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!