"Do you know what it means to come home at night...

... to a woman who'll give you a little love, a little affection, a little tenderness? It means you're in the wrong house, that's what it means."
Henny Youngman

That's how important the house is, to aforesaid Youngman and my young man. So when we went house hunting, last weekend, the air was rife with apprehension. "There are not too many houses/apartments in Northampton to choose from," A (my husband) had warned me already. Forewarned is forearmed, eh? Only in this case, forearmed for what? I saw some of the prettiest houses that day. A too conceded to that point and to a rather sheepish smile. He is prone to exaggeration (the small nuances of your partner -- ah, that probably merits another post to itself).

Six houses later we were running around in circles. We did not know which was to be ours. The beautiful house with the brand new carpets and wallpapers along with a blue, blue bathroom to steal the heart and its generous patch of garden, the other house split into three levels with a wooden patio perched upon the third level or the apartment with its ensuite bathroom and massive bedrooms. For once, we let practicality reign and gave in to the third option. With great reluctance on the part of A, and for once, an iron self-control on mine. The house is now some thing to look forward to. When we are not cash-strapped, when we can indulge in some expensive furniture investments. It is always nice to have some thing to look forward to, eh?

It was a gloomy day the day we went to Northampton. Yet, I was not overwhelmingly disappointed. Albeit, it is small. Yet, there is the freshness of a new place that always intrigues me.

What would living every day there be like, would I wake up and feel happy about heading out to the town centre, would I look forward to walking down its various streets every day, would I actually end up exploring its nooks and crannies, would I find a large library where I could spend endless hours smelling books and then stagger back home with stacks of them, and most importantly, would there be coffee shops to woo my cappuccino-craved senses? The prospects that a new town or city offers are endless. There is hardly any time to get bored (some thing that I know most of my relatives and friends find hard to believe, given that I am not in the throes of a full-time job).

What first struck me about Northampton was the beautiful parks dotting it. They were magnanimous landscapes of fluorescent green that even on that dull day, peppered with the bare bones of grey trees, lured me to take my imaginary dogs for a long, long walk.

The amusing bit is that there are references, dime-a-dozen, to Thomas Becket. If there is a Becket Ward at the local hospital, there is a park, a street name, a rotary club and schools dedicated to the Archbishop of Canterbury (from 1162 until his murder in 1170, during the reign of King Henry II). The link seems rather tenuous to me. According to wikipedia: "Henry summoned Becket to appear before a great council at Northampton Castle on 8 October 1164, to answer allegations of contempt of royal authority and malfeasance in the Chancellor's office."

The market square itself cheered me up about the move. It is an old, old square, and as with everything on this island, it comes armed with a charming veneer of history. The market dates back to 1235 when King Henry III forbade the selling of goods in the churchyard of All Saints. The Market, according to his orders, were then moved to a space north of the churchyard and remains there till date. This was the big space that I saw covered with dozens of blue canopies that were home to stalls selling fish, fresh rolls, coffee, antiques, army surplus, old books, bric-a-brac. An assortment, really. I cannot wait -- to start my explorations.

Interestingly enough, I could not help but notice a large number of young Goths hanging around town. Apparently, Northampton for all its quaint market square and cobbled streets is known for a sizeable population of Chavs and Goths. The Chav, if you do not know the species, is a notorious resident of the UK. He is atypical of the working class youth who wears branded designer sportswear, some form of bling jewellery, is always to be found with his hood on, and can be spotted from a distance. Or so my cousin says -- while a journalist describes the word Chav as "the vile word at the heart of fractured Britain".

On that particular day, however, I got the Gothic vibe. Shocking pink and electric blue and vibrant red mops of hair were complemented by dark smudges of lipstick, set off by dark eye make-up. So no surprises that the first English Gothic rock band, Bauhaus, came from Northampton in 1978.

Now how can a town such as this be boring? I tell myself, as I feel pangs of sadness and disquiet about leaving the familiar streets of Leicester. With its beautiful clock tower. The luscious smells of cheese and jalapeno pretzels hanging in the air of its rather happening and spacious mall. The Crumblin' Cookie, my favourite coffee bar with its perfect cup of frothy headed cappuccino and scones. And, oh, our first home together after our wedding.

Yet there remains the thrill of discovering the new.

A chapter closes and a new chapter unfurls.

Which reminds me off the top of my head. Of one of my favourite poets and his saying. That in the end is the beginning and in the beginning is the end.


A Toast for Toast

Buttery toast? Cheesy toast? Marmalade-y toast? Marmite-y toast?

Which is your little bit of guilty indulgence?

Me? I like it double sinful. Buttery cheesy toast works. Though marmalade has also been a childhood favourite.

The obsession with the word Toast comes from the fact that I have just about finished reading a book titled so. A black and white hard cover featuring a little boy casting an impish, sidelong look at his parents. The parents to my eyes look like siblings almost with their similar spectacle frames and expressions. The book is called Toast and its author is Nigel Slater, the man behind the food columns in The Observer and a few cookbooks.

A few months ago, last year actually, I chanced upon a show of Nigel Slater on a food channel. I have been enchanted by the tall, bespectacled lanky man since. That show introduced me to the traditional English sweets that I would probably spot in Marks & Spencer near its self-pay checkout aisle. Bags of mint humbugs and jelly babies have started making sense to me ever since I watched Slater as he walked down memory lane and rambled on about sweets and childhood. It was bittersweet, that show. One that tugged at your heartstrings almost immediately.

Toast itself is an easy read. It took me just two days to go through its 247 pages. Pages that lead from one food to another, from associations of those foods with Nigel's childhood, and take you through the years from his mid-childhood to his mid-adolescence in a single sweep. The chapters come with titles like Cream Soda, Jammie Dodgers, Duckling à l’orange. It follows him from the time he loses his mother to her asthma illness to the time he loses his father and thus his escape from the clutches of a stepmother he never fell in love with.

I like what writer Charles Moore says about the title of the book in The Telegraph: "Slater is right about toast - as evocative a one-word title about an English upbringing as one can imagine."

The beginning of the book goes with the title: "My mother is scraping a piece of burned toast out of the kitchen window, a crease of annoyance across her forehead". He does seem a bit harsh in judging the various figures from his childhood. His mother is adjudged an awful cook, his father rather a cold character who he once-in-a-while discovers masturbating in the greenhouse, his stepmother is a cleaner with a penchant for troubling the young Nigel. He gets his back on her, it seems, by portraying her as a gold-digger who left her husband and daughters to snag Slater Senior. Yes, Nigel is rather unforgiving in his depiction of her in the book, especially the part where he implies that she overcooked intentionally and that it led to his father's death. However veiled an accusation it might come across, it still is a veritable insult to which his stepsisters reacted strongly in interviews to newspapers. They too accused him, of lying. What probably got their goat is when the book is made into a film, when we all know that characters often always get exaggerated.

Yet behind all the bitching, I did feel sorry for the lonely little boy who never really got over the death of his mother or could accept the new woman in his father's and his life. He finds refuge in food. In mint humbugs, fairy drops, refreshers, sherbet lemons, acid drops and chocolate limes. "The price for which was mouth ulcers the size of shirt buttons..."

Holidays for him meant "sticks of rock, pink or humbug-striped with red letters running through it". I particularly loved his take on bread-and-butter pudding. When he says: "I love the layers of sweet, quivering custard, juicy raisins, and puffed, golden crust. I love the way it sings quietly in the oven; the way it wobbles on the spoon. You can't smell a hug. You can't hear a cuddle. But if you could, I reckon it would smell and sound of warm bread-and-butter pudding".

It is this ability to juxtapose food with emotions and moments that got me. Writer Matthew Fort notes in The Observer:

"Proust was not the first to use food as the spring to memory. The genre of the food autobiography goes back at least to Apuleius and Archestratus. More recently Americans have proved to be exceptionally adept at it - Calvin Trilling, AJ Leibling, Ruth Reichl, and, the greatest of all, MFK Fisher, all revelled in la recherche des gourmandises perdues. However, in keeping with our national reticence on matters of food, we British have been more circumspect in making the connection between food and the inner person.

In Toast, however, this connection is not simply explicit: food - jam tarts and Arctic Roll, Bird's Custard and Cadbury's MiniRoll, flapjacks and lamb chops with fat 'still hot wobbly and meat juicy' and a thousand other gustatory experiences - was the boy, is the man."



I have finally escaped It.

There’s nothing to be said for it than the fact that I feel utterly, butterly happy. It has been about 10 months that I have shifted to the small island of Britain with my sweetheart and husband. And for the last 10 months not for a single moment have I felt any kind of inhibition. It is such a strange and yet liberating feeling coming from India where almost everything is watched. When you come home from work, the kind of people who drop you back home after a party, the kind of clothes you wear, till what time it is that you sleep on Sundays…yes, I felt judged on everything. And, watched.

When I was a teenager, my mind goes back to certain things my mother would always try to ingrain into me. “Do not wear skimpy clothes”, “Why are you wearing such a short skirt?” to “Too much bare arms and legs” and “Isn’t the tunic a bit too figure hugging?” Then again, when I was stepping out, from maternal concern, she would warn me that if I did face any kind of harassment from strange men, the trick lay in making a quick getaway sans confrontation. “You never know how men get back when you try and confront them. So often you hear about women who end up as victims of acid attack,” ma would point out. I was always, therefore, a timid creature in Calcutta till I reached Delhi. There I realized how I had to fight back but a little cautiously since I did get slapped by a guy in the Metro station in the full view of the public, when I slapped him for molesting me. No one that day came forward to my help.

There have been so many incidents in the decade that I have spent in Delhi. Every day that I reached my little pad in Jangpura, I would mentally pat myself on the back. It was always this feeling of having survived another day without having something terrible happen to me - a curious kind of battle. Reading the newspapers every day about rapes and women-hate crimes almost every day in some corner of our city and country makes me sick.

The leap to this freedom that I am experiencing is precious. There is no one to keep a watch on me. The nosy shop keeper opposite door, the inquisitive landlady, the vegetable seller. There is no one to whisper offensive words as they pass me by or try and molest me. Sometimes I wonder when we, the women of India, shall feel thus in our own homeland. Will there ever be such a time?


A blueberry mood

It is my first bake in the UK. Ever since I moved to Leicester which was in July this year. And it is a blueberry tart that smells luscious even in the preparatory stage. So while I type away here, the crust is chilling in the refrigerator and the filling of blueberries, orange zest, nutmeg and maple syrup is sitting for the flavours to blend well together. The bluish-grey filling speckled with bits of orange smells very Christmassy, I think, because of the pinch of nutmeg that went into it. But what joy it brings.

My love affair with baking started in Delhi when I played around with recipes of cupcakes, savoury cupcakes, cheesecakes, pies and cakes. But my favourite discovery has been this that salty icing tastes much better when swirled on cupcakes, than a horribly sugary concoction that promises to numb my senses (don't know about you!) with a saccharine sweet high. Also, another favourite of mine is a dark chocolate icing that I whip up for cakes with fresh cream. It is smooth, dark and delectable.

Soon I shall be pouring the filling after cooking it simultaneously while the crust bakes to an alluring golden hue. And my fingers smell of the fresh and citrusy aromas of the orange that I just zested into the bowl of filling.

A bit of trivia I loved reading about why blueberries have always been such a favourite. If a Roman physician called Dioscorides prescribed blueberries as the perfect cure for dysentery, rich Roman matrons bathed in tea made from blueberry leaves to intensify their tan. And while the Celtics and Galli ate blueberries and at the same time used their juice as a fabric dye, during World War II, as a war tactic to intimidate the Germans, the British military spread the rumour that British pilots were able to see enemy plans even when flying in the dark due to a diet rich in blueberries -- apparently it helped improve night vision!

Meanwhile, have a lovely Sunday and here's to my bit of indulgence for the weekend.


A Porn Star Martini for you, dear November

I had it two ways. The Porn Star Martini.

But before I launch into a diatribe on it, know this that it is a glamorous cocktail of sorts and it is all about the passion fruit. Though along with passion fruit liqueur and passion fruit puree you should expect vanilla vodka, vanilla sugar and half of a passion fruit too. And a champagne chaser.

The first time I tried it, I bit into the luscious passion fruit (never mind the seeds), took a sip from my martini glass and subsequently downed the shot glass of bubbly. Oh it was such a beatific feeling, I promise. It even brought the most beatific grin to my face. It was my cousin brother's 38th birthday at the Hoxton Hotel in London and a few rosés down, it was time for the martini.

The second time, it was bought by this drunk stranger, but boy was she fun and vivacious. She made me empty the shot glass into the martini glass and down it all in one go. The buzz was passion fruity and I could feel happiness bubbling all the way to my brain cells.

November, this year, has started on an exciting note. The very first day of the month, I did the quintessential girly thing to do. Shopped. For a few wardrobe essentials such as a black Paddington Coat, a black trench coat with military -style epaulettes with vintage gold buttons, a Christmas-sy red woollen skirt with little reindeer in white prancing around on it. There were more of course, but these were the highlights of my time out.

The weekend meanwhile was spent trolloping around London. And boy, was it cold and so windy that I could feel numbness and needles strike at the same time. But husband A spent time at his two favourite places -- Chipotle and Abercrombie & Fitch -- and declared that he wanted to return to London. Imagine my relief.

London is one of my favourite cities. There is colour, people, coffee shops and bars -- a medley of which set my senses running amok with happiness. What charms me more than anything is that you can walk almost anywhere and then there is the tube which makes life so easy. I am not really much for driving. So I give kudos to a city that encourages walking and using public conveyance as much as London does. Plus as the lights start shining from the nooks and corners of ancient white buildings of the city, nothing compares to it.

To return to my rambling, I have already got my first two gifts for my 32nd birthday. A vermillion red dress coat from Mango on Regent Street that screams chic. And a small jewellery box in wood with an enamelled top along with a beautiful raspberry-flavoured cupcake bath bomb.

November, you are happiness. Salud.


Pujo Leicester-style

I am a Bengali. As must have been established more than a few times in my little corner of cyber space. So one of the biggest things in the life of a Bengali is an annual festival called Durga Puja. Or Pujo rather as we Bengalis tend to refer to it. The 'O' sound being our favourite, much to the amusement of the rest of the world including my husband. He often mouths out khabo (will eat), korbo (will do) and jaabo (will go) etcetera as examples of the fact that my community loves the expression 'O'.

Well, this year is our first year in the UK celebrating Durga Pujo. It is interesting. We have our invite to attend the pujo organised by Leicester's probashi (NRI Bengalis) club.

The lady in the image I have put up above is Ma Durga. She is the Goddess who I have known as Ma (mother) Durga ever since I was a wee kid. She, according to legend, defeated the evil buffalo demon called Mahishasura and ever since it has been celebrated every year by us.

No city can do justice to Durga Pujo like Calcutta. It is the city where I grew up from the age of 8 years (before which I was in Oman), the city which taught me to love shorshe ilish (mustard hilsa), showed me how a festival can be enjoyed for five days (Shashthi, Maha Saptami, Maha Ashtami, Maha Navami and Vijayadashami)at a stretch with unparalleled pomp, gave me a pujo that has now been organised every year in the family since the last 80 years, instilled a deep love and appreciation for food.

Pujo for me has always been a time for new clothes. It is a common question that is bandied around during this time of the year among Bengalis, "Kota notun jama holo ebar (how many new clothes do you have this time)?" When I was in my teens I would be almost frantic with worry. I had to get at least five items in my wardrobe. How could I head out with friends every day to the pandals without one new salwar kameez or kurta each day? Now that I look back, I almost laugh with a little bit of derision at the vanity that prompted me to go ballistic. On the other hand, it was a childhood pleasure.

It was also the time of the year, when I would be forced to get up early -- I have never been much of a morning person -- bathe, put on my new clothes and drive off to the family pujo which would be held in rotation at three houses in the family each year. Our house is one of those three luck houses.

Every fourth year, the pujo shifts to my place in Saltlake.

Mornings during those five days were almost always to be started without food unless we had prayed and offered anjali (chants with flowers) to Ma Durga. The chant went thus:

(O, Jayanti, Mangala, Kali, Bhadrakali, Kapalini, Durga, Shiva, Khama, Dhatri, Swaha, Shwadha, my earnest dedication to you all. Ma Durga, salutation to thee).

Then the prasad (blessed food) would come in the form of pats of banana and lentils mashed together, various sweets, and my favouries: white and chocolate coloured narokler naru (traditional roundels of sweets made with coconut).

I have memories of helping my mother grate the coconut on the dau (a sharp iron instrument for chopping and cutting) and her making narus with milkmaid. The narus especially tasted delicious when made with milkmaid.

After some time spent with cousins bantering around, we would trip for lunch made by the thakur. And most usually there would be steaming platefuls of rice, accompanied by beguni (fried eggplant), jhuri bhaaja (thin juliennes of potato fried crisp), shukto, some other vegetable dish. On Ashtami or the eight day, there would be kosha mangsho (spicy mutton) with luchi as a special meal. Oh, how it makes me nostalgic.

The day that I would really cherish and at the same time feel horribly sad was the last day or the 10th day of Vijaydashami. I loved it because of the tradition we have of going on the visarjan (immersion) of the idol to the ghats of the river Hooghly. It happens usually on a truck. So the idol is hoisted onto the truck and then the family clambers in, taking their place on chairs placed within the truck or simply on rugs. It is not a very clean affair. CClothes do end up getting dirty. After all, you are in a truck. So most of us tended to wear old, worn clothes. After a beautiful drive in the truck passing by the picturesque Victoria Memorial, which looks even more beautiful at night, when we arrived at the ghats of the Hooghly the girls would chomp on bhelpuri and jhaal muri and all kinds of fried snacks. While the men would carry the idol to the water for immersion.

Last year, I got to sit atop the truck on its topmost deck above the driver's cabin. It was my high point because when I was small, only the elder brothers had the privilege.

Once back home, we would see a small fish tied to the gate as a symbol of good luck and prosperity and enter for a small puja after which we would touch the elders' feet and then hog on big, syrupy sweet amrittis (a fatter version of jalebis). Dinner followed right after when we would feast on the most sumptuous food cooked for the occasion. My favourites were always the shorshe ilish -- I would have three to four pieces of fish -- and the Durga Doi (yoghurt tempered with spices) and tauk (tamarind water). Then everyone would go home and just suddenly I would feel incredibly sad.

Here is a chant from the Durga Shloka to leave you with

Ya Devi sarva bhuteshu Matri rupena samsthita
Ya Devi sarva bhuteshu Shakti rupena samsthita
Ya Devi sarva bhutesu Shanti rupena samsthita
Namestasyai Namestasyai Namestasyai Namoh Namah

(The goddess who is omnipresent as the personification of universal mother
The goddess who is omnipresent as the embodiment of power
The goddess who is omnipresent as the symbol of peace
I bow to her, I bow to her, I bow to her)


Chancing upon a ghost town...

...is always exciting, yes. What is its story? Why did it transform into a ghost town? Who were the people staying there and how did it affect them? The questions run amok in my mind.

While reading a travel writer, Bill Bryson to be precise, I came upon the story of this town called Centralia in Eastern Pennysylvania. Now, maybe some of you have already heard about it, but this is a first for me. I am curious, and intrigued, and I am contemplating putting it on my must-see list.

Centralia became a ghost town because in 1962 a fire on the edge of town ignited a coal seam. And thereafter, as much as the fire department tried to douse the fire, it kept springing back to life. Bryson quite aptly makes an analogy to 'those tricky birthday candles that go out for a moment and then spontaneously reignite'. Now what is of crucial importance to this incident is that Centralia was a coal town mining anthracite which is hugely combustible. The fire therefore never really died out.

Yet people continued to live there. Till two major incidents forced them to do a rethink. In 1979, the owner of a fuel station found the temperature in his undergroud tanks scaling up to 172 degrees farenheit while roads started caving in. The second major incident took place in 1981 when a young boy called Todd Domboski, aged 12, almost felt into a pit spewing noxious fumes of carbon monoxide in his grandmother's yard. The town was abandoned slowly but apparently a few people are still hanging onto their houses and residing there.

The same year, in 1981, The Time magazine also did a story on it calling it The Hottest Town in America.

The photographs I have culled are images of the town that smokes on, its caved in roads and the last image is of Domboski staring at the pit he was rescued from.