Scones and other bits of my childhood

I had a fairly happy childhood until it got to that point where I realized I will probably never get to taste scones. And then I lived unhappily ever after.

Because Enid Blyton turned my life upside down.

In her books, people led magical, adventurous lives, always doing things, solving mysteries, bringing bad people to books, rescuing life forms, but mostly packing tea or having tea and eating the most wondrous things. I didn’t particularly care for the sweets, although there was an array of them: the humbugs, bulls-eyes, liquorice candy, barley sugars, from the village shop that was the chief catalyst in most of the Secret Seven’s adventures. I was happy to chew on my Parle Poppins or my five paise orange kidney sweets although I did think liquorice might be a good thing to taste but was afraid it might contain liquor and one would have to be a certain age.

If they were not chewing candy, they were stuffing their face with eclairs, meringues, large slices of chocolate cake, tongue sandwiches, potted meat sandwiches, warm buttered scones, egg and lettuce sandwiches, pork pies, hard boiled eggs, jam tarts, gingerbread, ginger buns and then washing it all down with lemonade, ginger ale and oooh, ginger beer!

It was all too much to take but I made my peace by elimination.Eggs, tongues and meat held no excitement for me. I figured gingerbread was a medicinal bread you had if you were sick , along with haldi doodh, and shortbread biscuits were just leftover bread which was dried and broken into bits (like they do for dogs and fish). Meringue sounded like a cousin of tongue (perhaps an animal part I wasn’t aware of) and eclairs – well Cadbury’s was doing a good job of it, and we always got occasional eclairs as treats. (I had no idea at the time that they could be a giant, gooey mess, like a veritable chocolate volcano).

But she had me at scones! Scones I wanted. Scones took me to warm and fuzzy places. Scones made me feel sorry for myself whenever I had my idlis and molagapodi, even when I added a dollop of butter on my warm idlis and pretended they were scones.

Plus, Mr Twiddle had left an image of it which was indelible:

As he passed the cake-shop, a very nice smell of hot scones came out. Twiddle stopped and sniffed. “I think I’ll pop in and have a cup of hot coffee and a scone or two,” he thought. “I really didn’t have much breakfast”

So in he went and chose a table. Soon he was sipping a cup of coffee and eating a whole plate of  warm, buttered scones. Very nice, indeed!

Unlike the Famous Five, Secret Seven and Five Findouters’ teas, of which there were hardly any pictures, this one had a nice illustration that I could stare at. And sigh.

Around that time, my mother was taking baking lessons in the afterhours of her school teacher job. Every Saturday, she would return with baked goodies: coconut cookies, nankhatais, marble cake, sponge cake, pineapple upside down cake and even chocolate cake, exactly like Fatty’s mom used to make. I asked her when they would teach her scones and she gave me this “How greedy are you?” look.

It was clear that scones was not going to be a part of her repertoire. We couldn’t afford cookbooks and this was pre-internet days, so I was sure I couldn’t google the recipe. I blamed Enid Blyton for not having a recipe section in her books.Every time we went out to eat (which was rare), I would ask for scones and I would be offered an icecream cone. (Clearly I was even pronouncing it wrong, like ‘cones’). Scones were now the bane of my existence.

Soon youth and all the trappings of it obliterated the memory of scones. Or so I thought. Twenty years later, I was at Norwood Bungalow in Sri Lanka, writing a travel story about the  Ceylon Tea Trails. The menu for the high tea read: Scones with clotted cream and strawberry compote, lemon tarts, cucumber sandwiches ….”

Finally.

As I stared at the three-tier spread in front of me, I was awash with emotion. It was like they had packed my childhood and put it right there in front of me. I picked up a scone, like it were a jewel, and caressed it. It looked like muddy, dehydrated pao for the most part and tasted unspectacular. It wasn’t warm, like I thought it would be, but then we were in the hills, and the outside air was cold. I slit it gingerly, and dolloped butter on one half and the compote on the other, smiling and crying.

When I got back to Bombay, the first thing I did was look up the recipe. I told my son about this magical thing from my childhood that would melt in your mouth. My first attempt failed miserably; the scones were hard and un-photogenic. No amount of butter or jam could redeem them. I was despondent, but the child said we could pretend they were rock cakes.

And then Cupcake Jemma (a YouTube fairy) entered my life with a really simple recipe with flour, milk, baking powder, sugar and salt.

And my lovely friend Rebecca Vaz showed me how you could be really smart by cutting your scones into squares instead of circles so there’s absolutely no wastage.We made these in the mountains of Himachal, and added dollops of Bhuira Jams‘ Strawberry preserve and had a little picnic in the garden under the deodars.

The scones tasted exactly like my childhood.

 

 

(This piece first appeared in The Hindu here )

Being married to my mother

GUEST POST:

BY ZARA CHOWDHARY

My son’s parents ended their marriage two years ago.

One day his father was there, the next he’d moved out. And suddenly, the scared little child had a cat too depressed to get out from under his bed, and a mother too broken to get off the couch. The boy ached for company, for things to just go back to ‘normal’ as his four year-old memory last remembered it.

And then one day, his grandmother arrived at their door – with a fresh haircut, a spring in her step and a super-sized grin that’s hard to miss. She was everything his slowly crumbling household needed. She spoke in absurd languages that made us laugh even when no one felt like it, she cleaned out the unattended organisms from the fridge, replaced all three forgotten multigrain bread loaves with three kinds of seasonal fruit, threw out the wrinkled packs of frozen fries and packed in fresh meats in separate bags, she put bleach in his uniforms, oil in my scalp, and threatened us if we forgot to turn on the lights around maghrib (our evening prayer time) saying ‘The angels won’t come in’!

Slowly and simply, the smells, the sounds, the sights of one person we’d been used to for five years, were replaced by the noise, the madness, the super-loud, body-jiggling laughter of this other person whom we’d otherwise only seen during the holidays.

And that’s the thing about people when they become habits. It’s important when replacing alcohol or cigarettes (or any other analogy that works for you), to choose a healthier option in its place. Our oats-loving, Abba-singing, paintbrush-wielding Nanoo was better for our well-being than any new pets, friendly neighbours or (God-forbid!) rebound boyfriends could have been!

I’d seen my mother do this so many times in her life: walk into an empty house, set up the kitchen, whip up a meal, fashion sofas out of metal trunks, fill the balconies (and bathrooms!) with plants and make it a home —  all in a matter of hours. I watched her as a 29-year old with the same awe I had at ten, efficiently piecing my life together and putting it safely back in my hands for me.

People in my ever-shrinking social circle kept pointing out, how lucky I was to have my mum around to ‘support’ me. But I don’t think it hit me until I finally got off that couch (thanks to her threatening to throw away or burn my pajamas), found a new job and came back home from my first full day at work.

I opened the door and stepped in at six in the evening, the house was all lit up like we’d become used to by now. The scared four year old now a more confident and chirpy five year old came hurtling out of the room and torpedoed into my navel, the cat lay belly-up and smiling at the fan, and there mum sat at the dining table, art material piled up in a heap, my spare room officially converted to her studio, a new business plan swirling in her head — and I knew. This was mum telling me in not so many words: ‘I’m not here to just support you. You can never crash on me like that again. Looks like you’re doing better now. So I’m going to do what I need to do to keep that spring in my step. And we’ll both be doing the supporting from here on.’ I paused for one second wondering if I should say something about the paint likely to stain my chair covers. But instead I scooped my son up, plonked on the sofa, and started to tell them the story of my first day back in the world. Cheesy as it sounds, it did feel like the angels had finally come home and brought with them a partner for me, someone I’d never thought I’d be living with as I turned 30.

My son now has two parents living with him again, there are two individuals playing tag between what they want for themselves and what they know their family deserves. If you ever heard us squabbling over closet space and what to watch on Netflix, you’d think there was a couple living together here. And some days how we both wish we could have it any other way but this interdependence. Yet it’s been nothing short of amazing being married to my mother this way for the last two and a half years. It has taught me what marriage is supposed to look like. There are the occasional expectations that go unmet and some sulking happens with both parties. There are days when nobody wants to have to care about what’s for dinner. There are days of feeling frustrated and taken for granted, but usually some ice-cream or a drive to town or a movie date when the child visits his dad can sort those out. We take turns playing good cop-bad cop because no one parent should ever have to be just the one. We try to never sleep over a fight. Hugs and cuddles are a daily prescription, though the cat son usually claws his way out of those.

It’s a household that depends on honesty more than anything else — it requires being harsh enough to tell each other when we’ve lain long enough on that couch and need to get off our asses or be nagged to death. It’s a house that acknowledges the two little boys and the two grown women in it, and that no job is too big or too small or too ‘girly’. It’s a home where you will always find food, laughter and lessons in how to give before taking. And it’s a place that will, hopefully, always remind my son of what family is supposed to look like, no matter what marriage it is built on.

Sunflowers, strawberries and other reasons to visit Saj on the Mountain

  1. This chance to be a goofball with your parents
    2. This chance to have your strawberries and eat them too.3. This bright yellow which is your mamma’s favorite color 4. These sunflowers you can use as a muse for watercolor afternoons5. This funky pool to splash in the evenings6. This road to your cottage7. This strawberry butter making session 8. This BFF you made over the strawberry butter making session9. This grand finale to your high tea10. This play area you can be a goofball in all over again

Death and other difficult conversations with parents

A few weeks ago, my phone rang in the middle of the afternoon. It was my first cousin. I am at an age where such calls are ominous because sadly, we no longer call each other when the going is good. We used to, a long time ago.

I felt a twinge of guilt that I had exited the family Whatsapp group because I could no longer bear the white noise or the cheery forwards.

The call was about my maternal uncle (Amma’s older brother), who had passed away after a prolonged battle with diabetes related complications. He was 77. The eldest brother went the same way a few years ago, and my mother is sure she is next in line. She has two valve replacements on her resume apart from diabetes, the family heirloom.

I don’t know how this sounds but I rehearse this call in my head all the time: making and receiving it. When I bring this up with my siblings, they are in denial. “She’s only 73,” my brother reminds me exasperatedly. He is in California and furthest away from my parents. His optimism is essential for his survival. My sister is in Dubai and into Reiki. Whenever I bring up existential questions she reminds me I should try it too.

I watch Mukti Bhawan and Amour in the same week last month and both movies lead me into the space of talking to my parents about their death. May be when they are both home at the same time, I think. Such conversations need the right ambience I remind myself.

Most of my friends have lost a parent; some have lost both.  I show up for condolences, I call relatives who live far from their children, I flip when my father doesn’t answer the phone (he usually doesn’t. These days he has also learned how to put me on hold while he cooks).

I call my father to tell him about my uncle’s death and book his ticket to Mumbai. For the last six years, Appahas been living by himself on a farm in Zad- Shahapur, a village in Belgaum. It’s been his lifelong dream to be a farmer. He is finally living the dream, although it is inconvenient to all of us.

Appa likes to describe himself as 80, not out. It’s been a long standing joke in the family – referring to death as ‘out’. My uncle (who is no more) and my father used to regularly discuss the geriatrics in the family with their scores:

“ You mean Ramki? 87 not out?”

“No, his older brother. 91 not out.”

“I think you should move back,” I tell my father. You are all alone there, and it’s a jungle. What if there is an emergency? Who will take you to the doctor? What if no one knows you are unwell and your phone is dead as usual?

“My father is with me,” he says. My grandfather passed away when Appa was 14.

I hang up.

I don’t think my parents think as much about their death as I do. They think about life. I think about logistics. I think Belgaum-Bombay- Dubai-Los Angeles and my head spins. Death is a lot about logistics. Who to call? What to do? When to do it?How to do it? I know I will be stuck with the operations. As chief planner and executor of all things in my family, I know this will be my lot too.

I have been visualizing a family home, a sort of halfway house where my parents and all the bereaved members of the family can live together. Perhaps that will help them lean in for each other? I store the idea in my drafts folder.

A year ago, I had the biggest fright.

Appa called one morning, saying he couldn’t see a thing. His cataract had insidiously burgeoned over the last two years to blur out his vision completely and an emergency surgery had to be scheduled. We rushed him through a battery of tests that were routine before the surgery, given his age. His bloodwork was impeccable and my father couldn’t stop beaming. “I have really enjoyed life, doctor!”. However there was an 80% hearing impairment owing to the long time effects of tobacco (my father is a heavy smoker)

He promised he would quit smoking. I sent him a consignment of nicotine gums. When I visited again, the gums were untouched. I was mad at him.

“Don’t you worry about dying?”, I barked.

“What is this dying business all the time? Let me live yaar!”

I imagine a death shower for my father, where he will invite all his friends and family and cook a feast for them.  I think 80 is a good age to do this. If there is one candidate who can throw a death shower, it is Appa. I am scared to suggest it though; my mother would consider it a bad omen.

My mother is on life-long blood thinners. This essentially means that she treads the fine line on a daily basis between bleeding to death or choking to death if her INR (International Normalised Ratio), an indicator of her prothrombin time (essentially the time it takes for human blood to clot) is not adequately managed.

Amma regularly defaults on her INR tests and if I don’t keep tabs on her, weeks go by without her being tested. The last time, her ratio was dangerously high, at 5.2. She was to travel in two days to visit my sister in Dubai. The doctor advised her not to travel until the INR was brought down by monitoring her dosage of warfarin for a few days.

She lost it.

“What does he know? Has he had his heart opened up twice? Has he given birth to twins when his weight was 40 kilos? Does he know that traveling makes me happy? I need a new doctor. I am going to sack this doctor.”

And that was that.

(I post this on Facebook and it gets 200 likes. Amma has a fan club.)

Back from the clinic, Amma has a chat with our cat Millie. They often chat about this and that, but mostly about who is going to go first. Millie is 16, which makes her 112 in human years and a more likely contender for the first spot.

When Amma speaks, she has Millie’s full attention.

“I am not going to be scared by doctors. If I feel happy visiting my children, what is the doctor’s problem? Wouldn’t you get angry too?I am going to do what I want. But you still have to wait for me, ok?”

Miaaaooww, says Millie, and sashays back into her favorite chair. I let Amma go.

My parents have become my children. I am constantly admonishing them for being careless about their health, diet, exercise, and whatnot. For tempting fate. They are constantly ignoring me like I were an errant child.

Amma sent me quite a few voice notes on this trip. Most of it was about me being a drama queen and that she had a right to live as she pleased. She had a right to enjoy. Needless to say, my sister was on tenterhooks for the time that Amma was with her.

During my mother’s second valve replacement surgery around five years ago, the surgeon had told me that this was a way to buy ten more years, at best, for my mother.

She keeps reminding me that five are down, five to go.

“I want to go like Rangu,” she tells me these days. Mrs. Rangarajan was her closest friend; she died last year and went real quickly. It’s my mother’s dream death. She wakes up some mornings and tells me she dreamt about dying. There’s a sparkle in her eyes. Tell me about it, I say. She does. We both giggle (me nervously).“I don’t want to be in a hospital bed ever again and no doctor will open my heart and make me look like cockroach,” she announces.

Amma was still in Dubai when I had to break the news of her brother’s death. She was quiet. The voice notes stopped.

Last month, Appa called with a sense of urgency. What now, I wondered?

“My passport is expiring. Don’t we have to renew it?”

“Hahahha.You still have a passport?”, I laughed. “But you don’t go anywhere Appa”, I teased him.

It’s true. Appa hardly ever leaves his farm. Except for the bereaved. I don’t know what he says or does but my relatives tell me he knows exactly what is to be done when someone dies.

I visualize myself turning into my father.

He reminds me of his unused US visa. “I have to go now yaar. It’s not correct to get a visa of a country and not go. How they will feel?”

I panic and call my brother. “Dude, we have to make Appa’s trip happen this year before it’s too late.”

“Too late for what?” he asks.

“He is 80,” I remind him.

So?”

Back to square one.

Some days, when I walk into the house after my morning walk and Amma is in shavasana, my heart stops. Is it what I think it is, I wonder? Hell no, because I am not ready yet. I am not even ready to let Millie go. All this rationalizing and ruminating over death hasn’t really made me ready for that call. That call I may have to make.

May be being in denial is not a bad thing after all. Death is all around us, but even that checklist for the death shower may not provide me with the emotional inoculation I need. May be talking about it just buys us time. It buys us another opportunity to have conversations with the one who hasn’t gone yet. It buys us another night of going to bed without having to process grief.Because grief is a certainty in a way that joy can never be.

Till then, let me let my parents live yaar!

 

(An edited version of this post appeared in Arre here )

 

 

13 reasons we love the J W Marriott in Mussoorie (even though we couldn’t find any walnuts on the walnut grove)

  1. This great way to start your day with a picnic by the stream

2. This view while chomping on your post-breakfast Danish

 

3. This walnut grove to hug

4. This evening of story-telling

4. This tiramisu you never tire of eating

5. This shortcut to lunch

6. This comfort of watching Harry Potter movies

7. This corn-on-a-cob at sundown

8. Or this lolling about on a beanbag

9. This magical glow after sundown

10. This hide and seek we never tire of

11. This quick screen time while mamma is at the spa

12. Or this play with water curtains that tells you she is still watching

13. And this new BFF who totally gets us

Saving a million trees, one smokeless chulha at a time

Last month, listening to Hrishikay on Radio One (the only way I can drive in peak hours), I chanced upon a conversation involving a Himalayan Rocket Stove.  The interviewee was Russell Collins, an Australian whose soul lives in India and this was something he had invented for the Himalayan region as a more environment-friendly way to cook and heat up the house. The stove works on a principle of vortex heating,  which burns even the smoke created by it, rendering it almost 70-80% smokeless, while creating such high temperatures that you can not only cook food on it, but also use to heat up the house in winter.

He had me at one million trees.

He had me at sustainable cooking solutions.

He had me at 40 lakh deaths resulting from indoor pollution.

He also had me at “we need volunteers for workshops”

As an extension of this idea for the rest of India, which doesn’t live in sub-zero temperatures but can still benefit from smokeless cooking – Russell’s company conducts workshops, which they are proud to call the Smokeless Chulha Project. The aim of these workshops is to train as many end users (and trainers) in the making of these chulhas while highlighting the hazardous effects of conventional chulhas, the drain on forest reserves they create and the inordinate amount of time and effort spent on collecting and transporting firewood. Consider this: Every day, women in rural India walk as much as 10-20 km in search of firewood, and usually bring back a few kilos. If they are lucky, it lasts two days. By the time she is 40, a woman would have walked the distance of Kashmir to Kanyakumari and back just in search of firewood.

If you are still wondering what the fuss about smokeless chulhas is all about, allow me some gory detail:

If this is what a conventional chulha can do to a wall, imagine the extent of damage it can do to your lungs and respiratory system. In contrast, the Smokeless Chulha creates 80% less smoke than a conventional stove and also uses 80% lesser wood.

I quickly shot off a message to Hrishi and prompt as ever, he shot me back a number of Nitisha Agrawal who manages the Smokeless Chulha project while Russell is in Australia. She is armed with years of branding and corporate experience, but is thirsty to be an agent for social change. She also rallies around to find people truly passionate about the project to give it further wings. As someone who is constantly reinventing the way I live, I was happy to be a catalyst to what I saw as a less consumptive way of living.

By the end of the week, I had signed up for their forthcoming workshop at Kanha Tiger Reserve, in collaboration with the Forest department of M.P, ably led by Sanjay Shukla and his deputy, Anjana Tirki. For a state that is abundant in its forest reserves, Madhya Pradesh wears them lightly. Watching this dynamic duo and their team at work, I realized that most of real conservation is silent. On one given night, Anjana was at our guest house at 8 pm, trying to get feedback about the workshops, what could be done to ensure that the villagers do indeed make these chulhas and train others to do so. She had to travel back 75 km to her home in Mandla, to a 15 month baby, but she was unperturbed.

Of course forest departments are believers in conservation; it’s in their DNA. But it’s quite another thing to recognize the potential of an initiative from an outsider and let them in and want it to be scaled up to your region and community. That requires vision, that these able leaders at Kanha had. There were two workshops on two different days, and for each workshop, they had lined up at least 30-35 people from different village communities around Kanha. The turnout was far more than that. 150 people from 75 villages turned up over two days to learn about Smokeless Chulha (cookstove).The first workshop was at the Eco Centre of the Khatia range of the Kanha Tiger reserve and the second at Gadi range, around 70 km away.  Although several of them had secured an LPG connection through various schemes, they knew that the chulha is here to stay. It is what is used to heat water, cook rice and of course make rotis (which always tasted better off the chulhas). Plus, everyone wanted their gas cylinder to last.

The constant in all workshops is the chief trainer Tanzin – trekker, naturalist, horse-doctor and farmer with a huge love for the forests and mother earth and who mourns the infestation of plastic and consumerism in our daily life. Tanzin is the official trainer of trainers, local communities and volunteers for all smokeless chulha workshops , but clearly we need more Tanzins. We need to create more of them.

What does it take?

The doughnut mix:  (this forms the basic skeleton of the chulha and you can stack up three to five depending on what height you need for cooking) : clay, sand, puffed rice (murmura) and bhusa (dried hay)

The fuel for the smokeless chulha: Twigs, dry leaves, cowdung cakes, etc. You don’t need large pieces of wood, which means trees need not be felled to cook your meals

What it costs to make: Well, not more than a hundred rupees.

Well here is a video on how to make a smokeless chulha with step by step instructions. The video is in Hindi, but an English version is also available

After two days of observing an eager and enthusiastic audience, asking questions, devising their own chulha hacks and promising to go back home and make a chulha for themselves, it was time to go home. It was a small milestone, these 150 people, but what we left behind was larger dreams, a few leaders and a renewed passion for the environment. Meanwhile, the Kanha team was already talking about the next workshop. More villages. More people. More chulhas. Less smoke.

If you wish to request a workshop in your region, click here

If you wish to volunteer with this project, click here 

To follow their work on facebook, click here