Friday, April 26, 2019

Sharing Peanuts

Memories of childhood always bring a whiff of nostalgia with them. There is something, rather many things about that phase which make it so very special. As we keep moving away from that time, the past  picture keeps getting better and better, isn't it? I consider it a zooming-out effect which brings out the essence of the complete perspective. 
We often tend to go back to some of those disjointed flashes from the past to relive the soul of the bygone time. Whenever they surface, they invariably manage to bring an innocent smile to our face.

We had a small traditional tandoor in our house which our father got made on order. I think it was made using the body of an old cylindrical drum which had its own lid too. It was a functional tandoor and at least once in a month, usually on a Sunday, tandoori rotis were made to go along with dal-makhani. As far as I remember, it was not a trivial activity. Cleaning the tandoor, preparing it, heating it up sufficiently for the rotis - all this itself would take some considerable time before actual roti making action. After its use, it was allowed to cool down, cleaned properly and secured with the lid.

I am not sure how and when but some years down the line, the usage of tandoor became less frequent. I think it was the time when father got posted to another city. It was later given away to somebody but strangely its lid was retained. I think it was a very smart move as that lid in its upside down avatar, naturally became a serving plate for the birds. Mostly house sparrows, mainas, crows and red vented bulbuls used to visit our home. Out of these the house sparrows were the most frequent ones and often came in large numbers. Those were the times when house sparrows were easily seen in the city. Mother would keep some bajra seeds, bits and pieces of the first roti that was cooked every day and any left over roti or rice in that plate, along with water in a deep terracotta pot - for the birds to feast on. I remember every day, early in the morning, while tidying up the house and the backyard, mother would clean up that plate and the water bowl and would refill both with fresh supplies.

During summers, early morning was the time when the sparrows would visit looking for their first meal of the day, in good numbers. Their chirping, altercations and bantering were a part of the background noise in our home. Their numbers would dwindle as the day became hotter. The pattern reversed in winters. House sparrows would come solo, in pairs, and in groups when sun brought some respite from the chill.

I carry one particular memory of those winter afternoons. Natural light, fresh air and winter sun are perhaps a few things out of many which were highly valued by mother. She always encouraged us to sit and study in the backyard to make the most of these three. After returning home from school during those winter days, we were served food outside on the foldable cot. While basking in the warmth of the sun, we would indulge in the last course of  any winter meal - roasted peanuts and gazak. Many birds, especially house sparrows used to pay us a visit during that time and we would gently flick some peanuts to their side too though cautiously, trying not to scare them away. It was a sheer delight to watch them feast on those peanuts and I must admit a little bit of sense of individual achievement that they ate what one offered. While writing this I can very vividly see that scene in front of my eyes where we all ate peanuts together. Years passed in almost fast forward manner, I moved out of the parental house first for my masters and then to build a separate abode after marriage. On every visit to that house, I couldn't help notice lesser and lesser sparrows coming to the backyard for food. They were fast getting pushed away by the bigger and stronger mainas.

House sparrows were tiny little birds, females had pale brown and grey coats while males had brighter black, white and brown markings. They were very shy birds. Sadly, they have become extinct in our city now. I miss them, because their chirpiness and their companionship are an integral part of my childhood memories. They remain the loveable background sound, in fact, music in my reminiscences.
We do have feathered visitors in our new house here too. After searching online for their name, I came to know that they are Jungle Babblers. They are bigger, brown coated birds with long tails and they chirp loudly. I scatter bread crumbs, leftover rice and pieces of first chapatti of the day for them on the backyard wall. They also visit in groups to eat and then fly away together. They are much stronger and fearless, rather aggressive than my old feathered friends. I like feeding them but I miss the little ones dearly, more so in winters when I eat peanuts.

Dear sparrows, this is my tribute to you. You will always have a special place in my memories. 

Monday, April 22, 2019

Soul-less Bread Butter

I was in the second year of my under-grad. It was the last Friday of the first month of that year. The college day was about to end, just one more lecture was to be attended. I was about to reach the designated lecture hall with my batchmates, when all of a sudden I decided to skip that class and to go home. My friends were quite surprised because there was no reason to not attend that class that day. We were just 20 odd girls in the non-medical section and if and whenever we decided to bunk a lecture, we would preferably do it together and would even inform the lecturer about our absence. Somehow that day it was different and it still is a mystery to me why I decided to head home.

I reached home and saw my mother coming out from the main entrance as if she was expecting to meet me outside. I was on my two-wheeler mobike. She asked me to go to the post office and send a telegram to my paternal auntie who lived in Karnal at that time, requesting her to come immediately. Those were the times when phones were not omnipresent. Auntie often used to visit us and would stay with us for longer durations too. Her presence used to uplift the mood of everyone at home. My father was not keeping well for some days and it was getting very depressing at home. That was the year when only I was at home with my parents. My eldest sister was married, my brother had taken up his first job in the capital city and my second sister was away studying in another city.

I went inside, kept my college bag and saw my father breathing a little heavily though he was sleeping peacefully. He was on a high dose of medicine for the past couple of weeks and that could have triggered this irregular breathing - we  rationalized and did not feel right to disturb his sleep. I went to the post office and returned back in about half an hour. I saw my mother standing at the gate as if desperately waiting for me to come back. We rushed inside and on seeing father's condition, it was clear that something was seriously wrong. The events that followed are just a haze in my mind. Our tenants who were on the first floor of our house came first, followed by some neighbours; a doctor was called; my eldest sister and her family came; our living room was cleared out and sitting arrangement was done on the floor; our entrance was thrown open as more people had started pouring in and many more were expected through the night. 

Just like that, a person had become a body.

I experienced a strange type of dichotomy surrounding myself then - time was dragging slowly but things were happening at a strange pace; mind was numb but a lot of noise in the mind didn't cease to pause even for a moment; there was deathly silence in the atmosphere but people around were engaged in various tasks. By midnight, our house was full of friends, relatives and acquaintances. There was a constant supply of tea and eatables for them from the homes in our neighbourhood. I came to know that day that until the body is cremated, the kitchen fire cannot be lit. Night gradually merged into dawn and somebody brought bread and Amul butter from the nearby Verka booth. I don't know who, but someone opened the packets and started smearing un-melted cold butter on raw un-toasted bread slices while another started passing them around for all to take a few. The serving plate reached me. I did not have any appetite so I declined but I was almost forced to pick one up by the well meaning individual who was serving them. I had not had this kind of breakfast ever in my life until then. The first morsel of it felt as if I was trying to push a  hard something down my throat and it was being resisted by a big lump in the throat which was obstructing the passageway. That day the dryness, the coldness and the drabness of that bread slice left a lasting imprint on my senses in many different ways.
Bread-butter combination remains the coldest breakfast option for me, no matter how much I try to partake it just off the stove. Somehow the memories of that morning come rushing back to me. The same bread-butter paid another visit to us a few years back when we bid adieu to our mother. It was almost like déjà vu to me that day, my whole being including the senses already knew that day and that breakfast option.

The coldness that fissures of heart bring about overpowers everything else.

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

'Bread Pakora' Test

I wonder how we learn to understand our natural instincts and insecurities, which often, naturally get tamed or taper down, as we progress adding years to our lives. In our home - being a picky eater or openly expressing displeasure for any particular food item - were categorically disapproved. However, fondness for some and distaste for other dishes existed nonetheless. I remember not being very enthused about any dish which had chana dal or chana besan in it, whether it was Punjabi kadhi, chana dal, vegetable pakoras or bread pakoras. 

It is quite ironical though, that I derive a special pleasure in cooking Punjabi Kadhi and vegetable pakoras now. I truly believe that making the perfect Kadhi and vegetable pakoras is nothing less than an art and an expression of pure love for cooking. 
While usual breakfast options at home, during school days, were either some stuffed parantha, missi roti or similar such. Sundays and holidays were a little special and different. This was simply because we had more time to indulge in some fancy dish in the morning. Variety of breads and bread preparations were not very common when we were growing up, especially in our home. While I enjoyed all the bread preparations that our mother would prepare, bread pakora was the only one that bothered me immensely. That was not the case with my siblings but I just managed to endure the bread pakoras somehow. It was a common practice that our mother would always make a little extra breakfast so that if anybody felt hungry again before the next meal, there was something handy to satiate that mild hunger pang.
Our mother did her under-grad in Mathematics from a Government college in Delhi where one of her professors was this young girl who had just finished her own education. Many years passed, our parents got married and established their home at Chandigarh where my father was posted at that time. It was at the local bus stand while waiting for her bus, my mother met the same professor and they both recognised each other instantly. The bond which was at a very nascent stage during the college days as a teacher and a taught, started developing and flourishing. She had a son who was younger to me by a year and I was the youngest in our family.
I was in one of the primary classes. It was one of the days during our school summer holidays when we had bread pakoras for our breakfast and the day was progressing like any uneventful day. At around noon, our door bell rang and we had visitors - professor aunty and her son. By then they were frequent visitors at our place. I must mention here that aunty had an impeccable taste in her crisp cotton sarees that she draped to college. Whenever she came directly from college, she would be nothing less than a sight to behold. She also had an excellent gift of gab and always had an inexhaustible reservoir of stories to narrate about her students, her co-teachers and their respective families, college politics, her own extended family which stayed in Punjab and much more. Even though we had never met any of her acquaintances ever, yet we knew so much about each one of them, all thanks to her superlative skill of describing things in detail, inciting interest in her listeners. Whenever she came to our home, she would invariably stay over for the upcoming meal of the day, which was sandwiched between a couple of sessions of tea and snacks. I think she was rather proud of her inability to cook delicious food and complimented her ex-student profusely on how well she cooked simple dishes yet filled with flavour and taste. She had no qualms in accepting that cooking was a chore for her, which somehow had to be carried out. 
That day, it was a little different. She had come to drop her son off for a few hours at our place as she had a meeting in the college which she could not afford to miss. After about half an hour or so, my mother reheated the bread pakoras and served them to all of us including professor aunty’s son. While we were still warming up to the idea of picking a piece to put in our respective plates, the young guest wasted no time and gulped almost five of those pakora pieces down his throat. It was only when the last one was left that we realised that all the others had been polished off by the little one. My elder siblings were amused by the display of his innocence and how comfortably he ate at our home but I was a different story altogether. I almost threw a fit in the kitchen where mother was preparing lunch. I was angry and was almost in tears. And what was my grouse? Why didn’t mother keep some bread pakoras for me separately because as it was I had had very little in the morning, so I had the right to have some kept exclusively for me. Strange, isn’t it? Given that I hardly enjoyed eating bread pakoras …. never had more than the bare minimum of this dish whenever it was served and never bothered to pick one even when it was served again for everyone - what was all this grievance about? I do not remember the details of how mother pacified me but the memory of my reaction has stayed fresh in my mind to this date. It took me many years of maturity to understand that this is the natural instinct of possessing things, even when they are not required. This instinct is quite commonly and openly seen in children but sometimes the same continues into adulthood too. It is for us to check whether it is just to satisfy this ownership impulse behind any action or is there some real meaning for doing the same. For me, I try to run my thoughts and actions through my ‘bread-pakora test’, to course correct in case required. 

Wednesday, April 3, 2019

Say Yes to 'Garlic Bread'

When I look back I feel it was during the under-grad time in college that I started acknowledging and understanding my own preferences, anxieties and of course my idiosyncrasies too. Incidentally this period also became 'the first' for many things and one of those was self-imposed discipline of rules and regulations for myself. Somehow during this time I got really impressed by the idea of four ashrams of a human life that our ancient sages and seers had propounded. My mind conceived a certain image of an ideal student as a seeker of knowledge who must - abstain from all pleasures of life, lead a simple ascetic kind of life and concentrate on learning and enhancing knowledge. On the practical level, I deliberately restricted the number of dresses that I wore to college to less than a double digit and the same were invariably in dull pastel shades. During the exams my attire had to be white only. This self created regimen befitting a student life was just not restricted to the apparel; I tried my best to keep the rest of the lifestyle justifying that stage of life. I started considering it a virtue to alienate myself from anything 'new', 'current', 'in vogue' or 'in trend' whether it was a latest movie, a different cuisine, any branded item, well, you get an idea…

While I was preparing for certain entrance examinations during the final year of my under-grad, I started reading various monthly/fortnightly magazines dedicated to current affairs, regularly. One of them was Competition Success Review. It was pretty readable, covered detailed stories on significant current events, had some success stories to motivate aspiring candidates for UPSC and carried some sample papers of different competition exams. There was another magazine - Competition Master, which was a little expensive but had better paper quality.

I continued the habit of reading some interesting articles and success stories from these magazines during the years of my masters degree although I could not follow them very regularly. During the last semester, in one of the issues of CSR, I happened to see an advertisement for an essay competition. I think from very early on, I somehow got this notion that I could write and I should write. Though I never wrote anything, yet the idea of writing always fascinated me. Perhaps that advertisement did the trick and I compiled an essay on the given topic and sent it to the specified address.

Penultimate semester is actually the last one in the college because the last semester is training in a company. So the last semester in the college and hostel is supposed to be a little busy time with campus placements happening almost every week along with regular coursework of that sem. And to top it all, the feeling starts sinking in that the student life, the college and hostel time - all are going to end soon. As is expected in such situations, I completely forgot about my entry in that essay competition. Semester finally ended, we parted ways assuring each other that we would keep meeting and would stay in touch always. Training period began and once again I found myself in a state where I was trying to learn the ropes in a completely new setting - a company environment. Thankfully I was doing this training in my hometown so the comfort of home and mother's care were there to lend a soothing balm to my anxious nerves. Once during that time I was passing through our local market, when a very young looking girl stopped me and asked me if I was that Vibha who had won CSR's competition. By then the essay and the competition had completely faded out of my memory. I think I reacted very dumbly to her excitement and she must have considered me a totally lost person. After putting considerable stress on my mind, I recalled the essay competition and went to the nearby bookstore to buy latest issue of the CSR magazine. Sure enough, my essay was adjudged the best in the category and my passport size photograph was staring at me along with my write-up.

The following week, I received the same information by post and was invited to participate in the second round of competitions which was supposed to be held in the capital city. The event was spread over three days with various rounds of - quizzes, group discussions, interviews and a finale which was supposed to be a big event at a prestigious venue with many bigwigs gracing the event. The night before the finale I came to know that my name was in the top three female contestants who were to appear for a spotlight round on stage in front of the huge audience. Can I just say - I was nervous because there is no way I can explain the number and type of butterflies that I had in my stomach that day when my name was called out for the spotlight round. None other than the famous Derek O’Brien (in his previous avatar) was the quiz host of that round. It was a rapid fire round in which we were supposed to answer as many questions as possible in 30 seconds. I answered the first five questions correctly and then he began the sixth question thus - 'In a garlic bread…' I did not let him complete the question and shot back 'pass'. As was expected, the audience laughed and then Derek completed the question - '…, what is it that gives the garlic flavour?' I did not have any time to curse myself for passing that straight forward question but there, at that very moment, I realised that it was a clear outcome of my (closed)mindset - anything new or trendy needed to be shunned as it went against the image that my mind approved of.  And I think there was a certain degree of pride that I had started taking in how I remained true to my ideals. Needless to say whenever there is any mention of garlic bread since then, the memory of that evening resurfaces. More importantly, that episode taught me a great lesson to be aware and course correct when the mind inadvertently approves or disapproves a certain thing even before giving it a fair chance to express itself.
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