Thursday 27 March 2014

A hugger, a kisser, a storybook reader

When we were little, Ma gave me and my brother something of great value, and of little cost. A love of books. She didn't buy us piles of them. She just sat there and read her own. So we got bored and did the same, and then we were never bored again.

My earliest memories of Ma involve half of her face poking out from behind a book. Quiet breathing, page turning, a scowl of concentration sitting above her nose. If she wasn't cooking, or letting me know what she thought of my messy room, she was reading her Hemingways and Durrells, her le Carrés. Or handing me her battered copy of The Old Man and the Sea - probably to stop me reading another Barbara Cartland; I was sixteen. 

I grew up thinking this is what mothers do: they read.

And they did, too. D's mother was no different. After I got married, I was suddenly surrounded by Bengali literature - of which she read everything from the modern to the classics. D remembers her always worrying when she approached the last pages of a book if she didn't have another at hand to start on. Even in the years before her death, when she had trouble walking, she would stubbornly trudge to the local library at least once every week.

Books were how people passed an afternoon, an evening, a lifetime. There were fewer distractions, fewer people flicking their touchscreens.

I started reading to Chotto-ma before she was born. I read The Tale of Peter Rabbit loudly to my tummy every night through my pregnancy. It seemed perfectly logical at the time. Thankfully, D didn't blink an eye, and by the time Chotto-ma was born, we both knew the story by heart. I read her poetry, I read her fiction - loud enough for her to kick inside me in response. A few days before Chotto-ma was born, I remember D walking in on me reading aloud Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's 'Half of a Yellow Sun', shaking his head at my choice of book. Wasn't it a tad early for her, the ravages of a bloody civil-war?

She's five now, and she loves books as much as she loves pancakes. D and I had made a few decisions early on - that we wouldn't give her screens to play with. No iPads (we don't own one), no iPhones, no laptops and certainly no video games. Yes, they're tempting babysitters, especially when you're bringing up a child without any family to give you a break, without a nanny to give you a breather. I'm sure we were sorely tempted, but I'm glad we held out. We now have a girl who's utterly technologically challenged, but she has plenty of time to catch up with that. For now, she has a world inside her head bursting with stories, books to burrow into and leaves and twigs to bring home. That will do.

So, here's a note to my mother: Apart from being a hugger and a kisser, thank god you were a reader, Ma. Amongst a hundred other reasons, I love you for that. For having me grow up with the smell of your old yellow books. You couldn't have passed on a better gift.

Ma reading to Chotto-ma, summer of 2013.

Monday 10 March 2014

Five days

D was away the whole of last week. Well, five days to be fair. But five days too far gone. In yonder-off Canada; a different continent, across Large Water Body, where people go to sleep when we're waking up. I know there's a sea of travelling spouses and partners out there, but thankfully they're not mine. I feel limbless without D to wrestle and hug and wake up to.

It was also Chotto-ma's first stretch without Ba. She missed him so much that she decided to pretend he was in the bathroom. She also wrote him notes, drew him messages and licked his face on skype.

She wrote me a note too, and gave it to me (in an envelope) right after D left for the airport.

Yes, we can make a big soppy brouhaha about five days, which in Chotto-ma's words was "sixty-five days". To hell with moderation, to hell with anti-mush. When he walked in through the door on Saturday morning, we were on him like cling-film on leftovers.

So how did we spend those 'sixty-five days'? Well, apart from waiting for D to come back, we:

Overfed the ducks in the river.

Played dominoes.

Played hooky from school to watch Kung Fu Panda while eating dumplings.

Read books - she hers, I mine.

Had long conversations about life (it's the coolest thing; the things Chotto-ma and I talk about now, cuddled up on the sofa with a blanket on our legs.)

Ate dark red juicy plums.

Brought in spring.

Danced to Fleetwood Mac.

Baked D a Crème Caramel.

Crème Caramel

In India, a crème caramel is called 'pudding'. A pudding is a crème caramel. So, when we first moved to England that's what I expected everyone to agree to. Pudding = crème caramel. But no. Here, pudding = dessert. Everything is a pudding: a tart, a sponge cake, a cheesecake, fruits with jelly and custard. Everything. This seismic food-shift, this pudding-shock, took more time to get used to than the British weather.

In my life, I've had the good fortune of having two people who were masters at the pudding game: Monipishi (what I call my Baba's sister) and Bubulma (what Chotto-ma calls D's mother) - both known (far and wide) for their perfect puddings. Their crème caramels differ from each other's in subtle ways. Monipishi's has a light but slightly denser, maltier, more wholesome texture because she soaks and mixes tea biscuits (Marie in India or Rich Tea in the UK) into the milk base to thicken it before making the pudding; her caramel top is also darker and with a bitter edge, which I love). Bubulma's crème caramels were smooth and silken, light, with firm feet and a jiggly hip, and a more subtle caramel. The first is very close to the Portuguese Pudim Flan, and the second more like the French crème caramel. 

But. Years ago, the first time I ever tried to make a pudding, the only time I ever tried making a pudding: Disaster. My crème caramel collapsed like a Victorian lady whom no amount of sniffing salt could revive. This time, I was determined to do better. Not just I, but Chotto-ma and I. Chotto-ma, my little egg beater. My crème caramel conspirator.

And we did better than better.

NOTE: This recipe is for is Bubulma's silken version. For Monipishi's more wholesome take, in which the spoon slides in smoothly but finds the slightest resistance of a soft cake at the bottom, add 4-6 tea biscuits to the thickened milk mentioned in the recipe, soak till soft, and then mix in well.

Both Monipishi and Bubulma thickened the milk through a gentle boil, since in India it is not usual to add cream to the milk to make it thicker, as with most recipes in the West. 


4 eggs
4 cups of thickened milk (to thicken: gently boil 8-9 cups of milk till halved)
2 tsp vanilla extract
3/4th cup sugar (I don't like my puddings too sweet, so add more if you like)
4 tbs sugar (for the caramel)

Heat oven to 150 degrees celsius.

Take a round baking dish (mine was about 23 cm in diameter) and keep ready. In a small pan, add about 1/2 cup water and the 4 tbsps of sugar for the caramel. Put the pan on the heat. As the water evaporates, the sugar will start to caramelise. When it is a lovely deep amber (or slightly darker, if you want the bitter edge), tip the caramel into the baking dish. Swirl the dish so the caramel spreads and coats the bottom. Let the baking dish cool. The caramel will quickly solidify and set.

Beat the eggs well with the sugar. Mix four cups of the thickened milk into the eggs. Add the vanilla extract. Pour in the milk-egg mix into the baking dish. Take a deep tray and fill it with about an inch of water. Place the baking dish on this. Slip the tray into the lower shelf of the oven for 50-60 minutes.

When it's done, the top should be browned, though the crème caramel will have a worrying jiggle - as long as the jiggle is firm(ish) and not sloppy, don't worry. Take it out, let it cool. Put in into the refrigerator overnight. (I know, it takes the greatest of will and determination to not eat a dessert as soon as it's done! I feel you.)

Next day, slide a knife along the edges to loosen the pudding. Hold a serving plate on top of the dish and turn it upside down. Wait. The pudding should plop down, along with the lovely, caramely syrup.