I am currently sheltering in my childhood home, where I arrived at the end of February 2020, for what I thought was to be a three weeks stay. It’s August and I’m still here and counting.
Sitting in my room with a diary and pen, I pause to look out the window. There is a garden marked by a boundary wall draped with greenery and bougainvillea. The serene beauty of a garden with summer flowers soothes my tired eyes. Beyond the wall is the world, strange, different and quiet.
Be that as it may, many blessings have surfaced through the soil. One precious blessing is the extended time gifted to be with my mother, who has touched a spry 90!
The others are a garden to stroll in, a verandah to lounge in, flowers and trees to gaze upon, a tabby cat to befriend, (always been a dog person), an open sky to avail of every morning and evening – in restricted quarantine times. This bounty of air, sky and space would have not been remotely possible in my apartment home in Mumbai. Apart from this, there is another unexpected boon…the extended time to dwell upon the memories associated with the house.
After marriage, children of the house disperse to their new married homes, and their childhood homes become mere places of visit. So this time is unique in as much as I am literally settled here with no fixed date of leaving. It’s almost as if I’ve traveled back to my earlier self, the pre-married one that was a resident of this house for 27 years, and for whom this was her only home, till she got married.
Kitchens are busy spaces these days. In our Quarantined New World, it would seem everybody is cooking. Since eating pleasure can be consummated, maintaining safe distance at the site of pleasure (dining table) it’s currently trending in all homes.
But, a personal conundrum. What if you can’t cook? One worse. What if you don’t want to cook?
I mean, is it cataclysmic? Being a woman, a normal woman, and not loving to don the apron – for husband, kids, friends, yourself? Does every guy in the world love boxing? Not watching, but actually going out there in the ring?? That’s the bummer. I love eating but I’m the worst cook. My forays into the kitchen have always been misadventures. I touch hot vessels or drop them, set fire to the toast or do something equally inane. So as a rule, I don’t cook. It’s safer all around. How I’ve managed to get away with this calumny all these years is that there never was a lockdown in my human experience till now.
The virtual landscape has gone berserk. Strange, vivid, coral-shaped delicacies on porcelain plates are being served up on all my SM accounts. Foody art, that I the cranky one, can’t appreciate. Not generally a praise-niggard, but the point is all these sensational recipes are of no use to me, with nobody to cook them for me. Family and friends, well meaning I’m sure, who love posting and pushing their lockdown culinary-adventures onto me, are making me feel inadequate. It is something I never allow myself to feel – inadequate. So what is this?
About survival. The lockdown in Mumbai, locked down my helper-cook in her home and me in mine. Since this was not Harry Potter, there was no magical tunnel to whoosh her into my kitchen.
I have to eat. For that, I have to cook.
Ask me to go climb the Himalayas, but don’t ask me to cook was my smart line to anybody even trying. Then, my family, quite the emancipated sort, embraced my normal as theirs. And all was fine. Till the time the world changed to as it is now.
The self-quarantine has frozen combinations of people into staying and sheltering wherever they are, and my combination is my sister and me. She was over for a few days, (or so we thought), and is here two months and counting. And no, she does not cook. (Some gene throwback??)
In the first week it was not seismic. We had some ready meals stocked and some frozen food and when that got done, my daughter, living a little distance away, sent us some more. However, we understood this was not a wise way to stave off daily hunger in these cryptic times, and strict compliance of lockdown rules was an inviolable necessity.
So we shifted gear to ready-to-cook instant food like noodles and easy-to make grilled cheese sandwiches, and the like, and honored this fare, with steady stoicness. Who needs flamboyance in ascetic times? We sat at the table like two monks in deep silence. No words. We even summoned up gratitude. We had food on our plates. A shelter. What more could we ask for?
Some regular spicy good old Indian curry? And a traditional pilaf with veggies and cashews? And without being fussy, a side of fresh coriander chutney?
We craved away.
Then one fine day (after many days), the rumblings… We said Enough.
But now what??
I got my laptop. Googled – Easy Recipes (rice, potatoes, cottage cheese). Even in my state of pronounced culinary ignorance, I knew that these three were tacklable even by a greenhorn like me.
In fact, I had some experience too.
Once, long back, I had, in a rare moment of inspiration, opened a cookbook and prepared a dish of Dauphine Potatoes for my little kids. They felt a bit bemused about their mother not being like “other mothers” and to ease their angst, I emboldened myself one fine day.
My recipe: Dauphine Potatoes (simplified)
Parboil the potatoes, cut into thick wedges, (or flat round discs), put butter in the pan, toss in some crushed garlic, toss in the potato wedges or discs, keep turning over till golden brown, sprinkle some herbs, remove from fire, sprinkle ground black pepper, and serve with knobs of melting butter on top…(grated cheese optional) Hmm… even as I write this the seduction of the recipe is beginning to work upon me. A glimmer, very faint, of the possibility of conversion pokes me gently. Uhh? Is it the words, potato wedges, golden brown, knobs of melting butter, or the pictures they conjur, or what? Or is it just that I am so damn hungry?
They loved the dish.
Subsequently, the secret of Dauphine Potatoes was passed on to my helper-cook, and the dish has often graced our dining table.
Another time, when the cook played hooky, on a particularly hot summer’s day, (39 degrees celsius) I all askew, flung up my hands in a frenzy and said to my husband, “What to do??”
He grinned and said, “What others do. Cook.”
So I had a point to prove. Out came the cookbook and I homed in on the simplest cottage cheese recipe I could find.
My Recipe: Cottage cheese with onion and tomato (simplified)
Cut cottage cheese into cubes. Chop onions and tomatoes. Fry onions till brown. Toss in some crushed garlic and ginger. Add chopped tomatoes and stir awhile. Throw in spices, cumin seed powder, one cardamon, one green chilli, for pungency. Add salt, red chilli powder, mint powder, and turmeric powder and stir and mix well. Toss in the cottage cheese cubes. Mix till properly glazed. Voila. Good to go.
This too was a hit. The fam went overboard, and I guess they meant it, because the dish was scraped off to the tiniest morsel… I beamed and was not worried at my success, because my cook was scheduled to be back the next day.
Back to today, the scenario is stark. My cook is not scheduled to be back for who knows how long. And food has to be had and for that it has to be cooked – everyday.
I can’t cook, my sis can’t cook, even more than me, and though Swiggy is delivering, is it safe? Paranoia, both warranted and unwarranted, is on high sail these days.
So what?? Determination of course, (just-sprouted) and Google – to get us out of dysphoria.
I think of my husband. How he would have merrily donned the apron and the mantle of in-house cook for us. He, who ably made up for my singular lack of affection for kitchen skills, by picking up a fair amount of culinary knowledge along the way … He reckoned it would be needed. He even mastered the art of the brilliant first cup of morning tea which he made for us every single day…till he left. He must surely be chuckling from his Elysium groves watching me gear up for kitchen-combat – finally.
So it’s happening and my sis and I are peering into our laptop screens earnestly, searching out and ticking the simplest recipes we can find. The kind that are non-complex, non-scholarly, require minimal fuss – and are finger licking delish.
A journey of a thousand steps has begun and we have taken the first one.
I have a theory. When the Creator said, ‘Let there be light’, taking into account the ramifications of that divine impulse, He added some things to the list of creation, to help human souls through the journey of life. One was this beverage – tea in English, chai in Hindi – which is nothing if not a soul brew. Beautiful and divine under all circumstances – be it on lush green slopes or, steaming in a cup, glass, mug, chinaware, clay kulhad, steel glass – it is a celestial offering. There are other things too, which help in the journey of life, but that is a topic for another day.
The romance started early. I glad-eyed tea as far back as I can remember. It created such a warm ambient glow around my parents when they sipped it. Finally, at some point, as kids we were allowed a sneak taste of the ambrosia, from their cups. Or rather glasses. Plain simple inexpensive glasses in which the brew, for some mysterious reason acquired additional taste. (Only when guests came were cups and saucers retrieved from shelves. Later they went back to the shelves, to gestate till the next round of guests.) Grateful to my parents for their liberal non-stuffy approach. There are those for whom tea was taboo, (for nebulous never-specified reasons), till they reached voting age, who were unable to relate to it to later on. Pity.
A day begins and then a day begins well. For the countless tea-lovers of the world it is – with a good cup of tea. This is beyond debate.
As a Tea-pashion-ista, my affair thrives day to day and remains fresh and spanking. If there be an impediment, (milkman absconding or transport strike, with no fresh milk on the doorstep), then the day, well, pauses. Till that cuppa, made right — with the taste and aroma in place, and swirl of steam curling upward like a genie — reaches my hands, I am a perfect mess.
When I fell in love and marriage glimmered on the horizon, an important thing was that he was not a coffee drinker. So many are. It just wouldn’t have jelled. Imagine coffee and tea aromas crossing swords in my kitchen every morning. Not it. Not to mention the arguments, (marriage after all) about which brew is the gift to mankind. Shoes, toe nails, cut of jaw, didn’t matter that much. But, his loving tea mattered for some neurotic reason. Maybe because, tea-drinking is such a distinctively pleasurable activity. And marriage is so much about shared moments of pleasure.
When the children came along, after they touched five, I made sure to impart tea wisdom to them. In bits. This meant introducing them to its wonder early. I couldn’t bear the thought of them not developing a taste for it. I ensured by allowing them surreptitious sips. Nobody saw, except my husband who was complicit.
However, it’s not entirely uncomplicated.
Firstly, it has to be made just right. The absolute exact proportion of tea-leaves, milk, sugar (brown) is a fussy but necessary requirement. The color of the brew should neither be too dark nor too light. It should also not be over-brewed nor under-brewed. And, of course, it has to have the right temperature – for me, piping hot. This pernickety-ness is possible only under controlled conditions like when you are at home.
Outside home territory, the rules get flexible, to whatever extent needed, as long as you get that brew, in any sort of container, into your thirsting hands. Under duress, we tea lovers, accept tea in any container, but given choices, the right container matters. Depending on the place time and mood. At home, readymade tea in a glass or ceramic mug is fine. (But, it should be the specific one you like and have marked out specially as your own). At airports and railway stations, paper glasses do. In clubs and restaurants, fine porcelain cups and teapots snug in teacosys’, served up by liveried waiters is what adds charm to the experience … At roadside dhabas it is the clay kulhads that pack a rustic earthy punch to the taste.
The season also counts, to a slight degree. A Winter’s Tale is the more beautiful with tea.The rainy season … Ah. One of life’s chief pleasures is the synchronised activity of watching rain, and sipping tea.
Then, company is important. Like-minded initiates add to tea bonhomie. However, for the true aficionado the best company is yourself. This is because tea drinking is basically – a meditation. The best ‘stillness’ happens, with a cuppa in your hands, as you gaze emptily but beautifully into space.
Footnote – I have nothing against coffee – as long as nobody ever tries to convince me that it’s a superior passion.
But for sure, as a brew coffee is a close runner-up. Coffee aroma is so deliciously on another level just sniffing it gives me satisfaction.
So let there be light. And, let there be tea. (And coffee smells occasionally) …
It was Sunday, the day I love to sleep late, but the opposite happened. I awoke at an unholy hour, thanks to a racket outside. It was a family of sparrows on my window sill. They were more loquacious than Italians in an argument. I saw the time. It was way earlier than my sweet spot for Sundays. I ought to have groaned but didn’t, for some odd reason.
It must’ve been that I slept well in the night. For why else did this wake-up call from feathered visitors to my window, make me feel benign instead of grumpy? Normally when the alarm from my phone goes off, it always, but always feels mean and clangy … the tinkle-tone nevertheless. You hit snooze again and again with a degree of vengeance. But today, this ‘natural’ alarm made it easy to spring awake. I could have been a daisy rising up to the sun.
So, it’s right, what the sleep deacons say. It’s not about the number of hours, it’s about the quality of sleep. I racked my brains for what ritual I may have followed the previous night to have been gifted this. Did I have chamomile tea? What did I avoid for dinner? And what had I had for dinner? Was it the broccoli or was it the piece of very dark chocolate I snacked on later that did it? (I hope!) Or was it that I blocked the online world two hours before hitting my comforter-padded zone of my bed?
Whatever the magic recipe, I woke up with heightened serotonin. I felt different, zingy and good.
After my morning cuppa, the usual tasks of everyday, of every single day (Sunday notwithstanding), of every single home got underway. My segments are water tight. There is a flurry of domestic morning activity that happens, mostly in a set pattern. Husbands and children of the world don’t usually realize or cognize this, as to them the house always looks the same. What they miss is, what it takes to make the house always look the same.
But today, my tasks got cleared early. I found there was almost an hour with nothing specific to do. This was strange and lovely. Perched on my sofa in the drawing room after hot-buttered toast and tea, I literally had nothing to do. (My mobile phone was charging far away in another room. Thank God that mobiles drain out and need to be charged every now and then).
I reflected on this. Mmmm. There was a band of time stretching out before me quite like a cat in the sun. No hurry, no scurry. The open windows with the ledge arrayed with densely-leafed green plants, and flowering pots, freshly watered, looked, well, happy. The sunlight made florescent jabs on the leaves. Seven sparrows (I counted them) gambolled around in the verdure.
I cadged it! Picking up a cushion from the sofa I plonked it on a square of sunlight that fell on one spot on the carpet. Placing myself on the cushion I folded my knees, hugged them, and bending my head shut my eyes in langour. With my eyes gently closed and sun pouring on me it could have been any beach anywhere in the world. Within seconds and without effort, I slipped into that ‘state of being’ which I often, rightly or wrongly, feel is the pinnacle state.
Occasionally, with slitty half-opened eyes I gazed at the bougainvillea and the patches of blue sky visible through the maze of branches. It was zen, come upon me unannounced. I realised then, that meditation is not a lotus posture or laborious control of thought…it is just a state of being, an ease, a flow, which requires nothing to happen for the completion of the moment – it is a perfect ‘now moment’ full in itself and without any expectation of any further occurrence or happening.
The sun, of course, played an important part in my scenario. Being the source of light and warmth the sun’s therapeutic powers are extraordinary. Have you seen sun-bathers on deck chairs on a beach, line upon line lying in motionless bliss?
Indian wisdom recognizes this all-vital truth about the sun, and it’s extraordinary life giving properties. Gayatri mantra is the ‘mantra of mantras’, that extols the glory and effulgence of the sun. This mantra has evinced a lot of interest globally too for its mystic powers.
I ruminated on this even as the benevolent sun bathed me. And for the first time understood the angst of my friends in London who rued the misery of British weather. Whenever I go to England I enjoy the cold weather as it’s a great change from the tropical climate of India. And I don’t particularly miss seeing the sun there! But I realized it is only because I’m on vacation and my stay short. To have to not see the sun day in day out for days would be, well, plain miserable.
I lifted my head. The sun had shifted. So I too had to shift my limbs. I got up and checked the time. Wow I had done nothing for over half an hour! Luckily, my mobile phone hadn’t intruded. Even the landline and doorbell obliged. And the best was, my mind obliged. It bowed to my wishes to luxuriate in Sunday ‘nothingness’ for a while.
I felt like a master. Small victory but a sure and sweet one.
I sit and watch the unseasonal rain. Gazing is a productive activity. It nudges introspection. The doorbell rings. Why are doorbells so unsonorous? I hear the door open and then shut. Amazon, delivery. Between four family members, two visits a day are assured, most days. Nobody blinks an eye now, to the different sized packages arriving, from the tiniest to the most humongous ones. Shower curtains, kettles, tea mugs, yoga mats, accessories, even gift tags, arrive like this. I feel disturbed at my digital dependence and the shifting topography of day to day life.
Making payments, in seconds, on the phone, has simplified things tremendously. Buying anything and everything from the comfort of my own sofa at home, without the angst of traffic, with some clicks, is a breeze, but there are many downsides. A behemoth is shaping and overpowering us. Is there no way back, is the scary question. And the answer to that is even scarier.
Years back I had read a book by Alvin Toffler called ‘Future Shock’ and it outlined the psychological distress of individuals and entire societies as a result of technology and too much change happening, too fast. That future is here. It is just like the doomsday movies. Only now it’s not on a flat screen that we sit and watch with fascinated horror – we watch it live.
There are two kind of monsters these days. Those who believe and those who don’t believe. Both sides are at constant violent war with each other. The weapons are modern, and provided freely by social media. Twitter is the prime weapon. Missiles dipped in ego, hate and vitriol are let loose left right and center. (Pun intentional). Political affiliations make people lose their sanity and sink into pointless hate for “the other.” Result is rage, noise, contention, vanity, but minimal debate.
Thank you internet. Thank you social media. More than the psychologists, philosophers, or writers and artists you have shown up a mirror to the underbelly of human nature.
The fact that nothing is easy is what adds value to life. In sports we keep setting more and more difficult targets for ourselves. Why? These targets are voluntarily set by us and not under any compulsion. We do it because extending our limits and reaching beyond ourselves is the way to growth. By the same analogy, extending our limits as human beings, we can touch and reach the divine. That is the ultimate goal of every human soul.
Mankind is placed between animal and divine. The choices we make decide to which side we veer. Being just human is a good enough start. Practising basic humanity is the first step to the goal. Human values like compassion and tolerance and respect for all beings is the foundation of being human. The more we practise humanity the closer we get to the divine element.
Every obstacle, every difficulty we face is a training in our mental gyms to extend our capacities that much further – toward new growth. Every challenge stretches us a bit more toward a target higher than the previous one.
Why is it so difficult to be good? The foundation of basic goodness is selflessness. Goodness places the other before you. This is not very easy to do when you perceive the other as ‘other.’ However, Indian wisdom declares there is no other, and that the world is one big family. If this attitude is cultivated goodness becomes more spontaneous. Expanding our hearts to encompass ‘all’ is very rewarding. This ‘expansion love’ generates a sense of inner warmth, satisfaction and well-being which is matchless.
Life is a magnificent arena affording great choices. To squander the chances come our way, is folly. We must reflect on the best way to use our lives and work our way up to the expression of our highest selves.
We labour night and day for paltry evanescent gains. A little effort for ‘something higher’ that is not affected by the vagaries of the stock exchange, nor the ups and downs of your relationships, is worth striving for. Go for it. It is the real gold.
A movie recently released in India has raised a storm. The movie, Kabir Singh, portrays a dysfunctional character’s obsessive love for a girl and the mayhem that unspools when she gets married to another man.
The hero, is reprehensible in every way, and wreaks havoc with his macho, misogynist behavior. Love story or Horror story? That is the moot point. Critics have panned the movie on the ground that it endorses misogyny and skewed cavemen notions of masculinity. Yet the movie is doing great business. What does this say?
I have not seen the movie and have no desire to. Yet on the basis of the trailers and reviews, have understood that it is a very out-of-the- box offering for the audience and that the performance by the lead actor, Shahid Kapoor is compelling. The radical shift from traditional fare may have resonated.
The hero’s maniacal obsession with the girl and the losing of her, dissembles him completely. His self-destructive tendencies are unleashed in macabre dark splendor, and he feels no obligation to remorse or guilt of any kind.
Not pretty at all. What is most objectionable is the shameless glorifying of the hero’s persona and the meek pliant simpering acceptance of the heroine to this toxic behavior. If the heroine had matching fire and a stronger personality with some aberrant streaks of her own, it would be more acceptable. It would be more dismissable as – “Each to his own – they deserve each other!” But, the tame passive character of the heroine sends a dastardly message to rogue men out there, of which there are a-plenty.
However, the point is, can you censure an actor for accepting an assignment like this? His job is to be true to his craft of acting. Where does an actor’s moral responsibility begin and end? Is not a monstrous, obnoxious man who fashions hell out of passion and ‘love,’ a slice of life – albeit a slice of toxic life, which is quite the norm today? There are millions of TV shows and movies doing the rounds in which all kinds of muck is flying around, presenting the worst in human behavior. Dystopian is the new normal in films and literature. If the moral question of toxicity of content holds, then 90 percent of the stuff being doled out today, doesn’t pass muster. So, why single out this one movie?
I shudder to think that guys like Kabir may exist. See him on screen if you must, but, if you come within sniffing distance of one such in real life – be advised to run a mile in the opposite direction. Dear women – it’s not romantic to be loved like this – it’s psychotic and scary! Take to your heels and recommend the guy to a therapist. Save him and yourself!
People long to be wealthy. Yet I have a strange reservation about material wealth. It makes me uncomfortable. I tend to sympathize with people who live in houses like museums, who have more stuff and land and properties than can ever be used or needed, and who evaluate everything on a calculator – even relationships.
Why is money such a coveted goal? It is good to have a decent amount, yes, but why the obsession for more? It is baffling why something that ruins peace of mind and messes up the best relationships of life is so coveted.
I feel a funny sense of suffocation when I enter a house that is heavily opulent. Each artefact, chandelier, ornate piece of furniture, is like a weight upon the air. There is a sense of there being no place for air to freely move.
Also, why is it that very wealthy people love to project to the world that they are wealthy? It’s apparent to all yet most of them cannot resist dropping numerical figures into their talk. Money becomes the measure for everything.
And the most peculiar part of this money saga is how the wealthiest people are oftentimes startlingly stingy too!
Money is like a shoe. If it fits, great. But either too little or too much is going to be uncomfortable, like a shoe that is either tight or too large. So, all you middle-classers out there like me, celebrate the fact that we have so much and no more, and that at the end of the day, we are the ones in the best place, to be really content and happy.