Here’s an article I recently wrote for an online women’s writing website.
Sometimes looking back, helps you move forward!
Thanks for reading and be well.
Here’s an article I recently wrote for an online women’s writing website.
Sometimes looking back, helps you move forward!
Thanks for reading and be well.
This photo was taken a couple of years before his death. Here Duke is enjoying the New Year display. He’s gazing into his wise brown eyes and hoping the wrapped toy is his on the far side of the table!
Has the mid-April blahs and stress got you down? Then I have a suggestion for you!
Join the millions of people from Kerala (and me) and celebrate the start of a New Year on April 14th. It is a simple ritual that will ground you and bring balance to your life. A note: While the celebration is linked to Hinduism, you don’t have to be a Hindu or even believe in God to share in this timeless ceremony.
So this is how you can get started:
On April 13th evening do the following:
You have now created Vishu Kanni or New Year display.
On the morning of the 14th, get up and before your morning coffee (yes!), wash your face. Light the candle and sit in front of your display, if possible. Look closely at the flower or sprig, the fruits and vegetables, the grains and legumes, the nice table cloth and the coins and jewelry. Look at the photographs of your loved ones.
As you gaze at the kanni, you are welcoming everything that is good into your life and future. Finally, look at your reflection in the mirror. All that is marvelous and wonderful is reflected in your eyes. Look deep into your eyes until you see the glimmer of hope and light that is in you. Invite all that is positive, prosperous and amazing into your life and into the lives of your loved ones.
You have now observed and welcomed in a new year, Kerala style. Happy Vishu 2020!
“You know, cooks should have open minds. Otherwise how can they learn new things?” ~Tarika K.
My niece is so smart! And she’s right too. A good cook is willing to experiment and learn. The reward of an open mind (and kitchen) is a delicious and wonderful meal or dish.
Cooking is also an opportunity to slow down and be mindful. Chatting while chopping can lead to bleeding, so be one-pointed. Give your undivided attention to the meal preparation and you will be rewarded with a tasty dish as well as a calmer mind.
I love mixing and matching cuisines and my cooking is heavily influenced by California fresh produce and my south Indian upbringing. At a recent meal I set out to impress out-of-country guests with an array of dishes that showcases produce from our Farmers Market as well as my cooking skills.
Here is one recipe that wowed the crowd and was as tasty as it was pretty.
These Samosa Bites are a flavor explosion in your mouth. There is the buttery, flaky filo crust, the savory potato/pea filling and the two or three toppings that add that a certain type of deliciousness. First there was a tangy sauce from Kerala called inchipully which features bits of fresh ginger in a sweet and sour tamarind sauce. Then a small drop of super spicy fresh-tasting coriander gave a hot bite to the dish. Finally the dish was finished off with some Greek yogurt, flecked with fresh mint, dill and parsley. One bite, so many sensations!
1 package mini Fillo pastry shells, thawed. (You can easily make these with sheets of Phyllo dough but I opted for the easier pre-made version for this recipe)
1 large potato, cooked, peeled and mashed lightly
½ cup frozen or fresh peas
1 small onion
¼ cup chopped red, yellow or green pepper
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 tsp. mustard seeds
½ tsp cumin seeds
1 tsp. turmeric
A few fresh curry leaves (optional)
Salt and fresh pepper
Heat oil in a small saucepan, add mustard seeds and cover with lid. When the seeds have popped, add onions, pepper and curry leaves, if using. Sauté until vegetables are tender, about five minutes. Add cumin seeds, turmeric and stir and then add peas. Cook for about 2 to 3 minutes and then add mashed potato and mix thoroughly. Add salt and pepper to taste. Set aside.
1 large bunch coriander leaves. You can use stems. Wash thoroughly
½ cup raw walnuts
½ cup unsweetened finely shredded coconut
4-5 jalapeno peppers
1 small shallot or onion, peeled and cut into quarters
½ cup or more hot water to blend
2-4 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 tsp. mustard seeds
Use a blender or food processor and process or blend all ingredients except oil, mustard seeds and curry leaves. Heat oil in a sauce pan, add oil and mustard seeds and wait for the seeds to pop and turn grey. Add curry leaves and prepared chutney. Turn off heat and stir thoroughly. Taste for salt. It will be spicy but will mellow out when refrigerated for a couple of hours. This chutney can be made a day in advance.
There are many versions of this exceptional sauce. This is the simplest (and tastiest, in my opinion) version.
1 generous knob, size of large lemon, tamarind from a block of tamarind (see note)
2 cups hot water. Plus extra ½ cup
½ cup fresh ginger, peeled and chopped fine
1 green chili
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 tsp. mustard seeds
1 sprig curry leaves
1 tsp. fenugreek seeds
½ tsp turmeric powder
2-6 tablespoons brown sugar
1 tsp. salt or to taste
Soak the tamarind in hot water for 15 minutes. Using your fingers crush the tamarind and extract as much pulp and juice. Use a sieve to separate out the pulp from seeds and fiber. Use an additional half cup of water to extract as much pulp from the tamarind paste. Set aside.
Heat oil in a pan, add mustard seeds and cover with a lid. Once the seeds have popped and turn grey, add fenugreek seeds, chopped ginger and curry leaves. Let it toast for a minute. Don’t let the seeds burn! Add tamarind water, turmeric powder, salt, 2 tablespoons sugar and bring to a boil. Lower heat and simmer and cook for about 30 minutes. The sauce should be fairly thick. It will thicken more after it cools. Taste for salt and sugar and add more if needed. The sauce should be sour and sweet with a bite of fresh ginger.
1 cup Greek Full-fat yogurt
½ tsp. salt
½ cup fresh parsley and/or mint, finely chopped. Dill can also be added
½ cup finely chopped fresh cucumber
Squeeze of fresh lemon juice, about a teaspoon
Stir all ingredients together. Refrigerate until ready to use.
Putting It All Together!
Bake Filo pastry cups according to direction. Cool. Add a generous spoonful of potato filling to the pastry cup. Now add a drop of Inchipully or Coriander Chutney or a dab of both. Finish off with a spoonful of yogurt topping. For best flavor sensation, pop the entire thing into your mouth at once. Close your eyes and savor!
NOTE: For best results use tamarind that comes in a block and that has no sugar or salt added. Indian and Middle Eastern stores carry this item. Of course there is always Amazon too.
The past year was filled with many joyous moments! My son’s wedding in July was definitely a high point. It was wonderful to welcome his smart and beautiful wife into our family. The wedding was also a chance to renew our friendship with our relatives and make some new friends too. I also had a brief but affectionate visit with my sister. This summer I felt honored to be part of my favorite aunt’s 96th birthday celebration. Every time I see her I marvel at her grace, wisdom and amazing capacity to love. There were a few rejection letters to temper all my joy. But there were some acceptances too. I had a short story published in an online magazine, and had several poems accepted into two different anthologies. I was also invited to become a book reviewer for The New York Journal of Books. So all in all it was a great year!
My holiday gift to you is a short story published several years ago in an anthology titled The Dog with An Old Soul. The story features my mom and her dog, two of my favorite subjects.
The Dog Who Wouldn’t Bark
The black-and-white photo was old and yellowing, but I could clearly make out the proud stance of the dog and his mistress. I could barely make out the words penciled on the back of the fading photograph: “Leela and Chuppa, 1951.” My mother and her beloved dog.
The cool mist swirled around Leela and smothered her in its wet embrace. She shivered and wrapped the woolen shawl more tightly around her slender body. The late November days in Kotagiri were chilly and dismal, nothing like the warm tropical nights she was used to. Leela’s sigh sounded loud in the gray silence as she paused to take a deep whiff of the fading jasmine blooms on the vine by the front gate. It was then she heard the sound, the tiniest whimper, which she would have missed if the world hadn’t been so silent. She reached up and unlatched the metal gate and stepped onto the patch of grass. In the dim twilight she could make out a small bundle lying on the wilted jacaranda blooms. When she looked closely, she saw it was a tiny shivering puppy. She couldn’t bear to leave it there on the side of the road. She relatched the gate and walked into the kitchen using the side entrance.
The kitchen was warm and cozy. Her mother, Ammalu, was seated on a small wooden stool in front of the hearth, stirring a pot of lentil stew. The sharp scent of cumin mingled with the wet puppy smell. Ammalu wrinkled her nose.
“What do you have there?” she asked, getting up to take a closer look at the black-and-tan bundle in Leela’s arms.
“Oh, Amma,” Leela wailed. “Look what someone dropped off at our front gate.”
The puppy seemed to know it as being inspected and opened its tiny jaws and yawned, stretching out a minuscule pink tongue.
“Not everyone has your kind heart, my daughter,” Ammalu sighed. “Remember what our neighbor Sister Mary told us?”
Leela nodded and held the puppy closer to her chest. Their nearest neighbor, an Anglo-Indian everyone called Sister Mary, lived a few miles down the road and was a feisty animal lover.
“Be warned. Villagers get rid of their unwanted pets by dropping them off at the bungalows in the middle of the night. Most of us are only too happy to take in these dogs and cats. It’s a shame, though, because not everyone wants a stray and that is the end of the poor animal,” she lamented.
This will not happen to this little one, Leela silently vowed. Mother and daughter dried the puppy and fed the hungry creature some rice gruel. Soon the little dog was curled up on a pile of rags in front of a warm hearth.
The next morning Ammalu mixed a little rice and vegetable broth in a beautiful ceramic pan decorated with deep purple flowers and urged the little puppy to eat out of the fancy bowl.
“Amma, why are you using such a nice dish for the dog?” Leela protested.
“Leela, you know I don’t like to use these tainted containers.”
The tainted containers Ammalu was referring to were part of a collection of dinnerware left behind by the previous owner. After the declaration of independence in 1947, many British decided to leave India rather than live in a country no longer ruled by Great Britain. Rather than pack up an entire household, some of them left many things behind. One such Englishman was the owner of the charming bungalow that was now Leela’s home on the outskirts of the remote hill station town of Kotagiri nestled among the famous Blue Mountains or Nilgiris.
When they moved into the charming red-tiled house in late 1948, they found the musty rooms filled with large pieces of wooden furniture. The cabinet doors were inlaid with ceramic tile in beautiful geometric patterns. An intricate carved folding screen in one of the three bedrooms provided privacy and beauty. The dining room boasted a large china buffet, complete with silver soup tureens, round and oval serving platers, big serving bowls and a tea set. The delicate moss-green tea set, made of the finest bone china, would never be used, though. Like most upper-caste Indians, Ammalu’s family was vegetarian. They had no intention of eating and drinking from vessels used by strangers and non-vegetarians. At the first opportunity Ammalu invited friends, neighbors and acquaintances from surrounding areas to come chose from the lovely Spode plates and Wedgwood dinnerware. So the puppy happily ate off the Spode chinaware and drank from his Wedgwood saucer.
The German shepherd turned out to be the most patient of animals. He waited for Leela or Ammalu to get up each morning to let him out. He would wander around the front yard, sniffing at rosebushes and lifting his leg against the spindly poinsettia tree. He would then come back to lie on the kitchen floor, his bright blue eyes following Leela’s every movement.
“He really is the most silent dog,” a friend remarked to Leela. That was when she came up with the perfect name for her new pet, Chuppa, or “the silent one.”
She tried out the new name, calling, “Chuppa!” Immediately the puppy sat up, straight and proud. He cocked his head and looked at Leela as if waiting for a command. From then on Leela spent countless hours with the young dog, teaching him simple commands. Chuppa was an intelligent pup and wanted to please Leela. He became the young girl’s constant companion. He would greet her joyously, albeit silently, every afternoon when she returned from school. He draped his long tan-and-black body across Leela’s doorway. The pair was a common sight as they went on long walks among the tea bushes and apple and pear orchards.
One evening, when Ammalu made a teasing gesture toward Leela, pretending to hit her, Chuppa immediately sat up and stare at Ammalu and emitted a soft warning growl.
“Chuppa thinks I was going to hit you!” Ammalu exclaimed. “What a good dog. Don’t worry, Chuppa, I would never hit my girl.”
Ammalu bent down and petted the agitated pup, who settled down, his head resting on his folded paws, as if he understood Ammalu’s words.
Leela decided to teach the dog commands to make sure he would know when the threat was real and when a family member was just playing. The dog took to the lessons as if he was a sponge soaking up spilled water.
Two years later Chuppa was a full-grown German shepherd with thick black-and-tan fur and bright blue eyes. He was a familiar sight in the little village and allowed young children to pet and fuss over him. But his soft eyes were always on Leela.
A few months later, their postman, the deliverer of news and mail, had some disturbing gossip. “Did you hear about the thefts?” he asked Ammalu and Leela one afternoon. “There has been a rash of thefts in the area and residents area asked to keep their gates locked.”
That following spring Ammalu and Unny, Leela’s older brother, had to make one final trip to their ancestral village to take care of some business, and Ammalu was not happy to leave Leela.
“Don’t worry, Amma. Chuppa will keep me company at night, and during the day Mala and her husband will be here,” Leela assured her mother.
Mala and Lingam were local villagers who came to help Leela’s family with household chores. Ammalu and Unny were expected to be gone for about five days, and after giving Mala and Lingam many instructions about the household and Leela’s personal safety, they finally left.
That evening Leela made sure all the doors were locked before retiring to the living room. A fire in the hearth made the room snug and comfortable. Chuppa settled down in front of the fire and Leela curled up on the sofa with a Sherlock Holmes mystery.
“Why didn’t the dog bark?” she murmured to herself.
Chuppa glanced up with a questioning look in his blue eyes.
“Don’t mind me, Chuppa. I’m just talking about the clue in this story,” she assured her pet, who sighed and went back to staring at the golden flames.
The crackling fire was the only sound in the room and Leela found herself drifting off. Chuppa’s low growl woke her up.
“Shh…Chuppa. It’s just the fire.”
But the dog didn’t settle down; instead he stood up and looked toward the front hallway. The coarse hairs on his neck were standing up and his body was tense and alert. Leela was alarmed at the dog’s stance and got up to stand in the living room doorway. She was as tense as Chuppa and tried to hear what had disturbed the dog.
Then she heard it, the slightest grating of metal as the front gate was opened. Chuppa growled beside her. She put a hand on his head, wondering what to do.
“Is anyone home?” a woman’s voice called out from the front stoop. Leela knew whoever was there had probably seen the warm glow of the light through the living room window, even though the cloth curtains were drawn shut.
Leela took a deep breath and walked into the dark hallway. She turned on the porch light and lifted up the curtain to peer through the front window. She could make out the figure of a woman and a man standing on the porch steps. The woman raised a slim hand and knocked on the wooden door. Leela looked back at Chuppa and gestured for him to stand behind her. The dog obediently went into the hallway, where he was hidden in the shadows behind his mistress.
Even though she dreaded opening the door, Leela decided it was better than waiting for the couple to perhaps break the glass and force their way in. She pulled the door open and peered out.
“Who are you, and why are you knocking on my door at this time of the night.”
The woman laughed, a sound that was nervous and at the same time somehow threatening. “Sister, we are just poor pilgrims on our way to the temple on the hill. Can you spare us a hot drink or a few paisas?”
“I’m sorry, but my hearth is out for the night and I have no change. Perhaps you can find hospitality farther down the road.” Leela said.
“Listen here, sister,” the man snarled, pushing the woman aside. “We are not asking for a few paisa like beggars. We are demanding you hand over your necklace, earrings and anything else of value you have in the house. I don’t make idle threats.” As he spoke, he pulled out a knife, the blade glinting in the overhead porch light.
“I don’t like threats. I suggest you leave,” Leela said, trying not to sound as frightened as she felt.
The man answered by pushing the door aside and taking a step to come inside. A deep rumble from the hallway stopped him in mid-stride.
“Chuppa, come here,” Leela called out to her faithful companion, who came to stand beside her. He bared his teeth and gave out a menacing growl. The couple stared at the German shepherd.
“Now, I suggest you leave before my dog gets impatient,” Leela said to the couple.
The man hissed in anger. “A dumb animal isn’t going to stop me,” he said in a low tone as he stepped toward Leela, his knife raised.
“Chuppa, get the knife,” Leela ordered in a firm voice.
Without a moment’s hesitation, the dog leaped and grabbed the man’s hand. The knife clattered to the ground. The man yelped in surprise. Leela quickly kicked the knife out of his reach. The dog let go of the man’s hand waited for his next command.
“Good dog. Now get him,” Leela said.
Again the dog leaped and, using his full weight, brought the man down. Chuppa placed a heavy paw on the man’s chest and bared his teeth. The woman cried out, and dog looked at her with his soft eyes and pulled back his lips to show his sharp white teeth.
“Call off your dog,” the woman cried. “We meant no harm.”
The silence was broken by a murmur of voices.
“Miss Leela, are you all right?” a voice asked from the driveway. It was Lingam. He was carrying a smoky homemade torch in his hand. Behind him were several villagers.
“Lingam! I am so glad to see you,” Leela called and sighed in relief. “Chuppa caught a man who was threatening me.”
Lingam walked up to the porch steps and looked down at the figure on the ground.
“These look like the couple who have been robbing houses,” he announced. “We heard they were out tonight, and came by to check on you. But it looks like you can take care of yourself.” His white teeth flashed as he grinned at Leela.
“It was Chuppa who saved the day,” Leela said. “Chuppa let him go.”
The German shepherd looked down at the man and growled again before moving slowly off him. The animal went to stand beside Leela, looking up at her with adoration shining from his bright blue eyes.
Leela bent down and hugged the dog. She buried her face in his doggy fur. “Thank you, Chuppa,” she whispered.
“Woof.” Chuppa’s bark was short and soft. Leela laughed out loud. That was the one and only time Chuppa ever barked.
For years the dog was my mother’s faithful companion in Kotagiri. When he died of old age, my mother was heartbroken. Chuppa was the last pet she ever owned.,
Life moves on
Intense joy is often tempered with deep sorrow. The occasion was my son’s wedding. The entire weekend was filled with joy. The radiant bride was more luminous than the bright sunshine and my son was particularly handsome in his casual blue jeans and cowboy boots. Relatives and friends gathered with a common purpose of celebrating their young love. The ceremony was moving with brilliant touches of humor and I wished all my family could have been there with me to share this happy day. Sitting in that hot sun, I took a minute to remember those who were no longer with us.
My mother would have loved the moment when my son draped the traditional gold “thali” chain around his new bride. She may have been a little puzzled by the country music and the delicious tiered wedding cake but she always had an ability to see what was really important. So she would have enjoyed my son’s happy grin and the joyful bride. “They love each other and that is all that matters,” she would have said. I know this because that is what she said to me 31 years ago on my wedding day in the Nilgiris or Blue Mountains.
My father would have taken great pleasure in puffing a cigar with the handsome groomsmen and perhaps sipping an ice cold beer. The music, the food and the event site would have intrigued him.
My late mother-in-law would have been delighted to see her grandson looking so grown up and serious. She would have loved the bow ties and blue jeans. She would have exclaimed with pleasure over the bride’s gorgeous dress. She would have complimented us on a job well done and she would have shed a few happy tears along with me.
My uncle loved animals and would have been amused to see the couple’s young puppy walk down the aisle with my younger son. His quiet wisdom, charming manner and self-deprecating humor would have attracted the attention of everyone, young and old. His blessing would have been simple and powerful, “remember men and women are meant to complete each other, not compete with each other.”
A successful marriage is based on trust and love and my uncle said it best in his succinct manner, “Put each other first,” he used to say with a gentle smile.
If my son and daughter-in-law practiced this compelling piece of advice, they will be blessed with a harmonious, loving and lasting marriage.