Sunday, 11 September 2022

The masked waitress had placed a wooden tray with three little black porcelain bowls: one, the staple green chillies in vinegar, another a reddish-brown chilli chutney and the third, dark soy. Of the first two I placed both my spoonsful at a demure distance from the Pad Thai but the soy sauce I scooped and slathered generously over the rice noodles. Without doubt it was genuine soy, its first taste potent enough to promptly transport me to forty years back; the jump in time smoother than custard jelly on the tongue. That evening was special because noodles had made an entrance for the very first time into the Bhattacharjee household: my Dad having placed a special demand for this exotica to Piggie at the local shopping complex. I had no idea about Piggie’s real name; but I knew Dad had named him so because it was Piggie who was the source of our ham and bacon and pork sausages. I was vaguely aware that Piggie was the son of that Sikh gentleman with the pristine white turban and whiter cotton T shirt, luxuriously crinkled, that he ran the shop with his black-turbaned brother who limped and that he himself did not wear a turban but kept a fashionably styled bead-moustache combo which I found extremely interesting even at the raw age of 10. Dad was inordinately fond of Piggie, the moniker being an expression of his fondness for the young man’s entrepreneur spirit and we kids actually addressed the chap as Piggie Bhaiiya. Since Piggie also catered to the Russians expats who lived in the neighbourhood, he stocked stuff a little hatke from the routine bread and anda that the desis of HEC normally shopped for: things like ketchup, English mustard, noodles, and of course, soy sauce. I think it must have been a Saturday evening for everyone seemed relaxed; though a sense of elated expectation did permeate our tiny 800 square foot home, sprinkled generously with subdued excitement. After all, it was not everyday that one had noodles for dinner. In fact, neither of the four of us (i.e., my parents, my brother and me) had ever tasted noodles before, not even my foreign returned Dad (he had spent 1.5 years in USSR for his training). Only we were not referring to it as ‘noodles’ but “chowmein”; unaware that the latter was the name of a prepared dish and not of its main ingredient. But even had we been aware of this fact, it wouldn’t have made any dent in our excitement for no one cared about semantics except me, obsessed with words even then as a ten-year old. And there were far more pressing problems at hand than the names of ingredients to be tackled: the foremost being the fact my mother had never cooked “chowmein” before. Thankfully, the instructions on the packet were adequate though here too I was able to point out three spelling errors, a little superciliously; to the intense exasperation of Dad and my kid brother and the extreme delight of my mom. Following those instructions to the T, Mom churned up a whole steel pateela full of coils and coils of white noodles, gleaming from the tablespoon of refined oil added to it to prevent the strands from sticking to each other just like it instructed on the package. My brother had the first go at tasting and as the noodle strand slithered into his mouth we waited with bated breath for his analysis. My brother had always been a precocious kid and I remember him nodding his head like a wise old gourmet cook and pronouncing his approval with a serious: good. Both my parents heaved a sigh of relief at this five-star review, happy to have overcome the first hurdle. The next problem was determining what it was that people ate with chowmein with. Obviously, it was not to be eaten alone in its current virginal state, being too plain and too bland and too white. Everyone knew that staples like rice and roti had to be eaten with something, something like daal and subji………………… It was my ever-practical Mom who came up with the answer. Daal of course, she said matter-of-factly, what else. If one ate rice with daal, roti with daal, even idli with daal : it seemed absolutely logical to be eating chowmein with daal…….. And right at that point where Mom’s dimaag ki batti thus lit up, as if to compensate, all battis went out in Sector 3 HEC Colony via the day’s nth loadshedding, plunging the whole neighbourhood and our little 800 square foot home into darkness. And that is how I remember that dinner even to this day: one hurricane and one lantern, both kerosene fuelled, casting a warm yellow glow all around and bringing shadows and walls and family close, closer to the rickety dining table loaded with a steel pateela of ‘chowmein’ doused in mustard-oil, red chilly and nigella flavoured dhuli masoor daal… I also remember clearly my Dad suddenly disappearing from the table into the dark depths of one of the rooms where the refrigerator was housed and re-emerging triumphantly with the bottle of dark soy from Piggie’s. He liberally slathered the chowmein-daal combo with the dark soy, ladled large generous helpings of it on all four steel plates and thundered: Ab khao….. And eat we did, with our fingers instead of forks as if it were daal chawal: ravenously, excitedly, happily, contentedly…………………………………… My dad is no more, at least on this plane where I currently exist; though I’m sure wherever he moves these days, he is happy: giving subtly witty names to the creatures around him, cooking great mutton and even better daal tadka and when he feels exceptionally happy, putting one hand on his lungi clad hips and the other at the side of his head and dancing his trademark cute jhatka….. My mom is battling poor health and memory loss and my once precocious and Dennis-the-Menace kid brother is all grown up and submerged in the sea of mundane and boring lives most adults live these days….and that that dark summer evening full of chowmein with masoor daal tadka, lashings of dark soy and the undefinable simple joys of childhood was almost deleted from our collective memory …till the dark soy of Giant Panda a South East Asian cuisine restaurant atop DB Mall at Bhopal suddenly broke a bund and caused a sepia deluge to flood over me. Memory has two avatars, alter egos. And I have never made been more acutely aware of this than these days. I have, living within my brain marauding memories that often descend into the plains of my consciousness with vicious suddenness; like plundering mercenaries, tearing asunder my heart and soul with a ruthlessness that has no parallel, leaving me shaking and sobbing and lifeless with pain… And then there are also these memories, of the chowmein-masur daal-dark soy variety from my childhood, that tread softly like autumn morning dew and draw me gently into soft, safe, comfortable places, places where I can cocoon myself to heal and be whole again. And as for the taste of dark soy, it flavours these safe cocoons with the comfort of its sweet and salty caramelised pungency. And if I give a shake to my memory dabba, I can sometimes also smell far-off noodly base notes of nigella seeds and red chillies in a mustard oil tadka…..

Wednesday, 24 August 2022

For Iris

For Iris When you look at me so carefully: Mischief-eyes now shot with concern, Lap the salty wetness of my face with your faintly rough tongue, And gently place your head in the crook of my neck............ I know then: I am touched by angels. PS. They say that God made Moms because He/ She couldn't be everywhere all at once. I'd just make a small change to that: Because He/ She couldn't be everywhere all at once, God sent us Dogs.

Tuesday, 23 August 2022

I Asked Sorrow to Tea

I asked Sorrow to tea yesterday. Nothing too ostentatious, just some Darjeeling steeping in my China teapot; and crackly toast with butter, sugar and a sprinkling of pepper. Old familiar comfort food. Sorrow was wary. And bloated with sting. Not unexpected. I let the tea warm my palms. And the sweet buttery salty peppery toast soothe my heart. Then I put out my now warmed hand to her. And offered her a toast. We crunched in silence, washing down toast crumbs with the warm tea. I mustered a smile. You have to stay for long here..... I said to her. Very very long. Let's be friends. Startlingly, Sorrow smiled from behind the teacup, showing toast crumbs on her teeth. And then she let go of her sting.

Monday, 6 December 2021

today under the mountains, 

my world is rain and sleet.

peachy nude lipstick

mascara, liner and eyebrow gel run waste like hill-sludge

hands that touch me in promise

promise only breaking away....

songs find hard to take root in this winter-world

i was used to being a lonely planet

now in this lonely universe, I'm taking baby steps 

away from

retreating stars....

Wednesday, 17 November 2021

एक कविता

*एक कविता* 

मैं तो खड़ी हूं वहीं- उसी दरख़्त के तले,
जहां से तुम मुड़ गये थे;

अनूठे चांद की अठखेलियों में
अपनी खुशी घोलकर,
उसकी नील चांदनी में अपने अहं भीजकर,
अपूर्ण सारे गरज जी भर भरकर-
'गर कभी पीछे नज़र डाला-
मैं तो अभी भी वहीं खड़ी हूं...
वहीं, उसी दरख़्त के तले-
जहां से तुम मुड़ गये थे,

जानती हूं,
बेहिसाब मोहब्बत के हिसाब-अदा का तकाजा नामुनासिब हैं:
इसलिए आजकल इस दरख़्त-तले, 
उसके बैंगनी फूलों को सींचती हूं मैं,
नीरस अश्कों के दरिया से।

Sunday, 7 February 2021

Breakfasts at Nidhi's

Those few days had been bad, real bad. Other Half lay in hospital, a sprained back rendering him unable to walk. The experts had advised spinal surgery but even the very thought of it chilled me to the core. Old friends who were doctors would call up and each time I told one of them that a spinal surgery was needed, I could feel how they would go suddenly very quiet. Then, carefully,  tentatively they would ask me, " AiBee, is the surgery really necessary? Wasn't there some other way out? Have you considered taking a second opinion?"

Even in this day and age, surgery of the spine is something that we doctors too are very wary of. But there was no way out and that was how Other Half now lay nearly immobile on the stark white hospital bed in that huge hospital in Delhi, waiting to go under the surgeon's knife.

Delhi was foggy and dismal; the strange unhealthy cold burning through my skin and imprinting itself in my very cells. The hospital was state-of-the-art, but lacked warmth, it's long gray corridors paved with slippery, white tiles and sickly green marbled staircases doing nothing to dispel the gloom. Daily as I walked down those endless corridors, I could see the fog weaving into the precincts in eerie swathes and occasionally, I could hear women wailing from the depths of its numerous wards, mourning a patient's death and my heart would thud in anxiety and empathy for that hapless sorrowing soul. The ward where Other Half was admitted was no better, a grim, shabby place full of souls who stared at me with empty eyes, as I walked in each day to begin my twelve hourly vigil by Other Half's bed. I remember the fifty something man so aged by Non Hodgkin Lymphoma a blood cancer, that I had thought he was in his late seventies. Then there was the man with a Harry Potter scar on his forehead from an old brain surgery who kept wandering away and getting lost due to amnesia from the surgery. And of course there was that bad tempered very old man right on the opposite bed who kept coughing and coughing and coughing.......and driving the rest of the patients completely mad.

I was functioning on an auto mode as  there were too many things that were troubling me all at once: would Other Half be able to walk again? What if the surgery left neurological complications like paralysis or loss of bladder/ bowel control? Would he be able to successfully come out of the anaesthesia? Silly illogical doubts that assumed gargantuan proportions because being a doctor, I knew that they were not silly at all, that the possibility of their occuring was very chillingly real. Then post the surgery, the fellow began to have fever, great shaking chills which subsided with profuse sweating that wet the bed clothes and left the poor man completely drained. The doctors spoke in hushed tones of  "septicaemia", any physician or surgeon's nightmare, filling me with dread.

It was in these terribly trying times that Nidhi and her little family opened their home to me. I stayed with them for about four days as they lived right next to the hospital and it was very convenient for me to nip in and out of the hospital from their place.

Mentally, as you can guess, I was in a very bad place at that moment and the best thing that happened to me right at that point was the opportunity to stay at Nidhi's.

I didn't know her too well till then for I was a friend of her husband's, a polite helpful young man. But we did have a passing acquaintance and I had always found her to be a pleasant young woman. Here at her home, I came to know her better. Slim, with a quiet face framed by silky straight hair, Nidhi exuded an air of repose. Her quietness was very comforting to me, for she never prodded and was  never unnecessarily curious. Sitting with her sipping tea or watching television or chatting as she worked in the kitchen, I felt my anxieties quieting, ebbing..... But it was her breakfasts that turned me to mush.

In that cold, foggy Delhi winter, that too during Corona times when most people were working from home and all schools were shut, most households did not stir before nine thirty- ten o'clock. But I had to rush to OH's bedside at eight and hence on my first night there, I woke up at around seven. It was cold and dark outside; and as I got dressed, the clinks and tinkles from the kitchen told me that Nidhi too was awake. Clutching my handbag, phone and mask, I hurried out to the little dining hall, wanting to put on my shoes and get going: only to be stilled with surprise at finding breakfast laid on the tiny table: a perfectly made alu ka paratha, smelling as motherly as parathas have smelt for centuries resting on a spotless china plate with a blob of Amul butter melting in its bosom and a huge cup of steaming tea standing to attention beside it. The curtains were still drawn to keep the ghoulish morning at bay and on the shelf above the dishwasher, SaReGaMa's Carvaan softly played old bhajans....I stood for a moment overwhelmed before Nidhi's breakfast; then quietly retreated back to my room embarrassed by the sudden spurt of tears clouding my eyes...Bruno, Nidhi's German Shepherd who was at this juncture, still not quite decided upon as to whether he could be my friend, came and sniffed at my feet in a companionable gesture and went way. I composed myself and went back to Nidhi's breakfast. 

And so it was the same for the next three days that I stayed with them: every morning, sharp at quarter to eight the table would be laid with Nidhi's breakfasts: nothing very sumptuous or complicated, bread and omelette or maybe upma; all very simple and homely and made with care.

When one is going through a rough patch in life, I've personally found that it's not the reassurances and platitudes that friends and well wishers offer you, the "don't worry, sab kucch theek ho jayega" kinds or the wise advice/gyaan that many offer like "be strong" that are of any benefit. What works are small, very small, seemingly very inconsequential gestures like the offer of a hot homely breakfast or a tall cup of steaming milky tea or maybe idlis and sambhar packed in a hotcase....

They give you a space, a space full of warmth and comfort, a space where you can retreat for a tiny while, away from the cloud of fear, anxiety and sadness enveloping you to rest and to recoup. 

This last one month had been a tough experience for me but the burden was made lighter by innumerable  kindnesses of innumerable friends acquaintances and even strangers.

Amongst all the memories that I  cherish, there is one that will always hold a special place in my heart: of eating hot, straight-off-the-tawa parathas topped with molten butter and washing it down with great warming sips of milky tea as Saregama Carvaan fills my ears with fondly remembered bhajans on a cold foggy January morning.......

And I'll always, always be indebted for my Breakfasts at Nidhi's..

Sunday, 25 October 2020

The Listener


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The Listener


I’m a Listener.

People give me the tinkle when they’re short of lent ears. Or have run out of them. 

No prior appointment, no booking; no advance payment:I’m all ears, notwithstanding.

There is never need to hesitate: I’m respectfully, empathically attentive, by default.

I listen without interruption, interject with compassion, intersperse with soothing benediction.

An anguish bothering you?

A sadness cloying you?

A doubt clouding your mind?

No fret: send word for the Listener.

I will give you top class listening: silent, soothing, uplifting; I will empty the air around so that you can vent to your angst’s content; I will arrange my countenance to suit your want: pity, reassurance, support, disbelief, shock…whatever……

It’s a 100 % guaranteed genuine-feeling professional listening…..No questions asked, no judgement passed, always gratis.


At night, the Moon climbs down the late night sky and dangles her beams from atop the bottle brush tree.

The world sleeps.

 I sit on the rusted swing and talk to my heart’s content.

To the Moon who is my Listener.

The masked waitress had placed a wooden tray with three little black porcelain bowls: one, the staple green chillies in vin...