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Journalist, Author, Columnist. My Twitter handle: @seemagoswami

Saturday, September 9, 2023

The book's the thing

Good books transport us to another world; great ones make us want to live there forever

A few weeks ago, suddenly overtaken by a wave of nostalgia, I pulled out an old, battered copy of Jilly Cooper’s Riders from my bookshelves to relive the memories of my misspent youth. And before you could say ‘bonkbuster’ I was back in the universe of Rutshire, a rural enclave enlivened by the heart-stoppingly good looking (and heartbreakingly caddish) Rupert Campbell Black, the show jumper who rarely met a woman he didn’t want to jump. And even though I knew the story and even remembered some of the more memorable lines I was still sucked into the world that Cooper had created so evocatively. 

So much so that I felt a sense of acute bereavement when the book ended and it was time to say goodbye to the characters. Except, of course, that I did not need to do any such thing. All I had to do to remain in that idyllic universe was to download the next seven books in the series. And that’s exactly what I did, racing through Rivals, Polo, The Man Who Made Husbands Jealous. And as of this writing I am immersed in the world of classical music with Appassionata — but still within the confines of the mythical Rutshire.  

Cooper may make it look effortless but it takes an amazing amount of skill, imagination and dexterity to create a world in which the reader immerses herself so that she never wants to ever leave it. Few writers, no matter how good they are, manage to do that. And those who succeed are the ones to whom I go back again and again to live in the environs which they have conjured up with the magic of their pen. 

The first writer I encountered who managed to do that was Georgette Heyer. I discovered her Regency Romances when I was a teenager and I was immediately transported into another era in which women were squeezed into corsets before being poured into gowns and presented for the delectation of the ‘ton’. But these women were not just beautiful playthings; they were brave, feisty, fiery, even fierce. And in a world that offered them no path of advancement other than marriage, they still managed to leave their imprint on the world. 

And what a world it was! There were balls held on the eve of the Battle of Waterloo; there were masquerades in which the identities of villains were unmasked; there were strong women who held their own in a world ruled by men; and there were love stories that lost none of their passion for being conducted in such a chaste universe. 

Since then I have discovered a few other writers who have inveigled me into their fictional worlds. There was the late, great John le Carre, whose ‘Circus’, populated by such legendary characters as George Smiley, kept me entertained for decades. There is Donna Leon, who brings Venice alive in her series of detective novels. And of course there is my old favourite, Daniel Silva, whose spy novels starring the Israeli spymaster, Gabriel Allon, are in a class of their own. 

They say that the power of a good book is that it can take us out of our world and into a parallel universe. But it’s only the truly great ones that make you want to live there forever. And I count myself lucky to have found several such worlds nestled among my bookshelves. 

Surviving college 101

 As teenagers across the country begin college life, here are some tips to get them started. 

Like millions of other teenagers across India, my teenage niece packed her bag

 and headed out to college last week. Hitee has always been an academic star 

but I am guessing that she headed for the portals of Ashoka University with 

the same combination of apprehension and excitement that I did when I 

entered Loreto College to study English literature so many moons ago.


As the pictures of her campus, her new room, her classmates began inundating 

the family Whatsapp group, I began thinking about my own college years and 

what I wish I had done – and not done – during that period of my life. Of course, 

everybody’s college experience is unique but here, in no particular order of 

importance, are some things that I wish I had known as I studied for my

 Honours degree.


·       Worrying about your grades during this period is the default position 

for almost everyone in college. And for naturally competitive people like 

Hitee and me it is almost second nature to study obsessively so that we 

score over everyone else. But looking back now, I wish I had spent less 

time in the college library and more time in the common room having fun.

 Yes, it’s true that getting a good rank in your finals matters when you 

head out to the real world looking for a job. But it’s equally true that in a 

few years’ time, nobody cares or asks about what you scored in your exams

 – and the odds are that you don’t remember either. So, why spend every 

waking moment agonizing about something that won’t even matter 

in the long run?

·       It’s not your marks that are for life; it’s your friends. And this is the

 time when you make friends for life. There is an intensity to college

 friendships that is difficult, if not impossible, to replicate in later life. 

Which is why college friends eventually become your 3 am friends 

(whom you call even in the dead of night when you need help). And why

 no matter how long you lose touch with a college mate, you can pick up

 effortlessly from where you left off. But the trick is to keep yourself open

 to friendships with a wide and diverse group. Don’t restrict yourself to 

people who are just like you; seek out those who have had very divergent 

life experiences. This is the best way of enriching your own life, 

both now and in the future.

·       Don’t worry about being a ‘Cool Girl’ (or boy) or whatever the kids 

are calling it these days. It may seem like a big deal to be in with the hip

 (again, please insert Gen Z alternative) crowd right now, but trust me, 

it’s not worth the bother. You don’t have to change yourself to fit in with 

any group – and any group that requires you to do so is not worth joining. 

So, wear what you like, eat what you want, listen to the music of your 

choice, watch your own kind of shows, and pay no attention to the 

‘trendies’ mocking you.

·       But most of all, have fun. Have fun learning new things. Have fun

 meeting new people. Have fun discovering what you are good at. Have fun 

working out what you are becoming. And above all, have fun being yourself 

– because everyone else is taken.

Friday, August 25, 2023

The taste of my childhood

No matter how hard I try, those tastes are impossible to replicate


What is it about childhood taste memories that they are almost always impossible to recreate once you have grown up? I ask because I have been struggling over the past few weeks to recreate the taste of langar dal I used to eat as a child growing up in Calcutta (no, we didn’t call it Kolkata in those days). Living in predominately Sikh neighbourhood and practically next door to a gurudwara where my (Hindu) mother was a regular worshipper, I used to live for those special days when Guru Ka Langer would be served. 


All the food was delicious and the kara prasad was to die for, but what lives on most in my memory is the taste of the black dal. A mixture of black urad and chana dal it had a deep, rich taste that left me asking for more…and just a tad more, until even my tolerant mother was deeply embarrassed by my greed. I remember the crunch of the ginger, the kick of the green chili and the caramelized taste of the onions, all brought together by the unctuous goodness of desi ghee.


Overtaken by nostalgia last month, I tried to recreate the recipe in my own kitchen from memory. But no matter how hard I tried, and how many variations I went through, the dal – though delicious in its own way – never really tasted the same. I added the ginger and garlic while slow cooking the dal; I tried caramelizing the onions in desi ghee; I tried frying the garlic separately; I tried using only green chillies and then just the red ones. I even called my childhood friend and langar companion, Kavita Walia, in Calcutta to get her inputs and then used her method to cook it. But while every variation was good in its own way, it was never quite the langar dal of my memory.


I have had much the same problem when I try and make the sookha black channa subzi that my mother used to make for the Navratras on the day we worshipped Kanjaks in our home. I know that she used only ginger, green chillies, amchoor and a dash of chaat masala to get that fresh but tangy taste that went so well with puris and halwa. But no matter how many times I experiment with quantities and ingredients or even time of cooking, my channas never taste quite as a good as my mum’s. 


Ditto, with the black carrot kanji that my grandmother used to make in giant beyams every winter and leave out in the sun for day to ferment. I have tried making it with different kinds of carrots, different sorts of mustard seeds, experimented with black pepper, even added a bit of sirka. But no, the kanji remains stubbornly my own creation, the special touch of my Daadi is missing.


But I guess that is the way of all childhood food memories. They take up such a special place in the palate of your mind that it is impossible for reality to match up to the taste that exists only in your memory. Maybe I can’t recreate my childhood tastes because memory is playing tricks with me. Or it could simply be that nostalgia tastes better than anything that I could possibly rustle up in my little kitchen with the benefit of hindsight.

No holding back the years...

 Every decade of your life comes with its own firsts - enjoy them!


There are many dispiriting things about getting older. Your joints creak, your brain slows down, your eyesight weakens, your hair thins, your waist thickens. But what I find most dispiriting of all is how there are so few firsts in your life after you hit your forties and fifties.


When you are young, life is an endless series of firsts. Babies grow their first tooth, eat their first solid food, take their first step, say their first word. As they grow older, they have their first day at playschool, then at kindergarten, and then in proper school, followed, in good time, by their first day in college. As teenagers they have their first crush, their first date, their first kiss, their first big love, and their first heartbreak.


Even entering into adulthood means notching up a fair amount of firsts. There is the biggie of course: your first job, which provokes equal amounts of enthusiasm and trepidation. If you are fortunate enough, you probably have your first serious relationship around this time, which may or may not culminate in your first marriage (and, with a bit of luck, your last as well). You buy your first car (or motorbike), get your first medical insurance policy (though you are still listed as a dependent on your parents’ plan!), and go on the first vacation that you pay for yourself. 


Your thirties are the time when the most significant firsts happen. If you haven’t been hitched as yet, this is when you finally bite the bullet and say yes to the ring. This is when most people would have their first baby, sign on a mortgage for their first flat, put together their first investment plan (and other such grown-up stuff).


But by the time your forties roll on, the era of the firsts is well and truly over. And even the few firsts that occur are not exactly good news. If you among the unlucky ones, this may well be when you notch up your first divorce. But even those blessed with marital bliss will discover their first white hair around this time, the first sign that their youth is well and truly behind them. Their first pair of bifocals will follow shortly, putting them squarely in the middle-aged category. 


And what firsts do we have to look forward to in our fifties? Well, there’s always the first colonoscopy and perhaps, the first diagnosis of hypertension or type 2 diabetes. But this may also be the first time you experience the highs and lows of being an empty nester as your kids grow up and fly the coop. But whatever joy you experience as you rediscover the delights of life a deux will be tempered by the first intimations of your parents’ mortality. 


Don’t be disheartened though. Your sixties will bring with them the next lot of fun firsts. That may be the birth of the first grandchild (or grandniece or grandnephew), heralding the start of a bright new generation to take over from the old fogeys. You will finally be able to retire from that job that has taken so much out of you and experience for the first time in decades the feeling of freedom from routine. Your entire day will be yours to do as you like, and that’s a first I can get on board with.

Stored in the cloud

 Monsoon memories from a pre-smartphone era...

Whenever the skies open up during the monsoons, my mind immediately skips back decades to the time when I was a schoolgirl. During this season I would wake up early every day and rush to check if it was pouring down — because if it was chances were that my school would declare a ‘rainy day holiday’ and I could simply stay in bed and read a book. 

Those were some of the best days of my life. My mom would make crisp stuffed parathas for lunch; there would be delicious khichdi for dinner, laced with aromatic desi ghee; and if I got peckish in between, I could feast on piping hot pakoras. My best friend in the neighbourhood and I would venture out between meals to dance in the rain on the terrace, floating little paper boats in the puddles of water that had accumulated to keep ourselves entertained and return home wet to the bone, much to the despair of our mothers. 

Thinking of the fabulous times I had as a child I can’t help but feel sad for the kids of today who will probably never be able to enjoy a ‘rainy day holiday’ in quite the same way. Sure, they may be asked to stay home when the rain comes pouring down but they won’t get the day off. They will simply be expected to log on to their laptops and do their classes online (just as they did during the pandemic). It will be just another school day for them even though the heavens are putting up a spectacular show just outside their window. 

Or take the ubiquity of mobile phones, for example. Children and teenagers may clamour for them and eventually badger their parents into getting one for them. But being in possession of a mobile phone merely means that your parents have a foolproof way of getting in touch with you at any time of the day, no matter where you may be — and if they are tech savvy and not great sticklers for respecting your privacy then they will know exactly where you are as well. You could always refuse to answer the phone, yes, but that will just lead to the mother of all dressing downs when you come back home. 

So the kids of today will never know the feeling of complete freedom we felt when we ventured out with our friends in the pre-mobile phone era. Once I had said goodbye to my parents and departed for a day out with the friends, they had absolutely no way of getting in touch with me until the point I chose to return home. Yes, that’s right. They had NO WAY of getting in touch with me. Of course, I still had a curfew I had to adhere to. But until the clock struck that dreaded hour I was completely on my own. And it was sheer bliss to be alive and unsupervised. 

Sure, it wasn’t great fun conducting all phone conversations with friends on the landline that lived in the drawing room. But on the other hand, the absence of a mobile phone and of such apps as Instagram meant that there were fewer avenues for being bullied, ignored or even made fun of. 

Honestly, if you ask me, sometimes technology is not what it’s cracked up to be! 

Just doing their duty

Why do people feel compelled to shop at the duty-free area in airports?


Whenever I go past security while travelling on an international route and hit the duty-free area, I am amazed by the cornucopia of goods on offer. Apart from the regulation liquor, chocolates, make-up and perfumes, these days you have every designer brand from doing brisk business in bags, clothes, shoes and sunglasses. And as I watch people shopping frantically at what is usually (though not always) the end of their vacation, I can’t help but wonder what drives this spending spree.


Have these people kept money aside specifically for this purpose? Have they researched the goods available at the duty-free stores to make sure that they can find a specific object? Are they just trying to take advantage of tax-free shopping? Or is this a last blast of holiday fun before they go back to the dreary business of everyday living? 


Are these purchases last-minute gifts for their loved ones waiting for them at home? And if they are buying gifts, what is the motivation behind it? Are they driven by love, say, for a spouse who they have missed on a business trip? Or is the purchase driven by guilt at leaving a child behind while they head out on an adults-only holiday? Is the purchase a strategic one, aimed at pleasing a boss who sent them on a company junket? Or are they just ticking off items on a list sent across by a demanding family member?


There was a time in my life when I used to do my fair share of duty-free shopping. There were, of course, the boxes of cigarettes that friends and neighbours would ask for. And in those dark days of yore when alcohol was not freely available in India, this was always the ideal opportunity to stock up on whiskey, gin or champagne. I never ever bought stuff for my bosses but whenever I headed back from a holiday abroad, I would always buy many boxes of chocolate for my staff, only partly motivated by guilt for abandoning them to work while I had a nice little foreign jolly. 


But now that almost everything that is available in duty-free is also on sale at the neighbourhood mall, it seems like too much of a palaver to get stuck into shopping at the airport. And frankly, by the time I have negotiated check-in, immigration and security, I am so exhausted that all I want to do is collapse in the lounge with a nice glass of wine. The very thought of browsing through shops, shortlisting things, doing a quick price comparison and then queueing up to pay, seems like entirely too much work.


And yet, airports across the world are full of people doing exactly that. And I can’t help but marvel at (and be bemused by) their enthusiasm for duty-free shopping. I can just about get my head around those who are buying bottles of liquor or make-up and perfume. But I cannot for the life of me understand those who are casually picking up big-ticket items like Hermes and Chanel bags – hardly impulse buys – on their way to the departure gates.


Or maybe I am the one who has got it wrong. Maybe the best way to treat a modern airport is to treat it like a luxury department store. And the right way to recover from queue fatigue is to try a little retail therapy.

To cook or not to cook

Cooking may not be 'women's work' but it certainly is a life skill


I have lost count of the number of mothers of young women who have told me, with varying degrees of satisfaction, that their daughters do not cook. Their girls have never as much as stepped into the kitchen, they say with pride. Why, they wouldn’t even know how to boil an egg! And why should they toil in the kitchen, they add with barely-suppressed indignation, when there are worlds outside to conquer?


Yes, I get that: the feminist argument for not getting bogged down with getting breakfast, lunch and dinner ready. And when I was in my teens, wild horses couldn’t have dragged me into the kitchen either, though my mother, God bless her, tried her best to teach me some basic techniques. But no, I thought I was too good to learn how to make perfectly-puffed puris, thank you very much.


I often look back to that younger version of myself and wonder what I was thinking. What was so emasculating about rolling out a roti or making a tarka for a dal? And why was I so threatened by it? It’s not as if cooking a meal meant that my college privileges would be taken away or that I would have to give up on my dream of a career.


The kitchen may have been the preserve of women in that era (maybe it is even now) but that was no reason to banish myself from it. Learning how to cook is a life skill that everyone should possess. Feminism should not translate into an inability to feed yourself – or your family, if it came to that. 


My relationship with cooking changed once I moved away from my mother’s place and set up home for myself in Delhi. Now that there was no mum to churn out meals I had to learn to feed myself. I began with baby steps, trying my hand at fried eggs and then an omelet. Then, I moved on to easy recipes like pasta with pesto into which I could bung in a few vegetables, or Thai curries made with sauces that came out of a packet. Only after that did I trust myself to recreate some of my mom’s Indian recipes.


And in the process I discovered something about myself: I actually enjoyed cooking. I loved the meditative calm of chopping vegetables and getting my spices and herbs ready. I loved the process of throwing various ingredients into the pan and seeing them come together in a flavourful whole. And I loved feeding the people whom I loved the most in the world. 


In time, cooking became an activity that my husband and I enjoyed together. He is the more inventive cook between us while I am a more instinctive one. But when we put our heads and hands together in the kitchen, it can sometimes (though not always) create a bit of magic.


Looking back now, I can’t imagine a time when I regarded cooking with disdain. But then, I guess, our attitudes to cooking change with time. We may start off seeing it as anathema, then graduate to regarding it as an essential survival skill. It may morph into an adventure sport or just a way to feed your family. Or it may become the way you relax after a hard day at work or bond with your husband/mother/child.


All you have to do is give cooking a chance. It may yet surprise you.