Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for the ‘Stories and anecdotes’ Category

It would make sense that for my mum’s birthday, especially as this one is her 70th (!!!), this entry would be about her and how awesome she is, what a great role model she is, and how much I love her etc. etc. etc.

IMG_2381But I want to talk about my dad instead and a very sweet tradition he has started for her birthday. He cooks. Ever since he spent a year and a half working in Abu Dhabi where he lived on his own, having had a crash course in cooking from my mother, he regards himself as quite adept in the kitchen. But he saves his culinary skills for this one day.

IMG_2377Before I elaborate on the menu, let me give you a little context on him. My dad is quite the oddball in that he blends a mixture of some old-skool (Indian) views and formality, with new age man stuff. Combine the question he asked me when I showed him my tattoo, ‘how many of your MBA friends have a tattoo?’, (to which I answered I don’t know because I haven’t seen them naked), with him being a pioneering male user of facial moisturiser (he’s been using Oil of Olay since the 90s) and enjoying vacuuming and dusting, hopefully you get the sense that he’s not just a regular Indian dad. So of course he doesn’t just make spag bol or lasagne. Or a chicken curry. He goes ALL OUT. Haute cuisine. But his traditional notions of what haute cuisine means that for the past few years he he makes a starter with lobster because lobster is chef-fy and posh, and a main course of lamb because lamb is Bengali posh. Last year he made lobster bisque and Indian lamb curry. This year he steps it up even further: homemade lobster ravioli and a Mediterranean roast lamb.  Go Baba.

IMG_2384It is a whole day endeavour with planning akin to a military operation. Maa is the sous-chef, gently helping out, sometimes taking over, and generally making sure her kitchen stays intact. Baba waxes lyrical about his ‘technique’ while we giggle and tease. In the end, all’s well that ends well and dinner turns out delicious.   My dad can chalk up another successful foray into gastronomy and proudly slink back into just eating dinner for 364 days.

A family charm for a very special woman. Happy birthday Maa.

Advertisements

Read Full Post »

20141001-214910-78550594.jpg
1st October, 1986. A family of four arrive at Stockholm Arlanda airport, at 10am, bleary-eyed, carrying all their important possessions in old hardcase Samsonsite suitcases, about to start their new lives very far away from everything they have known in Bombay, India. Luckily, this deer-in-headlights family was greeted warmly by Alfred, a soon-to-be colleague and dear friend. He drove them to a corporate apartment in Vaxjo, our first home in Stockholm for the next couple of weeks.

For this family, my family, everything about Stockholm was new, weird and intriguing. The air was cold and crisp. Dramatic white barren trees everywhere you turn. Cars bizarrely adhering to road rules. Landing up at the apartment, Alfred had to show my parents how to use the kitchen appliances which then naturally led us to ponder how to fill the empty cupboards and what to eat?? Once again, Alfred went above and beyond and took us to the nearest supermarket, Konsum. The food items were all in Swedish, and so many food items that were ready-prepared or frozen! At that time, this concept had not reached India. One of things that caught my mother’s eye were the frozen meatballs. Poor mans’ food in Sweden apparently but they looked sort of similar to kofte. So along with some other basic food stuffs, my mother bought the ingredients for our very first meal in Sweden – kofte curry using Swedish meatballs.

20141001-215224-78744488.jpg
It’s now a little family charm that on the 1st October every year, whether together as a family, or in our individual lives, we recreate that evening, where four endearingly naive people huddle around a warming dish that is at once comfortably familiar and yet excitingly different. An ordinary day for many, but a quietly extraordinary day for my family.

Ingredients

20141001-215416-78856137.jpg
500g meatballs – love or hate Ikea (I’m definitely a lover), its meatballs in the food section are perfect for this dish.
250g small potatoes
500ml water
1 yellow onion, chopped
2 tbsp ginger powder
2 fat cloves of garlic
200g chopped tinned tomatoes
1tbsp cumin
1tsp chilli powder
1 inch of cinnamon
4 cardamom pieces
4 cloves

You can improvise and add some other vegetables such as frozen peas, carrots etc. to add more texture and colour.

Method
• Parboil the potatoes
• While that’s going on, heat oil in a pan. When hot, temper the cinnamon, cardamom and cloves until they start to splutter
• Saute the chopped onions and garlic with the tempered spices
• Add the ground spices (ginger powder, cumin, chilli powder)
• Pour in the chopped tomatoes and simmer until water evaporates a little
• Add the potatoes and meatballs. Mix it all up so everything is coated in the spices
• Add some water
• Season with salt to taste
• Simmer until you get a nice thick gravy

Serve with rice.

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 »

Eight months after the initial idea was floated by Shikha didi to have a family reunion, it finally took place in Pune on 26th – 30th December.  And what a reunion it was!  Most of the family at the reunion were the Choudhuris (including spouses and kids) while we are Chaudhuris (from Ma’s side of the family), meaning that Shikha et al. are third cousins to didi and I.  For many, third cousins aren’t even considered family.  Well that’s a missed opportunity because in many ways, the Choudhuris are the closest relatives I have outside my immediate family.

It helps to go back a little to understand how the Choudhuris and Chaudhuris are connected in the first place:

  • My Dadu (see Searching for a Bengali Entrepreneur) and Baro dadu (Sajol mama’s baba) were first cousins and grew up together because my great-grandfather took care of Baro dadu, paid for his education etc. after his father died
  • Ma is second cousins with Baro dadu’s children – Sajol mama, Kajol mama and Shukla mashi
  • Didi and I are third cousins to Shaibya, Dibya, Shikha (daughters of Sajol mama and Abhi mami), Rupa and Rahul (daughter and son of Kajol mama and Suman mami), and Sandeep and Bishwadeep (sons of Shukhla mashi)

    Baba, Ma and didi with the Bombay Choudhuris (except for Sajol mama) in Lucknow

Dipu mashi visitng us and Sajol mama, Abha mami and Shikha didi

But really that doesn’t explain much.  It’s just an abbreviated, bulleted version of a family tree.  Our close connection with the Choudhuri’s started when Ma was studying at Lady Brabourne College in Kolkata, and Kajol mama and Suman mami became her second family in an unfamiliar city.  And then, Sajol mama and Abha mami lived in Bombay at the same time my parents did. Abha mami and Ma were pregnant at the same time with Shikha didi and didi respectively.  Then I came along six years later.  Shaibya didi used to babysit me and the others used me as a) a cute toy to play with and b) a target for their teasing.  I have no complaints about this.  As the youngest spoilt brat in that clan, my fate was pretty much sealed when I was born.

Didi and Shikha didi

Shaibya didi teaching me (in the red) and friends a game at my birthday party

In addition to regular family holidays to India when we were younger, my generation is independently continuing to build, grow and evolve the connections.  Facebook has definitely helped because lets be honest, writing emails and letters on a regular basis is a pain.  But a little face time helps too.  I reconnected with Dibya didi and Shikha didi in the US while I was there for my MBA, I got to know Sandeep dada when I visited Dubai with baba when he worked in Abu Dhabi and more recently on my work trips, and became good friends with Teesta while she lived in London for a couple of years.  And judging by the family reunion, I feel pretty confident that the next generation will carry this on.

And so what of the reunion itself?  It was extraordinary to be around these 20+ people over the four days.  Sadly Rahul dada, Bishwadeep dada and Adrit were unable to make it but even still, the sheer number of family members just all hanging out was novel.  It is easy for me to forget the power and comfort of having a large family around.  Moving away 25 years ago to places where there wasn’t much or any family meant that my parents, didi and I became the Formidable Four: us against the world.

Unlike the many Hollywood movies around the same theme, our family reunion had no dramatic revelations of closeted skeletons, no return of the prodigal son, no accidents (apart from a minor vomiting incident from day drinking.  Identities will be protected here but everyone knows who it was 🙂 ), and no melodramatic goodbyes.  We had a fantastic time full of laughs, gossip, and A LOT of food.

The clan having lunch at the vinyard

More catching up over food

But to convey a Walton-like image of our reunion would also be inaccurate.  There also were moments of exasperation, minor tensions and tantrums, logistical challenges, a need for solitude away from the noisy horde and several instances of loud shouting in order to be heard by the hard-of-hearing older bunch which frankly only made us look silly and unhinged and them calm and tranquil.  But that’s what families are. We are rubber bands which stretch due to geographic distance, dysfunction, and squabbles but always spring back into shape and hold together what we value.  In the spectrum of rubber bands, our family is in the middle; in between the brand new ones which take a bit of breaking in to activate the elastic and the older/looser ones which are rubber bands in name only given their elastic capabilities are non-existent and hold nothing together.

Top 3 highlights
– The funny and affectionate toasts given by Kajol mama, Sajol mama, Eugene and Baba during our lunch at a vinyard
– The inter-generational dancing at the reunion finale
– Being serenaded by Rahul’s  (Shikha didi’s hubby) operatic arias
– Taking photos of all the three generations

The elder statespeople

My generation

The upstarts (aka nieces and nephews)

The spouses

Funniest moments
– Tarik effortlessly holding court with four young girls at the vinyard.  See picture below.
– Shaibya didi’s effusive oratory on her love of all things pork
– Feeling like we were going on a school trip in the rickety Tempo bus.  We had it all: the panicked headcounting, the fight for the back seats, getting lost, and the passing of the snacks between the front and back of the bus.  The only thing missing was music. Despite valiant attempts of the driver to have loud Indian filmy music bounce around the bus and in our ears, Rahul vetoed it all which is just as well as otherwise prime gossip time would have been lost.

Tarik the ladies' man

Most over-used comments
– “Family is best consumed in small doses”
– “We won’t have to do this again for at least another [insert number here depending on level of reunion fatigue] years”
– “Where are we?”/ “Where are we going?”/ “What time do we need to be there?”/”What’s the plan for today?” x 5 times per day

Sign me up for the next one please.

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 »

Rabindranath Tagore

It’s the 150th anniversary of Rabindranath Tagore’s birth this year and so as seems fitting, there have been lots of concerts, talks and events to mark the occasion.  He is a cultural gem for both India and Bengali people.  Having being the only Indian who has won the Nobel Prize for Literature, and the quintessential Indian Renaissance man (he was a poet, novelist, playwright, musician, painter, educationalist…the list goes on), he thoroughly deserves his star on India’s hall of fame.

However, what makes Tagore so unique and unlike other cultural icons is that he is so integral in Bengali family lives.  Virtually every Bengali family I know has a Geetabitan (Tagore’s 2000+ collection of songs) in their house, knows many of his songs by heart and has taken classes in learning Rabindra Sangeet during their adolescence.   It is a rite of passage similar to children in the West learning ballet or joining a scout group.  It is what we do.

My family is no exception.  Didi started singing quite early on.  She initially started singing classical at 5 from a neighbour and then when we moved to Bandra, Ma enrolled her into a well known Rabindra sangeet school called Sahana, not too far from home.  Didi even got the 1st prize in a singing competition at Bandra Saraswati Puja.  Oooh.  So far so normal but interestingly, Ma’s relationship with Rabindra sangeet was less ordinary.  Unlike Didi,  Ma didn’t learn the songs at school or from a singing teacher.  She was entirely self-taught and as a young girl she had no interest in it.  Funnily enough, she opted for dance as an extracurricular activity at school.  Sadly, I have not seen Ma throw shapes on the dance floor. Ever.  As for Rabindra sangeet, she got more into it when the family got a Philips record changer at home and used to play all kinds of vinyls including the aforementioned songs.  They had a full album of the dance drama Chitrangada which she learnt to sing from beginning to end, aided by the trusted Geetabitan from which she could learn the lyrics.

Didi playing the tanpura and I (freshly bathed) attentively watching

As for me, I definitely AM the exception.  While I attentively watched Didi and Ma practice at home in India, I have never learnt to sing, let alone sing Rabindra sangeet.  One of the reasons is that we left India when I was only six so deemed too young to flex my vocal chords.  However, if my skills in crying as a baby is any indication of my potential singing prowess, I would now be wowing audiences worldwide.  Secondly, Stockholm did seem an unlikely place for a Rabindra sangeet school.  Thirdly (and probably most crucially), by the time I had opinions, I decided that Rabindra sangeet was not for me.  I found it (and still do) boring.  There I said it.  Rabindra sangeet is boring.  I can hear the collective sharp intake of breath from every single Bengali mashi and mesho out there.

Let me explain.  The lyrics of the songs are incredible beautiful.  That is not in question.  But as someone whose relationship with the Bengali language is like a shy awkward teenage boy trying to talk to the girl he likes: halting, faltering, uncertain and unable to hold a conversation that goes beyond ‘umm, so like…”  Which basically means that when I listen to the songs, I have no idea what they are about.  And what bugs me is that music and songs should be able to overcome language barriers.  However, here Rabindra sangeet lets me down.  The music which accompanies the lyrics does not do what it is supposed to do.  It does not enhance, complement and reflect the beautiful lyrics.  The music is boring, flat and sound so sad.  As a result, all the songs sound vaguely the same and endless.  If Rabindra sangeet is going to appeal to me and future generations of Bengalis, Indians and just generally human beings from anywhere, it needs to be freed from the strict, traditional chains that imprison it.  I think Tagore would agree.

Read Full Post »

As I mention in the previous entry, I have only seen a few pictures of Ma and Baba’s wedding, one of which is a photo of Baba wearing a topor, a conical hat made out of paper and shola (a sponge-wood plant). Apparently, the topor was created because Shiva wanted a crown for his wedding but it looks ridiculous and hardly very crown-like.  Indian Hindu weddings can be really sombre (and long!) so I love that the poor groom has to endure such a comedy hat.  I wonder how Baba felt about wearing the topor?

Traditionally, an Indian boy from a middle-class family would be expected to go through an unbroken period of  15-17 years of study; in school, college and a career-linked professional degree or a PhD. I chose to do a combination of both.  Then follows a period of consolidation for the future and moving up the career ladder.  In this period, familiarity and friendships with girls were considered fraught with danger signals and possible distractions from life-goals.

‘Love-match’ as V.S. Naipaul described it so succinctly in his masterpiece ‘A House for Mr Biswas‘ was a rarity. The expected turn of events would to be get married around the fifth year of working, arranged by the family.  I followed the course.  

My wedding preparations were a little more perfunctory than your Ma’s.   My friends and colleagues assumed the roles of advisers. I printed invitation letters for them in English, got myself a custom-made suit, suitable for a Suitable Boy. Working in Hyderabad at the time, I got myself a heavily embroidered silk kurta too. Loaded with these, I took the train home to Silchar.

During those last days of carefree bachelorhood, I witnessed modest preparations at home, streams of relations coming from distant places, canopies for the band-party being put up, guests coming for a little chat, some mishti (Bengali sweets) and tea with my parents while throwing encouraging words at me.  I preferred to spend most of the time with my friends, outside. But my freedom of movement was blocked one day before the date of the marriage. I was strictly home-bound. The hours were filled with a series of rituals of blessings, Sanskrit invocations and tastings of home-made sweets of coconut and milk forced on me by all and sundry, my elders, directly or remotely. Before, I used to look at these home-made delicacies with eager desire but now I really couldn’t look at them.  I was stuffed.  But, I couldn’t say ‘No’. That would be rude.
(more…)

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »