Tuesday, December 27, 2011

I have never stolen anything that was actually being worshipped at the time

No, this is not my defense for stealing a boat. My comrades- DV and DM- lawfully rented the boat that took us from Allahabad to Varanasi.
The sentence is perhaps the most interesting thing I heard during the Ganga trip. We were visiting a very nice and hospitable gentleman when he said that.
But he was not the only interesting person we met. There was a young girl at Dumdumma, where we spent the first night. Educated in a NTPC colony, she moved back to her village when her father retired to discover that she did not belong to it anymore. She spoke English with us, watched as we packed our tents to leave- something she so badly wanted to do too- and did not let go of DM's hand as he stepped into the boat to leave.
There was Mr.R, who managed a toll bridge at Mahewa, and had been managing one since 1969. We told him of what an important job it was, but all he could repeat was that 'he had never been capable of getting a government job.'
The boatmen, who warrant a post of their very own.
The Os, with their gracious hospitality and their colonial lifestyle.
And of course, the three of us. Three very different people, very different backgrounds, very different reasons for doing this trip, and on one little boat for 7 days. Miraculously, we not only came out of it without tossing anyone overboard, but we actually ended up being friends.
And now we are each back, in our homes.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Vintage travel

I was travelling last week, and am off tomorrow for ten days. I will be taking baby steps along the same paths where some of my heroes strode. First visiting some mountains (THE mountains, the Himalayas) and then a river (THE river, the Ganga) . A bit of work, a lot of play.

The Ganga visit is utterly fascinating. Three strangers, of whom I am one, plan to buy/hire/steal a rowboat and paddle from Allahabad to Varanasi (150 kms, 2 hours by road, 5 days by boat). Only one of these three knows his/her way around a boat. We plan to take it slow, with the journey being far more important than the destination.

We will camp on the river islands, watch the sunset turn the river to gold. We will wake in time to see the sun's rays chase away the wraith-like tendrils of fog that rise from the water. At times, the river will be blanketed by flocks of migratory birds. We will pass different time zones. Some places, the banks will lined with forts that were once impenetrable but now are crumbling into the river. The next minute, we might pass groups of children exulting in the water they live by. While I expect to learn a lot more about myself and about my companions in these six days than about the people along the river, we will be treated to an ever-changing but eternal landscape.

And I will be doing all this without a camera. A grain of sand, nothing more, that my camera happened to swallow and this will challenge me more than the bed of the Ganga herself. I was pretty upset, as you can imagine.

But not any more. Think about it. The great travellers I grew up reading- the heroes I mentioned earlier- have not only  painted impressive images of the places they visited, but also of the flavour of their experiences. Their words and descriptions are with me wherever I go, adding to the pleasure of what I see. I greet some landscapes with the joy one reserves for meeting old friends, because that is what they are- I know these areas intimately through these books. The necessity of photographs? It's all maya.

I will see you around Christmas, then. With stories and sketches.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Of kitchens and cake baking

Today a friend and I baked a cake in the Sonapani kitchen. 'Because the students are coming', I explained. S and the staff grinned- they knew as well as I did that it was Mian's return that spurred my baking, not that of his brood.

It's an easy cake recipe and one that is complicated in the memories it brings up. My mum, my sis and I have been baking this cake always. It's a Thangam Phillip recipe, out of the book that we always turned to. The book carried evidence of the love we had showered on it..it was besmeared with masala and batter, dog eared, falling apart, and stuffed with handwritten recipes. That finally fell apart, and now I have the second generation copy. It too, is fragrant with all I have cooked from it. It too, has Amma's notes, written in her voluptous kannada-inspired handwriting.

I no longer need the book to make this cake with. What I do need is something to stop me from crying with missing my childhood and the many other times we have made this cake. My mum, my sis and I have made it in our old sawantwadi house, in the circular Bajaj oven that did not have a thermostat. We have made it happily for birthdays, and sadly for Acca to take to her college with her. We made it in Pune, in our spanking new OTG, again a Bajaj. I have made it super-sweet for a little baby who did not appreciate bitter chocolate yet. I've made it for a crush who called it 'captivating chicu's chocolatey chocolate cake'. I made it for Mian when he was not my Mian yet. I made it today to welcome him back after a week away. And I always miss my mum  and my sis when I make it.

But here is the recipe.
1 cup maida
1 cup cocoa
1 cup butter
1 cup (or a little less) powdered sugar
1 pinch salt
4 eggs (3 if large)
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp vanilla (or rum, or coffee)

Preheat the oven to 180 degrees C.
Sift the flour, cocoa, baking powder and salt together. Three times, and with the sieve 10 cm above the plate, my mum would insist.
Cream the butter and sugar together till very, very light and fluffy. The more, the better, Amma says.
Then add the eggs one by one, whisking after each addition. If it curdles, add a tbs of the dry mixture, she said while she rescued the cake. 
Then gently fold in the dry mix, moving in one direction only.
Add a little milk if it seems dry. It should look like dosa batter.
Pour into a buttered and floured cake pan. Bake for 30 mins or till done. Don't check for done-ness too often, it lets the cold air in.
Never in the last 30 years have the three of us been able to let a cake cool unmolested for long enough to ice it. If you are more disciplined than we are, good for you!