Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for the ‘Culture’ Category

Indian time out

“Where are you from?”

“I’m Indian.”

“Oh really? I was going to guess something like Indonesian.”

And so it goes.  I smile, one which is perhaps a little tired. It’s not the first time.

I think this is going to happen even in India, when Danko and I go tomorrow, for 3 months.

During these exchanges, I also probably shrug my shoulders, my body language projecting ‘Yeh I know. I find it hard to believe myself sometimes’.  Sure, my parents are both Indian, I lived there until I was six, and I absolutely adore Indian food.  That’s about it though.  I sound foreign when I try to speak Bengali, I turn into stiff robot whenever I wear a sari, I suddenly lose my sense of rhythm when the Bollywood music comes on, my understanding of Indian politics is shaky…the list of my ‘non-Indianness’ goes on.   3 months in India. This is going to be the longest period of time I will have spent there, since I left 30 years ago.  That pressure sits on my shoulders like a bad backpack, weighing heavier as the day approaches.  Will I start to feel a sense of belonging? Will my rhythm vibe with India? Or will I be out of step?

Ironically, I think Danko will move fluidly in the country. He has ‘aaram se’ naturally built into him whereas I stomp, grumble and huff when things don’t happen when and how they are supposed to.  He doesn’t have to prove anything in India.  He can just take the experience as it comes.

Maybe I don’t have anything to prove either.  To myself, to others, to India.  Sure, my Indian-ness is at times more Indian-less but that’s not the really the point, I’m coming to realise.    This trip is about pulling us out of the day to day, to be in another way, in another place for a moment.  It’s about having the time to start a relationship with India on my terms.  I want to be open, to observe myself from a distance, to understand what I enjoy, what irritates me.  Oh, and I want to eat all the food.  Obvs.

Advertisements

Read Full Post »

2015 is going to be hard to beat.  In chronological order, I bought a flat, my boyfriend proposed at Easter, we got married three months later, I quit my job, during the summer, we spent seven weeks on the Croatian island of Brac (where Danko grew up), and a week after our return, I started my adventures in freelancing.  2016: you can put your feet up and drink a cup of cocoa.

IMG_3150

Our local beach in Bol, Brac where we spent the summer

I could have written about a lot of these milestones, especially the marriage bit.  I thought, pondered, and racked my brain to say something original about getting married.  Then I gave up.  I could have written about the joy and peace I felt about marrying Danko, my heart quadrupling in size because of it.  I could have written about the simple wedding we threw together at my parents’ home with our nearest and dearest there to celebrate with us.  I could have written about how i cherished being able to wear my mother’s wedding sari, forty-four years after she wore it to marry my father, a stranger to her then, unlike me, who married the person who probably knows me better than I know myself.  I could have written about all these things and more. While all these moments are extraordinary to me, they aren’t what continues to resonate with me six months later.  When someone asks me ‘how’s married life?’, I shrug and smile and reply ‘same same but different’.  The ‘different’ is that my world has become bigger and richer.

11855678_10155888083575261_2667254260187566006_n

The spread of Croatian/Bosnian and Indian food at our wedding lunch

Getting married to a man from another culture (Danko is half Bosnian, half Croatian), and gaining in-laws give me opportunities to see,  understand and participate in a whole new kaleidoscopic set of traditions and customs.  From different ways of communicating and learning a different history, to (and definately not least), new foods to eat and cook;  2015 has opened up another box of family charms to explore and capture.

IMG_2885

An ordinary lunch in Bol. Fresh sardines, getting ready to meet the grill

I want to start 2016 with a family charm from my Croatian family.  I haven’t heard of a traditional New Year’s Day food in the UK as in all likelihood it consists of bottomless Bloody Mary’s and a full English breakfast to absorb the excesses of new year’s eve festivities.  However, as with Bengalis where food is a constant, Croatians mark the first day of the new year with a feast featuring a whole roast piglet, Russian or beetroot salad, and sarma, stuffed cabbage rolls.

Sarma was one of things Danko was cooking up in the background when we first started skyping, he in Zagreb, me in London.  When I finally tasted the real thing last Easter, lets just say I had another good reason to marry him.  It’s highly unlikely that either he or I will be making this tomorrow, due to said festivities but at least I will know where to begin on the 2nd or maybe the 3rd.

HAPPY NEW YEAR folks!!

Recipe for Sarma

Sarme-Meat-rolls-with-sour-cabbage

 

You’ll find many country variations on how to make sarma, from Turkish, Bulgarian all the way to Central Europe.  This version of sarma blends Bosnian and Dalmatian influences reflecting Danko’s family background.  His family also usually make a big pot of this, and freeze a bunch of it so the following quantities can be reduced if you want to make fewer rolls.

Ingredients for the cabbage rolls:

  • 1 kg ground beef
  • 2.5kg whole head of sauerkraut (you’ll need to use about 15 for the rolls, shred some and keep 3-5 leaves for the broth)
  • 1.5 fistfuls of orzo that has been soaked in water for 2 hours
  • 1 big carrot, finely grated
  • 1 large onion, finely chopped or blitzed in food processor
  • Bunch of parsley, finely chopped
  • Salt and pepper

For the broth

  • 300 g dried, smoked bacon
  • 500g pork ribs (smoked and dried) OR kielbasa sausage will do just fine too
  • Generous squeeze of tomato paste
  • A bit of paprika powder, to your taste
  • Boiling water
  • 4 bay leaves
  • 1tbsp of sage

Method

  • Mix the beef, orzo, carrot, onion, parsley and seasoning together.  Leave for 30 mins
  • Take one leaf of the cabbage head.  Put a heaped table spoon of the meat mixture on the leaf and make a small package.  Tuck the ends in so the mixture is secure.  Repeat for 15-20 rolls.
  • Set aside 3-5 leaves for the broth
  • Shred any remaining leaves
  • In a large pot, put a layer of the shredded sauerkaut
  • Pack the cabbage rolls tightly around the edges of the pot, gradually moving into the centre until the pot is completely filled with the cabbage rolls
  • Place the bacon, ribs (or sausages) over the rolls
  • Squeeze over the tomato paste and sprinkle some paprika
  • Place final layer of sauerkraut leaves over the rolls
  • Pour enough boiling water to cover everything plus another 2 cm
  • Put an upside down plate inside the pot, over the rolls so everything stays in place. Place tight fitting lid over the pot and bring to boil.
  • Once boiling, lower the heat to simmer for about 1 hour

Serve with either mashed or boiled potatoes.

Read Full Post »

'Mahanagar' movie poster

Satyajit Ray’s original artwork for Mahanagar

A few weeks ago, my parents and I went along to watch ‘The Big City’ (Mahangar), a movie by the Bengali film director, Satyajit Ray.  It was being shown at the British Film Institute as part of a full retrospective of his movies.  In a nutshell the movie is about the changing face of India in the 1960s (specifically Calcutta) – for the society, for families and for women.  Although the movie was made more than half a century ago, its themes and messages still burn brightly and made me think about parallels with my family.

Firstly, a quick note on Satyajit Ray.  As one of the two biggest Bengali cultural icons (see here for my thoughts on the other one, Rabrindranath Tagore), his movies are imprinted on the psyche of any Bengali, old and young.  The ‘Apu Trilogy’ is almost akin to required viewing to pass the Bengali 101 class and those who haven’t watched the movies are usually met with an incredulous look that questions the validity of their Bengali creds.  For once, I am a total fan of this particular Bengali icon.  He perfectly captured the nuances of the Bengali character, the movies have international appeal, and above all his cinematic style conveyed the subtleties and flaws of humanity with a whisper instead of megaphone.  Through the little side glances, a change in body language and the minutiae that convey the small crucial decisions of life, his movies seep into your bones unobtrusively.

As for the movie, what really struck me how the story of the central character, Arati is still so relevant to our times.  She starts out as a coy, sweet and diligent wife and daughter-in-law.  Her subsequent subtle transformation into a multi-dimensional woman who forges her own personal identity beyond the confines of the archetype of what a woman/wife/working mother should or should not be is amazing to watch.  What is also pleasing is to see her husband’s gradual (albeit initially begrudging) acceptance and appreciation of his wife as an individual who is his equal.  Given all the current (still!) debate about the role of women, the definition of feminism in India and elsewhere, this story resonated.  It became clear to me that as long as we continue to deify women – especially in India – we will always fall into the trap of using the language of ‘should’ and ‘should not’ for women instead of just seeing us as humans, with flaws and cracks.

So why write about this? It made me incredibly grateful for the women in my family.  While the role of women in Bengali society is chequered (as in most other places), I can honestly say that in the case of my family, I have more examples of women who blaze their own trails than those who do not.  Aunts who are scientists, head up university departments, stay-at-home parents; cousins who are designers, doctors and architects; nieces who are studying what they want to study and have pink hair.  They live inside and outside India, some are mothers, some have never married.  The women in my family do what the hell they want and don’t lose sight of themselves.  They don’t and won’t stop.

Read Full Post »

Screen shot 2013-04-21 at 21.45.49

Last week (14/15th April) was Bengali new year (Pohela Boishakh – meaning first month of the Bengali calendar) and it is one of those Bengali events and traditions which I routinely forget about.  It doesn’t help that unlike Chinese New Year in London which regardless of whether you are Chinese or not, is seen everywhere, Bengali New Year is the shy wallflower skulking in the corner at the high school dance.   Apparently the main reason the Bengali calendar (loosely tied to the vedic solar calendar) was created by Mughal Emperor Jalaluddin Muhammad Akbar was because the original lunar calendar conflicted with the harvest seasons, therefore making it difficult for the farmers to pay taxes out of season.   Traditionally it is the time when businesses start new ledgers, new shops open, business relationships are renewed.  So basically, the Bengali new year is really about the start of a new tax year (!) and since it closely follows the UK tax year, I will now have something to remind me that it is coming up.  Hardly an exciting way to remember it but as taxes are unavoidable for most of us, it is a reassuringly predictable reminder.

As I mention in an earlier post here that Bengal is very left-leaning politically and Bengali people haven’t really blazed an entrepreneurial trail.  So the fact that Bengali New Year is connected to business and money strikes me as very funny and ironic.

The new year starts with Sankranti (new year’s eve) which involves a complete spring clean of the house.  I quite like idea of literally starting the new year with a fresh and clean outlook.   Baths are usually taken and then children swallow bitter neem leaves, turmeric and a piece of jaggery.  As neem and turmeric are anti-bacterial, the body also goes through a bit of spring clean.  And new year itself starts at dawn, not midnight.  And yes, included in the festivities and fun, is a liberal scattering of Tagore songs.  For anyone who has read my entry about Tagore, you’ll know what my opinion is on this. Spoiler alert: lets just say when the ladies of the Bengali community (my mum and sis included) have performed at various functions, I have been kindly told to move from the front row to go sit at the back of the audience because my bored facial expression is distracting.

I digress.  We don’t go through all of the above anymore but as with any event like this, food plays a central role. And my family does food really well.   However, since the new year fell on a Monday, we didn’t feast.  Indigestion is a nuisance – more so when you don’t have the weekend to suffer lazily.  But the menu was still a treat: Shorshe Maach (fish marinated in mustard), Shukto (a Bengali preparation of vegetables), both of which I blogged about here and here.  The third dish we had is also a favourite of mine – Shaak – of which the main ingredient is any green leafy vegetable.  Sounds quite dull but not the way my mum cooks it!  It is common to use spinach for this dish but my mum doesn’t like to use spinach as it reminds her too much of the soggy mess dumped on plates in her college hostel!  So one of the ‘charms’ of my family is that my mum cooks it with Swiss chard, having tasted it for the first time when we lived in Sweden.  Less soggy mess, more texture and taste.

IMG_20130421_1Here’s the recipe:

  • 2 bunches of white/ red Swiss Chard or a combination of both
  • 1/2 of a smallish cauliflower, broken into small florets
  • 1 small khol rabi (instead of potato), it is sweet and crunchy), diced into small pieces
  • 1 small aubergine. diced into small pieces
  • A handful of frozen soybean (for higher protein content than green peas)
  • 2 green chillies,
  • 1 tsp of panch phoron (Bengali five spice)

Method

  1. Wash the green leaves thoroughly and drain well.  Chop into approximately 1″ wide pieces.  Do not discard the stems. Cut them finer.   These are crunchy and add texture and taste.
  2. Pre-boil the khol rabi until tender but it should still hold some bite. Drain and keep aside.
  3. Heat 2 tbs oil in a pan.  Brown the diced aubergine but make sure it is still firm.  Keep aside.
  4. Add another tbs oil to the pan.  Add the panch phoron to the pan.  As soon as it starts spluttering add the green chillies and the cauliflower florets.  Stir fry for a couple of minutes.  Add the greens.  Cover it briefly and cook on a high heat to allow the leaves to wilt, probably not more than a couple of minutes.  Remove the lid. Add the remaining vegetables and salt to taste.  Stir to mix.  Cook over high heat until all the water from the leaves has evaporated.  Stir for few more minutes more.  Remove and serve hot with either rice or chapati.

Note:  It is important to cook over high heat and mostly uncovered to avoid an overcooked, soggy mess!!!

Happy new year everyone.   Sort out your taxes!

Read Full Post »

So far the family events and stories I have written about in this occasional blog have been set in the past, relying on memories that are not as fresh as they once were. My big sister’s wedding day (13.03.13) deserves to be captured in the moment, the precious observations and thoughts immediately scooped up in Tupperware, ready for the memory fridge. Now each time we open a corner of the box to take a peek, the sight and smell will be as sweet and delicious as when the memories were made.

Partly due to the fact that this wedding started out as a simple registration which then morphed into something else, the short time frame in which to organise it so that Ankur can move to the UK sooner rather than later, and also due to Sohini and Ankur being independent drum marchers, this wedding defies a simple categorisation. It was Indian and thoroughly non-Indian at the same time. There were elements taken from a western wedding, a few token nods to Bengali customs, but also many touches which set it apart from both sides. It was fuss-free and devoid of pomp and ceremony. But like Jane Austen’s stoic characters or in Northern Exposure when Joel leaves for New York, Maggie says “everything I never said” http://bit.ly/WAwEaD, the emotions ran deep in this simple, small but heartfelt Indian wedding.

Being one of the most practical people I know, I wasn’t surprised that Sohini played to her strengths. So she got help with her hair but did her own make up.

 

One of the highlights was when after the registration was complete, my dad said a few words as the father of the bride. While it is becoming more common to incorporate this lovely and moving custom in Indian weddings in US and UK, it is not featured much in India. Now usually when my dad is about to embark on a monologue (most often about the failings of the Indian political system), I half close my eyes in preparation for the cringe moment. I had heard the story before about while he was in Europe for work, he received the telegram ‘mother and baby doing fine’ and how he had to wait three months to bond with Sohini. But I didn’t cringe this time. This time my eyes welled up with tears.  And yes I was the only softie in the room.

The food is a key criteria to ‘rate’ any wedding. It was indeed delicious but the more interesting and quirky element was the ‘Love Food. Hate Waste’ postcards set out on each table. Ankur’s pet peeve is food waste so we decided upon a little behavioural economics experiment by placing these postcards during the moment of eating, hence on the tables. Discrete but visible without being patronising. We are still awaiting the results.

The couple mingling with the guests is a common sight in western weddings but traditionally at Indian weddings the couple are made to sit on thrones while they ‘receive’ guests. Thankfully we dispensed with this silly custom here.  As a result the wedding had a relaxed and informal atmosphere.  Sohini and Ankur had the freedom to properly interact with the guests versus just exchanging 3-second pleasantries and posing for the requisite photo opp during the usual meet n greet conveyor belt.

Finally, a moment for Sohini and Ankur to a) eat something and b) just hang out. The ‘feed each other’ was our suggestion. Such cheese would usually give them indigestion.

No wedding, whether it’s Indian, Christian, Jewish, Italian etc. is complete without photos of the full family and the prom pose of the happy couple. Even independent drum marchers want a way to immortalise the creation of something new for both the couple and the families.

So regardless of the differences and comparisons, in the end it was what all weddings are: an occasion to share and celebrate with the people you care about.

Welcome to the Purkayasthas’ Ankur!

Read Full Post »

Last week was the time of year when Bongs (Bengalis) world over, celebrated Durga puja, which in many ways is our Christmas.  But it comes without the drama and logistical nightmare of cooking the Christmas dinner, buying multitudinous presents and being in the close confines of just family when all the shops are closed.

So for anyone who loves Christmas, enjoys dressing up, likes the sound of free Indian food cooked by someone else, and appreciates Durga’s kick-ass qualities I wrote about last year, here are some tips ‘to do puja’ like a Bong next year.

Do: Don’t:
Choose what days to go. Puja lasts for 3 days (as do most festivals and weddings in India). I’d recommend Ashtami and/or Nobami evenings – the 2nd and 3rd days of puja. Go everyday both afternoon and evening. It’s going to be hard to take that much time off work and seems a bit overkill unless you are a) very religious, b) have run out of food at home and a bit skint or c) have loads of saris that you really want to show off.
Dress up.  When you live abroad, Indian weddings and pujas are the only two real occasions when we get to wear our Indian finery.  For women, saris are standard but churidar kurtas (a kaftan-like top with leggings basically) will also do. Men can get away with just coming from work i.e. trousers and shirt unless you are on the hunt for a traditional Bengali bride. Then perhaps opt for a kurta + pajama to really impress. Come looking like an over-decorated Christmas tree.  We Bengalis are intellectual snobs and therefore believe we are the custodians of ‘good taste’.  We will judge you.
Give Anjali – this is the prayer offering with Sanskrit mantras.  People usually repeat them quietly to themselves after the priest says each line. Loudly repeat the mantras. Some of the Sanskrit words are really long and difficult to say. I still struggle with some of them so I prefer to say them softly rather than have other people be distracted by me mangling the rich and evocative words.
Ask for sensible things during Anjali such as to grow in confidence, work harder in school, be more patient etc. Ask to be rich, to find a nice husband, a son, or the latest Macbook Pro laptop.  It’s not in god’s hands. You know that.  And it’s a little tacky (there goes the Bengali judgement again). Durga is also not our version of Santa.
Enjoy the food!  It’s usually vegetarian but it doesn’t have to be. The standard fare is ‘Khichuri’ –  a rice and lentil dish, a vegetable curry, a veggie pakora and then a sweet.  It is not uncommon for people to choose which pujas to go to on the strength of the food! Go for seconds until after the first round has been and just ask to make sure it’s ok. Once you have the green light, go for it!
Mix and mingle.  Apart for the 5-10 mins spent on the prayer offering, puja is by and large a social get together and not very religious so just join in.  Apart from our occasional snobbery, we are always humbled when anyone else wants to come along to our festivities, so I promise we will welcome you with open arms. Expect there to be booze at the puja.  It is strictly a no alcohol zone.  Instead what tends to happen is that the ‘young folk’ sneak away to the nearest pub once the puja dies away for a pint.  Go with them when you are thirsty.

Here are some photos from this year’s puja at Hampstead Townhall.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Looking forward to next year but what sari do I wear??

Read Full Post »

October 14th, 1971.  The year in which two people fresh from an arranged marriage moved to Japan, a strange and beautiful foreign land where they spent a year getting to know this fascinating country as well as each other.

October 14th, 2011.  Forty years later they returned, along with their grown up daughters to knock at the door of old memories as well create new ones.

1971

A young couple

Suvesh was going to embark on a post-doctorate fellowship to do research at the prestigious Tokyo Institute of Technology with Prof. Furuta. We arrived in Tokyo in the late evening at the end of autumn 1971 after a long flight from Kolkata. Fortunately we had two refuelling stops, first in Bangkok and then Hong Kong. The last stretch was longer and except for a pair of companion wing-lights blinking at the tips we were piercing through the darkness until Tokyo’s neon skyline came into view.   One of Prof. Furuta’s student, Ken Tomyama came to receive us at Haneda Airport and brought us to the hotel.  Looking through a window on the 10th floor Tokyo looked like a dazzling fairy land.  The next day, Ken and Professor Furuta took us to the tiny one room flat which became our home for a year.  Our initial reaction was shock.  Just one room!!!  It was a very steep learning curve but surprisingly it did not take long to feel completely at home in our little nest.

(more…)

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »