Mumbai…Meri Jaan (my life)

6229056564477d66d04bbc68b5d79641Having lived in multiple cities, countries, continents the one question that we get most often is which city was our favorite? Where did we like living the most?  The daughter is noncommittal, the husband smiles but doesn’t divulge anything and the son rambles for a while with commas, stops and exclamations… I love it here, no but I love Melbourne too. And then he gives a disarming smile to exclaim and Oh I love Mumbai!!!

I believe we can love any place we live in if we wish to. It can be the glitziest city with the most hi tech unimaginable convenient amenities or a tiny village with frequent power outage and water shortage. We have lived in both the extremes  and the in betweens too.  I joke with the husband that he is stuck with me for life and much more because our marriage will survive anything since it survived six months in a small town of Ghana where we were challenged everyday with power outage, water shortage, mal- functioning phone lines, no neighbors and long hours at work. There were more birds and animals around us than people. The daughter had her first birthday there and spoke her first word too- gooaaattt! Yes, I kid you not, goat came before mum! Wonders don’t cease, do they?

Prior to this during our stint in Lusaka, Zambia many of the husband’s colleagues and our friends had mercilessly pulled our legs guffawing at multiple  imaginary scenarios of us running away, back to Mumbai on the first flight from there. I must share that this was the only country that we lived in where safety/security was a huge issue, political scenario unsettled, medical facilities questionable and one in four locals were said to suffer from HIV. I had the ‘privilege’ of being mugged in broad daylight and the husband’s colleague lost all that he had on him to a ‘sweet friendly’ 7 feet tall guy with a swagger who put his arm around him as they walked on a busy street as though best friends for life while relieving him of his wallet, watch, rings, belt leaving with a loving parting shot of, “if my friends down the road trouble you, just tell them Simba took it all.” Simba indeed turned out to be the king of day light robbers.  As I said before, wonders do not cease because we thrived there, loved it and made amazing friends right from the CEO of multi national companies to the neighborhood cab driver.

imgresIn Malaysia for the longest time I took the bus to go to work with the husband dropping me and picking me on his way to and fro from work. Every time I got onto the bus the driver changed the music to Hindi/Bollywood songs with a nod to me. Our neighbors introduced us to Malaysian delicacies and customs and soon we could gorge on ice kachang and nasi goreng while nodding sagely to agree on the goodness of everything by saying good lah very good lah! Twenty years plus since we left Kuala Lumpur but I don’t bat an eyelid to switch to yes lah while talking to Malaysians/Singaporeans.

Japan, what can one say about a country where respect, reverence, humility, consideration, courtesy come from birth and go on literally till death does them apart. Right from the Japanese baby to the octogenarian next door were always super courteous saying their Ohaiyo Gozaimashita (good morning) bright and early as I pushed my baby boy’s stroller, walking my little girl to school.  The same neighbors were super excited to see their Indian neighbor, read yours truly pregnant when the baby in the stroller was expected so much so I would be taken aback when they would pat my baby bump with love and excitement wondering whether it was going to be a boy or a girl and even when he or she was due. Their excited chatter was contagious enough for me to smile and nod despite lack of clear comprehension. I knew that they meant well and they knew that I had full awareness of their feelings.

Melbourne endeared itself to us with its chic, casual, laid back yet go getter charm. Just last week the son and hubby were on a California golf course trailing a couple of Aussies and got talking to them. While one  was from Brisbane, the other was from Sydney and on hearing my boys connection to Melbourne, they very somberly said, Oh Melbourne, so sorry mate! Nothing and nobody really can top the Aussie sense of humor- it is unique because of its subtle yet conspicuous nature.

mumbai-slangMumbai, my one time home! I think the only city in the world which has ‘meri jaan’ suffixed to it is Mumbai. Meri jaan literally translated means my life. Songs have been written on places like New York, California, Denver, Chicago, London and lot more. Movies too have been made on plenty of cities. Similarly, countless movies have depicted the spirit of Mumbai, songs have been written on the unique yet multiple specialities of this city- the city that has a heart, the city that never sleeps, the city where you are one in a crowd but still don’t lose your privacy. A city which is as casual as you need it to be or and as sophisticated as you want it to be. It embraces those who make it their home adapting to the multi cultural, multi lingual, organized chaotic crowd.

Now we are in California and I am reminded of the time I first heard the song ‘California Dreaming’, never knowing then that it would be home one day. The hubby was jumping off the bridge between Zambia and Zimbabwe over the Zambezi river – The highest natural Bungee in the world off Victoria Falls- with a rope tied to his ankle- they called it Bungee Jumping. Now very popular but a couple of decades back it was relatively uncommon. The song the organizers were playing as the jumpers jumped was California Dreaming. I do not see any relevance of the lyrics to bungee jumping off Victoria Falls but today as a resident of California I do identify with the song…”All the leaves are brown and the sky is grey, I have been for a walk on a winter’s day, I would be safe and warm if I was in L.A, California dreaming on such a winter’s day…..”

Do you have a favorite city or a town dear to you?  It is memories that make a place special, that carves a place for it in your heart and mind. Is there a place that warms your heart on a winter day? Share your favorite city story and why it is so….and I bet it would be because of the people.

Picture courtesy: Jeff Stahler , http://www.missosology.info & http://www.sutrahr.com

 

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Food for Thought…

imagesI proudly looked at my handiwork of cutting the avocado into two perfect halves and lifting the seed out with the whack of the knife. No big deal for most but for a woman to whom avocado was a stranger for the first thirty years of her life it my friend, is an accomplishment par excellence. Drum roll!!

Leaving home adapting to new places, people, culture, traditions and FOOD has been a constant in our lives. Growing up in a small town in India we thought we were adventurous with food as we ate culinary delights from all over our vast country where the simple potato, beans, peas, carrots are cooked differently in every corner of the country. The north makes drinks with carrots, mix it with peas, beans, potatoes for curry or even dessert in the form of carrot pudding. A part of south uses it in lentils while another part  uses it with coconut milk to make stew. The people in east believe in eating fish with everything, carrot, peas, meat, rice or dessert while the west spices up everything with a tinge of sweet. In the 1970s and 1980s many Indian restaurants proudly offered ‘continental food’ in their menu and if you dig deeper there is nothing called continental food really. Precisely, there is nothing continental in food. It may constitute a variety of food served under one roof, pasta, noodles, fried chicken or even a sandwich which by the way was a big deal when we were kids. Of course we also ate Chinese- the Indian Chinese which would make a Chinese dive off a cliff in indignation and shock.

The first time we lived overseas was in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, I thought we were mighty adventurous to try the Queen of Fruits Durian. Durian looks like jackfruit but it wins hands down to be the stinkiest thing ever to be eaten, grown, seen or avoided. Kuala Lumpur introduced us to roti canai (a kind of Indian bread served with gravy), nasi goreng (fried rice popular in South East Asia), Mi Goreng (fried noodles), Ice kachang (shaved ice with beans and anything under the sun).  Every thing was a discovery! I would read about a certain dish expecting it to be sweet and it would turn out to be a savory. At work I was surprised to find people gorging on boiled eggs, fried eggs, chicken and rice garnished with shallots and dried fish for breakfast. That was their go to food, comfort food comparable to the baked potato in the United States. In Zambia we were introduced to the meali meal basically maize flour and the locals used it for a variety to cuisine. When I expressed my wish to cook chicken and also teach it to our Zambian help he nodded wisely and said of course maaadaaam! Hearing a cacophony in the kitchen I rushed down to see two huge, really gigantic, well fed chicken fluttering in his hands while he delightedly looked on to me showing off his prize products ready for cooking! I didn’t have the heart to cook those two thereafter and they made a happy cosy home in our backyard often chasing the help’s kids or getting chased by them. I felt both the kids and the chickens were having a good time and that is the only time I came close to seeing chicken smiling.

7343d52d5d0637a88290007408569663In Japan our home was near a blowfish restaurant and I would hear about the expertise needed to cook that deadly fish, as in if gourmet food could kill this one was it! We became adept at using chopsticks and eating sushi and sashimi while introducing our Japanese friends to tandoori chicken, paneer tikka from North India and dosa, idli, uttapam from the South. Surprisingly, they loved my tea and I fell in love with theirs though I am told that both are acquired tastes. In Australia, the son’s class had an international cuisine day and with lot of expat children in the class we saw cuisine from everywhere, Sudan to Singapore. A local  family proudly presented vegemite and toast as they felt that was true Aussie cuisine. The Indians had turned up with the whole nine yards and I got the impression that most were overwhelmed by the variety presented between the mere four Indian families. We do love our food and we are not shy about it, are we now?

Fresh off the boat America  hit us, shocked, amused and overwhelmed us with its gigantic serving sizes in food and drinks. Small, medium, large are known all over the world but grande, venti and trenta? Hello, who wants to dive into a coffee and drown? I believe trenta is a whole thirty fluid ounce and people do drink it! Then there is this Italian restaurant near our home which gives one free pasta/ spaghetti or whatever you order to take home for every pasta you eat in. Buy one and get one free taken to another level surely and the soft drinks just keep flowing. There is no end to refills until explicitly requested to stop and I feel the poor wine does get a step motherly treatment, no refills unless explicitly requested.

I baked sweet potatoes today and smiled to myself reminiscing  of the time we ate baked/boiled potatoes in India. They were cut into pieces, liberally mixed with chopped raw red onions, green chillies, cilantro, lemon juice, red chilli powder, crushed black pepper mixed with garbanzo beans and with a nice little whack of the hand mixed well in a little pouch made with leaves. The Aussies baked their potatoes by throwing spices, mixing flavors, splashing herbs to present quite an exotic yet simple dish of baked potato while the Japanese took it to another extreme with wasabi, miso, scallions and thousand other ingredients all of course very finely chopped, intricately decorated, delicately presented so much so that I hated to spoil the effect by digging into it. Then we came to America and discovered the version here- the baked potato was wrapped in a aluminum foil and was just that- a potato wrapped in foil and baked! A small container of sour cream sat neglected in the corner of the plate and trust me, the family and I burst out laughing. There is so much fun and joy to be found in our differences.

Why all this talk about food when the world is on a perpetual diet? Just to remind us that food is not just something to get rid of hunger. The scope of food is beyond that. It binds people just as it unites them. It is a discovery- of people, culture, regions, countries, geography, history, chemistry and even physics. The Italian cuisine in Italy tastes vastly different from the one cooked elsewhere and it is not just the tomatoes. Closer home the Italian cuisine in California is grossly different from the one in New York as is the Indian, Japanese or any other cuisine. The reactions of food- the chemistry, the ways and means of cooking – the physics are all intriguing. If my mum were alive today she would be tickled pink to find me switching on my gas stove without a gas lighter or a matchbox but with a simple turn of the knob that worked as ignition.

Food- Yes, there is a lot to it, far more than it will ever get credit for. What have your experiences with different cuisine been? Do you feel that it forms a connection? Does it make you stare at your plate in awe or gasp with wonder or at times proceed with caution or maybe eat at own risk…..

 

Picture courtesy: http://www.santabanta.com & http://www.twentytwowords.com

An ode to the help…

1e1502f5f399fb7d1dd3444e5d2bcd27I am quite brutally honest! Not a nice trait I am told. The first time I returned home, back to India in 1995 after living overseas for a year, my sister looked at me with much love and wondered aloud who I must have missed the most while abroad. I realized much later that she had expected a prompt no brainer reply containing, of course mum, dad, you!

I, on the other hand seriously pondered over and contemplated aloud – hmmmm is it the person who ironed our clothes or could it be the lady who came to cook or was it the comfort of picking up the phone and dialing the grocer’s number saying, hey brother can you send me a kilo of onion and half kilo of potatoes? No, probably it was the lady who came every morning to clean the house, cut the veggies, wash the pots and pans that didn’t go into the dishwasher, hand wash and air dry the delicates and fold all the clothes, while treating me to tea amidst the chores! Gosh! It was a difficult question to answer, who did I miss the most!

I saw my sister’s crestfallen expression and tried to make amends of course. But, when born and raised an Indian, getting accustomed to living without the comforts which one so takes for granted requires a bit of time. While living in India, the husband and I were among the minorities who didn’t employ a live in maid, a 24/7 baby sitter, a cook or even a driver. Between us we were adept and happy to handle the chores with one help, just one maid who came for a few hours everyday, something unheard of amongst our family and friends.

imgresI have always had some basic help be it daily, weekly or fortnightly wherever we lived, whether Asia, Africa, Australia or America. In fact the house we lived in Zambia came with not one or two but four helps! I enjoyed teaching one of them some Indian cuisine and in no time she mastered the art of making the most amazing rotis and paranthas (Indian breads) with her baby tied on her hip, happily singing in Bemba (the local language). The help in Tokyo came once a week and was so courteous that my little boy, then just a few months old would bow deep when she arrived and bowed equally deep when she left. When he (un)intentionally dropped a perfume bottle into the pot he crawled up to her to own up. She giggled happily saying kawai kawai (sweet, sweet in Japanese) as she pulled on the longest gloves I have seen or used, to dig out of the pot and hand over to me with flourish and of course another deep bow, the dripping wet prized perfume.

I could write volumes about our help in Melbourne. The mother-daughter-sister-sister in law group were Bosnians settled in Australia. They came in driving a Mercedes and wearing the most fashionable clothes with the latest gadgets hanging out of their pockets. They would regale me with stories of the house one of them was building, often flying to China to shop, for everything from the window frame, floor tiles to the screws used in installing the hob/chimney. I thought that was taking ‘Made in China’ a bit too seriously. The help in California is a lovely Hispanic lady and our home buzzes with some peppy songs from across the border every two weeks as she climbs on ladders to clean every high nook and disappears under the bed for every hidden corner. I had once asked our help in Jamaica to clean the  fan and was taken aback to find the fan unscrewed and soaking in soapy water in the bath tub.

The help in Mumbai needs a separate paragraph dedicated to her, not only because she came everyday but also because of the way she came. She would turn up all decked up in a gorgeous saree, wearing at least 3 necklaces of multiple lengths, four earrings in each of her earlobe, a nose pin on her sharp nose, multiple green glass bangles jangling alongside the gold on her tattooed arms, she would regally swing in saying ‘Bhabi‘ (sister-in-law). In India the help doesn’t address the employer by their given name or sir/ Madam as in many other countries. They are always addressed as sister, sister in law or brother while the elderly in the family are referred to respectfully as mother and father. My son had just begun his baby babbles when we moved to Mumbai. One day as I saw him run to me with unadulterated love shining from his eyes, his face gleaming with excitement, I knew that the moment had dawned when I would hear the first word of mummy.  With my heart thumping, I waited with eager anticipation to hear the golden words and he called out….‘Bhabiiii!!!’ 

Yes I know, I know…the influence of the help is far reaching, mind blowing and substantial! Is it a wonder that I am writing “An ode to the help? “

Picture courtesy: http://www.pinterest.com

 

Living on the edge…

So there was a time many aeons ago when the husband and I lived in Lusaka, Zambia. Previous to that our only overseas living had been in Malaysia. In the early 1990s, coming from India, Kuala Lumpur was a discovery and the transfer from KL to Lusaka was um hmmm a change, or lets call it another discovery

On arrival in Lusaka, we were driven by a person sporting skills of Indiana Jones to our new residence, the first sight of which left me gaping and speechless. I almost picked up my jaw from the floor!  We had swung to a halt in front of a huge intimidating gate with spikes, walls that had broken glass on top and a cute kind of moat surrounding it, only the crocs were missing! The Zambian counterpart probably had a misconception about the Indians he was expecting because he had provided us with a house  with 7 bedrooms, 2 living rooms, 2 dining rooms ( mind you, one for the vegetarians, one for non vegetarians). The little kitchen would have fit most of my Mumbai home and the fridge room, yes we had one of that too-   a room with four refrigerators- one for the vegetarians, one for the non vegetarians, one for drinks and one huge deep freezer normally found in super markets. I guess it was assumed that great wars between my husband and me were being prevented, truly we wouldn’t fight over space or cross contamination between the veggies and meat! And did I say that the house was set amidst a rose garden with an olympic size swimming pool?

Mugging was a normal everyday occurrence as was shortage of necessities making me understand and appreciate the supermarket sized deep freezer. The muggers were a friendly lot, not harmful unless defied though a  mugger I tried to resist doubled over with laughter and left me alone. I guess being defied by  woman who barely reached his waist line, on a street swarming with people in broad day light didn’t hurt his ego. The expats community was extensive and I learned cuisine from Portugal, South Africa, Kenya, the United Kingdom while sharing Indian culinary skills of making samosa, vada etc. Food and culture are two of the strongest factors bringing communities together and we bonded over multiple cuisine, music and movies.
tumblr_inline_n6uzzkkmhL1qcyr71The Indian dessert of kheer, a kind of milk pudding made with rice/vermicelli was a huge hit in the local community and they wished to learn. My explanation of – reduce a liter of milk  on the stove until halved was heard with great appreciation making me feel that I was the next Gordon Ramsey. They looked at me in awe and  murmured, ‘and how and when did you know it had halved’. Uh er um…

Despite the safety issues we have beautiful memories from Zambia. The close bond that we formed with the locals was evident when we heard the husband’s name over the public address system as we waited to board our flight, calling out to him so they could bid him one last goodbye before he flew back home…

Picture courtesy: http://www.cartoonstock.com & http://www.quotesgram.com