SIMPLE SUSTENANCE

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Thirty-two years ago, in 1984, I had my first experience of community cooking. In those days, weddings in Mangalore were a long-drawn out affair that lasted days and brought the whole neighborhood together. Food was organic, authentic and cooked in huge cauldrons on open wood fires. For a young city girl like me, it was a fascinating experience to participate in and a rich memory to retain for life. It was a twin wedding in the family, so I was doubly excited. The evening before the wedding, insane amounts of batter was ground by hand on huge grinding stones and left to ferment for the idlis to be made the next morning. I insisted on being included in the idli-makers team and woke up at the crack of dawn to assist. The aromas, the exuberance, the solidarity of it all, are lodged as a surreal kind of remembrance in my otherwise mostly defunct brain.

In retrospect, my whole life seems like a roaring compilation of food memories. In the tiny home I grew up in, there was no separate kitchen to speak of. From the single bed, which was my self-proclaimed throne, I could just reach out to the cooking counter. Mum used to wake up early and start working on the chappatis and omlettes. That’s the aroma I would wake up to. As I grew up, I started helping Mum with the cooking. We would work side by side in the miniscule space, humming along with the radio. To this day, mum and I bond best when we are cooking together. Like two comrades, we embark upon adventures with our new recipes, get delirious with the difficult ones and find quietude in the tried and tested. When we’re done feasting, we go on walks, she talking incessantly about this and that and making me laugh until suddenly we’re back to discussing our next meal.

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The neighborhood I grew up in was a different world altogether. Walking unannounced into each other’s homes for a meal was very normal. The Koltes next door was a family of six. Mrs. Kolte was a great cook. Though they didn’t have much, she managed to put together meals that could compete with a professional chef’s.  I just have to close my eyes, think of her spicy chicken gravy served with mixed lentil vadas and I’m transported back to her home. On special occasions, she would always send us food before she fed her own children. It was neighborly love on a level that doesn’t seem to exist anymore.

Then there was Aunt Gertie. She was a kitchen elf who chose to spend all her free time stirring, baking and cooking. The day she made crabs, I would pointedly and shamelessly hover around until she asked me to stay for dinner. Then I would sit cross-legged in her kitchen and savor the meal in a rapturous state, unaware of the crab juice running down my arms. She would point me out to her daughter, Sheryll, who was my best friend and say, “This is how you eat. Stop picking at your food and learn something from the girl!” The generosity and honesty of a mother wasn’t limited to just her own children.

I love food, but more than that, I love the eating experience. One day I surprised our house-help, Barki with a strange request. She lived in a tiny hut just across the lane from our house. Every evening as the sun went down the horizon; she would squat in front of an open fire and make piles of jowar bhakris to feed her large family. That day I asked if I could join them for dinner.  She was aghast and didn’t know how to respond. It mortified her to think that all she had to offer was jowar bhakris, bland dal and a chilli-garlic chutney. But to me, it was enough. The smell of burning wood, the bite of the chutney, the fresh-off-the-fire bread, the cool winter breeze and the happy tears in my host’s eyes made it one of the most memorable meals I’ve ever had.

From the kulfi wala who fed us free kulfis after school, to the grocer who packed a few extra dates as a treat, the love far exceeded everything else. Later when I entered the cold corporate world, the only solace amidst the chaos of pounding typewriter keys and mounds of paperwork was the lunch break. I’ve always been fortunate to find people who make it their business to feed me. My first job was in this huge organization where to my utter surprise, the cooks took an instant liking to me and singled me out for attention. The food they cooked was only for the top management, but they sneaked me into the pantry and fed me meals that smelled and tasted like manna from heaven.

When I moved to Dubai, the pantry experience moved with me. Only the cuisine differed. I was working with Iranians there and found a new kind of food paradise. Regardless of whether I had carried a tiffin from home or not, the cook would send steaming trays of Cheelo Kebabs, Feta Cheese, Iranian bread and salads every afternoon. One day, I ordered Tandoori Chicken as a return gesture. My Iranian bosses ate it with gusto but the spice was too much for them. The fair Iranians had sweat dripping and tears streaming down their reddened faces!

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Dubai was all about food and friends. Every weekend was a big pot-luck party. In the winter months, we carried huge amounts of marinated meat to the parks and beaches to barbecue. We sat around the glowing embers and devoured juicy chunks of chicken and sausages with Arabic bread, hummus and pickles. The camaraderie of those cool winter evenings in a foreign land was an experience beyond words. It was like huddling together under a warm blanket.

Whether it’s the luscious fruits I’ve enjoyed in the heat of Bangkok, chilled coconut water in quiet streets of Phuket, warm shawarmas on the way to Hatta or sizzling falafels in the mountains of Oman, a very key ingredient of a good meal is the simplicity with which it is cooked, served and eaten. The best parantha I have ever eaten was at a rickety dhaba on the Delhi-Agra highway. It was served on a sultry afternoon with a dollop of white butter and a kind smile. The most sumptuous Maharashtrian meal I remember is at a small resort in Sogaon, served by a sincere, loving hand.

Modern life has altered the eating experience for most of us. But every now and then, I like to make the food and memories count. Since we choose friends that resonate with who we are, my flock was, is and always will be a bunch of foodies. We discuss food as if our life depends on it. We eat like there’s no tomorrow. It isn’t gluttony; it’s an expression of who we are. Our meetings are always, always planned around lunch or dinner. The way we see it, the sharing of a meal is as emotionally and spiritually nurturing as the food on our plates. It is what rejuvenates and bonds us. It is pure sustenance. My food experiences intertwined with my relationships, have defined the way I view life. There are lots of parallels to draw. But one that I uphold above everything else whether it is food, friendship or life is this: That simplicity trumps everything.

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THE SILENT STRING

 

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In my early twenties, I was introduced to the stimulating music of the legendary Pandit Ravi Shankar. If I remember right, the album was called ‘Tana Mana – The Ravi Shankar Project’. It was an experimental work using electronic music fused with the traditional. And yet the sitar stood out. The vibrations of that beautiful instrument were like a poignant ricochet from some forgotten crevice of my soul. So much so, that I went in search of sitar classes in my neighborhood. Much to my disappointment, things did not work out and my aspirations slowly got buried under more pressing concerns. The sitar, however, still lurks somewhere in my subconscious mind.

Even though I never learnt to play the sitar, I remember doing some research on the instrument at the time. One thing that stuck with me was the complexity of it all. A sitar has 6-7 played strings and 18-21 sympathetic strings. The most used is the first string ‘baaj ka taar’. It is imperative to keep all the strings fine tuned for perfect melodies to flow out. The first string though, is the anchor. It is on this string that the creative rendering of the ragas happen. But life is all about collaboration and balance. This is where the second string – the ‘jod ka taar’ gains importance. That’s the support string without which continuity is lost. Without which there can be no pure melody. The reason I’m eulogizing the sitar 20 years later is this.

Two weeks ago, while I was merrily cleaning out the kitchen shelves perched on a chair, I tripped and fractured my ankle. Life came to an excruciating standstill. In my last post, I wrote about meditation and being still; here was an opportunity to indulge in more of that. But there’s a difference between elective and non-elective choices. Soon annoyance and ennui crept in. Advent commenced and Christmas was just around the corner. It irked me that while all of humanity was running around decorating their houses, preparing sweets and shopping, I had morphed into a kind of Hobbit, moping and shuffling around without shoes. So as I counted the similarities – no-shoes, six meals a day and an unadventurous life, I realized that Hobbits are courageous under moral pressure and capable of great feats too. It was time to slingshot the pessimism.

Fed on this last thought, I started an advent gratitude countdown on Instagram and Facebook. I thought of every little thing that warranted thankfulness. Gratitude lists work so well for the simple reason that you can’t feel sorry for yourself and thankful at the same time.  Soon enough I drew myself back into a bubble of appreciation and things fell into place. The amount of people who wrote back to me saying they drew comfort from the words was sweet premium.

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Gratitude to me is the most intense feeling and the only prayer I know of. Soon the frowns eased and I settled into a restorative state. The surest sign of blessings came soon after. Mother and hubby both arrived home simultaneously bringing with them lots of cheer and noise. It was the best dang thing. My husband kept everyone entertained, my daughter clowned around to replace him when he was at work and mum pampered me like I was a baby. There is no better feeling than freshly brewed tea brought to you in bed.

My adorable sister-in-law, Shalini accompanied me on my doctor visits and checked on me from time to time. Then there were friends, the real and honorable kinds. Some came with food and smiles and hope. The one’s who couldn’t visit, kept me occupied and positive by talking to me and texting all day long.

We are fed images of angels in flowing white gowns and halos over their heads. But good-hearted people are the real angels. They are the ones who radiate light and make our lives luminous. They are the ones who walk the talk. The words, laughter, encouragement and love of these people became the crutch that I leaned on. They became my ‘jod ka taar’, the silent support string, without which no pure melody is possible. Appreciation exuded out of my every pore and made the days look like a perpetual sun drenched morning. All that was left to do was luxuriate in it.

So here I am, sitting beneath my twinkling Christmas tree feeling loved and sanctified by life. I sense an encore coming on. The best, as I always say, is yet to come.

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All photos by: Rhea Rego

WABI SABI LIFE

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Mrs. Iyer and I met quite by chance. Her weathered face and kind eyes drew me to her right away. There was something about this woman that spoke to me; as if she was about to tide me over impending storms. It was the summer of 1999; a despondent phase which had taken me to a different kind of solitude.

People who know me are familiar with my largely erratic memory. It’s as if my cortical cells possess an innate, almost psychedelic sense of humor. So large chunks of data go missing without notice, and I can never recall things in tandem, but I do have visions from the past that can seem like they happened yesterday. That is how I recall my time with Mrs. Iyer, whom I eventually started calling ‘paati’ which means grandmother in Tamil.

A few months after our first meeting, I quit my job thus freeing up my evenings, many of which I chose to spend with paati. I had friends my age, but my time with her somehow seemed sacred. Paati had a lot to share about her animated life with her husband, their travels together and her recent loneliness after losing him. She was like a treasured book that I wished would never end. Our conversations spanned entire lifetimes, delved deep and colored our senses mirroring the purple-orange sunsets of the Middle-Eastern skies. Our silhouettes in the fading light must have looked weird and wonderful at the same time; a fusing together of the old and the new. Paati taught me about impermanence, imperfection and how to embrace bits of our life that remain unfinished. Above all, she taught me to embrace my flaws and appreciate myself.

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There’s a Japanese philosophy which preaches much the same thing. They call it Wabi-Sabi. It is the art of finding beauty in blemishes and depth in earthiness. It is about going for the natural and authentic. About celebrating the cracks and crevices that time leaves behind. Wabi Sabi makes us see beauty in the dilapidated and ugly.  Although on the surface, it seems to be about physical things, this philosophy runs way deeper than that. It is more about a state of mind, a way of being. As we move forward, the idea of abandoning ‘perfect’ and accepting the scars and the laugh lines seems increasingly prudent. Simplicity seems more appealing than forged exactness. This kind of shift can be truly liberating, and there’s more than just beauty in that. There is freedom.  If we can quieten our mind enough to appreciate the muted beauty in our lives and find the willingness to accept things as they are, we are well on our way to practicising Wabi-Sabi.

Three years ago, I blew my big Four-O candles. Right around then, I’d started noticing the deepening lines on my face and the puffiness under my eyes. A lot of grey strands were showing up in my hair. I playfully started calling them my ‘wisdom highlights’. So while women around me spent hours in salons hiding their greys and getting spa treatments, I chose that time to introspect and hone my skills. I figured that if I had something worthwhile to do as age crept up – a gratifying hobby or skill that I could share with the world, then that would hold me in better stead. As one year folds into the next, I am glad about that decision. If I fail at something, instead of berating myself, I relax and try something else. That to me is ‘looking life through the wabi-sabi lens.’

In nature, everything is transient. A week ago, when the last of the Ganesha idols were being immersed, a discussion about its significance ensued over our evening tea. There are multiple theories about it, but one that interested me was this. The idols initially were made out of the clay that formed on the river beds. After the celebrations were over, those idols were returned to the water and left to dissolve back into the river. I thought about how this relates to our lives. And it became even more apparent for me to celebrate the time I have here. To nurture relationships and build a life that I can be proud of. To embrace growing older gracefully and joyfully. As Eleanor Roosevelt put is so correctly, “Beautiful young people are accidents of nature, but beautiful old people are works of art.”

As for my dearest paati, I regrettably lost touch with her over the years. But her parting gift – a vintage bell, still hangs from a single nail on my bedroom wall. It is a reminder of the kind of person she was and the kind of person I wished I’d eventually be. Earthy, ordinary and unapologetically beautiful in my own way.

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LOST TREASURES

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Finding an old friend is like finding a lost treasure

– Anthony D. Williams

Despite the smoldering heat, this summer seems the most vibrant and animated to me. After eleven years of staying abroad, when we had moved back home in 2007, a strange thing had happened. My world had descended into abject melancholy. Funny how it works, you uproot yourself from home and nestle in a foreign land. You work at building a life, make friends, foster ties. But it isn’t really home. So, eventually you decide to move back and then realize that home doesn’t feel like it used to either. It’s abysmal. The days came and went, punctuated by little flurries of some good moments and some mundane ones. Family was supportive and life wasn’t bad, but somehow the laughter didn’t ring true and the heart didn’t flip like it used to.

At some point, my daughter pointed out that like her, I was the ‘dog’ type. We connected home not with a place or structure, but with people. That’s when I realized what I was missing. It was faces I could call friends, voices that would throw swear words at me, laughter that would tire my lungs out. The thought pulled me deeper into the darkness. It wasn’t easy to find people you could connect with. Real, deep friendships can take years to develop.

Life can surprise you though. Our existence is nothing but layer upon layer of histories. And when the tectonic plates shift with built up pressure, relics from the past emerge and new realities are brought forth. Like treasure from the annals of my childhood, old friends reappeared. Amities were restored, magic happened and stardust filled my life.

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I have no interest in keeping up saccharine appearances. No inclination for polished small talk. All I care for is candid conversations and comfortable silences. Those are the kind of relationships that matter to me. So I got the kind of friends I wanted – the frayed, tough, appropriately dorky, cheerful, generous, honest and drama-free ones. They tolerate my crass laughter, endure my dark moods and understand my childlike delight for gifts and glowing birthday cakes. I recognize their idiosyncrasies. We are like derivatives of each other.

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The effervescent presence of my chronically barmy friends has infused my days with a sparkle that keeps me glowing on the darkest of days. They are like the smell of freshly baked bread on sunlit streets – soulful, uplifting and basic. This month I complete eight years of being back home and it finally feels like home. It was also my birth month. So I got my crazy parties, candlelit cakes and mad laughter. It was a grand time. There were stories clinking in sync with the frosty glasses of beer, the wandering in and out of forgotten memories; faces rapt like pilgrims on a pilgrimage. I looked around, my heart swelled up with pride. These were epic, no-gravity moments. I could see that we had put the roots into each other. If ever there was a resplendent time, this was it.