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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.

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Being a grown up has a lot perks but it can also be shitty, complicated and a bit of a nuisance. When I get into one of these moods where I wish I could stomp around in a tantrum, comfort food from my childhood can often intuitively turn me back into a reasonable adult-like person. The recipe below is for one of my favourites that my mum makes. Chapatis (unleavened Indian flat bread) dipped very generously into ‘gur’ – date palm jaggery which is basically Indian maple syrup. It also is made from sugar cane but date palm is MUCH better. My mum used to make it as a treat for my sister and I when we were little and even now, getting a text from my mum saying ‘I have gur’, makes me reconsider my weekend plans and head home instead. There is something incredibly luxurious and satisfying in dunking pieces of a chapati into a rich, dark, sweet gooiness and then licking my sticky fingers. Back to enjoying the perks of being a grown up.

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For the gur
250g block of date palm gur
3tbsp water
A saucepan for melting the gur

For the chapatis (makes about 8)
300g whole meal wheat flour
100g buckwheat flour
100g spelt flour
2tbsp white flour
2 tsp oil (sunflower, rapeseed etc )
A little cold water to make the dough

Take the block of gur and place in a heated (low heat) saucepan. Add the water and wait for the block to melt. Once it starts to bubble, take it off the heat and allow to cool. The syrup mixture will thicken into a gorgeous molasses-like consistency.

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For the chapatis, mix all the ingredients together until the dough mixture is a little firm, not too wet or dry. Should be easy to roll out. Think play dough. Divide up the dough into eight balls and make into patties. Spread a little flour on the kitchen top before rolling out. The chapatis should be round and about 0.5mm thick. Heat up a flat griddle pan and place a chapati on it. Should take about 3-4 minutes to be dine, flipping a couple of times. And when it starts to fluff up a bit, use a spatula to pay down the edges to more volume.

Serve warm with the gur. Dunk to your heart’s delight.

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'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.

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