Sweet and sour


Quick, what’s the first thing that comes to your mind when I say the word: Jalebi

If you’ve grown up in India, sometime in the 90’s, then let me describe this for you.

A sulking boy, his head sunk low, marches into a railway station. He throws his bag on to the bench and perches himself, continuing to frown. He tells an ‘uncle’ that he has decided to run away from home because everyone scolds him. But then, when he finds out that there are hot jalebis being made at home, his eyes light up, and he decides to abandon his plans of running away (just for another 20 years, that is!)

Come on, you know what I’m talking about. Let’s say that together now,
Jalebi!

Here’s the iconic ad (in Hindi) for a not-so-healthy cooking oil, to refresh some old memories.

Jalebis are sweet orange bundles of pure sin—zero nutrition, and complete addiction. So I can understand why it is simple for people to fall in love with them. What I don’t understand though, is why they are almost universally prepared by the neighbourhood halwais (confectioners) only during the evenings. As I would find out, years later, this wasn’t as universal a truth, as I thought it to be.

* * *

We reached Allahabad in the morning, and my stomach was grumbling a little. “You want to get some breakfast? Let me treat you to the local speciality here.” It was our second trip to my in-laws’ house, about a month after our wedding—a new family, a new town, a completely new culture. I was expecting a very special something that would blow my mind. And blow my mind, it did!

“You know how jalebis are made only in the evenings in Delhi? Well, in these parts of the world, you won’t find jalebis in the evening. They’re made exclusively in the mornings. And they’re had for breakfast, with dahi (curd/yogurt).”

Say what?

In my world, curd was meant to be had as is, as a cool refreshing dish; as a dip with savoury paranthas; as a main course with rice (thayir sadam, yum!); or as a dessert in mishti doi or lassi. But sour curd with jalebi? It just didn’t sound right. The mental picture of the two together, ruined both dishes for me. Sitting at a table at a local halwai, though, I saw several customers enjoying their jalebi dipped in curd.

Eventually, I tried it too. The point is, apparently, to lessen the sweetness of jalebis with dahi. So that you increase your capacity to eat more jalebis (yay, for cholesterol and sugar!) I get the logic. But the taste, I suppose, is an acquired one. Even after several attempts, I always end up relishing them separately.

Dahi Jalebi

I had often wondered how people could eat jalebis with rabri (sweet condensed milk). Oh, how the mere thought of that much sweet hurt! But try as I might, dahi with jalebi will be more of a mystery to me.

So which foods do you find difficult to understand?


Photo taken with Moto G3. Click/tap to enter my Flickr Photostream.


This is post #8 in this year’s NaBloPoMo, or as Ra calls it Nano Poblano

NaBloPoMo = National Blog Posting Month = Thirty straight days of blogging

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Music on the move


Of all my childhood memories, our Saturday routine has perhaps left the biggest imprint. Every Saturday, we went to the Vinayak Temple and the adjoining market at Sarojini Nagar.

Appa drove his old Premier Padmini – we used to call it the Fiat – on the near empty roads. The FM radio in the car was always set to All India Radio 102.6 MHz – that was the only station back then. It was our only source of contemporary music, and it was all we needed. We would sing along in loud voices to distorted lyrics that our ears chose to hear.

Years later, the Fiat was scraped. Our Saturday visits continued – with a new in-car radio for company. We retained the Fiat’s radio system.

Apart from the controls on her face, there was little to cover the body of that radio, save a raw metal exterior and lots of wires hanging loose. Anna rigged her up with a set of small speakers and connected it to a plug.

Some years later, we relocated. For a while we continued to visit Sarojini Nagar. But that trip was long and tiring and we began visiting a different temple nearer to our new house. The old car radio, though, was still going strong at home. She became my faithful companion while I prepared for my final school exams, and subconsciously memorized lyrics of John Denver’s songs… I hear her voice in the morning hour as she called me.

I went to college and got my first feature phone – one with an FM radio. Over the next several years, more sophisticated phones followed. And today, my smartphone has replaced the need for a radio altogether.

I don’t know what happened to that car radio system. Maybe it was given away, maybe scraped, but certainly it is in a very different shape right now as compared to what she was back then – just like everything else from my childhood:

Many shops we visited in Sarojini Nagar have shut down or changed their line of business. The market is no longer our weekly grocery and vegetable market. The roads leading to it are choked, and the mad rush ensures we keep our distance.

All India Radio is not the only radio station in town. It is surviving, but their best RJs have moved on to private stations and even internet radios – including the one I’m listening to right now. 

As the internet channel plays a classic, all my memories gather round her… 

And John Denver echoes the sentiment

Radio reminds me of my home far away


In response to this week’s Photo Challenge. To see what the world is feeling nostalgic about, visit the Daily Post.

She looked something like this

The Komal House


The Route
The Route

We left Chennai on Christmas eve. After a short visit to Chidambaram and overnight at Vaitheeshwaran Koil, on Christmas morning we set off towards our destination — a small village named Komal.

I remember my grandmother mentioning Komal several times, but beyond the name, I knew nothing. To me, Komal sounded out of place. It was too north-Indian a name, to be a village in Tamil Nadu. In fact, for a long time, I thought it was in Myanmar!

We knew no-one in the village. The house was sold several years ago, and my father hadn’t been anywhere near Komal for forty years.

We had no address. Back then, my father told us, people never had addresses. Everyone knew everyone else in the village. Each house was identified by its occupants. How, then, were we to find that house? “I’ll know it when I see it. I’m told it hasn’t changed one bit,” said my father.

One of my father’s cousins gave us the name of a person who could help us locate the house, just in case.

“It is near a temple.”
We followed the highway leading towards Kumbakonam and asked for directions from locals. Our landmark was a temple. We found one. And another. And another. But my father could not recognise anything. “There should be a bridge, followed by a row of shops. I don’t understand. ”

My father asked a few local people about the person my uncle had mentioned. “No brahmins live on this street,” said one man with a glare. He pointed towards another street, and told us to ask there.

On the other street, we were told that only Iyengars lived there, no Iyers. They pointed towards the end of the street and told us that some of the residents had been living there for years. Perhaps they could help.

At the end of the street, we stopped outside an old looking house, that my father thought looked familiar. Unsure, he knocked on the door, and asked the residents if he could take a look. A few minutes later, he came out and told us that it was not the one.

We had been going around in circles for over an hour. The sun was beating down on us.

Dejected, and frustrated, we were planning to return to Chennai, when we saw an elderly gentleman. As a last-ditch effort, we asked him about our mysterious contact person. To our delight, he knew the person. “Oh! Yes, I know him! But he doesn’t live here. He lives in Komal. This is Therazendur.’*

Once we realised we were in the wrong village, it took us barely 10 minutes to reach the narrow entry to Komal.

“The bridge!” my father exclaimed. “I know this! We are here! Those are the shops. Take this turn. Right here. Wait! Stop!” No sooner had the car stopped, that my father sprang out of the car. He looked around the small roads, and then began walking at a fast pace.

There was an old man, walking alongside a cycle, on the side of the road. My father asked him about a house that had once belonged to an uncle of his. “Oh that person passed away many years ago,” replied the old man.

“Yes,” my father replied in an excited tone, glad that someone finally knew about the house. “That was my uncle. My father had bought it from him.”

The old man’s eyes widened. He took my grandfather’s name.**

“Yes! I am his youngest son! Can you take me to that house?”

My father’s steps quickened. His excitement was evident. The minute he laid his eyes on the house, my father pointed towards it and exclaimed, “It is just as we had left it!”

The old man introduced us to the occupants of the house. He must have become accustomed to members of my father’s family coming to see the old house, and graciously allowed us inside.

“This house was the only house in the entire village to have electricity, in those days!” My father was visibly proud. “There used to be a swing. A large swing. Is it still there?”

The owner smiled and said it was there. Everything was just the way it had been. The swing, the large stone grinder, even the light switches and fans!

“This house was purchased in 1940 when the war broke out, and my mother had to move with three of her children along with our grandparents and stay in a largish house. It was bought for Rs. 4000. It was in this house that I was born,” my aunt later told me.

Watching my father almost run around the house, I can only imagine how many memories must have come back to him. Every wall, every pillar, must have meant the world to him — a world very different, and in another time, from that of ours right now.

The owner told us that my uncle once casually asked if it were up for sale.

“So was it?”

“No! It’s been a very lucky house for me,” replied our smiling host.

* My grandfather was born in Therazendur. We had practically gone around the whole village a couple of times, and it is likely that we passed by one of the houses that may have once belonged to his family. But we will never know.

** That old man, we later found out, was a distant relative of my grandmother!


The walls of this house are my entries for this week’s Daily Post Challenge – Wall


About the photographs: These photographs are of someone’s house. They graciously allowed us to enter their private space and I request these photographs not to be used elsewhere.

Conversations Over Cream Coffee


It was a chilly Sunday. And the best way to spend it was sitting in the winter sun.

We decided to visit the Indian Coffee House at Connaught Place*. We climbed up to the second floor of Mohan Singh Place. There were only a few people on the terrace. Empty tables were spread randomly, while plastic chairs were piled up, one on top of another, along the entrance. We grabbed our chairs, pulled up one of the plastic tables, and sat down to bask in the sun.

Apart from the outfits of the waiters, there really isn’t anything that looks fancy at the Indian Coffee House. Even the food isn’t really great. But the coffee is good, and its cheap! The main reason why I keep going there, however, is that it is absolutely laid-back. There is no such thing as spending too much time here. When most cafés will eventually ask you to leave, no one here will even hint at that. You are more likely to see people stepping in, than stepping out – even if you spend hours. Like my friend said, ‘It’s like being at home!’

We read the menu pasted on the wall, and ordered ourselves ‘Hot Cream Coffee’. A little while later, the waiter kept a pot of coffee for each of us, with cups, spoons, and a small bowl of sugar.

A Sketch Of Our Pot Of Coffee

As we poured out our coffee, and stirred in the sugar, I found myself looking towards the opposite side of the road.  A number of state emporia lined the street.

‘You know, there is a huge flower market here. It opens early morning, and winds up before breakfast.’ I looked towards the pavement. A large number of people were walking there, shouting slogans and carrying banners. It was hard to tell what they were campaigning for, though.

‘We used to come here on Sunday mornings, when we were in school.’

‘I know, you told me.’

‘We would get up lazily, and go about our morning routine reluctantly. And then, our father would ask, ‘Do you want to go to the flower market?’ And just like, that our faces would brighten up, and we’d get ready within no time!

It was such a treat! And I don’t mean just visually. We’d pick up a few flowers – usually roses, or orchids. The orchids would last much longer than most other flowers. And then we’d head over to the nearby McDonald’s. We hardly went to McDonald’s back then. It was a novelty. That particular branch used to open very early. And we’d always order a McShake with our breakfasts. Nah! The McShake was the breakfast. Of course things have changed a lot since then…’

My friend waited patiently, till I realised I had to shut up, and then suggested, ‘Maybe you should blog about it.’

* * *

*Connaught Place is now officially named Rajiv Chowk.

Going through WordPress’ freshly pressed entries, my eyes fell on a familiar image – flower sellers. The post ‘Where guys give roses’, about the flower markets in Delhi, refreshed some memories for me.

More Coffee:

The Delhi Walla’s photo essay, Indian Coffee House
Wikipedia loves the coffee at the Indian Coffee House

Letting go


When I was in school, there was a dance teacher who had once asked us to submit an assignment. She had asked us to find out about the various dance forms of India and prepare a scrapbook with pictures and information that we had collected.

I was just going to enter middle school, and this was a time when we did not have such great access to the internet. Broadband was many years away. We did not even have a dial up connection.

What we did have was a very good newspaper which focussed more on culture and art, rather than on gossip and glamour. My aunt pitched in and provided us with glossy brochures of cultural programmes.

My mother and I set about cutting sheets of cartridge paper and folded them to form the book. We punched holes at the joints and tied a shiny brown ribbon into a bow to hold the book. We pasted the photographs from the newspapers and brochures and outlined the pictures with colour.

I had a very bad handwriting at that time. So with colourful felt pens my mother wrote little descriptions of each art form. The pages were numbered, and we even made an index. Every few pages, my mother made little abstract designs to fill in the blank spaces.

Now that I think about it, my mother made the whole thing! And I think she had a great time too.

When it was done, I submitted it to our dance teacher. She was impressed.

After assigning grades to all the students’ assignments, she returned them. She said never in her life had she ever given a student an A1. But she said she loved my assignment, and she wanted to show it to other students. She said she wouldn’t give it back to me.

I was quite upset. I felt it was my assignment. I should keep it with myself. Every week I would ask her for the scrapbook. And she would refuse to give it. She showed it to students of all the classses she took.

A few friends from another class one day came and told me that they had seen my assignment, and that they loved it too. It made me feel proud. But it made me feel even more possessive about it.

Seeing how much I wanted it back, at the end of the year, our dance teacher finally relented to my request and returned it to me.

On the cover page, with a shiny brown glitter pen, she had written A1. I felt very happy.

But the happiness didn’t last long. After a few months, I began feeling guilty. That scrapbook was lying idle in the house. No one would see it. My mother told me I should have let it remain in the school. She even suggested that I return it to her. She said after a few years, it will end up going to the kabaadiwala *. I didn’t want that. I told her I would keep it with me. But in my heart, I wished I had let it remain with my teacher. I couldn’t bring myself to return it to her. My pride didn’t allow me to.

And so, even to this day, it is lying in my cupboard, with some other memorabilia from school. A reminder of a very important lesson. It is important to let go. Ultimately, time will wither away all attachments.

***

* kabaadiwala : Scrap dealer. Old newspapers, magazines, and sometimes other used household items are sold to scrap dealers who in turn send it to be recycled

Update: I scanned and uploaded the pages of the scrapbook

Colours of joy and nostalgia


With this post, I have exhausted my all my reserves! I wrote this piece on the 21th of March in 2008. Since the festival of holi is just a couple of days away, I decided to finally publish this. Wishing you a very happy and safe holi 🙂

It is the 21st of March. Hardly three weeks are left for my exams and I feel like I always feel before any exam. I realise what the goal of my life is… do anything but study. I want to listen to loud music and scream my heart out. Go for long walks and just drown in the sights and sounds of the surroundings.

I was standing and staring at my books wondering how to execute the strategy I had so carefully devised to counter the enemy. The plan was simple really. All I had to do was study as much as possible, take down little notes here and there and then pray to God.

As I was going over this plan, I heard a squeal downstairs. It was followed by more screams of little girls. I looked out of my window. What I saw filled my heart with joy. I recalled some of my own memories of this colourful annual occasion.

Little girls were squealing – partly out of excitement and partly out of fear. They ran in circles while boys came charging with their buckets. The little girls prayed for mercy and then ran home accusing them of attacking from behind and screaming that they would take revenge.

Tomorrow is Holi – the festival of colours. It has been a while since I took part in any of the proceedings. After almost a decade, I had got an invitation to play with my school friends. Due to ill health I turned down the offer to join the get-together.

But as I looked through the clear glass, memories of my childhood flooded me. The festival of Holi has always filled me with fear. Year after year we would go outside, chase down each other and throw buckets of water over each other, try to dodge the water balloons and scream out of sheer excitement. We’d scream on being chased down, jump for joy on a hit, devise devious plans to counter the boys – yes, back then too it invariably was, as is today, a battle between the girls and boys. Kids from all blocks used to patrol the streets, those whom we had never even spoken to would jump out from nowhere and then the warfare would begin!

And then there were the snipers! I remember once I had the privilege of watching an expert in action. We were on the ninth floor. I was perhaps four years old and my brother around nine. I saw him load his water balloons with colourful ammunition and when an innocent civilian walked by, he would drop the bombs. I was instructed to hide as soon as the balloons were released. I prayed that I be allowed to know whether it was a hit or a miss. But the orders were clear. My brother said we’d know if it were a hit. And true to his prediction, there were screams downstairs! Success!

There is something about this festival that puts a smile on your face no matter what you do, how old you are, whether you are out there fighting, or just looking out of the window.

Now I sit here and wonder how to get back to reality. Something is missing. Yes. I know what it is. I can now study. All that was required was some loud music.

* * *
I couldn’t resist the temptation to use colours 🙂

Identity crisis


If you’ve ever lived away from relatives, away from your native place, then you have experienced what is called an identity crisis. You are a second generation migrant, so you do not fully understand the local culture. But you do not know your own culture that well either. Since you visit relatives in your native place, you are in touch with your culture, but just about. So you’re stuck somewhere in between. Neither fully here, nor fully there.

This identity crisis is something that sets in early in life, and never goes. Loyalties are divided. Your ancestors belong to one place, but you have grown up in a different place. You have adopted certain qualities from both sides, and you are trying to find out where exactly it is, that you belong. Where you live, others find it hard to understand your roots. And you find it hard to adopt theirs. You prefer your own culture, and wish people around you would try to accept you for who you are, and not try to impose their own culture on you.

In your native place, you feel like a stranger. You have not grown up in that environment, not had the chance to know so many relatives, and find it hard to speak the language that is supposed to be your mother-tongue. You have a few relations with whom you have been fortunate to interact with your whole life, and there are a host of others whom you have probably met once in your life, if you’re lucky. When you meet them, it feels like some formality. You do not know how to react, you feel uncomfortable.

Then there are special occasions, like weddings, when everyone shows up, and you feel completely out of place. You don’t know most of the people, and they don’t know you. Half of them are living on the other side of the country, and the other half on the other side of the world. Many times, you have to double check and find out how it is that someone is related.

This is when you begin to doubt if you really belong there at all. So where do we belong?

I’ve never been surrounded by relatives. It’s always been the four of us. Five, till my grandmother(father’s mother) was with us. Relatives have always been at a distance. I hardly know anyone on my father’s side, as he hardly is in touch with anyone. The little I have come to understand of my father’s family is when we get news of a wedding, or a funeral. It’s very strange. Even if you’re completely cut off from family, somehow, from somewhere, the letter reaches you.

On my mother’s side, I’ve tried fruitlessly to keep track of the hundreds of relations. It’s hard enough trying to get to know your cousins who have grown up in completely different circumstances and environments. Add to them you parent’s cousins, and their kids, and your grandparent’s cousins and their families!

I sometimes envy my friends who have practically every one of their family members living within five kilometres of their house. At least it is easier to keep track of them! On festivals they can visit each other, arrange get-togethers with cousins and enjoy.

It must be so much fun to live in large families, or at least in the same town as most of your family. You can decide to meet up and have lots of fun. I’ve heard my parents tell stories of their childhood, when the entire family would be together, and all the cousins would get together and play a game or enact a play, and just have a great time.

But when you live thousands of miles away from them, you begin to feel all alone. It feels like there’s no one around. And the feeling becomes worse when there is a festive occasion. Your friends are busy with their own families, and your family is far far away…