I can change my mind

I haven’t written another post on Provence. I sat down to write it, not because I wanted to write it, because I told you I would. But my heart was not in my fingers, they hovered above the keyboard; seagulls over dry land. And then I remembered something I often forget: I can change my mind.

I can change my mind.

It’s strange how we’re wired to not see that option. How years of conditioning teaches us to plough on, keep our word, see things through, finish every bit of food on the plate. Of course, there’s a fear that creates, and arches over, that absolutism. The fear that if we gave our children the freedom to change their mind, we would turn them into fickle creatures, quitters and drifters. We would teach them how to give up too easily. They could grow up wasting their time looking for utopia and other silliness, instead of setting up the tent called Real Life, which of course stands on a few ‘essential’ pegs – a career, a spouse, a child (ideally two), a house of one’s own, and money in the bank.

A departure from those essentials puts parents in a difficult position. Of having to present the anomalous lives of their adult children to the rest of the world. They fumble if one or more of the essential pegs are missing: if a daughter is successful but single, if a forty-five-year-old son lives in a rented apartment, if their children decide to travel the world on odd jobs instead of a steady one, if their healthy, fertile, married daughter decides not to have children. Or, god help them, if their child decides that they’re attracted to people of their own sex. The poor parents’ post-retirement plan is sorted – to spend their days explaining these inconsistencies to friends and neighbours the best they can. And that, is the fear. That these drifters could be products of a freedom, which gave them the license to change their mind.

Why then do I always tell Chotto-ma that her mind is hers to change?

Because, you see, the other side of the coin is far scarier to me. That she might spend endless days doing something her heart is not into. That she might not listen to the voice that comes from her belly. That she would be too proud or worried or scared to say ‘I was wrong, and I’d like to change my mind.’ I’ve seen people waste years studying for the wrong degree and then working in the wrong job, because changing their mind would seem like giving up. I’ve seen people who knew a year into their marriage that they’d made the wrong choice, but stayed on for another decade, because once you’ve told your family you’ve found the love of your life, you don’t change your mind.

Now, what if you drifted for a while? A physical drifting can actually tether you in wonderful ways. And what if you didn’t take the pegs and put up that tent? What if you walked off the road and explored and got a little lost and found your way again? Feeling settled inside has nothing to do with being settled on the outside, of that I’m sure. Finding that still point in yourself – where you know you’re in the right place, with the right people, in the right skin – has little to do with being still on the outside, having a permanent residence and a planned life. The older I get, the less time I spend doing things that don’t feel right. Time feels precious – something to be reserved for people who matter, doing things that add to my day. I change my mind as soon as my belly asks me to, for rarely has that voice in my gut led me astray.

When I start writing a blog post, I never know where I’m going to go. The only way I seem to be able to write is by drifting. Drifting is the way I’ve found most good things; or the way they’ve found me.

This post was supposed to be a travel guide around Provence, and I couldn’t have strayed farther away on the map. I also had no plans of sharing a recipe today, but I changed my mind.

Peach, Mozzarella & Black-Eyed Bean Salad

I wrote the post over this salad lunch. And the salad was very good, so I made another plate just to take pictures and share it with you. It tastes like summer.

Ingredients

2 peaches, sweet and ripe
100 gms fresh mozzarella
1/2 cup black-eyed beans, soaked overnight
Fresh basil
1tsp whole black peppercorns, coarsely crushed
Handful of cashew nuts, roasted in a pan till lightly browned (or almonds if you prefer)
Extra virgin olive oil
Sea salt

First, boil the beans with salt till soft. Keep aside to cool. (I usually have some boiled and stored in the fridge.)
The rest is all about assembly:

Slice the peach and lay it out on a plate. Tear chunks of mozzarella and dot them around. Next goes the basil. Sprinkle this layer with salt (optional) and the coarse pepper. Scatter in the beans. Top everything with the cashew nuts. Drizzle with olive oil. And voila!

Laxmi

The first time I saw Laxmi, I forgot my manners and stared a few seconds too long. If I had just one word to describe my first impression of her, it would be ‘peculiar’. Odd choice of adjective for the woman who was our cook.

It was the summer of 2004, and D and I had just moved to Bangalore from Kolkata. We’d unpacked ourselves into a sunny little apartment in leafy Defence Colony, and dived into busy new jobs. Then, one Sunday morning, Laxmi knocked on our door.

She was a small, frail woman, who could’ve been of any age; anything between 25 and 45. I still haven’t a clue, and according to her, neither did she. Her face was like a collage, arranged in a hurry. An assortment of borrowed features, all fighting to have their say, much like a Cubist painting. Large, intense eyes sat on bitter-chocolate skin, the dark brown pupils obstinately meeting each other in the centre.

Her eyes were shy, but very busy. They flitted across my face, then to the far corner of the room, out of the window, to the neighbour’s, then somewhere far away, and back again. I had the feeling that she had talked her arms and legs into being still for the sake of our first meeting. And had ordered her mouth into monosyllables. The only thing she couldn’t quieten were her eyes. And her laugh. It was a sudden burst of sound, high-pitched and ill-timed. It came without warning, or much reason, and for a few minutes, it rearranged her eyes, nose and mouth into a slightly different collage. Another odd jumble.

I think it was Laxmi’s laugh that startled me into giving her the job. On that Sunday morning, this little woman, who looked too frail to lift a frying pan, became my cook.

I soon found out that she was anything but frail, and had a personality to match. She was like the food she cooked – fiery and eccentric. Sometimes that meant coming back home to noodles that had been tortured with cumin and coriander powder and dollops of ketchup.  But when she managed to curb her need to experiment, the table would be laden with beautiful, aromatic food – lentils with curry leaves, vegetables with freshly grated coconut, a Kerala biryani, or a spicy fish curry.

But I don’t remember Laxmi for the food she cooked. Her quirks were even more endearing than her cooking. I remember her big, unrestrained smiles. Her constant state of motion. The inexplicable sulks. I remember the stories she told of her family, and her feuds. A sudden, awkward hug from her thin, gangly arms. The way she cared for us so fiercely.  I remember her startling laugh. And then, her short, stoic goodbye.

We were in Bangalore for just a year. Not long at all. But long enough for my idiocyncratic cook to have stayed with me.

Laxmi’s Cumin & Coriander Cabbage

This was one of Laxmi’s simplest dishes. Cabbage stir-fried with cumin and coriander leaves. It’s delicious, and one of the few dishes that I haven’t tried ‘adapting’. It’s the quickest thing to toss up, and can be served up as a warm salad, as a side with grilled chicken, or with Indian flat breads like chapati.

Ingredients

1 cabbage, sliced in thin slivers
1 1/2 tsp cumin seeds

1 green chilli, sliced lengthwise and deseeded (optional)

1 cup chopped coriander leaves

1 1/2 tbs oil
Salt

Heat oil in a pan. When hot, lower heat to medium and add the cumin seeds. As soon as they start browning, add the cabbage, half of the coriander leaves, chilli (if using) and salt. Stir fry for 5 minutes, cover and cook for another 5 minutes. Then add the rest of the coriander leaves and stir till the cabbage is cooked but still has a bit of its crunch.