I Still Prefer Nuclear

December 30, 2007

Man, it’s good to be home.

Having said that, I must add that the eight days of eternity were not that bad… or at least, not as bad as I thought it might have been. Some of the battles were lost, it’s true; some were won; and some were never fought. The “fishes” were not quite as troublesome as I had anticipated; I was very happy to see that nobody fed the kids anything that we said was on the list of banned substances; the twins’ daily schedule was adhered to fairly regularly, with some variations; the language seemed more comprehenisble to me than ever before and I even attempted some genuine communication from time to time; and I managed to get away with only one sari-day.

Amit and I even managed to leave the kids alone and go out for walks together a few times. True, it was mostly when the twins were in bed and fast asleep, but once we left them when they were wide awake in the evening. According to subsequent reports, they were not exactly happy about seeing both parents walk out the door, but they did not cry while we were away. When we returned after about half an hour, though, Tara immediately came to me, took my finger in her hand and promptly burst into a flood of tears! Strange…

Anyway, considering we have never left the kids alone with anyone else till now, it was a landmark of sorts. We aren’t really considering baby-sitter arrangements till they are a bit older and able to talk, so it was good to get even those stolen half-hour walks together.

Being in Calcutta with kids was a different experience for me. It forced me to drop many reservations, just playing with the kids and being my usual goofy self in front of the Family. I didn’t feel the need to get away from people and find some space for myself the way I usually do – I could do much the same thing just by getting engrossed in the kids. Plus, of course, the usual activities in keeping the kids fed, bathed, and rested gave me enough time to do “my own thing”.

I, of course, came in for a certain amount of indirect criticism and a certain amount of indirect praise. Everyone seemed to think that the kids were completely under-dressed and that they ought to have been swaddled in sheathes of warm clothing from head to foot. Since Amit and I were in summer clothes, I completely ignored this advice, even though Tara had a cold and Mrini developed one towards the end. They must think I’m the most callous mother ever, but I simply don’t see why I should shroud my kids in warm clothes simply because everyone else thinks it is cold. And runny noses are a normal part of toddlerhood, to be endured and largely ignored, if you ask me. I refuse to be one of those paranoid, hypochondriac parents, or let my kids become that way.

The praise was for a rather unexpected reason. Apparently, it is highly commendable to quit your job and be a full-time mom without an ayah (maid to look after the kids), as opposed to being a working mom, or even a full-time mom with an ayah. And not just “an” ayah, but one per kid. I’m not sure why, but having opted to bathe, dress, feed, and play with my kids seems to have earned me serious brownie points in the Family.

The kids, for the most part, enjoyed the trip. They didn’t get unduly upset by the flight, the change of location, the presence of so many new people, or the frequent outings and exposure to yet more people. They ate well, slept a lot, and were generally happy – with a couple of notable exceptions.

On the day of the big function, the kids’ feet never touched the ground, they were passed around from person to person like cushions in Pass the Parcel. Of course, they mostly enjoy being picked up, so it shouldn’t have been a bad thing, but they also do need to run around and do their own thing after a while – which they absolutely couldn’t. By late afternoon, they were grumpy… and then there was a photo shoot. These photo shoots are those formal affairs where everyone is made to line up and say cheese. With 40-50 adults and several children to arrange, these tend to be noisy and time-consuming affairs. Naturally, the twins were squirming like snakes and demanding to get away after five minutes.

But then, that was only one day. The bigger problem was that on the other days too, there were simply too many people always picking up the kids. I was frankly surprised to see how people will insist on picking up the kids even when the kids make it quite clear that they don’t want to be picked up right then. And then, of course, they mostly do want to be picked up, which only adds to the problem. In just a few days, Mrini became unbearably clingy and whiny, always wanting to be picked up by anyone, but preferrably by me. Over the last few days, this manifested in her clinging to me like a limpet. She howls even if Amit holds her. Thankfully, though she was whining in the taxi on the way home, when we got home, she and Tara plunged into their toy box in utter delight and proceeded to create chaos and pandemonium in the house in their usual manner – so that was a relief.

Naturally, I can see the benefits of having a large family when you’re handling two small kids. Having lots of people around not only lets us get some time to go out together, but also means there are always people willing to feed, play with, or otherwise look after the kids, leaving only the diaper-changing activities to the hapless parents. But, if the flip side is that the kids are going to become whiny and indisciplined… well, I think I’ll stick with nuclear.

What Have I Let Myself In For?

December 19, 2007

To think that I actually agreed to this! What was I thinking?

I’m talking about the upcoming eight days in Calcutta, of course. As the travel date approaches, the very thought is giving me the heebie-jeebies. I have written before of how I am decidedly NOT a joint-family type of person. But, in those happy days, I reckoned without the twins. Twins add hitherto unconceivable complications to the situation.

There is, first, the usual matter of logistics: where do we sleep, when do we sleep, till when do we sleep, how and with whom do we sleep… and so on down the line, substituting “eat” “bathe” “use the bathroom” etc for “sleep” (try it, you;ll get a better idea of what I mean.) To this, we need only add the various considerations of keeping the twins safe (from staircases, for instance) and keeping the house relatively intact (glass-fronted cabinets, TVs in various rooms at various heights and so on).

Then, there’s the matter of various minor battles. Foremost, is the battle of the fishes. I say fishes, because there are so many of them that simply using “fish” just seems plain insufficient. For me, as for the twins, one small, boneless piece of fish is about the maximum one can stomach. The battle begins at the second piece and lasts all the way up to the fifth piece. Then there’s the matter of the million bones per piece – I will, no doubt, have the pleasure of removing the bones for not just my own benefit, but worse, for the twins. Worse, because for them, every tiny mistake could cause a crisis.

Another battle is of time. My preferred timings for meals is roughly 8 – 1 – 8; for the twins, it is 8 – 11.30 – 4.30 – 7.30. In Calcutta, the default is something like 9.30 – 2.30 – 10.30. Naturally, sleeping and waking hours get pushed out accordingly. This absolutely wrecks my biological clock and now with the twins to cater to, it is going to wreck my central nervous system as well. I hate being so, but the fact remains that I am an extremely time-oriented person and it is quite (inordinately) important for me, where it concerns the twins, to adhere to some sort of schedule in the interests of health (theirs) and sanity (mine).

Horror of horrors, we will also have to face the sweet battle. I, of course, have 32 sweet teeth, so it shouldn’t have been a problem for me – except that 31 of my 32 teeth seem to prefer cakes and ice creams over mishti. Mercifully, my lactose intolerance provides a handy excuse to get me out of the 823 sweet-eating opportunities per day that I would rather avoid. Unfortunately, it also means that the 215 opportunities for yummy sweets like gulab jamun and mishti doi must also be passed up with an expression of stoic regret. The twins, who have not been fed much sweet by us thus far, will also have ~1000 types of sweet thrust down their little gullets. Doubtless, they will love it… and therefore refuse to eat anything that’s not sweet not only for the eight days there, but also for the next two months back home.

Dressing is another battle I am bound to encounter. Of course, the entire immediate family (only about 20 people) knows that I wear jeans about 95% of the time. The extended family (the other ~60 people) have seen me only on formal occasions, when I’m dutifully bound up in a sari. This was just about manageable for special occasions when we didn’t have kids – now, with two, it is almost entirely out of the question. I mean, just imagine diaper-changing with a sari flowing all over the place for the twins to play with… Luckily, there’s to be only one function which involves the entire extended family, and I’m considering giving in and actually wrapping a sari around myself for that day (or half-day, if I have my way); but for the other 7.5 days, I’m hoping to get away with jeans, or at worst, a couple of salwar-kameez. This is sure to ruffle some feathers, as we’re going to have to make a few social calls, which ideally should not be done with the smiling mother wearing jeans… but it really is beyond me to manage two small kids and a sari (all the while conversing fluently in Bengali) – something’s bound to come undone!

The biggest problem, which, as of yesterday evening is causing me seriously sleepless nights, is of the relative-naming convention. I have, of course, faced this problem on many occasions already, and have just about come to grips with who’s who to whom… but that was before the advent of the next generation. Now, everything’s changed – not for me, but for how each uncle, aunt, cousin, grandparent and their sisters, brothers, parents and children should be addressed by the twins. Inevitably, there will be situations when somebody is calling the twins, and I am expected to tell them, “Go on, your such-and-such uncle/auntie/whatever is calling you, go to your uncle/auntie/whatever…”

Yesterday, I spent an hour after dinner quizzing Amit on the manner in which each type of relation would transform into something else for our kids – for example, all older brothers (about 43 of them if you count only first cousins) become jethus and all younger brothers become kakus; except for an older brother-in-law, who becomes a pishimoshai, despite being habitually addressed as brother. You’d think that someone who’s been brought up in this system would have all the answers down pat – it is the same set of transitions for every new generation, after all – but no; Amit actually had to have a 15 minute discourse with his father to clear up some of the finer points. Then, what hope is there for me, who’s not yet got past first base even after ten years of marriage???

The more I think of it, the more the eight days seem to stretch into eternity. Perhaps it would be easier to break a leg and call off the entire trip.

Never Say Yes

March 27, 2007
On Monday, Amit, who was recuperating from home, and I, who was working from home, sat down to a simple homemade meal at lunchtime, when the phone rang.

There was absolutely nothing noteworthy about this, because the phones – all four of ‘em – had been ringing off the hook with worried family members demanding hourly updates on his health. On this particular occasion, it was his Calcutta Aunt, who, yesterday, had wanted to know why our household hadn’t a thermometer to its name and had made it plain that this was a shortcoming to be rectified at the earliest opportunity. He therefore hastened to assure her that a thermometer (a digital one, with read-outs in both C and F) had indeed been procured, and, what’s more, had shown him (to my utter disbelief) to have no fever.

The Aunt, thereupon, suggested that a distant (not very distant “relatively” speaking – nor, unfortunately, geographically speaking) branch of the family resident in Bangalore be informed of the situation, so that they could provide succour – or something like it.

The thought so scared Amit that he immediately resolved to get well without further delay.

The situation with these rellies is such that when DDB visited Bangalore, though he is equally related to them and to us, he not only didn’t stay with them, he went to great lengths to stay away as much as possible. A great deal of energy went into plotting, scheming, and strategizing devious ways and means of encountering them for the minimum possible period of time. The main intention was to “drop in” without notice, create a lot of noise and confusion, and escape quickly before arrangements for a meal could be made. This escapade would also have to be carried out at the last possible moment in his stay, to avoid invitations to subsequent meals together that would inevitably ensue should they be given any advance notice of his presence in town.

In these endeavors, Amit was a willing and active participant. Though he sometimes agrees that we “should” be more sociable with this branch of the family, he never goes so far as to actually act according to this good intention. On the rare occasions that he is called upon to explain this reluctance, he says that developing any kind of warm relationship here would upset the delicate balance between various other factions of the family, including incurring the wrath of his father – something to be avoided at any cost as it always results in great damage to the phone bill and the ear drums.

So, he vehemently assured the Aunt that he would doubtless survive the day and it was only merely a small, tiny little passing flu and there was no need whatsoever to call in the heavy artillery and that he would call and tell her the moment he felt better or worse or just the same, so why bother these other folks.

The Aunt, who has learnt a few tricks to justify her white hair, demanded to speak to me.

The problem with my conversing with any member of Amit’s family is that they thoroughly overestimate my language skills and assume that I understand everything they say, when in fact my comprehension consists of 10% understanding, 80% inspired guesswork, and 10% non-committal replies to mask a total lack of comprehension. So, when the Aunt admonished me to keep her updated on the situation (or that’s what I thought she said, using inspired guesswork), I readily agreed. Only after a few moments did I realize that what she was actually asking me was whether I would update the distant rellies on the situation – and I had agreed!

I hastily recanted, and handed the phone back to Amit to do further damage control.

Moral of the story: Inspired guesswork is all very well, but never agree to do anything!


January 29, 2007
…but only just.

The family came and went. The computer workstation finally arrived in a nail-biting climax minutes before I left for the airport. Amit was sitting (dharna) at the shop in Comm Street threatening dire consequences if the damn thing, which was supposedly sent by auto ages ago, did not land up at our house in very very short order.

That apart, the weekend went off peacefully, with only

  • two sessions of waterworks (three women under practically the same roof for three days, what do you expect?)
  • three meals out
  • four trips to the malls and MG Road (each lasting about 5 hours; with cumulative damages somewhere in the range of a million dollars, or so it seemed)
  • half-a-dozen squabbles about picking up the bill (my father’s totally pig-headed, and so am I)
  • about a dozen bottles of alcohol down the collective hatch (beer, wine, vodka, whisky, and occasionally a mad mix of all of the above with a dash of orange juice!)

Unfortunately, despite my best efforts at forcing it down everyone’s ungrateful gullet, only half the frozen meat was consumed, which leaves my fridge still overloaded with two giant boxes of roast turkey and leg of lamb.

We dropped them to the airport yesterday morning and now, a scant 24 hours later, the house is back to its usual state of controlled chaos, the guest bedroom is as messy as ever and its little luxuries have been carted back to their rightful abodes in our bedroom. The washing machine is chock-full of bedsheets, as usual. All’s well with the world.

Three Weekends of Chaos

January 24, 2007

Two weekends ago, Amit and I had a long and serious conversation, at the end of which we decided…. Wait for this… that we really, really needed a second workstation at home. The reason was that, when we both work from home (whether working hours or evenings or weekends) one of us gets the workstation and the other gets the dining table and unadorned laptop. So far, I had been the “other” and hadn’t really minded. But now, I decided I needed the monitor to work on photographs (because the definition of “working from home” includes doing personal computer work using the home laptop and laptop screens don’t show true colors) and so Amit got to use the dining table. This was ergonomically so highly unsuitable for his build, that a new monitor was immediately purchased.

If you’ve stopped blinking at that brilliant non-sequitur, you’ll realize that this was just Amit’s way of getting us to buy a slim, flat, no-butt, BIG, sexy monitor, purportedly for me to use. This new monitor would sit on the dining table, and so would I (at, that is, not on) and I would use VNC (which it took him all day to configure on my office laptop – DON”T ask me why) over wireless to use the home laptop for photo-work. Amit, as before, would sit in the study, with the old (please note, the old) monitor at the old workstation.

That was the plan.

It didn’t last long. A few hours after the new monitor arrived, it had been firmly installed in place of the old monitor, and the old monitor had been firmly dumped in the guest bedroom cupboard (DON”T ask me why), where it was entirely inaccessible to me.

Thereafter, we spent that entire weekend trying to come up with a plan for how a second workstation could be concocted with the furniture we currently had in the house, because I could certainly not be expected to move the heavy, old, fat, ugly CRT monitor onto and off of the dining table every time I needed to use it. Amit enthusiastically set about dismantling a trolley that had always been part of our dining room furniture, intent on turning it into a workstation. After struggling at re-engineering it for one-and-a-half days, he was reluctantly forced to the conclusion that it was eminently unsuitable for workstation use. By that time, we had already purchased a replacement for the dining room, which I had spent roughly eighteen hours screwing together. It was a great example of totally unskilled carpentry, but it served the purpose and was a little more elegant than the trolley it had replaced.

So now we had a spare trolley, a spare monitor (not to mention a keyboard and mouse that had somehow slipped into the shopping cart along with the monitor), even a spare power strip, and still no second workstation.

Finally, last Sunday, after much discussion and experimentation we realized that none of the furniture we had at home could be adapted to workstation use, and we’d have to bite the bullet and go buy a ready-made workstation. So, like fools venturing where angels fear to tread, we hopped into the car and headed for Central Street. This, as many of you know, is stone’s throw from Shivajinagar – and that day, there were plenty of stones being thrown in the neighborhood of Shivajinagar, but of this small matter we were blissfully unaware. Pleasantly surprised to find little traffic and easy parking, we walked into the nearest shop, stated our requirements and were informed that the workstation would be manufactured and sent to us the next day, Monday. Of course, in the event, no workstation reached us on Monday, as Central Street closed down less than an hour later and did not reopen till Tuesday.

Now, the reason that it becomes really critical to get that big, fat, old monitor out of the cupboard in the guest bedroom and decently housed in the second workstation is that my parents and sister are visiting this weekend. And this weekend begins on Thursday!

My parents will not be staying with us due to various reasons too complicated to go in to here, but my sister will. And I can’t very well have her open the door of her cupboard and find the backside of a hulking big monitor staring her in the face. Well, I suppose I can, but I’d rather not.

The advent of parents and sister has also made a lot of other activity necessary. For starters, cleaning up the house, an activity which is usually only undertaken under threat of death or in-law visitations; since neither situation had threatened for several months now, the house had returned to its customary state of being, namely subdued chaos. The guest bedroom has a tendency to become a junk yard in a very short time, so enormous amounts of junk need to be unearthed and shifted out (to the study) whenever visitations are impending. The cupboard has to be emptied, the carpet has to be laid out, and the bed has to be re-discovered and made. Making the bed in a proper “western” style (bottom sheet, top sheet, with blanket laid on top and sheet turned over the blanket-top, bed-cover tucked under and over pillows with pillow-cases matching the bed-sheets) is exhausting at the best of times and doubly so when the bed in question is a 40kg cotton mattress spread on the ground adjacent to the wall and needs to be hefted this way and that in order to tuck in all the spare miles of sheet.

Additionally, I have the delightful tasks of cleaning bathrooms, tidying the study, and changing all the covers and runners in the living room.

As if all that weren’t enough, I found that my house-cleaning maid has been shirking work in a big way (what’s new about that) and that the balcony attached to the guest bedroom had about 25 kg of dirt in the far corner, and, what’s worse, some horrible weed had begun growing in it!!! I got so mad that I managed to scrape my thumb and cut my finger (and will probably develop tetanus) trying to clean all that.

Naturally, whenever I’m doing all this activity, Amit is busy watching tennis on TV, which leads in short order to an extremely volatile situation (him shouting at the television set and me shouting at him).

Once I had the house looking almost respectable (but for the monitor in the cupboard, where skeletons should be), Amit mentioned that the car could do with a bit of a clean-up as well. I told him to send it for servicing, and guess what? He did. Instead of fixing the problems with the zip-zap-zoom locking (no, that’s not the brand name, but you know what I mean) they made it worse, and now the back door will neither lock nor unlock centrally. But at least it looks clean and smells nice.

On our last trip to Metro (stocking up on liquor for the parents), we had made a monumental error. We sampled the cold meat cuts by the meat counter and enjoyed them so much that we picked up a roast leg of lamb, and a roast turkey leg and breast. Total cost: ~Rs 1200! Since we hadn’t bothered to check prices when picking up the cold meat, we almost swooned on the spot when we saw the bill at the checkout counter. How could we have spent Rs 1200 on 2 kilos of non-veg?

Our fridge being too tiny to accommodate 1200-bucks worth of non-veg, we sent the turkey home with some friends (hoping they’d eat it and we could then charge them for it) and stuffed the lamb leg into our freezer. Somewhere during the following two weeks, the shock of the price tag wore off and we braced ourselves to thaw and taste the lamb. It was quite nice… it’d do nicely for the impending family visit. I thawed it overnight and sliced it into sandwich-size chunks for our lunches.

Now it’s Wednesday and I’ve almost caught up with the laundry overflow from last weekend’s cleaning spree, and the car servicing has set us back and extra 800 bucks spent on getting the upholstery spruced up (a first!). This is time for me to catch my breath before my family lands on Thursday evening. After that, it’s going to be a long weekend of food, booze, shopping (my mother’s all-time favourite activity), talking nonsense and stuff like that. I’m looking forward to this.

You’ve Gotta Have Faith

December 28, 2006
A couple of good things have happened to me of late.

First, I got my passport today. By Speed Post. You know what an experience it was applying for it, what with it having expired, having been issued from a different state, and requiring a change of address to boot. I had been expecting a Police Verification and I don’t know if this was ever done or not. I was half expecting (dreading, really) being asked for a handout when that happened, but that never happened. I had been expecting a certain amount of follow-up (which I had been stoutly refusing to do) and some glitches along the way and that never happened either.

All that happened was that I got a note saying I should collect my Speed Post from the Post Office. Hardly daring to believe it could be my passport, I went along at the appointed hour and there it was. The post man first obtained my signature for the parcel, then he tore open the envelope, drew out the passport and stared really hard at the signature there. Then he saw the photograph and realized that it had to be me, so he handed it to me and I was done. Simple.

I felt really pleased that this whole thing went through painlessly, just the way it should. I have long held the belief that it is possible to get some routine things done through government agencies in the normal way, without bribing or using any influence. I have held this belief in the face of mocking laughter, out-of-hand dismissal, and some pretty stiff evidence to the contrary. In my experience, the people who most assertively dismiss this contention are those who have never tried, who have just assumed that bribing or using influence is the only way to get things done in India. Some things in India do work. But people don’t want to believe this. Everyone wants to get their work through, any old how, without bothering too much about ethics and suchlike, and then complain about the corrupt bureaucracy. But, whenever we have tried to get stuff done the straightforward way, it has always worked, from obtaining a BSNL telephone, to registering our apartment.

In my limited experience, the Bangalore cops, much maligned though they are, are not all that bad. The other day I was out on my bike and I was pulled over by the cops for a routine check. They wanted licence and insurance papers. I had everything, but was still worried that they would want a bribe. They didn’t. They glanced at my licence and waved me away. That’s all.

The other good thing that happened to me is a little more complicated.

As you know if you read my previous blog, I had gone on this trek last weekend. The trek was long enough, and the other trekkers inexperienced enough, that I suggested hiring a vehicle to take our equipment to the top by road, while we walked up through the forest. I had hoped that some less enthusiastic member might offer to accompany the luggage, but, after a good deal of hemming and hawing, nobody came through on that. So the driver would have to take our luggage and go on ahead of us on good faith. We would meet him at the top and collect the luggage and pay him.

When I got to the top and discharged the jeep at 5 p.m. I realized that I would have to go back down and look for the others. There were some who would certainly be struggling, and I was the only experienced trekker in the group. Moreover, I had the emergency supplies: pain-killers, crepe bandages, and Glucose.

I stacked the luggage in a corner of the guest house at the top, told the chap in charge that I would be back soon, and set off to find the rest of my group.

Telling the chap was more a matter of courtesy than anything else; he had no moral or other obligation to look after our stuff. But I had no qualms about leaving the luggage unattended. I felt the place and the people were trustworthy. And, in general, I have the optimistic (if rather foolish?) belief that if you put your trust in someone and ask for help, *mostly* people will not betray you, especially not the friendly rural people or people of the trekking community. (This is closely linked to the belief that the majority of the thieves and scoundrels of the world lurk in the cities.)

So I was fairly distraught when I got back more than an hour later, to find that my white foam mat had disappeared. How could this be? Who would flick a sleeping mat? And why just the sleeping mat, when there was mountains of other stuff lying about as well? I looked all over the guest house, but there was no trace of it. I asked the chap in charge, but he said he knew nothing of it. And really, why should he?

What about the jeep driver, then?

The jeep driver was a young chap, a rascal at bargaining, but a cheerful, likeable fellow for all that. I had chatted a bit with him during the drive. I wouldn’t have thought he’d be a petty thief, but in any case I had counted the items we loaded into the jeep when we left and the items we unloaded later. I had taken a thorough look in the jeep to check that it was truly empty. I thought I had noticed him take this mat out and I thought I remembered him bringing it into the hall where everything was stacked. I did not think that he had stolen it.

Nevertheless, it was gone. We managed with nine mats.

The next day, we returned to the town and there met up with Bindu, who had taken a jeep back. She, much to my delight, handed me back my white foam sleeping mat, intact.

Here’s what had happened: Apparently the mat had flown away in the wind and rolled downhill (plausible, because it was quite windy up there). The driver, on his way down, spotted it and recognized it. He knew we were planning to spend the night at Kodachadri, so when he came up to the top the next day with another party, he kept an eye open for someone from our party and handed it to them. Simple.

I was so, so pleased. The sleeping mat is not an expensive item, and it has almost zero sentimental value. What had really hurt me about the entire episode was the sad realization that even here, even with such small things, people could not be trusted. Now, my fond belief was thoroughly vindicated: not only had nobody stolen it, the person who had found it (and who could have “stolen” it by the “finders-keepers” logic) had even gone to some lengths to return it.

So, I continue to have faith: The world is not essentially a bad place, and sometimes good things happen to good people.

Fish in Tamarind, Tomato, and Coconut Gravy

October 13, 2006
That’s what I’ve made for dinner – an attempt to redeem myself in the aunt’s eyes in terms of specifically my fishy culinary skills. I think there should be a Mallu name for this dish, cos it tastes like something I’ve eaten in a restaurant (and just as good, though I say so myself) – but if there is, I’m not aware of it. It was orignially intended to be a plain fish curry. Then I added the tamarind – but it was waaaaaaaaaay too much. What to do? The choices were sugar, potato (supposed to absorb flavors and can then be chucked out; but I didn’t have any at home) or dessicated coconut. I opted for the coconut and voila – it turned Malabar! Hopefully this concoction with some wonderful basmati rice should do the trick.

Any which way, we’re off to Darjeeling and Peling tomorrow! Happy Diwali All!

In Flying Colours

October 8, 2006
The weekend is almost over and the pending invitation to the distant rellies is conspicuous by its absence. What a relief! Meanwhile, I’ve been working hard to rectify extremely negative first impressions generated by the disastrous welcome meal. Since Friday evening, the kitchen has been my domain and I have churned out masterpieces one after the other, starting with chicken soup from a packet improved by adding real chicken stock and scraps of chicken, and progressing in gradual stages through fried arbi, to prawn in coconut curry.

Yesterday evening was torture, though, because it involved making a bong horror story called Shukto, which consists of many inedible ingredients such as egg plant, bitter gourd, raw banana, flat beans, white radish (or whatever Mooli is called in english) and drumsticks. While my trusty cook and I were in the midst of putting together this nightmare dish under instruction from the aunt, three other items were also in the frying pan, namely, slimy dal (urad dal made slimy – don’t ask me how, I’m still trying to figure it out), malpooa (a sweet – something of a cross between shahi tukra and gulab jamun), and chicken curry. At least I was the sole owner of the last named… but with four people crowded into my tiny kitchen putting together four items in parallel, the evening could best be described as chaotic.

This morning, we of course had enough food left over to feed a small army, but I was feeling done out. Last evening having been spent receiving instruction, I needed to do something to redeem my reputation – or perhaps to establish one – as a capable cook. Mutton curry, I felt, would do the trick. Not to be unduly modest, mutton curry is one of the things – apart from cakes – that I do know how to make and make well.

So, Sunday being a lazy sort of day, mutton was ordered home by phone and at 10.30 I disappeared into the kitchen with it. In my opinion, cooking is best done in a slow, leisurely fashion. So it was 12.30 before the mutton was ensconced in the defective pressure cooker, and 1.3o before it was declared done. Meanwhile I had been busy filing my nails, oiling and washing my hair, and making polite conversation on the phone and fending off intrusive personal questions from another bunch of distant rellies.

Needless to say, the mutton curry was a hit. It went down so well, that I’m sure the aunt ate more than she should have from a red-meat and blood pressure perspective, and less than she would have liked. She asked searching questions about the preparation, which I answered openly as I have no culinary secrets from her (except for the small matter of sambar powder, which, had I told her, might have shocked her to the core). From the tenor of the conversation I gathered that this mutton curry was about to go down in the extended family history as my culinary masterpiece – being the head of the family and a discerning gourmet to boot, her opinion counts for a lot. She even invited me to repeat the dish at Amit’s birthday party, at which 20 plus of the family’s most important members would be present. I wormed my way out of that one…  while I do make a pretty scrumptious mutton curry, what if just due to performance anxiety I were not able to pull it off in those circumstances? It would not be my own kitchen, after all, nor my own defunct pressure cooker. And besides, where would I get sambar powder???

Anyway, only a dinner to go and then we’re done… and there is a little bit of mutton curry left, to reinforce the impression made at lunch. Everything going well, I might pass the culinary test in – to borrow a phrase from a comment to the previous blog – flying colours.

In-law Update

October 5, 2006
Despite what some of my friends may think, I do not fare well in a crowd, specially if it is a crowd of strangers, or not-very-well-known people. Throw in a communication barrier such as a heavy dose of Bengali, which, contrary to expectations is not my mother tongue (though it could possibly be considered my “father tongue”), and I’m at my quiet best. I have been “acquiring” the language for the past eight years, but beyond some stock phrases and a limited “daily-use” vocabulary, my powers of expression have not progressed.

So most of my interactions with my extended circle of in-laws have been brief and superficial. Since I usually meet about two dozen of them at a time for a period of not more than two days at a time, communication by way of a smile and a nod worked just fine on most occasions.

This time with Amit’s aunt, the head of the family, it’s been different. I’ve actually been trying to hold regular conversations on advanced subject matters such as trekking – and though I’m sure my pidgin Bengali is a pain to any sensitive ears, at least we are communicating. It’s quite nice!

After spending one short day with us, she went off to stay with another branch of the family. The exchange was carried out over a family lunch. This other branch of the family stays quite nearby but we haven’t met them more than once in all the years we have been in Bangalore. The reason: family politics. Somebody’s father insulted somebody’s brother several decades ago.  Since this aunt is closely related to both branches of the family, meeting them was inevitable. We went over there for lunch and were subjected to exquisite formality and polite interest in our lives and vocations (and, for that matter, vacations). Everything was warm and friendly and nice. Their apartment was lavish, posh, extravagant, huge (there was a living-room-sized verandah adjacent to the ballroom-sized living room) and pristine. The lunch was scrumptious and handmade by the two women of the house. As we left (minus the aunt) promises to meet again were sincerely exchanged by all.

Now social convention demands that we invite this lot (ten people and two kids!) to our place for a lunch and soon. But Amit has very little intention of obliging this particular social convention. Today he will stop by at their place to his way home from work, to pick up the aunt, but unless she holds a gun to his head, he doesn’t intend to invite them over this weekend (or any other weekend for that matter).

This suits me fine. You see, I welcomed the aunt last weekend with a meal that was a complete disaster. The traditional potato preparation was anything but traditional, and the fish curry was only just short of poisonous. Bengali cuisine just does not run in my veins. If we had to entertain them to a meal, what would I serve? Non-bengali food is not likely to find favor with this lot. To make matters worse, my mutton curry, which I consider my strong point in my culinary skills, would be totally put to shame by the dry mutton masala preparation that they had served. Of course I can make cakes like nobody else can, but one can hardly just serve cake for lunch.

So now it’s Friday morning and the aunt arrives this evening for dinner. Instead of concentrating on work – of which I have plenty, for a change – I’m only worrying about what to do for the next five major meals of the weekend (breakfasts don’t count). Any advice?

Nike – But Please Don’t Just Do It

May 22, 2006
I was standing quietly at a traffic light – a red light, mind you – on Ring Road, minding my own business, waiting for the light to change, when a Maruti 800 drove over my foot!

Now, to be absolutely honest, it didn’t feel like a Maruti 800; it felt like someone had stepped on my foot. So I wasn’t in any great pain. But I was hopping mad.

For one thing, it was my left foot, which means that it was on the right side of the car – i.e., the driver’s side. So it wasn’t as if he couldn’t have seen it if he wanted to.

For another thing, how can you just go and drive over some poor, hapless two-wheeler-rider’s foot without the slightest provocation? I mean, it just isn’t on.

Well, as I say, I wasn’t really hurt and anyway the light had changed and the car had gone ahead. Being on my rattletrap Scooty, it looked unlikely that I could catch up with him, so there wasn’t anything I could do, so I just continued on my way.

Strangely enough, the Maruti 800 went a good bit down the ring road and then pulled over to the left. Whether the fellow had to take a leak, or whether he was waiting for me to catch up so he could make amends, I don’t know, and I didn’t bother to find out. I pulled up next to him and let him have it the best I could. To his credit, he didn’t try to turn the blame on me, or even to defend himself. He made guttural, placatory noises while chewing gum at me like a cow chewing the cud. So, having let off a bit of steam (but nowhere near enough) and having refused to let him get a word in edgeways, I drove off.

(The whole effect was somewhat diluted by the fact that my stupid Scooty stalled on me and I had to use my left foot to kick-start it, thus wonderfully demonstrating that there was, in fact, nothing in the least bit wrong with my foot.)

I had already noticed that his car had a Delhi license number. Is it just my prejudice or is it true that Delhi drivers are much more ruthless, callous and utterly lacking in the least bit of courtesy than the rest of the modern world?

Anyway, my foot is fine – thank goodness for my Nike sneakers!

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