A hollow stage

Autumn in England always reminds me of winters in Calcutta. And of Christmas holidays growing up; the few weeks away from school. School, for me, was a pink building next to a tramline, with a small tiled courtyard stuck in its middle like an excuse.

From the decade that I spent there, what stands out in my mind are stiffly ironed Keralan nuns, a strong smell of phenyl from the toilets that ran along the corridors, and a black piano next to a hollow wooden stage. The lessons were like lessons, the rules were like rules – neither of which I liked to follow. The one time a teacher inspired me to look up a dictionary was when she called me ‘incorrigible’. I might’ve been reading fiction during fill-in-the-blanks, I don’t know. For the most part, School and I did not make much sense together. It might even have been the most incoherent part of my growing-up. A bit like background noise.

What has kept it from fading completely, though, are the friends I made, and kept for good. And that hollow stage next to the piano. Where one day, they discovered that there was something I wasn’t difficult about. Hail Marythe girl sings. And so, I was excused from many a lesson to sing for every Fest and every competition the school signed up for. Singing solos even earned you a few extra hours off chemistry classes, and that’s all that really mattered.

The singing made everything look good – the studies, the classes.  Suddenly I didn’t mind doing any of it. The last few years of school seems like a different photograph in my head: Happy. I was still incorrigible, I’m sure, but they’d gotten used to me by then. And I’d gotten used to them being them. We’d decided to get along.

This time of year reminds me of that time. The black piano and that hollow stage and practising for those interschool festivals that ran through the winter. And it reminds me of the winter-holidays that followed, when there’d be nothing much to do other than read books and eat well and walk along Park Street on Christmas Day. The best kind of holiday, really.

Mulo diye dal, or red lentils cooked with white radish
A winter dal that my mother used to cook for us, and I now cook for D and Chotto-ma. It’s one of those simple recipes that are good enough to hand down generations.

(My friend Dalia asked me to blog it a few days ago. So, Dalia, here you go.)

A note: Inspite of all the menus you see in restaurants here, there is no such thing as Dhal. Only Dal. Please.


1 cup red lentils (Masoor Dal)
1 long white radish (Mulo/Daikon)
1/2 tsp kalonji (black jeera, which you get in all asian shops)
1 large red tomato, cut into 8 big pieces
1-2 dried red chillies
A bunch of coriander, chopped


Trim leaves off the radish, peel it and cut it into big cubes.
Wash the lentils till the water runs clear.
In a large pan, add lentils and radish. Cover it with 2 cups of water. Add salt. And bring to a boil.
Once boiling, lower the heat and simmer till the radish is cooked. The radish should still have a bite, and not have turned too soft. Spoon the radish out of the lentils, and let the lentils cook till they’ve split properly.
In a separate pan, heat oil, add the kalonji and red chillies. When the chillies turn dark, add the tomatoes and stir till the tomatoes soften.
Add the boiled dal and the radishes, more water and salt if needed, and a couple of green chilles. Bring to the boil once, and take it off the heat immediately. Add the chopped coriander.
Serve hot, with or without steamed rice.

12 thoughts on “A hollow stage

  1. Totally agree. Dal. The 'h' annoys me as well. And while we are at it, “chai tea” latte makes me want to put up a poster which says chai = tea in big, bold, red letters in every coffee shop in the world. By the way, lovely blog and equally great artwork. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Indian food is so intriguing to us. We love the spices and flavors. So little, however, is known about the cultural significance…the stories like you described above. I love reading about your memories and how they associate with dishes. Whenever we go to an Indian restaurant here, I can begin to feel the stories behind the people. Thank you.

  3. I found myself nodding all the way through this post… You and I obviously didn't have the best relationship with school. I still can't believe it when people say your school days are the best days of your life. Not that I had a hard time or anything, I just found it so painful and so very dull. Like you, I did make some lifelong friends through it though which is a plus… 🙂 I love the look of those lentils, and I have plenty in my store cupboard too!

  4. Thanks for a lovely comment, Sarah. Yes, I'm always surprised by how much you can tell about people, and societies, from what they eat, and how they eat it. It's fascinating.

  5. Ah, finally someone who isn't all sunshiney about school. Any institution, in its traditional sense, never could make me hop about with excitement. No, it wasn't painful for me either, just tedious.

  6. I don't know how I thrived despite the serious dislike for school…very mixed up memories. Had I known that when I 'grew up' I'd be working in a school I think I would have had some sort of a fit. I like working in a school, but I do pity the youngsters…still!

    Your recipe reminded me of my Baba and his home grown mulo. He loves mulor dal. Slightly thicker in consistency is how he likes it with muri. Good memories.

  7. Ah, so that's one more thing I know about you now, Debjani: you work in a school 🙂 I would feel sorry for you, but I think it's way nicer being there as an adult than as a child. And there are so many who choose do wonderful work and make such a difference – I'm sure you're one of them.

  8. Pia! This post made my heart race! And when at this age, your heart races, for things as sweet as school days, you know you are entering mid-life crisis! 🙂 Mrs Misquita…the black piano…the actually hollow stage and the 5 layers of wooden stairs beneath it. Romany Roff…the concerts at DBPC, The Sports Day…Bosco Beat…Shanghamitra playing the drums to 'Cant buy me love'…Mrs Jacob's classes, and of course yours' and Diya's favourite Miss “Gowri Ghosh”!!! Oh my God!What an age ago, was that?

    This dal(yes, not Dhal!) is so Bengali! So much home. So much winter. And so comforting. Then there is the 'laal mulo bhaja'(Sliced and Fried Red Radish). Do you make that too?

  9. Sambrita – love your comment 🙂 Who could forget Mrs Misquita in her black tapering skirts and black pumps. You really made me smile with 'Can't buy me love' 🙂 I can just hear us going at it, and Agnus (wasn't that her name?) grooming us for Bosco Beat 🙂 Good times!
    Laal mulo bhaja – now that I don't remember. But it sounds great, so will have to try it!

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