What does our gamosa mean to us?

Last Friday (13th July) I woke up to some wonderful news. A young girl from a small town in Assam had made history by becoming the first Indian to win a Gold Medal in a track event at the World Junior Athletics Championship. I watched the video of the event. I watched Hima Das touch the ground, bring it to her chest and then to her lips, praying to the Gods to be with her as she braced herself for the race. I heard the gunshot, watched the women start running and squinted my eyes to make out Hima Das’s nimble form. I tuned out the rest of the commentary, wondering why she was nowhere in the lead for the first 30 seconds (I admit I know pretty much nothing about running) until I finally spotted her, and heard the words:

“But here comes Hima Das!The Indian is surging! She can see the line, she can see history! India’s never won any medal in a track event, but DAS HAS DONE IT HERE! Brilliant! 51.47. History made in Tampere.”

I’d started feeling the lump in my throat around the same time, but then I saw that smile on her face after she’d crossed the line, and I watched her walk up to her coach who handed her the Indian flag, but draped the gamosa around her neck.

That’s when I lost it, breaking down completely, laughing and crying at the same time, with no idea why the sight of that simple white and red cloth draped around the neck of this amazing girl, was tearing my heart into pieces.

About two hours later, when I could finally watch the video without tearing up, I talked to my Deuta, and told him about how I couldn’t stop crying when I saw the gamosa on her neck. Deuta told me he’d felt it too… those goosebumps on my skin and that lump in my throat. We talked about how proud this girl has made us, and how I wanted to fist bump in the air and go, ‘Yes! This is what I am talking about! This is the Assam everyone must know about!’

So what was it about the gamosa that made me so emotional? What did that seemingly humble rectangular piece of cloth mean to me?

A volley of images came rushing through…. The almost threadbare but unbelievably soft cloth that worked as a hand-towel and hung from a rod next to the wash basin, the red faded to a near pink from multiple washes… Aita tying a gamosa around her waist as tightly as she could for support as she pruned some plants in our backyard… Deuta being felicitated at some meeting and coming home with a brand new gamosa that would be all stiff and starch-ironed… Ma preparing a ceremonial xorai and covering it with a gamosa before offering it in front of the Kirtan at our thapona… Aita taking the gamosa off her neck and using it to wipe the ground in the naamghor before we touched our head to the ground and bowed in front of the Lord.  Ma handing me a silk gamosa and telling me it was to be kept separately for my groom… My unpacking our Kirtan at our Vietnam home, and wrapping it in that gorgeous gamosa that had been gifted to my husband, spending long minutes admiring the intricate work all over the gamosa… my Uncle gifting my one-year old her very own gamosa with her name lovingly woven on it by my Aunt…

I started to write a post, but then I changed my mind. I realised that I can’t possibly be the only person who feels this way about our gamosa, and so I decided to seek help from friends and family. I sent a message to some of my friends, and asked them to send me a few lines about what the gamosa means to them, and if they have any specific memories related to gamosa.

The first thing that everyone said was that that our gamosa is our identity. It is an icon of the Assamese culture after all, just like our japi and pepa. One cannot really think of the Assamese society without bringing to mind the image of the gamosa. Sohel Da, who is the General Secretary of the Assam Association in Singapore also mentioned that “it signifies the very essence of being Assamese.”  Nidarshana Ba, who lives in Hyderabad says that while she never really gave the gamosa a thought until she left Assam, now it has become “an insignia of our Assamese identity. So unique in its colours and patterns… it stands out.”  Interestingly, Nidarshana Ba has turned the gamosa into a piece of art worth displaying. She has framed two of them and hung them on her wall in her Hyderabad house, making sure that it is the first thing that guests see when they enter her living room.

My Deuta mentioned feeling proud each time someone felicitated him with a gamosa, while Himangshu, a family friend who currently lives in Malaysia, said that the gamosa itself is a symbol of pride for him. My friend Amrita, who also happens to live in Singapore and ahem, loves my lusi-aloo bhaji breakfasts, adds that to her it is the highest honour. It is a symbol of respect and regard after all, like Ananya, an assistant professor in Tezpur University (but more importantly, a former band-mate) says.

To many of us, gamosa and Bihu are so intricately intertwined, that Bihu is incomplete without the Bihuwan, the form gamosa takes when offered as a token of love during the Assamese New Year. My husband has fond memories of being offered a Bihuwan every single year by his Abu (his grandmother) right from when he was a young thing wearing half-pants that showed his skinny legs. Even now, my mother-in-law sets three gamosa aside for the three of us (my little one not dismissed by any means) each Bihu. To my husband, it is that thread that connects him to home.

Mayurakshi, a friend and the first person to have given me feedback for my first book ever (and hence very, very special to me) has vivid memories of her Pehi weaving gamosa in her handloom every afternoon after lunch. “I would be in awe of the effort that goes into the entire process and the skills needed to weave out a single gamosa,” she says. The best ones would be kept to present to guests during Bihu. Himangshu remembers his mother weaving twenty gamosa all by herself each Bihu, finding time out of her busy schedule, and says that each one of them that comes out of his mother’s “mohura, taat-xaal, maku, xuta, asu and jotor” still means a lot to him.

What is unique about the gamosa, in my eyes, is its versatility. Nowhere else have I seen such a homely everyday object being regarded with so much respect and veneration. For the longest time, I had treated the gamosa like nothing more than a towel. Not surprising, since it literally translates to something to wipe your body (ga=body; mosa = wipe) My Ma didn’t allow us to wipe our feet with a gamosa, but that was about it. A gamosa could have a very long lifeline, depending on how it was being used. Because it soaks wonderfully, and dries very fast as well, it makes for a very convenient travel companion. Satyakam Da who works at Indian Revenue Service (but more importantly, is a khar-khuwa through and through) recalls this time when he used it as a headscarf in Leh, “when it was too cold and I didn’t even have a monkey cap!” I asked him all earnestly if it provided enough warmth. Pat came the reply, “It had the love of Assam in it. How could it not be warm enough?”

Adil Hussain Da (yes, the same award-winning actor of Hotel Salvation fame) believes that “Gamosa is an extension of our selves. It’s almost like a part of our biology. Once it is resting on our body, we feel like we are rooted, and yet, we can take off! It’s like an organ. It is a mirror reflecting the smell, sound and taste of our Land.”

I think I know exactly what he means when he says it feels like a part of our own body. And yet, no spiritual ritual is complete without the gamosa. We don’t bow our head in front of the Lord unless we have a gamosa around our neck. It is the ultimate sign of respect.

So what does the gamosa really mean to me? Everything. I have a big stack of gamosa that I have been carrying with me through all the countries that we have lived in, and to me, it is still my most prized possession, because each one of them has a different memory attached to it. To me, I treat my gamosa a lot like I treat my parents: I love them to bits, but wouldn’t hesitate to tease them because I treat them like my friends, but they are also the ones I respect the most in this whole wide world.

But no one could have said it better than Angana, a dear friend whom I have come to admire a lot.

“Gamosa is humble enough to absorb the dripping sweat of my dad’s forehead, carelessly slung across his shoulder while he does yard work. It is a giddy reminder that bihu is here, while mom buys gamosa for the whole extended family. It is the catch-all garment for everyday dirt and grime. And also the respect, love and much more, making an appearance in every social gathering back home, from weddings, naam, bihu or xokam. And when you stay so far away from home, gamosa is also nostalgia.”

As for the gamosa around Hima Das’s neck, may it be the first thing that comes to people’s mind whenever they recall the moment a young girl made history in Tampere.

Bihuwan

Image from wiki commons

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My love affair with bhaat

It all started over lunch. Jenny (my Filipino live-in nanny, aka the woman without whom pursuing my writing AND taking care of Miss Munchkin would have been near impossible) and I were talking about comfort food. I asked her what she would have for breakfast at home and she said they usually have rice.

‘We Filipinos like to have rice three times a day, Ma’am!’ she laughed.
‘Well, we Assamese like to have rice three times a day too!’ I replied.

She told me about how they would have rice with vegetables and fish and meat for breakfast, and I told her about how we usually don’t have fish or meat that early in the morning.

‘Before leaving for school,’ I told her, ‘we would have rice and dal and maybe vegetables. Then we would have rice again after coming back from school.’
‘Then dinner?’
‘Rice again,’ I shrugged.
‘Sometimes we have rice with banana, or sliced mango,’ Jenny told me, ‘if we are too lazy to cook anything else.’
‘Ah, we have rice with banana too! Only we have ours with milk and sugar as well,’ I said, excitedly.

I was suddenly reminded of how I would have gakhir-kol-bhaat every single day after coming back from school. Every. Single. Day. My sister hated it, and would create a fuss if Aita didn’t set aside some dal and vegetables from lunch for her, but all I had needed was a bowl of rice, a banana, some coarse sugar, and warm milk. If there was no banana in the house (which was a rarity) I would make do with just milk and rice, but not without complaining first.

‘Ma would always mash the banana and rice for me, you know,’ I told Jenny dreamily, suddenly overwhelmed by a gush of nostalgia. I used to be rather adamant about that. I wouldn’t let anyone else mash my rice for me. I guess that was as close to saying “I need you, Ma, because I love you” as I got at that time.

I couldn’t remember the last time I had gakhir-kol-bhaat. Maybe that one time I was home for about a month, and Miss Munchkin was all of two, and we were at our wits’ end trying to find out something that she loved eating. I had prayed and hoped that she would like my childhood favourite, but I was blessed with no such luck. Little girl took one bite, scrunched up her tiny face, and promptly took it all out.

‘You know Jenny, I think I will have rice with banana and milk for breakfast tomorrow,’ I announced.
Jenny looked at me skeptically. ‘Are you sure? You barely have rice these days.’
‘Yeah…’ I sighed. Rice has a bad rap when it comes to weight gain, after all, and I have gone so long without having rice regularly that I have almost become used to not having rice. ‘But I will have it tomorrow. For sure.’

But that was not the end of the discussion. No way. We spent almost half an hour talking about the different ways I used to have rice as a child.

First, there was nixoni-bhaat. A lot of people call it xiddho-bhaat (which literally translates to boiled rice) but in our family, we called it nixoni-bhaat. I don’t know if it came from Upper Assam (where my mother is from) or Lower Assam (where my father is from) but when Ma cooked the rice with a little too much water and it turned into mush, we called it nixoni-bhaat. On cold winter days, Ma would spread piping hot rice on the plates, leaving it for a little while for the starch to make a thin film on the surface. She would then pour a small spoonful of mustard oil over it, (or ghee; I usually preferred ghee), and sprinkle a little bit of salt. On the side of the plate would be aloo-pitika (potatoes mashed with again, salt and mustard oil) all portioned out, one medium-sized ball for each family member, and a boiled egg. Sometimes, Ma would mash the boiled egg along with the potato and call it a day.

It was always tricky to have nixoni-bhaat without burning your fingers. One would have to start picking from one side of the plate, blowing continuously, and cautiously take the tiniest morsel to test. The colder the rice got, the bigger your morsels, of course. Until your plate was wiped clean with nothing but a thin white starchy reminder of the delicious meal you’d just had.

Since I am talking about overcooked rice, I have to mention jor-bhaat, which literally translates to fever-rice (I know, don’t ask me) but as the name suggests, it was rice that Ma would make for me when I would be sick, with no appetite. For the longest time, I didn’t know how Ma would make the rice. All I knew was that it tasted amazing after a day of lying down tossing in fever, specially because Ma would feed me with her own hands. I would invariably beg for seconds, although for some reason, the second time would never be as tasty at the first. Go figure! Years later, with a kitchen of my own, and a man to call my own who was indulging in theatrics on the couch with a fever that refused to go down, I finally asked Ma how she made her jor-bhaat.

I could hear Ma’s smile through the phone. ‘Just take rice, moong dal and any vegetable you want and cook it in the pressure cooker with a little salt. Add more water than you usually do, and give three whistles. Once it is done, take it out on a plate, add mustard oil and some lemon and mix well,’ she’d said.
‘That’s it?’ I had asked, incredulous. And all these years, I had believed that there was some sorcery involved for sure.

Jor-bhaat till date remains my go to for whenever I don’t have appetite to eat anything else. Maybe it’s the lemon, maybe because it’s easy to digest, or maybe, just maybe, it reminds me of Ma and her tender loving care. I think it is the last one.

As opposed to warm, comforting rice that almost melts your insides into ooey-gooey mush, the next one is refreshing and very, very, summery. Interestingly enough, Ma had nothing to do with this one, and Deuta, everything.

Others might call it whatever they want, but we called it ponta-bhaat, because that’s what people in Sipajhar (where my Deuta is from) call it. During summers, one night, Deuta would suddenly declare: ‘Do we have leftover rice? Let’s have ponta-bhaat tomorrow.’

We would collectively cheer, because ponta-bhaat was no less than a celebration. Ma would soak the rice in plenty of water overnight, and the next morning, place the vessel ceremoniously in front of Deuta, the rice having slightly fermented over the night.

Behua, or lemon?’ Deuta would ask.

Behua or kharoli demands a whole post by itself, but in a nutshell, it is mustard paste that is mixed with alkaline water. I know it sounds weird, and I agree it is an acquired taste, but our batch of behua came lovingly wrapped in a banana leaf, all the way from my father’s ancestral home in Sipajhar. It was the perfect accompaniment to ponta-bhaat.

There were two ways of having ponta-bhaat. Either you could have it with salt, lemon and mustard oil (our holy trinity, I guess) and chopped onions, or with behua, aloo-pitika and chopped onions. I loved both equally and would have the hardest time choosing.

Deuta would then proceed to mix salt and mustard oil, behua, and onions as we would wait with our bowls. He would then portion out rice into our bowls, making sure to divide the water equally because to be honest, the water was the best part.

My Aita used to say that farmers used to love having ponta-bhaat after a hard day’s work at the fields, and looked forward to coming back home to this meal. It was cooling on the stomach, very welcome after spending hours under the hot sun.

All I knew was that once I was done having my rice, I would lift my bowl to drink the water, now all gritty with potatoes and mustard grains, and soon after, my body would surrender to sweet rice-induced stupor. Of one more thing I was certain – that ponta-bhaat never tasted the same when Deuta didn’t mix it.

Jenny listened to me for some time, but I think I lost her at fermented rice. Not that it mattered to me, for I was lost in that world I had left behind, where rice was the solution to everything, where eating rice three times a day was not just perfectly acceptable but also demanded out of you.

The next morning, true to my word, I had gakhir-kol-bhaat for breakfast. I allowed Jenny to sprinkle the tiniest amount of sugar on my rice (although it didn’t taste quite the same because the sugar was fine, and not coarse) and sat down with my bowl, cradling it with both hands, grinning ear to ear. It was good enough, but not nearly as good as I remembered it to be. Could have been the sugar, or could have been because Ma hadn’t mashed it for me. Pretty sure it is the second one.5583597879_1e5b2d3b23_b

Nights of gaping curtains

I had always been a fan of dusk – something about the idea of day crashing into night in a flamboyant splash of orange and pink and purple, with the golden afterglow bathing my skin in sunset hues… no wonder they have a term for it “Kone dekha alo” or the bridal light, in which even the ugliest brides (although I think ugly and bride are words that never go together) look mesmerising. So yes, something that turns everything beautiful, what’s not to love about it?

After I became a mother, I started loving dusk even more. I would gape at the sky through the bedroom window, willing it to become dark. Forget about golden sunset hues on my skin, I was just desperately waiting to put the little one to sleep, specially because her body clock seemed precisely attuned to daylight. It didn’t matter that for months on end, I had forgotten how the outside world looked like in the evening. What mattered was that when day ended and night began, baby girl went off to sleep, and I would be finally free to do whatever it is that exhausted Moms do at the end of a tiring day: useless nothings that could have most certainly waited until the next day. Later at night, frustrated beyond words after the umpteenth middle-of-the-night feed, I would look back at the time misspent and promise myself I would better utilise my time the next day, and possibly sleep at a decent hour, but well… when have decisions taken in the middle of the night under extreme stress ever seen the light of the day?

That baby girl is four now, and sleeps through the night (most of the times) but she still sleeps right around 7pm. Even now, I look forward to dusk, but for completely different reasons. With my little one off to preschool for the better part of the day, and busy with her own world of colouring and playing hide and seek for the rest of the time, bedtime is when baby girl gives me her undivided attention, and I give her mine. We snuggle close to each other, her hair a mess of tangles right under my chin, and we read together. I press her tiny little body to mine, taking in that smell that is uniquely hers – her baby soap and shampoo, and lotion and that undefinable “something” that I wish I could bottle forever. By the end of the third book, she usually yawns a big yawn, and immediately follows it up with a disclaimer, “I’m not sleepy, Mamma!” which is my cue to pick her up and lay her down in her bed. I lie on my bed, which is right next to hers, and then hum to her, patting her tiny bottom, watching those eyes slowly droop until she surrenders to sweet sleep.

Preparing for her bedtime is an elaborate process involving closing the windows and turning the air-condition on, and most importantly, drawing the curtains close because here in Singapore, it doesn’t get dark until around 7:30 in the evening. Just yesterday, I was going through the motions with her clinging on to my neck, her legs wrapped around my waist, when I was suddenly reminded of just how much I had hated drawing the curtains close back home. I had loved sleeping with the curtains wide open, letting the moonlight flood my room. And that’s when I realised with a heavy ache just how much I missed nights back home in my small room in Tezpur.

You know what I miss the most? Darkness- that cozy black blanket that felt warm, as it enveloped you at the end of the day, hugging you close to itself. I used to be scared of the darkness as a child, petrified in fact, but over the years, we had become quite intimate – darkness and I. Here, it is impossible find yourself in a completely dark room unless you have invested in those heavy curtains made for the exclusive purpose. Light here has a way of sneaking into the smallest crevices, and it will tip-toe in no matter how unwelcome you make it feel.

You know what else will sneak in? Noise. I can’t remember the last time I felt surrounded by absolute quiet as I closed my eyes and drifted to sleep. There’s a barbecue pit right outside my window, so the last thing I hear on Friday nights as I try to empty my mind, is raucous laughter and sometimes, drunken singing. There will be people shouting out good nights at midnight, as though it was imperative that everyone around them knew about it. My neighbours upstairs particularly have a weird habit of moving furniture in the middle of the night. I try to give them the benefit of the doubt, but I wonder what sort of emergency could present itself at that ungodly hour.

I miss the night sky filled with stars and how I could take one look at the rings around the moon and predict if the next day was going to be sunny, or not. I miss sitting on our rooftop terrace and staring at the sky, willing it to unravel its secrets to me. I wonder what I will see if I stare at this foreign sky; even the moon doesn’t look the same.

Which reminds me why I had started sleeping with my curtains open in the first place – the moonlight. I remember this one night very vividly. I was home from university, and had spent a long time texting on my phone, until the battery had run out, and I was compelled to turn my attention elsewhere. That’s when I had realised that it was a full-moon night. Everything around me seemed to come alive, touched by that silky silver, as if beaming in that ethereal radiance. I ran my fingers over my sheets, almost expecting to see my palms scoop up the silver light. The silver was thick that night, thick and palpable… and I’d immersed myself in it. My window that night had been open too, and my curtains had fluttered in an invisible breeze, as though revelling in some secret that I wasn’t privy to. Through my window I could see the familiar outline of the coconut leaves that usually arched around the top left corner, but that day, they, too, were basking in that silvery bath.

But then again, I remind myself, as I feel my bed beckoning me at the end of a long day of writing, I romanticise the moonlight and my room on that perfect night because I am so far away from it. Perhaps, one day, when the little one is all grown up and no longer needs being read to and tucked to sleep, I will look back at these nights with the same intense feeling of nostalgia that I feel towards night back home. And then maybe, just maybe, I will have a picture perfect memory in this same room with its view of the parking lot and the swimming pool. Who knows if the memory has already been made, or is yet to make that indelible impression on my quicksilver mind?

On that contemplative note…

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Of Books and Souvenirs

It all started yesterday, when someone posted a picture in a prolific group on Facebook dedicated to bibliophiles, that I am a member of. It was a photo of his collection of books translated from Russian to English, and all I could spot was the cover of this book.

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All of a sudden, I was reliving, with breathless excitement, a certain afternoon that for some reason will always remain in my mind. Funny how the mind holds on to certain memories, and lets others slip by. I wish I could figure out the criteria based on which the mind allows room to some recollections (although some of them might have to be buried in the deepest recesses) yet denies even the tiniest corner to others. I don’t remember how old I was, although I remember I was old enough to be allowed to visit a friend’s house without my parents, and young enough to warrant being chaperoned by my grandmother. The friend of mine was my so-called Best Friend, and we were as thick as two kids who played together during lunchtime could be- squealing and giggling and shouting, running higgledy-piggledy in the concrete playground in school. I remember being awed by the idea of meeting her outside school. There I was, in her house! In her room, playing with her toys! I found some weird thrill in seeing her in her everyday clothes, and not our school uniform, which is what I was accustomed to seeing her in. My Aita carried on a polite conversation with her mother, as much as her broken Bengali would allow, while my friend showed me this precious book from her collection.

I admired those lovely illustrations, lovingly caressing the pages, feeling a tinge of jealousy as I thought about how most of the books back at our house were thick hardbound books with unpronounceable names that Deuta referred to. Other than the rare few children’s books (I’ll come to that slightly later) that my sister and I’d had to share among ourselves, I didn’t exactly have a book that was just mine.

‘Will you let me borrow this, please?’ I had asked finally, right before we were about to leave, having done with the customary tea and biscuits and some savoury snacks her mother had made. I had been terrified that she would say no. I had almost expected her to.

But then, she was generous enough to say yes (that, or it had something to do with her mother nudging her to share her book with me) and I went back home with a spring in my step.

That evening, I laid on the bed on my belly, my chin propped on my palms, with the book in front of me as I gulped down the stories one after the other. They were hilarious… and the characters had beautiful Russian names that I rolled in my mouth for taste. I took them all in, stories about putty and gum (I didn’t even know what putty was), about turnips and porridge and tall tales and something about an exhibition at school and a happy yellow bunch of mimosa flowers.

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I particularly remember the flowers because I had tried to draw them, and pathetic that I was at drawing anything other than stick figures, I had given up the cause as hopeless. I don’t remember when I returned the book to my friend. Could have been a few days later after I had had my fill of the delicious book, or weeks later. But the book remained with me.

It’s been decades since that day, and I am not in touch with that friend anymore. Neither is the book in print. It is now considered a “vintage”. Just like my friendship with her – carefree and innocent.

I remember looking for that book a few years ago, which is when I realised that it was out of print. Had it still been in print, perhaps I wouldn’t have missed it as acutely, but the realisation that I would possibly never get to touch that book again (or own it, which is what I had always hungered for) hit home really hard. Maybe deep inside I am still that young girl who felt jealous because despite owning other books, she never owned THIS one.

Sigh.

Speaking of Russian books translated to English, my father’s bookshelves had two books, both published by Mir books, that he had acquired from those rare book fairs that used to be held in my humble hometown. The first one was this beauty.

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It was the very first book that I had read, even though I had blasphemously scribbled on its pages (with pen, too!) with all the wisdom of a seven year old. The book was about a family of four (Mummy, Daddy, Petya and Olya) inculcating mathematics in their everyday life (why Petya at six wasn’t going to school was one of the greatest mysteries for me) It had fun “shorts” too, about Lyapa the donkey who always landed himself in a soup for not knowing maths.

The book had been, at one point, lent to cousins of mine (because that’s how it happened in our family; I got hand-me-downs too) but I was so furious at my mother that she was forced to ask for it to be returned. Just two years ago, when I was visiting home with my own two-year old (how time flies!) I insisted on repairing the binding of the book because it was falling apart, and in sheer defiance of the words my Deuta had written on its first page to the affect that it was a gift from him to my sister, I brought the book back with me to Singapore. Life, as they say, has come to a full circle.

The next book, unsurprisingly, had also to do with maths (did I mention my Deuta used to teach Statistics?)

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I read this when I was slightly older, and while it didn’t quite have the same appeal as “Maths with Mummy”, I enjoyed it nevertheless. I followed the adventure of four friends (one of them being Pinocchio!) as they learned about points, lines, shapes and everything to do with geometry through adventures. I particularly remember a story with an eraser for a villain who loved to erase everything.

My Deuta assures me that he has the book in his bookshelves even now, I have to ensure that I bring back the book with me the next time I go home. I have a veritable mini-library in my home now, and I have no intention of giving myself a book-buying-ban anytime soon, and yet… there will always be a yawning gap in my heart (and the library) where the book “Rat-A-Tat-Tat” ought to have been.

To lost books then, and memories that refuse to be yellowed with time, and books that will always, always remain with you no matter where you are in life.

P.S. Since starting to write this post, I have managed to download the PDFs of each of these books from a free archive (bless their hearts!) but I still long to touch the physical copies of the books I don’t have with me yet.

Lusi is Love

‘Lusis,’ Nibir groaned, popping his second Pudin Hara in the day. ‘Why does it always have to be lusis?’
‘Because lusi is love,’ Ma replied.
‘Because the only way you know someone really loves you is if they make hot puffy lusis for you,’ I added.
Ma nodded her head. ‘And aloo bhaji and an omelette. Or else they send you away with tea and biscuits.’

– from “Revelations of an Imperfect Life

Of course, if I had to write a book about growing up in Assam, the book had to have lusi in it. And maasor tenga (the book opens with maasor tenga) but this one is about lusis. About how something as simple as flour and oil and water can make something so delicious… about pretty little balls of dough that are rolled out as thin as possible, and then given a hot oil bath, and how they come out of that bath all puffed up and golden and delicious.

Like any other true blue khar-khowa Oxomiya I grew up gorging on lusi and aloo bhaji. Or lusi and jam. Or if I was lucky, lusi and cream and sugar. Lusi was what Mamma made when guests dropped by unannounced, regardless of whether it was two in the afternoon and right after lunch, or if it was eight in the evening, just before dinner.

I remember this incident that left an indelible impression on my mind. Back in the days, when it was norm for a newly wed couple to make social visits on almost everyone who’d been to their wedding (and that makes for a LOT of lunches, dinners and teas!) a couple had dropped by at our place. The groom was Assamese, but the bride wasn’t, so when Ma brought out the customary lusi and aloo bhaji and omelette, she threw a meaningful glance at her husband and broke into a big smile. When Ma asked her why, she answered, with yet another shy smile, that her husband had apparently broken down the Assamese “rule book” for her – the one which said that if someone really likes you visiting their house, you will be offered lusi. If they don’t, well, you get sent away with tea and biscuits instead. Years later, we still laugh about it, particularly because it makes perfect sense.

There’s another lusi story that never gets old in the Saharia family, and this one’s about that time when Mamma invited all of Deuta’s graduating students (Deuta used to teach Statistics to the honours students) for lunch. It used to be a tradition: Mamma would cook for all the students who were graduating that year. One year, Mamma made chicken curry with lusi, and one particular student found himself a perfect corner in the kitchen and a perfect stool, and stationed himself there, wiping off almost a dozen lusi. That year, Mamma’d had to make a fresh batch of dough because her first one had run out in the blink of an eye.

Lusi has always been an indispensable part of my life. How can it not be, when the first thing my husband asked me, even before we’d gotten engaged, was whether I knew how to cook lusi or not? The first time I made lusi for him was in that tiny kitchen of ours in Hanoi, and I remember being thrilled to find just the right pan (I still have that pan for lusi; there’s nothing quite like it) When my sister was visiting us for the first time in Malaysia, I made lusi for her the moment she arrived. When we hosted our American friends for dinner, I made sure to make lusi for them. I maintained the tradition of making lusi for guests. I guess some things don’t change.

It took me a long time to master the art of making lusi. Making the dough in itself can be a little tricky, because everything depends on the proportion of flour to oil. Too little oil, and the lusi will end up rubbery (although as a child I used to LOVE those kind!). Too much oil and the lusi will become crispy, like hurt-the-inside-of-your-mouth crispy. The actual cooking needs practice too, specially because rolling out the dough and frying them at the same time requires quite a lot of coordination and speed. I mean, there you are in the kitchen, inches away from a pan filled with hot, hot oil and you’re trying to roll out perfect circle of dough, making sure it is paper thin, and then you drop it carefully in the oil making sure you don’t splash yourself. Then you have to ensure it remains “submerged” until it starts puffing up and floating to the surface, and while all this is happening, you have to have your next lusi rolled out and ready to fry. This is precise science, man.

Just yesterday, a friend of mine called me up and asked me if I was home and if she could drop by. The whole idea of an unplanned visit was so thrilling (ah, the small joys) that I decided to make lusi for her. Even as I fried a big batch, I wondered if I was overdoing it, that maybe I had made too many. But then we sat down for lunch, with the bowl of lusi between us, and before I knew it, the bowl sat empty. We always enjoy each other’s company, with conversation flowing freely, because there’s always a lot of catching up to do. But something about yesterday, when we kept going in for seconds and thirds and then some, and relishing each bite, fully aware of how sinfully decadent it was, made it all the more special. She sent me a text today morning, telling me yet again how much she enjoyed that lunch, and I told her that my making lusi for her was my telling her that I love her.

Because, hey, lusi is love.

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The Japan I came to know

What can I say about Japan that hasn’t been said already? Everyone knows about the cherry blossoms in spring and the red maple leaves in autumn. Everyone knows about matcha and sushi and ramen. Oh, and manga and anime. Bullet trains. Bento boxes. Geishas. Zen gardens. Kimonos. Karaokes. Am I missing out on anything?

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When the husband started planning our impulsive trip (I do realise it’s an oxymoron – a planned impulsive trip) my involvement was barely lukewarm. All I had asked him was to ensure that our trip didn’t involve too many cities because I didn’t want to be hopping from one place to another, and that we would have to go to Kyoto (after all, Memoirs of a Geisha is not my favourite book of all times for nothing) The husband thankfully agreed, and came up with an itinerary of five days in Kyoto and one in Osaka. And boy what a detailed itinerary that was! It was a seven page document, with photos and address in both Japanese and English, and a whole section dedicated to the multiple options we could pick out from for our meals. I’m pretty sure had he been given more time, he would have come up with a veritable minute-to-minute. The guy spent sleepless nights doing his research and compiling that list, I kid you not. We watched so many YouTube videos that even YouTube suggested that we know all about the best convenience store foods in Tokyo (YouTube didn’t know we were interested only in Kyoto) So yes, when we left for Kansai International Airport one happy evening, we felt prepared. That, and the fact that I had been learning basic Japanese for a month. (Spoiler alert, I didn’t use much beyond the basic questions, and reverting to my standard “I don’t speak Japanese” in Japanese the moment they would start rattling off the responses)

But all the planning couldn’t have prepared me for the sheer happiness that simmered and bubbled inside me the moment we started approaching Kyoto on the Limited Express Haruka. It had been a rough night traveling from Singapore to Kansai with a stopover in Ho Chi Minh City. The little one had barely slept two hours in the flight, while I hadn’t slept at all, and all I wanted was to find a bed to pass out on. As I sat on the train, the rhythmic swaying lulling my cranky little one to sleep finally, I could feel my eyes drooping, but I kept them open forcefully. I wanted to take it all in – and I did! I gasped and sighed and smiled and turned to my husband and thanked him again and again for bringing us to this beautiful place, and until then, all I had seen was the heaving and sighing mountains in the horizon, and cute little houses nestled on those mountains with winding roads leading up to them, and immaculate gardens in front of each of those houses. It was love in first sight, and I will never, ever forget the gush of euphoria I felt that time inside that train. I could have ridden that train forever… I didn’t want it to end.

I will not go into details about the tourist spots that we visited, because there’s enough and more that’s available on the internet. My husband’s itinerary demanded that we visit Kiyomizu Dera, Arashiyama, Tenryuji Temple, Fushimi Inari Taisha, Gion, Nishiki Market and Nara Park, and those were the places that we visited. We wrote our prayers on those wooden prayer plaques in Kiyomizu Dera and drank water from the famous Otowa Waterfall (although I have no idea if I drank from the success, love or longevity stream) We walked through the bamboo grove in Arashiyama and ambled across the zen garden in Tenryuji Temple. We jostled by tourists through the thousand red torii gates in Fushimi Inari Taisha. We walked through the streets in Gion, hoping to catch a glimpse of the elusive Geishas. We tried (well, my husband and brother-in-law did) the famous baby octopus in Nishiki Market, and fed deer biscuits to some very persistent deer in Nara Park.

We gorged on amazing food, but that goes without saying, I suppose. From gyozas that brought an involuntary Cheshire-Cat grin to my face to ramen that had us all slurping in silence for ten whole minutes, we loved it all!

We did all those things that tourists are supposed to do. But strangely enough, they weren’t the highlights of my trip to Kyoto. Sure, I was awed by the grandeur and picturesqueness… as were the hundreds of the other people I was surrounded by as we admired the sights. What I brought back home from Japan was a whole different set of experiences.

Towards the end of our stay in Kyoto, as we sat down for dinner at Pronto by Jeugia cafe & bar, we took turns (upon my insistence) to list our top three “Kyoto moments”. It was quite interesting to see how we all listed very different things – goes to show perception is everything!

My first was the train ride from Kansai International Airport to Kyoto : my love at first sight moment. My second was chancing upon the Studio Ghibli store on our way to Kiyomizu Dera when we were not even looking for it. The little one had just discovered the wonderful world of Totoro, and was superlatively thrilled to see Totoro for herself! We ended up buying a set of small figurines for her to play with, and those figurines were her constant companion throughout the trip.

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But then, maybe my second was our visit to Maruzen, the bookstore that had been a part of Kyoto since 1872, and how I went crazy over the cute stationary. While English paperback novels are more expensive than here in Singapore, I found a few hardcover books about Japan that would definitely be more expensive here. My favourite of the lot (other than the obvious Totoro picture book) is the beautiful book on Japanese traditions and festivals. Such cute illustrations! So much to know about the gorgeous place!

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Maruzen Bookstore

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Feeding the Totoro obsession

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Our loot from Maruzen

My third was, without doubt, this moment from Nara Park.

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It had been a gorgeous day, with a sweet, sweet breeze that seemed to fill my very heart. It had taken us over an hour on the local train from Kyoto and we were quite hangry by the time we reached. But then we saw a French all-day breakfast place and all was good after we polished off two loaded trays of sweet and savoury baked stuff. The deer in Nara Park were friendly, albeit a bit too friendly, and I kept my distance, although the little one was clearly enamoured.

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But what I loved most about that place was the pavilion in the middle of the lake, and being engulfed by the feeling of absolute quiet and serenity there. We sat down by a lake, watching lazy turtles as they sunbathed in rocks and red koi fish as they made graceful laps in the green water. Just as we thought that the trip couldn’t get any better, we stumbled upon a massive gathering at an ongoing music festival, complete with food stalls and origami booths and what not! There was a stage performance going on, with famous Japanese children rhymes being sung (as was evident from the loud cheers of the kids present)
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We had a picnic lunch under a tree, and the cherry on top of the cake was the performers singing the title song of Totoro just as the little one had started getting cranky and tired. It felt like a sign from the powers above… it had to have been a conspiracy to give us our best day there ever.

But then, the discussion in that cafe that evening had been before we attended the tea ceremony, or else, the tea ceremony would have found a place for itself in my top three moments. I have a whole different post planned out all about the tea ceremony – I loved it that much!

Besides the experiences, I actually brought back a few life lessons (do I sound like a pretentious travel snob? I hope not!) Being in Japan made me desperately want to be a politer version of myself. I was bowled over by their courtesy and gentleness, and since then, I have made it a point to be nice to strangers. I also keenly observed their fashion, and realised that it was driven more by comfort than anything else. I admired how immaculately dressed the women looked in their summer linens, accessorised with a floral scarf here, a satin clip there, and how smart the men looked in their crisp white shirts (they do have a thing for white there) It made me take a good look at my own fashion sense, and how my perpetual dream of losing weight has got more to do with vanity than fitness (I MUST fit into those skinny jeans! I MUST wear that body con dress! I MUST look good in that halter top!) Again, since then, I have made a conscious decision to dress for comfort.

Our one evening in Osaka was quite uneventful (we didn’t even go to Dotonburi, even though it was barely ten minutes from our Air BnB) except for the thirty minutes of panic when we thought we had lost my brother-in-law while shopping at Uniqlo.

I know for sure, particularly because my husband has agreed, that we will be going back. While we were too late for the cherry blossoms and too early for the maple leaves in autumn, I don’t regret it at all. I also don’t regret not staying at a ryokan or not bathing at an onsen, because it gives us something to look forward to on our next trip.

Until the next time, I will dream of Japan in technicolour.

Mata ne!

One year an author

This time, last year, I was basking in the afterglow of the launch of my second baby: my book, Revelations of an Imperfect Life.

I can’t believe it’s been one year. I feel like I am in a time warp – on one hand, I remember everything about that day in exaggerated details… the colours bolder and brighter, the voices louder and clearer and perhaps, the feelings more intense than they actually were. And on the other hand I feel like so much has happened in this one year that it couldn’t have been just one year since that day.

Right after my launch, my husband had planned a family dinner for all of us to celebrate, but my daughter, who’d refused to take an afternoon nap that day, had crossed the line from tired to superlatively cranky even as we wrapped things up, and vehemently refused to let go of me, clinging to my neck with her tiny little arms. She’d fallen asleep in the car, and predictably woken up just when I wanted to put her down on the bed. So I did what any mother would do in my place. I sat down on the couch and held her tight as she drifted back to sleep. I told my husband to go on to the dinner without me, and as I sat there alone in the dark, texting my publisher about how the launch went, I remember feeling suddenly overwhelmed: my book was out there, in the hands of people who were flipping through the pages even as I sat there! I remember the sudden gush of gratefulness I felt each time I relived my favourite moments from the launch. I remember closing my eyes and seeing the look on my parents’ face when they were introduced to the gathering. But most of all, I remember telling myself to hold on to that moment, as tight as I could, because it was true: when the end of days come, and I will think of the moments that made life worth living, this one moment would definitely make it to the top ten. At least.

The last year has taught me quite a lot, and I’d like to believe that I have learned all the lessons that life intended for me to learn within this year. The launch of my book was the first in a series of events that have brought me to where I am today. Still revelling in that delicious high from finally being a published author, I decided to leave my job, so I could do justice to the writer in me. There had been a second book brimming in my mind for the longest time, and I thought that all I needed was time – time to sit down on my desk and type out all those thoughts and ideas begging to be garbed in words.

But like my father had very wisely said right after the launch, I had chosen a tough path. Like a mother forgetting about her excruciating labour at the mere sight of her baby’s face, I had forgotten about the onerous climb that had led me to the crest of the hill – so engrossed was I in the vista. Sitting in front of my laptop, grappling to put down one word after the other and celebrating the end of each sentence, I felt like I was back at the foot of the hill, squinting my eyes against the sun as I looked at how high the peak, and how rocky the climb really was. I think, for a writer, there is no greater pain than sitting down with the intention to write (with a notebook and a pen, or in my case, the laptop) and realising that the words have run dry. It ached, physically, to sit down on my desk everyday. All the while I kept thinking about how it was so much easier to get the first book out because I knew people had no expectations from me. With the second, I would have to be doubly careful, because I don’t want to let down people who have read and loved the first. And that, was precisely the moment when I forgot why I had started writing in the first place : for myself. So I did the best thing I could do that point: I let go. The first lesson learned in this one year?

I will write for myself.

While I would have loved for my book to fly off the shelves and rattle the publishing world as an extraordinary debut, reality was that it was doing okay. Not stellar, but not too bad either. Just okay. I would ponder a lot over how if only I had been better at marketing it, and maybe marketing myself, the book would sell much better. Then of course, I stumbled upon the ultimate truth of today’s world : It is not enough to just be good at what you do. You have to know how to market it too. But then, this wonderful, wonderful friend who came into my life like a breath of fresh air told me, “Why are you so worried about how your book is faring in the market? Look at all these people your book has touched. Look at what they have said about it! Don’t you think it is worth relishing that they have felt so deeply about it?” Which lead me to the second lesson in the year.

I will cherish every single word of praise that comes my way, instead of worrying about how many could have come had my book been better known.

For the third lesson, I have yet another friend to thank, although this one has got more to do with blogging than authoring. While commenting on how I have almost stopped blogging, and how she misses my posts, she said, “Don’t make it about the target audience. Just about the real you.” I quite liked the ring of that: the real me. I was reminded of the 22 year old me who used to believe that every thought that comes to my head is a pearl that needs to documented, and started blogging from her hostel room, of the newly wed woman who could write a whole post about watching the rain from her balcony, of the mother who couldn’t stop gushing about playing hide and seek with her one year old. Was that the real me, then? Maybe. Maybe because that was before I had become a published author. Maybe I have started overthinking about what I post and what I don’t. And maybe, just maybe, I need to go back to how it all began: with just a girl who felt profound joy in the tiny little things, with an abundance of words and an insane urge to pour her soul out on her blog. And that brings me to the third lesson:

I will remember the writer I used to be, instead of trying to be the writer I ought to be.

With these in mind, I sincerely hope, that I will start blogging more often. That I will be the “real me”, at least in this space that I have called my own for almost nine years now. Until the next post, then.

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