The Visit.

She stood outside the door, waiting, knowing they would recognize her customary thrice-rung bell. It struck her vaguely, that she was actually coming home. This used to be home once, fifteen years in the surreal past.

It was taking longer than usual, so she wondered if they were there, until she heard a muffled but distinctly exasperated voice from within.

‘Open the door, my hands aren’t clean!!’

A striding sound, accompanied by the thump of a walking stick, and the door was flung open. She still isn’t used to the long white beard that greets her now and ushers her in.

‘Come sit, she’s trying out a new recipe.’  Thump, stride, thump. He was in the middle of his daily ritual of getting some exercise by walking through all the rooms of the house, for half an hour. She tells her it actually takes him about an hour to do this, the walk is peppered with intervals of rest.

She was sitting at the table in her nightie, and it is 7:30 in the evening. There is a sedentary energy in the way she’s busy mixing dough and explaining excitedly how she’s been meaning to try out a recipe for savoury flat crisp ‘puris’ to go with the potato curry. Deja vu?

She wandered off into an empty room to change into a t-shirt and tie up her hair, and get down to the real purpose of her visit. Be the cleaning lady.

They had a maid for many many years, who came in every day to clean the house, and cook wonderful food before leaving in the afternoon, to return to her own home somewhere near the old harbour. She had seen two girls grow up in this house, get married…and leave. She didn’t speak much, just went about her work quietly, and the years went by and her bones grew weary and her heart grew weak. She could no longer climb onto a bus, get off, and walk the short distance to the house. It was time to retire, but they didn’t forget her, and sent a bit of money her way for a few years until they heard the news that she had passed, that her heart had peacefully stopped beating one day.

There had never been another maid in that house, and they decided there never would be, despite many protestations by the girls. How would they manage, this aging couple, without anyone to help with the housework? But there never had been a more stubborn set of Capricorns, and they dug in their heels and swore to protect their privacy till push came to shove.

A push might not be such a good idea, she thought, as she surveyed the surroundings, and thought of the day before when she had just dropped in for a long overdue visit to find a big broken frame in the hall, lying in the debris of broken glass. They looked on helplessly, as she got to work clearing up the mess, disposing of the jagged shards of glass and taking apart the frame.

‘God sent you to us today because he knew we were at a loss,’ she said, as her man sat down on a chair to help with the dismantling. She smiles and rolls her eyes, but is painfully aware they’re both over seventy, and it isn’t so easy to bend anymore. Every job has to be thought about twice, and either abandoned for a future date, or delegated to the Man Friday.

And when Man Friday is not around, like now, then the girls descend, like angels of mercy.

The broken frame led to vacuuming the whole room, emptying the contents of the vacuum cleaners innards, unblocking the obstruction that caused poor suction power, and a general assessment of what more needs to be cleaned. So here she was then, surveying the disrepair, feeling a bit overwhelmed but deciding to take it one thing at a time.

She opened a cabinet and saw the old cookers, once used prolifically for making delicious stews and curries, and the big pots that brought back memories of many a hearty biryani. All lying unused now, for who needs to cook large quantities anymore when there’s only two people left in the house?

She cleared the old dining table and dusted the sideboard, catching a glimpse of her, with her back to the doorway, sitting at the ancient desk….once a piece to be proud of, now a battered relic, decades of use under its folding hood, crammed with files and records and letters and certificates. An oil painting hung askew on the wall above the desk, something she had painted…when…? Thirty years? Forty years ago?

The house is full of them. It is full of the things that have made up the backdrop of such a huge chunk of their lives, and it is hard to see it all get old, and dusty, and worn-out. They kept it all together, didn’t they. They don’t believe in replacing anything…just keep fixing what you have, that’s the way to go.

So she’s here now… helping to do just that.

And she cleaned all the surfaces. and she helped warm up the food, the puris were fried, and they set the table with some old and some new crockery, and the three of them sat down for a delicious meal, an all-too-rare occasion nowadays.

Then she washed all the dishes and put them away, kissed the two goodbye…. and drove off, with a promise in her heart, into the world that she made for herself. A world at the corner of which she made a minor transgression by breaking a traffic signal in her haste, only to be let go by the most unlikely-looking candidate for a kindly cop with just a good-natured warning. No fine.

Good karma, you think?

Parents and the Philosophy of Homemade Gol Guppay

After raising four daughters and marrying them off one after the other, Mum and Dad were left with an empty nest, yet not a single day goes by that they don’t think of us and what we might be up to in our respective homes. They do enjoy their freedom and space I’m sure, yet they long for us to come over with their grandchildren (and one great grandchild) and spend the day with them. Admittedly, for a variety of reasons, it isn’t always that simple to extricate ourselves from our myriad chores to take out the time and effort to hang out with our parents, but when we do, we always vow to do it more often.  The best intentions still find a way to go awry however, and before we realise it, once again, weeks have gone by without having made contact.

They wait for our phone calls to listen to us offload our stories, what we did that day, for example, or if we did anything exciting in the preceding days, met someone interesting or go anywhere fun. Did Shirin manage to find out how the wad of cash in her drawer mysteriously disappeared? How many orders for wedding cakes did she have that weekend? Did Sax manage to pull off an order for twenty paintings last week without an attack of the wheezes? What happened at Fatu’s exhibition? Did anyone buy that crazy lampshade she painted? How are my plants faring? Has Fuzzy(the cat) stopped ‘marking his territory’ (euphemism for peeing on carpet) after the ‘operation’? When are Amu’s braces coming off? Did we do anything productive today?

My father subscribes to the old-fashioned tradition of not visiting his daughters unnecessarily though I think it’s only because he is happiest at home, where he tinkers around in his workshop, listens to old Indian songs at full volume and plays focussed games of spider solitaire on his computer, figuring out fool-proof strategies of winning, which is one of his many obsessions after doing the daily crossword and Sudoku puzzles in the newspaper. He likes to read lying in bed, his comfort zone, and is often to be found engrossed in re-reading the Harry Potter series or Stephen Hawking’s theory of the Big Bang. He is a very self-contained man, enjoying his own company, and is a staunch and passionate believer in finding entertainment at home.

Mum shares my fathers ideology in that respect, and has always found extremely creative ways of passing her time. She harbours, even to the point of OCD, a genuine passion for sartorial pursuits, carving cloth into patterns and producing clothes for the younger brood of grandchildren (and sometimes even other peoples grandchildren). Her artistic nature finds expression in everything from embroidery to crochet to painting, and she has over the years built up a reputation as someone to count on for ‘ideas’ for just about any aesthetic conundrum. Her credo while we were growing up has always been to DO SOMETHING, anything, and not just throw our time away in lolling or reading. Every single day should result in something good and constructive, and in retrospect, I think she was very good at suggesting projects we should throw ourselves into. If we slacked off, we would be nagged so much that it was far easier to do what she said. So we grew up Little Women, each one of us reflecting a different aspect of Mom’s creativity, and each of us capable of tackling any number of DIY projects.

But even the most reclusive (retired) moms do get bored at times, and Mum is human after all. She too needs to get away from home for a change, when the nostalgic Indian music gets too loud for her liking and Daddikins has been too caught up in constructing elaborate family tree diagrams to pay any attention to her. So she called a few days ago to tell me that she was DYING to try out a recipe for pani puri (gol guppay in Pakistani terms), after watching someone make it on one of the numerous foody channels. It was decided that she would come over on the weekend and we would make it together.

(For the uninitiated, a gol guppa is a hollow, puffed up round ‘puri’ made of a mixture of white flour and semolina and fried. Ideally, they’re about 2 inches in diameter, the optimum size for being stuffed with chickpeas and boiled potatoes, dunked in savoury, sweet, cold tamarind water, to be shoved into the mouth with speed and dexterity, where it then bursts with a delicious explosion of flavours. ‘Gol’ means round, and ‘guppa’ means  to stuff something in your mouth without breaking it…so you can imagine how one looks when one is consuming this most yummy specimen of sub-continental street food).

Mum’s enthusiasm (and curiosity about the recipe actually working) was palpable, as she couldn’t wait to get started as soon as we entered the house. She located the whereabouts of the necessary ingredients in the kitchen cabinets, found the required utensils, and began to prepare the all-important dough for the puri. Mixing the two flours with water is sticky business, but Mum is an experienced dough-maker (years of making rotis when we were young) and soon enough, she had kneaded the dough patiently and thoroughly into a beautiful soft and pliant ball. This had to be left alone for an hour or so before it could be used.

In the meantime, our party increased in number with the addition of Fatu and her two offspring, and a little later Sax dropped off her brood of three. I had already put the potatoes and chickpeas on the stove to boil and heated the imli (tamarind) with water and some gur (an unrefined lump of brown sugar also known as ‘jaggery’) to sweeten and soften the sour imli. Mum had unearthed the rolling pin from somewhere and sat down to roll out a small portion of the dough into a flat circle, the tricky bit being to make it into an optimal thickness; too thin might prove as unsuccessful as too thick, and the difference between the two extremes would be measured only by micro millimetres. Using a plastic play-doh shape as a cookie cutter (a bit of improvisation) Mum demonstrated how to cut out little flat rounds of dough from the bigger chapati, a task which was later entrusted to 7-yr old Lums and 9-yr old Zahra.

Fatu was grumpy and distracted that day, so Mum gave her the job of frying the puris to snap her out of her mood, and showed her how to swish them one at a time in the hot oil  with a metallic slotted spoon. This was the moment of truth….would the recipe work? After a few seconds of suspense, where we all hovered near the stove to see what would happen, the little round thing puffed up to perfection and stayed that way without deflating. Joy!

After that all of us worked in an assembly line of efficiency. Mum prepared the little rounds, and arranged 5 or 6 on Lumya, Zahra, and Amu’s hands, who brought them over to the kitchen for Fatu Khala to fry. Farroo (the 20-yr old) cubed the potatoes and mixed them with the chickpeas with some salt. I made the imli-ka-pani (tamarind water) by straining the imli (Farroo helped), diluting it with plenty of water and adding loads of ground cumin for flavour, ‘chaat masala’ for that spicy zing, and lots of ice to make it deliciously cold. When everything was prepared, the big aluminium pot full of fried round puris, the potato and chickpea dish and the big bowl of chilled imli-ka-pani was arranged on the dining table. Mum got up from her little lie-down, 16-yr old Murtaza and 8-yr old Hasan abandoned their video games, Amu was fetched from her guitar class (yes, in the middle of all this excitement she even managed to attend her one-hour class) and Fatu, Farroo, Lums, Zahra and I all gathered around my tiny dining table, filled one puri after the other, dunked it, and popped it into our mouths, one after the other until they were all gone.

As we all sat around, satiated, yet not completely satiated (that is the power of pani puri….you’re always left craving for more) I thought about how much fun it was to make it ourselves and how much better it tasted than the store-bought ones. And how much more fun it was to enjoy it with a whole bunch of family lunging for the last one.

All it took was the initiative of my 72-yr old Mum, whose joie-de-vivre abounds….despite a frozen shoulder and arthritis. 🙂