Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Flavours of my childhood rekindled

It has been a long long time since I wrote something for just the sheer joy of writing. Of telling you stories, of giving you a peek into me, my life, my journey so far. When you live an earning as a writer and editor, the blog that does not serve any professional purpose suffers.

Talking of change, I think moving away from Kerala, my roots have made me cherish what I have left behind. Call it the ramblings of a Malayali slowly going senile away from the homeland (also a Malayali who knows she will go senile if she moves back to her hometown too) If only there were less of a love-hate tussle, if only there were fewer contradictions, less conflicted emotions about taking a decision of moving closer to my land of birth.

My tongue keeps reminding me that I am growing older. The flavours I crave are no longer those from across the world - I enjoy them, but I don't crave them the way I now try to recapture the smells and flavours that lingered in my grandmother's and now my Amma's kitchen. Just as I began writing this post, I realised that this blog is filled with similar posts of yearning, something that was unconscious for long. But I no longer try to deny the power it has over me.

In the many years that I have lived away from home, subsistence cooking was largely anything that was easy to cook and tasty too. And considering that I have lived in western India and abroad more than in the south, the choice of easy ingredients available to me defined the cuisine I cooked. So there I was, mastering rajma chawal and an assortment of paneer curries, rustling up chicken dishes adapted from north Indian recipes than the flavours I grew up with. I had the reasoning down pat too - who is going to spend time grating coconut? Not me! Who is going to meticulously choose all the ingredients that go into duplicating mom's dishes? Not me. Unlike north Indian dishes that are redeemable and salvageable at most stages of cooking, I often found Malayali cooking a difficult art to master - forget an ingredient or two and you know it doesn't taste authentic anymore! And if it doesn't hit the high notes that your mom's and grandmom's cooking hit, then you'd rather not play that music, but invent some of yours. The benchmark then can be set pretty low.

Since I moved to Delhi over four years back, I have been trying to bring bits of my mother's kitchen into mine. When you marry into a Punjabi family, you think they would be impressed with your love for roti over rice, your expertise in whipping up dals and chhole than an avial or a koottukari. Not the case for me! At every family gathering, there would be a demand for a dish from my kitchen - and you know by now which direction the cuisine suggestions would point!

So there I was, on the phone with Amma every other day asking for one recipe after another. Initially, the flavour profiles were baffling and the fear of failing to reproduce them faithfully a big stumbling block. When did that ever deter the new family from sweetly requesting more Madrassi dishes? From the dosa breakfast that I was pretty adept at turning out, I graduated to the appams and ishtu. The crowning moment perhaps was when Amma asked me for my recipe for making chicken ishtu (stew). At home, we have always stuck to the veggies version, but here, I went out and improvised my own version, which till date is one of my fail-proof signature dishes. And then buckling under pressure, I made a sadya for Onam of 14 dishes (you better believe it!) for about 20 people! Yes, I had help, but I was the only one who knew what I was cooking! (Perhaps that helped too, that I wasn't serving it to discerning elders who'd nitpick on ingredients being out of sync! Instead I was serving a family who made me feel like I'd just won the Masterchef competition)

These days, I have found myself craving dishes that I have stayed away from for the best part of my childhood. Avial has entered my list of all-time favourite dishes (I can hear Amma's evil laugh and I told you so!) Parippu dosas and an assortment of upmas are weekend treats at my place now.  The joy of trying out new dishes, opening the lid off the vessel on the stove and inhaling deep to be transported back into Amma's kitchen - that's the subtle nudge and power of nostalgia.

The cuisine that tingles your tongue is often one that lies dormant in your blood till one day you wake up - older and wiser - more appreciative of the wisdom in your Amma and Ammumma's cooking style, their precise measures and the unwillingness to experiment or tweak it too much lest the flavours they sought to recreate every time were irreparably tampered.

There was a time that I had laughed at the rigidity and promised myself never to be sucked into that. But even as I experiment and tweak recipes to suit my kitchen and convenience, I go back to trying to do it atleast once just like Amma does it - it makes me feel closer to her, smell the smells that surround her and to earn the delighted smileys she sends my way through Whatsapp when I tell her my dish tasted just like hers!

Saturday, October 12, 2013

The Man With Many Hats - The Book Review

Some books are a breeze, others are turgid and do not inspire the desire to read more than a few pages. Then there is another kind - one that makes you feel like a little child standing on her toes peeping in through a grimy glass to see what's going on inside the old spooky bungalow. For that child in every reader, the Selman mansion is a peek into an old world - an alien world that is ironically also vaguely familiar. The author Jael Silliman's words, descriptions and most interestingly the sketches that pepper her book become the guides to decipher the saga that unfurls at its own pace.

Illustrations by Jael Silliman
The Magen David sketched by Jael
I must begin this revew with a confession -fiction has moved over on my bookshelf for narratives and accounts that are outside the fictitious realm. There are few novels of contemporary fiction on my shelf currently, so this book is a departure. I guess I need to qualify that - for it is strangely not as much a departure from non-fiction because through her novel, Jael manages to draw a a rather compelling portrait of the Baghdadi Jews that made Calcutta( I chose it over Kolkata) their home centuries ago. The observations are inspired by reality, the colour and meticulous manner of her descriptions clearly show that they have been irrigated by experiences of her community. So much so, that as I read the tale of Morris Selman - the man with many hats (and personas over the years), I began simultaneously opening multiple pages up on my laptop, looking for the old haunts of Jewish Calcutta- Nahoum's Bakery and Magen David synagogue among others to read about them in depth. Jewish traditions have always been an enigma and this book is like a secret permission to watch a different world at work that I have normally no access to. Through her novel, Jael brings to life a community that is dying out, there were about 500 members left in Kolkata when Rachel was young. Today, the Kolkata Jews struggle to cobble a quorum together to conduct prayer services at the synagogue ( information I gathered while reading this book), the numbers of other Jewish extractions across India are similar or even less.

The main character (arguably) of Morris Selman, the man with the many hats, embodies a strange dichotomy - of being larger than life while managing to come across as a troubled mortal being of flesh, blood and sinew. He is as generous as is miserly, as keen to please as to dismiss, as much a besotted selfless lover as a boorish, violent husband. Amidst all these contradictions, that he manages to straddle a space of his own is the success of the novel. Even as a mature Rachel takes over a great part of the mindspace of the author, leaving Morris alone to battle his old age and demons, the departure in the narrative in itself is symbolic - of the passing of his prime years, of him no longer holding the centre space in the lives and minds of his community, of a neglect that seeps in with time and accumulated misdemeanour.

However, in this saga of relationships across a lifetime, there are few images that linger on long after the book is over. Most daughters have experienced the innate need a girl feels to compare every man yo her father -measure him against the yardstick set for manhood early in life. I feel the fathers often win this bout, for there is a certain selfless love there that is tough to replicate. Through the book, I felt this conjecture of mine would be proven wrong, however the wisdom Rachel finds in hindsight felt like vindication to me. Rachel's band of friends, who stick by her through thick and thin are reasons why despite little family left in Kolkata, the city remains home even after years of making a home in other cities of another country.

All illustrations are done by Jael herself
Morris' many hats fit well with the many roles he plays out through his life. Each one more flamboyant than the other - like living out an image that sometimes is to the detriment of one's own sanity and peace. He lives and loves kingsize and sweeps regrets, which he appears to have periodically, under the carpet and move on with life.My biggest regret with this book is that somewhere along the story, Jael's story shifts to Rachel and her trials, leaving my curiosity about Morris and how life panned out for him through the decades after Sarah, Rachel and Jacob left him, unrequited. You snatch glimpses of the changed man time and again - the miserly grand dad, the fun-loving uncle to Rachel friends who pulls off unimaginable stunts, and the people who populate his later years, keeping his heart and soul together towards the end of the novel. But like a little child, one feels like wandering around the rooms of the haunted looking bungalow filled with interesting people and stories seeking Morris.

(Jael Silliman opted to self-publish her first work of fiction. You can find this book on: Doorstep Books, Amazon India, or Flipkart)

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

The Glass Cage They Built for Us


Mumbai is a city I have spent the best part of my journalism career in.. I have written about Mumbai a million times in my blog...ok, a million is an exaggeration, but I have written about my love affair with the city innumerable times. When I shifted homes, from Mumbai to Delhi, I stopped blogging. It was like Delhi had parched my imagination and the need to write. Well, I guess I am taking literary freedom again.

Blaming a city and stereotyping it appears to be a favourite Indian passtime. So while Mumbai is lovely, Delhi is notorious. Mumbai fosters imagination, Delhi kills it. In Mumbai, my blog flourished because love flowed through words, while in Delhi, the posts have dried up.

I dust out the cobwebs away from this rarely used blog now to write in anguish... when something heinous as a gang-rape is reported and that too against a fellow journalist, it feels more personal. The first thought that went through my head is, It could have been me.. I have been in several situations myself. It was my fortune that I do not have to write this as a rape survivor. 

The truth is whether you are an urban woman or someone who has lived largely in rural areas, our freedom remains more or less circumscribed by our families. If your family believes you must be given the same opportunities as the boys, then you get it. Else, you merely appear to be the director of your life, in fact you are nothing but a mere proxy in it. Your wishes are meant to be countermanded, that is, if you have been taught or have learnt to wish for things. Choice remains a luxury for most that some among us (lucky ones) now take for granted. 

I have thought long and hard about why rape is perceived as the ultimate humiliation and the biggest dishonour that can befall a woman. 

1. Is  it because a woman is in fact another property of the family (not just a man). So vandalising her is akin to mauling at a family's wealth? 
2. How does forced intercourse 'de-file' her purity - what is the yardstick for female purity? 
3. In a society obsessed covertly with all forms of sex and sexual innuendo, why is it difficult to believe that aggressive male behaviour will never be restricted to slapping and beating up and not sexual violence? 
4. Why does a rape survivor have to bear the stigma of being defiled for her life while her rapists are at most treated like criminals and let off with a jail sentence? 

I do not believe that till the time our country is mature enough to realise that a woman is more than a beautiful face to yearn for or bounteous breasts to lust after or pinch or a shapely butt to surreptiously fondle or leer at, there will be little respite. 

As a journalist, I have been jeered, mauled, commented at and even stalked. I have however thought of these as merely nuisance and hazards of the job. It might be a negative end to this post, but I seriously believe that our generation might never enjoy the fruits of man-woman equality or learn to take individual freedom and choice for granted. But we can teach our future generations - inculcate in them the need to be better human beings, respect the other sex and not think of them as inferior or to be subservient and at their beck and call. It might take a few generations for India, but our country needs us to reform our generations. The day women decide to empower their girls not to take male aggression lying down and speak out and set deterrants, rapes, domestic violence and harassment will continue unabated. 

I usually don't find it easy to express myself through poems, but I wrote this one after the Mumbai rape case was reported. 

The Glass Cage

Build me a glass cage,
Scour the world to make it beautiful,
Carpets of fur, pillows of feather, clothes of satin,
Make me pretty and vain,
Oh and secure too,
Here's the gold lock with rubies studded. 

Build me a glass cage,
So you see me but can't touch,
 They say the roof can't be open to the skies,
Lest the birds swoop to wound with their claws,
The air could be poisoned,
So secure me in vacuum.

Build me a glass cage,
Confiscate the stones,
Build a bigger cage and another one.
Let my voice be drowned,
Let my wishes be damned,
I'm too pretty to be free,
Too precious to be left open,

May I make a plea?
If the cage is big enough, can She come in too?
We breed in agony,
We can wail together too..
Build Us a glass cage,
We know not how to want any more.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Delhi - Will you make Fraaaandship with me??

I just realised that 2011 for me began in Brighton, 2012 in Mumbai and now 2013 looks all set to begin in Delhi - my bags are forever packed and I'm always ready to go (but I have not travelled yet to celebrate New Year's anywhere) I'd rather be home ( mine or anyone else's and bring the New Year in quietly...and relatively soberly too! :)

2013 looks set to be a year like one I have not had before..it is true that I'm talking about 2013, a month after it is set in.. :) But then procrastination is the middle name these days..

So now I'm trying to make fraaaandship (friendship does not cover the hesitant overtures I'm trying to make) with Delhi...
  • Taaak the talk...waaaak the walk...mix hariyanvi lingo into my English to mix in with the masses, while wearing boots and make-up for a quick run to the mall ( I forgot to mention my little handbag!) to fit in with the only seen-at-the-mall classes! ( I kid you...I couldn't really do that! Ok, the boots is true..they are really comfortable..but all the rest is not true! I hop to the mall mostly for movies, when I'm in my natty boots with my Uni sweatshirt)
  • When you swear never to live in a city, be sure that the city is not listening and plotting to take vengeance...Delhi laughed its killer laugh when I landed bag and baggage, of that I'm sure.. I'm still quaking in my boots about Gurgaon's revenge - I had flatly refused to move to Gurgaon, wonder when that refusal will boomerang to thwack me in my face (someone up there is keeping a track of all that I swear I will NEVER do and ticking me off too saying NEVER SAY NEVER!) 
  • From the best pubs to explore, I'm thinking homely barbeques to ward the cold...I am brrrr-ing away without central heating ( just in case you wonder how I can crib after braving England through two winters) 
  • For a tie and dyed South Indian like me, Mumbai should have remained the final frontier, but then you realise that there is a big bad world out there ( read Dilli) - where the classes and the masses appear to be separated by a fort wall and a moat...I often feel that the Delhi that I see is not the Delhi that you see from a BMW or a Ferrari...similarly it must be very different when you look at it from one of those battered and dusty state buses that appear like sardine cans, packed to the hilt. 
  • Can I woo you to my side by saying the food is a big lure? That once you get to Delhi, you live to eat and not eat to live?? Kulchas, Chhole, Kebabs, Moong vadas, Mattar Kachoris..and the list just goes on and on...
  • That said, can I ask you to stay out of my face, Dilli? Polite request, don't punch me for that...Is it necessary for you to raise your voice, be rude because someone is taking three seconds more to take a turn? My eardrums still ring from the time you blasted them with a band because your nephew was getting married at midnight..
Every other day on Facebook, despite repeated filters and "I don't entertain strange friend requests" warnings that resemble "Keep away from this house, Dog inside" boards - I still get strange requests from people I haven't met, those who are 'acquainted' with me but I am strangely not, those who are serial Friendship Request dispatchers..

Today, I am sending out one for a change - Delhi - Will you make Fraaaaandship with Me?? 

I'll stay out of your face, just give me enough reasons to click Like on your current updates...

Tuesday, October 09, 2012

Malayaleeccentricities...Let's talk Food!!

I'm presently in the Kingdom of the Gods (of Malayalees), in the fiefdom of the Menons - we are meticulous book-keepers - or so I have learnt the ancestors were too in the service of the kings of Travancore-Cochin and Malabar. They were number jugglers, I don't fancy numbers at all - they juggle before my eyes. So I document words, practises and those things that make Malayalees uniquely Mallu - and sometimes only a Malayali can understand why it is strange. That's how we like it -little need to be said! And boo-yoo that we aren't much into experimenting with tradition, except when we are not in Kerala. Then we are game to try and re-mould our lives to suit any weather, palate or customs! :) So now for the time that I'm in Kerala, I'm going to attempt to write on Malayaleeccentricities

Our fascination with food, for instance, is not really all-encompassing. Yesterday I was making chicken curry, when Dad sauntered in into the kitchen. I believe I was making a Malayali-version of a simple chicken curry. However, in the absence of dry roasted coconut and a thick gravy, the snap assessment is that it is one of those experimental preparations! Sigh!!! Similarly, coriander leaves are as North Indian in garnish as curry leaves tempered in coconut oil are in this part of the world. Every time I chop a bit up for the fresh aromatic smell, I'm asking if I'm making a Mumbai dish!

Can you understand the lure of kappa (tapioca) boiled with just turmeric and salt with shallots and green chillies crushed in coconut oil again with a bit of salt? Even as I write this, there is a pool forming in my mouth - I have just put it on the list of must-ask-Mom-to-make! Its spicy, its bland, its tuber-y and its blah - ohhh but it is so Malayali. When friends well-versed with Malayali cooking rave about the kappa and meen curry (kappa with fish curry), I ask them if they have tried the humbler fare.

Similarly, in north Kerala, especially Thrissur - during Onam, there is a traditional breakfast made from steamed yellow plantains. Well, there is no recipe to share, because it is just ripe plantains -steamed till it nearly oozes out of the skin. It is steamed either as a whole or after chopping into bits. It is served with the skin on - what the blessed soul that gets to eat it has to do is use just two fingers artfully to peel off the steaming skin and then crush two huge pappadams( the Kerala variety, mind you, which is differently from the poppadums and the appalams and the Lijjat papads you might be used to) and make it into a mouth-wateringly maserated mess ( when I begin to alliterate that means the nostalgia is at its peak!) before popping into your salivating mouth. In several households, there is puttu (steamed rice cakes) kept on standby for the more snooty or fastidious! However, in my family, pazham and pappadam is the tradition - we would be crazy to try and experiment!

 I don't know if the reason it is only served during Onam is to keep some kinds of 'dishes' exclusively to herald Onam festivities. I cannot see the reason why it can't be convenience food for hassled mothers to dish up to their kids. But even on days when Amma was struggling to get us all ready and prepped to school before grabbing her bag to head to work, she never gave us the pleasure of savouring an out-of-turn pazham-pappadam!!

And then I think of our daily fare - not the glorious avials, kottukaris and the other sadya fare. The regular stuff made at home - the theeyals and the thorans and the mezhukkupurattis(this literally translates into vegetables sauteed in a bit of oil!) -the unglamourous, unlauded cousins - ask any Malayalee about their personal favourites and trust me, while they will be impressed by your knowledge of puttu-kadala and avial - they will secretly be craving their Amma's simple mathanga-pulingari or a vazhappindi or vazhakkoombu thoran (that's made from the different parts of the plantain - nothing goes to waste) or even the muringila thoran (drumsticks leaves)...That smell of hot hot coconut oil and curry leaves and mustard tempering in it is infinitely more blissful than the smell of jeera tempering in ghee!

Like there is a good name and a pet name that are distinctly different among Bengalis and 'good' clothes and 'home' clothes among most middle class Indians - Malayali food also has 'home' food and 'guest' food classifications. I'd say it is a distinctly discriminatory practice where we, the Malayalis decide what the non-Malayali will love and savour. The rest we pack it away to enjoy when there are no guests around our dining table. We discriminate and how - call it our Malayaleeccentricity!! :)