The Sublime Winds of May

The winds are in a hurry to get somewhere today. Their whooshing sounds permeate the insulation of these glass windows and there is this suggestion that they are feeling rather spunky. That’s all there is to it. Just the suggestion. No nannies and tots floating around. But there is this romantic feeling that sets in upon the senses when the wind whistles outside and the skies are smothered with clouds.

Now, the last time I last wrote here, I was in Calcutta, on a spontaneous visit to my parents. My father had just had an angioplasty then and I thought it was imperative to have a look in on them, if not for anything else, for the mind to stop concocting grim scenarios.

On the way to Calcutta, I flew Cathay Pacific for the first time. I was won over on two counts. The service was simply splendid and the food so healthy and flavourful that by the time I reached Hong Kong airport for a few hours’ layover, even after a 15-hour long flight, I was brimming with contentment.

I headed to The Wing, Cathay Pacific’s flagship lounge in Hong Kong, where I bathed in the shower suites. Minimalistic and neat inside, each suite was sheathed in beautiful dark stone and the fixtures carved from bamboo wood. Kitted up as it was with the fresh-smelling lux cleansers and shampoos, I came out feeling spiffy and ready to take on the world which as it turned out was not too tough. It was but a pillowy world of fluffy baos, you know, those big Chinese buns filled with vegetables and meat. The Chinese woman at the counter barely smiled and she understood no English, something that is rather common in the city of Hong Kong if you saunter into its flea markets and street food stalls, but all that mattered was that she doled out a platter of baos. Now these were proper bad boys. You could fashion them into pillows and sink into them, really. Except that the teeth would rather sink into them and make quick work of the matter at hand. This took place in the Noodle Bar which was one of the three sections in the lounge.

There was the Long Bar too where you could sit and catch a drink apart from making a beeline for the buffet, but this was kind of boring, it being early morning in Hong Kong, so I wandered into the third section, a Coffee Loft. Ooh now there was the real deal following a heartwarming breakfast. Shots of espresso and traditional  pastries. My pick was the Chinese Wife Winter Melon Cake. Names get me. Just like books with smashing covers and titles. Who says I am not superficial? To get to the heart of the pastry, it was flaky, and if I were a bard, there would be sonnets on Chinese melon cakes. This beauty was rich (you cannot go wrong with pork lard shortening) and it dissolved in the mouth in a beautiful symphony of melon and spices. As usual, there are enough stories behind the name, but I will tell you of two of them.

One goes back to a man’s love for his wife who sold herself as a slave to get money for her father-in-law’s treatment. The man conjured up the idea of this cake as a street snack. His plan was to get his wife back once he had enough money. The other is about a Guangzhou chef who worked at a teahouse. He initially took some round pastries home as a treat for his wife. Her feedback: They made it better in her hometown, with winter melon paste. The chef reworked the pastry with melon paste and gave it a flat shape.

Dear men, it is thus easy to draw the conclusion that good things come to those who listen to their women.

When I landed in Calcutta late at night, the wind was knocked out of me. It was sultry. The real feel was often 49°C during the day and I was dissolved in the heat every morning I headed out for a run. Summer had blustered its way into the city. But in a few days swept in Kalbaisakhi. The season of thunderstorms when the skies grow dark, so suddenly that you do not have the time to even cuss. Smoky blue clouds mushroom in armies and hang ominously above your head, like dark devils with a mission. They then proceed to let loose upon you with all their might. These are accompanied by dust storms, which are not kind on you if you happen to be walking on the roads like a daft creature out to court trouble. Naturally, I had the thrill of being caught in one. I had forgotten how it all was since in the last few years I have been going back to Calcutta during winters when the weather turns all mellow and lovely.

After two weeks, I returned home to Bayonne, having spent time in Calcutta schooling and scolding my dad — also feeling relieved that all was fine with my folks for now. When I got back, I found to my delight tiny leaves upon the trees and cherry blossoms about to bloom. It was still nippy and the days were starting to warm up. On days, when it rains, it all looks like a beautiful painting. And with the change of seasons, there are children now in the park, yellow dandelions matting the grass in the parks, waiting to turn into those airy fairy balls of seeds, flowers everywhere you look. It is so happy and joyous that I can feel my heart bloom along with them. So that it is also time for me to stop prattling, leave you with some random photographs, and pop out for a wind-in-my-hair-and-a-song-in-my-heart kinda walk.

1970-01-01 06.30.00 1.jpg
I had forgotten how scenic the landing is in Hong Kong.
20190404_182617-01.jpeg
Cruising along the runway in Hong Kong
1970-01-01 06.00.00 2.jpg
Bamboo wooden vibes of the Noodle Bar at The Wing, coupled with suspicious lady.
1970-01-01 08.00.00 1.jpg
Baos stuffed with pork and cabbage, sweet lotus, and the third was a plain mantou, a bao made from wheat dough. Teamed with the scallions and chilli and peanut sauce, these were the formidable three.
1970-01-01 08.00.00 3.jpg
Above-mentioned, Chinese Wife Winter Melon Cake.
1970-01-01 08.00.00 2.jpg
Flaky pastry to swoon over
20190418_182757-02.jpeg
Moonlit night in Calcutta on our terrace
20190420_083358-01.jpeg
Back in Bayonne, the green is so fresh and young, as the trees shrug back into their clothes. Nature’s fashion is effortless.
20190421_064748-01.jpeg
Well hello, long time! What, no peanuts? Must have been waiting for a little booty since people here insist on feeding them.
20190421_070406-01.jpeg
Cherry blossoms with their brief and intense spell of beauty
20190421_073108-01.jpeg
And, that’s a wrap for today from Bayonne. 

Delhi to Calcutta

It is bright outside. The sun has the personality of summer, its glare reflected off the veneer of ice that coats the road. I can see great slabs of ice on the Hudson beyond, but I am tempted to step out for a few minutes even though it feels like -20°C outside. My great temptation is the resident Great Bernese of our building who is swaying her beautiful, big body through the park. Plus I have not met her yet in person and that seems a shame.

How different it seems to my time in India. For I felt a curious tug to Calcutta this time. Curious because here I had spent my grown-up years trying to get away from it, yet there I was actually lapping every moment I spent in my former home town. The thing about building this feeling called home in different places is that you have pockets of your soul invested in each place. Every time you return to any of those places, you have a reawakening of emotions. Then there is the constant clash running in your mind, the comparison of the old with the new, of keenly felt dissatisfaction at changes, and once in a while, an acknowledgment of the fact that some changes have actually been for the better.

In India, I find caught up thus in a maelstrom of emotions. The weather, the people, the roads, the scenery, the very pace of life, change significantly enough that the mind takes time to slip back into old familiar routines, what the body and mind has been used to for the longest time. It starts with Delhi, the city where I came into my own, but I have a short stop there on the way to Calcutta. So I do not have time to mull over it. I do not have time to see it once again as I used to as a reporter. I have just enough time to spend moments with family and friends and devour the luscious food cooked at my in-laws’. But I had a moment there when I felt unsettled in Delhi. Nothing too grave on the face of it. It’s just that when familiar roads start to look a little unfamiliar, you realise with a start that places and roads can gradually be erased from the mind. How could that even come to be, you wonder?

Then I got to Calcutta and the pace of life slowed down almost immediately. The pace of life seems hurried there only when it comes to eating. While Adi was there for a few days before returning to his parents’, we did eat out as much as we could — egg rolls, Indo-Chinese, more Indo-Chinese, phuchka (street food) over and over again (Adi was on a diet of phuchkas), and breakfasts at local sweet shops…but you cannot eat constantly really, so you take a breath, and you decide to stop before your explode. Though my Calcutta cousins here would like to interject and point out, as a couple of them did, that I certainly do not eat enough. That I do not eat at all. That I am sure to fall ill by the time I turn 60. I do not know if I can accommodate them, but you never know. The human body is a mystery.

Once Adi left, my brother and his family too left for a holiday in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, where they had quite an adventure in that they were caught in cyclonic weather, but I was home. There was enough time at hand to bask in the earthy quality of Calcutta. I met old friends, nattered for hours, took out old books from my library room to dust and read, spent time running around the neighbourhood parks and getting chased by stray dogs who for some reason love to chase bicycles, cars (and now I am adding me to the list). I also slowly jotted down recipes from my mother — recipes with no measures, but after spending years in the kitchen, I have stopped carping about the lack of them. Cooking is after all an instinctive art, unlike baking. There were always four different dishes of veggies in every meal. I did not miss eating out. It is something I savour every time I am there in Calcutta, because at one point, ma was ill. She would hardly get up from bed. Clinical depression is suffocating even for the family. And here she is all about the place, chopping and cooking with ease, for hours at a stretch. She has mellowed with age, my mother — which makes it easier to actually enjoy her company (to think that she could grow on me is a most miraculous thought). Now, it has been a few weeks that I have been back in Bayonne, but I still miss it all.

Delhi

2019-01-24 07.11.44 1.jpg
The star of the show at my in-law’s is the cook. Here he is waiting on the fire to barbecue kebabs.
2019-01-24 07.21.02 1.jpg
My in-laws just before we fell upon a Christmas feast put together by my mother-in-law.
2019-01-24 07.11.38 1.jpg
Adi with our nephew and niece
Processed with VSCO with a6 preset
Boozy sisters-in-law at Delhi Gymkhana
Processed with VSCO with a6 preset
Christmas Eve with our friends
2019-01-24 07.11.43 1.jpg
Hmm cake, can you even have enough of it?
IMG_20181227_000933_281.jpg
The mad as a hatter musician who does exquisite covers of Ella Fitzgerald
IMG_20181227_001921_078.jpg
Journalists of Delhi

Calcutta in Colour

2019-01-04 10.05.06 2.jpg
Coz my mother’s fond of these leafy boys
2019-01-04 10.05.09 1.jpg
And they deliver enough bananas and banana flowers to demand a few images
20181231_130305.jpg
Catching the liquid sunshine in Calcutta
2019-01-04 12.40.43 1_1.jpg
Banana flowers. In Bengal, these are used to rustle up mochar ghonto. A dish cooked with potato, a few spices and garnished with grated coconut. 
2019-01-04 10.05.07 1.jpg
Shiuli. Night jasmine. Its fragrance steals over the senses like the sweetest melody.
2019-01-04 10.05.03 1_1.jpg
Iconic Park Street
20190109_171605-01.jpeg
A view of the city’s past glory — St. Paul’s Cathedral and Victoria Memorial — from Monkey Bar
2019-01-04 10.05.16 1_1.jpg
When the family sans my mother (she eschews fried foods) stops for a round of phuchkas.
2019-01-24 07.06.46 1.jpg
Stepping out for egg rolls with the sister-in-law and nephew
IMG_20190106_202604_481.jpg
Coffee with a friend with whom I used to catch the bus to school (in pigtails and glasses).
2019-01-24 06.57.57 1.jpg
My former flatmates who live in Delhi and Kiev
IMG_20190112_105251_892.jpg
Ready to gobble up Indo-Chinese at Chowman with Adi and my brother.

Calcutta in B&W

20190103_095904-01.jpeg
My father and the vegetable seller 
20190108_114724-01.jpeg
Fish sellers
20181229_193135-01
Phuchka-wallah 
20190105_180102-01_1.jpeg
Eco Park,  a sprawling affair in Calcutta where the Taj Mahal brushes shoulder with the Pyramids of Egypt and the Colosseum too. It is as mad as the chief minister.
20190105_175859-01.jpeg
Cristo Rei also shows up near the Pyramids in Eco Park.
20181231_215836-01.jpeg
The family gathers over sparkling wine on New Year’s eve. My parents can never keep their eyes open.
IMG-1733-01.jpeg
Squeezing into a frame because that’s what family does. My arm features prominently too.

The Nostalgia of Calcutta

The days have melted away in a puddle of emotions. I leave tomorrow for Delhi where after spending a day at my in-laws’ place, I head home to my Adi. But there is a feeling of disquiet that haunts me when I walk at night upon the terrace of my childhood home. In the shadow of the coconut trees that stand silhouetted, tall and straight-backed, against the moonlit sky, I cannot help brooding upon the changes that time shall bring. For it always does. It is the one constant in this journey of life. Change. For these trees have been silent witnesses: To the years drifting by as my parents walked in to this home of ours, young, full of dreams and aspirations; time as it slowly whittled down their energy and youth; then us as we grew up, left everything behind to chalk our own paths and took off for distant places to set up new homes. In the shadows of these trees, I cannot help thinking about whether this be the last time that I shall see everything as it should be. Fears of mortality but then there you have the inevitability of living.

Everything has changed so where we live. People have tripled in number in this quiet suburb of Calcutta. Where there were green vacant plots earlier, there stand houses, some not quite aesthetically pleasing. The ones that have not been yet claimed by anyone have been transformed into tiny rubbish dumps. The mayor of our town though is proud about organising various events for the residents, putting together musical events and putting up hideous sculptures of animals in the parks. Who wants to see a python in stone dangling above their heads, eh? Would it not be much better to see those resources pooled in to clear the roads of rubbish and concrete dumped on the pavements?

The old neighbours are no more there. They have all slowly opted out of the race of living. I could not even spot the house of one of my dearest friends because the changes in her alley have been quite remarkable. My early morning cycling yielded pleasure and sorrow in equal measures.

Yet behind these melancholic thoughts are moments strung together by memories. Meeting an aunt who was our neighbour in Oman. Her husband died of a stroke a few years ago but I have memories of his canvases that he painted with great pride and whenever I visited him, bullying him to part with a canvas, he would just ask for a kiss on the cheek in return. The school friend who is married into a conservative family and is happy though she lives within the shackles of her community. Her stories emphasise upon me that India has a long way to go before women achieve their right to even make their own decisions. My hope lies in women like my friend who are pushing the boundaries in their personal lives yet she has to take the permission of her husband to step out of the house.

I sauntered around with Adi before he had to leave and made sure he ate his way through the four days he spent in Calcutta. Chanced upon film sets in the old houses of South Calcutta (the one in the lead photo), railed against the prevalence still of ‘Indian Standard Time’ — everyone likes to be punctual about turning up late, chased food with my brother and his family who have flown back to their home in Lagos, met many cousins and friends, toyed with food at old haunts that soothed the senses with delirious pleasure. Mughlai at Arsalan, Chinese at Bar B Q and Beijing. The old names. Then stopped by new places like Sienna Café where I snacked on organic pesto and mozzarella layered squares of bread with a cousin from Glasgow, sighed with her over lush saris and traditional textiles, caught street food around home – the usual suspects you know. Egg rolls and fish fries, phhuchka (hollow semolina balls filled with tamarind water), samosa and kachori chaat (tangy, spicy snacks), pathishaptas (traditional pancakes stuffed with coconut and date palm jaggery) experimentally stuffed with meats.

But do you know about the winner in this cornucopia of flavours? My mother’s many veggie and fish dishes. She had lost her touch when she took to bed with depression for years but now she is up and about. And boy, can she cook. A strange goodness spreads like a halo around my head as I eat these simple and subtle flavours. Ma has no recipes. I suppose if you go by recipes strictly, you can hardly invent new dishes. With every spoonful of her many veggie and fish dishes, I am overcome. I hope someday I can cook like her. I might not like her stubbornness in certain quarters of life but she is a brick.

Now I cannot possibly put it all down in words because being home is overwhelming but I shall try and present some of these moments through shots captured in the split second.

Doors of Saltlake
The Freemasons’ Lodge in Calcutta is a secretive affair on Park Street where there remains some ancient prints from Jerusalem and one of the original Freemason lodges in London which was destroyed in the great fire.
Oxford Bookstore on Park Street, the bookworm’s delight.
Old-world Chinese in Bar B Q on Park Street
Chilli Chicken
Chicken Manchow Soup
Flurys, a tearoom from the 1920s on Park Street
Spicy egg chicken roll

Misty Days
A strange sight: Recreation of London’s Elizabeth Tower (which you know as Big Ben)
An even stranger thought: They play the national anthem in theatres!!! There I was struggling not to drop my popcorn and drink as I had to stand up suddenly as the anthem was played.
Sweets at Nolen Gur festival. Nolen gur is date palm jaggery that is a popular winter dessert.
More Nolen Gur sweets but experimental ones
Traditional sweets like patishapta (in the foreground) and malpua (the fried flat discs behind the patishapta)
Rabri (condensed milk sweet)
From the verandah of my library room

Bottlebrushes

Sugarcane carts

With my brother at Beijing, an old Chinese eatery in Tangra where the Hakka Chinese started their tanneries when they arrived in the city a long time ago.
New Year’s eve at the Marriott Hotel
Views from the Marriott of life passing by along a busy thoroughfare

Long queues outside Arsalan. Bengalis will do anything for good food.
Mutton biryani, the food of nawabs, at Arsalan
Mutton chops
Chicken malai kebabs with a coating of cheese
Gariahata market
Gariahata Market
Dimer devil (devilled eggs) and Chicken Pakoras at a roadside stall
Park Street on the first night of the new year
After 20 years. School friends.
A noon with relatives and my sister-in-law on the extreme left.
The Glasgow cousin who was also in town. Outside Sienna Café.
Sienna Café
Sienna Café
Baked goodies at Sienna
Apple cake for the soul
At an art gallery
Graffiti project for missing girls in Calcutta to raise awareness about sex trafficking
Doorways of South Calcutta
With my two former flatmates and the cutest two-year-old
S and I
Ella Rose

Portraits of Kali and the Family

It was my father’s birthday the other day. Time gallops for it has been a few weeks already. It was his 80th birthday and I had grand plans of hauling the entire family to a hill town. It was pared down soon to humble proportions because well most of my plans revolving around the family perish as quickly as they are hatched.

A tuck-in of monstrous proportions the night before at a grilled food restaurant made sure that everyone groaned at length with the contentment generated by an army of kebabs of prawn, fish and meat. In Calcutta, food reigns over lives. At breakfast, thoughts rally around the possibilities that lunch can offer. There is tea in the afternoon after a protracted lie-in when fish and vegetable chops (croquettes) are devoured with pots of aromatic Darjeeling tea, and there is a late dinner filled with even more possibilities because who can eat a morsel after the goodies of the early evening have settled in.

My father’s birthday on the morrow turned out clear and chilly. The sun was a honey gold and the chocolate cake laced with coffee and hazelnut praline from the local bakery delectable. Baba ate payesh, rice and milk pudding simmered in cardamon-infused milk. It is a must at all Bengali birthdays. Then he cut two beautiful dark chocolate cakes which were an instant hit with the young one in the family, my nephew.

The plan had been fixed previously that we should step out for Chinese lunch at Bar B Q at an early hour because parking dilemmas on the busy thoroughfare of Park Street assumes gargantuan proportions as the afternoon progresses. Therein stepped in my mother’s sudden and inexplicable need for a cuppa before leaving home because how can one step out of the house without tea. Time is a fluid concept in India – people will make you wait without recognition of their tardiness. I might split hairs at length but the fact does not change and there are few far and between who turn up on the dot. For instance, one school friend of mine turned up right on the decided time, another made me wait an hour and a half before turning up for a breakfast engagement.

To return to the matter of the birthday lunch, after everyone had enough tea to saturate their senses, we drove to Park Street where naturally parking spots had all been snapped up. On a weekday noon you would think people had better things to do than mooch around Park Street. Then it so happened that my brother missed out on zeroing in on two valuable parking spots. Two. My sister-in-law berated him. I piped up too. Baba’s hackles rose alongside. How could anyone gun for his dear boy? He started shushing everyone. Chaos. After about 40 minutes of circling around, we found a plum spot on Park Street itself. The traffic police on the beat mentioned that he should not be paid but quietly pocketed the notes forwarded by my brother who insisted that he is a man of the world and this is how it works. Then my mother decided that she should sit inside the car and wait for us because she was fasting. We had struck a bargain, you see. That we should attend a puja of the goddess Kali later on in the day.  I had acquiesced to it. Read: With much whinging on my part.

That was my father’s 80th. As eccentric and dramatic as the family I have been born into, concluded by listening to the priest chanting mantras at the foot of the idol of Kali, the intense avataar of the Goddess Durga as she goes about vanquishing evil from this earth for all Bengalis. Oh and yes, my ma did finally break her fast which I thought she had done anyway at Bar B Q with a fruit punch and tiny cheese puffs.

No, I had not popped a vein by the end of the evening.

Payesh
Baba and I
Tweedledee Tweedledum
Nephew and sister-in-law
Kali
…trampling Shiva
Paraphernalia fit for a goddess
The goddess prefers variety. Crunchy rice, dates and fruits along with narus (coconut sweets) and rolled-up betel leaves.
The brass thali, boti (a long curved blade with a wooden platform used in Bengali kitchens to chop veggies and fish) and coconuts ready to be grated.
Betel leaf, betel nut and batasha (rice pie made with ghee and sugar syrup)
Banana leaves
An aunt as she puts together odds and ends for the priest
Nephew and coz
The feast for Kali
Brass pots and pans
The brass bell
Chants in Bengali. In case the priest forgets his lines?
The goddess as dark as the night

In the Dreams of a Boatman…

…were couched the beginnings of a 250-year-old tradition in the family I was born into. That of worshipping the goddess Durga. Ma Durga as we call her in West Bengal. Ma as in mother, the beginning of everything that is good on this planet, in every species. Even crocodiles and snakes (ophiophilists, don’t you dare fling a cobra at me).

Durga is the warrior goddess who slays evil and preserves peace by combatting with the ashura, the demon in Hindu mythology. And she is not modest, okay? How could she be, this 10-armed goddess who multi-tasks effortlessly as only a woman can. In the Rig Veda, one of her aliases Devi is noted to have remarked, ‘I am the Queen, the gatherer-up of treasures, most thoughtful, first of those who merit worship…’

For Bengalis, and most of the eastern part of India, her arrival brings with it a celebration that lasts for days. Five at the least. When the number of days perchance decrease, there is a sea made up of ripples of melancholic faces.

What! To be shortchanged thus? Lesser number of days off from work, the chance to show off new clothes acquired for each day and most importantly the opportunity to do pet pujo. Pet is stomach in English and pujo is worship. You get the crux of the matter and where I come from with my bottomless-well kind of appetite.

Roads and alleys are blocked off in the city of Calcutta for the hundreds of community pandals, temporary pavilions, that emerge all over the city, each vying with the other for greater glory. There are various interpretations of the goddess therefore, some staggeringly flamboyant. Once they even had a Harry Potter theme which made my eyes boggle. Sheer genius of someone’s imagination to inject fantasy with more fantasy. It is the one sight that will be imprinted on your mind for a long, long time if you visit the city during Durga Pujo. In a good way. There is bloody chaos, because it is India, what do you expect? Yetin that chaos you shall find peace by gaping at the many reincarnations of Durga around every corner, plethora of street food that will make you go ‘aah’ (with supreme gastronomic pleasure) and ‘ooh’ (the stomach shall inevitably protest) and more food yet in the many classic eateries in the city. If the world eats to live, Bengalis do it the other way around.

Then there are family pujos which are smaller affairs but filled with intricate details that you will miss out at the community ones. That’s where my family comes in.

Years and years ago, as I mentioned at the outset, when East Bengal was still East Bengal, before partition happened when they were dispossessed of their lands and it was named Bangladesh, generations of my ancestors (both my father and mother’s folks) lived there. My father’s and one of my great (I do not know how many times great because my father is the one well-versed with the family tree) grandfathers’ boatmen dreamt of a goddess. As irreverent as I am, I often wondered if he had smoked a few spliffs, but then in his defence, the man did locate the goddess who apparently appeared in his dreams.

A tiny idol of Annapurna made of ashtadhatu (eight metals – an amalgamation of gold, silver, copper, lead, zinc, tin, iron and mercury) was recovered by him from a certain spot that was revealed to him in the vision. Annapurna is the goddess of nourishment (she who wants you to be well fed always) and Durga personified. The boatman passed on the idol to his employer, my ancestor, who started this ritual of worshipping Durga on his land. Unknowingly he had started a legacy that has tempered the outlook of so many generations of my family after him.

Now the pujo is rotated among three family members – two of my father’s cousins and my father. Last year I flew back to Calcutta because my parents who are ageing away at a meteoric pace were sure it would be their last time celebrating it at home. ‘You never know,’ they said, and as much as it hurts, it is the inevitable truth of life I suppose.

As a child, I would wake up early and gather flowers in my skirt from beneath our trees. Some wild purple and white ones, blood-red hibiscus and then mounds of shiuli, the night-flowering jasmine. I would knit garlands out of those pretty night jasmine with their coral center and stems for presenting to the goddess. Then fast for the offering-of-flowers ritual that happened with chantings of shlokas by the family priest during the latter half of the mornings. I would sin by sneaking food into my library room from the kitchen during those times when I was supposed to fast, little orbs of goodness made up of coconut, sugar and milkmaid. Then noons of dressing up and escaping the family to spend time with friends at pandals where the young and beautiful flock together to observe each other with a gimlet eye. And day and night of feasting on delicious Bengali food that comes to an end with the final/10th day of the pujo when we immerse the goddess into the river.

That is when the entire family – the very old and babies barred – we all pile up into a large lorry and rumble down the roads with Durga and her sons and daughters and demon and chant, ‘Aschhe bochhor abar hobe‘ (roughly translated, ‘the following year she shall be here again’) before we slide her gently into the waters of the Hooghly and douse our grief with food, but of course. A feast that kicks off with giant fried sweets, followed up with plenty of fish cooked in mustard, mounds of rice, mouthwatering range of veggies and chutneys.

Autumn for me is the arrival of this festive air. It steals in upon me, arrival of the goddess when the breeze softens, when the skies put on their dreamy blue veil, the merest hint of winter in the air and the long white grass we call kaash phool, a sort of perennial white grass which sways in the wind with immeasurable softness and grace. As much of a non-believer as I am, I bask in the goodness of it because what would life be without traditions. As witty Whitman had declared without a trace of shame: ‘Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself, (I am large, I contain multitudes.)’

Today I feel a throb for my childhood home. For everything that is so far away. Oceans away. Instead of looking for the nearest pandal in Jersey City, I cook and celebrate this feeling because it is my way to celebrate – plus I feel this terrible sense of ennui weighing me down in strange pandals where I have to idly natter with people because I have to, invain attempts to recreate the glories of home. That can never be.
When night comes we shall tuck into biryani (slow-cooked rice, potatoes and meat) – I was jumping for hours today morning trying to calm down an agitated fire alarm and I am surprised she did not drone on about curry instead of fire – and I shall reminisce to Adi who has not seen Durga Pujo in her one true home, Calcutta, for the nth time: ‘You have no idea what you are missing out on. It is legendary.’
2017-09-27 02.27.07 1.jpg
Last year’s avataar of Ma Durga at home
2017-09-27 02.42.21 1.jpg
Cotton soaked in ghee is lit in 108 small brass pots by women to symbolise the destruction of evil during Sandhi Pujo when 108 lotuses are also offered to the goddess alongside.
2017-09-27 02.27.06 1.jpg
Kola bou. Banana Bride. She is the consort for Ganesha, the god whose elephant trunk you can spy in the backdrop. Autumn is the time for harvest so people, particularly peasants, worship the many bounties of Mother Earth.
2017-09-27 02.27.08 1.jpg
Sentimentalism: Home is where the heart is

On the Sand Dunes of Sam

Chiselled by the winds stand the sand dunes of Sam. They are an overwhelming sight. All those sandy yellow waves and nothing thereafter for miles. It is a sight that can make you feel like a speck in an ocean of sand. Once in a while, a row of camels can be spotted, swaying their lazy behinds and walking off into the horizon with human loads on their humps.

I have sat on a camel twice now. Two occasions when I somehow clung on to the camel as it decided to make rude noises and threaten to throw me off its back. I would not blame it on hindsight. We humans are rather annoying in our attempt to get onto the back of every four-legged creature we can get our hands on.

I have made my peace with it. No more camel rides for this human is in the offing any time soon, unless I am thrown into the deserts of Arabia with no option but to get on to the back of one or perish. We all have keen survival instincts at the end of the day.

Now, the deserts always remind me of my wee days when my father drove my mother and me through the deserts of Salalah. When once I laid my eyes upon the strange sight of an upturned camel. I have never stopped wondering since if that is how camels pass on to nothingness or onto the next realm, if there is one that is. If you do know the answer to this, I would be grateful for the assuaging of this strange and stupid query that has always been a part of my growing up years.

On another note, have you ever seen the branding of a camel? It is not a pretty affair. Those poor mammals have no option but be branded. They are held down by the heavily moustachioed Rajasthani men, their feet often bare, their bright turbans always snagging the eye with vivacious colours that contrast sharply with the white of their kurta-and-dhoti attire, and how can one miss those significantly sized gold earrings dangling off their ear lobes – they were certainly bigger than mine. The poker glows red hot, held upon a rough fire pit made on the sand, and then when it looks decidedly hot enough, bam it is stamped onto the body of the protesting camel.

To say that it is merely disturbing is not doing your feelings justice. I remember the intense vehemence that swept over me and with it the violent urge to inflict that very branding exercise upon those men who were busy with their regular activity. But you realise then that you are but just an onlooker with no power. So you turn your eyes away with immense sadness in your heart and the thought running in your head that it is just the way it is. After all, not everything in life is the way it should be, is it?

IMG_20170219_154244_288.jpg

IMG_20170219_154202_059.jpg

IMG_20170219_154106_967.jpg

Yet there is something mystical about the desert. The golden beauty of your surroundings, the spectacular sunset and the massive white disc of the moon that rises after. It reminds you of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s words in The Little Prince: “One sits down on a desert sand dune, sees nothing, hears nothing. Yet through the silence something throbs, and gleams…”

 

In the end is the beginning

I have always thought that it makes a whole lot of sense. What our good man Eliot wrote. Even though another year is coming to an end, there is always a fresh year to look forward to. Wonder what it holds in store for my husband and me. We have new things creeping around the corner. Moving countries, setting up a new home, a new start. Daunting. Yet we gotta make the best of the hand we are dealt in life, isn’t it?

There is a bagful of nostalgia and wistfulness to go with it. The year for my husband and me has been about travel and the accoutrement that comes with it. You know, good food, fumbling jaunts in the many fairytale nooks and crannies of Europe, rambles in our beloved English countryside, attempts at decoding foreign tongues, sharing kindred moments with strangers we might never have known had we not been in a particular place at a particular time. What a delightful prospect 2016 was… I could not help but capture the year roughly as it has been for us, in photographs.

20160216_125241.jpg
Ruins of a Roman amphitheatre, Tarragona. In the Catalonia region of Spain.
IMG_20160501_213454.jpg
Bergamo, Italy
Belem Tower at night.jpg
Torre de Belém, Lisbon. Portugal.
20160215_161140.jpg
Park Güell, Barcelona. Spain.
img_20160619_195052
Castleton, Derbyshire. England.
img_20160520_215007
Girona in Spain
img_20160517_212135
Carew Castle, Pembrokeshire. Wales.
img_20160605_124907
The Pantheon, Rome. Italy.
img_20160527_000410
Anacapri, Italy.
IMG_20160506_002905.jpg
Lake Maggiore, Stresa. Italy.
IMG_20160520_231850.jpg
Malaga, Spain.
Amalfi Coast.jpg
The Amalfi Coast, Italy
burano
Candy colours, Burano. Italy.
Norwegian waterfalls.jpg
Lushness of Norwegian towns marked out by stunning waterfalls
Yachting in Cornwall.jpg
Yachting holiday in Plymouth, Cornwall. UK.
IMG_20160626_020736.jpg
Hofburg Palace, Vienna. Austria.
IMG_20160503_132117.jpg
Cimitero Monumentale, Milan. Italy.
Norwegian fjords.jpg
Fjords of Norway
IMG_20161120_032656.jpg
Jordaan quarter in Amsterdam
Amalfi.jpg
Amalfi, Italy.
Ravello.jpg
Ravello, Italy.
Alhambra from El Sacromonte.jpg
Silhouette of the Alhambra in Granada. Spain.
Bergen 3.jpg
Bergen, Norway.
Durga Puja  1.jpg
Durga Puja pandal, Kolkata. India.
durga puja.jpg
Durga Puja that has been celebrated by my family for over 250 years now. Kolkata, India.
Florence.jpg
Duomo, Florence. Italy.
IMG_20160517_214608.jpg
Barafundle Bay, South West Wales.
Verona 1.jpg
Verona, Italy.
Lake Como.jpg
Lake Como, Italy.
Zaragoza.jpg
Basílica de Nuestra Señora del Pilar, Zaragoza. Spain.
IMG_20161229_210036_073.jpg
The Hungarian Parliament, Budapest.
hemingway
Hemingway landmarks, Madrid. Spain.
img_20161212_204617
Sunset upon the Venetian waterfront. Italy.
IMG_20160520_000711.jpg
Heat haze and the El Tajo, Ronda. Spain.

If you have reached the end of this post, have wonderful celebrations for the end of the year. For us, new year’s eve is always a bit of a dampener because the expectations always exceed the actual celebrations. But this year we decided to have a go at it and make a change. We are in Prague and having a gorgeous time. So here’s to changes and new years and new resolutions and new beginnings. Na zdraví!

 

 

In the Borneo Bubble

It seems a lifetime ago that I was in the rainforests of Borneo. My husband and I had a big and beautiful Indian wedding (about five years ago). If you have been a part of an Indian wedding, you know you need a few tall drinks and a tropical getaway promptly after.

Sabah, Malaysia’s easternmost state on the island of Borneo, was our perfectly planned escape. Borneo is divided into three or four parts – the Sultanate of Brunei, the Indonesian state of Kalimantan and the two East Malaysian states of Sabah and Sarawak.

Untamed tropical forests spread out beneath us like swathes of wild green carpet, as we peered down from the flight. Sabah has a nickname. It is called ‘The Land Below the Wind’. It is how seamen from the past used to describe places south of the typhoon belt.

We landed in Kota Kinabalu, the capital of Sabah, and my hair decided to cast a frizzy verdict upon it. The humidity was unbearable and we were in the middle of December. My husband dubbed me Monica (ref: the frizzy hair episode in ‘Friends’).

We had to take a ferry from Jesselton Point, a quaint looking waterfront that is a legacy of Kota Kinabalu’s colonial past when it was known as Jesselton. Once known as North Borneo, Sabah was a British colony between the late 19th century and the early 20th century.

As it always happens when you are tired – and cannot wait to take up on the promise of a luxurious bed – things will go wrong, in a Murphy-esque way. We missed the ferry to the luxurious resort in the Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park where we had booked a couple of nights stay. With two hours to while away, we decided upon local grub at Nasi Padang Ibu, an Indonesian restaurant on Jesselton Point. Its bland rendangs did nothing for our mood, till I chanced upon glorious caramel popcorn in a large cone. That perfect blend of toasty caramel and butter, washed down with beer, made up for the disappointment of our first meal in Sabah.

When the ferry finally arrived, it took us past a cluster of islands to the biggest of the islands, Pulau Gaya (‘Pulau’ is Malay for island). The Gayana Eco Resort enchanted us straightaway. In the middle of a lagoon, among the startlingly blue waters of the South China Sea, stood a posse of stilted huts. It was a scene out of a postcard.

img_20160605_173501
Gayana Eco Resort

img_20160605_172953

IMG_20160605_172433.jpg

IMG_20160605_173352.jpg
That is how the breakfast arrives at the resort.

Those huts, once we walked into our appointed one, turned out to be villas. My chosen part was the deck and our own little pier. Breakfast arrived everyday by a motorboat. A fascinating spread would be laid out on the deck and we would sit watching the emerald green waters and nibble away at pancakes, freshly baked bread and sausages. If we peeked down into the shallow waters around our hut, lazy-as-lazy-gets Long Tom (that is needlefish) could always be seen to be floating around. We were as lazy as them.

The resort had a marine park centre on the island whose main residents were stone fish, sea cucumber, kingfish, clown fish and puffer fish. One of the centre helpers insisted I touch a few of them. I did, just to indulge his enthusiasm. Shudder.

Nearby, within the waters of the marine park which is named after Malaysia’s first Prime Minister, were the islands of Sapi, Manukan, Mamutik and Sulug where one can snorkel and indulge in deep sea diving. We spent time in Malohom Bay bonding with ocean creatures. An abundance of seafood featured on the menu and if you wanted a speckled grouper on your plate, why you had to pay a ransom. It is a delicacy in this part of the world.

It was romantic on Gayana – they serenaded me the first evening that we reached – yet there was hardly anybody on the island apart from us. And I always like social contact on a holiday. I am a people’s person. It made me crave civilization, and by the end of our stay, Gayana was a sharp pinch on the pocket.

I was quite ready for the next leg of our honeymoon.

The most entertaining part of our holiday was spent on the Pantai Dalit beach in Tuaran, a town near Kota Kinabalu. We whooped with joy at the sight of long stretch of soft, white sands which were part of the private beach of Shangri-La Rasa Ria, one of the best properties we have stayed in. The warm reception at the five-star property was soothing and so very Asian in its hospitality. We were upgraded to a suite with a Jacuzzi. For a newly-wed, it is bliss.

We played beach football during the evenings, splashed about in the sea and at night had a cabana to ourselves with Continental-style dinners laid out beneath the stars.

We made the most of a Japanese teppanyaki restaurant in the hotel that rustled up mean fish dishes and offered an interactive time with the chef while dining. My husband indulged in a bit of balancing-the-egg-act and had a pleasurable time cooking with the chef.

Now, for the rainforests of Sabah which are home to orangutans. In the vicinity of the beach a path led into the tropical forests. There live some orangutan orphans, protected by Rasa Ria Nature Reserve that offers them a home in their natural habitat.

Orangutans are a protected species because they are dying out.

We had to wait for them beneath a heavy canopy. The tropical rainforests are charming. They barely allow sunlight to filter in, and in those humid climes, it is a welcome respite from the heat. We had to peel our eyes out for them before we spied three orangutans swinging through the branches and making their way towards us with great alacrity. In a while I realized that they were actually making a beeline for the buckets of fruits that had been laid out on a raised platform in the trees. They came closer and we saw three long-limbed females. Their names were Wulan, Katie and Ten Ten.

Swinging around the slender branches of the gigantic trees, they did a few acrobatic feats. Then they decided that they wanted a potshot or two at the gaping crowd below with broken-off bits of branches. So they chucked a few branches down.

Their aim was off the mark. And we came out unscathed.

img_20160605_171333
Rasa Ria

img_20160605_171303

img_20160605_165717
Meeting the orphan orang-utans.

IMG_20160605_165839.jpg

img_20160605_170915
The beautiful cabanas. We had one for an evening.

IMG_20160605_171224.jpg

IMG_20160605_163900.jpg

IMG_20160605_164439.jpg

Sabah is not only about such naughty-playful encounters with orangutans. It is made up of virgin rainforests, emerald green rivers, coral reefs and remote tribes, deep caves, and it is home to Mount Kota Kinabalu, the highest peak in Southeast Asia.

We rounded off our bonding-with-nature kinda holiday with exploring the city of Kota Kinabalu. My sister-in-law had gifted us a stay at a hotel which overlooked the bustling waterfront of Kota Kinabalu. I fell in love with the view from the hotel, the colourful barges and fishing vessels floating in the midst of the South China Sea and the local market adjacent the dock.

IMG_20160605_151936.jpg

We indulged in some mall ratting during the day and at night, strolled through the night market that came to life outside the hotel. The overwhelming, almost putrid odour of dried fish had us gagging, but it did not stop us from browsing through the smelly array of dried sea food and worms and sea horses. Colourful sea horses (which look almost unreal) are a speciality in this part of the world. Locals bung them into their soups. Kiosks sell snacks or ‘pusas’ and shopkeepers try to sell you fake versions of designer bags. It is the kind of chaos and life that you see only in the East.

The best bit of a holiday in Borneo is that the budget goes a long way there. It is one of the few tropical paradises that does not break the bank.