Category Archives: Life and Peepul

Christmas is here. Time to build the biceps.

Here’s the secret list of ingredients: Maida, sugar, eggs, candied fruit and one mother with endless enthusiasm. Like a poem recited again and again I learnt the list by heart. I’m sure Mum learnt to make Christmas sweets that way too. From watching my grandmother who, I remember, etching Christmas trees with the clean end of matchsticks on nanakaties with gnarled hands, then presenting tray upon tray of baking with the pride that you’d present a new-born baby.

I think she made sweets not because ‘there is joy in giving etc. etc.’ but because she enjoyed making them. From tinting grated coconut a pink for what East Indians call ‘kordeaal’ to mashing dal for what she called ‘doll’ sweet., I know she got it right. Deep inside I believe we make sweets because along with the cards we receive from relatives we don’t know, twinkling ornaments and the gifts we plan excitedly but forget to give, it’s what makes Christmas more than just a day; a whole mushy season. And mostly because it would mean breaking your teeth on rock hard kulkuls you bought from the store.

Quite honestly we make sweets because it’s what we have. What we don’t have, is snow therefore no snowman to build and cotton to trim the tree. We kiss under fake mistletoe. And in a cynical age when we accept that Santa is a mixture of Saint Nicholas, pagan tradition and an advertising promo by Coca Cola this is one of the simple things we can rely on to give us joy, to bring and hold us together. To give us a whiff of the same magic we felt as kids when we opened a Christmas card and it turned into a pop-up crib. That, and the hope that somebody would’ve left a present for us under the Christmas tree.

And so we scribble the lists. Jujubes, star-shaped milk cream, fudge, Christmas pudding that we never attempt, nevrees – those half-moon shaped dough things pregnant with sweet filling, rose cookies that aren’t cookies but flower shaped crunchies, golden brown date biscuits stuffed with slivers of dates and cashew.

And of course Guava cheese – clearly the winner when it comes to building biceps. Everyone loves Guava cheese till you announce making it. ‘Boil guavas, mash guavas, stir continuously for hours. Keep bottle of iodex handy’. Yes, they forgot that in the recipe. Every year we take turns with a wooden stirrer huge enough to knock us out of action. Out of respect for doubtful results no one ever tried that strategy.

We could always buy sweets but then where would we get our jollies if not in trashing stingy Cecy who wouldn’t divulge the recipe that made milk-cream a delicate pink instead of a violent magenta. We’d lose the chance to catch up on each other’s lives or skip to memories stacked around Christmas past. To chuckle about the time Audrey placed the hot oven lid on the carpet creating a design that rivals Ikea. Or the year the cake sank like the Titanic.

Plums, candied fruit, wine… Mum’s cakes have lots of heaven in them. We’d watch them rise lazily as the house filled with the fat warm smell of baking. But that was after we’d finished with the serious part of cake making: licking the batter off our fingers, from the spoons and bowls, often wondering why you need to bake the cake at all.

Mum made Christmas sweets even when it meant rushing from work to wield the rolling pin late into the night. On a floor layered with newspaper we’d sit as if in a prayer circle crimping kulkuls, humming off key to ‘I saw mommy kissing Santa Claus’ interrupted only by “Pass the cutter you klutz”, “Stir or you’ll burn it” and “Mommy, she just ate some of the cherries.” All in consensus that if baby Jesus tasted these he’d leave the manger and come live with us.

The sweets were then hidden away. In tins cleverly labelled “Spices” or deep inside cupboards. She knew we’d find them. But that was part of the ritual. A ritual that adds to the sweetness of our lives. Like family and midnight mass it reassures us that in the face of change, in the face of wars and 9- 9 careers, superficial trends and fickle boyfriends some things stay rooted, secure.

(Published in the Times of India For ‘Snapshot’, a column on Mumbai and it’s various cultures

Vot men? – Katlics

Vot men? You don’t know how to tell a typical katlic?

 

‘Thou shalt drink. Thou shalt jive.’ If there were commandments requiring you to be a ‘katlic’ these would be first. ‘Vot to do man, bugger it comes with the genes.’

People are always exclaiming, “You don’t drink! What kind of catholic are you?” – As though the Pope decreed it. Then, as if the answer to the next question would redeem me they hastily ask “Do you jive?’ An affirmative nod saves my soul and I am admitted back into the fold.

By religion, we are Roman Catholic. Roman, because we are governed by the church in Rome, not because we have dual passports. By culture, katlic. Or ‘Mac’ as people refer to us after they’ve known us for two sentences. How can anyone miss the “Vot men? Or “kya man? ” where the ‘man’ comes free with every sentence quite oblivious to the fact that you’re a woman. Or other phonetic jewels like tree (three), aahks (ask), ‘doll’ (dal), dat (that), or the “faader – mudder” (father/mother) that I would like to believe is some dialect of German, but nein. It’s trademark ‘Mac’ talk.

Of the several theories that float around, one says Mac is a derivative of ‘macca pau’ (butter ‘n’ bread) because supposedly that’s what katlics eat.

The drinking of course, we’re sure of. “Michael daru peekay dhanda karta hai” from “Zameer” tells a small part of the story. We drink at Holy communions, christenings, at other festivals too: Mondays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays…. You get the picture.

And of course we drink at those crazy carnivals called katlic weddings. Where you dress up, quaff wine, slip on confetti, stomp at the Wedding March like drunk soldiers, get sozzled, stuff face with potato chops, vindaloo, sorpotel, pork roast, let face fall forward involuntarily into plate of salad, do the mandatory birdie dance, throw the bouquet, wake the neighbours with off-key rendition of “He’s a jolly good fellow” as you zig zag home.

Katlics like to sing. Where there’s a Mac gathering, not counting funerals, there’s a ‘sing-song’ session. “My Bonnie lies over the ocean’, ‘When the saints go marching in’ and the quintessential ‘Annie’s Song’. No Mac party is complete without a guitar and one sloshed uncle who will be dragged home by the toes.

Katlics mourn with the same passion. Wearing black at funerals and for months after, and fasting with fervour at Good Friday. But as December knocks on their doors you‘ll find Crawford market besieged by katlics from ‘Maim’ (Mahim) to Marine lines taking home so much lace you’re not quite sure if it’s for the curtains or the dresses.

At Christmas katlics eat guava cheese and cake and drink (more) wine, go to midnight mass at 8.00 pm. because Jesus said ‘Never mind, keep the peace’ or similar, then in 27 degree heat wear jackets to Willingdon or Catholic Gym and jive the night away.

Though being a katlic may be more about cultural togetherness than going to mass every Sunday we religiously fulfil the requirements. To be a really good katlic you must go inside the church. They have a name for people who don’t “Outstanding catholics”. And if those black sheep did go in it would be a miracle close on the heels of Jesus’ turning water into wine.

If you’re katlic you subscribe to the Examiner where katlic girls search for katlic boys with sober habits and own accommodation.

Good katlics go to confession. When we were kids we knelt in the dark confessional and sincerely asked forgiveness. Standard sins were ‘I beat my sister’ for the boys and ‘I told lies in school’ for the girls. Of course when we grew up we either stopped going or told only the simple one and hoped god would get the others telepathically. We didn’t want to give old father Andrew a minor coronary. Besides, our idea of what constituted a sin had changed.

Hindi movies have katlic girls rushing tearfully to church to pray to Mother Mary for the safety of their threatened love. Maybe that’s why it’s believed that Catholic girls will anoint themselves after every four-letter word and, ‘The morning after her wedding night, she’ll go to confession.’ Katlic boys are in a different league altogether. They play hockey or football till they die and are very eloquent with words like ‘pasting’ (beating), loafer, bugger, as in ‘Vot you doing men, bugger?’

Now some katlics don’t drink or jive or play the piano or chase football, or sing off-key. To them I’d say ‘Come let’s wash away our sins, let’s have a beer. Cheers and Hic!

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(Published in the Communities column in the Sunday Times.)

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If you’d like reprint rights, please mail me at huanita@yahoo.com

Lock Stock and Dhokla

“Shout ‘Patel’ and half this crowd will turn”, he tells me. It has rained a cold London drizzle. Anish – three guesses and you’ll be right at ‘Patel’- and me, count designer labels outside Bar Bollywoood – London club, big time Brit-Asian haunt. In a gaggle of fashionable Burberry coats and brollies. In a torrent of Gujjus and Punjabis spiffy to the toes, trussed in suede jackets and royal blue cravats, strappy black numbers and yes gel, enough to make a drunk man stand stick-straight.

We push past “I av a presentation on Mon-die” and “Shey caim back frum Indiia, din shey?” The Independent and the picture of the Bechkams snogging goes into my bag as I trot in.

I’d pictured London Club. I’d pictured blue UV light, cigar smoke flirting with Paco Rabanne, smoke, psychedelic beat and the likes of Talvin Singh. Then, suddenly I feel like I’ve walked into the wrong movie. Seen a Japanese movie with Hindi dialogue? It’s the same kind of brain-pudding experience. As the music built up, a club track took a dive, speakers booming into ….. ‘Bhumro’. Yup, the one from Mission Kashmir. Before you could say ‘Holy Queen Mother’, every dude on the floor had transmogrified into a Hrithik Roshan in an Armani suit. By the time the tracks have tripped between Madonna, Moby and a jumpy remixed version of ‘Piya Piya’ I was still pulling my jaw out of my Margharita.

British propriety was merrily being stomped over as women gyrated, manicured hands whipped the air and the pelvis was thrust in ways that would leave Govinda dizzy. Long gulp of Margarita. But I shouldn’t have been so shocked.

Two days ago I’d wriggled out of the sheets, disoriented, saucer-eyed. I wasn’t experiencing jetlag. Not even the after-effects of airline food. The song filtered into my claret-shot brain again “Koi pathar se na mare mere diwane ko”. I was hearing correctly. But I was in West London, wasn’t I?!? As if to reassure me, an Ameen Sayani voice came on. “Good morning doston. You are listening to Sunrise FM.” If he’d said “Earthquake” I couldn’t’ve woken up faster.

Then Anish’s mom cheerily informed me we were going to the garba in Fulham. “It’s not even Dassera.” “They organize it now and then. Come along. Payal is.” (Her daughter-in-law – an exec in a PR firm.) She tells me to hurry, eat the sandwiches, and if I’d like, the thepla on the kitchen table. Uh huh.

They godfathered the corner shop in the UK. That I knew. The Brit-Gujju guy will head for a pint at Callaghans’ after work, but he’ll go back to a dal nu rotlu dinner. That too. And we all know a fat bunch of them figure in the Sunday Times Rich List.

Since the time they thronged into the Isles, lock stock n dhokla, they’ve been infusing – with much gusto -buckets of colour into a dull and vague British culture. But this was definitely an occasion to mutter “Blimey! what’s going on?”

Garba. The event: “I go to Battersea only to see the girls.” a cheeky fop confesses. To him and other teenagers it’s just another excuse to party. Another chance to add a few more numbers to their phone books. And you can trace the signals they’re sending out to the young female population, emancipated from their London uniform of black suits. Now transformed into glitzy butterflies in zari and chiffon. (Wembley or Vile Parle, the mating game doesn’t change.) Silk saris, sequins, chaniya choli’s and fashion hot off the Indian catwalk swish past. Ransacked, undoubtedly, from the streets of Southall’s shopping mecca.

Pujas performed, gods appeased, the dancing begins. Grandmothers take the floor first, proud and confident in their steps learnt from their mothers who’ve picked it up from theirs. Quite comfortable with the fact that the lyrics – devoutly praising god and his might – are set to the tune of ‘Kambakht Ishq”.

A gelled DJ replaces Falguni Pathak. Women swirl in graceful circles to the Sherowali song from Suhaag and to old yet popular titles like the Nagin theme. And though garba is an old tradition, the dance steps are changing to Bollywood be bop. Skillfully incorporating Shilpa Shetty’s hip jerks from her latest movie.

No mandaps on grounds here. The small crowds snuggle into school halls and dance till 12 am – Council regulations. Till just before the last tube to Wimbledon. So they make the most of it. Meet old friends, touch base. Discussing losses incurred on the FTSE, exams a granddaughter gave, a recipe. Comfortable in their skins, in the knowledge that everyone here is like extended family who share their language, their quirks.

And while they discuss the virtues of bhel and samosas, they get about the all-important task of matchmaking. They’d rather find a nice, Oxford-literate gujju bahu quickly before Anish discovers a Brit ‘mem’.

‘Prasad’ goes around along with snacks (pronounced ‘snacks’) and drinks to refuel the bodies that are now jumping up and down.

The older generation have let the teenagers take over. Sentimental about these occasions, they don’t really believe it substitutes home, read Gujarat. Yet, they keep up the passionate effort to instill their values, to keep their colourful heritage from being diluted by the grey weather. They can see the numbers are dwindling. Some of the yuppies would like to go, but it’s not easy in a cosmopolitan London where cultures mix and fade. Where the pace of life does not encourage the luxury of tradition. A young Brit-Gujju says “I just want to be a good human being, these things don’t really matter to me.” Even so, it’s in their veins. As with their grandfathers, these events are the hub of their life. It keeps them whole, together, in a place where some people still believe that brown does not belong.

(Published in Communities column in the Sunday Times.)

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Feel free to quote from this site without permission, staying within the normal fair-use conventions, as long as you do me the courtesy of linking back to the relevant permalink and also letting me know. (You can get the permanent link to a particular post by clicking the time stamp below the headline.)
If you’d like reprint rights, please mail me at huanita@yahoo.com