Friday, June 27, 2008

What's Cooking?

One lazy morning,I was reading an article on how a blog is the live plant which can supplement the cut and dried stump of a resume.Mum had been telling me off for spending time blog-hopping when I should be learning the secrets of meen-curry.I march triumphantly into the kitchen where she is engaged in the "Battle of Breakfast" to read out relevant lines from the article to vindicate my habit.

"...that's fine,but how do you expect to eat without learning to cook?"

Normally, I would have given a tongue in cheek reply and dived for cover.
That morning,the question didn't have any barbs (of the 'managing-your-
own-home-someday' kind),for once I realize the sorry state of my culinary skills.

The first thing I ever learned to make was of course,tea.Since I was not a culinary enthusiast this feat came around the age of 11 or 12.The first tea I served,to demonstrate my skill,took half an hour and was declared "excellent"by the tasters,who had given up the prospect of tea that evening.Well,if one has perfected the art then why try any more.So that was the end of brewing tea for a long long time.It was only after the shift to Ernakulam that I made enough tea to compensate that long gap.The place is thick with relations who keep dropping in and volunteering to make tea is the best way to escape the company of relations who keep asking the same questions everytime.

Back in Trivandrum,Mum and Dad used to leave us to ourselves occasionally on short visits to the native places like weddings,functions or emergencies.Those days we lived on Maggi noodles and "bull's eyes",and the best part was that Neil always joined in.Parents out of station also meant parotta and chilly beef from the fast food shop.So who cares about cooking!

Things however took a turn (for good,obviously) two years back,when Mum took occasional breaks to visit her parents,leaving me to manage the household.She did try frightening me into learning to cook with dire warnings like leaving an empty fridge.But she knew better and wouldn't have dreamed of letting Ammamma or Dad starve.I took over with a fully stocked fridge and my sole duty was warming up things and fixing all the meals,going by the instructions jotted on the yellow scrap pasted on the fridge.
Not surprisingly,I put up an impressive work by doing things ahead of time;the lunch boxes packed and breakfast laid out by 7:30am.The only things I would have to make would be puttu ,dosa or appam and tea.The thermal cooker is one of the miracles in kitchendom,atleast the rice gets cooked without any fuss.
After a few easy "duty days" like those,Mum began to reduce the number of things to be warmed and served.Now the instructions read "Soak green peas
at night,boil in the morning,after a whistle turn down the fire....".
Piece of cake,I tell myself.
I opened the cooker at the first whistle(I swear it sounded like one) only to find the peas still green,grinning back at me.My reputation was at stake that day,with my NRI uncle included in the mouths-to-feed list.I was determined to get that peas curry and paalappam done for breakfast.The stove was lit again and this time the cooker whistled as many as three times.I opened the cooker to find "ghosts" of pea-skins floating around in the excess water.The residue(discovered under the water) now looked like badly made dal.It must have been my exasperated cry that brought uncle to the scene of the 'tragedy'.Sweet as he is, uncle took over and tried his best to salvage the curry.My folks were courteous enough to taste the 'disaster' before asking for the sugar bowl.The garbage bin that day,had a considerable amount of yellowish green gooey stuff,among its contents.Thankfully Mum returned just in time to save the lunch from a similar fate.

The only thing I really volunteered to make was chocolate.There were several irresistible pictures of chocolates in Mum's collection.(She has an entire row of glossy cook books and several scrapbooks with hundreds of recipes carefully chosen and cut out from magazines and newspapers.).I had brought cocoa pods from Mum's home and went through the entire process of drying the seeds,pounding and processing them to make the chocolate powder.The first time it turned out in liquid form and the second time it remained a semisolid.But chocolate is chocolate afterall;the smacking of lips was appreciation enough.
The chicken and meen curry still remain secrets.So do that unending list of sadhya side dishes.Never had a palate for the fancy or exotic dishes so no regrets about the ignorance there.
Though I manage to conjure up four square meals,the best thing I make still continues to be tea.My Mum continues to lament the lack of the hereditary skill in me.As for me,I always say "The best is yet to be!"

Sunday, June 15, 2008


It isn't Diwali yet,nor is it Vishu but a crackling sound,sparks of yellow and the smell of burning hair are now common phenomenon in the evening air of Cochin.It could either be that the IPL failed to impress or Kerala's dismal performance at the Santhosh Trophy,but the citizens of Cochin seem to have suddenly taken to tennis.These days we find a whole lot of them brandishing rackets.Ofcourse they do not promise a Leander Paes or a Sania Mirza to Indian tennis,because they play against a non human-the Great Indian mosquito!
From recorded time,Ernakulam has been known for it's thriving mosquito population.My dad,a 'Cochinite' by birth,recollects days of his childhood when they used to swish plates coated with oil to trap mosquitoes.The mosquito net was an integral part of very household in the city.
The advent of a battery of mosquito repellents;coils,mats,creams,liquidators seemed to solve the problem for a while but had their side effects in the form of allergies and pulmonary diseases.Next came the idea of barricading the doors,windows and ventilators with nets.The pesky insects were smarter by developing an extra sensory perception for finding a neglected gap or a hole just enough to squeeze in or simply waiting for the door to open!

With the garbage disposal and the drainage system in a mess the mosquito population find a happy ground to breed and multiply,bringing along with them a set of vector transmitted diseases,some of which leave the victims marred for life.The vicious chikungunya that swept Mid Travancore last year will not be forgotten soon.

A brainwave from some mosquito-bitten soul created the Mosquito bat.Shaped like a tennis racket,the bat has a mesh that can be electrified at the press of a button.All you have to do is swing the bat when you hear the irritating buzz and Zzzaap! One electrocuted mosquito,at your disposal.The bat caught the attention of Cochin dwellers like a rage.Multicoloured bats ranging from Rs 120 to 400 sold out like hot cakes.These days we see lungi clad,bare chested,potbellied men pacing up and down their gardens with the bat for a mosquito-free evening walk.

We were a little late to discover this wonder machine.We had spent the initial days of the last summer in misery sleeping inside stuffy mosquito nets and being choked in the fumes of the Good Knight mats(someone found out that burning used mats was more effective).Sure it was, the mosquitoes fainted,so did you!.Dad tried camphor and incense and a whole lot of fumigants until Ammamma lost her temper.Nothing seemed to work.The worst time was the family prayer time.The winged pests somehow inferred that people tend to be passive while praying and had their prime time 'meals' scheduled for that half an hour.We must have looked like a Pentecost group, praying with claps and jerks!(no offense meant).It was when dad went to investigate a persistent crackling sound we used to hear from the neighbour's garden that we found our best weapon.No time was lost in procuring one,complete with a torchlight( maybe to hunt for the "enemy" during a treacherous powercut!).Nobody seemed to have the patience to get it charged(8-15 hrs the instructions said) before launching the attack.And after a couple of hours,it was Vishu.
"Buzz....swoosh....zing....Rat-a-tat-tat!".For four long suffering souls,we enjoyed the sadistic pleasure of seeing mosquitoes drop dead in a heap.Soon we had another one bought to use upstairs.It became our bed-time companion.You hear the buzz any time in the night, just pick up the bat and wave aimlessly around you and the reassuring crackle is guaranteed!(Might look ridiculous but definitely effective.)

The Bat caught the fancy of visiting friends from other parts of Kerala and they actually placed orders to get it for friends back home.My NRI uncles who grew up in this mosquito paradise received the new wonder with glee on their visits here.Ammamma was scandalized to see her 45 yr old son clamber over the chairs,on to the dining table, to reach the flies perched on the ceiling!
We added 3 more to the collection,in due time.But like all good things the bat also has its weak point.It breaks down fast and cannot be repaired.
However, this does not douse its market demand.And what is more,there has been a decrease in the nuisance,atleast comparatively.

p:s The existing mosquitoes have developed in size and now look like a huge ants with wings.Must have been buzzing over Darwin's "Origin of Species" sometime ;-).

"Rat-a-tat-tat" happens to be the title of a Russian short story collection for children by Nikolai Nosov.One of my favorite books and a treat for anyone who enjoys children's literature.

Friday, June 6, 2008

That Yew-tree's Shade...

Mum and I are seated on a rickety bench at the rear end of the cemetery chapel.There are a few other women seated,at random in the faded plastic chairs.The altar wall features a huge Crucifix with the sculpture of the Pieta at it's foot.The tabernacle is conspicuously absent.The floor of the chapel is made of marble slabs,all black,bearing the inscriptions of the ones that sleep beneath.We are here to attend the funeral of some venerable old man who passed away the night before.We were in no way related to the departed soul except that we belong the same parish prayer group.We wait in solemn silence as a small group of mourners slowly make their way towards the chapel.The cross and candle bearers in front,then the young asst.vicar walking with brisk steps,the bereaved family and friends and finally the coffin.They place the coffin on a table ominously covered in black ,in the center of the chapel.The priest and his assistant begin a brief prayer while the rest of us look on ,occasionally throwing furtive glances at the open coffin.
Soon the prayers are done and the coffin is carried to a six feet long ditch among the numerous graves in the yard.Mum and I are relegated to the outer circle and hence cannot see what is going on.A few minutes into the prayer,one of the prayer group leaders' is seen handing out frankincense to the ones in approachable distance.The priest's voice is heard saying " dust shalt thou return."A few audible sniffs from the inner circle(which was relatively silent till now)tell us that the old man was saying his final goodbye.Some move forward to throw the incense into the grave,the sound of ropes slipping,and then of soft mud falling in.Another laid to rest.

The last time I was at a similar function was for my dear grandmother's funeral.I surely was not the unaffected observer then.Ammamma now rests in the row immediately near the chapel steps.Someone had then joked "Teacher(as she was popularly known)can hear Mass everyday!"

Graveyards were always disturbing places to me as a child.It still does, but for a different reason.I never liked attending Requiem Masses unless it was for family members.The prayers gave me an eerie feeling,the tune of the hymns,haunting and the piece of silk with a cross that was spread on the floor,scary.As I grew older I decided it was high time I tried understand the inevitable truth than trying to shy away from it.The stint in the parish youth organization gave me several occasions to conquer my fears.It was part of our duty to keep prayers going in a bereaved house.Being in the church choir meant singing at Requiem Masses and that made me realize the beauty and solace in the prayers involved.

The cemetery here must be unique with it's custom of a regular Eucharistic celebration.After Ammamma's passing I make it a point to attend Mass there atleast once a week.I was surprised at the turn out there.About a hundred turn up at 8 in the morning on weekdays.Most of them have their dear ones interred in the thirty cent cemetery.One of the asst.vicars,announcing his transfer,remarked that the gathering at the cemetery were well acquainted with the sorrow of parting.On the chapel floor one finds the rich and famous parishioners, showing off even in their final sleep,with the details of the positions they adorned when alive and kicking.It used to give me the creeps to think about standing or sitting over a dead person.The tombs outside are also an interesting study.There are a few elaborate marble tombs with carvings and some with engraved pictures of the deceased.Some of them have ornate crosses and mournful angels while one,I noticed with a shock, sported a skull and crossed bones!

Ammamma had a freedom fighter spinster for a neighbour until the latter's term was over and they buried someone much younger there.By the gate ,is a tiny tomb,about one feet in length,of "a warrior who fought bravely"(the epitaph read),a baby who lived only for two days.

I've always wondered the paradox in celebrating the Eucharist(the sacrament of Life) in the house of the dead.There is nothing about the chapel that is soothing ,comforting or hopeful.Yet why does such a big crowd gather there every day and pray with devout fervor?The answer probably is,the awareness of the absolute truth,that lies under their feet.

I had no time to hate, because
The grave would hinder me,
And life was not so ample I
Could finish enmity.

Nor had I time to love, but since
Some industry must be,
The little toil of love, I thought,
Was large enough for me.

-'I Had No Time To Hate, Because', Emily Dickinson

Picture courtesy

Sunday, June 1, 2008

The Monsoon revival

It's June.Goodbye to the warm mornings,hot noons and balmy evenings.The monsoon's here in style.Sonorous cracks of thunder,scintillating streaks of lightning, gusty winds and a torrent of rain.Yesterday,we woke up to find our house in flood downstairs.(thanks to the 'efficient' drainage system in Ernakulam).
The jasmine pot(a gift from a dear friend) on which I lavished my attention,bloomed for the first time,sporting three pearly white starlets perfuming the air.
The kids in the neighbourhood ,who made my study leave miserable by rending the air with the spirit of summer games while I was trapped under a mountain of xerox copies,will soon head to school.The ads on TV reflect the season with the school accessories,clothing and umbrella companies vying for attention.Still remember that old ad of St.George umbrella starring a famous child artist,which made umbrellas seem like the lifeline of every school kid.The school reopening day is never complete without the shower that drenches all the new clothes and bags.The new white socks and shiny black shoes turn a nasty brown from the wading through the puddles.In its wake follows colds,flus and a series of fevers and visits to the doctor.
Most of the large government school students find themselves back at home again when their schools are turned into monsoon relief camps especially in the coastal and low-lying areas.
The smell of new books,the new accessories,the new classroom and a whole new year of promises and adventure are truly felt only when in school.
Once in college the entire routine changes and everyday is reopening day.
This monsoon ,however,is different.

Last Thursday saw our farewell party.A quiet affair with teachers and juniors,good food and a few words on the batch that was leaving.We were mostly left to ourselves to mull over the two years that sped by.For many this might be the end of student life.A professional course or a job with a hectic work schedule would definitely be different from the dreamy,relaxed years we leave behind us.Our farewell ceremony lacked teary faces which struck us as strange.Only a few thought about the autograph routine.We were a close knit group in perfect harmony with each other.Unlike the other PGs we had more outings together and celebrated birthdays in class.We indulged in simple pleasures like a walk to the lake front,dividing a tiny bar of chocolate between the 16 of us,enjoying those coloured sip-ups(an interesting scene to watch;both 35 and 21 look like a 5 year old),or just standing around the lectern (under the lone fan)cracking jokes.

Our small group had a wide range of people with five qualified teachers,a judo champion,a religious brother and a married student with a 4 year old kid.In course of time we saw one of our classmates get placed as a government employee and another engaged and married.I was lucky to experience the warmth of my group when they turned up en masse at my grandmother's funeral and when they made my birthday memorable during our excursion.
It is notable that we never had clashes or sparks in class.A jolly group that always saw the sunny side .Our Brother was the glue that kept us together for being the oldest and a religious he was the undisputed Godfather(in the right sense).When the other three of the tiny male population occasionally played truants,he would find himself(in his own words) "blessed among women"!
Every function we organized was pronounced a success and won much appreciation for our unity.The play we rigged up for the Association day discovered many latent talents.I was so proud of the little choir I trained which performed at most of the functions.There were many who made the most of soporific hours with creative sparks like instant poetry and sketching.(This poem(Farewell day Musings) was written amidst "The Colonizer and The Colonized" on the last working day.)

It was more than coincidence that our course officially came to an end on 23 April,a day dedicated to the memory of someone synonymous to English literature.Everyone seemed to understand the importance of the day.We treated ourselves to biriyanis at lunch break with the entire class sitting around in a circle.That evening no one seemed to be in a hurry to go home but lingered to fill the blackboard with our signatures.Our teachers saw us off with blessings and invitations to re-visit often.

As two years of friendship,fancy and fun comes to an end this monsoon eve and we part ways to seek new pastures with memories worth a lifetime,I have only one prayer on my mind,"Lord you have given me so much,please give me one more thing - a grateful heart!"

Picture courtesy:Manorama online