The joys of Indian life – for babies!

“Rolly polly, up, up up!”, a chubby three year old sings, while her  cousin,  a cute little two year old, chortles with glee and a ten-month old Baby M watches them intently, fascinated. He kicks his legs wildly in protest at being held. So what if he can’t walk yet? His friends are running around playing and of course he must join them!

The girls are our neighbors at my parents’ home in Mumbai. Everyday, morning, afternoon and evening, the three get together in the building compound to ‘play’.  Whoever gets down first calls out to the rest until the entire building knows the gang is getting together again! Sometimes a little boy from across the street joins in as well. The older ones sing songs or tell stories (picked up at playschool), while Baby M is usually content to simply watch them, that’s when he’s not looking at the crows and butterflies, trying to grab at flowers and leaves and staring at the neighborhood cat! Sometimes he’ll laugh out aloud or try to imitate the funny sounds his friends make, more often he simply kicks his legs in delight at their antics.

In the morning, when Aaji sets out on her daily rounds of the market and sundry other chores, Baby M sees her pick up her purse and gets all excited. It’s time to go out! Aaji tries in vain to slip out unnoticed, but the ever-alert Baby M lets out a loud wail until she picks him up and takes him out. Perched on Aaji’s shoulder, Baby M roams the lanes of our sleepy suburb, visiting the bank, the fruit seller, the local library, even the school for physically challenged children where Aaji volunteers her time every week.

Every evening, when Aai shuts down her laptop for the day,  she gets herself and Baby M ready and mom and son head out, to the park, to the local bookstore to browse books for Aai, to pick up Aaji from her yoga class or to the market to hunt for some elusive ingredient for Aai’s recipe-of-the-day.

And at night, when Ajoba comes home, Baby M leaps into his arms before he enters the house and demands to be taken out for a walk or a ride in the car. Weekends, he travels to South Bombay to visit his cousin, just a year older to him, or north to the suburb where his paternal grandparents, uncle, cousin and many more of our relatives live.

Grandparents, uncles and aunts to pamper him, cousins and neighbors his own age to play with,  older cousins to teach him new tricks, the household help, the driver and  the watchman to entertain him when everyone else is busy, traveling by bus, train and rickshaws, a fruit seller gifting him an orange just because he seemed so fascinated with the color, random girls on the road pinching his cheeks and going ‘so cute!’ at him, the lights of Diwali, band-baaja of Ganpati and kites of Sankrant – could a baby’s life get any richer?

When Baby M first arrived in India, he’d look at a gathering of  two or more people and burst into tears. Guests at home, burst into tears. Enter a strange home, more tears. A stranger picking him up, loud wails and shrieks! Today, he throws himself at anyone who’s standing at the door. An unfamiliar uncle picks him up and all he notices is the pen sticking out of the uncle’s shirt pocket. He’s traveled to Khandala, Pune, Delhi, Agra and Indore over the past couple of months without showing a hint of stranger anxiety.

“Rolly polly, down, down, down!”, Baby M’s friend ends her song and I watch him laugh aloud, my heart bursting with happiness. The decision to move back home never seemed wiser!

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India Trip – 1

So finally I am back, again! And as promised, I’ll start with a roundup of our (now not-so) recent India trip. There’s so much to write though that I thought I’ll do it in episodes, to keep things short and interesting.

So let me start with the highlight of my trip – attending my childhood friend A’s engagement ceremony the very day I landed in Mumbai. Living in the US, I have missed many such weddings and social occasions in the past two years. Add to it the fact that A actually postponed her engagement by a day so I could make it – her boyfriend was keen on Valentine’s day and she had to really push him to agree for the 15th – and I was naturally ecstatic!

A has been my best friend since we were toddlers. We were neighbors and our moms were best friends. So with both our dads working abroad, our families spent almost every evening together. Our home was on the ground floor, A’s on the third. Be it A’s mom, V mavshi, coming home from work or A and her brother coming home from school, a trip to the third floor hardly ever happened without a longish stop on the ground floor!

The two moms went for walks and vegetable shopping in the evening, while A and I played outside or chatted and giggled behind closed doors in our teenage years, struggling to get rid of A’s pesky younger brother as we got older. We watched our evening television together and the night meal was usually shared as well, to the delight of the bai who cooked in both homes!

This cosy semi-family unit was shockingly shattered one day when V mavshi was diagnosed with leukemia and passed away soon after. We were all heartbroken but A took it the worst. Sadly, our friendship too did not survive this loss.

We were both sixteen then and about to enter college. We made new friends in college and got busy with our new lives. Not that it had to, but something changed in our friendship that year. It’s hard to say what and I’ve been struggling with the why for many years now but from ‘best friends’ we turned into ‘good friends’ and later, just occasional acquaintances.

The change was hard for me to accept. I was never a gregarious person – I’ve always had just one or two close friends at any point of time and for many years, A and I were so close that I had no need for anyone else. She was like the sister I never had and people often mistook us for twins when we were out together.

I could see A withdraw into a shell after her mother’s death. In many ways, this was perfectly understandable and I tried my best to support her in those difficult times. But gradually I got the impression she resented my efforts to get close to her again. She had made new friends in college and she very obviously preferred their company to mine. I tried discussing it with her, but her response was always the same bland – no, nothing of that sort, you are imagining things. I had no choice but to let go after a point.

Was I not a good enough friend to A in her time of need? I struggled to answer this question for years. Perhaps not. Or maybe I really was imagining things. Did we simply drift apart? My hunch is this – my mother and I reminded A of those good old times when all of us had so much fun together and she wanted to stay away from those bitter-sweet memories and therefore, us.

I had accepted that I might never get to know the real reason. But I was pleasantly surprised when A got in touch with me last year. She called, wrote a pretty emotional email and generally behaved as if we had never drifted apart! And then the engagement invite. Which was just a day before when I was scheduled to land in Mumbai.

‘I really want to come’, I said. ‘Yes, you should be there’, she insisted. ‘But my tickets are booked, they cannot be changed!’ ‘No problem, we’ll get engaged on the 15th instead!’ ‘Really, can you do that? But isn’t your boyfriend keen on V day?’ ‘I’ll manage him, don’t you worry’, A grinned! Needless to say, I was thrilled!

And that is how I managed to attend my childhood friend A’s engagement on the morning of 15th February, only a few hours after I landed in Mumbai. The ceremony was lovely, A looked radiant, she squealed and ran to me as soon as she spotted me – I couldn’t have been happier. It was a perfect start to my India vacation!

Foot in the mouth disease…

…happens to all of us at times, but a cousin of mine, by an unfortunate coincidence both uncommonly innocent and fearless for her age, suffered especially from the dreadful malady. She’s been known to have asked the most insensitive of questions with the sweetest of smiles and the most angelic expression ever in the good old days of childhood. For her sake (and her husband’s sanity) I hope she’s recovered by now.

Her infamous exploits were many, but this one takes the cake. During a family function at a temple, we cousins spotted an elderly hunchbacked lady doing her ‘pradakshinas’. Now we had never seen a hunchbacked person before and naturally all of us were curious. The question in every mind was the same – how does ajji (grandma/old lady) manage to sleep on her back? Do her legs go up as soon as she lies down?

We were all curious of course, but young as we were, there was this vague suspicion that any questions in that direction might not be taken very kindly. So we kept mum. Except for this cousin, who was fearless, remember? Before anyone could stop her, she went right ahead and popped the question to the lady herself. You can imagine the talking-to we all received later that day!

In my cousin’s defence though, she was just six or seven at that time. I wonder what these folks’ excuse is?

Food and its traditions

Growing up in a mixed Maharashtrian-Kannadiga household, I experienced two very distinct culinary traditions in my childhood.

Aai mostly cooked Maharashtrian dishes in the traditional Koknastha style – mild stir-fried vegetables or pulses with a hint of jaggery and coconut and a simple tadka or phodni, kakdi or tomato-kandyachi koshimbir and super-soft polis or phulkas. Sabudana thalipeeth was a special treat, as was batatyachi poli, better known as aloo paratha!

There were many other Koknastha dishes that I suspect were either too cumbersome to make or that Aai herself did not particularly enjoy and hence were not frequently prepared at our place. Those, I got to enjoy at Aaji’s – aamti, kothimbirchi vadi, puran poli and the like. Yummy!

Attya’s preparations, on the other hand, were typical of North Karnataka, the region she and my father hail from. Simple but delicious saaru-anna, her comfort food, was the dish I took for granted whenever she cooked for us. Bisi bele huli anna, muddi, kadbu and hittud dosa were eagerly anticipated too.

Pav Bhaji, the quintessential Bombay party dish, was reserved as a treat or for when my nagging got too loud and insistent for Aai to handle. As for pizzas, Punjabi or Indo-Chinese dishes, a younger me would have probably told you they are to be found only in restaurants and that too only on special occasions or something!

Lest somebody think I am complaining about what I ate growing up, let me clarify.

I am not! On the contrary, I think of those times with nostalgia nowadays. For one, the food was handed to me, hot and delicious, literally on a platter! Beats slaving over an exotic dish any day, don’t you think?

But jokes aside, Aai’s and Attya’s recipes are probably hand-me-downs from my grandmothers and their grandmothers, the result of decades of experiments and improvements. The secret of Attya’s cooking, I later realized, was in the masalas, painstakingly prepared at home and taught to her by her aunts and cousins.

So there was a strong sense of identification with the distinct taste of each dish and a peculiar sort of comfort in eating the food that my uncles and grandmoms and great granddads had enjoyed before me.

But alas, I did not learn to cook when I was home!

And as a result, my cooking now is a mismash of bits and pieces I pick up from here and there. A pav bhaji recipe from a cookbook, a poha recipe my mausi wrote down for me once, thalipeeth taught to me by my mother-in-law and a spicy Andhra sambar recipe from a family friend. Attya would be shocked to know my favorite bisi bele rice recipe actually comes from Sanjeev Kapoor’s cookbook! And when all else fails, there are the food blogs, my saviors and best friends in the kitchen.

In the last one month alone, I’ve made pithla-bhakri, masale bhaath, solkadhi, manchurian and fried rice, baingan bhartha, dum aloo, bruschetta and tomato-sev-shak, all from recipes so generously shared by my fellow bloggers. The wonderful part, of course, is that the husband and I are able to cook and enjoy such a wide variety of cuisines from India and elsewhere.

But on the other hand, there’s no pattern to our cooking at all! One never knows what to expect. My pithla may be of Kolhapuri origin and very spicy one day, and of Koknastha style and boringly mild the next. The husband has given up trying to analyze my cooking and asking me to make a particular dish ‘like last time’ by now!

Plus there’s no sense of the familiar in my food at all! I struggle to recreate the taste of Attya’s saaru each time I make some, but in vain. My concoction is delicious too, no doubt, but it’s not the taste I associate with the saaru of my childhood, you see!

A simple solution, a practical person like my father or my husband would say, is to set aside some time and learn to cook my favorite dishes from Aai or Attya one day. But if only it were as simple as that! If I had the patience to sit down and learn to cook, I would have done it a long time back, wouldn’t I?

The fun of cooking is in experimenting with different recipes and ingredients I think. I’m sure I would die of boredom if I had to cook the same sort of food day after day! So I’ll continue to hunt everywhere for recipes and play around with the poor husband’s taste buds instead. Maybe a pattern will emerge over the years.

If not, my kids might feel inspired to write a post on their mother’s wonderfully erratic and vibrant style of cooking someday!

The loss of innocence

Death, fear, torture, executions, hostage situations, loss of loved ones, panic, helplessness, hatred – this was stuff we were supposed to watch on a television screen I thought. So after a point, when things would get too dark or depressing, one could switch off the movie, read a comic book and go to bed with a smile again. Except that the nightmares have now spilled on to our streets and trains and buses and hotels and markets and homes, leaving us floundering for a remote to switch it all off somehow.

I vividly remember my first ever brush with terror as a kid, when I happened to read an article on the plague epidemic in Surat. It was an India Today article, I think, with the story suitably sensationalized to scare a twelve-year old with no prior exposure to the gory side of life right out of her wits. I came home sobbing uncontrollably. ‘Are we all going to die?’, I wanted to know. ‘Don’t worry darling, nothing will happen to us, I’ll keep you safe’, Aai promised me, enveloping me in a bear hug. All problems solved and my fears melting away in a flash, I ran off with a hop, skip and a jump to play outside with my friends.

Today, I watch my parents struggle to reassure themselves. Baba sounds listless even a week after the Mumbai carnage. ‘Is something wrong?’, I ask, half-knowing the answer. ‘What happened in Bombay is troubling me’, he answers, simple and straightforward. I have no idea how to respond to this.

My mother is far more resilient, embodying the famed spirit of Mumbai perhaps. She and my mausi were out shopping in a crowded South Bombay market this weekend. ‘Aren’t you scared?’, I want to know. ‘How do I live my life if I sit at home scared?’, she counters. And cites the example of a non-Mumbaikar who missed his train and died on his way to spend the night with his relatives in Mumbai, a few minutes away from our home. ‘I will go when my time has come!’, she says and truly seems to believe in it. Yet what other choice does she have?

Does Aai actually feel safe, I wonder? As long as she doesn’t think about the dangers, she probably does. After all, South Bombay is where she grew up and went to school and college and shopped and laughed and lived life. It is where my parents met and fell in love. It must be tough to think of such a place as anything but a warm and loving home. So her resilience and spirit, as that of most other Mumbaikars, is more a strange combination of escapism, fatalism and harsh ground realities than anything else I think.

My father and I, on the other hand, think too much, which is our biggest problem, my mother and the husband would say. I, for one, am terrified to board a flight to Mumbai a couple of months from now. ‘Isn’t the city your home? Will you stop going home because of these incidents?’, the husband asks, dismissing my fears with his characteristic nonchalance. How do I explain to him the hopelessness and sense of doom engulfing me?

Are these feelings a part of growing up? Surely each generation must face their own difficulties? For my parents, it would have been the Emergency, for my grandparents, the struggle for independence. Yet we all think of our problems as the most troubling. No doubt the times we face are more violent than most. But surely there is an end to this too? I fervently hope so. How else will I reassure my kids the way Aai reassured me that scary summer day?

My Dreams Ahead…!

When I was ten years old, life couldn’t move fast enough for me! I was in a great rush to grow up. The world was busy dressing up in beautiful clothes, eating out everyday, traveling to exotic places and generally having a gala time while I was stuck in school and at home, under Aai’s watchful eyes, it seemed to me.

I wanted to go to college and be free to come and go as I pleased and I couldn’t wait to give my last exam and bid goodbye to my textbooks once and for all! Then I dreamt of wearing fancy business suits and having an important jet-setting job that brought in lots and lots of money I could pamper myself with. My fondest dream, of course, was of the day I would get married and be the cynosure of all eyes, the bride! I’d hug myself and smile in anticipation of that thrilling moment. And my husband would be the most loving husband ever and we would live in my very own house of dreams happily ever after and….

And on the dream went! Oh yes, I was in a great hurry to grow up those days. Every year I’d announce to anyone who cared to listen, ‘I am twelve today you know, not eleven but TWELVE!’ And on the twelfth birthday, I would proudly announce again, ‘I am thirteen now, please don’t call me twelve, I am THIRTEEN!’

And so on, until I entered my twenties and started working and got married and somewhere in the midst of all that my mind did a complete turnaround without the courtesy of informing me. Come my twenty fourth birthday and I found myself shrieking, ‘No, I can’t be twenty four already! That’s so… so OLD!!! And I am not old! Check again, I must be eighteen or nineteen perhaps!’ And that has been the story of my birthdays for the past couple of years now.

So I turn twenty six today and I don’t know how I should feel about it. Somewhere inside me is the bubbly little girl still waiting to grow up, who wants to jump up and down in excitement at the prospect of another birthday coming up. She wants balloons and streamers and cake and guests and lots of gifts of course! And overruling this little girl is the twenty six year old woman all of you see…

Far more practical and mellow than the little girl, she is the woman with a wonderful marriage and a very nice home indeed but the wonderful marriage involves its fair share of squabbles and the house of dreams belongs in her dreams alone, she ruefully admits. Yes, this working woman brings home a great paycheck, but she has no wish to be part of the jet-setting crowd anymore, if ever that was a real prospect in the first place! And running around trying to balance work and home and family as best as she can, this woman realizes how hard it is to be superwoman in real life, unlike in the little girl’s rosy dreams.

But this woman is also a somewhat confused and pensive twenty six year old today, wondering when and how the twenty six years she is supposed to have lived passed her by? When exactly did she grow from child to girl to woman? And is she where she dreamt of being today? Has she lived those twenty six years well? To the fullest? And what’s ahead? Which among her childhood dreams were absolute nonsense and which ones does she need to work on from here?

What better time than a birthday for a little soul searching, huh? Let me list down dreams I’d like to work on this year. Simple stuff this is, unlike the lofty dreams of my childhood, but that’s what age does to a person, you know – it makes you practical! Sigh!

1. Understand and support the husband some more, learn to resolve our conflicts in a less childlike manner!

2. Stop arguing with my parents over silly little things.

3. Learn to be a better friend. Compliment others. Smile at strangers. Invite people home more often. Try and be more social and outgoing in general.

4. Stay in touch with family and friends. Call up people just to chat, without a motive. Remember birthdays and anniversaries and festivals.

5. Learn to ignore and tolerate fools with a smile. Learn to compromise with grace. Learn to stop worrying over problems that may never happen and others over which I have no control. Stop worrying and start living!

6. Improve my health overall. Stick to my diet and exercise plan. Avoid junk food!

7. Stop worrying over what others think of me. Believe in myself.

8. Indulge in my favorite activities. Travel, see or do something new every other weekend, go for longer and more challenging hikes, keep up with my music class, sing more in front of an audience, cook new dishes, try and write better blog posts, get back to reading.

9. Learn to parallel park. And get my driver’s license and start driving alone! I can do it!

And with that I’d like to sign off but the bubbly little girl inside won’t let me go without letting her speak too, so please indulge us for a while more. ‘Come on, it’s our birthday, let me out today!’, she says. To be fair, I feel a teeny weeny bit excited too. Not enough to shout from the rooftops as I used to perhaps, but I do want to indulge in my favorite childhood refrain on my blog at least – Hey, today is twenty fifth September, it’s my birthday! Come over and wish me na!

Seasonal Musings

Favorite seasons are tied to places in my mind. In Mumbai, I loved the monsoon, but there was hardly any choice, was there? Summers in Mumbai are unbearably hot and dreary, and as for Mumbai winters, what are they and where do I find them please? So monsoon it was and will be in Mumbai. (I know the monsoon is more feared than enjoyed these days, but I refuse to blame the elements for the mayhem caused by our bursting-at-its-seams city’s poor infrastructure and indifferent officials.)

Lush greenery, wet and misty mornings, the thrill of the first rumble in the sky, the clichéd bheegi mitti ki khushboo, the gay abandon of getting wet in the first rains, the relief from the horrible May heat and dusty roads and brown hills and pale woebegone trees, waterfall picnics in the hills, garam-garam butta and onion bhaji and wada pav, splashing around in rain water puddles, twirling my colorful umbrella and soaking everybody around in the process, coming home and changing into dry clothes and perching myself on the swing in our balcony, a warm cup of coffee in hand, to enjoy the rains outside – these are just some of my wonderful memories of monsoons in my hometown.

(Incidentally, I splashed around in puddles of rain water in our complex this morning without a guilty thought – unlike in Mumbai, I knew this puddle contained rain water and little else! This simple and innocent moment of fun brought back all these childhood memories – I remembered walking to the bus-stop in my white raincoat with big green and blue flowers, spoiling Aai’s saree by jumping around in the water, I remembered blocking the drainage hole, much to Aai’s consternation, to fill up our terrace with rain water and then splashing away to glory while getting wet in the torrential downpour from above.)

I had no love for the monsoon in Pune though, where I lived for a couple of years after college – the dull lackadaisical drizzle throughout the day made me long for a straightforward torrential Mumbai downpour to get it over with – but winters in Pune are simply delicious. Cold, but not unbearably so, the mornings are perfect to snuggle under a warm razai (and miss the bus!) and an added attraction are the gorgeous and heavenly fragrant rajnigandha flowers one can bring home by the armful in the evening, without emptying one’s pockets for the privilege.

Now you would think me crazy if I said I love winters in the Northeast United States, my home for now, wouldn’t you? (Although they have their moments, I must admit – I like the peace and quiet of winter here, and I enjoy snow-mobiling and snow fights and building snowmen.) But the New England spring is the closest equivalent for my beloved monsoons – it is a similar harbinger of hope and freshness and new beginnings. I especially love the transition from spring to summer when tiny green leaves and colorful little flowers peep out into our hitherto dull gray world. The air is nice and crisp, not-too-hot and not-too-cold, and it is such a relief to finally get out after months of being cooped indoors.

Phew! As usual, this post turned into my ramblings on a dozen random memories rather than a simple answer to the question ThoughtSafari had tagged me for – What kind of day would you be? But what a rush of beautiful memories it brought on! Thank you so much for this lovely tag TS, I thoroughly enjoyed doing it.

Now to cut this rather long post short and answer the question, I would be an exuberant, playfully romantic and tempestuous monsoon day, the kind when ten foot high waves lash the walls of my beloved Marine Drive. And finally, I am very curious, M, D, MadMomma and Usha, what kind of day are you like?