Wednesday, October 31, 2007

The Passport: One of Many

This story is so long and draining that I will write it in installments. You will see why.

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)

THAT is a bust of Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru in the small courtyard where our two lines wait patiently. I am gob-smacked¹, a word I have only just learnt as a migrant. My friendly neighbour is more vocal than I. He breaks off our conversation, leans over and taps BAF on shoulder, “Excuse me madam, that is Jawaharlal Nehru, he is our first Prime Minister”. BAF looks like she has been stung by a bee, he eyes are wide open and she is shocked at being touched by this unknown man. Instantly gains composure, nods wisely in agreement and thanks him for correcting her. He turns back to resume our conversation.

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.

There is more.

Firang: foreigner

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

Remembering Anita

Sometimes I think I am the luckiest girl on earth.

If you had told me when I was a child that I would grow up to live in London and be part of something bigger than my own life I would have retorted with the 'when pigs fly' retort (which I was famous for chucking around, much like word confetti).

Last night I took part in a memorial service for Anita Roddick. It was a moving evening, attended by 2000 family, friends, business and development associates at the Central Hall Westminster. It was a wonderful celebration of her life, as an activist, a mother, a friend, a force for change. A short video snapshot of Anita at home and at many points in her activist career began proceedings. Various friends, associates and her two daughters spoke about her life, her courage, her laughter, her indomitable spirit, her 'Do Something. Do anything. Just do something' attitude. Each speaker, from Ken Wiwa to Alan Rickman, Emma Thompson to Robert King, Vandana Shiva to Kate Alan, spoke of her joy and endless enthusiasm, to a thunderous applause.

She always said that all her money was just a means to do what she wanted to do as an activist for the many causes she marched for, funded, backed with her name. That that was what she wanted to be defined as, above all, as an activist. That being an activist, being a voice for the voiceless, satnding up for the weak and frail, engaging in the human spirit, made her feel alive. If the plaudits were anything to go by Anita lived just the fullest life.

The evening ended with a walk along the South Bank to the National Theatre with music, dance, lit lanterns and tea lights. It was an evening of tears and laughter and the sheer volume of the applause showed how one woman made a difference to so many people. It was an evening of inspiration, a reminder that each one of us needs to be an activist in our own way, giving time or money to help someone less fortunate, someone less able. To live passionately for the causes we believe in.

The world is poorer for having lost Anita. The world is richer for having had her in it.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Seeds of fine dining

Now that it’s getting colder and darker ever earlier in the evening the only way to cheer this old chick is with good wholesome temperature and chili hot food. I have a restaurant review (of previously mentioned post - Monday) for all you London foodies to go and try out. For those not in London envy is not a good colour. For those in India, go eat a chicken kathi roll and then a plate of momo’s on my behalf please!

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.

It’s rare that these old bones have a week when social activity is everything. Mostly all activity is reserved for the weekends with the odd smattering of an evening with colleagues occurring during the week. A couple of weeks ago I had an incredibly busy week. One like I have not had in a while.

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.

Busy but not utterly exciting.

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.

What I do know though, sadly, is this: if I got IT back, whatever the hell IT is, I’d probably kick its scrawny happy ass out of my house before settling into my sofa. There is no therapy for idiots.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Ain't no mountain high enough

Some people look at me and know my miniscule weight-loss has plateaued. The rude ones go as far as to say I haven't lost any or I've put some on or not saying anything at all (probably fearing my wrath for saying something wrong). I've cut that lot out of my address book.

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.