A Case for my Books

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Am getting a bookcase built. When I give the carpenter the dimensions of the case I want, he looks at me questioningly. “ Do you need such a big bookcase? Do you have so many books?” he asks. I smile and nod. Contemplate if I should elaborate about the books I own.

The much-read and loved board books from my preschool days. They have such beautiful illustrations that it would be a shame to discard them. Though I have given most of them away to friends and other interested people, I have kept back a few of my favourites.

Then come the books I have kept from my primary school days. The most treasured being a set of three hardbound books, gifted to me by my schoolteachers on my sixth birthday when I was in first grade. Signed by my favourite schoolteachers, those three volumes of Panchatantra tales have been read so many times in my growing years. And though I have since then read the unabridged version of the same stories, I think the main reason I have held on to these books is because of my teachers’ names inscribed in them.

Third and fourth grade saw me move on to Enid Blyton. And anyone who has grown up reading her books knows the joys that the activities of the Famous Five and the Five Find Outers brought us. On a recent trip to Ireland, I saw a ship wreck which was a tourist attraction, and immediately thought of the Famous Five and their adventures. These books have inspired so many midnight feasts and want-to-be detectives. I still own a few well-thumbed copies of some of these. Add to these my copies of the classics, both abridged and unabridged versions, and an interesting mix of other adventure tales of the Hardy Boys and Three Investigators; there is a neat collection from my school days itself.

Over the years I have bought scores of books. I read some, which really didn’t leave an impression on me and found their way to the old paper mart. There are some which I have reread many times, and will probably do so again in the future. Some people look at me quizzically when I tell them I reread books. I think people who love to read know exactly what I mean when I say that one never reads the same book twice, no matter how many times one reads it. And then there are those books, which I have bought but haven’t read yet. I also have no idea when I will read them. But I will someday. For now I like having them lined up in a bookcase, where I can see them.

 

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English Babu Desi Mem

 

They belonged to a generation which played with dolls. Keya and Tripti owned many dolls. The dolls were their children and each had been lovingly named according to their physical appearance. Not the size zero and sophisticated Barbie kind of dolls,but the simple ones with pretty eyes and hair. There were no sleek, plastic kitchen sets to play with, but sturdy brass and steel kitchen sets, in all probability handed down from the earlier generation. Make believe homes and kitchens were set up in the building compounds, in a corner which provided shade during the hot summers. Leaves and sticks collected from all over and imaginatively used as vegetables and grocery, added the required colour.

The two girls stayed in the same locality, just a five minutes walk away from each other. They studied in the same school, which was an added bonus. This way they spend practically most of their waking hours together. Friends since kindergarten , they both had been friends almost all of their ten year old lives. Keya was the quieter one, but with a great sense of fun and always game for mischief. Tripti on the other hand was bold and bossy. They made an unlikely pair but were inseparable.

It was an era when dolls’ weddings were carried out with great enthusiasm and fervour. It was one of the favorite pastimes during the long summer vacations from school. There were times when a two month summer holiday could witness up to half a dozen such events. Girl dolls were more common and very few children owned boy dolls, so the institution of polygamy was given a fresh life in the doll world. The moment summer vacations set in, there was a rush for forming matrimonial alliances with the owner of a boy doll. Negotiations for fixing a matrimonial alliance were delicate affairs and the children often dragged their mothers into the picture. Most of the time, there were only a couple of popular boy dolls, who ended up marrying different girl dolls over the span of the school holidays.

It was in such a scenario that Tripti’s aunt, who was visiting from England, gifted her a handsome boy doll named Max. The entry of this golden haired, blue eyed foreigner created ripples amongst the children. They were delighted to have a more than welcome and much needed addition to the list of prospective grooms. With summer vacations round the corner, there were already talks about how many dolls’ marriages could be arranged that year. But there was no doubt in Tripti’s mind about who would be the most eligible bride for her Max. She sought out Keya at the earliest and asked her if she could get her boy doll married to Keya’s pretty girl doll, Pari. Keya was more than delighted to agree and both the little girls waited for their summer break to begin.

Their excitement was palpable and they began planning the list of invitees, the venue, as well as the menu. They finished having their lunch in a hurry at school and then devoted the rest of the lunch break to these tasks. Traditionally an Indian wedding is always held in the home or hometown of the bride. Keya asked her mother if she could host the wedding. Her mother was equally enthusiastic about the whole affair and got involved whole heartedly. They decided to have the dolls’ wedding on the first Sunday of their summer holidays. Invitations were painstakingly written out by hand on little cards and handed over to each and every child who was a friend.

There was no discussion at all over the menu. By mutual consensus, it was decided that the perfect menu for a summer wedding would be puris……accompanied by potato sabzi and aamras. Keyas mother was in charge of catering lunch to the twenty guests. Another child’s mother offered to stitch the tiny wedding saree for the bride and the kurta pyjama for the groom. Keya’s uncle had gifted her a motorized toy car, which held a family of four ducks. The ducks were put away for this occasion and the car was cleaned and polished to carry the bridal couple.

Seeing  the level of authenticity being tried to reach, Keya’s neighbour, Abhi, a young man of twenty five, got into the spirit of things and managed to arrange for four bricks which could be used for the wedding fire.

The Sunday dawned bright and sunny. Preparations in both, Tripti and Keya’s households were in full swing. The dolls were dressed in their new clothes. Keya’s mother kept lunch ready so that she too could enjoy the ceremony. Soon it was time for the bridegroom and his family to arrive at the bride’s home. The guests arrived well before time, excited at the prospect of an English bridegroom. When Max arrived, resplendent in his brand new kurta pyjama set, a sigh of delight went through the crowd of children standing outside Keya’s house to welcome him. Keya proudly brought the decorated toy car out to where Tripti stood with Max in her hands. She welcomed them and asked Max to be seated in the car. The car was directed with its remote control and driven off towards the decorated area where the marriage ceremony was to take place. Pari was waiting there in all her bridal glory, pretty in a red saree and tiny golden jewelry.

With Abhi officiating as priest, the two dolls were married off with great pomp. The guests went home for a siesta after a sumptuous lunch, promising to return in a couple of hours for the reception. And true to their word, everyone returned after their naps, bringing with them small gifts for the bridal couple. When Keya’s mother asked the guests if they would prefer a soda or some tea, there was an unanimous cry asking for tea, which was generally prohibited in most households. So there they were. Totally happy devouring a snack of tea, potato wafers and cake. Soon it was time for the bridegroom to leave. As per Indian tradition the bride went with the bridegroom to his family home. After a tearful farewell from Keya, Tripti departed for her home with Max and Pari.

All was well for a few weeks. Every weekend Keya would bring home Pari and Max , and drop them back by Sunday evening. Surprisingly, and to the disappointment of the rest of the children , Tripti did not get her boy doll married to any other girl doll during that summer. All was well in doll-world.

Summer holidays ended and so did the idyllic days. And then one day in school, Keya and Tripti had a minor tiff which over the following weeks snowballed into a nasty quarrel. And in the midst of the cold war between the two girls, Tripti returned Pari-doll to Keya. Though they eventually patched up and buried the hatchet after a few months, their friendship never did return to the earlier intensity and Max and Pari were never reunited.

 

 

Winter Muse

 

 

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Haven’t penned anything in the last few months. Then suddenly while I was preparing dinner this evening, I suddenly felt like sharing something with my friends. I think I should give the credit for this sudden burst of creativity to the dish I was preparing and the sense of well being it spread into me.

I have eaten this dish, cooked beautifully, by a dear friend, Dee. She shared the recipe recently and I decided to try my hand at it on this cool December day. Mumbai winters are so brief and fleeting, that the moment the temperature dips below 20 degrees Celsius, we are all ready to say winter is here. Out come the stoles and scarves, which are all one can drape during a tropical winter. Most of us Mumbaikars don’t even have a winter wardrobe. But all said and done, the cool and dry weather is a pleasant welcome from our otherwise humid weather.

So, getting back to my inspiring recipe, I cooked a dish called Shabdegh.

Shabdegh is a winter dish originating from Kashmir. Succulent mutton pieces cooked along with winter vegetables like turnip, radish and cauliflower, seasoned with whole spices like cardamom, cloves, cinnamon and pepper, make a wholesome and comforting meal. The word ‘Shabdegh’ originated from the word ‘shab’ meaning ‘night’, and ‘degh’ meaning ‘earthen pot’. Traditionally this dish was left to cook overnight over a low fire. The flavour of the meat being absorbed by the vegetables, and the moisture of the vegetables softening the meat, are both subtle, as well as distinct. Today we can take advantage of the pressure cooker and have it ready in a jiffy.

I guess it was all those delicious aromas and flavours of the tender meat and vegetables swirling around me, which woke me up from my slumber

A slice of yummy

Today I baked a carrot cake,inspired by all the variations of carrot cake I had eaten at various cafes during my last visit to Northern Ireland, three months back. I think,in a span of a fortnight, I ate carrot cake in four different cafes. Each had a distinct flavour, and yet all of them were carrot cakes. Add a dollop of fresh cream, and one is in food heaven.

I woke this morning to a dark, broody and rumbling sky. It was raining heavily. As I lazed in bed, it came to me that it was perfect weather for a carrot cake. The cinnamon which goes into it, makes for a perfect combination with a cuppa on a rainy day like this. Today I combined this cake and tea with some good old Hindi film songs, and my Sunday was made!20170430_165929.jpg

Chat over Chaai

Chai Pe Charchaa…a small, sunny café tucked away in one of the many by lanes in my area. Though small, its quirky decor strikes a note and one is immediately tempted to sit in its cozy interior and chat. Two days ago they sent out a flyer announcing a ‘Bhajia’ (fritters) festival to mark the advent of monsoons in Mumbai. Monsoons in this city are synonymous with hot masala tea and fritters. Preferably,with an engrossing book or some raucous company of old friends.

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Two of my friends and I made a breakfast date to go and sample the variety of fritters advertised in the flyer. The weather obliged us this morning by raining and making an ideal backdrop to our fritter binge. And binge we did. The array of bhajias made it difficult for us to make our final choice and finally we opted for the ever popular onion bhajia and a portion of spinach bhajia. We got a bit greedy and also ordered a portion aloo paratha (flat bread stuffed with seasoned and mashed potatoes) accompanied by fresh curds. A meal like this is best complemented with a cup of hot tea. We couldn’t have asked for a more fulfilling meal as we feasted on a favourite snack, to the background music of raindrops on the awning.

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Summer Flashback

It’s a lazy summer afternoon. School vacations have set in. My daughter is so immersed in her IPod that I have to go and tap at her shoulder to make my presence known to her. I am fortunate to have a well ventilated home, which even on the hottest day remains tolerable with a ceiling fan and the beautiful sea breeze flowing through it.

Such afternoons always take me back to my summer vacations when I was in school. With no cable TV and no other such electronic devices as available nowadays, outdoors was our only option. We did have a television at home, but as my father had very strict rules about what we watched, and when we watched, all of us three siblings preferred not to watch TV, as it involved a lot of red tape. We grew up in an apartment complex with eighteen apartments, and almost two dozen children. There was no dearth of company in my growing years. When I look around today and see the scores of ‘summer activity clubs’ that spring up, come the month of March, I realise how lucky our generation was to spend our summers the way we did. My Ma never stressed about what to do with three active children in the summer holidays. She knew we would be outdoors most of the time. Neither did she stress about what to feed us. We were more than happy to survive on mangoes! Baba brought home crates of mangoes throughout the summer, and the house used to be infused with the heady fragrance of beautiful Alphonsos.

We had vacations from mid April to mid June,and one of the first things we did the day our vacations began was to buy a can of white paint to freshen the borders of the badminton court within our society walls. Next was collecting funds for buying the net and shuttlecocks. That took care of the early mornings when we all were up and about by 6 am for a game of badminton. Those who waited patiently for their turn on the court, wiled away their time by cycling around the complex. The days had a very simple routine. Play badminton. Go home for breakfast. Again gather for some outdoor games. Go home for lunch. Spend the afternoon in some patch of the complex that did not have the sun beating down. Go home for a snack. Again out till sundown. We used to get so tired that by the end of the day all we wanted was a bath, dinner and bed. And we did this for two whole months.

Games were interspersed with a dedicated and serious rehearsal for a show, which we put up at the end of each summer. This show was generally a series of recycled song and drama sequences, where only the actors and names of the characters changed. But I don’t recall anyone ever complaining. Our audience was our parents and we always managed to extract an enthusiastic applause from them. Everything, from the props, stage backdrops to the snacks that followed were hand and home made. I don’t think it ever struck us that there was any other alternative.

Visiting cousins were adopted and integrated into the regular brood without much ado. We made friends,whom we saw only every summer when they visited their relatives who resided in our building. When I look back, I think all we knew about these summer visitors were their names and age, and which apartment they were visiting. Nothing else was asked. Life was simple to say the least. And yet those days left behind the most lasting memories. While I marvel at the technology my children have at their fingertips, I don’t really envy them. I wouldn’t trade my childhood summers for anything in the world.