Starting Over

Discovering myself, my family and friends in a foreign land, second time around


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A right to remember

tulip 2Was it the beautiful pictures of the Jefferson Memorial on Freshly Pressed a few days ago that made me nostalgic? Or was it the newspaper column on Sakura in Japan last weekend? Or did the pale pink bougainvillea flower that wafted into my balcony this morning trigger the memories? Maybe it’s just that time of the year when cherry blossom trees all over the world make their debut after a barren winter. And oh, what a debut! So many sweet memories rushed in to fill in the gaps left by time.

I remember the annual ritual that we followed each spring in those years when I lived in Maryland. I would take the train from Baltimore to Union Station and then transfer to the metro. A short walk and then – the breathtaking view of the Jefferson Memorial flanked by blossoming trees! Thousands of cherry blossom trees that dot the circumference of the Tidal Basin in Washington DC flowering in unison, a grand symphony of petals, responding to the baton of the most accomplished of all conductors, Mother Nature.

I still feel a twinge when I see cherry blossoms. Reading about the devotion of the Japanese to sakura makes the memory more poignant. It’s a flashback to a simpler time of my life, a phase of contentment, fulfillment even. I was a full time graduate student then, loving every day I spent in the lab pursuing my Ph.D. I was young, newly-wed, full of promise, in the country where dreams were supposedly routinely fulfilled for a person from India. DQ was not even a glimmer in my eye. We would sometimes pack a picnic dinner, complete with disposable plates, cans of Coke and even a piece of cake. Some years we found a carpet of flowers covering the walkways, ripped from the branches by the cold callous rain. At other times, we would drive down from suburban Maryland on a weekend to showcase the spectacular flowers for friends visiting from New Jersey. We hardly ever watched the parade. There are pictures in old albums stored away now in boxes, proof of happier times.

It doesn’t seem right, almost adulterous, to allow these memories to surface now. After all these years, to smile at the simple pleasures that had made life meaningful before things turned sour. I used to be equally enthusiastic about a regular day at school, a weekend in Atlantic City, a summer job in Delaware or a quiet evening walking around the Washington monument. Trudging around in a silk sari is one of my favorite memories of the Lincoln Memorial. Two weeks after arriving in DC in December, when we steeped out after the office Christmas party, a blanket of snow had covered every street and structure. My first snow! Neither the cold, nor the incongruous boots hidden within the folds of my magenta sari could hold back the sheer delight of stepping into fresh snow.

Am I doing something wrong? Allowing myself to be swept onto this pleasantly nostalgic train of thought? Why is it more acceptable to reminisce about the unhappy ending to my first marriage? In spite of my best intentions to move forward, pictures of innocuous cherry blossoms are sending a trickle of happiness climbing up my spine. It’s a pure unadulterated feeling. No blame for what followed. No regret for what could have been. No guilt for messing up. It’s like unexpectedly finding a family heirloom of special value.

It seems right somehow. There is a phase of anger and finger pointing. There is a time to grieve, for lost relationships, for a future that may have turned out differently. And when all such emotions are spent, there is a time to understand, to forgive. To know that there were good times, folded deep within the reams of memories where the repeating motif was sadness. Life is layered and rich. Every phase that throws up a challenge, also holds within it a lesson. I matured as much from the adversity that came my way as in the moments of calm. I learnt from my academic endeavors and also by handling what transpired outside the centers of education. Wisdom resulted from soul searching but peace arose from the gratitude for times like these.

With honesty and the clarity of hindsight, I find myself today in a place of forgiveness. Self-forgiveness. Like charity, compassion must also begin at home, with the self. As I think back to the younger me, excitedly throwing her arms out to feel the mist of Niagara Falls on my face, I smile indulgently. I am still that same person. Easily enthused by simple pleasures, licking my ice-cream slowly, giggling when caught in a sudden downpour, picking up a smiling infant on a bus.

I give permission to the real me to take charge.

tulip 1The tulip display in the Flower Dome is impressive. I stoop down to take a picture and I feel a bubble of laughter bursting forth.

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What will my daughter eat today?

IMG-20140405-WA0002My mother would ask me this question on Sundays. I must have been thirteen then; still a child who loved to be treated as special, almost an adult who wanted to make big decisions. The line was plagiarized from a TV ad for a popular brand of oil but I loved repeating the routine with her, one that ended with both of us smiling. She would then proceed to prepare my favorite food. The heat of a kitchen in Mumbai in the month of May dissolved against the sweet juice of the alphonso mangoes that were in season. I would peel off my wet school uniform on rainy monsoon afternoons and bite into fried onion pakodas. I learnt to make dosas and fry pooris in my mother’s kitchen. I would munch on nuts from the countertop as I told her stories of my day. Sometimes I would chop tomatoes or roll out the rotis for her. She would wipe the sweat from her brow with the edge of her sari. I would hug her regardless of the humidity that discouraged human contact.

What is it about food that stirs up so many feelings? Not just memories.

Is it the fact that eating is one activity in which we use all our senses? As I pick up each morsel, it carries with it not just the flavor which the tongue seeks but the sight that makes it irresistible, the sounds in the kitchen when its prepared, the aroma of spices that hover in the air and the texture of the food as it moves in my mouth. Each of these sensory experiences contributes to the overall joy of eating. Later, each sense brings forth its recollection, hidden deep in its archives as individual entries. Each sense holds a piece of the puzzle that when recalled together creates an entire memory, like a rerun from an old TV show that takes you back in time many years later.

I was a troublesome little kid when it came to food. Not eating much, always in search of the perfect bite. My dad used to say I ate air, referring to my tiny appetite. I liked to eat, but I wanted every bite to be perfect. No half-cooked, unevenly salted, unappetizing looking food for me, thank you very much. Almost as snooty as a food critic, I would take second helpings only if there was perfection (perfect for my palate of course). I ate my vegetables but I craved sweets. I was game to try new stuff but took refuge in comfort foods. I showed no interest in learning how to cook although I was a competent sous chef. “She will learn cooking when she needs to. She will learn quickly like she learns other things. Its not rocket science” said Mom, when others asked her if I had been trained in the kitchen arts.

I didn’t really like to cook, even when I had to. I chose to make simple stuff that was quick to whip up. I prided myself on my ability to put together a balanced Indian dinner made from scratch in 45 minutes. Until DQ came along.

She didn’t like milk (to this day), ate only fruit and lingered for hours (at least seemed like it) over every meal till she turned eight. Friends suggested I feed her food that kids liked, pizza and fries, pasta and burgers. But even that was not enough incentive for her to eat at a reasonable pace. I chose to stick to offering her healthy vegetarian food but in my quest to make it more attractive, I started doing the unthinkable. Looking up recipes!

I learnt to make quesadillas with broccoli, bruschetta and veggie wraps. In an effort to expand her palate, I broadened my culinary abilities. And over a period of time, DQ became more open to eating regular food and has turned into what I call a “food purist”. She enjoys every bite, appreciates what is cooked and occasionally shows an interest in how it is made. She continues to be the one to finish last at any meal earning her the nickname “Tuas” – short for two hours, the average time spent on a meal.

I think I breathed a sigh of relief too soon because now I have Princess, who thinks vegetables are an unnecessary evil and has vowed to stay way from them unless it is a matter of life and death. So my quest has started anew. This time armed with the limitless wisdom of Google, I am once again on a search for new and exciting ways to camouflage essential food groups into interesting creations. We make bean burritos, corn and cheese sandwiches, paneer parathas, and creamy mushroom pasta. I ensure there is an endless supply of fresh lemonade and banana nut muffins. Every meal has to sound exciting and please the picky eater as well. Progress is slow and changing eating patterns takes time. I know. It has taken me four decades to be classified as “not fussy” when it comes to food.

It bothers me sometimes, this focus on food. We don’t live to eat. We eat so we can nourish our bodies. We need a healthy body to progress in life, literally and otherwise. Making it the highlight of my day feels like I am settling for less. I should be doing more, or at the very least, doing something else, growing my brain in so many directions. Planning and cooking a meal seems almost too trivial.

cupcake with candleWe have friends coming for dinner. Princess wants to know what I am planning to make. She enthusiastically beats the eggs, sugar and butter. DQ offers to help frost the carrot cupcakes. They linger in the hot kitchen, adding to the noise and mess. DQ wants to use the pretty tablemats. Princess takes the plates and glasses to set the table. They take pride in their creation, eat enthusiastically and share stories at the dinner table. I observe my family and have my epiphany.

I am not preparing a meal. I am creating memories.