Saturday, 25 May 2013

You shouted back

This little space was born on this day, two years ago; I wrote the first post, and floated it out to sea. It really did feel like that; like a note in a bottle, bobbing off into unknown waves. It might have reached someone, or no one at all. It might have floated with the fish and fronds forever. I didn't know.

But the note did find you, and you read it, and you shouted back across the seas, and you're here now, reading this. So, thank you.

When the blog turned one, last year, I didn't notice. 'May 26' didn't ring any bells, and the date came and passed; no blips on my radar: that's how good it's been. You know, how you don't remember to say you're having a good time when you're having a good time? It's always in the past tense - "I had a good time that day. Or last week. Or last year." And you don't notice you're happy when you're happy. You only notice Happy isn't there when you're sad.

I didn't notice I was blogging.

And then a sweet person wrote me a sweet note about the blog. She said it "felt like a book, an old, forgotten, battered, comforting book discovered in clutters." I'll remember that for a long time. It made me think about this space, and about connections made in the ether. And it made me realise that it's been two years.

So, thank you for fishing that bottle out of the sea when I threw it in. And thank you for reading the note inside. And for hollering back.

I hope you'll stay. I'll plump up the cushions, and cook you something nice.

Blueberry Payesh

'Payesh' is a rice pudding, but quite different from its cousins in the West. It's fragrant with crushed cardamom and bay-leaves, rich with chopped cashew nuts. And it's often cooked in Bengali homes to celebrate a birthday.
Well, here's a birthday, I thought. So I made payesh. It's far removed from the traditional version, and nowhere near its usual colour. But I've found that blueberries get along famously with green cardamom and bay-leaves, when stirred slowly into thick, sweetened milk. And D and Chotto-Ma scraped their bowls very clean and asked for seconds. So there you go.


1 cup rice, washed (I found this beautiful, flaked rice at the local store, but use Basmati or Gobindobhog if that's what you have)
2 litres milk (full-fat will give you a creamier texture, but for a skinnier version, go with semi-skimmed)
1/2 cup sugar
2 cups blueberries
2 green cardamom, pounded well with mortar and pestle
1 inch cinnamon stick
1 bay-leaf
1/2 cup cashew nuts, lightly roasted

Boil the milk, and then leave to simmer till it condenses to half its volumn.
Add the rice, cardamom, cinnamon and bay-leaf.
When the rice if cooked, but still holds its shape, add the sugar and the blueberries.
Stir slowly till the rice takes on a creamy texture and the blueberries melt in.
While stirring, add a little milk if you feel it's getting too tight. Adjust sugar to taste.
When it takes on a creamy, thick consistency, add half the cashew nuts.
Ladle into a serving dish and sprinkle rest of the cashew on top.

Monday, 13 May 2013


Things have a way of working out. When I was about seven, the 'thing' that needed working out was a way to scavenge together five rupees, for that was the price of the fat, square little books at the jack-of-all shop behind my school. These were abridged versions of English classics - The Tale of Two Cities, Oliver Twist, Great Expectations - and they were usually the most pressing thing on my mind. This was before the Days of Pocket Money, and times were hard for seven-year-olds. Every time I finished reading one of these books, it would feel like my last. There was not a five-rupee in sight, and no possibility of a windfall. I would give up all hope, and wait for my little classics collection to asphyxiate and die. But, just as the last book prepared to take its last breath, something unexpected would happen. Either one of my Pishis (aunts) would come by for a visit, and before leaving in the evening, would tuck a five-rupee note into the palm of my hand. Or the raddiwala would come knocking, and ask to buy my old school books; for a fiver no less. And Ting! just like that, I'd have enough for the Edgar Allan Poe I'd wanted.

After my last post, after all your lovely, thoughtful messages, and after Chotto-Ma had resigned herself to nannies and childminders, something unexpected happened. Ma and Baba decided to travel to us; they arrive next month, and are going to spend the summer here till Chotto-Ma starts full-time school. Which means I now have a very happy little girl who gets to have a summer squished between grandparents, instead of at a childminder's.

Things have a way of working out; as proved to me, years ago, by the curious ways of crispy five-rupee notes.

A few other crispy things also work out just right:

Crisp white wine under springtime sunshine.

Crisp new linen on the bed. Ma gave me these lovely bedcovers and cushions when we went to Kolkata this year. I'm loving the Indian prints; feels like home.

Crisp white paper for Chotto-ma's drawings. Here's a slice of Ramayan - Sita picking flowers, Ram hunting, peacock pecking, sun shining.

Crisp May mornings.

And crisp, fried okra from Bulbulma's kitchen. Okra is one of D's favourite vegetables, and he's grown up with this version. I had it for the first time in his house after we started dating, and now he cooks it for me whenever we get fresh okra at the market.

D's Crispy Okra


500g okra
4 tbs wholewheat brown flour (atta)
Sunflower oil
1/2 tsp red chilli powder

Cut the okra into small circular pieces.
In a bowl, mix the flour with 1 tbs of oil, salt and chilli powder. Mix in with your fingers.
Add the chopped okra and mix well.
Then add a little water at a time till is forms a sticky mix. It should be quite tight and stick to your fingers.
Heat oil in a pan for deep frying. Drop in globs of the mixture, bit at a time, into the hot oil and fry till crispy. It should only take a few minutes.
Drain on kitchen paper, and serve.

Wednesday, 1 May 2013

Kissed her silly and gobbled her up

Chotto-Ma loves going to nursery. She misses it during long holidays; she skips all the way to the school gate, ponytail bobbing, lips smiling. But last week  it suddenly changed. She didn't want to go. She said she'd miss me, hugged my hand to her chest. And a river ran down her cheek.

Taken by surprise, we ran her through a gamut of questions: Did something happen in school? Was she sad, worried, scared about something? Had anyone been unkind?

Well, a boy had held her by the throat and pushed her a few days ago, she said, but that wasn't why she was sad. Was she sure that wasn't why, we asked. "Yes", she said, "I just make sure I don't play near that him any more." I made a mental note to talk to her teacher about the boy, and moved on to other questions.

D and I asked her every question we could think of, but nothing. She wouldn't say why she didn't want to go to school, but she didn't want to. All the while, she tried to blink back tears. We backed off a little; and told her to take her time, tell us what was bothering her when she felt ready.

A couple of hours later, as I sat there with dark thoughts flitting through my head - I have a viciously fertile imagination that travels like a drunkard's sports-car - she came and sat down on my lap. "Maybe we can hug for A Very Long Time when I come back from school every day?", she asked.

And suddenly, I knew. "Are you worried about me going back to work?" I asked. Many months ago, I'd talked to her about me returning to work after she turned four, I'd explained that she would have to stay at a childminder's till we picked her up after work; I'd told her it would start this year, sometime in the summer. She knows it's nearly summer now.

As soon as I asked the question, she buried her face into my hair. A long silence followed. "Maybe", she mumbled after several minutes. So, there it was. A child, sad because her mother's going back to work - nothing to write home about. But, it was what she said after the mumbled 'Maybe' that made me write this here. Here's our conversation as it happened in Bengali. I'll translate in a bit.

Me: Ma-r job niye tomar ki mone hoy?
She: Aami bhabi Ma office jaabe, tokhon aami ekta onno lady-r baarite thakbo. Ba-o thakbe na.
Me: Tokhon tomar sad laage? 
She nods, then after a silence, says: Aami jaani aami jeta bhaabchi, sheta jodi na bhaabi, tahole aamar school-e jete easy hobe. Kintu (and she touches her head), jokhon amar mathar bhetore eta khali bhaabi aar bhaabi, tokhon bhaaba ta stop kora easy hoy na.
Me: (hugging her, my heart in my dry mouth): Tumi eta niye kokhon bhaabo, shona?
She: Aami night-e bed-e boshe boshe bhaabi. Aar morning hole school-e jete chai na, Ma-r shaathe thakte chai.

Translated, that would be:

Me: What do you think of when you think of Ma working?
She: I think...Ma's going to start work soon, and I'll stay in another lady's house. Ba won't be with me either.
Me: That makes you sad?
She nods, then after a silence, says: I know that if I don't think like this, it'll be easier to go to school. But (and she touches her head), when my head thinks these thoughts, it keeps thinking it and thinking it, and I can't stop it easily.
Me: (hugging her, my heart in my dry mouth): When do you think of these things, shona?
She: I sit in bed and think at night. Then in the morning, I don't feel like going to school, I feel like staying home with Ma.

Of course, I talked to her about it some more, hugged her for A Very Long Time, and she felt better when she went to school the next day. It'll pass, I know. But I still wanted to put her words down here, for nothing else but for me to remember.

{You're just four, Chotto-Ma. Yet you sit at night and try to work through your worries without worrying us. You know your thoughts with utter clarity, yet say them aloud after much consideration. You're just four, yet you try without being told to try. It makes me want to hug you in, in, in, and keep you safe. But, like you say, my tummy's too small for you now.}

And so we did what we do best. We kissed her silly and gobbled her up and made her giggle till she could hardly breathe.

We also did a few other things:

D gave Chotto-Ma her first Aikido lesson - he's been waiting to do this since she was a blip. (Throat-grabbing boy, beware.)

I sewed her a dress! It's the first dress I've ever sewn, and though the finish was far from perfect, it made her a very happy bunny.

We read her this book of poetry by Freda Bedi, which we'd bought in Kolkata this year. Its words and drawings are wonderfully evocative - worth a hunt around bookstores.

And we made Shondesh. It's a sweet that Chotto-Ma loves. It reminds her of Kolkata, and of people she misses very much. 

Notun Gurer Kanchagolla
(A subtle, Bengali sweet made with date jaggery. Jaggery can come in different forms - as a hard cake, or in a more syrupy consistency. The latter is called Jhola Gur, and that is what I used. It's available in most Indian/Bangladeshi stores.)


1 ltr milk
Juice of 1 large lemon
4-6 tbs jaggery
1-2  tbs sugar

You'll notice that the the measure for jaggery and sugar isn't specific. That's because the sweetness should be adjusted to your taste. You can skip the sugar completely and make the shondesh with just jaggery.

First, to make the Chhana or cottage cheese: Pour milk in a pan and bring to the boil. Keep the lemon juice handy. As soon as the milk begins to rise, lower heat, and pour in half of the lemon juice. Stir. The milk will begin to curdle instantly. Keep adding a bit of lemon juice, till all the milk has curdled into cheese. You should be left with the white cheese floating in a pale green water, called whey. Sieve the whey away, till you're just left with the cottage cheese.

Leave the cheese in the sieve for 10 minutes to dry it completely. Then knead the cooled down Chhana (cottage cheese) with your hands for a few minutes.

In a non-stick pan, put the the Chhana, add half of the jaggery and put it on a gentle heat. Keep stirring in a gentle round motion. Taste for sweetness, and add more jaggery till you're satisfied.

In a few minutes, the Chhana will start to tighten up. When it's still soft enough to stir easily, take it off the heat. Don't worry if it looks too soft, it'll dry as it cools.

When warm, but not hot, divide them into portions, and with the palm of your hands, shape them into balls. Top each one with a raisin, or a cashew nut, or sprinkle of chopped pistachio.