Celebrations and Family: Is Generational Isolation A Good Thing?

Pepsi adverts are usually the pits, stupid writing and empty glitz, but this little short film on the importance of homecoming, family, and celebrations – with the barest glimmer of product placement – is touching, and rather sweet. Here it is.

The film is appealing on many levels apart from the sentimental. One of it the depiction of social changes that economic modernity has brought in India.

Unlike previous generations of Indian children, most of whom settled close to the son’s parents (if not in the same house), current young professional are setting up homes elsewhere, leaving elderly parents to tend empty nests without any real sense of fulfilment.

Urban parents of the previous generation also tended to have just one child or two, instead of the battalions of yore. If that child – or those children – happen to be daughters, then the chances of the parents leading such lonely and/or independent lives increase manifold. Not that all sons make their homes with their elderly parents, of course, but in our patrilocal society, there’s at least the expectation they might (whether or not that means domestic bliss); parents of married women are denied even that.

Of course, as the film shows, technology – not too long ago limited to shoddy overhead lines and whirly-disc phones – has seeped into most nooks of of our human living, simplifying it enormously. But banalisation of human interaction is often the flip side of that. It’s great to video-chat with one’s parents several times a week, but precisely because the technology of virtual nearness is present, distance might no longer makes the heart fonder, and regular family-time may begin to feel forced, banal and tedious. There is of course the convenience of shutting Skype off or hanging up the phone, but the discontent it produces ferments, and is either carried over into future conversations, or, as in the film, into deliberate silence.

On the other hand, in a country where intergenerational households are common, Indians are all too used to the multiple small and large conflicts of interest, lack of personal space and freedom (especially for women), and constraints on the development of individual tastes. Of course, marital units of a large intergenerational family saves more individually, and bringing up children becomes easier in a house full of adults and other children. But most people – again, especially women – who have experienced the lacks of a growing up in a joint family in post-liberalisation India are prepared to forgo these benefits for greater freedom of individual expression. Celebratory reunions, in such contexts, are sweetended by the guilt of living apart (against social expectations), and the assurance that the holidays of memory-making are fleeting, and separation will soon commence again.

Unless the holiday reunions happen under duress, or the family has a troubled dynamic, I’d say this is what makes holidays in contemporary India happier for the ‘separated’ family.

But the reason I like the film especially, is because it depicts the elderly parents as agentive: not whiny, not aggressive, yet capable of standing firm and demanding their needs be acknowledged too. Such a refreshing break from the tradition of weepy, self-effacing, ever-sacrificing parenthood on Indian screens. For that stroke of realism or encouragement – depending on your own relationship to your parents and offsprings – I recommend the film even more.

Food My Lovers Taught Me to Love, Part I

You know how advice columnists always say, “If he’s trying to change you, put on your lace-up flats and run!”?

Now usually, I’d be completely on their side. If ‘love’ for someone is predicated on wistful goodbyes to everything else, then the time to cut the cords is NOW!.

However, ‘change’ could be a good thing. It might mean ‘positive affect’. It could be a broadening of horizons. It can certainly be personal growth, and in some cases it might mean ‘intensifies’. For instance, you might be a clock-watcher dating another punctual type. If you two move in together, you’ll probably enable each other till you’re both obnoxious human clocks, being forever on time and tut-tutting at the rest.

Don’t go down that route unless you fancy punches to the nose.

Now me, I’ve had some pretty colourful relationships. And being Bengali, a large chunk of them have revolved around food. My first relation propre was with an Anglo-American gent. In my initial American months, mealtimes were a despondent chore. I cooked simple curries twice a week and hated eating them, because cheap supermarket vegetables in America taste like soggy newsprint, and I knew no other way to make them more edible. I also hated cheese, dismissed bacon, ill-trusted sausages, and looked with suspicion upon roasting and baking.

Then, as my supply of home-ground spices was finally running out, I met him.

He was tall, blue-eyed, Boston-blond, and just as impoverished as I was. But he knew his way around American shops and kitchen. He introduced me to high-protein breakfasts, salads-from-scrap, crispy bacon, sausages with mustard, fluffy pancakes cooked in lard, homemade pasta sauces and deli-end sandwiches. We could rarely afford the good stuff, but he also taught me to love cheese – the nutty gouda, the sharp cheddar, the rich goat, the creamy brie.

When I look back at my time with him, I almost can’t believe how comprehensively he changed my palate, yanking at the edges of my considerable stubbornness till I gave in, and fell in love with it all.

My range in the kitchen expanded dramatically, too. Till the Transatlantic Sojourn, I was a dab hand at Bengali things, but everything beyond that was a vague, foggy mass.

Union Stars and Stripes helped me bake my first cake, and taught me how to make a lovely four-ingredient salad dressing. When November rolled around, we bought a turkey, made our own stuffing, prepped and roasted the bird, and made a lip-smacking gravy with the pan-droppings. You’d think mashed potatoes are easy, but before I met this kitchen-dreamboat, I had no idea alusheddho with salt, butter, milk and pepper – instead of, you know, mustard oil and green chilies – could be so divine.

By the time our relationship had unravelled beyond repair, I had begun keeping roasted garlic and pine-nuts in my kitchen for comfort meals, homemade peach preserves and cantaloupes for snacks, broccoli and pork chops-on-sale for quick pick-me-up dinners. If ever a man succeeded in endearing boiled broccoli to a woman, it was this man. Of course, he also drove me to the best chowder and bisques in town, but as a Boston man, I’d think that was more his civic duty than an act of love.

The best thing he taught me to make and love, however, was damn near a miracle, for it involved almost every single thing I once hated: bacon, hard-fried eggs, cheese. What he put together with these things, though, was just fabulously wonderful. I’ll call it the baked egg, because ‘baked’ is effectively what the eggs become.

You begin by lightly greasing a thick-bottomed saucepan, and layering it with deli-ends or bacon. You flip the meat after a minute of browning, and layer the cooked side with cheese, onions and chopped chilies. Then, you break whole eggs over it, two eggs per person. The final garnish is salt and pepper, and maybe a little parsley and sage. You give the eggs a minute to cook on medium flame, then cover the pan, and simmer. In about three minutes, you have soft, creamy baked eggs, on a bed of melted spicy cheese and crispy bacon or meat. This, you eat with hot buttered toast (though I must say Americans are rather stingy with their toast. ‘A stack of toast’ is not a transatlantic phenomenon).

It’s been a few years since the Anglo-Am and I have broken up, but the strange foreign things he taught me to love has changed the way I cook and eat almost completely. Tucked away beyond north Calcutta, I missed the cheese and meats for months, as my tongue readjusted to dal-bhaat and curried veg at every meal. It’s true we had rather fierce arguments about food and cooking, and there are favourites of his that I wouldn’t touch with a barge-pole (banana-split, yuck!), but a man who imparts the secrets of crisp pork fat has, in my opinion, transcended the judgement of schmucks who used to turn away from bacon.

Fairer than that Word

I am editing a book meant for west African school-going audiences. Amongst many other slightly-sermonising pieces, it has a parable about honesty, featuring the Aesopian woodcutter who drops his iron axe into a river, and is tested by the goddess of the river, who tempts him with a gold and silver axe instead of his own.

Our author – subject-matter experts, they’re called – has recast the goddess as a fairy. A “beautiful” fairy, because she has golden hair and blue eyes. Mind you, this for a west African impressionable audience, by an Indian person – two countries with histories of white supremacist assault, and two cultures still plagued by the post-colonial disease of hating their own dark skin.


I thought about the troubles of overriding authorship for a while, then I quietly deleted the description, changed “fairy” to “the spirit of the river”, and put in “curly black hair” and “kind eyes” in place of golden and blue. Third world children are swamped enough with blonde hair, coloured eyes and photoshopped white ideals of beauty. For fewer instances of bleached skin and self-hatred, they should perhaps trip across comforting little details like this, showing them that magically wonderful creatures can look like them, too.

Besides, there is no comparison between “kind eyes” and “pretty eyes”. The younger we teach children to notice people’s positive attributes rather than their looks, the better it will be for them, and for us.

The Resolve of the Bombay Catholics and Miss Danie’s Easter Eggs

I joined work in the middle of Lent, and discovered that observant Catholics from Bombay and abouts go vegetarian for Lent. For all of it. I have known people to give up a particular favourite for Lent – a couple I once met told me they’d tried giving up sex, but gave in and conceived their first child instead – but I’ve never known a community to give up a defining chunk of their cuisine altogether.

I’m a little bit gobsmacked, actually. Being vegetarian is not really that big of a deal in India, because millions of Indians are born into faith-based vegetarian cultures and never taste animal protein. But to give up the good stuff when you know how delicious it is – now that takes some steel in the spine!

Still, Easter is almost here, that happy Sunday when all creatures big and small return to the Catholic kitchens, and in celebration, here are three pictures of the fabulous Easter eggs my lovely colleague Daniela Cardoz made for her family last year. See and envy her lucky family, people!




Indian Elections 2014: Close-up 2

Yesterday on the train, I heard a rehash of a recent Facebook conversation I’ve had. A group of people (mostly supporting Modi) bemoaned the decline of the nation since independence, the growth in corruption, the general rotting of the social and moral structures – the usual cheesy whine (if you forgive the lame pun). To the last person, they blamed politicians and the government for this, and agreed with each other that nothing good could ever come of India.

The people on my Facebook, bless them, have the long view of greater good, and hence they oppose the dictatorial politics of Narendra Modi. My co-passengers on the train were blinded by the irrational hope for a majoritarian government, that will put troublesome minorities in their place and enforce righteous discipline. But both groups missed the mark, in my opinion, because they both disowning the responsibility they had, as members of the voting public, in nurturing our poisonous, sectarian political climate. It is our susceptibility towards divisiveness, after all, that has trained our politicians to believe that on-record religion and ethnic talk and off-record violence is all they need to sail into office. And if we want a stronger India, we have to shake off our personal discomforts with difference, no matter how uncomfortable it makes us initially.

And honestly, despite a political system so rotten it stinks, I don’t personally think India is beyond hope. Quite the contrary, in fact (although I do have my moments of hopeless cynicism). But if we are to actually go beyond moaning on social media and thriving on the “likes” and “shares” our oh-so-politically-aware commentaries earn, we need to first drop the automatic, frothing-at-the-mouth defensiveness and admit straight up that our own prejudices and apathy got us into the mess we’re in. It got us the politicians we have, the scams we pay for, and the social policing we suffer. A thriving citizen’s media is a great thing, but active involvement in communities and local politics is the only way this country will actually develop (and by that I don’t mean sprout more shopping malls).

If we want a better future, we absolutely HAVE to take ownership of our past. So stop getting mad when someone says you’re part of the problem. Everyone in a failing society is part of the problem in some way or another. Own up to it, and then try to grow beyond it. A seed doesn’t burst into a tree in thin air. It needs the dark and dirty depths for a strong beginning. This election season, that’s probably a good analogy to bear in mind.

Going to Corporate School, I

I’m not exactly sure what it is that HR folks do, but the two pen-pushers at my new place of work have been after my fabulously productive and stunningly brilliant self for coming in ten minutes late on most days (and seventy minutes late one particular day).

This is a bit odd, since most everybody else – including one of these mindless watch-watchers – comes in about forty minutes late every day.

Missing the forest for the minutes hand.

So anyway, things came to a head day before, when they pulled me away from a deadline to tell me how awful it is that I come in a few minutes late, how utterly demoralising it is for the rest of the folks (I’d say, since they come in even later), and how this radiates “special privileges” for me, which they cannot in fair conscience grant. The HR head-honcho is an atrocious articulator, which means she took a good twelve minutes of my very precious time to make the points above, till I cut in gently and told her that her point was excellently made, and she needn’t belabour it further. But she decided to push her point one final time… and that is what kicked the matter up from “Mindless Irritant With Class-Monitor Hang-ups” to “Revolting Regressive Adult Needing Remedial Socialisation”.

Honcho-chick evidently believes that a little drama goes a long way in the disciplinary arts. So, she decided to depict visually and aurally how I sound when I ask for permission to come in late, and how this will start an office revolution like RIGHT NOW. (Just so you know, I have never actually asked her permission for anything, since I deal only with my supe and her boss the Creative Head. This meeting was the first time HR-honcho and I were first laying eyes on each other). She threw up her hands, twirled them about, and started blabbing excuses in a high-pitched, whiny voice. Hard to credit, but yes; a lady of respectable years, with the dried-up, pinched  look of a seasoned senior admin., decided that bottom-barrel panto was the best way to get her serious disciplinary point across.

While she dabbled in her performance, I tried very hard to rein in my shock and appallment. I am perfectly at home to caustic telling-offs, stern admonishments and friendly words of caution. What I find hard to accommodate are idiocy and crassness, and this person embodied the extremes of both, plus large dollops of irrationality. I mean, if you’re the damned human resources, it might just be part of your job to consider what effect you might have on company productivity by pulling out a productive new employee first thing in the morning, and treating her to a sordid theatre of your one-eyed clock-watching.

I cut her performance short by telling her firmly I was quite certain I did not sound like she wished I did, and that her acting was especially futile since it was, yet again, a grotesque repetition of points I had warned her was already well-made, and a waste of my limited work-time. Then I genially offered her the choice to propose my termination on grounds of ten minutes of lateness a month from now, and in the meanwhile, let me get on with my work. And then, thanking her warmly for her time, I left, glowing with revulsion and the satisfaction of toning down a bully.

But the encounter messed with my entire working day, unsettling my concentration and making me evaluate the fun work against the sly and idiotic monitoring paradigms. Never mind fairness or using appreciation instead of “we’re onto you!” telling-offs to boost productivity, if the HR department makes a valued employee want to leave within ten days of joining and enjoying the work, then they’re doing everything wrong, and need to be given the boot immediately.

In an attempt to be fair, someone suggested that HR might have been worried because I also took a day of medical leave – scheduled three days in advance and approved by my supe – to accommodate my bi-annual check-up. Right. So then the HR department, which is charged with handling a few hundred creative people (and not corporate flunkies), goes into crazy-eyed panic if a new and very productive employee comes in a little late every day (although earlier than many, and stays several hours after ending-time), and takes one day of medical leave. Well, I don’t see how it alters my suggestion, which is immediate dismissal, and a sympathetic suggestion for psychiatric aide.

Or, of course, they could carry on, enforcing a vampiric workplace which tries to cut its employees down to size by focusing exclusively on transgressions, and turning Heller Keller on everything else. Now, this will sadly lead to a dissatisfied workplace full of people who think of HR as cretins, and who shall, to cope with them, cut down extra hours and stick strictly to their “9-hour in office” policy, no matter how much work piles up. It’ll be very demoralising and depressing, but hell, even if our work suffers, we’ll be ticking the right boxes. Who knows, we might even win an award for punctuality. (And I’d personally recommend the HR person for a Certificate of Appreciation in amateur dramatics.) After all, isn’t that exactly what every person who sets up a company wants from his or her employees?

Sigh. Talk about breaking your own face to spite the tiny zit on your nose.

PS: Incidentally, while HR is very very concerned by my clock-in time, they still haven’t got around to giving me the papers they need to set up my salary account. It is the 23rd of the month. Just sayin’.

Friendship: The Joy of Stiffing the Bride Together

After all the weddings I couldn’t attend this January (and yes, dahlink newly-weds, I will collect my heap of fish-fries from you), it looked like February was going to step up and deliver the broke-via-gifting punch. Or so I thought, before I read my emails last night.

It so happens that a person I know socially has been invited to one of the same weddings as I have. We’ve not been invited as a group, but for reasons unknown, her mind sees us as one. I say “reasons unknown” because my invite is clearly made out to Mr. & Ms. N, and hers is made out to her family. This person wrote me an email last night, in which she said the following:

“Hi! So we’re going together? Pls let me know when you want to reach venue. OK, I had a request. Moving back to India has been very expensive and we’re still settling in. As you know, my father also fell ill and treatment was expensive. So I am going to request you to stay inside a gift-budget of Rs. X, because we cannot afford more“.

I stared at the email for a few seconds, then did a slow clockwise stock-taking of our little room (wall, canvas, rocking chair, books, backpack, partner, wall) and then looked back at the email, just to make sure we were all in the same reality. Did a person just email me and effectively ask me to stiff a newly-married couple – who are her friends! – just so her lack of an expensive gift wouldn’t stand out?

And here, a quick word about presents: I had a wedding not too long ago, and many people gave me many lovely things for it, so I think I’m qualified to speak on the subject. Many of my presents were quite expensive; but my favourite pieces were not necessarily the ones that cost the most. The little gold pendant and a pair of cubic zirconia ear-studs are both old pieces, from the trinket-boxes of my dear friend and my great-aunt respectively. And that’s a big part of their draw. They’re both small, everyday pieces, worn often and imbued with the essence of two wonderful people who love me. A spanking new neckpiece with matching earrings has nothing on that.

So despite the environment of pissing-contest consumerism we live in, and notwithstanding the fact that gift-givers are often judged on the basis of their gifts, I’d say that if you know a person, then the value of your present cannot be solely predicated on its price-tag. Good money buys a lot of lousy presents, and a hand-made card lasts on someone’s bedroom wall for years. To illustrate: I was give a chunky gold-plated jewellery set with pink and green stones; I was also given a beautiful hand-painted canvas by my very talented friend L, which adorns our otherwise bare walls.

But if the gift-givers’ sole concern is establishing or maintaining their social status via an expensive gift, or failing that, escaping notice and shame by increasing the number of cheap gift-givers at the event, then I must say, they have missed a crucial component of the ritual of gifting, and I hope the loss is entirely theirs.

I mean, here I am without a job and financially convalescing, and if I felt that that old Bengali trick – “My gift to you two are my heartfelt love and MOST sincere good wishes” – would have worked, I would’ve used it in a jiffy. But I wouldn’t DREAM of insisting other people change their decisions, toe MY budget-line, and shortchange newly-weds or birthday-kids or rice-ceremony babies to make my poverty look good. ’cause what am I, delusional power-tripper? (Don’t answer that.)

In short, my “friend” has terrible priorities and some damned nerve, I shall most certainly not make a joint entrance with her, and I have told her, very politely and very firmly, that my present has already been bought (a lie, of course).

Now all that remains is to write the newly-weds a cheque for Rs. X+1, and I should be all set for fish-fries :-)


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 682 other followers

%d bloggers like this: