The Art of Monkey Pedaling

A variant of the post below appeared in The Hindu’s Open Page

Every now and then, the productive bug gets the husband, and he sets about trying to improve our lot. Last Saturday morning, he was making a nuisance of himself trying to keep us ‘occupied’ in the home, and handing us tasks meant to enlighten and what-not. He was settling steadily into the listen-to-this-podcast routine, when I realized that this handing-out-tasks is a two way street, and told him to get the son started on riding a bicycle. There was a sigh of relief from all the occupants in the house, and I bowed like a maestro acknowledging a master stroke.

I see you pulling out the old monocle from the pocket and pegging it on your nose-tip to give us the penetrating stare. The one employed to make us feel like our spines just melted into goop. but it won’t work. It is true that we let the toddler beg us into teaching him to ride, shamelessly ignoring the bicycle with training wheels propped behind the dining table. Every time the poor fellow hinted that fellows younger than him were riding the cycle, we shooed him outside to play.

Anyway the point is that the nourish-n-cherish street played witness to several scenes that merit enactments on the Broadway stage. A couple of days later, the son was to be seen wobbling along with copious tears cascading down his cheeks, the husband mildly breaking into a sweat, and the rest of the street muttering soothingly. Children came and told heroic tales of their own learning how to cycle. One fellow said he broke not just his arm, but almost broke his mother’s arm too. Some went for the inspirational angle and said that once he learnt to cycle, the adventures never end: One can fly down from pavements and cycle without holding handle bars.

Every story was worth noting down to sit and devour on a rainy evening.  This learning-how-to-cycle is one thing you can always hope to get good stories out of. Ask anyone how they learnt to cycle and depending on where they hail from, the story is bound to entertain, amuse and sometimes curdle one’s coffee.

Watching the son cycle made me think of dear Mr Bopaiah with a pang. It was Bopaiah Uncle who taught us how to ride a cycle. He may have taught the whole street. He had bought a new one for his son who was a couple of years older than I was. The times were such that cycles were not toys everyone had. In fact, toys were not something everyone had. So, obviously, getting a brand new cycle was gripping stuff, the breaking headlines of the street, that toppled the mildly interesting news that the servant maid had run off with the local vagrant.

Mr Bopaiah graciously let us monkey pedal on it (it was too big for us). On that one cycle, he thought 4 kids how to cycle in one week. One glorious week in which we waited with shining eyes our turn to get on the cycle. Praying that the rains would not dish our efforts come cycling time. Armed with the simple trusting confidence that Bopaiah uncle was holding the cycle and would not let us fall.  The hopeful look on our faces as we glimpsed back every now and then to make sure he was jogging beside us holding the cycle.

bike

Mr Bopaiah was the Physical Education teacher at school, and he probably enjoyed teaching us to ride as much as we enjoyed riding.  It is a knack learning to cycle using the monkey pedaling technique, but we all managed it with his help. I also fondly remembered the delicious, large helpings of tea cake that awaited our labors at the end of the cycling sessions. Mrs Bopaiah made the best cake I have ever eaten – to date it beats all the creamy and Mickey mouse shaped ones hands down (Her butter-making was an equally fascinating act) . Many a happy day have we spent at their house, and all the memories of the dear family came flooding back.

Mr Bopaiah passed away last month, but I could almost see him send an approving nod to the son as he wobbled along on his cycle. When the golden evening sun shone down on the street of excited children, and whoops of victory came from the now over-confident cyclist and his friends, I am sure he smiled down at us. It was the kind of thing he would have liked.

S’mores by the Russian River

We’d been up to the Russian River for a spot of camping and the children were obviously enamored by the flowing water. It was a  lovely river and the day was even better: Cloudy and just warm enough to not make it uncomfortable. The river was teeming with people – some canoeing, some kayaking, some paddle-boating, some just wading in the waters. There was some sort of boat race, and the local canoeing club was obviously busy with its river rentals and before we knew it, we had saddled ourselves with three canoes, a paddle boat and a highly enthusiastic bunch of children.

The whole experience brought good memories of reading Three Men In a Boat and I found myself looking at the book longingly again. It was time for a re-read.

The daughter and her friends teamed up to canoe out on their own, and made a lot of noise about girl power. They got themselves into the canoe, looking spruce and fit in their life jackets and picked up their oars. They looked ebullient at this new-found independence and pride at having been allowed to strike out on their own.

“Go Girls!” they screamed, but of course nothing happened till the local nib who rented us the canoes untied the thing and pushed it mid-stream.

The toddler son looked forlorn at not being chosen first by his sister to get on the boat. He was usually chosen, why not now? Was it because he could not row? Well, if that was the case, he was going to show her that he could. Yes he was. 

A few minutes later, all the boats had pushed off like drunken lads swaggering from a pub, and only the youngest boys were left behind by their doting sisters.

The boys looked solemn: If their sisters decided to strike out as Four Little Women In A Boat, then they would do their best to be Two Little Men Without A Boat. They found themselves a paddle each and spent the entire hour paddling standing firmly in the water. They took Jerome K Jerome’s words to heart:

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“Life was not an idle dream to be gaped and yawned through, but a noble task, full of duty and stern work. ”

Jerome K. Jerome, Three Men in a Boat

They found themselves going forward 5 steps and then being yanked back by 3 steps.

It was later that we learned that the girls performed in much the same way downstream when they had difficulty maneuvering their canoe. At first, they resolutely declined help from the men, and preferred to get down themselves to push the boat out again. The river was shallow enough even in the middle of the river bed for the girls to stand and push.

As they sailed into harbor, they were soaking wet and remarkably happy at being able to jump into the water.

The burgers, salads and s’mores after a day like that, were especially welcome to the children.

“We are but the veriest, sorriest slaves of our stomach.  Reach not after morality and righteousness, my friends; watch vigilantly your stomach, and diet it with care and judgment. ”

Jerome K. Jerome, Three Men in a Boat

The Contentment Unit of Measurement

This Spring, we are with Bala, that gullible grandfather with a booming voice, hearty antics, a retired man with a ros-ie outlook on the working life, and genuinely enjoying the company of his grandchildren: young blood and all that.

As I have written before, what with the pace of life and so on, we decided to take a short trip up the hills to Lake Tahoe. It was a marvelous time to visit. The mountains had had a fresh sprinkling of snow less than two days before our visit, but you’d never know it, the way the sun beamed down upon us as we ascended the mountains. Pure bliss. Lake Tahoe is one of those places that can soothe as well as it can pump adrenaline for the adventurous. And why not? There is a pursuit there for every one. From the quiet walks, to the serene views, to the snow, there is Paradise right here.

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We stayed at a house with a kitchen in it, so the mother was content. Finding a good kitchen in which to make a warm meal to feed her family at the end of the day is what makes the mother happy. So be it.

After a hot dinner, I sat with my legs-up on one of the fuzzy armchairs for a spot of reading. A reading light provided just the right amount of light, the son played with his cars on the floor, the daughter arranged the setting for a board game, the fire crackled merrily in the fireplace, and it was a cozy scene. I had picked out a magazine on mountain living or some such thing, from the conveniently placed magazine trove nearby. It turned out to have rather a lot of material and pictures on houses in the area. Lovely pictures of clean houses with vases, throws and plumped up cushions. I mused on the cleaning effort that goes into an everyday home.

One time I remember dropping into a friend’s house without calling in advance and was struck by how neat the whole place was. Not even a key was out of place. My own key was missing from the center table where I had placed it. I looked for it while leaving, only to find that my friend’s then 3 year old son, had taken the keys and put them away in the Keys Drawer. I was so impressed.

Things are different on our side of the spectrum. Oh so different! When I walk into a hotel room for instance, I can slice and dice the room in a jiffy and tell you how it will be after a day or two of us in there. I can tell you where exactly the rental papers will be strewn, where the keys will be plopped, where the chargers would be hanging and tangling themselves, where the socks will be bubbling out of the shoes and where the wet towels would be laid out.

I thumbed through the pages, all the while admiring the neat photographs, and wondering how people lived like that. The husband belongs to the jolly category of people who will tell you that a squeaky clean place like that must

(a) belong in a magazine for photographic purposes or

(b) be a hotel,

and then proceed to flop his coat on the recently cleaned couch.

Of course, this is a source of trouble in the dear home. For me, not him. For the misplaced coat never seems to bother him. He is convinced about the too-neat-to-be-a-home theory. A theory in which he is ardently supported and praised by his loving father-in-law, who thinks nothing of stewing brochures and magazines in every available spot in the house.

Storms, Televisions & Other Things
Storms, Televisions & Other Things

The father was sitting across the hall with an equally attractive home living magazine in his hand. He wobbled up in few minutes  to show me a stately mansion with an impressive number of bedrooms and large garden. The grin on his face was set to ‘Tease Thy Daughter’ and he said “So, how about buying something like this for a vacation home?”

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I looked at him and said with a quake in my voice, “Can you imagine cleaning a place like this?”

Contentment comes in various forms – mine is in the size and shape of a three bedroom house.

The Empress of Palates Examines The Upma Conundrum

This post is heavy on Indian foods: Upma, Chapathi, Koottu. Here is an image that will help: (Just a snapshot from Google Images when you look up South Indian Tiffins – idli, dosa, pongal, upma, sambhar, chutney, koottu.)

I am glad to say that this post was featured in the Open Page in the Hindu dated 19th July 2016. http://www.thehindu.com/opinion/open-page/not-cool-enough-yet-the-upma-conundrum/article8866694.ece – illustrated in the article by cartoonist Keshav, whose work I have admired ever since I knew how to appreciate humor in the written form.

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“Folks are coming home for dinner tonight, what do you say we finish up all the leftovers in the fridge, so we can start afresh tonight? ” I said peering into the fridge. One box of chinese take-out (kung pao vegetables) was stacked atop a glass container with homemade vegetable biriyani. Beside it lay some south indian koottu and a few chappathis. One sweep to conquer Genghis Khan, Akbar and Raja Raja Cholan.

“Sure!” said the husband. I must tell you that of the many virtues I love about the husband, one is the fact that he is not a snooty gourmet. He is one of those lovable fellows who will have an omelet with dosa and soup, and gush on to say that it was a good meal. So much so that, I have gotten used to being quite the Empress of Palates around the house. If I think we could have masala vadas and I am in the mood to make them, I set to it with gusto.

“I told the guys we shall make it a South Indian dinner potluck.” said the h. as I peeked into the phone telling me about one friend’s contribution. I nodded. One friend said she would make a side dish that would go well with upma. So,  I said I will make ‘Upma’. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Upma) It is that beautiful dish that is garnished with beans, carrot, peas all cut up into tiny pieces like stars, planets and comets speckling a clear night sky, and to complete the panorama of the flitting clouds added,”I’ll also make a mean groundnut chutney. ” Van Gogh’s Painting would beg if I made this beautiful one swirl.

upma

I had that smile that tints my face when I look up at the night sky, while the husband looked mortified. . “How could you? Why would you make upma when you can make so many other things? Upma is not the right dish for .. it just isn’t the right dish pairing for dinner alright?” said the man hovering his chappathi between the kung pao vegetable and the koottu, on his plate, as though deciding which was the worse choice to make.

“But you don’t mind eating upma. Even though you say you don’t particularly like it, you do justice to the dish don’t you?”

“Well yes. But upma is not a dinner worthy dish.”

The brain was fumbling with the light switch somewhere. “We had it for dinner last week with tomato chutney remember?”

“Yes! For us it is okay, but it isn’t exactly a dinner dish for Guests.” he said with a flourish. Like one who has just scored a particularly tricky point at the Local Debating Competition. The way he said ‘Guests’, one would think President Obama was stopping by with Elon Musk to discuss the Space Program over a plate of upma that evening.

“I thought you said that the only folks who visit our home are those you can open the kitchen to.” (This, he said in another discussion surrounding the use of a formal dining table in the home, but I am entitled to use the argument here: I checked with the daughter.)

“Yes but upma is easy to make. “

“Really? Last month do you remember me peeling some pasty stuff off the pan when you attempted to make it? You said that I made it look easy to make upma, but it actually is an art by itself.”

“Yes…I did. But that was to appease you.” I drew myself up. The husband raced on before I tacked on to the subject of appeasing and said, “NO. Not upma. Anything else.”

“I don’t understand this – what is wrong with upma?”

“I don’t know. It is considered a poor man’s dish.” said the husband, his arguments thinning. The cashews and ghee swam before my eyes and wondered which poor man would cook like that.

I gazed at the poor fish, and let it go. A few minutes later, the phone piped up with friends telling one another what they proposed to bring. One of them said she would bring Upma and then went on to add: My husband thinks I should not say Upma though, so I shall bring Vermicelli – Sooji Khichadi. A few minutes later, the phone buzzed again with her husband chiming into the conversation saying he had convinced his wife to switch their entry to Pongal instead of upma.

What is the mystery that plagues Upma’s status in South Indian Society? The Empress of Palates demands an examination. An Upma Festival maybe?

The Good-Food Calorie Link-inator

If you stop for coffee in the mornings, there are souls standing there looking like they know they should be there. They obviously did something right to get there, but what to do after that is displayed like a puzzling Exclamation mark preceded by a Question mark on their face. Take a beaker full of coffee and send the brew through a funnel and they will stir and show some spirit. It takes a few minutes, but they eventually get buzzed up as I like to call it and crack open their day.

coffee
coffee

Curious that I should have written this without knowing that is was National Coffee Day.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/International_Coffee_Day

One morning I decided to take the high road on nutrition and scorned coffee & tea with the air of a medieval lord. Yogurt, I decided, is the thing, and headed out towards a solid breakfast. Live cultures,  probiotics with a spot of fresh fruit. I felt like just the thought of it was chasing all those terrible toxins away. I shivered at the thought of caffeinated beverages. It was as I was surveying some grape yogurt that my nose twitched in an alarming manner.

I turned my neck to aid the nose and saw that there was an egg-making section in the place. The husband is a great show-wizard in the art of egg making. He beams at his audience, he instructs, he builds suspense as to how he is going to toss the omelets and catch them. The audience watches bewitched as the omelets fly in the air and then they push the heart down, for it pops up to the mouth with all the suspense.  In a fitting finale, the omelet spatters but mostly lands in the pan. He good-humoredly says,  “Well, almost!”. The admiring audience then cleans away the soggy remains on the floor, the egg-shells are swept from view, and the chef presents his masterpiece.

Why I say all this is because, I don’t know whether you have stood around watching eggs being made. It is fascinating. Also crowded. The populace likes seeing the egg-toss. But that day, the egg making station was empty. So, I made for it and ordered a sunny side up just because I could, with out waiting in line.

The lady misheard me and made me two eggs sunny side up, left them a bit longer than she would have liked and I found myself staring at two fried eggs instead.

You know how we tell our children not to waste the food on their plate because poor children are starving in other parts of the World? In fact, the thing has been drummed into my psyche for so long for so many years that I leave a very clean plate. Maybe it is time for all good men and women to analyze this statement. I did not want any eggs, but landed up having two beaming up at me simply because the line was empty. Now, I could well not waste it because of those starving children.

Never one to raise hands for a breakfast, I felt a bit squeezy. A friend I know told me that mint tea always soothes the squeezy stomach, and so there I was with the kettle and teabag at the end of it all. So much for turning my nose up at caffeine.

Now, since I did not waste any of the food, all that is required is find a way to transport these calories to the starving poor.

“Do you hereby consent to transfer your breakfast to this starving, poor, poor child ?”

“Yes I solemnly do.”

Good Food Link-inator
Good Food Link-inator

Off the calories go zipping through the Good-Food-Calorie-Linkinator to nourish the child. The recipient has a holographic effect of eating the eggs, that trigger good memories depending on how  well the patron enjoyed his calories,  thus physically and psychologically satisfying the receiver. If one has truly enjoyed it, so will the receiver of the calories, and if one has just forked them down like a robotic arm lifting garbage, the receiver does not enjoy it all, and his giver-rating goes down. That way, one can indulge occasionally, and feel good all around.

Sigh! I never see folks skip over to the treadmill because it is empty and exercise. Why do we not exhibit the same iron control with food?

CIF Kitchen Khiladi

I had a unique culinary experience recently. I made something (food presumably) that has very little semblance to what one actually eats as food. I tried a combination of speed, innovation, novel ingredients and completely wrong ratios.

The evening tugged at me – the weather was bright, and the daughter and I wanted to play football with our hands. Perfectly normal so far you’ll agree. The evening however hard you try to stop it, marches on into the night with a steady trumpet blow. Then one is left with dirty football hands and a hungry stomach. So, I figured I will just make something that smacks of speed, health and aroma. A touch of Thai and Chinese would not hurt, I added as a mental note to myself. A smear of turmeric here, a touch of soy sauce there, and a whisp of basil.

I don’t know if there are competitions for the greatest flops. But that dish with the Indo-Chinese-Thai-Italian flavor just smacked of failure – on a colossal level. I think it even smelt Mediterrnean when the winds blew in a south westerly direction.

Given this performance, it is almost impertinent that I should be hustling you all to a cooking competition. But, I would like to salvage my position by saying it is for a good cause, and the important thing is to try something new.

So here goes. Cancer Institute Foundation is conducting Kitchen Khiladi – the brave, the creative, the explorers of unchartered soups and medleys, gather ye. Make a difference to cancer care while having fun.

Limbo between Roti Land, Poori Land and Parotta Land

I tend to agree with Vasundhara Chauhan. Who is Vasundhara Chauhan? Why would I agree with her? These are valid questions and deserve to be addressed. V.Chauhan penned this article in the Hindu where she deplores the flood of standard dal makhani, butter chicken, and naan wherever one looks for good indian food.

http://www.hindu.com/mag/2010/04/25/stories/2010042550280700.htm

Imagine my surprise therefore when I stepped into an Indian restaurant, and they asked me whether I wanted Naan or Chappati to go with dal makhani and mutter panneer. I went in for the Chappati – the old jaws need a break sometimes and soft chappatis would fit the bill nicely. The chappatis arrived, and if anything, they were worse for the jaws than a bunch of sugarcane chunks.

The chappatis did not stop me from taking a mental trip down the Cauvery river, however. Yes, the chappatis were a sturdy breed that is the hallmark of the South Indian Chappati Making Foundation. You see the folks of the S.I.C-M-Foundation have a process:

1) You first sit on the floor with a huge bowl of flour, and one leg outstretched from beneath the saree.
2) You tip a generous serving of oil in the flour.
3) You knead it to a rubbery consistency that is bordering on hard. Sort of like those mock cork balls.
4)  You take up approx 323 sq ft with spread out magazines, and flour and generally shoo the crows and children wanting to play with the flour away.
5) Then, you proceed to roll out triangular chappatis that have a tendency to shine with oil
6) Once this arduous process is done, you can proceed to the actual task of putting them on the tava. Oil should be used again and poor triangular blighters have to be flipped back and forth till you have a coloration that tells you not to expect something soft.

The SICMF does not like to see soft chapatis without oil. The chaps have to be mid way into being poories, stop short and decide in the last minute to become parottas, and stay in the limbo between Roti Land, Poori Land and Parotta Land.

The process takes a brisk 58 minutes for 15 chappatis, and is usually served with ‘Gurma’.

For the records, I was not scarred excessively with the chappati-poori-parotta treatment, since my mother broke her ties with SICMF early in her career, and we had fantastic, soft rotis instead of chappatis.

Why didn’t the Chinese think of it?

Chopsticks have always intrigued me. They look disconcertingly similar to knitting needles. Now you knit up in your mind the old wizened lady lovingly using both her hands, sitting in a rocking chair by the fire and knitting a warm sweater. I hate to dish it to the old lady like this, but you only can use only one hand, use both needles and knit the same beautiful sweater OL. Go on old lady. Try. Try like the dickens. How does that sound?

That is exactly what eating with chopsticks seems to me. You are given two condiments, you have two hands. Simple? Not simple. The technique is simple, any child brought up on Chinese food in a Chinese setting will tell you how easy it is to use chopsticks. All you have to do is grasp the sticks like this.

Then, move finger number two by using finger number one as the lever/rudder. (When you are trying to keep the sticks afloat in a bowl of watery soup, you are allowed to use the word rudder). Let’s get back to technique now that the use of rudder has been explained.

During the entire process, finger number three is jammed between the sticks, and is expected to move in the same angle maintaining a level of parallelism with finger number two. Never mind that finger number 3 is screaming for respite by now. That demand cannot be met. Ignore finger number 3. It can start acting up midway through the process, and you will be stuck with a finger-chiropractor, soothing function back to it. Don’t worry, it is a part of life. I realise there is no such profession as a finger-chiropractor, so if you would kindly tell me the name of one such specialist, I will gladly update the post.

The trick is to be firm with finger number 3. Show it fingers number 4 & 5 as a method of consolation. Fingers 4 and 5 are in a worse state. They can’t move remember?

Also remember that while one is fiddling with these sticks in the soup, the soup is turning cold. Not to mention the odd contours on the face as lines of worry and concentration contort it into a horrible frown. One would think, that not being able to function with chopsticks will have sent the author home hungry and dejected, with a new sense of purpose – learning to use the sticks before the next soup stop.

Not so…not so! Mere technicalities like chopsticks don’t deter me. I creased out the lines of concentration, ironed out the frown and put on a smile. I then attacked the soup like this.

People were looking at me with awe. Pretty soon, I could see folks cast me the envious look. Their eyes screamed the obvious “Why didn’t the Chinese think of it?”

I refused to wipe the smug smile of my stupid face, and went on eating like this, till a waiter who was charging about the vicinity like a racing bull, stopped in his tracks. You know how these cars screech when they sudden brake? Something like that.

“Next time – fork okay? I give fork okay?” he said.

I shrugged – I’d already mastered chopsticks now, who cares for forks?