Tuesday, 27 September 2016

Ice Cream In the Breakfast Buffet And Other Myriad Memories Of Misty, Magical Mahabaleshwar.

This is a retrospective post. Like the order that seems to have been retrospectively applied to medical college admissions of Foreign Nationals and genuine Non Resident Indian students in India and is now a sub judice matter, this post too is not in its correct chronological order. But as usual so much was going on when I actually wanted to write this that I just shelved it, to be taken out and dusted off for more peaceful times. But if God wanted us to have peace twenty four by seven, he would have just kept us with Him in heaven and not bothered to send us down to Mother Earth at all! So despite the stressful, chaotic, financially draining time we are going through right now, I just decided to go ahead and write. And yes, details about these tough times later, not now...
Mahabaleshwar: One hundred and twenty kilometres from my home town Pune, the very name conjures up verdant valleys, high hills, cool breezes, languid lakes, rapid rivers and roads with hair pin bends. Pune, then known as Poona, was a cantonment of the British army, under colonial rule. When the summer heat became too much for these uninvited and unwanted British rulers, they escaped to the much cooler climes of Mahabaleshwar.( And probably imagined they were back home in Britain and it's even more probable that they thought they actually were there after a few sun downers!). Even after India got independence in 1947, Mahabaleshwar continued to attract the elite among the natives who definitely seemed to have learnt a thing or too from their erstwhile 'masters'. And many of them built huge bungalows there, where they could escape from the hoi polloi and the heat to which genetically they should have been immune, of course!
Today Mahabaleshwar caters to just about everybody and every budget. From dubious lodges offering rooms to shady college kids to comfortable 'pure veg' resorts that accommodate joint families holidaying together, to sparkling five star hotels which make you feel for a few days that it's all about you and only you exist. A mirage of course, and one that you shell out thousands of rupees (or hundreds of dollars) for!
I first visited Mahabaleshwar on a school trip in 8th grade. Until then, I had just heard about it whenever we flitted in and out of Pune because, of course, thanks to the Indian Army, we lived  just about all over India. This trip, conducted by our Geography teacher, was an overnight one and the high light of our high school years. This was no ordinary school trip like the ones common nowadays, where the parents fork out exorbitant amounts, the children have fun, the school makes a profit and the teachers get a fully paid for trip free. Ours was completely Geographical. From plotting out the elevation of Mahabaleshwar on a contour map, to studying which rivers originate there and which ones we would cross on the way, to which planet we would see at sunrise to the name of the one we would see at sun set, we had to know it all before we left or even paid for the trip! Little wonder then that I can still rattle off all the facts mentioned above, more than twenty six years after the event! Teachers taught in those days and students learnt...
A much awaited event of the 'Mahaby' ( as we refered to it then, feeling very hip and cool and anglicized) trip was the bonfire at the cheap lodge the school had booked. (The beds only had sheets, no bed covers, anathema in my book!). We all sat round the fire late into the night, singing all the songs we had learnt during our singing period in school...The best part of going with school friends is, up to a certain age, you all, more or less, know the same things and have shared so many experiences as part of your school life that the bond is very strong and it is easy to reconnect from where you left off, even if you meet after a couple of decades! I was introduced to 'Paani Puri' a spicy, savoury, street food at a food stall, at a popular view point in Mahabaleshwar,by a persuasive friend whose mother is a paediatrician and whose dad was a pathologist. I wonder if her parents knew that their darling, only daughter was feasting from a stall with questionable, very dubious hygiene levels, if any! As for me, that was the first and last time I ate off a food cart, though home made Paani Puri is a very popular snack with my kids and one that I make often, always remembering the dingy bucket of Paani (water) at Mahabaleshwar!
Little did I know then that I would be visiting Mahabaleshwar next only after sixteen long years,despite living just a two hour drive away, mother, husband and children in tow. We stayed in a family friendly resort. My four year old son, used to the hot, humid, Dar Es Salaam weather, kept urging us to turn off the air conditioner as we went out and about! We had to keep telling him there was no AC, that was the cold weather! He had never experienced this earlier as December is summer in the Southern hemisphere and when we visited home for the holidays in late March, it used to be the start of summer in Pune too, as it falls in the Northern hemisphere! A hands on geography lesson my old school teacher would have been proud of! Mahabaleshwar, in March, being at a higher altitude, was freezing for my little boy. Mahabaleshwar is home to many ancient temples too and we religiously did the rounds of these as well as all the view points and the lake that Mahabaleshwar is famous for. The children feasted on the luscious strawberries that Mahabaleshwar is so well known for and which are found in abundance here.
Nine long years passed by before I went to Mahabaleshwar again, with just my husband this time and we stayed at Le Meridien, Mahabaleshwar's sinfully expensive and utterly luxurious spanking new five star property, built on twenty seven acres of tree covered land. It was our gift to ourselves for having raised a daughter who had just become an official adult and who we left in charge of the house and her brother, with my parents just a floor below to keep an eye, of course! (She told me later that neither brother nor sister bothered with breakfast, got up directly at 1 :00 pm in time for lunch, ate packaged junk all the time in between and never bothered to put away their washed clothes. Honestly what kind of an adult have we raised?!) This time it was the Monsoon season and it did not just rain, it poured! It was as if buckets upon buckets of water were being emptied from up above. I drove there from my home town and by the time we were on the outskirts of Mahabaleshwar, visibility was zero due to rain! All the vehicles had their head lights on despite the fact that it was early afternoon and those treacherous hair pin bends had to negotiated very carefully... It added a new aspect to my driving repertoire, so I was thrilled of course!
Despite steep prices this hotel is worth a visit. A limited number of exclusive rooms means all you see are trees and, in our case, incessant rain of course! Paths with crazy paving zick zack through the trees and the golf carts that transport you to your room from the main areas skilfully manouver their way on these, even as you hold on for dear life! Swimming, billiards, ping pong tables, a well stocked library and a spa all await your pleasure. It is easy to lose yourself here and bask in the epitome of luxury, while you forget that there is a world outside too. All the view points are closed during Monsoons but the hotel has enough to keep you and your children entertained for the days you choose to stay here with treasure hunts, nature walks and games.
At breakfast the next morning, I could not believe my eyes. I had to blink twice to check that I wasn't seeing things... Then I had to ask my husband to see if he saw what I had seen. ICE CREAM served in the breakfast buffet? Not just one but FOUR different flavours? And no staff member guarding it, giving you the evil eye when you piled scoop upon scoop? This was too good to be true!  Never in my years and years of staying in five star hotels across the world had I ever seen this! Not even the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel in Mumbai had served us ice cream for breakfast... Le Meridien is an American chain and they had certainly got this one right and how! I dug into it blissfully, while contemplating that the children were missing this.... but never fear I, being the ice cream fanatic I am, would more than make up for them.
A couple of days ago, I read that the stockholders of Le Meridien, Starwood Resorts, have merged with the Marriott chain. Please, please continue with that delicious ice cream! We are coming there again with our children, if you do!

                                        Ice cream - Unlimited: No better way to start your day!

                                       (But only on a holiday!)




                                                      Paths amidst thick woods


                                           Green Mahabaleshwar as seen from Le Meridien

                                                          An ode to a strawberry seller!

Thursday, 15 September 2016

Crumbs Of Comfort

                       An Aalu Paratha (chapati stuffed with spicy boiled potato) sizzling on my griddle.


This was the picture I sent to my daughter yesterday on her What's App. She has just finished her admission formalities in India, followed by two days of orientation and has her first day of college tomorrow. So she's had a really hectic week and as I called my son for dinner, I remembered this is one of her favourite foods and she wasn't there to eat it! When she's been studying really hard, staying up nights, she enjoys this carb laden food item, along with stuffed red chilly pickle. It is one of her comfort foods! So I thought of sending it to her virtually...It's funny how you sorely miss them at the dinner table...Even though for the last two years she's been carrying her food to her room and continued studying while eating!
And that's when it struck me that each one of us has our own particular comfort foods. We can't help it really. It is a habit formed in childhood and stays with us almost throughout our adult years. While I had made aalu paratha for my son I'd made some basic khichadi for myself with a bit of spice. A khichadi is a pressure cooked lentil and rice concoction and it is the ultimate comfort food! ALL Indian mothers/ grandmothers, no matter from which state in India they come from, give it to their kids/grandkids as a panacea for everything from high fever to an upset stomach to jaundice or even during a really bad cold! It is also made on days when you have had a really heavy lunch and want a light meal at night. Steaming hot khichadi with a dollop of ghee (clarified butter) on it, accompanied by poha papads (pressed rice poppadums) and home made green chilly pickle, bring my own grandmother clearly to mind. When I stayed with her in Pune during my high school years, there were days when I used to reject absolutely every suggestion she made for dinner. Yes, Indian kids are really spoiled for choice due to the vast variety our cuisine offers and the high level of expertise most Indian women have in the kitchen.I didn't really enjoy food then like I do now! (It showed then and it shows now!) Finally at the end of her long tether, she would suggest khichadi and I would readily agree, as I love this most basic, staple and healthy comfort food...Over the years I have tailor made it to suit my taste, adding spices of my choice and playing around with varying flavours and consistencies on different occassions and my kids have developed a liking for it too. Only my husband turns up his nose at it because he associates it with being ill!
Since I've been feeling nostalgic this week with my daughter's departure, even as I sent her the picture, I remembered another long ago occassion when I, myself, had desperately missed hot, home cooked food. I had just moved from India to join my husband in Krasnodar, in South Russia and we were in the middle of buying things for our house. The system there was that the office had hired people with cars to chauffeur us around. So we never had a car parked outside our house but it was always available for our use, along with the owner who doubled up as our driver. Remember this was in the mid nineties and the country was in economic turmoil after the collapse of the Soviet Union and people were glad to get just any kind of employment.
We had gone to buy a music system and we had told our driver to wait in the parking for us. We planned to pick up pizza on the way home as it was getting late, since I had picked up my husband after his office closed. We took our time looking at systems, finally bought one and sauntered out to the parking. We were already ravenously hungry by then, as the cold weather in Russia gives hunger a sharper, almost unbearable edge. I could just see myself biting into the pizza... The car and driver were nowhere to be seen! We spent a lot of time searching in and around the parking but to no avail! It was dark by then and getting even colder and I was faint with hunger...We realized he had misunderstood our instructions and thought we had told him to go, instead of wait.. The language barrier was a reality in Russia, as we had just found out! This was in the pre mobile era, my husband got his first cell phone in Russia two years later, so there was no way we coud call up the driver!
Finally my husband suggested we hail a cab, not a very safe thing to do, and head home as we really had no alternative. And so we managed to get home safely and I rushed into the kitchen, to put together a quick comfort meal of daal (lentils) and chawal (rice) even as my hunger pangs worsened. But even this took half an hour to cook and I realized that for the first time in my life, I was ready to eat, but the food wasn't... Hitherto, my parents and grandmother had always ensured that the food was on the table much before we were at the table...
As I spooned the self made piping hot daal and chawal into my mouth, tears actually ran down my face because these morsels were offering me crumbs of comfort that reminded me of home and the first bite itself made me feel magically better.

What are YOUR comfort foods? What brings your mother or father or paternal or maternal grandmother to mind? What is it, that for you, tastes of your childhood home? I would love to know and who knows, maybe I'll ask you for the recipe too!

Saturday, 10 September 2016

Goodbye Golden Girl!

Why have tears seeped into my pillow?
Why have I turned into a weeping (not whomping*) willow?

It's time for my daughter to fly away from me,
It's time for her to cross the length of the Arabian Sea.
It's time for her to enter unknown water,
It's time for her to new territory charter.

Her college will open this coming week,
Into an exciting future she will take a peek.
Hard to believe but eighteen years have flown by,
And tomorrow, all too soon, it will be time to say goodbye.

We hope we have taught her to be a caring, successful adult,
She's entering a world so full of tumult.
We're praying a place for herself, she will carve,
And, for lack of time, won't let herself starve!

She's chosen medicine which is truly tough,
The next five and a half years will be really rough.
We pray she will remain covered by God's grace,
And He will help her to all challenges face.
As we well know, life in not an easy race,
And her course is a tough one to ace!

Her bubbly, sunshiny presence we will miss, no doubt,
She, in turn, may have a homesick bout!
But that's the way God meant it to be,
My mother and grandmothers have faced it before me!

Now I need to focus my time and energy on my son,
And, like her, help him get into a college ranked close to number one!
Right now, he honestly cares two hoots,
He'd rather pull on his football boots!

His sister has left big shoes to fill,
And currently the task seems completely uphill!


*only Harry Potter Fans will get this one!!


Friday, 9 September 2016

Bested By A Virus: Busted Joints!

Date: 7th August 2016
Time: 1:45 am
We are to leave our home town Pune in India and go back to Nairobi in a matter of hours. Our 'Home Leave' is over and my son's school will reopen in a couple of days. It feels strange to say 'my son's' instead of 'the children's school', but my daughter has graduated and is heading to college soon.
Our luggage is scattered all over the hall floor. I kneel down, with one knee pressing against the cool marble floor of our living room and the other knee pushing down the rough plastic lid of an overflowing suitcase, even as my daughter firmly snaps the locks in place. We are finally ready to leave, having made use of every single kilo gram that the air line allows us.
Time: 2:15 am
A quick shower later, I finally hit my bed in India for what would be the last time for a few months at least. It has been a long and tiring day with last minute shopping, packing, visitors dropping in to say bye and then I had to go and clear up my classroom. Barely fifteen minutes later I start shivering. At first I attribute it to fatigue and the fact that I have to be up in less than four hours to get ready for the drive to Mumbai airport, through heavy rain and crumbling hills.
Time: 2:30 am
My knees start to lock completely, even as I am lying down. My first thought is that maybe I pressed down on the suitcase too hard, damaging a knee part in the process! Then I think I have been infected with the Chikungunya virus that has been doing the rounds of my city, thanks to much needed heavy monsoon showers which have resulted in an increase in the population of mosquitoes that spread this disease. My next thought is about how I am going to sit through a four hour car journey, a long wait and a longer walk at the humongous airport and then a six hour flight. I fall into an uneasy doze...
Time: 6:00 am
I am up and barely about. I am only able to hobble around. I wake the kids and then have a quick shower. ( Indians brought up in India will NEVER travel without showering first!)  The warm water brings temporary respite to my rapidly swelling knees.
I stumble down to my parents' house, unable to even eat any breakfast. Our taxi driver has been kind enough to come up and get every suitcase down to load into the car, as I am completely helpless. We depart. A quick call to my mother's aunt, who is our family doctor, results in her giving a couple of medicine names which I stop and buy from our neighbourhood pharmacy, limping through puddles... My children, observing me from the taxi, tell me they cannot bear to see me like this because usually I walk so fast that they have to run to catch up with me!
Somehow we make it to Mumbai. I'm downing anti fever medication every five hours because I know I have high fever. The children ask if I need a wheel chair but I staunchly refuse, saying it has to be booked beforehand. The flight is uneventful and I weave in and out of sleep brought on by fever and knee pain. We make it to Nairobi, luggage and all, and yet another shower later I am finally in bed by midnight, Kenya time. I have very high fever.
The next morning brings with it another revelation. ALL my joints, not just my knees, especially the smaller ones in the hands and feet are swollen and horrible painful. My sister in law calls to tell me that she just read an article in the newspaper about a virus affecting people in Pune which mimics the symptoms of Chikungunya. I definitely seem to have caught it! The fever ranges high, unabated.  I am completely bedridden for the first time in my life. ( I was up and about even on the days my children were born, but that's another story altogether!)
My son has school the next day and for the FIRST time since my daughter started school fifteen years ago, I do not get out of bed. I cannot.... My daughter and husband manage to send him off to school. Mercifully it's a half day so he will be home for lunch that my daughter cooks with instructions from my sister in law over a Whats App call! I fade in and out of sleep, clutching a hot water bottle to painful joints.. For the first time in my fourteen years overseas, my house help makes and serves me a cup of tea...Yes, I prefer doing everything on my own but now I am immobile and totally dependant! To make matters worse I break out in a bad rash and in a couple of places my skin looks as if it has been burnt. It begins to feel as if there's no end in sight.
I never realized we had so many joints in our body and that they could hurt so much. A task as simple as clambering out of bed every morning takes on a new meaning that spells agony. Every step causes shooting, jolting pain and it does not end there. The bathroom presents newer challenges. Joints are needed to turn on the faucet, to twist open the toothpaste cap, to squeeze the tooth paste tube, joints that suddenly refuse to cooperate and cause severe pain if they do...
My respect for senior citizens goes up a hundred fold. As someone who never even comes down with a cold, I have always been slightly impatient with other peoples' ailments, though I've never expressed it out loud, of course! Suddenly Assisted Living, Full Time Nurse, terms that I have only heard, begin to make sense. They have to, when you are unable to hold your own tea cup, because that too, needs those tiny finger joints!
The fact that my daughter's college opening day got postponed and she came back with us, seems like a blessing in disguise. She is a huge help especially as we have visitors from overseas and for the first two weeks I am even unable to stand without support, much less walk. I do make it to the Open House in school though, as I am determined to meet my son's teachers at the start of the new academic year. I pay the price by spending the next two days in debilitating pain.
I start cooking in the second week. Every day, within thirty minutes, my feet joints begin to burn and stabbing pain means I rush back into bed as soon as I finish, leaving my daughter to clear up. This pain brought on by prolonged standing continues for a number of days till it finally recedes a bit. But I was determined to cook myself and so I do it. This way I ensure my husband and son have fresh, home made food for their tiffins.
My Skype students too are waiting for classes to begin and I postpone it by a week and then crawl out of bed every day long enough to sit and teach and then I'm flat again, nursing my knees and ankles. Driving the car seems like a distant dream and my wrists and feet are in such a bad shape that I feel as if I will never be able to drive again. I idly contemplate selling the car, like an eighty year old would.. But in the third week, I need to take my daughter to the clinic for a test that is mandatory for admission to college. It is a five minute drive and despite a super smooth power steering, my left wrist protests loudly and painfully..Result: A crepe bandage has to be wound around my wrist for the next twenty four hours.. My husband asks me to sign a cheque but I have to refuse because I am unable to even grip a pen and the bank will surely say the signature does not match! I feel a hundred years old.
A dear friend sends me an article from the newspaper that talks in detail about this weird virus and I read that this virus targets only upper class, upper middle class and middle class women and working professionals! A virus that checks your bank balance before it attacks?!! Wow!
Recovery is not complete yet. Stiff knees, shooting, shifting pain in various joints, still characterize the fact that I am not back to normal yet. But life must go on...hobbling, stumbling, with the least bit of exertion causing set backs...It will be a while yet until I go back to walking eight kilometres every day but  that day will dawn too...

From My Desk: Tales Out Of School

                                               My Alma Mater, St.Helena's School, Pune. As we went back and forth on the Core ...