Monday, January 16, 2017

Warm Thoughts on a Cold January Day

I apologise for the delay in wishing all of you a very happy new year!  It was a cold that did it.  A mild fleeting cold after a trip of many firsts, to the heartland of north India - Kanpur and Lucknow.

It was an exciting trip.  The first visit that my son made to these cities (and my first trip to the genteel, many dimensioned city of Lucknow), my son's first stay in a guest house and a hotel, first sighting of peacocks and buffaloes. his first bus ride, his first auto ride, his first cycle rickshaw ride, his first soak in a big hot tub, his introduction to a vacuum cleaner (he loves sweeping and mopping), his first jalebi , giant gulab jamun and naan (and my introduction to Awadhi cuisine ).

We were in Kanpur to attend my husband's college reunion and in Lucknow just to spend a comfortable night before taking the next flight back home.  Kanpur was fun but tiring as these events tend to be - meeting lots of old (and new) friends over a short span of time.

Lucknow was more relaxed - we had a lovely room with a large, private garden full of winter flowers, which was made all the more exciting by a resident mongoose.  We ate shorba (spiced broth) and chaat for lunch, an odd but delicious combination.  Different kinds of rotis (traditional breads), kebabs and biryani for dinner along with half a dozen chutneys and pickles, and a delicious rabri (sweet made with thickened milk).  I have never been particularly drawn to spices, feeling that Indian food is often over-spiced, but these dishes, where the flavour of each spice emerged so clearly and complemented the other so distinctly, were very appetising.  I was impressed with the (small set of) Awadhi dishes that I tasted and have resolved to find out more.  Unlike my experience of eating Indian food outside the home, where I often encounter generic red chilly powder liberally sprinkled over food, and find that it drills holes in my stomach, this food left barely a trace.  Much of the heat in the food came from ginger, black pepper and perhaps some freshly ground chillies.

Renewed and refreshed, we were looking forward to getting back home (with thoughts of returning to Lucknow some other time), when the hotel staff dropped the equivalent of a bomb on us.  The Prime Minister had decided to visit Lucknow (capital of the state of Uttar Pradesh, which was currently seething with political mayhem; the much awaited state elections are round the corner) - we should leave early in order to reach the airport.  How early?  No one (especially the unhelpful air hostesses of our airline, who were also residing at our hotel) could clearly indicate.  With a little child in tow and having to pack our belongings as well as lunch and tea (in case there were flight delays), it was a race against time.  We thought we were fairly safe when the cab pulled in at our hotel, and the driver took off early enough (complaining incessantly about road blocks) but this was just the beginning of a long adventure.

As we proceeded, we could see car loads and bus loads of villagers being brought in with the main purpose of flooding the city for the rally.  People were hostile and belligerent, our driver (whose reactions were a few seconds slower than mine) made me a little nervous, I hoped he wouldn't bump into any of the vehicles as we inched along.  The police misdirected us and finally were stuck in the middle lane of a three lane jam on the peak of a flyover.  "If I can get off this flyover, I can try another road," said the driver peering down hopefully, as if he wanted to drive off the flyover into the empty space below.  I told him his best bet was to keep inching (and not switch off the engine which he had done gloomily, convinced that we would never get anywhere).

Inch by inch, we went down, and then he suddenly veered off to a small side road, drove like the wind, only to reach (with a satisfied smile) the gates of a petrol pump.  "I need CNG," he announced, "Everyone has to get off the car."  Easier said than done.  Try to explain to a two year old why we are veering off the road, what the noise and crowds are about, why we should stay calm and eat our cold packed food periodically so as to stay energetic and remain hydrated and step out of the car in the middle of nowhere on a cold winter morning...

Anyway, gas filled, the driver seemed more cheerful, and immediately we set off, backtracking a few kilometres.  Then  onto side roads, bumpy tracks, through some fields and hamlets on the outskirts of Lucknow, trying to overtake scooters, tempos, cows on the one-lane village roads.  With the driver honking loudly and making blind turns, I hoped that all the children running on the road would move away in time.  At one moment, we came to a screeching halt because someone had parked a dashing new red car in the middle of the road and vanished.  No sign of the driver, another car waiting frustratedly ahead of us.  Luckily it was only about a ten minute wait.  The owner strode along, at an unhurried pace, looked around calmly, tried to start his car a few times, then (to our relief) succeeded and drove off.  We continued, the driver telling us how he was risking all by trying to get us to the airport, my husband trying to call the call centre for the airlines and inform them we were on our way, the google map (very accurately) predicting another traffic holdup a few metres down the road.  We swerved and went onto the highway (the wrong way), horn blasting, hoping that the old man on the rickety cycle who was looking backwards at the rally, would see us in time, hoping that the trucks and cars and motor cycles would give way, and with much cursing, the driver finally arrived at the airport.

We disembarked, and then my husband couldn't find our identity cards (required for entry to the airport, in this case they were our driving licenses).  Finally he found them jammed in a corner of his pocket.  We rushed through, trying to tell the security that we were in a hurry.  Cleary, they weren't.  We reached just half an hour before our flight was to take off.  Somehow all the other passengers were there.  Somehow, miraculously, we were let in.  The only person who frowned was the lady at the counter who told me I wasn't holding my son properly, and that's why he was screaming his head off.

We were drenched in sweat (no blood or tears fortunately).  Peeled off our layers of sweaters.  The flight was a little late (thank heavens for small mercies).  Our neighbouring passengers frowned and made rude faces as our son (strapped into his seat) was still screaming from time to time.  I tried to play some music but these fellow passengers (all belonging to one large disapproving family) frowned upon it too.  Finally I played the movie 'Bend it like Beckham' without the volume (which was the only thing saved on our computer).  Slowly, gradually, my son calmed down and he finally fell asleep.  I glugged glass after glass of water and ate my anti-migraine pills...

It was a relief to get back home.  Not soon after though, my husband came down with a cold, and my son followed.  My maid left suddenly to attend funerals and family functions, for an unknown period of time.  We had a flurry of visitors (new friends and old).  Finally, I too succumbed to the virus.  It wasn't too bad, but probably the cumulative exertion had left me drained of energy, so much so I couldn't write or do much.

Now, with energy seeping back in waves, with trees outside bursting with birds, I sit down on this crisp January afternoon and wish all my readers a warming and happy year ahead.  And think of my resolutions for this year.

Little things of the spirit are what I want to focus on - not national or global catastrophes or authoritative policies that change our lives overnight.  I don't want to sink in gloom each time (and it's unfortunately very often!) I see signs of intolerance, insensitivity and various forms of deception and mediocrity around me.

This year I choose to focus on individuals (who I may or may not know directly) who have changed my life in a positive way.   To be thankful for those who have helped me in small but important ways (Kiaro, the wonderfully professional organic milk company who agreed to deliver to my doorstep even though no one else in this area wanted the milk), Fresh to Home, our terrific online doorstep deliverer of fresh seafood and chemical free meats, our neighbourhood shops which stock organically grown foods and also home deliver fairly healthy pizza (which has staved off emergencies and hunger pangs!).  Those who hand knitted sweaters for my son (as I couldn't find suitable winter clothing anywhere here to brave the north Indian cold), those who dropped by with amazing and thoughtful gifts (including a pair of gigantic exciting kites for my son, an engraved artisanal cutting board in maple wood that came all the way from Stanford for me and piles of fresh fruit sent carefully wrapped in giant fig leaves, from Pune for all of us).

And so this year I have decided to focus on doing small things which make me happy, knowing that there will be a ripple effect, but even if there isn't, I'm not overly concerned.  For me, this is not the year of Grand Plans.  It's a year of working quietly and happily on my own - to restart some yoga eventually, to write some fiction (for myself), to make some more artisanal breads - and to learn some more about Awadhi food (a style of cooking influenced by the food of central Asia, northern India and the long years of Mughal rule).  To learn knitting!  These are my plans, and how they unfold only time (and my blog perhaps!) can tell...

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