A mosaic

Fall is on its way out here in Jersey and the bare branches against the evening sky of violet and pink and grey often remind me of Joyce’s Araby. The street lights, children’s voices echoing through the streets and a chilly evening air complete my reminiscence of North Richmond Street.

The other day, while going through some of my keepsake boxes I came across bits and pieces of memories and as I went through each of those (and there were quite a lot), I realized how every single one of those had a story of its own, the very reason we have such boxes! As specifics other than the obvious ones kept getting tossed around in my mind, I figured out I was storing not just the one memory attached to one thing, but a host of others as well that had crept their way into each, with time. And I was reminded again that the most beautiful, the most precious things in life can never be things. Those are always people and the moments that we create with them, those are frowns and tears, smiles and giggles, celebrations and losses.

I found a pendant that I had bought for my Ma back in 2008 from Japan. I saw a diaper ( a fresh one of course!) that was from the first box of diapers we had bought for our son. Among other things, I found ticket stubs of a movie we went to for our 5th anniversary , a lunch receipt from the restaurant we had our meal on the day we moved into our current apartment, a bracelet gifted to me when I was 14 years old by my then best friend. Old albums brought back memories of last day of school, of my then 89 year old grandmother who had made the journey from her home to ours to attend my wedding, of a neighbor who had made time to surprise and see me off at the airport when I was leaving for Japan. My first crush, my first fight with my best friend, the one and only day I was reprimanded by a teacher in high school, the time I heard about one of closest friend’s decision to end her marriage, the first time I spoke with and advocated for a victim of domestic abuse and countless such moments are carefully stored in pockets of my mind and heart. And, it suddenly dawned on me that I am a mosaic of all the people I have loved and held dear and of all those who have loved and cared for me. We all are.

In all that we do, that love shines through in its own way. Sometimes it comes to us through the smell that fills our kitchens, the very smell that used to fill the kitchens of our childhood at our parents’ place and sometimes it informs our parenting style. From simple things like the habit of always mixing a salty snack with something sweet ( I get this from my father) to the reason some songs sound more magical, it influences our reactions to situations and moments, it lets us make choices and it works with our own understanding of the matters of the heart and the world to help us move forward in life. The innate characteristics that define the ‘I‘, are not only our people and our experiences, old traditions and the ones we start on our own, the life we have left behind and the one that we currently lead, they also are a million other bits and pieces from all across the universe. These come floating by through the changing seasons, through revolutions that bring about change, through portraits of places far and wide, through the words that are carefully chosen for biographies that find place in our nightstands, through our daily strifes as well as stories of success. We are the custodians of all these and so much more.

Thanks for stopping by. Stay safe. Stay kind.

Friendly Friday : Quiet Places

Amanda invites us to reflect on quiet places and share a picture or two. If I had to choose between living in the heart of a big city where tall buildings could make you twist your neck if you tried to look all the way up and where people never stopped roaming the streets and the music never ceased or, in the suburbs, away from all the hullabaloo where people probably went to bed at 8 and there were farmlands around, I would always choose the latter. Noisy places and a super-fast life do not make to my list of top 50 favorite things! When we moved to New Jersey, it took my husband a great deal of convincing and a whole year to go visit the Big Apple!

Back when we lived in Minneapolis, one of our favorite spots to just escape to at the end of a tiring day, of course during the summer months, was this spot overlooking the mighty Mississippi. We sometimes packed sandwiches, chips and some juice and it made for a lovely picnic too. Life was stressful as grad students at that point in time and this was a place that helped shut out all the commotion in our minds about deadlines and tests and the somehow ever dwindling bank balance.

One of my favorite places that I keep revisiting in my mind is Duluth, Minnesota. A couple of hours from Minneapolis, it is a pristine place where Lake Superior reigns supreme. The blue of the lake and its vastness sort of puts one under spell and it is so easy to just shut out all the humdrum and lose oneself in its beauty. Pretty hikes, picturesque cottages, beautiful shoreline and very few people would give you all the quiet that you seek. You can hear silence and feel at one with the gorgeous nature that wraps you in a warm and peaceful hug.

Many years ago I had visited the Hiroshima and the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park was like no place I had been to ever before. A hauntingly beautiful place that leaves one with emotions that are complex and sure to evoke thoughts that escape the banalities of our daily lives. The picture quality is not good at all here, but this is one of the few photos that survived my laptop -in- the -bathtub debacle.

During these days of COVID-19, when the world is hurting bad, quietness is easy to come by and often can be found in the strangest of places. A popular hiking trail, a park that usually is teeming with children during the spring and summer months are such places, where it has been eerily quiet these past few months. While a semblance of normalcy has returned now, at least where we live, the quickening steps at the sight of others passing by says a different story. Words are not exchanged and kids are yet to play freely with each other. With masks covering their innocent smiles, there is a strange sense of quiet that is not ideal and neither desirable, but at the moment, essential.

We often escape the sights and sounds of big cities for some peace and quiet and to listen. To listen to sounds that a gurgling brook makes or perhaps the chirping of birds that get canceled out by the blaring alarm of our mobile phones or car in our neighborhood; the sound of crickets chirping as the sun sets and the rustling of leaves as the squirrels gather food. Or just to listen to the sound of silence. Like when snow falls. Have you noticed that quietness?

Thanks for stopping by. Stay safe. Stay kind.

Friendly Friday: Morning Rituals

Sandy invites us to yet another fun challenge this week and I so agree with her on the world being divided into two types of people- the ones who wake up and go and the ones who go there eventually. I am with Sandy in the latter category. Ironically however, my job had always required to wake up really early- back in India I used to teach at an undergraduate college and classes started at 6.45 am and a 30 min car ride to did not make it any easier. And then when I went to Japan to teach, I had to take the 7 am train to reach my school. Not a whole lot of fun for a person like me!! But the faces of the kids made it all worth the effort it took on my part to get ready in the morning.

This morning, from our balcony.

While reading Sandy’s post, I was thinking how our morning rituals perhaps keep evolving as we move through life. In Japan, it always involved grabbing a coffee from one of the vending machines and an o-nigiri (Japanese rice balls) or the extra delicious Cream Pan (Custard Cream filled buns), depending on my mood. And there was this bakery right where I came out of the station and that was always bustling with busy morning commuters because all of their bakery items were just perfect!! Or maybe I am partial because of my BIG sweet tooth 😉 Some weekends, me and my friends would also walk over to a nearby McDonald’s and get their breakfast and Sandy’s photo of that meal, brought back many a happy memories…thank you Sandy!

When I started life here, most of my classes at grad school were in the morning too and in case you didn’t know Minnesota winters are not very ideal for morning classes! Bundled up with steaming hot tumblers of tea or coffee in their hands, students and professors would be rushing to get into the buildings. My morning ritual mostly involved trying not to slip on the icy roads while running to get the bus!

Here in New Jersey, a decade later and no longer working at the moment, my mornings look a lot different. They usually involve cuddling with my kids before the day begins and then going about the chores of everyday life. I am a tea person (for my morning beverage) and a right cup sets the mood for the day. Now that school is virtual, my mornings are spent helping out my son as needed while he has fun figuring out the tools.

Over the years, however, I have sort of ‘formed’ a ritual that I try to follow from time to time in the mornings and that gives me some much needed ‘me time’ which clears my head and helps me relax. I quietly slip out of the house, while my kids and husband are sleeping,with the camera in hand with the aim of taking photos. It is mostly around the neighborhood and typically in spring and fall. That time of the day helps explore better without too many people around and I must say, I have loved doing this for some years now. Even when on vacation, I make it a point to get up early, if not to catch the sun rise (which also I try never to miss) but to just find out a bit more about the surroundings. I think I may have gotten this habit from my father who would always get up very early, while on vacations, and explore the area around our place of stay and before setting out for ‘sight seeing’ he would always take us out to to experience the local flavor, some ‘hidden gems’ as he would call them. When I look back, I find that many of those made for more memorable moments than the bigger tours.

Here are some photos that are the result of that ‘morning ritual’ I have made for myself.

Sunrise, Maryland

For some of us, these rituals keep changing, evolving as I mentioned earlier. But then there are so many of us for whom these are more like a routine. My father and many like him of his age back in Kolkata had a set routine for the mornings. Get up, have tea while reading the newspaper and then go out to the bajaar (the market) for daily supply of fresh fish and vegetables. Once back home, it would involve getting ready for work and leaving home, in case of my father, as the clock struck 8.45am. Across oceans, decades later as I pour my morning tea, I often wonder if my father misses his morning ritual now that he has retired from work . And I can’t help but think how has the pandemic affected millions of people all over the world as they adjust to different morning routines, carving out new rituals while letting go of older ones. It may be relaxing for some, while for some it may be making more sacrifices and working harder than before.

Thanks for stopping by. Stay safe. Stay kind.

A Photo A Week Challenge: Vacation Memories

Nancy invites us to take a trip down memory lane and visit a place to two from our vacations past. This year has been challenging, to say the least, and people are hurting not only from the devastating effects of the pandemic but from inequality and hatred that is unfathomable. But the work to make our society just, more compassionate and safe continues and there is hope in that. It is inspiring and powerful. It also makes us reinforce our belief that the sun may set but it also does rise after a dark night. Till then, the fight for equality and justice must go on.

Amidst all that is full of despair and darkness, we have moments from our pocketbook of memories that bring us slices of happiness and peace. This photo is one such slice, from a vacation back in 2013- a sunset in the Everglades.

Thanks for stopping by. Stay safe. Be Kind.

A Tale of A Table

‘Har ghar kuch kehta hai’ (loosely translated ‘Every home has a story to tell’) was the tag line of an ad of “Asian Paints”, a very popular paint company in India. It was one of those ads, growing up, that I liked as something about this line resonated with me even at that young age (talk about a good ad!).

And yes, every home does have its own story to tell. It’s the seat of love, hardship and patience; of surprises that take our breath away and of moments that stop time; of failure and success; of burnt toasts and scribbled walls; of broken pasts and healed presents. When we share our home with friends and family, when we laugh out loud and share meals it adds warmth.

Recently we put our twelve year old dining table away, as we had made a new purchase, and when we sat down to have our dinner for one last time at the old table, there was a strange sadness. I never knew that I could feel that way about a table. I also did not expect my five year old to get emotional and share his own favorite stories about that table.

I have been since thinking about all the moments that the table has been a part of. It is the table I had my first meal at in this country more than a decade back. It is the table my husband and I wrote our dissertations on as grad students. It is the table my best friend, who I have known since elementary school, and I shared a lovely home cooked meal when she came to Minneapolis all the way from Florida. The table has been the seat of many stimulating conversations among friends and has proudly showed off wine stains and coffee marks from moments that stretched from dusk till dawn. Here in New Jersey, it has shared with us the most important moments of our lives till now and we never realized how the table had secured a place in our hearts in an almost unassuming way.

Our closest friends have shared meals with us on this and so has our family. Our son was, for some reason, given his first bath in his baby tub, on this table surrounded by doting grandparents and a very nervous first time mom. My husband was having his breakfast at this table, wearing a cobalt blue shirt and black trousers, ready to leave for work, when I told him we were going to be parents for the first time. Bengali’s have something called the ‘Shaad’ (more here), their equivalence of a baby shower that consists of cooking for the mom-to-be all the food that her heart desires (shaad in Bengali means wish/desire) and I have had that twice, surrounded by family and friends as I devoured on the most delicious food cooked by my mother. This was the table. From a couple to a family of three and then four, this table has been part of our celebrations- birthdays, anniversaries, Durga Pujo, Diwali, Thanksgiving, Christmas- this has been the center. Our son is starting kindergarten in a couple of weeks and his journey from barely legible letters to short sentences today also started at this table. I had never given any thought to the part this table has played in our the little big things of our lives till before the day we took it apart and stored it away. Much like when a house turns into a home, maybe some pieces of furniture, otherwise mundane and taken for granted, also become a part of who we become as we grow older. Don’t you think?

Someone was leaving town and giving away this table for free. My husband and his roommate had picked it up. And while initially we had not meant to keep it for this long, after a while the thought of getting a new one never crossed our mind. Till recently. The needs of the family have grown as have the kids and their crazy ideas that the old, somewhat now wobbly table may not be able to sustain. And so, while we are enjoying our new table a lot, the old table is missed . My son’s favorite story about the table is how his grandparents used to sit with us here and have their meals and how we all played board games and alphabet games. He also mentioned how he loved our homemade cakes and pizzas, stuff for which we would pour and mix and pat on the table before putting in the oven.

As the kitchen has come to become the heart of every home where friends and family huddle together and share a laugh or two, our dining table was the center of activities that we all happily participated in. It has been the center of arts and crafts, cookies and cakes, mojitos and margaritas, hellos and goodbyes- a humble table, that I never thought could make me so emotional.

We all have things that make our home a home, from a piece of furniture to keepsakes to greeting cards, that are a tad bit special because of the stories that we weave around them and with them. Our dear old table is a crucial component of our stories. What are some of yours?

Thanks for stopping by. Stay safe.

‘Tom’ Fish or Some Other Fish..Who Knows!

I am a Bengali, genetically engineered to like fish. Many of you may not know this but fish is not merely another food item in a Bengali household…it is symbolic of the Bengali culture, an almost compelling, if somewhat misleading, part of their identity. It is an intrinsic part of our festivals and celebrations and a traditional Bengali Hindu wedding is incomplete without a plump and decorated fish, that typically signifies prosperity and good luck (more on this can be found here).

I digress.

As I was saying…I love to eat fish. Most Bengalis that I have met till now, and trust me that is a big number, love fish while outliers are also to be found (I have some in my family). Growing up fish was an everyday food item and while the Rui/Katla (belonging to the Carp family) were/are the most common for daily consumption, the variety that a good Bengali fish market offers is impressive, to say the least. And those also find their way into a Bengali household easily. The younger generation today has a tricky relationship with fish, I am beginning to think. While they love to eat it, they have neither the time to go to the fish market to buy fresh fish nor the time to cook. The necessary skill is also lacking. The passionate love affair is probably losing a bit of the steam.

In this land far away from the fresh Rui, Koi, Topshey, Pabda (the list can go on), we have to settle for the frozen few that make the trip to this other side of the world. So we alter our taste buds and develop a liking for the salmons, cods and tilapias (that is so different from its namesake found in India). And we also apply our recipes that involve mustard and chili paste, cumin and turmeric, ginger and tomato to these and try to get a taste of home. It’s a ‘far fetched’ taste. So we mostly stick to the grilled and baked versions. But we are often tempted to take out our mothers’ recipe note copy to find a recipe that could be altered to fit the fish in the freezer or try to make a recipe from memory, those that have stayed with us even after a good ten- fifteen years.

One such recipe is what I wanted to share with you today. I somehow remember many tiny details about the day I first had this, which was a good nineteen years ago, at my aunt’s place on the occasion of Bhaiphonta (a Bengali festival that celebrates the bond and love between brothers and sisters). I was twenty years old at that time and was just discovering my love for the saree. It was a special day, a day that we always celebrated with cousins and aunts on my Ma’s side and that day too, many moons ago we spent the day exactly like that, eating and being silly and making memories. Someone had gifted me a beautiful sea green saree that was hand painted and had Jamini Roy ( a celebrated Indian painter) prints all over. Of course I was wearing that.

My Ma’s elder sister had made something she called ‘Tom Fish” (a short for Tomato Fish which probably meant fish in tomato gravy). It was simple and yet so delicious that I still fondly remember it and cook it from time to time. Her sister-in-law had shared the recipe with her, having learnt it from a neighbor. And I share that with you today. Isn’t it somewhat fascinating how food from around the world, even the ones that are cooked by our mothers and aunts and grandmothers, that do not find place in the recipe books and websites, find a way to reach our kitchens…we have to be willing to look.

‘Tom Fish’ (As my aunt calls it. I wonder what other names this simple recipe may have garnered for itself !)

I usually use tilapia fillets for this…any white fish pieces would do probably.

I cut the fillets (about 4 in total) in about 2-3 inches (you can make cubes or rectangular pieces…doesn’t really matter). Pat them with some salt and turmeric and a gentle drizzle of mustard oil (or vegetable oil) and let rest for about 10-15 mins. Back home, most recipes call for the fish pieces to be sort of deep fried in oil and I do so here as well when in the mood. But I also shallow fry them and have even put them in the oven for baking while I have gotten started with the gravy. The latter also saves the apartment from smelling of fish…a big thing to think about when you are renting!

Heat a wok or a pan with a round-ish bottom and pour in about a teaspoon of mustard oil or vegetable oil. Once heated, temper the oil with some black mustard seeds (quarter teaspoon), one dried red chili and give it a quick stir. Add a handful of curry leaves… I am a huge fan of these and I always add about 8-10 at least. You can always take them out before serving…these are not eaten usually. Add some grated or very finely chopped ginger and once the kitchen is filled with the aroma of the curry leaves and that ginger, add about 2 tablespoons of crushed tomatoes (from the jar or use fresh ones, whichever you have handy!) Give the whole thing a good but gentle stir and once the tomato is cooked, add turmeric, salt and a bit of sugar. Cook for a few more minutes, adding little water to prevent the gravy from becoming too thick. Once the desired consistency is achieved, which should be neither too runny nor too thick, I add the baked /fried fish pieces to that and let it simmer for a couple of more minutes till the gravy seeps into the fish. If you want some more heat, slice a couple of green chilies (I do this) and add to the gravy, when it is simmering, towards the end. Steaming hot rice is what we gobble this up with.

That red color comes from the tomato, and hence the name!

An amazing tool that helps us reconnect with our roots, with forgotten tales, with people who have gradually disappeared from our focus, food is powerful as is our association with it. Culture speaks through food. It evokes memories and transports us in time while helping us bring a sliver of that culture to our future generation.

We cook food from around the world in our home and we also keep rediscovering food from our childhood. Through that my husband and I occasionally stumble upon anecdotes that revive our memories from growing up in India and it is leaves us with a bittersweet taste. Sometimes it also happens that we cannot put those memories into words, but we know that there is a ‘something’ that connects the dots. We visit places in our minds that we have not been in a while now and rediscover moments that have shaped not only us but the city that we still fondly love, from its iconic buildings to the narrow alleys, each with its own story to share and hear.

Thanks for stopping by. Stay safe.

Friendly Friday: Friendship

Sandy helps us revisit one of the most fundamental and pivotal relationships in our lives- the one that influences our childhood to a great extent and the one that continues to shape our growing up beyond and perhaps, always. Friendship provides refuge and a place to refuel. It is marked by everything from silly laughs and pinky promises to stimulating conversations and a trust deep enough to know that you are in a safe place. The unstoppable passage of time often meddles with regular meet ups and living in different corners of the world makes it harder. But friends find a way to be there- always have, always will. Don’t you agree?

I remember when we were in school, many of us did not have telephones in our homes and so summer vacations were always a bummer! A few of us wrote letters to each other and as I have written before, I still have letters that were written in the 90s by friends who are still just that precious and just that much thoughtful. We just don’t have as many pictures though! The memories are good enough.

This is a picture of me (right corner) and my three best friends taken on the last day of our high school. We were allowed to dress in traditional attire and that day was meant for fun and festivities, and lots of hugs and tears too. We have seen each other through times that have been anything but smooth and we have held each other and cried with each other and rolled on the floor laughing about the silliest of matters. Steeped in the affairs of our own little families and separated by oceans, today we hardly get the time for a daily catch up. Text messages and Google Hangout lets us share our current stories and take pointers on the kids that we are trying to raise. It makes me happy to think that for some of us our friendship began when we were as old as our little ones are now.

Friendship looks different today with social media playing such a huge part. Still, the basics of this relationship look the same and have the same beginning. My son often has his video calls with his friends where they play and share stories and read to each other, make puzzles and form their bonds, just in a different way more so now because of the current circumstances. But the seeds are being sown hopefully that will last for a long time.

Times sure are different and friends wear masks and stay apart but it’s still so much better to be with one:)

And then we have our toys and the ‘stuffy family’ and of course, as cliched as it may sound, books and music to keep us company and be our friends. Change of time hopefully will never mar this .

Andy sure had his own set of extra special friends:)

These friends stand guard

Night or day, light or dark, these truly never abandon us

For now, they seem to be each others best friends and while neither has any idea of what that means, they sure have their own little world- one that they are learning to share and get into mischief in! The brother understands what the little sister wants when she says things that I too am unable to comprehend. Their own little world has just started taking shape and I can’t wait to see what that evolves into!

Like the rain that smells just as good as it feels after the stifling heat, like the taste that our favorite dessert leaves us with in our hearts and like the groove that our favorite song unknowingly puts us into, friendship influences our essence. It does not require anything external to stay put. Thanks Sandy, this brought back so many memories:)

Thank you for stopping by. Stay safe.