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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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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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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.

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Dima had the softest skin.  I used to love kissing her cushiony and marshmallow cheeks.  I don’t have many memories of her since she passed away when I was only nine.   But there are three or four really vivid images that I flick through like the slides in the vintage Viewmaster I played with when I was a little.  Her skin is one of them.  Another one is of her sitting with her paan paraphernalia on her lap and cutting up supori (betel nuts) with her special betel nut cutter like in the picture above.  I used to watch in rapt attention as she used this surgical-like instrument to chop up tiny squares of the nut with focus and precision.  I also remember watching her do puja in the thakur ghar after her daily bath and take note of the offerings she made to Krishna, Ganesh and Lakshminarayan.  I must have followed her around a lot.  But she was more than a Bengali widow who kept the household keys tied to a corner of her white cotton sari thrown over her shoulder.  The sound of the  jangling keys is akin to the modern personalised mobile ringtones.  You knew when it was she who was approaching.

Preetilata Chaudhuri was 17 when she married Dadu in an arranged marriage.  As well as becoming a wife at this young age, she had to adjust to living with his large family and being the eldest sister-in-law, a position in the household which brought with it lots of responsibilities, expectations and obligations.  Quite a daunting prospect as such a life  when viewed through today’s lens seems as not your own.  Part of her married life was quite solitary because Dadu used to be at the tea gardens for long stretches of time during which Dima eagerly waited for his letters.   It would be wonderful if some of them still existed.

Beyond the confines of the roles of wife, mother, daughter-in-law etc, Dima had artistic flair and a keen aesthetic eye.  She had no training so everything that she did just poured out of her naturally and through instinct.  During any auspicious event like pujas and weddings, Dima used to create ornately designed alpanaas ( the form of Rangoli practiced in Bengal but unlike Rangoli, Alpanaa is always done in white) on the floor of various rooms of the house with the help of a small piece of cloth drenched in a blend of water and grounded rice paste.  She used to start in one corner of the room and then painstakingly cover the whole floor.  All by freehand.  Her creative flair could be found in other mediums too.  My stomach is eternally grateful for Ma learning and absorbing Dima’s mastery and love of cooking.  She  made all of Ma’s clothes when she was a little girl and some of my sister’s and mine too.  When I was a baby, she embroidered my bed linen and knitted blankets to keep me snug.  If she was alive today, I would have encouraged her to make and sell her beautiful children’s clothes and linen on Etsy!

Ma definitely got her love of books and ideas from Dadu but Dima’s imprint is there on her talent for cooking and love of the arts, especially music.  It’s been doubly-rewarding to learn more about Dadu and Dima because as well as having the pleasure of getting to know who they were, I now understand Ma a little better too.

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The words ‘Bengali’ and ‘entrepreneur’ are unusual bedfellows.  They don’t mesh well.  Bengalis are better known for being intellectual snobs righting the wrongs of the world from their armchairs.  My father and uncle are such specimen.  They like nothing more to debate until the small hours of the morning, get lost in a piece of Indian classical music, and watch the cricket.
Dadu and DimaAnyhow, I digress wildly.  This entry is about my maternal grandfather,  Dwipendra Chandra Chaudhuri aka dadu (the next post will be on my grandmother).   I know he was a tea garden owner and manager in Assam but that’s about it.  I knew very little about his journey to this point and so finding out more through asking Maa questions that I never got round to asking before has been so worthwhile.

I never knew that after completing his MSc in Chemistry from Presidency College, Kolkata, he refused to go to England to take his Indian Civil Service exams..  He did not want to work for the British government.  More than that, he didn’t want to take orders from someone else.  While my great-grandfather was bittely disappointed, he admired dadu’s determination and spirit and so when dadu set out to do his own thing, he earned his father’s respect.

Like many entrepreneurs, Dadu’s path to success had very humble beginnings.  He started by selling vegetables from a market stall.  Amazing!  From there, he won some wartime building contracts and eventually opened a transport service between Sylhet and Shilong.  However, here the story takes a sad turn.  After the 1947 Sylhet referendum which led to Sylhet going to East Pakistan, dadu lost it all, every last thing.   At this juncture, many would have given up but dadu had true grit.  He started again.  All over again.  This time, after shifting his family to Shilong, he took out a bank loan to buy tea gardens.  And so a new chapter in his life started.  I never met dadu as he died before I was born but I am so proud to be his granddaughter.  His spirit, the strength of his own convictions, and his entrepreneurial spririt are immensely inspirational.   I’m not sure if I have this said spirit and this is partly due to not seeing it around me.   However, I do know that an entrepreneurial spirit can take many shapes.   The important thing is to have a go at creating something that is your own and that you can be proud of.  Dadu taught me that.

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