Punctuate Life

Pause Breathe Relax


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All I Wanted for Christmas…

My list was long and I was just waiting for the winter break to get started on it. Some things were material and some were more abstract. I wanted to cut and color my hair, get myself a sweater, go on vacation with my family, write a novel, meet up with old friends and relatives we haven’t met in a while. On my last working day before the break, I took off early from work. I didn’t feel good. Sure enough by the time I got home I was coughing and sneezing and totally miserable. The next day I felt worse but by then I had started a course of antibiotics. By Sunday I was a complete and total mess. My tummy hurt, I was coughing and bringing up mucus and I had absolutely no energy to do anything.

The first thing to be crossed off my list was meeting with an old school friend. She and her family were visiting Orlando and we had agreed to meet up on Sunday for dinner. I wasn’t up to it at all and I didn’t want to make her baby and little girl sick and ruin their trip. I crossed off going to the salon as well, when I got back after grocery shopping (we had no food in the refrigerator!) and collapsed on the bed. I didn’t care about the grey’s showing or if I had a matching sweater to wear to work. All I wanted was to be well. All I wanted was some energy to get through the day.

The weekend was gone and I was done with my course of antibiotics. The cough had subsided but the fatigue clung to my body. It took every ounce of strength to get up and fix a meal and after eating I’d go collapse on the bed leaving my husband and kids to clean the dishes and clear the table. On Monday I wanted to blog. I sat on the couch, paper and pen in front of me. I had a couple of topics that had come to me earlier but my brain was in a fog. The virus or whatever it was had sapped every cell in my body of all its strength. Every day I got up praying that I would be better. And I would be. Thinking I was back to normal I’d go about my chores only to find myself totally drained out. Write a novel? Forget about it! I couldn’t come up with a measly sentence for crying out loud!

By Wednesday I was not only physically down but also my upbeat attitude had taken a terrible beating. It hit me finally that without a sound body, everything I did in life would be impossible to do. Every thing that I had taken for granted – healthy vigor, energy, creativity, fun, laughter, work – all of it simply vanished when my health was compromised. It made me realize that good health is the greatest gift without which the rest of life’s blessings cannot be enjoyed. I also came to the humble realization that even though I believed that I was living a healthy life, taking good care of myself and not indulging in risky behavior, I had no power over disease. It could strike any time, out of no where and ravage your body, mind and spirit.

The next day I was almost back to normal. My energy levels were up. But my spirit was shaken. I felt small, mortal and completely vulnerable. I felt sorry for myself. All my plans for the winter break were now just plans that would never take shape. Since we waited for the last minute to plan our trip there were no rental cars available. So we had to be content staying home. My distress levels hit the roof until I realized there were folks out there without power. Folks who had to leave home and spend Christmas in a hotel or a friend’s home. Folks who had to spend Christmas alone because they had no family. Folks who were sick on Christmas day.

I was thankful that I was better on Christmas day and got to meet relatives from New Jersey for a fun-filled dinner. A dear friend called me late in the night, quite unexpectedly, just to lift my spirits.

I am thankful I have power and can stay home, even though a vacation is out of question. I am thankful for my beautiful family, for taking care of me and nursing me back to health. Thankful for friends who called to check on me. So in the end I didn’t get most of the stuff on my list but I did find out that I’m one lucky lady. I already had everything that really mattered. Everything that made the holidays special – family, a warm home and wonderful friends. Without that and my health (which is back to normal) none of the gifts on my list would have given me any joy at all.

I am thankful for the disease that came right around the holidays threatening to ruin it but turned out to be a beautiful lesson and a gift that I now share with you. The most important gifts in life are those that money can’t buy. They don’t come gift wrapped with a big bow on the side. They most certainly cannot be returned, exchanged or regifted. But be sure to cling on to these all year long and especially during the holidays for they make life complete and are a joy to receive. Wishing you good health, a warm home, your beautiful family & friends and lots of joy this holiday season.


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The Illusion of Time

Time waits for no man and yet we spend our lifetimes waiting for something to come along so we can finally live our lives the way we imagined it. Time becomes our enemy, robs us of peace, health and happiness and keeps us prisoners of hope.

The clock ticks on incessantly – each tick taking us closer to our mortal end. Each tick making us anxious and worried – is it here yet? When will it arrive? When can I finally have it all?

For some of us it is a life long struggle to find the right partner. Hits and misses. Heartbreaks. Failure to commit. Infidelity. Broken promises. Sometimes even divorce. We end up thinking we are broken and need to be fixed. Or we come to the conclusion that we are meant to walk alone on this journey. And yet something tugs at our heartstrings. This need to share this life and love another human being burns in our heart- a feeling that never goes away. For some it comes easy and others have to wait longer than they can imagine. But if the heart longs for a partner believe me it will materialize – in time. Don’t buy into the lies that you grew up hearing. If you wait until your 30s or 40s to get married, all the good guys are taken! What a lot of baloney that is! Getting married early has it’s pros but if you want to be really clear about what you want from a partner I think that sort of clarity only comes when you are older. Men too mellow down and realize good looks and a great body aren’t the only things that matter.

For others a partner comes along quite early and their fairy tale begins. They settle into a new life, roam the world, throw themselves into their careers. Until they wake up one fine morning and decide they want to have kids but due to some ugly twist of fate, they can’t. Again time is working against them. This time biological clocks are ticking loudly and maliciously. Time is running out. Couples go through a lot of physical and emotional pain to have babies. And yet a miracle is always in the works. Some wait for a decade or more before they are blessed with a baby. Is it the fruit of a thousand prayers? Faith? Absolute surrender? I’d say all of the above.

And then there are others like me who get lucky with finding a husband and having kids. But my career eluded me. I fooled myself (like the single folks) into thinking I was happy being a stay-at-home mom (single in their case) for the rest of my life! But that nagging doubt in my heart would drive me crazy with sadness every once in a while. Now for me the long wait has ended. 11 years of being unemployed. Without getting a pay check. Feeling like a total loser. Feeling dumb. Like I was worth nothing at all.  All those years I spent bored, sad, my self esteem teetering on low, seem so insignificant. Like a tiny blot on the vast expanse of my life. Like a distant memory of a past life.

But before I could change the course of my life, I had to feel good about myself. I had to stop beating myself up for not being the career woman I dreamed I would be. There was work to be done in the world and I went out and did it. Even if it didn’t pay. At least I felt like I could contribute something and that it was appreciated. My confidence levels slowly rose. I attracted helpful friends into my life who nudged me in the right direction. I started looking inside of myself for guidance and answers. The work I do now is not what I thought I would be doing. I thought I’d work for a magazine or write a column for a newspaper. But I’m a blogger (how did that ever happen?). I thought I’d make money as a blogger. I was wrong again. The work I do has nothing to do with writing and yet it is very satisfying. Even though I don’t have a degree in that field, being a mom and volunteering at schools landed me my current job.

So when I look back at the (then) puzzling events in my life, they make perfect sense (now). Everything I did in the past was in perfect order and brought me to right where I was supposed to be. There were no mistakes. It felt like time was standing still, like I had missed the opportunity and that I was destined for more of the same. But on every account I was wrong.

So when you finally arrive at your destination you forget the long grueling uphill climb, all the missteps and falls. The whole experience of finally getting what you always wanted transforms you. And after waiting for something as long as I have, I don’t have the time to dwell on the past. I’m too busy enjoying the realization of my dream. If you do that time loses its power over you. And that is the secret. Lose yourself in what you are experiencing now. Go with the flow. Trust that you will arrive at your dream destination. Time is just created by the mind to make us feel small and mortal. Rise above it and even the longest wait will seem insignificantly small.


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My Gastronomic Adventure – Part 2

Now the U.S. is a culinary jungle all by itself and living here for more than a decade has greatly influenced my cooking. As a young bride I focused on making everyday Indian food which was easy, given that I used to help my mom a lot in the kitchen and knew most of the basic recipes. I love Chinese food and we used to eat out at Chinese restaurants quite frequently. The Chinese food you get in India is usually spiced up and modified to suit the Indian palate. When I came to the U.S. I quickly discovered that most Chinese restaurants were Americanized. I was disappointed and craved Ind0-Chinese food so much that I started making it myself – just the fried rice, noodles and cauliflower Manchurian.

Another type of food that I missed was chaat (Indian snack food or street food). To try and explain what chaat is to someone who has never tasted it is next to impossible. Maybe the closest I can get to describing it is by borrowing a word from Japanese – Umami, which is a 5th taste, a savory taste. Chaat is an explosion of salty, sweet, tangy, spicy and crunchy that takes you to food heaven. So again I had to perfect my paav bhaji, pani puri and bhel puri for whenever the chaat cravings hit me hard.

I love to bake and out here baking is big. So I spent many years trying out different cake and pie recipes and now I have a few perfect ones under my belt. Like banana nut bread, apple pie (thanks to Aunty D’souza – who bakes the most amazing desserts), key lime pie (thanks to Florida) blueberry muffin, almond cake, brownies and chocolate chip cookies.

When you are vegetarian, eating out is such a tedious task. Our go-to places are Indian, Chinese and Italian restaurants. My kids simply love Italian food and given a chance they would eat pasta every day. So chef DC did it again and perfected her pasta sauces, ravioli, lasagna, frittata and even home made pizza. The fun part of making pizza is getting the kids involved. They love getting in there and getting messy and I love cooking with them. It reminds me of the time I spent cooking with my mom and also G.

I used to spend many hours watching food network and my favorite show was 30 minute meals with Rachel Ray. She was my idol and I used to race against the clock and try and make Indian food (that typically takes hours to make) in just 30 minutes. The rice cooker and pressure cooker were my best friends and I quickly mastered the art of speedy chopping. So in under an hour I would make one veggie dish, one gravy and rice. I can make a one pot sambar (many traditional cooks frown upon this method) which to me tastes just as good.

Other friends I have made out here have also shared wonderful recipes with me. Most of my neighbors in Boston were from Andhra Pradesh, India and their dishes are very tasty and very different from ours. I learnt how to make mango dal and eggplant curry from them. My good friend and neighbor shared her mushroom biriyani recipe which has been passed on to many friends and is still a favorite at my house. She is a very good cook and we used to make and share vada and payasam during festivals and also try out different recipes and share them. She inspired me to make sweets for Diwali (although the seeds were sown by G’s family and Ganga). So I’ve made Ladoos, Jalebis, Halwas and Kheer. My neighbor S started making murrukkus with me when she was between jobs and I soon found myself in the possession of a murukku press (thanks to my husband), making murukkus from scratch.

My husband likes to cook on occasion and he has whipped up some very good recipes. One of the earliest ones was a veggie sub with grilled green pepper, mushroom, onions and tomatoes and melted cheese. He makes the best rava dosas and dry coconut chutney. These days he is into making plantain chips from scratch – we just finished frying up a batch after slicing them up in our spiffy new mandoline.

So that brings me to last month’s Thanksgiving Dinner. Firstly we don’t eat turkey – me because I’m vegetarian and the rest of my family simply doesn’t like it. So we replaced the turkey with chicken wings – buffalo style. My daughter wanted mashed potatoes and my son wanted lasagna! I replaced the lasagna with mushroom ravioli because it’s a lot easier to make and for dessert we had eggless cake. I’m glad I chose a simple menu because on the day before Thanksgiving I fell sick and I secretly thanked myself for not choosing to make Indian food! I consider myself a die-hard curry eater but no other cuisine involves so much soaking, grinding, marinating, frying, sautéing, mincing and spicing like Indian cuisine. Later that evening the guilt set in and I ended up making eggplant curry.

There is something about food that not only titillates your palate but also warms your heart and soul. When you break bread with someone, share your table or your cooking with someone, an invisible bond is formed – one that lasts for a long time and one that evokes a lot of fond memories of fun, food, family and friends. Here’s to your own culinary adventure…cheers!

 


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My Gastronomic Adventure – Part 1

The other day as I chatted on the phone with my good friend G, with whom I have shared many a happy meal, I was flooded with food memories. Those of you who have seen me or pictures of me, know I have this figure that belies the foodie that I am. And yet food is such a big part of my life and my relationship with people. I guess if you are born in India, food is a big part of your life. We Indians spend a long time prepping, cooking, and enjoying meals.

Right from the womb I imagine every Indian baby floats in amniotic fluid laced with spice. Once out in the world, they take in the exotic aromas wafting through the warm air. Parents can barely wait to get their toddlers accustomed to spices. If you can’t take spice you aren’t fit enough to be Indian. I laugh when I see Indian parents fret and fume when their kids push away plates of spicy curry and ask for mac and cheese.

When I was a kid growing up in India my grandma had an amazing cook, Ganga. Her caramel custard was to die for and she made the best meatball curry (back then I used to eat meat). Fish fry and chicken curry were top notch and her biryani was awesome. Her dosas were crispy and brown and her chutneys always hit the right spot. Her parathas were flaky and soft and her garlic pickle was so famous that my friend M would bug me to bring some to school every day. Well you get the picture – I grew up in the lap of culinary excellence.

My best friend G lived across the street and I was always at her house. Her parents were from Punjab/ Uttar Pradesh and the food they cooked was entirely different from what we ate. I’m drooling here just thinking about Aunty Sharma’s Aloo and Methi paratha, arvi fry and just plain simple dal. I used to hang around all day until dinnertime and then they’d ask me to join them. I’d rush to the table after quickly calling my grandma to tell her I won’t be home for dinner. Dessert was another exotic experience at the Sharma’s. Malpua, ladoo, kheer and doodhi ka halwa to name a few.

At G’s place everyone helped out in the kitchen. At my grandma’s house I was not allowed to do any chores so I really enjoyed cooking and eating together at G’s place. I think my love for cooking started here. I used to bug my Mom to make cakes and puddings and she was most indulgent. Sultana sponge cake and coconut castle puddings were my favorite. She even got a second-hand cooking range (with an oven) – sort of a rarity in India. My brother and I used to invite our friends over and my Mom would cook a feast from scratch. Sometimes I’d test out some dishes on my unsuspecting friends (like baked cauliflower and potato).

My grandma from my Mom’s side lived in Kerala and she was an excellent cook. We visited her every summer (see Summer Escapes in God’s Own Country) and she baked us cardamom cake in her electric oven. She made marvelous shrimp curry and other fresh seafood. Her sambar was out of the world and she even made chocolate for us from her cocoa tree. Her neighbor used to help her make giant vats of mysore pak for us to take home.

In school we shared lunches with our friends and I remember R used to bring the tastiest Rajma (red kidney beans) and rice. When I was in college I was the only one in my group that brought lunch from home. My other friends ate in the mess or ordered food from the canteen. At the university, my dear friend A used to bring the tastiest Bisi Bela Bath. She actually brought two boxes. One for herself and another to share with the rest of us. Years later I wheedled the recipe from her and make my own BBB these days.

G and I decided to fast every Friday when we were in college. Looking back, I think it was crazy for two girls who live, breathe and dream about food to take up fasting. But we did it all the same. We only had tea and biscuits (cookies) in the morning and then drank water for the rest of day. We broke the fast in the evening by having dinner at my place or her place. Ganga and Aunty Sharma would go all out and cook multiple dishes for us poor starved girls. It would be a regular feast that we polished off. We’d end up stuffed, lying on the bed, so happy that we’d end up giggling. Giggling to the point where our tummies hurt. This went on for sixteen weeks and then we stopped because even God has His limits!

Now you all know I moved to the U.S. 11 years ago and the food culture here has influenced me in many ways. But that is a topic for a whole other blog – Part 2 of My Gastronomic Adventure follows…until then like Julia Child says – Bon Appetit.