Tuesday, June 20, 2006
Elsewhere once more
It's been awhile ...
And I'm no longer in the same sector of the galaxy as the dandelion featured in the picture. I got back to Delhi earlier than planned and am currently in Madras, having flown in on Sunday the 18th. My mother had surgery to fix the terrible back-pain she's had for the past couple of months and though I'm no Florence Nightingale, there was a general feeling that it would be good if I could be here while she's recovering. So here I am. And she is recovering. Every time there's a medical episode in the family, we're all reminded of the fragility of our lives and the complex web of chance that dictates so many of the most crucial decisions we take.
In this case, for instance, my mother would probably not have had the surgery if my cousin Khi hadn't visited her just as a young doctor was leaving the house, having paid a visit which was part-professional, part-friendly. He was upset enough from seeing Mum in pain that he talked to Khi, a complete stranger, about getting a second opinion from her orthopedic surgeon. My cousin had been trying to suggest this course of action for some time, but the conversation with the doctor at the gate gave her the confidence to go ahead and call her surgeon -- who just happened to be in the neighbourhood and thus in a position to stop by for an impromptu house-call. It all just fell into place -- and a week later Mum had her surgery. She's 87 and so of course the recovery is going to take a while but: the wound has healed well and though she says there's still a lot of pain whenever she gets up from a reclining position or stands on her feet, the fact is, she can now walk using her walker and before she could not.
My main contribution here is to be encouraging and companionable. She has two young women who take care of her physical needs, one for the day and one for the night, and also a live-in cook. My sister G and her family live upstairs and are always available for help and company too. But there's no real limit to how many people can be on hand to cheer her along, or to eat her meals with her so ... well ... here I am. Doing that.
I expect to be back in Delhirium on the 28th.
Meanwhile, I've been reading at a furious pace -- on the aircraft I had a volume of McSweeney's Enchanted Chamber of ASTONISHING STORIES edited by Michael Chabon to keep me entertained and the moment I landed (or thereabouts) I plunged straight into both volumes of Ruth Reichl's highly entertaining food-centric memoirs, TENDER AT THE BONE and COMFORT ME WITH APPLES. She writes such extraordinarily vivid descriptions of flavours and textures that I have been putting on weight just reading about all the food she's eaten in the course of her highly active, productive and well-nourished life. I am told there's a third volume but I'll probably need to go out for a quick jog before I start on that one! I wish I could understand how food writers and professional cooks avoid looking like blimps but I suppose they burn off their calories with the sheer intensity of their devotion to food.
Reading books like this reminds me of an odd truth about myself: though I do sincerely enjoy eating, I'm not in any real sense, a connoisseur (-euse?). The reason is simple: my taste-buds are not capable of making fine distinctions, no doubt because I have a meagre sense of smell. I cannot, for instance, make out the difference between types of meat -- not unless it's really extreme, say ham versus beef steak or chicken and shrimp. But I don't notice the difference between mutton and beef (for instance) and it always amazes me when people know at once when they're eating one or the other. I used to think people who could take one mouthful of curry and say: "not enough ginger!" in the same way that I might say "not enough salt!" -- were just play-acting. All I can manage is the knowledge that something is curiously pallid or else that it's alive with flavour, without ever being able to identify what's missing or over-used.
I've improved slightly over the years; it's got something to do with recognizing that cooking is like painting, but with a palette of tastes and aromas, rather than colours. I realize that good cooks REALLY CAN tell when there's a pinch of rosemary missing from a stew and I can, just at the outer periphery of sensation, understand what it adds in the way of dimension to a dish. But when I read a book like this, written by someone who lives in a world dominated by virtual Himalayas of taste, flavour, texture and fragrance I can only stand back and applaud. And drool a little.