26 January, 2009

Mr. B

It was 8:30 pm. Late enough in the sleepy town of T.pur for the last shop to close. Just a few forgotten neon lights flickered uncertainly in the empty streets. No eerie howls pierced the silence, the mandatory drunkard with his foolish dance was missing and even the moon had deserted her sky.

He sat at the counter, with as much diligence as one could put in an activity so mundane. His grey hair was neatly combed back, a fiercely straight parting firmly demarcating every strand’s territory. His half-sleeved brown sweater hid the defiant stain which ran across the front of his shirt in embarrassing conspicuousness. He looked around the table and spotting a speck of dust, flicked it with his finger. The act made him smile in satisfaction. He opened the ledger book, his eyes running over the entries of the day. Each entry was noted down in his meticulous handwriting, all the details relegated to their respective columns. Perfunctory pleasantries were exchanged with each person that came to his counter, hospitality meted out in its briefest form. As he looked at the list of people on the page, he smiled fondly.

The little boy with the Punjabi family had demanded to hold the keys to his room and inspected it in great detail before approving it as his lodging for the night. The couple had been predictably irritating, with their demands for a room with a view. Whoever came to T.pur for a view? It was a place you came to when you were on your way to somewhere. T.pur was almost never a destination, just an inconvenient halt on the way to a prettier place. An inconsequential blip on the traveler’s itinerary as he moved onto more adventurous landscapes.
He looked at his ink pen, something he cleaned and refilled every morning and came second only to the ledger. It was as old as the lodge and certainly better kept. The corner of one page was slightly folded – he straightened it out with the tip of his finger making sure not to leave any smudgy prints. His ledger book was his temple with him as its self-appointed guardian. The cook or cleaner were reprimanded for as much as laying their eyes on it. Even the customers were not allowed to enter their details in it. He kept his precious book under lock and key, with the key hanging safely on a string around his neck.

The rhythmic ticking of the clock was making him feel sleepy. He slumped forward slightly, his chin digging into his chest, inches above the V-neck of his dull brown sweater. It had been a long day and the fatigue was reflected in his heavy breathing. Suddenly he was woken up by the commotion downstairs. As he opened his eyes he tried to focus on the person standing before him. There she stood with her tresses framing her face in untidy abandon. She placed a long hand on the desk and through a haze of grogginess he realized she was asking him for a vacant room. Taken in by her unfathomable eyes, he fumbled between scoffing her off as an unattainable dream and swooning in a celebration of her beauty. Realizing she was as real as the night, he opened the ledger book, prolonging the activity in order to steal glances at this lissome wonder that had graced his doorstep. As he wrote down her name in painful neatness, she pulled out a bottle of water from her backpack. He watched her carefully uncap it and raise it up quite high before she tilted it slightly. He noticed how her little finger didn’t quite curl around the bottle with its taller cousins – it was happier suspended in mid-air. He was happy to see the nail on it was slightly chipped – it made her more human somehow. He remembered thinking that it even made her more attainable for some inexplicable reason. He heard the water move down her throat.

At that precise moment he asked her for her address, to note down in the book. Startled she choked and he would remember the sequence of the events that followed in slow motion. She choked and one manicured hand moved to cover her mouth. A second too late. The water spurted forward, out of that perfect mouth onto his ledger. The neatly arranged names gasped in amazement at being defiled in a manner so degrading. The Punjabi family ran into the finicky couple. Numbers bumped into each other in dilute hurry. The pages cooked up a soggy story. Horrified, Mr. B gasped, his mouth opening and closing in alarmed rapidity.

That night he slept to the sound of the cook sniggering.

22 January, 2009

Pickeled Prose or Aunty’s Achaari Masti

I sniffed, a crinkled nose desperately tried to decipher what the pungent smell plundering it in this insolent fashion was. It was strong, full of character, a sense-tickling medley of flavours. It was familiar, in the way a nursery rhyme is – its not your favourite song but you will always recognize it no matter what. I had bunked dinner that day, in sympathy for the gurgling in my stomach, magnified by all the echoing through the convoluted recesses of my intestines. And then I had assaulted my uncertain appetite with a very unhealthy snack of Bingo Mad Angles “Achaari Masti”. Now looking around the room, the red packet adorning the dustbin seemed to be trying to lie as innocuously as a silent farter does. Accusingly I sniffed its way and realized it was the culprit. Achari Masti. I sniffed my fingers gingerly and a deluge of memories flooded my mind.

Achaar or pickle (its fancier English name) is a savoury accompaniment to most Indian dishes made from preserved vegetables, fruits or dry fruits (yes yes I have eaten kishmish achaar but more on that culinary marvel later) and an integral entity in every Indian kitchen.

As a kid, winter vacations meant long sessions of snoozing in the sun, nodding your head in tune to some background chatter and systematically shifting the gadda with the movement of the sun in the rustic environs of Rasmai, my village. And as I look back, the picture isn’t complete without someone slicing lemons for pickling, sorting chillies to stuff, vigourously shaking a "martabaan" (oblong jar), exclaiming that fungus has crept upon another unsuspecting jar or simply tasting a carrot to see if the pickle was quite ready. Breakfasts meant parathas and Amma’s famous gobhi-shalgam-bean pickle. We would devour vast quantities of this pickled delight with alarming speed over the vacations. The vacations also proved to be extensively educative with Ammaji (great grandmother) experimenting with different pickles. So we were treated to grated mooli pickle, kishmish pickle, harh ka achaar (harh is a vile-tasting root, very good for one’s bowel’s movements) and various modifications to the basic mango and lemon pickles. Mami, the Deccan influence in our patchwork family introduced us to the non-vegetarian marvels of pork and fish pickle and fiery, pungent pickled green peppers.

The next leg of my achari adventure began when I had to leave for hostel. It was an unspoken rule in hostel. The unstated law. The undisputed survival kit. Whether or not you carried your toothbrush, everyone brought "matthri achaar" as tuck from home. People were known by the achaar they brought. There was SA who brought her famous mixed pickle in a humungous 5 kg Dalda jar. It was lovingly lugged out at each treat, occupying the most revered position in each hogging ceremony. There was SR who brought this irresistible oil-free green chilli pickle, adequately hot and easy to munch with rotis smuggled from the mess. Then there was SK, a chronic digester of all things pickled and was once known to have finished an entire jar of pickle in a single day (to say that she was sick after that would be emphasizing redundancy). Pickle was eaten with mathhri, roti, bhujia, anything else you would deem edible and in grave famine conditions, alone. By the time I was in class 10, I thought I had seen it all in the pickled world, I was a proud connoisseur of salted preserves, a seasoned pickle-eater. And then SS sauntered in with her garlic-ginger-green chilli achaar. Imagine crispy chillies diced small, coated in garlic paste with grated ginger in a salt and vinegar base. The memory of it has me drooling.

Once school ended, my love-affair with pickles suffered a bitter, tragic setback. With plenty of home-cooked food fed by a zealous family and the opening of the whole unexplored avenue of fast food, my pickled partners were relegated to the indecorous backseat. I began ignoring the mirchi pickle which sat and sat and sat on the shelf till it just gave up and went ahead and got spoilt. The lemon pickle threw its hands up in the Fungal Feud of 2005 and its mycorhhizal remains were recovered only last year in the annual spring cleaning session. This time I visited the village, I found the martabaans sitting in stony silence, refusing to entertain other undistinguished guests like moong ki daal and rice. The pudina chutney was chuckling, having finally earned its rightful position on the table, out of the shadows of its gaudier cousins at last.

My reminiscing was cut short by another embarrassingly long growl. After all these years, even my stomach was complaining of the pickled hiatus. The Achaari Masti of Bingo Mad Angles had caught its convalescent self unawares. No, it had certainly not been a snack of extraordinary standards. It had just, unknowingly, lurched my stomach’s short memory into a pickle.

03 January, 2009

Aunty in Arunachal: Part V

Joe: "That's my kid sister. She just broke up with her boyfriend and I was thinking about dropping her to law school."
Susan: "I'm sorry."
Joe: "No nothing to be sorry about. That's the way it is with men and women, isn't it?"
Susan: "What's the way?"
Joe: "Nothing lasts."
Susan: "Aah. Ya I agree."
Joe: "Really? Why?"
She looks surprised.
Joe: "No I'm interested."
Susan: "I was just trying to be agreeable."

Both start laughing.

Conversation between Joe Black (Brad Pitt) and Claire Forlani (Susan) in Meet Joe Black

"Was a long and dark December
From the rooftops I remember
There was snow
White snow…

If you love me won’t you let me know"

Violet Hill, Coldplay (they always manage to get it right somehow)

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