End of the AGA Saga

On Sunday afternoons, Mrs Thurlow used to read the newspapers she would collect carefully over the week. It was her way of living other lives. She of the ‘flat heavy feet pounding painfully along under mud-stained skirts, her face and body ugly with lumpy angles of bone’, so much so that she is likened to a ‘beast of burden’ by the writer H.E. Bates in his short story ‘The Ox’. Like Mrs Thurlow, we live other lives and our collective imagination, I would think, goes into a tizzy when we read our instalment of news. Mine is at the end of every day, when I am tucked into the duvet, comfortable and ready to dive into these other worlds. I do not wait till Sunday because the world moves fast. I would be left far behind. Plus there is the habit of reading 20 newspapers ingrained into me by one of my bosses who used to stomp into the newspaper office early in the afternoon and quiz us about the news we had not covered in our paper (because it prided itself on being the best in the city of Delhi) and importantly Why we had missed it. With a fluttering heart, because it was my first job, I would sit and scan each and every news item like my life depended upon it. Now, I like to read only those pieces that make me sit up. The rest are merely headlines to be skimmed.

You must be thinking, ‘What, no more waffling about the autumnal colours of Bayonne?’ I would clobber myself if I bang on about it in one more post. As I was reading the news last night, you know drivel about how Meghan Markle who has just scored a prince may not be so all out there as she seems, I spotted a news item about a historic foundry shutting its doors on Thursday — a couple of days later in fact. The newspaper photos looked familiar. I peered into my phone in the dark of the night and realised, why we had been there earlier this year. I remembered the derelict foundry, careworn and in a shambles. Places that look like they have been left to their own devices tend to excite the imagination, don’t they? To add to which, it had been a rather dramatic walk.

On a brooding English morning in March, we were in the town of Ironbridge in Shropshire, the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution. As you can imagine, everything in England is antiquated. So is the bridge here from which the town derives its name. Across the muddy River Severn and a deep gorge spans the world’s first iron bridge which was opened to the public in 1781. Naturally it has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. You might possibly like to ink it in if you find yourself romping around the county of Shropshire.

Traditional dark pubs with low-hanging wooden beams, winding roads into the bleak countryside, sepia-tinted churches and hotels, towns and villages built under the aegis of ironworks and coal. A hearty pub lunch after a fight over my insistence upon a walk in the woods, one of the few ideas I had culled from the woman at the old tollhouse in Ironbridge. Smouldering skies and husband. Utter nonchalance on my part. Every walk has to after all begin with a fight. Traditions are not to be scoffed at, after all.

That’s how we sauntered into the village of Coalbrookdale, the home of the British AGA cast iron cooker which is synonymous with country living in the UK. The cast iron for the cookers were so long manufactured in the foundry at Coalbrookdale. Now, it shall be shut forever. The end of an era and of 300 years of ironwork in the village. Actually if I confess, I had already imagined it to be an abandoned factory. Why else would there be cracked and boarded-up windows, gaping holes in the exterior…? A clutch of farmhouses with plots of garden behind them, and a brooding church looming high above the village, line up across the foundry.

Once, it would have been dark and grimy, a place enveloped by the sulfurous fumes of coal released from the ironworks. People in the hamlet of Coalbrookdale would have had great difficulty breathing in its sooty air, I would imagine. And yet there lay the beginnings of a dynasty of ironmasters, the Darby family who owned the foundry. But today it rests quiet and green, a hamlet marked by industrial cottages and elegant country homes where the Quaker Darbys lived. I did find an approximation of how it would have looked – through the painting of a Franco-British painter called Philip James de Loutherbourg. This portly artist toured England and Wales during the Industrial Revolution to capture the misery of the times in his paintings.

Back in the present, we passed by some old women in their wellies caked with mud — this made me look at my polka-dotted trainers in alarm. The unsuitability of my footwear was driven further home when it started pouring and I fell into a smelly bog — Adi laughing helplessly the entire way because the walk had been my idea and he found deep comfort in the retribution that fate holds in its fists. And it was not once that I tumbled into the bog. Yes, it happened again, much to the delight of my husband.

The day somehow (don’t ask me how) brightened, and the skies turned beautifully blue, but the smell, oh that ghastly smell, how it clung to me. That smell came back to me yesterday night, ripe and robust, along with the memories of our rambles around Coalbrookdale.









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The 1801 Loutherbourg painting, Coalbrookdale by Night.







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Late November Goodness

The Happy Holidays banner has been strung up across the streets of Bayonne. Mini snowflakes and golden balls, trees wreathed in fairy-lights are making the evenings a little festive on a certain stretch of Broadway where I pop down for my regular fix of coffee. I am suddenly reminded of the sight of Oxford Street, glittering with dozens of sparkly snowflakes dripping like ornaments upon the busy streets of London where people huddled in their long coats and boots would be clacking down the pavements past windows displaying the best of their Christmas booties. Then onwards to a bar, a gourmet pub to grab a few drinks and then a lovely, hot dinner. The gigantic Christmas trees twirled with shiny strings of fairy lights winking back at us from the fresh market square in Northampton and the one that stood tall and proud before the grand old All Saints’ Church. Let’s see what New York City has in store for us.

Meanwhile the evenings are cold and windy. On days I feel like the wind can lift the scalp straight off my pate. There are a handful of lunatics like me who brave it and continue their daily jogs around the park. A few days ago on the windiest day of all, I took Adi along the Hudson, who refused to give into this strange madness, huddled into his jacket and scarf and cantered home with single-minded determination to get back to the cosy warmth of it.

I have not seen late November so beautiful and golden yet in my life. These are the mixed blessings of life, in Bayonne. My heart fills with some unknown emotion as I lay my eyes upon the trees in the park across from my windows. They are still flaming red and golden, possibly because they are late bloomers who might not have been showy starlets in the early stages of life but later on do startle others with their quiet elegance.

Bands of smoky blue clouds with silver linings, flaming sunsets, quiet sunsets, streaky sunsets, lens flares, gulls gliding in the icy winds above the Hudson, learning to crochet, undoing long woven strips to get this caboodle of knitting in place, reading books on covering fashion in Paris, slipping into Diana Gabaldon’s alternate world of reality through the Voyager, roasting meats and veggies, letting the lemon and verbena candle perfume the air in the rooms, … these are how the November days are slipping by in a harmony of solitude, colour, light and warmth.


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A Pennysylvanian Victorian Town

The weekend we drove to Jim Thorpe, an old coal mining town in the Pocono mountains brimming with pumpkins and haunted houses, we noticed a huge banner on a highway route through the Lackawanna County. A well-lined face crinkled by a grin and a head full of silver hair stared back at me. The man, it turns out, had disappeared. Yet another of those baffling cases where the family woke up one morning to find their husband and father to have vanished. My inner Wallander was mystified. It was as if we were on the sets of a drama like The Missing, a chilling prospect.

Weaving our way through roads flanked by trees which were still in the nascent stage of light oranges and pinks, we reached the town of Jim Thorpe surrounded by lush hills that had turned a brooding shade of green under the blue-grey skies. We deposited the car in the parking lot next to the Lehigh river and started for the town of Jim Thorpe, following a demarcated path. That is when I stepped out of line. For a second though. I had detected an old railroad crossing gate and wanting to photograph it I had made a beeline for it. No cars incoming too, but hey-ho, a booming voice rang across the parking lot on that cold October noon like a bullet, ‘RETURN TO THE WALKWAY RIGHT NOW!’ piercing my skin and senses with precision. I scurried, suitably chastened, back to my place next to Adi on the path. Mortification.

I espied a bunch of people crossing the parking lot in the exact way I had attempted to, the next morning. The same people in the parking lot booth, yet they turned a blind eye to the errant six. Life — it works in mysterious ways.

In Jim Thorpe, you meet cordial railway men. They point out scenic geographical features of the Jim Thorpe National Park within which the town is located. You shall chug through the park if you buy a ticket for the steam train, and you hear about black bears who romp around the market square, rummaging in bins, when they fall short of food. The Lehigh River gleamed emerald green in places, in others midnight blue and rust (with mineral deposits), as it skirted the town, passing through a landscape mottled with ancient woodlands of white pine, rhododendron, ferns, abandoned sheds and railroad. A peaceful scenery punctuated by the gushing sound of waterfalls making their way into a gorge. And the few hikers and cyclists who waved at the train passing by.

Them training their cameras on the train. Us training ours on them.

Later after we had had our fill of regressing to a state of child-like glee, we walked around the narrow alleys and winding roads of Jim Thorpe that was named after a former Olympian athlete called Jim Thorpe – it had no connection with him whatsoever though. The words ‘Mauch Chunk’ leapt out at us from signages. The Lenni Lenape tribe is supposed to have named the town for the mountain nearby, Mauch Chunk or ‘the Mountain of the Sleeping Bear’.

Atmospheric cafes; stone churches stained black by the passage of time; second-hand bookshops where I went into a tizzy, laying my hands greedily on beautifully bound tomes; antique shops; stores selling dream catchers and trippy, psychedelic stuff; boutiques selling handmade, embroidered leather boots; former old jails where the Molly Maguires, an outfit of Irish immigrant coal mine workers, were imprisoned and executed; old ladies with faces like immobile masks sitting on their old porches (straight out of a supernatural thriller in my fervid imagination).

Jim Thorpe has a fair bit going on. You might want to cycle along the abandoned railroad because it does seem like the kind of activity where you feel at one with the old forests around you, breathing in the scent of the pine trees, the possibility of meeting a black bear… but if you end up there, remember not to step out of bounds of the path in the parking lot, okay? The grinches shall get you.

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Les Feuilles Mortes

The Dead Leaves, says the title. Pourquoi? Well they are just out there and how does one just turn her eyes away from the golden, rustling beauty of them… How fast the days fly by as I sit at the desk with my thoughts, trying to put them down into a project which seems to be taking forever, devouring the Outlander books, baking once in a while. Smidgens of self-doubt have been bogging me down. The problem with smidgen is that it tends to balloon into mammoth proportions and then you are caught right under the heaviness of it, the self-doubt that is, and you feel nothing less flat than the perfectly pressed leaf which comes out from between the pages of a book. The leaf has more leverage in all of this as you can imagine. It holds more beauty in its faded glory than anything else pressed does.

The blustery wind whipped away chunks of these thoughts with icy fingers as I ran, bathed in the golden stream of the early evening sun, the trees bare and leached, the gulls gathered in little clumps around as the waves rose and ebbed in choppy harmony. I passed by the old man who has determination in his fingertips. He must be above 80, wizened by age. It seems that a stroke has robbed him of movement on his right side, so he leans in heavily towards the right. It has become a ritual for us to acknowledge the other with a wave. The only other person who haunts the park and the river front, along with the old man and I, is a young boy of about 15. He is a beanpole, all arms and legs, possibly a soccer player.

I find persistence and hope at the sight of these two.

Towards the latter part of the evening, a couple of squirrels decided to turn playful on me. I was kneeling to shoot mounds of dried leaves when these two tubby fellows capered around, coming up close and dodging like we were at some game invented by the two of them. Catch me if you can.

Naturally, I feel like I have had free therapy. Now the lemon and verbena candle is making the room smell so cosy and citrusy and it feels doubly nice as I dig into a hot salad of chickpeas and grilled vegetables, spruced up with a handful of blackberries, caramelised pecans and roughly chopped gouda. So I shall leave you behind with this jazz number and a few photos of sunset, armies of white clouds, ducks, geese, gulls, squirrels and dead leaves.







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Pottering About Long Island

On Veterans Day, November 11th, we drove to the Hamptons and passed beneath Old Glory, the humongous American free-flying flag — it happens to be the largest in the world — unfurled from the arch top of George Washington Bridge which happens to be the busiest bridge in the world connecting New York with New Jersey. It was an impressive sight – the flag that is unfurled on special occasions like Veterans Day when countrymen honour their military personnel in the US. In the UK on this day everyone wears red poppies to remember the sacrifices made by a few for the many. Remembrance Day. It is a special thing when a nation remembers for not every nation does.

Beds of rust & golden leaves lay thick upon woods that marked the way to The Hamptons, the exclusive playground of the upper echelons of society, where during summer the Serenas and Nates (ref: Gossip Girl) take a break from the hectic pace of the city, where rosé flows like water, and where an Emily Thorne stands upon quiet beaches contemplating the machinations of destruction (ref: Revenge). There is irony in equating Revenge with the Hamptons. For most of the estates were shot in North Carolina except for the exterior of the Graysons’ manor which is situated in the heart of East Hampton.

Now the Hamptons are a cluster of villages and towns. The names keep popping up as you keep upon one straight road, passing by orange fields of pumpkins, houses tucked into woods and a profusion of old churches. Hampton Bays, Southampton, Quogue, North Sea, Bridgehampton, Shinnecock Hills, Sagaponack, Sag Harbor are a roll-call of names that you come upon, some of them obviously Native American in origin. Here there are waterfront properties that start well above a few million dollars, boasting of gently aged modernism. Bakeries which sell loaves of bread that might cost 12 bucks but hey they are organic and conscious about what they put on the shelves. And here they do not encourage Uber. Instead there is a Hampton Hopper, mint green school buses that operate between Montauk and Sag Harbor.

It was frightfully cold when we came upon Sag Harbor, a tiny 18th-century village with a whaling tradition. It was home to John Steinbeck, at least two artists chose to end their life within its beautiful environs — one succeeded, the other did not — and then there are Moby Dick references. Queequeg had arrived in Sag Harbor to acquaint himself with the sailor’s life in the village. There are old whaling churches and broken mast tokens to remember the whalers lost to the sea. It reminded me a wee bit of Synge’s Riders to the Sea though the geographical location in that play ridden with overtones of fatalism was Inishmaan in the Aran Islands of Ireland. We shivered upon the pier of Sag Harbor with its lovely old windmill with plaques to recall the names associated with the village and then carried on to Southampton which was deserted on that phenomenally cold evening.

The oldest English settlement in Long Island, Southampton, had English folk arrive there from Massachusetts in the 1640s. They took over a few square miles in town from the Shinnecock Indian Nation, an Algonquin-speaking tribe, which received corn, coats, areas reserved for their use and the assurance that the English would defend them, ‘the sayed Indians from the unjust violence of whatever Indians shall illegally assaile us’.

We had a taste of Southampton’s old English vibes with the department store of Hildreth’s (the name says it all) which was started by one of the settler families from Massachusetts in the 1800s. Treading the old wooden floors of the store, we scanned the walls with their rows of old deeds and documents, sepia photos of men with sideburns and beards, chunks peeling off from the photos in ghostly whites, and images of horse driven wagons carrying goods from ships that docked at neighbouring Sag Harbor. A long time ago we might have come upon old whaling harpoons and buffalo hides, but today the oldest piece you would chance upon is a 5′ tall coffee grinder that is unlike any you have seen.

The other aspect of its past showed up on the two-lane Montauk Highway with a procession of cigarette shops glinting in the gathering dark, a sudden change of mood from the glamorous to a ramshackle existence. The Indian Reservation in Long Island. And then again the quiet poshness of the Hampton Bays. A runner pounding the pavements on a dark stretch braving the fierce bite of the evening. The contrast never more pronounced upon the eyes of the curious traveller – that life is but about living the gap between the promise and the reality.


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Cranachan Cheesecake for Monday

It is midday on Monday and I have decided to go all decadent on this miserably gloomy day with a cheesecake and tea. Did she say cheesecake for lunch? ‘What an odd thing she is,’ you might exclaim. I cannot refute it now, can I? Once in a while, when it is your birthday month which will go away all too soon, you need to give into hedonism.

I baked the cheesecake on a Friday night when Adi had stepped out for drinks with friends and I could spend my time watching an old Spencer Tracy/Katherine Hepburn movie, whisking ricotta and milk, sugar, eggs and butter, inhaling the wonderful smells of that buttery concoction of custard consistency that I could pour into a chilled base of crushed oatmeal biscuits. Now I had looked high and low for digestives. I am addicted to their moreish taste. But the people at the store cast me a blank look. I got a nonchalant ‘never had those’. I gave up and bought a packet of oatmeal biscuits to which I added salt to make it less sweet.

This heavenly cheesecake is a Paul Hollywood recipe and I have tinkled around with the base because I like me a buttery & crumbly oatmeal base. The man calls for oatcakes but I like the texture of digestive bases in cheesecakes more. Customisation is queen baby.

The result is a cheesecake which makes the heart sing as I let it melt into my mouth, the buttery biscuit base adding the perfect crunch. The taste of the raspberry coulis drizzled on top of it adds a fruity, tangy deliciousness that makes me say like Will.i.am, it is dope man.

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I Have Seen Eternity in an Hour Too, Dear Blake

When I head out on a run every evening, I admire the late autumnal bounty we have had here. The leaves are shedding in drifts of gold and burnt red and it is a most poetic thing when they waft around your person. The park is a massive bed of dried leaves gathering in clumps because the cleaning authorities want to keep it clean, but dammit, the trees will have their way just the way I shed hair. The sunsets are golden, pure liquid amber, and everything is glorious or it looks glorious at any rate. The air is razor-edged as the sharpest sabre must be.

Yesterday I felt the brunt of it for the first time. The phone informed me 1°C. A warm beanie, two layers of insulation and leather gloves should have done half the job you would think. I also tucked in Kleenex for good measure because the nose had its own mind and if it wants to make itself felt in the stinging air, I might as well be prepared. The concierge warned me about the freezing air but I just smiled as if to say, I know sistah, but then I ran out and it was an utter douchebag that knocked the wind out of me. Yet I had to try. With wind chill it was about -2°C and I refused to breathe as much as I could help it. Gulls soared, some wondrously floating mid-air upon the river. No one was out on the park except for two joggers in the distance who soon disappeared. That was it. The entire stretch of parks, running tracks, riverfront…they were desolate. The many boys and girls who practise soccer in the fields, play basketball…nada.

And then the wind whipped the Kleenex clean out of my pockets. Twice. It rolled with full speed all over the place and I had to chase it up and down hilly mounds. You cannot dump Kleenex unceremoniously in such climes.

Forty minutes out there… it felt like eternity. 

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So I did what I do best, run to the coffee shop, which seemed to have moved further away than it should on a biting evening. Later at the store near the coffee shop, I was bright enough to buy an early Christmas prezzie for Adi. A giant stuffed polar bear. Obviously they did not have a bag. Obviously I am a doofus. I lugged a big bear wrapped around me along with heavy baking goods, sugar, flour… when my legs screamed at me for mercy, the few people on the road laughing, some saying, ‘How big is he!’ Right. Tell Brilliant Brains about it.

Those 24 blocks are hanging heavy about my neck now. An albatross. It promises to be an interesting winter.

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The Day I Got Life Itself

That was yesterday. I was born 37 years ago to a woman who had accompanied her husband to the Middle-Eastern kingdom of Oman. In another culture which was alien to her, where the people sat for meals around gigantic metal trays and pulled chicken off bones — all in that one plate — to show that they care. Omanis inculcate intimacy through their meals. My mother told me that she found it a bit odd and often shrank from the prospect of eating from one plate with people she hardly knew. But I find the idea a bit nice. That the Omanis can and want to eat off one plate. Maybe it is the fact that something tugs at my heart when I think of my birthplace.

It was also a place where the men kiss and hug newborns without inhibitions — which put my mother off and she attributes the fact that I contracted some infection within a few days of being born to that propensity of my visitors. She had given up on me. ‘I asked my youngest brother (who used to work in Oman too) to take care of you while I slept for days with tiredness and depression.’ I carry the marks of it on my inner ankles. A star-shaped mark on each. Reminders of beating mortality early on when the doctors had to make two slits in them to insert saline drips. I think of them as birth marks because I do not think I have any other.

As I turned 37, I did not mind that this was a birthday where I went with my usual routine but the difference was the shower of love I was the recipient of. From friends and family through calls and messages all day long. Our niece who had celebrated her 9th birthday a day before cut a strawberry cake for the both of us in Seattle and sent me a cutesy video along with her brother.

Cheila’s Saramago postcard arrived just in time, a night before, like a wonderful precursor. Adi had already gifted me a cache of dresses. Then came two huge boxes of boots he had asked me to choose – a tan slouched pair with stilettos, which make my senses sigh with pure pleasure, and a dark taupe over-the-knee pair that also do the job pretty well.

I am not that fussed about gifts but these added a sparkle to the day as did the skeins of wool and crochet needles I gave myself along with a pile of old and new books. You should always gift yourself something or the other from time to time — and on your birthday, why not, right? From me to me. I have so many books that say that, it is a tad embarrassing. Someday when I leave this life and those books are possibly in some charity shop and picked up by a stranger, he/she would possibly think, ‘what a nut job!’. And oh yes, I want to start learning to crochet. My mother would bawl here with laughter. How she tried to teach me knitting when I was a teen — but really, I had more important things to do than knit then. This is when I know I am 37.

Adi was working from home. From time to time he got up and hugged me with ‘Budday Gurl’ chirpings. He was feeling guilty but he has been burdened with work for some time now. Americans like to work hard. It is an admirable trait in this country even though it can cause you to burn out early.

In the evening, I went for a long, long run because it was crisp and cold, the park cleaners were out blowing leaves in big piles of gold and russet, and the squirrels had turned even more tubby than you would think it possible. I promise you this that they can hardly scamper with their earlier agility of summer. I have detected one of them whose tail has got left somewhere so that it is a sad little stub. I wonder what’s the story behind it. It is not everyday that you see tail-less squirrels after all.

During the course of the run, I stopped for a breath and a chat with a gruff old fisherman by the Hudson. He had just caught a sizeable striped bass from the Hudson. One of those beret wearing men, chewing on tobacco, and possibly thinking to himself, ‘Oh no, Chatty Cathy!’ But I am nothing if not persistent in the face of gruffness so he did give in and gifted me with a sentence. In the evening while Adi and I squabbled over Monopoly after a lovingly-rustled up dinner of cauliflower & leek soup and baked chicken steaks, the boy next door turned up with a birthday card and hugs. I was thrilled to bits. I had made coffee-flavoured dark chocolate with pumpkin seeds & pecans for his partner and him because the birthday cake I had made earlier on with blackberries and blueberries was scrumptious, but when I slipped it into the refrigerator to chill, the tall tower of mini cakes had toppled right over. Talk about whimpers.

Oh, and I met a 3-month-old Boxer pup in my building called Luka, twice over on my birthday, and he refused to leave me each time till his master had to pick him up and leave. That was also a delightful gift.

That’s the long and short of it, my birthday, as it was this year.

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Riding With the Storm Clouds

There is such beauty in transition. For example an exceedingly dreary day of rain and colourless skies can make way for a pretty sunset as it did today. The sun set in a flaming ball of fire way faster than I could pound across the pavement to get to it. This is the second time it has happened that it has given me the slip, within a week. I guess I have to time these runs better. But within the matter of a half hour, the skies had changed tune again. This time they graduated to a dirty grey pink that made way for a smoky blue.

The waters that had lapped gently against the mossy breakwaters in a rippling of sheet silver as if adapted to the change of tenor to a blackish-blue tinge. Usually I would have made my way home because it had turned stormy, oh but the hypnotic pull of the waters, the many twinkling lights of the port glittering like jewels against the inky backdrop and the thin strip of vibrant orange as if separating the river from the sky… The leaves of autumn that had arrived late in my part of the world started wafting towards me in fistfuls, glinting golden under the halogen of the street lights, twirling and pirouetting like fluid ballerinas. I was sold. I could not stop running under the stormy skies and the park was all mine apart from the tubby squirrels and a couple of dogs and their masters – the bearded terrier checking out the tiny pooch with perked-up ears and the stance of a tiny brave warrior.

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