I grew up thinking this is what mothers do: they read.
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.
(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
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.
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
4 tbs wholewheat brown flour (atta)
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.
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?
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.
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.