Thursday, August 18, 2011

Smooth Sailing through Stormy Skies

This evening, Sameera and I drove out to Khar -Santa Cruz (a Bombay suburb) so I could talk with her friend, Beena for my article. It was a rainy monsoon day here, the first since I got here on Monday so I quite welcomed it. It took 45 minutes or so to drive a few miles so we made the most of our time to catch up, as her driver Suresh adeptly dealt with crazy traffic, pelting rain and the strange and convoluted directions to where we had to go. I could not make head or tail out of them but apparently Sameera and Suresh could because we ultimately arrived.

Storm clouds gather over north Bombay, seen from my hotel room

It struck me that it was already almost dark. After all, it was only about 6 pm. But here in India, so close to the equator, sunrises and sunsets happen around pretty much the same time, 365 days of the year. I am used to long days of sunshine during California summers and to a slowly rising and setting sun. In India, it is dark, then dawn, followed by brilliant sunshine. Or there's hot afternoon, a quick sunset and dusk, culminating in instant night. No lingering glow of sunset pinks, except if you are standing by the ocean.

I had spent the morning in the hotel, working on interviews, making more phone calls for upcoming appointments and getting a good run at the health club. My butler, Poonam (she is actually one of two assigned to me) brought me breakfast -- tea, fruit -- dragon fruit, papaya, kiwi, watermelon, all beautifully cut and served -- and muesli. She insisted on pouring my tea, adding milk to my muesli, and hovering over me as I ate. I felt rather as my daughter might feel at breakfast time!

So I sent her off, telling her I had to get ready to leave and would get bites of food between getting my things together. "I will wait for you downstairs, Ma'am," she said. "If you must," I sighed to myself. And indeed she was there to escort me to the car!

At Sameera's we sat down right away to a special Parsee lunch she had ordered from a Zoroastrian caterer friend for the festival of Pateti. Something you should know about Sameera, apart from the fact that she has been one of my closest friends for more than half our lives, is that she knows everyone, stay friends with everyone she knows (yes, even before Facebook made it easy), has her finger on the pulse of whatever they do, and is never surprised by whom you might know.

I told her once about speaking with the son of a well-known Hindi short story writer, an O. Henry of India. The son is a publisher working with my father on a book, and he was interested in knowing more about my writing. I was thrilled to be speaking to a man whose father I greatly admired and, talking to Sameera the very next day, I said excitedly, "Guess whom I just spoke with?" and told her. "Oh yes," she replied calmly, "My aunt was married to him long back," and proceeded to tell me the story of their life.

So I am not surprised she has a friend who caters traditional food for Parsee festivals. In fact, I was delighted she had invited me to share the feast of mutton cutlets, apricot chicken, fish in a creamy sauce, mutton pulao and dhansak (lentils cooked with a traditional Parsee spice blend) with her and her two daughters, aged 8 and 4.

Sameera & Atiya check out a gift I brought from Keya

The Parsees are said to have come to India from Persia long ago, no one quite knows when. They settled in Gujarat, India's western most coastal state which must have been easy to reach by sea from Iran even back then. The food certainly bears signs of its Persian provenance but it was also influenced by its adopted home and by the British colonials who ruled it. Parsee food is a blend of sweet, savory, meat-rich dishes cooked with fruits like dried apricots and a plethora of Indian spices and some oddly English-sounding dishes like saas macchi (sauced fish) and lagan nu custard (wedding custard). It was warm, comforting and just what I needed!

After my interview with Beena, Sameera and I drove to a nearby shop we were told might have some products I should look at for my story. As I nearly always find here, the shopkeeper was helpful when I told him I was writing about his community's cuisine and introduced me to another vendor who would be able to help me source some interesting ingredients. By this time the rain was really coming down and we had to rush to our dinner at Sonal's.

Sonal, Sameera, Jerry (the fourth in our group this evening) and I have known each since 1990 when we all worked at the Free Press Journal. Sameera and I were working our first jobs, fresh out of journalism school, Sonal of the beautiful lush, long black hair and evocative eyes joined the FPJ soon after at the copy desk.

Jerry was a brash, brilliant young free-lance writer who would arrive like a tornado in the newsroom, plonk himself down at a computer to file a story, fill the room with his energy and loud voice and flabbergast the rather conservative staff with his ribald stories and on-the-money but uncensored commentary about people (present or absent) and events. He set the place humming and we fell into deep affection with him instantaneously.

That time, 20 years ago, reporting news stories was a part of our lives peppered by hard work, much laughter over endless cups of chai at the sports desk, numerous flirtations and misunderstandings, and the passionate angst and intensity that only 20 somethings can have. We have all stayed in touch ever since.


JP, Sonal, SK sip some local wine as we catch up!

This evening Sonal was cooking for us and we thought it would be Gujarati vegetarian food since she is from Gujarat. Sameera and I were contemplating a comparison with the afternoon's Parsee, meaty meal! But Sonal had other ideas.

Having lived for many years in Singapore, she is fond of east Asian flavors and cooked up some fabulous vegetarian Laksa (soupy noodles with coconut milk, lemon grass and chili paste) and a wonderful salad of beans, sprouted mung, finely sliced red cabbage, pomegranate and chopped apple with a sweet-soya dressing. It satisfied on every level -- textures, earthiness, flavor, meatiness, and color. A rare and delicious treat. There were also some snow peas and mushrooms tossed in sesame seed and, for dessert, pears poached in ginger, accompanied by some fresh fig and honey ice cream.

Dinner and reminiscences, surrounded by some really striking art and furniture
at Sonal's home

But what was most satisfying to enjoy was the comfort between friends who have known each other as long as we have. For conversations to bounce from Bergman to ribaldry to Free Press memories to Zoroastrianism with the utmost ease and with unconscious inclusion speaks to a deep and real understanding coupled with the realization now that we need to take what we can get while we can get it. No regrets, no what ifs, just making the most of what is offered. Time to digest later.....

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Back in Bombay Again... with a twist

Welcome Elephant in my Hotel Room

For the first time ever, I am in my old city, Bombay/Mumbai, and not in my college dorm, not in the working women's digs I lived in two decades ago, not in a home my husband and I shared, and not at my in-laws where I have stayed on every vacation since moving to the USA in 1996.

Everything is changing. I am in a hotel that did not even exist when I called Bombay home from 1989-1995 and wrote with 20-something passion about architecture, housing and urban development issues for one of the city's oldest broadsheets.

I am on the 28th storey of a hotel built on land in a neighborhood that was once chock full of bustling cloth mills and that would not, by law, have been allowed to be built back then! The mills stopped humming during labor protests in the 1980s and never re-opened.

By the early years of this century, loose ends from pending lawsuits between mill owners and labor unions were being tied up and land was freed from zoning restrictions. Owners are now selling these very profitable properties to developers who build towering high rises to support a rapidly growing island city. Land is at a premium and the unofficial population is a staggering 19 million. That is the history lesson!

Bombay's skyline looking south and east toward the docks

What boggles my mind right now, apart from the daily changing skyline that I no longer recognize, is the fact that I am here on my very ownsome, a state I have not achieved in this town before.

What is hard to grasp and accept is the quiet that only an air-conditioned room with the double paned windows and heavy drapes of a fancy hotel can create. I don't hear the sound of the koyal up here, singing me awake in the morning, or the flute wallah walking down the lane, playing one of the reed flutes he has made himself.

It is a strange sense of displacement in a place suspended out of reality. I am not accustomed to this detachment from a constantly humming and humid metropolis. Is this kind of escape how the privileged are able to keep clear of the problems and challenges that 95% of the people in my country face?

I am certainly not blase about the many people who hover about me at every turn in this fortress of luxury, 'butling' and cleaning, smiling and scraping, kowtowing and doing their lovely best to make me and every other guest here happy.

Service in India is a centuries old tradition. But it is not one I have ever been comfortable with, or reveled in. I'd rather get my own tea, thank you. Because, you see, I can't shake off the fact that my young woman "butler" has to make her unsafe way home on a bus or on foot at 2 am -- where does she live? -- after she has finished waiting on me.

Or that after driving me from the airport to the hotel in chilled comfort, my chauffeur has to catch a muggy commuter train at midnight, sleep for a few hours and hop back on the next train for a 2 hour journey to start another work day.

And that shared table... though I am here to write about food and I am eating it this first day, I don't seem to take it in. There were six of us at dinner tonight -- my mother-in-law, sister-in-law, her husband and their two sons.

But after a day of talking about food and cooking, I found myself unable to eat much. Perhaps it's just jetlag, perhaps it is me preparing mentally for some serious eating over the next few weeks.

Whatever the cause, tonight's meal was more about communing with family about dear and departed ones and then, strangely, saying goodbye myself and going somewhere I have never called home.

And yet it is apropos. After all I am here to write about a community of Indians who, for a time, had nowhere in this nation to call home!

Getting ready to write the blog again!

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Mother's Mother's Day

This blog is about family, food and memories. Many of mine were created by my wonderful mother and grandmothers. So when I read the beautiful letter my 65 year old mother, Meera, wrote this year to her 92 year old mother for Mother's Day, I thought she should really be read by more people than just her children.

So I am honored to introduce my mother, Meera Marathe as my guest blogger today. She and her siblings called my grandmother Vahini, which means sister-in-law, because that is how they heard their young aunts and uncles refer to her since my grandfather was 'Anna' (pronounced Uhn-na) or "older brother" to them.

To me, she was Vahini Aji (Sister-in-law Grandma)! Her name is Surekha Sirsikar and not only was she was an amazing woman and mother but the best, most energetic, fun, loving grandmother anyone could dream of. Climbing guava trees to pick the best fruit for us, cooking fudge and all sorts of other treats that we could eat any time we liked, playing cards with us on hot summer afternoons, happily telling us stories no matter how often we asked for them, and never, EVER speaking a cross word. But enough, I will let my mother share her mother now.


Mothers day may be an excuse to send good wishes to ones mother once a year. But I think of you many times a day every day. There are so many things that you did for me and taught me that I cant imagine what life would have been without them.

Forgiveness and unconditional support and self-discipline are the first things that come to mind, Vahini, when I think of you. Every time I made a mistake I was forgiven and then told where I was wrong. If I lost anything or broke anything, was not nice to someone or did wrong I was never spanked or yelled at. It is so important for a child to feel secure in his parents. I always felt that with you and Anna I had the most wonderful childhood. Naturally therefore I too try to forgive and support my children.

You taught us to appreciate good food. You cooked it for us under the most difficult and even peculiar circumstances. Patiently, you made the dishes each one of us liked. We all wanted different things for breakfast or dinner and for each of us you thoughtfully made them,even as you insisted that we taste everything that had been cooked.We had to finish what was served to us. We could take more of whatever we wanted. Even as you cooked things we were allowed to taste the goodies and not forbidden to do so as in many other homes.There were always snacks and different types of food at home so we were able to have a variety and not get bored with the same stuff daily. We had western food, a variety of regional Indian food, Chinese food and you acquired new recipes all the time. I have learnt to cook seeing you do things, although you never taught me anything. I have consciously taught my children to love food and cooking. We all enjoy cooking and food. Thank you. As you know, the influence carries on so that Sameer always cooks the main dishes for parties at his home and Kaumudi has gone farther and become a recognized chef.

Meera, age 9

I remember how you allowed us to have cookouts in the garden or yard with our friends and supervised us. You gave us pots and pans,any ingredients we asked for and other equipment to enjoy ourselves.It was such fun. All our friends and the four of us had fun cooking and eating what we made in the garden. We learnt a great deal from such experiences, but most importantly, we had a very happy time.

Anna & Vahini (seated) seeing off their younger son, Nishu (blue jacket) who was headed to the NDA. Meera & her sister Maya stand behind their parents

You showed us by example how to face hardship and difficult situations. You drove Ramesh to the hospital without crying or panicking when he broke his leg. Each time I was ill you sat by me and massaged my legs or head and comforted me. You fearlessly extracted the big nail that Ramesh accidentally drove into Nishus thigh before scolding the culprit. When Maya had diphtheria you stayed by her side throughout in the hospital and helped her recover. When Anna was brought back from NEFA, now Nagaland, with his harrowing experience of being snowbound, and everyone feared that he might even lose a limb or two, you showed uncommon grit and strength. And you supported him and the family despite knowing that this setback spelt the end of his bright career when he was barely 42.

Even the one time you yourself were in hospital with a slipped disc and in great pain and more or less immobilised, it was not your pain that troubled you, but concern for the two of us at home alone. You worried if we would be safe by ourselves. Anna was in NEFA then and the boys in the NDA (National Defence Academy). You lived with both us sisters in the separated family quarters in Delhi, managing very well. In this and such ways did you train us to become independent. It stood me in good stead, indeed, with Aditya and all his health problems and all the other times I have had to face any difficulty.

Vahini-Anna (center) with their younger daughter, Maya (far right) and one of their daughters-in-law, Manisha with her child, Neena

You always bought clothes, gifts and necessaries for all of us but I cant ever think of an occasion when you got a sari or any cosmetics for yourself. Sacrifice and unselfishness were the ideals you taught us simply by example. In your footsteps I have never used any cosmetics except cream for dry skin in winters.

Hospitality and an open house for our friends and relatives is a trait all of us have learnt from you and Anna. He invited the whole world to your table and you fed it. We do the same and so do our children. You always had some young officer or a relative or friend for a meal. You always had extra food and an extra plate at the table. I remember occasions when even after we had cleaned up the kitchen and got ready for bed, guests arrived and whole fresh meals had to be cooked. There were kerosene stoves and woodstoves in those days, not the comfort of gas or electric stoves. Yet you did all that was expected cheerfully and without complaint. We were there sometimes to help you but often than not you did everything on your own.

You taught us to do things well and beautifully. We always had flowers in vases, a nicely arranged drawing room, cushion covers and table cloths you had embroidered, a beautifully laid out dining table with shining silverware and crockery. The food you brought to the table was displayed attractively, whether it was Indian or western food, a sit down dinner or a buffet. And you sang! We were very happy to have a mother who sang beautifully and who was always humming as she worked. Always there when we needed you, never nosy or bossy, you welcomed our friends smilingly even if we were not home.

Our home was home to many officers, too, who were away from their own families, sometimes in bewildered states of mind, sometimes homesick, sometimes in real trouble. They were able to drop in when they felt like a cup of tea or, tired of the Mess mess’, wanted home cooked food.

Nishu, Meera, Maya with their mother

(Alas, I have no young pix of my older uncle, Ramesh to include)

Unlike the women around you, you never went to coffee klatches or gossip or rummy (cards) sessions with other women. You went if help was required or there was any occasion. You never gossiped with anyone or spread any rumours. I dont go for any womens dos either. However, I do indulge in gossip for fun and do also criticise people now and then!

You didnt spend any money on cosmetics or makeup, never went on personal shopping sprees like so many Army wives. Yet you were always the most beautiful and most beautifully turned out woman in the station. I have always seen you well turned out and presentable, never in nightclothes dawdling or lazing about. Up early in the morning, brushed and washed, ready for the day with a smile. And you kept yourself fit. You exercised regularly and I have followed your example to this day.

You were a picture of tolerance and forbearance. Even if you had a headache you bore it quietly and carried on. I have not enjoyed good health like you. I do, however, have a great degree of tolerance and can bear a great deal of pain before complaining. I avoid medication, just like you.

You never went to your family for visits like most women do. If you went at all it was with all of us. Your love and care of us mattered more to you than your personal satisfaction of going to see your brothers or mother. I have done the same. If I go we both go together briefly, and earlier we went as a family with the children. Yet you were always there when we needed help.

I never saw you borrowing things from neighbours as they always borrowed from us. You ensured that we had all we needed or went without.

All servantsavailable to you because Anna was in the Army, but who almost never reduced your workwere paid on the 1st or 2nd of the month. You knew that it was difficult for them to manage on their wages and did not wish to add to their woes by delaying paying them. And you never bought things on credit. That is the way to stay within a budget. Attitudes to borrowing have changed in our society over the years, but we follow your rule. We hardly even use the credit card. When we do, we pay the dues the day the demand arrives.

If there were leftovers in the kitchen, you offered the fresh food to us and made sure you ate the leftovers. If a dish fell short, you said that you were full or didnt like it, really, so that we would get a bigger portion of it. Such was your selfless devotion to your children and husband. Today people may be puzzled by your ways or even frown upon them. Or call them foolish. We only feel immense respect for you because to you your family mattered above everything else. And yet you married for love’, adventurously going away from such home as you had to be with the man you loved. Your personal relationship with Anna and your devotion to him have been another (almost unattainable) ideal for me.

Among all these roles that you played over your long life, the role of Mother is what mattered to us your children most, naturally. And it is that role that the world celebrates on this day each year.

Meera, aged 33, laughs as she serves cake at Kaumudi's 10th birthday party in London, Canada

So, Vahini, I wish you a very happy Mothers Day. May every day be good for you, too. There was so much to learn from you that even now I may have missed out some things in my list!

I am like you in many ways, although I have a lot of Anna in me also. I love you very much. At your very great age you have the health that you built throughout life. Enjoy your years and smile, smile, smile.

With special love and hugs for this day,


09 May 2011