Comfort in a bowl of rice

 

Memories of dad flicker in and out these days, the rumble of his guffaws, the way he would fling his gamusa over his shoulder, his relentless haggling with our gardener, the games he would make up for our gang of cousins and friends, his voice when he called out my name. ”Majoni”; yes, one call from him and my world would be in place, at peace.

Deuta was very fond of cooking and many a times I felt he should have become a chef. It was not everyday and it was not predictable, but once in a while he would come home and cook up a storm. Usually my mother and I watched him from a distance as he balanced ingredients in his arms, carrying them from the fridge to the counter. He used to lay them out, sometimes calling us to be his cooking minions, to fetch onions and tomatoes or to stir a massive pot of rajma curry. His hands moved swiftly as they chop chop chop, sometimes potatoes, sometimes garlic, paneer at times. He would never measure, but feel. He followed no recipe but followed his nose. A dash of haldi, jeera, and garam masala, sprinkling of salt and before you knew it every spice imaginable would assemble on the counter. And ghee, he would always cook in pure desi ghee. According to him food needs to be devoured and the cooking of it should be relished, enjoyed and savoured equally.

About last night. It took me about 45 minutes to reach home from the airport. The past few weeks have been one unending and painful blur at hospitals; life just gets so complicated at times. Once home, I headed straight into the kitchen to put a pot of rice on the stove — one cup of joha rice rinsed clean and two cups of water in a small sauce pan. I  pealed a potato, cut it into four pieces and let it marry with the rice. As soon as the water came to a boil, I turned the flame nearly all the way down and closed the pan with its tight-fitting lid. In the ten minutes it took the rice and potato to cook, I washed up and changed, and got the pickle and ghee jars from the pantry.  A gentle crackling from the base of the rice pot was the reassuring sound I’d been longing for, the signal that the rice was perfectly cooked, soft, plump and fluffy. I lifted the lid off, letting the steam escape and I caught a warm, moist, starchy cloud on my face.

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Too impatient to let the rice cool as it should, I scooped some up into a bowl with a wide, nearly flat spoon and  on top of it, a swirl of a teaspoon of ghee. I chose mango pickle, a couple of teaspoons did nicely for all of the rice in my bowl. On a separate plate I mashed the boiled potatoes adding bit of salt and pickle oil. I held the bowl in my left hand and dug the fingertips of my right  into the bowl, working the ghee and the pickle around and into the rice, then I added the mashed potatoes….it was sublime.  Not for the first time, I wondered what it was that drove me to seek this particular combination of foods in times of distress. I didn’t bother then to press for an answer, maybe happy in the knowledge that for the moment all was right with the world.

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Some recollections refuse to leave, they wait patiently until we acknowledge and examine them. One of those is of our mealtimes when we were growing up. Dinner was the one meal when everyone sat together. We ate on steel plates, all of the plates had raised edges. Mine was oval in shape, my brother and parents had circular plates.

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Dad could never withstand the temptation of hot rice, mashed potatoes, ghee and pickle. He would mix them in his plate and feed mom first, then us siblings and then himself, repeating the cycle until mom, who would still be bustling about the kitchen trying to get all the dishes out was done. Over the years, the circle on the table grew wider and noisier with more plates and more voices. Until the loudest link in the circle was no more.

Last night as I stood with my bowl of rice and breathed in I felt the furrows on my forehead slowly disintegrating. The crinkles around my eyelids started to dwindle and my cheeks eased back to their original stations. The aroma was swirling around me, I could try to describe its tang and taste in culinary terms, but in its ripples the steam held the rustle of mom’s cotton sari, it held the twinkle in dad’s eye as he told us the happenings of the day, it held my brother’s cackling laughter as he kicked my legs under the table . At that moment, the aroma was home. And from some distant corner I could hear deuta calling out ”Majoni”.

 

It hurts to think that you are not here anymore….I miss you deuta. 

Until we meet, take care!

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The Golden Liquid

 

The easiest way to offend a mother is to tell her to use a lighter hand while applying ghee on anything. The fact that her children can survive without unhealthy quantities of ghee in their lives is hitherto unknown to her and she lives in complete oblivion to it. When I was growing up it took a lot of ”ma ghee aru nidiba” ( ma don’t add more ghee ) from my side to ”Chup thaka” ( keep quiet ) from mom’s side for her to not rub the morning rotis with the golden liquid. I still remember how mothership sat in a corner glaring at me for being such an unruly child. 

Mornings Now!

I said yes. He said no. I said more. He said less. I mumbled. He muttered. I grunted. He growled. I huffed. He puffed. I insisted. He persisted. I scowled. He frowned. I said I won’t give up; he said he won’t give in. After around thirty minutes of this drama, my son finally submitted to my 1000 ways to make him chubby. I absolutely don’t like being disturbed while cooking, especially when I am making  delicious alu parathas ( flatbread) and yes, I do slather them  with an over-generous helping of ghee.  And the expression on his face as he hungrily gulps down the hot parathas while muttering ” ma bohut bhaal hoise ” ( mom it’s superb ) is priceless! 

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Happy Mother’s Day ! 

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Gold Dust

What a rarity it is, a material thing that is timeless. A piece that gets better with age, a piece that tells a story, a piece that can be passed on from generation to generation. Such a thing that increases in value in a measurement more substantial than money….in what it means to you, where it came from, the story behind it and the people it remind you of.

The charm of the heirloom is its ability to become a vehicle for a story. It’s a cherished memento that reminds you of a person and what you shared together. These earrings and the necklace is a reminder of my roots. Aata procured this beautiful traditional necklace while escorting a Scottish official who was writing a book on the Sonowal Kacharis. The head of this special tribe gifted him these golden earrings decorated with vibrant red gemstone, ruby( mina ) made by craftsmen from Jorhat. They became great friends. Aata gave the necklace to my great grandmother and the earrings adorned the ears of my beautiful Aai; she thereafter gifted them to my mother on her wedding.

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For Ma it was not just a piece of gold, it was a symbol of love and care, affection and prestige, of friendship and bonding. She would wrap them in a thin red piece of paper and keep them in layers of cotton inside her jewelry box. That’s the exact same way Aai kept them she would say. That’s how Aai had taught her to keep it. She would show me once in a while and I remembered how every time I tried to put it back in the box she would say, ”No, no, no! Not like this Majoni and would place the sunflowers back into the folds of its soft bed in an almost ritualistic way. Nodding her head back and forth she would whisper, ” she wouldn’t have done it like this. She would have…..”.

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There is a certain imperfection to all things handmade, which becomes mutually exclusive with the preciousness of that item. Someone has worked on them with their own hands, delicately carving and melting the gold, laying in the jewels and polishing the surface.

The ornaments were handed over to me on my wedding. It was the the first function called ‘Jurun’, I remember Aai and Ma gracing me with the exquisite pieces of gold that holds love, history, dollops of emotion and a story to carry forward. It was a responsibility being handed over to me. I could feel the weight.

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‘Jurun’ in our Assamese community means the formal engagement when the groom’s family gives gifts to the bride. In the picture my beautiful Aai looks at me with so much love in her eyes; her favorite granddaughter was bedecked with exquisite jewelry  and gifts by the groom’s family. Her eyes would get moist at times. She would hold my hands and touch my cheeks occasionally; fix the necklace she gave and murmur, ‘don’t forget our tiny little gift majoni.’

Every time I wear these my heart is filled with an aching warmth. I love that for even the shortest of time I share something with these incredibly wonderful women. It kisses my skin and leaves me with nostalgia; the fact that I share the objects that connect us all to our roots and our soil.

“I think it is all a matter of love; the more you love a memory the stronger and stranger it becomes”
Vladimir Nabokov

 

Aata: Grandfather

Aai: Grandmother

Ma: Mother

Sonowal Kachari: One of the indigenious ethnic group of the North East part of India

Majoni: My nickname

Jurun: Ceremony where the groom’s family brings gifts for the bride

 

Because I was taught right

Childhood with my grandfather was serene, magical and enlightening. I remember waking up every morning to the melodious hymns of my saint like grandpa I fondly called ”aata”. On days when the milkman did not show up, I would accompany my aata on short walks to the barn to get some fresh milk while soaking in the sights and sounds of a glorious city at sunrise. He would smile peacefully as he greeted passers-by. Some would touch his feet and aata would bless them in abundance.

I remember running barefoot after him with my bagful of questions and he was always so desirous and well equipped with his elaborate answers. He would teach me the shlokas and explain to me in depth what they meant….a perfect chant from my end would gift me a small cup of sweet yoghurt in a earthen pot or the very popular ”cream mihi dana”. I was a happy child. At times he would humor my insatiable thirst for the knowledge about our roots, history, religion and faith by his unending bank of erudition, poise and wisdom.

On one occasion I had asked him the significance of touching the feet of elders. Aata told me it was a gesture of showing respect. I was given an elaborate discourse on the topic. The primary motive behind this gesture was to bow down and show respect to the elder. The person whose feet are being touched in turn blesses you with long life, fortune and wisdom, as an acknowledgement. I was given scientific explanations as well. The nerves that start from our brain spread across all your body. These nerves or wires end in the fingertips of your hand and feet. When you join the fingertips of your hand to those of their opposite feet, a circuit is immediately formed and the energies of two bodies are connected. Your fingers and palms become the ‘receptor’ of energy and the feet of other person become the ‘giver’ of energy. Usually, the person of whose feet you are touching is either old or pious. When they accept your respect which came from your reduced ego (and is called your shraddha) their hearts emit positive thoughts and energy (which is called their karuna) which reaches you through their hands and toes. Pearls of Wisdom!

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It’s Bihu in Assam now, the season of festivities and thanks-giving. Bor Bihu ( 15th January ) marked the birthday of my beloved grandfather, he passed away in 1988. Its a common tradition during Bihu to touch the feet of our elders. Following the family values and tradition I touched the feet of an elderly person at my in-law’s house and was denied a blessing for reasons best known to him. Some say the old man is hugely under the negative influence of his dominating daughter; I beg to differ. Somebody who can think, talk and walk on his own can never be overpowered and stoop to this level. I came home with a heavy heart.

Under such circumstances I question my knowledge and upbringing, was I taught right? I knew the old man had cold feelings for me; should I have then distanced myself from touching his feet and saved myself this pain?

Ofcourse not. The truth is, unless you let go, unless you forgive the situation, unless you realize that the situation is over, you cannot move forward. I was taught that the tradition of touching feet in a humble salute is a unification point of Shraddha and Karuna. When you bow down ( Shraddha ) and the elder touches your head with their hand while blessing you ( Karuna ), his spiritual energy/wisdom passes on to you. My family instilled in me values of kindness, generosity, wisdom, self-respect and forgiveness. I shall never forget that I am the better person in this equation.
People are illogical, unreasonable, and self-centered.
Love them anyway.
Give the world the best you have and you’ll get kicked in the teeth.
Give the world the best you have anyway.
Kent M Keith

Because I was taught right.

 

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Aata : Grandpa

Shlokas: A couplet of Sanskrit verse,  especially one in which each line contains 16 syllables

Cream Mihidana: A popular dessert made of gramflour n mixed with fresh cream

Bihu: Festival of Assam

Special thanks to Debashis Malla Deka

 

 

 

Oranges

There are few things more comforting than curling up under the winter sun and watching it slowly engulf everything around you in its deep ochre hue.  What does compare though, is when the smaller banalities immediately transport you back into time.  As a child winter meant waking up to a thick blanket of frost on the glass. I used to bundle up and head to the bus-stop with scampered steps for fear of a frostbite. The wait for the bus led to neverending conversations with friends, what a delight it was to notice each others breath as we talked. We made clouds from our breaths. Oh winter!

As a child I remember oranges being a treat. Even now they are such a seasonal thing with the variety of the fruit changing as the temperature drops. December through February is the peak orange season and I remember sitting next to my mother during the winter vacations, devouring slice after slice of this beautiful winter fruit.

Ma would open the ripe orange, bitter drops from the rind exploding into the air, and separate it into two halves. Then slowly, piece by piece, the white thread-like peal would be removed, skin opened, the seeds extracted and something resembling a soft carpet of translucent juicy triangles would be handed to me. My eyes would light up at this sight, my mouth would water. Ma would always go the extra mile with fruits, whether it was de-seeding oranges or taking the peels off apples or breaking open pomegranates.

What dawns on me now as I casually bite into a piece of fruit is that I have stopped noticing the details of the experience. As a child this experience gave me so much pleasure…the colours, the texture…the memories attached to certain rituals we share with our loved ones. Like sitting close to my mother with the heater on during the winter holidays, sunlight pouring in and oranges being peeled off! Now all I have are memories. And yes, Oranges!

My son brought me these beautiful orange balls in the morning and instructed me how to de-seed them properly.

” Just when we think we’ve figured things out, the universe throws us a curveball. We find happiness in unexpected places. We find our way back to the things that matter the most. The universe is funny that way. Sometimes it just has a way of making sure we wind up exactly where we belong.”

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The Closure

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After a trauma, loss of a loved one, your body is at its most vulnerable. And the response time is critical. So you’re suddenly surrounded by people….doctors, family, friends, everyone putting you back together again. But all this noise is a trauma in and of itself, and once it’s over, the real healing begins. This phase is called recovery. Recovery is not a team sport, It’s a solitary distance run. It’s long. It’s exhausting and it’s lonely as hell.

”The length of your recovery is determined by the extent of your injuries and is not always successful. No matter how hard we work at it, some wounds might never fully heal. You might have to adjust to a whole new way of living. Things may have changed too radically to ever go back to what they were. You might not even recognize yourself. It’s like you haven’t recovered anything at all. You’re a whole new person with a whole new life.”

Grey’s Anatomy

I have hated July since the day I was born. I don’t know but maybe that’s the way it was. Never liked the excruciating heat. Never liked the sudden downpours on my birthdays. The vacations, the homeworks, the powercuts, the jackfruits. Hated everything about July. I lost my father on 13th July, 2010. He left me thirteen days after my birthday. My mom was diagnosed with breast cancer just twenty days after dad’s demise. Lost her as well. Life.

Fresh start, clean slate, a world of possibilities but no matter what new adventure you’re embarking on, you’re still you. You bring you into every new beginning in your life so how different can it possibly be? Nothing’s easy about starting over. Nothing at all. The truth is you can build a house out of anything, make it as strong as you want. But a home…a home is more fragile. A home is made of the people you fill it with. And mine were gone. And I was broken.

But what’s broken can also be mended. What’s hurt can also be healed. That no matter how dark it gets, the sun is going to rise again. Writing and words and reading and life have taught me so much. But what I’m learning the most is the importance of connections. Relationships are so important — the ones that are real and true. The people who fight for you and fight with you and celebrate with you and sit next to you when you are in the thick of life. The ones who cheer you on and practice happiness and grace when they, themselves, are struggling to find their own. People matter, conversations matter, words matter.

The truth behind it all is that people will never stay as long as you want them to. But I’ll tell you a secret: they’ll always stay as long as you need them to. That’s something I keep learning over and over again. You will meet people who will turn your life upside down. They’ll come in, they’ll teach you something, you’ll grow and laugh and learn from them. And you’ll wonder where the hell they were before you met them. They’ll be incredible forces in your life. And sometimes, as quickly as they came by, they’ll leave. And it’s disheartening and unfair and sometimes cruel, but you’ll carry in your heart that you are better because of them. You’ll keep their memories, their wisdom, and their words.

These are the least pearls of wisdom I can give you for now.

 “There’s a trick to the ‘graceful exit.’ It begins with the vision to recognize when a job, a life stage, or a relationship is over — and let it go. It means leaving what’s over without denying its validity or its past importance to our lives. It involves a sense of future, a belief that every exit line is an entry, that we are moving up, rather than out.”

My birthday on July 1st this year brought me peace. Yes the sun was strong but I liked it…..it lighted up the whole sky. There was this quiet gentle breeze that drifted warmly across the face leaving it refreshed. It rained for a while but i didn’t quite mind it coming, I made peace with the little drizzle, or to put it in the words of Vladimir Nabokov,

“Do not be angry with the rain; it simply does not know how to fall upwards.”

I am grateful for people who continue to show me what friendship and loyalty and love and compassion are all about. I’m thankful for the people who love me unconditionally.  I’m thankful for forgiveness and for the ability to let go. What would i do without your ”second”, ”third” and ”twelfth” chances!

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Life after dad and ma was about ” transition ”. The years after 2010 were about learning to transition my life after the tragedies. Life from here will be about movement, and progression, and being present. It will be about steady and graceful balance. Taking both baby steps and giant leaps into the blind unknown. It will be about showing up. It will be about building relationships, maintaining old ones, and being present with the people in my life. It will be about continuing to balance on that tight rope, rolling with the punches, and expressing gratitude. 2015 will be about transitioning into this next phase of my life. It will be about unrelenting strength in the face of the unknown. In the face of all odds — and isn’t that what life should always be about? 

The Connect

July 16th, thursday, I’m sitting in the middle of a coffee shop catching up with a friend. And I am already planning the rest of the day out in my head. Did I submit that article on time?  Did I make sure I turned my hair straightener off before I left my house? When does my car need to go to the shop? And if I’m not going a mile a minute in my head, I’m scrolling through my phone. Answering people I left hanging. Sifting through e-mails making sure I didn’t miss anything. Casually checking my Instagram feed that’s usually inundated with engagement rings and feeble attempts at “Food Porn.”

But I wasn’t always like this.

As a child  I craved conversation. I craved connection. I suppose I realized then how fleeting moments are. How quickly people come and go. Truth be told, I never wanted to be alone. I had a super-mom who looked after our schools and even babysat a few of the neighborhood girls in the afternoons. My fondest childhood memories involved those girls and the time we spent together every day after school. Over time, the girls became the sisters I never had. Long before cell phones and social media and the need to measure our own worth by the number of likes or favorites or retweets came crashing into our lives, it was always just me and these girls. Playing and fighting and laughing and dreaming. Face-to-face. We’d set up neighborhood-wide games of manhunt. We laid outside and counted stars. We knew nothing of the future, but we hung onto each other. When we laughed, it was never without tears. When we fought, we kicked and we screamed and we yelled. And when we loved, when we were there for each other in the midst of divorces, threats of divorce, familial discord, and broken homes, we loved hard. We were always present. Always right there with each other.

That was my childhood. In all its glory. It was beautiful and full and connected. It’s hard to believe how long it’s been since I’ve tasted the innocence of what a childhood was. Of the simplest form of fun and happiness. Of face-to-face interactions, getting dirty and muddy and being fully present because we had no other choice but to be.

It saddens and scares me that my teenage son will never have what I had. He is 16 and his idea of spending a saturday night with his friends is sitting in front of the computer and having a group video chat with them. He’ll never know communication beyond the three inches of his iPhone ( maybe). He’ll never know the excitement of coming home to a letter from a pen pal — a friend who moved away but still kept in touch via letter writing. I’m afraid he’ll never have the same affinity for deep, intellectually stimulating conversations as I do. I’m afraid that an argument between he and one of his friends will always be as a result of words that didn’t go over well in text. I’m afraid he’ll never be able to look someone square in the face and tell them what he feels.

Part of me wants to raise up the white flag, throw in the towel, and accept that this is it. We are a social-media-technologically-driven-world. You are never really ever running errands alone, because your head is in your phone having a conversation with someone about last nights party or the morning meetings to catch up on. When you’re riding the bus to work, the person next to you is scrolling through his Facebook feed. Awkward silences in elevators often result in everyone pulling out their phones and pretending to be in the midst of a juicy conversation with someone.

So should we bring ourselves to give up just yet? I guess I need more than that. I don’t ever want to be sitting face-to-face with someone and miss the point. I want more than text messages and Facebook wall posts and favorites on a picture. I want to be present. Real conversations. Real Kodak moments that aren’t up for others to judge whether or not they like them. I want to be connected — really connected.  Because the truth is: life exists in the details. Love exists in the details. Connection exists in the details.  

It’s in the smile that lights up the restaurant the second you walk in and meet up with a friend whom you haven’t seen in months. In the face-to-face conversations about the tough stuff — heartache and loss and love and careers and life-altering decisions. It’s in being there. Being present. Eyes up, ears open. It’s in falling in love with the sound of the voice, or the crooked smile, or the way they can’t keep from grinning when they see you. It’s waiting by the phone for his call because even though you just left the house, you need to hear his voice. And that voice is what matters. Not a text. Not lifeless words through a screen. But tone and warmth and I’m falling in love with yous whispered in the middle of the night.

And you just can’t get that through a screen.

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