Sunday, 13 April 2014

The promise of music

We now have a piano in the house. It arrived a few days ago, this gleaming black thing, filled with the promise of music. Promise, because none of us can play. But we have a little girl who's eager to learn; she had her first lesson today.

The house sounds wonderful - off key, off pitch, off to a new start of some kind. As Chotto-ma and the piano get to know each other, the teacup rattles on its saucer. But there's something in this early tunelessness that makes me glad. The house is writing its own song. There's D playing his guitar, Chotto-ma tinkering with the piano, sunlight fumbling on the sofa, and me groping for words. Flimsy things that leave such a definite impression on the mind. There's nothing like it - the three of us at home, feeling around, filling our own spaces, feet touching.

This morning, Chotto-ma's frenetic bout of 'composing' on the piano resulted in two pieces, one of which she called 'Walking through the forest'. The piece starts with the quiet trickle of a stream. The hop of a bunny. Leaves crunching. Deer scampering. And then it all takes a terrible turn. The growl of a lion. A loud, breathless chase. Crescendo, crescendo. And finally - utter, deathly silence. Dhang! 

Yes, I might need ear-plugs soon, but for now, it's all good. There's that promise of music. A tune blinking in the distance. The possibility of beauty in a row of black and white keys. A seed has been planted, and our spring is beginning to sound like a piano.

We went to the market today. Everything's ablaze. The English spring is an extravagant creature. The stalls are reeling with colour and smell and a circus of seasonal produce. The flowers and fruits are showing off. The tomatoes are ridiculously red. We got some ridiculously-red tomatoes home, and I charred a few on an open fire, and made a sauce that tastes like our spring.

Ablaze and strong and full of bloody music.

Hot Charred-Tomato Sauce

This packs a punch. It's very garlicky, it's extra-spicy, and for me at the moment, it beats sriracha hands down. It's the simplest thing to make, especially during a barbecue. We add it to everything nowadays - in soup, in a burger, as a dip, dolloped into pasta, as a marinade or in a sandwich. It's gloriously good, with a personality to boot.


1 large, red tomato
2 cloves of garlic
2 green chillies

Char the tomato on a barbecue, or an open flame. I held my tomato above a hot hob with tongs, turning it this way and that, till the skin blackened.
Peel some of the skin off, leaving some charred bits sticking on. It gives the sauce a fabulous smokiness.
Put the charred tomato, garlic and chillies in a processor and blitz.
Add salt to taste.
Done. Smear.

(We had ours with courgette fritters today) 

So good.

Thursday, 27 March 2014

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.

Monday, 10 March 2014

Five days

D was away the whole of last week. Well, five days to be fair. But five days too far gone. In yonder-off Canada; a different continent, across Large Water Body, where people go to sleep when we're waking up. I know there's a sea of travelling spouses out there, but thankfully they're not mine. I feel limbless without D to wrestle and hug and wake up to.

It was also Chotto-ma's first stretch without Ba. She missed him so much that she finally decided to pretend he was in the bathroom. She also wrote him notes, drew him messages and licked his face on skype.

She wrote me a note too, and gave it to me (in an envelope) right after D left for the airport.

Yes, we can make a big soppy brouhaha about five days, which in Chotto-ma's words 'felt like sixty-five days.' To hell with moderation, to hell with anti-mush. When he walked in through the door on Saturday morning, we were on him like cling-film on leftovers.

So how did we spend those 'sixty-five days'? Well, apart from waiting for D to come back, we:

Overfed the ducks in the river.

Played dominoes.

Played hooky from school to watch Kung Fu Panda whilst eating dumplings.

Read books - she hers, I mine.

Had long conversations about life (it's the coolest thing; the things Chotto-ma and I talk about now, cuddled up on the sofa with a blanket on our legs.)

Ate dark red juicy plums.

Brought in spring.

Danced to Fleetwood Mac.

Baked D a Crème Caramel.

Crème Caramel

In India, a Crème Caramel is called 'Pudding'. A Pudding is a Crème Caramel. So, when we first moved to England, that's what I expected everyone to agree to. Pudding = Crème Caramel. But no. Here, Pudding = Dessert. Everything's a pudding - a sponge cake, ice-cream with jelly,  fruits with custard. Everything. This seismic food-shift, this pudding-shock, took more time to get used to than the British weather.

Bubulma, D's mother, was known (far and wide) for her perfecto Puddings. Her Crème Caramels were light, smooth, with firm feet and a jiggly hip. But the only time I ever tried making one: Disaster. That was years ago; my Crème Caramel collapsed like the Victorian lady it wasn't.

This time, I was determined to do better. Not just I, but Chotto-ma and I. Chotto-ma, my little egg beater. My Crème Caramel Conspirator.

And we did better than better.


4 eggs
4 cups of thickened milk (to thicken: gently boil 8-9 cups of milk till halved)
1 tsp vanilla extract
3/4th cup sugar (I don't like my puddings too sweet, so add more if you like)
3 tbs sugar (for the caramel)
Knob of butter

Heat oven to 150 degrees.
Beat the eggs well with the sugar.
Sieve the thickened milk, and mix it into the eggs. Add the vanilla extract.
Butter the sides of a round baking dish (mine was about 23 cm in diameter), and keep ready.
In a small pan, add about 1/2 cup water and the 3 tbs of sugar and put it on the heat. As the water evaporates, the sugar will start of caramelise. When is a lovely deep amber, but it burns, tip the caramel into the baking dish. Swirl the dish so the caramel spreads and coats the bottom.
The caramel will soon cool and set. When it does, pour in the milk-egg mix.
Slip it into the lower shelf of the oven for 30-40 minutes (when you slide it out, there should be a firm jiggle, but not a sloppy jiggle in the middle of the pudding).
Take it out, let it cool and put in into the refrigerator overnight.
Next day, hold a serving plate on top of the dish and turn it upside down. The pudding should plop down, along with the lovely, caramel-y syrup.



Monday, 17 February 2014

While we could

Nothing ever happens when it drizzles, have you noticed? The day drizzles too. Heavy rain could turn a road into a river, but a steady drizzle just turns your day into a soggy pulp of nothing. Not that I want the river; I had enough of those back in India.

After we got married, D and I rented an apartment in Cornfield Road in Calcutta. Though the road didn't run along eponymous fields of corn, it did harvest something else. Rainwater. Legend had it that Cornfield Road could get flooded on a dog's pee.

We started our life there with one such legendary flood.

It was the monsoon of 1999, and the skies were crying like a colicky baby. The skies cried, the waters rose, and I watched from our first floor balcony with mixed emotions: half anxious adult, half excited child. The excited, less-practical me wondered how high the waters would rise; if it would give us future anecdotes to roll our eyes by. (Maybe even something to write about in a blog fifteen years later.)

In the evening, after a few hours of copious rain, we got a call from our landlady who lived a floor above us. Over the years, she had developed a nose for floods; she suggested we stock up on essentials from the neighbourhood grocer, while we could. Suspecting greater wisdom, D and I waded out in calf-deep water with useless umbrellas.

Next morning, we woke up to a kitchen stocked like a bomb-shelter. And the lull of gentle waves. We could've been in the Maldives.

When we stumbled bleary-eyed onto the balcony, a makeshift raft was floating past. A car that had been parked in front of our house was almost under water, it's roof shining like an island. On the raft, three men stood grinning at the bloody adventure of it all. Full of cheerful foreboding, they pointed at the main road, towards Ballygunge Station.
"It's much worse there, didi. Enough water to drown a child," they shouted.
The woman in the house opposite ours poked her head out of her ground-floor window to inform us that the water was up to their bed. There were whispers of water snakes.

The drains were saturated, everyone said. The water could stay for days, our landlady predicted. So, later that morning, D and I packed a small overnight bag and decided to go to Ma-and-Baba's for a couple of days. The water was too high for me to walk through now. D carried me on his back till the end of Cornfield Road, where the water level started to drop; a rickshaw carried us the rest of the way.

When we reached Ballygunge Circular Road and got off the rickshaw, there was not a blip of a flood. Not even a darn puddle. This was higher ground, the roads had already dried, and we looked like a pair of comics in our wet, rolled-up jeans. Clutching onto our little overnight bag with the expressions of the newly-evacuated.

Still, there's something to be said for roads that turn into rivers: On a drizzly day in a different country, fifteen years later, it gives you something to write about when you have nothing much to write about.

In the oven, on days that drizzle

When its grey outside, I say cook a squash that looks like the sun. Stuff it with prawns and coconut milk and lemongrass and fresh coriander. Use your squash like a bowl, fill it with things and sit and watch it cook itself. It's the beach.


1 small squash per person
For each squash:
6 large, raw prawns, cleaned
A few slivers of ginger
1 green chilli
Fresh coriander leaves
2 one-inch pieces lemongrass
Coconut milk
1 tsp vegetable oil
A slice of lime

Pre-heat oven: 150 degrees C.
Cut a lid off the squash, empty the inside. Smear the hollow with a sprinkle of salt and oil.
Put the lid back on and slide it into the lower rack of the oven for 30 minutes.

Take out the squash and check if the inside is cooked. If it's not, put it back in for another 10-15 minutes. Don't worry if the skin is charred - it gives the whole thing a beautiful flavour.

Once the inside is tender, open lid and put in the prawns, chilli, ginger and lemongrass. Top up the squash-bowl with coconut milk, covering the prawns. Add the coriander. Put the lid back on.
Put the squash in for just 10 minutes more.

Take it out, open lid and add a squeeze of lime. Serve the squash whole, or scoop out the insides and serve it in a bowl. 


Thursday, 30 January 2014


I have a couple of hours before I leave for work. Chotto-ma is at school. D and I dropped her off, then came back home for a coffee before he left for work. We do that whenever I have the morning free. We drop her off, and sneak back home. I don't know why it feels like sneaking, but it's fantastic.

We sit on that brown sofa, our legs stretched out and crisscrossing like rivers; and as liquid. We drink our coffee and talk. Today, we also had these slivers of orangey chocolate crisps - addictive little critters - that a friend introduced us to recently. The crisps crunch between our teeth, and that's the only sound we hear. If I open my ears wider, there's a chik-chree-chik of a winter bird I cannot name, the ticjk-tock-ticjk-tock of a clock that's running seven minutes late, and the sounds of our floorboards stretching like old bones. I'm in love with this quiet, with this time, this tangle of limbs.

When we were walking Chotto-ma to school earlier, something caught my eye at the window of the thrift shop we pass everyday. My feet faltered, stopped, for there behind the shop window stood the coffee table I'd been waiting years for. Angels sang. It was old, tiled, used, perfect. But the shop hadn't opened yet, it was too early in the morning. By the time it opened I'd be at work, and the whole day would've passed. I knew the table wouldn't stay that long; it was a very busy shop, business was brisk, the table was just £20. I stood there, I fretted. D walked to the back of the shop; the cleaner was opening one of the shutters, but then the cleaner wasn't allowed to sell anything. Chotto-ma was getting late for school, I was getting late for work. And so, I walked away. I told myself that if it was meant to live with us, the table would stay. And if it wasn't, well, it was meant for someone else to keep their coffee on.

The table waited for us. The world had passed by its gorgeous tiles, its sturdy legs, its throwaway price, and yet, no one had taken it away. And that's the way most of our home has gathered itself over the years. Pieces, old and used, from here are there - the big armchair, the dining table, the odd chairs, the blue china cupboard which we painted and wallpapered, my desk, the footstool my feet now rest on.

Unlike new furniture, these come with stories. They have a past, they were loved and left, or passed down from those who had passed away. Adopted, orphaned wood. I like the way they bring in bits of other lives; imprints I can only guess at. I like to think of them as continuations.

Many months after we bought our dining table, while cleaning crumbs from the floor, I discovered that the table had something on its underside. A painted heart with the initials A + L next to it.

- - - -

And here's another continuation: do you remember this? Well, it's been sitting by the window for a while now, and I've watched it change from a bright yellow to a deep, dull yellow. I've watched it settle and sink into its own juices, skin softening, ageing. I've opened the lid to sniff, dipped in a finger to taste, and I can't wait any longer.

Butter with preserved lemon, roasted cumin & coriander


A good salted butter
Preserved lemon peel, finely chopped (don't use the pulp, just the peel)
2 tsp whole cumin
Fresh coriander leaves
Chilli flakes

Keep the butter outside the refrigerator to soften it.
Lightly dry-roast the cumin in a hot pan, stirring constantly. Take it off the heat and coarsely grind it with a pestle.
Mix all the ingredients together. And your butter's ready.

You can use it on anything - spread it on toast, smear it on a grilled fish, tuck it into warm rice. It's all good.