for a minute.
  • Added tomatoes, chilli powder, turmeric powder and fried until aromatic.
  • Tipped the cooked lentils into this, mixed well and simmered for 8-10 minutes. Turned the stove off, added yoghurt blended with sugar/ just yoghurt and gave it a good whisk (I really just added a teeny pinch as we are not fond of sweetness in our otherwise savoury dishes). Garnish with sauteed chopped green chillies and a bit of garlic.

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We enjoyed this dal with  rice and some tortilla wraps and it paired well with both. I felt like the addition of the yoghurt with some sugar was something unique to this recipe and one that I had not done before. Also, I usually pressure cook the dal and to cook this in a saucepan and removing the froth was a first timer for me. I see so many explanations for this on the internet some of which look pretty dubious to me so I will refrain from adding my own explanation until I get some clear answer (please do share your thoughts if you know more about this). But it looks like it does not affect the taste much so pressure-cooking should be fine too.

Have you tried this version yet? Is there a different way of making a Haryanvi dal? I’d love to know. Isn’t it wonderful how your kitchen can take you places and bring to you some of those joys that you seek on your travels?

Humbled by dal – India through dal from my kitchen

Comfort food has always been a source of fascination to me. How do people associate food with comfort? Is it something that evokes a pleasant memory from childhood or later years? Is it something that soothes the tummy? Is it food made by a loved one? Is it something that smells and feels like home? Is it a cure for homesickness?  Is it something you can whip up in a minute and feel happy as you dive into it? Does it stay constant or or, is it just something that changes with time? Is it a family heirloom?

My comfort food, I have come to realise, is a mix of all of the above. Perhaps, that is also why I cannot think of other reasons though am sure there must be (please do share). I cannot tell you how unbearably happy these comfort meals make me. I get pangs of homesickness (yes, even after 6 years of being away from home with yearly or bi-yearly visits) and just the process of making this and the smells that wrap my kitchen and home and ultimately my senses – is so beautiful. I sometimes mostly make a dish to evoke a memory, to feel someone’s presence. There are so many dishes and so many memories I have but my ultimate comfort food is and will always be khichDi (in all its zillion varieties but mostly the one my ma makes), upma and curd rice (with lime or maavDu – story for another day).

But, I cannot neglect a close contender – the dal. I like dal in a lot of forms – sambhar, the dal fry that K makes with some magic powder (I now know that it is the pav bhaji masala sprinkled towards the end) and the very humble paruppu that is made on most festivals and served on piping hot rice and ghee. But this dal is a ubiquitous favourite. I say that because, it seems to be a comfort food for so many of my friends – ask anyone and phat comes the reply, “dal chaawal”, “paruppu saadam”, “dal, rice and potato roast” and it is amazing how dal has pervaded our homes and tummies. So much that, it is an ingredient and a dish! And yet, when I probe, everyone has their own way of making it and savouring it.  Much like chai/tea. Now, imagine the length and breadth of India, the varieties of dal and try to estimate the hundreds of ways dal must be made! So, I decided to embark on a journey. To read and discover India through dal.

Now, what does dal mean? To me and for the purpose of this series – I want to cover the different types of lentils in India and the methods of preparation. Dal/lentil is a broad term and refers to all legumes (lentils, peas, and beans) that are cooked and perfected in several ways. And that is exactly how the series will define dal thereby including it in all its variety. Whole, split, soaked, dried – every lentil will included. Initially, I wanted to make this all about dal as a gravy. But that may make this way too focussed – so I am going to open this up to dal in all forms, as an accompaniment to rice/rotis/chappatis/ flatbreads (if you do not know what rotis and chapatis are)/ paranthas (stuffed flatbread), a gravy, soup, powder, snacks, everything I can lay my hands on and feast on, eventually. You get the gist. I may have changed my mind because I want to definitely include the amboDe/ paruppu vaDa because I cannot imagine life without it. I want to visit every state and understand how they make dal – this means, I will watch as many varieties of food documentaries, read books, ask friends, talk to family and you. I will then recreate them in my kitchen and bring them to you. I am no food blogger so I will not have beautifully laid out photos but what I bring to you is a reflection of my journey, a favourite episode from a show, a memory that I created, a relationship forged, a little hack and a meal that lasted and took me across my most favourite place in this universe – India. I want to do this weekly but I know there will be times I may fall back – but I will persist and endeavour to give this a part of my time every week.

All I ask of you is this – stories and recipes of dal that you love, moments that you cherish and your own love for dal. I want to listen to you and read all of your stories. I don’t know where this will take me but it is a journey I wish to make. And one that I want to take you along.

 

 

 

 

 

Lunch and a story at The Eagle, Cambridge

A week ago, we drove to Cambridge with a friend who was visiting us from Singapore. It was such a wonderful trip (more pictures and snippets on that soon). I want to quickly share a little accidental discovery that we realised later and the irony of it.

It was one of the hottest days in UK and after being toasted and roasted and crinkled from the sun (it is a thing here too, people), we decided to walk into a restaurant that catches our fancy; after all, our intuitions with food have been good in general. As we walked along Benet street, we came across “The Eagle” and we absolutely loved how dated it was and how much of a character it had. It is a traditional 16th century English pub with wooden flooring and just a very lovely rustic feel to it that I love.

They only have a couple of vegetarian options and I chose the mushroom ragout with pasta and a fantastic garlic bread to boot and some lentils. The meal was very good with the only shortcoming being the low spice and flavour in the lentils.

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So here is the juicy part – apparently, this was the place where Watson and Crick announced that they had discovered the “secret of life”. I was just reading more about this pub while posting it on my instagram and then saw that it has such a juicy piece of history. I do not know for sure how true this is, but isn’t it fantastic when something like this happens to you? To have been in the place where the discovery of DNA was talked about – the secret of life, indeed! To imagine the kind of curiosity, condescension, wonder and hesitation that may have greeted such news!

We all strive to become someone, to do something significant with our lives, to make a discovery, a change that touches one life or a few, that leaves us immortal, makes us proud and gives our short time here some greater meaning – and to have shared one such space for a brief moment albeit years later, is a happy reminder to prod on.

The Bun-Man

Beeeeeeeeeeep. Trrrrrrrrrrr.

The sound jolted her out of her sleep. She knew the sound too well. For the past few days, she had been looking forward to it. Infact, 5 P.M. became associated with the sound and the familiar sight that had now become perfunctory. It was a sight that one could watch on forever. It exuded love, warmth and oodles of unbinding and yet the most loyal affection and belonging. So much so that everyone stopped their evening walk and stood transfixed to watch the scene as though mesmerized at the very sight of it. It happened daily but nobody seemed to mind.

From her window, she could see the luna stop right infront of their red gates. An elderly man in the same grey tee and blue tracks got off it. Oblivious of the now gathered mini-crowd around his, he carefully untied the huge plastic sack that he had had meticulously tied to his handle and held between the legs as he rode the luna. A big big sack.

She could see that now the windows of every first floor and second floor were open and many pairs of awestruck eyes peered through the multi-coloured grills. Little kids stuck out their podgy little fingers through them and tried to get as much of their head out as possible. Some ran out to the balcony but not making a sound because nobody wanted to disturb such a beautiful sight. Nope. Not a sound.

She saw that the road was now getting more crowded. Not by people so much. But those who waited for his arrival loyally everyday started to come out from every nook of the locality. She wondered why she hadn’t seen even half of them during the day.

They came to him from all directions. Those new ones with beseeching eyes, the ones with charming eyes, the ones with brown coats, the ones that had just recovered from marismus (she didn’t know what they called it though), the ones that look plump but never seemed to have had enough anyways, the ones with the snow white coats, the black coated round-eyed ones, the little ones that wagged their tail so much that the tails seemed to fall off, the pregnant mothers – everyone was here.

He lovingly opened the packet and with a firm and yet tender voice, he said “hirrup boys! Come get them” and pulled out the buns one by one, divided them into 4 pieces and played a catch game with each member around him. How he managed to have so many buns to feed the increasing mouths without disappointing a single one baffled her. How could he know how many extras he needed?

And how he divided the bun into pieces ! It looked as though he could perfectly divide them so that every chap there got the right piece and none was made to feel less loved.

She loved the way his hands, firm and gentle all at once played with them. She loved the way how this one small sight that lasted about 20 minutes united the otherwise busy neighbourhood. She loved how every mother promised to show this piece of heaven to their child every morning to entice them into going to school.

She prayed to God that the greying man should never die and continue to captivate everyone through this small act.

The dogs loved him. They reciprocated their love for him through hidden smiles, love-struck eyes and the gentlest nudges. They smiled and nodded in approval. It was their time of the day.

The bun-man had come.

P.S. This is one my most treasured memories from my childhood. To this day, he is easily one of my most favourite human beings in the whole universe.