Monday 29 April 2013

To Cook? To Not Cook. That Is The Answer.

I can barely cook. Just yesterday I considered buttering my bread cooking, and only this afternoon I managed my second round-n-soft chapatti after 5 years of doing something with the LPG in my kitchen. I know the award for martyrdom goes to my patient husband, but then, I’ve tried to be tasty and continue to do so. And trying means 50 per cent of the battle won moral science tells us – even if the dal stuck to the cooker, the bhindi was served raw and the saag smelt like plants kept in vases way past their life, many times over in these past few years. And today, my loyal vegetable man points out to me those raw green little-little mangoes the season is producing for us by the ton. “They’re very fresh, and just sour enough for achaar, or panna or even for a subzi with kaddu”, he chimed proudly. As I imagined all three swimming before my eyes or me swimming in all three and caught myself licking my lips on the road-side, I also realized how he made me really see my score in the kitchen - which I had been peeling away from my mind for all of my cooking life - 1/10. No more.

But I can explain.

1. It’s a ready-made life. Sandwich spreads, garlic-ginger pastes, whole royal preparations in packets just a hot-bath away from being served “fresh”. Tops to Pops to Treat to Kissan to Maggi to Knorr to Quakers to others happily get delivered at your door-step. Saves peeling, chopping, saucing, roasting, toasting, heating in weather that makes you feel all of the above in the kitchen. Saves energy preserves health! To add to it, West Delhi has lovely looking aunties who make and sell “bhuna masala” by the kilo – for party purposes you see! God bless them with many more diamond rings on their hard-working kitchen hands. And enough supply of ghee for the rest of my kitchen life.

2.  Time is money. If you have it, you’re rich. If you don’t have it, you’re busy getting rich. I don’t have either, so I guess I’m a very busy being but surprisingly continuing poor. Where is the time to grind spices at home, make jams and cakes, roast chicken legs, boil corn and produce chutneys? Where? I don’t see any such time available. There’s just about enough to dip a tea-bag in hot water, call Chawla Chik-inn for kebabs or order a pizza after announcing the discount coupon number on the phone. If I don’t write my daily-dose of mindless humour, what will my family feed on, my hand-cooked poisons? (Yes, yes, I’ve tried fast-track recipes from Tarla and her friends on www. Can’t blame them if I try making curd in the fridge, can I?)

3. Secrets are getting lost. As generations bid goodbye to make way for newer ones, those secret recipes, super measured hands and smart skills are vanishing fast. My mind brings back images of sitting on the floor with my grandmother and mixing 200 different looking things in a steel paraat, pouring a gallon of oil and popping home grown pieces of raw mangoes into it - the popping being the only activity we 6 kids in the house were allowed to do. The ready pickle was then put into large martbaans, tied up like they contained  Alibaba’s gold, and stowed away to last a very tasty summer for a joint family of 12. The point being, I have no hand-written diary by my grandma to which I can c.f. Something tells me even if I did, it wouldn't be the same anyway.

I have great admiration for those who make a dish themselves, and not just cook it. Who invent, improve, improvise and invent again. I feel jealous of them too, not just because they have more time on their hands than I ever will but because they have a will-to-cook-well which perhaps, if I had, my 2nd chapatti ever would be a perfect circle and not my 1002nd. But like I said, I’m at it and charging away in the battle field. And then of course, every soldier needs a break, so where there’s a will to drink panna, there’s a way! I just speed-dialed 911 and ordered a big jar of aam panna powder, Tops mango achaar and sliced raw mangoes in neat packets from my saviour's shop called 'Cheap Provision Store'. And that, people, is 100 per cent of the battle won!  

(P.S. – I would have included names of many delicious delicacies here, if only I knew them. Sorry! Do what I do when I eat food I’ve cooked – take it in and gulp it down with a big sip of water.) 

Tuesday 16 April 2013

No play-doh without dough

The following account surpasses what nightmares on elm-lined streets, psychos wearing their dead mothers’ wigs to kill, ghosts that needed busting, shapes like rings or signs six seven eight made me feel. It may send chills down your new-daddy-mommy spines too and worse still currents up your neck into the head that thought evil was dead. It isn’t and is very much alive, singing happy songs as you read this.

My son turned two, and just like a Punjabi daughter turning 23 attracts mothers-aunties-cats-n-kittens of suitors, I suddenly find my house full of visitors who pray to tell me all that I need to know and certainly do not need to know about Play-Schools. Here I was happily busy showing him the world as I see it and as he knows it already, and there a whole new phase of toddler-hood was waiting to come pouncing down on us. And pounce it did, in varied shapes and sizes, as the mothers of school-going brats came to make friendship with me to guide me in Step 1 of my son’s path to academic glory and excellence and maybe a Harvard at the end – but for now his Play School.

Now, this play school business is no child’s play. It is business. Start asking around about one and you realize how right the poor being was who said, ‘There are no rich and no poor. Only different levels of poverty’. Come play into our hands your green dough and see your child grow, they all seem to avow. If I want to send my son to play with other sons and daughters of the nation called New Delhi, I have 2 stark choices today:

  1. I send him to Chopra aunty’s ‘Ding-Dong Kidzz’, Sharma aunty’s ‘Gay Way Play’ or Singh aunty’s ‘Happie Tottie’ - names for drawing rooms converted to empty rooms with cushions, mats, some toys, posters of Mickey Mouse and Ben 10 looking like they cross-bred and 2 ayahs to make sure the mats remain dry and clean. Mid-day meal of Maggi (all kids love it, you see!) included.
  2. I send him to big budget play-schools starting with Euro (the strongest currency I believe?) or Zee or Alpha Beta Gamma Theta or Father’s Pride or something even bigger than that pride. Names for play-rooms with fancy swings, fancy chairs, fancy toys, fancy nannies and fancily-dressed teachers.
Fancy that now! The devil and the deep sea, together!

My experience with reading 5-star food menus like books written in Urdu, from right-to-left, came in handy when I turned to Mr. Google for a little help. I read the fee first, and then the “facilities” being offered to make my son into a demi-God of blocks, coloring books and hip-shakes to rhymes. And guess what, I hugged the devil, jumped into the deep sea with him and called it a day, that being the best option to deliver myself of all evil for the time being!

Am I to choose a school where I can walk and drop and pick-up, or one where I pay a few trunks extra and get a private Hundai Accent pick-drop-facility-school-cab, with AC and stereo, in case your ward likes to pee in his diaper with Radio Mirchi playing his tune? Am I to pick the simple teacher speaking fancy or the fancy teacher talking simple? Is a mowed lawn important for my child’s growth? Should the ayahs wear uniform or it matters not? Should toilet-training be on the list of responsibilities parents can absolve themselves of or my baby’s little bum goes and comes in his teddy-diaper I lovingly wrapped him in? And basically, should I sell my wedding jewellery to get my son admitted in his play-school or should I just sell the car and walk him over to admit him into Mehta aunty’s “Chubby Cheeks” (no pun)? Play-schools or Prey(upon-your-fat-wallet)-Schools, hello there devil and deep sea – here I come, again. Splash!

Next day Good Karma came back, and his doctor asked me to wait a few months more before introducing him to paid play. The well-wishing ladies swishing into my living room and making it my killing room went home to save-up on their precious breaths. And for now I go to bed, sans devils and deep seas but always with this thought in my head – Does anyone know the most important part of the shoe that needs to be polished? It is not the M&S calf-leather toe on your tiny tot’s tiny foot. At the end of the day, it is the one that’s standing inside the shoe that needs to shine the most!   

Monday 15 April 2013

Dearest Letters, I miss you. Yours lovingly, S.

The red post-box is empty. So is the green one. No one’s writing letters any more. Ample other quicker ways to keep in touch – emoticons and clipart included. You go to a stationery shop and ask for a fancy letter-writing pad and the man will instantly start looking for the dinosaur scales on your back. You ask a passer-by in your new neighbourhood for the post-box location and she will mistake you for the post-man’s long-lost daughter. And the only pen at home that works is probably the one hanging on the fridge magnet diary to make to-dos and write memos to spouses – ‘Will be late. Heat pasta in oven 30 seconds. See ya!’ – that, only in case ‘WhatsApp’ has crashed, internet servers are down and cell-phone bill rests unpaid. No surprise then, that inks in pens have gone dry and colourfully lined letter paper is nowhere to be found.

Once upon a time communication meant writing a letter. Even after telephones in your own house (or the neighbor’s, God bless his charitable soul!) started tring-tringing for you from far and sunder, intimate communication was still carried out through pieces of heart-poured-out-on-paper, signed and stamped and duly dropped into the post-box (hope it reaches you soon dear brother and may the post-man come a little late to pick up the deliveries today). When return gifts for children’s birthdays were a letter-pad and Reynold’s pen and every school-going child had his own mini-collection of letters received and stored (and maybe those written on pink paper but never delivered to the girl next door!) in the Hello Kitty plastic bag, we knew we were all putting pen to paper to talk, to speak out, to show we feel and how much and how. Today, we have technology to the rescue, and wow, it’s wonderful, for the Earth is much smaller and rotating faster and I met my husband online and today we attended my nephew’s wedding on video conferencing and my daughter and I chat everyday at 2 pm, her college lunch hour and mine too and soon I will be teaching my Class 3 students communication by sitting at home. Where is the need to pore over and pour out on paper when clicking buttons keeps it hassle-free, tax-free and effort-free? Where is the need to wait for the signed and stamped word to carry, when 5 seconds is all we need?

I was that species which continued to write letters to friends and family way after Archies stopped making fancy letter-pads (Rs. 14 – Rs. 50 please), with Shah Rukh Khan, flower bunches, pink-and-red hearts, Mickey Mouse and music notes in the margins of each page, forever lost now. I walked to the university student centre where a bored-but-interested old man handed out stamps to me, and never without the question – “Sending applications for work? For course prospectus? For reevaluation of university marks?” as I shuffled away mumbling something about Rakhi, or Birthdays or uncle’s retirement or something inconsequential enough to not require this representative-of-letter-writing-era to even think of it as a reason. While greeting cards with printed poetry and sparkly stars still left scope for some kind of personalized communication, their sky-rocketing prices meant no one was buying even those anymore. Why should we? The Pooh in the e-card will sing 3 songs, dance a loony dance and blow-up into confetti before the birthday song begins even. And all this for the price of free.

As I sift through my collection of letters received, wondering how to keep them from weathering, I realize there is something that may not be free, but will forever continue to be priceless. 

That curly-swirly ‘D’ of Dear which began your letter (with the ‘-est’ reserved for a select few). The hand-writing which slants this-way, sometimes that, but is yours and only yours. The different ways of writing ‘p, f, a’, curling-not curling the ‘l’, changing paragraphs at meaty points, highlighting some words skipping others, and selecting carefully the word after ‘yours’ to end the letter but perhaps begin a new relationship. Even the P.S. – an after-thought that couldn’t have been omitted so had to be fitted in the bottom most line, somehow, even if a tad tiny in font but not so in importance. An ink-smudge there, a tiny lipstick mark here. A happy family sketched in the margin and some tear drops dropped, but strategically away from the written word. Most importantly, there’s your signature in your hand, with hearts for ‘o’s, maybe, and with a smile under the underline – no, not how you sign your cheques and credit card slips. No.

That letter that once was every bit a piece of you, your thoughts your moods your opinions your relationship your love your time your energy your 5 rupees, died a quiet death – and no flourish of any pen signed it a fitting good bye. 

The red post-box is empty. And so is the green one.
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