It’s raining outside, and has been since around 8 am. The first shower was a good long one — not heavy by Mumbai standards — but certainly the heaviest rain I’ve seen here in a while.
Now it’s down to being ‘scattered’ as the weathermen say. I’m Indian, so we love the rain, and we look forward to it no matter what. If an Indian says, “It’s a gorgeous day!” they probably mean that it’s overcast and raining, vis à vis the traditional warm and sunny definition of the term.
It’s a gorgeous day.
The tennis open is going on across town. Yesterday the papers were plastered with pictures of Maria Sharapova playing tennis in a makeshift court inside Ski Dubai, which is this town’s latest hot thing. When the Burj Al Arab was the hot thing they had Tiger Woods teeing-off from the centre of the suspended helipad a few dozen storeys up. Now all that is passé, apparently, as the Mall of the Emirates (*huge exclamation point*–third biggest in the world–*huge exclamation point*) with its attached ski-slope and snow park has taken centre stage. From the top level parking the ski slope looms above you, a pulsating plasma display of lights along a strip in the side. It
looks like the giant nacell of the Starship Enterprise, and from that angle it’s very impressive, and immediately brings up earnest desires of building and owning starships — instead of ski slopes.
Haven’t been inside the snow area — somehow the fact that I’ve never seen actual natural snow makes me reluctant to try the manufactured version. Up against the large glass viewing windows some of it gets thrown by kids, our faces the target. I put my nose up to the glass and take a look at it, smeared there. Looks like ice chips. Doesn’t look like the crystalline fractal flake patterns I would expect from real snow.
All this for a romp in a large freezer?
I’ll wait for the real thing.
Sharapova’s quote on playing tennis inside an artificial ski resort in the middle of a desert kingdom is, understandably, “Surreal.” I wonder what she’s saying now, standing on the edge of a drenched tennis court in an otherwise parched desert kingdom. There have been more sirens heard in the streets in the past hour than in the past three months. Obviously all those top-of-the-line cars with their ABS and intelligently designed tyres are in severely lacking in top-of-the-line squishy flesh things operating them.
Unlike the rest of the world, Indians just love rain, so you can imagine how Indians react in this country where this is probably the only full day (if it lasts that long) of rain we’ll get all year. Anjali called me up in the morning, and she’s been calling everyone, rallying them with stories of masala chai and bhajias. The chai I can
do, but there’s no chick-pea flour in the house (or any potatoes or onions) so no bhajias.
My mind wanders to chill breezy monsoon evenings that seem both like yesterday and lifetimes ago, of slicing potatoes and whatever else we had on hand to experiment with (mushrooms, broccoli) while my mother mixed up the batter. I’ve eaten a lot of bhajias, and so have a lot of people I know, but all of us agree that my mother made the best ones. Crisp and crunchy with the merest, milimetre-thin layer of soft batter between the outer shell and the steaming, floury slice of potato. Salty and spicy with the slight unfathomable (umami?) taste of the chick-pea, the rounding, mineral taste of cumin and the metal tang of ajwain. We never had the need for chutney with those, even when it was around.
It’s funny, but you never really think of asking you mother to teach you her recipe for bhajia batter because she might be dead in a few years.
Meanwhile it’s sad, pudgy, spongy things from the local cafe. The closest I’ve ever had was this vada-pav guy opposite Fountain, tucked away under the arches of one of the buildings. It was great, but not quite the same. Too much salt, no ajwain. Also, 2,000 kilometres away. On my last trip to Ghadeshwar (pictures of the place are in the work page) I managed to snag the last batch of bhajias from the one stall propped up on the slope. Little yellow chips, gone soft in the damp atmosphere, but still bhajias in the rain. The classic combination.
I vaguely remember learning the recipe from her, and it was more of an hour-long experiment with different consistencies and spice-levels and the thinness of the slices. I get the feeling that each time she madeit she taught herself again, and it was willingly forgotten in the subsequent eating, the gulping down of too-hot, gingery chai and too-strong South-Indian coffee. Part of the fun of cooking I learned from her was the forgetting of things. To re-learn the process every time is a vital part of me. I get the same feeling when I’m drawing or writing or taking a photograph. The sense of discovery is as important
as the sense of successful operation.
The number of times we’ve been in the kitchen — especially in the later years when Samir or I were doing the hands on work and she was instructing — and and some point halfway through the traditional recipe we’d just decide to chuck something in or change something is far too many for me to recall.
When I look through her handwritten recipe books I am always struck by the fact that there are no ingredient lists — the recipes directly begin with instructions. Heat Oil. Add this. Add that. Cook it. A dash of this, etc, etc. There are some rudimentary measurements on the way, but that’s all. Again, it’s the very visceral nature of just starting up the fire and putting things into action; cooking as a private performance, as meditative self-discovery. She never started cutting things up before she lit the fire (I do. The onions are more evenly cut, but the food is a little dead, if you know what I mean). She never cut tomatoes on a chopping board, prefering instead to slice uneven chunks right over the pot.
No one can teach you how to cook. You have to teach yourself.
Hmm, the mosque-guy has started a speech. He never does that on Thursdays. Must be the rain. If you think we love rain, imagine an entire culture that is only used to seeing it once a year.
The rain, like good bhajias, is a very elusive thing.
Nevertheless, it’s a gorgeous day.