Oh But This Summer of Fiery Sunsets and Fireflies

Every evening as the sun sets in a riot of colours upon the mighty Hudson, and I saunter along the river, I find myself revelling in the wonder of nature. Adi comes with once in a while. Together we spot so many pinpricks of yellow and orange in the twilight hour. The park is swarming with fireflies and it is difficult not to feel as gleeful as a child. The chubby squirrels of winter have procreated in the last few months it seems. Their tiny summer offsprings have the run of the park, their thin tailed bodies priming up for the harsher months with nature’s nutty offerings.

Meanwhile I have not fallen off the face of the blogging world quite yet. I shall hold on as long as I can — like a tenacious camel. Why camel though, you might ask here. I have no idea. Maybe because I am a child of the desert.

The season is speeding away even as we find ourselves tiding over some hot and humid days. The in-laws are visiting us and there is not enough hours in a day to slip in updates here. But they are in Washington DC for a few days, and we shall head there for the weekend, so here I am wondering if there are any recommendations you have for Adi and I.

Below are some shots from Central Park from one of our wanderings through it on a sweltering day when a sea lion we saw, slumped over a rock in a desultory fashion. I think we would have perched ourselves just so in a pool, if we had one. During our gander in the park, we watched tiny turtles swim in the mossy green waters of a pond, which is what remains of the 19th century Croton Aqueduct. As it happens, I am in the midst of a tome on the history of New York City during the Civil War. It talks of the great stretch of green today in Central Park adjoining the Turtle Pond, once a part of the aqueduct that transformed life for the multitudes of miserable residents of the city in the 1800s. You see, they had to rely on brackish water for their daily needs or pay vendors two cents a pail for ‘tea water’ (which was basically water drawn from wells up the island). Naturally New Yorkers considered it wiser to consume distilled and fermented liquor day and night than live off the filthy water that the city dispensed for the public.

Now, before I take off on the joys of discovering the city through this book, which is always a hazard when I start writing, I shall leave you with a cheery hello and a fond note on the benches of Central Park with their various plaques. If I could, I would spend a day just photographing the words they feature, because I simply adore them.

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Serendipity in the Upper West Side

One frightfully cold day, we were in the Upper West Side, lured by the promise of a bazaar of food trucks. The furious wind made indents everywhere. The exposed bits. Face, hair, ankles. And the unexposed bits. So that the sight of a fenced-in enclosure packed with rows of food trucks was comforting. As expected, a cornucopia of food and people. Kiwi-style pies, South Indian dosas, Lebanese grub. I can tell you that there were at least a dozen more trucks promising lobster to tacos and more. I can also tell you that we meekly fell at the last hurdle. Queues that grew longer by the second. There was not a truck left that was not besieged by a peckish crowd.

We ended up striding to Sarabeth’s, a classic NYC brunch hotspot, with French doors that swung open to reveal warmly lit interiors. The kind of place where wooden tables for two sit cheek by jowl and beautiful old women in black clothes dine with their girl friends. Where they serve potato waffles with apple-flavoured chicken sausages and where the calamari arrives perfectly crunchy at the table. For those moments, it felt like we were on holiday.

Senses humming with bellinis and beer, we emerged on Amsterdam Avenue, the long road previously known as Tenth Avenue. Sometime in the 1800s, a Tenth Avenue Cowboy rode a horse up and down it, warning people of approaching trains that used to run along the avenue. He is no longer to be spotted there. Instead, a worthy line-up of cafés, bakeries, candy shops, taverns and hole-in-the-wall Thai eateries impart this avenue, renamed after Manhattan’s first 17th century colonisers, with contemporary vibes.

It was so blustery that to walk was to brave the winds and cower. Just as Adi wondered aloud, what were we to do then, a church with a distinctly Byzantine personality turned up on the right (it’s the feature photo), and I said, ‘Just let’s step in for a second’.

Inside, as I craned my neck up to gaze at the dome, I heard a whisper, ‘Excuse me’.

An old woman, with a shock of white hair, sat in the pews towards the back of the church, and whispered again, so that I had to inch closer to her. ‘There is a movie being screened today.’

I gave a silly grin, and replied, ‘Is that so? How wonderful!’ What do you say when someone informs you, out of the blue, of a film showing somewhere? The woman carried on, as if I had not interrupted her. ‘There are refreshments. There is Gregory Peck.’

It being one of those days when you felt like indulging a stranger who promised Gregory Peck, because you had nothing better to do, we followed her directions, got out of the church, and spotted the parish centre adjacent to it. In a dark hall there, they were projecting a technicolour film upon the wall, in front of which sat a group of elderly people. We joined them discreetly when Christopher Plummer flashed upon the screen in the uniform of a Nazi military officer, standing upon some terrace in Rome, showing his children the city that he had fallen in love with before he arrived on duty. Soon Gregory Peck showed up in the habit of a Vatican priest.

The name of the film was The Scarlet and the Black. In about two and a half hours, I was tearing up at the solid performances delivered by Plummer and Peck…as they played out the real-life story of a Nazi officer, Herbert Kappler, and an Irish priest, Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty, from County Kerry in Ireland. It is based upon a novel, ‘The Scarlet Pimpernel of the Vatican’ by J.P. Gallagher.

The time was 1943, when Allied prisoners and Jews were being persecuted by the Nazis in Rome, and O’Flaherty was doing his best to rescue them. By the end of it, he had saved thousands of people from Kappler, assuming various disguises to escape his clutches. It is quite the watch, if only to remember the bravery of the Vatican priest with the bulbous nose.

There we sat in that dark hall, with strangers for company, feeling snug as a priest circulated with a tray loaded with cookies, fat chunky ones that challenged you to stop at one. There was an old-world charm to the occasion, befitting the movie we were watching.

When it ended, and our minds were still floating around in that WWII bubble, the priest got up and circulated some papers. For a second or two, I was alarmed. Would he start talking about God? Time to pay up for the cookies.

But he took us by surprise. Those papers contained photos and quotes from the film. The priest talked about the storyline, with passion. That Monsignor George J. Murphy, who the centre was named for, had met O’Flaherty. That O’Flaherty had met Peck and had given him tips, but not lived long enough to watch the film. As the talk veered to Pope Pius XII, who was heading the Vatican at the time, an old woman with her ash blonde bob tucked beneath a beret, piped up. She had known the pope before he had assumed office. ‘I lived through the war in Rome and my aunts stayed behind. They were such difficult times,’ added this woman whose name was Giuliana.

The priest invited contemplation as he finished up with the thought, ‘When we are in heaven, will there be a special place for those who speak American English? It’s all rubbish, you know.’ That is how we found ourselves at an impromptu film club that evening in Manhattan’s Upper West Side. In a bizarre but wonderful way, we had landed up somewhere we did not know we wanted to be.

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Orwasher’s. The kind of lab that suits me fine. 
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Sarabeth’s on the Upper West Side 
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At Sarabeth’s…
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…as we waited for food 
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Calamari
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The perfect burger
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Potato waffles and apple-flavoured sausages served up with pots of sour cream, apple sauce and maple syrup
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Boarded-up church
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Ceramic mosaic in the 66th Street subway station
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Sights along the way

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Where we watched The Scarlet and the Black
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Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty
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 SS-Obersturmbannführer Herbert Kappler
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The redoubtable pairing: Christopher Plummer and Gregory Peck 

Vignettes

Central Park looked like a big beautiful canvas as I strolled through it to the American Museum of Natural History in the Upper West Side. Dried leaves glowed in vivid tones of gold and russet. Old men read books on benches which tell stories through those small plaques. You might take a seat on one but oh do leave some space for the couple’s dog who loved hanging out there too. They are all long gone… what remains is the warmth of the thought that you share the bench with souls that might have dissolved in ether, but they too savoured the solitude, as much as you do now. Beneath those flaming bowers, bright-eyed squirrels scurried up and down wire fences, a man stooped to gather a bunch of leaves in his arms, to throw them in the air, let them rain upon him in a shower of gold as his partner waited to capture it on her camera with a bashful grin, an old man rowed his boat serenely by.

Then I found my way to the pink granite largesse of the Natural History Museum where the suggested amount for entry is $23 – but you can shell out what you want to enter it. I wanted to pay a buck and see what their reaction might be (just to be perverse) but then I rose above that notion. Those mighty quotes of Ted Roosevelt staring back at you — exalted thoughts and words, they make sure that any pettiness is put to shame. Right after, I lost my mind — to the beauty of animals carefully preserved by an American taxidermist towards the late part of the 19th century, reproductions of dinosaurs from fossils, the Mayan gods, paraphernalia from the Silk Route, hunting apparatus of the Amazon Indians, strange shrunken heads that looked like tiny balls with hair flowing from the heads, sewed up lips and head because the South American people such as the Shuar counteract violent death and the need of the soul for revenge by keeping the spirit trapped inside the heads.

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The ultra tall Barosaurus defends its young from the Allosaurus up front. An encounter that might have taken place in the western part of the US about 140 million years ago.
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An alarmed African elephant

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Early copy of the Koran retrieved from somewhere in Africa.
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Golden wares of Samarkand where caravan roads converged, bringing in exotic goods from China, India, Armenia, Persia and the Near East.
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A Mayan god
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Colossal Olmec stone head from Southern Verz Cruz and Tabasco in Mexico

NYC Vibes On Halloween Weekend

Ah the throb of life in New York City. The lights, the people, the sidewalk bars brimming with the jolly many, the medley of bizarre costumes. Welcome to a night of gargantuan proportions. On one hand there were these strange airy-fairy creatures roaming around town — my pick of them all was a Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI zombie couple in their coiffed off-white wigs standing at a bistro on the sidewalk. And at the other end of the spectrum were boys and girls in tuxes and ball gowns, straight out of Gossip Girl, climbing up the steps of the New York Public Library with noses in the air, heads held high.

The night was alive and we were heading with the keenness of a precision-guided missile to the ramen-laden embrace of Wagamama in the Flatiron. On our mind were its chilli squids because boy have we missed ’em. In a mall in Milton Keynes, for example, on a superbly grey day in England we ended up going back twice to Wagamama for lunch and dinner — because we were not satisfied with just two servings of chilli squids at one go. We went back for more – for dinner – and the guy who had served us in the afternoon was confounded. ‘You Really like Wagamama, eh?’ he said. No shit, Sherlock.

Wagamama kept us going – because as with London, NYC can work your quads in a way not even a stairmaster can.

We had started the day at the New York Public Library because I had to return my books and renew my membership card. But as it turns out, my name came to my rescue. My usual practice is to come up with a nom de guerre for Starbucks and for those I know would struggle to figure out my name. One of my neighbours, a guy had told me sagely a while ago on an evening of purple hues and barbecue that I should not bother changing it. He had added: ‘Let them try and get it. Don’t change your name to suit anybody.’ Well at a library you cannot deal in any kind of pseudonyms, can you, with the State ID and all that thrown into the mixture? The woman at the check-out desk took a look at my name and said, ‘The same name as the writer! How do you pronounce it?’ She tried it on her tongue a few times till she got it. So yes, Arundhati Roy, the woman with magic in her pen, worked her fame and what happened was that even though the card is allotted for three months to anyone outside the county of NY and has to be renewed regularly, I got it for three years. I wanted to hug her.

With a halo of happiness hanging around me, I headed towards Central Park with Adi. There was such beauty in the air there even though the colours were not pronounced. A guy lay back on the grass and read a book, leaves wafted all around us like we were on the sets of a film, it was poetic, the charm of the evening…a golden retriever was commanded repeatedly by its master to sit and meet a little girl. His name was Jasper, the dog’s that is…Jasper refused to sit down. Yeah Jasper, you are not some performing clown. At the ice rink, Adi spotted a young boy of about 8 or so who skated like a ballet dancer, moving his arms oh so fluidly in tandem with the easy gliding of his feet clad in roller skates…we were transfixed by the prowess within that little body. Then the odd sight of a  bride who was in the midst of a photo shoot with her man in a denim jacket and Stetson hat.

Later we sauntered down Fifth Avenue, wandering in and out of stores. We entered Bergdorf Goodman where women with botox-ed, grim faces piled up boxes of expensive shoes like it was their birthright…Adi was determined to buy me a pair of Manolo Blahniks, so I had to don silk stockings and slip my feet into a pair of lace boots with stiletto heels so high that I thought I would keel over the moment I stood on them. Much to his disappointment, I returned them perfunctorily, sighed over a pair of fuchsia pink booties adorned with zardozi on the cuffs and heels. There is a photo of them below that I caught at the display window. The booties are a result of a collaboration between Indian fashion designer Sabyasachi and Christian Louboutin. Now Sabyasachi makes me proud as my home-town boy from Calcutta because his design sensibility is special. He does not pretend. He uses his roots and folklores and the result are designs that make you swoon. The prices do too. I dropped it all like a hot potato and headed outside, an annoyed Adi at my heels because my beloved wants to pamper me for my upcoming birthday. It made my heart swell with love because the thought is all that counts, is it not? This husband of mine is a gem. Yes, I should spare you the camp notes. But really, I was overwhelmed and I chose to indulge instead in a few stunning winter dresses from Zara with silhouettes and sleeves that made the heart trill.

Then we bought financiers, brownies and bread from this beautiful boulangerie and when we reached Wagamama, the delectable crunch of the squids sprinkled with shichimi, a Japanese chilli pepper mixture, and a huge bowl of ramen hit the right notes. Then home and pastries. Later wine to soak it all up.

And now I shall go pack my stuff for we head out to Worcester in a while. Toodles.

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Bedazzled

I was just wondering the other day as we walked into Times Square, surrounded by those giant billboards and dazzling neon signs, the crowds, the clouds gathering steam above our heads and the insanely tall buildings – what if Charlotte Brontë found herself here? I will tell you why that strange thought entered my mind. I was carrying a capacious cloth bag that I had bought at the home of the Brontë sisters in Haworth the previous summer. On it is a logo drawn out in lashes of thick black ink which puts you in mind of Charlotte sitting at her mahogany desk.

It makes for such a wild leap. Haworth to Times Square. The house in the open country leading to the vast moors, a time capsule of sorts, and then several worlds away it seems, this ultimate tribute to capitalism.

‘It is a strange kind of parallel universe,’ Charlotte might have noted in a letter to her dear sisters, never mind the alcoholic Branwell. ‘The girls they wear pies on their heads, the men wear shiny costumes with crowns around their heads and I cannot take my eyes off the neon signs towering above me. I fear my neck might snap off from the effort of staring and swivelling my head to take it all in.’ One thing is for certain – that it would have been a welcome reprieve from the dark industrial world she was born into.

To return to Midtown Manhattan to the arms of flashing neon capitalism. The billboards that dwarfed us, Broadway marquees, the people braving the heat in their motley costumes – indeed here was butch Liberty walking around with her beacon of hope, a couple of Spidermen chatting with passers-by, a Minion or two there and the Fat Blue muppet. Odd to think that it was the centre of a horse exchange trade sometime in the 1870s, then its reputation as the ‘Thieves Lair’ because of the seedy entertainment (gambling and prostitution) it offered and its sudden growth following WWI… Times Square has history and the promise of a gazillion musicals to make the head spin. Adi and I did not know where to look.

There was a reason why we had ended up last Saturday in Times Square. During a pitstop in an Irish pub for strong ales to tide the sudden stifling heat outside, we had a craving for Buffalo Wild Wings. The last time I had tried it (also the first time) was in Seattle with my sister-in-law and her family. We ordered up portions of Wild and Mango Habanero wings along with a sampler of Blazin’ wings which arrived as a small tub of sauce churned out of  Ghost Pepper. It is Bhut Jolokia, a hybrid chilli from India and one of the hottest chillies in the world. It would be no surprise therefore that I could feel my ears singe. Meanwhile my tongue begged to be soaked permanently in a vat of beer.

With it came the realisation that no longer are Adi and I ready to take part in the Blazin’ challenge which means that you have got to eat 12 Blazin’ wings in 6 minutes, without using a napkin. Burning skin, burning ears, burning everything…you would be on fire and really have earned that place on their wall of fame. It makes me shudder to think that my young niece has a plan for her mother and I. She is of the opinion that we can conquer the ghost at The Wing Dome, a local Seattle wing hotspot, where they have a similar 7-Alarm Challenge.

Where beer could not help, sweet treats did. I took refuge in bite-sized cupcakes, and in the matter of a few minutes, crisp churros coated with chocolate. Adi was delighted. For the rest of the evening he kept calling out to the fat girl who lives inside me.

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Perchance, Charlotte travelled to NYC
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Bigger and badder indeed
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She loves her pie
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Eye-catching marquees
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Times Square’s busy persona

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Wings to make you sing
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Cookie-creme offerings from Cupcakes by Melissa
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Double chocolate and salted caramel mini cupcakes
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To round it off – chocolate and almond encrusted churros. Let’s not live half a life.

Who Wants Curry When There’s Indian Accent…

The night air’s soft and balmy. People lurk near squat fountains, bathing in the mist as if to dissipate the heat of the summer evening, people watch other people and a sudden bit of quiet descends upon us in the midst of the surrounding skyscrapers. Are you with me? Then here is the conundrum. Can an oasis of green and tranquility sit within the chaos of Manhattan? Here lies Bryant Park, a heartbeat away from Times Square.

Then, Magnolia Bakery in Rockefeller Center, a vintage dream woven with cupcakes, puff pastries, brownies and blondies, cookies and macarons. All American-style. Slobbering and giving into temptation with four measly cupcakes when a whole world of goodies wink at you. Oh heart, clad in an iron armour, to not melt in the face of such luscious beauty.

But maybe you have had your fill for the day because why you have just tripped out of Indian Accent, that fine-dining modern Indian restaurant sitting on 56th Street.

Food memories. The dishes you have had growing up have been put on the menu by a renowned chef. His modern take on them is calculated to baffle the senses. Works.

The concept is degustation. Tasting menu. You eat a bit of everything. My usual grievance of not possessing four stomachs is taken care of. One stomach will do just fine.

Every dish, in the four-course menu I opt for, tastes different. Indian dishes do often run the danger of tasting somewhat the same. Adi goes for a three-course menu, so between the two of us, we have a plethora of tastes to sample.

The well-felt pinch on the pocket is redeemed by two dishes on the house. Miniature discs of naan that you pop into the mouth. Chew and a warm molten centre of Danish blue cheese is released into the mouth, piquant and sharp. And before you can crave more, pumpkin soup in a mini mug. Moreish.

It is difficult to choose from the line-up of dishes. Everything’s familiar yet there are unfamiliar pairings which stoke the taste buds and the imagination. The soya keema – that was often a constant on the table at home when I would throw a fit at the daily diet of fish – arrives in a small, deep pan topped with quail eggs. Oh, the taste of childhood all over again, but teamed with a mouthful of butter-slathered fresh mini paos (buns) that are redolent of lime leaves.

Nuggets of cauliflower? Did we order cauliflower?! Ahem. The dismay of the non-vegetarian. But then the realisation as you dig into them that they are crab claws slathered in the time-tested winning combination of butter, pepper and garlic.

Oh let’s not think any more.

After a long drawn affair involving smacking sounds and sighs of pleasure, the final stroke of goodness. A magical affair with a candle sticking on top to celebrate Adi’s birthday.

It looks like cake, but it is not cake, my darlings. Oh no. This is a token of a closely-guarded secret from the narrow alleys of Chandni Chowk in Old Delhi, where the narrow lanes are upholstered with shops selling silver, spices, antiques, sweets and fried food diverse enough to leave the food lover in a tizzy. This is where you want more than four stomachs, my friend. But to return to the frothy matter at hand, it is called Daulat ki Chaat. An ethereal concoction of milk, saffron, sugar and nuts that disappears into the mouth, offering you a glimpse of paradise. Light and airy.

This is how we sail out of Indian Accent – floating on a cloud of heavenly saffron and potent Belgian ale – you could go with wine. Know this that we had already been drinking beer the entire evening and a few glasses of wine would have sent us into the arms of deep sleep. Plus who wants to have just arrived in NYC and already kickstart the process of getting thrown out of restaurants, you know. All in good time.

 

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Blue cheese naans, the signature dish of Indian Accent.
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Pumpkin soup. You can see that I had drained off a fair bit of it before I took a shot. Patience is not often a strong suit of mine.
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A trio of traditional dishes – smoked aubergine, duck khurchan and chicken khurchan – stuffed into flaky biscuits. Khurchan is basically scrapings off the bottom of a dish. In this case, well-cooked, crisp lashes of meat.
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Crab claws in butter, garlic and pepper. Not cauliflower. 
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Chicken kofta (meatball) with pakora in the shape of an onion ring and greens.
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Pathar beef kebab and bone-marrow nihari. Pathar kebabs are a speciality of the southern state of Hyderabad in India. Marinated meat is cooked over pathar or stone while nihari is slow-cooked meat (usually beef or lamb) presented along with the bone marrow.
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Soya keema (minced) topped with quail eggs and lime-leaf flavoured pao.
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Butter chicken-stuffed naan. Guaranteed streak of delight.
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Ghee roast lamb and roomali roti pancakes. Roomal is Hindi for handkerchief, so these breads or rotis are as thin as handkerchiefs.
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Dal makhni (creamy black lentils) chaperoned by garlic & butter naan. 
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Adi and his unusual birthday non-cake. A dewy cloud of milk flavoured with saffron, rose petal jaggery brittle and almonds.
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Neon-lit streets of Manhattan.
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Scandalous graffiti
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Bryant Park
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Steel-and-glass glory of 7 Bryant Park, in rainbow hues.
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There’s always space for more dessert. Magnolia Bakery.
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American vintage bakeries and cupcakes

 

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The top right-hand side cupcake got a bit squished, but hey, what is beauty without a flaw? They were good, bordering on the sweeter side of it, but the lemon blueberry cupcake on the top left-hand side stole the show (whispers: Hummingbird Bakery might still win the cupcake war, but I am not taking on a New Yorker yet).
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Ending the night on a ‘Sex and the City’ note. Carrie and Miranda. Love lives and cupcakes. Shut your eyes and take both.

The Angel Takes Manhattan, With Love

On the Upper West Side, we sauntered around under the sun on a steamy Saturday till we found an Italian eatery called Polpette tucked into one of the streets. Now if you come upon this modest place and see empty chairs and tables upfront, do not pray stride off into the sunset. In its rear section is a surprise of a garden, a square little affair enclosed by walls painted with murals. Festooned with vines and à la mode Edison light bulbs, it felt like we had been whisked off to the atmospheric back alleys of Roma. Checkered table cloths, rustic green chairs and dappled sunlight. Random joys from the random pickings of life.

An Italian waiter brought us two heavenly baskets of bread and fish and chicken dishes which were exquisite in their own right. A red snapper, accompanied by shrimps, doused in pomodoro sauce ripe with flavour, and a humble chicken dressed up in fragrant juice, redolent of rosemary. The Italians have mastered the art of infusing intense flavour into whatever they dish up and yet they use a few ingredients to achieve the effect.

The simplicity of the meal was heartening, and halfway through the act of uttering sighs of pleasure while masticating, we had to pick up our plates and rush into the eatery because it had started to pour. The waiter remarked that the weather would be quite so the entire day. Did I detect a smirk?

We got out, taking nimble steps under our small umbrella, but the glory of it is that it seemed, as if from above, someone had turned the tap off. The rain petered out, the sun peeking out albeit hesitantly.

We walked through leafy avenues, flanked by rows of pastel hued and brownstone townhouses originally built in the 19th century, vintage street lamps lined up alongside.

Then, Central Park. Finally.

And that spot in it, the Bethesda Fountain, ‘where if you sit there long enough, the entire city walks by.’ Matthew Perry had pointed it out in Fools Rush In. 

Or wait, if you are one for Gossip Girls, remember Cyrus quoting Herman Hesse as he married Chuck and Blair beneath the arcade, ‘we are not going in circles/we are going upwards/The path is a spiral/we have already climbed many steps…?’ It was one of my favourite scenes from the show.

So there we were, right at that iconic spot which you and I have seen numerous times in TV shows such as Sex and the City, movies such as Home Alone 2 and One Fine Day. One of those pinch-myself-is-this-really-happening-to-me moments in my book of life.

A wedding shoot was taking place when we walked into the arcade. The bride in her bustier wedding dress, wrought in lace and sparkling diamanté, must have been burning up in the heat of the noon. Oh but look how gracefully she stood there, a sparkling tiara atop her head, a posy of white blossoms in her hand, and a smile radiating from her pretty face. Bridesmaids in gowns of delicate pink hues stood in front of her, one of them passing by and flashing us a ravishing smile.

The arcade was the stage for many acts. In the backdrop, a guy in a white tunic and pants made of shiny latex, golden sneakers on his feet, stood frozen in a ballet posture. Just the sight of latex on a scorching summer’s day, uncomfortable levels of humidity in the air, can do things to you. Not in a good way, I mean.

Meanwhile, outside the arcade, an artist stood under the rays of the afternoon sun, a mini canvas mounted upon a tripod. Despite the sweltering heat, he found his inspiration in the angel that stood poised above the fountain in front of us.

A perfect swathe of clouds billowed in the backdrop of the Angel of the Waters – the statue that not only symbolises healing and love but was built upon the very foundations of love. How, you might ask? Well its sculptor, Emma Stebbins, was a lesbian who was in love with a leading actress of the American and British stages of the time, Charlotte Cushman.

Picture the mid-1800s when lesbian artists of the time were deemed the ‘female jolly bachelors’. These artists were among the first few women to be in relationships with others of their own sex and they all rallied around Cushman who is said to have given Stebbins the kind of support she needed to design the statue. It induced in me, a flash of emotion, a surge of pride. Stebbins was the first woman in New York City to have designed a public piece of art. For feminism creeps into you from the day you truly open your eyes to the world, isn’t it?

Now the changes have been negligible since the day it was unveiled to the public in 1873. The vista has really remained the same. The angel and her cherubs and then the beautiful lake framed by the woodlands, the colorful gonfalons (medieval-style banners) adding the necessary touch of majesty to it all.

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Demolishing bread baskets in Polpette
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Chicken and rosemary, a delectable duo.
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Red snapper and shrimps in pomodoro sauce.
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In a scanning-the-sky mode in Central Park where boys play football in the muddy fields.
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Fire trucks and carriages that prance down the park.
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The intensely soothing serenity of the Elm woods of Central Park.
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Canopy of Elms
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The old boathouse that stands adjacent the lake where people row boats, true to a 15–year-old tradition of rowing Venetian gondolas. The fans whirr in slow motion inside the dark non-air-conditioned interiors and make you think of the days of yore.
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Little girls in dresses of tulle walk down the park.
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Carriages appear every few seconds as you make your way through the park.
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Camouflaged occupant of the woods. He was adorable if I may state the obvious.
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In summer squirrels have to really hunt for their meals because the nuts are usually not ripe enough for them.
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So Adi chastised me for distracting this little fellow when he turned towards me and the nut slipped from his grasp. He spent aeons looking for it, after.
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Upper Terrace of the Bethesda Fountain
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Bethesda fountain was inspired by a Biblical verse. ‘Now there is at Jerusalem by the sheep market a pool, which is called…Bethesda…whoever then first after the troubling of the waters stepped in was made whole of whatsoever disease he had.’
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The arcade as it looked in the early 1900s. These old photos are sourced off the Net.
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The wedding shoot
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Inside the arcade are these beautiful Moorish-patterned tiles.
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He who paints the angel under the harsh sun shall be rewarded with true love, cupcakes and lemonade. 

Remembering the Sammies with Three Old Men and All That Jazz

‘She was not crying for France, or for the doctor, who represented France, or for her father, shot with his own revolver. She was not even crying for himself. He felt she was crying for something that he could never have understood without her, and now did understand because of her. Deep and complete, within himself, all these things were part of the same thing, and he knew that what she was really crying for was the agony of all that was happening in the world.’

HE Bates, the English author who lived in my former home county of Northamptonshire in England, wrote these haunting lines in Fair Stood the Wind for France, one of the finest war novels I have read. Lines that could have easily echoed the sombre mood in France in 1917 in the midst of the First World War. In the summer of that year, American soldiers (nicknamed Sammies by the Europeans) got off their ships in the commune of Saint Nazaire in Brittany.

A hundred years have passed. And such events have got to be remembered. So in commemoration of this centennial event, even as I write and we go about our lazy Sundays, four trimarans are racing on the Atlantic alongside the Queen Mary 2, the iconic transatlantic ocean liner from the Cunard Line.

(On the first day when we moved into our building in Bayonne, I remember standing on the rooftop, watching the Queen Mary 2 as it docked in the Manhattan terminal, with a sweet old woman called Lorraine. And that was a completely blatant aside. So blatant that a few eggs my way would be not welcome but well deserved.)

Now the race ends tomorrow. But my post is not about a transatlantic race where expert seamen are vying with each other for distinction as they trace the voyage of the Sammies, nor is it about a trimaran (which if you are wondering about it, is a sailing boat). Instead the post finds its matter in the twin American passions for jazz and basketball – that the American soldiers carted along with them to France.

In December of 1917, in the middle of the war, a New York bandleader called Lt. James Reese Europe led his infantry troops of black soldiers through the small farms and concert halls across France, introducing locals to the sounds of swing and jazz. It confounded the French alright but they could not ignore its allure. In time, the Nazis did their best to do away with this brand of ‘degenerate music’ during their occupation of France yet the end of WWII saw jazz clubs accompany the wonderful proliferation of smoky literary cafés in Paris.

Years and years later, there we were on a hot hot summer’s day in Central Park, sitting with a big bunch of Frenchmen and women dressed in vintage straw boaters, white dresses and pinstripes, fanning ourselves and tapping our feet to the thrilling sounds of jazz. All in remembrance of those brave men.

You see it was Adi’s birthday, and being broke – how a move slashes the pockets through and through – I wanted to reserve a fancy dinner place. It was the only expensive thing we could do last night. The thought of a free jazz concert made my eyes twinkle.

If you are in New York during summer, you will be delighted to go find yourself a place in the SummerStage concerts. They are often staged for free in the blissful part of the city where its heart beats. I mean Central Park, of course.

In the concert area, you might find yourself scrambling up to the top of the stands, and seated next to a trio of jolly old men. As we did. Three veteran concert goers they were, and by that I mean, they were darned serious about it, attending about 6-7 shows every week, if you would believe that. They are the NYC concert know-it-alls. We were in hallowed company.

The frail old man, a former Texan, who sat next to me, was one who remains on top of the game with Twitter. He receives 250 tweets a day, which inform him about every cultural event in the city, and they also importantly update him about the whims of the clouds. ‘It will start raining again, you know,’ he informed me seriously. ‘And then the police – who are wonderful in times when you need help, so I cannot say bad things about them – will wrap up everything. No matter how important the singer up there on the stage.’

Half an hour into sitting up there, I wondered aloud to Adi, ‘What about beer?’ I could see tumble-y topple-y times ahead if the stand filled up soon. A bit alarming that, given me my well-placed concern for beer, ah icy beer. Plus my former flatmate would arrive with her husband and son soon to say hello before they took off for an opera. I got up and turned around to take our leave of our chatty friends. Their eyes had crinkled up with amazement. ‘What, moving already?’ they seemed to say. I assured them quickly that there were matters of beers, friends and loos at hand to be dealt with.

‘Ah very wise,’ they quipped. We would probably see them soon anyway around the city, they promised us with big smiles on their weathered faces, gleaming with kindness and sweat.

It had rained earlier in the day and a blanket of humidity was ready to choke the happiness out of us even as the sun chose to mellow down gradually. That mellowing down took a such long time – isn’t it surprising how a stifling summer’s day can seem to stretch forever?

A couple of purple bands issued at the entrance helped us bag a couple of excellent India Pale Ales each, for free, and the evening was beautiful. Suddenly we could say hah to the heat with impunity.

The French crooner sang her heart out in deep, dulcet tones. The violinist did a wonderful solo, exhaustive and electric, making me want to go break into a crazy dancing routine, while the sounds of the trumpet and the saxophone and the cello came together in perfect harmony. All for the cause of the Sammies who had fought valiantly in a war in a land not their own and taken along with them these sounds across the Atlantic that stayed on in that distant land for a long, long time.

But our remembering had to be short because the clouds had gathered in their dark numbers in the skies like determined hooligans and the ushers had sounded out the ‘the-stands-shall-be-evacuated-soon’ routine. Our former Texan friend, it turned out, was bang on target about the drill.

So in going with the theme called life where a few gaps, inconsistencies and anti-climaxes have to have their say, the perfect-imperfect end was at hand. The heavens did break loose upon us.

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Mattress Hunting in New York City

The business of setting up home is a strange blend of weariness and exhilaration. I find myself oscillating between these two extremes as the process kicks off. On Saturday we made our way to Macy’s at Herald Square. If you are not from this country, you need to know that it is the iconic American departmental store that sets the heart of the locals throbbing (you can call me out on this one if you are not a fan, but what are the chances of that, eh?).

The idea behind spending time at Macy’s was to throw ourselves on mattresses stuffed with all kinds of memory foams, promising firmness in varying degrees. Adi is firm about it being firm, you see.

And throw ourselves we did, Adi with immense pleasure, I with reserve. The idea of laying back, turning around over and over, while pretending to be laying on my own bed when in reality it is within a department store, however hallowed its halls might be, is disconcerting. Never mind the woman on the next mattress in her yellow sundress taking her shoes off to lay on her stomach and change angles as she decides what works for her. Now that is the way you buy a mattress. I know it, okay? But I cannot and shall not fall in line. I have Adi to do it on my behalf.

Soon came the tut-tutting of the saleswoman guiding us through the sacred rituals of choosing The Mattress. This grey-haired matriarchal figure was not in the least like our cordial little Mrs Marple. She cast a gimlet eye upon me, observing, “I’ve been noticing that you are standing around for the most part, while your husband tests mattresses out.”

Adi got his chit of approval and showed me all of his shining teeth. I was the sheepish one.

Then came the deal breaker. The part where all kind of hearts, young and old, stumble and fall. Prices.

Adi’s grin started fading bit by bit. Till it was time to take ourselves out of the vicinity of those rectangular beacons of firmness to think sanely. In almost every situation in life, when you feel overwhelmed, it helps to take a step or a few steps aside, and just let it be.

That is what we did, and the result was that while sauntering down the all-important doyen of avenues, Fifth Avenue, we espied a store that declared itself to be Mattress Firm. ‘Surely a sign’, we thought to ourselves, and entered the store past a bunch of police crowd control barriers, wooden, blue and pretty. A sign that Fifth Avenue had been the venue of a parade earlier on in the day.

An old-world lift whisked us into a massive hall which was a picture of neatness, stacked with rows and columns of mattresses, boxsprings, and more mattresses. A head popped out of the corner accompanied by a grin and a booming voice. “You folks are the first people to step in, so come here quick. Give me a hug! Let’s have a group hug, y’all.”

Javon was his name and he pronounced it as Gio-vaan as he engulfed the two of us in his big arms and gave us a tight hug.

A start with a hugging salesman. Prophetic of good times to come? It was certainly symbiotic for both parties – we got our mattress – and good on Javon, he made a sale without breaking a sweat. He added to the experience by giving us tips. How to catch the best views of NYC while sitting atop rooftop bars, which burgers to chomp on, the best track for running in Central Park, meeting celebrities like Julianne Moore (who had apparently inclined her head to let him know that it was indeed her). He also mentioned his momma who lives in Little Italy in the Bronx.

Now this Italian neighbourhood is not the same as Little Italy of Lower Manhattan. The Bronx one is the original they say, and no, the Italian mafia has not sunk its claws into it because its notoriety means that even the dons took a step back. Which is not to say that there are no mobs around.

On our first day in Jersey City, we had met a burly and chatty cab driver who drove us into Manhattan. He had alluded to the infamous Bronx as he noted, “Two blocks up and down my house in Newark, it is not quite safe. But then I have lived in the Bronx. I know how to take care of myself.”

We shall go one day to the Bronx. Before which I shall arm myself with copious quantities of coffee to steel the nerve.

Back in Javon’s Fifth Avenue hood, two hours passed by in a whirl of nattering. The perfect salesman had done his job sans judgement on my refusal to sink into the mattresses. And we had snagged us a deal that was a neat thousand dollars cheaper than Macy’s. The business of achieving the perfect sleep dealt with, we strolled down Fifth Avenue where we greedily grabbed bags of dark Lindt chocolate and indulged in fashion dilemmas in Adi’s dearest Abercrombie & Fitch store – ‘Why I am in the flagship store!’ he remarked with awe — because he had made it a point to drag me to all of its European locations. This was followed by a long-drawn dinner of delicious Indian fare at Moti Mahal.

The euphoric moment of the day was unplanned – it lay in the transition from daylight to dusk.

New York at night. Those of you who have walked its bedazzled streets by night know this that the city knows how to work it once dusk falls like no other. Oh, the streets were a miasma of activity. Women came out in throngs in lovely dresses, tipsy boys hollered around the streets, pretty young women waited in dimly-lit sidewalk cafes (waiting for their dates?), dogs sat patiently in bicycle trailers as their owners whizzed along the roads, and people spilled onto the streets, diving into drinks and appetizers at cocktail bars. Yellow cabs rushed by us with passengers and Hello Dolly ads as the balmy night air caressed our hair and welcomed us to the city.

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Herald Street in Manhattan
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And that’s not even the tallest building in NY 
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Insights into its colonial past
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By dint of habit and height, every photograph tends to be vertical here
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Remnants of barricades and parades
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The Chrysler Building. A marvellous dream in Art Deco was conceived as the headquarters of the car manufacturer, but it was built by Walter Chrysler, the founder, using his personal funds because he wanted his descendants to inherit it.
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Down glitzy Fifth Avenue where the brands come flying at you, fast and furious.
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Rockefeller center. Artist Jeff Koons has installed a 45-foot high inflatable art installation. Meet the Seated Ballerina. She towers above onlookers and engages with them in conversation to raise awareness for missing children.
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Ornate doors 
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Ahem!
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Life passes by in a blur down Fifth Avenue
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Churches along the way

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Creamy malai tikkas at Moti Mahal
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Butter naan
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…and butter chicken. You have got to work off all that walking around the city with rich food. Importantly, Adi threw a fit about missing Indian food. Do not mess with a hungry husband.
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Delicious rolls to whisk you into the alleys of Calcutta. The original Kati Roll company of New York. It was one of our regular haunts in London.
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Atmospheric cocktail bars rub shoulders with temples
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Leafy city neighbourhoods
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When just like that nostalgia kicks in