Sunday 18 December 2016

Books On The Tiled Table #1

Our Christmas shopping is always simple. We gift each other books. We usually go to the local bookshop together, and choose for each other. We browse, discuss, eliminate, browse some more, till we have two books each. I usually have my books chosen (quietly in my head) well before we hit the shop, and am incredibly skilled at guiding D and Chotto-ma into picking those two very books for me. (It's a special power.)

So here's our Christmas reading-loot this year, picked up from here and there.

On the left is Chotto-ma's:
Unnatural Creatures - Stories selected by Neil Gaiman
The Diary of a Space Traveller & Other Stories by Satyajit Ray (we had to order this online)

The middle is mine:
A Manual for Cleaning Women by Lucia Berlin
A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

And the last is D's (and what is his is mine, ha!):
Known and Strange Things by Teju Cole
The Road to San Giovanni by Italo Calvino

Many of you who read the blog have asked me for book recommendations, so I thought I'd start 'Books On The Tiled Table', where I share what I'm reading. If you follow my Instagram, you'll know #onthetiledtable well. (Like a friend said, my table is a celebrity.) It's where everything, from a book to a cup of coffee, gets put down. So this is No. 1 of those posts. #booksonthetiledtable

I wish you all a very happy Christmas! Have a wonderful holiday with family and friends, with good food and much laughter, and books and warm blankets and mugs of hot chocolate. I'll see you back in a shiny new year. Till then, love and hugs!

Friday 25 November 2016

The Art of Autumn

Autumn in Cambridge is like a Monet gone mad. Trees and earth and river move around you, and through you, in swirls. You walk into this breathing artwork every day. Nothing is static.

The leaves float down from tress brushing your arms, the river curves, light sieves in through cracks. The bird-man throws his grains in an arc making the gulls swoop down and up. A cocker spaniel runs after a ball. Next to you, moorhens plough ripples in the water. Cyclists peddle by.

And you walk on. You take everything in, you take nothing in.


Tuesday 15 November 2016

A Postcard from Chotto-Ma

We have a ritual. Whenever we travel, we bring back a postcard on which the little girl writes a few words to go with the picture on the other side. Yesterday, I found the postcard we'd bought in Paris, and gave it to her. I asked her to go downstairs and write something while I finished some chores. It could be anything I said - a poem, a thought, a fact - but it had to fit into her postcard.

When I came back downstairs, she was standing there hiding the postcard behind her. She'd written a poem, she said, but that it wasn't any good. She stood there with all the doubts of anyone who'd ever written anything, and shut her eyes tight when I coaxed the postcard out of her fingers and began to read.

I'm sorry, but I'll have to make you read it too, and drag you through my proud-Ma moment. Because her words surprised me, and made me smile for the rest of the day, and made me squish her many times. Thinking that she'd written something lovely and yet stood there so unsure. That she'd chosen every word and every comma with such care. That there were marks where she'd rubbed out a sentence and replaced it with another. (Three times, she later told me.) And that she'd thought all this with her little 8-year-old head.

PS: November 20, 2016
This was accepted for publication by SmokeLong Quarterly, so we now have a little published writer in the house (!)

Wednesday 2 November 2016

Know you

I notice how the rhythm of this blog keeps changing as my life does. Now that I'm trying to edge a bit more time towards my fiction, while trying to work and live a life and get silly with Chotto-ma, I find less time to write to you. Okay, ramble to you. I miss that. (You better miss it too!)

Blogs have their limitations, don't they? You get to know me better than I do you. But, if you've been on any length of this journey with me, it'd be nice to change that.

I closed the Peppercorns Facebook page a couple of years ago. But my personal Facebook is there, and these days it seems easier to connect with people there, in little bursts, when I don't quite find the time to write longer posts. So if you've been reading what I write, and following this blog, please come along and find me on Facebook if you're on it. It's where I share bits of goings-on, in a fairly selfie-free, non-opinionated space. Haha. (No, really.)

Of course, you can add me as a friend, or click 'Follow', depending on the boundaries of your privacy. But hopefully, it'll let me get to know you outside of this blog, where it's me doing most of the talking!

Also: We just got back from Paris, and since I haven't had the time to sit down and put Paris into words, I'm doing Paris in photographs on FB in small daily doses.

You'll find it, and me, linked here.

Come say 'hi'!

Sending you crunchy autumn leaves and hugs,

Sunday 16 October 2016


One day, after an early morning walk by the river, I came back home with this photograph, and the unexpected urge to write a poem. I did write the poem, and today, it was published by Strands Publishers, making my grey and wet Sunday feel all bright and sunny. It's incidentally my first publication in India, which makes it even more special.

The poem is called 'Wildling', and it's there below the two feisty swans, and online at

I hope you enjoy it, this piece of my river.


Morning has broken
open, bleeding into the river.

The streetlamps are still on.

Two swans float up in unhurried hunger

for bread I do not have.

Twenty-two huddle farther up the river

asleep, their necks wrung

into their wings. A lull

of white feathers on which water does not stick.

Their river is always dry.

It is land.

My river runs by me

reflecting runners, dreams and detritus.

A life of moorings and unmoorings,

a mirror of semi-truths -

where the light of a dog-pissed streetlamp

looks like flecks of real gold.

I stand still, very still. Watching

my body ripple and quiver like a wildling.

A swan passes by and I shatter into pixels.

But I can wait, I have nowhere I need to be.

The waters will calm, I will patch together again.


(Please feel free to share the link on social media, or just with the person sitting next to you - Strands is a wonderful independent publisher, and really deserves the support.)

Friday 7 October 2016


To Chotto-ma:

You turned eight today. So I'm sitting here trying to draw you a phoenix because I know it'll make you squeal with joy.

As you grow older, I find myself less willing to write about you. Not about the books you love and the rocks you collect, but about the person you are. Your thoughts, your heart, the way you look at the world - the things that really matter, the things that make you the very unique eight-year-old you are. So if you're reading the blog some day, when you're as old as me, and see the silences here, know that I'm keeping you to myself. I'm keeping you to yourself.

When we decide to leave our phones and cameras at home for the day, and then suddenly find ourselves living a moment - like you picking wildflowers in the sunset - and I wish I could take a photograph, you remind me of what I'd once told you, "Ma, we can take a photo with our memory."

So that's what we're doing, Ba and I. We're taking photos in the privacy of our memories. And telling you, every day, with words and squishes and the occasional phoenix, how much we love you.

You make us believe in magic.

Monday 12 September 2016

How the Hills Roll

We ended August by driving out to the Lake District, and from there onto Scotland, and got back last week. But as usual, it's taken me longer to come back to this space. I quite enjoy keeping away from the laptop these days. As much as I enjoy coming back to catch up with those of you who are still here. I hope you've been well!

When we reached the Lake District and our little, whitewashed B&B in the village of Near Sawrey, I looked at the hills and realised that I'd forgotten to pack my watercolours. For this, I'm thankful. I could never have done justice to the light and the land, to the greens that were at once opaque and translucent, the ferns that were delicate and raucous, and the dew-soaked smell of wild things.

I could not have captured the trickle of the brook, the scores of tiny snails clinging onto half-eaten leaves, or the smile of the woman who invited us into her garden for freshly-picked runner beans.

I would not have known how to paint the din of the village pub, the warmth of strangers with whom we had many long conversations as we sat with our pints in the evening, nor the wisps of smoke that rose from our coil of Cumberland sausage. 

This was the same pub that Beatrix Potter had painted in her Peter Rabbit books a century-and-a-half ago. And much like the pub and her paintings, her hills haven't changed. They speak straight to your soul, they slow down your thoughts, they inspire poems, and roll on as gently as they always have.

We walked up the hills and down, we met people who told us stories of how their great-grandfathers had built their houses, grown their gardens and died with a love of The Lakes in their heart. We stopped to pick blackberries. They'd been washed shiny from the rains of the night before. We ate the blackberries standing by the road. The bushes were prickly, the fruits sweet and tart. They stained our fingers the same shade as the sky at sunset, when the last light dipped behind the hills.

by Seamus Heaney

Late August, given heavy rain and sun
For a full week, the blackberries would ripen.
At first, just one, a glossy purple clot
Among others, red, green, hard as a knot.
You ate that first one and its flesh was sweet
Like thickened wine: summer's blood was in it
Leaving stains upon the tongue and lust for
Picking. Then red ones inked up and that hunger
Sent us out with milk cans, pea tins, jam-pots
Where briars scratched and wet grass bleached our boots.
Round hayfields, cornfields and potato-drills
We trekked and picked until the cans were full,
Until the tinkling bottom had been covered
With green ones, and on top big dark blobs burned
Like a plate of eyes. Our hands were peppered
With thorn pricks, our palms sticky as Bluebeard's.

We hoarded the fresh berries in the byre.
But when the bath was filled we found a fur,
A rat-grey fungus, glutting on our cache.
The juice was stinking too. Once off the bush
The fruit fermented, the sweet flesh would turn sour.
I always felt like crying. It wasn't fair
That all the lovely canfuls smelt of rot.
Each year I hoped they'd keep, knew they would not.


Saturday 23 July 2016

40 and Fiction

I turned 40 yesterday - and it turns out, 40 is a ridiculously good thing to be.

It started with an email the day before my birthday. The subject said 'Fiction Commission' and was from an editor in New Zealand who'd read my fiction online, and wanted to commission a story for her journal. I sent her a story called 'Dugdugee' which I’d whittled and tweaked for over a year, and within hours it was signed off, sold, and slotted for publication in September. 

THEN, I get another email from the lovely editor of Berfrois, a magazine I absolutely love, saying that they’d be publishing my story ‘Driving North’. The story was published yesterday. On my birthday! (I told you it was ridiculous.

AND finally, I got to wake up in Copenhagen with D and Chotto-Ma and a hundred sweet messages and phonecalls from all over.

And I thought, damn. I should've turned forty years ago.

PS. Here's my desk today. A strip of green called Sonder Boulevard in the Vestebro area of Copenhagen. This city is so my kind of place! Next to me, D and Raya are on their fourth game of chess. 

And here's 'Driving North' on Berfrois. This story surprised me with it's journey - it was longlisted for the Bath Short Story Award and shortlisted for the Brighton Prize last year. It was subsequently published in Rattle Tales 4, a print anthology. And now, in this great new home.

Of course, you have to be nice and read it because it's my birthday. Let me know what you think!


Wednesday 6 July 2016

The Day Harry Potter Came Home

Every day, Chotto-ma eats breakfast, lunch and dinner, and a fourth meal which consists of devouring pages and pages of J.K. Rowling's imagination. The Harry Potter books have been Daily Dietary Requirement for the past year-and-a-half when they first came home. She started book one on her sixth birthday, and I saw her world shift a little. She has been eating steadily through them since. She reads them, re-reads them and then goes back to the first book and starts all over again. Oh there are other authors in between. And there's a book on Greek mythology weighing as much as she does, which she loves (she can tell you intricate details about every god, from Hera to Cronus, and their dark and twisted lives). But even gods don't wield the same power as J.K. Rowling.

We tried to space out the Harry Potter books, googled them for age-appropriateness, but after finishing each book, Chotto-ma would sit in front of the bookshelf, quietly, looking up at the set with the mournful eyes of a cocker spaniel. "Wait till you're eight" was obviously not going to work.

She has the final book left - we've managed to keep it for the school summer holidays, which means an excruciating wait of another fifteen days. This holiday incidentally includes a road trip through Scotland and ends with Edinburgh, where we're going to do the Harry-Potter-walking-tour, and visit the cafe where J. K. Rowling wrote. The seven-year-old goes on her first pilgrimage.

While she waits this Excruciating Wait for the final book, she has decided to redesign the Harry Potter book covers since she doesn't like the ones they come in. So the books have now been covered with white paper, and yesterday, she finished illustrating the first one - 'Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone.'

For the Muggles amongst you, the cover shows The Forbidden Forest, with a dead unicorn lying on the forest floor dripping silver unicorn blood.

Here it is, from Chotto-ma, to share with you. It made me awfully proud.


Wednesday 25 May 2016

A Week in Pessoa's City

Lisboa. Pessoa. They rhyme. They're related too. Fernando Pessoa is Lisbon's favourite son. A writer who lived, breathed and wrote the city. You will find bits of Pessoa everywhere you walk in Lisbon. The silhouette of his thin, sharp profile, hat on the head, is the face of the city - it's on posters and tea-towels, on the canvases of roadside artists, on t-shirts and old trams.

Pessoa was born in a fourth-floor apartment in the area of Chiado in Lisbon. Our apartment, through no crafty planning, was also in Chiado; and on the fourth floor. We were obviously following the right footsteps.

The apartment's long balcony looked down on Largo do Camoes, a patterned square that seems to frame life in the city. It's where people sit with their morning newspapers or hurry across to their day jobs, it's where Tram 28 curves on it's way to neighbouring hoods, where students lounge on stairs, an old woman feeds pigeons and where we ate our breakfast every morning; a breakfast of coffee and warm Pastel de Natas. We did not have a choice really, not when the best little bakery in Lisbon, Manteigaria, sat beneath our apartment and woke us up with the smell of it's famed tarts early in the morning.

Tram 28. It is an old, yellow, iconic box, trundling up and down Lisbon, on which we hop on after breakfast. It's oozing people - people going to work, ladies with coiffured hair and tall umbrellas that get in the way, toddlers throwing tantrums, mothers saying shhh. It's just right. Not a tram that's been relegated to tourist entertainment, but one that runs like a vein through the heart of Lisbon, taking its people where they need to be.

Lisbon is a city full of sharp inclines, with steep streets that dip and rise. The tram winds up these narrow lanes and takes us to my favourite area of Lisbon. Alfama.

Alfama is Lisbon's oldest quarter. A Moorish patch that sits on the hill looking out to sea. It's the old city, it's where Lisbon was born before it trickled down the hill and spread into the city it is today. Alfama with its old houses of thick walls was one of the few pieces of Lisbon that survived the great earthquake of 1755. And with it, survived its character, colour and soul. Once the neighbourhood of the poor, it is today full of artists and musicians - you can find a little shop tucked in the alleys where a lady called Maria sits and paints tiles with crushed minerals, you can browse the flea market of Feira de Ladra on a Tuesday or Saturday and walk past antique toys and handpainted ceramics, or you can step into one of Alfama's little restaurants in the evening to listen to the haunting sounds of Fado where musicians sit by your table singing tales of life and lament.

When you climb down from Alfama, you walk back into that part of Lisbon at level with the waters next to which it sits; at the open mouth between two curves of land where the Atlantic flows in and forms the Tagus River. Here, by the river, the city throbs with a different rhythm. Young, modern. Broad pavements and promenades, the chic food market of Ribeira, shops and restaurants, tourists and tricksters.

There's much to explore in Lisbon: Chiado, Baixo, Bairro Alto, and farther away, Belem with it's formal gardens, mansions and monastery. You'll have your favourite, just as we did.

Fernando Pessoa had an intrinsic similarity with the city he so loved. Pessoa was known as much for his poetry and existential musings as he was for a particular 'quirk' of his writing life: He did not write only as Fernando Pessoa, he created more than seventy versions of himself. He refused to call then pseudonyms - after all, a pseudonym is just a different name an author chooses to write under - Pessoa called his avatars heteronyms, for they were personalities in their own right. Each of these writers, which extended from Pessoa himself, were distinct in their character, appearance, even life and livelihood. In fact, his heteronyms often had views and opinions diametrically opposite to Pessoa's own.

Just as Fernando Pessoa was many writers, Lisboa is many cities. And each part, each district, has a different voice. As you traverse the city on tram and foot, one of these voices will speak to you directly, and that will be the place where you sit down, sip a drink and watch the sun go down.

Places to eat

These were four of our favourites in Lisbon:

Mercado da Ribeira A food hall with a difference, where some of the top restaurants and chefs of the city come together. Modern, relaxed and with the most tempting, confusing array of stalls and choices.

Cantinho do Aziz This family-run Mozambique restaurant tucked away in the alleys of Alfama gave us one of the best meals of our stay. Portugal's long liaison with Mozambique has given its food a unique richness and flavour that you won't find anywhere else.

Ramiro You might've watched Anthony Bourdain digging into his seafood here. It lives up to every hype, and serves everyone from local groups of grannies to some of the top chefs in the city who come here to get their seafood fix.

Manteigaria Forget about going all the way to Belem for the best Pastel de Natas. It's overrated. But what is not, is this little shop in Chiado, which rings a brass bell early in the morning when their first batch of Natas is baked. It's perfect.

Wednesday 20 April 2016

Following the Swallows

We've been away. Not very far - just a few hours' flight across the continent - but when you live without phones, laptops and wi-fi passwords for a couple of weeks, you go farther away than the miles you travel, and take longer to come back. You switch off, become absent, but find yourself more present than before. Portugal is a country that rewards you for that; for being present, not just physically, but with all your senses undistracted and available. For this country is a feast for the eyes and ears and nose, for the touch and the taste.

In his novel 'Blindness' Portuguese writer and Nobel laureate José Saramago writes of an epidemic where people start going blind. Only, their blindness is not dark, but a stark, brilliant white. Towards the end of the novel, Saramago writes "I think we are blind, Blind but seeing, Blind people who can see, but do not see." He could have been writing about us, struck blind by the white glows of our screens, riders of another epidemic. Travel is my way of switching off and breathing, and only being in one place at a time.

All you need is a map, an instinct, and a few conversations. Strangers will show you the way, give you their time and their kindness, they will warn you of dangers, give little gifts to your child wherever she goes, they will point you to a tiny restaurant, barely a restaurant, where for ridiculously little money you will eat a meal you will not forget.


Our journey starts in Porto. A city crisscrossed with tramlines that weave their way around old balconied houses. From our high-ceilinged, sun-filled room, roads slope up and down walking us to the city's oldest bookstore, quietest church, busiest streets and most famous pork-stuffed sandwiches. But what charms us about Porto are its people. They surprise us. It's a big city with a small-town openness, a sense of generosity you don't expect in such bustling streets. We walk into a shop that is about to close for the day, we buy something for Chotto-ma, the man wraps it up, crouches down and gives to her, then brushes away the money we hold out. "I gift her," he says, "no pay."

That's how Portugal starts off, and continues.


From Porto, we take a train eastwards, deeper into the country, to a little town called Lamego. The train track often runs so close to the waters of the Duoro River we feel we're afloat: we're on a train, oh we're on a boat, a train, a boat! says Chotto-ma.

When we reach Lamego, we find a town lazing in the afternoon sun, it's benches busy with the gossip of town-elders, its fountains rimmed with children, and it's backdrop rising in tiers of holy drama in the form of a 600-stair cathedral. We take our cue from the town and pass our time sitting in outdoor cafes, reading, watching life go by, and learning new Portuguese words from people we meet.

And we climb. The 600 stairs to the cathedral. My muscles scream. Our climb to each tier is relieved by fountains of sweet, quenching water, and the shade of camellia trees bursting pink with flowers. And finally, when we reach the top, the view is glorious. You look down on rooftops and mountains and clouds lying beneath like a painting.

In Lamego, we meet more wonderful people, Chotto-ma walks out of places holding more gifts, we eat one of our best meals in a restaurant filled with locals, where no one speaks English and we point to other tables to show them what we want. We talk with our hands and our smiles, and everyone understands each other perfectly.

From Lamego, we make our way to the midst of the Duoro Valley, to gentle, terraced hills, green from the rains, cut through by the Duoro River. It is breathtaking. As our car curves through the gates of the quinta which will be our home for the next few days, we know this is going to be something special.

A quinta is a traditional country house, and ours is so rich in history that every room has a story to tell. And no-one to tell it better than its owner Maria Manuel Cyrne, Viscountess of all she surveys, and a woman of warmth and spirit. As a young girl, Maria grew up in this house, surrounded by beautiful things, running free amongst vineyards and olive trees. But her family lost the house and land when Portugal rose in revolution. They moved out, though the memories stayed. Maria spent her youth and adult life dreaming of returning to the life she remembered.

Finally in her fifties, she bought the house back, though most of its rooms had been destroyed, and of the intricately carved ceilings, only one remained. After painstaking work, the quinta now stands beautifully restored; it is home to Maria's immediate and extended family who live and work here. We had acres to explore, and crackling fires and sumptuous meals to come back to. And like in the rest of Portugal, for a price one cannot imagine anywhere else in Europe.


From the north, we take the train to the very rural south, to Alentejo, a region still without the smudges of tourism, where you can walk miles along a searing blue coastline without meeting a soul, and only occasionally the odd hiker. The landscape couldn't be more different from the valleys of the north. Here, the eye roams over long, flat stretches of rugged bush scattered with cork oaks and pines and olive trees and a coastline with craggy ochre cliffs rising out of the wild froth of the sea. The cliffs cup tiny coves and the beaches are empty except for a local walking his dog or a lone surfer cresting a wave. Along a beach, you discover a small family-run restaurant looking out to the sea, serving fresh fish grilled to perfection.

In Alentejo, we stay in a rural quinta in the middle of fields of yellow flowers, its whitewashed walls bordered with the region's traditional stripe of cobalt blue. A beautiful house originally built in 1826, inviting you in with old books, board games and hearty breakfasts; a restoring stop for hikers. We spend our days cycling for miles around, on rocky country roads lined with bush and sea, broken only by the sounds of cowbells and the chaotic chirping of nesting swallows. At midday, hot and hungry, we stop at the small town of Zambujeira Do Mar for a lunch of grilled dourada, or rice cooked with monkfish and shrimps, served with a pitcher of Alentejo's wonderful wine.

From Alentejo we take the train to our last stop. Lisbon, or Lisboa, or 'a boa-constrictor called Liz' as Chotto-ma likes to think of it. And like a boa-constrictor, the city is not easily squeezed into a paragraph, so I'll leave Lisboa for the next post. I hope you'll come back; take a walk with me in one of the most interesting cities in Europe. Until then, here's to birdsong, fields of yellow flowers, and to switching off!