Pondicherry Diaries

Pondybeach

Everyone has, or should have, a place that when they think of, a place made completely of memories, like an inflatable fun house, and whichever way you turn, you bounce softly and happily.

To me, that’s Pondicherry.

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Bring Back The Sauce, Olive Garden!

It didn’t hit me when she left home to begin her undergraduate studies. It wasn’t when she started raiding my closet for my clothes from Ann Taylor. It didn’t strike us as a sadhappy thing when she insisted on doing her own taxes, or cooking. I smiled fondly, indulgently, when she alternately yelled at me and tried to bribe me with puppy perks to drink more water, and to exercise more.

All these events, all these milestones and rites of passage had a move forward quality to them and I didn’t even think of them as the loss of her childhood. Sure, every new thing she did, every new experience she had, was a reminder that a. she was becoming an independent adult, and b. I was getting old.

But two days ago, she called bawling. And laughing. Yes, laughing in between sobs of complete heartbreak. I panicked. Kashew has had some health issues, and I thought something had happened to him. (Yes, my first thought is always Kashew now, much to her annoyance). I think she’s actually jealous of the puppy – her own puppy, and the love and attention he gets from me.

But no, it wasn’t Kashew, thank god. (I know she’s rolling her eyes at this). Instead, what I got out of her between her laughter and sobs was that Olive Garden has stopped carrying FOREVER the sundried tomato sauce, in all the restaurants. She went on about how unfair it was, why oh why they had to discontinue the one last thing that still remained from her CHILDHOOD.

Ah. That’s when it hit me, clueless me, who was laughing because I know how attached she is to Muncie’s Pizza King, the crazy pizza place that is a local landmark with a cult following, where you can “ring the king” from your table to order your pizza, the queso sauce from Puerto Vallarta, and the breadsticks from Fazzoli’s Real Italian!! Her cousin once gave her a book of Queso for Christmas. That’s how obsessed she is with it.

No. It wasn’t just an obsession. Olive Garden was the last remaining thread to her childhood. OG carried the sauce that reminded her of her birthdays when she was growing up. It was the second most favorite birthday place, the first being Don Pablos, the Mexican restaurant chain.

Actually the birthday sequence was playtime-at-Discovery Zone-followed by-a-trip-to-Barnes-and-Nobles-followed-by-dinner-at-Don-Pablos for both my children’s birthdays, which we did for several years, until Don Pablos closed, sadly, and then it was Olive Garden.

I was stunned. I was happy that she had such fond memories of her birthdays. I was sad that it was gone. I told her she still has the memories. To which she replied Nick, her boyfriend, said exactly the same thing. Nick also asked her, alarmed, if she usually cried over sauce like that, Nick who has known her for two years, and has never seen anything like it.

This incident, while it saddened me, reminded me of the power of good childhood memories! It’s not the trips to Hawaii. It’s in the simplest of acts—that of families spending time together.

Olive Garden, if you’re reading this, please bring back your sundried tomato sauce, my girl needs it!

She’ll probably kill me for posting this, but we didn’t take many photos those days and this was one of the last ones at Don Pablos!

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An Immigrant’s Food Diary

I play American Mahjongg (as opposed to Chinese Mahjongg, or simply mahjongg) with a few women in our community once a week. On a recent mahjongg (MJ) day, after about 3 games, I was complaining to my fellow MJ girls about the big bag of potatoes that Raj had picked up from Costco. (Complaining about our husbands is a common passtime among all cultures, I have found.) We are just two people, and don’t consume a lot of potatoes. I asked Linda, who loves the puff pastry with the samosa filling I make if she’d like to make some with me to use up the potatoes. The other two perked up from their intent staring at the tiles to say “well what about us?”

And so, the mahjongg was abandoned, and we came back to my house to quickly make 3 batches of yummy, warm North Indian samosa filling wrapped in puff pastry sheets and baked to a golden crisp. I made the filling, while each of them rolled out a pastry sheet, one placed the filling and wrapped them, and one of them took pride in “forking” the edges and being the best “forker”. This group is a bit rowdy, and not at all prudish, so we usually have a ton of fun with some bawdiness thrown in for good measure.

This is what America IS and being American means. I interact with a group of women—via my weekly mahjongg games, and monthly book club discussions—women who have varying cultural and ethnic backgrounds—American, Jewish American, African American, Pakistani,Korean—it’s almost a mini world. Getting together once a week to play a game that originated in China. In the southeastern state of Florida. Eating crackers, and Frenchbrie. And sometimes spontaneously abandoning the mahjongg game to make Indian samosas.

I also belonged to a book club in which we only read books of non-American cultures and that was aptly called “Crossing Cultures”.

I am an immigrant in this country of immigrants. I can’t imagine my life without the enriching, nourishing, and soul-sustaining experiences that every immigrant adds to mine. Be it the ones whose ancestors came on the Mayflower, or on the slave ships, or on more recent flights from all over the world.

And the way I connect with anyone is through food.  Be it cooking for someone, or sharing a meal with someone, I think food is the greatest common denominator. Seriously, who can be cross at someone when they’re eating a delicious meal?

I have found, since my early days in this country as a green, fresh off the boat immigrant, that through food, I could easily start a conversation; relate to someone; and sow the seeds for a long friendship.

From office potlucks where I made new friends through an ethnic food, to lunches I packed for my young children that included desi favorites like chutney sandwiches and lemon rice that attracted kids and adults alike, to my current adult friendships through book club and mahjong, a delicious samosa, or poori, or a simple vegetable rice, has paved the way for long lasting memories, and friendships.

On this 4thof July, when immigration and immigrants are a hot topic, painful ones at that, I raise a toast with spicy Indian lemon pickle to this country of immigrants. Melting pot or salad bowl, assimilated or just landed, born here or naturalized, immigrants make this country. Happy 4thof July!

 

 

Middle-aged And Meandering: How A Recipe Finds Its Way To Rasaala.com

  1. Airdrop photos from iphone to laptop for the new recipe
  2. Open tinypng (fabulous website that compresses your big jpg files to tiny byte-sized files, ergo the name) to compress photos, and upload them
  3. While it’s doing it, check Facebook because there’s a notification – it’s a recipe request by someone on a photo shared
  4. Get the recipe link from rasaala.com
  5. Post the link, and tag the person who requested it
  6. Friend posted picture of a bobcat sighting in her backyard, it’s huge!!! Make an admiring comment on it, with a “haha” emoji
  7. While still in FB, notice a post on an Indochinese menu in a foodie group I follow – looks so good, wonder if I can make it for dinner
  8. Check fridge for ingredients. All I have is soy sauce and Sriracha. Add stuff to grocery list
  9. Reminded of the green beans plant in vegetable patch – recipe calls for green beans, go outside to check on it – it’s doing fabulous, but no flowers yet!
  10. Back to laptop – notice that tinypng is frozen, refresh it
  11. Get distracted by an email from a friend who’s in a google group I manage about changing her information, and go to change it
  12. While there, check another member’s settings to make sure it’s correct as she’s been saying she’s not getting any emails
  13. Before posting recipe, want to settle on the couch with a show or a movie in Netflix to run in the background while posting
  14. Open Netflix and start browsing Malayalam language movies specifically Faahad Faasil’s. Rainy weather makes me want to watch artsy Malayalam movies
  15. Pick one, but only after reading the reviews of a few in a trusted site (filmcompanion.in)
  16. Get distracted by a story there about an upcoming movie based on a book (The Extraordinary Life Of A Fakir …) Hmmm. That looks very interesting
  17. Go to amazon.com to check out the book, debate whether to buy it in kindle!
  18. Member in google groups wants her address changed again, do it and text her
  19. This weather making me sleepy – it’s after 3 pm. Debate with self on the wisdom of drinking coffee this late as won’t be able to sleep
  20. Go make some coffee and drink
  21. Wonder if my meandering and distracted writing will be a somewhat interesting blog post for the Middle-aged And Restless blog which I’ve neglected for a while….
  22. Write the blog post, edit and publish
  23. …Wow look at the time! Where did the afternoon go?
  24. 6 websites, 3 hours, 1 strong cup of coffee later – recipe is finally up!22c3a954f95d01caf8cfe22252fba341

 

 

 

The Story Of Us

IMG_7126 This blog would be incomplete without the story of how we happened to get married.

I abhorred the thought of an arranged marriage and had been managing to reject and/or be rejected successfully by all the “boys” who were potential grooms. I had no solid plans of how I was going to be married, and yet for it not be arranged. And being the eldest of 5 daughters, I was kind of blocking the way for my siblings. It was a responsibility that was cramping my style, a bit.

I was practically just floating along. And that’s when I met him — at the ripe old age of 24, as I  was getting close to spinster territory. He was someone at work, transferred from Bombay to Madras, where I lived. TDH – in the language of Mills & Boon, and Silhoutte romances of those days – tall dark and handsome. What every Indian girl wanted in her groom.

I was one of two females in my team of about 8, surrounded by guys, working with Railways officers/staff who were mostly men. I had seen my share of misoginy, and guys who couldn’t look a woman in her face while talking. I sensed he was different right away – different in a good way.

Quietly confident, great at what he did, without a need to be loud about himself, well read, smart, and with great work ethics. We became good friends, going out for work lunches, doing crossword puzzles in the off-site location (Central Railway Station of Madras) whenever we had time while implementing the ticketing system for the Southern Railways. He easily won all the games we played (okay we had some downtime) which made me mad, but also made me admire him for he never gloated. He would bring copies of horoscopes of potential matches his mother got for him, and we would go through them together. A railway officer with a very qualified sister-in-law (iyengar, me being a mere Iyer :)) had his eye on him for a potential brother-in-law, which I knew and used to tease him about.

And then one day there was a big problem with our software, and it was pretty tense for a day. He was handling it, and had worked through the night (the railways in India never sleep, trains run 365 days a year, and they were our biggest client). I spoke to him from home in the morning. Later, a co-worker who had been with him when I spoke said to me: “I saw him smile for the first time since the problem started (it had been a long day) when you spoke to him”. And that was my clue that there was something.

Sometime later, the railway officer above had a surgery or broke his leg or something, and we decided to visit him together. Yes, in India, especially those days, the lines blurred a bit. Anyway, we went, and afterwards, he asked me if I wanted to go to the beach (my beloved Marina beach). We went. I still had no clue where any of this was going. You have to remember this was the 80s India, and a boy and a girl standing within ten feet of each other was cause for scandal. But, I never was one to worry about what other people think, and didn’t think twice about going out with him. So we went, and talked. And then he said: “I wish you were an Iyengar”. Not “I love you”. Not “I want to marry you”.

(I was born in the sub-caste of brahmin community known as Iyer. He was born in the Iyengar sub-caste. While it helped that we were both born in the Brahmin community, it wasn’t altogether common for marriage between the sub-castes. We didn’t know how his parents would react, I knew for sure mine would be relieved)

We talked a bit more. Still no proposal. He said let’s go to Dasas for dinner. It was a new continental cuisine place by the owners of Dasaprakash, a fancy place in Mount Road (Anna Salai) then. It served strange (for those days) food like baked pasta, and leafy salads. As we checked out the buffet and were sitting, he said “look there” and pointed to someone. As I turned, and looked back at him, he had removed the rose from the table, and was hiding it behind him. When I turned around, he popped it and finally!!! said the magic words.

The rest, 28 years later, is history. His father asked if it was okay that he had only known me for three months. His mother guessed that it was me. His grandmother, bless her heart, wanted me to pierce my nose for the wedding, and also become a proper Iyengar by undergoing the branding ritual known as samasrayanam, to which his mother said no. I do have a cool mother-in-law!

Well here we are, 28 years, 2 children, and 3 grandpuppies later. It’s been quite a ride. We’ve both seen the good, bad, and the ugly – of life, and of each other. And remained best friends. We still laugh together and that is the most important thing for me. As I was looking for some deep writing online, I came across Kahlil Gibran’s poetry. More than his writing on love, and marriage, these lines on friendship hit a nerve with me.

Here’s to our friendship! Looking forward to continued friendship, and companionship, as we journey to our sunsets.

“And let your best be for your friend.
If he must know the ebb of your tide, let him know its flood also.
For what is your friend that you should seek him with hours to kill?
Seek him always with hours to live.
For it is his to fill your need, but not your emptiness.
And in the sweetness of friendship let there be laughter, and sharing of pleasures.
For in the dew of little things the heart finds its morning and is refreshed.”

~Kahlil Gibran on Friendship

Journeys

We have been coming to *Cabo since 2006, roughly every couple/3 years. This is one place that, as my husband astutely observed, slows time down. Personally, Cabo is a sort of windshield wiper for me. It seems as if every time my vision had been clouded, coming to Cabo seems to have sorted it out. Cleared the cobwebs, so to speak. Gave me perspective. Even if it was temporary.
The first time we came here in ’06, I had been going through a change of sorts with my health, and a restlessness had crept into my soul. When we went back home, I started writing more seriously, with a couple of dear friends, on a private blog, and discovered the joy of writing.
We came again in 2010, and a few months later, I retired from professional life, (at least I thought I did, but it lasted about 3 years), and spent the senior year of my son’s high school at home, practicing SAT words with him, and delivering hot lunches. And opened up my blog to the public.
It’s 2017, and we are back. This time, I wasn’t necessarily looking for any inspiration, but was looking forward to getting away and relax. But Cabo never disappoints. For the first time, we got an ocean front, first floor apartment, which we always ask for but never get. This time, we asked almost as a routine, not really expecting to get it, but guess what! We got a first floor, walk-out-into-the-ocean apartment, and discovered that we could watch the sun rise as well as set.
But we also got a bonus gift that we didn’t even know existed—we got to watch baby turtles (hatchlings being the correct term) being released into the ocean, right in front of the apartment we were assigned to. And I learned all about turtle hatching, imprinting, nesting, and, incidentally, finding your way home.
This is how it happens: mommy turtle finds a good spot on the beach (mating happens in the ocean) to lay her eggs, does her job, and buries them in a nest in the sands. She covers the nest with sand and vegetation for good measure to camouflage it. Then she leaves them, completely untended, and sets off for the ocean without a backwards glance.
These eggs, if they survive the predators and natural disasters—birds, dogs, ghost crabs, humans (by trampling on them accidentally, or stealing prized turtle eggs), weather, hatch. It seems every resort has started an outfit to commercialize this natural phenomenon by offering “Baby Turtle Release” as a tourist attraction, but we got it watch it as it unfolded in the place we were staying. Around 9 pm one night, I watched two guys with flash lights digging in the nests. I am not sure how they know where the eggs are, and none of the words in my 10-word Spanish vocabulary of greetings, inquiring about another’s wellbeing, saying thanks and counting to ten were of much help in getting the details.
At dawn, I hurried out to see if they were still there, and was delighted to find them with a pail into which they were collecting the brand spanking new hatchlings. I ran down to where they were, phone in hand. I asked them if they had stayed there the whole night, and they responded “Si”. I don’t know for sure, but I think they understood my question. They had about 20-30 of tiny wiggling hatchlings in the pail, and with gloved hands, released them on a downward slope, in the direction of the big old body of water. They use gloves because these turtles, when they are ready to make their nests of eggs, will use what’s known as imprinting to find this exact beach to do it. The temperature of the sand, the nest, the winds, and many other factors help them retain this imprint, and touching them with your bare hands interferes with this beautiful mechanism.
As the guy poured the hatchlings like he was spreading fertilizer on the sand in a row, they all started wiggling their way towards “home”. There was one that was facing away from the ocean and miraculously turned towards the ocean before moving. The white crest of the waves is their guiding light, and for this reason, most ocean sides these days have a light ordinance, as the artificial light, especially if white, could disorient them.
It was at once the most moving, and the most painful sight I have ever witnessed—the hatchlings seemed stunned at first, and then slowly started moving, their tiny flippers going strong. Most moved towards the ocean, but some moved sideways, or not at all. Some turned over on their backs, waving their flippers ineffectually, and one of the guys would flip them on to their belly if they seemed really stuck.
There was one that seemed to have not bought into this whole deal at all, and simply wouldn’t move. I panicked, thinking maybe it had died, or worse, couldn’t move. The guy picked it up, moved it a few feet down, giving it a head start. The word privilege crossed my mind briefly, which I regretted immediately.
My heart was in my mouth as the waves came closer and swept them into the ocean. Their journey had begun.
It’s been seven years since I thought I retired. I went back to work, but now am on the cusp of another life change, at a crossroads again. As my journey continues, I have more questions than answers anymore. I don’t know if this journey is charted into a pre-determined path, or if it’s all completely random, driven by the winds of change, guided by unseen hands and distant horizons, and vague plans for the future. Where will the next 7 years, 7 months, 7 days, 7 hours, or 7 minutes take me? Wherever it is, the journey is mine, and mine alone. I think that is Cabo’s answer to me this time, obvious though it may be.
Watch my videos of these babies being released into the ocean at the links below.
* From Wikipedia:
“Cabo San Lucas. Cabo San Lucas (Spanish pronunciation: [ˈkaβo san ˈlukas], Cape Saint Luke), commonly called Cabo in American English, is a city at the southern tip of the Baja California Peninsula, in the Mexican state of Baja California Sur. Cabo San Lucas together with San José del Cabo is known as Los Cabos.”

Where Everybody Knows Your Name…

A link to this post on Huffpost:

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/5a0b9880e4b060fb7e59d48f

Growing up in the early 70s and 80s, every household in Madras and Pondicherry (and I suspect, everywhere in India) was surrounded by a small village. Or at least that’s what it felt like.

Our grandparents’ house in Purasaiwalkam where I spent my early years in a joint family, and pretty much every summer vacation after we moved to Pondicherry, was a teeming hub of life, and part of a complete ecosystem that sustained itself.

We lived in an upstairs portion overlooking the super busy Tana Street, across the big church which was always a happening place. It had a huge bell that rang every hour (I think). Purasaiwalkam and the neighboring Vepery, being home to many Anglo Indians, there were always weddings happening there, with the brides dressed in actual “western” style gowns, sporting short bobs.

Downstairs was Dinesh Bakery – run by a Keralite guy. Even though we didn’t traditionally eat bread in our typical Tambrahm family (bread was, typically, a “fever” food), there were exceptions when a cousin from Delhi visited, and his mom, my aunt, would buy fresh bread and load it up with butter bought from a family a few houses down the street. I haven’t had bread like that, or the wholesome, thick, creamy, golden yellow butter, although Kerry Gold comes close, since my childhood. The mornings always smelled of freshly baked bread, in odd symphony with the aroma of dal, and the ghee-laden tempering of hot rasam, and incense and camphor from the puja room.

A couple of streets down, there was “Kanniyappan Provision Store”, the family grocer. Every time we visited Madras, a trip to Kanniappan store was a must. Ah, the things that made us happy! The store had the peculiar smell of gunny sacks, spices, sugar candy, “kadalai urundai” (peanut brittle), and all kinds of mysterious things. The lighting was part natural and muted. When “Aradhana”, the Hindi movie (that’s what we called them before there was Bollywood, and before “Boycott Hindi” was a big thing down south) was released and was a big hit, the story goes that Kanniappan actually named his newborn granddaughter Sharmila Tagore – last name and all.

Then there was the incense seller who visited the house, bringing his wares, and the whole family sat and chatted with him. The downstairs also housed a textile store, Maraikair Bros, and I would spend hours at his store, dreaming up dresses made of the beautiful fabrics. Mr. Maraikair (not sure what his first name was, he was always Marakair mama to us) had a handkerchief tied around his head. I am amazed at how well his face and his voice are permanently etched in my memory, even as I struggle to remember names of my coworkers from a few years ago.

In Pondicherry, I remember the lady who came around selling yogurt every morning (“thayirkaari”). And the “kudukudupandi”, the fortune teller, shaking his mini drum, and chanting “nalla kalam porakkudhu” (good times are here), in that peculiar sing song tone.

This guy was the father of the chain mail. If we gave him money, we would be blessed with a wedding in the family, good times, big lottery wins, and the next baby born will be a boy (we are a family of five girls). Heaven help us if we didn’t – our family would be cursed with very bad luck for a very long time. We were terrified of this guy.

There was also the “keerai kaari”, the lady who sold all kinds of greens. And the various vendors throughout the day who would make the trip to sell their wares – fruits, pots and pans, sarees, anything at all!

If that was all the vendors, there were entertainers on the street as well – the famous “puli aatam” in which guys painted themselves like a tiger and danced on the streets, and the guy who staged a snake-mongoose fight with an actual mongoose and a snake, and the “poikal kuthirai” in which people stood in life-size horse models tied around their waist and danced. It was all fascinating for a little kid.

There was also the beach, with its “thengai manga pattani sundal” (boiled peas seasoned with tart mango pieces, coconuts and lime juice, absolute to die for snack). I don’t remember the old lady of Marina beach at this age. She seems to have become a fixture in the late 80s, the fortune teller who tells every girl with a guy that she should have been born a boy in a scary, foreboding tone, and extracts a hefty sum. What girl wouldn’t fall for this line when she’s with her date? I didn’t realize she said the same line to every girl until much, much later, in my 30s, when I met a girl from Madras who said she was told the exact same thing by an old fortune teller at the Marina beach!

I miss those days when we go back to visit – these days, everything is delivered with a phone call. While the convenience cannot be beaten, I am nostalgic for the charm the old way of life held, a pace that was relaxed, and immersed us in each experience. How many of us know the grocer’s granddaughter’s name anymore?

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Puli Aatam (Tiger Dance)

poikal kuthirai

Poikal Kudhirai (Horse with Fake Legs)

 

 

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