Friday, March 18, 2011

A breath of cold, fresh air.

I am an easy mark when it comes to interesting book titles. I am very likely to pick up books at random, if they have catchy titles. Even if I may not judge a book by its cover, I certainly give a lot of points for the title. It is very difficult to give a title to your work that embodies the spirit of what you have written and conveys its intensity. So when I heard about The Mighty Queens of Freeville by Amy Dickinson, it certainly topped my to-read list. It took me a few years to get to it, but it reaffirmed my hypothesis of judging books! It is the most beautiful collection of essays collected in the form of a memoir. Though not strictly chronological in its narrative, it draws on a time line that is easy to follow. It is a fine line that an author has to walk when writing about one's own life. The "story" has to be interesting enough to hold the reader's attention while the subject has to be examined in detail with objectivity. In this book, Ms.Dickinson chronicles her journey from and back to her hometown, physically and figuratively in a manner that is unassuming and honest. The parts dealing with her divorce and early struggles in establishing herself while raising her daughter are candidly funny yet poignant. The narrative feels like you are sitting across the table from your friend, chatting over a (few) cup(s) of coffee. Her experiences of parenting, "dorkitude", living with aging family members and pets while making a life on her own come across as life lessons without being pretentious. The central theme of resilience and strength that comes from family ties almost feels like fiction. The descriptions of life in a small town in New York are so appealing that it makes you want to map it out and drive down for the weekend. I can't wait to read what Amy Dickinson writes next. Two-thumbs up!

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Follow that scent..

It is a well-researched subject - the connection between smell and memory. It is believed that the olfactory bulb is a part of the brain's limbic system, which is closely associated with memories and that is the reason why smells are associated with certain memories. I have been credited with having a keen sense of smell, almost akin to that of a dog-which if I was not such a die hard dog lover, would have been insulting. But it is true, I am very sensitive to smell. I do not mean that even slightly strong odours upset me. On the contrary, I have quite a high tolerance for noxious odors. I am senstive to the good kind of smells. You know how the advertisements claim the sweet scent of the soaps can tranport you to a tropical paradise or the lavender oil can instantly calm your stresses - well, it sure works on me! And the most memorable smells of all are that of food. I remember telling my mother after coming home from school one day that I could smell tandoori chicken while I was in the class! Today there are some memories so strongly intertwined with smells that even though I am far away from the places where these events/memories happened, for that instant i get a surge of familiarity rushing through my senses that takes me to a very special place.
My favorite food smell is that of frreshly made rotis - unleavened Indian bread, being puffed over the open flame. That for me is the smell of my mother's kitchen. Throughout my growing up years, when I finally got interested in the kitchen (much to my mothers relief) the thing that amazed me the most was how my mother would make perfectly round, evenly puffed rotis, day in and day out, as if traced with the back of a bowl or made in a mould. It took me years to perfect this craft and even though most of the times my rotis do turn out round and evenly puffed, they still cannot rival my mother's. The earthy scent of wheat getting roasted over open fire is as close to nature as you can get, sitting in your dining room.
Another very strong scent that floods the oxytocin receptors in my brain is that of warm ghee - clarified butter. If you think the smell of butter is irresistable, wait till you get a waft of this heavenly perfume, when ghee is pured over anything hot - usually steaming rice or when put in a hot pot to be used for cooking, like my ajji (grandmother) used to do. She didnot let the minor fact that ghee is 100% fat, free of all annoying milk solids, ever get in the way of her cooking. Ghee was (and still is) a mandatory addition to most of her dishes. But the one dish which I absolutely devour and one that cannot be replicated is her Kadhi - a hot soup usually used as an accompaniment to the main course; made up of yogurt and gram flour, flavoured with green chillies, ginger, cilantro and tempered with hot ghee, cumin seeds and curry leaves. The smell of cumin seeds sputtering away in hot ghee is the stuff of my childhood dreams!!
A scent I was introduced to after coming to America was that of vanilla...ummm..just the mention of the name brings to my mind visions of perfectly kept, beautiful houses or quaint boutiques with candles and glasswares in tiny town of the West. Yes, even though this is a food fragrance, my immediate memory associated with vanilla is our first attempt at house hunting in California and innumerable visits to the model houses. Since then I have lived in a number of houses and have never ever achieved that level of vanilla-scentedness, no matter how many candles or chemicals I have burned.
The memories are innumerable. The whiff of teriyaki chicken being grilled outdoors on cold, fall saturday mornings in the Strip district of Pittsburgh, the magical essence of lavender oils floating through the streets of Ojai, CA or the pure unadulterated fishy ocean smell of the Hawaiian coast - every memorable experience has a smell to it. I realized I was helping my son form his own memories when, on sniffing a handful of fresh basil leaves, he remarked, "Oh this is the smell of the pasta from yesterday!!"


1/4 cup Low-fat Greek yogurt
2 tbsp gram flour (besan)
1 cup water
2 tsp ghee or butter
1 tsp cumin seeds
1/2 tsp turmeric
1 tsp salt
1 tsp grated ginger
1/2 serrano/jalapeno chilly seeded and chopped
5-6 curry leaves torn
handful of chopped fresh cilantro

In a bowl, whisk together yogurt, water ginger, turmeric and salt. To it, add the gram flour slowly and mix it well. Whisk it well and break up any lumps that may form. Add the chillies (if using). In a thick-bottomed sauce pan, heat the ghee or butter over low heat. Add the cumin seeds when the butter melts. When the seeds start to crackle, add the curry leaves. To this add the yogurt mixture, making sure that the heat is turned down to low to medium low. Stir the mixture and let it come to a slow boil. Do not let the mixture thicken. You will need to add more water, upto 1 cup to keep the consistency of the soup. Cook over low heat for 1-2 minutes. Add the cilantro leaves and serve hot as soup or as a side dish with steaming white rice.

Gram flour or besan is found very commonly in Indian grocery stores. It is light yellow in colour and smells of chick peas.

Monday, March 7, 2011

In conversation with…….

I have been accused to talking too much-with my children! It has been said that both of them (ages 6 and 3) talk so much and are so precocious because I talk to them about things they have no business knowing about. Point taken. Please allow me to present my case.

I agree that I talk a lot with my kids (I talk a lot, in general) and that to an untrained, illiterate eye, they might seem precocious . But I believe that my children are developing at a rate and extent faster and deeper than their peers because of their exposure to things that children of their age usually do not even know about.

Case in point: My 6 year old son and I were talking about the Civil War and then the Civil rights movements in the context of a project for the Black History month in his school. When we were talking about segregation, he asked “So what was the problem Indians had in those days, Mom? ( he meant Indians as in from India). I told him that the problem Indians had at that time in history was that they were ruled by the British and there was a war of independence going on. Then we discussed the colonization of the various princely states that made up India by the British rulers and how the in-fighting among the various kings made it easy for the British to “divide and rule”. After a while, I could see that his attention was wandering and that it was getting to be too much information for him and we ended the conversation. Later that day him and his sister were having an argument over the Pokemon cards and he says to her , “ You are invading my territory. You just want more and more and that is why you are fighting with me!” So, the conversation was not wasted after all!

One question that bothers parents is that in the trouble-prone pre-adolescent and adolescent years will their children come able to come to them for help if they need? Will there be proper communication between the two that the child will not feel intimidated or embarrassed in opening up or questioning something that may be bothering him? As with every other relationship, communication is the back bone of a successful parent-child partnership. But if you wait for the child to be “mature” enough to handle conversations you are too late. From the time a child is born she is processing information according to the capacity of her developing brain. It is a well established fact that the more you talk to your infant or toddler the quicker and deeper the child’s development is in areas of talking and vocabulary. Using normal language when talking to an infant is better for teaching him language than using “baby” words for “milk” and “blanket” and so on. The same premise should be carried over as the child grows. Conventional wisdom may suggest that certain topics are too complicated for a preschooler or grade school age kid to to comprehend. But whether it is slavery or global warming, evolution of humans or even death, there is a way of explaining the facts in an age-appropriate manner. Kids may not understand everything that is thrown at them but the exposure guarantees a reaction in terms of thinking about the topic which can lead to creative and analytical thinking. And when this kind of exposure happens in their daily life, with parents, the stage is set for a lifelong open channel between the parent and the child which can foster communication forever.

So, as we discuss the merits of having a Raichu Pokemon card versus a Meowth I hope that he won't hesitate about telling me of the day when he was offered a cigarette by his friend or when he got a Valentine from the cutest girl in his class.