Monday, 29 September 2014

Nothing

I sit down to write a post, but I realise I have nothing to write about. So I tell D I have nothing to write about and D says why don't I write about Nothing.


Who'd want to read about Nothing? Who'd want to read about a Nothing kind of week? With exactly seven days, each day with exactly the same name: Tuesday right after Monday. People un-upsidedown. Duvets in duvet-covers. My washed washing still in the washing-machine. Four cows in the Common chewing on their grumpiness and that fine grass. Pooing as they walk, pooing as they eat. Terrible table manners under absurdly good sunsets. River, rowers, ripples. Goddamn alliterations. And autumn.



Nothing that trumpets. Or tells a story. And that's the thing about Nothing, see. It doesn't care. It doesn't want to be. Doesn't want to make a point. I watch Chotto-ma blow at a dandelion, scattering seeds to wind, till there's nothing left but a green stump. But in that Nothing is contained one deep breath. Held. Released. Sending scores of seeds parachuting to its soil, sprouting into a hundred beautiful weeds.



I like Nothing. I like stories that say nothing, and tell something. I like questions that ask nothing, and walks that go nowhere. I like cul-de-sacs. And pointless conversations. And silence. And empty hours. And blank paper. There's nothing quite like Nothing.

I had nothing much in the kitchen on Friday. I came home to a few stalks of celery, four carrots, a bunch of forgotten spring onions, some dried chillies and a couple of potatoes. And wine, for there is always wine.

Something good came out of that. Something good always comes out of nothing much.















Carrot, Celery and Chipotle Soup


Ingredients

1 cup chopped celery
2 cups sliced carrots
1/2 cup chopped spring onion (white onion will also do)
3 potatoes, halved lengthwise, then sliced in thick-ish semi-circles
1 chipotle chilli (this is what gives the soup its lovely smoky flavour)
1/2 cup dry white wine
A knob of butter
2 bayleaves
Coarsely-ground black pepper
Salt



Heat butter in a deep pan. Add the celery, carrots, potato, onion and a pinch of pepper. Stir for a couple of minutes on low heat.
Add about 6 cups of water, salt and bayleaves. Cover with lid and simmer till the vegetables are halfway cooked.
Add the wine and chipotle chilli, then continue to boil with the lid off till the vegetables are cooked and tender.
Serve hot.

PS: Don't go by the soup's plain appearance. Inside, it is a thing of great beauty.
PPS: We had the leftover soup the next day with a grilled sausage dunked in.




























Saturday, 20 September 2014

Mirrors and grey days




Chotto-ma took this photo of us while we napped in the afternoon today. I woke up, and found it on the camera. It was a very grey day, and it would've passed like another grey day, and I'd never have known us in sleep. This little girl, she holds a mirror to us in so many ways. Shows us what we look like when we aren't looking. And sometimes by being a mirror herself.








Wednesday, 10 September 2014

Stew you for supper

"Who are you, little girl?"
"Maa..."
"Have you lost your mummy?"
"Tumi aamar ma" (You're my Ma.)
"What's that strange language you're speaking?"
"Eta strange na. Eta Bangla; Bengali." (It's not strange; it's Bengali.)
"Bhengawli? Well, I don't understand a word of it! Greek to me."
"Ma..."
"Oh, stop calling me that! Go home, little girl. Stop following me."
"Ma."
"Shoo."



This is Chotto-ma's absolutelyfavouritest game, staged daily on the walk back from school. I started it, little knowing what I was in for. She loved it so much, it has begged repetition ever since. And every day if possible.

There's me in my best ill-humoured-Edwardian-lady accent, and a little brown girl straggling behind. Ne'er has a play seen a more unsuitable cast. But apparently, it's "hu-normous" fun.

Some days, though, when I pick her up from school, I feel like I haven't seen her forever; which means I need to squish her too much to play the game. I squish her and I carry her as far as I can these days, slobbering her face with very noisy kisses - which doesn't quite set the mood for Le Pathétique. On days like that, there is Option B.




In Option B, I play myself (thank god). But. I seem to be very confused about our way home from school. I drag her to all the wrong doors, try to take all the wrong turns, but Chotto-ma knows better, of course. So she rolls her eyes and pulls me in the right direction. She points to our house from a distance. Look Ma, there's our house. No-no, I say, that's Miss Havisham's, an old lady who's allergic to little girls. Nah, she says, that's ours. Big mistake, I say - Miss Havisham's going to stew you for supper.

And so we climb the stairs; me mumbling caveats about trespassers and dour old ladies, and Chotto-ma with her worldly calm, shaking her worldly head. When she reaches the door, she takes the key from me. She slips it into the keyhole. I'm aghast that our key fits Miss Havisham's house. She turns the key and the door opens! She pulls me in, and I nearly pass out from the shock of it all  - for it is indeed our house.


And so happy and relieved are we to find Miss Havisham missing that we flick off our shoes, throw off our jackets, and dive into the kitchen to bake a cake that would befit the fussiest Edwardian dowager.


.....


Fig & Pecan Buttermilk Cake




Ingredients

3 large figs (1 quartered lengthwise; the other 2 cubed into 8 pieces each)
A handful of pecan, broken into pieces
1 1/2 cups flour
1 1/2 tsp baking powder
2 eggs
3/4 cups brown, granulated sugar
3/4 cup melted butter
3/4 cup buttermilk
1/2 tsp sea salt
1/2 tsp vanilla extract






Pre-heat oven: 160°C.
In a large bowl, mix the flour, baking powder, sugar and salt together with a wooden spoon.
Make a well in the middle, crack in the eggs, pour in the butter and vanilla extract. Stir it all in.
Add in the buttermilk a little add at time. Stir, add, stir - till the buttermilk is all gone and you have a nice, smooth batter.
Now, add the cubed figs and the pecan, and fold them in.




Pour the batter into a greased loaf tin.
Tuck in the other fig slices on top.


Bake for about 50 minutes, or till a knife inserted in the middle of the cake comes out clean.
Let it cool for a while before slicing.
Serve with a drizzle of cream.









Thursday, 21 August 2014

Secondhand stories

There's a secondhand bookshop that sits opposite the school where I teach a few hours of English every day. This is the shop I go to when I have some spare time, and spare change. £2.99 will usually fetch you a good book.

A few days ago, I found a ZZ Packer that I'd wanted to find for a while. It also had the right cover; for no matter what they say, covers matter. Every once in a while, when I'm reading a book, I crook a finger in from the top and close its pages. My finger curves like a comma, pausing the book as I mull over a sentence, a paragraph, a thought. At that time, I like to see a cover that doesn't tell me much. A cover that doesn't drag my thoughts to closure.



This cover didn't try too hard. It just slanted it's font in gentle enquiry, and left it at that. It didn't try to show me a picture of Elsewhere. It left Elsewhere to me. I liked that. I also liked its blue; it looked like it didn't fit in.

But I'll tell you what I liked most of all. When I came back home and took the book out of my bag, something slipped out of its pages. It was a photograph of a little boy, with a date on the back. Just a date, and a summer month. No year. Not a hint of a year. As if the person who wrote the date liked to live in the present, in the now. The yearless date of a mind not weighed down by eventualities. Carefree. It's summer after all, and the sand is warm and the sea blue.



My first reaction on seeing the photograph was one of sadness; someone had lost a precious photo of their boy. I not only had their book, but also a bit of their memory. But then, I thought of how things are meant to be. And the beauty of stories that travel; of a photo shared not on social media but passed down in a good book. I also thought of how strangers' stories always find their way to my house, like our dining table - remember the initials on its underside? Only this time, the story had slipped out of a book of stories and landed softly on my carpet.
 

And so the sweet boy sits, in the August of an unknown year. And here we are, in the midst of another August. He could be five now, or he could be in University. He might live on the same street, or in a different hemisphere. Somewhere in my Elsewhere.

I want to know. I love not knowing.









Sunday, 10 August 2014

Step back


It was eight o'clock in the evening. Chotto-ma was still up - it being a weekend. D and I had poured ourselves some wine and Chet Baker was wafting around the house. That's when I noticed the light. From the window, the outside looked liked a giant Monet. The sun was sinking; its last pink light was bouncing off the river like shoals of salmon.




We took the bottle of wine, our glasses, the bowl of olives, put everything into a brown paper bag and went down to the river; Chotto-ma in her pyjamas. We cut across the Common, past the the cows, the tall grass licking our ankles, sticking to my jeans, and found a bench next to a boat called Susie Q. Everything was a pinkish-bronze: people on cycles, the Labrador chasing his ball, my toes, the tips of the grass. Dying embers of a day's end. This hallowed light makes such innocents of us all.




Last week, I decided to step back from the virtual a little; I closed my Facebook account. It felt like the right time. I needed to disconnect. If you followed me on Facebook, and suddenly found me gone, I'm sorry. But if you read and know this blog, I feel you'll understand the why. The whim. 



Now, before you rush headlong into your week, I'll leave you with a little more whimsy. With this music. Chet Baker, and cocktail clouds.

Have a wonderful week x






Thursday, 31 July 2014

Making sense with sunflowers

I turned a year older last week. But that is of little consequence. There are people who won't, there were people who didn't, turn a year older this year. There are lives, half-lives and still-breaths under skies riddled with missiles. The same blue skies from which planes fall and smash into bits of DNA. Snakes and ladders; that's all it seems to be sometimes. If you can dodge a bad dice, you might be lucky enough not to be at the wrong place at the wrong time - born on that cursed strip in Gaza, seated on that plane flying over Ukraine, or walking down an empty road filled with daily dangers. And then, and then - you get to have a birthday.

So I look at sunflowers. When things don't make much sense, when the news is a constant flow of abject misery, I look at sunflowers. Sunflowers make sense. Their orbs are filled with positive, yellow purpose; you can see why the world would need them. And you can see why a man who cut off his own ear, and later shot himself dead, needed to paint them. Sunflowers are made of hope.




As I look at them now, I can see three layers of petals around that dark brown centre. The petals are smooth and shiny like the insides of my wrist. They're artlessly innocent in their brightness. The dark brown centre, however, is not so innocent. The dark brown centre is spiky, more deliberate. Textured for attention, for touch. Together, they make magic.





Each yellow whorl of my sunflowers sits slightly skewed, like a pile of mismatched china plates, so the rim underneath can show through. An artsy disarray; just the right amount of messiness. I can imagine nature putting the first sunflower together like an installation art, working to a haphazard jazz riff, whilst blowing smoke circles into dusk light.



Sometimes, you need the uncomplicatedness of cliches. And you need evolution to create flowers that clone the sun. So that whenever there is an eclipse of human nature, you'd have sunflowers to look at. In a white vase, in a safe room, where most things make sense most of the time.

If you're lucky, you'd also have good food on the table, and family around it. Food that is familiar, comfortable, and as uncomplicated as strong stalks of sunflowers in clean water.

Today, everyday, I'm grateful for that.





Coconut & Garlic Chicken Broth

This is a simple recipe that I first cooked up many years ago in Calcutta; one of my kitchen experiments. It was an experiment that stuck. I have cooked it many times since, and it's always as good as it was all those years ago. If you love coconut and garlic, you will love this as much as I do. You can, of course, replace the chicken with fish or vegetables, as I often do.





Ingredients

1 kg chicken
1.5 cups of freshly grated or dessicated coconut
1 white onion, thickly sliced
1 tomato, chopped
7 cloves of garlic, minced
2 green or red chillies, chopped
A bunch of fresh coriander leaves, chopped
1 tsp black peppercorns
2 dry red chillies
2 tbs vegetable/sunflower oil
Salt






Boil the chicken in water with salt and 2 mashed cloves of garlic.
In a pan, heat 2 tbs of oil. Add the peppercorns and dry red chillies.
When the peppercorns start to sputter, add the onions. Stir for 2 minutes, then add the tomatoes. Give it one stir and take pan off the heat.
In a blender, whizz the coconut and remaining garlic into a paste with a sprinkle of water and 1 tsp salt.
Take the boiled chicken off the heat, and put it in a serving bowl.
Into the chicken broth, spoon in the coconut paste, the onion and tomato mix, coriander leaves, and chopped chillies as needed.
Stir it all in. Serve with steamed rice, or on its own.