Back to Basics

It is natural, I tell myself, to not feel particularly happy about the turn of the year. Why must I muster the enthusiasm of ten years ago, the festive evenings of foggy Lahore, the midnight trip to Data Sahib's shrine, the donation of a haleem deg to the street-dwelling citizens who counted on the generosity and ardent prayers of their middle-class counterparts for a free meal; or the celebratory visits to street vendors in the underbelly of the city, slithering with activity at all hours, food, chai, other vices; or the solemn prayer I offered every year specifically on the night that traversed two years -- make me good, make me how You want me to be, make it a good year, how You see it best. Why must I treat this as though it is any different from any other day of the year? It's not as if there is anything to celebrate or commemorate, really. 2014 was, after all, a taxing year for the world.

My heart finds comfort from the world at home. I find myself impulsively reorganizing cabinets, cleaning out the kitchen, finding expired boxes of cereal and smelly mason jars of sunflower seeds at the back of the pantry shelves and throwing them away. A new beginning of sorts. Clean shelves, a do-over for the pantry and refrigerator, and perhaps one for me at home in the kitchen. I find a salve for my restive spirit in making large meals, inviting friends and their kids for holiday lunches, taking out the nice china and then methodically washing and drying it by hand. As I write this, there is chicken curry bubbling on the stove, sautéed mushrooms ready on the side, a salad chopped and prepared. It's only us tonight and a friend we haven't seen in a while. We will gather around the table, talk about jobs and houses, about things that have nothing to do with having embarked on a new year -- the real things, the good things, the things that matter rather than the transient headiness one is prone to feeling at this time of the nascent year, the resolutions shiny and full of possibilities, that unmistakable sense of being at the verge of something significant -- an improvement, a second chance, a remedy for every mistake we have yet to commit.

And so, weary from the joy that surrounds me and without begrudging anyone their celebration, I find solace in simple things -- back to basics -- in cooking: smelling the freshly grated garlic roasting in the frying pan, watching the butter sizzle as it slides between the walls of the pan, the thickly sliced portabella whistling out a sigh as I press down with my spatula, the vegetables crisp under my practiced knife, such pleasure in the smells and sounds of a home-cooked meal; in poetry: in the books and magazines that have been piling up steadily over the last few months, collections and anthologies, books on writing, honing the craft, practicing it, owning it, and some delightful fiction, too; in writing: here; in thinking: everywhere. 

Perhaps that reads too much like a list of resolutions, but to me, it is an act of reaffirmation. Life is too short -- if there's one thing we have learned from 2014, it is that this cliche is unfortunately true. Staying true to yourself, to the things that delight you, make you you, give you lasting joy, is what you should be striving for. For me, it is coming back to the basics, to ordinary comforts, to little matters that matter.

Happy new year!

Dear Lahore

Dear Lahore, 

I come to you again after all poetry has dried up. I come to you empty-handed like I often appear on the prayer mat, pleading for something,I want desperately, wanting, wanting. I come to you because memory is crippled now, drowned out by the present and the vices that afflict me -- caffeine, Splenda. I have not seen you these many years and so much of life has filled these furlongs of time. 

I come to you because I don't really want to come to you anymore, and that is a mourning in and of itself. I come to you because you still hold so much of me. Somewhere in the past, your streets still feel my tread. I am walking alongside my father. We are buying street food, seekh kebab and cucumber salad, mint chutney and watered down yogurt from a vendor in Lakshmi Chowk. Now he's perched me on the bonnet of the car. Such pleasure it gives me to say "bonnet of the car." No one would understand it here, but you do. Now he tells me about his childhood, about honesty and struggle and passion and creativity. He tells me I am a brave girl. He tells me I can be anything or anyone when I grow up. He tells me I am already smarter than him. Such a rueful smile. Such truth in his eyes. 

Somewhere on your streets, my uncle walks late at night, the sky lit up with a shock of stars. His signature black boots make clickity clack noises. He enters the house I lived in. I hear his shoes, I see his face. He calls out to me. "Let's eat! I've brought you garam garam chargha!" (hot chicken roast) I prance off my bed. We take out plates and napkins but no silverware. We eat with our hands. He talks about his plans, his future uncertain but possibility knocking at his doorstep. Back then, we thought we could each be anything or anyone we wanted to be. 

Somewhere on your streets, three girls sit in the backseat of a lurid blue van. Backstreet Boys screech on the cassette player. They sit side by side engrossed in their own thoughts. They break the silence for an observation and then fall again into the comfort of their quiet companionship. At this moment, their thoughts are enough, but the sisters don't know that truly, each of them is quite enough to sustain the others. They will not know this for a long time and not until they have learned the meaning of distances. 

Dear Lahore, you hold so much of those days I am beginning to lose, the moments that didn't seem to matter, but actually were the ones that mattered most, the time capsules that held the essence of happiness without drama or action. Life happened outside of these moments, but resided inside the simplicities of such times. This time, this happiness, that girl, she lives on inside these glimpses of a different world, she exists on your street corners, and in the kitchen of an old house, and in the back of a van that was sold many years ago. 

I suppose I do not know what I am really afraid of -- finding her there when I return, or never finding her again. 

Giving Thanks

During the last two months of the year, we inevitably receive constant reminders to reflect on what we are thankful for. Magazine covers show perfectly roasted birds laid on fine porcelain platters in November for the Thanksgiving and transition to glossy stacks of perfectly wrapped presents in December for the holiday season. It is quite impossible not to dwell on the things you are grateful for during the few weeks that round up the year. There are naturally the obvious things one is thankful for - health, comfort, family, success, possibilities, the liberty and ability to do anything, be anything, to aim and achieve. However, when I read Rachel Ray's letter in last month's Every Day with Rachel Ray magazine, in which she talks about being thankful for "food," I wondered if it is not worth being more granular in my thinking as well. After all, the hunger statistics in the world are staggering. 

I am thankful for food, too. I have more than I need, and it is a great pleasure for me to write about it. During this season, however, it is important to observe that with my fridge bulging with leftovers after a magnificent Thanksgiving feast, I am far from the despair that is brought on by a hungry belly. If you are like me, even a quiet moment of meditation will go a long way if it results in you sharing a small slice of your pie of prosperity with the unfortunate. It is really very simple – just one recurring payment to your favorite charity hidden between the monthly evidence of a comfortable life (charges for beauty boxes, video subscriptions, book purchases, etc.). There are obviously other ways to give back. A friend of mine volunteers in soup kitchens during the holidays. Another friend is planning to capture portraits of patients to give them hope. My roommate in college used to invite all the stragglers for a Thanksgiving meal - college students who couldn't go back home and wanted a nice meal and good company...

I am thankful also for having a welcoming home, and more importantly, I am grateful for having it frequented by guests. I was talking to my sister the other day and she mentioned that in most religions and traditions, to host guests is an honor. In Islamic tradition specifically, we grew up listening to the story of Hazrat Abu-Bakr Siddiq (r.a.). He gave away all his wealth in the name of Islam. One night, he was sheltering travelers, but had very little food. He offered all of his food to his guests and lowered the flame of his lamp so his guests would not know that their host was forgoing his own rations to feed them. I had forgotten about this story until she reminded me of it. I have been guilty in the past few months of wrinkling my nose at the prospect of hosting guests. With a demanding schedule that encompasses work, family, baby, writing, studying, and teaching, I am left with very little patience to entertain – even though I feel my best when I am doing exactly that – entertaining. This story made me realize how guests really are an honor (I also agree with Benjamin Franklin that “Guests, like fish, begin to smell after three days”). Let’s face it. I am not the only person in the world with responsibilities and a grueling routine. If my guests are willing to take out the time to visit me, I should take it as the compliment it is meant to be. 

Finally, I am thankful for my friends. All of them – near and far. Some of my family members are my best friends. There are others who, over the years, have acquired a familiarity that is akin to being related by blood. We are all separated by time and distance, scattered as we are across several continents. Sometimes, we don’t speak for months, and then suddenly some kind of magic takes hold of the air around me and them at the same time, and we are propelled into the perfect harmony of “having free time” to Skype for hours (I should also offer thanks for Skype and Facetime). Speaking of friends, though, I must say that everyone should have a Rebecca in their lives. There is very little about my life that Rebecca does not know. While she does not always understand the complexities I encounter as I tread two identities in two different continents, she is always able to sympathize. Every year, she cooks me a fantastic Thanksgiving meal and has become a part of my family so completely that all you have to do is look at my baby’s big smile upon seeing Rebecca to realize how much we care for her. This year, Thanksgiving was spent with the usual preparations and piles of delicious food as you can see in the pictures. The turkey was beautiful to look at and perfectly moist and wonderfully flavorful with crisped golden-brown skin. Creamed corn, fluffy mashed potatoes and salty gravy, crisp string beans with pesto sauce, smoky roasted cauliflower and Brussels sprouts, and tangy apple pie for dessert with a flaky crust. It was a memorable dinner to say the least. 

Being in the presence of other family members, I sometimes find it difficult to transition into and out of accents, inflections, and even languages. While Rebecca was busy cooking in the kitchen to prepare our feast, I was going back and forth between Urdu with my family and English with her. The juggling made me wonder, quite profoundly, if I have sometimes inadvertently left her out of conversations, and worse, if she has felt that way. 

It is one of the aspects of my personality I have struggled with. I have never been at ease with speaking a language that a part of my audience does not understand, but over and over, I fall back into this pattern, perhaps by habit or by circumstances. I noticed, for example, my mother who does not converse fluently in English shying away from the company of my American friends  and preferring to stay in her room after greeting them, because we spoke English among ourselves, and I often forgot to translate for her benefit or include her in the conversation. I wondered anxiously on Thanksgiving Day, if I had somehow alienated my best friend, too, by not having the discipline to stick to one universally understood language. I may have – I will hear about it either way after she reads this. 

For now, I am sanguine. The Saturday after Thanksgiving, we met up with Rebecca at the mall. My two-year-old daughter rushed into her arms, ran around her in circles, and stayed with her for two hours, just playing and laughing because she was so excited to see her. There is no language between them, but they understand each other perfectly. My daughter is able to communicate with everyone she loves without saying anything at all. Maybe that’s a universally understood language in itself, and I am thankful for being privy to it.

Photos by Rebecca McCue

Chicken with Cilantro Pesto and Striking a Balance

All weekend I had this nagging feeling that I was forgetting something. I was relaxed, cuddling with Jahan all day, shopping with the family, cooking and cleaning the kitchen. The sudden calm was strange because I have been so wound up lately. I have had a mental list of things that are overdue, trying desperately to cross items off, and this weekend, quite surprisingly, the list disappeared, and I didn't know what to do with myself. Have you ever felt this way? You become so used to completing tasks that you forget how to live in their absence.

I have struggled for a long time to balance the different "categories" of my life. It's more than work-life balance - it's an effort to stand on a narrow platform that perches precariously between sanity and insanity. It is impossible to function entirely in the Sanity Meadow and a nightmare to imagine doing so in the Insanity Jungle. People like me, therefore, who are often zigzagging into and out of each realm prefer to strike a balance and exist in the narrow border between the two. I am not always successful at this endeavor, but it is worth striving for.

Having a temporary reprieve from the pestering task list that is bound to multiply its contents rapidly, I felt a pull towards the kitchen. I wore my mother's clothes that she had left in my closet, because I was missing her. Wearing them, I felt closer to her and told her so over Skype. I regretted the days I wasted when she was here in my house, and I was too busy crossing off items on my task list to sit down with her over hot cups of chai and talk about whatever was on her mind. There were too many "should-haves" on the tip of my tongue and dwelling over them in any detail would disintegrate my composure, so I strayed away from that topic altogether. I was talking to her after a long time. Calling my mother, I am ashamed to admit, had not been checked off on my to-do list, but mothers have superhuman abilities to forgive.

I promised myself to consciously make an effort to strike a balance. I want to never let the things that matter to me lapse again because there is too much to do. The fact is, there will always be too much to do. I don't want these days, months, and years to pass me by because I was too busy looking the other way. I want to live, really live. To me, that translates into doing things I love with the people I love. I will love more, give more, and write more. I will call my mother and tell her, you know what, Mom? You're pretty damn cool, and I am proud to be your little girl. I hope one day you can be proud of me, too. I will cook and bake and write and tell the whole world about the things that matter to me

Happily fueled by my resolutions, I was all set to get back into the kitchen and resume my collaboration with Rebecca, in which I cook and she photographs. I adapted a Bon Appetit recipe for this occasion. I used pine nuts instead of pistachio, added more garlic, used dark meat instead of chicken breast, and added red chili flakes to the chicken in addition to salt and pepper. It was fitting, then, that I chose this recipe for my inaugural day in the kitchen after a long hiatus. It was like I had created a dish to seal my promise of striking a balance in my life. The nuttiness in the pesto was perfectly complemented by the garlic. The red chili flakes gave the chicken a slight dimension in flavor while not taking away from the mildness in the sauce. Perfectly balanced, I thought. The dish turned out to be terrific. I made a small salad on the side with Ceasar dressing. For dessert, we watched Jahan devour a chocolate chip cookie.

Photos by Rebecca McCue

Remedy for a Broken Heart

Human beings are flawed at best and wicked at worst. This means that one expected outcome of even the most well-intended interactions is the potential of causing injury to the sensibilities of at least one party involved. More often than not, however, relationships that begin with promises of love and friendship morph dismally into purposefully malicious and hurtful interactions, orchestrated by at least one person in the relationship, and often both. This results in some hearts that are - for a time, at least - proverbially broken.

The best remedy for a broken heart, I find, is a strange amalgamation if things. The company of friends who know when to let you cry and when to ask you to pull yourself together, long solitary walks, books that make you think, movies that don't, comfort food in a warm, familiar kitchen, cooking and baking - I find that the kitchen becomes a place of solace, acceptance, and catharsis when I am nursing my broken heart. And so, I end up spending a lot of time polishing the glassware and silverware, baking elaborate cakes, cooking delicacies that take several hours to prepare, and somehow with the help of friends and filler activities mentioned above, I find that the heart, broken but resilient, mends itself.

It is definitely easier to realize as you grow older that no matter how impossible it may seem, the broken heart will, in fact, heal . First of all, you cry less at 28 as opposed to 18. Whereas 10 years ago, I would have cried dramatically for several days, now I only cry for a few minutes and get on with my life. Maybe this control over my faculties comes from knowing that no one thing or person deserves the kind of effort that is expended in crying, the brutal force of it, the headache that follows, the overwhelming self-pity and sadness. The other thing to realize also - and I know this may not apply in all cases, but is common enough that it deserves to be mentioned - is that more often than not, the person who breaks your heart is being cruel for the sake of being cruel. The person who breaks your heart is actually trying to make you hurt, unravel you, peel you back like layers of an onion, expose you, bring you to your knees, make you weak, weep, wail, react.

Once you gain this perspective, it is remarkably easy to not let anyone exercise that kind of influence over your heart. It gives you the strength to allow your heart to break in a resolute silence - you know, after all, that there will be plenty of time to pick up the pieces later. Whereas love, by way of its colloquial definition, makes you strong, the act of inflicting someone with heartbreak is the opposite: It is (not always, but most of the time) a deliberate and arguably cold-blooded initiative to strip you (the victim) of every last reserve of strength you have worked so hard to build.

I, in my exquisite stubbornness and intricate melancholy, do not give people the satisfaction of having wronged me. Contrary to what I have read about heartbreak, I maintain that pride is probably the easiest entity to salvage in the carnage of such a situation. As I have mentioned above, there are certain steps you can take, like not reacting, maintaining an icy silence, et cetera, to preserve your pride. What is entirely unsalvageable in matters of the heart that end badly, is trust. I would argue that you are not necessarily reeling from the shock of hurtful words and actions that have made your heart implode, but from the underlying betrayal, which brings the bulk of negativity back to the self: "How could I be so stupid?" "How did I not realize this?" "How did I let this happen?" "Why did I make myself go through this?" Et cetera. It's the betrayal, cold and sharp as a blade, that delivers the final blow, that annihilates any last remnant or semblance of being whole.

And now what? The heart is, as established, unfortunately and decidedly broken. You have agonized over the culprit behind the heinous act, you have recognized your strengths, and harbored your weaknesses. Now begins the long but finite journey of putting the pieces back together. It's time to heal and mend and laugh again. So, for me, this part involves comfort and writing and cuddling with my baby girl. Lots of cooking and baking. Reading. Doing good things with good people.

What does the road to a mended heart look like for you?

Photos by Rebecca McCue

Comfort Food

Weekends used to be sacred in my mother's household when I was a little girl. My sisters and I were too young to have plans of our own, and we were allowed to sleep in.  My parents were in the "steady" stage of their careers; they were satisfied, but had not yet reached the point of working long days, having a demanding schedule, and occupied weekends. That time still remains one of the happiest of my life. 

Some weekends we used to wake up to my father clanging pots and pans in the kitchen. He would plan to cook for all of us to give my mother a break and to remind us of a very important detail. "I taught your mother how to cook, after all," he'd say, surrounded by mason jars of spices, jars of lentils and Basmati rice, flour rising in plumes from a stainless steel bowl as he banged spatulas and ladles on the counter. After many hours in the kitchen, my mother hovering on the edges, the maid's nerves overwrought with the anxiety of getting my father everything he needed while not getting in his way, my father would call out our (nick)names, "Ainee, Renu, Munnuuuuuuu!" We'd rush downstairs, starving, only to be greeted by a giant serving bowl of daal (lentils) on the table with a side of plain white rice, mint and cilantro chutney, and a chopped cucumber and red onion salad. "Daal!" We would crumple our little noses and roll our eyes at the food. "Don't you make faces now," my father would wag a finger at us. "You'll love it."

We always ended up loving the simple meal of lentils and white rice, eating expertly with our fingers, laughing at jokes my father told us as my mother admonished him for this or that with the overbearing task of cleaning the kitchen looming large. I can't eat as deftly with my fingers anymore. I have to use silverware now, but daal chawal is a dish that still looks great on the dining table and is satisfying despite its simplicity. I probably don't make daal as good as my father used to, but it's my go-to meal on busy days when I can't be bothered to plan a menu or cook an elaborate meal. I pair it with chappali kebabs to appease the meat-eaters in my household. It is a well-loved combination now - the light, creamy texture of daal with the rich, smoky flavor of kebabs.

Photos by Rebecca McCue