Saturday, September 29, 2012

The many moods of Kashmir

Kashmir is a confusing travel destination for most people of my generation. Unlike people such as my mum, who visited in 1973 and remembers nothing but its incredible, jaw-dropping beauty, we cannot help but process it as a palimpsest of violence, geo-politics and war set against an absolutely astounding example of Nature's uncanny strokes.

People have been visiting Kashmir of late. Our facebook timelines are regularly inundated with pictures of our friends smiling against the backdrops of its rivers and mountains. It's difficult to suppress that travel gene which rears its head as soon as it notices a place not yet seen. And yet, when we decided to go, I didn't honestly know what to expect, aware as I was throughout of feeling different than I normally do before travel.

The flight was uneventful as it gets when the children get older. I look at the parents of handheld babies with a mix of empathy and relief. I want to tell them - these days too shall pass. These ear aches, the diaper-changes in cramped airplane bathrooms, the hostile looks from fellow passengers - all these will soon disappear but you do the right thing now by bringing these little creatures out of the warm familiarity of your homes because oh, the places you'll go and the places you'll see!

Srinagar Airport. We stepped out and located the car that the hotel had sent for us. The driver drove as recklessly as they always do and paid as little heed to my pleading cries of 'Bhaiyya, thoda dheere chaliye' as they always do. Soon though, my heart settled back into its designated cavity and I was able to look around at the trees that seemed taller than anywhere else. The car swerved and turned and sped on and there, the Dal Lake, larger than I had imagined, its banks lined with bits and pieces of Srinagar. There were fountains that the children found fascinating but I found myself wishing away.

Our hotel is a new property, bang on the banks of the lake. My children, to the manner born are already more comfortable in places like it than I, with no childhood context to the same, can ever be. The grassy lawns, the views, the flowers - they all rather take your breath away. We did the mandatory tourist things, the army men fading in the background, their guns glinting in the sunshine. Hazratbal, Pari Mahal, Chashmeshahi, Nishat Garden. We pointed out the apple orchards to the children, look, that is how they look before they are plucked and packed and sent to supermarkets. The day sped past in a happy blur. Except for that one time in Gulmarg where we refused the starved, bony looking horses, wanting to walk the distance to the cable car (it really is a picturesque walk) instead and the ghode wallah shot us an accusing look and said, 'I've waited fifteen years for my deshwasis to come back and now you tell me you don't want my horse?'

We woke up to the news of a strike in protest of an anti-Islam film in the US and wondered if this was indeed a good day to go clambering off to Pahalgam and in what later turned out to be a wrong decision, opted to go. The same driver who had brought us from the airport turned up to drive us to Pahalgam. The streets were deserted but there was no problem till we reached Anantnag. There, a mob of about twenty five young boys blocked the streets. They surrounded us and shouted at the driver and did all the things that scare people. Soon though, the group bifurcated into two - those who thought it was alright to let us go and those who disagreed. The children looked on curiously at these people, some of them the same age as my own son. The pro group prevailed and we were on our way again, wondering if we would really regret this trip. Soon enough, at Seer, about twenty five kms from Pahalgam, another group of boys blocked our way. And this time they would not capitulate, would not let us pass. We were wondering what to do, turn back and drive all the way to Srinagar or wait till things settled down when the kindness of strangers opened new doors.

A small, half-done, hill-side resort. A kind manager. We were soon sitting inside, being served a fresh meal and welcome cups of hot tea. Raagu slept off, tired out by all the driving but Adi was still going strong, playing with stones and grass in the resort's garden. We waited for a few hours and met other tourists like ourselves, stranded in the middle of nowhere. Later, the same manager volunteered to go and speak to the boys to let us pass. Later he told us that he talked to them about God and the right thing to do and the importance of tourism and clearly the man had magical powers of persuasion. I wouldn't have believed it possible but they did let us go.

Only to be stopped by another group just a few hundred meters away. This time they looked absolutely furious. They asked the driver to get out of the car and led him away and honestly, it was all quite frightening, what with the kids and all. The driver came back a few minutes later, looking quite shaken but unharmed.

What happened, we asked.

Nothing, he said as he put the car into ignition, wanting no doubt to get out of there as fast as he could. They wanted me to shout Amreeka Hai Hai. So I did.

We drove in silence to Pahalgam, certain that we would not enjoy ourselves with all that had happened en route.

(But like I tell myself, no price to experiences.)

Pahalgam soon washed away all those doubts though, being quite simply the most beautiful place on earth. Or at least the part I have seen. It is a study in just how perfect Nature can be. The Lidder river runs through Pahalgam, streams make their way from snowcapped mountains and overall, it's all quite ridiculously beautiful. One doesn't know which way to point the camera. And since the arbiter of beauty in India is Bollywood, we were told repeatedly about the film shoots that have taken place in Betaab (erstwhile Hajan) Valley. The hotel where we stayed had hosted hosted SRK a few weeks back when he was shooting for Jab Tak Hai Jaan and so on. Here Amitabh and Rekha walked their adulterous path in Silsila, here Shammi put Sharmila to shame with his dance moves and here of course is where Sunny Deol and Amrita Singh waited for jawaani to strike. 

After being presented with this evidence, we were quite convinced that it was a worthy place.

And while courting danger doubtless builds character, we decided too much of a good thing could still create problems. We returned to Srinagar the next day. This time around though things were back to normal. Shops were selling the ubiquitous chips and cola and people were out and about.  I found myself wondering what became of those boys who were so intent in not letting a soul pass through their make-shift blockade. A godawful traffic jam that put Bombay to shame later, we were back in Srinagar. The next day, true to the theme of this holiday. was Bharat Bandh.

Well, that was that, then. Our maiden Kashmir had come to an end. The security checks start about a kilometer from the airport, everyone and everything goes through scanners. The second round of screening is at the airport entrance. Post check in, there is the regular security check. Then one needs to identify the check-in baggage. And that's it, au revoir, Kashmir.

Did it leave me feeling confused? Full of questions? Wondering if I did the right thing? Oh yes, definitely. Would I change my decision to go there? Not for the world. A certain Mr Amir Khusrau knew what he was talking about, you see. Check below for pictorial evidence.

Superlative view = Exorbitant room rates

We prowl around, photographing unsuspecting flowers

Arrey dekho, udan khatola

No black sheep, all conformists

Beats sea-view from Carter Road, eh?

Yeh dekhen, Pari Mahal

I was told, May-June mein aayein madam, tab bahaar aati hai. I was aghast. Are you kidding me? I am from Bombay. This is bahaar enough for me.

Old monument, garden, good weather, I am sold

One level of garden is so we have three

More bahaar type pictures

Pahalgam, kya kya nahin jhela tumhari ek jhalak ke liye

Behold, the famous Betaab valley. Jab Hum Jawaan Honge, Air Miles Collect Karenge

We improved upon the Lidder by repeatedly posing with it

Friday, September 7, 2012

Andaaz apna apna

You know I was fairly convinced that I'd never take to cooking. It's the same reason I don't draw or paint. My sister took all the artistic brilliance that was supposed to be distributed across the family, leaving Isha and me painting lotuses with different coloured petals and so on (true story). My mum is a fantastic cook. Not in the nostalgia induced, yaad-hai-ma-kaisi-aloo-gobhi-
banaati-thi way but in a could-have-been-a-pro sort of genius. So we never cooked. None of us. Mum was always sweating it out in the kitchen, preparing delicacies whose complexity defies cookbooks.

Also, someone has to take care of the eating side and at that, I am fabulous.

Since I moved out of home when I was 17, one had to polish one's cooking chops, ha, but I got by with a bit of daal and rice and that old faithful, the potato. Occasional bouts of baking and so on neither produced memorable results, nor were they repeated.

Even after I had kids, I never bothered too much with culinary delights, focussing my energies instead on fighting battles with cooks. Old readers would remember my struggles with the merry widow, Kalpana.

Things have changed of late. On a day when we had exhausted all possible entertainment options, I asked Adi if he would like to bake some cookies with me. His enthusiasm caught me by surprise. Let's just say it was at par for his love for the PS3. He measured out the baking powder and he sieved the flour. He melted the butter and he preheated the oven. Then he found the chocolate chips and spent the rest of his time eating them. But that's a tale for another day.

The cookies turned out pretty much fantastic and now this household boasts of two enthusiastic bakers. We are a team and it's a given that I don't bake without him. Also, the press that beginner's luck has received seems to be true because we have not really had a disaster so far. We've managed even macaroons which are considered to be pretty tough in the baker's world, I am told. In fact, we were so encouraged by the response to our pistachio macaroons that we even thought we'd bake bread. And tadah, even that turned out very well, displacing the Britannia loaf quite comfortably.

What could explain this? My crush on Jamie Oliver? Repeated viewings of Masterchef? All those wonderful cookbooks that we have collected for no evident reason over the years?

Actually, the thing is - we are pretty scientific and geeky about the whole thing. I mean, cooking may be an art but that part is completely lost on us. We are fanatical about our mise-en-place (yeah, totally talking the talk), we measure everything out to the gram, our conversion charts are stuck on to fridge (mental math is not very appealing when the oven is on fire) and ingredients are all checked for expiry dates and such like. If recipes have to be halved, then 75 gms needs to be brought down to 37.5. We take recipes only from the tried and tested top chefs and once it's brought in, there is no dodging of detail. Butter - softened/cold cut into cubes/melted? Sugar - Icing/Castor/Demerara/Light Brown? Flour - Self-raising/Italian 00/Plain? Basically we are removing any element of risk or doubt that there might exist. In other words, killing off the last bit of joy and making it all about the results which as I did mention earlier, are pretty much superb.

This renders us very funny to our family. Committed and experienced cooks are all about andaaz, you see. Try asking my mum or M's mum about any recipe and they always bring up swaad anusaar as the go-to answer. Namak kitna? Swaad anusaar. Mirch kitni? Swaad anusaar. I don't know how but these amazing cooks got by just fine without kitchen scales to aid every move (the horror!). Well, we are different. Plus, all that chocolate chip eating has sort of dulled the palate, throwing the andaaz totally off-balance.

In this kitchen, it's all about the science. And the eating. In fact, we are going to try the pavlova next. Now, what should be the exact temperature of those egg-whites?
What two five year old boys can create. No more raucous playdates!

They tasted pretty yum too, when one got past the rather dizzying array of colours.

Muffins lead to muffin-tops, you say? Well, don't.

Oh, that yellow butter dish...anyway, so those are jam-filled muffins. Yo mama domestic goddess.

I did mention a crush on Jamie Oliver, aye? I am all 'where are me condiments, me chopping board, oven on full whack' these days...

Chocolate ganache with palmiers, that. Seriously decadent. Will set diet back by five thousand years. But worth it. Also, behold me rustic wooden chopping board on which I regularly serve things these days. The crush of a good man.

Fruit salad thingie made superlative with a pomegranate, mint, lime and sugar dressing. Bottle courtesy my sweetest friend and the original baking goddess Prachi of purplehomes.

More food porn pictures.

Pre-made Cosmopolitan awaiting its moment in the sun. When you can't please them with food, get them dead drunk.

The ubiquitous chocolate chip cookies that have been pronounced better than the crinkles from American Express bakery. I consider that a serious compliment.

In case you missed it.