Monthly Archives: September 2013

Life, With A Pinch Of Sugar Instead

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I have always felt that my keen passion for food has turned me into an intemperate glutton as also a complete epicure with an almost accurate power of detecting the individual condiments and spices concealed within a dish, that product of smooth and selfless blending of varying flavours only to create a greater magic, like all other things in life. It is as though the well-seasoned and prudently cooked fare speaks to me as I bite into that succulent piece bursting with juices; the luscious gravy beckons at me even as I cautiously savour a spoonful of the delectable fluid dodging that threatening little circle of smoke over it only to experience the explosion of flavours and textures of intelligently pounded and roasted spices; and I close my eyes so nothing around me can distract me from this gratifying experience. As those textures and flavours melt into my mouth I am able to track every one of those otherwise untraceable ingredients for its subtle aroma or for a tell-tale tang for people like me to notice. You see, it prefers to reveal itself only to those who care to seek it and value it. And I am only reminded of the flawless resemblance that all this bears to life and our own varying abilities to understand it.

While most people obsess over the obvious use of salt in moderating the taste in a cooked meal, which isn’t entirely fallacious, I feel that it is actually the slight drizzle of sugar into the simmering gravy that lends that extra zing and even astuteness to the taste and character of the dish that can no longer now be simply tagged as ‘salty’ or ‘sweet’. Be it the mild bitterness in taste or the burnt golden tinge of the caramelized sugar or its discreet presence only to soften the harsher lines of salt, sugar has always been a more assuring accomplice in this game of blending the obvious.

As an agent of delicious deception that leaves those who gobble and guzzle in pure delight incapable of simplistically describing the final dish as entirely salty or sweet, sugar has taught me great qualities of subtlety and discretion besides the power of sweetness. After all, too much of it will risk having it exposed! It has revealed to me the element of obscurity where neither life nor any person can be defined by a single façade. It has also trained me to observe the beauty within the intricacies that I slowly unravel with every bite and every sip…

Even at a young age I was able to tell whether it was the cinnamon that lent that tangy taste or if it was the coriander powder or the bay leaf or even the extra pinch of turmeric powder that lent character to a dish. And it would not be fully inaccurate either to attribute that uncanny ability to my love for eating. You might even think it is the presence of the ‘Bengali’ in my DNA that plays this trick and results in a loyalty for sugar, and there is a slight chance you may be correct too, but I would still like to believe that it is my sincere love for the undiscovered that attracts me towards these subtle complexities in flavours that make a dish more desirable and appealing.

In fact I have always believed that just like a gentleman is judged by his shoes, a character is judged by the food it consumes. Believe it or not, the kind of food we enjoy says a lot about the person we are. Conversely, it is our temperament, moods and beliefs that quietly govern the kind of spices or food we eat. As for me, I have always enjoyed that beauty within the mystery of life that reveals itself only to those who fearlessly delve into it, ready to surrender themselves to the infinite possibilities, only to discover more.

These condiments are no different from the paints on a canvas that mingle and merge with each other blurring the sharp lines and edges. It’s the way a good make-up blends along the right contours. Hence, for me that touch of sugar that lends softness to the overwhelming presence of certain spices and flavours has always been the supreme deciding factor about the ultimate appeal of a fare to our palate, and it is this soulful experience that allows me a glimpse of the condiments used. Every time I roll a portion of a culinary delight on my tongue, I am able to get a whiff of each distinct aroma of every spice. It is like a gift that comes with a few kilos of extra weight, of course…but I seldom regret that since my Bengali roots seem to bail me out on that front as well with a crafty and specious justification!

It was this love for food that drew me towards cooking, though I solely operate within the closed walls of my kitchen. I took to cooking not by choice but by necessity since the taste of my mother’s and grandmother’s cooking had zealously clung on to my mind and my tongue, and so to try and replicate it in order to sustain myself was the most obvious way to go about it. Though even today I find my cooking miles away from what the other two ladies in my life prepare, thankfully my gift to track that taste and tell the difference between their artistry and that of the likes of me still remains untouched.

It was my mother who taught me the use of sugar in the most unimaginable options like lentils, pulses, vegetables and of course curry! But you would never be able to tell, except for grandma, ma and me who can often trace the absence of this selfless sweetener by the sharp solitary taste of salt. The only time when sugar is not used is while seasoning or marinating poultry perhaps! I imagine this is because sugar refuses to stay in places where its presence is too obviously revealed. Instead, used in the right place and in the right quantity it melts, just like magic dust, irrevocably into the background only to exist as a lingering possibility that soothes the senses. And only one person could validate its existence with complete certainty – the one who cooked it. As for me, I choose to appear conveniently forgetful when a grumpy conventional foodie confronts me with the usual absurd loyalty to salt and a disdain for sugar in every-day meals.

© Madhurima Duttagupta 2013

Ma, Me And My Report-Card

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Come result day and we find most students and their parents hyperventilating over that detail that seems to miraculously assure them of the approaching boom or doom in the child’s career and life. Seeing the Gen Z parents’ mounting involvement and obsession with their child’s academic life and their relentless struggle to control the same gives me the creeps and makes me feel rather lucky for having a set of carefree parents who unwittingly gave me space to discover myself. I also suffer occasional pangs of guilt for criticising and irritating such wonderful parents with my unending needs as a child and as an adolescent, though I must also add here that very few of those demands have been entertained or even considered. And I am grateful for that! I may safely confess today that due to the easy-going approach of my parents the commonly dreaded report card days that unfailingly appeared at regular intervals were among the best days of my school life!

A report card day meant a half-day from school. And what could be more fun than that for someone who harboured deep disdain for uninspiring regulations, and who was already averse and allergic to the overuse of the ‘competition’ drug. Well, in my case, there was actually another factor that made the awe-inspiring day more fun: my mother. And in a short while I shall tell you just how so. Well you see, my fondest recollection of the result day begins in Pune where I studied in a typical ICSE convent school known for its austere staff, snooty students and unbending discipline.

In spite of the look of consternation and alarm on my teacher’s otherwise cheerful countenance while doling out my not-so-unacceptable result on those fateful days, I would wait with feverish excitement every time the day approached. Memories of my teacher’s angst and the precious contents of the important document she handed over to me in the presence of my parents would fade from my memory soon after, but what time and tide have not been able to erode till date is my happiness surrounding this momentous event. In fact this feeling of unfettered happiness has strengthened with every passing year and I look back on this day with still greater fondness and longing than ever before.

Each report card day, it was delightfully entertaining to see my classmates sitting in pin-drop silence in the classroom nervously waiting for the peon, who looked like one of Dickens’ slimy characters, to come and announce their name and escort them to the hall downstairs where our class teacher would be waiting with the respective parent/parents to discuss the child’s results. As our names were called out, we had to pack our bags and leave for the day. I would easily be among the very few chirpy ones who could barely sit still, as I kept shuffling restlessly in excited anticipation and shamelessly cheering up even the top rankers. I remember how high-spirited I would be on a report card day since it meant an undisturbed date to a rarely visited place with my beautiful mother.

In those days a visit to the M.G. Road, an area known for its style quotient due to a cosmopolitan population and a substantial Parsi presence (which meant better bakeries, cafes, etc.), was much coveted due to the young crowd and the shopping arcades (though the concept of malls was alien to us then). And that part of the town being quite far away from where we lived then wasn’t somehow frequented by us. My school happened to be along the parameters of that area and so it was only logical that my mother and I made a quick trip to the Camp area on every report card day!

As soon as my name was announced, I would trot down those thick wooden stairs sliding my hand along the smooth wooden banister. Trotting and sliding were strictly prohibited in school but no one cared to check on a half-day. In fact, had it not been for that silly rule that the grim-faced prefect kept chanting every morning – ‘no hands on the banister!’ – I would never have learnt that wonderful word ‘banister’ that added an extra shine and weightiness to that old wooden staircase. As I entered the hall, there she’d be sitting in her signature chiffon sari, with a big bindi on her forehead, her long dark hair neatly tied and her sunglasses resting on her head. As soon as she’d notice me she would smile and give me her characteristic wide-eyed trying-to-be-strict look that meant to convey, “Sweetheart, you seem to have been up to some mischief in school again.” I could barely contain my excitement after seeing her, and neither could she.

My teachers seemed to like her for her poise and grace. I have somehow always suspected that it was her charming personality that guarded me from teachers pounding at me. Well, in the ICSE school that I studied in, most teachers were well groomed and smartly dressed but rather conventional in their outlook. Almost all of them showed a clear bias for the more obedient and studious among us and had little patience with the naughtier ones whom they categorised into ‘no good’ students and often chastised and compared them, with a hopeless grimace on their well made-up faces, to their ‘brilliant and more disciplined’ counterparts. How well this attitude helped in shaping and developing the young minds is anybody’s guess. Of course there were a few wonderful teachers whom we adored and who were instrumental in creating a great liking for the subjects they taught besides commanding deep respect for themselves.

My report card would be duly handed over to my mother with the same remark on every R-Day as I showed no sign of transforming into a model student from the little brat that I was, and consistently failed to exhibit even a remote sense of remorse, turning a deaf ear to all their reprimands and threats.

“She is naughty and restless, makes silly mistakes, and needs to concentrate on her work.”

After receiving that customary warning, I’d set off with my lovely mother on our date with my head held high and a wide grin on my happy face while she held my hand and my schoolbag for me. Neither my father nor my sister could wrestle for mother’s attention on that day.

On certain days she would smile and tell me that grandma too had come along. And my excitement would double! Grandma’s presence meant lunch at the famous Chinese Room. We would walk along the sidewalks under the crisp morning sun down the bustling streets lined with shops selling their colourful wares. Some small outlets sold hair clips and hair bands and other knick-knacks. These were the ones that interested us more than the larger stores and we would invariably end up spending hours here sifting through their stuff and picking up those that caught our fancy. And at each shop I too would get to pick up a little something for myself.

Then we would stop at a well-known Parsi bakery for some sandwiches and milkshake. This was the time when ma would gently tell me, “You could do so much better with your grades if you would concentrate a little more on your studies. It is only because you are so capable of doing better that I feel sad listening to your teachers complain.”

There was no scolding, no warning of dire consequences. I don’t think I even realised then that those grades had anything to do with my life ahead. I just knew that some subjects were boring, and I was entitled to my opinion though not always in a good way. Yet, it was that gentle advice from my mother that I remember more than the scolding and reproaches from others. Ma never yelled at me. She would only explain to me or tear up herself. The latter part of her emotional expression I understood much later in life.

In the evenings daddy would pick us up in his car and we would go home, happy and contented. Of course, I also got to hear the usual ‘you are ruining your life!’ from my father. But what I see of parents today, even that small reproach seems to me so much more acceptable. He would scold me a bit and then life would move on as though nothing had happened. Discussions at the dinner table would once again revolve around how we had spent the day or who had parked his scooter in our car park. On certain report card days we would all meet at grandma’s house for a special hand-cooked dinner by her. Father would never be able to scold me in front of my protective grandparents (grandpa especially) though few knew of the little words of advice at opportune moments I would get from grandma who always wanted me to be a little more disciplined and sincere about my studies.

Thankfully the pleasures of a half-day did not disappear even in high school. By then I had moved from an ICSE all-girls’ school to a co-ed environment. There too I had found like-minded crazy friends who knew how to appreciate and enjoy a half-day phenomenon, perhaps more. On certain report card days we had to be literally kicked out of the school premises since we would sit there with the group and enjoy the quiet link-ups and attention and tease each other over an unimaginable variety of topics. Some of us would walk down home together, and our memories about our results would have faded by then after our animated jabbering.

Of course we knew of the impending grumbles and admonishments that awaited us after our daddies returned home from work, but strangely those weren’t an earth-shattering thing for us. We had each other and our perpetually distracted minds that had lots of gossip-and-giggle topics, all ready to overshadow other details that made us unhappy. And that was a massive assurance for a youngster of that age. I remember how we planned a party on every result day. In fact parents today would probably faint on being informed that we partied the most on our pre-board-exam days. And trust me, we partied hard!

To be fair to my folks, I have been notorious among friends and family (who would willingly vouch for me) for being unruffled by these grades. My definition of studying was a little different from what the system demanded though I declare with utmost certainty that there will be quite a few students who would not mind my style of learning. According to me, subjects had to seem interesting for me to be curious enough to delve into them. Only curiosity could fuel learning. I loved History, English and Economics/ Social Studies as these subjects were taught by some of the most amazing teachers and they enlightened me on various interesting aspects of human behavior.

History taught me about mutinies and conquests, Economics taught me the rational mindset of a typical consumer, while Literature taught me the irrational and unedited sides of that same rational and rebellious human being. On most of the days I enjoyed learning in the classroom about things I didn’t know. And just when my concentration would begin to fade there would be those naughty students in class who would make funny noises to distract all of us. And so after a few hearty chuckles, there I’d be back again to absorb more information!

At home, I discussed History, Geography and Politics with my grandfather who was a radio journalist of his times. He made me write letters to the Editor each time I felt strongly for a social cause. I discussed spirituality and human values with my grandmother. Ma read out wonderful stories and poetry to my sister and me and introduced us to Tagore’s work. Father taught us the tougher qualities like discipline and hard work that came very slowly to me. I even loved the way some of my teachers explained their subjects to me. But the ticking clock and the threatening marks of red-ink hovering around my consciousness, like a hungry eagle that circles over its prey, made me forget everything I loved to learn, though I must mention that in spite of my bohemian grades I had stronger views and opinions on various issues than most students around me.

Unfortunately, even in those days, we lived in a world that relied on and valued over-simplistic judgments. That single number derived by some seemingly-irritated-with-life sleep-starved underpaid teacher at the end of the year would bear stupendous significance that threatened to ruin us forever if we didn’t bow down to it. Teachers formed biases over students based on these numbers, and so did our friends and relatives. I have seen several feisty and spirited children suffer ignominy for failing to adapt to that kind of a system. I have heard of cousins and friends badgered by ‘self attested well-wishers’ and driven to exasperation by their severely affected parents.

Also, there were those terrifying exams that surfaced as a party-pooper from time to time that drained me of every intent to prove how much I had learnt vis-à-vis how much the system or teacher was actually qualified to evaluate that unquantifiable detail. I realised that my ability to cram up dates or even shoot words by the minute, as the clock ticked away uncaringly, was zilch. Every atom of my body cringed from the prospect of mugging up chemical equations and historical timelines that made little sense to me. By the time I reached high school I had only managed to hold on to my love for English.

On the eve of my final high school exam I was advised not to use any ‘big word’ or ‘complicated sentence’ since the unknown face correcting my paper might not comprehend its meaning and award me a neat zero. I ask now, whose grade would that be? But the more disturbing question that stirs me is – who suffers ultimately? And the answer is always – the student.

During my childhood it was primarily a question of controlling a handful of children who simply refused to fit into the substandard settings of the examination and grading systems. Sure, our parents did grumble occasionally and our teachers complained and punished us. We would gaze at them with a rehearsed guilty look as our peers sniggered from their corners, and then we would return to fighting over who was at the bat and who was bowling. That was it; no more no less. The problem that students suffer today is much more complex and tragic since clearly it no longer seems like their life alone but also that of their parents that seems to crumble and collapse at the slightest disruption.

Children today seem to be sandwiched between an uncertain education system that is somewhat dangling in midair and their obsessing parents who seek refuge behind their alleged ‘good intention’. Terms like ‘fierce competition’, ‘family pressure’, ‘extra classes’, ‘quota system’ and so on are used generously by parents to explain the despicable levels of their selfish involvement in their children’s lives. Parents these days seem to be just a few yards short of attending classes and taking exams on behalf of their wards. Results have become a matter of pride and honour rather than just a number that may or may not reflect the child’s caliber and, sadly, life no longer resumes normalcy after this flawed and hyped verdict is announced.

Looking back, I feel humbled and blessed for having such wonderfully unworried parents who unconsciously knew the things that mattered. They didn’t have the time or the means to obsess over my sister or me. There were no special talent classes that we were sent to at the cost of the simple luxury and pleasure of playing with our friends until we had to be physically removed from the playground. We did not have nannies pretending to fuss over us. We had to be on our own. We knew we had to wait at a friend’s place till our parents got back from the market.

For us life and its inherent element of normalcy mattered more than some result that was churned out of nowhere. We needed to be happy and we also needed to be kind to others, and these had always been of paramount importance to my parents. Mess with these parts and you would be firmly pulled up. I was allowed to enjoy my mischief, my childhood and even my youth as I bunked a few classes, drove around the city in my two-wheeler on rainy afternoons, or dated young men. I knew I could always talk to my parents about these things without feeling guilty or embarrassed. I was allowed to be myself and so I was gradually able to discover myself since I had never been pinned down by grades. I was taught to celebrate my triumphs and defeats in the right spirit and without guilt.

I loved public speaking and won most of the competitions in my school life. With time I realised that I enjoyed studying subjects like English Literature, Sociology, Psychology. Chemical equations or monetary policies did not seem to appeal to me as much, and so I decided to take my next step based simply on that honest inclination that I felt at that point in my life. Every decision I have taken has always been based purely on my interest in that area or person rather than a fruitful motive backed by an unrealistic faith in an over-simplistic assessment or my ability to predict the future. Looking back today, it seems as though every decision that was candidly taken by me stemmed from an unconscious inherent knowledge of who I was or aspired to be. It even led me to those amazing teachers and colleagues who deeply influenced and empowered me at different stages of my life.

My heart goes out to those millions of perfectly capable adults who are stuck in a profession they do not enjoy. They never found the time to ask themselves what they really wanted, they often lament. I have succumbed to that invisible pressure at times and appeared for entrance exams on subjects that did not remotely interest me only so I could have a ‘secure’ (whatever that meant) and lucrative career. But life has been kind to me, and every time I have taken a decision with dishonest intentions I have faced a rejection. I shudder to think what might have happened if I had managed to make it to an MBA or Economics school.

What is a secure life anyway? I am tempted to end this post with what my professor at the journalism school says each time I enquire if his life is ‘all settled’. He only replies –“For god’s sake, Maddy! You should know me better by now! The day life does settle for me, I shall die of boredom.”

© Madhurima Duttagupta 2013