Last week, I realized all over again what a lovely set of friends Mian and I have. Friends that willingly give of their time, creativity, efforts. Friends that gladly do whatever it takes to make sure that our celebrations are truly memorable. I didnt need reminders of how wonderful they are, but since I've been here, I've been open-mouthed in wonder that these people love me. But this post is not about them.
One of the ways they showed their generosity and their love for us- and their knowledge of just what would be enjoyed by us- is by gifting my Mian and me a weekend at the Inn at Langley, with a dinner reservation. The weekend was perfect- the complete stop from running around that we needed. The highlight, however, was definitely Chef Costello's six-course dinner.
The menu was playful, inventive, and firmly rooted in local produce. Chef Costello plays a lot with newer techniques and tools- creating a bacon 'snow' and porcini foam for example. These make for playful eating, as in the case of the dessert. Meant to be shared by two, it consisted of balloons of various sorbets floating on a sea of mousse. The colours and shapes were evocative of a playground, and were fun.
What blew me away however, was not so much the use of these new-fangled tools, as the realization of what truly excellent cooking means. While we enjoyed the tricks, the true magic of the dinner was how every ingredient was made to be the best it could be. My favourite part was an artichoke and bacon soup. Other than the bacon 'snow', it was plain old good cooking. Perfectly balanced ingredients, deft seasoning, and scrupulous straining- nothing that one cannot replicate. Mian's favourite was the fish. Again, a very simple dish consisting of perfectly roasted halibut, and delightfully surprising sides (a garlic scape! cucumber and yogurt icecream!). And this was true of every course. Minimal fussing, great technique, much attention.
My most humbling moment was the garlic scape. Onion buds are popular in Dehradun, and invariably cooked to a soggy mush. I had stirfried them, and stunk up the entire kitchen. Costello's scape was a gently curving bloom sitting proudly on the fish. I tasted it and found it sweet with bite. The secret probably was blanching followed by a quick toss in hot oil. The thing is, this is what an alium bloom can and should be- not the stinkin' mess I'd reduced it to.
The flavour combinations were a lot like Mian and me- looking at the plate, I couldn't understand how these could be paired together; after one bite I would realise that it was inevitable, these were always meant to be taken together. Halibut, cucumbers and yogurt. Strawberry and coconut. Watermelon (seared!) and feta. Try this at home.
Flavour combinations aside though, I now think that what makes a truly good cook is the willingness to take the trouble to be one. I dont know if I can ever master technique, but the next time I cook, I am going to be fully there- thinking, tasting, cooking.
Last night, I was asked if I had been to all my favourite haunts in Seattle yet. No, I had to confess, not yet.
And today morning on my way to the market, I was wondering why. After all, one of the things I was looking forward to (besides plonking my head on Mian's shoulder) was revisiting all the places I loved in Seattle.
But I find myself unable to do that. Not physically, it is not like I dont have the time to, but mentally. I find myself strangely reluctant to pull on walking shoes and step out.
Part of it is the new neighbourhood, of course. I live some distance away from where I did earlier, and so my haunts are a bus ride away. As for sauntering around this neighbourhood, I am still in the position of the child learning to tie her shoelaces- 'the chicu goes across the road at the big yellow tree, and under the bridge at the little pink house'. Part of it is the feeling guilty to saunter when I have things I am supposed to be doing. And I know that is not logical, I need to work through this fog. I will do that, soon.
In the meantime, as I answered truthfully,I am focusing on meeting all my favourite people. A couple of days ago, and again yesterday I met The King (no, not that one!). This man has given me goodbye-forever hugs twice already only to have me pop into his life like a mushroom again. Bless him, he always reacts asif that is one of the nicest things that could happen to anyone. And in an hour, I meet M (no, not that one) for a day of wrapping wedding favours, gossip, and rendering me sane. Not bad, eh?
And as for the haunting, out at the market, I got me a map. Now I am an unstoppable force!
If so, both Indian Rail and I proved our humanity this week. And that is a good thing, right?
At 5am on the 9th, I wobbly-ly (and if that isn't a word, it should be) ran onto the platform lugging a heavy suitcase and continued running past D7,6,5,4 to get to D3, seat 96. The instant I passed D4, I heaved my suitcase into the train, stowed my luggage, got into seat no 96, and fell asleep. When the TC- a young Shahid look-alike- came along, he told met that I was in the wrong coach, this being D2, "but you just keep sitting there, Madam". well ok. I did keep sitting there for all of 90 minutes when a chap came up and showed me his ticket.
Well, fine. That's ok. I did have a legit ticket, right? All I needed to do was find the right carriage. So balancing my suitcase on my knee, I set off in search of it. Not so easy. After wandering up and down a couple of carriages, I found the TC, grabbed his sleeve and implored him to lead me to it. "Never mind that," he said, "you just go to the next carriage and sit in seat no.33."
When I went there, the seat was occupied by a little old lady who gave me the dragon eye. I blushed and walked by to stand near the loo-which had an overflowing basin. There were some policemen there and after chatting for a little while, they offered to look after my luggage while I looked for the TC.
"What are you doing here? Didn't I tell you to sit in 33?"
"yes," I yelped "but there is a little old lady in it!"
"there shouldn't be. Come with me."
Well, he went to the seat, and barely opened his mouth to speak when he got the dragon glare. which is why instead of speaking to her, he addressed the carriage at large," Is there anyone with Maaji here?"
One man- standing there by the basin- owned up to being her son. They were traveling ticket-less, he said and apologised. He had seen the empty seat and told her to sit there, but now he would tell her to get up. "No, wait! Why could I not go to my own seat", I asked. Because it wasn't there. Turns out that while 106 passengers had been booked into D3, the coach only had 81 seats. As a legit ticket holder, I had priority over a ticketless traveler. But of course, I couldn't allow that, and volunteered to stand there.
I didnt really mind it, especially since the chaps who had seen the incident all found a place for me to stow away my bags out of the wet. But everyone else did. And they all told me how soon, some seats would be vacated and i could sit there. And sure enough, they often were, and i would sit down for a while, till the next people came on.
One of these times, when I was standing in the corridor and being jostled, a man gave me his seat. Thank you, but I am fine, I tried to say. I have been sitting long enough, he said and insisted I take his place. After that, every half hour, on the half hour, I would try and tell him that I've sat enough. He always refused to take his seat back. He stood there for two hours, just so that I would not be jostled by strangers.
So it was not a bad experience after all. It was reassuring to know that the Mighty Indian Rail was human after all. It was nice to interact with my fellow-passengers. It was extremely nice to meet truly kind people. This experience was all about humanity then, and it was good.
But humanity is not all good. When I was standing by the loo, something sticky was thrust into my palm. I looked down and saw a grimy little paw holding my hand. Its owner was a little boy who stared impassively at me and did not flinch as I raised an interrogative eyebrow at him. His mum then spoke to me," look after him, will you" and disappeared into the loo before I could reply. I was left holding the kid and trying not to think about the cause of the sticky palm. See, he wasn't eating sweets, and his nose was running. If this woman had thrust a parcel into my hand, I would have been justified in calling security. Now, I could do nothing, despite that this had immense potential to explode and was a biological hazard to boot. Sometimes there is too much human contact
Well, one can go the traditional route and stop at one of the many enticing chai stalls on the way. Else there are momos and pastries and all manner of urban delights- this is a tourist town after all.
or it is possible to live off the land and sample all that the forest has to offer. The mussoorie hills are famous for their berries, and we found some on a ramble last week.
Here they are, and scrumptious they are too.
Some of my happiest days have been spent by the sea. And one of the things that always gave me much pleasure as a child was looking at the ripple marks on the sand. It is pretty, isn't it?
It is wonderful to stand in clear moving water and watch it sparkling in the sunlight. A foot below the surface is a clean, white, sandy bed. It is marked with row after row of wonderfully defined and marvelously regular wavy marks. Here and there, this bed is marked with an occasional irregularity. Instead of spoiling the symmetry of the marks, this occasional mark enhances it. Instead of despoiling the prisine beauty of the bed, it speaks of the life that exists there: these marks are the tracks of starfish, the front porches of shellfish.
Now that I have moved here, the sea is what I miss most. And so I was absolutely thrilled when I came across just such a sandy sea bed. And absolutely thrilled as I looked at the bed and thought of all the stories it told. The gentle sea, with its moving, dancing wavelets. The pulse of tides. The marks of an animal as it moved across the bed in search of food, shelter, love. What matters it if all this happened millions of years ago?
Because what I was looking at was the floor of the Tethys Ocean. wow.
The fossil ripples are visible on the road from Mussoorie to Tehri, between 4-5 kilometers from the Woodstock School. Keep a sharp eye open, and you are bound to see them.
It is strange that while a large part of my time is spent at work, I have not really mentioned my office very often except to gripe. And yes, it is true that I do sometimes have issues with my workplace. But when I complain it is about the most banal of things- weekends, internet connections, and gossip. And that is wonderful, because it shows that in the things that matter I am supremely content.
People have called me naive, and people have called me a dreamer. The more irritating ones have smirked and said, ‘you don’t know how the world is. Wait for a few years and you will learn.’ It is only slightly less surprising than it is refreshing therefore, to suddenly find myself in the role of Cynical Worldly Woman.
Because the chaps in the office are nothing if not dreamers to the core. It is refreshing while setting targets for the year to hear the most unexpected person pipe up and argue against financial indicators. It is refreshing while discussing a new project to see that the ethicality of the work and not its bottom line is the major deciding factor. And most of all, it is refreshing to hear ‘business’ meetings focus on how to change the world.
Of course it is not perfect. Sometimes there is a wide gap between the participatory ideal and the ‘because I say so’ reality. But the striving is there. Sometimes an eavesdropper lurking outside our rooms might think that a bunch of cats were squabbling in there. But not once in my presence has the squabbling been over who gets the most cream.
It is human, it is flawed, it firmly believes in the inherent goodness of humanity, it strives to make this world better one leaf at a time, and it continually agonizes over whether it is as just as it could be. Not a bad place to be, eh?