Stereotypes and cake

I have the week off. I get almost nothing done when I have time off. For the past hour, I’ve sat on the sofa staring at this lion that Chotto-ma drew a few days ago. It’s such a beautiful lion, isn’t it? It has kind eyes. A zebra might have another opinion, but it has kind eyes. It also has a bow on its head, if you peer in closely. What’s a big beast of a lion without a little red bow in his mane, right?

We like breaking stereotypes in this house, and ste-reo-types is a word Chotto-ma learnt early. Because, by lord, we’re surrounded by them outside, we drown in them when we walk out the door!

We went to the John Lewis store to buy pyjamas for Chotto-ma the other day. Chotto-ma loves dinosaurs, and she loves sharks and penguins and anything that moves on all fours or sixes. But no sir, John Lewis begs to differ. Every interesting pyjama with dinosaurs and sharks had a sewn-in tag saying John Lewis For Boys. Wait. What’s wrong with John Lewis For Kids, if you must assume I’m size-blind? I’m sure people can decide if they’d like to buy it for a boy or girl based on the child’s personality and taste rather than sex? Yes, there was one lone dino-print pyjama in the girls’ section, bless their generosity – but no points for guessing its colour. No, it wasn’t pink. It was Very Pink.

And that brings me to the country’s great, unspoken colour-code. Pink and Blue. When you have a baby, don’t you dare confuse those two! Girls must gurgle in their prams in pink, boys in blue. Cover a little girl in a blue blanket only if you want to hear, “Aww, what a handsome little boy!”

And of course, there’s the conversation I had at the hairdresser’s some time ago. There was a lovely girl cutting my hair, and Chotto-ma trying to catch my chopped, wet strands before they fell to the floor. The hairdresser and I were chatting about this and that, as we usually do. She was talking about her job at the salon, so I asked her how she’d gotten into hairdressing. And she said: “You know, I was never much into school, so I did what girls do. I got into beauty.”

And then there’s the fact that Chotto-ma went to a birthday party where all the girls got little purple coin-purses in their party-bags and all the boys got large bugs preserved in glass cubes. And she came home a little sad. She’d really wanted the bug with its black hairy legs and cool shiny green body, but she was a girl, so a purple purse it was.

And there’s the fact that at Chotto-ma’s after-school club, when she and a friend were once playing with a box of Lego from the Star Wars series, an older boy came up to them, took the box away, and reminded them they they had the ‘girl Lego’ to play with, and that these were for the boys.

And there’s the fact that you might know a little boy who loves playing with kitchen sets but you also know that you can never gift him a kitchen set for his birthday, without incurring the shock of his parents. He must be gifted a car, poor child. Or a football at the very least.

And the fact that a local children’s magazine I was leafing through had an article called “Party Ideas for Boys and Girls”, where the page was split in two – Boys / Girls, and the boys’ section had science experiments, pirates, football and space. While the girls’ section had a tutu party, flowers and fairies, cupcake baking, princesses and mermaids. Chotto-ma is obsessed with space and planets and all its galaxies, just as I was when I was young. She loves science experiments, which we often do at home with kitchen ingredients. But never mind all that – let’s just put all the girls in sparkly mermaid costumes, shall we?

It’s hard for children to find their own voice when the world seems to be so organised in their stereotypes. When they’re seen as Boy or Girl, instead of People. Girls, especially, are constantly given subliminal hints about their ‘role’ in life. When you gift a girl a Barbie (I could write an entire post on everything that’s wrong with that doll), and you buy a book called ‘Facts on Fossils’ for a boy, you are sending her a strong message, which will have far deeper repercussions than one might think. [Link to an interesting article on that below]

We do what we can to balance Chotto-ma’s world at home, even if it means breaking the smallest stereotypes. I have a blue toothbrush and D has a pink one. We went out and bought them after telling her how people couldn’t be coded by colour, how no one had to follow any set notion of ‘Obvious’. And when we came back home from the hairdresser’s that day, I showed her a photograph of the scientists who built Mangalyaan, the Mars orbiter. The photo showed a group of Indian scientists, all women, in beautiful silk sarees and flowers in their hair, punching the air as they made history in space technology. They’d probably also packed their child’s lunch before coming in to work to build that rocket.

Chotto-ma sees D cooking as many meals as I do; because dinner is cooked by whoever has the time to cook it that day. And the house is cleaned, and clothes folded, by whoever has the time to clean the house and fold the clothes that day. There’s nothing more to it – apart from the fact that you’ll probably eat a little better if I cook the dinner. And you’ll probably also get a slice of lovely cake after.

Are there stereotypes that bother you? Moments when you have found them frustrating as a parent, grandparent, uncle, aunt? Stereotypes that annoyed you when you were a child? I’d love to hear your stories, for surely I’m not the only one who has them? My stories come from being the parent of a girl, but which ones do you face as the parent of a boy? I’d love to know, and it’d be good to have this discussed – please share the blog link on Facebook and elsewhere if you like.

And in the meantime, I’ll give you a recipe for a mean orange-almond cake, which goes well with good old talk about things that matter. I’ve baked it thrice in three weeks. Well, Chotto-ma and I baked it together, even as we talked about planets, bugs, prehistoric creatures and other so-called ‘boy things’. Because, there might be a set recipe for a cake, but there ain’t no set recipe for a girl. Or a boy.

Added on March 10, 2015: A kind lady emailed me an article yesterday after reading the post. This article is from a US perspective, while mine is from the UK, but they say the same thing. It shows why seemingly small, market-created stereotypes can do deeper damage to our social structure, and handicap girls and women. Here’s an excerpt from the article

“…contributing factors, according to academic experts I interviewed, include a culture that encourages young women to play with dolls rather than robots and pursue traditionally female careers, as well as the self-perpetuating stereotype that a programmer is a white male. Sometimes women can feel like they don’t belong in a technical world dominated by men.
Those stereotypes are based on reality, according to data released by some of the largest tech companies. Among the top employers in Silicon Valley, including Facebook, Google, Twitter and Apple, 70% of the workforce is male. In technical roles, the disparity is even greater. At Twitter, for instance, only 10% of the technical workforce is female.”

You can read the complete article here.

Orange and Almond Cake

Ingredients

1 cup plain flour
1 cup ground almond
2 tsp baking powder
1/2 cup sugar
2 eggs
1 tsp vanilla essence
1 cup freshly squeezed orange juice, pulp in
2 tsp zest of an orange
2 heaped tbsp of butter
2 heaped tbsp yogurt
1/4 cup oil (vegetable or sunflower)

Preheat oven to 160 degrees C (320 degrees F).
Grease cake tin with butter, keep aside. (I like my 6-inch, and deep, cake tin for this)
Mix the dry ingredients together in a large bowl – flour, ground almond, baking powder, sugar, orange zest.
Make a well in the middle. Crack in the eggs. Add the vanilla essence, the butter, oil and yogurt.
Start mixing it in a circular motion. Pour the orange juice a bit at a time as you mix. Till it’s a nice smooth batter, easy to stir.
Pour batter into cake tin. Bake for about 50 minutes, then slide a knife in to check if done. If it’s still a little soft, switch off the oven, and pop the cake back in. Leave it there for 15 more minutes.

This cake has a beautiful crunchy crust when it’s just out of the oven, so you must have a slice warm. But once it’s cooled, wrap the rest in clingfilm and leave it on the table overnight. It’s even better a day later, when the ground almond has released all its lovely natural oil.

You’ll love it!

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Her first tune

One Sunday past, when the outside was still orange with autumn and not as naked as it is today, a little promise was kept. Remember that promise of music? The one I could see in the far distance when a piano edged in through our doorway, and Chotto-ma had her first music lesson?

Well, on Sunday I was stretched out on the sofa between a doze and a dream, and D was sitting on the armchair with his feet on the coffee table, when Chotto-ma brought him his guitar. She wanted him to play it while she played the piano. Then she sat down on the black stool as she does, feet dangling, back straight, fingers curved on keys. And she played. D followed her lead, and she took him into the tune she’d been hearing in her head.

It took me a while to realise something special was happening. My ears had been expecting a playful plonking of one of her lessons, but her book of notes was closed, and what I was hearing was her first little composition, her own tune. As one note followed another, I sat up. D looked at me, grinning, still guitaring along. Midway through their session, I remembered to record.

It’s quite something to hear your child make their first music. Somewhere between magic and a punch in the plexus. Who knew? OK, OK, you even cry a little. And then you try to play cool. You also kiss her and eat her up; for which you never need much reason anyway.

And then, with her little tune playing in your head, you go into the kitchen, to bake something you’ve haven’t baked before. But you figure, her first tune deserves your first apple crumble. So the three of you chop up some apples, tickle some flour, find the cinnamon, sprinkle the sugar and have the house smelling like November.

So here it is: Chotto-ma’s first composition for you to listen to, and an apple crumble for after. The composition’s called ‘Sunday morning’ because it’s what our Sunday morning sounds like.

‘Sunday morning’ Chotto-ma with Ba

Your browser does not support this audio
 

Apple Crumble

This is the simplest, quickest crumble there is; and adapted to our taste, as everything is. It’s lower in butter and sugar than most crumbles, but it’s also less tart, so the sweetness finds its balance. It’s good.

Ingredients

450gms apple, peeled and cubed (Gala or Braeburn works well if, like me, you don’t like your crumble tart)
A pinch of cinnamon

For the crumble:

300 gms plain flour, sieved with a pinch of salt
160 gms of coarse brown sugar
150 gms of butter cubed at room temperature
A knob of butter to grease dish

Preheat oven to 180 degree C (350F/Gas mark 4)
Put the flour, sugar and butter in a large bowl, and rub it all together using both hands till it forms  a mix that looks like breadcrumbs.
Grease baking dish with butter.
Mix apples with cinnamon, and place in baking dish.
Sprinkle the crumble mixture on top. Bake in the oven for 40-45 minutes until crumble is browned and apples are bubbling.
Serve with custard or cream.

D and a Bullet

When we lived in Calcutta, D used to own a Royal Enfield Bullet. It was famously good-looking in a solid, black, unfussy kind of way; and as heavy as a house. But more than anything, it was a motorbike made of muscle and mind. A temperamental thing that could purr to a start on the first kick, or refuse to budge on the nineteenth. It suited us perfectly.

D had bought it a few months before we started dating, so his friends concluded that Bullets came with a steady girlfriend; a few boys in his neighbourhood offered to buy it from him. The Bullet also came with something else – a Voice. You could hear it long before it came into view. Dhhig-dhhig-dhhig. Slow, steady, loud. Like a good heart. For me, that sound came to mean many things, because it was the sound of D arriving, returning. The end of a small waiting.

One evening – a few months into our relationship, much before we were married – I was at home watching TV with Baba, when my ears picked up the sound of a Bullet entering our building complex; we lived on the fourth floor. The sound made me sit up straight, heartbeat up a notch. But then, remembering Baba next to me, I quickly feigned a relaxed posture. I stretched, and slowly got up, muttering something about fresh air. I made my way towards the balcony, adopting what I thought was a splendidly purposeless walk. I’d taken no more than five steps when–
“It’s not him,” Baba said, without taking his eyes off the telly.

My Baba – as sharp as the edge of a new page. There’s not much you could ever sneak past him. Later that day, I learnt that someone else in the building had bought a Bullet. Damn, I thought, I didn’t need the confusion. In a few days though, my ears had worked out the difference in sounds, and came to the unbiased conclusion that the sound of D’s Bullet was far sweeter.

So, that’s how it always was – D, me and the Bullet. It’s the way our old friends remember us. Seated on it, D and I got to know each other better, we talked and laughed, argued and made up,  planned things, escaped for a few hours. D would pick me up from college after classes – that famed ‘lobby’ of Jadavpur University – and off we would go, without a plan. Years later, after we were married, he’d be there waiting with the Bullet next to my office to pick me up from work.

When we left Calcutta, we had to sell the Bullet. I don’t have a single photograph of it – of us riding it, standing by it, near it. Not one. We didn’t take many photographs in those days. I wish we had one though, just to show Chotto-ma.

Even though our Bullet found a new home, just like we did, there are a few things which haven’t changed. The sound of D arriving, returning, still makes me sit up like it used to. Only now, it’s not the dhhig-dhhig-dhhig of a bullet, but the slam of a car door, footsteps up the stairs. And we still find ways to escape for a few hours.

Every once in a while, we both take the day off work, drop Chotto-ma at school, and keep the day for ourselves. We did that last week. Took the day off, took a long walk, sat by the river, talked. Discovered a new street, narrow and crammed with gardens. Stopped at a pub for a drink. Ate a perfectly cooked Thai meal. We browsed our favourite bookshop. Picked a fern for Chotto-ma. Then, sat at a cafe, till it was time to pick her up from school. D read the newspaper. I wrote a little poem on a magnetic poetry board, which, having lost most of its words, stood by the cafe window gathering dust.

………

I also did something else last weekend. I came up with a sublime little dessert. ‘Sublime’, because there is no other word for it. We had friends over, and I wanted something quick, simple. I also wanted something seasonal and cold. But: nearly no work.

I had a few ingredients at home – a pot of mascarpone, coconut milk, one lone apple and a bowl of cherries. Together, they sang. It was the stuff of sonatas, I tell you.

 ………


Stewed Apples & Cherries in a Mascarpone-Coconut Cocktail

Ingredients

2 apples, cut into small cubes
10  large cherries, pit removed and quartered
3-4 tbs mascarpone
1 1/2 cup coconut milk
1 star anise
Castor sugar
Cashew or pecan nut to top (or a sprig of mint)

Add apples, cherries, coconut milk, star anise and 1 tbsp sugar in a pan and put to heat.
Simmer gently for a minute, and fish out the star anise.
Continue to simmer till the coconut milk is all gone and the fruit is tender. It’ll all be a lovely cherry colour.
Take it off the heat. Add 3 to 4 tbs-dollops of mascarpone into the warm, stewed fruit.
Add sugar to taste. Stir it all in.
Spoon it into cocktail glasses, top with a nut or a sprig of mint and refrigerate for 40 minutes to set.
Take it out 10 minutes before serving.

Kissed her silly and gobbled her up

Chotto-Ma loves going to nursery. She misses it during long holidays; she skips all the way to the school gate, ponytail bobbing, lips smiling. But last week  it suddenly changed. She didn’t want to go. She said she’d miss me, hugged my hand to her chest. And a river ran down her cheek.

Taken by surprise, we ran her through a gamut of questions: Did something happen in school? Was she sad, worried, scared about something? Had anyone been unkind?

Well, a boy had held her by the throat and pushed her a few days ago, she said, but that wasn’t why she was sad. Was she sure that wasn’t why, we asked. “Yes”, she said, “I just make sure I don’t play near that him any more.” I made a mental note to talk to her teacher about the boy, and moved on to other questions.

D and I asked her every question we could think of, but nothing. She wouldn’t say why she didn’t want to go to school, but she didn’t want to. All the while, she tried to blink back tears. We backed off a little; and told her to take her time, tell us what was bothering her when she felt ready.

A couple of hours later, as I sat there with dark thoughts flitting through my head – I have a viciously fertile imagination that travels like a drunkard’s sports-car – she came and sat down on my lap. “Maybe we can hug for A Very Long Time when I come back from school every day?”, she asked.

And suddenly, I knew. “Are you worried about me going back to work?” I asked. Many months ago, I’d talked to her about me returning to work after she turned four, I’d explained that she would have to stay at a childminder’s till we picked her up after work; I’d told her it would start this year, sometime in the summer. She knows it’s nearly summer now.

As soon as I asked the question, she buried her face into my hair. A long silence followed. “Maybe”, she mumbled after several minutes. So, there it was. A child, sad because her mother’s going back to work – nothing to write home about. But, it was what she said after the mumbled ‘Maybe’ that made me write this here. Here’s our conversation as it happened in Bengali. I’ll translate in a bit.

Me: Ma-r job niye tomar ki mone hoy?
She: Aami bhabi Ma office jaabe, tokhon aami ekta onno lady-r baarite thakbo. Ba-o thakbe na.
Me: Tokhon tomar sad laage? 
She nods, then after a silence, says: Aami jaani aami jeta bhaabchi, sheta jodi na bhaabi, tahole aamar school-e jete easy hobe. Kintu (and she touches her head), jokhon amar mathar bhetore eta khali bhaabi aar bhaabi, tokhon bhaaba ta stop kora easy hoy na.
Me: (hugging her, my heart in my dry mouth): Tumi eta niye kokhon bhaabo, shona?
She: Aami night-e bed-e boshe boshe bhaabi. Aar morning hole school-e jete chai na, Ma-r shaathe thakte chai.

Translated, that would be:

Me: What do you think of when you think of Ma working?
She: I think…Ma’s going to start work soon, and I’ll stay in another lady’s house. Ba won’t be with me either.
Me: That makes you sad?
She nods, then after a silence, says: I know that if I don’t think like this, it’ll be easier to go to school. But (and she touches her head), when my head thinks these thoughts, it keeps thinking it and thinking it, and I can’t stop it easily.
Me: (hugging her, my heart in my dry mouth): When do you think of these things, shona?
She: I sit in bed and think at night. Then in the morning, I don’t feel like going to school, I feel like staying home with Ma.

Of course, I talked to her about it some more, hugged her for A Very Long Time, and she felt better when she went to school the next day. It’ll pass, I know. But I still wanted to put her words down here, for nothing else but for me to remember.

{You’re just four, Chotto-Ma. Yet you sit at night and try to work through your worries without worrying us. You know your thoughts with utter clarity, yet say them aloud after much consideration. You’re just four, yet you try without being told to try. It makes me want to hug you in, in, in, and keep you safe. But, like you say, my tummy’s too small for you now.}

And so we did what we do best. We kissed her silly and gobbled her up and made her giggle till she could hardly breathe.

We also did a few other things:

D gave Chotto-Ma her first Aikido lesson – he’s been waiting to do this since she was a blip. (Throat-grabbing boy, beware.)

I sewed her a dress! It’s the first dress I’ve ever sewn, and though the finish was far from perfect, it made her a very happy bunny.

We read her this book of poetry by Freda Bedi, which we’d bought in Kolkata this year. Its words and drawings are wonderfully evocative – worth a hunt around bookstores.

And we made Shondesh. It’s a sweet that Chotto-Ma loves. It reminds her of Kolkata, and of people she misses very much. 

Notun Gurer Kanchagolla
(A subtle, Bengali sweet made with date jaggery. Jaggery can come in different forms – as a hard cake, or in a more syrupy consistency. The latter is called Jhola Gur, and that is what I used. It’s available in most Indian/Bangladeshi stores.)

Ingredients

1 ltr milk
Juice of 1 large lemon
4-6 tbs jaggery
1-2  tbs sugar

You’ll notice that the the measure for jaggery and sugar isn’t specific. That’s because the sweetness should be adjusted to your taste. You can skip the sugar completely and make the shondesh with just jaggery.

First, to make the Chhana or cottage cheese: Pour milk in a pan and bring to the boil. Keep the lemon juice handy. As soon as the milk begins to rise, lower heat, and pour in half of the lemon juice. Stir. The milk will begin to curdle instantly. Keep adding a bit of lemon juice, till all the milk has curdled into cheese. You should be left with the white cheese floating in a pale green water, called whey. Sieve the whey away, till you’re just left with the cottage cheese.

Leave the cheese in the sieve for 10 minutes to dry it completely. Then knead the cooled down Chhana (cottage cheese) with your hands for a few minutes.

In a non-stick pan, put the the Chhana, add half of the jaggery and put it on a gentle heat. Keep stirring in a gentle round motion. Taste for sweetness, and add more jaggery till you’re satisfied.

In a few minutes, the Chhana will start to tighten up. When it’s still soft enough to stir easily, take it off the heat. Don’t worry if it looks too soft, it’ll dry as it cools.

When warm, but not hot, divide them into portions, and with the palm of your hands, shape them into balls. Top each one with a raisin, or a cashew nut, or sprinkle of chopped pistachio.