WTF – Where’s the food?

Notes from this lockdown:

  • Tinda should not be cooked for guests for too-much-chopping reasons. 
  • Eating rajma is more fun than making it.
  • I had never made toru ki sabzi before the lockdown 
  • Cooking for one is easy, eating alone is not. 
  • If kitchens had third world problems, ants would top them. At least until you learn to clean vigorously, every night. 
  • My mother makes garam masala at home. 
  • Baking your own bread is an underrated personal victory. 
  • The most important meal is the one after which you have to do the dishes.
  • Be grateful for finding avocados, but mostly for having three full meals every day. 

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Do we now appreciate the smaller things more? Meeting a friend, going for a walk and feeling the breeze on our faces, hugging people, breathing without the now-familiar scent of a sanitizer in the air? Will we simply fall back to our ways of being reckless with moments that are gifted to us? 

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I have been thinking a lot about the hands that have nourished us and continue to nurture us. Goya Journal, this year for their anniversary, asked people to share pictures of hands that have fed them over the years. It was strangely insightful and obviously heart-warming. I moved back home due to the uncertainty of this time and I happily fell back into the routine of being fed by my mother. Once again, I was asked if I was ready to eat breakfast the moment I woke up, what I wanted to eat for lunch, if bhindi was okay for dinner.

It took a global halt to make me realise how futile my experience with cooking could become. The noise of relatives praising my stuffed bell peppers and cream of broccoli soup was overpowered by my incompetence in feeding myself on some days. I knew how to cook everything; dal, chawal, roti, sabzi; but my routine had never required me to worry about preparing all my meals. 

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I made sushi one day, it tasted great but I failed terribly at rolling it. The first time I tried to replicate my mother’s chole bhature, I did pretty well. My brain worked with the memory of its taste, my hands knew the recipe without ever having made it. Meals that nourish us, remain with us. 

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Food, food, food. Sometimes I wonder how our lives can be so consumed by food and yet so distanced from what it means to us. What does food mean to you? 

Unsolicited advice: Homemade pizza is always a hit. Thai Mango Sticky Rice is the perfect no-bake dessert to make. Make lots of pesto. Always keep tomatoes in the fridge. 

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My love for cooking only happened because my mother initiated me into the kitchen early in life. She wanted me to have the skill so I wouldn’t have to face the same problems she did after marriage. Is my love for cooking only present because of one gender’s lack of it? 

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There is something to be said about the food that is made to nourish you, meals that are cooked with you in mind, dinners that are kept warm for you, breakfasts that are served to you. It is a special thing, perhaps one of the most special experiences in life, to have somebody who commits themselves to feed you every single day. 

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Food is memory, undiscovered. It is the future craving and also the current habit. To be honest, one of the greatest inventions of mankind is the refrigerator. It is all the light I sometimes need in my life. 

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Food, food, food. What have you been eating? When was the last time you ate a fruit? Did you learn how to cook? Have you eaten dinner? How fast can you chop onions now? 

Another day, another meal. I hope it’s not lauki. 

May the food be with you. 

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2020


Who catches the love we send out into the air?What has passed in the time that stood still?
The hollow that the year has carved, when will it be fully sculpted?

A hollow, is a hollow
That is its full disclosure
It is the shape and its own design
(On an unrelated note, do you know
How to sculpt something out of nothing?)

People break, we’ve seen it now
Into withering homes of hope they settle down
(Homes now are just three room apartments, BTW)
Abbreviated, brief, fleeting.
Who needs an aangan?
Who needs a roof that opens in the middle?
(Unless it’s a convertible of course)

People break, we’ve seen it now
Galaxies made up of high rises barely lit
Who switches on the lights in abandoned rooms?
Who brings inside the pickles drying under the sun?
(Their taste is best experienced stolen on a secret, solitary trip to the terrace)

I hear, there’s no pickle this year
Pickles are for bright summers that bring the sun to your skin
Slanted rays touch us this year, diminished to crisscross lines
Their hollows bared, our skin spared.


Who catches the love floating in air?
I hear, envelopes are piling up
I hear, someone collects them and reads them
In a room where unsaid things go to die
They seal the envelopes again, clear out their tracks.
It’s almost, as if no one got the love
With the unsaid things, the love also waits to die
Almost.
As if.
(You’ve got mail, breathe it in)

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एक छोटा सा चाँद

खोये हुए हाथों में
एक छोटा सा चाँद रखा था
उँगलियों से अपने समेट
उसे तुम्हे दिया था
उस चाँद की अब बस एक बूँद ही पड़ी है
जिसे रात ने निगला नहीं
बिस्तर के नीचे
वो बूँद भी छोड़ गए तुम
***
इस पार से उस पार
किनारा एक भी नहीं मिला
किनारे, बना लिए
इस पार से उस पार तक
घर के सभी छातों को
कतार में लगा दिया
बस, बन गयी एक सीमा
रात को तो फिर बारिश ही हुई
***
आज का दिन
छत के एक कोने में बीता
धुप तिरछी रेखाओं में उजाले करती रही
मैं ज़मीन के टालियों में अँधेरे खोती रही
चांदनी रात में लालटेन की खोज
फ़ुज़ूल ही रुकना, फ़ुज़ूल ही खोना
धुप चीर जाती है
***
तारों को रस्सियों से लटका दिया
चाँद के टुकड़े की चौकी खाली है
तुम बैठोगे नहीं?
अँधेरे भी दमकते है तुम्हारे चेहरे पर
रात के थकान की छाप,
पड़ती है इन पर्दों पर
वो भी उबासियाँ लेते है
कुछ कहते है, फिर खो जाते है
हवा एक ही दिशा में क्यों बहती है यहाँ?
***
जितनी किरणे लौटाई दिन को,
सब आसमा में ही रह गए
चाँदनी को जितना कैद किया था,
धागो में वो आँखों पर बरसते है
टपकती है, पिघलती है तुम्हरी आँखें
स्मृति के नल से
अभी तो उसे बंद किया था, नहीं?
आँख यूँ लगती है,
जैसे तुम्हे खोया ही न हो
***
कम कर दो रौशनी
एक तारा निगल क्यों नहीं जाते?
उस चंदा को भी ले जाओ
चुभती है हथेलियों में
हवा की वो ठहराव
जो लहरा आती है तुम्हारे घर के कोने की खिड़की को,
जिससे तुम सिर्फ गुज़रते दिखते हो
वो खिड़की हर रास्ते पर है,
रास्ता क्यों भटकती हूँ मैं?
***
गणित के हिसाब से
अगले स्टेशन से तुम सिर्फ २२२२ कदम दूर हो
चाँद फिर भी तुमसे ज़्यादा पास है
रात की थकान की छाप अब मुझ पर भी पड़ती है
ध्वनि आती है पर्दों से,
उन्हें भी कोई खींचता है तुम्हारे तरफ
रौशनी कम कर दो
खोकर तुम फिर कैसे खो जाते हो?
***
आज खाने में दो तारें है,
और वही बूँद उस चाँद की
दो आसमानों के बीच
सिर्फ वक़्त ही बिस्तर लगाता है
विस्समरण की लहर आती है,
उसे भी भूल जाती हूँ
इस छत से उस खिड़की में झाँक नहीं पाती,
तुम्हारा गुज़र जाना भी खो देती हूँ

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Just another oven in the wall

calcutta christmas

To an onlooker, Christmas in Calcutta is a lit up Park Street, cakes from legendary bakeries and a whole lot of cheer. This is Christmas in Calcutta, but this is not the only one. I’ve come to understand that in a place where diverse communities co-exist, every festival has several characters.

Having had no close Anglo-Indian friends or extended interactions with them, I recently realized that I know nothing about Christmas in Calcutta. This realization came to me, far away from the city in the confines of my office when I started speaking to my colleague about what her Christmas is like in Calcutta.

More loaves of cake than you can count was the primary feature, but behind it was a fascinating story about how the Anglo-Indian community acquires cakes during the season. Now based in Bangalore, my colleague’s parents still go to Calcutta every December. The whole family flies in for a few days of togetherness, traditions and new rituals. The only thing more important for the celebration than cakes are the family recipes for baking them. Each family guards a recipe, perfected over time and preserved with care. The supplies for hundreds of loaves are bought during the season, counted and re-counted to ensure that even half an egg is not missing.

But where are these cakes made, these special loaves marked with unwritten history and an unbroken spirit? Each family employs a baker before the festival, the baker who would have been baking for the family for years. Even though he sells his bakes throughout the year locally, this is the time when he becomes the star of the mohalla, the messiah of a tradition and the reason it hasn’t died down yet.

With ovens that cover up entire walls leaving little space for customers to stand in, these bakeries come alive in the month of December. While you pull your blanket closer and enjoy the sweet sleep away from the chilly air, the Anglo-Indian community is out and about at 4am. With bags full of measured ingredients and an appointment with the baker (make sure you take it at least a month in advance), families line up outside his shop. Turn by turn they enter the room with ovens for walls and take out their recipes. With precise directions by the family members, the batter of the cake is prepared and poured into containers. Each loaf is marked with the family name to identify the recipe.

I wonder how many loaves are baked in each of those rooms, how many families take home Christmas in bags filled with the aroma of upcoming celebrations, how many children are forced to go there with their mothers to imbibe the tradition within them. It’s a strange ritual, to exchange cake for cake. It’s also what humans do isn’t it? Give and take has formed the foundation of all human contact. Hate for hate, love for love. And in any case, each cake is different from the other. Each loaf tells a story that is exclusively told by mother to child for generations until the story itself is lost, and only the knowledge of its existence remains.

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How do the bakers feel about this tradition? Are they the real enablers or is it the family which hides away the recipe? Perhaps it is both working in harmony; one wheel moves for remembrance and the other for celebration. After all, all celebrations begin in memory: the memory of a happy moment, an unforgettable laughter and a sense of belonging. Oblivious to all of this, I lived my entire life in the city believing Christmas was just a holiday on which you ate cake. My father was a willing Santa, filling up stockings for me every year and hiding gifts under the bed until my fantasy was shattered and I knew it was him. I stopped writing wish lists with him in November but he never stopped buying me cake in December.

When I think about this, about a home that I never fully understood or discovered, I think about what I carry with me from there. What do we carry with us as adults who no longer share a house with their families? I wonder what are the things that I will repeat unknowingly in life, which flowers I will offer to gods and which sweets I will make on certain days for the rest of my life. Traditions that become a part of you, lose all meaning but that of claiming your roots.

Are these roots only about the rituals that echo in every home that we build? Or do they reach out to the space beyond into who we become altogether? Do they coincide with our values, with what we believe in and what we stand for? Or are these separate from the way families gather around for meals? What do we carry with us all our lives?

The oven-walled rooms create not even a flutter in our lives but they go with us in our suitcases, recipes are remembered on long evenings filled by quiet. Collectors of our own stories, we sometimes trespass into the lives of others and our suitcases become heavier. Are we the weight of untold stories? Stories that do not even know who they are, stories that are maybe just some ovens in the wall.

 

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Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose International Airport

I pack my words and I go
What else can I need?

“Do you have any baggage ma’am?”
“Just myself”

My insides weigh down on me
Airports have the longest corridors

“Can I get a window seat?”
“Is the last row ok?”
“Yes. Thank you.”

There is no order to some chronologies
Departure only happens after it has already happened

“Boarding will happen at gate no. 24”
“Alright”

The shops have excellent bags
My mother likes plain ones,
Those that are not made to be seen, only used.

The chairs fill up in the waiting area
I can see my father sitting on one, his hand on his chin
He’s there and then he’s not.

Boarding begins, people line up
“This is the final boarding call…”

Departures are marked by a large black border,
Don’t cross over.

Switch off your phone, fall asleep
Departure only happens after it has already happened.

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Two Suitcases and a Bag

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The person at the store will tell you that suitcases come in four sizes: small, medium, large and the one that’s the same size as that 12 year old you. I took the medium one last year. What was I going to do with a suitcase any bigger than that anyway? My father wanted me to buy the large one, he believes in covering all his bases. I am still tainted with inexperience.

In the last one month, I chose to stay mostly at home (Other than the one trip to the hills). Everywhere I went despite this choice, I wanted to consume into my memory. Would I ever visit this lane again? When would I take this bus again? The dim lights of dinners, the blinding sunshine of afternoons in Calcutta and then the darkness of street lights. Maybe homes take up expanses that we fail to recognize and later, measure.

It suddenly dawns upon you that the tasks for the following days include emptying drawers, letting go of books, giving away clothes. These are the rituals of every departure. Life stands in a linear scale and the scale ends here.

***

The sun sets later here, evenings are longer. I wake up earlier than I would like to. New beds are hostile to sleep. You never return to the old, departure once is exile forever. Home, is a disease that infects memory. And yet, home is renewed everyday with memory. The further you move away from home, the more your memory creates it. For every bedside table that held your spectacles, is a shelf that almost fits them in the same way. Habits become rituals; homes are held together by rituals.

***

The first time you leave home, with only departure tickets, you will shed a chunk of your heart. Do not expect to find it back in the course of time.

Bombay is not unfamiliar, it’s not familiar either. Meals need to be taken care of, bills have to be paid. I think of Calcutta often, mostly in passing as a standard to compare every other place with. When you have known only one thing all your life, everything else seems to be a variable of that one thing.

***

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New things grow on you, slowly. We spend lifetimes in finding dreams, but sometimes they come true in uncertain patterns. Happiness comes in toffee-sized bites, at the corner of every street in one strange shop. I think of my mother, of the way no other touch will be so old, so known. I think of departures, of the weight that I left behind. Perhaps, all departures only make us lighter. Everything is lost at its moment of inception. Where does life find its space then? Why do we collect souvenirs to remember? Umbrellas form silhouettes here. Bombay settles into you as you settle into the rains. Someday, the building opposite yours won’t be the same as the building back home that you remember.

***

I packed two suitcases for Bombay, and a bag. How many suitcases does it take to fit in the gatherings of lifetimes? Where do you keep the things you cannot carry? Every moment I spend here, I want to absorb everything. There is so much to see, so much that I do not know about. Laughter appears at odd hours, in pyjamas in the new place that you have to call home now. Embrace it, embrace every semblance of happiness that comes to you. Wait on the shore, see the tides rise. Love is a souvenir to keep, it fills all suitcases. Know that sometimes love is also the monsoon that comes without rain. Hold on to it anyway. It’s okay to believe. Let people find you, let rituals take you over.

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गुलमोहर की लाल आहटें

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गुलमोहर की लाल आहटें,

पत्तझड़ में आवाज़ देते हैं

कौन सुनता हैं उन्हें?

 

नाराज़ होने का एक तरीका वो भी है,

जिसमे नाराज़ नहीं होते

 

अधूरे-अधूरे से घुलते है केसर के धागे,

पर खीर की मिठास पूरी-सी ही लगती है

कौन चखता है उसे?

 

आदत की अदालत में,

वकालत सिर्फ बदलाव की

जीत जाने से, जीत तो नहीं जाते

 

एक दीवाल है तूफान की,

एक आँधी का रास्ता घर तक

लौट आने का रस्म निभाता कौन है?

 

गुलमोहर की लाली तो न सुनने वाले पर भी गिरती है,

खीर तो न चखने वाले को भी मिलती है

 

ये रस्में भी अजीब हैं शायद,

इनकी आदत ही खराब है शायद

 

हर बारिश के छत्री हज़ार,

फिर भी, भीग जाता कौन है?

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इस शहर से उस शहर

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सच तो यह है

की हर शहर

हर दूसरे शहर जैसा है

 

घर यहाँ भी सबके छोटे है, इमारतें वहा भी रोज़ बनते है

यहाँ तुम नीली शर्ट पहनते हो, और वहाँ काली

 

इस शहर से उस शहर के बीच में

चार कागज़ के फूलों का फासला

(वो फूल भी मुर्झाने लगे)

 

उस शहर से इस शहर तक

१५ कग – डोमेस्टिक

२० कग – इन्टरनैश्नल,  कम है

१० kg वज़न तो सिर्फ इस शहर की बारिश का है

१६ kg यहाँ की नर्मी का, ठन्ड में पिघलती तेल के पास पड़े कुर्सी का

 

तुम कहते हो, तुम्हारा शहर ज़्यादा बड़ा है

वहाँ अॅफिस जाते है, काम पर नहीं

वहाँ फुटपाथ पर घर नहीं बनते क्या?

वहाँ भी तो तुम,

अचानक हँसते हो, धीरे चलते हो

 

अच्छा बोलो, एक हँसी की वज़न क्या होती है?

नहीं रहने दो,

अगले बार ले जाऊँगी

इस बार शोपिंग कुछ ज़्यादा कर ली

 

सच, तो यही है

कि हर शहर हर दूसरे शहर

जैसा ही है

पर

कल सुबह फिर

तुम्हारा शहर अलग होगा मेरे शहर से

तुम्हारे शहर की काॅफी ज़्यादा मीठी

और मेरे शहर की चाय बिल्कुल कड़क

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Sidewalk

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I say your name every fifth day of the week

The r’s roll off my tongue
They fall down,
I lose them
Sometimes I try to remember you
Other times I forget you were
sixth day of every week is for
Cleaning the house, folding clothes
Throwing away old things
Every first day of the week I wake up late
I leave out messages to the air
Ironed clothes, clean shelves
Couldn’t throw away the old
Fourth days are for silence
Coffee is not enough
Corners pile up
Palms on cheeks and hair on face,
Tucked away
Count your breaths for a minute
Every second day of the week,
Is for homeward smells and
Promises that went hungry
The last day of the week
Is for a walk
You walk sometimes, I walk faster
Sidewalks are not flat here
Book on the pillow, half closed glasses
Crinkles on the bed form scripts,
On Wednesdays
Half and half, take yours
Round and round, stop
Now. The weekend is too far.

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Simple Present Tense – Bombay

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Perhaps this is the difference between Bombay and Calcutta: Bombay doesn’t understand farewells and Calcutta, is the city of perpetual departures. Bombay is forever the new city, the daunting maze of opportunities and dreams; Calcutta is the respite from the maze.

My friend in Bombay told me, “Bombay fucks you over once.” I guess that’s the thing about Bombay. It’s the big bad world. Bombay is a racetrack. Everyone runs here. There is no breathing, only gasping for air. There is no sleep here. And yet, cafes fill up here. People sit around and share a meal, take pictures to remember. Sometimes, in rare places where the service is slow, people might even sit for hours to talk. Sometimes I wondered what they spoke of: was it only of work?

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The sea is so close here. The sky-rises clog your lungs and then there is the sea. People are there everywhere. Bombay is a racetrack without any end. People run here to nowhere, just in their routines.  How weird is it to imagine a life of running with no end! No one loses here. Sometimes, people win.

Bombay is the big bad world, but it is also the kind stranger helping you to get on the right train. Lovers walk here not in a daze, but in a full awareness of love. Love isn’t too much here, it doesn’t spill over. (The more I unravel love, the less I see of it. Maybe love is in its passing. It’s only here for a moment, for this moment. See it, pull it closer. It will leave when you open your eyes.) Love is present continuous here. You can see love pass by in Bombay, as Calcutta is witness to the passage of time. Everyone is alone in Bombay. No one lives alone in Bombay.

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The sea is so close here. It saves the city from the ugly tall buildings crashing into the sky. Sometimes you can smell the sea without even being near it. It’s where time stores itself in this city. You can search for time in all of Bombay, but you’ll find it at the sea, in between those imported four-legged rocks at Marine Drive. Time is understood simply in Bombay; all of it is spent, every inch of its linear and circular existence. It is not a thing you collect over hours and weeks till it takes up too much space. Time here, is not wasted in the exercise of memory.

(Yet, why do I always go back to memory? Sometimes I wonder if writing itself becomes an imagined conversation. Who do I talk to? No one replies. There are no words from the other side, only indicators; as if reminding me of its presence.)

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Bombay rushes in my memory. The local trains transition from their bitter heartbreaks to their surprises. The city keeps changing, rebelling against its own history; a part of which remains hung on the lanes of South Bombay. It is a city that has seen tragedy, no tragedies. Every leftover of a tragedy will tell you the importance of erasing memory. Have you ever tried it? Doesn’t really work, does it? Try to get on the train from Dadar.

I had experienced Bombay rains once briefly on an earlier visit. The sound of rain had penetrated the entire city, all of its traffic became soundless in the face of the monsoons. Monsoons change the vocabulary of sound in the city. Magic only exists in the city in the niches of the fantasies of Bollywood. The city stands as a testimony to reality otherwise. But when it rains, the airs twist in the city. Something changes. Nobody knows what it is. Perhaps there is a story to these rains. Perhaps it is lost with the old, crinkled man who knew all its details but lived his life in anxious haunts of conversations with himself.

Bombay never sleeps, its existence lays in the realm of simple present tense. Bombay is a simple city. It takes you in, and takes all your problems. Get up in the morning, make a cup of coffee. Yours dreams can come true. Bombay is a simple city with complex dreams. Bombay, never sleeps.

This time it didn’t rain much when I was there. It was almost as if the monsoons were waiting for something, as I was. What is it that I was waiting for? It seems that waiting was pointless. Some things never arrive in the city of arrivals. Two days after I came back, a call informed me that it had started raining. The sound had penetrated the entire traffic of the city.

Bombay fucks you over once. Remember that.

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