Nearly 5 years on, we gather again. This time it’s a 25th birthday party. Many in the room are in their mid-twenties. It’s their party. It’s everyone’s. There’s an open mike. Young voices. A few songs are special – Dolly Partons’ ‘Jolene’, Timberlake’s ‘Cry me a river’. By divine conspiracy, there is this song from the CD Saagar got me one Christmas – Corinne Bailey Rae’s ‘Girl put your record on’. I sing along nice and loud, word for word, like I used to, a long time back! It’s our music, biryani and laughter. A strong sense of belonging binds the room together. Sadness and joy are everywhere, stuck together like conjoint twins.
When I supposedly had ‘everything’, I didn’t know how to
access true joy. Now that I don’t have ‘everything’, I do. Even if it happens
for tiny snippets of time, it happens in its fullness. It’s like being immersed
in a singing warm ocean of bliss. The brickwork of resistance drops off. Everything
is in harmony with my cosmos. Everything that steps in the way melts away. I am
complete with everything just the way it is. This enticing path of joy meanders
through a dark forest of grief. I carry the forest with me. And its black
shadows. And all its wild animals that threaten to kill. We celebrate. We sing,
laugh and we dance. We hug and cry and eat and drink as one. We are held in the
warm embrace of a field of love that nourishes our souls.
He loved the company of older boys. The younger ones annoyed him. His favourite thing as a toddler was to stand in super-big shoes belonging to the older men in the family. He waded around the house in them. He happily posed for the camera with a toothy grin, looking up with his twinkling eyes.
He couldn’t wait to grow up. As a 5 year old, he would sit studiously at the dining table and squiggle pages of nonsense words on a writing pad, claiming seriously, ”I am doing office work.”
About a year later, one Sunday I was on call. We were driving to his child-minder’s house at 7 am. There was no traffic at all. All of Belfast was asleep. I said to him, “Look Saagar, it’s so unfair. Everyone is resting today and I have to go to work.” After a moment’s thought he said, “But Mamma, you’re a good girl.”
One summer evening, he had been playing outside with his friends for a couple of hours. We lived in the hospital accommodation which was a block of 6 flats surrounded by green grounds and tall trees, a safe distance away from the road. At dinner time, he said he wasn’t hungry as he had had snacks at one of the neighbours. I had prepared dinner and had been waiting to have it with him. I tried to coax him to eat just a little bit. But he didn’t want to. I persisted with my efforts, making up stuff like, he would get bad dreams if he didn’t have a proper meal before bed. After a while he sat me down and said, “Mamma, when you are not hungry, do I force you to eat?”
He sits on a bench in Borough market with one of his friends who gets up and goes to get a drink. My heart takes a giant leap. Si is with me. He calls out his name and he beams his trademark squinty smile of recognition at him. He stands up. They shake hands like old mates. My eyes fixate on his face like those of a mad woman. His eye-lashes are not as thick as before. Everything else is the same. I recognise his off-green t-shirt that he lived in. I can’t hold back. My fingertips explore his shoulders without his permission. He doesn’t seem to notice. He’s definitely real. I can touch him. He raises his left arm to rearrange his hair the way he does. He pinches the front of his t-shirt between his right thumb and index finger like he does. Either he can’t see me or he’s letting me do my thing. He’s talking to Si.
“The guys in grey suits wrote to us in first year at Uni. All the students on the Arabic course got the invitation.”
‘You didn’t say anything.’
‘No. They told us not to. They offered us jobs.’
‘Exciting. After the second year at Uni I thought I’d take it up.’
‘It was fun but then … 4 years was enough.’
“So, is this for good?”
‘Yup. For now.’
“Good to see you man.”
‘Yeah. And you. Great to be back. Argentinian Empanadas. I remember those.’
I am still invisible to him. We used to buy empanadas together. Beef ones for him and Spinach and ricotta for me. My finger tips are still confirming reality. He has been working out. I can tell. I want to check his tattoo but that would be too bold. I want to look for the scars on his left forearm but my eyes cling to his thick black brow, his slightly dry lips, his careless stubble. Their thirst cannot be quenched. My ears clasp his voice, his breath. Every word, a harmony. He is here. His words are real. He’s been hiding all this while, working with some kind of a Secret Service. He looks like a British Indian James Bond. But he still hasn’t noticed me and it’s ok.
The tension in my arms lessens as more and more confirmatory signals feed into my brain. My heart is doing somersaults like he did when he was 6. My eyes are so wide, they can take the whole world in.
It was like being on a film set at the Okotoks Pro Rodeo Competition in Calgary, Canada, yesterday.
Hamburgers and pierogis (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pierogi) for lunch. Cowboy hats and boots. Broad leather belts with huge shiny metallic buckles, checked shirts and jeans all around. A swagger in their gait and a palpable pride in their country life, closely interwoven with that of their animals.
The youngest contestants were no more than 5 years old. Their event was sheep riding (mutton busting). Little boys and girls emerged from the shoot with their little helmets on, hanging on to the sheep coat with all they have, like little monkeys. Within seconds they tumbled off, on to the soft earth. Some dragged on, holding on to the running sheep for a few seconds longer. The rodeo-clown, with an orange shirt with white polka dots gave them all a high-five and got the audience to give each of them a big round of applause. One couldn’t help but admire their bravado.
The bareback riding was shocking to watch live and up close. The core muscles of the riders must be as strong as a slab of cement, their spines, rods of steel and their constitution unshakable. Other events of the day were saddle-bronc, calf tie-down roping, steer wrestling, bull riding, wild pony racing and barrel racing – things I didn’t know existed. The synchronicity between man and beast on full display. Being celebrated and honoured. A strong community with no pretensions or misapprehensions.
This morning I found a non-electric water-boiling kettle in the kitchen. I filled up just enough water for 2 cups of tea and placed it on the electric hob. It took its own sweet time to come to a boil. Such a refreshing change from the pace of life in London. I had time and space to appreciate the blue of the sky, the rustle of the wind, the song of the birds and the longing in my heart that flows through every cell of my body, every second of every day and yet I smile and enjoy this ‘here and now’.
“… if bread is to be a life companion, then we had better be choosy about it…”
– Elizabeth David
I remember the weeks and months of ‘tea and toast’.
Food that whispered to my heart,
“Every little thing’s gonna be alright”. And still does.
Food that nourishes the soul and sustains the spirit.
If breaking bread together is gold-like comfort and trust,
making bread together is nothing less than alchemy.
Under the wise and precise tutelage of Hilary Cacchio
Si and I spent some time this weekend feeling kneady.
We got our fingers dirty making sourdough starters.
We got introduced to ‘Bruce’, a four year old culture.
He was named after the priest who blessed him when he was little.
He smelt sickly-sweet, more like beer than champagne.
His texture was spongy, like honeycomb and
he was the perfect balance of yeast and bacteria.
The stringent accuracy of weighing ingredients was scary.
Rye, spelt, white, brown, caraway, coriander, molasses…
The importance of ‘resting’ was reiterated time and again.
It must be as important for dough as for humans.
The art of stretching organic white flour
into fine glutinous strands felt like a
Dance between one hand flattening the dough
and the other maneuvering a fine pink plastic scraper.
The wooden worktop was like solid silk.
Luckily, after 10 minutes of dancing, and some resting,
our dough passed the ‘stretch test’
(a delicate interplay of fingers)
Got tactfully transferred on to trays and
went into hiding in huge industrial ovens.
What went in – Salt, flour and water.
What came out –
Golden-brown, fragrant, light and airy dollops of heaven.
A touch of butter on fresh warm bread.
Yes. Every little thing’s gonna be alright.
At the Delhi International Airport, leaving home, I usually am sad to be leaving my folks. But on this occasion I felt like an uplifted version of myself. Positively happy. Buzzing. Most uncharacteristic. Something was not right, if you know what I mean. I thought back to what had gone on in the few preceding hours. Well, the only new thing was that just before leaving home, I had a glass of ice-coffee that my Mum had made for us. It was most welcome on a warm day like that. That was the first time I had coffee in more than 10 years.
Here was my answer. Saagar used to love Mocha Frappucino. I thought it was just the sugar hit he liked but now I know it is a combination of the coffee, the coolness and the calories. For some, the cream on top. I had just found a ‘back-up’ plan for my blues. It was a tried and tested remedy.
Since last weekend the temperatures have completely justified a generous dose of ice-coffee and we’ve indulged every day.
This is how we make 2 glasses :
Medium strength coffee: 200 mls
(While hot, dissolve 2 heaped teaspoons of dark muscavado sugar in it and allow to cool to room temperature)
Cold Milk: 1 glass
Ice cubes: 14-16
Blend the coffee and sugar mix in a blender.
Add the milk. Blend again
Add about 12 ice cubes. Reblend.
Pour into 2 tall glasses and add the other 1-2 ice cubes in each glass.
For extra luxury, add cream or vanilla/chocolate ice-cream to the mix.
If you drink properly, you can even get yourself a nice moustache. I am hooked. Can hardly wait till tomorrow.
(I am not going to be a numpty and post a picture of ice-coffee. I think everyone knows what it looks like.)
Naani’s food is the best in the world. Yes. Much better than Mamma’s. That is a fact and Mamma agrees without the slightest reservation. She is happy to continue being Naani’s student forever. Naani’s chicken curry is the bestest ever and she even manages to make vegetables taste yummy! – These lines would accurately reflect Saagar’s feelings.
Naani is my mother. I am spending some time with my folks back home and life is largely about food. Mangoes, ice-coffee, fried fish, momos and idlis form a fraction of a vast list that is adding further vastness to my waistline and other lines. Summer offers up only a few vegetables of which ‘bhindi’ or ‘okra’ is a big favourite in our family. The particularly yum preparation is the spicy, stuffed one. Uncooked it looks like the image above.
Here’s how , for 3-4 people:
300 grams of tender okra – cleaned, dried, topped, tailed and slit along the length.
For the stuffing:
Salt to taste
Turmeric powder – half tsp
Red chilly powder – half tsp
Coriander powder – 5 heaped tsp
Dried mango powder – 1 tsp
Garam masala – 1 tsp
Stuff the okra with the mixture of dried spices above.
Heat 1 tablespoon of mustard oil till lightly smoking. Splutter 1 tsp of cumin seeds in it, add the stuffed okra and cook until soft. Serve hot. Garnish with roasted sesame seeds before serving.
Saagar loved this dish. We often cooked it together. I prepared the okra and the spice mix and he put them together. We had it with yellow masoor daal and plain basmati rice.
Today, we made bhindi, sending him our love and blessings.
We missed him at the dinner table. A lot.