About beginnings…

Sometimes we just don’t know what we are waiting for…’waiting to exhale’ as the song goes. Scrimping, saving and investing for God knows what. As the year cruises to an end tomorrow, I have found myself with time enough to pause and ponder. To me this has been a year of consolidation. The previous year had been a year of changes… 2009 stabilized us again.

It is fascinating how beginnings have been woven into our collective narratives over centuries. New Year celebrations, birthdays, anniversaries… a new government, a new car, an opening night of a movie, a first trip to a beach hidden by coconut palms, our first drink or that first date…or perhaps just a brand new day. Everything new is tinged with the hope of something better to come.

What was the most fascinating beginning you have had in your life? Was it your first day at a new college? Or was it the day you got married? Or perhaps, the day you became a parent?

Allow me to talk about one of my favorite beginnings. Yes there are more than one…and some of them have been written about on this blog over the years… So I will skirt the topic of my years at college..or how me and Radhika decided to take the plunge so many years ago… or when we moved into the first apartment either of us owned ever.

( If you are interested though please check out the following links:

https://ashishandradhika.com/2005/12/30/the-cliched-year-ending-post/ )

Let me tell you about how I ended up falling in love with baking. Our mother was a fantastic baker. While growing up, I and my brother would lay out specific shapes of the cakes we wanted for our birthdays. So if my rather serious elder brother preferred a rather plain round cake, I found shapes like a teddy bear or a butterfly to challenge my mother. And she would end up laboring for hours and used a thoroughly unreliable 9” electric oven to create cakes that could rival the best of the bakeries.

My mother may have left us earlier than anticipated, but she did leave behind a vibrant bouquet of aromas and flavors that my family has treasured till date. What she also left behind was a crumbling old diary with a black cover and a logo emblazoned in gold. This is where she recorded the best of her recipes across the years…. Instructions garnered from magazines, newspapers and aging grandmothers. Some recipes were christened after the person who parted with them…. Mutton Stew ‘Amma style’ anyone?

I often found myself scouring her diaries for traces of her presence whenever I felt lonely, browsing through recipes and well, even grocery lists from 1984 ! One day I had a craving for the rather crusty layered cakes my mother used to make for us. The recipe was found on a page in her diary, slightly thumbed with grease and fading with age. On a slow weekend afternoon at Pune I assembled the rather unremarkable ingredients for a basic cake on the kitchen counter..flour, eggs, milk, sugar, butter.. you get the idea. So I ground up the sugar, and beat the egg whites till they formed voluminous stiff peaks. I beat the sugar and butter till a pearl sized drop of the mix floated in a bowl of water… sifted flour and baking powder and gradually folded everything together. Added a spike of vanilla and inhaled an aroma that seemed remarkably close to the cake mixes my mother made on our dining table back in Lucknow. A greased roti container acted as the baking tin, and around forty minutes after I started preparing the batter, my cake went into the oven. Forty minutes later, a wet toothpick inserted in the center told me that the cake was done. A while later, I gingerly unmolded the cake, and broke into a grin as I saw its perfect shape. It was still hot, but I could not resist tasting it. I had officially baked my first cake ever.. and it was bloody good !

Flavors from our childhood become all the more enticing as we age. The very dishes that our mother forced us to eat against our express wishes, come back to haunt us when there is no one around to create them. Baking and cooking became my way of remembering a bit of what my mother’s cooking used to taste like.

Recipes in a family, should never be lost. They are a part of the common tradition we share with the next generation. The flavors become our identity, while the recipe becomes a family ritual.
Writing about beginnings, I have decided to initiate something new on this blog. Talk about New Year resolutions….

I will be putting up online all the family recipes that we have, so you may anticipate a mish-mash of northern and southern Indian cuisine out here over the next 12 months. Radhika once gifted me a binder of recipes handwritten by our family members on my birthday. So there will be a Kebab ‘bade dada style’ and a lasagna recipe the way my sister makes it. Some of these recipes would also be ours, after all, the story on ashishandradhika.com can never really be complete till we chime in our two cents.

So here it is, a new flavorful beginning for the Year 2010. May the coming year be the beginning of the best years of your life. And yes, as you toast the new year, just recall the flavors of your childhood, and smile as you get ready to savor the new ones.

Cheers & A Very Happy New Year !


The one where there is a wedding…

Lets drop the ‘cousin’ business right over here shall we ? We don’t really have an equivalent word for a cousin from where I come from…

Till a week earlier, I was an IT consultant pretending to solve the problems of the world. Till 3 days earlier my elder brother was struggling with designing a better a more beautiful Delhi airport. The eldest brother in the family was busy wrapping up things in London before flying off to India for a week, while the sister in Bangalore was busy convincing her 6 year old son that he will be able to manage two days of school without her being around. Suits were dusted and cleaned and jewelry was taken out of bank lockers…Hundreds of tickets were booked and a million dresses tried on, saris oohed over and menus cast aside… before we all decided to set everything else aside and come together give our sister a perfect wedding.

She was my younger sister growing up in our small little town. My earliest memories of her take me back when I was well, a kid myself. Chacha, Chachi and Pikku would appear magically during the night. I would wake up on an otherwise usual morning to find more faces than usual around the house… I used to look forward to Chacha’s trips to Lucknow from his various postings across northern India. And sometimes, I would get a day off school when they came visiting.Things as you may have noted, used to be distinctly happy.

And then Chacha, was transferred to Lucknow…. Where he and his family became a part of my childhood like few others have been. I found a playmate in Pikku, we explored unexplored frontiers of crumbling tube-well walls and ancient banayan trees around my house. She loved our dogs, and spoiled them silly when she visited. I ate more ice cream at her birthday parties than I care to remember, and while teasing her about her tastes in music became a fan of Michael Jackson myself. We fought and made up, and told each other of our first adolescent crushes and decided that no one,was really so worth it in life.

Then we grew up, went on to chase goals loftier than racing paper boats in the monsoons. On a rather cold night in the American Midwest, I received a midnight call from India telling me that Pikku had made it in the Civil Services. I found myself distributing chocolate to bemused Americans at office who failed to understand why a guy would be so happy if his ‘first cousin’ was going to end up working for the Indian government ! And a few months later, she emailed to tell me that she was now engaged !

So a year later, I found myself sitting on the side, watching her get married. The night was cold and dewy, and the sacred fire seemed strangely comforting. The cacophony and euphoria of the wedding day had given way to a rather still silence.

How does one react to the marriage of a sister? You are incredibly happy at the thought of her having found the guy she wants to be with for the rest of her life, yet your thoughts are tinged with a bit with sadness that she won’t be loafing around the house then next time you visit Chacha’s home. I wonder if the tradition of conducting marriage ceremonies late into the night has something to do with allowing people to deal with their own memories. The darkness and the play of fire allow ample opportunities to hide an impertinent tear if you chose to. The sonorous singing of wedding songs sets the stage for a person to move onto the next stage of their life. Memories are revisited and smiled at, and brushed aside with an indulgent shrug. As you remember the games played in sunny courtyards and the scraped knees that eventually lead to a slap and confinement to the bed for the rest of the day, you realize, that you are possibly older now than you yourself realize.

The tears at a wedding, are more for what has been; than what is to be…

And then, you see your sister smile. And notice how content the two of them appear when they are together. You realize how fulfilling your own life has been since the time you yourself decided to share it with someone five years ago, and are glad that your sister chose to walk down the same path.

The Great North Indian wedding is festooned with red and gold and marigold. While celebrating the marriage itself, it is also a celebration of The Great Indian Family. Aunts, uncles and the neighbors-next-door-from-10-years-back, all have a role to play and a script to follow. In an ostentatious swirl of music , food, dancing and a rare inebriated relative, there is an enormous joy and tenderness in spending time together with the people you rarely see but dearly love. It is a celebration of how a family scattered across the continents like seeds from pod, manages to be at the same place at the same time and behave as if nothing really changed in the 15 years or so since they last met. Middle aged men still get called kiddy names by uncles on the verge of retirement while the brothers who made it a habit of disappearing round the corner for a discrete cigarette or two are still found lurking in the shadows with a smoke in hand. All of us from my generation of kids were there for the wedding, possibly the first time in the last decade or so. Most of us had managed to grow a few grey hairs, put on a few kilos, get a few kids and a wife or a husband or two in the last few years.

I wonder when will all of us be together again… probably at another wedding. When the remaining brood of my family will pause a while from life as we know it and assemble around another sacred fire on a winter night…. and wish another one of our kin, a beautiful life ahead. Like we just did for Aashwita…

Pikku, we might not have been able to say as much during the wedding as we would have wanted to. Here is wishing you and Atul all the joy in the world. And we hope you know that whenever life gets a bit too much for both of you, there is always a place to hideaway at our home.

Ashish & Radhika