A hugger, a kisser, a storybook reader


When we were little, Ma gave me and my brother something of great value, and of little cost. A love of books. She didn’t buy us piles of them. She just sat there and read her own. So we got bored and did the same, and then we were never bored again.

My earliest memories of Ma involve half of her face poking out from behind a book. Quiet breathing, page turning, a scowl of concentration sitting above her nose. If she wasn’t cooking, or letting me know what she thought of my messy room, she was reading her Hemingways and Durrells, her le Carrés. Or handing me her battered copy of The Old Man and the Sea – probably to stop me reading another Barbara Cartland; I was sixteen. 

I grew up thinking this is what mothers do: they read.



And they did, too. D’s mother was no different. After I got married, I was suddenly surrounded by Bengali literature – of which she read everything from the modern to the classics. D remembers her always worrying when she approached the last pages of a book if she didn’t have another at hand to start on. Even in the years before her death, when she had trouble walking, she would stubbornly trudge to the local library at least once every week.

Books were how people passed an afternoon, an evening, a lifetime. There were fewer distractions, fewer people flicking their touchscreens.

I started reading to Chotto-ma before she was born. I read The Tale of Peter Rabbit loudly to my tummy every night through my pregnancy. It seemed perfectly logical at the time. Thankfully, D didn’t blink an eye, and by the time Chotto-ma was born, we both knew the story by heart. I read her poetry, I read her fiction – loud enough for her to kick inside me in response. A few days before Chotto-ma was born, I remember D walking in on me reading aloud Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s ‘Half of a Yellow Sun’, shaking his head at my choice of book. Wasn’t it a tad early for her, the ravages of a bloody civil-war?

She’s five now, and she loves books as much as she loves pancakes. D and I had made a few decisions early on – that we wouldn’t give her screens to play with. No iPads (we don’t own one), no iPhones, no laptops and certainly no video games. Yes, they’re tempting babysitters, especially when you’re bringing up a child without any family to give you a break, without a nanny to give you a breather. I’m sure we were sorely tempted, but I’m glad we held out. We now have a girl who’s utterly technologically challenged, but she has plenty of time to catch up with that. For now, she has a world inside her head bursting with stories, books to burrow into and leaves and twigs to bring home. That will do.


So, here’s a note to my mother: Apart from being a hugger and a kisser, thank god you were a reader, Ma. Amongst a hundred other reasons, I love you for that. For having me grow up with the smell of your old yellow books. You couldn’t have passed on a better gift.


Ma reading to Chotto-ma, summer of 2013.



Silence

It’s been very quiet here for a while. A comfortable quiet. Sitting between Ma and Baba, the blog blurred; I needed to sneak away from this space for a while. The house is still full, but Ma and Baba have gone upstairs to bed now, D is packing away the leftovers from dinner, coffee is brewing and a little girl is tip-toeing past her bedtime; she’s drawing. So I thought I’d sit and write in.

It’s late, but there’s still some light left outside. I love this time of night, I love the silence. But I also love the smokey sounds that blow in through the window. The wind, a kettle boiling, songs from the pub; I like that silence has its sounds. Our ears are insomniacs, they’re always awake. I can choose to close my eyes shut, black out the room, the trees outside my window, the peaches on the table. I can choose to shush my voice, say nothing, not a word. But I can’t close my ears shut. If I put my fingers in, sounds will still seep in.

I wonder if sound, then, is what our senses need the most. Who knows? It’s not something I’d want to have to prioritise. I lost most of my hearing once; for a month. I was traveling on a flight from Delhi to Mumbai, with a cold and a blocked nose, when I felt a sudden, sharp pain in my ears. This was followed by what felt like a thousand red ants crawling and biting their way from one ear to another. It was almost the end of the flight, and the plane was descending. What I didn’t know at the time was that a blocked nose combined with a quick change in air pressure when a plane drops height can make your eardrums buckle and burst.

What followed was a month of sharp, piercing pain and bloody rivulets on my pillow, but what I remember more sharply is something else. I remember the muted-ness. Conversations looked like mime, very loud noises were hushed like secrets. In the midst of throbbing Mumbai traffic, I’d hear nothing. Just a pale whooshing; a wide sea of a few million people sounded like the inside of a shell from the shores of the Arabian Sea.

Along with sound, I lost something else. I lost my sense of straight. I’d want to walk to the window right opposite our bed, but would find my feet curving me away from the window and straight at the wall. My feet wouldn’t follow my mind. Like a drunk, only dead sober.

Actually, it’s a bit like this post. When I started with ‘It’s been quiet here for a while’, I wasn’t planning on going anywhere near my ear. It was supposed to be a spot of bright, summer writing. Look where I’ve gone.

But there’s food for your patience. This dish is a special one for two reasons: It has potol (parval), a vegetable that has traveled all the way from Kolkata in Ma’s luggage. And the recipe comes from Bubulma’s kitchen, so it has many memories for D.

Dudh Potol 
(potol cooked in milk)

8-10 potol, sliced lengthwise into two
1 litre full-fat or semi-skimmed milk
2 dry red chillies
1 tsp black mustard seeds
A pinch of turmeric
2 tbs oil
2 green chillies
Salt

Heat oil in a deep pan and add the mustard seeds and red chillies. As soon as the mustard starts sputtering, add the potol. Stir for 2 minutes and then add the milk, salt and a tiny pinch of turmeric. As the milk starts to heat and rise, lower the flame a little. Keep stirring the milk with a rounded wooden spatula, and in between, keep the spatula in the milk as it cooks. This (in my inexplicable opinion) stops the milk from curdling. The milk must finally reduce and condense to coat the soft potol in a thick, creamy, textured sauce. The photographs should give you a fair signal as to when you should be done.
Serve hot with steamed rice.

Crisp

Things have a way of working out. When I was about seven, the ‘thing’ that needed working out was a way to scavenge together five rupees, for that was the price of the fat, square little books at the jack-of-all shop behind my school. These were abridged versions of English classics – The Tale of Two Cities, Oliver Twist, Great Expectations – and they were usually the most pressing thing on my mind. This was before the Days of Pocket Money, and times were hard for seven-year-olds. Every time I finished reading one of these books, it would feel like my last. There was not a five-rupee in sight, and no possibility of a windfall. I would give up all hope, and wait for my little classics collection to asphyxiate and die. But, just as the last book prepared to take its last breath, something unexpected would happen. Either one of my Pishis (aunts) would come by for a visit, and before leaving in the evening, would tuck a five-rupee note into the palm of my hand. Or the raddiwala would come knocking, and ask to buy my old school books; for a fiver no less. And Ting! just like that, I’d have enough for the Edgar Allan Poe I’d wanted.

After my last post, after all your lovely, thoughtful messages, and after Chotto-Ma had resigned herself to nannies and childminders, something unexpected happened. Ma and Baba decided to travel to us; they arrive next month, and are going to spend the summer here till Chotto-Ma starts full-time school. Which means I now have a very happy little girl who gets to have a summer squished between grandparents, instead of at a childminder’s.

Things have a way of working out; as proved to me, years ago, by the curious ways of crispy five-rupee notes.

A few other crispy things also work out just right:

Crisp white wine under springtime sunshine.

Crisp new linen on the bed. Ma gave me these lovely bedcovers and cushions when we went to Kolkata this year. I’m loving the Indian prints; feels like home.

Crisp white paper for Chotto-ma’s drawings. Here’s a slice of Ramayan – Sita picking flowers, Ram hunting, peacock pecking, sun shining.

Crisp May mornings.

And crisp, fried okra from Bulbulma’s kitchen. Okra is one of D’s favourite vegetables, and he’s grown up with this version. I had it for the first time in his house after we started dating, and now he cooks it for me whenever we get fresh okra at the market.

D’s Crispy Okra

Ingredients

500g okra
4 tbs wholewheat brown flour (atta)
Sunflower oil
Salt
1/2 tsp red chilli powder

Cut the okra into small circular pieces.
In a bowl, mix the flour with 1 tbs of oil, salt and chilli powder. Mix in with your fingers.
Add the chopped okra and mix well.
Then add a little water at a time till is forms a sticky mix. It should be quite tight and stick to your fingers.
Heat oil in a pan for deep frying. Drop in globs of the mixture, bit at a time, into the hot oil and fry till crispy. It should only take a few minutes.
Drain on kitchen paper, and serve.

Another cook, another time

Food can bring back the dead. I’ve been debating using that word. Dead.

Is ‘passed away’ better? Whenever I want to tell my daughter stories about people who are ‘no longer with us’, I’m always stuck at the point where she asks me, so where are they now, Ma? A ‘star in the sky’ is not really an option, is it? I did use that once, I must admit. But neither us were really convinced. So now, it’s ‘dead’. To her it just means people that we can talk about, think about, but can’t see, nor have chocolate cake with. Now, the conversation goes like this:

Where is she, Ma?
She’s…dead.
Oh ok.

We’re good with that. For now.

She also knows that Bubulma is one of those people that we can only talk about. Bubulma is what she calls D’s mother. Someone she will never know, but whom she could have a sense of knowing, through the stories we tell her. Through the photographs we show her. And through food.

When I said ‘food can bring back the dead’, I wasn’t referring to lunch with Psychic Sally. I was talking about food that brings back memories of people you loved and miss. When I cook something that my grandmother used to cook when I was little, or use a recipe that my mother-in-law had perfected, I bring them back a little. I get a sense of the flavours they loved, the spices they had in their kitchen, and the crops that grew around them. And so I carry them forward, and pass them on. And my daughter gets a sense of someone long gone. The stirring of an old spoon.

Bubulma’s Pea Tikki

This was one of our favourites from Bubulma’s kitchen repertoire. She would make it every winter with freshly shelled peas. I made it recently for Chotto-ma’s birthday party, and it was one of the most popular things on the table.

Ingredients
6/7 potatoes, boiled and peeled
5 cups peas
2-inch ginger, sliced
1 green chilli
1 tsp aniseed
1 tsp cumin seed, roasted
A small bunch of coriander leaves, chopped 
4 tbs oil
Flour for dusting
Salt

Mash the boiled potatoes with salt and chopped coriander, and keep aside.
In a blender or mixer, put the peas, ginger, green chilli, aniseed and cumin seeds, and blitz till smooth.
In a flat pan, heat 1 tbs of oil, and add the pea paste. On fairly high heat, stir constantly till it becomes drier and tighter, almost like soft dough. Let it cool.
Once cooled, roll the paste between your palms to form several small, round green balls.
Cover each green ball with mashed potato, and flatten them into round discs or tikkis.
Dust the discs with a bit of plain flour, pat and keep aside.
Heat the rest of the oil in a flat, non-stick pan, and pan-fry the tikkis till they are golden brown on both sides.
Serve hot.

Serves 4/5