Friday, October 30, 2015

Do you know where your children are?

Sometimes I look back on my childhood and think we were a privileged lot. Of course, we did not know it then. We had no TV and the lone telephone rarely, if ever, worked. Computers were myths and radios were about the only exposure to a live world outside.
I'll tell you what we did have: we had the outdoors. We had a cycle and a huge garden and a pond and all the freedom to explore every inch. We had earthworms, we had fireflies, we had ladybirds and butterflies. We skinned our knees and wiped away the blood without a thought of running to tell our mother for fear of tincture iodine that burnt like hell and when we fell we never cried out. I remember being chased around the fields by my aged grandfather who wanted to put tincture iodine on a cut, I remember sneaking into the neighboring houses from under the fence and always being welcomed with orange squash, I remember lazy somersaults in the pond, our bodies tanned and black in the summer sun and I remember turning a deaf ear when being called to go indoors because the sun was too hot. We explored the streams near the house, swung from the branches of the Litchi trees and ate raw tamarind and mangoes drying in the sun with our grubby fingers and imagined nobody knew about it. We had the terrace, we had kites, we had the skies and we were our own masters. We had endless hours of making tea out of mud and water and making a mess. We played with our imaginations, and we bent them to our will. Dinner times always had the whole family gather at the table (no exceptions) and we'd  all sit and share our day. There was warmth and there was conversation. Often, there was Laughter... in our lives there was always room for Laughter and I am glad, that even now, he has lingered in my life. Sometimes, after dinner, we’d play chess or scrabble or just read a book. Often, we would go for long walks in the night and my father would point out the stars and I’d gaze at him in admiration and now I desperately try to remember all that he said but I was too self involved to pay attention to back then.
The TV was actually the first intruder in our home. Dinners were accompanied by the news and conversations verged on the (often) boring matters of State. We were, by and large not allowed to switch on the TV at any other time so I grew up unable to appreciate the finer aesthetics of TV serials and shows although I hankered for them after hearing all about it in school, but that is another story.
Foreign holidays were unheard of. We never came home and told our mothers "so and so is going to Spain, again" or, "can we go to Paris, three of our friends are going!" For our holidays we had my maternal grandparents' house in Kanke, we had the garden house in Maniktala and we had Madhupur, famous for its ghosts where we let our imaginations roam wild.... For serious diversion we had the beaches at Puri. Don't get me wrong... we did go on other holidays, we travelled to Lucknow, Agra, Darjeeling, even Kovalam and Kanyakumari but those were later, those came when we were older. The places I describe here are when we were younger and when, come winter, all the cousins would gather round from near and far and just fill the houses with love and happiness and lots of memories.
Now I look at my girls and wonder. Living in a joint family, they do have cousins at hand. They also  have TV which apparently tells them all they need to know, they have social media so they can communicate with their cousins and never have to climb on top of the tank just to share a secret that cannot be heard by others. They have computers that can download information in seconds so they never know the joy of hunting through an encyclopedia. They have cell phones to tell me just where they are and when they reached…hell, we ourselves never knew where our adventures would take us and when we were out, well, we were out. They have SnapChat and Instagrams and weird games, if I ask them to go out and play I may as well be punishing them! They have amusement parks; for us, the annual rickety Ferris wheel at the Park Circus mela at puja time was enough. And candy floss. And if you teamed it up with pop-corn our lives were full! Now pop-corn comes in microwavable packets in an assortment of flavours and any toddler that can reach the microwave will be able to make you some! My girls know all about international immigration and customs but they have never dabbled in the sand at the local stream where the clear water reflects every blade of grass. My girls promptly take off their shoes while undergoing Security check in foreign airports but have never walked barefoot in the soft dew-laden grass at dawn.

Their lives are fraught with dangers, real and imagined: physical punishment or criticism can traumatize them, or so I have been told. In our time we all recall a few well placed slaps that did us no harm, and criticism made us cringe but also made us want to be better. Yesterday I attended a Twitter Chat on cyber safety for kids. How much is too much? How far should we let them go? We have new worries to worry us: too much time on the net, social websites, strangers approaching them online, meeting up with strange people who they have met only online, peer pressure to participate in groups online, the trauma of not having enough 'likes' on a facebook post, the list goes on and on. It's not that the fears have changed all that much, it's just taken on a new name: The Internet. Over exposure to the media shares the blame. Every teenager wants to be as cool as the kids in those serials they watch. Every other child has a boyfriend! Our parents dealt with their fears their way; they warned us about the wolves out there and let us be. There was little else they could do, short of keeping us housebound. Those real fears of  letting the kids out alone, bus rides, accidents, not knowing where the children were going and pedophiles are rampant even today. In fact, I would say it is more of a threat now, "too much traffic, have you heard of the bus accidents? The auto drivers are too rash, so many rape cases!" We dare not allow them out on the streets on their own. So we do the next best thing we can, we give them the internet that opens up worlds for them. We allow them to chat online and leave them be. It's only facebook or twitter or whatever and you hope the friends are all people they know. But can you be sure? Do you know who your child is talking to? Do you know who their friends are? Most of all, yes, I know she is sitting at her desk in front of the computer, but do you know where your child is?  

No, I don’t blame anyone, and as they say, the old order changeth….the new has many wonders too. It’s just that once in a while I wonder where we are headed. A part of me feels sad that my daughters cannot hear the music of the stars and are instead lulled by the song of the air-conditioner. I guess I just feel nostalgic and wish those idyllic days were once more in my fist and I had my entire life to re live them and share them with my kids!

C’est la vie!

Monday, October 26, 2015

Durga Pujas... when Kolkata goes bonkers..

The Durga Pujas are over. The Goddess's short sojourn with her family to her home is over. She has returned to her husband's home in Mount Kailash. As always, her visit, right from the day she arrived, to the day of her departure amid much pomp and fervour is over. On street corners pandals are being dismantled, skeletons peep here and there, some will take longer to remove than others.
I have friends on my TL asking if it's worth it. All the traffic, all the crowds, the pandals that block the road,  the noise, the food stalls, the garbage... is it worth it?
Before I answer that question, let me tell you something. I always, but always make it a point to be away from the city when Durga Puja fever hits Calcutta. You see, I hate crowds. And noise. I particularly detest that shuffle-shuffle of feet interspersed by a cruel hoot of the hooters as they merrily visit the pandals every night full of inexplicable enthusiasm late into the night. I do not understand the cranky sleepy kids being dragged along, or the winding lines in the puja areas. Or the way a child's eye light up as he counts his 18th lion! Or the joy of eating phuchkas laced with the occasional light insect or the lines in front of the ice-cream vans. One relative once asked me, pointing to the crowds in front of the indigenous "Chinese" chowmein outlets that spring up everywhere, "Durga-puja or Chow-Puja, I can't figure it out!" I smile at the thought. I was watching the goddess being taken away from the puja up our street last night. As I watched, safely ensconced in my third floor balcony, I saw a little drummer boy, fast asleep, his body wrapped around his instrument. I wondered then, what is he thinking? Is he dreaming of the money he will rush home to his mother with? Where is his village, how many sisters and brothers wait for his meager income? And how long will it last? That man sitting on his haunches next to the big dhaak with his face in his arms.....does he dream of his family? Or will he spend his earning on cheap country liquor and fade into obscurity, just for this night? My thoughts are interrupted, someone calls out and the resting drummers sprightly rise and begin playing those drums. Dad-da-da-da--dad-da-da...... the base seems to kick start your heart; the smell of incense permeates the air...., a few crackers go off and amid much festivity and noise, the Goddess returns home. Until next year. I sigh. For five days and five nights, sometimes longer this has been going on every day, I'm glad I was away. I retreat.  
Getting back to the question. Yes, it's worth it. For those few days on the roadsides, in the pandals, gorging on bhel and biriyani, everyone's an equal. Everyone looks nice in their new outfits, there is a spirit of camaraderie and celebration.
True, traffic gets clogged. But on the bright side Kolkata Police does an exceptional job to ensure that the huge chunks of cars keep moving. It's hell getting anyplace to anyplace. The malls, the market places and shops are crowded, trying to negotiate your way into a shop  can be disastrous. Half the narrow lanes are blocked with pandals, if you do not know, you can get frustrated trying to back out of the area. Yes, there is cacophony on the road... the river does get polluted for a bit. A lot of people do not like to venture out during this time... or, like me, run away to escape the madness.

But do stop once and think of the larger picture. There are worse things happening in the world and all around us. If, for a few days there is some joy and that is shared...if, in those few days, a dhaki will finally be able to afford the school books his children need, or an artisan is finally able to afford that blanket for his sick mother in a village far away that you have never heard of...... can't we put up with the cacophony and minor inconveniences for a few day? After all, Durga puja is only for a few days every year. Our extravagances on the other hand...... 
...are perennial

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Back to the kitchen, ladies...Recipe by special request

Mangshor Jhol (A basic mutton curry)

Growing up, Sunday afternoon meals were, without exception, mangshor jhol time. All hell broke loose if that particular item was not on the table. There could be ilish(hilsa) or koi(climbing perch) or Kankra(crab) of dimer bora(fish egg balls) or any other delicacy but that mangshor jhol could not be missing! All week, we looked forward to it. And in my head I can still see that dining table laid out for a Sunday lunch and imagine the taste of that curry. My Mother was a very good cook. So those of you lauding my culinary skills know where I got it from. That, and my love of food. For I do earnestly believe that unless you love food and are willing to try out different things, you will never be able to make food work for you!
Enough chatter already. An old friend on twitter @monikamanchanda wants that "mangshor jhol" recipe. So here goes.
Disclaimer 1: There are as many ways to make mutton curry as there are Bengali households. In fact my father-in-law made one of the best mutton curries ever. As always, with everything Bengali there are no dearth of opinions. We all have something to say about everything. So you may soon find enough people to say "add a bit of ground poppy-seeds", another will say "what, no mustard paste?", yet another will ask for something else, the list continues. The following recipe is basically a combination of my mother's recipe with inputs and twists as added by my father-in-law.
Disclaimer 2: I am lousy with measurements and do it by eye. So all measurements except that of the mutton is approximate.

Without  further  ado:


Mutton, cleaned and washed, medium to biggish sized pieces 1kg
Sunflower/any white oil: I tsp
Mustard oil 1tbsp
Onions 2, medium sized
Ginger 1inch, thick
Green chillies: 2 ( more if you want it spicy)
Garlic; 6/8 pods peeled
Haldi 1 tbsp
Pepper powder 2tsp
Jeera powder  2tsp
Chilly powder 1tsp
Sugar about 1 tbsp
Unsweetened curd 1/3 cup
tomato sauce 2tbsp
Potatoes 3 big size, peeled and cut into halves
Salt  to taste

1.       Make a smooth paste of the onions, garlic, ginger and green chillies.
2.     Take the mutton pieces in a bowl. Add mustard oil and the paste and rub it in. Add salt, sugar, chilly powder, pepper, jira, curd, haldi and tomato sauce and mix well.
3.     Keep aside for at least an hour. If leaving it marinated for longer consider keeping it covered in the fridge.
4.     Take a big pressure cooker. Add the white oil. You can add a bay leaf if desired but I usually do not bother so you will not find it on the ingredient list.
5.      Add the mutton along with all the marinade when the oil is hot. Stir.
6.      As you stir and keep stirring, the mutton will emit a lot of water and juices. Keep stirring. In Bengali this is called 'kosha'. Stir the mutton till all the gravy disappears. This can take some time, be patient.You can also do this part in a non-stick kadai if you want.
7.     Once all the gravy disappears, add about two cups of water, mix it in nicely and cover and pressure cook for about 20 minutes on low heat. I wait for the pressure to blow the first time and then lower the flame and my timing of 20 minutes starts then. By now the kitchen should be smelling of something delicious cooking!
8.      After 20 minutes, turn off the flame and open the cover. For this you can hold the closed lid under a running water tap or whatever.  Add the big aloo/potato pieces. Stir it in. (A lot of people fry the aloo before putting it in the gravy but in my head that's just unnecessary additional oil so I do not fry them). If the gravy looks too dry, add about 1/2 cup water. The gravy must neither be too watery nor too thick.
9.     Close the pressure cooker lid and cook again for 5 minutes on low heat. As soon as 5 minutes are up, turn off the flame and let the cooker sit where it is.
10.   After about half an hour, open the pressure cooker. The meat and aloo should have settled down and you should be having a lovely red gravy. Check seasoning and pour into serving bowls, be certain to take all the gravy. Your mangshor jhol is ready!
11.   More often than not, this is had with steaming rice and a  side salad of cucumbers and onions. It also goes well with rotis or even a chunk of bread!
12.   I'd love to know if this recipe worked for you. Waiting for your feedback

13.   Oh yeah, enjoy!