Sunday 24 November 2013

In step

Our heaters are on now. There's one right below our living-room window, behind the brown buttoned sofa. As the heat rises up the radiator and against the glass, it makes the bare branches outside wobble like trees through tears. Hot air, cold glass: and the world dances. It always takes opposites to be in step.

D and I had our first mulled wine of the season yesterday; Chotto-ma had a hot chocolate topped with a mountain of cream and marshmallows. It was in the same old café, only it had twinkly lights hanging from its windows; it's officially winter. I'm not opposed to the cold this year as I was the last. The grey light, cold wind and the shush somehow seems full of possibilities. In the way that silence has the possibility of song and conversation, or the ttup-ttup-ttup of a hammer. We had new windows fitted yesterday to keep the cold out, and now I can't even hear the wind. The outside is playing out like a silent film, and inside, the three of us - she's drawing a fish, D is playing his guitar, I'm writing to you.

We just finished lunch; on Sundays we always have a Bengali lunch. It's my attempt at giving Chotto-ma a taste of our old Sunday afternoons in Calcutta. And we eat with our fingers, because there are some things that can be eaten no other way. You need to feel the texture, mix it with your fingers and bring it to your mouth like a prayer. Eating a Bengali meal with forks is like playing the piano in washing-up gloves. Chotto-ma now has The Art Of Eating By Hand down pat; she leaves her plate scraped spotless.

Today, we had a dal that Ma used to cook whenever she was in a hurry - a quick boil, a chop-chop, a sprinkle, and done. It's perfect for the winter, and simple like most good things are. A combination of soft and crunchy, sharp and buttery, to bring out a flavour that dances just right.

Like I said, it takes opposites to be in step.

Ma's Hurried Dal
A lemony, buttery lentil soup with raw red onions & tomato


1 cup red lentils
1 small red onion, chopped into little cubes
1 tomato, also chopped into little cubes
A generous dollop of butter
A generous squeeze of lemon
1 green chilli, chopped

Boil the lentils in one-and-a-half cups of water till cooked. Add a little more water if needed, but the consistency, when done, should not be too watery.
Take the boiled dal off the heat and throw in the rest of the ingredients.

Monday 18 November 2013

One hour

Between the time I finish work and the time I pick up Chotto-ma from school, I have one hour. An hour, if I'm ruthlessly thrifty with it: if I overtake old ladies on oedemic feet, and brush past sweet children selling cookies for charity. If I soften, I lose a quarter of that hour. A quarter; that's one slice of a four-slice pizza, when all the food you have for the whole day is that, one pizza.

That's all there is to it; it's my hour. Groceries might need buying, but not in that time. A phonecall might need to be returned, answered. But later. It's not that I do much with The Time. I certainly don't use it well; I don't know if I use it at all. I just know that I need it. I need an hour by myself like I need a drink of water.

I usually walk to the same café every day. It has an old, draughty door, through which the clatter of crockery and the clutter of conversation slip out onto the pavement. I take a coffee, go up the rickety stairs, take a table by the large sash windows, face the wall covered in books, and then, and then I do nothing much. Sometimes, I read. Sometimes, I'm too caught up in Nothing to read. Sometimes I just stare at the yellow-orange trees outside. Their leaves are leaving them now.

Do you have an hour like that?

My café smells pungent, of old drapes and spilled wine. There's such comfort in old, imperfect places don't you think? Even in old, imperfect people, for that matter. Doris Lessing died yesterday, at 94. Her books are here, on the bookshelf, at the café; there are some on my bookshelf at home; all filled with her chiselled, articulate thoughts; 94 years of carrying that mind inside her body. Couldn't have been easy.

The leaves have piled up in an hour. They're waiting there for Chotto-ma to crunch on when we walk home from school. What other purpose could they possibly have? Some of the best things in my day serve no purpose at all. Like autumn leaves on street-sides, like my empty hour, like the way I never let D climb stairs without tickling him from behind so he has to run up helter-skelter, with heavy grocery bags in both hands. No purpose other than to keep my day from disappearing.

And from those grocery bags, here's something I cooked this weekend. It came together from what I had at home; unplanned. It serves no real purpose either, apart from tasting very good. And that's all there is to it.

Halloumi, Avocado & Pomegranate Bruschetta
drizzled with Chilli-Aniseed Oil


Slices of halloumi
1 avocado, coarsely mashed, or sliced into slivers
Olive oil
Dry red chillies

Grill the slices of halloumi on a flat pan, with a drizzle of olive oil, till lightly browned. Heat olive oil in a small pan, drop in a few red chillies and a tsp of aniseed. The chillies don't add much heat, just a lovely smokey flavour. When the aniseed is lightly browned, take it off the heat. Cut slices of rustic bread, layer it first with the avocado, then the halloumi and top it with the pomegranate. Drizzle your bruschetta with the aniseed oil, making sure some of the aniseed get in there too.

"Whatever you're meant to do, do it now. The conditions are always impossible" - Doris Lessing


Sunday 3 November 2013

Feeling a face

I made these some time ago.

There was a time when I used to think that the only way I could ever tell a story was with words. It's the only way I knew how, if at all. I didn't see myself drawing them, telling them with scraps of paper and bits of cloth.

But here's one - it's a set of two pieces, commissioned for the Tedder family. It's about Angelina and Matthew, their three young children, and their yellow-door house. It's also about the song they first danced to, the cats they loved, the garden they grew, and the years that grew in between.

On one hand, there's my fiction: stories that I make up about people who don't exist. And then, there are these - stories that I don't make up. But for both, I start out like a blind man feeling a new face.