On a recent trip to Delhi, I saw the stone walls.
I remember them well from decades back. They encircled homes, schools, office complexes, club periphery, market areas and many more. Large stones of indeterminate origin, colour, and shape were cobbled together with a binding agent till they formed a jigsaw-like low wall where every piece told a tale….perhaps of the place it had been quarried from, stories of sunburnt skies & dazzling flora, barren landscapes or verdant fields. Sometimes a man-made element was embedded into the stone, pieces of glittering glass, unevenly shaped bits of colourful marble, granite, slate; the odd wash of paint; but the stone remained the constant.
The walls were low enough to sit on and swing your feet jauntily; broad enough to have picnics on at tiffin time or for the young to play a game of hopscotch even; and sometimes a platform for cart-wheeling dare-devils trying to show off to the giggling girls!
Often a trailing vine added a sense of privacy, where budding romances could grow behind the leafy curtain or desi-Tarzans could Yeaaaaahhhh their way from the ‘sky’ to earth! In places, soft, green moss added to the sense that fairies may flit about there!
The elderly gathered there in the early morn or at dusk, dissecting the world, maids-with-prams sat for a gossip as the sun set, dogs and cats lazed in the winter sun, and every kind of bird that inhabits a bustling city, would perch for a while, look around curiously, then fly off into the blue.
Then the world changed as the children grew up and the new order decided the walls were too low. Unbending iron rods were planted on some walls and barbed wire was strung pole to pole. On some, ugly rows of bricks were added in stark contrast to the ageless stone below. Others tried to be aesthetic and painted the added fences green, and let trailing vines cover the metal that menaced. And hurtful bits of broken glasses turned away those who thought the wall was a friend.
I don’t remember these new walls from my childhood.
My Mom has a formidable reputation as a cook; and as many a friend and relation will testify, she cooks by instinct rather than by any recipe taken from a book. And these natural cooks are hard acts to follow! “A bit of this, a pinch of that”. How much is ‘a bit’? How big is ‘a pinch’?
Her skills were honed as a young bride who had to face the dual challenges, nay triple ones of balti chulas, sometimes leaking-roof kitchens and American bosses dropping in for dinner without notice!! Many burnt chutneys later and many experiments done, ‘Jolly’s cooking’ grew into an urban legend over the years!
Over the last few years, illness has curtailed long periods in the kitchen but the canny cook has devised new methods to literally keep her finger in every pot! She occupies an armchair facing the kitchen and like a conductor, directs one of us. As each spice is tempered and each gravy grows its own aromas, the kadhai of the moment goes back and forth between the fire and the chair to be waved away for “fry a little more” till the right texture is achieved. Often times it’s by sound alone that she knows the progress of the dish………”the oil wasn’t hot enough when you added the fish”. How does she know? “I can make out from the sound of the sizzle”!! Oops! Or “you shouldn’t have added hot water”. Again I ask huh? She says, “Colour. The colour isn’t right!”! Oops again :)
As I’ve already said, she is a hard act to follow. I’ve stayed away from her forte which seems to cover half the world’s cuisines and decided to bake! And my sister went a step further and opened a restaurant! My daughter shows signs of following in ‘Mummy’s’ path and is her true disciple. So grandmother provides recipes and tips and tricks and granddaughter shares her successes with the same and sources masalas for Mummy.
Sometimes Mummy says, “Now you can cook this fish and that chutney all by yourself the next time”. And I mumble under my breath, “But I still don’t know how much a pinch is”!!!!
Swimming in the late afternoon hours in the club pool accompanied by floating gulmohur blossoms from the over-laden tree leaning over the pool. The suddenly darkening sky, the grumbling gathering of storm clouds, a rush of big fat drops plopping into the water against the chorus of panic-stricken mothers intent on getting every reluctant child out of the water. And through it all the koyal blithely warbling away!
Come April and the daily onslaught of the norwester, the ‘kaal-baishakhi’, when the wind huffed and puffed and brought down trees and the rain lashed everything clean. Till there would be a sudden calm and magically the koyal would sing!!
Right now I’m still stuck in traffic, the memories are clichéd as memories tend to become. But the koyal’s warble is as blithe and serene as I remember!
I thought I’d write about the strong women who have played a huge role in influencing my life…. Mummy, Shalini, Avantika. And then I thought of all the other women……grandmothers, aunts, cousins, nieces, mother-in-law, sisters-in-laws….and my dear girl-friends. And Mummy’s friends. And Avantika’s peers.
The list is not only long, its a formidable one. Of super achievers, women of strong thoughts and clear beliefs. Women who persevere(d) in spite or because of the odds. Women who did not wait for ‘International Women’s Day’ to prove that they do not need a day to laugh, cry, yearn, suffer, exult and just carry on with life while doing so.
And then I thought of the men who gave these women and me the freedom to be women of substance. Daddy, uncles, brothers, cousins, nephews, father-in-law, friends, brothers-in-law. There are a few negatives too…..they just make us more determined; more able to be the Super Women we are!
So here’s my toast………….to all of you……………I am because of you!
I grew up in a cosmopolitan town. Hindu by faith, a Bengali by race and an Indian by birth, my childhood and most of my adult life have been spent in Jamshedpur……………a town representative of every state in India and all her religions too. And to top it all, I went to a Convent School!
We lead a charmed life……..we spent the winter season between the clubs and house parties and picnics by the riverside. So when December rolls in, and the stores are sparkling with glitter and snow even in balmy Jharkhand, I get all nostalgic for ‘the old days’!
I remember the days when come December, the piano would play non-stop in the school hall while we gustily belted out ‘Deck the halls with boughs of holly’, whispered ‘Silent Night, Holy Night’ and then rousingly cheered ‘Rudolf the red-nosed Reindeer’!!!
I remember being Joseph in the Nativity play, dressed in a long robe, leading a virtuous Mary, perched on a wooden donkey.
I remember the days, as I grew older, when the Christmas parties gently segued from boisterous ones replete with pastries and cake to those with mulled wine and a more adult fare.
I remember my parents coming home from New Year’s Eve parties with their pockets full of whistles and chocolates
And I remember the days when I believed in Santa Claus.
You know what? I still do!! :)
So here’s wishing every one of you Season’s Greetings, Joy to the World, Feliz Navidad!