About two weeks ago, my younger brother flew to Canada for an undergraduate programme. The last year, therefore, has been marked noticeably by big and small moments with the family. One of those was a trip to Himachal Pradesh last summer to celebrate my parents’ 25th wedding anniversary.
It was our last day, and in a bid to make most of our time there, we didn’t stop for lunch until four in the evening. A 13-kilometre stretch of hairpin bends had brought us to Jalori Pass in the tiny hamlet of Jibhi. The gloomy summer evening didn’t take away from the splendour of the mountain landscape at 10,800 feet.
Our guide, Hardeep, had recommended a Pahadi meal of rajma, kadi and rice, but also cautioned us of its simplicity presuming, I suppose, that food joints in the city had spoilt us. Giving the Instagram-worthy ‘Maggi on the mountains’ a miss, I ordered the traditional meal with a side of chai. I would have frowned at this culinary combination back home. But travel allows the liberty of being spontaneous. The hearth warmed us in the nippy weather, the windows allowed us to toast our eyes to views of cedar trees draping undulating mountains. The meal was downed within minutes of its arrival. In between sipping on my cup of steaming chai, my eyes shifted from the window to the table. It dawned upon me that this was also going to be our last vacation together for a while. The epiphany, coupled with the combination of an unpretentious meal shall linger in my memory for long.
Hype, no matter how richly deserved, turns me into an automatic sceptic. To be clear, I was at Chef Gaggan Anand’s restaurant in Bangkok in May because I had expressly requested to be there. It was his outsize reputation as the gonzo culinary wizard of Indian food that had made me seek an invite to his Michelin-starred establishment in the first place. It was, from everything I had heard prior, an experience not easily dislodged from the mind.
Yet, before the tasting session commenced, I took my seat with a handful of other diners from around the world with a mild fear of being let down.
The trepidation was unwarranted. Because Anand approached his cuisine and presentation like a mercurial conductor did his symphony. Right from the first wave of his wand, guests were in for quite the spectacle. His menu spelt out 25 courses in emojis. As he unveiled each dish with an anecdote and a quirky musical choice (my favourite was a dessert that arrived at my plate to the strains of Seal’s “Kiss from A Rose”), the evening transformed into the longest and the most wonderful blind date with food I had ever had. Some courses were intriguing experiments, some were outright winners. Between courses, the chef milled around his kitchen helping, teasing and prodding his trusted lieutenants, while they toiled over the next dish. I had expected refined taste and a sensational feast, which Anand delivered in spades. What I was more impressed by was the showmanship, ambition and chutzpah. At the end of three entertaining hours, my appetite had no room for doubt.
I landed in Hanoi riding on someone else’s memory.
A friend, who had visited the Vietnamese capital in 2013, remembered it as a city wedged between communism and modernity. “Speakers fitted on streets blasted state propaganda every evening at six,” he’d tell me with Tim Burtonesque flourish. “And the roads belch new scooters by the minute.” It sounded like chaos. It sounded delicious.
You’d have to be heartless to not love Hanoi. Its own heart meanwhile swirls around its lake, Hoan Kiem, where women in conical hats peddle 3D paper-cut souvenirs and street performers solve the Rubik’s Cube in four seconds. I’d go there for the slowness of grannies doing tai-chi and get my morning fix at Café Giáng. First, hot egg coffee—egg yolk, sweet condensed milk, butter and cheese whisked into Vietnamese coffee powder. Then, a long reading break bookended by eavesdropping on conversations in a foreign twang. And last: a cold egg coffee, which was nothing like its hot cousin.
The six p.m. propaganda is long gone, I discovered this August; Hanoi seems almost self-conscious of its evolving communism amid all its tourists. All my memories of the city seem to have melded into one long walk. I can retrace my steps in Hanoi’s Old Quarter in my sleep; that houseful show where puppets danced on water; a railway track that passed through a scrawny two-foot alley with homes on either side. My strolls were aimless and joyful—I attended Sunday Mass in Vietnamese; at Hanoi’s art galleries I discovered a local artist called Van Tho, whose thick brushwork and colour-bursts were in fact reminiscent of Van Gogh. I think so hard about Hanoi that I am surprised it doesn’t just conjure itself in front of me. If a portal does open up someday, I’d ask to sit again on those tiny plastic stools at the juice stall opposite St. Joseph’s Cathedral, knocking knees with other patrons. The air was filled with the sound of tick-tick-tick of at least 60 of us cracking open sunflower seeds with our teeth, sipping on sweet-tart dracontomelon juice, watching lovers on scooters whizzing into the night.
I was in Kakadu National Park, in Australia’s Northern Territory, when it happened. Bleary-eyed from sleep, I was waiting to catch the hotel bus to the Yellow Water Billabong when D walked up to me, looking more distraught than ever. Which is not saying much, since I’d only seen him yesterday after I arrived at the lodge—my night-halt before a 6 a.m. crocodile cruise—but still.
I was rolled up in smooshy woollens, whereas D’s own layers of protection were worn out and matted, bearing the signs of one bamboozled by life. He hovered around me, not exactly awkward, not dying to make my acquaintance either. It worked, I’m only a girl. Drawn to the sad tilt of his head, I headed towards D, armed with a big fat hug. “Lady, that’s a dingo!” a fellow tourist hollered. My hand was already on his head, I was close enough to notice the battle scars on his face. D was a vision in brooding beauty, but I was in the alien wild, 7,809 kilometres from my country. Should I back off? “He’s okay, he lives here,” chimed in a local who’d just walked in. Turned out D, who I’d taken to be a regular dog, was indeed a dingo—but a pack runt with a liking for humans and restaurant scraps. “He’s bullied a lot by the feral lot,” shrugged my informant.
I looked into those brown molasses eyes, took a deep breath and went back to patting. This time, he actually looked up. In that minute, chilling with the dingo that failed to be feral, I felt oddly accepted by the big bad Australian wild.
-Sohini Das Gupta
Exactly a year ago, in January 2018, I was in Kolkata. I badgered my editor to take me around his city—one oft-spoken about in alternating loving and grimacing tones by many of my colleagues. We ate our way through his favourite street-food haunts and once I had passed the tummy-test, he let me in on a city secret: Bookline.
The bookstore—two conjoined apartments in an old building, in a lane in New Market that many would consider shady after hours—is owned by a magician named Brijesh Tiwari. He can sniff out your choices and give you books that cannot be found in chrome-glass-Crosswords of the country.
I was greeted by mountains of books, piled on every available nook, even the floor. My eyes took in the sight greedily and soon I had a pile of my own, including an anthology of Urdu tales without the standard Manto and Chughtai, and a book by long-forgotten Indian authors. Tiwari gave me a cup of tea, and found me volumes unerringly suited to my taste, while I rambled about my favourites.
Eventually, he said, “I have something you will like. But I can’t give it to you, it is promised to someone else.” And from a hidden cupboard he returned with a copy of Craig Thompson’s mammoth graphic novel, Habibi.
As an exchange student in Germany in 2015, I’d taken a course on orientalism, where my professor introduced me to Thompson and Habibi. We only had access to a single chapter; the book was notoriously difficult to find having been banned in many places. Thompson’s story with its stunning Arabic illustrations and commentary on modern-day treatment of Arabs, draws parallels between Biblical tales and verses from the Quran. I’d never found a book apart from the Quran with such beautiful calligraphy. That, along with the unflinching narration haunted me for a long time. I’d hunted for a while, but never found a copy. Until now.
Tiwari looked on as I narrated this story to him, eyes shining. He handed me the tome. “You can have it. Maybe it was meant for you.” Today, the book proudly sits on my book-shelf.
In the days close to when the last digits of the date change, memories from my year’s trips often play like a montage of snapshots in my mind, usually set to a score of sounds from the moment (and occasionally movie soundtracks). A reel of stories simple and grand; the longest shots, my most cherished moments.
This time, the longest shot—a crinkly-eyed grandmother stirring datshi cheese and butter in a pan over wood fire of a traditional bukhara—was accompanied by lilting notes of a Bhutanese folk song, and the shrill calls of black-necked cranes.
I began 2018 in winter-cloaked Bhutan; my journey brought me to a farmer’s home in the bowl-shaped Phobjikha valley. That night, as I sat in the kitchen, around the hearth of the two-storeyed wooden home sipping ara, my shot’s soundtrack was created: the grandkids playing, my driver joining family members in a folk song as they chopped and prepped, the matriarch’s instructions imparted in that typically motherly way, and my guide’s stories of Phobjikha’s Tibetan winter visitors.
The black-necked cranes of Tibet are harbingers of good luck according to Buddhist scriptures the Bhutanese put their faith in. People have changed farming techniques to accommodate the cranes’ feeding habits; electricity reached Punakha fairly recently, partly because cable lines were laid underground so no cranes were injured. Religion has only always been an interesting study of culture for me, and in the face of future-defining geopolitical missives dispensed by superpowers, knowing that a rural people’s beliefs help the black-necked crane thrive in Bhutan was a revelation.
I slept that night with a tummy full of cheesy goodness, in the company of an oil lamp lit at a shrine. It was shrill bird calls that woke me up next morning, and beyond the wooden bars of my window, just outside the house’s fence was a flock of black-and-white feathers.
Goa was the first big holiday for my 18-month-old daughter, Naysa. My family is rather fond of Goa and I have always loved the water, but my wife and I had both thought a fair bit before taking our little girl to the Sunshine State last Diwali. The reason? We’d both seen babies fear the water. In pools, at the beach, there would always be a kid or two bawling their eyes out and clinging to a parent because they did not want to go into the water.
Our girl spent time at the beach playing in the sand, building obscure shapes and laughing. My daughter is a no-fuss, happy child. There are very few things that annoy or irritate her, but the water was still something new—a gamble if you will. We decided to take it slow with the introduction to water and begin at the resort’s pool. Personally, being such a beachbum, I was secretly hoping I would not have to console my child after a dip in the pool.
Well, it seems I didn’t have to worry. I cannot forget the smile on her face when she first got into the pool, it was priceless. My little girl was like a fish in water—toothy grin stretched across her face, squeals of joy and a request of “Papa, pool!” on her lips every day. I suppose being a water baby runs in the family.
-Devang H Makwana
My family and I travel to my home state, Gujarat, pretty often. Whenever we find ourselves there in winter, making a stop at Valsad is compulsory.
Here, by the highway are a row of dhabas that sells something I have always loved, umbadiyu. The courtyards in from of these modest dhabas usually have a number of wood and coal fires going and on it rest inverted earthen pots, blackened by the flames. It is in these that the umbaiyus are cooking.
Also called maatla undhiyu, the winter delicacy is made by layering seasonal vegetables such as beans, sweet potatoes, purple yams and potatoes marinated in a paste of green garlic and green chilli in an earthen pot. The whole thing is then covered with aromatic leaves, and the pot placed upside down in a natural oven, buried and covered with coal, sugarcane waste & cow dung cakes that are then set on fire. The final dish is served with buttermilk and two kinds of chutney. There has always been only one way to describe the taste: heavenly.
The complicated process means, this is a dish rarely made at home, and definitely a winter time treat. In fact, people take a road trip to Valsad, specifically for the umbadiyu. This year, I decided to bring some of this favourite snack back to office. Needless to say, there are now many new fans of one of my favourite winter dishes. I was able to share a part of my home and the magic of winter with my colleagues this year. Who needs a sizzler when you have steaming umbadiyu!