Hari Stories – Part 1

He stood at the very edge looking at his toes, wiggling them slightly.  The earth felt damp under his feet. He was standing on the wall of the irrigation channel that his father had built along with the other farmers. Five feet deep, he had heard them say, and three feet across to the other side. Usually there would be at least a foot and a half between the surface of the water and the top of the channel. Not today though. Today the waters had swollen and lapped gently on the top of the wall as it flowed down the channel. And it was flowing quite rapidly too. A paper  boat would be out of sight in less than a minute, he estimated as he stood there following the man-made stream with his eyes.

Although it looked like half past six in the evening, it was only two in the afternoon. There had been warning of a thunderstorm and they had let all the children go home before the rain started. He’d come home, happy that he’d get to eat a warm lunch at home with his parents. As always, he’d changed out of his uniform and into a pair of shorts and a vest, washed his hands, feet and face and gone into the kitchen to eat. His father was already at the table set up on one side of the kitchen, along with his sister. His mother was serving rice in all their plates. He sat down quietly in his seat, and waited for her to serve him the morukootan and vegetable, and sit down to her own plate. Once she started eating, he started his meal. He was the first one to finish. As he was washing up, his father asked him to check on the cowshed and the coop to make sure all the animals were fine. “Come straight back in after that,” his mother warned him. He nodded dutifully and went out the back to first check the coop.

The cows were his friends. And now there was a little calf too. He talked to them, and patted their backs. Just as he was refilling the hay for them, the calf licked the back of his neck. A big wet sloppy kiss. He laughed loudly and playfully smacked the calf on his head. As he stepped out of the shed to head back to the house, he glanced to the fields. They were at a lower level, and from where he was stood near the shed, the paddy looked like the waves of a rocky sea. The channel snaked through the fields, dark and glistening, even as the clouds gathered overhead. “Just a few minutes,” he thought to himself.

And that’s how he ended up here – standing at the very edge of the channel, following the path of an imaginary paper boat. “Hari!!” His mother’s voice broke through the wind and his thoughts. “Hari!” She sounded worried, he thought. “Amma!” he called back. “Come back…..” The wind took away the rest of her words. “Coming, amma! Just one minute!” He looked up at the sky. It had become really overcast now. It didn’t worry him though. It was the monsoons, and he didn’t understand all this fuss about the rains.

He looked beyond the channel, beyond, as far as his eyes could see – where the paddy fields ended and the coconut groves began. The leaves were swaying wildly the in wind. It looked like some of the trees were bending all the way towards the ground. The clouds were in conversation, in their deep rumbling voices. CLAP! He saw a streak of silver strike the ground beyond the trees. The rain was starting towards him now. In that instant, he decided he would stay ahead of it and reach the house before it. He turned around – it was a good 200 meters to the slope that led to the cowshed. But the rain was still in the coconut grove, he had enough time.

He ran. As fast as he could. He knew the bunds well, knew the slippery parts, the portions where the mud was squishy wet, and jumped over them. When he reached the slope, he glanced back towards the rain. It was approaching quicker than he thought. He scrambled up the slope, using his hands to pull himself up faster. Once on top, he started running again, and didn’t stop till he reached the steps at the back door. His mother looked up from washing the dishes from lunch, and took in the panting, the grazed bleeding knee, the cuts on his hands, the soaking wet clothes, and the triumphant look on his face. “What kept you?” she asked.

“I ran ahead of the rain!” he said, grinning. CLAP! This time it sounded closer home, and the sharp drizzle turned into pouring rain. Mother and son looked out, and up at the sky.

“Go, wash up, and put on some dry clothes,” she told him, turning back to the dishes.

“Yes, amma,” he said, and walked towards the bathroom.



From Sambaar to Sadya

The first time i cooked, I was in class 8. It was the summer vacation and I had gone to be with my mom in Goa [Aside: My mom worked in Goa for a few years. My brother and I lived in Chennai with my dad and went to Goa during our vacations. They tried very hard to get my mom transferred to Chennai since my dad’s wasn’t a transferable job. But it was in vain, and she had to quit and come back. But that’s a whole other post, maybe even a two-part]. My aunts, my mom’s two sisters, had also come over for a couple of weeks. It was they who decided that it was time I started cooking. And so they taught me to make rice and sambar.

I don’t remember loving it. It was just something that my aunts taught me how to do, like say, sewing a button, or tying shoelaces. And it was not like i cooked on a daily basis after that. There were times where I would cook a dish or two (read rice and dal)…or make (really clumpy) dosas. Once I remember making a mix-veg gawd-awfulness for my brother and his friend who had come over for combined studies, and unwittingly stayed for lunch. I remember making interesting dishes for S.U.P.W* class! Rasgullas, vegetable balls in chilly garlic sauce, and god knows what else. But all those times, I don’t recall any strong emotional connection with the food except that of hunger.

I think I really attempted cooking on my own during my PG. And I was horrible…by which I mean terrible, terrible! And all my friends were wonderful cooks, whipping up delicious meals quickly and effortlessly. I felt like an absolute idiot, and for a time was so conscious of my terrible-ness (terribility?) that i totally refused to cook anything beyond Maggi.

Then, somewhere i got over it. By the time I moved back to Hyd. to work, I was looking forward to having a kitchen of my own to experiment in. And that really is when i started turning out decent, edible dishes. I enjoyed playing with flavors. It helped that I had a willing guinea pig in the form of my flat mate. To my parents’ great amusement, I would call home every once in a while to get my mom’s recipe for Chole or dad’s recipe for fish curry. It was also around this time that I started dreaming of cooking a sadya.

But here is the problem: I hate following recipes (which is just a nice way of saying that i’m too lazy and undisciplined to follow one). Except when I’m baking, i usually never bother actually looking at quantities for the ingredients. Most times, I’ll just skip straight to the method section and figure the ingredients along the way. I’d like to attribute this aversion to one thing I met continuously when i was learning to cook: the damn “salt to taste.” The way I figure, you’re anyway giving me your recommendation for all other spices, so why can’t you for the salt? (And the “preheat oven to 180” is what kept me away from baking for the longest time.)

This random, look-only-at-the-Method-section approach worked fine for most things. But a sadya comprises traditional dishes, which need to taste a certain way. You know what that means: I’d have to follow a recipe. As you can imagine, the thing kept getting “put off till next year,” if you know what i mean. Until, that is, this year. Starting this year, we decided we’re going to celebrate all the festivals at home, because, you know, we wanted Maatu to grow up with memories of these festivals, just like we did. And guess what is a major Malayali festival? And guess what is a big part of this Malayali festival?** Yes, the time had come for me to face the sadya.

The first step was to decide on the menu. Even i knew a 24-dish sadya would be madness (and/or suicide, considering this was my first attempt at a sadya). But still, i decided on an ambitious menu hoping i would at least land on a tree***: parippu, sambar, olan, cabbage thoran, avial, pulinji, maanga curry + rice and curd, and paal paayasam. Of these, i’d only ever made sambar and olan before (not counting parippu, curd and rice, because i would be frauding by counting them).

I started looking up recipes…and let me just tell you, it is scary, like terrifying, how many ways there are for making each of these dishes. How in the hell was I supposed to pick one?! I would read them, and try to imagine the taste, and try to compare that imaginary taste with the memory of the taste of the same dish when made by my mom/my mil. Why didn’t I just ask them, you ask? Because i wanted to do it all on my own (and also because i’m an idiot, but the former reason sounds more grand). When it came to pulinji, i gave up the search and finally asked my mom. I was still reading through recipes on the night before Vishu! But since the ingredients were roughly the same, i had the forethought to cut the vegetables in advance.

Vishu morning, I wake up at 5:30, and after the whole Vishukkani thing, plod into the kitchen. I must have coffee if i don’t want to burn, cut, and scald myself, i decide. While the milk is boiling for the coffee, i figured i’ll just prep – you know, take stock of my surroundings, etc. There’s the turmeric, i’ll need that; the chilli powder, there’s enough, jeera, dhania, am not likely to need but we’ll see, sambar powder, almost finished, salt, i’ll definitely need that “to taste” and yes, suga…wait, what?! sambar powder, nearly over?! Where am i going to go for that now?! its 6:00 am!!! *panic panic* Google search “instant sambar powder” *panic panic while the results load* Edible garden – yeah her recipes are usually simple. Fresh sambar powder recipe. Yes, this sounds do-able. Wait a minute, what’s this – Vishu Sadya Recipes. Oooo. Ummmmm.

Suffice to say, lunch was ready by 9.00 am, and paayasam was ready by 10. Everything tasted good (if i may say so myself). We had loads of leftovers which finally got done only by the weekend. But really, how very satisfying. I had confronted the sadya, and now we were friends. I can finally say that i cook good.

Hope everyone else had a happy happy Vishu too.


PS: A very, very special thanks to Nags. I followed your avial (with really minor variations), cabbage thoran and maanga curry recipes. And of course, the instant sambar powder.
And also to S, for cutting vegetables with me at 11:30 pm the night before, and for motivating me like no-one else could have.

*Socially Useful Productive Work. What? You never had it at your school?
**The answers are Vishu, and Sadya, btw.
***Aim for the sky and you will at least get to the top of the tree.

A room full of closed doors

This is where I find myself. Again and again. I don’t know how I end up here. One moment I would be walking through the most beautiful garden, or sitting by the beach, or even flying free, trying to measure the length and breadth of the clear blue sky. And the next, I’ll find myself here – in this room. Every square inch painted the same colour – different colour every time. Smooth walls. Walls full of doors, one next to the other. All locked.

Dark is Beautiful

The world was a simpler place before chocolate was discovered – all flour, sugar, egg white and essence – just getting along – till chocolate was discovered. Then everything changed. It changed everything.

In the beginning, there was me. And I was beautiful. Then I saw the world, and the world saw me. It was as though I had bitten of the forbidden apple. I was ashamed. But I could still create. And I built a world around me. My world was simple – I cooked, she served, they admired her and ate what I had created. For years now, I’ve been doing this, and for years now I have known. That the world was a simpler place before chocolate got put into it. Everything seems beautiful around it. Maybe it just makes you see things as they are. Either way, it seems to dissolve the pain that comes with shame, soothing both skin and spirit.

The world was all flour, sugar, egg whites and essence – blending together – a picture of angelic harmony and peace – until chocolate appeared among them. It changed everything. It was wild and disruptive. Its flavour stormed through everything it touched, suppressing everything else, till you could barely sense their presence. It made everything richer, more interesting, more beautiful.

And still I baked. She served. They admired her – were consumed by her even as they consumed what I had created. As though, her vanilla and cream hands made all the difference. Does it? Will chocolate taste more angelic, if she mixed? Will it taste less wild at least? Or will it change her too? Will it lighten if she touched it? Will it not darken her instead?

And everything changed. It changed everything.

Once it has transformed her, I should serve. I am chocolate, and I have put myself into the mix today. And this is my chocolate world, where everything has been touched by my chocolate colour. Then everything will be more beautiful.

The Long Flight Out…

The flight attendants are just starting on their routine. This must be it. Now is when i’m supposed to say to myself “Here we go!” and look eagerly forward to my life ahead. Why do i feel so nervous? I mean, this is the not so tough part of the journey. One of the two airports has been dealt with, and i think i’ve done fairly well so far. Lots of lost doe eyed expressions, and nearly dead with panic moments, but no hitches as such. Everyone was so nice and helpful. I wonder if they are used to seeing my kind of people – people who check, double check, check a few more times, and then check once more to see if they’ve taken everything, and if everything is where its supposed to be, easily accessible, outer pockets of bags, and/or jacket pocket, only to repeat the entire process after about 3 mins – and yet, at the crucial moment, forget where they kept what and fumble, blush furiously, experience a sudden flooding back of memory and produce all necessary documents. Well, they were very patient, so i’m guessing they must’ve seen plenty of people like me. But now all that tension is behind me, well, at least for a little while. Maybe i should distract myself from the fact that at the end of the flight is another airport waiting to swallow me whole. I shouldn’t need distraction from something like that. I mean, what kind of a person needs to be distracted from being at an airport. A phobia with no basis for it at all. Wait a minute, that’s redundant; a phobia IS irrational by definition, so no point saying “a phobia with no basis.” Its like saying water that makes you wet. Hmm..i wonder if there’s a name for it, for this airport phobia. Should google it sometime and find out. Anyway, its not like its the crowd that bothers me, altho yeah that’s also there. But i don’t know. Every time i say it even to myself, i can feel the silliness of it and yet there’s nothing i can do about it. It took me so many flights to get used to the domestic airport rituals. But then that’s no comfort at all…its not like i’m gonna be flying internationally like this very often, probably once a year. I wonder if i’ll miss my family. For now i just wish someone was with me so they could deal with the airports while i cower along behind them. Oh! Do try and not be so stupid about things. You dealt with one airport, you can deal with another. Time you stopped cribbing about it. Hmm…i mean, i have lived away from home, for a few years too at that, so shouldn’t that make it easier for me to deal with being on my own again. But then of course being in another country is whole another story. What will i do? on my own. Will i be able to make friends? Will i be all alone? I wonder if people will ignore me, or be extra curious cuz i’m from India. I wonder if people actually ask about elephants and snake charmers. Probably not. Silly me. But seriously, i do wonder what i’ll do there for company. Sure i have a few friends there and stuff, but you know, they’re not gonna be where i am, and they are not gonna come down for me specially to make me feel at home and/or settle in. oh Crap! Orientation, choosing my courses, meeting faculty…would i need to? How does the system work? Damn it! I don’t know anything! What am i going to do?! ok. ok. I need to calm down. That’s still a couple of days ago. Plenty of time later to panic about that. Maybe i should ask them for a drink. Maybe i should ask them for a few drinks. Get high and generally sleep. What am i gonna do for the next 17 hours anyway. I wish i’d brought some other book instead of Life of Pi. Reading about a journey while on a journey seemed like such a great idea in theory but seeing as i’ve read that book at least thrice, i should have considered the possibility of me not being in the mood for it. Maybe i should switch on the laptop. Scribble something up. Who knows, might amount to a blog post.