An ode to my cubicle…

A few days ago, for a while, I thought life could not have been more miserable…. I counted myself among the most unfortunate souls in the world who were so confined by their constraints that they were being cheated out of the eventual greatness they were meant to achieve. I mean come on.. remember what they sang 25 years ago? No ? Well … We were the world! We were the children, and together, We were supposed to make the world a brighter place…. And just see what we ended up with.

But well, that was a few days ago, and now its today. And I am back to being the normal cheerful beacon of optimism to all those around me. So I pretty much smile away the rueful stares in the morning from my wife when I get out of bed at 8 in the morning and ask for tea which she might as well have kept ready since she is usually up bright and early at 6 AM. And I graciously chat away with dad even when he does not respond since he is sulking from an argument we had last evening. And I even politely thank my maid when she serves me tea (which my wife refused to do) with a scowl since she knows we are looking around for another maid.
So all in all, a perfect start to a glorious day. The sun shines right up there with sincerity reminiscent of a new management trainee in an organization… over enthusiastic, totally correct and completely unnecessary.
The traffic on the road seems like family… vast, somewhat stifling, and no one really wants to be a part of it but hardly has any choice in the matter. Which brings me to the one thing that has consistently been the same for me all these years. It does not matter which country I am in or which organization I work for, I pretty much end up spending at least 8 hours in a fabric covered cubicle.

It feels more like home than home itself. There is something about panels covered in beige covered cloth that spell comfort and ennui. And just like a car is supposed to indicate your status in life ( please don’t ask me what I drive).. a cubicle pretty much nails it where you stand in the organization.

If you are the one that has the shaded cube in the corner that is cleaned by the janitor once a quarter, you are probably a guy who lives life on his or her own terms…. Simply because no one else is really bothered with what you with your effing life!You are probably the one who has a calendar of 2007 displayed importantly on your cubicle wall and last week’s paper-cups of coffee still piled up in your trash can… ( I kind of identify with you if you know what I mean). In the words of someone else, even though you are a file pusher for anyone who cares to notice, in your own mind you really are an adventurer sailing the high seas…

However, if you are the one who sits in a cube in the center of the hall surrounded by a sea of other cubicles… you are the one who is still figuring out where you stand in the world. You are not far enough in the corner to merit the tag of a rebel, nor are you close enough to the boss’s cabin to be really considered a shining star in the company. You are pretty much the guy who brings packed lunches, has pictures of his son on the cubicle walls, smiles at everyone and goes home at six each day. You are also the guy who probably gets most of the work done out there…

And… if you are the guy who sits in the cube facing the boss’s cabin, you are probably the one hated by everyone else. In all probability, you are one of those oily brown noses we all love to detest. You probably work the longest hours and seldom get anything done. You ensure that you never leave before the big boss has switched off lights in his cabin. You have your certifications, and degrees framed and prominently displayed. You are also the one who probably organizes office parties with silly party games to up the team morale and laughs the loudest at jokes cracked by anyone senior than you. You will probably end up managing the other cubicle dwellers sooner than we all know…. And would be rewarded with a glass walled cabin so that you can safely monitor the going ons in your office without being contaminated yourself or infecting others with whatever you may be carrying….

And well if you are the one who sits in that glass walled cabin, you are at the top of the food chain obviously. You are the one with a list of graphs on your cabin walls and a series of activities on a white board at least half of which have been importantly crossed out.

I love my cube… with its drawers empty with arrogant disdain and my water bottle sitting in solitary splendor on an artificial veneer surface.

And with the cubicles come neighbors… at my first job, I made friends with a Telugu girl who was a whiz at programming and knew the scores for all cricket matches over the last decade or so. Then there was the Bengali chap who is now expanding his brood somewhere in small town America… we used to crib about our boss together you see. And then there was the beautiful African-American lady in the mid-west, who said that ‘The best thing about coming to work is that you get to dress up in the morning’ …. or the guy and the girl who were secretly pursuing a love affair over cafeteria lunches…I think they became parents last year….after getting married of course.

So here it is… a toast to my own personal fabric covered space in the world…I have grieved here and celebrated victories… listened to my favorite music and eaten pizza…. said goodbyes to friends and welcomed new ones.

There are very few places in the world that carry my name on them. That proclaim to all and sundry that this portion of this wonderful universe is dedicated to the celebration of the cerebral output of this magnificent genius mind.… and if a beige colored cubicle has to be one of them, then so be it…

***********
PS: Adding a song from ages ago. A fantastic parody of You’re Beautiful. Its called the ‘Cubicle Song’ !’

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…

Run!

Why isn’t running the same anymore as it used to be when you were young? Why isn’t running the closest thing to flying anymore? And why is a non exercising lazy bum like me asking these questions, you wonder. Well, I run these days. Yes! One Part inspiration, and three parts-tension, that he, may grow fitter while I, grow a paunch & a double chin and also not wanting to throw away pots of money into a gym, I decided to run too.

Remember when we were young, running used to be the most natural & effective way of motion…Oh how I used to love it! Didn’t all our games involve running – Lock n Key, Chain Sisters, Seven stones, even Hide n Seek, Kho- Kho( I used to love this game, do they even play it anymore?), Dodge Ball and millions others whose names I cant remember…but I do remember running all the while and I do remember the whoosh of joy while taking off with the wind trying to avoid getting caught …

Soon enough though, we seemed to grow up, and girls no longer wanted to play.Things like propriety & appearances & complexion ( ! ) became more of a reality than games that were suddenly childish… time passed by, places, people, schools changed…my own priorities changed…probably Badminton was & is the only game I took forward with me for whatever little while at various points in my life after that…

Anyway, since the last two days, I have been reliving those memories and trying to feel again the sheer exhilaration that I used to feel then, while doing my morning run…yeah I am constantly pulled into reality by my groaning old muscles and the zillions of to-do s zooming in & out of my head – go to the bank, finish that assignment, talk to the boss, shit we are going to end up over spending this month, what exactly did he mean when he said that and so on & so forth– but then, just for a few minutes, I remember, and I fly.

Plain Ol’ Vanilla Cake

We began the year talking recipes… so its only logical to embark on the first of (hopefully) many posts on food that should be coming our way in 2010. So here are three essentially foolproof recipes for baking a cake that do not shave several hours off your day and still end up looking like you did slave in the kitchen for the better part of the afternoon and then some. Though I must add at this point that baking, like life itself, is best enjoyed at a leisurely pace.

So find yourself a weekend afternoon, preferably when the rest of your family is taking a siesta. Clean up your kitchen counter removing the assortment of stuff that finds its way over there. For a quick cleanup later, cover your working surfaces with sheets of newspaper and wear a kitchen apron if you have one. Put on some nice music, wash your hands , pour yourself a glass of nice red wine to give you company and you are all set to bake a cake.

So begins a trilogy of posts….This particular post will provide a recipe for baking a plain vanilla cake, the kind that probably has been baked in each household at least at some point of time. The posts to follow later will provide recipes for a rather ambitious chocolate cake that defies logic to turn out perfect each time and is gloriously decadent as every chocolate cake should rightly be… and then finally, a spicy twist on an age old recipe with an All Spice cake. Are these recipes healthy? No, definitely not. And I mean it. If the instructions ask you to add a cup of butter, you bloody well should do that. When it comes to baking, sometimes its best to be happily ignorant of the ingredients.

These recipes are honed from experience, my mother’s cooking notes and the internet ! Most of these recipes are made with ingredients easily available at the local store so just go ahead and take the plunge !

First, gather your equipment, remember…a relaxed cook is an organized one. This set of utensils will serve you well for all the three recipes to follow…
1. You will need an oven capable of baking at around 180 degree centigrade. Usually Indian ovens can be calibrated to a maximum of 270 degree centigrade so this should be easily doable.
2. A large basin for mixing the batter in… the larger the better
3. A whisk , a small wire one is ideal (optional)
4. A wooden spoon, it is really useful when it comes to creaming butter (optional)
5. A spatula for folding in stuff (optional)

The optional stuff just helps making things easier.. other wise use whatever spoons/ladles you have. A mixer/food processor works well too…. but I like it a bit old fashioned when it comes to baking.

6. A hand blender (if you have one)
7. A tea cup
8. Tea spoons
9. A baking tin. Don’t worry about the diameter too much. Just ensure that it can contain around a liter of stuff by volume. A medium sized baking tin (9”) should be perfect. Line the bottom of the tin with paper and grease the tin with butter ( the wrapper of the butter is excellent for greasing a cake tin, so don’t throw it away !).

And that should be about it !

Plain Vanilla Cake :

Ingredients:

1. 2 cups plain flour (maida) .. use the tea cup for measuring
2. 2 1/2 tsp baking powder. A suggestion, store your baking powder in the refrigerator, else it has a tendency to turn absolutely useless
3. 1 cup sugar. I use castor sugar since it is easier to beat with butter. If you do not have castor sugar you will need to grind up a cup of plain sugar in a blender. Grind it as fine as you can.
4. ½ tsp baking soda (optional)
5. ½ cup Amul butter. Either diligently measure using the cup or eyeball the approximate amount while slicing the brick of butter.
6. 3 eggs
7. 2 tsp vanilla essence… a little else should also be fine
8. 1 cup milk… lukewarm

Instructions:

1. Cream the butter and sugar together. Use plain old elbow grease or a hand blender. The manual way is better in my opinion. Use a wooden spoon to beat the butter and sugar together. Don’t fret about how long and how much, do it long as you can. Beating it for around 8-10 minutes is good. The end result should be a homogenous mix of butter and sugar with no lumps and the sugar completely dissolved. It helps if you zap the butter in the microwave for a bit before you use it, it warms and softens it. Melting the butter completely before using it is not a good idea. Once you have creamed the butter and sugar, you are done with the hardest part of baking this cake !
2. Add the eggs one by one, make sure that you beat in each egg into the batter before adding the next one. This is easier if you are using a wire whisk.
3. Add the flour, baking powder and baking soda. Don’t add it all at once otherwise the batter becomes a bit tough to handle. Take your time, if things get tiring stop for a bit and sip your wine. It’s a cake you are baking, not running a sprint. Relax
4. Keep adding milk to the mix as your stir in the flour. Ensure that you do not have lumps in the batter. Adding the milk all at once will lead to the flour forming lumps … so add the milk a bit at a time
5. The entire duration of mixing this cake should not take more than 20 minutes when starting from scratch.
6. Add the vanilla essence right in the end. By now, you will have a rather thin batter that smells heavenly. It should not have any lumps. In case you took the manual route to mixing the batter only to realize at this stage that your batter is lumpy, don’t worry ! All you have to do is to give it a whirl in a blender and you should be fine.
7. Pour the batter in the greased cake tin
8. Place the cake in the center of an oven preheated 180 degree centigrade. Set the timer for 30 -35 minutes
9. Sit back , relax, take a few sips of your wine before you begin cleaning up the counter. It helps to clean up the utensils now when they are still wet.

In less than 10 minutes the smell of your cake should be waking up folks slumbering around the house. At around 30 minutes, take a wooden skewer or a tooth pick and wet it with water. Open the oven and insert the skewer/toothpick in the center of the cake. If the tooth pick comes out clean, your cake is done. Otherwise, let the cake bake for a while longer.

While the cake is being baked, it is possible that the top of the cake may get overdone/burnt while the rest of the cake is left uncooked. To tackle this, it is usually a good idea to cover the top of the cake tin with an aluminum foil around 15 minutes into the baking process.
Once your cake is done, switch off the oven and carefully take out the cake tin. Let it sit on the counter top for around 10 minutes. Run a knife around the sides of the cake tin to loosen up the cake. Place a plate on top of the cake tin and invert the tin onto the plate (with a rather quick upside down movement). Tap the bottom of the cake tin and lift it up. Voila, you should have a luscious brown cake sitting in front of you. Remove the paper from the top of the cake ( the paper you lined the bottom of the cake tin with). Let it cool completely. Once cool, dust with some powdered/icing sugar. It is easy to create patterns with powdered sugar by cutting up paper and placing it in a fancy pattern on the top of the cake before you dust it with sugar. Remove the paper carefully after dusting to reveal a pattern of brown and white. For a truly professional touch, garnish with a single cherry and a sprig of mint before serving.

A million variations can be made to the ingredients, add a flavor, or a frosting. All it needs is a bit of imagination !

Serving Suggestions:

Leave it out on the dining table and watch it disappear . This cake does not spoil easily and can be kept for a couple of days without being refrigerated. Goes very well with tea/coffee. Combined with some instant custard/ice-cream and fruit, it becomes a satisfying dessert that looks pretty fancy !

Enjoy !

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:

https://ashishandradhika.com/2005/04/08/for-her/
https://ashishandradhika.com/2005/04/14/a-river-runs-through-it/
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.

Love,
Ashish & Radhika

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.