Tag Archives: India

Stories and dreams in the night.

I was slightly embarrassed to tell about my recent story-listening, because of the time of day I’ve chosen for the vicarious experience, of living in India, caught up in the web of dysfunctional families and disordered souls.

It’s when I wake in the middle of the night and am unable to go back to sleep; I find I am not up to praying near as long as my mind might be wakeful, so I listen to stories. I have run through all that’s available of my latest favorite storytellers, and lately settled on a collection by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, because she is very good, I already know that. It won’t do to listen to writing that is likely to annoy me for any number of reasons, in the wee hours.

It’s the sadness of the stories that makes me think they might not be the best fodder for my mind, which I’m trying to lull back to sleep. But — you could say that sad feelings and events play a part in all human stories, and Prawer Jhabvala’s are not dark in a modern way; many people point out the humorous and kind aspects. I won’t try to assess how this author’s point of view differs from others who are skilled at drawing characters and pulling you into their worlds, but many of the stories end suddenly with disappointment or a feeling of hopelessness. She wrote about this:

“I think most of my novels do end on a deep note of pessimism. Shadows seem to be closing in. The final conclusion isn’t that life is wonderful and everything is bright and cheery and in the garden.”

Whether or not you recognize the name of Prawer Jhabvala, you might be very familiar with her work as a screenwriter for Merchant Ivory Productions. From their beginning she worked with James Ivory and Ismail Merchant on more than 20 films, including “Room With a View” and “Howards End,” and adaptations of several of her own novels, such as Heat and Dust, which was the first of her works I ever read, with amazement, quite a while ago.

Her early life was full of drama and suffering. In 1939 Ruth the adolescent fled with her Jewish parents from Germany to Britain, and lived through World War II and the Blitz in England. After the war, when her father learned that 40 members of his family had died during the Holocaust, he took his own life. About this trauma she said, “All my stories have a melancholy undertone. That’s probably why.”

Ruth Prawer married an Indian architect and raised three daughters with him in India. Later she moved to New York and became a U.S. citizen; she died in 2013 at the age of 85. She was a shy and quiet woman, which I imagine contributed to her powers of observation. “I’m more interested in other people than myself.”

I have had only happy dreams since beginning to listen to this collection of her stories, At the End of the Century… until last night. If it weren’t for the dream I had, I wouldn’t try to tell you anything about someone whose writing I hold in such high esteem. And at first I did not connect the dream to my reading material; I just thought it hilarious. But then, thinking about it as I woke, it made me (a little) sad in a way that these very human stories could never do.

The presenting problem of my dream was that I could not find my “favorite emoji” on my phone. I ended up at a big warehouse store where one could browse extensive catalogs of parts that were somehow both physical and digital, from which to concoct one’s own emoji, such as faces that had been “discontinued,” because only the most popular emojis were part of the default options on the apps. The dream ended before I ever managed to restore my old emoji habits, and I’m not sure but I was about to give up and just do without. But which emoji do you think I felt so in need of? The simple “crying face.”

Isn’t it odd, what the mind will do with all that goes into the mix throughout the day (and night) to produce dreams? (For the record, I do not have a favorite emoticon.) Our prayers of Compline and Prayers Before Sleep lead us to pray that God would “quench the flaming arrows of the evil one” and “lull to sleep all our earthly and material reasonings,” that we may be granted “a tranquil sleep, free of every fantasy of Satan.”

Truly, over the last few years when I’ve been living my own story of loss, which might have been full of flaming arrows and bad dreams at any hour of the day or night, I have been well protected from darkness of the spiritual kind. And I do not claim that God gives me my dreams, but they are often quite amusing, the way they capture some crazy truth.

The contrast between Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s nuanced and exquisite writing, with — an emoji? Well, if that’s the best the “forces of evil” can throw against me in the night, I should be grateful. But I also feel amused and insulted, to have waked with those simplistic images and a self-service version of an Apple Store in my thoughts. The whole experience confirms what I just shared yesterday, about being fed up with screens. And of emoticons? I’m considering a boycott!

gulab jamun
Indian sweets called gulab jamun.

 

Lotus seed for the world.

One package I picked up at the Indian market was a large bag of phool makhana or puffed lotus seed, a sort of popped-corn form of the seed of the lotus plant Nelumbo nucifera. When I was in India one restaurant that specialized in salads sprinkled a few of these puffs on top of one concoction that I loved.

I read about lotus seeds online, where there is a wealth of enthusiastic promotion of the food item as a cure-all, physically and spiritually. Unfortunately much of the prose resembles the spam comments I get on my blog, and gives me the giggles.

“… eaten as a fasting food in India as it considered a very pious. And, is also used to worship God.” Well, of course. “Whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do everything for the glory of God.” (I Corinthians 10:31)

Even Wikipedia seems to gush: “Lotus seeds can be processed into moon cake, lotus seed noodles and food in forms of paste, fermented milk, rice wine, ice cream, popcorn (phool makhana) and others, with lotus seeds as the main raw material. Fresh lotus seed wine has thirst quenching, spleen healing and anti-diarrheal advantages after drinking.[40][41] Lotus seed tea is consumed in Korea, and lotus embryo tea is consumed in China and Vietnam.”

One website that sells various flavors of puffed lotus seeds has this to say: “Focusing on ‘co-creation’ at all levels, we aim to bridge the gap between nature and consumers… to create an offering by combining the natural foods with modern techniques so as to enable the human kind to rejoice these gifts. POPMAK … is a healthy munching solution for all ages… which can add values in your life. We are just four years old company, aiming big to deliver and in this endeavor we will remain child like enthusiast for ever. Expect more surprises from us soon!!!!”

I must mention here a couple more Indian snacks that are in the house right now. Kareena bought these flaky fenugreek biscuits that she often eats for breakfast and shares with Raj.

I’ve eaten a few of them myself and they are really nice — crispy and subtly flavored.

We bought some bhakarwadi which I have already eaten all up. They are like a cross between a barely-sweet cookie and a cracker with Indian spices, mildly hot.

Bhakarwadi

The popped lotus seeds straight out of the bag were pretty bland and had the texture of stale popcorn. I roasted them in a pan with ghee, salt and spices, which transformed them into another light and crunchy, addictive Indian snack. Rejoice!

Sweet no matter how you spell it.

This week I traveled to the Washington D.C. area to visit Kate and her family, including little “Raj” whom I’ve mentioned before, now almost 17 months old. I had attended his birth in India, but now they are living here in Arlington, Virginia for a while.

So far I’ve just been hanging out — the Indian nanny Kareena is here, too, and my first day I walked with her and Raj many blocks to a park where the little guy could play on the swings and in the sand pit. It was a lovely outing; that day the wind was howling and seemed to blow off the heat and humidity quite a bit.

 

Today we needed to do a big shopping trip, including to the Indian market, Kareena’s first stocking-up since they arrived. That was so much fun. We all kept adding to the baskets over the course of a half-hour at least, spicy snacks and unusual vegetables, the favorite brand of masala chai tea, mango chutney, chapati flour and besan flour, which is chickpea flour, or gram flour.

When I was in India I wrote home about a confection that is made with chickpea flour, pronounced ladoo and spelled in English like that or in many other ways, as I’m discovering: laddoo, laddu, and even ladu, as I saw it today.

This word is also an Indian nickname for the first-born son especially, and sometimes more generally a term of endearment: “Sweet.” Kareena uses it for my grandson all day long.

When I was on my way home from India in February of 2018 my plane was delayed four hours before it even left Mumbai; at 3:00 a.m. I was wandering the airport shops looking for some comfort food that wasn’t entirely simple carbs, and I found a snack that had chickpea flour in the ingredients, and ghee. That sounded wholesome enough 🙂 and it was the most splendid treat. One version was on the shelf in the market today, and when we arrived home and were putting all our purchases away I saw that Kareena had bought a package.

About a year ago I spent quite a while researching recipes to make my own besan ladoo, and I have a few pounds of the flour in my fridge that I bought even earlier for some other recipe. None of these facts should cause anyone to hope that Indian sweets will ever come out of my kitchen. I can easily live without that kind of goodie.

But the curlyhead that we call Raj or Ladoo, he came to us already delicious and sweet, and I can’t get enough of him.

To the oar your strength bringing.

When I was in India I browsed through the poetry of Rabindranath Tagore, because it would have been so natural and fitting to share from this favorite literary man of that nation. I did not find anything that resonated with me then, but just today I stumbled on this. I don’t know if the swelling waves are felt in the original; certainly the translator has done a good work in any case.

FROM JOY’S LOVELIEST OCEAN

From joy’s loveliest ocean
there’s a flood springing.
Embark all, and set to –
to the oar your strength bringing.
No matter its burden,
our boat sorrow-laden
(if death comes, so let it)
moves through the waves winging.
From joy’s loveliest ocean

there’s a flood springing.

Who cries from behind us
of doubt or of danger?
Who harps on their fear now,
where fear is no stranger?
What curse, or star’s showing
has frowned on our going?
Hoist a sail to the wind now
and we’ll move on singing.
From joy’s loveliest ocean
there’s a flood springing.

– Rabindranath Tagore, 1861-1941 – translated by Joe Winter