Friday, December 28, 2007
This Christmas week...
...has been quiet and reflective. Full of late nights and sleep-in mornings. Skipped meals and big meals. Devoured movies and books. Seeking and finding warmth in the blustery wind. Imagining what 2008 could look like.
I am constantly drawn to these pictures of a beautiful summers day spent at Columbia Road Market in London earlier this year. It was a beautiful and busy day spent laughing with V and friends, shopping, eating and talking. One of the most sparkling days I will remember when I look back on 2007.
I hope 2008 is bright, healthy, hopeful, loved, clear, wonderous, full of promise, good food, family and friends - all within reach of fingers. For V. For me. And for you. Happy New Year!
Thursday, December 20, 2007
Why my Boy is best
I wrote about my birthday resolutions back near the day and I am happy to report back that things have gone well-ish since then. I must do an update on what happened with each resolution but this is not that post.
This is the post to do with the very last line of that post - the 'more on that later' bit, about my fabulous birthday gift. This image you see is of a series of bookshelves packed with books. I originally saw the bookshelf in a design magazine I part share a susbcription to. I was instantly smitten with it. Thin sharp back with perpendicular shelves neither of which would show once the shelf was full of books. It would look like a tall stack of precariously balanced books. Minimal yet haphazardly full. Theoretcial opposites coming together to make something of great beauty very useful. However I immediately dismissed the idea alongside that of owning a circular stone bath I saw a few pages along (only £19,500). While not quite in the same price league, the bookshelf's exhorbitant price tag meant that I couldn't quite see myself owning it.
I forgot about it until a few days later when I had a was wandering around the house with a few books that just would not comfortably fit into my standard wooden giant bookshelf. I piled the books on the side and began praying to the Gods of Google as I hunted the web for a cheaper alternate. I came across the exact same bookshelf at a quarter of the price on an American design site but after much e-mail to-ing and fro-ing they apologised for being unable to actually deliver safely across the seas. They did however offere up a suppliers name who might just be able to. Voila! A bit more browsing and calling and I found it could be ordered in London and imported from Italy. At this point I handed the details over to V who was pestering me for ideas about my birthday gift and he ordered it and tracked it everyday for weeks.
The delivery of my shelf was quite botched up and even as I wrote my birthday post in mid-July it had not arrived. Lucky me, birthday gift was a multiple part gift: I got one of these giant bookshelves and ALL THE BOOKS I COULD FIT INTO IT. This from V was my birthday gift. So in anticipation of the bookshelf's arrival, on my birthday we wandered into a Waterstones and bought the first 14 of numerous books. The bookshelf finally arrived in early August and was assembled in 3 minutes flat. It sits neatly between a wall and a piece of furniture. It can hold up to 70 books (some dependence on the thickness of the books) and since July I have already bought over 45 of the books. It's good for my soul to go into a bookshop and wander around. All those written words and covers evocative of a story; so much to choose from, so many to choose. These wanderings, as leisurely as they are, lead me to a canvas bag of books and intense longing for a weekend afternoon curled up on the day bed with something playing in the background while devouring a book.
It's my best gift yet. And one I am inclined to ask for as a repeat gift when my next birthday comes around. Now you see why my Boy is best
Monday, December 17, 2007
The Passport FAQ: The final countdown
Over 3 years ago now (that’s the distance between sharp and dulling pain over my kaagzaath), just one weekend before I was due to apply to the Indian High Commission for both additional booklet and change of name, we went for lunch to friends in leafy Golders Green. In anticipation of the process we were talking about how the website seemed to have all the information one might need (ha bloody ha!). My friend K then said that she had had her passport re-issued in Mumbai just before coming and she showed us her new passport – typed front page with her details all in the correct places.
Gazing at it I too dreamt of a neat typed/ electronically digested professional looking passport. The leafy tree lined street and the plate of steaming hot pav bhaji lulled me into believing that all would be right with the identity documents. How wrong was I? My passport is not only hand written, a mistake has been scratched out with a blade, written over and signed by someone before being laminated. And the laminate is full of air bubbles.
But apparently things have changed. It’s all printed now – even in London. I don't believe it.
2. Will the passport be ready on time?
The website assures me that it is a 48 hour turnaround. Completely shell-shocked by the trauma of getting my OWN name on my OWN passport I don’t take in the slip which asks me to come back in a week until I get out. I am drained of all emotion. Why did I believe the website you ask? Naivete.
I pay the money, grab the slip out of the cashiers hands and dive through the crowd desperate for fresh air. Outside, the air is fresh and people free. I uncrumple the slip only to see the collection date is 9 days from now. 7 working days plus a 2 day weekend. WHAT? So I walk back to the door which is being guarded by a bouncer dude with dark glasses. He is not friendly. After all he can barely see me standing there. About a foot shorter than him and a few feet through the grey-ness that has set in. He won’t let me go back in but will go and find out himself. He comes back in under two minutes with “Yes, that is correct. Please come according to the slip”. OK then.
So no, my passport will not be ready on your time or even the High Commissions time. It will be ready in Indian Slow Time.
3. Will the handwritten passport, scratched out and written over correction or air bubbles cause any grief?
Of course it will. A year and a bit after getting the passport I was flying back and forth from Germany with some regularity. After a fantastic 5 days with the troupe of colleagues we are all leaving from Berlin airport on the same flight. Our trip has been wildly successful and all 20 of us are ready to go back and have a bit of a break. The guy at the immigration counter has other ideas. He has decided that he does not like what he sees. Well over 6 feet, blonde and with clipped voice he asks me where I got my passport from. I tell him. He continues to peer at it, adding a small magnifying glass to his own eyes. Then he adds a few extra colleagues into the mix and soon they are having a mini party in German all the while handing around my passport and the eye glass, running their hands along the edges, asking more clipped questions. In the meanwhile my colleagues have gone through and from where I am standing I can see that the entire seating area for our flight has filled up. I ask Blondie what the problem is and he smiles and says “Oh maybe you made this at home? It has a lot of airbubbles, no?”. No. Yes. OK.
I give them the IHC’s phone number but they decide that a higher power needs to decide this. So they whisk my passport away leaving me under the watchful eye of a guard. People keep coming back and asking me random questions like where I was born or what my mothers name is. Things I would definitely NOT know / have learnt if I had forged my own passport. About an hour later they come back to tell me that the IHC’s phone number just rang through. Well obviously. The babu’s went home at 4. It’s 5 now. So now what? They keep saying WUN MINUTE. But my flight is about to leave. My colleagues are waving madly from behind the immigrations counter. They have to go or they will miss the flight. I am surely going to miss mine.
In a final burst of enthusiasm I make a short impassioned speech. Suddenly the original blond officer comes to the front of the gaggle, stamps my passport and escorts me to the plane. I make nervous small chat with him all the way there. Turns out that the expiry of my passport looked suspicious because it had been scratched off with a blade, written over and signed before being badly laminated and that they thought I might have done this at home. Yeah right.
I am escorted onto plane which has everyone already seated and it’s engines warmed up. As if my colour was not enough, the escort walked me to my seat and made sure I was belted in before leaving me in the glare of a plane-full of late, irritable passengers. The only people glad to see me were my colleagues. And even they aren't that glad as the flight is late because of me.
So yes, I would say grief was caused.
4. Did I Google the Prince?
DUUUDES. What do you take me for? Of course I did. Sadly he does exist and looks, in real life exactly as he does in pictures. He is a big-ish shot I guess, just not in my world. His wife looks nice too (and just like her picture) and is minor royalty as well. Am I going to tell you who he is?
5. Does my passport fill me with joy?
Well, the name has caused confusion the way it is, with both surnames needing to appear in certain places because of it. Much as V predicted it would. But I love my passport and the fact that I kept my dad’s name and added V’s to it. I don’t have the energy to go back and quibble it. By the time it next comes up for renewal in 2017 (I got it in the window of 20 year passports) maybe the IHC would have got its act together and into the 21st century. I can only hope. In the meanwhile I am full of joy!
I’m glad I wrote out this story. It was taking on unmanageable proportions in my head and I wanted to put some of the facts down for posterity. And to squash the urban legends my mind was spawning. I now charge for passport related advice. The End.
Monday, December 10, 2007
The Passport: Four down. None to go
I am convinced that this is a test of my citizenship of India. Hours of waiting, trying rules, rubbish forms, utter rudeness, clamouring crowds, inquisitive aunties, over-kowledgable uncles, obnoxious royalty and endless humiliation.
There is nowhere to run. Even if I wanted to I would have to elbow my way through the crowd of Indians that has packed itself around me in the hope of finding out every little detail about my life. The fact that we, Mr. Kumar and I, are about to have a big fight is just a bonus.
To accurately tell this final bit of the memory I need to use my name. All bits of it. I’m choosing random British names as substitutes because I can’t think of Indian names I’d rather have and I have no emotional connect with the Brit ones. Let’s say my parents chose Patricia as my name at birth and my dad lent me his surname Jones. And then I grew up and married Boy Smith. Much easier I think than breaking up 30in2005, which, anyway I look at, just won’t do.
So here I am, Patricia Jones, waiting to get an additional booklet and add Smith to my name. Mr. Kumar peers over the top of his glasses at me and then head down and through said glasses at my form. I am holding onto the file of additional documents for dear life. There are, after all, about £20 worth of photocopies in there, no small sum for an unemployed migrant.
On the form I have filled:
Given name(s): Patricia Jones
Mr. K: “Madam, you cannot keep maiden name as middle name. Ladies ke liye aisi koi suvidha nahin hai (there is no such provision for women)”
Me: “Why? I don’t want to give up my fathers surname. I just want that to become my middle name and to add my husbands as the surname”
“No madam, ladies ka koi middle name nahin hota hai. (There is no middle name for ladies)”
“Sorry but I would like to speak to your superior officer. There must be some way for me to keep both names”
He sighs deeply, whips off his glasses and with a flourish of his hand and “one minute” disappears through a flimsy door opened by a security guard.
All around me the Indians now proffer their advice. Ranging from “kya madam, apne to sab ka kaam rok rakha hai (What madam? you have stopped everyone else’s work from happening)” to “Ladko ke to 'Kumar' laga sakte hain, ladkiyon ka to kabhi nahin suna (Have heard of ‘Kumar’ being a middle name for a boy, never heard of a middle name for a girl). And “Aaapko kya milega yeh karne se madam? (What will you achieve by doing this madam?)”. And “Aapke husband aur papa ko bura nahin lagega? (Won’t your husband and father feel bad?).
There was more of the same, everyone having a discussion about what I, Patricia Jones soon-to-also-officially-be Smith, should do/ could do/ must do/ must not do/ must feel/ must endure. A lot of blah blah blah to me. I just stood there looking uncomfortable and ready to burst into tears. I was not about to give up without a fight. Fifteen minutes later Mr. Kumar emerges from the labyrinth that is the back office of India House and strolls to his desk. Takes a seat and shuffles on the stool till a comfortable (to him) and threatening (to us) pose is struck.
“Madam, show me all supporting documents”
I concur and hastily shove the entire file through the small air hole in the glass. He goes through it sheet by sheet for about 4 minutes. Gives up and says “Aap sure hain ki aapko dono naam chahiye? (Are you sure you want both names?). Hum allow nahin karte hain ladies ka middle naam (We don’t allow ladies middle names). India mein to aise nahin hota hai (It’s not how it works in India)”. Do I freaking look like I care! I want my dad’s name to appear and that is that. With carefully constructed sentences and a modulated voice my tone perfect class 3 music teacher would have been proud of, I insisted. Sighing once more he disappears into the beyond, form, passport, papers and all.
10 minutes later I was silently bartering with God, begging for some resolution and not to be beaten black&blue by the increasingly impatient Indian crowd in exchange for being a kind wonderful human being for the rest of the year. It was November, I would manage a month and a bit. And although I fully sympathised with the baying crowds I just wanted to sort this out and go home.
Mr. K came back with a smile and “Sir ne bola hai, aap jo naam likhwana chahen likwa lijiye. (Sir has said that you can write whatever name you want). But aapka purana surname Jones sirf aapke naye surname Smith ke pehle hee aa sakta hai (But Jones can only appear before Smith and not as a given name). Ok?’.
OK. Anything. Goodbye. I correct the form:
Given name(s): Patricia
Surname: Jones Smith
I must pay £18 only says Mr. Kumar’s scribble at the top of my form, much to the consternation of Ms. Pinky who sits between consular and passport windows with her little cash box. She would like me to be charged an additional £18 for getting both additional booklet AND additional name. But Mr. Kumar is so sick of me that his fake smile has fallen into a grimace and he yells at her to just do as he has written so that I can go. Much to the delight of the waiting, utterly bored crowd they have a small round of petty yelling. My exact change does not help matters as she can’t scream at my smiling face. A small cheer from the crowd - victory for the common woman they always approve off.
One week later I am back to pick up the additional booklet, dark blue and all mine. I am now Patricia Jones Smith. Small details like did I google the Prince and was my passport issued correctly must wait. FAQ to follow.
Citizenship of India - I think I passed the test. And for all its quirks I love being Indian.
Monday, November 26, 2007
I’m having trouble writing the fourth part of the passport saga. It was such a long and complicated process and so fraught with tension and anxiety that all these years later it still lives in my head much like some worm (whose name escapes me) that you cut off and it's head/ tail and it grows back. (am I making up the worm thing with my overactive imagnation and too much Discover/ Nat geo?). It's been hard to write even bit by bit, and I think that in re-telling it in a rush I would be doing the tale-end of it a disservice by not thinking it through enough. I don’t want to exaggerate the grand finale but I do want to reflect what a house of horrors the process was. I also need to come up with an alternate set of names to clearly explain events. No energy suddenly….. Patience is the name of this game.
In other news, this weekend was brilliant. Friday afternoon set the tone for things to come. Friends who were to come for lunch on Saturday cancelled (once again bad planning and inconsiderate-ness played a big part and I would not have known they were not turning up if I had not called to ask about food allergies) and so the weekend stretched languorously ahead. Went to Macondo after lunch and bought some divine blocks of brownies to share in a nearly empty office. No one in London makes a warm brownie quite like Macondo in Hoxton Square. It’s a small arts café that sells the art off the walls and divine organic treats savoury meals. It’s a tiny space with overstuffed sofa’s and dim lighting and an ever-changing menu. Well worth the trek if you live in London.
After an excellent spinning/ indoor cycle class on Saturday morning in which I was nothing less than an ace among the Alps, I decided I did not want to go home. So V gamely agreed to a movie at the Dome. The Dome was overrun by some kind of scouts convention and there were kids and adults in scouts uniform EVERYWHERE. We bought movie tickets and killed time and the hunger in our bellies with a simple burger lunch at Jimmy Monaco’s before the movie. Jimmy Monaco’s was average. I had an Alaskan cod burger which was nothing but a deep fried fillet of cod between a bun and V decimated a veggie burger. Neither had us raving but it was good wholesome food and did what it said on the menu. Then we sat with about 20 people in a 776 seater screen at the Vue in the Dome and watched American Gangster. It was a bit like a private screening there were that few people. I have to say I loved it. Both theatre being huge & empty and the movie. And even the ever fussy V approved, commenting only that “it got slow in the middle”. It did not. Don’t listen to him. Go and watch it.
Yesterday we had a lively, chatty, laughing afternoon with friends in a diametrically opposite part of London. Smooth albeit long journey, more than worth it for both company and delicious food. Came back and was flipping channels and saw the ‘just in’ on NDTV say that Delhi felt tremors. Checked all the newswire websites and V stood in front of the TV till someone appeared on the news ages later to say that the tremors were strong but no damage to life and limb had occurred. I had not wanted to wake everyone in my parent’s house up and so didn’t call till first thing this morning when my mum confirmed that the house and everyone in it was still standing.
Have a good week peeps.
Macondo: 8 & 9 Hoxton Square, London N1
Jimmy Monaco’s: Unit 22, The O2 Dome, North Greenwich, London
Tuesday, November 20, 2007
The Passport: Teesra kaun?
Guy One is short-ish, with a paunch that his mother would approve of. He takes the chair on the left (as I face the counter). Guy Two is a bit taller, with a mustache and a paunch his mother too would be proud of. He gets the chair on the right. The chair in the middle is empty. The counter is like desks propped up on something (as if the height will give it a measure of seriousness; more likely to protect them from the insane with boredom crowd) and the chairs behind it are a bit like breakfast bar chairs.
It quickly become clear that Guy One is for consular services such as affidavit stamping and that Guy two is in charge of the Passport issues. I don’t remember how this became clear. I definitely remember that there were NO SIGNS. I suspect it was a fact-turned-to-rumour by those squashed up against the glass at the front, passed on hurriedly among the impatient, over-friendly crowd. I remained seated and tried unsuccessfully to tune out big industrialist blabber mouth next to me. I gave up. Literally. After a further 20 minutes more of his life history I stood up, murmered some excuse about checking out the delay and joined the heaving masses.
While stuck in the mass of humanity around the deformed desks I got to chatting with a young couple who had come down from the some far flung Scottish island. Both doctors, they were in town for the week enjoying shows and sightseeing while trying to get some work permit related papers notarized by the High Commission. Whom they had called and checked with before making the long and expensive trip. They had been the day before and typically been told that it could only be done by relevant persons in India. Before tearing all their hair out and killing someone they called India and of course said relevant persons had laughed and told them they had to get it done in London. So they were back to try and work their magic pill of sweet-talking and outright threats.
Selective hearing skills well developed in childhood suddenly hear "Token number 118, token number 118, TOKEN NUMBER 118". That’s me and my blue paper token. So in a dazzling, gazelle like manner I shove my way through the great wall of India and suddenly there I am, at the glass pane, looking at Guy Two, whose mouth is not moving. That is when I realize that it’s Guy One that is bellowing Token 118 at the top of his lungs. So I sidle past the people around me to his window, present my token gently on the counter and say, “I am here for my passport extra booklet, sir”. Good manners, my mother said, will get you everywhere.
Guy One looks up, looks down, “wrong window. Token number 119, token number 119, TOK..”.
“Sir, this is my token but I am here to get a passport and no one asked me when giving out the token what I was here for.
“..EN NO 119. Sorry madam, about this I cannot do anything. You need a pink token”
I thump my large and very heavy file of unnecessary documents on the counter. It makes a loud NOISE. LOUD enough for him to look up and see a red-faced angry me. “I am not moving and you are not seeing token 119 till I have my work done. I have been waiting just like every other person here and I am NOT leaving till you sort this out. For hours I have been waiting, for hours.”
Dead silence. Even the endless cackle of the densely packed Indian crowd around me is silent, if only for a moment. Pause of expectation in the air.
“Ok madam, not to worry Mr. Kumar here will look at your papers next. He is my friend, no, Mr. Kumar?”. Fake jovial laughter and leaning over to pat Guy Two (who clearly is Mr. Kumar) and, “Mr. Kumar, please see this now. That L has given tokens out like this like that again, no, please, hunh?”
Mr. Kumar, peers over his glasses and with a benevolent smile says, “Ok, not to worry, I will do. After this one, ok? You will have to take mine later ok?”
Not OK. Idiots. I am seething. I could have been one of the first few at that counter if only I had been given the correct token. I am still waiting.
Friday, November 09, 2007
The Passport: Doosra
I want to step back and talk about the building itself. India House sits snugly in the half moon roundabout at the centre of Aldwych, right next to the BBC’s Bush House. It is an imposing building in many ways, its oversized proportions and faded grey façade hiding some nice detail that you would not notice unless you were looking. But make no mistake - this is very much prime central London real estate. My nana worked here for a few years in the 1950’s and in some strange way that makes me feel a little nostalgic. Every time I pass it I think of him and how his life in London must have been and how different mine is in comparison. And it makes me miss him and all the wonderful grandfatherly things he did to enrich my childhood.
So standing there this crystal clear morning I am thinking about him and how bleeding cold it is. I’ve been here since 7.15 or so. After the inane conversation about Jawaharalal Nehru being Gand-I, I have gone back to my book.
At about 9am the main door opens and the line of visa-seekers enters in an orderly fashion, collecting tokens as they file in. The Indians are left to languish in the cold for a further half hour. We get to 9.30am and the closed windows in front of which we are lined up finally open. We are rushed forward by a bouncer like characters and no questions asked, randomly handed out blue or pink numbered tokens by two people sitting on the arm side of the windows. Token and documents in hand it’s the usual push through the doors, an impatience that marks our Indian-ness as we stumble down the stairs trying to be FIRST. I have a blue token.
Downstairs it somehow reminds me of being in Nirula’s¹ sans the food. A hall lined with rows of chairs, nearly all taken by the visa-seeking firangs, and token numbers flashing on boards to beckon people to the correct neatly glassed in counter. The desi brigade has descended into this orderly world and within seconds is swarming past the lines of shocked firangs to the desk-turned-counter in the corner, ugly and long enough to comfortably seat 2 people behind it, protected from these masses with only a flimsy glass panel in front of it. Two hand written signs, one over each window, proclaim ‘Consular services’ and ‘Passports’. Of course no one is manning either window, the 3 chairs behind the counter waiting patiently for the babu’s to finish breakfast. There are only about 4 chairs in the general seating left for any of us to sit on and in the mad scramble of having been left behind the collected herd at the windows I find myself in fortunate possession of one of these.
I often think I am chosen for strange encounters. I find myself seated between a young lady Indian doctor (come to get an extension booklet) and a hulking man who informs me he is from the Jodhpur royal family (there to get a passport for his wife). Young lady doctor and I are about the same age. We get talking and she tells me how she is completing her specialization at the Royal Free in Hampstead and how she misses India. I concur and we swap stories about where we are from, where we grew up, what we miss most. Hulk is determined to talk to us so he begins a long dissertation on how he has come down from near Manchester where is a big man in construction and how he has played polo with Prince Charles and how he has produced a Indian English film and how he has a pad in Belgravia where he stayed last night and how it is really useful to keep the apartment with a butler for whenever he is down in London. We try to ignore him and continue our conversation but he insists on showing us the 4 passport sized pictures of his wife and asking us if we don’t think she is the most beautiful woman we have ever seen. Then he tells us how she is a Princess and how they had an arranged marriage and she came to be a housewife after a lifetime of being waited upon and how beautiful a son she has produced as an heir to his empire and how wonderful and in love a couple they are. I’ll admit she is quite lovely. But this early in the morning I feel a bit ill and suffocated from all this information being stuffed down my throat. Mental note to self to Google him to see if any of it is true.
The visa lot are fast diminishing, a process helped by the efficient looking people at the nice formal counters. The lit up numbers are charging ahead in swift succession, giving the impression of efficiency and decorum and neat-as-a-pin machinery. It’s well past 10am but there is no sign of anyone coming near the counter for Indian people. The lone security guard manning the door behind the counter keeps telling us to maintain order and be seated (on what? the floor?) as “sahib is just coming”. The desi crew is now sweltering in the overheated space and bunched up-ness of having to stand next to each other, working themselves into a frenzy of high pitched voices and some abuse towards the incompetence of the system.
As for my blue token and I, we remain calm in this sea of madness. How much longer?
Nana: Maternal grandfather
¹Nirula’s (if memory stands the test of time) is the first fast food joint I remember from my childhood in Delhi. A Delhi institution in its day, it was (and is) famous for its Hot Chocolate Fudge (commonly called an HCF), a sundae par none. I recall that at the time it was a revolutionary idea: you had to go and order your food at a till from menu’s displayed above the food counters, pay up and sit at your table to wait for your number to appear on an electronic board. No waiters, no printed paper menu’s and a board full of fun things such as ‘cheeseburgers’, ‘double cheeseburgers’, ‘triple cheeseburgers’ and 31 flavours of ice cream. So popular was Nirula’s that you always went in a group, most people grabbed a table, one person went to the till to order while the others protected their seat. Yet more groups came and watched you eat while looming over your heads trying to make you feel guilty for taking SO LONG to eat. I loved it all, the pressure of saving a seat, eating quickly or not, the ‘cool’ food, the semi-afordable prices and especially that HCF.
Wednesday, October 31, 2007
The Passport: One of Many
It’s just past the 3 year anniversary of THE DAY I APPLIED FOR MY PASSPORT at the INDIAN EMBASSY. A day I cannot talk about with making my tone convey CAPITAL LETTERS. A day that I commemorate every year but making V listen to the story AGAIN.
Why am I here?: My passport pages are all full. After nearly 3 years of being married and having my father and father-in-law ask me numerous times when I am officially changing my name on my passport I have given in. They know that on everything else (bank account, rental agreements, supermarket loyalty cards) I am using V’s surname as my own since the day I got here. But clearly a passport is an overriding document, the thing I must not leave home without in case of a fire. So I am going to gently hit two birds with one stone: get a new booklet AND alter my identity.
Method of madness: Form downloaded from flimsy website and filled with great concentration. Re-done it many times over because I
a) keep filling it in the wrong colour ink and making mistakes that could only be guided by sublminal responses, and
b) cannot decide on the name change, the sheer loss of wiping out my dad’s name and a lifetime identity weighs heavily. V does not care except for uniformity which his Virgo-an mind processes best. So I play with various permutations/ combinations and settle on my original surname becoming my middle name. Of course the form has no space for a middle name so finally tag it onto my first name and change the surname to V’s surname. This is not how I have it anywhere else (bank account, rental agreements, supermarket loyalty cards) and V is not happy by the asymmetry but it’s my name and I can’t let go. It’s a girl thing.
How to be sure?: Phone call made to Indian embassy to double confirm ‘documentation’ that I need. I don’t need an appointment, “just be there early as there is a line”. New passports are issued in 48 hours. Hoorah, unexpected efficiency
What do I need: The list seems endless; our marriage certificate, my passport and V’s passport (for identity, visa etc), proof of current address, letter of employment, salary slips, form and pictures. And multiple photocopies of the lot. Leaving only my kitchen sink in its place, armed with every document we own, in triplicate, I am at the starting line.
First thing a.m.: I don’t need V to accompany me. I’m a grown up, I can find it, do this on my own. It’s a cold Tuesday morning, I can see the air as I exhale. 7am is not an attractive time. Yet with 2 hours to go before we are even allowed inside, the queue is forming. I am about 12th in my line, stood behind Indians all here for consular services. It starts at a closed window and snakes its way through the courtyard, up the few stairs, and around the building. I am on the stairs, reading a book, blowing on my hands to warm them, unaware that an ipod will some day make all this waiting less tedious. A parallel line is forming which seems to start at a closed door, guarded by bouncer looking man suited and arms crossed, talking into a headset. It’s the foreigners in line to apply for visa’s to go see my India.
Mix the cold weather and ignorance for a strange cocktail: Our parallel lines are as different as the colours of our skin. My line is all very brown Indians, a bit haphazard, zig-zaggy, lovely, smiley and chatty. A bit over curious but nothing I don’t expect or cannot deftly deal with. The firang line is shades of magnolia, orderly, proper, prim despite gently showing their hippy-ness with the odd splash of colour against a mainly black-brown uniform of winter wear.
I am taking a break from an utterly boring book. The guy in front of me feels it is our duty to bond as fellow Indians and so we are exchanging life stories, when this conversation makes us stop talking.
Brit lady One (BLO) to Brit aunty friend (BAF): So who do you think THAT is?
BAF: That, my dear, is Gand-I. He’s the non-violence chap. You know, the one they made that movie on.
BLO (nodding knowingly): Oh yes! How could I have not known (strange shrill laugh)
Less than 4 seconds later this is what we hear, “I don’t think he knows dear, that is Gand-I. I have seen the movie you know. He WAS their Prime Minister.”
I feel: Cold, mainly. And a tad irritated. An appointment system could avoid all this waiting in the cold. And how about all foreigners need to identify statue in courtyard before visa’s are issued?
I should have come here in summer.
¹Gob smacked: is a British slang term. Combination of gob, mouth, and smacked. It means “utterly astonished, astounded. I use it all the time.
Wednesday, October 24, 2007
Saturday, October 20, 2007
Seeds of fine dining
I’m usually suspicious of anything that calls itself Indian food in London. From all my food travels in London I have found the standard operating practice for so-called Indian food is manifold:
1. If the signage reads ‘Indian and Bangladeshi cuisine’ it usually means there are Bangladeshi cooks and the menu will say ‘Ponir’ and serve everything coated in bilious red. Not to my taste.
2. If the signage says ‘Indian and Pakistani specialities’ it usually means Pakistani food but we aren’t sure anyone will come and eat it if we don’t use the word Indian. It can mean awesome kebabs like Tayyabs or merely mediocre fare. I'll more than manage.
3. If the signage reads ‘Indian’ it can mean we are Bangladeshi or Pakistani but we won’t tell you that, we’ll just sell what we think best under this generic label. This usually includes the British variants of Balti, a cuisine made up entirely by migrants feeding a population reeling from having given up the Raj. You’ll most likely find Korma, Jalfreizi, Madras and Vindaloo as the given categories, and be able to order any ingredient (chicken, various meats or vegetables) covered in the above mentioned sauces. The only difference in is the degree of hot moving steadily up from category to category and the odd addition of chunks of onions or coconut or yet more red food colouring. Served with ‘Poppadoms’ and ‘chutney’ (which my firangi friends think is a starter we serve at home). Who invented this stuff?
Whichever way the cookie crumbles I avoid Indian restaurants because I usually come away disappointed and literally with a bad taste in my mouth. Alternately we go to overpriced but genuine Indian restaurants run by Michelin stars and their wannabe’s and come away with huge bills for inordinately simple meals in tiny well styled portions. A better yet bitter taste.
So it was with some trepidation that I took the Central Line to Caraway on a cold Monday evening with two colleagues in tow, having been invited to dine there by an ex-colleague. The husband of the ex-colleague has a business interest in the restaurant and she was being kind and spreading the word simultaneously. I am always suspicious of free meals. Or of free anything for that matter. I’m cynical like that.
Cynicism gave way under the weight of a delicious meal. Caraway was heavenly. A large Indian carved wood door took us into a simple yet elegant interior. The staff was almost entirely imported from India and the menu was too long, mainly north Indian with some random things that did not fit thrown in for good measure. I was told that the menu was never ending because they were testing out what worked and what didn’t before honing it down to a more manageable list. Thankfully there was not a Balti or Vindaloo or Madras in sight.
We shared starters and main meal between 4 of us so that everyone could try everything. I’m not going to go over our entire meal, just point out the dishes that caught my fancy and that I would go back for. Among other starters we had dilli ki aloo tikki (which was not quite Delhi’s but really really really good nevertheless with some awesome channa served on the side of it) and some bhelpuri (which was fresh and with every chutney like it had just been made rather than out of a supermarket bottle). Among our main dishes the most mentionable were the dal (which was not gummy or chunky in consistency but instead perfectly piping hot and freshly tempered), galouti kebabs (not a patch on Lucknow’s but still soft melt-in-the-mouth and delicious) and baingan ka bharta (which I LOVE if it is made well and I have to say this was one of the best, again consistency and flavour won me over). The highlight however was the freshly made rumali roti’s - one of my all-time favourite’s which is unbelievably unavailable in London. Watched the chef throw it in the air and lay it delicately on its upturned cooking structure. Beauty in motion. The rumali itself was light and thin and oh-so tasty. I defy you to eat one and quibble.
There was way more food than I can readily describe without drooling all over my keyboard. I came away thrilled at having found a reasonable north Indian food place that is not pretending to be Indian but is instead really INDIAN. The quality and taste of the food was a big pro in my book – just the right level and temper of spices, no artificial red coloured everything, not overpowered by chillies and genuinely Indian recipes. Good sized quantities in little clay pots for a price not too high. I liked the ambience as it were, not cheap-ass plastic furniture and yet not ostentatious over-the-top chandeliers and overdone Indian-ness. The lighting could have done with a bit of boost but it was not dark or depressing in the least. I liked the glass partition between kitchen and restaurant floor – it usually means they can’t get away with mucking up and slipping on the housekeeping. Rumali throwing is also a good spectator sport.
There were some small cons that I thought could do with some work. Like too many salad leaves with my aloo ki tikki (who does that?) and some not so great paneer dishes. On balance however it is a little gem. And I am thrilled to have been introduced to it. As with any new place the test is in how long they can keep it up without slipping into quality. I’ll be back to find out.
Caraway Brasserie: 513-519 Cranbrook Road, Gants Hill, London IG2 6HA. Tel: 020 8518 4111
Friday, October 12, 2007
Strange. Boring. Venting.
Saturday/ Sunday: Assorted engagements, almost all involving food, some involving music. By midnight on Sunday I already need a week to recover from the full-on days and late nights.
Monday: Dinner at new Indian restaurant with colleagues. Amazed at eating genuine Indian, especially my favourite rumali rotis. Roll home stuffed with Galouti kebab, too close to midnight.
Tuesday: Meet old school friend at Tapas bar. Our second meeting in 14 odd years but feel strangely connected. All warm and fuzzy reminiscing but runs well past bedtime.
Wednesday: Dinner at cosy Italian in Holborn with different colleagues. Chatty and stuffed and up too late. Again.
Thursday: Friends round for dinner. Shamefully poorly planned spread but genius conversation. Feel tired but strangely rejuvenated.
Friday: Dinner with friends stands cancelled. Gratefully collapse into bed at 8pm. Exhausted.
I don’t know when this happened. This drip drip change from YOUNG, VIBRANT being into slow mo old auntie. We used to party/ socialise ALL THE TIME when we lived in India. Work all day and then play all evening. Go to movies, check out restaurants, go dancing, attend parties; with groups of friends or sometimes even on our own. We went out to get ice cream, eat momo’s at Dilli Haat, drive half way to Agra to eat in a dhaaba, eat chaat at Bengali market, attack hot chocolate fudges in Nirula’s, drive back in blinding fog from late night movies. All the things other contemporaries were doing. Whichever way you looked at it we were always busy. Doing something. Going somewhere. Getting scolded on a regular basis by my mum that her house was not a hotel/ launderette.
We don’t do that anymore. The wild skida-adling. Maybe it’s because we were in our twenties. Maybe it’s because we weren’t married. Maybe it’s because we’ve become so fat all we can think about is that next beer and pack of chips and sitting on a sofa. Maybe it’s because we’ve turned into vegetables. Maybe age has dulled our brains and all sensory enjoyment just flits past us. I don’t know but the age ship has definitely sailed.
I’ll be honest. Life is still fun. I love living and working in London. I love that I have found new and lovely friends. I love that we travel a lot. I love that we go out to eat when we want, where we want. I love that we bought a home. That we are always adding to it. But I am in a strange funk where I just constantly worry that I am aging before my time. That this is what I'll have forever more. This elderly-ness feeling. This settled feeling that is great but also dead boring and where all my staidness makes me feel 52 and not 32.
I can’t remember the last time I have felt young and vibrant and interesting. We go out a lot. A LOT. We spend weekends entertaining or being entertained. Or go out for meals to all manner of restaurants. But it’s all grown up stuff and unsurprisingly springs back to food. Every darn time. Dinner at my house darlings. Lunch by the Thames Dearest. Even the busy week above was all about the food. That vein of boring. Nobody ever calls anymore and says “want to go clubbing dudes”, “let’s go to a concert”, “let’s have a picnic in the park”, “’lets drive to Antibes”.
I admit I’m the main culprit of my inanely boring life. Forever throwing dinner parties, calling them soirees and pretending that I’m above it all and way too mature to be doing what the youngsters claim as their domain. I’ve gotten too comfortable with the sitting-on-a-sofa kind of entertainment, hooked to a schedule of Ugly Betty/ Brothers & Sisters/ Men in Trees/ Greys Anatomy. I should be the one taking the lead, booking us into concerts, having picnics, eating at exotic places, dragging V clubbing, organising parties, shying away from the easy sitting-on-a-sofa, cooking-for-an-army option. DOING and not just being. And I don’t mean ‘doing’ as in staggering home blind drunk at 4am, just more ‘feeling excited with life’ kind of stuff. Moving away from an undercurrent that isn’t singing “same ol’, same ol’” all the time.
I don’t know what I want or why I am writing this out. I'm thinking of it as cheap therapy where I am on a chaise longue, teasing out the answers I know but won't admit to without talking it out, reasoning with myself. Realising that I can’t explain this very well. For I am content with what I have and thank my lucky stars for what my life is. I feel blessed in more ways than most people can count. But I am strangely unhappy, exhausted and disappointed with what I have become. Like all my organisation, planning and grown-up-ness has come back to bite me in the behind. A discontent, an aged-ness, that I fear partying will not banish. I fear I’m looking for an excitement that even I, deep down, know doesn’t exist. Like an alternate perfect world, a utopia I'm missing out on. Like always feeling that everyone else’s life is better/ more exciting/ interesting; grass is always greener yada yada yada.
Thursday, October 04, 2007
Ain't no mountain high enough
My revised 6 month plan to lose some serious kilos is near its middle and I have been terrible at going to the gym. 60 weeks in to a very expensive gym membership and I am only managing 3 days a week in my best weeks. A far cry from the initial motivated self that dragged herself out of bed, well into week 40, atleast 4 to 5 days each week to hit some cardio machine or swim. Some weeks in the recent past I have woken up, given myself an entire lecture on why I should go NOW. Turned over and gone straight back to sleep, wiping away the list of reasons why with one fell swoop, "anyway it won't make a difference", slept 4 minutes past my bedtime/ too late last night", "it's too cold/ wet/ hot/ muggy", "life is too short". You get the drift.
To make up for the lull in gym participation, steeply falling levels of motivation and the sniggering scales I decided to take the plunge and try out a new class. It's taken a year of watching people attack this class through the glass walls of their studio for me to pluck up the courage and go and talk to the teacher. Am I too fat/ unfit? Will I manage? etc. Being assured I would be just fine and that if I kept at it and did it upto twice a week I could lose some serious kilos, I convinced myself two weeks ago that I would try it out.
Come Tuesday morning, attired in my finest non-branded garb, I presented myself at Studio A for an Indoor cycle class (I hear the round of applause). Instructions carefully given, cycle adjusted, loud thudding music booming and we were off. For 45 minutes of hill climbing. I mostly sat and cycled (more in shock on different levels: what am I doing HERE/ Man, these dudes are SO FIT/ Up, down, WHAAAAT, make up your mind lady/ Resistance - now which way do I turn damn knob/ Oooh can people see my continent-sized behind/ There goes my towel skidding along the floor/ Dropped water bottle cap makes LOUDER noise than boom box/ Boom box is giving me a headache/ I'm a fatty, get ME OUT OF HERE) as the rest of the super fit athletes stood and cycled up the Alps. I attempted going up just one 5 minute hill with resistance for better balance (technical terms only we cyclists get you know). I nearly died.
For the rest of the week I needed no excuse to not go to the gym. I couldn't feel most of of my legs, just the muscles that took on a new throbbing life of their own. Here was my perfect excuse to sleep away each morning.
This week however, glutton for punishment that I am, I went back. All those 40 minutes of Cardio in the gym nearly every morning, paid off and with my strong-as-a-horse-heart and big-as-an-elephant-body I managed an entire class at the pace of the oh-so-fit-class; up hills, down hills, along long treacherous roads etc. Came away soaked in sweat (which I hear is a good thing) and feeling virtuous like never before. Did not even care that I was in the back row and an entire gym population had been tortured by having to watch my elephantine backside lurch from side to side as I valiently climbed hills. I, 32 in 2007, had tried something new and managed to endure it and in some small measure *GASP* even enjoyed it. What is wrong with me?
The 45 minutes flew by faster than anything and the drill seargent yelling motivational things from up front certainly speeded things up. Especially "lets get those gluts in motion". Of course I haven't lost any weight (yet) but my muscles are having the time of their life. Born to be free and all that. Muscle weigh more than fat yada yada yada. Eventually something will have to give. I will go back.
Monday, September 24, 2007
It was yesterday, in the confines of the enormous Royal Festival Hall, that V and I sat in the balcony and had to acknowledge that it was so much more than a tick box event. It began slightly late, like all things Indian, with the excuse of the freewheeling event holding up the crowds. The first part was Dr. L Subramaniam playing the violin, preceded and then accompanied by his 16 year old son, Ambi Subramaniam. It was fantastic, made more so by the accompanying trio of instruments, the mridangam, ghatam and morsingh [which I had never heard before]. Ambi Subramaniam stole the show. He was simply brilliant, confident and engrossed and producing leaching brilliant music from his violin. And I can't get past the fact that he's only 16.
After a short interval it was the turn of Kishori Amonkar, the legendary Hindutani vocalist. She seemed to have a sore throat but despite that the power in her voice was evident. As I said before I don’t really understand classical vocal and so this was my least favourite bit of the evening. The ovations and endless clapping showed clearly my inadequacy in understanding and appreciation.
After another break it was the lovely Anoushka Shankar, accompanied by the very talented Ravichandran Kulur on flute. She is a petit young thing, her short straightened hair framing her look alike face, her confident walk belying her 26 years. She walked on much before her father and played two pieces, joking after the first one that she knew the audience was waiting for her father but that she would play just one other short piece. She was brilliant, composed and energetic, playing with an ease incongruous with the demands of a difficult instrument like the sitar.
Then finally at 10pm Pandit Ravi Shankar emerged, to thunderous applause and a standing ovation. In his late 80’s now, he seems so frail that I immediately wondered how he would bear the weight of the magnificent sitar. He sat on a small bench and played Raag Jogeshwari and within those first few chords proved that those fingers knew no frailty. When he played with Anoushka and a few other accompanying artists, it was as if no other sound existed. The music was unbelievable and simply magical. He is called a maestro for good reason and I am undeniably lucky to have heard him play.
The only two sticking points for the entire evening were that it was not a well organized show. First, it was not smart to have a seven hour long performance from 4pm to 11pm on a Sunday night when 2pm to 9pm would have meant more people being able to stay the entire seven hours instead of dashing home because of trains/ tube/ bus connections. And second, the RFH’s bar was useless and overpriced, selling soggy popcorn and little else in the way of meaningful sustenance. Had to go home and have a midnight feast like some Enid Blyton Mallory Towers characters.
I had no idea how we would sit through a seven hour concert, but when it came to it the evening played out beautifully and musically, seven hours seemed too short even. The concert far exceeded any expectations V or I had, and was certainly no box-ticking event. All in all watching Ravi Shankar play live will be the best memory I took away from an evening of scintillating music. Undoubtedly though, for me, Ambi Subramaniam and Anoushka Shankar were the highlight of the evening, their youthful interpretation and dedication to their art as clear as the finest diamond. It’s the knowledge that music lives through generations and is passed down in the genes and by sheer undaunted practice that makes my mind joyful. And it is the certain knowledge that I am hooked that makes my heart so.
Wednesday, September 19, 2007
Spent two days in bed, with much tissue and tea to help my self-pity train along. Feebly checked e-mail and had a little cry. Stumbled to Pizza Express for some dinner to celebrate V’s birthday and imbibed some hot Wagamama comfort at my own dining table courtesy caring birthday boy. All good by Friday evening and so kept a long ago planned dinner date with friends.
We had booked Sardo’s, just a short walk from Warren Street tube, on the basis of a verbal recommendation and some reviews I had looked up. The space is made up of two white and airy rooms, helped along by a windowed frontage and a large skylight in the rear room. The whitewashed walls had some mirror-worked mirrors (which reminded me of something Indian although I’m not sure quite what) and the seating was comfortable, intimate yet not intrusive. So just in our little back room there were 4 or 5 tables from 2 people to 4 people to 10 people and yet it never felt overcrowded. The menu is not extensive but claims to be authentic Sardinian food. Having never been to Sardinia I can’t vouch for this but my main of Scotch Lamb was certainly not Italian. It was however cooked and served perfectly. In fact it would not be wrong to say that all the food was well portioned, elegantly presented and cooked to perfection. V and one of our friends both indulged in some sausages. Good but not as great claimed V. What was ‘outstand-O’ was the dessert. I had a divine Tiramisu, of which the others took bites, and one of our friends had a delicious Panacotta, of which I had many bites – just to even out all the stealing from mine. It was a very expensive meal (not that I was paying) but we had a good catch-up and the dessert truly completed the meal. I don’t know if I’d go back though. Maybe just for dessert and coffee?
On Sunday, to celebrate V’s birthday properly, I had booked Babylon in Kensington. I booked it a month ago and even when I booked it the person had said something snooty like ‘Oh good you are booking so much in advance, we have to turn people away, we are that popular blah blah blah’ – I paraphrase. The big draw was the promised views over London and magnificent Kensington Roof Gardens. Tables outside could not be booked but a request could be put down with the booking. So I did, request it be put on our booking. Asked about looking at Gardens and was told nothing was booked for that day so it would be fine. Mentioned that it was my spouses birthday and please could they write something on our dessert, they said ‘Of course, no problem, we charge you the earth, we’ll write whatever you want’. I paraphrase again. So shoot me.
Babylon is in a building right by High Street Kensington’s tube station. The gardens are on the 6th floor and a short walk up to the 7th gets us to the restaurant. Murphy and every one of his darn laws was our lunch companion. We got a table inside on a perfectly sunny day. The lady who showed us in did not even glance at our booking, just asked our surnames and assigned us a squashed table inside (like she knew our surname from the list of people who had booked - too good to be true and something I noted right away). The outside sun-dappled deck, of which we had a perfect view, was nearly empty. So we asked again and were told that it was all fully booked. FULLY BOOKED! I thought you couldn’t book. Not wanting to make a scene and thinking we’d go down and wander around the gardens afterwards we settled into our 3 course meal. I had smoked salmon with blinis and sour cream as a starter, V had an omlette with haddock in it. Both were excellent. Then I had plaice in a beer batter with chips and V had Welsh lamb with a fondant of potato and beans. Mine was delightful, V’s not so much. He liked the lamb, but the potatoes were nothing but compressed mashed potatoes and the beans looked like they had seen better days. Finally, the jus over the lamb was sweet, just how he hates it. My plaice was just perfectly cooked, the chips were thin and crisp, the tartare sauce well seasoned.
For dessert we ate some sort of chocolate sundae deal: a huge tall glass piled high with brownies, chocolate sauce, ice cream, thick and heavy cream, crowned by a chocolate wafer and steeped in a year of calories. We didn’t share one. We ate a whole one each. The tables outside were sprinkled with people but many of them remained resolutely empty. The sundae was what my teenage self would have called ‘groovy’ but no one wished V a happy birthday or wrote anything on his sundae (which is unreasonable, but there are other ways to tackle that) and that was not so groovy. All a result of no one having looked at our booking. One misstep at the beginning rolled over into an entire experience. I was seething at it not having been a perfect birthday lunch for V but I was too full and sedated by all that sweetness to complain out loud. Wrote out a comment card to go with the huge bill, complaining about the tables being empty and not acknowledging the birthday. Walked down to the gardens only to be told they were shut for a wedding. So as a result we paid too much for a meal to look at the tops of trees and partially view some tall buildings in the distance, something we could do from anywhere.
Even though I never put in our names or numbers on the comment card, the manager matched us to the booking and called the same afternoon to apologise. Apologised that no one had looked at booking and said we should have mentioned it to which I said I thought that at such an expensive place which needs to be booked so far in advance should have better service standards. Only offered to ‘give us a better experience the next time’. Not a chance I am going back. Tough love, people, tough love.
I have worked in the hospitality industry. I know right from wrong. I know good service from bad. I know how monetary value equates to service value. I know rudeness from apathy. I know mediocre food from delight on the palate. I know how restaurants operate and how they try and pull the proverbial rug over gullible customers eyes. I know that Sardo's will get my business and recommendation again. And that Babylon won't.
Meanwhile this week is turning out to be very hectic. My new wool rug is by my bed and each morning as I put my feet on the floor it catches me and my sore throat bacteria dies a little death.
Sardo’s: 45 Grafton Way, London W1T 5DQ. Tel: 020 7387 2521
Babylon: 99 Kensington High Street, London, W8 5SA. Tel: 020 7368 3993
Sunday, September 16, 2007
And so I came back to the news of two deaths: Luciano Pavarotti and Anita Roddick.
Inspriations in my life in different ways, in different times. One for the love of his art, the other for her love of the fairtrade and the environment.
I consider myself immeasurably lucky to have seen Pavarotti perform live in 1998. And even though I understood less than nothing of Opera or the language of that music, the power of his voice took precedence over it all. I was hooked and I wore down a CD of the Three Tenors in the years after. I still don't really understand Opera but that night taught me to appreciate music in a whole new way.
Anita Roddick was one of the funders of an early project I worked on. Her Body Shop products were becoming a household name for being 'not tested on Animals' and 'not using sweatshops anywhere'. She was full of energy and life and passion - her Foundation exuded her beliefs and worked tirelessly to promote anti-violence messages, fairtrade and a generally better world. From humble beginings to a Dame-hood, she showed the world that there was an ethical way to do business.
Monday, September 03, 2007
Scene Now: It’s been weeks since I got back and life has been moving at a clip I don’t normally relish. I more of a slow mo and this is killing me. It’s September already! I have no excuse except work and more travel and sheer laziness in between. I hope this post makes you drool and forgive me.
Scene 1: I have arrived in NooYaark on a sweltering Friday mid-day. It’s been five long working days in London, busy socially but without my boy, a state I am never happy in. V can’t escape office but two of my school friends can escape theirs and so we have arranged to meet for tea at 4. We go to an all American Diner in Midtown Manhattan, with its neon 50s billboard and faux leather upholstered booths and no-nonsense look and drink milkshakes instead of tea. No one makes milkshakes quite like the American’s. Just 2 Litres of thick and creamy flavoured milkshake in a glass and the remains in the mixer all left at your table - enough in one serving to feed 4 people anywhere in the world. All mine. All mine.
Diners: All over NYC
Scene 2: At a crossing in the grid of streets that are mid-town Manhattan, V and I reunited. Beaming faces we head to a restaurant he has been to with colleagues a couple of times before and raved about. Hatsuhana is a wonderful sushi restaurant on 48th street, a quiet retreat in a bustling metropolis. The calm interior is spread out on two floors but without a booking you would be hard pressed to find place. There are lots of beautiful calligraphy hangings whispering about on rice paper, encouraged by the breeze of the air conditioning units and tables of Japanese people enjoying a fine meal. The sushi kitchen is behind a counter and you can watch the chefs prepare your meal from bar stools going around it. The hot food kitchen is tucked away. We shared a number of freshly made sushi and sashimi beautifully decorated on a platter and a salmon teriyaki with some rice. An utterly delicious meal, and a sublime evening.
Hatsuhana: 17 East 48th Street, New York, NY 10017. Tel: +1-212 355 3345
Scene 3: This Monday evening, after a day of wandering I meet the office-weary V and there is no question about where we will eat. We have returned to the greatest steakery in the known universe to get me some steak: Keene’s Chophouse. It’s been around for over 120 years and seriously knows a thing or two about good steak. From the pavement this non-descript frontage does not look particularly inviting. This is probably a good thing to avoid great teeming crowds although once inside the crowded belly of the restaurant it is clear that a door is just a door. We sat in its wood paneled bar, surrounded by the huge collection of old photographs and clay and wood pipes and listened to the chatter of New York while eating the BEST steaks in the world, tender, tasteful, done just right and accompanied by sides that are so tasty yet quietly complimentary so as to not intrude or hold court. There is no argument about this. Keene’s is truly too good to adequately describe and too wonderful to ever miss.
Keen's Chop House: 72 West 36th Street, New York, NY 10018. Tel: +1-212-847 3636
Scene 4: Bobby Van’s is a chain and the one we are at is on a main street with its entrance tucked into an alleyway. You could miss it amidst the bustle of the suited and booted people on the sidewalk if you did not know where to look. At a large round table we share with V’s colleagues the conversation is all business. A huge seafood platter, gleaming on ice, for those so inclined. I have a giant Portobello mushroom in something herby instead. And my steak is the main meal. It’s a good meal but not a patch on Keene’s. It’s all very loud as Manhattan seems to descend on the packed bar and it’s fully booked tables on a mid-week evening. Conversation shifts to include me and my holiday-while-her-husband-works. I get suggestions for sightseeing, museum viewing, Broadway shows and shopping; very helpful tips on timings/ popularity/ the good stuff/ sales/ independent stores. It’s a wonderful evening and I feel befriended and like I met the soul of New Yorkers and it’s no cold thing.
Bobby Vans: 230 Park Avenue, S.E. Corner of 46th St & Park, New York City. Tel: +1-(212-867-5490
Scene 5: I am in Café Europa nursing a steaming cappuccino and watching Nyorkers skidaddle like ladybugs, crossing streets, rushing somewhere, anywhere but here. It’s Starbuck-sy in here but just a great giant tad more refreshing. They make a delightful Chocolate yogurt slice for $1.95 and I trick myself into believing that anything with yogurt in it has got to have health benefits. Even though its busy busy busy I am never rushed out of here. Service is great and customer is king in Yam-erika.
Café Europa: Everywhere you turn in NYC
Scene 6: It is our last evening in Now Yawk and on the suggestion of someone who knows what they are talking about we are looking for the door of Felidia. It’s is on a street of restaurants, many of which were not in the least bit inviting or encouraging. We had walked the length of the block and I was tired (from dawdling and shopping) and near losing my patience and any hope of finding it when there it was, just across the street, an unassuming door with an understated sign. Behind it was a treat I did not anticipate. In a modest space, past a long mahogany bar, was the most comforting restaurant possible, with soft lighting and amazing wine racks built into the deep yellow walls. The gentle clinking of glass and cutlery and the divine aroma of fine food was enough to even my jagged mood out. A set of breads with 3 different dipping accompaniments set up the meal. Dinner was sumptuous to say the very least, with freshly cooked pasta gently coated with its accompanying sauces/ ingredients on a small tableside trolley. A lot of unusual and yet fairly traditional dishes, with game and seafood and rich sauces accompanying amazingly light and flavourful pasta’s. Not a bowl of regular Spaghetti Bolognaise anywhere in sight. Sated stomachs everywhere.
Felidia: 243 E 58th Street, New York, NY 10022-1201. Tel: +1-212-758-1479
Scene Present: Hunger pangs at just the thought of all this food. The first week of August marked one year of gym-working-out and I am proud to say I stuck it out this long, if with decreasing levels of motivation. I have realized one thing: As long as there is fine food in the world and I have access to it I will never lose any real weight but really I do not care. I will however be a happier person thanks to the tastes and textures of good food all over the globe.
Don’t take this opportunity to comment about the need for moderation please - let me live by my words and memories please.
Tuesday, August 21, 2007
I spent a week toodling around the sweltering city while V worked all hours of day and night. I cannot accurately describe how I feel about NYC without wading through the various emotions it inspires in me and also probably hurting someone’s feelings. Let’s just say that in the woolly cloud of emotions, for me, it is a wonderful holiday city and just a block away from gastronomic heaven. But if push came to shove and I had to live there I don't know how I would deal with it. The week went by with alarming speed and although every minute of it was chock full of something, many of them were just blank-mind enjoyment moments, like strolling down 5th Avenue with nothing in my head but the thought ‘Ooh, what an ugly bag – who in their right minds would pay THAT kind of money for it?’.
I met 4 school classmates, 3 of them after a gap of 14 years. Technology has a lot to answer for. In the days of snail mail and old fashioned land lines it was very easy to lose touch. You swore in slam books, year books, autograph books, that you would be friends eternally. Then you all went to college in a hundred different towns dotted around the country with just a poor mans stamp to fix to a letter. After a few exchanges the letter would start to get lost, be misdirected, forgotten and then dropped off the agenda. Long distance phone calls were exhorbitant and college way too exciting and grown-up to be hankering after school friends. The ones who wrote/ called and to whom you wrote back/ called stayed your friends over the years while the bulk dropped like flies. Everyone, except the postal service, thanked the Lord when e-mail made its entry, boldly saving trees and friendships.
Needless to say I shopped although not nearly as much as I hoped to. In my minds eye I was dreamed up this huge pile of clothes and shoes and jewelry and make-up that, when I got back, would mostly have to live on the guest bed because my cupboard would be already be overflowing with my stylish New York get-up. Sadly I and my overactive imagination are like estranged twins. There I was in Bloomingdales, then Saks and then Macy’s – each time confused by the sheer volume and varied choice – overwhelmed and outnumbered, I spent too much time browsing and not enough flashing V’s credit card. When I finally got down to it I shopped but kept checking my impulse to purchases using all kinds of inane parameters (spending money/ world poverty/ children in hunger/ whom to blame for greed genes/ guilt at spending all the money/ deserving as I work hard/ generally charitable, so OK then – and then again in a loop). So I bought fewer clothes and shoes than the plan. And of course since it’s already Autumn/ Winter in the United Kingdom I’ve had to put them all away in the hope that someday summer will return to this Queendom.
Talking of weather, did I already mention it was sweltering? Let me say that again – Sweltering – ah! That feels better. The warmth of your glares, my English roses, is brighter than the sun. It was in the ‘high nineties’ which translates to ‘very hot’ in my vocabulary. One night there was a huge storm, a veritable thunder and lightening show with pounding sheets of rain adding to the music – simply beautiful and reminiscent of storms the monsoons bring in India. The concrete didn’t have the mitti smell but the sheer beauty and power of it was a welcome change from the never ending drip from the sky that invades the UK and can only be described as damp. The clapping thunder and shockwaves of light were mesmerizing and the big drops of rain left everything undeniably soaked. The heat was unbearable only on one day, when all I craved was Air-conditioning and iced water. But other than that I loved the heat, proving undeniably, much to the amusement of my brother, that I have indeed become ‘firangi’.
Walked everywhere and thoroughly enjoyed the sun beating down upon my back. Mid-town Manhattan is a walking tourists semi-paradise. Its all in a grid with Avenues and Streets cutting across each other so there is no chance of getting lost. The ‘semi’ portion refers to the inane traffic and honking of horns and the dirt on the sidewalks. London is a much cleaner city that way and traffic is very civilized in comparison. I walked to and through Central Park, up and down Riverside Drive, Park Avenue. Visited the Met and MoMA and bought myself a cute Travel card holder (could not bear my London Transport one any longer). Met cousins, an aunt and ex-work friends. Spent an afternoon hurtling through New Jersey, to the fantastic home of friends for an evening of barbeque and talk. Followed the instruction of many a New York blogger on where to eat and what to do. Filled my days with laid back busy-ness, eating sumptuous meals and meeting people, watching American TV and gaping at the confidence of Noo Yaawkers.
Before I go and begin to think/ drool about the inevitable Nu Yark food post that follows, let me just say that I am in love. With the Container Store and Anthropologie - absolute opposites of each other. The first because as the name indicates, its all to do with organising stuff and that fits right in with my main OCD of everything in its place etc. The second because the entire store is a hodgepodge of pretty clothes and house wares, all feminine and exacting and plain heart-breaking-ly pretty. I am torn.
Monday, August 13, 2007
On the way there:
On a day journey from London to New York two Friday’s ago I sat squashed in my beaten leather-from-the-80s-seat and tried to ignore the milling crowds stuffing their life’s belongings in the overhead bins. Three families, each with two adults and two kids, were traveling together, on holiday from the ugly British weather and school, onward to New Orleans from New York. The mothers spent the entire flight attempting to paint their nails and foist some discipline on their children while doing so. Dribs drabs and wisdom:
Ashley, sit down. SIT DOWN. I said, SIT DOWN ASHLEY. NOW Ashley. Don’t get mummy angry Ashley.
Pete, do not touch that, what did mummy say Pete, do NOT touch that.
No, he will not eat Pasta, give him the chicken. He doesn’t know what he wants, he’s only 6.
New York, we are going to New York. And then in another plane to New Orleans. Yes, New York is in America. ANOTHER plane (mild notes of high pitched-panic at the thought - for the mothers, relief for me as I was NOT going to be on that flight)
Yes we are on holiday darling. No, you can’t have coke till we reach America because that’s when the holiday starts darling. Yes, I did say we are on holiday darling. Ok you can have ONE coke. Only ONE.
No you can’t change seats. You chose to sit with Ashley and now you will have to sit with Ashley. (And then similar string with all 5 other children)
Yes, she will also have the chicken. Don’t ask them, please just give them the chicken.
AJ, don’t hit your sister. SIT DOWN and do NOT hit your sister. I said NO.
Tia, sit down and put on that seat belt. No you can’t walk up and down. No they are not going to show Shrek 3 and no you can’t change seats with mummy.
Do NOT make me say it again. SIT DOWN NOW.
Tara, if I see you pinch him one more time you will be in deep trouble yourself. One MORE TIME.
What part of No did you not understand?
I’ll count to 3. wuuuun, wuuunnnn anna half. Ta-wooooo. Ta-woooo anna haaaalf. NOW. Thuuuuurrrrreeeee. That’s it. You young man, are getting off this plane.
Yes, New Orleans is also in America.
And so on and so forth. For 6 straight hours. In the 7th hour, stuffed with chicken, a variety of snacks and clearly over the hyper-ness caused by the forbidden coke, they slept. Mothers completed the nail painting job and gossiped loudly about their wonderful angelic (read asleep) children.
What did the three fathers do, I hear you ask? They sat together in another row, baseball caps pulled down low over brows, earphones stuck over ears and ignored said wives and children by watching Fracture with Anthony Hopkins and Ryan Gosling and holding intense conversations about golf and the increasing cost of life in the English countryside. Typical!
On the way back:
The flight boarded at 7.30pm just 10 minutes before our scheduled time of departure. Not a minute too soon as I had had to shuffle my baggage along the floor in a disorganised winding line in a hot humid terminal full of irate passengers - 1.5 hours just to check in. And of course I was then ‘specially selected’ for a ‘special security check’. With every bit of me and my hand baggage x-rayed, patted down, checked for spurious substance and declared fit about 10 minutes before boarding time I was exhausted, worried about missing my flight, missed out on last minute cheer-me-up duty free retail therapy and ready to fall asleep standing up.
The flight leaves the gate at 8.10pm, taxi-ing along slowly. At 8.50pm, yes a whole 40 minutes later, we are still taxi-ing along the runway. I think we are going around in circles or squares or rectangles. I don’t really care. All I want is something to drink and the security cartoon to stop playing on a loop. In the seats behind mine is a Gujju uncle traveling with a very well behaved 5andabit year old son. The seat adjacent to mine is empty and I dream of pleasant sleep once we are airborne.
My phone is off in anticipation of leaving (on a jet plane, humming that for no apparent reason) so I stop one of the stewards and ask the time. Its 9.05pm he says. Amidst the dead silence of the exhausted slumbering passengers the little boy behind me asks, “Papa, are we driving to London?”
We take off at 9.30, only an hour and 50 minutes late. Two families flight about one small child kicking the other older family’s seats from behind. The words ‘slander’ and ‘sue me’ are used loosely and repeatedly till the older family is moved to another section of the plane. The child begins to wail and is repeatedly slinking off her seat onto the floor shedding bucket-loads of tears. The mother and father fight, move to separate rows and the child toddles between them for the first half of the flight. The mother insists her child be allowed to sleep on the floor in the aisle and the stewards vehemently disallow. Drama of the Bollywood kind ensues with mother and father uniting to rubbish the airline and claim the rights.
About 3 hours into the flight (ie. 4 hours and 50 minutes after being trapped in the lunatic flight from hell) we all get some peace and quiet. The mother and father have decided after a loud whispering fighting match that separate rows are best. The little girl has cried herself to sleep near her father. I’m so sleepy I’m beyond sleep. Thank god for my Ipod and the History of Love.
My expectations are so low they sometimes frighten me.
Friday, July 27, 2007
Be an Onion
When I first came to England I could not fathom why the British continuously talked about the weather and drank so much tea. The tea bit made sense almost instantly as just having my hands around a cup of tea (that I didn't drink) made me feel warm and loved in the dark depths of that first winter. But the weather? Really? Where I come from the weather goes 4 ways, - extreme sweaty heat, thundering rain, foggy cold and a few spring-like weeks. Over here however there seemed to be a perpetual state of shades of cold and grey.
I learnt the British obsession with weather much like a game of russian roulette. A game at which my luck sucks big time. I’d look out the window on a purportedly spring day, see a sparkling blue sky, walk out in a t-shirt and thin jacket and whooosh, like a slap in the face I'd have to turn back and put on more appropriate outerwear. Or I'd wander out in the dead of winter in multiple heavy layers and promptly melt into a puddle on the overheated tube floor, leaving nothing behind but a soggy pile of overcoats, multiple pairs of socks and a bewildered compartment of tube passengers. Or better yet I would lug my heavy overcoats (yes, more than one) all over the countryside during the hottest summer days, murmurring like a mad woman, "Oooh, but the weather could change any time".
You see British people have got it down to a pat. They can smell the weather and dress appropriately. And more than anything they can layer. If I have learnt anything in my 5and1/2 years here, it is this: Layering is the art and purview of thin people. It's an undiscovered sport in my opinion, who can be the best onion, whose layers will be most most ingenious, accurate for any weather emergency and yet look as effortless/ fashionable as possible. The possible permutation combinations seem to stem from a range of gear, from the inside outwards: a warm layer, a nice-on-the-eyes-formal/casual-layer (often mutliple layers of nice), another warm layer (like a jumper/pullover/ sweater), a summer jacket or winter overcoat or a rain proof layer, a summer scarf, a wooley winter scarf, stockings or matching socks, a windcheater, an umbrella and of course the the obligatory watch, jewellery, handbag beside appropriate shoes. My entire wardrobe is smaller than this list.
Tuesday, July 17, 2007
Cut it out
In the months running up to this birthday I have been giving serious thought to what I want this next year to look like. I am a great believer in resolutions and make then for New Years and once in a while on birthdays. The New Year ones are invariably to do with ‘don’t eat this, don’t eat that’. The birthday ones are a tad more soul searching and happiness seeking. This year I have made three large ones:
1. Last August, 48 weeks ago, a week after moving house, V and I joined the gym. Against my better judgement, I must add, as I have never ever stuck to any programme of exercise or diet for long. Somehow it has stuck. And we are here in week 49 with me weighing 10-12 kgs less than I did (depending on day and number of chocolate eaten) at start point. The gym going has dipped over the last two months with visitors and erratic schedules but we have kept at it fleetingly (read twice a week) and the grams seem to be creeping back on. Well, resolution no.1 is to cut out the flab. I am going to take this to a higher notch and am aiming to lose 15 kilos in the next 6 months. Yes, I am THAT fat.
2. In my youth I harboured misguided dreams of being a world class chef. Thankfully I came to my senses as I had neither the temperament nor talent for it. I also discovered I have the ambition of an overfull slug on a cauliflower. I do however enjoy cooking very much and feeding other people the leftovers of whatever I wolf down (see pt.1 for where this has got me). This interest in cooking led me to set up a failed blog with just one introductory post on it. And I am that lazy that I have not yet bothered to even delete said sad blog. Coming back to the point I have lost my cooking mojo. I am bored with everything we eat at home, even though we try and eat a different cuisine nearly everyday. I'm at the point where I never want to see another meal cooked by me as long as I live. That is how staid my repertoire has become. So this birthday I resolve to cut out the slackness and bringing back to life my interest in good food. So I shall buy one new cookbook a month and try and put that zing back into our meals and stomachs. And I will delete that horrid-haunting-me blog.
3. This third one is the biggie. I have come to the unhappy realization that pretty much my entire life it’s been all give give give and no take take take. My life is filled with people whom I think are my friends but who clearly view me as nothing but an acquaintance or a friend when in need.
What started this one was a memory of a conversation with a school classmate where she convinced me to come to her house to spend an afternoon as my house was too far away. I was an uncomfortable teenager and eager to please and be included in the hallowed circle of ‘friends’ and gave into silly requests like this not ever once questioning how the distance between our houses would change whether she came to mine or I to hers. I still remember my dad always uncomplainingly driving to pick me up from far flung corners of Delhi when no one would agree to come to where we lived in the sticks. Perhaps I was not a nice teenager and needed to make the extra effort to make any friends, but I highly doubt that. As I grew older and more confident the wheat fell away from the chaff and I found friends that didn’t care where I lived and seemed to like me for me. An adulthood of living in different cities has been blessed by technological advances like text and email. Life is all fast paced and yet nowadays I feel like a slow-fast motion film where I am standing on a train platform, quite still, and around me figures are blurred by the speed at which they move. Of course the sign around my neck says ‘Please like me’.
The move to this city five years ago left me all anxious about friendships – those left behind and the need for new ones in this city. Here I was, newly wed and now trying to forge friendships with a new world of people that had to like me. We slotted into various vapid social circles but I still needed proper friends, like fresh air, to breathe and help me find my place in this continuum. It is hard work, this making friends business and it’s not a skill that comes easily to me. I have worked at it with diligence. And hand on my heart I can say I have always been the better of two friends, loyal and trusting to a fault. I have carried pregnant women’s shopping, hosted dinners, lunches, brunches, teas, baked cakes, remembered birthdays, anniversaries, bought thoughtful gifts, called, texted, enquired and appropriately reacted to births and sickness, let my house be used like a dharamshala, lent my ears and shoulders to others woes, given asked advice on where to get groceries, where to live, how to find help etc. Well, I have been used one time too many. Probably because I try too hard and attempt to turn every person I meet from acquaintance to friend in 25 minutes. That is my downfall. And now I am rectifying it.
So this is my resolution. And you will not like it. But really I do not care. I am 32 and for once in my life I see clearly. I am done trying to be the good one and have everyone like me. This year it is all about me. I am cutting out the crap – people whom I have taken as friends over the years but clearly are not in it for anything other than selfish reasons. I am distinguishing between friends and acquaintances (page out of V’s book of life) and although for me this is a painfully hard task I am sure I will be the richer for it. I will not send you long emails telling you about my life and then smile at a one line reply. I will not stand somewhere and wait in pouring rain/ sweeping winds because you think its OK to be late. It is not. It is just plain simple disrespectful. I will not listen to lame excuses of why we cannot meet up. Or why my house is too far for you to come but yours is that tad closer. I will not invite you to my house again for a meal after having you round to mine a hundred times and not once being invited to yours. I will not remember birthdays/ anniversaries. Or rather I will remember but will not call/ email/ txt. More than anything I will no longer listen to your lame ass excuses. My life is as busy as yours - even if I do not have a child (which is just everyones excuse these days) - don't assume I have the time to fit you into my schedule - I too have a life. I will be ruthless and horrid and make you work to be my friend. Because, I agree with the darn ad, I am worth it.
I am in my 30’s for crying out loud and have discovered that there are friends to be had out there. Real people. Good people. Who want me for their friend as much as I them. The rest of the lot will slowly but surely be cut away. I say slowly because they won’t notice till they need something and turn to me. I won’t be there. And I won't feel guilty.
PS. Pt. 3 also counts for hundreds of thankless relatives. I will NOT call/ email because I have to. I will not buy you gifts you can then give away. I will not go out of my way to come see you. I’ve done it enough already. Now it’s your turn. Or not.
PPS. What I really did last birthday: Long overdue cleaning all day Saturday followed by trek across town for dinner of Indian-Chinese grub at my ever favourite Dalchini. Was woken by the endless texts and different sung versions of Happy Birthday of people not realizing it was 7.30am and that I was not quite awake. Did not get act together till way past mid-day and was being infuriatingly indecisive on picking lunch place. Finally chose Tayabs. And followed that up with going to buy part of fabulous birthday gift from V. More on that later.