Of love, containers, and gajar ka halwa

The last two days have hung heavy on me. I finally let my students know that I am leaving the school and that next Tuesday would be my last day teaching them. Even as I answer their whys I tell myself it will be okay. That I will be okay. Because while a part of me says that I could never be anything but a teacher, the other part reminds me that I am, after all, a writer.

Between wrapping things up and prepping for my last day, I had almost forgotten that I had two tiny containers my colleagues friends had sent food for me in, and it is an unwritten code of conduct that you never return empty containers. So despite feeling wrung out like a sponge, both physically and emotionally, I decided I would make for them the one thing I know that spells unconditional love: gajar ka halwa.

I still remember the first time I made gajar ka halwa. Courtesy her crafty colleagues, Mamma had chanced upon a “healthier” version of gajar ka halwa, which called for boiling the grated carrots with milk in the pressure cooker first, and then adding ghee and sugar and stirring until that liquid goodness turns into melt-in-the-mouth thick. That recipe was one of the first recipes Mamma handed down to me. So yes, coming back to the first time I made it: it was for my sister’s boyfriend, who is now my brother-in-law. A little back story, if I may?

My sister met her husband in engineering college, and those days when she would come back home, the only person she could talk about was him. I hated his very guts. Who did he think he was, to charm his way into my sister’s heart and shove me aside and make room for himself? I took it upon myself to pick out his flaws, and vehemently made up my mind to detest him forever. But then, over time, when I realised that he was there to stay, and was not a hopeless infatuation of my sister’s like I had predicted he would be, I made gajar ka halwa for him. The tightly sealed steel container that I sent with my sister back to her hostel was my peace offering. ‘There’, it said, ‘I am grudgingly willing to admit to myself that maybe over time I might start to like you.’ Heaven knows that that container paved way for many more to come, and that over time I would not just like him, but attain the ability to love him blindly.

That was not the only time I made gajar ka halwa to show my love and affection. I remember this one time when I was in college, and I had invited my best buddies home for Bihu. The previous day we’d had our family picnic, and towards the end Mamma and I’d had a tiff, and were on gruff speaking terms (if you know what I mean) Back from the picnic, slightly irritated and not so slightly tired, I suddenly remembered that I had promised to make gajar ka halwa for my friends. A promise is a promise, and so, I started grating my way through the huge pile of carrots, arms screaming, eyes drooping. And then of course, came the arduous task of stirring, and stirring and stirring some more. Towards the end, Ma hastily pounded some cardamom and tossed the powder in the pan. That was as close to a reconciliation as I could have hoped for. Fail-proof that Mamma’s recipe was, it turned out perfect. And testimony was the phone call I received the following day from my best friend’s mother asking me for the recipe because apparently he had said that mine was better than hers!

Without consciously thinking about it, I started equating this humble dessert to love. It came to me, incidentally in the same steel container, that Mamma lovingly packed and sent all the way from Tezpur when I was in a hostel in Guwahati. Sitting on my hostel bed, feeling lonely and homesick, Mamma’s gajar ka halwa felt like a warm hug that melted me from the inside. Much later, when I was studying in Tezpur University, I would  make some to bring to my brother who was living in the hostel, and that would become the one thing he would always remember me by. In fact, the day after my sister got married, I entered her mother-in-law’s kitchen, and made gajar ka halwa for my brand new brother-in-law.

Thirty weeks pregnant, of all the things that I could have desired, it was gajar ka halwa I’d had a craving for. And so I made it, standing in front of the stove, shifting my weight from one hip to the other, heaving and sighing because hey, what the heart wants, the heart wants. In my mind, if itty bitty baby in my tummy wanted that, I’d do anything to make sure she had that.

So today, looking at the mellow orange mix of carrots and milk, stirring in the ghee and sugar and cardamom, I thought of all the times I made gajar ka halwa for the people I loved. These two people I made it for tonight? Very special ones. Made me think of the reason I had those containers in the first place, and how it might seem to be about food on the surface, but was so much more. It was about that time when a person thought about me and told herself, ‘Well she loved the chicken I cooked so much I should pack her some.’ Or that time when she brought me lunch because she knew Jenny wasn’t around to pack mine. Or about all the extra portions a friend thoughtfully packed with just me in my mind.

Jenny looked at me, all sweaty, hair sticking to my forehead, furiously stirring the halwa, and asked me why I chose to make this when I could have made anything else.

‘Because this is love, Jenny. Why would I choose to endure this if not for someone I love?’

It felt almost ritualistic, the stirring, and as I stirred, I felt… maybe not so melancholy anymore. I am not looking forward to saying goodbye to my students. I definitely do not look forward to saying goodbye to colleagues turned friends who have become such a major part of my daily life. But I tell myself I am lucky to have found in them people I absolutely adore; people I would be willing to make gajar ka halwa for.

To aching arms and breaking hearts, then. And food, of course. Always.

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Catharsis 

I resign. Here, take my notice
To whom it may concern, it says,
I inform you with this,
At this moment, on this day
That I wish to quit.

I quit from sleepless nights on the couch,
Glaring at a screen that takes me away
From things that matter the most
No offence, but I can live without knowing
What happened to everyone else today.

I quit from letting others affect me,
From letting insults disguised as compliments
To get under my skin. I’ll leave them be.
They will have no place in my mind
Or my feelings or my memories.

I quit from being nasty to my body.
From wincing at my reflection
And telling it what it isn’t, what it can’t be.
From now on, I’ll tell myself I love it.
My marks my scars; flab or fab, I’m just me.

I quit from seeking validation elsewhere,
I’m enough, and that’s all there is.
Never again will I say, ‘Say something nice’
Has happened once, has happened twice
I promise myself it won’t come to this.

I quit from living in the past,
Carrying the massive burden of memories
Wherever I go, heaving and hauling,
Never forgetting, on the brink of forgiving,
But never quite letting them go…

I quit, I tell you, I quit from holding on.
That’s quite enough, my heart says.
What use is it to remember what was,
When this is what it is till the end of the days?
So there. I put it in writing so I know.

Yours sincerely, it further says,
A cluster of vivid dreams,
The entire rainbow of mixed emotion,
A study in conflicts, if you please.
And thus it ends, my resignation.

“”

Sweet Cravings

Sweet cravings in the long night
Of things that could be, things that might
Silky sheets slipping through fingers
Honeyed whisper that vaguely lingers

Two glasses of wine, one lip-stained red
Scattered crumbs on a tray by the bed
White satin gown, wrinkled, on the floor
Promises… promises, trapped by the door.

Blushed walls that sigh, waiting
Parted curtains, fluttering, flirting
Clammy palms, and a ring slightly loose
Hushed heated words, accusing of a ruse

A gasp, a plea, a fervent apology.
Retreating steps,
Sheets draped for modesty

Quiet of the night, sultry regret.
Salty tears, desires never met.
A knock on the door, quickening of breath
Coy unsure steps, knees that melt

Throwing caution to the wind, to hell with rules
Crushing, falling, dying… two fools.
Giving in to sweet cravings, witnessed by the night
Curtains parted, greeted with morning light.

Lipstick Kisses

Note: Like with everything else, there is a story behind this poem, and it is more funny than anything else. So this friend of mine and I were chatting about Puja and well, literal sweet cravings, when it struck me that Sweet Cravings could be the name of a song title. He sent me the first line and I took up the rest.

Thank you, sweet friend of mine (get it?) Had it not been for the free flow of conversation that I have been indulging in with abandon, had it not been for our shared obsession with the written word, had it not been for right words falling in the right place, I couldn’t have been inspired to write poetry in the middle of the night.

A slice of motherhood; with a side of guilt

Being a mother, you get used to quite a lot of things. You learn the art of doing everything one-handed. You learn to deal with sleep-deprivation like a pro (Sleep is for losers, baby!) You learn to ingest meals rather than enjoy them. You also learn that motherhood is a lot about unlearning as well, because what works one day does not necessarily work the next. But most of all, you learn to live with guilt. Motherhood and guilt go hand in hand, no exception.

I remember when we brought Miss Munchkin back home from the hospital, and how I spent the first night crying because I didn’t know if I was doing the right thing. I mean there she was, this tiny little helpless bundle, entrusting her life on the hand of this utterly clueless new parents, and I had no idea what to do! I remember feeling guilty because I thought I should have, I don’t know, known more? Prepared more? Read a little more (although I highly doubted that) As day melted into weeks the guilt manifested itself in different ways, but it was a constant presence. If she sneezed even a tiny sneeze, I’d feel guilty because maybe I hadn’t wrapped her right and maybe she’d felt cold. If she spit up her meal, I’d feel guilty about not knowing when to stop feeding her. One evening, after a marathon nursing session, when she refused to go to sleep, I whined and asked her (maybe a little harshly) why she hated sleeping. The very next moment I wanted to duck under the covers in shame and guilt.

Guilt made room for itself and decided it was there to stay.

For an entire year, I forgot everything else. Even myself. The first time I went outside without Miss Munchkin strapped to my chest, guilt held my hand and walked along with me. While I focused wholly on the act of bringing up this child, I made the cardinal mistake of neglecting my marriage. I would feel guilty about being too tired or wired up to be the wife a husband would love coming home to. My husband would accuse me of over mothering, and I would tell him that I was just trying to do everything right.

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Over the years, as she grew up and I learned to let go, I think I accepted that guilt was something I would have to learn to live with. But I never really did.

The day I went to work for the first time after becoming a mother, I was a terrible mess. I felt as if I had betrayed my very own self; the one who believed in being nothing but a mother. I was missing out on her naps, missing her mealtimes, and by the time I came home I would be too tired to do anything remotely physical with her. I kept telling myself that I had given her three whole years of my undivided attention, and that in a place like Singapore it is near impossible to provide the best education (the only kind of education you want for your child) on a single income, but that provided little solace.

The first night we (the husband and I) went out on a dinner date as a couple and not as parents, I was delirious with happiness, and terribly guilty all that the same time. I mean, we were righting a few wrongs, kicking back and enjoying each other’s company without distractions after a long time, and yet I couldn’t wait to come back home and cuddle her.

And now, after almost a year of working, and countless dinner dates and even a couple of overnight stays without our daughter, I am yet to come to terms with the idea of being half a mother. Because that’s what I feel: that I AM just half the mother I used to be. I look back at the countless hours I spent with just her for company, and how I would cook fancy snacks for her, and think of activities for her, and just be… involved. I knew which TV shows she loved, and which songs she loved listening to, but the best part was that I knew exactly where she was learning all those wonderful new things she picked up every single day. I wonder now how I had even done it: written a book while taking care of her, given up on everything else, even my reading time, and never doing anything for myself. I think about the times when I would do everything around the house and still find time to do something special with just her, about how I thought it was possible to baby wear and conquer the world. I wonder now how I had set aside the rest of the world and put my life on hold for her.

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She surprises me even now, by saying things I had never taught her to say, by singing songs I hadn’t even known that she knew, by coming up with dance steps on her own, and mostly by knowing just what to say to make me melt into a puddle of mush. Of course, now that she is going to preschool, I expect her to learn a lot of new things, but what amazes me is watching her develop a personality of her own that has got nothing to do with the way I have raised her.

I know I cribbed when I was the mother I used to be, and I am cribbing now about the mother I have become. I do realise I am being true to myself, finally setting aside time to read books and write, taking care of myself emotionally and physically. Yet, as I sit here in my study, listening to her splashing in the bath tub, spelling out words as if it were a game, singing a song I don’t even know, I wonder if ever I’ll get back a time when I know what happens in every second of her life. I think it’s high time I accept that I won’t.

But then, I’ll get up now, bundle her up in a towel and dress her up and make the most of this beautiful long weekend we have been blessed after a long time. Because being melancholy won’t help, but doing something about it will.

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Rivers and Roads

“No… no no no,” she said,
“I’ve walked down this road, I’ve seen where it’ll take me,
It promises me everything, and yet, where it ends,
The river is dry. The trees are brown as can be.”

“I’ll hold your hand as we walk down this road,
Together you and I, can conquer the world.”

“The world?” she smirked, showing her palm.
“Look at these lines, you see what I see?
Destined for disaster, that’s who I am.
Queen of this world I’m not meant to be.”

“You are a Queen. The Queen of my heart.
Come, it’s getting late. Come let’s start.”

“You know just the right things to say,
And I am scared. You make me feel a little too much.
I tremble when you speak my name,
And I melt at your slightest touch.”

“Scared, you say? Scared of what?
I know you can’t be. A coward you are not.”

“No! Not a coward. Don’t dare call me one!”
She pulled her hand away.
“I’m being… Prudent. Practical. Pragmatic.
I am being sane, no matter what you say.”

“Sanity is overrated, you of all people should know.
And I’m telling you again, it’s time to let go.”

“No! Not this road again. My poor heart!
Battered, shattered, broken and tattered,
I can’t do this to myself anymore!
It doesn’t matter now, and never had it mattered.”

Road Through The Woods Forest Wood The Path Nature

“What doesn’t matter? You? Life? Love?
Tell me you believe that. Swear on the Gods above.

“And there it is. That word I hate.
Why are you obsessed so?
I’m telling you. I’m done with all that.
You know my answer is no.”

“Listen to me, woman. Look into my eyes.
I’ve heard you say it a thousand times.
And before I tell you what I am about to say,
I’ll have you know, I know the way.
The road back home, the road you want to take.
And I’ll leave your hand, your journey you’re free to make.
But before you leave, I want to know from you.
If the past was different, what would you do?
Maybe it is not the road, but who was holding your hand,
Maybe it was how you looked at it before. And
maybe, just maybe, this time you will see
The river flowing free, just like it is meant to be.
Maybe the trees have shed all the brown,
Maybe the green is peeking through, this time around.”

“Maybe. Maybe not. How would I know?
What if you leave my hand and let me go?”

“Scared again, my love? Scared of being left alone?
All this while have I not said enough?
You need to know I’m here for good.
Holding your hand, even when the going gets tough.”

She bit her lip, and shook her head.
“This is moving too fast.
Paper burns the easiest and brightest,
But that fire doesn’t last.”

“All it takes is a gust of wind,
To turn a spark into fire.
Haven’t I told you, you glow inside me?
Are you calling me a liar?”

“No… no. I don’t think you lie.
It’s just that…” she let out a sigh.

“You’re running out of reasons now.
I can see it in your eyes.
I know you’re thinking I might be right.
I hear it in your sighs.

“So come my queen, let’s talk a walk,
The day is yellow and blue.
For all you know, when the road ends,
You will realise what I say it true.”

She held out her hand, and he clasped it tight.
She said, “I am such a fool for love.”
“Oh yes you are, and so am I,
And will be, for as long as I’m alive.”

“Look at us, two fools in love, taking that downtrodden path,
Littered with broken promises, scattered with broken hearts.
Here I go again, bracing myself, wondering why I do.
Just when I thought it was all over, I find myself at the start.

“What if this road never ends? What if we never find the river?
What if we keep walking till eternity?
Do you think you could live with that?” he asked.
“Yes,” she said, with certainty.

Hotel Salvation : Not a Review

I got to know about Hotel Salvation straight from the horse’s mouth in the month of June, when I first talked to Adil Hussain regarding my book launch in Delhi. He told me he would be coming to Singapore with the movie, and would love for us to be there for the screening with him. I watched the trailer of the movie, of course, and the first thing that came to my mind was how beautifully the movie, even through the trailer, manages to bring out a few laughs while dealing with something as morbid as death. Having watched the trailer, and then getting to know about just how critically acclaimed it has been, I couldn’t wait to watch the movie.

True to his word, Adil Da set aside passes for me and my husband and so today evening, we went, specially because the screening also involved a Q and A session with the actor himself, courtesy Darpan Singapore, who arranged for the screening in Singapore in the first place.

Gentle disclaimer: I am not a movie critic, so I can not and will not comment on technicalities (the awards and screenings speak for themselves) Which is why, this is not a review. But I am a keen observer, and an empathic one at that, which means I get highly involved in anything I read or watch. What follows below is my unadulterated undiluted emotional takeaway from the movie, because believe me, if there is one thing this movie is assured to evoke in an audience, it is emotions.

From the very first frame I was hooked by how natural and real everything felt. Adil, being the kind of actor he is, never makes you feel like you are watching someone play a role (if you have seen his other movies you would know what I am talking about) but in this case, it was not just him as Rajiv, but the entire setup that felt that way. It seems utterly effortless, this whole depiction of an ordinary middle class life. From the dining table with its mismatched bottles of condiments, to the bedroom with its creaking ceiling fan and again, mismatched bed sheet and pillows, to the wife with her nighttime skincare regimen and the typical “maxi”, from the kind of clothes the son wears to work (trademark untucked shirt and trousers) to even the mobile phone pouch he wears on his belt… it is these tiny details that make up for an entirely relatable experience. This is not your on-your-face out-and-out dramatic conflict. It is a simple dilemma, really. The father has dropped a bomb on the family saying he wants to go to Varanasi because “his time has come”.

You know the son is disgruntled. Irritation is perpetually etched on his face. Torn between a demanding boss and a somewhat emotionally manipulative father, you know he’d rather be anywhere than in this situation. But sense of duty supersedes everything, and despite not wanting to, the son finds himself squished in a taxi on their way to Varanasi. The last thing his wife has to say to him is to leave his ATM card behind.  The dialogues continue to be lighthearted without being flippant, and we laugh along at the absurdity of the whole prospect.

And then we reach Varanasi, broken staircases and dingy narrow streets in abundance. We see Hotel Salvation itself, where the manager specifically mentions that one can only get a room for 15 days, and if a guest hasn’t passed away and gained their much desired salvation by then, they would have to pack up and leave. We see father and son check in into a tiny little room, and we wait, along with them, for death, and salvation, of course.

What follows is a poignant portrayal of the reality of death, but while it does, it reflects on relationships, particularly that between this pair of father and son. What I loved the best is that there are no profound revelations. There is no moment of epiphany and long-winded dialogues to show for it. What there is, instead, is sincere apology, acknowledgement, admittance and acceptance.

In a society where we are still not comfortable talking about death, Hotel Salvation takes it up, and manages to surprisingly leave the audience uplifted. It is a very personal movie; one that will reach into the deepest crevices of your heart and evoke emotions you might not even have known existed. It will make you think, and feel and think about why you feel the way you do. It delves deep into life and loss, and what each entails. It is about holding on and letting go, and knowing exactly when to choose which.

What remained with me, and will linger with me for a really long time, has to be the last scene. Without giving away spoilers, I would say that the last scene encapsulates the movie perfectly.

I have always been a fan of Adil Hussain and his acting, and this time around, the spotlight shines equally on all the actors. Lalit Behl as Dayanand Kumar (Rajiv’s father), Geetanjali Kulkarni as the wife and Palomi Ghosh as Sunita, Rajiv’s daughter, all come together to make Hotel Salvation an extraordinary movie.

What went on in my mind, as the credits rolled in, was that if as a viewer I was this deeply moved by the movie, how did it affect the actors? How did they deal with their emotions? During the Q and A session, someone from the audience asked Adil Da how he distinguished himself away from his character, and Adil mentioned how he was a totally different person during shooting and after, and how it was a slippery slope to smear yourself with your character so much that you forget who you are. I personally asked him what his reaction was when he watched the movie for the first time, and he told me that he was deeply touched (one can’t help but be touched by the movie) because seeing himself play that role on the screen was a very different from acting it out.

Oh, and this was from after the movie. The smile should say all.

The Birthday that was.. 

I have never been the kind of person who dreads birthdays. Birthday blues and I, luckily for me, don’t know each other yet. I am on the other end of the extreme actually. Over three decades of my existence on this earth, and I still get all giddy with excitement at the idea of celebrating the day the surgeon slit my mother open to bring me to this world.

This year, I had all the more reason to celebrate. Between last birthday and this, I crossed that beautiful line from just a blogger to published author. I took up teaching, something that I am thoroughly passionate about. I bought books and more books and then some more books. I managed to lose some weight and regained the confidence the post-pregnancy weight had snatched away from me. All in all it was a fruitful year.

I woke up in the morning (the midnight episode where my husband scared me out of my wits by waking me up to wish me by torchlight long forgotten) feeling quite perky like I always do on my birthdays. Miss Munchkin woke up and suddenly remembered that it was Mamma’s birthday and that she had been working on a card which was meant to be a surprise for me. She ran to Jenny’s room and fetched me this card. My heart melted and poured out of my eyes (and this was just the beginning of the day)

Once I reached school though, the day turned from beautiful to phenomenal. From the moment I got off the bus, students started wishing me, and when I walked into my class, I saw two cakes on the table. What caught my attention more was a can filled with Post-it’s. After cutting the cakes I read out each note and for the second time yesterday I tried fighting back tears and failed. My students wrote to me about how I was their second mother, and just how much they loved reading books now because of me. I could tell all of them were bouncing on their toes trying to get started on the grand celebration that they had been planning for over a week.

They cleared up space in the classroom and made me sit on my chair, put a crown on my head and called me Queen for the Day. They’d had a whole talent show prepared for me, and two hosts for the entire show. My students wrote me poems, sang me a chorus, danced for me and a student even displayed her exceptional yoga skills!

As if my cup had been overflowing already, two of my colleagues prepared an elaborate lunch for me, and one of them, a really special friend of mine, even brought the payesh that’s the essential birthday ritual. Just as I was about to start eating though, a student from another class that I teach came up to me and asked me to go to a certain classroom. I went, a little reluctant at having to give up my lunch with friends.

When I walked into the room though, I realised they had decorated the room with balloons and tinsel, and yet another cake was waiting for me. I looked around and saw students I hadn’t even taught, waiting to wish me a happy birthday.

“But I don’t even teach you!” I exclaimed.

“It doesn’t matter Ma’am, we love you!” they all shouted.

Amidst all of this, a student I had taught previously came and handed me a note written on tissue paper, and I was so touched that I had no words. But this needs a little back story so bear with me.

Flashback to a few months ago when I used to still teach his class, on an idle class I saw him scribbling something on a tissue paper. I snatched it away from me but laughed out loud when I saw what he written. Because I love a good joke myself I wrote something in return on the same tissue paper and gave it back to him and we did it about two or three times until the whole class caught up on what was happening. I guess it became sort of an inside joke.

Which is why, that he thought of writing a note on a tissue paper to give me on my birthday touched me more than I care to admit. It was just the kind of stupid mushy stuff that appeals to the sentimental fool in me. Ah yes, the cup kept overflowing.

Grinning ear to ear I came back home to see and had barely finished talking to my Mamma when the husband came in demanding that I get ready as fast as I could because we had somewhere to be. And that somewhere turned out to be just one of our favourite places by the beach to hang out. My sister reached a little later, the breeze was perfect, the restaurant kept playing one good song after the other, the kiddos kept running and squealing and to top it all, the Husband had an Awfully Chocolate cake in hand.



Birthday = Complete.

P.S. Looking at my birthday haul (bath products, dresses, accessories, perfume, lipsticks and more accessories) I almost wonder what opinion people have of me. Have I really become THAT woman?