Home is where the cats are

I live in Bombay.

It was Bombay when I was growing up. It was Bombay when my mother gave me the keys to our home and said I was now old enough to let myself in after school (I was 10). It was Bombay when I first visited South Bombay and saw that people boarding taxis looked quite posh and that Bombay was as sexy as they made it appear in the movies.  It was Bombay when I had my first kiss, the first time a man (other than my father) cooked for me, my first heartbreak, the first time I dumped someone.

It was Bombay when the glass window at my work desk at my first job reverberated. We were told there was an explosion at the Express Towers next door.

In a few months, it became Mumbai.

But whenever I am filling a form, I still find myself writing ‘Bombay’. I guess it will always be Bombay to me. I still look for the things that were rather than things that are. I have that thing with my city. I am fiercely defensive about it. The longest I have ever lived away from it was when I went to teach English for a year in a school on a hill called Tiwai. It made me feel better that it wasn’t another city, so technically, I wasn’t cheating on Bombay. When I returned, although it was just a year later, my city seemed to have changed its configuration. May be it was me too. I didn’t feel at home anymore like I used to.

I have moved nearly 20 homes since my childhood. In my marriage alone, I moved homes four times. I think every time you move, you raise the bar of a relationship.  Moving house is a great way to measure your thresholds for each other, to test each other’s adversity barometer. It is stressful to fit your life in boxes and then painstakingly set it up all over again only to take it apart a few years later. In a marriage, it helps you figure out how much of him and how much of you do you really want in a space that is ‘us’.

Moving is also a great way to reinvent space. And since part of that space has you in the continuum, it means reinventing you. We always rented, and no place was home for more than two years, and a change in pin code was a rite of passage.

A new flat is like a new relationship. There is a level of familiarity, and yes, there is love, but there is also intrigue. Nooks and crevices you haven’t explored. Surfaces you haven’t touched. Parts you haven’t felt or smelt.  Sometimes a house feels like home because of mosaic. Or imperfect walls, friendly nooks, a bookshelf just where you need it, a random hook on the wall, a hallway full of surprises, alcoves full of mystery, old-fashioned geysers, naked pipes and wires, book cases laden with World Books (an inheritance that a landlady once forced on me)

Suddenly, you could be kissing the evening sun instead of the sharp morning one. Or gazing at a mango tree instead of a concrete jungle. Or taking the stairs instead of a posh elevator that talks to you.

My father’s dodgy financial status and his pipe projects (which he always abandoned) ensured we were constantly moving house through my childhood. I was 18 by the time we had something close to a permanent home address. Even that didn’t last more than six years. When I think of my childhood home, so many images spring to mind, because there were so many. My mother never  kept any of our books and diaries as we never knew where we would move to next. I mourned the loss of Black Beauty and other books from my childhood for the first time when my son was born.

The words ‘permanent home address’ which appeared in almost every form you filled – whether it was a bank, a visa, your tax papers, a mobile connection, a job interview – made me nervous. I never knew what I was rooted to. There was no job or man that made me feel ‘happily ever after’. My pen always hovered around those ominous blanks, not knowing quite what to fill. The only thing permanent in my life was my parents. I promptly directed all enquires of permanence to them, and filled in their address.

My friends often said I had the knack of turning any place into a home, even my hostel room that I inhabited for three years. I had a trunk that travelled with me everywhere; it was full of knick knacks, artefacts, lamps, and other things that I was collecting for my real home. It didn’t take me long to turn a room or a space into home. A lamp here, some cushions there, happy curtains, some art on the wall, and every place I inhabited (and there have been far too many) became home effortlessly. They all had their issues, but each one had redeeming qualities that made them dependable. Moving house – that thing which makes many people queasy, unsettled, anxious – was always the most natural thing for me. I got attached to places and apartments but never enough to miss them. I think this survival instinct kicked in pretty early in my life. I found change to be my most reliable companion. My mother kept reminding me it was a sign I had to settle down. She meant marriage of course.

And then there were cats. Cats made their homes in our transient homes, they loved us unconditionally, they slept on our tummies, in the nooks of our arms, they gave birth on our ankles, we looked after their babies and one day they grew up and new cats found us. Cats have seen me through love, heartbreaks, moving homes, marriage and baby. If there was a strong memory of a house, there was sure to be a cat that went with it.

Through most of my twenties, when love was elusive, it was always an apartment that made me feel loved. Every time I got derailed, it was always four walls that reclaimed me, that hugged me back, no matter what. I had to agree, I was a homemaker in disguise.

Right from my hostel room to my twin-sharing pad in Bandra which is now an opulent high rise, to the little studio in Khar to the doll-house with secret cupboards, secret ironing boards and not-so-secret views – I loved them and they always loved me back. Book cases, ironing boards, dining tables, kitchen shelves, a nook here, a tree there, a frond of a palm that actually broke into my window, disallowing me from ever shutting it, and allowing me to make friends with a squirrel as he lived in the halfway house between the tree and my home. Of course, the cats were back in my life.

I thought marriage meant home, or permanence: that be-all, end-all feeling of settling down, of casting anchor.  It meant that one stopped running and stood still. And one day, I gave birth and truly realized the meaning of standing still.

My Cancerian husband was always averse to change while the Gemini in me celebrated it (it came from my nomadic childhood, with my father having trained us to fit into any space within 24 hours). Before our impending moves, he spent days gazing at familiar piles of wires, controllers, chargers coated in dust grime sighing that it will not be the same anymore. It was clear we had totally different fixations.

I usually made a deal with him and used the new flat as an excuse to buy us something I knew meant a lot to him. So that it becomes a metaphor for happy change, rather than a melancholic one. So he got his PS3, his XBox 360, his 42 inch LCD (and then 50, and 72), and I got to do up a house all over again.

In all the years of my marriage, the one place I always had the best dreams in was my mother’s house. It was the one place I felt protected, nurtured, off-duty. It was the place that continued to feature as ‘permanent home address’ in all the documents that one needs to define one’s residence in a country.

Ironically, around the time my marriage fell apart, I won an allotment in a government-subsidized housing scheme and finally had a permanent home address, all my own. It was what rescued me, because I really needed to belong to something and nurture it all over again. I was invested enough in a piece of real estate to get utility bills in my name. I was no longer a tenant, I was an owner. It doesn’t change the way I belong to Bombay but it just makes the relationship more complicated.  It was like being married all over again. I bought a tea pot, some nice trays, shower curtains, table mats. I painted my ceilings bright yellow and leaf green. I got fairy wall paper for my son’s room. I was home.  Every square inch of space here is chronicling my life and that of my child’s. Yes, the father is missing from the picture, but there is always someone or something missing, isn’t there? They say art is in the negative space.

May be a home is like a marriage. You have to be invested in it for the long haul for all of it to come together, make sense. There was nothing magical or transformative about the apartment I ended up buying. It didn’t have the magical view of a park like my mother’s house, nor did it have an amaltas tree in full bloom like my house on the hill. It didn’t have sparrows visiting or cosy nooks and alcoves like my mosaic floored apartment. It didn’t smell of the ocean like my hostel room with rice paper lamps. But bit by bit, it came together.

I feel a sense of belonging and rootedness all over again. I didn’t realize real estate could have that effect on me that a person I loved couldn’t. I don’t flinch anymore when asked to fill my permanent home address and it’s not because I own a few hundred square feet. It’s because I finally feel I’m home each time I walk into my apartment and draw open the drapes and find the exact same cookie cutter lives around me. Except the sun and moon have a different story to tell every day.

 

 

(This is an excerpt from my book, The Whole Shebang, published by Bloomsbury. To read more such essays, order it here )

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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 )

 

 

On raising a grandparent

I am quite sure, like many of her kind all over the world, my mother is chuffed about her grandparent status. She was the first person to hold Re in her arms when he was born, she is always the first grandparent to wish him on his birthday and on every other occasion (and she never runs out of them). She is now also the one he meets when he gets back home from school, the only one he will discuss homework with, or take instructions on grooming from. On his part, he will remind his grandmother about taking her medicines or “not watching shouty channels”, because “she has a new heart and has to look after it” (Re was four when my mother had her second valve replacement surgery). I want Re to make the most of it now, as I know he doesn’t have too many grandparent years left, as all four of his are in their seventies already. I had my both my grandmothers until my twenties; I don’t know if my son will be that lucky. Susanna Schrobsdorff, who is Managing Editor at TIME magazine calls it the grandparent deficit.

Every Tuesday, my mother takes Re to the local Ganesha temple and he willingly accompanies her, because he likes the elephant god, and of course the modaks that come as part of the prasad. The one time that I went along, he told me to do three pradakshinas and that I had to sit quietly on the floor for some time before I made a beeline for the prasad. “Otherwise, ganpati will think you only came for the prasad,” he explained.

My mother has had a hectic social life post her retirement and she is happy to have an arm candy for most of it. She tags Re along to her various chanting groups of fellow grandmothers: Vishnu and Lakshmi sahasranamams, haldi kumkums and various other things that ladies of a certain age congregate to do. “Will there be prasad? Then I will come,” he tells her. Re has also begun to evaluate various prasads, like “M aunty’s sheera is better than P aunty’s sheera”, and “Can I have two of these laddoos, because I really like it when it is beige and not brown like R aunty’s”

He in turn, teaches her ballroom dancing, how to walk like a princess, how to turn her saree into a gown, and all those things I could never dream of teaching her.

How a grandparent keeps it real

All around me, I constantly sense a dilution of all things traditional or ritualistic, and so it really moves me to see this grandmother-grandson duo, lighting diyas, collecting flowers to make garlands for deities, bowing down and joining hands in prayer whenever they pass by a shrine. These are things that never came naturally to me, but I am glad that it is an important part of Re’s relationship with his grandmother.

I don’t know where I stand on deities and worship. My mother is a believer, but I have always been passive about all her rituals. Although the thing about rituals is that they bring you closer to who you are and where you come from — roots that we have to try harder to hold on to than our parents did. In a mixed-culture marriage such as ours, sometimes the rituals multiply. But sometimes they divide too. And sometimes we end up culturally bankrupt, because we didn’t want to do the work. But now, with Re being integrated into it all, I feel a sense of belonging, a feeling that I have something to hold on to when things feel hopeless.

He is lucky. After all, he does get her all to himself, because she has no other grandchildren and so no one else vying for her attention. I had to compete at least with 12 other cousins for my favorite grandmother and seldom got her to myself, one-on-one. ‘Grandmother’ was always a community thing, as were grandmother stories, grandmother delicacies and grandmother lullabies. I grew up in a time when grandmothers were the default caregivers of young children, and with families multiplying ever so rapidly, my poor grandmother was always being shunted from one home to the other every few years, and I can imagine what it must have done to her. But she raised us all with the same amount of love, the same stories and the same sense of rootedness.

There is something about grandparents. And I don’t mean it in that warm, fuzzy, sepia-toned kind of way. There is all of that for sure, and some. Something also changes in the equation between you and your mother when you have a child. She becomes the equaliser in your life. And not just because she is (usually) the most non-grouchy caregiver. But more importantly, she is someone who never trivialises your troubles by saying “this too shall pass”. She may not have the answers to your convoluted problems, but she is an antidote to your pain nonetheless. And so is her rasam, in my case.

The odd thing is that my mother is still as much a mother to me, as she is grandmother to Re. She is still the one who senses from my voice on the phone when all is not well. She is still the only one who knows when I need to be left alone. Although we have our share of fights ever so often, she is still the one who gets me more than anyone else. I know that in a few years, she will be the one needing the care and I will be the caregiver and hopefully, so will Re. I didn’t choose to marry late; it’s just that it took me really long to meet a man I wanted to make a baby with. I know there are so many conflicting factors when planning a baby, but I just want to say that it’s good to take into account how much grandparent time your children will have.

And age 71, my mother is still not tired of playing mom. But I already am, and I can’t even imagine myself getting to the grandmother stage. I am constantly torn between my mother and my child trying to parent me. In fleeting moments, I do forget that I am a parent to both of them. But I am nicer to my mother now. I find myself asking her, “What else?”, “Have you eaten?” and “Did you sleep well?” I find a calming reassurance in inanities. I am becoming my mother.

(A version of this post first appeared as my column in Pune Mirror on 24th August, 2015)

Dad bods and other things that make this mommy-not-go-lightly

I am wary of hanging out in high estrogen networks, especially those predominated by women chiefly talking about motherhood. Because when I do, I am usually close to busting a capillary somewhere (usually my head). One thing that always gets my goat is gratitude. To their husbands. The fathers of their children. For just showing up occasionally.

I met a friend after a decade (during which she had got married and produced a child) and five minutes into the conversation, she explained how she could be out on a Sunday, because her husband “does everything for the kid” once a week.

Another friend, recently separated, shared that her (ex) husband “looks after” their child thrice a week and “manages everything”. In her voice I sensed an irony in the fact that the separation actually taught him a few things about fatherhood.

I have friends who hand their husbands the hands-on tag with such generosity, even for something as miniscule as changing one diaper a day or giving the baby a burp a day for a fleeting three weeks. Or being able to order takeaway dinner.

May be times have regressed. Or perhaps my parents were really ahead of their time without even knowing it. Because I never saw gratitude in my mother for my father when it came to childcare. I don’t think it struck my father to even expect it. Things got done, and it didn’t matter which gender did it.

So I don’t see why men get points just for showing up. And why women glorify their existence for the rest of their life by reminding themselves that they have the “biggest job in the whole world”.

First, it’s not a job, because in a job, you get paid, there are perks, and if you do well, you get promoted. It is at best, the biggest voluntary service program. And which is why men don’t apply for the job, because they know it doesn’t do anything for their résumé. And women spend the rest of their lives in angst, clutching their babies like they were their consolation prize.

It was bad timing that in the same week, I was asked by a newspaper to give my two bits on Kate’s post baby body. The sad thing is, women measure their birth victories by how soon they are able to get back into their old clothes or do what they used to do before they were pregnant (which could include smoking, drinking, clubbing till 4 a.m., or just going for a run on the beach, getting into their favorite bikini, whatever). They also measure it by how soon they can be ‘seen’ out there post birth. Technically, these benchmarks have been set by women for other women, which is a bit messed up, because we are trained to embrace the sisterhood and all that.

But the longer a woman takes to come out ‘in the open’, the faster she gets labeled a loser. Any woman will feel more jubilant if she shows no outward signs of having produced a child – protruding belly, dark circles, fat arms, sagging breasts. Or someone tells her, ‘Gosh, you look just the same as before!’ If she looks better than fellow singletons, great! If she can still score, even better! Every woman is measured by her ability to get ‘up and about’ in record time. I had so much to say about this that it took up a few chapters in my book.

I still can’t get over the brutal dissection of Aishwarya Rai’s post baby body, and now, Kate Middleton for the second time. And it seems most of the world doesn’t know that the tummy doesn’t shrink back like a spring post childbirth and was amused to spot a bump on Kate, as she came out, otherwise flawless, immaculate hair and makeup, waving breezily at the world, 12 hours post birth.

It was even worse that in the same week, there was much media (read twitter) attention to dad bods. Ridiculous as it might sound, it’s a trend worldwide which celebrates ‘flabby dad bods’ while women with ‘mom bods’ are pressured to maintain flawless physiques.So yes, the poor fathers’ lives have already been affected so much since childbirth, all they needed to assuage their grief was for us to be kinder to their bods (read junk food and beer bellies) post baby. So now, I’m supposed to look at Prince William and Abhishek Bachchan’s bodies with new eyes? And applaud Aishwarya for finally getting Vogue-cover-worthy? This is beyond pathetic.

What’s most ironic about this so-called “dad bod” is that his flabby trunk is further embellishment to his fatherhood resume. A man who can boast a “dad bod” is a man who doesn’t waste time on such frivolous matters such as working out every night. Of course not, he’s too busy being a provider and taking care of his family, and managing everything worldly and wise, thanks very much.

In the meantime, women all over the world are protesting the “Dad bod” phenomenon, hoping that it will open the doors for “Mom bods” in the same way. It won’t. Because mothers never get points just for showing up. And “Mom bods” will always be viewed as something in transition, a work in progress, a person waiting to redeem herself.

 

(A version of this post appeared as my column in Pune Mirror on 18th May, 2015)

What I miss about making vadaams and other community food projects

I always know that all is well in my household whenever vadaams (various forms of rice, wheat, sago and potato crispies, to be fried and eaten) are being made in the summer. For a long time, due to her fragile health and multiple open heart surgeries, my mother had lost her mojo (and so had the entire family as a chain reaction) and we relied on store-bought things, whether it was tomato ketchup, mango jam, idli batter, various preserves and chutneys and podis (the dry chutneys). Technically, I knew how to make them, but it was always a community activity and it wouldn’t have been fun without my mother involved. So I didn’t. But every time we were at a lunch or dinner and hot crisp vadaams would be brought out as accompaniments, I thought wistfully about our vadaam days. I also noticed that we had grown apart slightly as a family when we stopped doing these things together.

This summer is different though. I now live close to my mother, and out of the blue, asked her one day, “Amma, why don’t we make vadaams anymore?” Her eyes lit up. “You want to?”, she asked. I said yes, and then we were at it almost at once, planning and getting things ready. The house seemed happier already with our little summer project.

Since there was no muscle power available (some of the vadaam variants involve stirring together kilos of batter, slow cooking them on fire and neither Amma nor I had the strength for it), we chose an elegant, yet easy option: The elaivadaam.

These are rice crispies, made by soaking and grinding rice to a fine paste, adding water to a dosa consistency. This is then delicately flavored with salt, heeng, black sesame seeds and a green chilli concentrate (made by grinding green chillies and straining the juice). The vadaams are then doled out like mini dosas on vadaam plates which are stacked up on a vadaam tray and steamed for 5-7 minutes.

A trip to childhood: making vadaams

A trip to childhood: making vadaams


Peeling and air drying the steamed vadaams is the next step. When we were kids, this was usually assigned to me (and still is) as I was the only one who could be trusted with these half-cooked beauties (they are delicious). Also, I was neat and organised and patient (things I am not much of now). My brother was usually the chief crow watcher, as the vadaams were then dried on our terrace and crows would make off with them in minutes. Till my mother realised that he was the biggest crow, and was happily trading them for marbles with his friends. She then adopted the tried and tested way to ward off the crows: tying a black cloth to a mast, creating a scarecrow of sorts.

As I peeled the vadaams and dried them in rows on a sheet, Amma kept steaming newer ones and handing them over to me, as if in assembly line. We chatted, got nostalgic, shared vadaam stories and before we knew it, the batter was over. The clock had moved four hours. And my mother and I had bonded like the old times. I suddenly felt cocooned in her warmth and confident in the knowledge that she would always have my back. The energy was infectious and Re wanted a task too, and he was appointed chief counter and duly noticed that one vadaam had gone missing (eaten by yours truly)

In a few hours of air-drying, the elaivadaams curl upwards, almost threatening to levitate. It reminded me of when babies start walking and then you have to watch their moves, for they are ready to wander off.

The dried vadaams have a mind of their own

The dried vadaams have a mind of their own

But there are still miles to go before you sleep. The next day, the vadaams have to prepare for a tougher journey, go out into the outside world, face the harshness of the sun, and become tough and firm, ready to face the world. It reminded me of what school is to children.

After all that work, and two days gone, the yield was a hundred vadaams. It might make one wonder, “Was it worth it for all the effort? Can you not just buy it off the shelf?” Perhaps you can. But for me, it was two days of intense conversation, laughs and giggles with my mother and my child. And that, as MasterCard would say, is ‘priceless’.

Two days' work: a hundred vadaams

Two days’ work: a hundred vadaams

(A version of this post appeared as my column in Pune Mirror on 4th May, 2015)

Home is where the colors are

All it takes is shiny happy things

By the age of 18, I had lived in eight different homes. In the years that followed, there were three more with my parents, two hostels for working women (in which I had to change my room every year, making it six more homes; for me, every new room was a new home), three more as a free-spirited singleton who had moved up in the rent market and who wanted a posh Bandra pin code all to herself, and four more post marriage. And I’m not done yet.

I wasn’t born into real estate. I didn’t marry into it. It’s not that my father was in the services, or had one of those posh government or bank jobs where they transferred you every two years. My parents just never cracked real estate, so we never really owned anything (oh yes, my father did jointly own a home with his brothers when I was four, which they sold for a princely sum of Rs.36000 or some ridiculous amount for their sister’s marriage).

My mother, in an attempt to maintain her work-life balance and provide adequate care for the three of us, moved closer to her place of work every few years and my father followed. While the rest of my family moved up in the real estate ladder, filled their walls with white goods, my father gave us real adventures.

I always dreamed of a place where all our stuff could be found, where we had a room to ourselves. I often pretended to my friends that I did, and that my cats slept in a bunk bed and we wore night suits and that my mother baked scones and gingerbread (she baked other things, but Enid Blyton made scones so exotic!). But I never invited them home, for then my bubble would be busted.

Our real estate was memories.

I remember the home in which my father taught me the famous Jim Reeves song, “But you love me daddy”. My father is not a singer; my mother is a trained one. But the songs I remember from my childhood were mostly sung by my father (my mother was busy just staying afloat with three kids, hard times, the tyranny of her mother-in-law and other travails of the time).

I remember the home where I broke my nose, got my first stitches, the home in which I got hit by a swing while my babysitters (the neighbor’s children) were busy chatting. I remember the home in which my father made pav bhaji for the first time, the home where my mother made coconut cookies with cherry toppings (the cherries had to be cut into neat, square bits and we got to eat the leftover cherry bits that didn’t make the cut).

I remember the home where we walked half a kilometre to the nearest home that owned a television, to watch the Sunday movie. One day, they told us we would have to pay 50 paise for it. I remember then, we found another home, which was further away, where we wouldn’t have to pay, as our friend lived next door to it. I remember someone filched my brand new rainy sandals in that home and I walked home barefoot.

I remember the home in which my brother swallowed a nail, in which my sister fell from a slide and hurt her head, in which the nanny escaped by jumping off the balcony as she couldn’t bear my grandmother’s constant jibes.

I also remember our homes by the cats and other animals who adopted us. So there was one home of Kimi and Kallu and Pushpi, their proud mother, who gave birth to them on my ankles, there was another home where Tipu Sultan (my most handsome cat of all) died in battle and his mother Chinki was bitten by a snake. And where Millie rolled herself in rangoli on Diwali day and came to us, all multi-colored and we had a harrowing time washing her to get the color off.

My father eventually cracked real estate when I was 18 and we had a house with a garden, mango and guava trees, front and back entrances and all of that. But it wasn’t meant to be. That home resulted in a legal battle that took the rest of my father’s youth. That home also broke us as a family.

Meanwhile, I watched friends dating preapproved men on the EMI market, marrying into real estate, divorcing with real estate. I saw them upgrading to house number two just before they had a baby. To house no. 3 before they planned the second one. I saw their homes, immaculate and perfect, their walls adorned with art that never reflected who they were.

When I was pregnant with Re, I wistfully thought of myself as an ill prepared parent. We didn’t have a house, I couldn’t visualize a permanent address; I wondered what kind of security could I possibly offer him. It’s been five going on six years, and things haven’t been bad. Re has moved homes thrice already. He is magically Zen about it. Between home two and three, there was some turmoil, but then help came in the form of a kitten we rescued on the road and our transition got diffused in kitten care and all was well. Home three to four was smoother than I ever thought. It helped that it was on a hill.

But I never flinch whenever there is a “permanent address’ column in any form that I have to fill (and I still end up filling a few of them). I just smile and write my mother’s address. It’s a place I still go to when I feel impermanent.

And it no longer bothers me when I have to move. I just gather my best art, curtains, a few cushions and Re’s castle. I put them up. And it becomes home, so effortlessly.

 

(The above post first appeared as my column in Pune Mirror on 16th March 2015)

Kneading. Proving. Waiting. Proving: Of raising loaves and children

My first loaf of bread

I’m the kind of person who will seldom say no to any kind of new experience. I have, in the past, tried several things which may have seemed scary on the surface, but turned out to be fun nevertheless. However I consciously stayed away from baking bread. I’d done my share of cakes, cookies, loaves, cupcakes, muffins, biscuits, pies and crumbles, but always stopped short of bread.

Bread intimidated me. It was too precise, too scientific, too complicated a way of consuming something really simple. There was too much measuring and waiting, kneading and waiting, proving and waiting, thumping and waiting, more proving and waiting. It was too confusing, too much to remember, too long a way to the end of the tunnel. The worst thing was, it was unfixable for the most part if things didn’t turn out the way they were supposed to.

I mean, I could get a cake together from start to finish in half hour. And it was cake at the end of the day! I always got points for it. But bread? It was at best a carrier for something else. Forget it, I thought.

But each time I saw pictures of freshly baked bread on Instagram, it took me to a warm and fuzzy place that cake and cookies couldn’t. It took me home.

But end of last year, I told myself I was too chicken not to try bread and that I had to overcome my bread virginity. I had recipes from friends, but they took too much for granted, I thought. This was a big deal for me. I just buried my head in websites and blogs all day. I typed “bread making for people who are scared of bread” in my search field. I was careful to find really precise instructions. Like sprinkling the yeast on the water as opposed to adding the water to the yeast. I found Aunt B on a budget, a blog that doesn’t make beginners feel left out.

I learnt that yeast is a big deal, and it’s moody, quite unlike baking powder that always does its job. Yeast requires a little thought, a little finesse. After all, it is a living organism; it demands some sensitivity. It has a lot of power, though, causing things to rise and multiply and making all those yummy holes that breathe and look so heavenly in pictures of bread.

But yeast is also powerless without sugar. It can take a while for yeast to wake up and get going, and it’s the sugar that helps the yeast proliferate. If you feed the yeast sugar directly, it can become more active, more quickly.

And just when I thought I learnt a deep truth, I found out that the French have been baking bread without sugar.

I also felt quite clumsy while kneading. There was too much volume, too little hands, I was flustered, sweaty, there was flour on my hair and face, and I wasn’t even in a movie and there was no hunk ringing my doorbell! Finally, after a few hair-splitting minutes which seemed like hours, the dough came together nicely. It sprang back when I made a dent, just as she said it would. I left it to prove. It rose to twice its size, just as she said it would. I punched it and it collapsed. Just as she said it would. Then I made a few slits, sprinkled some water, proved it again, and then shoved it into the oven.

It came out looking like the most divine thing on earth.

I shouted from the rooftop. I took a picture. I shared it. Hell, I can do bread I thought. It was a moment. I mentally ticked off a block that I had in my head and felt lighter, headier.

Now I wanted to raise the bar. I didn’t want to be the harried woman who had flour in her hair. I wanted to look elegant, like my friend Maria always does while baking. I wanted clean hands, an unruffled face. I wanted poise and Zen. I wanted it all.

Make a hole in the flour. Pour the yeast mixture and a tablespoonful of oil and mix it all with a fork, she said. No hands. She looked so effortless doing it. And her hair was all in place.

Next, I wanted to try cinnamon rolls.

Everything that had to go wrong went wrong. As I kneaded, the dough kept multiplying like some demon on drugs and flying in all directions. I began to wonder if it would ever come together. At some point, I wanted to fling the dough into the garbage. I thought of all the yummy, buttery, cinnamon sugary goodness that went into it, and the best King Arthur’s bread flour and Fleishman’s yeast I had carted all the way from the U.S on my last trip. Finally, in disgust, I just rolled the dough into four balls and dunked it in the oven. I gave it some brutal slits. Half an hour later, it smelt divine. An hour later, I opened the oven with much trepidation. It looked good to me. It was edible. I just had to call it something else.

Re rejected it. “How can it be a bun when it tastes like biscuit?” he said.

Okay, call it a bread biscuit, I said.

The next day, I had some students over. I put my Cinnamon Rocks in front of them. They polished it, no questions asked.

That’s the thing about parenting. You know a little each time, but you never know enough. And sometimes, things don’t rise, or come together. And just when you think you’ve cracked it, you have to go back to the drawing board.

(This post first appeared as my column in Pune Mirror on 26th January, 2015. If you see more connections between bread and raising kids, email me on mommygolightly@gmail.com)