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Petrichor

10 Jun

A.k.a. June Swoon

The sky is overcast. We may even see six drops of precipitation if we are lucky. I’ve been in California long enough to not count on it. Build my hopes, only to see them knocked down with one poof of a blowaway cloud. So I’m going to close my eyes and imagine:

The road from The Bombay Store to Flora Fountain is slick and glistening from the first monsoon showers. The air crackles with wetness. Coolness. Pointy peaks of exhilaration. I am, absurdly, alone as I run along the streets, swooping through my imagination, in a world bereft of traffic and noise and fumes, starring in my very own silent movie.

Kala Ghoda approaches, and I irrationally resent my phone for auto-correcting my favorite landmark. No time to stop by at Rhythm House today, deserted just like these streets. In this version of my daydream, people are erased. No one is allowed to alter the synergy between me and my city, permeate this sacred space between us with their own agenda.

I am flying, my feet barely grazing the tar, embracing spaces and memories: the synagogue, art galleries, and museum. Cinema, antiques, and almost-love. Silver jewelry from my teenage years, nights out at eateries too unhygienic for my upbringing. Wooden steering wheels at the Yacht Club, crispy duck, a burger now banned, the wooden lattice of the Time & Talents club, and finally, the sea.

On the eve of my 29th birthday, as the clock readied to strike 12, a horse-drawn carriage pulled up by this very waterside, a surprise from indulgent friends. Off we cantered into the night, these two sweet men smiling at my elation, as I waved and blew kisses into the ether of a city sinking into uneasy slumber.

I must not halt, for the dream will end, and with it, a part of me lovingly coddled. Onward I stream to Sassoon Dock, Colaba Market, Navy Nagar and Land’s End, auto-correct repeatedly frustrating my typing efforts and reinforcing my distance from home. The evening is green as it drips toward night, and my city is a vacuum: no people, no creatures, all mine mine mine. I morph. I inflate. Giantesque, I rise above dusty skies. And gather it clattering: bridges, buildings, salt water and trees into a clumsy, awkward, heartbroken embrace. We rock, we croon, and I hum with a lover’s instinct.

Looking down at my arms, a pair of eyes–exactly mine in a smaller face–stare inquiringly at me. A chubby fist explores my moist face. My world self-folds into a soft muslin envelope, awaiting future summons. The clouds have long dissipated. For now, I am back in my baby’s familiar, sunny universe again.

The Business of Fish

16 Jan

This piece first appeared in the December 2014 issue of India Currents magazine. I’d love to hear your childhood food memories! Share? 🙂

~

Among my earliest childhood memories is a shot of thrill up my spine on hearing a certain raspy, faraway voice calling “Paaplet! Kolmi! Bombil-waleeeaaay!”

That was Moti, our family fisherwoman for three generations, hawking the just-caught contents of her woven basket to a lane of Parsis willing to pay top rupee for their palates. Much hubbub would follow, as someone, typically a domestic or child tall enough to reach the window, was sent to wave her down. “Yete!” she’d screech, with all the decorum of a hurricane ripping through an island, and begin her ascent to our top-floor home, green glass bangles and thumping gait announcing her presence long before she huffingly-pufflingly made it.

Moti smelled of scales and salt and the sea, odors I came to associate with happiness. In a Parsi child’s life, especially one stereotypically expected to manage her own kitchen in adulthood, an education in fish is vital. The lessons of laal pani versus safed pani, and using your finger to scoop under the gills to check for freshness are Fish Purchasing 101 tips. The nose is your savviest instrument, and one as undiscerning as mine is a serious liability. Then there is a banquet of bliss to choose from—all those varieties of fresh and saltwater fish, seasonal and available the whole year through—bangra (mackerel) and raawas (salmon), boi (mullet marine) and boomla (bombay duck), and the thrill of discovering bonus gharab (roe) in one of your chosen future meals.

It is a messy business, the selection of fish. Not for those who aren’t accustomed to ooze and blood and scales. Its parts callously lopped into diagonal chunks, its silver-grey body glistening enticingly, a pre-purchase fish is a thing of beauty. It is here that I realize the staggering power of social conditioning, for a joyous childhood ritual that entails a dead creature’s guts can only be that.  Or perhaps it is a lesson in focusing on the end result: the perfect, well-seasoned accompaniment to a meal of dhandar. H.e.a.v.e.n.

A trusting rapport with your machhiwali is expected to be one of life’s most enduring relationships. And when she moves on to a better place, where crispy-fried boomlas (I’ve mentioned them three times already in 300 words, can you tell they’re a favorite?) are dished hot and fresh by harp-strumming cherubs, you know better than to mess with the line of succession—her daughter or niece will become your supplier. Our Lady of Piscine Perfection is now Moti’s niece Tanuja, who has discarded the colorful nauvaris of her Koli roots and the ginormous beaded nath of Moti’s era, but thankfully, none of the accent or the mannerisms that we almost expect of our fisherwomen.

It is a centuries-old communication, this unique and frequently amusing haggling between housecoat-clad Gujarati speakers and the shrill and shrewd sellers of fish. Odd words fly in Marathi, exclamations peak like stiff egg whites and many an eyebrow does a Prabhu Deva, with flung arms for company. Accusations of looting and starving little children are routinely hurled, as both parties bemoan a time when the catch was fresher, prices cheaper, and their respective communities were pretty much the only inhabitants of Bombay, apart from the Sahibs.

The last time I was in Bombay, I partook of this ritual gladly. From carrying out round thaals (plates) to pile the carefully-selected purchase on, to washing each piece carefully under running water, scrubbing the scales and poking fingers into icky crevices, anointing each piece with flour and salt, rubbing the mixture in, letting it sit 10 minutes, and then washing everything one more time, I was never more closely connected to my bloodline. It came to me easily, though it was the first time I had actually done it from beginning to end. I was a natural, I felt at ease. I had learned my lessons well from years of bearing witness.

Here in America, the process is supremely sanitized. Cleaned, deboned and ready to cook, artfully-arranged slices are put on display, eliminating consumer participation in so many crucial steps of the acquisition process. It reminds me of a time when a friend confessed she hated having a C-Section. “I feel cheated of a natural birth,” she had said, “I know I should be grateful for a healthy delivery, but I can’t help feeling duped.” Oddly enough, this is exactly how I feel walking into my neighborhood Safeway or Chinese supermarket—clinical, disconnected, disappointingly sterile.

I can imagine how hard this must be for vegetarians to comprehend. They are as much products of their socialization as I am of mine, but the human relationship to food is an intimate one, and in a gourmand community like mine, it includes passion, devotion, and obsession. Having incorporated so many elements not quite our own on the long road from religious refugees to a privileged, respected, and still relatively unknown minority, our cuisine and its methods are understandably something we Parsis are immensely proud of. (So if you have considered offering a thoughtless suggestion like “Why don’t you turn vegetarian?” please know we’re already debating how much spice to marinate your brain in for those breakfast cutlets tomorrow.)

From what I’ve learned in my score and 15 years on god’s bounteous earth, it is that life has a way of presenting precisely what you fight. So a fishless future isn’t the worst fate that can befall me.  (I’m so glad you can’t see my dilated pupils and crossed fingers right now.) But I also know that I am the honored carrier of the DNA of a long line of fin fans, and this—both the process and the end result— is one of my life’s joys.

Love in the Age of Debussy

31 Oct

“We write to taste life twice, in the moment and in retrospection.” ~Anaïs Nin

And that, I suspect, is what I am doing today. Among the many posts I have shared about the city of my heart, I have failed to mention a key experience: music by the warm, glittering bay.

I don’t quite remember when I first stepped into the NCPA. Perhaps I was 6. Or younger. But my earliest memories include watching the Peanuts at the Tata Theatre and wearing a pleated plaid dress to watch a comedy at the Experimental, (for which the actors borrowed my water bottle as a prop). Music by the classical masters formed a backdrop to my life, and for this gift, I cannot give enough thanks.

The morning dress-up ritual for school was punctuated by the gentle strains of Strauss’ Blue Danube (keeps tension at bay, Daddy used to say) and I may have developed a Pavlovian response to Sunday dhandar, fried fish, and Mozart. Our neighbor two floors down was a piano teacher, whose fingers would fly across the ivories to amuse herself on weekends, and the strains of her layered, rich playing were heard throughout the building. Time trundled on as it is wont to. My teenage years brought on other, varied musical interests, and our piano teacher-neighbor passed away. But the enduring legacy of my upbringing was an emotional connection to the NCPA.

It was never just about the music. There were rituals, and unspoken codes, and if you were lucky (?) enough to be born and bred into them, then you’d pick them up effortlessly, sailing through the crimson-carpeted hallways with your pearls and grandma’s handbag, knowing not to clap between movements, and acknowledging other regulars with air kisses and tilts of the head. If you were a member, you received the month’s program in the mail, and knew precisely what pieces you’d be hearing that evening. You would know the insiders from the one-offs, who, clad in rani pink or bright orange, would shuffle unsurely toward the bar and food area, not knowing that the cold coffee and chicken sandwiches were the best things on the menu. Or that the delightful Stop Gaps, headed by good old Alfie, would hand out Christmas mementos after every concert of the Festival of Festival Music. And Karla Singh, god bless her, would be her funny, naughty emcee self and have us chuckling year after year.

There is a definitive confidence that comes from knowing your space. From viewing it from the inside out and breathing through the familiar placenta, rather than witnessing from extraneous layers. I’ve watched myself at concerts at London’s Barbican Centre and San Francisco’s Davies Hall. I’ve noticed how my posture, although tall, is just that slightest bit unsure. The music is exquisite. The experience, just as wonderful. But the space and the power that comes from knowing it intimately isn’t mine. At the Jamshed Bhabha or the Tata, I am in my element. I know exactly how many beads of perspiration will break out on my face in the dash from the car to its chandeliered entrance hallway. My shoulders are thrown back, a stole wrapped casually around them, the familiar faces popping up almost right away. That there, is my school English teacher. Over this way, three of my neighbors. Hi there, Cousin, new date? The low buzz and laughter, the making our way over to those familiar crimson seats amid exclamations of delight, hugs and hellos, the gentle bell peals and dimming of lights to indicate we should settle down, and then finally, the collective hush as the conductor strides onto the stage.

The music. The delicate, the thundering, the fragrant, the vicious, the gloom-and-doom, and infinitely worthy of elation, it scoops you up in scented lavender tissue, escorting you through mid-air to plunge you into an expansive pool of bubbling delight. You gasp, the heady rush leaving a buzz in your brain. Your feet are singing. Your fingers move of their own accord. Your liver is yodeling in high Cs. And you are enveloped in the purest delight this universe has to proffer.
You know your cues. And they, you. In these hallways of insiders, being of them matters, even if only just to themselves. There will always be the odd Bollywood superstar who will show up at (only) a big name concert, ruining the experience for the rest of us with traffic jams, security and paparazzi. And this is probably the only place in the world they will be pretty much left alone. For the star of the evening is the melody, and the people who make it flow.

In my misspent youth, I could calculate the seriousness of my relationships by the number of NCPA dates I’d had with the guy. Small wonder then, that I’m married to the one who topped the list. This piece of earth at the tail end of Bombay’s financial district, was, in our days of courtship, a world unto ourselves, a space so private amidst the public, that we still talk about it like we’re there. We still follow each season of the SOI, if only through the emails we receive. We still mention it when Zubin Mehta or Marat Bisangaliev are “in town”. And we wonder what Zane Dalal will be conducting at the grand finale. Plays are eagerly scanned for familiar names, half my college being the Bombay theatre scene today, and I am kept abreast of film festivals and gallery exhibits by a cousin who is a regular.

As the holiday season approaches, we’re already wistfully thinking about what we’ll be missing. Where we now live is undeniably glorious. But every so often, all one needs is one’s own comfortable home, with its breath of recycled air. And no matter where I park my boots, my beloved NCPA and I, we’re an item for life.

Speak Not Of My City

11 Nov

I speak not of my city

Not because prettier climes lure me

I speak not of my city

Not because I forget

I turn away

Face another reality

Willfully rejecting the one

That sees my back.

In these ways and all moments, I

Silence the pain

Bury the longing under pillows

And sit on it.

Bloodletting, Memory

30 Aug

I bleed the City.

With shards of rejection in my veins

The fury, the heartbreak, the

Slamming of gates.

A human wall, of

Purified hands, closing in, shutting out,

Spewing fumes of vile smugness.

 

I bleed the City.

The cradle, the earth,

Glass bowls that

Rock babies, among gravel and green.

Passed around communal arms, eyes taped

With certainty, stunted by fawning,

Inspecting sodden roots,

While new leaves are snipped off

For daring to be fresh.

 

I bleed the City.

The fabric I carry, the honks in my

Head; the corners of childhood, neon signs that scream

No, the stripping of self, divesting of entity.

Hurled into a morass of the unknown and

Unknowing, the joy and the light frame my

Dark core, the bounty that decorates

Crumbled pieces of

Heart.

 

I bleed the City.

I bleed the City.

Through lumps in the throat and knots in the spirit

May my ministrations redeem me.

 

Life in California…

14 Jun

….revolves around an ivory leather couch. And a dutifully vacuumed beige carpet. Around a sweet-smelling fruit basket and an oven bubbling with cheese. Around a shared silver car and welcome home kisses. Sherlock Holmes episodes at night and the polite chirping of robins by day.

Life in California revolves around rattan chairs and a white table. Scented candles and sunflowers in a blue vase. Around the warmth of family, a clutch of friends and a cat that eyes me with minimal interest.

Life in California is the goodness of home cooking, lavender in a yellow planter, mildly scented laundry and red Netflix envelopes. French coconut pie, lemons in iced water, shimmering peach gloss and aroma oils. A merging of rhythms, the strains of Sinatra, wide open spaces and Mexican dancing.

Life in California is the technology buzz, swirls of innovation, the thick of things. The beautiful Valley and Mt. Diablo and sting of the cold Pacific on browning skin. Sareed aunties and baby booms and fresh bhel, bhature, bhungra around the nook. Sunshine and summer and chilly evenings; poolside and wifi and stacks of free books.

Life in California is an exhaled breath, a winding down, that feeling of calm. Cherishing people, valuing life, savoring a hard-fought way of being. Counting one’s blessings, praying daily and dangling an evil eye talisman in every reader’s face.

Then comes one downpour in the city of my heart and the fickle spirit turns traitor again.

West of Madness, South of Peddar Road

17 May

I heard her before I saw her.  A loud, hoarse voice screaming expletives that would make a sailor blush. If you knew the busy street my parents’ home is on, you would be awed by the power of her lungs. She is crass, she is angry, and simply known as the not-so-friendly neighborhood crazy.

Back in the day when my parents were teenagers, hanging out with their ‘gang’ of 30 and going for summer swims to the Golwala pool, Daisy B. was a stunning young thing in her early twenties, with permed hair, immaculate make-up and outfits to die for.  The boys wanted her and the girls wanted to be her.  And admirers never left her vicinity. Dressed to the nines and aware of her power over the opposite sex, she led a life of promiscuous abandon, going through several lovers, brazenly flaunting her sugar daddies and breaking homes and marriages with nary a care. Talk of how men’s brains would turn to putty at a mere glance from her and how she could get any man to do her bidding abounded and provided the neighbors with much fodder for gossip.

Of course, for the old families who continue to live in our neighborhood (mine included), it was all her fault and no good was going to come of a used girl who refused to settle. She’s lucky to be Parsi, Jeroo said, rolling her eyes heavenward at her own fabulous fortune, or else she’d have been arranged-marriaged off, like those Hindoos do all the time.  Would’ve done her good, retorted Tehmina, to have a husband keep her in check, quite forgetting that her own Edulji wouldn’t venture any such thing with his opinionated wife. In a community of eccentric people, aberrations are more easily overlooked and Daisy B. went about her wild life without samaj, biradri or similar Hindi film constructs pointing their accusing fingers at her existence.

A generation grew up. And then another. And one evening in the year 2010, a loud, hoarse voice, screaming expletives that would make a sailor blush, rose above the roar of rush-hour traffic and floated into my fourth-floor bedroom.  There she was, a now-wrinkled woman with golden-brown curls, suggestively gesticulating toward her nether regions and screaming bloody murder at a man she accused of looking at her. I retreated from my balcony, shaken by the hysteria in her voice, and tried to focus on other things. A week later, there was that voice again, railing against a world that was out to group-fornicate with her.

The episodes began occurring with alarming frequency and she would rant and rave and verbally target anybody on the street, regardless of age or gender.  I (and half my zip code) was informed that I have ‘false boobsies’ while on my way to a workout. A passerby was almost beaten up because a group of men on the street believed she had been genuinely molested. People would stop and stare. Some men would scurry past, afraid to be implicated for merely being on the road home. Some would yell back. Most would just be stunned into silence by the lady in the frilly nightgown, who bought Coke and bread from the local vendor before turning on him viciously.

Efforts to reach out and help came to nought. Between my mum and I, we tried a social worker, relatives and a trustee of the Bombay Parsee Punchayet, but nobody wanted to get involved. I’m not sure how many of you know that a large part of my education and work experience has been in the mental health field, and it pained me to see someone so direly in need of help. Daisy B. lives alone now, after her mother passed away. Relatives and neighbors claim she was cruel to her and this madness is the cross she has to bear. Nobody is willing to entertain the notion that she may have acted in a harsh manner because of her illness. My cousin who lives in the neighborhood confirms that her behavior has expanded to screaming in buses and glaring at anyone she pleases, all the while going about her daily business. On some days, she is calm, walks quietly down the street, dressed up like the old times. She has no immediate family and nobody who can step in to help. Everybody I spoke with says she’ll only be taken advantage of if we take the matter to the police.

So Daisy B. is left to her own devices and everybody goes back to their own lives after the bi-weekly screams have stopped reverberating and the honking of jostling taxis has taken over the world again. I think of her occasionally, curled up on my ivory couch in California, and pray she is kept from further harm. But for the old families of my erstwhile neighborhood, this episode of karma beats their nightly airing of reality television. And life, twisted bitch, wins hands down against soap-saga fiction.