Cafe’ Espresso’

There is a café called Espresso’ at Terminal 5 at Heathrow London. It’s a pretty little place, beautifully lit up. And they play soothing music and serve breakfast and wonderful coffee irrespective of the time of the day you find yourself stranded at the airport.

What are the chances of my being there for two consecutive Valentine’s Days with a lonely cup of coffee? Pretty slim I believe, since this café happens to be around 2 continents away from my apartment.
Last year, same day, same time, I ordered an Americano sitting over here and thinking how lovely it would be to here with Radhika. I remember ordering the coffee… and have pictures to prove it !
This place is exactly ‘our’ kind… those who know us would have no trouble understanding what that means…Soft music, dim lights, quiet, soothing, slow, excellent music and people minding their own business.

Interesting, the kind of things that Radhika and I share a love for. Trust me, the two of us are possibly among the two most differently opinionated couples you will come across. Some people have told us that we need to be more civil to each other… maybe they are right, but I would not have our relationship any other way than the way it is now. I mean, who needs a simpering wife who agrees with everything you have to say (ok ok, so you get it… I am usually not heard out around my house).
But yes, getting back to the things that we have in common…

We have exactly the same kind of ideas around what makes for a good time… and we like the same kind of books…and we love Broadway, and we love Goa, and really really love New York… and we positively detest it when either of us is not around to argue with. My job has a tendency to keep us apart more often than I would want to. And at the grand old age nearing thirty one, it does seem rather silly to tell my boss that I really don’t want to travel so much anymore since I miss my wife !

But miss her I do.

And in tune with this rather unabashedly sentimental embarrassing tribute to my wife, here is wishing you were here with me, Radhika. At this quaint little café with its little yellow lamps… with Norah Jones playing in the background and a pot of tea at our table. I know you would have loved it.

From a completely frozen over Heathrow airport…Happy Valentine’s Day all of you…


The seventh year itch…

Dinner was long over and the dishes put away. The television switched off and lamps cast yellow pools of light on the floor. The house was filled with the quiet sounds of people drifting off to sleep. The night outside was cold and glimmering in the silver moonlight.

She came to sit beside him as he sat listening to the muted sounds of a radio playing songs from the 60s.The dark living room was a welcome refuge after a day filled with the random chaos of everyday existence. Meal menus, laundry, medical tests, bosses and unruly finances faded away…gradually. They sat together in a comfortable silence, relaxing in the pleasure of just being and not doing anything in particular.

“Lets go out for a drive…”

The doors were quietly opened and closed, feet shuffled into the nearest available footwear, shawls and jackets draped and cell phones left behind. The car ignition sounded unnaturally loud at that silent hour… as if pointing fingers at two people escaping the world for a moment alone.

The roads were empty, the shops were closed. The city had gathered around its kin and was drifting off to sleep. The headlights glided around corners and pierced the misty air with stubborn straight edged beams. They sat in the car, playing songs from their college years on the car stereo, and randomly taking any road that caught their fancy. It’s a beautiful city at night. The anger and the dust of the day is quenched by the dew of the evening, and the night blossoms of the trees lining the road gradually cleanse the air with their fragrance.

It had been a rather cold January evening then at Pune, six years ago, when he asked her out for a walk they were to remember for a lifetime.

They were now beginning their seventh year of being together, time for the fabled itch to strike!

In six years, they created careers, got married, built a home and nursed relationships. And they found it in themselves to accept each other, imperfections and all. So while they still nag each other relentlessly about things they shouldn’t , they still wouldn’t trade their worlds for a million dollars. OK, I was exaggerating… about the million dollars I mean.

Maybe it is time for things to change, in the time honored tradition of the seven year cycle… and change they will. How many relationships do you know that have remained static for years together ?

In the next seven years, they might raise a brood of kids, or remain happily child free ! Buy a farmhouse or maybe sell off even their existing apartment and hop around in rentals for the rest of their lives…create a lasting thoughtful career in the fields of their choice, or just maybe, open that rickety restaurant on a Goan beach someday.

From the innocent blinding trust of new love, they moved to a shared understanding of each other’s imperfections…
Once being in love meant sending mushy text messages on the cell phone, today the most loving thing to be done is an understanding smile at the end of a hard day…
For a while, all they had to defend was their decision to get married defying all common sense, today, standing up for the choices made by their partner is what defines their relationship…

And they used to hold on to what had been… wary of the unknown tomorrow; today they face the future with a shared confidence, assured by experience, that together they usually end up doing pretty well…

Yes, things will change…. and the two of them will change together.

And for the coming seven years, and all the seven year cycles they are meant to see together, they will still nag each other about stuff they really should not be talking about in the first place.

The clock on the dashboard indicated it was past midnight. He glanced at her and smiled as he turned the car around.

It was time to go home

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: )

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 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 !

Telling Stories…

Is there anything that really stops me for writing more posts on my blog in a month than I did in a year? I guess not! That’s the beauty of being the master of your own space. It would have been rather sad to actually ask for someone’s permission before giving my own humble opinion about things. I mean not everything in the world has to be like having dinner with your wife ! Especially if the non-swimmer wife is a good seven sufficiently deep seas away…

However life on the road is tough for an otherwise thoroughly domesticated guy. You have to take care of the laundry for one… and the ironing. You need to remember to include food groups other than meat, sugar and alcohol in your diet. And you need to learn how to get up when an alarm clock tells you that you have less than an hour to exercise, eat and look smart before reporting to work. I usually ignore the exercise and eating bits and focus on looking smart. I mean coffee at work is as good a breakfast as any other and I walk to work in any case for exercise. And am not telling you how far my office is from my hotel !

But I digress…again…

What lead me to write was a picture of a Russian girl holding blue cornflowers that appeared in the New York Times the other day.

She could have been Olga in the first chapter of ‘Timur and his Squad’.

If unlike me you did not grow up in a world of books where people had names like Ivan, Jhenya, Vlad and Dimitri, the rest of this post is not going to make too much sense to you. And if the books you read never took you to the Russian country side full of happy, simple, poor yet generous people, then the tales I describe are the not the ones that you might remember.

I grew up in an India that was far more socialist than what it is today. As kids we looked up to the experiment called the USSR without ever seeing through the beautiful tapestry woven by the colorful Russian festivals organized so frequently across the country. For us, Russia sounded like a land of equality ! Where the people had actually managed to find a voice and define their country their own way. It all seemed to good to be true, and it probably was…

For all the pride we take in Indian literature; in the breadth of its diversity and the depth of its thought, it is painfully lacking when it comes to telling stories to our children. If we ever manage to move beyond our religious epics ,the Panchtantra and the ancient folklores, there is little else available that tells tales to the modern child. Indian comics meant the traditional ‘Amar Chitra Katha’ and the borrowed ‘Marvel Comics’ feathers of ‘Indrajaal Comics’… and the fun yet shallow publications of ‘Diamond Comics’. Comics however, could never really replace a book or a story. And I cannot remember reading a single Indian novel meant for children ever. (I did read a lot of novels NOT meant for children when I was younger but we are never going to talk about that ever again are we?)

The only books for children to be found were usually discounted books by Russian authors sold at street corners in small town India. The stories they told were different from our usual staple fare of Enid Blytons and Hardy Boys, the books were thick and usually full of pictures… and most importantly; they were pretty cheap.

So we read the stories of shepherds in Kazakhstan and commiserated with commissars from Crimea. Despaired when a little girl lost her mother’s ring in the snow and rejoiced when she found it again when the sun melted the thaw away…I smelt my first whiff of cigar smoke and the luxuriated in mahogany and leather chairs, without having seen either honestly… people in my home were usually not found smoking cigars while relaxing in leather chairs.

I got my first taste of tragedy when I read a book depicting child artists with tired limbs at a Russian circus and was inspired to do my bit for my country at the youthful age of 10 when I read about Timur and his squad of pioneers. Timur, there is that name again. A lovely story that then seemed like a book, written by a guy called Arkady Gaidar.

In my younger days, I think he used to be my favorite author, having read just about three stories of his: Timur and his Squad, The Blue Cup (published as ‘Neela Pyala’ in Hindi) and the beautiful story of Alyska the dog. These three stories remain amongst my favorites till date even though I must have read them first nearly two decades back…

Timur and his Squad, narrates the story of a gang of kids who take it upon themselves to take care of families whose men have gone to warfront fighting the Nazis. The boys (and girls) get into all sorts of trouble but they have their hearts at the right place. The story concludes with a mad dash to Moscow on a motor bike that eventually brings life back to normal.

The story of the ‘Blue Bowl’ begins with the object in question being shattered by a careless brush of hand by a little girl in a frock. Who then decides to leave home along with her father because she gets scolded by her mother at what the girl considers to be an honest mistake. So the little girl and her father, abandon the mother at their home and cross the road and go deep into the woods forever. They spend the day discussing deep questions like why is mother so bad, only to return in the evening because they decided to forgive the mother, and also because it was dinner time.

Alyska…one of the most heart breaking stories for a dog lover. A lady from Moscow rents a country cottage for summer and adopts a pup who becomes her most faithful companion for the next 3 months. She names her Alyska. A day before the woman was supposed to return to Moscow, Alyska disappears and is nowhere to be found. They assume that she has been carried away by the wild animals from the surrounding brush. Heartbroken, the lady goes back to Moscow alone. She returns to the same cottage during winters and during the night she imagines Alyska barking and scratching at the door. She decides that she must be dreaming and pulls her blankets closer to herself and goes back to sleep. In the morning, she opens the door to discover little paw marks and scratches all around her porch… and that is where the story ends.

I wonder if any of the kids today have even heard of these stories. And even if they did, would the simplicity of these stories still appeal to them like the way it did to us? When I come across some of these stories today, they seem to be full of Soviet propaganda, and some were probably meant to be just that. But when you weave stories around loving parents, hot bowls of porridge, faithful dogs and bales of yellow hay piled high around shaggy brown horses and weather gods called Kotura, the tales will probably end up being more than a vehicle for a communist message, they become stories you want to tell when you are sitting next to a fireplace surrounded by kids who are as old as you were when you read them the first time.

Some stories die with age I guess, and sometimes they just change and evolve and acquire a new context… just like the memories of a our past.

Or perhaps our past is really, just the story we tell about ourselves…

Ready to run !

Sports of all kinds have generally played a minor role in my existence. Of course I was a part of the usual 40 kids playing with one football in an intra-class free-for-all at school, and yes I played badminton with the neighborhood kids in the evenings… there was that summer when I realized I liked being a spin bowler but yet; no sport really stayed with me across the years.

I watched lawn tennis on TV, attended cricket matches in dusty stadiums, and generally cared two hoots about who won or lost…. preferring books and a silent corner over a crowded playing field anytime.
In short, I was an absolute nerd growing up. And guess what, I still am.

So it took an extreme turn of circumstances for a short , not-so-slender-but-completely-happy me to finally find myself registering for a 6K run at the Mumbai Marathon.

No its not a case of midlife crisis, though it might be because yours truely recently turned a whopping 30!
Lets step back a few months. A week shy of my 30th birthday, a random blood test revealed that I have extremely high cholesterol for my age, something in the range of 250 when it had no business being anything above 200. Talk about inconvenient truths. I was the one in the house who picked at his food while others hogged, who used to wax eloquent about the joys of healthy eating whenever someone cared to listen.. and in the entire family, guess who manages to wrangle a life style disease more suited for obese people digging into cream pies … tadaaa… Me !

So after the initial wringing of hands and silent dinners where I stared accusingly at the people and the food surrounding me, I joined a gym, got a personal trainer, and diligently got up early morning each day to be tortured in public by a guy who seemed distinctly half my age. The gym was nice, the sauna was nicer still. I wished I could spend more time in the latter and lesser in the former. However , as much as I used to detest lifting my 10 lbs when dudes around me were doing like a 75 lbs nonchalantly… I used to look forward to one activity where I found myself doing better than a lot of people around me… running!

I was surprised to find that I could run for a pretty long time and cover pretty long distances. It was fun running to my favorite music, and if I did it for a long enough period of time at the gym I came across as a serious health freak. And the best part, it all added up to a lower waist size for my jeans. Suddenly, before I knew it, I was a runner !

Soon I was reading up (I am a nerd remember?) about the intricacies of a proper stride, reading blogs by runners and watching youtube videos of people running more in a day than I had in a lifetime. Am not sure if I was a better runner at the end of it, but I was surely more informed!

It used to hurt at times, still does. My ankles and shins disagreed with my intentions with each aching step. It was not a happy day when I puked after having run for hardly a kilometer.

Till one day finally, I completed my first kilometer on the trot and a month later, I paced my first five kilometer run.

There are few things that I have ever done in my life that have given me a greater sense of achievement than making the transition from being a guy on the verge of being put on cholesterol medication at an age less than 30, to a guy who manages to outrun at least some of the runners at Central Park…and yes being a guy who has almost normal cholesterol levels (am getting there !!).

For the last one month, I have been camping at a hotel… and my running has at best been intermittent. The reason I am writing this today is to remind myself how much being a runner has meant for me in such a short while already. Come tomorrow, I promise that I am hitting the road again. Right now, I am harboring hopes of completing a 10 km race before I hit 31.

Yes, at the end of it I am still probably an absolute nerd…

But trust me people…this nerd can run !

A Happier Diwali

Candle on the window sill
Candle on the window sill

Wish you all a very Happy Diwali !

I hope the coming year is bright, beautiful, peaceful, and safe and is the beginning of the best years of your life.

This Diwali finds me alone in a hotel room in New York City. In all the thirty years of my life, this is the first time that I would not have family around me.. or is it?

There was a Diwali when I stayed back at my engineering college to study for my upcoming MBA entrance examinations. And the celebration meant lighting candles at a temple nearby. It was a dark night, but the sky glowed with a blue luminosity that can only be found in the mountains. The villages on the slope of the hills twinkled in the darkness, a silent symphony of light that stretched out deep in the Himalayan valley. The temple was surrounded by a stone verandah… the floor cold against my  bare feet. My match sticks were repeatedly blown out by gusts of wind and I had to shield the flame with my hands to light the candles. The candle flames were so fragile, and looked like they would be extinguished by the wind the moment I left the temple…. Or so I thought.

The next morning, I strolled by the temple again… and discovered that the candles had indeed burnt their way through the night. Left on their own, they managed to outlast the wind and shine in solitary splendor at the cusp of the hill.

This Diwali, comes in the wake of some very sad times for some of our friends… Mine and Radhika’s. A friend just lost her mother, and another friend is by her mother’s bedside willing her to live longer. Both victims of cancer. They are in our hearts and in our prayers today.

It hurts when the comfort of familiarity as we know it, is torn and cast away. When something as unnecessary as a disease takes the life out of someone you deeply love. For a while, whatever we do seems pointless… like lighting up tiny candles or setting off noisy fireworks when you are the only one to see them light up the night. The tears flow till they dry up and leave us bitter and brittle to the core..

I lost my mother when I was young, and I remember the hurt.

But What I also remember is that one fine day, I started noticing the flowers in the garden again, found myself stretching in the warmth of the winter sun as I recalled how much my mother would have enjoyed both. And I smiled.

The people we love never really go away. Their thoughts, and actions and what they would have done, become our constant companions. I still find myself silently evaluating things like my mother would have done… and if I ever lie down while eating, I hear her voice telling me to sit up.

With time, we do heal.

And accept that those we love, are gifts. The time we spend together is a greater gift. And come what may, memories of that fifteen day long happy vacation filled with laughter are never going to be erased by the long times mourning for what we lost…

We start laughing again, and hold hands and smile. The joy returns to our lives… and the next year, we find ourselves cleaning our homes and lighting up candles again.

Hope lives on. And it keeps  us alive !

Diwali, is so full of hope. It looks ahead to a future of prosperity and makes us grateful for what we have been given in the past.. even if all that is left of it are beautiful memories.

I hope for a beautiful future for me and Radhika, and am thankful for our loving family and that means everything to us. This Diwali I will light a candle alone at my hotel window sill, and kick back and spend a quiet evening with the beautiful memories and voices of the past surrounding me.

Truely, a Happy Diwali.