A Mother and Son, Minding Peas and Cues

Monica Bhide has a very interesting essay with the same title in the Washington Post. For three weeks now, I have sat with the new post page trying to come up with something. Each time I have drawn a blank with the cursor blinking at me forlornly. I am struggling with spending time tending to this blog, spending time in the kitchen and just being with the kids.

This essay was a nice in the way it brought it all together.

Find the article here

Reprinting the whole essay here, in case the link becomes redundant.

As a very young child, my son Jai had an unaccountable aversion to learning any language other than English. Yet, I was determined to teach him Hindi, my mother tongue, to ensure he did not miss out on a culture and heritage for lack of simple knowledge of its language.

I would point to his clothes, toys and books and encourage him to respond with their Hindi names. Eventually, he spoke a few words — he could point to a chair and call it kursi and say the numbers from 1 to 10 in Hindi. But he did not know simple phrases such as “How are you?” or “My name is Jai.” He could not have a conversation in Hindi.

That all changed during a trip to India when Jai was 4. I was sitting with my mother on the floor, shelling peas. As we were laughing and talking, Jai wandered over, picked up a pea pod with great curiosity and asked what it was. It is mattar, my mother told him. Peas? he wondered. Inside this? He loved the fact that he could open the pod and find a treasure. He opened one, then another and another. He sat still, which in itself was an achievement. He began to listen to us, to ask questions.

Some mothers like to color with their young children, some read books, some watch television. I could never have imagined our time together would be used to shell peas.

Once we were back in the States, I searched supermarkets and farmers’ markets for peas in pods. I rinsed them, patted them dry and waited for 3 o’clock so I could pick up Jai from school and we could shell peas. When pea pods were hard to find, I cheated, more than once passing off edamame as peas. Rarely were we able to eat the peas for dinner; by the time Jai’s tiny fingers got them out of the pods, they were too squished or had gone straight into his mouth. I didn’t care as long as we sat and shelled and talked.

We sat on the floor and started by sorting the pea pods, his fingers working furiously to separate the little baby pods from the mother pods and the daddy pods. Some days we named the piles of pods for his school friends — Zack, Sam, Casey. Then we counted. Jai could count to 20 in Hindi by then, and finished counting in English. On a few occasions, we reached 30 together.

Then came Jai’s favorite part, the time for me to tell him stories — in Hindi. We always started with the story of the witch, the one who would come and make a home in your hair if you went out without drying it on a cold day. The story would somehow segue into what Buzz Lightyear or Spider-Man would do if he found this witch. (An interesting question, since we could not find a bit of hair on either of their heads.) Each story had a different ending, depending on which action figure was stationed next to Jai for the afternoon.

After the witch would come the story of an Indian princess who lived in a golden castle. I wanted it to end with her marrying a handsome prince. My son, however, would add his 4-year-old’s spin and American viewpoints. Sometimes the princess would be a doctor, usually a veterinarian, and would end up marrying Shrek. Other times, the gentle princess would be transformed into a superhero and I was pleasantly challenged to come up with the Hindi names for laser guns and robotic evildoers.

One day, Jai asked me, “Mom, apne kahania kaha see seekhi?”

Where did I learn the stories? Why, from Bahenjee, of course.

By now Jai knew that word meant “older sister,” and his curiosity was piqued since I had no older sister. She was not related to me, I explained. It was a term often used as a mark of respect for an older person. A distant relative by marriage, she lived in a quiet part of my dadi’s house in Delhi. Dadi, my father’s mother, lived in what most people refer to as an Indian bungalow that housed a joint family — 14 people on an average day, not including the various relatives who would show up out of the blue.

With her crooked teeth, thinning white hair, flowing white sari and shrill voice, Bahenjee lived on the fringes of Dadi’s household. She had her own small area — steel almirah or armoire, charpai or cot, and wildly painted and loud pictures of various gods on the mostly bare and peeling wall. On a shelf were statues of gods, incense sticks, fresh jasmine flowers, silver coins. Bahenjee generally rose at an ungodly hour, 4 a.m., and did the work of an alarm clock for the house, singing prayers tunelessly at the top of her voice.

“Ab who kaha hai?” asked Jai. Where is she now? I had no idea.

“Nanu se poochege?” He pointed to the phone for me to call his grandfather in India to ask him. I did, and my father told us that after my grandparents died, Bahenjee went to live with her son. She had since died.

Jai asked me more and more about her and her stories and the memories came flooding back.

On my summer vacations, when I was a child, I would look forward to going to Dadi’s house so I could be with Bahenjee. For she was one of the best storytellers in the world. You and I shell peas, I told Jai; Bahenjee and I would make sev, noodles, as she shared stories. We would sit together in the hot Delhi sun after her ritual of sweeping the concrete courtyard with a wooden broomstick, brushing away dust and dirt I couldn’t see, and laying out a bamboo mat, or chitai, for us to sit on. She would spread newspapers in front of the mat and peel a few Indian oranges, santras, for me to eat. Then she would bring out the chickpea dough.

Bahenjee would make small logs of the dough, and she taught me how to hold each one between my fingers as if I were counting the beads of a rosary. Away we would go, preparing small bits of sev as princesses crossed paths with evil witches. Even as she talked, Bahenjee outpaced me in making sev. She would go through containers of dough while I was still struggling with my first log. She never seemed to notice that I generally made a mess and seemed to be interested only in the stories. Occasionally, she would ask me to wet a muslin cloth to cover the dough as it started to dry up. We would sit in that glowing Delhi heat for hours and I would listen, mesmerized.

As I recalled Bahenjee’s stories for Jai, it occurred to me that the tales she had told me had been in Multani — I learned a dying language through her stories. All of the stories were set in my father’s birthplace, Multan, a part of India until the separation of India and Pakistan. Bahenjee spoke Hindi, the more colloquial language, as well, but seemed to prefer telling the stories in her own language, stopping to translate only if I looked totally lost. She would recount painfully how she was forced to leave her motherland. She would talk about my father’s childhood, about her own family, about the food and the festivities.

Her language connected me to a place I would never see and a culture I had never known. No one in my family ever returned to Multan. Bahenjee chronicled a history that was lost in a war over religion and hate. I learned prayers and nursery rhymes in Multani.

Bahenjee’s stories ended, inevitably, when the dough did. I have always wondered what she did in the winters.

Learning to appreciate another culture through its language, through the words of an old woman who has seen life and lived to tell about it, now feels like a blessing. When my parents told us their childhood stories, we rolled our eyes. It always seemed to be intended as a lecture, prefaced with, “When I was your age . . .” Bahenjee’s stories were different. They transported me, intrigued me.

Several years have gone by since Jai and I started counting peas. At the age of 8, he speaks Hindi, though not flawlessly. Often he mixes English and Hindi words to create his own language. He has even picked up a few stray words of Multani.

Now, the questions he asks in his Hindi-English mix are no longer simple. Kya sab Iraqi log bad hai? Are all Iraqi people bad?

Why are those soldiers carrying banndooks, guns?

Why do people die, will I die? Aap bhi? Will you?

Jai no longer struggles with the language; now it’s my turn. I struggle for the right words, the right answers, in any language.

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[Sigh].. Another Change of look.

Yes, yes. I changed my theme. AGAIN.

Let me know how you guys like this one. Lot of you guys had trouble finding recipes in the earlier theme. Now you will find them all on the right side bar. And yes, I promise to update the recipe page. Geez, you guys are making me work!

Also, the RSS links are right below the blog header for your convenience.

I hope things go smoother with this. Cos I really like this one.

Relevant post coming up soon.

Happy Independence Day!

Happy Independence day to all my readers. India celebrates 60 years of Independence today. Having enjoyed 30 years of that myself, all I can say is, I am very grateful.

We all read and heard about the famous speech Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru made on midnight, August 1947. The full speech is a revelation, it is not the fist-pumping, we-did-it, the-battle-is-over speech. It recognizes the work ahead, that the battle has not been won, it has just started. We won our freedom, now we need to keep it. It is hope and it is joy. I love reading this speech especially the first two paragraphs which I reproduce here.

Long years ago we made a tryst with destiny, and now the time comes when we shall redeem our pledge, not wholly or in full measure, but very substantially. At the stroke of the midnight hour, when the world sleeps, India will awake to life and freedom. A moment comes, which comes but rarely in history, when we step out from the old to the new, when an age ends, and when the soul of a nation, long suppressed, finds utterance. It is fitting that at this solemn moment we take the pledge of dedication to the service of India and her people and to the still larger cause of humanity.

At the dawn of history India started on her unending quest, and trackless centuries are filled with her striving and the grandeur of her success and her failures. Through good and ill fortune alike she has never lost sight of that quest or forgotten the ideals which gave her strength. We end today a period of ill fortune and India discovers herself again. The achievement we celebrate today is but a step, an opening of opportunity, to the greater triumphs and achievements that await us. Are we brave enough and wise enough to grasp this opportunity and accept the challenge of the future? [link]

Click on the link to read the full text. Wiki has the full text of the speech , too. From wiki, I found this link which recounts the writings of an American woman who actually witnessed the Indian Flag go up on 15th August, 1947.

“the multitudes had gathered as far as the eye could see in the two-mile long parkway approach to the Secretariat, on tops of buildings, in windows, on cornices, in trees, perched everywhere like so many birds. The raising of that first flag was the single most thrilling experience of the entire celebration …. The first who spotted it pointed like eager childen; others … looked up and tried to push their way to a vantage point so they too could see this miracle. For a few minutes there was almost a subdued hush over the whole crowd; then a soft bass undertone slowly swelled until, perhaps when the flag reached the top,… there was a breathtaking roar of cheering, shouting, and excited cries which others said penetrated to the hall inside and made their spines tingle. While I was being stirred by the sheer power and grandeur of the spectacle,… the Indians either stood mute, immersed in their own overwhelming thoughts, or were shouting almost uncontrollably. It was a grand emotional experience that left most of us with shaky voices or complete inability to speak.”

Read the full article here.

Happy Independence Day to all my readers!

Sushi, anyone?

Yes, I am back and yes, I was away and yes, I didn’t bother informing you all. But then I never planned on being away this long. I always thought I will put all that swirls around my head into a coherent post tomorrow,but somehow that tomorrow never came. Until today. After a year and half of my blogging life, I have realized that I am not very good at gelling my real life to my virtual one. That’s just it. Eventually, I may make more of an effort to do it. But, the past 3 months, I couldn’t get myself out of the inertia. There was no lack of material, though. As it is with family visiting, there was never a lack of food moments. Good food, family, serious discussions, lots of advice, spoilt kids, tears, laughs, joy, anger, exasperation …essentially all the hallmarks of a parental visit.

Although, for all the sentimental moments we had, the one moment that will always stick out in our minds is the Sushi episode. Let me lay some ground work for you. My in-laws, two people in this world, for whom konkani food is the beginning and end of their food journey. At the most they will go for restaurant fare of the Indian variety, once in a blue moon when there really is no choice, provided their next meal is staunchly amchi with lots of coconut or at least fried stuff thrown in. Enter a grown-up son with two kids of his own, who decides that it is time for the parents to expand their culinary horizon. So, every Friday evening, he decides to introduce a new cuisine to his parents. Also, adding some background noise and color are two toddlers who are delighted at eating out every weekend and a bemused daughter-in-law who is not sure what side she is on. And there were sides drawn as early as the first week, when a visit to the Italian restaurant with salads and pasta was enough for the FIL to know he didn’t ever want to eat out in the US again.

“Where’s the salt and chilli?”
“What’s so great about noodles in tomato soup?”

“Uh, Dad. That’s Spaghetti in Marinara sauce. And you can add some chilli flakes to it, if you want.”

So, every Friday, I watched them mentally ready themselves to eat a meal they were not really going to like just because the much-loved son wanted them too and they didn’t really have the heart to say no in face of such enthusiasm. In coming weeks, we covered Thai, Vietnamese, Chinese, US-Indian. And then it was turn for the Japanese steakhouse. Here I must clarify that though the parents wouldn’t touch meat or poultry, they are great seafood lovers. The problem is seafood made amchi style is hot, hot and more hot. Obviously, our restaurant fare in any cuisine wasn’t. By now, the parents had come to the stage where they had decided that ignorance is not bliss and knowing about the kind of food to expect was a better thing. So,

Father : ” My Dear Son, what it is that is different in Chinese and Japanese cuisine? We already had Chinese, so can we not skip Japanese?”

Much-Loved Son (MLS) : “But Appa, you have to try Sushi!”

Mother : “Dear much-loved son, pray what be this sushi?”

Much-loved Son (with all the enthusiasm of a person talking to seafood and rice lovers): “Appa, Amma, it is fresh fish and rice all rolled together. It is really good, the fish is really fresh, they slice it thin and serve it with soy dipping sauce and wasabi which is hot, so you won’t even miss the chilli and the salt.”

Mother (Hopefully): “Really much-loved son, that doesn’t sound bad”

Father (not convinced) : “How do you know it is fresh?”

Much-loved son : “Appa, you know it is fresh because otherwise raw fish would stink”

Father and Mother (much outrage) : “Raw fish!!??!!! ”

Father : “Puttar, All these “paschatya sanskriti” (western culture) is getting to your head. Raw fish! What next?”

Much-loved son (much confused) : “But Appa, Japan is in the far east. What western culture?”

Mother (sad) : “Oh, how much you have changed, my much-loved son.”

The bemused DIL : “Why don’t I make some Dalitoy and Batata song for today?”

Hugs and kisses from Father and Mother and much glaring from the much-loved son to his once-much-loved wife later, we were wolfing down mirchi bajji’s from the local Indian restaurant along with the dalitoy and batata song. Of course, much-loved son wasn’t giving up. See, he is the kind of person that believes that if the horse doesn’t come to the well, then we have to bring the well to the horse. So next day, he visited the steakhouse and convinced them to let him take their sushi to go. Upon coming home, the much-loved son presented the sushi to the much harassed parents, who promptly retired to their room. Much hilarity ensued when the much-loved son, holding a piece of sushi in chopsticks, chased the parents around the house imploring them to give it a try and the parents, fed up of the gastronomical injustice being done to their soft palates, just announced in their most desperate voice,

“Anything for you, much-loved son, but raw-fish.”
“And pasta.”
“And half cooked vegetables.”
“And that blasted tofu.”

The much-shocked much-loved son came to a stand still and the parents taking advantage of the moment decided to go British on him and locked themselves in separate rooms.

[THUD] went the bemused daughter-in-law who fell on the floor doubling up with laughter.

[AHHHHHH,OOOOOOHHHHH] went the excited toddlers who thought the grandparents and dad were playing tag.

[chomp,chomp] went the much-loved son wolfing down the sushi.

[sigh, sigh] went the parents in total relief.

I now have visions of our old-age, visiting my son on Mars, going

“Anything for you, much-loved son, but food capsules”

“But, amma, they taste just like sushi…”

Will you feed this to your Newborn?

Scientists have created an anti-obesity formula for infants. The highlights are by me.

…aims to supplement baby milk with a hormone that suppresses hunger.Animal studies suggest early exposure to the hormone leptin can programme the brain to prevent over-eating throughout life.It may even determine whether someone is fat or thin before birth.Feeding the hormone to pregnant rats seems to have a life-long impact on their offspring. Animals born of leptin-treated mothers remain lean, despite being fed a fat-laden diet. In contrast those whose mothers were untreated gain weight and develop diabetes

Prof. Cawthorne, who did the research,

“The supplemented milks are simply adding back something that was originally present,” he told Chemistry & Industry magazine, which reported on the research today. “Breast milk contains leptin and formula feeds don’t.”Previous studies looking at the ability of leptin to reduce hunger in human volunteers have proved disappointing. Prof Cawthorne believes this is because they involved adults, rather than infants. Leptin was only likely to leave its stamp on the malleable brains of babies.”You would only take this for a short time, very early in life,” said Prof Cawthorne.

Cawthorne, about the formula

Prof Cawthorne told the Press Association the infant formula work was in the “very early stages”.”It’s something we’re in the process of looking at,” he said. “There’s potential there because we know that breast-fed offspring have less of a tendency towards obesity in adult life.”I’m not in the least suggesting that it will cure world wide obesity, but it’s something that could make a difference.”There are always safety concerns, and whenever you do anything there tend to be unexpected events. But one could argue that giving formula feeds to babies that are different from breast milk might itself be changing their programming.”

From BBC

Steve O’Rahilly

The notion that leptin in baby milk will prevent human obesity is currently in the realms of wildly optimistic science fiction.

Dr Nick Finer,

And would the first trials be in newly born children?”

Whatever happened to teaching the kids to eat right? Never again am I going to crib about the 20 minutes I have to spend to feed my kids that apple, orange or banana instead of the cupcake that will be wolfed down in 20 seconds.

It is Joanna Moorehead at Guardian Unlimited who asks the right question.

why are we[British] spending money on trying to develop an inferior substitute, rather than putting more resources into encouraging mothers to breastfeed?

Over the weekend…

One of the many things I love about blogging is making like-minded friends online. Anu is one such friend. When I announced that JFI-Diwali will be accepting recipes from non-bloggers as well, Anu was the first person to send in her recipe complete with a picture, ingredient-list, step-by-step intructions, hints and tips and variations. The one thing that I still remember vividly is that in her email she mentioned and I quote
I do not have a blog yet.
In my intro to her guest post, I predict her joining the food community eventually.
Anupama Anantharaman is another such friend. In a move that confirms I am getting old or I really need that trip to bermuda soon, I have confused them both. However, Anu, a long time reader of this blog, indeed has talked like an eventual blogger. I am happy to announce that eventuality has come to fruitition and she has finally penned her own blog. She starts her food blogging life with the recipe for Daalitoy which I call the mother daal of the konkani cuisine and comfort food for all aamchis. I remember, growing up, every year we would become tourists in our own country and visit all the amazing places in India. We would gorge in the dhabbas and Udipi restaurants depending on which side of the Vindhyas we were, but the first meal back at home would always be Rice, Daalitoy and Upkari. For me and, let me go out on a limb here and say, for most aamchi’s, a meal with daalitoy and upkari is home away from home. Anu makes the blogosphere her home with Daalitoy and cabbage Upkari. I welcome the Kitchen Queen, Anu and look forward to more delights from her.

Also, over the weekend, as part of Vee-speaks, a snapshot of my son’s mental diary on Dining Hall

McCafe ?

You read that right. Mcdonalds is going upscale. But, don’t expect to get your regular dose of molecular gastronomy at your next visit . Oh, No. It’s the look that is going upscale. And how!

A motion-detecting, automatic-opening garbage receptacle and a robotic voice saying “thank you” and “please wait” ….

A Sci-fi version of Mcdonalds has always been on my wish-list. But wait, whats this?

.. with trendy, upholstered booths, a stone fireplace and comfy lounge chairs.

There goes my Star Wars dream where Darth Vader slays the opposition, all the while eating a Big Mac! In its place is, a rotound Darth Vader, with fries in one and hand and coke in the other, belching into eternity. tch, tch…

Instead of a cardboard cutout of the “Hamburglar” next to the counter, there’s a bowl full of Granny Smith apples and a glass display of salads. There are warm tones of sage green and brown, not the traditional bright yellow and red.

Wowza!! Now all I need is a computer and I would be in Starbucks!

…will feature plasma screens playing the news, and others will have wireless Internet connections

Ahhh, I see. We are not going Starwars as much as we are going Starbucks. But what about the food? I mean, eating messy burgers and fries doesn’t so much go along with banging on the laptop at the same time, does it?

And, Dude, where’s the coffee?

Link from Slashfood, where Sarah has her own interpretation of what it means.