After several years I stumbled upon a beginning, a start of something new and exciting. A beginning that’s stuffed with young dreams. Dreams that are at times charged with energy and power, and at times tremulous like young love. A very sweet young couple halted for a few days at our place on their way to Timmins, in Northern Ontario, where the mister was slated to start a new job. Although we didn’t know them, besides encounters in a WhatsApp chatroom set up to help them prepare for their adventure in Canada, they endeared themselves straight into our hearts and it felt we have known them for many years!
The days flew by and they departed as planned but they left a lovely gift for us. A gift called Déjà vu. With a tender tug they pulled open the floodgates of memories and nostalgia gushed in. The nostalgia of the numerous beginnings Samir and I have made as a couple and later as a family across several countries and continents. These children that just passed through our lives, like a fresh morning breeze, have inspired me to dwell on the very first beginning that we made in the December of 1980 in a little apartment in Salt Lake. Salt Lake, on the eastern periphery of Calcutta, was then not the sprawling satellite metropolis it is today. It has grown, changed and warped into a monster town almost unrecognizable to those who witnessed its gentle beginnings some forty years ago.
Our flat was tiny but what it lacked in physical dimensions it made up amply in brightness. Natural light broadened and enhanced the space in all sorts of unimaginable ways. At all times of the day, the sun somehow managed to find a way to peep in so that every nook and cranny was always brightly lit up. Samir had already bought a few articles of furniture and his mother gave us a solid Burma teak dining table that she no longer used; oval in shape and fitting our space perfectly. But we had no chairs to go around it, so we put money from our wedding presents to buy several at an auction and then a Godrej almirah rounded off the space nicely for us.
I liked what I saw yet I did not like it. The chair-wood was dark and angry-coloured with a brooding quality to it. No amount of buffing would help lighten their mood and I was at a loss for how to make these old chairs smile. The idea of dressing them up was just forming in my mind when one lazy afternoon I heard the twang of a cotton-beater’s Dhunai machine. I opened the window and there he was with a big bag of cotton and other paraphernalia slung over his shoulder. The cotton-beating machine is a manual contraption – large, roughly bow shaped with both ends connected by a strong but flexible metal string. The beater embeds the string portion in a pile of cotton and beats it with a mallet, thus separating the cotton from its seeds and making it fluffy, light and energized before stuffing it into pillows and duvets. I picked a fabric and he measured my chairs and made them plump cushions right there, squatting on the grass under my window. While I made some tea and chatted with the cotton-beater he kept plugging away at his trade. He beat the cotton expertly in a steady timeless rhythm; generations of practice flowing effortlessly through his fingers. Twang, twang, twang went the string, specks of white snowy cotton flew around, like blurbs in a comic book, not wanting to be trapped and having to spend the rest of their lives under various parts of a human body. But the cotton-beater captured them all. All the cotton-conversations and all their dreams went right into my cushions. Several quick strokes, adept fingers, some strong needle and thread and Voila! I soon had comfy seats that snatched the hardness away from my chairs in a jiffy. As I thanked and paid the man, impressed at his alacrity and efficiency I couldn’t help pondering that this man needed a better model for his business – not peddling door-to-door catering to pesky housewives but more along the lines of a home-spun factory from where he could supply people with their orders. Such a smart guy!
Well, utility was certainly served; it felt super to sit on my chairs, but now they looked like they were in diapers and not fit for display in polite society. So, that weekend Samir kick-started his Vicky-bike and we went vrooming into the city to look for clothing for our newly-acquired and impossibly demanding furniture-babies. I had already marked out a sale at NTC (National Textile Corporation) and the two of us shopped excitedly for some cheap and durable fabric. We picked one in a pretty floral in chrome yellow and burnt sienna on a deliciously buttery background. I also picked a rich rust material for matching curtains and spent the next few days putting the chair covers together on an Ovaltine color Singer-Merritt sewing machine borrowed from my mother. This machine was the most exasperating member of our household. It had a mind of its own; and a beastly, devilish one at that. It didn’t take its demotion from mother to daughter very kindly and sensing the newness of my skill, it played up shamelessly. It created accusing zig-zags when I required a straight line, a frill when I wanted a hem and at its most frustrating worst bunched up the thread under the material so obdurately that I would abandon my project in utter frustration and turn my dour attention to making a lemon souffle instead, to cheer myself up.
The cushion and the backrest covers were finally done after several hiccups – broken thread, shattered needle, jammed bobbin but at the end of it all I had something to show and bask in!
It was a little different when it came to the curtains. I wanted them fashionably pleated but had no clue how to go about keeping the pleats together. Like a lightning bolt, a sudden thought occurred to me. A few blocks away there was a washerman who made a living washing and ironing peoples’ clothes and in that new development, he was never in want of business. Often returning home from the market I had seen linen and drapes that he laid out on the grass to dry in the sun. I picked my moment one morning and turned over a drying drape to examine how the tailor had arranged and kept the pleats together. In a trice, I not only learned the method but also how to attach the lining to the curtain.
Happy as a lark I returned home with my stolen secret bubbling inside me. After quickly putting a rough-hewn meal together I set to work on the drapes. I needed an ally in that Singer-Merritt. I oiled it well, ran some trial rags under the needle-shoe, whispered a mantra in its ear and set to work. Yes, over time I turned into a sewing-machine-whisperer and got some amazing stuff out of that recalcitrant beast.
The ‘deck the house’ project was eventually over and in the evenings when Samir returned from work we sat at our dining table, munching oily potato chips and sipping Kissan’s orange squash, the smell of new cloth and fresh cotton swirling around us. Our young hearts fell in love with what we saw as though it were a palace of sorts with chandeliers glinting over our heads when, in reality, the only heavenly light that shimmered in that cramped space was the glimmer in our starry eyes.
One of the greatest gifts that Samir has ever given me is a cookbook purchased from the colossal annual affair called the Calcutta Book Fair. This book to me was the Cadillac of all cookbooks ever spawned. It had appetizers, soups, salads, entrees, sandwiches, desserts, drinks gathered from all the hemispheres of the earth. I spent many afternoons poring over this treasure trove of superb culinary gems. It is here that I first bowed to Baked Alaska, tangoed with Tabbouleh and shook hands with Sushi. I learned of the mind-boggling varieties of pastries; from flaky to puff to choux; if I executed eclairs one day then the next day I yearned to grapple with gumbo. All by myself in the quiet flat, I rolled off my lips the foreign-sounding names of dishes like P-A-E-L-L-A and G-O-U-L-A-S-H and sundry others. Enunciating these names transported me to exotic and fascinating locales and I longed to try them all. It was a feverish, engulfing passion that grew on me like a gathering crescendo. Mind you, in those days I didn’t possess a baking oven, so I was kind of restricted but one day my mother, bless her always, gave me a great idea. It truly turned out to be the mother of all inventions.
I took a large jute bag and asked the contractor, at a nearby construction site, if I could have a little of the sand that was heaped high on one side. He looked intrigued but did not ask any questions. Thankfully! Instead, he helped me collect a little pile of sand from that great mountain and half carrying half dragging I brought it home. Next, I scooped out a generous amount of it in a large aluminum dekchi and placed it on the gas oven and turned it on. After a while, the sand had warmed up nicely. Pre-heating of my rudimentary oven was complete although I had no clue what centigrade it was. The recipe called for 350 degrees. Then with a large ladle, I made a hollow in the sand and ensconced my pan filled with chocolate cake batter right in that depression, making sure there was enough hot sand under the pan as well as around the sides. Then I covered it with another upside-down pan of a fitting size and put the dekchi cover back on to contain the heat.
While I waited ants of anticipation crawled all over me! Every few minutes I felt like removing the cover and taking a peek but of course, better sense prevailed, and I locked my hands under me as I sat biting my lips. Nothing happened for a while; only the sour clayey odour of over-heated sand made the house smell like a sea-shore and I resigned myself to eating a pudding instead of a cake. At least, I consoled myself, I would have it at a resort by the sea! I picked up a book and in a few minutes forgot that a Ground-Breaking Baking Experiment was happening under my Most Amateur Supervision.
I may even have dozed off when a warm wholesome fragrance tickled my nostrils and slowly spread inside the entire apartment. It came from the direction of the kitchen and it was the delightful, gooey smell of a chocolate cake baking. I dashed to the kitchen, the dekchi lid clattered into the sink, the inverted pan was gingerly removed and lo and behold! There was indeed a cake inside. Almost three-quarters had risen beautifully, the top had even cracked a bit but the last quarter not so much. I peered under the dekchi to check the gas flame. The dekchi was so large that I had not centered it properly hence that one side probably did not receive enough heat. But what the heck! I stabbed a knitting needle into the heart of the cake, as my Mum had advised, and it came out dry as a bone. I removed the cake pan from the sand and after a while turned the cake out on a plate. The bottom had darkened more than necessary so I knew I had to calibrate the heat a bit but otherwise, I had a cake that looked like any other.
That evening I couldn’t wait to surprise Samir with my gastronomic victory. After dinner I whipped my masterpiece out with the fanfare of a conjurer – the cake sat there; one side a little cracked, the other a tad flat. Cooling had darkened the bottom further. It didn’t look quite as handsome nor appetizing as it had first done. Samir looked at it suspiciously and then made the first mistake of the evening. He asked, “What is it?” Now, what man cannot recognize a chocolate cake, huh? I didn’t think it was necessary to answer that question, instead, I fetched a knife and cut a wedge of the cake. It felt like the knife was laboring through a stack of sodden, stubborn paper. Placing it on a plate I put it in front of him. He examined it like a well-trained detective from Calcutta Police and looked up at me. We had been married for six months and by then he had learnt to read some of the tell-tale signs of a dark cloud descending on my brow. He forced himself to put a piece of the cake in his mouth and chewed thoughtfully, his eyes set philosophically on a far-far away point outside the window. Suddenly, he clenched his teeth and squeezed his eyes shut. I thought he had bitten his tongue as he is often prone to do. But no, he was on his way to making the second mistake. He asked, “Did you sieve the flour? I felt grit between my teeth, something like powdered gravel”. Was it time to tell him about the sand etc. etc.? No, instead I decided it was my turn to try the cake. The bottom was quite charred, it was a mongrel of a brownie, a cake, and an over-done pudding and had no pedigree whatsoever!
Heartened by my look of distaste my guy proceeded to make the final and most fatal mistake of that evening, “Maybe you should put some icing on it and then it would look and taste like a real cake”, he said in a helpful tone. This made me really terribly cross. For starters I had no idea what went into making an icing; I hadn’t reached that chapter yet in my Cadillac cookbook. Sharp, salty tears stung the behind of my twenty-two-year-old eyelids and I felt the cool ebbing out of me rapidly. “Whoever ices a gravelly cake, huh?” I asked, my arms akimbo on my hips. “If you want an iced cake you will have to get a new wife who knows how to not only bake a cake but also ice it, okay? The best cake you will ever get out of this wife is the one sitting in front of you, take it or leave it.”
My husband of months was aghast. He looked at my weary, woebegone face and his gentle sensitive side kicked in. He finally got a drift of all my effort and now my supreme frustration. We gathered up the mockery of a cake and threw it away. Out came the Vicky-bike and when Samir kicked it to life I jumped on the pillion behind him. We throttled full-blast through the silent tree-lined streets, the raspberry glow of eventide illuminating our young, exuberant faces. He did a few daring maneuvers with the bike, which he hadn’t done since we first started going out, zigzagging flippantly making me lean into him, raising the front wheel and me laughing into the wind, my saree-end fluttering like a joyous flag, till we reached the Kwality bus-stop to have ice-cream. He chocolate and me vanilla like we do even today after all these years.
I didn’t give up on my sand-box oven though. I experimented with it for days; I learned how to calibrate the heat, keep the sand out of the dish by using flour-glue to seal the cake pan to its lid and then to place a brick (remember the construction site?) over the dekchi cover to ensure no heat-leakage. That torrid sand pit gave me quite a few months of trial-and-error with bread pudding and pound cake. The greatest pitfall was the bottom scorching before the dough was fully done, but over the weeks I got it to work as close to the perfect temperature as possible.
Then, that Christmas, Samir presented me with a proper factory built oven; still quite basic but it had two exciting racks. Yes, racks! Needless to say, my delight knew no bounds.
Ah! My dear readers, thus I must end the story of our beginnings. What begins must end, at least, under the dictum of logic but truly some beginnings never really end. They morph into, for want of a better word, a continuation, when Novelty loses its way in the desert of Habit and Boredom. By making us witness and, in some ways, participants in the commencement of their journey our sweet guests unwittingly connected us to our own humble, happy beginnings. One beginning reflected in another – one happening right here and now, the other frozen, immutable in one’s memory. Starting points – some rough like uncut diamonds, some smooth as a well-denuded pebble. Of a pair starting out with the naiveté of nothingness and building up and out from there. When even the purchase of a lamp or a ladle has the power to enthrall us and impart a sense of acute wonderment, when no feeling is jaded or weighed down by ennui, when we enjoy what we have and thrive on it; that’s a place of placid and superlative contentment – harmonious and heavenly. And endless.