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Monday, 10 October 2011

Winging it, Ammi Style!

Last evening, we had some friends drop in to give Ranbir his birthday present (which I now need to find a home for. Have I mentioned before that I need a bigger house?)

Anyway, it was lovely to see them and Ranbir LOVED unwrapping his gift (thank you guys!) but it all made me think how long it’s been since anyone has last “dropped in” to my house!

I suppose this is the fundamental difference between the East and the West. Back home in India, it is perfectly normal for people to “drop in” all the time, for no reason other than the fact that they just feel like “dropping in.” Here, on the other hand, we live and die by our diaries and our calendars and appointments and play dates.  It’s a totally different context, I admit; culturally and practically. Neither is better or worse. Just different. But while in India, everyone seems awfully well-prepared to welcome visitors at any given point in time, I have to admit, last night, I had to think laterally! Big time! Not that I mind at all. In fact, quite honestly it was SUCH a welcome respite to see friends unexpectedly. It made me realise just how much, a little bit less of this draconian diary-keeping, would enrich our quality of life. If only we all eased up a little, and just winged it, sometimes. Because there is nothing quite as pleasurable as the company of people you like. And somehow according to the diary, there is just never enough time to spend in the company of people you like. Hugely weird irony if you stop to think about it.

So anyway – last evening. Speaking of preparedness. Or lack of. Here’s what happens:

Sid is reading the newspaper. Ranbir is “playing” his piano (yes, this is yet another new toy). I am doing what I have been doing, non-stop it seems, since the 2nd of October. Which is putting away toys. (Have I mentioned before that I need a bigger house?)
The doorbell rings. Sid looks at me. I look at him. We look bemused. Ranbir looks amused. “Who could that be?” Sid remarks aloud.
I raise my newly threaded eyebrows (thank you, Indian lady on Bond Street) and make a classic I-don't-know face.  
“Package, maybe?” I suggest.
“I didn’t order anything,” says Sid
“Well, I didn’t order anything either,” says me, somewhat defensively.
The bell rings again. Persistent Package Man. Apparently.
“Well,” says Sid. “Are you going to get it?”
“Noooo,” says me. “You’re going to get it. I’m putting away toys.”
Sid looks at me. I am putting away toys. Undeniably so.
"Alright then. Fine," says Sid folding up the newspaper with a resigned sigh. As if the newspaper these days has any news worth reading anyway.
"Alright then, Fine." says me too, as I continue putting away toys. I'm always happy when we agree. It makes for a very successful marriage.

Seconds later I hear happy, raised voices. And I crane my neck in alarm.
“Welcome, welcome,” says Sid, sounding merry
“Holy sh$$,” says me.
(The $$ is not just for editorial etiquette, by the way. My “it’s” are silent these days.  Due, rather annoyingly, to a little person who follows me around, copying everything I say or do. It’s not halfway as satisfying I’ve got to admit, these sh$$’s with the silent $$'s. But sigh. One’s got to do what one’s got to do.)

Anyhow, back to the current predicament of Sid sounding merry. He doesn’t usually sound merry on a Sunday night. Sunday nights, you see, are not about being merry. But then, he’s sounding merry. Very merry. Is the Package Man just an exceptionally nice sort?
But who – on God’s earth – is he welcoming so merrily?  
Is he inviting the Package Man for tea?
But (clever girl that I am), I rule out that possibility somewhat promptly.
Because Sid’s not the kind to generally invite Package Men for tea, no matter how exceptionally nice they might be.
“Holy sh$$,” says me. Once again. This time in proper falsetto. Has someone dropped in??

The first thought to enter my brain is myself (most important!). So, I check to see if I’m dressed decently. Or for that matter, if I’m dressed at all. (Now don’t be getting all excited, people. That was a joke). Thankfully (for everyone), it turns out that I am.

The second thought to enter my brain is food (of course!) I abandon the toy-stacking and make a mad dash for the kitchen before the happy raised voices come any closer. Is there anything in the house worthy of guests? And as I look around my kitchen – at tins of baked beans, a loaf of bread, frozen corn, milk, cheese and lots of green chillies – I conclude despondently: Yummyami has no food worthy of guests. Boo.

And in that split second – before the realisation sinks in and the waves of panic hit – the only thing I can think of is: What would Ammi do?

Cause Ammi is the one person who is always prepared for guests. She always looks fabulous. And she always has food. Come for breakfast, lunch, tea, coffee, dinner, drinks, or in-between, she’s always ready. Always. Don’t ask me how.

By the way, Ammi, (as you all know from Uday Park Chicken) is Sid’s grandmother, Ranbir’s great grandmother and my grandmother-in-law. I still think of her in the present tense because a part of me just can’t come to terms with the fact that she’s no longer in the present tense. In fact half the time when I’m visiting her (amazingly well-kept) home in Uday Park, I expect her to come billowing out of the kitchen, looking gorgeous as usual, laughing her big hearty laugh, and saying “haha, fooled you all!”

Silly, delusional me.
Still. I like to speak of her in the present tense. So, pardonne moi for the incorrect grammar.

Anyway, so Ammi, this lady of so many talents, would know exactly what to do. And so I transport myself into the brain of Ammi, and this is what I do:

1)      Beans on toast
2)      Devilled Eggs
3)      Creamed corn on salto biscuits
4)      Cheese balls

Here’s what you need (everything below serves 6 people):

Beans on toast

- 1 tin baked beans
- Bread slices, cut into quarters
- 2 tbsp grated cheese
- 1 tsp chopped coriander
- 2 copped green chillies

Lightly fry the bread slices until brown and keep aside. Heat beans, pile them generously on the bread, garnish with grated cheese and coriander!

Devilled Eggs

- 6 hard boiled eggs
- 2 tbsp mayonnaise
- 1 tsp mustard
- 1 tsp chopped coriander
- salt and pepper, to taste

Cut the eggs into halves lengthwise. Gently remove and mash yolk and combine with mayonnaise, mustard, coriander, salt and pepper. Fill them back into the egg white shells. Done!

Creamed corn on salto biscuits

- ½ packet corn, defrosted
- 2 chopped onions
- 1 inch chopped ginger
- 2 tbsp chopped coriander
- 1 chopped green chilly
- 2 tbsp grated cheese
- ½ cup milk
- salt and pepper, to taste

Cook corn with salt, pepper, onion, ginger, cheese and milk until thick and creamy. Pile onto salto biscuits (crackers), garnish with coriander and chillies. Serve hot!

Cheese Balls

- 3 tbsp grated cheese
- 1 tbsp butter
- 6 tbsp breadcrumbs
- 3 tbsp chopped ham (for a veggie version, just leave out the ham)
- 1 chopped green chilly
- 1 tbsp chopped coriander
- salt and pepper, to taste

For Batter, mix together
- ½ cup milk
- 1 egg
- 2 tbsp flour

Mix together the cheese, butter, breadcrumbs, ham, chilly, coriander, salt and pepper. Form into small rounded balls, dip in batter and deep fry to a golden brown.

Success! Four quick dishes. With whatever I happened to have at home. Which was not very much!

Anyway, serve the above with wine. Bottles of it. So many that you lose count. For, wine, if you don’t already know, makes everything seem a bit fancier. Wine is the most remarkable illusionist. And illusion, my friends, is the secret to good hostessing. Unless you’re Ammi. In which case, of course, you need no illusions. But then, sadly, there’s only 1 Ammi. So, wine it is. And a bit of creativity.

Now, it so happens that the friends who dropped in are lovely, warm, relaxed people who couldn’t have cared less if I served them nothing at all. But, it never hurts to offer people food. Food, after all, is love. And based on the fact that I had absolutely no leftovers, I think our friends felt very loved! Which, for a welcome change, left me feeling quite pleased with myself. So much so that if I could, I would have picked up the phone to call Ammi and say, “Guess what I made today...” just to hear her say, “Wow, Amu, I’m so proud of you!”

So, after an unexpected, but rather delightful couple of hours, Sid is back to reading the newspaper, Ranbir is back to “playing” his piano, and I am backing to stacking toys (Did I ever mention....?)

So the moral of the story?
Good friends, good food and good wine – leaves everyone content, fed and quite drunk.
And that, my friends, is that.

Saturday, 1 October 2011

Happy Birthday Ranbir!

Kheer - delicious and delicately flavoured – is synonymous, in my mind, with festivity!

I come from a completely un-ritualistic family – indeed I am hard pressed to think of many things we did, growing up, that can be granted the stature of ubiquity. The one thing that definitely qualifies, however – that we did ritualistically, without fail, and that they continue to do, even in my absence (sob!) is to eat Kheer on special occasions. So, be it Diwali, birthdays, engagements, anniversaries, promotions, even Christmas, there was always Kheer at lunch. For us, it was a symbol of congratulations and celebration. Of good luck and continuity.

And so, on this – my most special occasion yet - I am making Kheer.

October 2, 2010

The biggest countdown of my life has just ended.  9 months of anticipation and 22 hours of labour later, I am holding, in my arms - my son.

I don’t know what to do at this moment to be honest.  Or what to feel. The emotions overwhelm me. I am jubilant. But I don’t know why. Because the pain is over? Because I am no longer fat? Because I am holding this tiny squirming being in my arms – this being, that Sid and I have created. This being that is now mine?

I am tired, oh so tired. I am crying. From relief, from happiness, from sheer exhaustion? I don’t know. Dr. Teoh is congratulating me – “you did it, you did it,” he repeats over and over again. Ebi, my midwife (God Bless You, I will never forget your kindness in all my life) is laughing, her perfectly white teeth shining against her smooth, perfectly dark skin. Sid is hugging me, his face reflecting a pride so marked, that I remember it still.

He is a father.

And me? I am a mother.  A mother. The words don’t seem real somehow. 

And I don’t know what to do at this moment. But Ranbir does. He needs no help, no direction, no guidance. The first thing he does on this earth is feed.  He is my son.

October 2, 2011

Time has flown like a creature with wings.

A year has passed. And how far we have come!  How far we have come from the day we brought Ranbir home from the hospital.

Our First Year

It is 9am on Monday morning. The sky is steel grey, dark clouds looming above us, threatening rain. Ranbir is so tiny, his newborn sized sleepsuit (the one smaller than 0-3 months!) hanging loosely around his little body. He is smaller than the length of my forearm, light as a feather.  I am looking back woefully as we drive home. I know I am leaving behind the protective shelter of the hospital, my bright room in the maternity ward done up in cheerful hues of yellow, the midwives who know everything. This is the moment – the precise moment – that reality hits. Cold and Hard.  This is it folks. Moment of truth. It’s just us: Sid and myself, my mother (the only somewhat knowledgeable one of us all, albeit from 30 years ago) and my father (if-i-touch-the-baby-i-will-break-it.) With a 2-day old. Who shares our emotions exactly. We are all the same. Alone. Clueless. And terrified.

The first 12 weeks seem like 12 years. The days that end before they begin, the long, endless nights.

Time stops.

People tell me he is “cute.” Really?? “Mishti mukh” my mother coos to him all day long – sweet face. Whatever. To me, he barely looks human. He certainly doesn’t behave like one.  I mean, couldja just not pee in my face the next time I’m changing you? Please? Cause you may think it’s cool, but I certainly don’t.  

Sleep, precious sleep. Dark circles. Tears.  I dread the nights. And when the sun comes up – finally – I breathe a sigh of relief – I have survived one more day.  Sometimes I laugh. I call him King Khanna –“What can I do for you now your Majesty?” Sometimes nothing works. The baby cries all day and all night.  Is this how it is meant to be? Or am I a failure? Sid holds me. Tight. It gives me strength. He tells me I’m a great mom. I don’t believe him. I read the books – the expert books – over and over again.  “All they need is love,” the books say.  I look down at my wailing baby. “I love you so much,” I whisper in his ear, “but do you love me?”

We are learning, Ranbir and I. We are learning how to understand each other. Only now do I begin to appreciate the full power of language, how wonderfully enabling it is. But we don’t have this luxury, Ranbir and I, the luxury of spoken language. Of words. So we both learn. Slowly. Patiently. How to communicate in other ways.

I learn the subtle differences in the sound of his cries (I’m hungry, I’m bored, I’m sleepy, I need changing, I’m just throwing a tantrum because I can) and what I must do in response (feed, play, settle, change diaper, ignore).  I learn that when he kicks his legs furiously, he is happy and when he rubs the side of his face against the hollow in my neck he is sleepy and that when he yawns in the middle of his bath, he is blissfully content. I learn.

And he learns too. Many little things. But one big thing. He learns that he needn’t be scared. That he will be fed and cuddled. And loved unconditionally. He learns that with us, he is safe. And that it may not be such a bad thing after all to keep us around.

He is starting to look human now.  When people call him “beautiful” and then follow it up with “he looks JUST like you” I have to concede – I enjoy it.

There are still times that frustrate me. When communication fails. And I throw up my arms in resignation. But I learn how to deal with that too. I am a fast learner. In times like these, I put him in a safe place, shut the door, and eat chocolate.  It TOTALLY helps.

There are many milestones in the life of a new mother, each one special in its own way. To me, the most memorable will always be Ranbir’s first smile.

It is astounding how much that first little glimmer of a smile means to me. At first, I can’t believe he’s done it. But then he does it again. And he looks at me as if waiting for me to smile back. To respond. It’s the first time he’s held my gaze. It touches  my very core, melts my heart to mush.

Because it is more than just a smile. It is a turning point of sorts.  It is, at long last, an acknowledgment of my existence. It is LOVE.

And as my friend Aimee says to me when I moan to her - about losing sleep and losing me-time and losing independence and losing sanity. “Well, you clearly know everything that you’re going to lose. But, trust me, you have NO idea how much you are going to gain.”

This I discover now.

I discover that the hardest and most selfless job I have ever done in my life is also the most fulfilling. Because I have turned my baby into the most delightful little person I know.  And I am privileged, so privileged, to be his mama.

And from this point on, time flies like a creature with wings.

Lots of things happen, at amazing pace. The squeals of laughter that crack me up every single time, the butterfly kisses, the baby babble (though in Ranbir’s limited vocab, everything and everyone is “da-da”). Suddenly life is a game.  He takes things out of drawers, dustbins, handbags. I put them all back patiently and he takes them out again. This time, I don’t take the bait despite the sorrowful look he’s giving me. He moves on to putting my shoes in his mouth. Or touching the wheels of the pram. Dirty things entertain him the most. My mobile phone is a close second. Now when I hold him, he holds me back. And I want to hold on to that moment forever. I kiss him on his neck and smell that milk smell of his and he laughs because he is tickled. It is the best feeling in the world. Indescribable. Incomparable.  Before I know it, he eats egg fried rice. And mud. He sits up, crawls, plays peek-a-boo by himself, “reads,” claps his hands, waves, does high-fives.

Sometimes I watch him watch me – his large brown eyes looking at me with – dare I say it? Adoration? And it fills my heart with so much love. So much that I didn’t think my heart was big enough to hold. I wonder – how can a person so small affect a love so great?

Sometimes, I watch him sleep – his smooth unlined face so peaceful, so calm, his hands managing to break out of the swaddle I have so painstakingly wrapped him in, his little escaped fists clutching his blanket or a toy, his mouth making little puckering sounds.  And I think to myself – I made that?

Today we have reached the 1 year mark.
Today the English sun is shining for me.  
And I am basking in its glory.

Please celebrate with me. With Kheer.

I am making my Kheer with rice, but every part of India – and every Indian family, for that matter – probably has its own version of Kheer. The essential ingredients are milk and sugar, but different variations can be made by replacing rice with vermicelli, semolina, and even oranges. My mother makes a fantastic and absolutely unrivalled mango Kheer. But I’m rubbish at dessert anyway, so I’m sticking to the basics.  This is homemade, wholesome goodness. This is Rice Kheer.

Here’s what you need:

- 1/4th cup long grain rice, washed and drained
- 4-5 cups milk
- 2-3 cardamom seeds, crushed
- 2 tbsp almonds, blanched & silvered
- A few of saffron threads, soaked in a little hot milk
- 1 tbsp skinned pistachio nuts, chopped
- 1 tbsp sultanas or raisins
- 2  tbsp sugar or as desired

Here’s how you do it:

Add rice, milk and cardamom to a pan, and slowly bring to a boil stirring constantly. Simmer gently until the rice grains start to break up and soften, but keep stirring to make sure the rice doesn’t stick to the bottom of the pan. Continue to simmer (and stir) until the milk is reduced by about half; this may take as long as 1 hour. (No pain, no gain, as they say :) When the milk has thickened, add as much sugar as you like (I don't like to add too much because as I explain in my coffee recipe, boiling milk releases enough sugar for my taste, but then I don't like my desserts too sweet) and stir until completely dissolved. Finally add almonds, pistachio, saffron and raisins and simmer for another 3-4 minutes. Remove the Kheer from heat and let cool. Keep it in the fridge for a few hours and serve chilled.

They say the day a baby is born a mother is born too.  To Ranbir then.  And to me.  On our 1st birthday.