Category Archives: Times Of India

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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The Friday-dressing car? Tech-billionaire’s new toy?

Hitler would have hiccups and spin in his grave at the same time if he knew. He’d commissioned this car – or rather its daddy – for the fatherland. To be the ‘people’s car’. But this laptop-generation hippie is light years from what the Fuhrer would ever imagine, enough to give him a mild seizure right in the middle of his Mein Kampf.

How should I describe it? Let’s see, if you put Peter Pan, Einstein and Moby in a room together, this is what you’d get. A car with the self-possessed cool of an IMac, the buzz of a rock star and design that a spaceship would envy.

You can put those jaws together now. There is no doubt about it. This is the wunderkar, the new Volkswagen Beetle. The car to trade the Merc when the weekend hits. At a whopping 14 lakhs and climbing, a car for the fat of wallet and swanky in taste, a collectors item. A car for the non-conformist, and a mascot of change.

Hitler would bark, he certainly would, if he knew that the economy car that first trundled out of Germany is now a prize possession, the toy of the yuppies and technobiz billionaires. But nearly seven years ago, this was the definitive quirky car that blew minds all over car-crazy America. And it’s now set to clear traffic down Marine Drive. Or create a traffic jam, whichever way you look at it. And even though I can just about afford the rear fender, I’m excited.

I know this is the kind of car Andy Warhol would’ve driven, if not immortalised, making it a pop art hero. But then, the new Beetle is already part of legend.

Its forefather – the Classic Beetle was pulled out of Nazi grimness and adopted by the Flower Power generation. And then celebrated in the pot-smoking days of free love, idealism, starry eyes and rock n roll. Take a chair now – Five million beetles were sold between 1949 and 1979, and most of them in the Summer of Love.

But where the Classic Beetle starred in Hollywood movie ‘Lovebug’, and was chauffeured by loveniks, flared jeans, kurta and rastafarian braids to Woodstock in the 1960s, the new Beetle now transports gel spiked hair, and sharp duds and honours driveways in snobnosed Nottinghill, garages off Central park and the inclines of San Francisco. And to think it once used to be driven by old Parsis.

While the classic Beetle draws nostalgia, the new one evokes envy. A case in point.

The place: The highway ribboning to downtown Chicago. A SUV (Standard Utility Vehicle ) tears up tar behind us. Then, it spies the small silver smiling bug singing to the wind. The SUV sidles in slyly for a closer look. Notice, the driver in the SUV is not concentrating on the road. Two seconds, and the SUV has to pull his way out of an oncoming Mac truck. Advantage Beetle!

I’ve heard it invite a lot of complimentary adjectives, “oh!?” “er..” “and “whoa” being the commonest. But even if I am a crusader for its drive and a sucker for its looks, the new VW Beetle has its share of evil.

People stare. Curiously, unabashedly. Like you’ve just stopped over from Mars – antennae et al, or have your fly open or have forgotten your clothes at home. Be burdened with the attention heaped on a movie star. Prepare to be accosted by complete strangers. From paanwallahs to old Parsi women, who will tap you on your starched shoulder and ask questions. From an wide-eyed “What is this?” to a smug “How much did it cost?” And of course, wiping off fingerprints every time you go back to your parked car will become a necessary ritual.

But, then, smile when you consider the upside: how the female species especially the young nubile variety – for whom you were invisible man till date, suddenly become an intricate part of your universe. Just be careful where you go. It’s the curse of the VW beetle. Everyone will know where you’ve been.

All things considered, I’d still say its greatest talent is that it can make even the most road-hardened trucker, who’s been at the wheel all the way from Haryana to Bombay non-stop, crack a greasy grin.

True to its roots – and its advertising “If you sold your soul in the 60’s here’s your chance to buy it back” it brings people together.

Sitting inside a Chicago deli I saw a couple stop in the middle of an argument as a Beetle slid into a parking space and then together turn and ask the driver about the car. Which is why it doesn’t really surprise me that along with the hippies’ VW micro bus it became an icon of flower power, of love. It was well-deserved.

The new beetle is cleverly retro, not severing its umbilical cord, sticking only with the features that made it an icon.

And yet it fits perfectly into this palmtop life and almost non-existent parking space. Pack your driving worries into the ample space in the trunk, this bug has been built to shimmy its way through traffic, with happy demeanour. And though it may be named after the insect family Coleopteria for its compact and intelligent design, at 60 miles per hr. it has all the growl of a tiger.

The design however takes a bit of a toll on headroom. But if the average American can emerge unscathed, exhibiting no bump on his head then an Indian should have no room to complain. Speaking of which, it doesn’t have the legroom of first class, but is definitely and comfortably spacious thanks to a truly deep dashtop. And though the black or grey interior, luxury and leather packages are standard, I’d ask you forget about trying anything other than sitting on the backseat.

Underneath the skin, the new Beetle is thoroughly modern, the engine, the transmission brakes and suspension borrowed from the Volkswagen Golf which is a very good car.

Front wheeled engine and front wheeled drive as opposed to the Classic Beetle’s rear-engine and rear wheel drive, water cooled where air and oil once kept the engine at sane temperatures, the new car has almost nothing in common with the old. Except its shape. Which I suppose is the feature its popularity is most based on – going from the fact that it speaks to mommies and clubbers, war veterans and hippies alike.

Even its most basic form it boasts more than twice the grunt of the old one. The hoarding you pass quite rightly announces “Less flower. More power.” Acceleration is brisk, and for all its gentle disposition it won’t hesitate to shame a Japanese small car on the road.

Now if the tech specs don’t get you maybe the bud vase will. A tribute to flower power? Who knows, but its sits there on the elegant, minimalistic, curving dashboard that can be bathed in a blue light at the flick of a switch further propagating the mind-bending vibe of the sixties.

It doesn’t take long to fix your heart on a Beetle, but believe me you have to get the colour right. And deciding that, can successfully turn your hair a fine shade of grey. The Beetle flaunts colours more psychedelic than the free love generation could ever have visualised, even after ten pulls on a pipe. You could put your finger on the Vortex that the brochure says is ‘a blue on ten cups of coffee’. Or on Reflex, almost a blazing sunflower yellow. Or maybe the Lime. Looking back, it’s easier to hand over the 14 lakhs.

Now to those who plan to show-off a Bug in their driveway, there’s three laws you should follow. One: Don’t embarrass it with a bumper sticker that says ‘My other car is a Merc.” It has too much dignity for that. Two: Don’t make any enemies. Three: Unbutton those cuffs. Lose the stiff lip. And gain some patience for all the raised eyebrows. And yes, you’d better book now. Import is being limited to just 100 units per year.

What would Hitler say? Well, who cares. Give thanks Hitler is dead. Give thanks it’s the 2000s and you can flaunt your eccentricity down the road. But once, just for a tiniest fraction of a second – and even if the politically correct flog me for it – for the car he gifted to the world, Heil Hitler.

 

 

(Published in the Sunday Times supplement)

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

 

 

Side show

 

I don’t drive. It’s bad for my hair – turns gray, disastrous for my parent’s BP and the collective health of cursing maniacs who steer for their lives.

 

I do have a license. But considering I ‘earned’ it after a demanding test that lasted five short minutes and almost maimed two officials, I take a rickshaw. It gets me from here to there and, what d’you know, keeps me alive to tell my story.

 

 

It was a monsoon day when rain fell like blue fish from the sky, and people ran helter-skelter, even if not out of the rain – it’s a Mumbai trait. It was one of those days when God says ‘Mumbai, you need some cleaning’, and whooosh.

 

So I yodel for a rickshaw and with click of the meter we’re off, in a supersonic burst that would make Schumi bawl. ‘It’s not easy driving a rickshaw in Bombay saab, the driver tells my male friend, ‘you’ve to know where each pothole is.’ (If only he pointed them out to the municipal corporation.)

 

He rockets expertly past one wide-eyed, disappointed signal after another, till we reach breakneck speed in the literal sense of the word. Soon his karma and heartbeat catch up with him. A killer stab at the brakes and we skid into caterpillar traffic, right behind another rickshaw that preaches “Small family is happy family”. This is India after all.

 

In less than half a thought, a eunuch, pasty with rouge and rich in gold teeth, claps my mind awake, reminds me it’s Tuesday, and asks for change. Holding out her hand – a leathery parchment, its deep sad lifeline etching the memory of her weather-beaten life.

I’d give a rupee if she enlightens me on the Tuesday connection. She cackles loudly at my naiveté, that I even imagine she’ll accept a rupee – the bindi on her forehead costs more. No sooner the money is hers, she blesses us, my male friend and me. In a shower of “Aap ki jodi salamat rahein.” Which loosely translates to ‘May you be a happy couple’. And then, in a quick thoughtful move to celebrate our new union, our driver hits the button on his tape deck and a Bollywood ditty entertains half the city.

 

 

A 7 year old little actress in ragged costume who has adopted the street divider for her stage, stops dancing and sends me a well-practiced, milk-tooth smile. “Flowers?” she trills, followed by ‘Your eyes are beautiful’, dangling her jasmine garlands and sales pitch disguised as sweet compliment in my face. At the end of a Mumbai day, you’d buy too.

 

 

We hurrah past Linking Road, the shopping mecca, in an orchestra of honking, past ovals of sizzling ragda pattice – Indian fast food, and nubile shoppers in scarf- size clothing, probably shopping for more.

 

Another suburb speeds past and this time Shumacher would have a laughing fit at my use of the term. But my driver bravely noses in, between a hulking truck and a trumpeting BEST bus, with an inch to spare, and with a sneezing exhaust just where I wanted it, within kissing distance of my windpipe.

 

Another laughing traffic light. A Scooty – meteor of the suburban universe, cheats past, before a pair of men’s undies swamp my vision. Shorts madam?

 

Welcome to the bargain price walking market. For things you forgot to buy and some you won’t ever need. A stone-faced man sells chicken-shaped balloons. Others flog hair clips, afternoon newspapers, face tissues, dinky cars, Bisleri, coloring books, Washington apples, strawberries and an entire news-stand of magazines.

 

The music on the tinny radio changes. The landscape? By about five inches. In the next rickshaw a young couple practice mouth to mouth resuscitation. An Hindi film hero look-alike straddling a mean piece of metal studies his moustache in the rear-view mirror, then, quite nonchalantly, as though it is the best way to pass time in tightjaw traffic, whips out his plastic comb- Rs. 7 only – and sweeps it through his hair.

 

 

We roller coast over a backbreaker, er.. speedbreaker. A traffic policeman waves his hands frantically to the invisible prompting of a master puppeteer. A cow crosses the road, with not a straw for authority – the policeman – who marches over purposefully, then reverently touches its back, and urges His Stubbornness to hurry to the other side.

 

The signal blinks, the rickshaw’s off again. David turning his nose up at the Goliaths, careening through a side lane, and calmly over a sleeping liar of a road sign that says ‘Work in Progress’.

I’ve reached Santacruz and hey, I still have six minutes to spare, and yes, he can keep the change.

 

 

(Published in Snapshot column in the Times of India. A column on Mumbai and its many quirks.)

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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

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

Man Of Letters

 

“Send fifteen copies within five days or evil will befall you.” a blue inland letter in a strange writing warned. As a kid it terrified me. The biggest evil in an innocent world meant failing exams. I never forgave the postman for delivering chain mail. It wasn’t his fault – I now  know – but  then I would’ve gladly fixed a stamp on him and marked it to China. Most days though I would’ve willingly given him my pocket money as baksheesh. 

 

He delivered joy to our doorstep. The early birthday card that reminded the whole neighbourhood and  built up the noise to my birthday, love letters I read long after they were tattered at the folds and boyfriends had disappeared over the horizon. ‘Phoren’ mail with miniature works of  art for stamps. The ‘Wish you were here’ post card of the Manhattan skyline that, for a tiny moment lifted you out of your cubicle and into holidayland. The bundle of Christmas cards that later festooned the walls and made Christmas joy what it is. And of course the New Year card that surprised itself and us by landing on the doormat three months into the year, long after we’d broken every resolution we’d made.  

 

As kids we badgered him more than any dog could. Chasing on his heels, tugging on his khaki uniform begging to know if he carried our report cards. He was our hero who trudged enough kms. to win Olympic walkathons. Who braved the 35  degree C sun in just a khaki topi –  “Ma shouldn’t he wear sunblock? Sunglasses?” – with his worn khaki satchel lined with stories of people’s lives.

 

Now with email supremacy he mostly delivers credit card bills and tons of other junk mail: several cheery requests to ‘Save the whales’, buy an encyclopaedia, open a new bank account. Never once warning me ‘Your mail box quota is nearing its limit”, then soliciting  larger storage for a few dollars, like my ISP does. Never grumpy as the old corner post-office, now extinct.   

 

Like most government institutions, it was located where you’d find it easily. Almost in the fish market. Going by Murphy’s Law  for Cities, the line would be the longest when you had two minutes to spare. Which explains why everyone in the straggling queue looked visibly chuffed, as if they’d just been abducted from another planet and planted there.

 

It was quite an exciting place really. Sacks of mail placed just where they could trip someone stupid enough to be in a hurry. Someone or the other  became aware to the presence of gum, as they rested their starched shirt against a wall, quickly deducing that a gum applicator had been cleaned on it. The nicest thing about the place was the smell of schoolboy ink. The worst : the woman who’d found a smart way to conserve energy with monosyllables. “Can I have twenty of the rupee stamps?” “No.” Before you asked ‘Why  not?’ she’d hand you forty 50p squares, enough to disguise the envelope, turn your tongue into a miniature gum mop and miss your appointment.

 

It was from there that he came. The shining link in  an invisible chain, connecting somebody who dropped mail into a box in a far off land, to another somebody who waited eagerly by a gate. He brought a real letter. Made of rustling pages that rambled on, rarely sticking to the point, with outpourings of the heart and the mind written in somebody’s handwriting, precious with its ink spills,  doodles, tear stains n all. A letter that let you say all the things you can’t over long distance phone, all the things you’d hold in your throat, hesitant, in the impersonal blue light of a monitor. A letter with a real address that belonged to a street and a house.

 

We often wondered how he remembered so many addresses. Bombay, as many miserably lost people know, is a maze of deranged streets. House no. 87/A could sit quite comfortably next to 302/C. What happened to the numbers in between is still a whispered mystery. Yet he knew where every house was.

 

Sometimes I’m afraid that children of the future will ask “Ma what’s a postman? Then it hits me. As long as some people – bless them – send out contest post cards in the hope of winning a TV or a Mercedes for nothing, he’ll come by. As long as email can’t deliver my dad’s ‘Reader’s Digest’, as long credit cards companies remember to bill me, as long as people have birthdays, not a chance.

 

 

(Published in Snapshot. A column on Mumbai city, in the  Times of India)

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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 Snapshot. A column on Mumbai in the  Times of India)

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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