Wednesday, December 21, 2016

A bitter story

When a good friend ran out of bitter marmalade, she called me. I was the only person she knew who could be trusted to give her traditional marmalade. An acquaintance had gone on a trek last year, in the course of which he dropped in to visit Mian. His chief memory of that long day is that he had eaten whisky-laced marmalade at our home. In a few hours, two young men are coming over home so that I can teach them how to coax lemons into marmalade. So I have a bit of a reputation for making the stuff. And I make a LOT of it.

Which is  why it is surprising that I do not enjoy the jam-making process. Is it the tedium of chopping and stirring, you wonder? Is it the hours spent over a stove knowing that if you look away, the gloopy mess will suddenly burn? Is it the dipping of hands alternately into cold lemon pulp and hot water with disastrous results? Ye-es..all of that does have a place, but the real reason is different.

I detest marmalade-making because the process is the equivalent of the nosy neighbour who visits to pass judgement on your housekeeping. Marmalade making is the pious uncle who discovers that you used your 'no-aromatics' chopping board to cut onions because all the others were in the sink; the  aunty who spies the mustard seed you spilled into the sugar the day you were juggling chai and khichidi; the other uncle who points out that you have 12 jars and 8 lids; and worst of all, marmalade-making is the pesky brat who announces to everyone that you miscalculated the recipe and tried to cover it up by stirring hot water into half a jar of marmalade.

Thankfully, all these jars have lids..
For me, the source of distress all of last year was the case of the  Ginger-Garlic-marmalade. I had opened a fresh jar and immediately smelt it- ginger and garlic where there should have been only lemon and sugar. Hastily, I shoved it to the back of the fridge and opened another jar.

Many months later, Mian reached for a new jar and I watched his face change as he uncapped it. 'Oh is that the garlic one?' I asked blithely. 'That's for when we make sweet-and-sour pork.' Mian, bless the man, did not ask any more questions but put it back in the fridge. As our stock diminished, that jar became more and more prominent till I finally emptied it out, popped the contents into the freezer,and washed the jar.

For this year's batch, I had learnt my lesson. I used two buckets of hot lemony water to scrub every surface and every utensil in sight, I boiled jars and jar lids, I did not eat or cook anything till everything was sealed away. I even used a new dish sponge for the occasion.

One of the 5 batches..plain lemon and lemon + cocoa
And today I opened a jar and there it was..ginger garlic marmalade. Turns out that particular  jar is haunted by the spirit of Kimchi past. I had made it once, and it's ghost lingers in the plastic lid. I had to toss that. Thankfully, it is just the one jar and after 5 kilos, I have declared that marmalade season is Closed.

I've barely made a dent in the tree

A friend has bought me 3 kilos of cabbage. They want to try my Kimchi, they say..

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

I, damsel in distress

It was when I was already at Dadahu that I realized what I had set myself up for.  Even worse,  I had not called up the hotel and let them know I was coming.  

Sitting in the bus then I began frantically to look for their  number while willing the Internet signal to stay strong enough for this most essential of searches.

Head down, I was staring at my phone when someone tapped at my window.  it was the bus conductor.
'quick,grab your bag and follow me' he said. 'I found you a bus that will take you to your hotel.'

Not only did he take me to the bus, but he also handed me over like a registered parcel to a group of men and instructed them to make sure I got down at the right place.

These guys instantly took me under their wing. They gave me a seat and fussed around me. When I pulled out cash for the ticket, they told me on behalf of the conductor,' you hold on to your money. He won't charge you for such a short distance'. 

At my stop, I got help with my bag and many good wishes.

And the next morning, I met the kindest truck driver ever. But that is another story.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Chasing pumpkins

This begins, like most of our stories do, with Madhu Bhaloo. She had been waking me up several times in the middle of the night, and with good reason. There were ominous rustlings in the pumpkin patch. I went out several times with a flashlight, but saw nothing. Alone, I sat and fretted.

That pumpkin plant, and the one in our kitchen garden marked a turning point in the life of our garden. Since we moved in, Mian has been bringing  home the seeds of sugar pie pumpkins for me to sow. Every year, they have failed. Our soil has been too poor to raise a crop, the critters have been faster than us, we did not know enough about raising pumpkins.

But all this time, our garden was falling into place. We got chickens which provided us with manure, we set up a rainwater fed irrigation tank, we fenced in our kitchen garden, we learned.
And this year the pumpkins rewarded us. The sugarpies flourished magnificently and gifted us 8 pumpkins. It was the volunteer that the village was oohing and aahing over though.

This seed, probably thrown into the compost, grew till it took over the slope facing our bedroom. First there was one, and then there were six large pumpkins.

These were what the mysterious visitor was after, and concern for them was  keeping Madhu and me up. Mian saw me online late one night and asked me what was the matter. 'Something is chasing our pumpkins' I said sleepily. After a short pause, the gentle Mian tried to reassure me, 'well, it can't be very fast then, can it?' We laughed long and loud then, but today I was vindicated.
The 'pumpking' when still a young one

The giant pumpkin broke its stem, trampled the supports we had placed around it, and disappeared. Madhu, I, G, two men who are presently tilling fields for rye, and one woman who was cutting grass for our household all joined in the search. We found it at the very bottom of the orchard, miraculously not shattered to a pulp, but cracked enough that I could not store it for the winter.

This made me a little sad; I had been looking forward to seeing it gently ripen on our roof. But no matter. I cut it up and shared it with all who had joined in the Great Pumpkin Hunt. There was enough for all..the pumpkin weighed just under 9 Kilos. And I was not perfectly fair in the sharing out, our fridge has a 3.6 Kg wedge of the finest (if not quite ripe yet) pumpkin waiting for Mian to return.
Everybody else's share
Our share

Saturday, September 10, 2016


That word sums up what I want my garden to look like. I want it to be exuberant, to reflect plenty.
It has been tough going.. Plants take a long time to establish themselves, I didn't have enough compost, the summers were mean. 
And when I did get the chickens as a source of compost, they proved to be garden destroyers. I had to protect all the plants with chicken wire fences. That repressive prison environment was exactly the opposite of what I wanted.
And yet.
There are things that do work. Parts of the garden that in the here and now, are what I want them to be.
self-sown kidney beans and amaranth climbing the apricot tree

I see us growing more amaranth next year

Despite its atrocious location (behind the compost pile) this 'saptrangi' rose always delights. First with its multi-coloured flowers, and then the nice fat hips
Here's a closeup

For 4 months every year, the fern wall is as lush as I can wish for

Here's a closeup

velvety purple salvia behind pink phlox. Not sure what Mian thinks of this combination, but I like it!
Getting there, getting there

Tuesday, August 23, 2016


I was sitting and chatting with a friend yesterday when the topic turned, naturally, to the madness that is sweeping over India. 'At times like this, you just want to dig a hole  and crawl inside it' she said. 'Sometimes, just digging is enough' I replied. Passionate gardener that she is, Mrs.L smiled agreement.

Gardening is hope. And forgiveness. And love. Reading gardening books and talking with my gardener friends tells me that there are some things that are common to all gardeners.

We look at our gardens with the eyes of love. Most of the time, we see things not as they are, but as they would have been in a state of perfection. And therefore the new advice is  to photograph your garden and look at it as if it is not yours. But most people I know do not do that. Why would you want to consciously seek out warts in the face you love?

And there is always a next time. No matter what you do, the garden does not hold  a grudge. The year rolls around, and you get a second chance.

And right now, I am plumb in the middle of  the season of Hope. The Monsoon.  That magical time when a broomstick stuck into the ground will put out shoots. Mian  bought me a jar of  rooting hormone powder (that most romantic of men- he knows what will get his wife weak-kneed!) and I have been going a little crazy. Lavender, rosemary, roses, hydrangeas- next year, my garden will be lush!

Here are photos:
Lavender and rosemary. For the south wall in the yard.
Hydrangea. I tried rooting cuttings for three seasons but they all rotted on me. This time, I filled the planting hole with sand for drainage. They are alive so far. What did  I say about forgiveness?
Doesn't look like much,but there are 14 plants of 5 different types in there!
Lily bulbils. Mrs.L gave me scores when she learnt I don't have any tiger lilies. In 3 years, my garden will be on fire!

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Avian woes

As I write this, I am sitting on the porch with a spray can of water next to me. The can is both for protection and for assault. Protection against the rooster, who is programmed to attack anything other than his hens. And assault against a drongo.
I normally like these cheerful agile little birds. Their antics as they catch flying insects is fun to watch. But  this one is the smartest and laziest drongo ever. S/he has found a convenient perch just outside the beehive. All the bird has to do is sit there, beak agape, while bees offer themselves up. Well, not on my watch.
But bird troubles never end. I am driven to write this now because my nose nearly got taken away by an aggressive winged thug. I wish  I could name something like a falcon, but it was a dove. I was walking past the chicken coop, and it shot towards me, with murderous intent. I am so glad I ducked.
Not all the birds we have are malevolent. Some are ailing. One of our hens is lame, which  means she cannot hunt for her lone chick (all the others died). Besides which she does not allow me to inspect her.
And finally, one of the chicks in the other brood has a deformed beak. It is shaped like a hook, which is fine if one is an eagle, not so much fun to eat seeds with. So I need to be mindful about spreading seed on the grass for her where she can pick them up- she can't grasp seeds scattered over stone.
Who would have thought that adopting 4 birds would lead me to being obsessed with the innards, sex lives, and territorial drama of an 11-strong flock?

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Thursday, April 21, 2016

My real mother.

My mother's most cherished photograph of herself is the one where she is wearing a tightly cinched National Cadet Corps uniform. In the post WWII years, the NCC was serious stuff. She relished climbing telephone poles to 'tap' the messages shuttling back and forth, she learnt to shoot, she showed off during drill. Her adventures had begun well before college and the NCC. In school, she was the tomboy of the class- preferring to exit school from a tunnel under the boundary wall rather than through the gate.

Later, she worked in the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research as a 'scanner girl' looking for electrons. In those days, that was the most technical job a woman could have. She talks with joy of those days, of smuggling her friends into the scientists' lift, of talking to Homi Bhabha, of the foreign scientists who would visit.

She also had a non-traditional sense of style. With her first salary, this girl from Mangalore walked into a fancy jewellers and bought a stunning single strand of pearls- like the Hollywood actresses. She would wear none but printed silk sarees and sleeveless blouses. I remember a nightie of hers that I would play with as a child; she probably decided she didn't want to wear it after Baba died. It was nylon, I think, with a front made entirely of lace. It was a very 'mumma' thing to me then, now it strikes me that I only own one thing that even comes close to the risque-level set by my mothers nightie.

She was a part of the audience during a strip show. It was out of the ordinary, but not too much so for this fun-loving girl. When single, she would always be surrounded by a court of devoted and gallant admirers. When she got engaged, my dad and his friends simply joined the club of those who admired Saroja.

Much much later, she found herself a widow with two children and a hospital. That girl stayed alive though. She shone through in impromptu holidays, in movie marathons, in riverside picnics, in a love for rum-and-coke combos.

I need to remember this woman I know, my mother.

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

The apple of my eye

Well, no. But you didn't expect me to refrain me from making that pun while talking of my beloved iris, did you?
Nothing's quite as magical as a bed of iris backlit by the morning sun.

And this is the most spectacular one I've seen:
 But there is lots else happening this spring.
The Amaryllis:
 The Azalea:
And everywhere, the promise of more sweetness to come. Here is the honeysuckle over our window, waiting to flower till Mian is back home.

Saturday, April 2, 2016

The little stone house

I suppose I always knew it existed. It alone knows what  it was in the beginning. Before Mian and I moved here, G briefly used it as a place to store fruit. But it was already rundown and he quickly gave up the attempt. And for 4 years it stood there on the edge of the orchard and on the edge  of my consciousness.
Till a couple of  weeks ago when I walked past it  with eyes newly opened by David Culp's stunning book  about his garden. When I came across the little house, it was early morning and the sun caused the house to glow like honey. The ferns were cool, the air was scented with apple blossom.
The stone house. Perfect just as it is

Charmed, I visited the house several times. I saw the lovely exposed rock face with ferns growing down it and reflected that Gertrude Jekyll would envy me for that 'ready-made' feature. I looked at the rose growing in the corner and thought of how it would scent the area with a little encouragement. I carefully noted the moisture and sun available in different areas and fantasized about planting arrangements.
And then I spoke about this to G. He was deeply suspicious of my plans.'Saheb' he said, meaning A whose orchard it is, 'wants to use it for something.'  I showed the stone house to Mian. He was ecstatic, but not quite in the way I was. 'What a lovely guest house this would make! Just need a roof. and a floor. and a little straightening.' humph.
I would do it, I decided. I would make me a walled garden, alone if need be.

And today when I was pulling up the weeds, G came by. He stood warily while I explained that I would plant things so that the structural integrity of the place was not compromised. And then I spoke of the rose.
'I am planning to string wires between the walls,' I said. 'and train the rose along it, so that in a few years we will have..'
'A white roof!' breathed an awestruck G
Together we stood and smiled at the nodding clusters of roses we could see so clearly.
I think I might have an ally.
A fireplace. Revealed after an hour of pulling weeds

Thursday, March 3, 2016

I have a face.

I am at a workshop these days, with some old friends and some people I've just met but find fascinating.

Today morning one of them walked up to me with a pendrive in his hand. 'Here is my pendrive' he said. 'That's nice', replied I. 'What do you want me to do about it?' 'Oh' he said 'not you. The other woman'.

The other fat woman he meant.

Not bothering to learn my colleague's name or look at her face, he had just looked at her body and walked up to the nearest person with the same body type.

And later in the day, I spoke about my work on the Ramganga. During the tea break after, I was surrounded by a small group of people who wanted to know more and let me know they appreciated what I said. I was gratefully basking in the nice comments when one person said, 'you speak like Vandana Shiva'.

 'eh?' I was confused- while I appreciate what Ms. Shiva has done for the visibility of India's agrobiodiversity, we don't share an area of work and certainly not a speaking style. What he said next made his thoughts clear. 'You also look like her. Actually, you also look like Usha Uthup. And Shubha Mugdul.' 'Ah.I see.'

Look, I know it might be confusing, this proliferation of large and loud women. But here's a tip. We have different faces.And we do different jobs. Focus on those two things.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Madhu the muse

Today I discovered that our neighbour's children have made up a song for the Bhaloo
Madhu Madhu
Kaisi Madhu?
Madhu Madhu
Pyari Madhu!

I agree.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Chapatis and Ikedori

I shun anything like a manicured garden. Mian and I have a lived-in, comfy garden. We have food for us, for the animals, and the bees, for most of the year. There are much-awaited seasonal events like the first irises, the sweet william, the first frost, and of course the great narrative of the fruit trees.

None of these have been planned. Nature has her plans, we bow our heads and receive her gifts.

And that is why it is odd that I have a great admiration for Japanese gardening. This love was sparked by a lyrical book, 'The Garden of Evening Mists'. In it, one of my favourite passages is  where the protagonist bends down to sip water from a ladle, from a small stone filled with water. As she sips, she raises her eyes and sees a mountain that would have remained hidden otherwise.

This effect is a planned one, using the concepts of ikedori/shakkei- to 'borrow' the outer landscape into the garden and aware- sense of haunting about the ephemeral nature of things. I am charmed by these concepts, but know I lack the skill or the inclination to adopt them.

But I underestimated how  generous Nature is.

I was making chapatis today for the Bhaloo who has begun to refuse rice. As I was bent over the rolling pin, I chanced to look up. And just below  the eaves, where I would not have seen it had I not been rolling that chapati, I saw this:

Serendipity, Nature- thank you.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Remembering love

A working meeting of friends is a great way to remember a loved one, I thought. I was there for an all-India gathering of people, on the day one of their leaders had died. I listened as people walked up to the mike, reported on the work they had done, mentioned their plans and ended with 'Inquilab zindabad'. In all those talks was a mention of B and how she had suggested this, and encouraged that.

I felt their love, but it was when her husband spoke that tears stung my eyes. He was calm; there was no catch in his voice, no tears. It was what he said.

'Our friends were right when they said they could not capture all of B's personality. There were so many facets to her. I was lucky enough to be in a position to study her closely, I always kept trying to understand more of her. Everyday I would see a new side to her.'

'I still consult her when I am trying to do something. It is a habit hard to get out of. I relied on her so much for advice, for inspiration.'

'For the last 10 years, I have been living with the shadow of her death over me. But not her. She absolutely was not afraid of death. At the same time,she had not given up. She wanted to live. She loved her life.'

He went on, smiling as he talked of her. He laughed sometimes, was stern sometimes, as he gave instances how she had acted and how we should now.

And that is what I want for myself. That someday, Mian remember me with this love and affection. With tenderness and admiration. That he continue to 'consult his comrade because he's gotten into the habit of it'.

But for that, I need to become someone worthy of it. I need to be wise, and patient, and strong, and uncomplaining, and passionate, and committed, and fun, and so much more. Time to get to it