Last week, I took a train to Banaras to attend my first teachers’ conference. There is something about train trips that still makes me wildly excited as a child. I had a skip in my step, I made lists. Lists are always a good sign for me.
Are you travelling alone, someone asked. Unable to contain my excitement at the impending deliciousness of aloneness, I said, “Yes, finally!”.
Being alone is one of the greatest luxuries you can expect after you have a child. Sometimes you get so overwhelmed with tasks on hand or just the autopilotness of your family life that the easiest thing to put on standby is you. The forgetting to love me in the remembering to love them. I have been there. Yes, you do watch movies and go for pedicures or spa sessions, but it is not the same as going away somewhere, all by yourself. .
It has been a week of aloneness. Of strange beds in new cities, new schedules, new food, new body clock, even new dreams. Have you noticed how your dreams change when you wear life lightly?
On my onward journey on the train, I had, for company, six children, two sets of parents (I remember thinking about the joy of numbers), one grumpy lady who eventually smiled (the things that extended time can do), and two chatty aunties sharing a berth which actually belonged to an army boy who was too well-mannered to tell them. As I watched assorted legs dangling from berths in front of my eyes, shrieking “mummy!”, “pappa!”, I suddenly missed Re’s voice, but not enough to long for him. This was about me. I was all set to enjoy me.
I slept like a baby, for 11 hours straight. I dived into two books, something that was very me and I hadn’t done it in a while. I started playing match-the-station-with-the-food game in my head.
My father has etched indelible food memories of places in my head. The places didn’t mean anything without the food. It was always about Bhusaval’s perus or Ratlam’s puri bhaji or Allahabad’s samosas or Mathura’s pedhas or Agra’s pethas. I remember going through train stations and connecting them to memories of my childhood. We had done a huge number of train-trips back then thanks to his wanderlust. Journeys always meant trains. Trains always meant stories for later. No matter how rough the ride, we always had lovely stories to tell. I made notes of things to tell my father. That’s how it’s supposed to be, right? Our children thinking of us because of things we shared with them, conversations we had with them, and before we knew it, we had fixed our imprints on them.
I gifted myself some small things that gave me big joys. Like watching the sun rise over the Ganga. Eating apple pie at Vatika café on the banks of the river at Assi ghat. Watching the evening aarti from a boat at Dashashwamedh ghat. Sitting under a 100 year-old banyan tree and wondering how many people would it take for a hug. Spotting a pied kingfisher on my morning walk along the river at Rajghat. Drinking kulladwali chai. Savouring a moonlit vocal recital by Suchitra Gupta of the Banarasi gharana on the school lawns, with the scent of dhoop wafting away, awakening every pore in my mind. Going for a moonlit boat ride on the Ganga. Watching the moon smile over the bridge across the river and counting the doors as a train ran through it. Rounding it all off with a Banarasi paan on my last day.
But I returned wistfully, having missed the malaiyo, recommended strongly by my foodie friend in a manner that only one foodie can to another. I realized I was three weeks too early for it and the nip in the air was just not enough for its delicate form. This seasonal Varanasi milk-based dessert foam, full of airy goodness is a part soufflé- part cloud art form that is extremely tedious to make and has an extremely short shelf life. It breaks down at the onset of the first rays of the sun and hence should be had before the crack of dawn as it were.
I haven’t tasted it, but I get the sense that malaiyo doesn’t speak, it only whispers. And it’s exactly the kind of thing that gets shrouded amidst the flamboyant jalebis and the robust rabdis. And then I realized. There’s a bit of malaiyo in each one of us. We all need to treat it gently, else we will fall apart too. There is nothing wrong with wanting to be in just the right temperature at the right time of day in the right setting once in a while. We have all earned it.
I’m going back for my malaiyo. In the meantime, I am preserving my inner cloud, ever so gently. I owe it to me.
(This post first appeared as my column in Pune Mirror on November 3, 2014)