& occasionally about other things, too...

Sunday, June 30, 2013

The smell of cooking and prayers


Her face was heavily lined with wrinkles and these multiplied when she smiled her toothless smile. She wore thick glasses that made her small eyes look big. Her widowhood banished colours from her life and she wore only white. She was a widow for 44 years and then she died.

To me, she was my Baa – my grandmother. She was always there for me with her unconditional love, her over-protective and at times over-bearing care. She exuded an odour – a mixture of wheat flour, agarbatti, puja flowers and chandan; the smell of cooking and prayers.

She lived in the kitchen – cooking and praying in that small room made smaller by unnecessary furniture. A small mandir was part of her grocery cupboard – made of dull brown sunmica, it was quite a rage in India in those days.

Every morning, after my parents left for work (father quite early, mother at regular time), Baa would have a leisurely bath and then immediately gather her gods – framed photos and miniature idols – and set them up on a flat patlo (a wooden stand), sit on a chatai for her daily puja. It comprised a combination of chanting of Sanskrit shlokas, cleansing the idols with a sprinkling of water, applying tilak made from a paste of kumkum and chandan.

For each of the idol and the photo she had a separate shloka. The hour-long puja ended in a grand aarti which she performed holding a lit diya in the right hand and a small tinkler in the left.

She performed this ritual every day.

In the afternoon she slept and when she couldn’t, she wrote “Sri Ram” endlessly and fill up innumerable notebooks which she dutifully handed over to the priest at the Laxminarayan Mandir to be despatched to Haridwar and immersed into the holy Ganga.

In the evening when I returned home after playing with my friends, she was ready with a cup of tea that had more milk in it. It was her ploy to make me drink milk.

Almost every day we argued because I didn’t want to drink milk.

“I’m not a kid,” I said.

“Of course, and that’s why we’ll have tea together,” she responded.

“Your tea is darker, mine is so light.”

“It’s because I pour it in saucer.”

Although she had cooked all her life, she didn’t particularly enjoy cooking. It was more of a chore, a responsibility. She cooked in the evenings, sitting on a rotating stool because she found the concept of a “standing kitchen” alien to cooking as well as very tiring.

She cooked a meal of daal, bhhaat, rotli ne shaak every day and enjoyed cooking a few delicacies occasionally.

These delicacies had the smell and the flavour that were special to her cooking and unique to her home near Surat where she grew up and lived till she was old enough to join her husband whom she had married when she was nine. 

Nobody could (or can) cook Aadah ni daal, bajri no rotlo and lashan ni chutney (served with raw onions) like she did. My mother and my wife both do but it’s just not the same. Both, incidentally, possess exquisite culinary skills.

Baa also took considerable pains cooking dangerau to get the taste and the texture right. I tried googling for dangerau but couldn’t find anything remotely similar. Handvo is a close approximation doesn’t quite have the roughened feel in the mouth of dangerau, or perhaps, dangerau is just a local name for Handvo. 

I grew up in a cosmopolitan area in Andheri which had all kinds of people – all castes, all creeds; and therefore all kinds of food. Nobody in my family – none – ate non-vegetarian food. I did, I loved it and still do. Thanks to my neighbours, I had a veritable feat every day, and an enviable choice of non-vegetarian cuisine.

For Baa it was a sacrilege to cook non-vegetarian food at home but she ignored this indiscretion and allowed eggs to be cooked. She kept separate dull aluminum vessels for the eggs. All the other vessels were made of shining stainless steel. Later, much later, she discovered that I ate everything and her eyes couldn’t conceal her disappointment.

A million memories crowd my mind when I think of her. But two remain etched in my mind.

A relative died in an accident. I took her to meet the deceased’s family. The autorickshaw in which we were traveling stopped and we had to walk a long way. She was old, and the walk turned out to be an ordeal. Somehow, we reached our destination. I told her, “Ba, you’ve come here to console the family. Don’t talk about your nightmarish trudge.”

She was too tired to say anything. We sat there for a while, and then returned home. Her daughter (my aunt) came visiting us a few days later, and she was taling about me.

“He thinks about others. Dukhi thava no chey (He will suffer).”

It’s perhaps the best compliment I’ve ever got.

The other was when my sister left for the US a few years after her marriage. I had moved out too. My parents led a busy life and were busier now that they were free. She was all by herself in the house.

I went to meet her after work, “You must be feeling very lonely nowadays.”

Her reply stunned me. “Ekla rehvani tev chey, (I’m used to living alone),” she said.

That sentence has stayed with me now for nearly two decades since she died.

It’s probably the one thing that we’re not ever prepared to get used to and inevitably that’s what we have to learn the hard way in our lifetime – to be alone.

I was not by her side when she died. Mother told me she worried for me since I had moved out.

When I think of her, I realise how similar I’m to her in my attitude to life and living. She never consciously taught me anything. I just absorbed everything that I saw in her.

There are two notable exceptions:

1. I don’t pray (but I respect all those who do).
2. I relish non-vegetarian food (but I support the idea of a vegetarian world and I’m turning vegetarian this coming March).

(Read at The Weird Food Festival, Mississauga, ON. 02-02-13)

Friday, June 28, 2013

Hopscotch - Julio Cortazar

"The absolute,” La Maga was saying, kicking a pebble from puddle to puddle. “What is an absolute, Horacio?"

"Look,” Oliveira said, “it’s just that moment in which something attains its maximum depth, its maximum reach, its maximum sense, and becomes completely uninteresting."

I had used this piece of dialogue from Hopscotch in a greeting card I had made about a decade ago.


Re-reading a novel often reveals hidden aspects about the book, the characters that one misses during the first reading. Of course, one doesn't have the luxury of reading all the books one reads twice, but I often have felt that I should make time to again read some books that I have enjoyed in the past.  

Julio Cortazar’s Hopscotch (1963) wasn't on that list because I hadn't enjoyed the book the first time in 1984 - the year Cortazar died (that was nearly two decades after it was published).

I had tried reading it both the ways – from page 1 to the last page, and then the author recommended way of starting at chapter 73 and then moving on to 1, then 2, then 116…playing a hopscotch with the narrative.

It was indeed innovative, but that was about it. I found the book heavy, laced with too many references to jazz, a subject I was (and am) quite unfamiliar with, and I just couldn't comprehend the reason of Horacio’s (the lead protagonist) angst, and found inexplicable Horacio’s rootless existence, his initial disdain and subsequent longing for La Maga, his infatuation for Talita, his unwillingness to get a hold on himself. 

While these were all deftly depicted, they failed to come together as a composite narrative.

Also, in 1984, I didn't know that Julio was pronounced with an ‘H’. In 2009 a friend (who has since disappeared) corrected me: "It's pronounced Hulio."

A few months ago I began to re-read it, not in the hopscotch pattern suggested by the Cortazar but from page 1.

I found it riveting. Many aspects of the characters that I couldn't fully grasp when I was younger made perfect sense to me now. I still had some issues with the section ‘From Diverse Sides  The Expendable Chapters’.  But I could easily relate to the broad the themes of alienation and exile, even if at times, I felt like shaking Horacio’s shoulders and just telling him to get on with it.

Written in a stream of consciousness style that was popular in the mid-twentieth century, it belongs to the antinovel genre where chronology is deliberately jettisoned by the author to create a surreal narrative that doesn't rely on a story or a plot but carries it forward primarily through the interactions between the main characters.

Here’s an excerpt from Chapter 73, which is actually Chapter 1:


How often I wonder whether this is only writing, in an age in which we run towards deception through infallible equations and conformity machines. But to ask one’s self if we will know how to find the other side if habit or if it is better to let one’s self be borne along by its happy cybernetics, is that not literature again? Rebellion, conformity, anguish, earthly sustenance, all the dichotomies: the Yin and the Yang, contemplation or the T├Ątigkeit, oatmeal or partridge faisandee, Lascauz or Mathieu, what a hammock of words, what purse-size dialectics with pajama storms and living-room cataclysms. The very fact that one asks one’s self about the possible choices vitiates and muddles up what can be chosen. 

Take a look at Melisa Osorio's interpretation of the novel's La Maga on this site: La Maga

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Authors, artists, rains…

Rains didn't deter a dedicated bunch of book lovers from attending Luminato Festival’s A Literary Picnic Saturday afternoon at the Trinity Bellwood Park. A handful of people gathered around the three stages where sixty Ontario authors were scheduled to read for four hours.

By the time I reached the venue (just after noon) Shyam Selvadurai was reading from his recently-published and much-acclaimed Hungry Ghosts.

I also heard Andrew J. Borkowski read from his award winning Copernicus Avenue, and Jowita Bydlowska from Drunk Mom. Priscila Uppal read from her collection of sports poems (Summer sports poems) which she wrote during her tenure as poet-in-residence for Canadian Athletes Now Fund (CAN Fund).

At this stage, it didn't seem like it’d rain, and the organizers opened up all the three stages. I heard Mathew Tierney’s poems and before rains disrupted the readings, journalist Edward Keenan read from his latest book Some Great Idea.

Farzana Doctor was scheduled to read next, but probably didn't  I don’t think more than 10-15 authors could read.

I waited for a while, munching hot chips dipped in cheese, and getting drenched. When it didn't seem like the readings would start, I took the streetcar to the subway and then a bus to reach Harbourfront Centre to see an exhibition of art and writing at the Power Plant.

Postscript: Writing After Conceptual Art “is a group of exhibition featuring the work of more than fifty Canadian and international artists and writers. It is the first exhibition to examine the work of conceptual writing, investigating the roots of the movement in the art of the 1960s and 70s and presenting contemporary examples of text-based art practices.”

Nora Burnett Abrams and Andrea Andersson of the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver have curated this exhibition.

And then on my way out I saw the photo exhibition Nine Rivers City – Toronto’s Extraordinary Waterways where six contemporary Toronto photographers have captured vignettes of life around Toronto’s nine rivers. The exhibition is remarkable in size and scope and brings to life the issue of conservation of our river systems.

The exhibition was a revelation in many ways. I wasn't aware of the intricate system of waterways that exist in the city and was under the erroneous impression that Toronto is a city near a lake. Toronto's nine rivers are: Etobicoke Creek, Mimico Creek, Humber River, Don River, Highland Creek, Rouge River, Duffins Creek, Petticoat Creek, and Carruthers Creek

The participating photographers are: Aaron Vincent Elkaim, Vanessa Hussey, Surendra Lawoti, Christopher Manson, Jade Lee Portelli, and Meghan Rennie. The exhibition’s curator is Patrick Macaulay. 

In his curatorial statement, Macaulay says, “This exhibition, at first glance, is an endeavor of artistic delight, but there are also guiding principles of conservation attached to the project. By focusing on the natural beauty of the rivers, we can begin to appreciate the complicated history of the natural environment.” 

Bombay Wali and other stories

There was once a unique city. It had people from all over inhabiting it, cohabiting and creating magic by just being there. 

Enterprise and cosmopolitanism gave it vibrancy. Inclusiveness gave it character. It created space for everyone who came in searching for a home, or for living a life or making a fortune. 

It wasn't an ideal place. No, on the contrary, it had all the contradictions and the inequities of a rapidly growing metropolis. But somehow it managed to overcome adversity and be a catalyst of change.

Everyone who called it home knew there was no other place quite like it anywhere in the world. There couldn't be. 

Bombay was once that city. Then, Bombay became Mumbai.

But long before its name changed, parochialism and insularity had begun to transform its ethos.

Most of the stories in Veena Gokhale’s collection (Bombay Wali and other stories) are about a Bombay that now exists only in memories.

Not only have many of the locations disappeared into history, the city has changed so radically that it would be difficult to find characters from the stories in the city.

Veena doesn't follow the traditional pattern of telling a story that has a beginning, middle, and an end. She paints vignettes from the life of her characters and bring alive the stories by deftly easing the reader into the middle of a situation.

This makes the stories believable, real.

In fact, some of the stories are so palpable they make you uncomfortable. Feroza Billimoria of Middle Age Jazz and Blues and Dilip of Freire Stopped in Bombay are just two examples where the reader prays the author will be gentle to the characters.

All the stories in the collection – even those which aren't connected to Bombay – are exquisitely crafted.

I found Reveries of a Riot the best story in the collection.

Here’s an excerpt:

The images of the streets outside coalesced into a single flame and burned in Mira’s mind. She felt as if he shared the flame. That, in fact, he was fuelling and brightening it as his body heat seeped into her. As they kissed, breathing chaotically, Mira pushed hard against him, wanting the street-sweat, mud-violence; the feverish hunger-anger of his tongue to infuse her being as well.

He led Mira by hand to the top of the building, to the little recess, musty, cobwebbed, stacked with discarded junk that led to the terrace, which was locked.

Half undressing, they clung, clawed, bit, thrust, tugged, stroked each other, in a frenzy of love and despair. As he took her standing up, Mira felt his calloused hands (what had he been doing with his butter-smooth hands, soft and gently in her memory?) grasp her hair, gather it in his fist, and pull her head back, hard. Pain, black and deep, washed over her as she came and came.

Now she was no longer apart, but a part of the riot, and would always be, with a part of the riot inside her forever.

Images: 

Veena Gokhale: http://www.asiancanadianwiki.org/w/File:Veena_Gokhale_author_portrait.jpg

Book cover: http://montrealserai.com/wp/wp-content/uploads/BombayWaliCover300.jpg