Monday, August 26, 2013


My beautiful, feisty, high-principled, iron-willed Mum passed away today. In Madras, around 8 pm, surrounded by family*.

My Valkyrie Mum is what I'd like to say -- she was a true warrior, in the Carlos Castaneda sense -- but I don't think she would approve of Norse maidens and their rampaging ways. She fought by the rules, patiently and with dignity, for all the things she thought were right. But she took delight in worldly pleasures too -- she LOVED sweets and chocolate, she enjoyed a nice glass of sherry if it came her way, she had an eye for fine art and Persian and Afghan carpets (the only "real" carpets, in her opinion). Even in her final conversation with me, two weeks ago on the phone, the thing she exclaimed about was the new puppy in the house and what an absolute darling he was. She loved her pretty cotton saris, she used Ponds Cold Cream to keep her skin soft till the last and it was always a source of terrible annoyance to her that the skin on her arms and legs had turned to "lizard scales", in her opinion.

She believed in facing towards the storm with her head held high, her long shapely nose raised up like the prow of a Spanish Galleon. She was unsentimental and down-to-earth, never had time for foolishness or squishy emotions. Or weakness. She was very down on weakness. When I was a child, Mum's rule was, "If you've done something wrong, I'll scold you -- but if you cry, I'll spank you!" -- This rule came into being because by then she had read Dr Spock's Baby & Child Care handbook, in which corporeal punishment was frowned upon. But both my sisters had been born before the Spock era and had been routinely spanked! So I knew she was capable of it and therefore learnt very early in life to withhold tears and tantrums, regardless of provocation.

I was never spanked, because I was very good at not "making a scene". But I'm not sure if it's been useful: I've seen how some of my lady friends can turn on the waterworks at immigration desks and bureaucratic offices thus getting their work done, while I am dragged off to the gallows, stony-faced to the end.

Mum had a BA in English Literature and believed fiercely in education and self-reliance for women. In her view, there was no question but that women MUST have professional degrees and MUST have their own independent sources of income. She thought she was an Ugly Duck but believed that a "lady" must always be conscious of her looks, be graceful and soft-spoken and of course VERY SMART. She despaired for me, knowing that I was an irredeemable pudding to look at, utterly disinterested in clothes and jewelry, clumsy around the house and awkward in society. She knew I was going to stumble and pratfall my way through life -- and I have NOT disappointed her in that regard! But in her later years, she did once praise me for being "very good humoured".

The incident that takes place in my short story MRS GANAPATHY'S SMALL TRIUMPH (Hot Death, Cold Soup, Kali for Women, 1996) is based on Mum and an actual incident that occurred in her drawing-room in Madras, involving a visiting friend boasting about her oh-so-eligible son to my Mum, who had a not-so-eligible daughter living right under her roof (moi, i.e.).

She had contempt for physical infirmities and for people who did not find ways to overcome them. When she began to lose her eyesight in her late fifties, she adjusted herself so well to Macular Degeneration that even though it was incurable, she carried herself as if she could always see better than anyone else. She often DID notice anything unsightly or unattractive that entered within her field of vision and she was always sharply critical of mismatched colours in clothing or interior decor. She never lost her lust for looking at things she considered beautiful and worthy of her attention.

Even late into her life, when she had barely 15% vision, she took a covetous delight in catching sight of the hibiscus blooms on a bush that peeked over the boundary wall from the neighbour's yard. At five o'clock in the evening, a particular private bus that plied down the road was painted a shade of yellow that she never failed to praise. She commented on the naughty squirrels that harassed the courting crow couples on the Rain Tree arching over her garden and she despaired over the grass in her lawn if it wasn't exactly as bright and green as she wanted it to be. Whenever my sister bought lilies for her room, Mum would exclaim about them over and over again (to me, on the phone), enjoying them for their fragrance, their graceful shape and my sister's gift for flower arrangement, which, according to my mother, she herself never had.

Her hearing dwindled more gradually than her eyesight, but towards the end she fought her hearing aid and could only hear the odd word or sentence. She had the classic broken-hip accident that is the scourge of the elderly, followed by a back surgery some years later. Both surgeries slowed her down a great deal. She did her best to remain active and mobile despite everything and would force herself to eat at the table three times a day. In the afternoons, after lunch, she would spend at least a couple of hours, poring over the newspaper, using a magnifying glass combined with her reading glasses and with one eye winked shut.

My father died in 1994 so Mum has been "alone", though surrounded by her own staff and my sister and her family living upstairs from her, for almost 20 years. She was a splendid hostess and her annual birthday celebrations, in December involved stacks of food and guests who came by all day. In her day, when she was an Ambassador's wife, she hosted and catered countless cocktail parties and glittering dinners of the kind where, at the end of the evening, the men go off to smoke cigars and the ladies withdraw to a separate room for liqueurs and tiny cups of coffee.

It is very odd to think that she's no longer there. Even though, in another sense, she is now free to be everywhere at once. I am glad for her that she is no longer confined to a weak and suffering body.
I will toast her life every time I eat a chocolate, dunk bread into a fondue and catch sight of a hibiscus.

Hugs and happies, Mum! And thanks for all the fish.

*I wasn't there. My passport is at this moment stuck in the Italian consulate in Boston, awaiting a Schengen visa, with crossed fingers. I won't know about the visa or the passport for a week yet.

Monday, August 05, 2013


I read about Dr Helena Wright in today's newspaper. A pioneering presence in women's health issues in the early 20th century, she was also remarkably forward-thinking and compassionate. Not to mention discreet. By employing the services of a Man Called Derek she enabled some 500 married women to conceive in the years after the end of WW1. This was done with the knowledge of their husbands, many of them rendered unable to father children following their wartime experiences.

It's a wonderful and oddly heartwarming story. Apparently a well-kept secret! Derek's surname is not revealed.

Friday, August 02, 2013


This afternoon, I and a friend had the most delectable fusion-cuisine lunch at New Delhi's Indian Accent at The Manor Hotel. The hotel as well as the restaurant are such an aesthetically satisfying experience that for me anyway it was like being fed at many levels at once -- sight and sound plus taste and scent and whatever specialized sense is associated with non-intrusive-friendly service.

We hadn't made a reservation, but were easily accommodated at a table with a pleasant view of the room and its lush green exterior. We both chose the tasting menu, vegetarian for S and non-v for me, but got a tiny nibble right away, in the form of two miniature naans, stuffed with blue cheese. When I say miniature, I mean, really teenie tiny, like the smallest size of Nivea tin.

We each had non-alcoholic drinks: Lavendar fizz for me and unsweetened Lime soda for S. Then began a gently rolling tide of single-bite events. Pea-soup in a slender cylindrical "cup" -- so narrow that the word cup hardly suits it -- affording perhaps two swallows of soup. A single marble of crisp-fried potato-shreds that melted with a delicate crunch in the mouth, leaving a whiff of pani-poori flavours, a tiny spear of watermelon to set it off on the side. A spicy shredded chicken that smoldered in the mouth. Three bites of fish, so fresh that it felt almost immoral to eat something so recently alive. Followed by a single rib of pork, still sizzling, sweet on the outside, melting on the inside.

Each item was served on a different, artistically distinct dish. One came on a dimpled white plate, the next on a smooth black slab of stone-ware, the one after it on a curving strip of pure white porcelain. Strips of fresh green banana-leaf set off the food. We each had different crockery for each course.

The main dish for me was a black pepper prawn, served on a deep white plate, with a small meat-stuffed kulcha on the side, plus a single serving of black-dal and raita. S had a paneer "barrel" -- thin sliced, rolled and then lightly batter-fried -- with pickled-accents poured around it. Both dishes were perhaps six bites deep, so that we could finish them easily, without any sensation of heaviness.

But before the main dish arrived, we had a palate cleanser in the form of a conical section of kulfi-flavoured sorbet. From the corner of my eye, I had noticed other tables being served something that looked like small black iron claws -- but when it came to our table, I saw that it was minute replica of a coal-fired iron, with the cone of mulberry pink sorbet nestled inside it! Loved it.

Dessert was three separate items, a pistachio-flavoured crème brûlée, a tiny glass of frosted lemony ice-nuggets and a slender wedge of treacle pie. As a finishing touch, there was a tray in the shape of doll-sized string-bed, on which there were four small bowls of sweet-savoury treats.

Are you drooling slightly? That was my intention entirely! The Chef's name is Shantanu Mehrotra (I hope I've got this right; I didn't write it down though I saw it embroidered on his jacket) and both of us complimented him warmly at the end of the meal. The whole experience was playful and flavourful, both at once.

I forgot to take photographs while I was there, so the mushrooms featured at the top of this page are a red-(white?)herring, because they have nothing at all to do with The Manor. Instead, they're from my drive-way, growing on the old bougainvillea in this rainy season. What amazes me about them is their pure, fresh whiteness arising out of the old gnarled wood of the creeper. My picture does not in any way do them justice, because I've not learnt to get the lighting right. Fortunately, they keep growing, so I'll keep trying. This picture captures all three stages of the mushroom in one glance -- the extreme youth of the rounded knob, the proud umbrella of the mature phase and the drooping grace of the spent spike.